Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Little in name, small-minded in policy

Three terms in opposition will make any political party desperate and the New Zealand Labour Party is no exception. That is why we have seen Andrew Little, the leader of the Labour Party who was elected not by a free vote of individual party members but by the block-voting of union affiliates, push two new policies that are cynical in the extreme. Firstly, he has proposed Labour will introduce three years' free tertiary education. Currently, many tertiary students take advantage of the government's no-interest student loans policy, a significant financial benefit over previous interest-bearing loans that was introduced (at considerable taxpayers' expense) by the previous Helen Clark Labour Government. The new policy is expected to cost around $1 billion per year.

Let us examine the impact of this new policy on two young people. The first chooses to study law and after graduating will quickly rise to be amongst the highest income earners in the country (probably representing Maori tribes seeking even larger Treaty of Waitangi claim payouts from the government - the most lucrative legal gig in New Zealand these days). The second chooses to leave school and use self-taught web development skills to start a small business building websites for local companies. This latter person takes the most risk and while he or she may make a reasonable income they are unlikely to make anywhere near the eventual income of the law graduate, and yet the web developer will have to pay more even taxes to support the lawyer's tertiary education. How is that fair?

The worst thing about this policy is that no one is demanding it (apart from, perhaps, the heads of the university students associations). It is so obviously an attempt to buy young people's votes at the next election that one wonders whether Andrew Little has any shame.

The second policy Little has announced is his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. This is despite the fact that it was the Clark Labour Government that signed the original agreement and that all the latest version of the agreement does is to extend the deal to more countries (including the United States) and to more goods and services. Two senior members of Little's team (Phil Goff and David Shearer) have already indicated they will cross the floor and vote with the National Government in favour of the deal.

Why would Little break the unity of his caucus to oppose something his party has always supported? The reason is not so much about cynical vote-buying as about Little doing his masters' bidding. Little's masters are, of course, the union leaders who ensured he became Labour Party leader. The unions oppose TPP because it threatens feather-bedded jobs in protected industries and have ordered him to oppose it. Never mind democratic process, the union bosses have said 'jump' and Little's response is 'how high?'

Everyone expects politicians to act in their own political interests and that of their supporters, but in both these cases the Labour Party is pursuing narrow, sectoral interests rather than the interests of the country (or Labour voters) as a whole. If this is an indication of how a Little-led Labour Government will act, then I hope we never see such a thing in reality.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Why Trump May Become President

The United States' political scene is so much more interesting than New Zealand's at the moment and that's why I write a lot about the former. New Zealand is mid-term in its election cycle with a middle-of-the-road, middling conservative government that is about as interesting as appointment with the podiatrist. The United States, on the other hand, is nearing a presidential election that will see the end of its divisive, two-term, polemical President and the two main parties appear to be intent on tearing themselves apart in trying to select his successor.

The presidential primary races are fascinating. On the Republican Party side you have the neophyte and ultimate political outsider, Donald Trump, leading in most of the polls with the only other candidate coming close being another relative outsider, Ted Cruz, who was elected to the US Senate on a wave of Tea Party activism in 2012. All the Republican establishment candidates from Jeb Bush to Chris Christie are trailing in their wake. On the Democratic Party side you have the ultimate Washington insider, Hillary Clinton, against an avowed Socialist in Bernie Sanders.

The mainstream media are doing their best to undermine Trump with all the subtlety of a jackhammer, but the New York billionaire is a very different candidate than they are used to and they find themselves in a sort of Nietzschean nightmare where the more they try to hurt him, the stronger he becomes. The more outrageous Trump is, the more the US public appear to support him. The media and the political establishment thought he was a flash-in-the-pan who wouldn't last the summer but it is starting to look like his poll results are built from anti-gravity matter.

Trump might appear to be a buffoon but so far he has shown himself to be more politically astute and more in tune with the American electorate than any of the more experienced candidates. He has a sense of the issues that are important to Americans, issues that the political establishment and mainstream media consider to be too toxic to tackle. He has found fertile ground in immigration. This is unsurprising given that the underemployment rate (which includes those working part-time who are looking for full-time employment as well as the officially unemployed) is running at 14%. Rightly or wrongly (and I happen to think wrongly), many Americans see the large number of illegal immigrants in the United States as responsible for their current stagnant economic fortunes. Trump has combined this concern about immigration with the fear of Muslim terrorism, so his plan to put a moratorium on all Muslim immigration is the quinella in terms of political appeal.

Republicans believe their party has sold out. In 2012 Americans elected a Republican majority in both houses of Congress and supporters of the GOP thought this would mean a reversal of four years of President Obama's policies. Four years later they have nothing to show for it. In 2012 they were given a virtually unelectable presidential candidate by their party - a Wall Street banker Mormon - and yet Mitt Romney nearly beat the media's darling, Obama. A candidate that Republicans actually liked and supported would have romped in, given the broad electoral swing to the GOP at that election. The Republican rank and file are not going to make the same mistake and have a safe, establishment candidate foisted on them this time around.

If it comes down to a head-to-head contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I think the former will win. Hillary Clinton is very vulnerable because she has a track record of business, personal and political scandals that will be dredged up and re-examined again and again during a presidential campaign. Trump does not have this vulnerability because his life is a celebrity's open book. Consider Trump's response to Hillary Clinton's recent attack on him regarding his (frankly disgusting) treatment of Fox News presenter Megyn Kelly. Trump counterattacked with Hillary's complicity in her husband's cover-up of his many sexual harassment accusations (including, it now appears, one alleged rape). Trump has sent a clear message - if Hillary wants to take him on, she had better be prepared for a bloody fight in which Clinton has everything to lose and Trump has everything to win.

In conclusion, I think if it comes to a fight between Trump and Clinton, The Donald will wipe the floor with Hillary. Of course, there is still a long time to go before the Republican National Convention in July and I wouldn't put it past the Republican Party establishment to stitch up an anything-but-Trump result, but at this stage he is looking like the strong horse in a weak field. I am no Trump supporter, but his rise is nothing if not fascinating entertainment for those of us who follow US politics.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015 in Review - More Delusion and a Dose of Reality

Two Thousand and Fifteen has been an interesting year.

Internationally, we've seen a shattering of some myths - the most striking example being that terrorist incidents perpetrated by people shouting Allahu Akbar are 'nothing to do with Islam'. This has been asserted ad nauseum by so-called world leaders such as Obama, Cameron and Hollande after every attack by Islamic terrorists in recent years, including following the murders of those who worked for the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and the patrons of a Jewish supermarket in Paris. But by the end of the year the body count from the Islamic terrorist attacks at a Paris sports stadium, a concert venue and several cafés was so large that these dishonest deflections were wearing a little thin even amongst those for whom 'diversity' triumphs any concept of objective morality. France's Socialist president, Francois Hollande, grew a backbone and launched airstrikes on ISIS strongholds in Syria, whereas Barack Obama did a Neville Chamberlain, achieving 'peace in our time' with the evil Islamic regime in Iran.

The only world leader who consistently showed backbone was Vladimir Putin, shrugging off criticism of his support for Ukrainian separatists to take charge in Syria by supporting President al-Assad's fight against ISIS. A bomb that brought down a Russian airliner was ISIS's retaliation and Turkey and Russia nearly came to serious blows after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet in November.

Socialism seemed to be on the rise again around the world. The Greeks voted in a Socialist government led by Alexis Tsipras and subsequently voted 'no' in a referendum on whether they should pay back their debts. Reality dawned later in the year when Tsipras went to the polls again to gain a mandate for his newly-negotiated debt repayment plan. 

Meanwhile in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, the Marxist MP who had never held any office in his party, was elected leader of the UK Labour Party, and in the United States, the only credible alternative candidate to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination for the 2016 US presidential race is the former Socialist Party stalwart, Bernie Sanders. The Australian Liberal Government defenestrated Tony Abbott in favour of the oleaginous Malcolm Turnball and Canadian voters followed suit by ousting their sound but uncharismatic prime minister Stephen Harper in favour of the impeccably bien-pensant Justin Trudeau and his left-wing Liberals.  On the other hand, the awful Chauvistas of Venezuela and Kirchner of Argentina were defeated.

Scientifically, we saw some significant advances including liquid water found on Mars and the fly past of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft with its stunning images of that most remote world. There were signs of yet another mysterious particle from the Large Hadron Collider and the human epigenome (the molecular switches that can turn on or off individual genes in DNA) was mapped. But we also saw the triumph of pseudo-science in the signing of a global agreement to limit global temperatures to 2℃. Two hundred King Canutes and tens of thousands of their fellow travellers flew into shell-shocked Paris to delude themselves into thinking they can control the the world's climate. Good luck with that, fools!

I don't follow New Zealand news very much because most of it is of the 'village pump' variety - quaint and unimportant - but the biggest stories here were the Rugby World Cup win by the All Blacks and John Key's quixotic referendum to change the flag. More important in terms of New Zealand's future was our signing of the TPP free trade agreement involving 12 countries including the United States. 

In the blogosphere, while I wasn't personally as regular with my posts as I would have liked to have been, my favourite bloggers were as prolific as usual. I particularly enjoyed Lindsay MitchellPeter CresswellMark Steyn, James Delingpole and Thomas Sowell this year. I was sad to see Mark Hubbard signing off this week - I trust this does not mean he has surrendered to the forces of darkness in the Fortress of Legislation. To all of you on the rational side of the debate, keep up the good work.

All that remains is to thank those who read my occasional posts, the few who commented, and those generous folk that linked to me from their blogs. Merry Christmas (in the most secular sense of that phrase) and a very prosperous 2016 to you!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Reaction to San Bernadino Shooting is Revealing

The reaction to the mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, last week was almost as horrifying as the killing spree itself. I learned about the incident as was I was talking to a senior civil servant I have been working with recently and he immediately muttered something about, "right-wing gun nuts." This guy was, like most senior civil servants, an avowed leftie and it was obviously wishful thinking on his behalf because even at that stage the facts indicated that this was no run-of-the-mill (if one could use that expression in this context) mass killing. It was known there were at least three heavily armed offenders dressed in body armour and driving a large SUV, facts that suggested it was an organised, military-style attack. I responded by betting him it was Islamic terrorism and it gives me no pleasure to have been proven right in the days since the attack.

The comments of this civil servant were echoed throughout the left-wing media here and in the United States and the anti-gun lobby, including President Obama, jumped in with calls for stricter gun laws. Of course, calling for a ban on gun ownership in response to a case like this is about as pathetic as calling for aircraft to be banned in the wake of 9/11. Yesterday Obama changed tack and made a speech in which he conceded this attack really was terrorism.

The response of left-wing commentators and politicians to this incident says a lot about their moral ambivalence. In the leftist view, a mass killing by a right-wing nut job is bad, but a similar incident by a Muslim in the name of his faith is not so bad. We see this double standard all the time - it is bad for Israeli soliders to respond to rocket attacks on their cities by targeting Hamas strongholds in Gaza but okay for Obama to order drone strikes on civilian targets in Waziristan. In their view it is not the act itself or the degree of innocence of the victims that makes mass killing moral or immoral - it is the political views of the perpetrators.

We should not be surprised by this moral ambivalence because that is at the heart of the collectivist philosophy. The rights of the individual are subservient to the will of the majority and therefore the idea of any absolute human rights is alien to them. Even the right to life is relative - leftist lives are worthy, but right-wing nut jobs do not deserve to live.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Climate Change Primer

I don't write here much on the subject of climate change. This is in spite of the fact that I am keenly interested in the topic and it was climate change that really got me started blogging. The reason for my reluctance to return to the topic will be obvious to anyone who has been active in the public debate, but given the significance of the 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) being held in Paris, which has been hailed as the greatest gathering of world leaders in history, I thought it was time I returned to the subject and explained in layman's terms what all the fuss is about.

Around eight years ago I was talking to a friend of mine who is a prominent New Zealand scientist about the question of anthropogenic global warming and he urged me to read the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which had just been released.

At the time I was pretty neutral on the issue and I wanted to trust the authors of the report - after all, they were supposed to be experts in the field - but as I started to delve into AR4, I began to have some concerns about what I was reading. While I am not a scientist, I studied maths and statistics at university and climate science is more about these fields - analysing past trends and making predictions - than anything else. There is a bit of physics involved and this is entirely incontrovertible - Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish physicist, first suggested in 1896 that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) would lead to global temperature rises. The scientific disagreement (and there really is a lot of scientific disagreement - 97% consensus claims notwithstanding) is really in two areas - the extent to which increases in CO2 will drive a relative increase in global temperatures, and the extent to which carbon emissions from human activity are responsible for the CO2 increases. Let us deal with the second of these two issues first.

Carbon in the atmosphere is measured very accurately these days. The most reliable measurement is done by the Nasa Earth Observatory on the top of Mount Kilauea in Hawaii. It has been taking accurate measurements since the 1950s, during which period atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased from around 320 parts per million to around 400 ppm. Prior to this, the record is less accurate but other sources suggest the atmospheric carbon dioxide content increased from around 270ppm in the mid 19th Century, and some ice-core records suggest CO2 levels rose from as low as 220ppm in the 18th Century (which would indicate the trend started well before there were significant fossil-fuel emissions).

The scientific claim that humans are causing the increase is based on chemical analysis of the composition of the carbon in the atmosphere, specifically the change in the ratio between the quantity of the isotopes of Carbon-12 and Carbon-13. Biological sources such as trees contain more Carbon-12 so a measured decrease in the Carbon-13/Carbon-12 ratio in the atmosphere means the source of the emissions is likely to be biological. A major source of biological carbon emissions is, of course, the coal, oil and gas extracted from the ground and burned by humans, but there are also natural biological emissions from swamps, forest fires and the like. Further evidence that the increase is caused by humans is derived from the fact that the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide in recent years roughly equates to the sum of human carbon emissions. 

It all seems perfectly logical to assume that mankind is causing the increase in carbon emissions until you consider that carbon in the atmosphere has never been constant and in fact there is strong evidence that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rose to similar levels to today during earlier periods in the Holocene (up to around 12,000 years ago) and much higher than current levels in prehistoric eras. Some scientists have provided evidence that over long time periods increases and decreases in atmospheric CO2 tend to follow rather than lead corresponding changes in temperatures. Others have provided evidence that the changes in the C-13/C-12 ratio do not correlate with mankind's carbon emissions either geographically (i.e. the greatest increases are not over industrialised areas such as North America and Europe) or with seasonal cycles of human carbon output (e.g. increased fossil fuel use in cold climates during winter).

The other issue is whether anthropogenic carbon emissions will cause the sort of temperature increases that are predicted by some scientists and politicians. This depends on the effect of what physicists call 'forcing'. Scientists agree that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will not on its own produce an increase in temperatures anything close to the maximum level predicted in the AR4 report (6.6℃ by 2100). This predicted level of increase arises from computer models that multiply the warming effect of carbon dioxide by other factors, the most important of these being an increase in cloud cover. But the effect of increased cloud cover is known to be both positive and negative in terms of temperature increases. Water molecules in the upper atmosphere act as a greenhouse gas but clouds also reduce the amount of the sun's radiation reaching Earth thereby tending to reduce temperatures. Many scientists believe that increases in carbon dioxide will have a diminishing, not an increasing, impact on global temperatures.

The best indication of the likely future increase in temperatures is provided by the past increase. Average global temperatures have increased about 0.76℃ since the mid-19th Century - around 0.05℃ per decade. The rate of increase went up in the last few decades of the 20th Century to about 0.13℃ per decade but temperatures have been largely static since 1998. A reasonable worst case scenario is that the rate of increase in the late 20th Century will soon resume, which would mean we will see a 1℃ increase over the entire 21st Century. To put that in perspective, the total increase in temperatures from the Little Ice Age around the year 1600 to the present day is probably about 2℃. This period has seen the greatest increase in human life expectancy and quality of life in the history of our species, something that some historians ironically credit in part to the warmer climate.

Is this issue, as President Obama and the Pope are claiming, the greatest threat facing mankind? I certainly do not think so. Weapons of mass destruction, epidemic diseases, religious fundamentalism, even collisions with objects from outer space are probably greater threats to our civilisation. So why has this become the biggest issue of our time? Well, answering that question is probably another whole blog post.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Paris attacks were actually a skirmish in a war of values

The dust has settled around last Friday's Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris and with the perspective of an elapsed week it is interesting to reflect on the responses to the attacks. French President Francois Hollande has conducted himself surprisingly well, I think, with his almost Churchillian comments ("the terrorists [that] are capable of doing such acts...must know that they will face a France very determined - a France united") and his ordering of immediate military retaliation against Islamic State targets in Syria.

However, there were also plenty of the sort of self-indulgence responses we have come to expect after these tragedies (remember Michelle Obama's "#BringBackOurGirls" hashtag following the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram), with the guy who dragged a piano to the street outside the Bataclan theatre to play John Lennon's Imagine perhaps being the lamest. There were the usual futile gestures on social media, particularly the Eiffel Tower-cum-Ban-the Bomb symbol and French flag photo on every second Facebook posting. But I think President Obama's response takes the prize for the most disingenuous. He described the events thus: "an attack not just on Paris, it's an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values we share."

What universal values? Does he really expect us to believe that all of humanity shares a respect for Western values of individual rights, freedom of speech and religion, the rule of law, etc.?  Of course it doesn't. These values are actually fairly unique to that small section of humanity that grew out of Ancient Greece, survived the fall of the Roman Empire and persisted in small pockets during the Dark Ages to finally flourish in the Enlightenment that took hold in Western Europe. But perhaps Obama didn't mean these Enlightenment values, perhaps instead he meant Islamic values such as submission to their god and the killing of those who reject or blaspheme him. Certainly with the way Islam is growing there's a fair chance that those values will be more universal than the values of the Enlightenment.

In the war of values, the West has declared unilateral disarmament. We don't believe in our values anymore and instead believe in nothing, or more precisely, in everything. This is the religion of cultural relativism - that all cultures and beliefs are equal. The only universal value that the West seems to hold dear these days is that no one should have to be offended by anything. Our values have become as unsubstantial and pliable as a squishy tomato.

The problem with this is that fundamentalist adherents to Islam are not relativistic - they believe that Islam is the last religion and that its teachings in the Koran and the Hadith are perfect and absolute. Their values are like a sharp knife to our squishy tomato, so in a contest for the hearts and minds of some of the disaffected youth of Western cities, it is any wonder that the Islamists increasingly win?

The fight against Islamic terrorism is a fight about values and we can't fight it if we have disarmed ourselves. Our values - our original Enlightment values as expressed by John Locke and Thomas Paine - are the right ones, the moral ones, and if we aren't prepared to re-adopt and defend them then we will never win the battle of ideas against the evil of religious fundamentalism. We must decide what we believe in before we can defend it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

New Zealanders on Christmas Island are not refugees

We have heard quite a lot over the last few days about the New Zealanders in Australia's refugee detention centre at Christmas Island. The media have tried to cast these people in the same light as the refugees that make up the largest proportion of detainees but this is clearly fallacious. So let us understand some facts about these people.

Firstly, they are few in number - just 40 in the Christmas Island detention centre and around 500 in total facing deportation from Australia out of a estimated total of around 600,000 New Zealand citizens living there. 

Secondly, almost all of them face deportation because they have committed serious crimes and because they are being deported upon release from prison. Many of them are appealing their deportation order. This is why they are in detention centres.

Thirdly, Australia, like most countries, does not deport its own citizens. We have heard sob stories of people who have been in Australia many decades being deported back to New Zealand, but these people must have been unwilling or unable to obtain citizenship or there would be no question about them being deported. New Zealanders can apply for permanent residency and then citizenship after just twelve months in that country. There are eighteen different categories under which New Zealanders can apply and it is actually encouraged by the Australian Government because they want New Zealand immigrants to be fully functioning members of Australian society.

Finally, New Zealand citizens do not qualify as refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines a refugee as someone who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." That definition does not apply to these New Zealanders.

I have written on this blog about my liberal views on immigration (most recently here and here). I think it is very much in any country's interests to accept all manner of people who want to live productive, independent lives in a new home and I have the utmost sympathy for those fleeing persecution in their original countries. But I accept that it also a country's right to deny entry or to deport those who are determined not to live productive, independent lives. The only issue I have with Australia deporting these undesirable New Zealanders is that we have to accept them back here. 

Perhaps we should put them on the Auckland Islands.