Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Beware of Greeks Seeking Gifts

We are seeing the end days in Greece. The Greek people, having voted earlier this year for a new prime minister, Alex Tsipras, whose unholy alliance of Marxist–Leninists, Maoists, Trotskyites, Eurocommunists, Luxemburgists and environmentalists known as Syriza stood on a platform of not paying back their loans, are now seeing the consequences of their decision. The weaselly Tsipras had a cunning plan of calling a referendum a week after Greece's final deadline for a major loan repayment to their creditors, assuming the witless European Central Bank would extend the country further credit (what's another week, after all?). But he miscalculated - the ECB in Frankfurt told the Greek prime minister they've finally run out of patience (although, more precisely, they've run out of political capital with the only net creditors on the continent - the German people).

The effect of this severe miscalculation by Tsipras and the ECB is now being seen. Greek banks are closed to avoid a massive run on deposits, ATMs are running out of cash despite a €60 per day limit on withdrawals, and many people don't even have enough cash to pay their rent and buy groceries. But in spite of this awful but entirely predictable outcome for the Greek people, Tsipras is not backing down, urging them to vote 'no' to the referendum question and thumbing his nose at the latest ultimatum from the acronymic troika of the EC, ECB and IMF.

The Greek people cannot claim they are ignorant dupes in this matter. For more than 10 years they have benefited from their governments' duplicitousness, down-right lies and reneging on successive bailout arrangements. The Greeks have enjoyed a standard of living they have not earned because of the willingness of European central bankers and private institutions to lend them more and more money. They expected, perhaps understandably, the largesse to continue ad infinitum and were disbelieving and aggrieved when the ECB called 'last drinks'.

One cannot solely blame the Greek people. The real villains in the piece are all the governments around the world who subscribe to the fantastical Keynesian economic theory of creating money out of thin air to lend to banks to drive economic growth. The reality is that so-called quantitative easing only drives asset price bubbles and does little for real economic growth (which is a factor of the increasingly efficient use of capital, not of an increase in the price of assets). That's why real estate and stock markets have reached record highs during the period of nil or low economic growth in Western economies since 2007.

Asset price bubbles inevitably burst, then everything comes crashing down. Watch this space.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Mass Killings, Gun Control and Individual Rights

The recent shooting of nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, allegedly by a young man acting out of a racist motivation, was a terrible thing. I have relatives in that city (including African-American relatives) and I can only imagine the horror they must feel at this dreadful crime so close to home. But the horror that is felt by Charlestonians is not helped by the opportunistic comments by President Obama and others about gun control.

Obama said that "this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries". He is wrong. This type of mass violence has occurred even here in comparatively peaceful New Zealand (with numerous incidents from the killing of 14 in Aramoana in 1990 to the six killed in Raurimu in 1997), and in other countries such as the 77 killed in Norway in 2011 and 35 killed in Australia in 1996. America has had the most incidents of mass shootings of any Western nation in recent years but proportionately it is only 6th on the list in number of fatalities and it is only 111th out of 218 countries in terms of total firearm homicides (see this Wikipedia article).

Most non-Americans have trouble understanding the constitutional right of Americans to bear arms. I have written before about why the Second Amendment to the Constitution exists - to Americans it is an important part of their system of government and it is unlikely to be given up in the foreseeable future, if ever. In any event, further controls on the sale of firearms in the US are unlikely to reduce the homicide rate because the vast majority of killings are carried out by criminal gangs (e.g. this article says 80% of Chicago gun homicides and non-fatal shootings are gang-related), typically using illegally-obtained firearms. Homicides with firearms have dropped by 40 - 50% over the past two decades despite the number of registered firearms having increased significantly (ibid).

I have been in two minds about whether I believe people should have the right to bear arms for their own protection. In a civil society we give up certain things, such as personally carrying out retributive justice, in return for the protection of our individual rights by the state. But we do not give up the right to self-defence. A firearm is simply a much more effective form of self-defence, and a remarkable equaliser when it comes to facing down a more powerful adversary, than one's fists. Should law-abiding people not be allowed that most effective form of self-defence just because a few use such weapons indiscriminately?

Personally, I am not into guns and don't feel the need to own them, despite having grown up around firearms and been trained to use them, but I live in a place where physical violence is a remote threat. If I lived in a more dangerous environment, for example the less-salubrious inner suburbs of some American cities, I would feel differently. Even here in New Zealand there are areas, particularly certain rural areas, where people I know feel the need to have firearms in their houses for personal protection. These areas are usually characterised by the absence of, or remoteness from, any form of police presence. In such circumstances it is foolhardy not to make some provision for the protection of yourself and your family.

There is no right to life if one does not have the right to protect one's life. On balance, I think law-abiding individuals should have the right to bear arms for their own protection.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Science, Politics and the Death of Free Speech

The Hapless Tim Hunt
Last week we saw the extraordinary sight of Nobel-winning scientist, Tim Hunt, being hounded out of his job because he made a bad-taste joke about women in the science laboratory. Not only was he forced to resign from his job at University College London but he also lost his positions with the Royal Society and the European Research Council.

At the same time it has been revealed that the scientists of the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration have been deliberately manipulating data to make global temperature records fit the political narrative around global warming, and we have seen the pronouncements from the head of the Roman Catholic church on the subject being heralded in the mainstream media.

It seems we are entering (or returning to) an era when science no longer stands alone from politics and religion but rather is considered to be just another cultural artefact. Here in New Zealand we have had educationalists promoting the teaching of 'Maori science', presumably in the belief that while Newton's or Einstein's theories apply on Proxima Centauri and planets in the Vega system, they do not amongst the people of partial Polynesian descent who happen to live in New Zealand in the 21st Century.

Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College and adjunct professor at Harvard University, has written about the 'death of expertise'. He posits that we no longer value professional knowledge and that the views of a Playboy model who did not complete high school are just as valid as those of a immunologist when it comes to assessing the efficacy and risks of vaccination. Perhaps this is unsurprising when the scientific community is so willing to sell-out their knowledge and methods for political favouritism.

But, as Tim Hunt discovered, it is not true to say that any opinion is valued. It is only those that fit with the template of totalitarian views of Western so-called liberals that are allowed to be heard (and I don't think it is extreme to call these views totalitarian because they certainly meet the dictionary definition of 'exercising control over the freedom, will, or thought of others'). In today's world you can believe anything so long as it is consistent with the acceptable groupthink. Thus it is perfectly acceptable for scientists to manipulate data for political ends but not acceptable for scientists to make slightly inappropriate jokes about female colleagues.

It seems we have finally arrived at the time envisaged by George Orwell in his novel 1984, where truth is lies, the use of any language that might describe any undesirable concepts is banned, and even thoughts are crimes.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

FIFA, Silk Road and American "Justice"

This week in the news we have seen two criminal cases that are not entirely unrelated - the sentencing of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht and the arrest of FIFA officials in Switzerland.

Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. What did he do that the US justice system determined was so irredeemable, you might ask? Did he commit mass murder? No, he ran a website that was used by people all over the world for the buying and selling of recreational narcotics. Ulbricht appears to have been motivated not so much by financial gain (although there is nothing wrong with that) as philosophy. He was a libertarian and believes, as I do, that governments have no business interfering in the voluntary interactions of rational, adult human beings. As this article on libertarian website Reason.com explains, Ulbricht believes people should have the right to choose whether or not they take recreational drugs and governments should not initiate violence against those who do so (or those like him who enable them to do so).

The United States Government has devoted a large part of its resources over the last few decades to pursuing and imprisoning people who consume and trade in recreational narcotics. As a result America has the highest level of imprisonment of any Western nation (with 4.4% of the world's population, the US has 22% of the world's prisoners - and more than half of all federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug offences). The very high imprisonment rate is due to three factors. Firstly the American justice system is overwhelmingly weighted in favour of prosecutors with federal prosecutors having a 93% conviction rate [2012 figures], which is matched only in countries that tend not to have much respect for the rule of law such as China. Secondly, the prosecutorial system in the United States is based on a fundamentally corrupt practice that is outlawed in many other countries - that of plea bargaining. This practice encourages prosecutors to lay manifestly excessive charges against defendants so that they will be forced to plead guilty to lesser charges, even when those lesser charges are themselves tenuous. Thirdly, the US has manifestly excessive sentences, especially for drug offences - for a first offence conviction for trafficking in just one gram of LSD the federal mandatory sentence is 5 - 40 years in prison [source: DEA website].

In Ross Ulbricht's case the inherent excess and corruption of the US justice system is made even worse by what Forbes magazine describes as "staggering corruption in the Silk Road investigation." The article reveals that two of the investigators in the case have been charged with embezzlement and theft and that "a state's witness took the fall for an agent's theft, thus becoming a target for murder-for-hire" (for which it was implied that Ross Ulbricht was responsible even though he was not tried for this). Evidence of this incredible corruption was suppressed by the prosecution until immediately prior to the trial and the judge denied all attempts by the defence to introduce it during the trial. Read the article linked above for yourself and I'm sure you will be as gobsmacked as me as to how someone can be sentenced to life in prison on the back of such impropriety by the US authorities.

With all this in mind, what should we make of the arrest of FIFA officials in Switizerland on extradiction warrants from the US Government? I think there is no doubt that FIFA is a very corrupt organisation and has been for many decades. The officials concerned, and long-term FIFA president Sepp Blatter as well, should held accountable for their corrupt practices. But I think Russian president Vladimir Putin (who is something of an expert on corruption himself) has it right when he says the arrests were “another blatant attempt by the United States to extend its jurisdiction to other states.” The sight of US Justice Department officials posing for photos as they left FIFA's regional association offices in Miami with boxes of papers had more than an hint of sham about it, and newly-appointed US Attorney-General Loretta Lynch's press conference did not add to the credibility of the case (and doesn't she know it isn't called "soccer" in the rest of the world?).

I have written before about the imperialistic ambitions of the United States to extend its legal bailiwick to the whole world. This wouldn't be so bad if the United States lived up to the intent of its founding document as a nation of people with "unalienable Rights...[including] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness", whose government derives its "just powers from the consent of the governed." But America is no longer that, if it ever was. The US has deviated so far from its founders' original intent of a limited republic, where the government serves at the pleasure of its people rather than the other way around, that it is hypocritical in the extreme for it to try and impose its legislative morality on the rest of the world.

Don't misunderstand me - I'm not saying America is irredeemably corrupt or has lost all respect for the rule of law, and I'd still far sooner be tried in an American court than a Chinese one - but a state that locks up a man for the rest of his life for the offence of running a website is a cruel and capricious one. And the world doesn't need a cruel and capricious imperial policeman.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Cyclists are the Parasites of the Roads

Recently a friend of mine who is an avid cyclist told me he was off to protest outside the Wellington City Council chambers with a bunch of like-minded, two-wheeled self-locomotionists. When I asked him why, he said it was because the Wellington City Council did not provide enough cycleways.

'Let's get this straight,' I said to my friend. 'You don't pay any road user charges or petrol taxes, you don't pay any accident insurance levies and you don't even pay any city rates because you live out of town. And yet you want Wellington City ratepayers like me to provide you with special paved tracks for you and your mates to cycle around the city. Is that correct?'

That's right,' he said with a smirk.

A little while ago I narrowly avoided my vehicle being hit by a cyclist while I was stopped at a pedestrian crossing. The cyclist had broken at least three traffic rules and by doing so had placed himself in the position of having to chose whether to hit an elderly pedestrian on the crossing or my car. It was only my alertness and my very quick reactions in getting my car out of the way that prevented him causing serious injuries either to himself or the pedestrian. My reward for my almost superhuman effort to save him from disaster of his own making was to suffer his verbal abuse. Rest assured, I gave as good as I got.

Let's face it - cyclists are the parasites of the roads. They don't obey any road rules, they are the most discourteous road users, they constantly put themselves in danger and expect motorists to have some sort of six sense to avoid them, and they think the rest of us should be happy to pay for their self-indulgent lifestyle choice. They are the ultimate bludgers.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Time to Sell Biased State Media

One of the first and most significant appointments David Cameron has made after his landslide UK election victory was that of John Whittingdale as Culture Secretary. The reason this appointment is significant is that Whittingdale will be the minister responsible for the BBC and in his previous role as chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee he has been very critical of the BBC and the licence fee that funds it. Some are going as far to suggest that Whittingdale's appointment is the Conservative Government's payback to the BBC for its very biased (i.e. pro-Labour Party) coverage of the election.

In Britain the BBC has a dominance over broadcast media that state media outlets in former Soviet bloc countries could only dream of.  It owns nine television channels and sixteen radio stations as well as numerous digital media outlets and cultural assets such as symphony orchestras. The BBC paints itself as unbiased but it is certainly not. It is partisan, secretive and ruthless in pushing its biases, and it is incredibly arrogant in refusing to concede its errors. 

Some examples of the BBC's behaviour are its cover-up of accusations of child abuse against Jimmy Savile, its promotion of the scandalous libel against former Tory peer Lord McAlpine and its reliance on a secretive panel of so-called independent climate scientists for its coverage of climate change issues (that turned out to largely comprise non-scientists from environmental lobby groups). The BBC is, in short, a malevolent presence in British culture.

In New Zealand over the last few weeks there has been a minor furore about the likely cancellation of TV3's current affairs Campbell Live. I have written before about left-wing bias in the the coverage of politics by the New Zealand media and in particular about how partisan John Campbell is. I said that I didn't have a particular problem with Campbell Live because TV3 is a privately-owned broadcaster and that eventually the market would sort him out. The uncertain future of the show is proof I was right. The BBC and our own state broadcasters Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand are a different matter. State-owned enterprises, even those like Television New Zealand that are commercially-focused, are not subject to the economic realities of private enterprises. The market cannot sort them out.

Thomas Jefferson said that 'to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical'. State broadcasting, particularly state broadcasting that is politically biased, does exactly that.

If there were ever valid arguments for the state to own media outlets (presumably around the lack of sufficient scale in small countries to justify private sector investment and monopolistic practices of a small number of private media outlets even in larger markets) those arguments no longer exist. The internet has reduced the cost so dramatically that anyone can afford to broadcast to millions from their bedroom and there are literally millions of news and opinion outlets of every possible political persuasion. It is time for the state to get out of broadcasting. Cameron's government should break up and sell the BBC and the New Zealand government should do the same for Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand.

I'm sure Rupert Murdoch would be interested.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Tax Freedom Day

It is tax freedom day in New Zealand - the notional day of the year on which we no longer have to hand over our hard-earned money to the government but can start to keep it for ourselves. May 7th is also the day on which businesses have to make their final provisional income tax and Goods and Services Tax payments for the previous financial year. For profitable small businesses like mine, that means making a very big payment to the Inland Revenue Department.

I do not willingly pay this money. I only hand over this large chunk of my income because the government threatens to incarcerate me if I don't. I know I could make better use of the money than the government does and that paying for my family's health, education and savings would cost me less than the wodge of cash I pay the government. And don't tell me it's the price of living in a civil society - according to the Minister of Finance, the New Zealand Government obtains 70% of its income tax revenue from 10% of its taxpayers so clearly I'm paying for a hell of lot more than what it actually costs me and my family to live in this society. Plus, there are perfectly civilised societies in the world, such as Monaco, that have no personal taxation at all.

I recently attended a discussion with Inland Revenue Department staff about the future of tax collection in New Zealand and was surprised when one of the representatives of the IRD said that they were considering all views on how tax services should be operated in future except for the view that 'taxation is immoral and should be abolished.' The fact that even in the fortress of taxation they acknowledged that the morality of taxation was not a certainty was very gratifying, if cold comfort for those like me who hold to that view.

I am not so quixotic as to believe that taxation will be abolished in my lifetime, but I do think we stand at a crossroads in respect of the burden of taxation. During the period from the mid-1980s until the end of the 1990s most Western governments reduced the burden of income tax on their populations, but many countries like New Zealand saw left-of-centre governments restored in the 2000s that increased tax rates again, albeit not to the staggeringly high levels that were commonplace before the 1980 reforms. Leftish parties in Britain, Australia and New Zealand now want to increase the burden further to pay for their profligate policies. The tax take as a percentage of GDP in New Zealand currently sits at about 39%. That's two dollars in every five that is taken by the government and too much already.

We must continually remind politicians that it is our money and our tolerance of the extortion that is taxation is not boundless.