Friday, May 27, 2016

Thanks, but we don't want to be looked after

The New Zealand Government's budget for the next financial year was delivered by Finance Minister Bill English yesterday and for all it contained, English might not have bothered with the budget speech at all. It was more of the same - more tax, more government spending, more pointless reorganisation of government agencies ($303 million for a new fire service this time) and no joy for those of us who would rather make our own decisions on how we manage our lives and on what we spend our hard-earned incomes.

The overwhelming reaction from the predominantly left-wing mainstream media and commentators was disappointment that the government hadn't been more profligate with our money. The reaction was typified by this comment in the New Zealand Herald by Massey University lecturer and Labour Party candidate Dr. Deborah Russell, "How do we look after all New Zealanders?"

This is precisely the problem with New Zealand today and with all government budgets - the belief that we all need looking after by the state. Well, we don't! Most of us are perfectly capable of looking after ourselves, getting a job or setting up a business, earning an income, providing for our families, educating our children and taking care of those in our neighbourhoods and communities who need help. We just want to be left alone to get on with doing these things. The belief that we all need to be looked after by the state is insulting to our intelligence and resourcefulness, not to mention arrogant in the extreme. Besides, the state never does a good job of looking after anyone.

Instead of trying to look after all New Zealanders, I would suggest the likes of Dr. Deborah Russell do something useful and instead focus on helping some of those elderly people in their neighbourhoods who have no one to check on them and often aren't discovered until months after their deaths.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Troublesome Inheritance

I am reading a lot of books at the moment (hence the previous blog post on books about Islam) and one that I have devoured recently is Nicholas Wade's controversial treatise A Troublesome Inheritance - Genes, Race and Human History. Wade's book has been heavily criticised because it rejects the modern politically correct view that race is purely a social construct. In many ways the validity of Wade's basic theory is obvious - through DNA testing geneticists can tell to a very high degree of accuracy a person's race (and in the event they are of recent mixed ancestry, their parents' and grandparents' races), and race is a key indicator of susceptibility to many inheritable diseases such as sickle cell anaemia. Furthermore, it is obvious that race is a strong indicator of intellectual and behavioural characteristics, e.g. people of Jewish descent are far more likely to be in occupations that require strong numerical skills such as banking or physics.

Wade goes further, however, and challenges the assumption of modern sociologists and anthropologists that human evolution stopped with the development of agriculture ten thousand years ago. He turns this view on its head and asserts that the progression from smaller-scale tribal societies to the large nation states that we know today is due, at least in part, to evolutionary factors. The corollary of this is that tribal systems of society that have survived into the modern era have done so because of genetic constraints on their ability to extend trust and cooperation beyond a small social group that has strong kinship ties.

This inevitably sounds a little racist although Wade is at pains to point out that he doesn't contend that any race is superior to another, only that different races have evolved to adapt to their different environments. I don't completely buy all of Wade's theory and some of the evidence he presents seems scant at best. However, it would help explain why tribal societies such as New Zealand's Maori and Australia's Aborigines find it so difficult to make a successful transition to modern, Westernised societies. Maori aspirations to return to more tribal-based forms of government and resource ownership are understandable if tribalism is built into their DNA. The problem is that tribalism is inconsistent with our modern, democratic, liberal social structures. If we assume that evolution, even at its most agile, will take many hundred of years to adapt to a significant environmental change, then that means the conflict between Western and tribal social structures is likely to be with us for a long time to come.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Two insights into Islam

In recent days I have read two books on the subject of Islam. The first is popular historian Tom Holland's excellent book In the Shadow of the Sword that examines the origins of Islam in the context of the decline of the Roman and Persian empires. The second is Michael Houellebecq's novel Submission, which is set in France in the near future when a Muslim is elected president, a not entirely fanciful notion.

I am a keen student of history but Holland's book contained a great deal of historical fact of which I was not aware - for example, who knew that a Jewish state (Himyar) existed in Arabia up until the 6th Century? The Himyarites were Arabs not Hebrews, and they dominated the Arabian peninsula until they were defeated by Christian forces in 525 A.D. The Roman and Persian empires were constantly vying for dominance in the region, with the latter overcoming the former to conquer Ephesus, Jerusalem and Alexandria by the early 7th Century.

The accepted modern history would have you believe that Islam started in a world that was still predominantly pagan and it grew to the point where it eventually came up against Christianity, but in reality the region was split between three competing religions - Zoroastrianism, Judaism and a burgeoning Christianity - and Islam is clearly a fusion of all three.

Holland challenges much of the accepted history. He doubts, for example, that Mohammed wrote (or dictated) most of the Koran, and he is certainly not the only historian to credit the book to Uthman, the third Caliph, who ruled the expanding Arab empire a couple of decades after Mohammed's death. He identifies much of the Koran as having its origins in the Jewish Torah, the New Testament and the books of Zoroastrianism. As for the Hadith, the supposed sayings of Mohammed, he rightly identifies these as a mixture of Greek, Roman, Jewish and Persian writings and sayings compiled and culled by scholars such as the prodigious al-Bukhari a couple of hundreds of years after Mohammed's death.  None of this is particularly controversial with even Islamic scholars acknowledging the hybrid origins of their faith, and in fact many Muslim leaders deny that Islam is a separate religion per se but maintain it is the evolution of the monotheistic faiths into a more coherent, final form.

Houellebecq's Submission is in some ways the more informative book on Islam. The name of the book is, of course, a literal translation of the word Islam, and it made me realise for the first time how important is the idea of submission to the Islamic faith. Submission to God, of course, is the central tenet of Islam but it also explains the role of women as being submissive to men. The main character is a professor at the Sorbonne who loses his job when the university becomes an Islamic institution, but then he is offered not just his old job back at a much higher salary, but the opportunity of a lucrative book contract and the prospect of several young wives - in short, everything a slightly inadequate academic could ever aspire to - but, of course, only on the condition that he submits.

Those of us who are atheists have difficulty understanding the appeal of submission to a mythical being, but to many people it is the most attractive part of religion and it is the need to submit that makes Islam so appealing to so many. We like to think of human beings as being rational creatures but the reality is the human mind has always been attracted to mystical explanations and the belief that we are in the hands of something that is greater and wiser than ourselves is comforting, like returning to childhood. It is easier to abrogate responsibility for our lives to a supreme being than to take that responsibility on our own shoulders.

Houellebecq's book made me realise that we cannot counter Islam with rational argument and by appealing to our own desire to be free, independent human beings with natural rights. It is the very lack of these things that attracts people to Islam. I must admit I found this conclusion rather frightening.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Any excuse but Socialism for Venezuela's ills

The New York Times, that esteemed organ of American journalism, ran two articles over the weekend that caught my eye. The first was a somewhat desperate hatchet job on Donald Trump's relationships with women*, the second was this article about the political and economic situation in Venezuela.

Venezuela during its fourteen years of rule by Hugo Chavez was the darling of the political left-wing and the sycophantic media in the West. It was held up as an example of what could be accomplished under a radical socialist political system, even after the economic and social disruption caused by Chavez's rule became increasingly evident. Venezuela's economy and civil society have now completely collapsed. Things have got so bad that there are severe shortages of food, medicine and even water; there are rolling electricity blackouts, and government agencies are only working two days a week. 

Chavez's successor, Nicolás Maduro, has continued his mentor's practice of blaming speculators, greedy retailers, even consumers for the outcomes of his policies. Not content with nationalising industries, imposing draconian price controls and purchasing restrictions (including fingerprinting supermarket shoppers to ensure they can't buy more than a minimal ration of food), and closing the border to stop Venezuelans going to Colombia to buy the goods and medicines they need, he now proposes to seize idle factories and restart them to boost production. There is irony in a government that can't even keep its own offices open more than two days per week thinking it can run factories. 

The New York Times article says the economic crisis is 'caused by low oil prices, a lack of savings and a drought'. The truth is, the only reason Venezuela's economy endured through the first decade of Chavez's rule was because of consistently high oil prices, and in a country where there is 180% inflation and no property rights, is it any wonder Venezuelans do not want to save? As for the drought, that is a very recent thing and the more significant long-term impact on the economy has been Chavez's agricultural land reforms, which were similar to the land seizures instituted in Zimbabwe by Robert Mugabe's government and have unsurprisingly produced a similar result.

The impact on the lives of the Venezuelan people of the Chavez-Maduro reign has been terrible, as this second article in the New York Times about the state of the Venezuelan hospital system clearly shows. It seems extraordinary that Western media outlets like the New York Times can see the seriousness of the problems in Venezuela but are so wilfully blind to the true cause. The historical evidence is incontrovertible - radical socialism always leads to the same outcomes of misery, starvation and death.

* See my comment on Twitter about this here.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Conservatism is the cancer, Trump is merely the symptom

Texas governor Rick Perry once said that Donald Trump’s candidacy is a cancer on conservatism. The fact that Perry has since changed his mind and jumped on the Trump wagon doesn't detract from the quotability of his comment. However, it misses the really salient point about Trump's candidacy, which is that it is a popular response to a bankrupt conservative movement. In other words, conservatism is the cancer and Trump merely the symptom.

What is conservatism really? Literally, conservatism means wanting to preserve or return to old traditions, but what are the traditions that conservatives want to conserve? For American conservatives, the traditions include religious adherence, duty to country, trust in government, historical gender roles and the like. Unfortunately for conservatives, these things do not resonate today with many Americans who value the social freedoms they have gained since the conservative political ascendancy of the 1950s.

On the other hand, conservatism usually means support for a market economy, but even this is not quite what it seems. The market economy most conservatives envisage is a cronyist realm where large corporations are protected and subsidized and small businesses are kept from competing with the big guys by a heavy blanket of government rules and regulations. American conservatives don't really want a truly free market because that means having to compete with the rest of the world and letting people make their own decisions about what they buy and from whom. Donald Trump is about as conservative as you get on this point.

The problem with conservatives is that they have never been honest with themselves. They have deluded themselves that the traditions they hanker for are about freedom, when in reality they are about conformity and control. At least the left-wing values social freedom, even if they don't understand that economics is a social science and social freedom without economic freedom is a nonsense.

It is unsurprising that Trump, a former Democratic supporter who is anti-free trade, anti-property rights, internationally isolationist and jingoistic, and pro-higher-taxes, is now the presumptive presidential nominee for the Republican Party. It is ironic that his candidacy is being opposed by prominent Republicans such as the Georges Bush and Mitt Romney, who claim he has sold out conservatism. Conservatism has always been only too prepared to sell out any principles of freedom it may have had in the pursuit of wealth and power for its supporters. In that respect Trump is right on form.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The death throes of traditional media

The New Zealand news last week was filled with the shocking story of the departure of news presenter Hilary Barry from the TV3 network. Actually it is not shocking at all but to see and listen to the media coverage, you would think it is the greatest story here since the earthquake that devastated Christchurch or maybe even since New Zealand's entry into World War 2. 

One of the worst characteristics of the mainstream media both here and overseas is their obsession with themselves. Personally I don't find the comings and goings of TV news presenters to be of any great moment and can't imagine that Hilary Barry changing jobs means much to anyone other than her immediate family, but there is a far more interesting story about the media that is going largely unremarked upon. That story is signalled by this lesser-heralded news report that TV3 owner MediaWorks is to close down sister channel TV4 and replace it with an all-reality TV channel to be called Bravo.

Variety magazine reports that the top four television series watched by the key 18-24 demographic in America during the important fall season were Netflix shows. The New Zealand equivalent ratings are not published (to my knowledge) but I imagine they show a similar picture. This confirms anecdotal evidence that broadcast television is in steep decline and the replacement of TV4 with a reality channel is surely evidence of a ratings-driven rush to the bottom in terms of quality that has more than a hint of desperation about it.

There is a similar decline in newspaper sales. The Wellington daily, The Dominion Post, declined nearly 14% in the last year alone and all the other major dailies showed sales falls. This is hardly surprising given the quality of those newspapers, particularly the appalling DomPost. The lower the circulation or ratings, the more desperate the response of the media outlet to try and save itself. Like a man drowning in quicksand, the flailing attempts at self-preservation just hurry the demise.

I think the decline of the mainstream media, in fairness, is not entirely self-inflicted. Popular culture is so shallow and evanescent that those trying to predict and cater to the public's tastes must have an almost impossible job. Prurient interest in the petty problems of other human beings, the staple of reality TV, seems to be the only bankable fashion for mass media these days. Those who are prepared to pay more - the subscribers of Netflix and the like - can still get a level of quality programming but the rest of the population are served dross, which they gratefully lap up like starved dogs.

The mainstream media are fond of decrying increased inequality in our society (real or imagined) but their own industry is developing into a two-tiered world where the walls to get into the premium section are getting higher while the standard of the economy section falls further and further. Ultimately we get exactly what we pay for.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A megalomaniacal motormouth or an inveterate liar

Well, it looks like it's going to be a Trump-Clinton race. It is a pity Ted Cruz has dropped out - he was becoming almost likeable in a hang-dog sort of way. The Donald is becoming even less appealing as he tries to bring his tourette's-like tongue under control and appear as a candidate who is less than completely deranged - now, he's not even entertaining, let alone credible. And as for Hillary - am I the only one who thinks she looks like a con artist who knows she is about to be sprung?

I predicted that Trump would become the Republican candidate and also that Trump will beat Clinton in a head-to-head presidential contest. It gives me no pleasure to see that the first part of that prediction is now almost certainly right. I don't claim any great prescience when it comes to US politics but I do understand the immense frustration of many Americans over the direction of their country. 

The incumbent president and the previous one have been incredibly damaging for America but the next one is going to be worse, irrespective of whether it is a Republican or Democrat. But I believe that the United States has the presidential candidates it deserves. That's what you get when you are intent on throwing away the greatest constitutional republic the world has ever known. Perhaps having a megalomaniacal motormouth or an inveterate liar as president will bring Americans to their senses.