Monday, February 23, 2015

Public Sector Millionaires

"Life is a long succession of vested interests, though we are inclined to see everyone’s but our own," says Theodore Dalrymple in this article in which he points out that senior public servants these days are often millionaires. The difference between public service millionaires and most others is that the public servants tend to deny that they are acting entirely in their own interests, preferring to delude themselves and others that they are pursuing their careers solely for the benefit of society.

Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand where I live, now has the highest household income (at nearly $100,000) and GDP per capita ($58,000) in New Zealand. It is no coincidence that it is where most of the public servants live. I have written before about how I have noticed the decline of Wellington's private sector economic base over the past couple of decades. Suburbs that used to be filled with factories and distribution companies are now empty of all commercial activities except for 'large box' retailers and recreational businesses that serve the prosperous bureaucrats that remain.

And prosperous they most certainly are. At the highest executive levels, public servants may still earn less than those in the private sector but across the board the relationship between salaries in the public and private sectors is significantly reversed. A divisional manager in a government department with a few dozen staff is likely to receive an annual salary of $150,000 to $200,000, whereas if you take an equivalent role in the private sector - say, a manager of a regional factory for a national manufacturing company with a similar number of staff - the role would be lucky to earn $100,000 and more likely about $70,000 to $80,000. And I know who would have the most risk and stress in their job - the factory manager, who undoubtedly is continually fighting for the factory's survival against international competition.

Many public servants appear to have no idea how the tax revenues that pay for their positions are generated. That is because many of them have never had a job where they have had to pay their own salary out of the margin from selling the products and services they produce. They have no idea about the economic value that must be created to generate the profits on which the taxes are levied that pay their salaries. They don't have to compete for customers - the people public servants love to call 'customers' are not customers at all, but rather members of the public who are forced to deal with them. They have no appreciation of the plight of the business owners who, if they have a bad month of sales, aren't able to draw any income out of their businesses at all, or who have to borrow to pay provisional and terminal taxes because their revenues have dropped after one good year.

It is no surprise that public servants almost universally have left-wing political views - after all, turkeys do not vote for an early Christmas. They regard the economy as just one big money-go-round, a zero-sum game in which they are entitled to grab what they think is their fair share. Public servants invariably regard themselves as empathetic types, bestowing their largesse with other people's money on those they regard as the deserving in society, and yet in their well-off Wellington suburbs they are often as isolated from the deprived in our society as anyone. And they have no empathy at all for those in the private sector struggling on much lower incomes than themselves.

When I was growing up, our rich neighbours were those with their own businesses. Today they are public servants, and I think that is an indictment on our our society and a sign of our ultimate economic decline.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A spoilt, petty, self-pitying, meddling plonker for a king.

Prince Charles wants to be an activist king, claims a new book, Charles: The Heart of a King by Catherine Mayer. The book describes an intemperate fool whose court is so dysfunctional and riven with petty rivalries that the author compares it to Henry VIII's as described in the Hilary Mantel book Wolf Hall. 

Charles is strongly partisan in his political views and has meddled in public issues as broad as British architecture and climate change. The fact that he knows little about the topics he pronounces on does not seem to deter him. It is obvious that he has little understanding of the modern constitutional role of the monarch, which his mother has defined and so ably maintained for six decades. That role is primarily one of political neutrality. The monarch is meant to sit above the hurly-burly of political debate and only act on the advice of her ministers in whom Parliament has confidence.

I've made no secret in previous posts that I am a republican. It galls me that the role of New Zealand's head of state is handed down as an inheritance in a family that lives on the other side of the world. However, I do appreciate the superb job that Queen Elizabeth II has done in the role. She is a constant in an ever-changing world and undoubtedly a factor in maintaining the peaceful, stable, relatively prosperous, democratic nation that is New Zealand. You get the impression that she never says or does anything that is not carefully considered. 

Charles could not be more different in style to his mother and just as Queen Elizabeth has been a force for stability in her realm, Charles's ill-considered, confrontational meddling will be very destabilising. The only positive thing that is likely to come out of his reign is the end of the monarchy itself. Kevin Maguire, associate editor of the Daily Mirror summed him up beautifully as "Spoilt, petty, self-pitying, meddling and a plonker – Prince Charles is a gift … for republicans.”

Charles is an idiot, but for a republican like me, he might prove to be a useful idiot.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Eleanor Catton's views are tediously predictable

There has been a great deal of comment here in New Zealand about Mann-Booker Prize-winning author Eleanor Catton's comments to an Indian literary festival. No country likes its prominent citizens being disloyal and New Zealanders seem to be particularly sensitive about this sort of thing. Personally, I think it is a bit of a storm in teacup and I have to say I agree with some of her comments, particularly the bit about the strange belief New Zealanders had (at least up until recent years) that their writers were less great than writers from Britain and America. I suppose the only part of her comments that is disappointing to me is her statement about the current middle-of-the-road John Key-led government being "neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture."

Anyone who regularly reads my blog will know that I am no fan or defender of the Key Government and it is not that Catton is criticising the government that disappoints me. It is rather that her left-wing views are so damned predictable. Writers, actors, musicians and others in the so-called creative sector are tediously conformist in their politics and, in my view, invariably hypocritical and disingenuous. I can only interpret Catton's comment about the government not caring about culture as meaning it does not care enough about her cultural output to bestow large sums of money on her personally.

Actually, there are a few exceptions to the tedious political conformity of the entertainment sector and one that comes to mind is British singer Adele. Her comments several years ago on high taxes and the National Health Service were a breath of fresh air. Likewise, James Blunt's recent response to a senior British Labour MP's comments about Blunt's 'privileged background' were brilliantly apt. I am sure there are many more singers, writers and actors who don't share the left-wing faith of many of their peers. It is a pity more of them don't have the courage to say come out publicly and say so. Certainly, there is nothing brave in Eleanor Catton spouting her entirely predictable, run-of-the-mill, bien pensant views.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Welcome to Reality, Lefties

I've been slow to start my blog posts for 2015, in part because I have been enjoying a wonderful New Zealand summer holiday with a large number of international family and friends, and partly because I felt that any further comment on the only topic worth writing about - the Islamic terror attacks in Paris - was redundant in view of the screeds that have been written on that subject already. But over the weekend a second, less dramatic but not unrelated international news report got me thinking. That second event was the massive drop in the value of the Euro against the Swiss Franc, occasioned by the decision of the Swiss central bank to stop propping up the Euro through massive buying of the common currency. Now what, you might wonder, do these two events have in common? The answer is that they are both massive reality checks for, and repudiation of, the conventional left-wing viewpoint of world affairs.

For years the political left-wing has been promoting the idea of cultural relativism, that is the view that there is social, scientific, economic or moral equivalence between all cultures. This view says that Western, liberal, democratic, capitalist societies are not in any way better than the most primitive, brutal and oppressive societies. Alongside cultural relativism, the left-wing also favours the notion of group identity, that is that we should not be judged as individuals but rather as a member of a culture, be it race, sex, religion or whatever group they (i.e. those doing the judging) choose to identify us with. Identity politics demarcates us into favoured and unfavoured groups, usually determined by our supposed victimhood. Therefore, African-Americans are favoured because they were once slaves and are still arguably the subject of some discrimination, while European-Americans are unfavoured because they aren't identified as victims (various European genocides notwithstanding). Likewise, women are good, men bad; gays are good, 'straights' bad; and, in the latest cause du jour, Muslims are good, Christians bad.

I'm sure you can already see a contradiction between these two ideas that are held as articles of faith by the left-wing. If there is equivalence between all cultures then how can it make sense to judge people on the basis of their culture?

The shootings in Paris, as dreadful as they were, couldn't have presented the contradictions of left-wing dogma better than if they had been staged to do so. In the Charlie Hebdo shootings, a group of left-wing journalists (the high priests of their social justice religion) were shot for exercising their right to satirize Islam. Cultural relativism came face-to-face with identity group politics and it was amusing (no, actually appalling) watching the contortions of politicians such as Barack Obama and Francois Hollande as they tried to steer a line between condemning the attacks whilst avoiding assigning any blame to the religion with which the perpetrators identified. If there was any doubt about the explicit aims of those responsible, it was removed in the second attack on a Jewish grocery store, a shocking in-your-face repudiation of all the weasel words about the Charlie Hebdo attack that had issued from Western politicians.

Which brings me to the collapse of the value of the Euro against the Swiss Franc. The political left-wing and economists who sympathise with their aims believe in the boundless benevolent power of the state when it comes to economic matters. They believe they can magic money out of thin air, so long as that money is used for government spending that is directed towards 'worthy' consumption. Of course, history teaches us that states cannot just print money without it eventually debasing the value of the currency (i.e. causing inflation). The European Union and the United States have both been making new money in huge quantities to fund their profligate spending. They have got away with it to date because, like the emperor's minions, everyone has turned a blind eye to their monetary nakedness. In the case of the Europeans, the Swiss had agreed to support this economic farce by pretending the Euro continued to maintain its value against their franc. What the Swiss National Bank did last week was to abandon the pretence and the Euro went down by more than 30% in a day. The Swiss did what they did for a very obvious reason - they couldn't afford to keep buying Euros to maintain its value (Switzerland's reserves of Euros amounted to the equivalent of 70% of its GDP prior to the fall). What has just happened to the Euro is a demonstration of what is going to happen to the US Dollar once the world realises that its value is also built on pretence.

Maggie Thatcher is credited with saying that the facts of life are conservative. What she meant is that that sooner or later reality destroys left-wing illusions. You can't pretend every culture is equal and then be surprised when one of those cultures throws out the rule book and destroys everything that you value like free speech. And you can't be surprised when you magic billions of dollars out of thin air and then your currency collapses in value. Welcome to reality, lefties.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Yes, it is Islam (and all the Other Religions)

It is hard to conceive what motivates the minds of men who would take over a school and set out to systematically kill all the children and staff within it over a period of many hours, such as happened this week in Peshawar, Pakistan. The Peshawar massacre was like a monumental rebuttal of the likes of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott who rushed to appease the Islamic community by claiming that the Sydney café attack by an Islamic cleric a day earlier was nothing to do with Islam. 

Abbott's absolution of Islam has been echoed again and again by the likes of Barack Obama, David Cameron and other Western leaders following similar attacks on their soil. But I'm afraid such disavowals are starting to wear a little thin, particularly when the perpetrators of these acts make it abundantly clear (as the Sydney attacker did with his use of an Islamic slogan flag) that they are acting in the name of Islam. I'm sure it will be revealed that the monsters who perpetrated the Peshawar massacre were making some sort of statement about the education of girls and the teaching of non-Islamic disciplines such as modern science, just like the Boko Haram (literally 'books forbidden') group in Nigeria and the man who shot Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan.

Religion is at the heart of all these acts, as it is at the heart of much of the violence in the world today and throughout history. Fortunately for those of us who live in the originally-Christian West, Christianity has lost its potency as a motivator for violence, but Islam has certainly stepped into its shoes as one of the primary forces for evil-doing in the world.

The problem with religion is that it can justify any extreme of behaviour in the name of its gods. The scriptures of most religions include plenty of material to justify all manner of violent acts. Anyone who is seen as not being a sufficiently doctrinaire adherent to a particular faith can be struck down with little compunction on the part of the perpetrator. There is no compassion, empathy or guilt when you are acting in the name of the supreme being, for what is the worth of the life of child against the majesty of the creator?

Religious people believe they are moral, but really they are completely amoral. They substitute their interpretation of the words of an old book for the rational thoughts of their own mind. True morality is rationalism. True morality is about taking personal responsibility for, and thinking through the effects of, the actions you take. The rational person understands the horrible misery that killing a child brings to everyone who loved or cared for that child and thinks about how he or she would feel in the place of the victim. The religious person thinks only of whether their action will bring them distinction in the eyes of their god. I concede that evil is not confined to the devoutly religious, but religion enables its adherents to escape personal responsibility for their acts and in doing so makes it easier for them to commit evil.

On that rather depressing note, I would like to wish those who have read my blog posts this year a very happy holiday season. I intend to write more next year and hope that some of what I write interests and entertains you.

Thank you for reading and thank you most of all for your rationalism. It is a rare commodity.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Biased BBC Typical of State Broadcasters

British Prime Minister David Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne this week attacked the BBC as biased, accusing it of systematic exaggeration in its coverage of the Cameron Government's mini-budget, known as the Autumn Statement. What seems to have particularly riled the Tories is the claim by a BBC political reporter that the budget would take Britain back to the economic conditions described in George Orwell's novel, The Road to Wigan Pier. The only thing about this that surprises me is that Cameron and Osborne are surprised by the obvious left-wing bias of the state broadcaster.

Here in New Zealand the media, and in particular the state-owned broadcasters, show similar political partisanship. A few days ago I was in a taxi and the cabbie was listening to Radio New Zealand National's Morning Report programme, which has a heavy focus on coverage of local political affairs. Now, I stopped listening to National Radio during the 2008 election campaign when the station made no attempt to hide its hugely biased coverage in favour of then Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark over (successful) centre-right National Party challenger John Key. I was tempted to ask the cabbie to turn it off but decided it would be interesting to see whether National Radio's coverage of politics had become any more even-handed. There followed the most appalling radio interview I have heard in a long time. The reporter, unable to bait her cabinet minister interviewee into conceding what she wanted, resorted to the sort of petulant hectoring one would normally only hear in a drunken pub debate. This endured for five minutes with the cabinet minister maintaining her position calmly and the reporter becoming ever more belligerent.

Of course there is a very logical reason why state broadcasters should be biased towards left-wing political views and that is that state ownership and forcible tax-payer funding of broadcasting services only makes sense to those with Socialist views. It is simply self-interest and self-preservation.

There was perhaps a legitimate economic argument in favour of the state getting into broadcasting in the early days of radio and television, when the entry costs were a high barrier to the private sector, particularly in small countries like New Zealand. It could be argued that if the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation hadn't established a television network in New Zealand in 1962 then this country may have gone without television for many years after that. Personally I think this is doubtful and in a free market it wouldn't have taken long for small, local television broadcasters to become established (and deregulation in 1989 proved this by quickly leading to the establishment of the privately-owned TV3). But even if such economic arguments had some legitimacy years ago, in the current environment when anyone with a personal computer can set up their own Youtube channel or streaming radio channel, such arguments are ridiculous.

The answer for David Cameron is that he should privatise the BBC. It is the dominance of the BBC and Radio New Zealand through state funding and protection that gives them their political power. In a highly competitive market, the biases of one broadcaster would not matter. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Ferguson, Missouri Shows Race Relations in America Still a Long Way to Go

Living in New Zealand it is hard to appreciate just how big an issue race is in America. Sure, we have a few tensions around Maori historical grievances but it is nothing compared to the racial firestorms that periodically break out in America between African-Americans and other races. The most recent example is the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, following the decision by a grand jury not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson over the fatal shooting of black youth Michael Brown.

I think it is likely from what I have read that the grand jury made the right decision in this case. However, there is no doubt that America's law enforcement agencies have become far too trigger-happy, with many recent examples of innocent Americans being shot by over-zealous, and even downright sociopathic, police officers (such as the killings of Samantha Ramsay and Keith Vidal or the shooting of Robby Tolan in his parent's driveway or of 70-year-old Bobby Canipe, who was reaching for his walking stick). Many shootings by policemen involve black victims and you have to think the Ferguson protestors have a valid point. 

The real cause of the race relations problems in Ferguson and across America is a vast historical legacy of bitterness that isn't easily overcome. For almost two centuries Africans were transported in appalling conditions to serve as slaves in North America and, as if that were not enough of a crime against humanity, their descendants for multiple generations inherited their bondage. Millions of Americans spent their entire lives being owned by another human being. Slavery was finally abolished by President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, although it took another three years for the Union troops to enforce the proclamation throughout the South by defeating the Confederacy. It has been less than 150 years since then and to appreciate how little historical time that is, consider that there are likely to be people alive today whose grandparents were born into slavery. And, of course, it didn't stop there. Reconstruction after the Civil War led to another century of discriminatory 'Jim Crow' laws in the South that only ended with the Civil Rights Act and other measures in the 1960s. So, the wound is still very raw.

However, much as I sympathise with the historical plight of African-Americans, I don't accept the idea of 'white guilt' as it is contemporarily applied to Americans (or New Zealanders). Americans of European descent today are not responsible for the crimes of their ancestors. Prejudice is about pre-judging people (which is the very root of the word) on the basis of some collective trait, and Americans of European descent should no more be judged by their racial make-up than African-Americans, for to do so would be to pile one wrong on another. People should be judged by their actions as individuals, not tarred by association with the deeds of their forebears. The founding fathers of America got it right when they said that all men are created equal and have unalienable rights. The fact that they did not practice what they preached does not lessen the truth and utility of their famous words today. The answer to America's bitter racial legacy is to reaffirm and hold fast to those great truths.