Thursday, December 20, 2018

Books

NotPC has published his reading list for the holidays so I thought I would post mine here:
That ought to keep me busy!
Thanks for reading my blog and have a very happy Christmas.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

No, we are not all responsible for murder

I was horrified, like all decent New Zealanders, to hear of the killing of young Britsh tourist Grace Millane on our shores. I have a daughter of Grace's age who is presently travelling overseas and I share every parent's fear of a similar thing happening to their child. I can only imagine what it is like to have such a nightmare become reality.

Grace Millane was killed, if media reports are to be believed, by a sole perpetrator. Unfortunately, human beings are far too capable of such malevolence and it is only the fact that violence is becoming rarer in human societies that provides some comfort and hope when these events occur. But what makes the situation worse is when certain politicians and activists use such a terrible occurrence to push their warped, collectivist view of humanity. 

The most significant reason for the decline in violence in the world (and you can acquaint yourself with the facts regarding this trend in Steven Pinker's excellent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature) is undoubtedly that great achievement of Western civilisation - the supremacy of the individual. It is our respect for the individual as the sovereign unit in our culture that has led the West to develop and codify the idea that all human beings have innate rights, including the rights to life, liberty, and to be treated fairly and equally under the law.

The idea of the sovereignty of the individual has a corollary - that individuals are responsible for their own actions. This idea is being abandoned for the political ends of those who see human beings not as individuals but as members of collective groups. We saw such attitudes on display in the responses to Grace Millane's murder from Robb McCann, the leader of the "White Ribbon anti-violence campaign", and New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern.

Mr McCann was reported as saying, "We want to make sure that men don't grow up with the type of attitudes where they treat women like objects, where they think that they're superior and where violence occurs because they don't understand what a respectful relationship looks like." In other words, it wasn't a sole perpetrator who was responsible for Grace Millane's murder but all New Zealand men. Of course, men commit violent crimes more than women - that is indisputable - but men are also the victims of violent crime at a far higher rate than women (see the statistics for New Zealand here) and the vast majority of men never commit a serious assault on anyone.

Jacinda Ardern went further, issuing a tearful apology to Grace Millane's family on behalf of all New Zealanders. In my view, Ardern's response was plain wrong. New Zealanders collectively did not kill Grace Millane and therefore the prime minister should not be apologising on our behalf. It would have been appropriate for her to express deep regret and sympathy to the Millane family but not to apologise. What is the harm, I hear you ask? Well, it might just make the situation worse by sending a message that New Zealanders have much to be sorry about - that the murder of tourists is endemic to this country. The reality is that such murders are very rare and New Zealand remains a comparatively safe country. The prime minister would have been better telling the world what she and her government will do to further reduce the incidence of violent crime in New Zealand.

I have the utmost sympathy for Grace Millane's family and I feel a sense of shame that she was murdered in this country. But there is only one person who is allegedly responsible for Grace Millane's death, one individual who in this instance did not "understand what a respectful relationship looks like", and one who should be apologising (as if that could do any good). I trust that individual will be held to account. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

India, Singapore and New Zealand

I have just returned from a few weeks in India. It was my first visit to the subcontinent and it was an amazing experience. India is, to use a hackneyed phrase, a country of contrasts. I saw some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen anywhere (the Thar desert in particular), delved into the histories of what were some of the most advanced civilisations in the world, and met some amazing people from all levels of Indian society. But India is also, to borrow a descriptive term from Mr Trump, a shithole - somewhat literally (in view of the amount of animal and human excrement everywhere) as well as figuratively. Fortunately for Indians, their circumstances are rapidly improving as they have ditched the statism and socialist economics of the post-Independence period to adopt, in recent decades, free markets and deregulation. They have a long way to go but as with every experiment of its type, they are realising the fruits of capitalism. Extreme poverty has reduced from nearly 60% of the population in the 1970s to around 20% today, despite the population roughly doubling over that period. In fact, so successful has been India's economic revolution been that some of its biggest problems today are those associated with advanced economies - traffic congestion, air pollution and the rising cost of housing.

Singapore is a place that I have visited numerous times since the 1980s and over that time I have seen it progress from an ambitious but relatively poor city state to the one of the most prosperous countries in the world. When I first went there, Singapore's GDP per capita was 40% below New Zealand's, its dollar was worth about one-fifth of ours, there were still slum areas outside the central city, and the water wasn't safe to drink. Now its GDP per capita is 25% higher than ours, its dollar is more valuable, the entire island is clean and green and modern, and Singaporeans pride themselves on having drinking water equivalent to Norway's. It is not exactly a paragon of democracy, with the ruling People's Action Party having been in power since self-government was granted by the British in 1959 and two of the three prime ministers since then being Lee Kwan Yew and his son Lee Hsien Loong. However, Singaporeans seem well-satisfied with their political leadership and choose not to concern themselves with politics but rather get on with managing their own (increasingly prosperous) lives.

New Zealanders, by contrast, seem obsessed with politics and expect the government to micro-manage every aspect of their lives and solve every problem that confronts them. We imagine ourselves to be rugged individualists with a can-do attitude, but the reality is that we are like infants in our expectations that Nanny State will take care of us. Indians and Singaporeans alike would regard this dependency as pathetic and unbecoming. The more I travel the world, the more I realise that New Zealanders are complacent and far too self-satisfied. Our economic trajectory is not good - we continue to fall behind comparative nations in income per capita and productivity, as the following graphs show.



The graphs show that the decline in our relative economic position is a long and intractable trend. Our GDP growth has averaged around 2.5% in recent decades, whereas India and China have averaged 7.5% and 9.5% respectively. There is no reason to expect these trends won't continue and the ultimate result is that China will have a higher GDP per capita than New Zealand by about 2040 and India well before the end of this century. Is this what New Zealanders really want?

I wouldn't want to live in India today and while Singapore has its appeal, New Zealand still beats it on lifestyle. But the lifestyle of a nation is in large part a factor of its relative wealth - in other words, shitholes are such because they are poor. What is our lifestyle going to be like when we are one of the poorest countries on Earth, rather than one of the wealthier ones? It is a sobering thought.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Off overseas

I'm off to India for the next month so I probably won't be posting much until I get back. I may find the time to provide some impressions of the subcontinent while I am there.


Thursday, October 4, 2018

We don't need your damned 'wellbeing'

New Zealand's socialist-nationalist-environmentalist government is planning on introducing a Wellbeing budget and a Living Standards Framework (LSF) to as the rationale for its policies. The idea is that GDP alone is not a sufficient measure of a country's performance and that rather than focusing on purely economic factors, governments should also measure a range of social, cultural and environmental factors. The more I have learned about this change, the more it worries me.

Our motley coalition government is not the only one to adopt this fancy. Many Western governments, particularly in Europe, are rushing to ascribe wellbeing benefits to their policies. It is hardly surprising that the international movement towards adopting wellbeing measures has occurred during the period of anaemic economic growth since the global financial crisis in 2007 - in an era of subjectivism and relativism, if you don't like the results, you simply change the measures.

The real concern about these measures is that they presuppose government interference in every area of our lives. They assume a left-wing view of the world, i.e. that the government intervention can fix all of society's ills, but you could also argue that they are based on an extreme right-wing, nationalistic view that the collective good of the nation state is of the utmost importance. The measures become a means to entrench these world-views. For example, it is proposed to include the proportion of Maori language speakers in the measures, which is likely to lead to the entrenchment of policies such as compulsory teaching of Maori in schools (which I wrote about in a previous post).

What you don't see in this framework is any reference to individual freedom - unless it is to the pseudo 'freedoms from' discrimination and victimisation. I believe that individual freedom is the sine qua non of personal wellbeing and that any policy framework that ignores this is suspect. Focusing on government-led outcomes rather than individual freedom itself is at best counterproductive and at worst mendacious.

The government often makes matters worse. For example, one of the measures of social wellbeing they are considering is loneliness. Presumably, people like the elderly living alone will be surveyed to see whether they are lonely and the government will develop policies to address excessive loneliness, such as having a social worker call on isolated people once a week. But like all government policies, this is likely to have unanticipated and counterproductive consequences, with friends and relatives feeling they do not have to visit the elderly quite so often because they know a social worker will be regularly calling.

There is an old saying that 'what gets measured gets done'. The corollary of this is that if you can set the measurements, what you want gets done. A government that wants to interfere in every area of our lives will adopt measurements that apply to every area of our lives. Personally, I don't want a government that concerns itself with whether I am lonely or not because I consider this to be none of the government's damned business.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Capital Gains Tax is double theft

New Zealand's Labour-NZ First-Green coalition government plans to introduce a capital gains tax under the guise of a review of the tax system carried out by its Tax Working Group (TWG). The TWG says it hasn't yet made a decision on the merits of a capital gains tax, but given that it is headed by former Labour finance minister, Michael Cullen, who never saw a tax he didn't like, it seems very likely they will recommend it. 

The idea of a capital gains tax appeals to socialists because it is a manifestation of the envy they feel towards anyone who is wealthier than them. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, a socialist is someone with the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be better off than they are. Socialists regard taxation as not just a means to an end (i.e. big government and redistribution of wealth), but an end in itself (i.e. punishing the rich).

A capital gains tax is a particularly insidious form of taxation because it is in effect a form of double theft. Capital gains are the increase in value of an asset and, like all goods, the value increases due to two factors - scarcity or money inflation. In the case of real estate, the obvious target for a capital gains tax, the increase in value is due to both of these factors. Where the insult to injury comes about is that the government drives both of these factors. It is driving scarcity of property because of its draconian planning restrictions and building regulations, and it is driving property inflation because it has been increasing the money supply and directing the extra money through the banks into mortgage lending.

If the value of anything increases due to inflation, there is no net gain to the economy. Inflation merely redistributes wealth (but perhaps not the sort of redistribution that appeals to socialists). So a capital gains tax on property is the government taxing you for an illusory gain that it caused. The same pernicious effect occurs when your wages increase due to inflation and you are pushed into a higher tax bracket so you have to pay more tax without seeing any additional purchasing power from your income.

All taxation is theft, but taxation on an illusory gain that is created by the government is double theft.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Implicit bias is another political perversion of science

The phenomenon of unconscious or implicit bias training has reached New Zealand. Companies that offer the training make the claim that "scientific research has demonstrated the existence and prevalence of unconscious bias – unconscious beliefs and attitudes that go beyond our conscious perceptions of ourselves and others" and that businesses "need to give people the platform and tools [i.e. their training] to begin to mitigate bias". Some of my clients have purchased this training for their staff so I decided to look into the science behind its claims.

The foundational research for implicit bias was a 1995 study [PDF] undertaken by American psychologists Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji. They established the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which purports to show, amongst other things, that white people regard black people as more of a threat than those of their own race. The research has received much criticism in recent years and its conclusions have been challenged in numerous other studies, most notably a 2016 meta-analysis of more than 500 studies over 20 years involving 80,000 people using the IAT, which concluded that:
    1. The correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behaviour is weaker than previously thought
    2. There is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in a person’s behaviour.
    Interestingly, one of the authors of the meta-study was psychologist Brian Nosek, who worked on the original implicit bias research with Greenwald and Banaji and helped create the IAT. Nosek warns in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education of the "very weak overall" connection between implicit bias and discriminatory behaviour. The researchers concluded that "IAT provides little insight into who will discriminate against whom, and provides no more insight than explicit [i.e. self-admitted] measures of bias."

    The popular Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, also warns that the original study did not control for the less pernicious psychological trait of novelty aversion. This is the tendency of all human beings to prefer that which is familiar. It explains why we prefer the foods, music, clothes and people that we know and that we grew up with, rather than those we don't know. It is also why most people tend to marry within their social, economic and ethnic groups. This trait is universal and applies equally to all races, and in order to control for it when testing for racial bias, researchers would need to use only subjects who were brought up and live amongst equal numbers of people of other races, which they certainly did not do in this case.

    It is clear that this is another area where science has been perverted for political and personal ends. Implicit bias is another pseudo-science act in the political left's playbook, while at the same time becoming a nice little earner for consultants who exploit well-intentioned or politically-fearful business owners and managers. It is notable that, in the Chronicle article linked above, both Greenwald and Banaji resort to the common behaviour of all politically-biased scientists, using both ad hominem attacks (e.g. Greenwald says of the lead author of the meta-study, Hart Blanton, that "He’s not a great scientist") and defamatory generalisations (e.g. Banaji likens IAT doubters to climate-change deniers) when their conclusions are challenged. That is a sure sign that their science has become too politicised and is on shaky ground.