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.