Friday, April 28, 2017

Trump at 100 Days

Tomorrow is the 100-day mark in Donald Trump's presidency and like jouranlists and bloggers all over the world, I am taking the opportunity to provide my assessment on how I think he is doing.

The 45th president of the United States of America certainly set a cracking pace (as I wrote about here) but more recently he seems to be getting bogged down in the swamp he said he would drain. I have looked at a number of his campaign promises in various policy areas and graded them from A+ (completely achieved) to E (has done nothing) and then averaged them to get an overall grade.

Healthcare: He promised to repeal Obamacare, but rather than trying to repeal it he supported Paul Ryan's replacement American Care Act, which was withdrawn when it failed to gain enough support to pass in in the House. His professed approach now seems to be to wait for Obamacare to implode, which is a bit pathetic really. Therefore, he gets a D for this.

Immigration: Repeated knock-downs of Trump's executive orders by the federal courts has meant he has failed to implement his policies in this area, but that is not a bad thing in my view because his policies were ill-advised and poorly thought out. It also shows the American system of government with its separation of powers is working. But in terms of Trump's delivery, he gets a D for this.

Taxation: He has announced tax reforms including lowering rates for companies and individuals, and simplifying the Byzantine system of deductions - so he gets a B-, but maintaining or improving on that grade will depend on follow-through.

Draining the Swamp: He promised to reduce the size of government starting with a freeze on federal hiring, and to stop officials becoming lobbyists after they leave their government jobs. He has signed executive orders to give effect to these policies, so a good start and a B+ for effort.

Reduce Government Compliance: He promised to introduce a requirement for two federal regulations to be elminated for every one introduced. He has signed an executive order stating that two regulations have to be identified for elimination, so, again, a good start and a B+.

Trade: He said he would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. He also said he would label China a 'currency manipulator'. He has fudged on the first, signed a memorandum to effect the second, and backed down on the third. These were all silly policies in my view but a B- for partial delivery.

Energy: He promised to lift restrictions on fracking and clean coal production, and build the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. He has issued executive orders on all of these, so he here he gets an A+.

Climate Alarmism: He said he would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord and stop payments to UN climate change programmes. He hasn't done either yet, reportedly because Ivanka doesn't like these policies, so he gets an E for this.

These are not all the campaign promises he made but they are enough to give an overall grade for his commitment to delivery. The average is a C+, which is not brilliant but probably better than most presidents achieved after just 100 days in office.

So what grade would you give Donald Trump for his performance so far?

Monday, April 24, 2017

The irony of the Washington science march

Albert Einstein once said, "Genius abhors consensus because when consensus is reached, thinking stops."

The participants in the so-called March for Science in Washington DC over the weekend should heed the great man's advice. I am sure they missed the irony of a protest march in the US capital against political interference in science. It is obvious from photographs of the march (such as the one below) that many of those present had a political agenda that has nothing to do with maintaining objectivity in science. They were marching to force their views on everyone else and that doesn't make them right, it makes them thugs, and thuggery has no place in science.

Marching against political interference in science!
Science, unlike politics, is not a matter of opinion and it doesn't matter what the consensus is. The scientific method works by challenging the consensus. The oft-quoted 97% figure of scientists supporting the consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is factually wrong (which I wrote about here and here), but it wouldn't matter if the figure was 100%. Scientific breakthroughs are usually made by individuals or small teams of scientists challenging the consensus, often years after the science is considered settled.

Over the weekend we also had the ridiculous sight of Bill Nye, the self-titled "Science Guy", criticizing CNN for including Dr William Happer in a discussion about climate science. Bill Nye is an television personality who made his name hosting a science programme for children. He has a Bachelor of Engineering degree but has never worked as a scientist. William Happer, on other hand, is one of the top physicists in America, having been a full professor at both Columbia and Princeton, and he is responsible for the invention of adaptive optics, the technology that allows telescopes to adjust to disturbances in the Earth's atmosphere when imaging space. Happer has been outspoken on AGW and as a scientist whose specialist field includes the properties of the Earth's atmosphere, he ought to have more credibility on the subject than Nye. The fact that Nye would have CNN deny a voice to Happer and provide a one-sided platform for his own beliefs, says a lot about Nye.

The most delightful part of the Einstein quotation above is that he went on to say to his students, "Stop nodding your head." Einstein didn't want people agreeing with him, he wanted to be challenged. He understood that you cannot claim to be on the side of science if you wish to shut up those who disagree with you.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Governments' use of data is scary

The answer to poor government is always more government, at least amongst those who are part of the Leviathan. New Zealand's National Government says it is driven by values of 'personal responsibility' and 'limited government' and Prime Minister Bill English has talked a lot about reducing state dependency and targeting services to those in highest need. He has been explicit about how he plans to do this, most recently in his statement to Parliament in February in which he said, 'the Government will this year further improve the way in which data is used to underpin decision making through initiatives like the Integrated Data Infrastructure.'

The Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI) is a big database held by Statistics New Zealand that receives feeds from many government and some non-government organisations, including the Ministry of Social Development, Inland Revenue, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, Department of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Justice and New Zealand Police. There is a belief that the data in the IDI is anonymous but that is not true. The database uses a common identifier to link the records from the different agencies and, although sufficient personal information to readily identify the person is not usually provided to third parties, the IDI records are linked to real people.

I have had a great deal of experience in the use and protection of information both in the private and public sectors and I believe many people in government have little idea of the risks involved in the aggregation of data. Even if we accept that government agencies are good stewards of people's data (and, as I show below, the evidence is that they are not), the IDI opens up this data to almost anyone who wants to use it. There is an application process but few checks on those who apply. I do not believe those responsible understand the power of technology available to mine and de-anonymise the data and have little appreciation of how it might be used.

An overseas example of the risks is the United Kingdom's experience with, a National Health Service initiative to aggregate health and social care data and make it available for research purposes. Soon after the initiative was launched in 2013, it was rumoured that private sector organisations such as insurance companies were de-anonymising the data to reveal whether customers were withholding information on pre-existing conditions and risk factors such as mental illness. A report into the risks concluded that 'the current program is highly problematic in its flawed protection of patient anonymity, an unsuitable opt-out system, unclear criteria for accessing the collected health data, and the risk it poses to the trust between patients and general practitioners.'

There are many other examples of the lack of adequate protection for individual data in government, including here in New Zealand. The 2012 revelation that Ministry of Social Development's self-service kiosks could be used by anyone to access confidential details of at-risk children is just one example. I have personally seen other examples of significant security flaws in agencies' information systems that have not been revealed publicly. But the risk is not confined to the information falling into the wrong hands - there is also considerable scope to link the wrong data to the wrong person. Statistics NZ admits that 'some records can be linked incorrectly or the link could be missed'. I am sure I don't need to spell out the implications of a law enforcement agency using incorrectly linked data.

I think governments' increasing aggregation of personal information and policies of allowing almost unrestricted access to it, are dangerous and unnecessary. I accept that there is the potential to deliver services to people more effectively by better understanding their needs - after all, this is exactly what Amazon and every other online merchant does - but the risks with governments misusing the information are far greater. The worst Amazon can do is to try to sell you something you don't want, but if the government draws the wrong conclusion from the data, it could destroy your life.

I think it would be better to rethink the role of central government in providing many of the services for which it believes it needs aggregated data. People in need can be better served by local service providers that are closer to the people requiring the services, using information collected from the individuals concerned and those in the community who understand their needs better than any central government agency. The more government tries to manage and target the services it delivers through centralised aggregation of information, the more intrusive into all our lives it needs to become and the greater the risk of wholesale misuse of the data. Central government is always a blunt instrument when it comes to dealing with the problems in individuals' lives and trying to build a sharper sledgehammer is not the answer when what is needed is a scalpel.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Trump and Syria - the entire dumbass neocon package

Well, that didn't take long. Donald Trump has ditched perhaps the most sensible of the policies he was elected on - a less interventionist foreign policy - by bombing Bashar al-Assad's Russian-supported forces in Syria for their alleged use of chemical weapons. I say 'alleged' because I think it is far from proven yet whether Syrian Government forces deliberately used these weapons and, as Chris Trotter says, it seems odd that al-Assad would suddenly order their use at a time when his forces were winning the civil war and he was being accepted back into international peace talks.

Trump's order should at least have the redeeming feature of ending the ridiculous conspiracy theories about Putin controlling Trump, although the immensely deluded commentators at MSNBC seem to think the whole thing is an even more convoluted conspiracy in which Putin allowed Trump to bomb his ally Assad's forces to put the media off the scent of the original Putin-Trump election conspiracy. Occam's Razor be damned!

I have always thought a Putin-Trump conspiracy defies commonsense. The biggest on-going threat to Russia is the economic threat of low oil prices, and the main reason for the decline in oil prices in recent years is US oil and gas production from fracking. And the one person most committed to increasing America's energy independence by removing carbon emission rules, building new oil pipelines and encouraging fracking? Well, that would be Donald Trump.

The worst thing about Trump's decision to bomb Syrian forces is that it indicates the neocons have taken control of the White House again, despite the fact that Trump seemed to be the one Republican president they couldn't control. The neocons are the people from the military-industrial-political complex who love to start wars because they benefit from them - in jobs, profits and political careers - people like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Bill Kristol. Trump's recent removal of Steve Bannon (who has some unadmirable policy positions but a militaristic foreign policy is not among them) from his National Security Council signalled this shift.

I almost could have forgiven Trump his dumbass immigration and trade policies for the prospect of a more considered foreign policy, but now we're just left with the entire dumbass neocon package.

Friday, April 7, 2017

On Morality and Religion

Dennis Prager, who is an American conservative political commentator, claims in this video* that you can't have morality without God.

I consider I am a moral person and most people who know me would agree. I am an atheist and I don't rely on the Bible or any other external source for my morality, so where does my morality come from? Is it merely a desire to conform to others' ideas of morality? I am not much of a conformist, as you can probably tell from the views expressed in my blog, so that doesn't seem likely.

I am moral because I think. Reason is the basis of my morality and in fact is the real source of all human morality, not religion. It is because we perceive the world through rational eyes that we have a morality at all.

Let us take the maxim, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Jesus said this, right? Well, actually it predates Jesus and is common to many early human cultures including ancient Egypt, China and India. Thales said it in ancient Greece and Seneca in Rome. In fact, it is so universal it is known as the Golden Rule. Do we need religion to derive this principle? No, of course not. All we need is a rational mind that can conceive of the potential consequences to oneself of doing something awful to another. A little experience of life teaches us that human relations are based on reciprocity - if I act decently towards you, then it is more likely that you'll be decent to me. On the other hand, if you believe that I am evil because I don't believe in your god, the chances are that you won't treat me fairly no matter how well I treat you.

Few would dispute that the moral standards to which mankind generally adheres have improved over time. Many things that human beings accepted in the past as perfectly moral - such as slavery, the torture and killing of so-called heretics, the stoning of adulterers, etc. - have become morally repugnant in modern societies precisely because we are in an age of greater reason. In fact, all of these practices were not only condoned in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Bible exhorts them.

Prager trots out the usual facile point that Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin were atheists and were evil, as if this is proof of his argument. Actually, Hitler was a Catholic all his life and Stalin was a Russian Orthodox seminarian before he became a Communist, so they hardly support his case. He then goes on to say that it is no coincidence that it was Judeo-Christian societies that first abolished slavery. I would have thought anyone who looked to the Bible for moral guidance would realise how hypocritical it is to claim its teachings led to the end of slavery. And anyone with a sense of history wouldn't engage in a moral pissing contest in defence of religion.

I think Prager has the facts exactly reversed. If your morality comes from an external source, such as belief in a divine being who tells you what is moral and what isn't, then you have no intrinsic morality. In other words, you are amoral, if not sociopathic. Of course, even religious people use rational judgement to determine which of their faith's moral precepts they apply in their own lives. But only those who derive their morality from their own reasoned judgement can be said to be truly moral.

* H/T: Craig Biddle from The Objective Standard, who brought Prager's video to my attention, has responded in greater detail and more philosophical terms here.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Resource Bill is anathema to democracy

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the possibility of a populist leader, à la Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, coming to the fore in New Zealand politics. I said that the lack of real choice in policies between the major New Zealand parties, National and Labour, could cause New Zealanders to look for populist alternatives in this year's election, but I also said that New Zealand doesn't have the same groundswell of political division and frustration that resulted in the electoral wins for Brexit and Trump. However, I think we are seeing the rise of an issue that could be a game-changer in New Zealand politics.

New Zealanders have put up with increasingly undemocratic changes to our legal and constitutional frameworks since the 1970s, all in the name of redressing alleged historical wrongs to Maori. People of Maori descent comprise about 15% of the population of New Zealand but those who identify as Maori today often have only a small fraction of Maori ancestry. They are likely to be more of English or Scots descent as Maori, which makes their contemporary grievances all the more ridiculous - they are calling for redress for the actions of one lot of their ancestors against another lot.

The Treaty of Waitangi, signed by many Maori chiefs in 1840, and by Governor William Hobson on behalf of the Crown, made all Maori British subjects, and their descendants (by constitutional succession) New Zealand citizens. Maori today are represented in government both through their vote in general electorates and through a small number of race-based electorates. Tribal leaders, who are chosen through family links and traditional alliances, have no constitutional role in national or local governament - but that is about to change.

The Resource Legislation Amendment Bill, which may pass into law this week, grants tribal leaders the right to sit on local councils with full voting rights. This means every decision of a council in future will be determined by people who are not elected or accountable for their decisions - people who often have conflicts of interest in the matters they are deciding. Few New Zealanders realise the implications of the legislation because the government has been at pains to keep its dealings on this bill from public scrutiny. New Zealanders do not realise that every local government decision concerning their properties, livelihoods, recreation and taxes in future will be subject to the whims of unelected tribal representatives.

I believe this Bill is very wrong for several reasons. Firstly, it is racist and contrary to principles of universal suffrage to give members of any race a position of privilege in our government. Secondly, the tribal leaders do not represent even the vast majority of people of Maori descent, who live in urban areas and often do not have strong affiliations to their ancestral tribes. Thirdly, it shows a contempt for democracy and constitutional safeguards and is likely to lead to corruption.

Lawyer and former member of parliament Stephen Franks says, "So far as I can tell from the Bill there is virtually nothing to prevent power sharing agreements with iwi/hapu [i.e. tribes] from by-passing democracy and diving below the current legal safe-guards against dishonesty and self-dealing."

Former ACT Party member of parliament Rodney Hide says, "Tribalism is the worst form of economic organisation. It’s collectivist, it lacks incentive to perform, the principals can’t readily sack their agents and there’s invariably a complete lack of transparency and hence accountability. The structure works to the advantage of tribal bosses, not members."

I couldn't agree more. This is one of the most significant constitutional changes in New Zealand's history and it is being sneaked into law. Once the public realise its implications it may become the issue that drives New Zealand voters into the arms of a populist leader like Winston Peters (who is of Maori descent but opposed to race-based privilege).

I think the silent majority has had enough of the gradual erosion of democratic rights and legal equality in New Zealand and that people are ready to fight back in the same way as British and US voters did last year. The political establishment will express bewilderment just as they did in Britain and the US, but they will only have themselves to blame.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Failure of health care bill proof American Republic is alive and well

Many have seen the failure of the American Health Care Act, which has just been withdrawn because of lack of support in the US House of Representatives, as the first major test of Donald Trump's presidency. The reality is that even though Trump promised in his election campaign to repeal and replace President Obama's Affordable Care Act, the new bill was Speaker Paul Ryan's baby much more than Trump's, so its defeat probably won't cause Trump any significant political harm.

I think the bill's defeat is a victory for America for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the bill itself was universally considered to be unworkable and it certainly did not meet Trump's promise of "affordable coverage for everyone, lower deductibles and health care costs [and] better care." More importantly, it demonstrated to all those who have been painting Trump's victory as the end of the American Republic, that nothing could be further from the truth. The separation of powers is alive and well and Congress just exercised its power to cast out a proposed new law that the president supported. 

One of the great characteristics of the American system of government is that its participants do not slavishly act according to their party affiliations. Republicans may control the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Presidency, but that doesn't mean a Republican bill has an easy ride to become law. Here in New Zealand, our MPs tend to toe the party line, as dictated by the prime minister and his cabinet, far more than they do in America.

The recent decisions by the federal courts to stay Trump's immigration orders is further evidence that reports of the death of the Republic are premature. America may have its problems, but a lack of democracy and checks on power are not among them.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Wellington Mayor continues tradition of blaming markets for government failure

Wellington's mayor, Justin Lester, has blamed 'land bankers' for not building new houses on the undeveloped land they own. The two developers whom Lester has blamed must feel like Dreyfus because there are few clearer cases of blaming the victim. 

New Zealand has some of the most unaffordable housing in the world and Lester is right to identify this as a supply problem. However, the reason for it is primarily our regulatory environment and local government practices. Our Resource Management Act gives local government draconian powers to delay, stop and impose excessive costs on housing development and, in my experience, councils exercise these powers with great zeal, even to the point of deliberately ignoring the law where it favours developers.

No sane businessman would sit on assets that do not generate income when those assets could be put to productive use. Developers do not buy undeveloped land to admire it and every day they do not develop it costs them money in interest charges, rates, etc. They make money only when they sell the developed sections.

Blaming the market for government failure has become a tradition for politicians. The most grievous example was the Global Financial Crisis where bankers were blamed for creating the subprime mortgage market, which was actually mandated by US Government policy. The response from politicians is invariably more regulation, which then creates even worse market distortion and greater failure in a continuing vicious circle. Witness the fact that the US financial sector is even more exposed to high-risk financial instruments today (post Dodd-Frank) than it was at the time of the crash in 2007.

Lester's desire to penalise developers with 'targeted rates and levies' will undoubtedly have the exact opposite effect to that which he desires. It makes one wonder whether he has any knowledge of economics at all because a basic understanding of high school-level economics would tell him that increasing taxes on the supply side just pushes the price curve upwards, thereby increasing prices but decreasing supply. 

I suspect Lester is smart enough to understand this but like most politicians of his ilk, he is wilfully ignorant because he needs a scapegoat to divert attention from the failings of his council in causing the supply-side issues in new housing development.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Death of Martin McGuinness

I have a strange affinity for Irish Republicans. Perhaps it is because my grandfather fought with them during the Irish War of Independence between 1919 and 1921, or perhaps it is because I have an in-depth knowledge of the terrible history of British and English rule of Ireland. But most likely it is because I spent some time in Ireland during the 1980s when the Provisional IRA had effective control of significant parts of Northern Ireland and I met people who were almost certainly IRA members. They didn't seem like the evil people one imagines terrorists to be, although I was as appalled as anyone by the bombings at Hyde Park, Harrods and the Brighton Hotel that happened while I was living in England. I did not accept the IRA's justification for the murder of innocent people but I gained an understanding of what might drive people to commit such acts.

It was common knowledge in the Irish community that Martin McGuinness was the commander of the Provisional IRA in Derry and that he personally ordered, and perhaps participated in, many of the attacks in that city and further afield. I heard rumours that the British government, in spite of Margaret Thatcher's public statements to the contrary, was negotiating with the IRA, even back then. McGuinness was involved in those negotiations that led ultimately, under Tony Blair's government, to the Good Friday Agreement. McGuinness did some terrible things and I think it does him no credit that he never publicly owned up to his role in many terrorist incidents, but his willingness to negotiate the peace and power-sharing agreement showed he had a rational mind at least.

Someone once said that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, and with the passage of time many who would have been thought of as terrorists in their day are now considered to be heroes. The American revolutionaries were terrorists in the eyes of the British, as were those who fought in the Indian Mutiny, but no one considers them terrorists today. Events that are closer to the present time, like the attacks by Jewish groups Irgun and the Stern Gang that led to the establishment of the state of Israel, still tend to be more contentious. I think it will be a long time before McGuinness is universally considered to have been a freedom fighter, but if Western leaders like Justin Trudeau can mourn the death of a mass murderer like Fidel Castro, then anything is possible.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Apple shouldn't pay NZ taxes

A great deal of fuss has been made in the past few days about the fact that Apple Computer pays no tax in New Zealand. Green Party "co-leader" James Shaw says Apple is not paying its "fair share" on sales of $4.2 billion over 10 years in New Zealand.

I beg to differ. Leaving aside my libertarian beliefs that no one should be compelled to pay any taxes, there is a very good reason Apple pays no tax in New Zealand. Apple designs its products in California and runs its worldwide operations from there. It manufactures most of its products in China, and it runs its sales and support operations for New Zealand out of Australia (and for some services out of Ireland). There is no direct presence in this country and New Zealand doesn't add any value to its products and services. Under international taxation rules, the country where the value is added is the country in which where the revenue should be accounted for taxation purposes.

Now let's look at what value Apple provides to New Zealanders. Even James Shaw admits "I really like Apple products - they're incredibly innovative", so obviously he gets a lot of value from them. I know I do - they enable me to run my business with no administrative staff and provide me with an incredibly efficient set of tools that are worth far more to me in time saved and professional image than I pay for them. I am grateful for Apple for the innovation and reliability of its products and services and I don't think Apple owes me anything more than that.

In any event, it is not true to say that Apple pays no taxes - it paid Goods and Services Tax on those $4.2 billion worth of sales. So New Zealand is already getting something for nothing.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The possibility of a populist leader in New Zealand

This is an election year in New Zealand. We vote for our parliamentary representatives and indirectly for our prime minister and government. Under our Westminster system the executive comprises MPs from the party (or parties) with the largest number of seats in parliament. We have a particularly silly form of proportional representation where about half the MPs represent electorates but these numbers are disregarded when considering the overall makeup of parliament, which is determined by the total of the party vote. To demonstrate how this would have worked with the US presidential election, Donald Trump may have won 30 of the 50 states and 80% of the counties in America, but Hillary Clinton would have become president under our system.

The proportional representation system gives minor parties power far in excess of their support and means the major parties often cannot really implement any of the policies on which they campaigned. As a result we have had successive governments that have pursued pretty much the same middle-of-the-road policies and have seen a gradual increase in the role of the state in our lives. There is little possibility that a party with radically different policies could ever get enough support to change this gradual progressivism. This is similar to the state of affairs in most Western democracies where the slightly left-of-centre party and the slightly right-of-centre party take turns ruling with essentially the same policies. Donald Trump's election, like Brexit, was the exception, where people said to hell with the same-same and took a punt on something different.

The lack of real choice in policies between the major New Zealand parties, National and Labour, could cause New Zealanders to look for alternatives in this year's election. One of the alternatives is the New Zealand First party led by Winston Peters, a perennial politician whose fortunes have risen and fallen several times over the past four decades since he was first elected as a National Party member of parliament. Peters' political career to date reached its zenith when he was deputy prime minister in National Party Prime Minister Jim Bolger's coalition government between 1996 and 1998. He again reached the top table of New Zealand's government when he served as Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark's foreign minister between 2005 and 2008. Peters has much in common with Donald Trump with his populist appeal to disaffected voters (in Peters' case mainly the elderly) and his nationalist and anti-immigration policies are reflected in New Zealand First's name, which sounds like a ready-made cap logo. His party is rising in the polls and is currently level-pegging with the third-placed Green Party on 11% of the national vote.

We approach the forthcoming election with extra uncertainty because of the resignation of popular prime minister John Key at the end of last year. Bill English, who was Key's deputy, has less personal appeal amongst voters than Key (although I like English because he has at least the semblance of principles whereas John Key clearly had none). English has been leader of the ruling National Party before, having led it to its worst electoral defeat in 2002, gaining barely 20% of the vote against the popular Helen Clark. So while National still leads the polling with nearly half the prospective vote, the gap to Labour is narrowing and if New Zealand First continues to eat into the vote share of the major parties, Winston Peters could well end up at least holding the balance of power again. My guess is that this time around, Peters will demand even more than in previous coalitions and could end up dictating many of the new government's policies.

It is hard to see the New Zealand political landscape changing much in the short term but Trump and Brexit have taught us that things can move very quickly. New Zealand doesn't have the same groundswell of political division and frustration that existed in Britain and the United States prior to their plebiscites last year, but I think New Zealanders are complacent and significant change could catch us unawares.

To paraphrase the Chinese curse, we live in interesting times.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Hawking wants to put the fox in charge of the henhouse

Stephen Hawking is someone I most admire. He has been confined to a wheel chair since his twenties with ALS but that hasn't stopped his mind soaring to the farthest reaches of the universe to solve some of the great mysteries of science - how did it all begin, what are black holes and how do they work, and what is the nature of time and why does it run in only one direction? He is probably the most influential physicist since Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr and certainly the best known of our contemporary scientists.

Recently he has been turning his attention to scientific issues that cross over into the political arena, including the potential risk of technologies such as robotics to wipe out humanity. On the positive side, he has been urging greater exploration and eventually colonisation of Mars and other planets, but he has also been pushing the hoary old idea of global government. He sees the latter as the solution to the problem of humanity's aggressive nature but he acknowledges the risk of such a governing body becoming tyrannical. Indeed.

I think we should consider Hawking's concerns in light of the revelations of another Steven. I am reading the book, Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker, which is probably the most comprehensive treatise on the trends in human violence that has ever been written. Pinker shows that contrary to the impressions of many people today, human violence of every type has been decreasing sharply since the the Middle Ages - including war, religious and judicial violence, criminal assault and even domestic violence. It gives a very positive picture of humanity in the 21st Century and when combined with other studies that look at the very positive trends in the quality of life, prosperity and equity for humanity, it is grounds for a great deal of optimism rather than Hawking's pessimism.

One of the conclusions we can draw from Pinker's and other data is that the greatest threat to humanity does not come from the inherent violence in our nature, which for whatever reasons is decreasing, but from the propensity of human beings to look for solutions to their problems from strong leaders. It is powerful governments who represent the existential risk to humanity, not individuals. Hawking's solution is to trust a global government to keep us safe, which is simply putting all our eggs in one basket. I am not a famous physicist but I am something of a risk management expert and I can tell you that Hawking's proposal is a very foolhardy risk management strategy.

The answer to an existential risk, as any corporate investment strategist will tell you, is to diversify. In government terms that means localisation and federation, not centralisation and unification. Fortunately, this seems to be exactly what is now happening in global politics with Brexit and other bids to break down the European 'superstate', a resurgence of federalism and even calls for secession ('Calexit') in the United States, and the formation of new bilateral and multi-lateral political and trade alliances to replace the traditional transnational blocs.

Hawking is right to be concerned about the future of humanity. I, too, think we should colonise (and terraform) Mars and even Venus. This is part of a prudent risk management strategy for mankind. But I don't think we should trust strong, centralised government. This is, to use another analogy, putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Black Lives Matter leads to Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen

Identity politics is a big thing these days and no flavour of identity is bigger than race. The victimhood-mongers focus on other identities such as gender, sexuality, disability and religion, but race trumps them all. When the other victim identities are discussed, they are often combined with race (or confused with it - witness the labelling of anti-Muslim sentiment as racism) to greater effect. Nowhere is this more true than in America, where, a century and a half after 750,000 Americans died to abolish slavery, race relations remain a festering sore. The polarised political discourse there has got to the point where people of European descent are not even allowed to have opinions because those opinions are deemed to be the product of 'white privilege'. Unfortunately this form of intolerance is creeping into the conversation here in New Zealand, where any criticism of successive governments' preferential treatment of Maori is considered racism.

We are meant to accept that race is the most important determinant in someone's success or lack of it but, somewhat perversely, that the sole reason for differences in social or economic outcomes for different racial groups is discrimination. Except, of course, when those differences are in favour of the victim groups - for example, it is acceptable to say that African-Americans are better at sports such as basketball because of common physical traits but not to contend that people of Jewish descent are better at mathematics and finance because of inherited characteristics they might have.

Scientists such as Charles Murray of 'The Bell Curve' and Nicholas Wade* of 'A Troublesome Inheritance' fame have become persona non grata for publishing research suggesting that human performance in a range of areas is in part linked to genetic factors. Neither claims that race is a significant determinant in any area of human performance at an individual level and Murray's bell curves show that the performance of all races largely overlap - that there are many African-Americans who are poor at sports and Jewish people who are inept at maths. But those who criticize their books don't concern themselves with reading them.

Individual human performance in every sphere is overwhelmingly due to individual traits, most particularly the propensity to think and act rationally, rather than to any common genetic attributes. Even those individuals blessed with outstanding physical and mental abilities must work hard and focus their efforts on personal goals to reach the pinnacle of achievement in their fields. It is ridiculous to say Usain Bolt is the fastest runner or that Einstein was the greatest scientist primarily because of their race.

Racism and its close cousin tribalism are the scourge of our world, but not in the way that the victimhood-mongers would have us believe. Pre-judging people on the basis of race is foolish not only because it disadvantages the individuals that are pre-judged but also because it deprives the person making the judgement of the value that may be derived from interaction with those individuals. It is equally as foolish (and as insulting to the individuals concerned) if that discrimination is positive because it denies individual potential just as surely as if the discrimination is negative.

The Western world seems hellbent on returning to a time when people were primarily judged on their race. Whether this is well-intentioned or not, it is an anathema to classical liberal values of individual freedom and rights and is a very slippery slope that inevitably leads to greater racial conflict. Black Lives Matter leads to Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen as assuredly as night follows day.

*I reviewed Wade's book here.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The chaos of US immigration and border control

Late last year I transited through San Francisco airport on my way home from Mexico. The Mexican border officials, like the New Zealand ones, are courteous and good-humoured, characteristics that are all the more remarkable in view of the problems that nation has with drug trafficking and its own illegal immigration from Central America. When we got to San Francisco the experience was entirely different, notable by the belligerence and downright petulance of the US border officials.

The behaviour of the young, female immigration officer who processed us was like something out of Monty Python, as she huffed and tutted and otherwise behaved as if we were most-wanted criminals trying to sneak into her country. My wife made the mistake of putting her passport on the counter about two inches from the spot indicated by this American version of a Maoist Red Guard, whereupon she picked up the offending document and slammed it down on the correct spot. More of this infantile behaviour followed but we kept our composure and responded with politeness, knowing that had we given her the slightest excuse we would have been detained and probably missed our connecting flight.

President Trump's ill-conceived restrictions on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim nations has just added to the awful experience of crossing the US border. The experience of a French holocaust historian, Henry Rousso, who was detained for more than ten hours and nearly deported because an immigration official did not know the law, is just another example of the chaos that reigns at the US borders. Some good may come out of this case as we can expect the French to retaliate - when the Americans started mistreating transit passengers in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 by holding them in cramped, non-air-conditioned rooms (something I personally experienced), the French singled out Americans for similar treatment at their borders - and the US soon changed their practices.

Unfortunately for many Americans, these antics aren't confined to the border. United States Customs and Border Protection operates checkpoints as much as 100 miles inland of the border, which is a bit of pain for the residents of towns such as Arivaca in Arizona, who are subject to CBP checks every time they drive to work or drop their children off at school. These officers habitually exceed their authority and are very fond of using tasers on innocent American citizens who question their unconstitutional actions.

The attitude of bureaucrats always reflects the political environment in which they operate. A belligerent government allows belligerent bureaucrats to thrive. Give those bureaucrats too much power and they inevitably abuse it. If their power over you is absolute, such as is the case of US border officials in deciding whether you may pass or be detained, they will abuse it absolutely. It doesn't seem to matter to them whether they follow the law or not and no one in authority appears to be ready to hold them to account. I have experienced similar abuses here in New Zealand with council officials who have almost unlimited powers under the awful Resource Management Act.

Update: While writing this I read a post on Not PC's blog on the very same subject.

Update 2: It appears Trump is about to modify his hardline stance on immigration with reports today that he is looking to implement a "broad immigration overhaul that would grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants who have not committed serious crimes." Perhaps the blowhard president is learning on the job and realising that the policies he campaigned on are neither practical nor in America's interests. If he really wants to 'make America great again' he would do well to start by reigning in his Red Guards at the border.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Trump and the media

There is a war being waged in Washington between the White House and the media. The latest skirmish was the exclusion of CNN and the New York Times, amongst others, from an informal briefing at the White House last Friday. This was painted by the affronted media as an assault on the First Amendment and a signal of the death of the American republic, but (as the Washington Post pointed out in this article) it was an informal briefing of the type to which President Obama also tended only to invite sympathetic media organisations. 

The media organisations who were excluded only have themselves to blame. You cannot take such a partisan approach to reporting on an election as did the New York Times and CNN and then expect to be extended privileged access to that candidate after his successful election. The publisher of the New York Times as much as confessed to his readers after the election that their coverage had been unfair and not impartial.

This incident was quickly followed by President Trump's refusal to attend the White House Correspondent's dinner, an annual event for Washington journalists that became something of a love-in for Obama and the press. Trump's refusal to rub shoulders with a group of people whom he has accused of being overwhelmingly hostile to him suggests he has some consistency at least.

I am no fan of Donald Trump but I am even less of a fan of the mainstream media. I have written before about how the media have destroyed their credibility through increasingly partisan coverage of political issues. They no longer act as the fourth estate but rather as a fifth column, fighting behind the scenes for a left-wing political agenda. Their shrill advocacy of their political viewpoint means they are increasingly isolated from, and at odds with, the real mainstream of society. They are so overwhelmingly of a like mind in their biases that they have created an echo chamber that reverberates with their own chorus. Worst of all, they disparage as fools and bigots the very people they rely on for their revenues and their jobs whenever they perceive public opinion as against them. 

When you man the barricades for one side in a fight, you can't be upset when you find that you are no longer regarded as the honest broker. It is the media themselves who are too stupid and narrow-minded to realise they are the authors of their demise.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Islam and the West

A brief exchange on Not PC's blog has made me realise how ignorant many non-Muslims are about Islam. I wrote a comment saying that Islam has two main tenets - submission (which, of course, is what Islam actually means) and the belief that it is the one final religion for all of mankind. The gentleman who took issue with my comment said that Christianity and Judaism are equally about submission. This illustrates his ignorance about all three religions.

The central tenet of Christianity is faith, not submission - faith in God, faith that Jesus Christ was his Son (and was God at the same time) and faith that belief in Him will redeem your sins.

The central tenet of Judaism is the law, which God gave the Jewish people so that they may live righteous lives.

Christianity and Judaism emphasise the concept of free will, which is almost completely absent from Islam. Free will implies genuine moral choices. In Islam there is only the words of the book - the Koran - and you are meant to follow them without interpretation or ambivalence.

One area in which Islam is not unique is the perpetration of violence in its name. All the Abrahamic religions adhere to the Old Testament, which exhorts violence in the name of God almost to the point of tedium. Christianity at least tempers this with Christ's message of pacifism.

We often hear, usually from non-Muslims, that Islam is a religion of peace. This is perhaps the most misunderstood statement about Islam. It is true in one sense - if you submit to Allah, you will find peace. Islam is like Buddhism in this respect - its adherents seek to find inner peace through their belief. This does not mean Islam is a pacifist religion.

Islam is growing at a rate that will soon make it the biggest religion in the world and there is little doubt that it presents the biggest philosophical challenge to modern Western values since Communism. It is a mistake to regard it from a position of ignorance and prejudice but it is equally a mistake to put our heads in the sand and believe that it has the same values as classical Western liberalism.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The truth is out on climate science

The subject of anthropogenic (i.e. man-made) global warming (AGW) is what prompted me to start blogging and many of my posts have dealt with it. Anyone who writes or speaks critically about this topic knows that it takes a thick skin to do so because, as I discovered early on, the debate very quickly becomes ad hominem. Over the years I have maintained my position in spite (or perhaps because) of some pretty nasty personal attacks. My view, which is based on having read literally hundreds of scientific papers on the subject, is that the science indicates mankind's role in rising global temperatures is minimal. If you want to read in more detail about my conclusions, I summarised them about a year ago in this post.

I am not a scientist but I studied statistics and applied maths at university and climate science is primarily a subject of numbers, so when I started to delve into the science I found I had a good understanding of the analysis behind the computer models that climate scientists rely on for their predictions. I became particularly concerned by the so-called 'hockey stick' that purported to show a straight line of stable temperatures over the last 1,000 years and then a sudden uptick in temperatures in the 20th Century, and I could see that it was based on highly flawed data collection and analysis methods. It is now generally accepted in the scientific community that the graph is garbage.

I was encouraged by the release of the 'Climategate' emails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit that showed scientists colluding to hide data, undermine the peer review process and discredit other scientists who did not support the so-called consensus. But with some pretty effective obfuscation by supporters in the mainstream media (who focused on the 'hacking' of the information rather than the content it revealed), the controversy died down. There have been other revelations of unscientific behaviour and methods amongst the climate science community but none that have severely dented the credibility of the AGW theory - until now.

It has been revealed that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the main US Government organisation that provides climate data for policy-making, deliberately exaggerated critical data in support of Barack Obama's diplomatic efforts to reach an agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015. The NOAA data was critical to the Paris accord because it purported to show that the so-called pause in global temperatures since 1997 did not exist. Predictions of climate disaster are based on contentious theories of 'feedback' effects whereby temperature rises are compounded as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases. Mankind's carbon emissions have continued to increase significantly over the period since 1997 but if temperatures have not increased proportionately then that gives credence to the alternative theory that rising CO2 levels have a diminishing, not increasing, effect on temperatures. Retired NOAA scientist John Bates told the Daily Mail that NOAA cooked the data to hide the pause with the intent of influencing the Paris conference outcome.

This may be the final nail in the coffin of the credibility of the AGW theory. The revelations come at an opportune (or inopportune, depending on your view) time with an avowed sceptic in the White House and critics of AGW in senior cabinet positions. Trump had promised to kill the Paris agreement and AGW-related regulatory impediments to fossil fuel exploitation before these revelations came to light and this will give strength to his case.

As Shakespeare said, at the length truth will out, and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to see the entire AGW scientific and policy edifice finally crumbling as the lies and fraud on which it is built are finally exposed.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Milo, Berkeley and Fascism

Last week Milo Yiannopoulos was due to speak at University of California, Berkeley, as one of many speaking engagements on his 'Dangerous Faggot' (really!) tour of academic institutions that started during the 2016 presidential election campaign. Yiannopoulos is a British journalist and a senior editor with Breitbart News, the conservative news and opinion website that was run by Steve Bannon, who is now Assistant and Chief Strategist to President Trump. As the title of his speaking tour suggests, Yiannopoulos is gay and his views are considered by some people to be dangerous. His speaking engagements have attracted criticism and protest but none until now on the scale of what happened at Berkeley, where the protest became violent with masked, black-suited agitators smashing windows, tearing down crowd barriers, starting fires and throwing Molotov cocktails.

Yiannopolous burst on to the United States' political landscape last year like some British actors break into Hollywood - sort of a political version of Tom Hiddleston. He was a minor blogger specialising in technology and computer gaming (and was best known then for his articles on the 'Gamergate' controversy), before moving to America and latching onto the Trump campaign. The fact that he is gay, English, and highly articulate are all factors in his rise to prominence but undoubtedly it is his support for Trump that is the most significant reason why people started paying attention (after all, 'Gays for Trump' was a somewhat unexpected adjunct to the campaign of a Republican presidential candidate).

I have listened to several of Yiannopoulos's podcasts and I found it difficult to determine exactly what he believes because everything he says is delivered in a highly satirical manner. He has been accused of being homophobic, racist, sexist and Islamophobic, however, as a gay man who claims to prefer black men (at least sexually), it seems unlikely that he is guilty of the first two of these crimes. Women, or more precisely lesbians, are the target of much of his humour, but again he doesn't appear to be seriously misogynistic and the fact that young women are some of his most ardent supporters bears this out. He is certainly strongly critical of Islamic fundamentalism and he is a supporter of Trump's immigration ban, but in those views he is no more extreme than more mainstream conservative commentators like Mark Steyn and Douglas Murray.

In any event, even if he is seriously homophobic, racist, sexist and Islamophobic, that doesn't mean he doesn't have a right to express his views when he is invited to do so by student groups on American campuses. After all, the right to free speech is not there just to protect those whose views everyone agrees with.

Yiannopolous has been described, inevitably, as Fascist, but no behaviour seems so Fascist as that of the uniformed agitators who took over the Berkeley campus last week.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Waitangi Day

It is Waitangi Day, which, for overseas readers, is sort of like New Zealand's Independence Day. I say 'sort of like' because, having celebrated July 4th in America, I can tell you Waitangi Day is really nothing at all like Independence Day. The national day in the United States is universally celebrated and an opportunity for Americans to express pride in their nation and unity in being Americans, but in New Zealand it is a day of protest and division. Almost no one here feels national pride on Waitangi Day - if there is a day when those feelings come to the fore it is Anzac Day, which is our Memorial Day, although on that day pride is mixed with sadness at the sacrifices of our countrymen in war.

The problem with Waitangi Day is that it has become all about Maori grievances and the separatist politics of Maori activists. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed by Governor William Hobson on behalf of the Queen and by many Maori chiefs in the place it was named after on this day on 1840, but in recent years official ceremonies at Waitangi have been marred by protests and violence. Successive prime ministers have been treated with contempt by local Maori, with the result that Prime Minister Bill English has refused to attend the 'celebrations' there this year.

Many of the Treaty of Waitangi grievances are, in my view, baseless. The Treaty is a very short and simple document with three articles that recorded the following:
1) Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty to the British Crown
2) Maori tribes, chiefs, families and individuals were guaranteed their existing property rights
3) It made all Maori British subjects.

Articles 1 and 3 effectively abolished Maori tribal government and made Maori individually British citizens, but ironically the Treaty has been interpreted in recent years to bring about a return to the tribal rule that it ended. I think it is clear that the Treaty gives no superior political rights to any tribal leaders today and claims that it established some sort of on-going 'partnership' between tribal political entities and the government of today are entirely spurious. There is nothing in the Treaty that gives legitimacy to current tribal leaders who claim to represent people of Maori descent - unless they are elected to our contemporary democratic institutions, in which case they represent all New Zealanders, not just those of Maori descent.

Governor Hobson said, after the initial signing of the Treaty on 6th February 1840, "now we are one people." It would be nice if that ideal was recognised on this day rather than it being seen as yet another opportunity to promote an entirely bogus separatism and seemingly irreconcilable grievances.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

How do we assess Trump?

Donald Trump has been president for less than two weeks and people are already calling for his impeachment. The call is precipitate to say the least, but it was about this time in Barack Obama's presidency that he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize so it is no more of a rush to judgement than that. The timing is perhaps understandable given the extraordinary pace that Trump has set since assuming office on January 20th. I guess his opponents realise that if they leave the impeachment too long, there may not be a Constitution under which to impeach him!

Among the blitzkrieg of policy announcements and executive orders from Trump during his first week and a half in office we can count:

  • an order to “secure the southern border of the United States through the immediate construction of a physical wall”
  • the announcement of the US withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement
  • an immediate federal hiring freeze
  • an immediate freeze on new regulations
  • the reinstatement of George W. Bush's ban on US foreign aid to international organisations that "promote abortion"
  • the announcement of a new system to fast-track infrastructure projects
  • a call for a “major investigation” into voter fraud during the last election
  • advancing plans for the Keystone and Dakota pipelines
  • an order blocking all immigration from Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan for 120 days and from Syria indefinitely
  • an order withholding federal funds to cities that do not comply with federal immigration laws (i.e. that are 'sanctuary cities')
  • an order that allows agencies to eliminate Affordable Care Act taxes and requirements
  • a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May
  • the sacking of Acting US Attorney-General, Sally Yates.

As one wag put it, what the hell were all the other presidents doing during their first few days in office? You've got to hand it to Trump, he is not shy of wielding his presidential powers. I am sure he realises that frustration with politicians not following through on their promises is precisely one of the reasons people voted for him. But when it comes to political decision-making, quantity definitely does not equate to quality.

The immigration order has received the most comment internationally and I agree with most of the criticism in that it is short-sighted, discriminatory, ineffective and most likely to hurt the United States itself by costing American society far more than the impacts of the risks it attempts to address.

On the other hand some of what of Trump has already put into action, such as his resurrection of the Keystone pipeline - the first step in his promises on energy policy and climate change - has my support. It is expected that he will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and refocus the US Environmental Protection Agency on genuinely protecting the environment rather than being, as it is currently, an end run around the legal and constitutional barriers to Obama's global warming evangelism (and if you want to know more about this, I suggest you watch this video of a press conference by Trump's EPA transition chief, Myron Ebell).

So how do we judge Trump from a libertarian perspective? Do two environmental policy reforms outweigh one discriminatory immigration policy, or is it a case of dog-shit yoghurt where the bad contaminates all of the good? I think that overall Trump will not be good for the cause of freedom. This will be particularly true once the inevitable electoral backlash results in a swing back to the Democrats, who are likely to throw out any good policies Trump may have implemented and deal out more of their own bad medicine.

UPDATE: John Stossel describes the libertarian dilemma about Trump better than I do in this article, quoting Robert Higgs, who says "Trump talks about many things...but...there is one topic that he never mentions, and that is freedom". So true.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Trump and the Left-Right Divide

Recently I completed a survey that evaluated the political views of New Zealanders and matched them to the policies of the main political parties. My views, perhaps unsurprisingly, most closely matched those of the (relatively) libertarian ACT Party, but it was the left-leaning, environmentalist Green Party that was my second closest match. I wasn't surprised at the latter as the Greens are socially liberal - supporting decriminalisation of soft drugs, equal standing before the law for gay couples and greater protection for civil rights - all of which are in line with my own views.

This got me thinking about the traditional left-right divide, a dichotomy that always frustrates me because I don't see myself as belonging to either side. Too often people like me with classical liberal views are characterised as right-wing along with others who hold quite statist and authoritarian views, such as Donald Trump.

There have been attempts to build more complex models such as the Political Compass, which has two dimensions with an economic and a social scale, as shown below.

This matrix allows a more detailed representation of political views but in my view it still does not provide an completely accurate picture. For example, it puts Hitler at the very top of the social scale but in the middle of the economic scale, and Stalin on very left of the economic scale, whereas I see their Fascist and Communist philosophies as very similar in every respect. It is one of the great myths about Fascism that it allowed economic freedom. In Nazi Germany and Mussolini's Italy, private companies were permitted to operate only under the strict control of the state and only then when they served the state's interests. Thus, many companies were forced to move production capacity to armaments manufacture rather than the products their owners would have preferred to produce. That is hardly economic freedom.

The chart below shows the positions of various historical figures.
So where do I fit on the matrix? Here is my position:

What about Donald Trump? The Political Compass website assessed the US presidential election candidates as follows:

Trump is quite far up the social axis towards authoritarianism, as is to be expected, but perhaps not as far to the left of the economic scale as I would have thought. This is probably due to a bias in the framing of the questions that equates crony capitalism with economic freedom, which is essentially the same problem that places Hitler in the middle of the economic axis, as noted above. The closest of the historical figures on the chart to Trump is Margaret Thatcher, although I think Thatcher was significantly more economically liberal (and perhaps more socially conservative) than Trump.

Trump is the man the left-wing loves to hate but in reality his policies have far more in common with the views of those who describe themselves as 'lefties' than they do with my philosophical beliefs. It is ironic that Trump's first significant executive order was to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, an action he completed as people were marching in protest against his election. Many of those who were protesting were undoubtedly the same people who had protested against the TPP. It is revealing that in the above chart Hillary Clinton is further to the right economically than Trump - again something many of her supporters would be surprised to see.

I think there is really only one axis when it comes to political beliefs - authoritarian vs. liberal - and anyone who claims they can be at one end of the axis on social matters and the other end on economic matters is deluding themselves. The economist Milton Friedman (whose views are shown in the second chart above) said that a country could have economic freedom without political freedom, but not the reverse. I disagree - freedom is freedom, and economic freedom without social or political freedom, or vice-versa, is contradictory and unsustainable - but that is probably a subject for another blog post.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Life in the 'Neoliberal' Era

One of the most delightful Twitter posts that caught my attention in the pre-Christmas period was Johan Norberg's 'progress advent calendar' showing 24 indicators that demonstrate how much life has improved for human beings over the industrial era. My favourites were Day 2: Famine deaths have been reduced by 98% in 100 years, even though world population grew fourfold; and 15: The homicide rate has been reduced by half since the 1980s, and by 98% since the 15th century.

Norberg has continued to tweet good news since Christmas and today one that particularly tickled me was this graph of what has happened in what many left-wing commentators (such as this one) disparagingly call the era of 'neoliberalism'. Clearly, this neoliberalism is a pretty good thing.

The left survives on painting the world as a dreadful place that is getting worse by the year. They are the modern doomsayers, the equivalent of those sad religionists who used to walk around with sandwich boards saying, "the end of the world is nigh." This is no more so than when they are talking about the environment, which has replaced class struggle as the touchstone for political orthodoxy. Norberg even addresses this, pointing out that farm productivity since 1961 saved 3 billion hectares from becoming farmland - the size of USA, Canada and China, and that oil spilt in our oceans has been reduced by 99% since 1970.

He has a wonderful way of putting things in perspective. In response to Oxfam's recent statement that 8 people are richer than 3.6 billion, he says, "So? My daughter, who has $20, is richer than 2 billion. So the problem is poverty, not inequality." Of course, this is not mathematically kosher, but we get the point.

We need more people like Johan Norberg. The doomsayers dominate the media and many of their claims are never challenged. The facts tell us that life in the so-called neoliberal era is better in so many ways than ever before in human history. The more people point this out, the less traction the leftwing doomsayers will get in the contest of political wills.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Shame on my country for UN vote on Israel

I am opposed to many of the policies of the current and previous New Zealand governments, but I temper that opposition with the knowledge that here in New Zealand we have a reasonable compromise between the lust for power of statists on the left and right of the political spectrum and my philosophical belief in limited government whose sole function is to uphold individual rights. Hence I do not often write on political issues in my own country. However, there is one thing the New Zealand Government did in the last days of 2016 that utterly disgusts me and to which I must voice my opposition in the strongest terms - its sponsorship of a UN Security Council resolution condemning the state of Israel for its continued occupation of the so-called Palestinian territories.

I have written before about my views on Israel and to re-iterate, I support Israel's right to exist, not because I am a Zionist - as an atheist, I do not buy into the Zionist belief in a God-given right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel - but because Israel is a relatively free, rights-respecting, democratic nation whose people have the right to self-determination just like any other people on Earth. Israel is without doubt the most liberal and tolerant country in the Middle East, not just for Jews but also for Israeli Arabs who make up about 25% of the population, and for women, gays, Christians and other minorities.

It may surprise most readers to learn that Israel has always supported the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside its own territory. Even Benjamin Netanyahu, portrayed by the Obama administration and in the Western media as an intractable opponent of Palestinian self-determination, has repeatedly stated his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel does not want Palestinian territory for itself but wants to live in peace with its neighbours; however, it is not going to concede the territory it occupied during the1967 Six-Day War unless it is assured that it will not be used to launch attacks on its civilian population. Given that the Hamas regime in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon (all territories Israel previously has occupied but handed back) have continued to launch attacks on Israeli civilian targets, it is hardly surprising that Israel refuses to give up further occupied territory. There are certainly some extremists in Israel that want to expand the boundaries of the Jewish state but the overwhelming political consensus is for a two-state solution along the lines of the original partition agreed by the United Nations in 1947.

The United Nations has become so biased and hypocritical in its resolutions against Israel that its outgoing secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, felt moved to comment on this before he left office in December, saying, "Decades of political maneuvering have created a disproportionate number of resolutions, reports and committees against Israel." The Israeli ambassador to the UN, commenting on Ban Ki-moon's statement, pointed out that the organisation has passed 223 resolutions condemning Israel but only eight against the Syrian regime, which has massacred hundreds of thousands of its own citizens over the past six years. How many times has the UN voted to condemn the genocidal Sudanese regime? Zero. What about Saudi Arabia, which treats the female half of its population as virtual slaves and executes anyone who renounces its extremist state religion? Zero - in fact the UN has just co-opted Saudi Arabia to its human rights council! This is the disgusting political farce in which New Zealand has chosen to play a key role with its sponsorship of the UN vote.

I am ashamed that New Zealand, one of the first countries to recognise the state of Israel and one of those that voted to admit it to the United Nations in 1949, has cast its lot with those who choose to single out Israel and turn it into an international pariah, a status it most certainly does not deserve, while ignoring the appalling crimes against humanity of many of its neighbours.