Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Censor's decision on video game is pure puritanism

We live in a time when we are seeing the erosion of freedoms that were only recently won. The freedom to read and watch the things we want, whether for education, entertainment or information, is fundamental to a free society. Governments know that by controlling what we read, listen to and watch, they can more easily control our actions. This is the real reason why in so many Western nations governments established monopolistic state broadcasting organisations such as the BBC. It is also why they have always been very ready to engage in censorship.

Censorship has been used by governments since time immemorial as a tool to guard against public disorder or as a means to enforce official views of morality. In modern times censorship has waxed and waned, with the British Crown abandoning its historical licensing of the press in the late 17th Century and the newly-minted United States including press freedom in the Bill of Rights in 1789. Of course successive governments in those countries and others continued to use censorship to control what people could read in newspapers, books, magazines - and even what they could see on the stage - and censorship reached its zenith (or nadir, it you like) in the 20th Century under Fascism and Communism. Western countries also used the world wars as an excuse to introduce draconian censorship such as Woodrow Wilson's Sedition Act, which extended the Espionage Act of 1917 to cover speech and opinion that cast the government or the war effort in a negative light. (Incidentally, the latter was seldom used by any government until the Obama administration, which used it on seven occasions to charge whistleblowers such as Bradley [Chelsea] Manning and Edward Snowden.)

After World War II we saw a relaxation of all forms of censorship, particularly for moral purposes. The unsuccessful prosecution of Penguin Books under the Obscene Publications Act for the publication of Lady's Chatterley's Lover was the last use of that law to ban a mainstream work of fiction. Not that the prurient didn't still try to control what we were reading and watching, with prominent morals campaigners such as Mary Whitehouse in Britain and Patricia Bartlett in New Zealand continuing to push for much greater censorship. I remember when I was a child films such as A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango in Paris receiving very restrictive ratings from the New Zealand censors, and entertainment industry self-censoring almost any depiction of homosexual relationships or any other 'abnormal' sexual behaviour in films and on television. I can recall the first time a same-sex romantic kiss was shown on network television here and in the United States - on the TV show LA Law in the early 1990s.

Unfortunately we appear to be regressing into puritanism again. The latest example is the decision by New Zealand's Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) to ban a Japanese video game that depicts sex with teenage girls and sexual violence. I should point out that the game is in the style of a cartoon, so it doesn't show real people being subject to anything. The censor pompously claims that "there is a strong likelihood of injury to the public good, including to adults from the trivialisation and normalisation of such behaviour". 

Really, Mr (or Ms) Censor? What do you think we are, imbeciles? Is this video really any more likely to lead to such behaviour in the real world than, say, Grand Theft Auto is likely to led to an outbreak of violent car thefts amongst nerdy college kids? Numerous recent studies (see examples herehere, here and here) have shown that the OFLC's claims are bunkum and far from causing "normalisation of such behaviour", those who play video games are actually less likely to display aggressive behaviour of any sort.

So what is the real reason for banning the game? It is that the censors (and those who lay the complaints that the censors act on) don't like the idea of people playing such games. They find the thought of it disgusting - the objectionable nature of it is entirely in their own minds. In a word, it is puritanism. H L Mencken said that puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy, and this aptly describes the attitude shown in this decision.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why voluntary taxation isn't a crazy idea

Taxation is theft. This saying is credited to many great thinkers such as Lysander Spooner, Murray Rothbard and Walter Williams. It is really axiomatic because taxation involves the taking of something that clearly belongs to another and it always involves force, extortion or subterfuge. In fact almost everyone who supports the idea of taxation argues from this axiomatic position - they do not seek to deny the larcenous nature of it but rather seek to justify the larceny.

I oppose taxation because I oppose the initiation of force in human relations and I make no exception for the state. I accept that individual citizens delegate the protection of their rights to the state but I do not accept that the state ever needs to initiate the use of force to carry out this role as the protector of rights*. Taxation requires the state to threaten and use violence against citizens who have no intention of committing violence themselves - and without the threat and use of arrest and imprisonment, the tax system would fall apart.

I often ask people who argue in support of taxation why, if they believe it is fair and moral, does it need to be backed with the threat of violence? They usually reply that while they would be prepared to voluntarily contribute to social goods, no one else would. That is, of course, a pretty misanthropic view of the world (and, in my experience, a fairly typical attitude amongst those who profess to be altruistic).

So how would we fund the state without taxation? The alternative is a system of voluntary contributions, similar to that in Ancient Greece, which they called liturgy (the use of the term in church services came from the fact that it was at these services that parishioners made voluntary contributions). The liturgical system worked well, funding the great buildings, institutions, festivals and even wars of the Athenian state. It was highly progressive, with the burden falling more heavily on the richest in society than in any modern state. A strong sense of public obligation amongst the wealthy, and a clever mechanism called antidosis, ensured that few escaped paying their fair share. 

The world is becoming a less violent, more rights-respecting place and the apogee of this trend is a society that rejects the initiation of force in all human interactions. I believe there will come a time when involuntary taxation is considered to be a type of slavery and no longer a necessary part of human society. That will be a very great day for human dignity.

* Note that I do not consider action to prevent the imminent use of violence, such as a policeman arresting someone who is about to stab you, to be the initiation of force. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

No smoke, no fire in Trump investigation

The media has been in a feeding frenzy ever since Donald Trump was elected over his supposed ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin, with the implication that Russian agents subverted the 2016 election to get their man Trump elected. I have expressed scepticism (here and here) about this story because I could not see how it benefited Russia to have Trump elected.

Last week finally we got to hear former FBI Director James Comey's testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on the investigation into the matter and if you discard the ongoing media hype and the political grandstanding of the committee members, it absolutely bears out my scepticism. I have read through the hours of testimony and so that you don't have to, I have listed the key questions and Comey's answers below. The questioners are senators Richard Burr, the chair of the committee, and James Risch and Marco Rubio - all Republicans.

  • BURR: Are you confident that no votes cast in the 2016 presidential election were altered?
  • COMEY: I’m confident. By the time — when I left as director, I had seen no indication of that whatsoever.
  • BURR: Director Comey, did the president at any time ask you to stop the FBI investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. elections?
  • COMEY: Not to my understanding, no.
  • BURR: Did any individual working for this administration, including the Justice Department, ask you to stop the Russian investigation?
  • COMEY: No.
  • RISCH: ...while you were director, the president of the United States was not under investigation. Is that a fair statement?
  • COMEY: That’s correct.
  • RISCH: You talked with us shortly after February 14th, when the New York Times wrote an article that suggested that the Trump campaign was colluding with the the American people can understand this, that report by the New York Times was not true. Is that a fair statement?
  • COMEY: In the main, it was not true.
  • RISCH: I want to drill right the most recent dust-up regarding allegations that the president of the United States obstructed justice... He did not direct you to let [the Flynn investigation] go?
  • COMEY: Not in his words, no.
  • RISCH: He did not order you to let it go?
  • COMEY: Again, those words are not an order.
  • RUBIO: In essence, the president agreed with your statement that it would be great if we could have an investigation, all the facts came out and we found nothing. So he agreed that that would be ideal, but this cloud is still messing up my ability to do the rest of my agenda. Is that an accurate assessment of...
  • COMEY: Yes, sir. He actually went farther than that. He — he said, “And if some of my satellites did something wrong, it’d be good to find that out.”
  • RUBIO: Well, that’s the second part, and that is the satellites. He said, “If one of my satellites” — I imagine, by that, he meant some of the other people surrounding his campaign — “did something wrong, it would be great to know that, as well”?
  • COMEY: Yes, sir. That’s what he said.
Comey mostly declined to answer questions about Michael Flynn, the short-lived National Security Advisor whom Trump fired after discovering he lied about his ties to the Russian Government, because that case is still the subject of an on-going investigation. This suggests that matter is the only investigation into any of the current or former members of the Trump administration that has any substance.

So, will this mean the end of the media campaign to paint Trump as a Manchurian Candidate? I doubt it, and even if it is, the media will just manufacture another set of false accusations to undermine Trump and his administration. In a Western liberal democracy, and under President Donald Trump, they have the freedom to say whatever they please. But we don't have to listen.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Prosecution of property co will make it worse for renters

New Zealand is frequently held up as a paragon of freedom and I guess it is in comparison with many other countries, but I think being top of a sinking pack is not something of which to be especially proud. Every Western nation is seeing an erosion of rights we take for granted - to free speech, privacy, due process - and New Zealand is no exception. The trend is particularly obvious in the commercial sphere where it seems we have moved to a situation where everything is illegal unless the government gives you permission to do it, a reversal of the principles on which our English system of law has been based since pre-Conquest times.

The latest signal case is the prosecution of Wellington commercial landlord, PrimeProperty, for letting a family live in one of its office buildings. It is not obvious from the news reports why this was a problem, particularly in view of the fact that many if not most Wellington office buildings now have some residential use. The reports say that the prosecution was for 'putting lives at risk' - a reference to the fact that the building was damaged in last November's Magnitude 7.8 earthquake and a decision has since been made to demolish it. However, no one was injured in the earthquake and the building in question stood up sufficiently well to enable the family in question to safely evacuate.

The structural requirements for residential properties are actually less onerous than for a commercial property, and there are buildings in Wellington that have been cleared of commercial tenants since the earthquake that are still being used for residential accomodation (presumably with the blessing of the bureaucrats), so no one can seriously claim that housing people in commercial buildings is placing them in any greater risk. The most heinous factor in this case seems to be that the landlord did not have the bureaucrats' permission.

My business is a tenant of PrimeProperty. I find them to be an excellent landlord. Their rents are reasonable, they provide excellent service, and the building I am in is very safe. The owner of PrimeProperty says he allowed the family to occupy the space in his building at a low rental as a favour, and I believe him. Presenting the family as victims of reckless endangerment is an inversion of the truth - they were 'victims' only of Aharoni's generosity and the crime was only of bureaucratic non-compliance. The prosecution, like so many these days, was to justify the unnecessary bureaucratic interference rather than to keep tenants safe.

A woman from an organisation named Wellington Renters United, of which I have never heard, claims that "if it weren't for the utter lack of affordable housing in the city, this situation is unlikely to have occurred in the first place." This comment demonstrates a typical ignorance of economics from many who advocate on behalf of those on low incomes. The truth is that if it weren't for the plethora of unnecessary regulations in the property market, and the high costs of of developers and landlords complying with them, there would be a lot more rental accomodation available in the city and the competition would drive rents down to more affordable levels. This prosecution will only make the situation worse.

Friday, June 2, 2017

No, Hillary, you lost it all on your own

Hillary Clinton gave an interview at the Code Conference this week in which she blamed everyone under the sun for her election loss - the Russians, Wikileaks, Macedonian fake news sites, a British data mining company, the dumb American electorate - in other words, everyone but herself. Her interview was cringe-inducing. This woman has lost her grasp of reality and if nothing else, it proves why she should never have been president. Has she no self-awareness at all? 

I have argued in an earlier post that it was not in the interests of Russia to have Donald Trump elected president of the United States, but if they did try to influence the election, they didn't do a very good job of it. A Stanford University study has shown that fake news probably had no effect on voters intentions. Even Hillary Clinton herself admits in the interview that the emails of DNC Chairman John Podesta's that were dumped by Wikileaks were 'anodyne to boredom' (sic). 

Hillary lost because of herself. She was a stinker of a candidate - an inarticulate, boring, elitist politician who has always had a whiff of corruption around her. She had no credible policy positions, having changed her stripes so often - on free trade, gay rights, health care and foreign policy amongst others - that two-thirds of Americans said they didn't trust her during the election campaign. She had the full support of the legendary Democratic Party electoral machine and the endorsement of almost every major media outlet, political commentator and celebrity in the country.

Trump had almost no support from the mainstream media and commentariat, and he didn't even have the unequivocal support of his own party. He won because he was (in the words of Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson) 'pure message'. You mightn't have liked his message, but you have to admit he stuck to it - on immigration, trade, climate change, etc. He bypassed the mainstream media through his use of social media and his hugely-popular rallies all over the country, to communicate that message directly to the electorate, and enough of the electorate in enough states liked enough of what they heard to give him 57% of the electoral college, 60% of the states, and 80% of the counties. And he worked harder than Clinton, doing twice as many campaign events as Clinton.

No one likes a sore loser and Clinton is particularly pathetic with her 'I was robbed' whining. Her political career is over and it is time she stepped aside and let the Democratic Party refocus and rebuild, and to be the responsible opposition party that America needs in the Trump era.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Truth in the 21st Century

There has been much made of 'fake news' recently and it is certainly true that we live in an era where there is a Newspeak-like inversion - truth is lies and lies are truth. However, the claims about what is fake news are themselves inverted with the accusations coming mostly from those who are greatest purveyors of fake news - the left-leaning mainstream media.

The fake news phenomenon is just the latest iteration of a culture war that has its origins in Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci's ideas about cultural hegemony. Gramsci believed there was no reality outside of human experience and he believed that only way to establish a Marxist world order was to undermine the existing cultural institutions and to impose a new reality that was conducive to Marxian thought. He cited the Catholic Church as an example of an institution that had so dominated European society that it had defined the way people perceived reality.

This is what George Orwell imagined so well in his novel 1984. The government in that story developed propaganda into such a science that it could change recorded history and nobody could imagine a world where the propaganda wasn't true. The aim was to make people incapable of questioning the apparent reality, such as 'we have always been at war with Eurasia', because every trace of evidence that it wasn't true has been erased. The fake news becomes reality.

We have seen this is in real life with the 97% scientific consensus on climate change. Hardly anyone knows where that claim came from (it was a study by Cook et al, which was been thoroughly debunked) and yet it has gained such currency that it doesn't matter that no one can cite the source and no one questions it. This is classic Gramsci - it is irrelevant that the claim is false because there is no objectively true or false state, and in any event established science is simply part of the cultural hegemony of capitalism. Impose a new cultural hegemony and, hey presto, whatever you want to claim can become true!

Of course there is an objective reality - one plus one does equal two, the Earth does orbit the Sun, and Donald Trump is the duly-elected president of the United States. No one has yet proved the Catholic Church's doctrine of the transubstantiation to be true, so that is not objective reality, however much the faithful might believe it to be so. Neither is much of what passes for news in the mainstream media, such as a rape crisis in US universities, an increase in racial violence under Trump, or that recent terrorist attacks have nothing to do with Islam.

The fact that Gramsci's philosophy is nonsense does not diminish how dangerous it is. It underpins so much of the left-wing's influence on accepted thought in modern Western societies and if it is not understood, it cannot be effectively opposed. The good news is that voters around the world seem to be pretty good at distilling reality from the fake news and making electoral choices in their own interests.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The problem isn't Islam, it is us.

Another day, another terrorist attack, this time at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. I have the deepest sympathy for those who have lost loved ones and others who will have to nurse broken and maimed bodies back into some semblance of a normal life. 

The Islamic State has claimed credit for the bombing, which was carried out by a 'Briton of Libyan descent', but unlike others I am not going to blame the Islamic faith, even though I have written before about my concerns about the tenets of that religion. The fact that so many of these terrorists are home-grown, often second or third generation descendants of immigrants who came to the West in search of a better life, should tell us something about the roots of the violence. These killers are not the advance guard of an external enemy, they are fifth columnists who want to destroy their own societies from within. The problem is not Islam, the problem is us.

I believe we in the West have incited this wave of Islamic terrorism in our midst at least in part because we have become cringing apologists for our own way of life. We teach our children that Western nations are the cause of every grievance of non-Western people all over the world. We maintain we were responsible for slavery, even though slavery was a universal fact of pre-Enlightenment human society and it was Britain that led the world in stopping the slave trade. We maintain we are racists and misogynists, despite the fact that we have built our modern societies on equal rights for all and have emancipated minorities throughout the world. We maintain that we entrench inequality, despite the fact that it is the Western values of free enterprise, property rights and the rule of law that are responsible for the vast majority of the world's population being lifted out of poverty over the last century.

A few days ago I listened to an excellent interview by Mark Steyn of Hollywood screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd that shed some light on the nature of the problem. Chetwynd served in the Black Watch regiment of the Canadian Army before going on to write dozens of scripts for films and television series and he talked about Hollywood's need to internalise the enemy. Thus, Tom Clancy's novel The Sum of All Fears, which was about Palestinian terrorists getting hold of an atomic weapon, became a film in which the bad guys were neo-Nazis. If you are watching the current Netflix series, Designated Survivor, you'll see a similar transformation. Hollywood is a magnifying lens for our culture and the fact that it always makes us the bad guys simply reflects our societal self-hatred.

If we keep telling ourselves that our society is the root of all the world's evil, is it any wonder that a few of the children and grandchildren of those to whom we are supposed to have done evil will nurture those grievances to the point where they want to destroy us? If we don't believe our society is worth defending, how can we possibly expect them to value it?

I don't think I have ever listened to an Ariana Grande song and I dare say I would find her music a little too saccharine for my tastes, but her concerts are very much part of the culture I value and want to defend. She would never be allowed on a stage in Riyadh or Khartoum and that is an indictment of those societies, not ours. The fact that millions of people from Islamic nations want to come and live in our countries, but not the reverse, is all the proof we need that our society is better than theirs. 

We need to stand up and defend Western society and values. We need to say that Islamic State and the like will never drag us down to their level and will never defeat us. Doing so won't necessarily stop the terrorist attacks, but at least it will make the battle lines clear and people will know what we are paying the price of terrorist attacks to defend. And it might just help a few of those second and third generation potential terrorists figure out who are really the good guys.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Climate of Change

It looks increasingly like Donald Trump will withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord and in my opinion that will be a very good thing. I have written numerous times on this blog about anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) global warming but will restate my conclusions and some of the evidence below to explain why I support Trump's position on climate change.

1. The earth has been warming since the 1600s, when we experienced what is known as the Little Ice Age, and has warmed about 0.85ºC since the mid-19th Century. Temperatures today are similar to those in what is known at the Medieval Warm Period, as shown in the following temperature reconstruction graph.

Reconstructed global temperature past 2,000 years (Loehe and UKMO data)

2. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. It makes the Earth habitable for life, and life would not exist on Earth if there was no CO2 in the atmosphere. An increase in atmospheric CO2, all other things being equal, would be expected to lead to an increase in average global temperatures but with a diminishing effect (the physics behind this is explained in the "Into the Laboratory" section of this article). 

3. Mankind's carbon emissions, mostly generated through the burning of fossil fuels, contribute to the CO2 in the atmosphere. The exact extent of mankind's contribution to the increase in CO2 is unknown because we don't know the net natural contribution, but in recent years mankind's total emissions has been roughly equal to the increase in CO2 so many scientists just assume that human emissions account for all of the increase. If this was true then CO2 levels would have been constant prior to the development of human civilisation, which is patently not true as the following graph shows.

Reconstructed atmospheric CO2 levels (100PPM) from various sources

4. Carbon dioxide is NOT a pollutant. To claim that is to say that all life on Earth pollutes the environment merely by living, which is patently ridiculous. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from around 250ppm to 400ppm since the 18th Century but current CO2 levels are not dangerous. In fact, we are still only a little above the minimum levels of atmospheric CO2 necessary to sustain life on Earth and scientists now accept that rising CO2 levels have led to increased greening of the world, including a net increase in rainforest and a receding Sahara Desert.

5. The current increase in global temperature levels are NOT dangerous to life. Human civilisation flourished in warm periods and geographical areas (such as the Middle East and Mediterranean) rather than in cooler periods and climes precisely because less resources needed to be spent creating shelter and growing food in warmer areas, leaving more resources to be devoted to civilisational advancement.

6. Dangerous weather events are NOT increasing around the world. In fact, the last decade has seen fewer hurricanes and storms than any other decade since modern records began. Total deaths attributed to all extreme weather events globally declined by more than 90% since the 1920s, in spite of a four-fold rise in population and much more complete reporting of such events (source: Goklany). Many more people die each year from extreme cold than from heat and therefore an increase in global temperatures is likely to further lower climate deaths. Millions die in the third world every year from toxic heating fuels such as dung and biomass, deaths that would be prevented if they converted to natural gas or other clean fossil fuels.

So what is the point of the international political consensus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions? We know that human carbon dioxide emissions won't lead to runaway global warming and that further CO2 increases won't be harmful to life. On the other hand, we can say with certainty that policies that reduce the ability of people in cooler climates to heat their houses will lead to more deaths, and likewise any policies that reduce the ability for people in the third world to shift to less toxic energy sources than they currently use.

I accept, as do almost all scientists, that human activity contributes to changes in the climate, but I think the evidence does not support the proposition that mankind's carbon emissions are the dominant factor in recent increases in global average temperatures. But what about the argument that prudent risk management means we should cut our emissions anyway? Well, a prudent risk management strategy always considers the costs of mitigation and at the moment the costs of mitigation far outweigh the costs of the risk. Eliminating human carbon emissions to stop global warming is akin to amputating your leg to get rid of a muscle ache.

This is why the Paris Accord is bad policy and why I hope Trump' sticks to his guns and withdraws from it.

Friday, May 12, 2017

When the Government legitimises violence

There has been a spate of violent robberies of dairies* in Auckland targeting cigarettes. The store owners blame the huge increases in taxes on cigarettes that have pushed the price to nearly $30 for a pack of twenty. This has made cigarettes almost the equivalent of illegal drugs and predictably has seen the rise of a black market and an increase in robberies and violent crime to supply that market.

The worst thing about this escalation of crime is the Government's reaction to it. National Government MP Nicky Wagner, who holds the post of Associate Health Minister, responded by saying the store owners should stop selling cigarettes "if they feel too threatened" by robbers.

Let us consider the implications of what Wagner is saying. She is implying that the store owners are fair game for violent robberies - if they didn't sell cigarettes, they wouldn't be attacked - and that the Government won't protect them. In other words, the Government is willing to let violence against New Zealanders carrying out a perfectly legal commercial activity continue if it serves some other policy objective, i.e. reducing smoking.

This is disgraceful and something I never thought I would hear from a Government minister in New Zealand. Does Nicky Wagner and her Government not understand the potential consequences of this? When the government is unwilling to protect you against violent crime, and in fact legitimises that violent crime, you are left with no choice - to take the law into your own hands. It is an abrogation of the most basic responsibility of government - to protect citizens against violence - and a recipe for anarchy.

Perhaps Nicky Wagner did not intend to say what she said or was misquoted - if so, she needs to make that clear because this is an incredibly dangerous path she has set us upon.

* Convenience stores in New Zealand are commonly called 'dairies' because they traditionally sold dairy products.

[Hat-tip to blogger Lindsay Mitchell for bringing this to my attention.]

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Why Comey had to go

I almost feel sorry for James Comey. He found himself in a no-win situation, having managed to alienate both Democrats and Republicans and his old and new bosses. I say 'almost' because the situation was largely of his own making. His experience is precisely why law enforcement officers, and public servants in general, should remain politically neutral in their jobs.

Comey began to dig himself a hole with his investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server for classified information. He closed the investigation and then reopened it right in the final stages of the presidential campaign, and then promptly closed it again. Those decisions stunk of political interference, or at least influence.

Then it was revealed that the FBI had been investigating the Trump team's connections to the Russians during the election campaign. I have written before about how I think the accusation of a Trump-Putin conspiracy is baseless, if for no other reason than Putin had nothing to gain and everything to lose from a Trump election. In any event, Clinton also had contact with the Russians during the campaign, and there is nothing wrong with a presidential candidate establishing links with important foreign leaders prior to taking office. Even if it is proven that the Russians acted to help Trump win, that is not illegal or even unusual - after all, President Obama tried to influence the outcome of the Brexit vote and did his best in the last Israeli election to stop Netanyahu being re-elected. Besides, nothing the Trump team might have done with the Russians could compare with the dealings Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation had with Russian and Kazakhstani interests while she as Secretary of State was approving their takeover of American uranium mines.

Leaving aside the merits of the cases, I think the fact that the FBI was investigating both of the major candidates during the presidential election campaign - and in the case of the Clinton investigation, discussing it publicly - is a very unhealthy state of affairs for U.S. democracy. They say J. Edgar Hoover had an enormous influence on politics during his 37 years as FBI director but at least he had the good sense to play his cards close to his chest. Comey came to believe he was the most important player on the stage rather than someone who should stay in the background. Clearly, the job had got a bit much for him, or he had become a bit much for the job. 

Trump has done the right thing sacking Comey and I am sure Hillary Clinton would have done the same thing had she made it to the Oval Office. The President and the American public need to have confidence in their FBI director and clearly that was no longer the case.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Left-wing view of democracy should not surprise

Yesterday, I participated in an interesting discussion on Chris Trotter's Bowalley Road blog about the health of democracy in the Western world. Chris, who I am sure wouldn't object to being described as an old leftie, wrote in response to a New Zealand Herald columnist who was bemoaning the death of democracy, as indicated by the election of Donald Trump in America, Theresa May in Britain and Bill English here in New Zealand.

I said that democracy was doing just fine and made the point that left-wingers always blame the state of democracy - or some other factor such as 'deplorables', Russian hackers or 'fake news' - for their failures rather than themselves and their philosophy. The fellow who responded to my point said that 'democracy has a bad time whenever bad guys get elected.'

This comment speaks volumes about the real view of many on the left about democracy. They believe, like President Recep Erdoğan of Turkey, that 'democracy is like a train, you get off once you have reached your destination.' In other words, democracy should be allowed to produce only one result - victory for their 'good guy'.

Democracy is by definition a pluralistic system and if there can be only one result, then that is not democracy but a dictatorship. Of course, the worst left-wing dictatorships have always styled themselves in Orwellian fashion as 'democratic republics', so perhaps we should not be surprised when left-wingers in Western democracies reveal that this is also their interpretation of what it means to be a democracy.

Someone in America once said, 'scratch a liberal (in American terms a left-winger) and a fascist bleeds'. So true.

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.