Thursday, August 17, 2017

Toppling Statues

I am in two minds over the issue of the removal of Confederate statues. The Confederacy was founded on the preservation of the evil that was slavery and that is reason enough not to honour it in any way, but on the other hand the destruction of historical statues smacks more than a little of the historical revisionism of 1984.

The toppled statue of a Confederate soldier in North Carolina

The problem is, where do we draw the line? It is a slippery slope and we are already hearing calls to remove statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they were slave owners. Some people are even saying statues of Martin Luther King should be removed because he opposed gay rights. And as someone more reasonably pointed out, where are the protests against the statue of the murderous Lenin in a Seattle park?

I think we should distinguish between the political leaders of the evil systems of the past and those who served their nation in good conscience. I do not have a problem with the statue of Erwin Rommel in Heidenheim in Germany because I think he was the closest thing to an honourable military man in the Nazi regime (and he did try to rid his country of Hitler), and for similar reasons I think statues of General Robert E Lee should remain standing. However, just as I would find a statue of any Nazi political leader offensive (fortunately none exist to the best of my knowledge), I think statues of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his close political cohorts should come down.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Age of Instant Infamy

I am sure that everyone reading this knows of the incident of a London woman being pushed by a jogger into the path of an oncoming bus on Putney Bridge. When I first read this story in the mainstream media, it made a little alarm bell go off in my mind. I thought this was just the sort of incident that the news media would blow up well beyond its local significance and something that was likely to provoke a disproportionate reaction from the hypersensitive British police. Sure enough, I was right on both of these counts.

The media immediately labelled it 'jogger rage', likening it to the conflicts between drivers that often escalate into violence, despite having no evidence that it was the result of a conflict between the individuals concerned. When I viewed the video of the incident (and it was no surprise to learn that there was video of it in a country that has more surveillance cameras than any other in the world), I thought the encounter appeared to be an unfortunate accident.

The Metropolitan Police mounted a hunt for the alleged offender and encouraged the public to come forward with information. They soon had their man - or so they thought. He couldn't have made a better villain if the story had been script-written - a wealthy American investment banker whom everyone could imagine was the sort of selfish and callous individual who would commit such a heinous act. The only problem was that they were wrong - the man they had arrested wasn't even in the country at the time of the incident.

Imagine if you had been that man. Your name is published all around the world and for 48 hours you become one of the most despised people on Earth. He was lucky he had a rock solid alibi because it was definitely a case of guilty until proven innocent. The incident reminds me of the case of the American executive who tweeted a nonsensical, supposedly racist remark about getting AIDS on a forthcoming trip to Africa. She found upon her arrival in South Africa that while in the air she had become a social media pariah and that her employer had bowed to pressure and fired her. You could at least argue in that case the woman had done something wrong, although there is no way it justified the international witch hunt that ensued.

The mainstream media are often to blame for fanning these bushfires of public opinion. They do not control what people say on social media but they often take a holier-than-thou moralist viewpoint that gives legitimacy to the excesses of social media commentary, rather than urging caution. Social media has turned the world into a village, a virtual equivalent of the Salem of The Crucible, and the mainstream media have assumed the role of the village elders who are only too willing to find some witches to burn at the stake of popular opinion. 

We live in an age of instant infamy, when accusation is assumed to be guilt, and we should all shudder to think that we could be next in line.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Left's defence of Turei is remarkably shortsighted

A few weeks ago I wrote about the admission by Metiria Turei, the co-leader of the New Zealand Green Party, that she committed welfare fraud when she was younger. I had intended to leave the matter alone but have found myself drawn back to it, much as one is drawn to the sight of a rotting corpse - it is deeply unpleasant but fascinating nevertheless. More interesting than Turei's admission has been the reaction to it. An opinion poll shows nearly three-quarters of New Zealanders believe that her fraud is unacceptable but, as I said on Lindsay Mitchell's blog, it is discouraging that half of Green Party supporters, and even a significant proportion of National Party voters, think Turei did nothing wrong.

Turei defended her actions by saying it was a choice between feeding her child and complying with the law. A number of commentators have pointed out that her claim doesn't hold water, that she was living with the partner of her child and with her mother at the time she claimed a sole parent benefit. She has said she will not seek a cabinet position if the Greens are part of the government after next month's election but has refused to resign either as co-leader or as an MP. Her attitude compares with the resignation from Parliament of ACT Party MP, David Garrett, for passport fraud, which at least had the mitigation of not benefiting him financially.

This week two Green MPs, Kennedy Graham and David Clendon, resigned in protest against Turei's refusal to step down. It is reassuring to know that there are still some people with integrity in a party in which half of its supporters support benefit fraud. 

The worst thing about Turei's admission is the fact that the political left-wing have rallied behind her rather than condemning her actions. Her Green Party co-leader, James Shaw, has defended her and the new leader of the larger centre-left Labour Party has said she will work in coalition with a Turei-led Green Party. Left-wing bloggers have also defended her

I think the left's defence of Turei shows a remarkable lack of judgement. Do they not realise that the whole taxation-welfare state they so defend is completely dependent on the pretence that it is legally and morally right? The redistributionist system relies on the acquiescence of taxpayers because if enough people decided they did not want to pay their taxes, there is no way the state could enforce it notwithstanding the draconian sanctions available to the tax authorities. Does the left really want us to believe that defrauding the system is acceptable? It is, of course, a double-edged sword and those who are on the receiving end of the redistribution have everything to lose. 

A libertarian like me might look at all this as a good thing - anything that hastens the collapse of the system is to be encouraged. Unfortunately, the end of that road is what we see in Venezuela today and no one who loves freedom and individual self-determination wants to see that in their country.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Manners, courtesy and gender pronouns

English jurist Lord Moulton once said that manners were the mid-point between law and anarchy. He was calling for restraint in what should be the domain of the law and pointing out that not all undesirable human behaviour needs to be legislated against. It is surely an important characteristic of civilised society that up to a certain level human interaction should be self-regulated. We need laws against murder and assault because anyone who would commit such acts would not be restrained by anything as prosaic as manners, but we shouldn't need laws to prescribe how we greet one another.

I have written before about the decline of manners and common courtesy and I believe it is no coincidence that at a time when governments are seeing fit to regulate every manner of human interaction, manners are falling into disuse. The latest area of government intrusion into what should be the preserve of manners is the use of gender pronouns in relation to transgender people. Canada has recently passed a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression and it has been predicted that it will have the effect of criminalising the use of pronouns other than what the subject wants. Canada seems to be in the vanguard of this because even before the new law was enacted, University of Toronto psychologist Professor Jordan Peterson got into hot water about his refusal to use new gender-neutral pronouns such as 'ze' and 'zir' in compliance with his university's policies. Peterson said he does not object to using whatever traditional pronoun an individual prefers but he objects to the heavy-handed imposition of new language, seeing it as yet another way for post-modern neo-Marxists to enforce control over every area of human interaction.

The way we address each other is a personal matter and very much within the realm of manners. There are traditional rules about the degree of formality that is appropriate in different situations and these are particularly strong in languages other than English that have grammatical rules about when to use the formal/plural third person form of address and the informal/singular. New Zealanders are renown for their informality and personally I find the forms of address that many of my countrymen use (such as calling a stranger 'mate') to be inappropriate and sometimes mildly offensive, but if I am not addressed in the way I prefer, I just politely correct the person. This is the way it should be - a matter of courtesy between the individuals concerned.

The problem with legislating everything is that it kills voluntary action. You cannot legislate to make people think in a particular way and using the cudgels of the law to force behaviour that should be the realm of manners is counterproductive because it destroys trust and mutual respect. If people cannot be left to negotiate even the form of address they use with other people - in other words, if there is no voluntary space left between the law and anarchy - then don't be surprised if more people choose anarchy.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The limits of democracy

New Zealand faces a general election next month and it has got me thinking about the nature of democracy and the collective wisdom (or lack of it) in the electorate. New Zealand has had nine years of a conservative National Party-led government, which has largely continued the policies of the previous nine-year Labour Party-led government, leaving libertarians like myself with Hobson's choice. This election campaign mirrors the recent UK election in many ways with the National Party sitting on a 20-point lead over Labour but with some signs of that lead being eroded and smaller parties like the left-wing Greens and the nationalist New Zealand First likely to determine who governs.

One of the more hypocritical arguments of the political right-of-centre in recent times has been their impassioned defence of democracy. We saw this with Brexit and Trump - their supporters crowed about the people having spoken, as if a plurality of support (and in Trump's case it wasn't even a plurality) justifies any decision in and of itself. Of course, we have seen a corresponding volte-face on the part of the left-wing, which for years has justified increasing intrusion of the state into every area of our lives on the basis of their democratic mandate, and they are suddenly not so enamoured with a system that produced Brexit and a Trump presidency.

If you want an example of voters making consistently bad decisions you only need look at Venezuela. A relatively free and prosperous country two decades ago, Venezuela is now an economic basket case and its voters have just provided a mandate for President Maduro's decisions to strip the country's parliament of its powers and replace it with a new assembly that is stacked with his supporters. Maduro has said that he has a "prison cell waiting" for his political opponents. Admittedly, you could hardly call recent Venezuelan elections free and fair, with estimates of 70% of the populace opposed to Maduro and his Chavismo Socialists, but Maduro maintains that everything he and predecessor Hugo Chavez have done has been with a democratic mandate.

Democracy can be, to paraphase Winston Churchill, the worst of all systems. It shouldn't be an end in itself but rather it should deliver good government that limits its powers to the functions of defending individual rights. Unfettered democracy is often in conflict with these aims because it enables the majority to sacrifice individual rights in the name of collective good. The only way of preventing this is to limit what governments can do even with a popular mandate, through an entrenched constitution. 

The problem is how do you get an entrenched constitution that protects individual rights in a democratic system? We have seen the risks in New Zealand with the former prime minister, Geoffrey Palmer, proposing a constitution that proposes new rights such as to 'an adequate standard of living' that are the antithesis of real rights. A better example is the Constitution for New Freeland proposed by Lindsay Perigo but even its authors would concede that it has no chance of being adopted by democratic mandate. 

Perhaps the only way to get a genuinely rights-respecting constitution is following a revolution when the vacuum of power allows a fresh approach, such as was the case with the American Revolution. On the other hand, the French demonstrated that even the most noble revolutions do not guarantee good outcomes and the American Constitution has proved to be less of a bulwark against government abuses of power than the founders envisaged.

Maybe Churchill was right with the rest of his saying, that democracy is the worst of all possible systems except all the others and that the best we can expect is that the voters will be sensible with the responsibility they have. I hope that is the case in New Zealand next month.

UPDATE: A few hours is a long time in politics - the Labour Party leader, Andrew Little, has resigned following recent poor poll results. Jacinda Ardern is the new leader.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Then they came for Richard Dawkins

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
- Martin Niemöller
Universities are not what they used to be. Once they were places where students and faculty enjoyed greater freedom to express and debate their views than in mainstream society. They were sanctuaries where young people could explore the full smorgasbord of opinions and beliefs about politics, religion, morality and social mores without the constraints of traditional norms. Unfortunately this is no longer the case - they have become a different type of sanctuary, a gilded cage where people are protected from exposure to anything other than a narrow set of acceptable views. This is particularly true of the United States where recently we have seen:
  • Somali-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali banned from giving a speech at Brandeis University because her views on Islam's oppression of women were deemed offensive to Muslims
  • British pro-Trump gay activist Milo Yiannopolous forced to cancel his address at UC Berkeley because of violence protests
  • American conservative commentator Anne Coulter disinvited from speaking at UC Berkeley (although later rescinded).
There have been many other incidents that demonstrate that our most fundamental right  - to hold and voice our own opinions, which is surely a prerequisite for all other rights - is now considered less important than the precept that no one should ever be offended by anything.

The latest incident is the cancellation of the appearance at an event hosted by a radio staton in Berkeley of the renown biologist and perhaps the world's greatest science writer, Richard Dawkins, because of his views on Islamist terrorism.

Several years ago I heard Dawkins speak in person and I left the presentation with two main impressions. Firstly, he does not speak as fluently as he writes. This is not unexpected as it is rare that great writers are as eloquent in their spoken words as in those they write, but what Dawkins had to say was riveting in spite of his somewhat awkward delivery style. More importantly, I thought he delivered the most complete and easily understood explanation of the biological basis for evolution by natural selection that I have ever heard or read. 

He described how the cells of all living things are made up of chains of protein molecules that are capable of curling up into an almost infinite variety of shapes, and that these shapes are determined by a digital code that is held in special molecular chains called DNA. He went on to describe what is perhaps the most important discovery in biology - but one that has never occurred to me despite my keen interest in science - that when living things reproduce by replicating from a single fertilised egg cell, they follow the whole of evolution from single-celled organisms to complex higher lifeforms. They are able to do this because all of evolution is stored in the digital code in their DNA and is simply replayed during gestation. In other words, each of us is the output of a computer programme that has stored the knowledge of three billion years of evolution, run over just nine months! This is the reason why the zygotes and early embryos of all animals look so alike - they show the point in evolution when all animals did look alike. 

Dawkins made me see that evolution is not some dry historical fact but is something that plays out in the birth of every baby. I found this fact jaw-dropping and ironically it is perhaps the closest thing I have experienced in my life to a religious revelation. It made me think that every human being needs to hear the story that this man tells so well, and that to ban him from imparting his knowledge to others is to commit a crime against human knowledge.

The political correctness stormtroopers have now come for Richard Dawkins and that makes me ineffably sad because it is precisely their ignorance and intolerance that Dawkins has spent his life trying to overcome. The radio station said it was specifically his criticism of Islam that led them to ban him. Dawkins has been a frequent critic of Christianity and his criticism of Islam is for the most part confined to Islamic extremism, but in the strange world of victim group politics it seems Christianity is fair game but Islam is a no-go area where free speech does not apply.

The size of the space that contains acceptable opinions is becoming smaller and smaller. You may think your views are safe because you are an open-minded, tolerant liberal who celebrates diversity and just wants to live and let live. You are wrong. They are coming for you because it is not so much your views that are under assault as the right to have any opinion of your own.

We all need to speak out in defence of free speech before there is no one left to defend it.

Monday, July 24, 2017

New climate science papers support Trump's position on Paris Agreement

Donald Trump has announced that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change and predictably this has produced a storm of protest from the political and corporatist elite (who benefit from such things), and a doubling down of predictions of doom from alarmists (some so overdone that even the leading proponents of anthropogenic global warming ['AGW'] theory have distanced themselves from them). 

Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement because he understood its implications - a racheting commitment that will undermine American self-determination and prosperity. He was advised that even though America is the one country that can probably meet its commitments (ironically because of its move to fracked natural gas instead of coal to generate power), the legal and constitutional risks of staying in the agreement far outweighed the diplomatic benefits of staying in it. If you want to understand more about why this is the case, listen to James Delingpole's interview of constitutional lawyer, Chris Horner, here).

It is interesting that just as the climate change lobby works itself into a lather about Trump's announcement, new scientific studies have appeared that cast more doubts on the basic AGW theory. The first of these studies (see published paper here) found that almost all of the warming in recent years in datasets published by leading climate research organisations such as NOAA and the UK MetOffice is due to adjustments to the raw temperature readings and that these almost exclusively made recent temperatures warmer. One would expect the adjustments, if statistically sound, to produce as many decreases as increases and, in fact, there is a strong argument for net reductions in recent readings to account for heat island effects from modern infrastructure.

The second study (see published paper here) is more of a bombshell, claiming that the entire physics of global-warming theory – the assumption that greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere by trapping outgoing heat – is wrong, and that the Earth's greenhouse effect is actually due to the intensity of the Sun's radiation combined with surface atmospheric pressure. The scientists and the publication seem credible, and even if you rightly take a sceptical viewpoint (as I always do on AGW matters irrespective of whether it is towards claims that support or contradict my existing views), it is further evidence that there is not an overwhelming scientific consensus on AGW theory.

I believe that mankind has an impact on the climate. I believe that carbon emissions from fossil fuels contribute to this impact. However, even without the new studies, there is strong evidence that the AGW effect is small and that the effects of increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and modest global warming are likely to be beneficial overall to both humans and other living things. I also believe that mankind's best defence against any adverse climatic events is prosperity - and the best way of ensuring prosperity is free enterprise in a deregulated economy, which is the exact opposite of what those promoting solutions for AGW (such as the Paris Agreement) want to achieve.

Friday, July 21, 2017

You wouldn't recognise the working class if you fell over it

I find it laughable that left-wing commentators still insist that they speak on behalf of the 'working class'. Their rhetoric is filled with disparaging references to the 'upper class' and the 'bosses' as if they are quoting from one of Karl Marx's works and as if they themselves weren't part of the groups they are maligning. The reality is they don't speak on behalf on the working class at all and wouldn't recognise members of that group if they fell over them. The popularity of Brexit and Donald Trump, so despised by the left, with lower-income working people should be ample proof that the left-wing is completely out of touch with what such people really think.

The left-wing does not represent working people any longer. The biggest supporters of so-called progressive ideals today come from the highest income earners rather than those at the other end of the scale. They are the politicians, public servants, academics and those in the private sector that are most dependent on the government for their incomes, who typically earn far above average incomes and who have little exposure to the working class on whose behalf they purport to speak. Welfare beneficiaries support big-government left-wing parties for obvious reasons, but genuine working class people - those who continue to provide for themselves in spite of the disincentives to work of the welfare state - are now as likely to support right-of-centre parties and candidates. This is because it is the latter that speaks to their disaffection with the loss of high-paid blue collar jobs, the rising cost of living, and the perceived economic threat from immigration.

The problem for left-wingers is they have no self-awareness so they tend to believe their own propaganda. They claim their political interests are aligned with those of the underclass but for this to be believable they have to convince us, and themselves, that there is still a traditional class system. It is true that there is an elite in Western countries today but it does not comprise the same people who dominated the upper echelons of government and other institutions up until the middle of the 20th Century. Today's elite is technocratic and bureaucratic rather than aristocratic and largely comprises the left-wingers themselves. Like the elite of yesteryear, they arrogantly assume they know what is best for their subjects and speak disparagingly of those over whom they believe they should rule. The modern version of Marie Antoinette's apocryphal, "Let them eat cake", is surely Hillary Clinton's "deplorables" comment. And the consequences for the utterer were similar.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Let the beggars be

There has been a fair bit of publicity recently about people begging on the streets of our major cities. This may seem odd to overseas readers because beggars are a constant fact of life in most cities internationally but in New Zealand they are a fairly recent phenomenon. The fact that the growth of begging has been at a time when the New Zealand economy has been enjoying relatively strong growth and the Government has been increasing welfare benefits suggests the problem is not primarily an economic one.

Retailers have observed that the beggars who station themselves outside their shops appear to be highly organised, with prime spots allocated on a rotational basis and 'rent' charged by minders who manage the territory. Many of the beggars do not appear to be impoverished and most of them will be receiving state welfare benefits and not declaring the income they 'earn' from begging.

Wellington property investor Bob Jones has called for them to be banned. The libertarian in me says that would be an unnecessary state intrusion into what should be a free interaction between the panhandlers and those who are happy to give to them. I suppose my view is influenced by the fact that in my youth I found myself literally penniless on the streets of a foreign city and was faced with the prospect of having to beg to survive. It would be a heartless and oppressive society indeed that forbid people from asking others for help.

I draw the line at the point the beggars become a nuisance or adopt threatening tactics to obtain alms and I don't think taxpayers should be paying them welfare benefits when they are topping up their incomes (quite generously in my observation) from begging. But mostly they are harmless and we should let them be.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Green leader acknowledges fraudulent basis of left-wing beliefs

Lindsay Mitchell reports that the Green Party co-leader, Metiria Turei, has announced the party's new welfare policy, which coming from New Zealand's Watermelons is entirely unsurprising, but this policy seems remarkably short-sighted even for the Greens. They propose removing all sanctions and obligations from beneficiaries, a policy that is an invitation to indolence and fraud. 

The current government has been reasonably successful in reducing long-term welfare dependency and encouraging beneficiaries to take responsibility for their lives - getting beneficiaries back into work, discouraging young women from having babies when they can't provide for them and targeting social investment at those in highest need. All the evidence points to the fact that when people take responsibility for their own lives their outcomes and that of their children are much better. 

The worst detail of Metiria Turei's reported announcement is the admission that she personally defrauded the welfare system by failing to declare that she took in flatmates while on a benefit. This explains much about the basis for her party's policy. The political left-wing likes to claim the moral high ground so perhaps we should salute Turei for her confession because it acknowledges that her policy is based on lies. Of course, the entire left-wing political philosophy is based on the fraud that is Marxism so it is refreshing to see a chink in the wall of propaganda that would have us believe there is some moral basis to it all.

This policy announcement is good in one other respect - it will guarantee electoral oblivion for the Green Party. New Zealanders like to give people a fair go but like most people they don't like to be ripped off. The Americans who voted for Trump and the British with Brexit had had enough of political lies and I believe New Zealanders will similarly punish the Greens for their dishonesty and conceit.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Mandibles - a realistic view of the future

I am currently reading The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver. The author is best known for her book about a Columbine-style killer, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and for getting into trouble for her politically incorrect speech last year to a Brisbane writer's festival about 'cultural appropriation' (which I discussed here). I think she is one of the best writers on the planet today and her latest work has only confirmed my view.

The Mandibles is set in the future - between 2029 and 2047 - and tells the story of four generations of the eponymous family. You could describe it as a dystopian novel but unlike most other novels of that genre, the dire future it describes is only too realistic and inevitable given the current economic policies of Western governments. The United States has lost its position as the issuer of the world's reserve currency - the huge deficits, borrowing and currency production (i.e. 'quantitative easing') of successive governments have finally come home to roost and the U.S. defaults on its debts. A consortium of international governments - including a Russia still led by Vladimir Putin - replaces the Dollar as the currency of international exchange with a new commodity-backed unit called the 'bancor'.

The story doesn't focus on the 'macro' however, it describes the aftermath of these events through the eyes of a well-off American family whose lives are transformed when they lose everything they own. A populist Hispanic president, who seems cast in the image of Barack Obama, invokes emergency economic powers along the lines of those used by Franklin Roosevelt to seize privately owned gold - even wedding rings (which were exempted by Roosevelt) - and sends the Army to conduct door-to-door searches to collect it. The American future it portrays is the lives of Venezuelans todays - empty supermarket shelves, shortages of basic medicines, sky-high inflation and an increasingly oppressive government response to civil unrest.

There is no Big Brother in this story, no Fahrenheit 451-style burning of books (although books are largely obsolete in the digital culture) and no genetic-engineering of humans à la Brave New World. It is just American society today, projected twelve years into the future. That it is so realistic makes it all the more frightening. I hope at least a few of the members of the dysfunctional US Congress, which is once again debating raising the debt ceiling, reads it and considers the implications of their current spend-and-hope policies.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

July 4th

The Declaration of Independence, sighed by the representatives of the 13 colonies in America on this day 241 years ago, was such a world-shattering statement of political reason and courage that it is worth dusting it off and re-examining it in the light of government in the so-called Free World today. The kernel of the declaration is contained the following words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
There are two important ideas contained in these words:

  • That we have rights that are inherent to our nature as human beings, the most important being the rights to live, to be free, and to pursue our own interests
  • That governments do not create our rights, but rather that we create governments and their only proper purpose is to protect our rights.

These ideas are at odds with the role and functions of governments as they exist in most countries today. Governments like to bestow all sorts of new rights on us - the rights to food and a roof over our heads, the rights to a job, education and healthcare, the rights not to be discriminated against or even to be offended, etc. But these rights aren't what the Founding Fathers meant when they talked about rights. For a start, if rights are granted by governments, they can be taken away - they aren't inherent to our nature. Secondly, they fail the 'equality' test that is contained in the first line above - the right to receive something, bestowed by the government, cannot be equally endowed because that which is given by a government must be taken from someone else. And finally, they are increasingly given as alternatives to real rights - they are baubles to distract us from the fact that governments are denying us our real rights.

The authors of the Declaration were smart enough to realise that real rights aren't a zero-sum game. I don't need you to die in order that I can live. I don't need you to be a slave in order that I can be free. And I don't need you to sacrifice your happiness in order that I can be happy. That is perhaps the greatest revelation of that great revolutionary document.

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 Russians...so 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 down...to 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 care.data, 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 care.data 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.