Monday, June 18, 2018

Bob Jones is doing us all a favour

Sir Robert Jones, the Wellington property investor, political pundit, boxing commentator and writer, has never been one to shy away from a fight. This time he is taking up his cudgel against a women who called him 'racist'. It all started with an opinion piece Jones wrote in his regular column in the weekly National Business Review newspaper about the annual Waitangi Day fiasco.

Waitangi Day is meant to be New Zealand's national day, celebrating the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between Maori chiefs and the British Crown in 1840, but it has become a day of such insult and even violence from Maori activists that in recent years New Zealand prime ministers have refused to attend the ceremonies at Waitangi (where the Treaty was signed) and many New Zealanders refuse to acknowledge the day with anything more than contempt.

Bob Jones was making a satirical point in his column when he said that the day should be repurposed as 'Maori Gratitude Day', an occasion on which Maori give thanks to the British settlers for saving them from self-inflicted extinction. The woman Jones is suing raised a petition calling on the government to strip of his knighthood for his comments and managed to get 40,000 signatures, but it isn't the petition that is the subject of Jones's counterpunch but rather her libellous use of the 'racist' epithet.

I have recently written about the antonymic use of the term. It is used predominantly not to describe someone who wants to discriminate on the basis of race but rather those who object to such discrimination. Thus, if you believe we all should be equal under the law, you are called a racist. It is long overdue that such insulting and dishonest use of language was called out and those responsible be made to pay. If Bob Jones succeeds with his legal action, perhaps those who use the term with such profligacy for their own purposes will think twice.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Butchers, Bakers, Candlestick Makers and Gay Weddings

The United States Supreme Court has decided in favour of a Colorado baker, who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, in what may be the first of a number of similar cases to go to America's highest court. The baker had challenged the decision of the Colorado human rights commission that ruled he did not have the right to refuse service on the basis of his religious beliefs. 

I think the court made the right decision, despite saying in my last post that "we should judge others as individuals rather than as members of some identity group", because I believe the law shouldn't force anyone to act against their conscience. If a religious person thinks gay marriage is sinful and cannot reconcile the provision of products and services with their beliefs, then he or she shouldn't be forced to act against those beliefs. People are entitled to their prejudices and while I think such views are ignorant and irrational, I'll defend the person's right to have them.

The state should not discriminate because everyone should be equal under the law, but this does not mean the state should force private individuals and businesses to treat everyone equally. The idea of forcing a fundamentalist Christian, who takes the Biblical injunctions against homosexuality literally, to bake a cake to celebrate something he finds abhorrent, is itself abhorrent. Forcing someone to work against their will is slavery, pure and simple. If you disagree, I would you urge to apply the same principles to equivalent situations. Should we force Muslim butchers to sell pork? Or Catholic candlestick makers to sell candles to satanists?

The appropriate response to such prejudices in a free society is to discriminate against the people holding them. A boycott of those whose beliefs and actions you find contemptible is the best sanction. Business proprietors who limit their market to just those people who agree with their views are likely to find they have a far smaller market than businesses that are open to all. Likewise, someone who hires people only according to their prejudices will find they have a second-rate workforce. And for those gay couples who want a wedding cake, there is always another baker along the street who would be pleased to have their business.

The US Supreme Court decision makes it clear that it applied only to the specifics of the case before it and that it doesn't establish a general principle that businesses should be free to trade with whom they want. However, I think Justice Kennedy got it right when he summarised the thinking of the majority on the Court. "Tolerance is essential in a free society," he said, but he added that Colorado wasn't very tolerant of Phillips' religious beliefs when the state's human rights commission ruled against him. Indeed.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Rights and Racism

The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son ~ Ezekiel 18:19-20 
[They’re saying] let’s help individual A by punishing individual B for what individual C did to individual D some years ago ~ Walter Williams
Last week I had the opportunity to speak with an ethnically diverse group of young people about what it meant to be a New Zealander. The discussion was, for the most part, constructive and respectful. The most encouraging voices were those of recent immigrants, all of whom saw themselves as Kiwis and who were keen to make the best of the opportunities in this country. The only discord came from those of Maori descent, who saw themselves as something special with rights that trumped those of other New Zealanders.

The great achievement of Western civilisation is its recognition of the dignity and sovereignty of the individual, and the best manifestation of this achievement is the idea of universal individual rights. But we seem to have forgotten the true nature of such rights. If they are universal, they cannot be diminished by anyone else's rights, and if they are individual, they cannot be vitiated by notions of the collective good. Governments do not bestow these rights - they are inherent to us as human beings and the role of a government is to protect, not to abrogate, them. They are certainly not the right to anything (such as a job or a house). The corollary of the idea of universal individual rights is that we should judge others as individuals rather than as members of some identity group over which they have control and which they did not choose to join.

Racism means judging someone primarily on the basis of their race. There is no denying that racism still exists in Western societies but the term is so overused today as to be either meaningless or antonymic. If I decide a Maori shouldn't get a job because he is a Maori then I am being racist. If I decide a Maori shouldn't get a job because he is not as well qualified for the position as a non-Maori candidate, then I am not being racist. Nor is it racist to object to 'affirmative action' programmes, which discriminate in favour of people on the basis of race. Such programmes are racist in themselves because they assume that those who benefit from the programme are not capable of competing on even terms with people of other races.

Institutional racism is the premise that the institutions of society, such as schools, universities, employers, the courts, etc., are racially biased. The term is used to explain any situation where one racial group has different average outcomes to another racial group - for example, the fact that there are approximately five times the number of African-Americans in prison compared to 'white' Americans is often attributed to institutional racism in the US justice system. There is no doubt that there is a history of institutional racism in the United States - the Jim Crow laws in the South were obvious examples. However, claims of insitutional racism today are usually made on the basis of single variant analysis, i.e. the difference in outcomes is ascribed to solely to one factor - in this case, race. This is usually lazy and inept science because almost any significant difference between defined groups in a population, when subject to comprehensive analysis, turns out to have multi-variant causes (for example, this excellent article in Quillette magazine explains why the commonly-held beliefs about institutional racism for African-Americans are at best simplistic, and at worst false).

Institutional racism is a convenient cause for activists on the political left because the theory supports collectivist political solutions. If minority groups are institutionally discriminated against then surely we must change society's institutions? Nothing is off-limits - the legal, educational, economic and social systems are all fair game - and the need for total change justifies totalitarian solutions. Marxism, the political philosophy that is predicated on group victimhood, is particularly attractive to those who define all human interaction in oppressor-victim terms. It does not matter that Marxism has produced worse outcomes for everyone everywhere it has been tried - the good intentions justify the means and of course this time it will be different.

Here in New Zealand it has become popular to ascribe the relatively poor economic, social and justice outcomes for people of Maori descent to institutional racism and the attempts at redress have come to dominate our political discourse and to affect every aspect of political, economic and social policy. The most significant redress has been taxpayer-funded compensation to present-day Maori tribal leaders for alleged historical breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi (which was signed between the British Crown and Maori chiefs in 1840, making Maori British subjects and protecting their property). Recently, we have moved beyond Treaty of Waitangi compensation to granting Maori special legal rights over and above those of other New Zealanders, such as enabling them to claim ownership of the entire New Zealand coastline and territorial waters and to have superior voting rights in local government elections.

Preferential rights based on racial characteristics are morally and legally repugnant, whether they are the Jim Crow laws or special voting rights for Maori. They cannot be implemented without abrogating the rights of others. They aggravate the divisions and antagonisms that may already exist between racial groups and do nothing to enhance the individual achievement of the people concerned (for example, there is good empirical evidence that preferential racial admission programmes in US universities lead to higher levels of academic failure amongst those granted preferential admission).

It is worrying that many New Zealanders think that people of Maori ancestry should have superior rights to the rest of us. It means that they regard rights as goods to be allocated according to some arbitrary criteria such as racial inheritance. Of course, if rights are so tradable, then whoever doles them out can take them away just as arbitrarily.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

My Alternative Budget

This past week was Budget Week, when the New Zealand Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson, delivered his first full budget for the new government. It contains billions of dollars in new spending on health, education, welfare and housing, while at the same time maintaining some sanity in terms of containing borrowing and the growth of government spending as a percentage of GDP. Much of the criticism has come from Robertson's side of the political divide, with most saying it did not deliver enough new spending and criticising him for staying with the Budget Responsibility Rules. One so-called journalist dismissed it as 'a triumph of neoliberalism'. The opposition National Party seemed only to join in the dissent of their political opponents with National Party leader Simon Bridges saying Robertson wasn't spending enough.

Given the weaselly lack of opposition and any alternative from the National Party, I thought I would post my alternative budget, which is designed to restore our standard of living to the top echelon of OECD nations. This would be the first step in an ongoing programme of reducing taxation and government spending.

Taxation

Taxation would be 20/20/20/20/12.5, in other words:
  • 20% flat rate on salary and wages with the first $20,000 tax free
  • 20% on company and trust profits
  • GST reduced to 12.5% to offset any regressive effects of the flat rate income tax.
The various initiatives of recent governments that use the tax system as a secondary welfare system, such as Working for Families Tax Credits, would be abolished.

All other excise taxes and duties such as those on petroleum products, alcohol and tobacco would be abolished.

Health, Education and Welfare

Health, education and welfare spending would be capped in absolute terms and gradually reduced by prioritising essential areas of expenditure over the non-essential, e.g. emergency and non-elective surgery over elective. Education would move to a voucher system and all schools would become charter schools, setting their own curriculum and fees. All state welfare benefits would be means-tested and capped in terms of the time people could remain on them. The age of eligibility for state superannuation would be raised gradually and the New Zealand Superannuation Fund would be boosted through the sale of state assets, with the aim of eventually making it (and private pension provisions) self-sufficient.

Housing and Construction

Housing affordability would be addressed by increasing supply through the abolition of the Resource Management Act and simplification of the Building Act. Property and common law rights would be strengthened as would the ability to pursue tortious damages through the courts. Builders would be encouraged to offer lifetime liability insurance with the sale of all new buildings. Growth in the money supply, which is driving house price inflation, would be limited to the rate of productivity growth in the economy.

Energy and the Environment

Restrictions on mining and oil and gas exploration on private land would be removed, and concessions would be granted for more exploration and extraction on public land and in our territorial waters, with he aim of making New Zealand a net exporter of energy. Strengthened property and common law rights, as mentioned above, would become the primary means of protecting the environment.

The Emissions Trading Scheme would be abolished as would the cronyist Provincial Growth Fund.

Transport

Transport would move to be fully user-pays through electronic tolling, distance charging and fares. Publicly owned transport operators such as Kiwirail and Air New Zealand would be fully privatised.

Treaty of Waitangi Claims

The Treaty of Waitangi tribunal and settlements process would be abolished and the law would provide for any outstanding historical claims related to dispossession of Maori land to be pursued through the courts like any other civil case.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Google should stop trying to be 'woke'

I read an interesting Wall Street Journal article about how incessant political arguments rule Google's workplace and it got me thinking about why companies like Google are so intent on portraying themselves as politically aware and terribly bien-pensant (or 'woke' as it is known amongst the social justice warrior set). Google has a policy of allowing political speakers and debate on its premises but it doesn't seem to have thought through the implications of doing so. If the experience of James Damore* is any indication, the company does not encourage the free and open exchange of political views but rather is a place where any departure from the accepted conformity (of left-wing, social justice views) is punished. And, as the fight between the 'Googlers for Animals' and the 'Black Googler Network' described in the article (seriously, read it and laugh!) shows, even the most comformist views will inevitably come into conflict.

The arrogance and naiveté of Google's senior executives in this matter is stunning. Did they really think that encouraging particular political views to be promoted within the workplace wouldn't cause conflict amongst their employees? And do they seriously think their company's interests are aligned with the causes of social justice warriors? As I wrote in my last post, these people are Marxists and their enemy is capitalism, and the worst capitalists in their view are the big, monopolistic corporations like Google. Come the revolution, the Googles will be nationalised without compensation, all those beautiful cars in the parking lot will be seized, the lovely homes in the Palo Alto Hills will be commandeered, and anyone who raises the slightest objection will be shipped off to a re-education camp in North Dakota.

But the naiveté of such company executives is not my main objection to their dangerous dalliance with selective political debate in the workplace. Google has a mission to produce the best products and services for its customers in order to make the best return on investment for its stockholders. It also has an obligation to treat its staff fairly in accordance with its contractual obligations and the law. The company's role isn't to provide a platform for particular political beliefs, especially when doing so undermines staff productivity and moral (which it certainly seems to be doing at Google). The company certainly shouldn't be determining which political views are acceptable for its staff to hold.

It would be ironic if the very people Larry Page is encouraging end up seizing his Porsche, but the demise of Google is a prospect I really don't want to see.

* The Wall Street Journal article, while otherwise fair, misrepresents Damore's views as 'questioning women’s fitness for certain jobs'. Damore did no such thing - he simply referenced widely-accepted sociological and psychological research that shows that men and women on average have differing vocational strengths and career preferences, and he said that these needed to be taken into account in understanding the varying male and female representation in fields such as software engineering before jumping to the conclusion that implicit bias was to blame.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Explaining Postmodernism

There is a movement in Western society today that is bent on its destruction. It thrives in the universities, but you see it also in large companies where it is a fifth column dedicated to destroying such organisations from within, and it permeates almost all political discourse, particularly on social media. I am talking about post-modernism, a nihilistic political philosophy that resents the freedom and prosperity of Western capitalism and aims to bring it all down.

It is post-modernism that is the foundational belief behind almost every assault on our liberal democracy, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter. It is the philosophy of identity politics and social justice warriors, those who insist that we all be pigeonholed into groups that fall on one side or other of a perpetrator-victim divide - men versus women, whites versus blacks, gays versus straights, etc. It is based on the philosophical concepts of subjectivism - that there is no objective reality because everything we experience is based on subjective perception - and relativism - that there is no good or bad and any belief or morality is equal to any other. Post-modernists reject science and reason as Eurocentric, patriarchal concepts and yet see the solution to all of their grievances as the ideas of that old white man, Karl Marx. This is doubly ironic because Marxism is a materialistic and supposedly scientific philosophy, the very concepts post-modernists claim to reject. But post-modernism is not intended to be logical or consistent, any more than a bomb is meant to be constructive.

If you want to understand why post-modernism is making such inroads into modern society and its impact in the world today, you should read Stephen Hicks's Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Hicks is a professor of philosophy at Rockford University, Illinois, and is the author of several popular philosophy books, the best known of which is Nietzsche and the Nazis, an examination of the ideological and philosophical roots of National Socialism.

Hicks starts with the history of post-modernism and explains that its roots go back to the German counter-Enlightenment thinkers Immanuel Kant, George Hegel and Fredriech Nietzsche - the same philosophers that provided the intellectual foundations of both National Socialism and Marxist-Leninism. The development of post-modernism as a distinct field was the work of the 20th Century French radicals Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard. It soon became the philosophy behind the left-wing terrorist groups of the 1960s and 1970s such as the Red Army Faction in Germany and Weather Underground in the United States (it was the latter, for example, that invented the concept of "white privilege"). These violent exemplifications of post-modernism were infiltrated and subdued by Western security agencies, but the philosophy survived and its adherents went mainstream.

Hicks provides a discouraging analysis of the prospects of post-modernism co-existing with modern democracy. He concludes that there is no middle-ground between post-modernism and Western liberal values - the former rejects the very foundations of the latter. You cannot have a rational debate with someone who rejects rationality and you cannot present evidence to someone who does not recognise facts. This is why it is so futile debating a social justice warrior. Hicks concludes that post-modernism is disingenuous, and that its battlegrounds - such as minority rights, eliminating hate speech and equity - are mere stalking horses for its goal of Marxist dictatorship.

Hicks provides a timely warning about the dangers of post-modernism for Western liberals who may support many of their causes. If you think that appeasing post-modernists will save you from the ultimate fate they hold in store for you, i.e. the destruction of your family, your livelihood, your property and your life, then you are deluded. We are like the frog in the slow-boiling pot and one day we will wake up to discover we are all the victims of those we thought only had the victims' interests at heart.

Friday, April 20, 2018

New Zealand's very own Donald Trump

One of the most amusing news reports this week has been that of New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, angrily denying to the world's media that she is like Donald Trump. There is great irony in someone who has a carefully-crafted image as the leader of a new generation of caring, ultra-progressive politicians being compared to the 71-year-old, 'Make America Great Again' president, but a comparison between the Ardern Government's policies and that of the Trump administration shows that the world's media is not too far off the mark.

The Wall Street Journal was the first to pick up on the similarity in political positions between the New Zealand Labour Party and Trump's Republicans even before last year's general election. The article focused on the Labour's pledge to cut New Zealand's annual immigration by 30,000 (compared to an annual total of 72,000 new immigrants), but being anti-immigration is not the only similarity to Trump. Like the US President, the Labour Party entered the election opposed to the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement (although Ardern has since signed a renegotiated agreement that has made even Donald Trump reconsider his opposition to it). And the new government's billion-dollar-a-year regional development fund (which already faces accusations of corruption) is exactly the sort of cronyism Trump is pursuing under his misguided programme to reinvigorate middle America. Ardern has even supported Trump's recent bombing of Syria, albeit with some public reservations.

Many of the similarities of the Ardern government's programme to that of Trump stem from its coalition with the nationalist New Zealand First Party. Ardern might angrily deny that she is like Trump but she can't dodge the fact that her coalition partner is a 'Make New Zealand Great Again' party with all of the same xenophobic, anti-free trade, crony-capitalist leanings that characterise Trump's Republican administration. But Ardern and her party entered into the coalition with New Zealand First willingly and, as I have written before, without the mandate of even a plurality of votes. So, if she doesn't like the comparison with Trump, she only has herself to blame.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Fact Checking Ardern’s Speech on Climate Change

The New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern is touring Europe, glad-handing with the leaders of Britain, France and Germany, and she seems to regard climate change as the topic on which she will establish her credentials. Yesterday she gave a speech to university students in Paris in which she spoke about the supposed impact of climate change on Pacific Island nations. She peppered her speech with a number of hoary myths, which she or the officials that wrote her speech should have known were untrue.

She spoke of the serious impact of cyclones on these countries, which is very real, but she went on to blame "the extreme weather that now rages through these countries on a regular basis." Cyclones have always been a feature of life in the South Pacific and the implication that they are becoming more frequent is false. The figures from the Fiji Meteorological Service's Nadi Tropical Cyclone Centre (which is the designated Regional Specialized Meteorological Centre of the World Meteorological Organization) show the following number of tropical cyclones for each of the last five decades:

DecadeTropical Cyclones
1970s83
1980s94
1990s79
2000s60
2010s44

You can see that there has been no increase in the frequency of cyclones during this period at all and in fact the trend seems to be downwards.

Ardern then went on to say, "it is not only storms that threaten Pacific nations. There is already salt water intrusion into fresh water supplies." Salt water intrusion into fresh water aquifers in Pacific Island nations is indeed a problem, but it is not primarily due to climate change. This study by the US Geological Survey [PDF 32MB] examines the causes of the problem, which is mostly due to over-exploitation of the fresh water resources. As the article explains, "If too much ground water is pumped, a freshwater lens may shrink enough that brackish water from the transition zone is drawn into the well. This process, known as saltwater intrusion, can result in the need to shut down wells and may reduce the availability of drinking water." 

Finally, she repeated the oldest lie in the book when it comes to climate change and the South Pacific when she said "the oceans that have sustained local communities for thousands of years could soon rise up to swallow them forever." The idea that rising sea levels will inundate low-lying Pacific atolls is easy to accept but it is also false. 

Sea levels are rising globally by a few millimetres per year (and have been since well before the Industrial Revolution) but according to this 2010 Australian study, "the analysis reveals a consistent trend of weak deceleration [of sea level rise] at each of these gauge sites throughout Australasia over the period from 1940 to 2000." Furthermore, research by Auckland University scientists reported in this 2010 article and in this 2018 study of Tuvalu (one of the nations Ardern gives as examples in her speech) shows that far from being being swamped by rising seas, most Pacific Island nations are actually increasing in size. It is true that there is a problem with coastal erosion on many Pacific islands but, like the salt water intrusion, it is a problem of resource use by the locals - in this case deforestation and over-development of coastal land.

Climate change is the least of the problems for Pacific Island nations, despite what Ardern would have us and her European hosts believe. Poor governance and corruption in the islands and trade protectionism by countries such as New Zealand and Australia (which have completely destroyed the export trades of most Pacific Islands and therefore their economic self-sufficiency) are the main factors driving unsustainable resource use in the islands. These are the issues Ardern should be addressing if she is serious about the welfare of our Pacific Island neighbours. But I suspect she is far more interested in promoting herself on the global political stage than solving real problems.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The UBI and the Future of Employment

We hear a lot of commentary, generally positive, about the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). The concept is that every adult in society is paid a minimum income by the state. It is not the same as an unemployment benefit because everyone gets it whether they work or not and it is not means tested in any way.

The idea is not new. Thomas Paine conceived of such a concept in the 19th Century and the Beveridge Committee in the United Kingdom, which designed Britain's modern welfare state, considered the idea in 1945. Switzerland rejected the idea in a referendum in 2016 and a number of countries have run pilot schemes, although none has yet fully implemented it.

The idea has support from unexpected quarters such including technology billionaires such as Mark Zuckerberg. I imagine part of their motivation is guilt at the enormous disparities between them and the poorest in society. They also make a practical argument for the UBI, which is that technology advances will destroy all but the most intellectually demanding jobs in the future and that most people will live on a UBI (paid for by taxes on those who earn all the income) and use their time to pursue leisure activities.

The problem with the technologists' view of the future is two-fold. Firstly, history does not bear out their predictions. Every generation since the advent of the Industrial Revolution has worried about the loss of jobs to technology. This was the primary motivation of the violent 18th Century anti-mechanisation protestors known as the Luddites and similar views have been with us ever since.

The reality is that as jobs have been replaced by technology, new jobs have been created and no one has mourned the loss of the old occupations. An example within my lifetime is the complete disappearance of typists and typing pools that were common in most organisations. Most of those typists got other, undoubtedly more interesting, jobs. Unemployment is at historically low levels throughout most of the world so the phenomenon of job-replacement must be universal. If the doomsayers like Zuckerberg are right, when is the mass unemployment finally going to kick in?

The second problem with the view that we will need a UBI in future is that a society structured on such a basis will almost certainly see some very negative social impacts. Work is not just a means to an end. It is for many people their most important social environment, where they meet and interact with more people than they do anywhere else. The act of working also has intrinsic value far beyond the income we earn - it is one of our most important sources of self-fulfilment and self-esteem. The idea that most people will spend most of their time in future on leisure activities flies in the face of human nature and our social needs.

I listened to an interview recently with Harriet Sergeant, the author of Among the Hoods, a book about youth gangs in the United Kingdom. She spoke about why the young men she encountered joined gangs and said they were seeking two things - respect as a member of a cohesive social group and economic independence. The young men in these gangs were most proud of the fact that they could provide for themselves (primarily through drug dealing) and they were contemptuous of the idea of accepting state handouts. Sociological studies of gang membership all over the world say the same thing - self-sufficiency and self-esteem are most important factors, and these are exactly the same attributes we seek in a job.

The unemployed of the future are not going to become artists and musicians any more than the unemployed of today do - they are far more likely to become members of criminal gangs - and my prediction is that the jobs of the future will replace the jobs of today. The UBI is a solution seeking a problem.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Catalan leader's arrest demonstrates totalitarian nature of EU law

If you want to know why Britain was right to vote to leave the EU, you only need look at what has happened to Catalan political leader Carles Puigdemont, who was arrested today in Germany in response to a European Union arrest warrant issued by Spain. This is the same pernicious means that Sweden used to obtain Julian Assange's arrest by Britain. Most countries require that their courts be satisfied on two criteria before they will extradite someone to another country - firstly, there must be a prima facie case made that the arrested person is guilty of a crime warranting extradition, and secondly, the crime must be an offence in the country in which the person has been arrested. The first of these criteria exists to ensure that countries seeking extradition do not trump up charges against people they want returned and the second is there mainly to guard against the extradition laws being used for political crimes. Thus, New Zealand should not extradite someone to China for the crime of dissent against the Chinese regime. The EU arrest warrant system abandons these safeguards, making the accusation of the requesting nation the only criteria for arrest and extradition.

The charges against Carles Puigdemont are wholly political. Puigdemont led his region's referendum last October that resulted in 90% support for independence despite the Spanish's state violent repression of the vote. The referendum and the campaign leading up to it were largely peaceful except for the violent response of the Spanish police. Puigdemont is in effect guilty of nothing more than Nicola Sturgeon was in seeking Scottish independence. The people of Catalonia have a legal and moral case for independence. The right to self-determination is enshrined in the United Nations' Charter and, as the US Declaration of Independence says, governments derive their just powers only from the consent of the governed.

Perhaps the most odious aspect of this case is, as Julian Assange has pointed out, the last time the Germans extradited an elected leader of Catalonia to Spain was in 1940 when the Gestapo arrested the then-president, Lluís Companys, and delivered to him to Franco's Fascist regime to be executed. It is an awful parallel that exposes the totalitarian nature of the current European Union extradition law. Unfortunately many of the European Union's laws are just as undemocratic and abusive of hard-won legal rights.

Britain itself is hardly a paragon of respect for individual rights these days. It is, after all, the British authorities that are laying siege to Julian Assange in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, in spite of Sweden having dropped the charges that the led to the arrest warrant against him and the United Nations' concluding that Assange had been subject to arbitrary detention. But perhaps Britain might be on a path away from such rights-abusing processes with its referendum to leave the European Union.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The greatest irony of identity politics

We are witnessing that point, so characteristic of left wing politics, when the movement starts eating itself. Most amusingly, it is happening with identity politics. The left has been so enthusiastic in its pursuit of new identify groups to sheet to the cause that the entire canvas is coming unraveled. 

They started with class and then moved on to race, indigenous peoples and selected religious minorities such as Muslims, and more recently gays and then transgendered people. The latest thing is intersectionality, which, if you haven’t heard, is the state of being part of overlapping identity groups. Here in New Zealand, for example, we have been divided into the biracial groupings of Maori and Pakeha (a debatably offensive term that means non-Maori and includes people as diverse as Chinese and Arabs). But of course, not all Maori are equal and not all Pakeha are privileged males, so we are then divided into Maori men and women and Pakeha men and women. This begs the question - who is the most oppressed? Are Maori men more oppressed than Pakeha women? What about a Muslim or gay Pakeha - where do they fit on the hierarchy of oppression? Does being female trump being transgendered (which is a real dilemma amongst the radical leftists considering the existence of the ‘TERF’ - the ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’).

The government agencies that are concerned with verifying people’s identities will tell you that anyone in the entire population can be uniquely identified using only four or five characteristics. Given this, it is obvious that it doesn’t take many identity group divisions before you end up with groups with a total membership of...one. It is funny, isn’t it, that in their fervent desire to categorize all of us into identity groups, the radical left is coming full circle to that great tenet of Western civilization - we are unique individuals and should be treated as such, and that no one should be burdened with the sins, real or imagined, of an arbitrary group such as race, sex or religion.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

School shootings are a reflection of militaristic police state

The recent mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which seventeen were killed and fourteen injured, is the latest in a long series of such incidents in American schools. There have been killings in American schools since before the founding of the United States (the first was the Enoch Brown School massacre in 1764), but the incidence of such crimes only gathered pace after the Columbine killings in 1999. They have become so common that Americans seemed to become quite blasé about them - at least until the latest massacre, which has brought strident calls for stronger gun control.

The primary function of the state is to protect life and liberty. We give the government a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in order that it can fulfill this function. Many people in the United States believe that the state cannot adequately carry out this role and that they should have the right to possess and carry firearms for the express purpose of defending themselves. The Second Amendment to the Constitution enshrines this right, although (as I have written before) personal self-defence is not actually the purpose of the Second Amendment at all. 

The right to possess and carry firearms for self-defence does not exist in most other countries. There are limited rights to own firearms for sporting, hunting and pest-control purposes in most countries but even these are usually strictly controlled. In New Zealand, for example, gun owners are licensed through an onerous vetting process and those who do have them are subject to regular checks and inspections to ensure they continue to be safe owners.

The sharp rise in school shooting incidents in the United States over the past 20 years is paradoxical because it comes against a background of significantly decreased homicide rates over the same period. Many states have tightened the rules and background checks for purchases of firearms in recent years and the percentage of the population owning guns has remained static, which begs the question that if there is no obvious correlation between access to guns and the increase in school shootings, what is the cause?

I touched on a problem in my last post that I believe explains at least in part the phenomenon of school shootings - the disaffection of young men in Western society. Mass killings are almost always committed by young men and it seems the more we tell our young men that they are a menace to society, the more certain individuals are likely to act out the role in which we cast them.

Another possible explanation is the increasing resort to violence by the state. Police in the United States killed more than 1100 people in 2015, a rate that surely must exceed any other nation's law enforcement services. Many of these killings are unjustified (such as the case of Australian Justine Damond) and the officers involved are seldom held to account. The increasing militarisation of the police in America, which is increasing under President Trump, will undoubtedly mean more police killings of the people they are meant to serve. Violence begets violence and an escalation on one side of a conflict inevitably leads to a matching escalation on the other side.

The right wing in America has a hypocritical attitude to guns, supporting an unfettered right to bear arms while at the same time supporting a highly militaristic law and order state. I believe that a capable but restrained police force that protects the rights of its citizens should obviate the need for people to carry weapons for their own defence. We have a civilian police force to ensure we don't live in constant fear of attack by criminals but the problem in America is that it has become a place where people fear the police as much as the criminals.

There is evidence from other countries that America would be a safer place, with fewer mass killings, if gun ownership was significantly reduced. However, Americans won't agree to give up their guns while the police are armed like the 82nd Airborne. Any attempt to unilaterally confiscate guns in America would risk civil war. The de-escalation has to start with the government and it needs to be accompanied by policies such as the decriminalisation of recreational drugs that reduce the number of Americans who are targets of the police. But that would require a braver cohort of politicians than currently inhabit that country's halls of power.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Problem with Young Men

The so-called #MeToo movement continues to accuse prominent men of various transgressions ranging from serious sexual assault to what can only be described as poor manners. I wrote here about the hypocrisy of Hollywood and its celebrities who lecture us on all manner of moral causes while providing a safe haven for the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Roman Polanski, so I am not going to dwell on my scepticism for the motives of the whole movement. Rather, I would like to discuss the flip side of the coin - Western society's treatment of young men.

It is undoubtedly true that men continue to assault women in our modern, liberal society despite the emancipation of women in every sphere of life. However, when discussing this issue with women I am often surprised by their ignorance of the equivalent issue for men. The greatest victims of violence by men are other men. I have been the victim of reasonably serious assault several times in my life and I am by no means atypical - if women do not believe this I am sure a straw poll of their male friends will convince them otherwise (although men, perhaps even more than women, are often ashamed to admit they have been victims of violence). Women complain that every time they go out on the town or walk alone at night they are at risk of assault, but the situation is no better for men. Women are at greater risk of sexual attack but even that form of assault is not unusual for men. 

However, that is not the biggest problem for young men in our society. More serious is the disaffection of young men today. Sex is ground zero for the identity wars. We teach young men that masculinity is toxic and that femininity is all good - that masculinity is something to be restrained rather than nurtured, and that men are 'privileged' and women are 'oppressed'. The messages are succeeding if the success of women in surpassing men in education and career outcomes in every field (with the exception of science and technology) are any indication. If the intent is to hamstring men, then other indicators such as the high suicide rates for young and middle-aged men also show the success of this grand social experiment.

Young men get mixed messages and are understandably confused. If masculinity is so bad, why are so many women looking for a man to 'look after them' (and if you don't believe that, have a trawl through the ads on any dating website or application). Women want strong men, not weak, neutered, beta males. And yet young men are told that venturing any opinion in the presence of women is 'mansplaining', sitting in what is the most comfortable position for the male hips is 'manspreading', and showing even the most tentative romantic interest in a woman is sexual harassment. 

The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, whose lectures have packed theatres throughout the world and reached millions on Youtube (and whom I have written about about here), believes young men are seeking meaning and significance as an antidote to the toxification of their sex. Peterson advocates a return to the archetypes of our cultural roots - particularly, but not only, those of the Judeo-Christian scriptures - to provide that meaning and significance. He preaches a message of self-responsibility, short-term sacrifice for long-term benefit, and treading a fine line between order and chaos to live a fulfilling life. He has been surprised that most of his audience is young men, who invariably say his message is life-changing. Peterson brutally tells them to get their act together - that the world needs strong and resourceful men and you are no use to anyone as a weak, neutered, beta male - and they lap it up. 

I am not entirely comfortable with everything Peterson preaches as I think there is another fine line that must be tread - between his archetypal messages and religious fundamentalism. His lectures may be changing the lives of young men but so too are the messages of religious fundamentalists. The reasons thousands flock to Peterson's lectures are the same reasons young Westerners flock to Islamic State. The more our society tells young men that they are (paradoxically) useless, undeservingly privileged and a menace to women, the more they will seek alternative messages. Peterson is the voice of reason and a safe haven for disaffected young men but few commentators understand his appeal and many seek to dismiss his views as "alt-right" (whatever that means). They would do better to listen to what he is saying and to try and understand his message, because I think he is a force for good and the alternative is far worse.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Walter Isaacson's Magnificent Leonardo

One of the books I have read over the summer is Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Isaacson is probably best known for his highly-acclaimed authorised biography of Steve Jobs (which I would strongly recommend even to those who have no particular interest in Apple or its products), and he has excelled once again.

This book traces Leonardo's life from his illegitimate birth in Vinci, his apprenticeship to the painter Verrocchio in Florence, and his productive years in Milan, Rome and eventually France. We all know Leonardo was a brilliant polymath but Isaacson presents a level of detail about the great man's discoveries - in the fields as diverse as geometry, biology, irrigation, military machines, flight and the human body - that is fascinating. I knew about Leonardo's prototype flying machines and submarine, but Isaacson reveals far more obscure discoveries of the great man, many of which were only rediscovered centuries later - the most astonishing being an accurate description of the functioning of the human aortic valve that was only conclusively validated in 2014!

The author doesn't just capture Leonardo's achievements, he tells us much about the great artist and inventor as a man. Leonardo was gay at a time and in a place that was almost as tolerant as our own and, with the help of generous patrons, he had the space to pursue his art and science relatively free from harassment. We learn about Salai, the companion and lover Leonardo had for much of his adult life (and the subject of so many of his drawings), his difficult relationship with his father and his legitimate brothers, his popularity in the social elites of the cities in which he lived, and his love for sartorial finery.

Isaacson captures the important elements of Leonardo's character - particularly his obsessional pursuit of knowledge - that drove his many discoveries but which meant he finished few projects, much to the frustration of his patrons. However, the projects he did complete benefited from his incredibly detailed knowledge across so many fields. His studies of human anatomy, light and perspective are what made his paintings, particularly his portraits such as the sublime Mona Lisa, some of the greatest works of art of all time. Indeed, Isaacson concludes the book with a section 'Learning from Leonardo' in which he compares the traits he identifies in Leonardo - such as relentless curiosity and the ability to 'see the unseen' - with those of Jobs and Einstein (about whom he has also written). 

This is a book you have to buy in hardcover. It is beautifully produced with more than 500 glossy pages interspersed with full colour prints of Leonardo's greatest paintings, drawings and manuscripts, and is well worth the price.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Nunes Memo and the Russia Investigation

We are witnessing the unfolding of the most fascinating scandal in the American political establishment since Watergate. I am referring, of course, to the revelations of the Nunes memo. Devin Nunes is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which last week released a memo prepared for him by his staff that summarised the evidence presented to the committee about the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign's collusion with Russia.

In the last few days I have read many of the news reports about the release of the memo, the memo itself (which you can read here), some excellent analysis including this commentary in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), and this long but detailed background from economist Ross McKitrick. It is particularly worth reading McKitrick's document because it goes back several years and links to earlier events such as the Hillary Clinton email scandal, and it accurately predicts what was in the Nunes document even though it was written before the release of the memo.

The key revelations of the Nunes memo are as follows:

  • The FBI obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to carry out surveillance against Carter Page, a Trump campaign advisor, by presenting to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court evidence that was contained in a dossier written by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele. It is worth pointing out that FISA warrants usually allow "two hops", meaning that the entire Trump campaign staff including Donald Trump himself would have been subject to surveillance under this warrant.
  • In applying for the warrant, and in subsequent renewals, the FBI did not reveal to the court that Christopher Steele was working for FusionGPS, a British research firm that was engaged by the Hillary Clinton campaign to conduct "opposition research" on Trump. The Clinton campaign paid FusionGPS nearly $1m to conduct the research, hiding the payment through a New York law firm called Perkins Coie. The FBI also did not reveal that they had significant doubts about the accuracy of the dossier, with then FBI Director James Comey calling it "salacious and unverified." The FISA warrants also relied on corroborating information from Yahoo News concerning a visit Page made to Russia in July 2016, which the FBI failed to disclose (and actually denied) also came from Christopher Steele. 
  • FBI officers were clearly engaged in a campaign to discredit president-elect Donald Trump, with text communication between two officers who were involved in the investigation saying, "there’s no way [Trump] gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40."
The Democrats and much of the media have criticised the release of the Nunes memo but no one has denied the salient facts, which indicate that the investigation into the collusion of the Trump campaign with the Russians was initiated because of highly doubtful information commissioned by the Clinton campaign, and that the FBI misled the court to obtain warrants. The latter is a very serious matter and McKitrick speculates that it will result in criminal charges, at a minimum against the FBI officers involved (including deputy director Andrew McCabe who resigned suddenly last week), Clinton aides such as Cheryl Mill and Huma Abedin, and possibly Hillary Clinton herself. He goes so far as to point out that presidential immunity from prosecution does not apply after a president leaves office, implying that if Obama knew about all of this, then he may face prosecution.

Finally, it is worth looking back on how Donald Trump has handled these matters. He received a great deal of criticism for sacking James Comey last year and was painted as a paranoid idiot for claiming that the Obama administration was carrying out surveillance against his staff at Trump Tower. We know he was considering sacking special investigator Robert Muller but decided not to. With what we now know, it looks like he was justified in all these actions. But other than that, he has remained largely aloof from the Russian investigation. 

I think Trump has played a blinder. He has given the FBI, the special investigator, and Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, all the rope they wanted. It is now tightening around their own necks.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Jail for damaging trees is an indictment on New Zealand

Every now and then I come across a story that makes me despair at the extent to which our individual rights are being eroded beyond the point of redemption. Just such a story was in the New Zealand media last week reporting how an Auckland developer, Augustine Lau, has been sentenced to two and a half months in jail for damaging trees on his own property. This isn't the first case of its kind in this country but it is a new milestone on a path that leads to the situation that exists in Bolivia, where trees and bugs have rights but those of humans are ignored.

My own residence in Wellington has a large section that my wife and I have restored to native forest, with new kauri, rimu and totara established amongst a miriad of smaller trees. Prior to our ownership, the property had been neglected and had been used as a rubbish tip. Our land adjoins public reserve land, which remains in a similar or worse state to what our property was originally, despite our efforts to persuade the local council to take better care of it. I state this so that readers will understand that I am not a philistine where the environment is concerned and to demonstrate that public ownership and interference in property rights is no guarantee of protection of the environment - in fact, quite the opposite.

The trees that Lau damaged were mostly pohutakawa, which are very common and so readily self-seeded that they tend to be a nuisance. They are certainly no General Sherman. But even if they were, trees on private property belong to the property owner and other than in a few cases where their removal may directly affect a neighbouring property (which would be covered by tort), no one else should have a legal interest in them. The fact that the Auckland Council is prepared to use the full force of the state's legal monopoly on violence against Lau for dealing with his own trees is an indication on how disproportionate our public planning laws have become.

It seems from the new reports that Mr Lau is not the most cooperative fellow and he appears to have a track record of breaches of the planning laws are concerned. In fact he sounds like a rogue. But nothing he has done comes close to justifying the Auckland Council's use of the state's legal monopoly on violence to deprive him of his freedom. This is a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a obstinate nut, and it is an indictment on the status of property rights in New Zealand that such a disproportionate response is possible under our planning laws.


Friday, January 26, 2018

Pregnant with power

I visit a massage therapist regularly to treat the occupational overuse syndrome I suffer as a result of spending a great deal of time at the keyboard. I imagine massage therapists have two types of clients - those who remain silent throughout the treatment and those who like to talk. I fall into the latter category and we enjoy conversations on a variety of subjects, usually about our interests in music, literature and even philosophy. This week we strayed into politics, which turned out to be a bit of a mistake.

My therapist expressed her delight at learning that the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, was expecting a baby. She asked whether I shared her joy at the announcement. I responded that I was 'blasé' and that while I wished the Prime Minister and her partner all the best, I felt it didn't justify all the media acclaim it had received. I said further that I thought it would be very difficult for her to manage being pregnant and having a baby and the demands of the job, and that her determination only to take six weeks off seemed optimistic, given that every woman I know in similar circumstances has ended up taking considerably more time off work than they had initially planned. My therapist's reaction was as if I had said that all pregnant women should be chained to their beds for the entirety of their term!

It got me thinking about this whole business of Ardern being pregnant and I realised there is something about it all that makes me a little uncomfortable, but it took me a while to figure out exactly what it is. I wrote in this blog back in December of my concerns about the secret coalition agreement (which still hasn't been released) between Ardern's Labour Party and coalition partner New Zealand First. There was speculation at the time that the agreement covered, inter alia, what would happen when Ardern took time off to have a baby (i.e. New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, whose party won just 7% of the vote, would become acting prime minister). The news that Ardern was aware that she was pregnant at the time of negotiating that agreement bears this out.

So what makes me uncomfortable is that our governing coalition saw fit to negotiate control of the levers of government taking into account Ardern's personal circumstances, but didn't feel the public needed, or had a right, to know. Why didn't they trust us to reveal this information earlier?

The entire media has been doing its best to convince us that Ardern's pregnancy is a very great thing for women and for New Zealand, but I'm not so sure. I think Ardern has put her personal interests ahead of the country and the power-hungry politicians in her coalition have gone along with it because it benefited them to do so. It may well be that Ardern can manage having a baby while being prime minister but the voters of New Zealand should have been the ones to decide that - and whether Winston Peters should be prime minister - not Ardern and her political cronies.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Jordan Peterson's adamantine weapons

I have been following Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson for some time and I believe he is one of the most profound thinkers and philosophers in the world today. Peterson could be described as a conservative, if only because he thinks that several thousand years of civilisation (and specifically the archetypes that underpin human morality) shouldn't be abandoned lightly, but in many ways his views are a radical alternative to everything that is taught in the social sciences today. He is best known for his lectures on the psychological significance of the Bible stories, some of which have been viewed than a million times on YouTube, and also for his controversial opposition to Canada's Bill C-16 (which I wrote about here).

Peterson preaches a message of self-responsibility - that individuals have the potential and ability to improve their lives and to deal with the crises and chaos that are inevitable in every human life - and he has been surprised to discover his lectures appeal particularly to young men. He puts this down to a social crisis of confidence in masculinity, which is a consequence of the post-modernist philosophy that drives group identity and victim-mongering in Western societies today. We teach young men that masculinity is toxic and that it must be sublimated to more worthy feminine traits. Peterson defends masculinity, pointing out that it is also about courage, nobility and resolution, and questions whether women really want to emasculate men (and as an amusing aside, he wonders why the fastest selling paperback book of all time, purchased almost exclusively by women, is about a sado-masochistic relationship between a dominant man and a submissive woman).

Peterson has been in the news again this week, this time for an interview he did with television news presenter Cathy Newman on Britain's Channel 4. Newman is a typical contemporary journalist, who doesn't see her role as being a presenter of truth and balance, but rather as an advocate for victim groups and a warrior against their oppressors. The interview focused on Peterson's belief that women in Western countries are not, for the most part, still discriminated against in the workplace. He rebutted Newman's contention that the disparity of female representation in some highly paid but stressful jobs, such as chief executives of public companies, is largely due to discrimination, responding that in his considerable experience of counselling people at the top of their professions, women often make different (and in his view more sensible) choices about what is important to them.

Newman wanted to portray Peterson as a sexist, misogynist defender of the oppressive patriarchy but Peterson didn't respond as most interviewees would. He didn't apologise, concede or allow his views to be misrepresented. Instead, he stuck to his guns, challenged Newman's premises, corrected her misrepresentations, and supported his own claims with evidence from his years as a clinical psychologist. Most of all, he remained good-humoured throughout the interview. It worked spectacularly - without any apparent effort or intent, he made Newman seem ill-prepared, irrational and inarticulate.

I think the best thing that Peterson has done is to show how the post-modernist worldview that dominates so much of today's public discourse, and that seems so daunting to those of us who try to challenge it, is built on intellectual sand. Truth and logic are adamantine weapons that when wielded by a skilled master, will cut through even the most formidable casuistry and cant.

You can watch the interview here.


Monday, January 15, 2018

Niall Ferguson loses the plot

I have been a fan of the renowned economic historian Niall Ferguson for many years. The bookshelves in my office, where I am writing this, contain his works The Ascent of Money, Empire and Civilisation. I think he added a lot to our understanding of the extraordinary dominance of Western civilisation since the 15th Century with his identification of six 'killer apps' that drove the West's political, economic and military growth - competition, science, the property owning democracy, modern medicine, the consumer society and the Protestant work ethic. Therefore, I had high expectations of Ferguson's latest book, which I bought a few months ago but only got around to reading over the summer holidays.

The Square and the Tower is about networks and their ability to challenge established hierarchical political and social structures. Ferguson starts with the Illuminati, the secret society established in Munich in the 18th Century whose membership came to include princes, archdukes, clergymen and intellectuals, and which some people claim is still around, pulling the strings of power like some grand puppet master. Ferguson, to his credit, dismisses most of the conspiracy theories, for example pointing out that the Illuminati was shut down by the Bavarian government within a few years of its establishment. 

Most of the book is Ferguson's usual mix of facts, analysis and interesting connections, but where it parts ways with his earlier works is in its conclusions about current day events. Ferguson may dismiss conspiracy theories in the case of the Illuminati but is happy to embrace them in respect of Donald Trump, giving plenty of credence to the "Russia hacked the election" conspiracy and ironically blaming "fake news" for Trump's 2016 election victory and Brexit. 

He goes on to paint internet and social media giants such as Google and Facebook as the present day Illuminati and thinks they are "profoundly inegalitarian" because they are still largely owned by their founders. He seems to pine for a resurgence of totalitarianism when he says, "A generation mostly removed from conflict - the baby-boomers - had failed to learn the lesson that it is not unregulated networks that reduce inequality but wars, revolutions, hyperinflation and other forms of expropriation." This is reinforced when he claims equivalence between China and America, i.e. "both states are republics, with roughly comparable vertical structures of administration and not wholly dissimilar concentrations of power in the hands of the central government." Seriously, Niall?

In some of the later chapters he demonstrates his ignorance of the technologies on which he comments, for example when talking about digital currencies he says, "Bitcoin seems extraordinarily wasteful of computer resources because of the fact that it is 'mined' [on computers]." It is precisely because it involves the work of huge numbers of computers that gives Bitcoin its value, something I would have thought the author of "The Ascent of Money" would be able to appreciate. But, not to worry, if Ferguson is right, we'll all be using China's crypto-currency in future.