Friday, December 19, 2014

Yes, it is Islam (and all the Other Religions)

It is hard to conceive what motivates the minds of men who would take over a school and set out to systematically kill all the children and staff within it over a period of many hours, such as happened this week in Peshawar, Pakistan. The Peshawar massacre was like a monumental rebuttal of the likes of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott who rushed to appease the Islamic community by claiming that the Sydney café attack by an Islamic cleric a day earlier was nothing to do with Islam. 

Abbott's absolution of Islam has been echoed again and again by the likes of Barack Obama, David Cameron and other Western leaders following similar attacks on their soil. But I'm afraid such disavowals are starting to wear a little thin, particularly when the perpetrators of these acts make it abundantly clear (as the Sydney attacker did with his use of an Islamic slogan flag) that they are acting in the name of Islam. I'm sure it will be revealed that the monsters who perpetrated the Peshawar massacre were making some sort of statement about the education of girls and the teaching of non-Islamic disciplines such as modern science, just like the Boko Haram (literally 'books forbidden') group in Nigeria and the man who shot Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan.

Religion is at the heart of all these acts, as it is at the heart of much of the violence in the world today and throughout history. Fortunately for those of us who live in the originally-Christian West, Christianity has lost its potency as a motivator for violence, but Islam has certainly stepped into its shoes as one of the primary forces for evil-doing in the world.

The problem with religion is that it can justify any extreme of behaviour in the name of its gods. The scriptures of most religions include plenty of material to justify all manner of violent acts. Anyone who is seen as not being a sufficiently doctrinaire adherent to a particular faith can be struck down with little compunction on the part of the perpetrator. There is no compassion, empathy or guilt when you are acting in the name of the supreme being, for what is the worth of the life of child against the majesty of the creator?

Religious people believe they are moral, but really they are completely amoral. They substitute their interpretation of the words of an old book for the rational thoughts of their own mind. True morality is rationalism. True morality is about taking personal responsibility for, and thinking through the effects of, the actions you take. The rational person understands the horrible misery that killing a child brings to everyone who loved or cared for that child and thinks about how he or she would feel in the place of the victim. The religious person thinks only of whether their action will bring them distinction in the eyes of their god. I concede that evil is not confined to the devoutly religious, but religion enables its adherents to escape personal responsibility for their acts and in doing so makes it easier for them to commit evil.

On that rather depressing note, I would like to wish those who have read my blog posts this year a very happy holiday season. I intend to write more next year and hope that some of what I write interests and entertains you.

Thank you for reading and thank you most of all for your rationalism. It is a rare commodity.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Biased BBC Typical of State Broadcasters

British Prime Minister David Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne this week attacked the BBC as biased, accusing it of systematic exaggeration in its coverage of the Cameron Government's mini-budget, known as the Autumn Statement. What seems to have particularly riled the Tories is the claim by a BBC political reporter that the budget would take Britain back to the economic conditions described in George Orwell's novel, The Road to Wigan Pier. The only thing about this that surprises me is that Cameron and Osborne are surprised by the obvious left-wing bias of the state broadcaster.

Here in New Zealand the media, and in particular the state-owned broadcasters, show similar political partisanship. A few days ago I was in a taxi and the cabbie was listening to Radio New Zealand National's Morning Report programme, which has a heavy focus on coverage of local political affairs. Now, I stopped listening to National Radio during the 2008 election campaign when the station made no attempt to hide its hugely biased coverage in favour of then Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark over (successful) centre-right National Party challenger John Key. I was tempted to ask the cabbie to turn it off but decided it would be interesting to see whether National Radio's coverage of politics had become any more even-handed. There followed the most appalling radio interview I have heard in a long time. The reporter, unable to bait her cabinet minister interviewee into conceding what she wanted, resorted to the sort of petulant hectoring one would normally only hear in a drunken pub debate. This endured for five minutes with the cabinet minister maintaining her position calmly and the reporter becoming ever more belligerent.

Of course there is a very logical reason why state broadcasters should be biased towards left-wing political views and that is that state ownership and forcible tax-payer funding of broadcasting services only makes sense to those with Socialist views. It is simply self-interest and self-preservation.

There was perhaps a legitimate economic argument in favour of the state getting into broadcasting in the early days of radio and television, when the entry costs were a high barrier to the private sector, particularly in small countries like New Zealand. It could be argued that if the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation hadn't established a television network in New Zealand in 1962 then this country may have gone without television for many years after that. Personally I think this is doubtful and in a free market it wouldn't have taken long for small, local television broadcasters to become established (and deregulation in 1989 proved this by quickly leading to the establishment of the privately-owned TV3). But even if such economic arguments had some legitimacy years ago, in the current environment when anyone with a personal computer can set up their own Youtube channel or streaming radio channel, such arguments are ridiculous.

The answer for David Cameron is that he should privatise the BBC. It is the dominance of the BBC and Radio New Zealand through state funding and protection that gives them their political power. In a highly competitive market, the biases of one broadcaster would not matter. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Ferguson, Missouri Shows Race Relations in America Still a Long Way to Go

Living in New Zealand it is hard to appreciate just how big an issue race is in America. Sure, we have a few tensions around Maori historical grievances but it is nothing compared to the racial firestorms that periodically break out in America between African-Americans and other races. The most recent example is the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, following the decision by a grand jury not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson over the fatal shooting of black youth Michael Brown.

I think it is likely from what I have read that the grand jury made the right decision in this case. However, there is no doubt that America's law enforcement agencies have become far too trigger-happy, with many recent examples of innocent Americans being shot by over-zealous, and even downright sociopathic, police officers (such as the killings of Samantha Ramsay and Keith Vidal or the shooting of Robby Tolan in his parent's driveway or of 70-year-old Bobby Canipe, who was reaching for his walking stick). Many shootings by policemen involve black victims and you have to think the Ferguson protestors have a valid point. 

The real cause of the race relations problems in Ferguson and across America is a vast historical legacy of bitterness that isn't easily overcome. For almost two centuries Africans were transported in appalling conditions to serve as slaves in North America and, as if that were not enough of a crime against humanity, their descendants for multiple generations inherited their bondage. Millions of Americans spent their entire lives being owned by another human being. Slavery was finally abolished by President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, although it took another three years for the Union troops to enforce the proclamation throughout the South by defeating the Confederacy. It has been less than 150 years since then and to appreciate how little historical time that is, consider that there are likely to be people alive today whose grandparents were born into slavery. And, of course, it didn't stop there. Reconstruction after the Civil War led to another century of discriminatory 'Jim Crow' laws in the South that only ended with the Civil Rights Act and other measures in the 1960s. So, the wound is still very raw.

However, much as I sympathise with the historical plight of African-Americans, I don't accept the idea of 'white guilt' as it is contemporarily applied to Americans (or New Zealanders). Americans of European descent today are not responsible for the crimes of their ancestors. Prejudice is about pre-judging people (which is the very root of the word) on the basis of some collective trait, and Americans of European descent should no more be judged by their racial make-up than African-Americans, for to do so would be to pile one wrong on another. People should be judged by their actions as individuals, not tarred by association with the deeds of their forebears. The founding fathers of America got it right when they said that all men are created equal and have unalienable rights. The fact that they did not practice what they preached does not lessen the truth and utility of their famous words today. The answer to America's bitter racial legacy is to reaffirm and hold fast to those great truths.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Scientific Achievement Pales in the Face of Political Correctness

We live in strange times indeed. This week the scientists at the European Space Agency were celebrating their achievement in landing the Philae robotic craft on Comet 67P. Lead scientist Dr Matt Taylor should have been enjoying his time in the spotlight but little did he realise that to many media outlets and commentators the important thing was not his amazing scientific triumph but the fact that he was wearing a shirt with images of women on it. The images weren't of naked women, just women with the sort of clothing that female rockstars and many other young women like to wear - sexy and somewhat revealing but hardly indecent.

Matt Taylor has nothing to apologise for. His shirt was a little tacky for my tastes but it was nothing any reasonable person should take offence over. This is just another example of the professional offence-takers in the cause of identity politics going overboard. At a time when entire cities of women are being raped and enslaved by Islamic militants in Iraq, and young girls are being forced to endure genital mutilation in the name of that religion (even in cities in the West), those who protest against Matt Taylor's shirt reveal themselves to be cowardly hypocrites. Matt Taylor was an easy target, who the offence-takers rightly assumed would back down and offer a tearful apology. Were the offence-takers to tackle the extreme misogynistic bile that spews from the mouths of imams in the mosques of their own cities, they know they risk getting their throats cut.

Matt Taylor is a scientific hero and should be lauded as one, whatever his sartorial inclinations. As for the offence-takers, they should grow a spine and take on those who really do intend offence to women.

Note: If you've been wondering why I haven't been very prolific in my postings recently, I had an accident on my motorbike a few weeks ago and have been recovering from a broken leg. It is frustrating having to get about on crutches but I am recovering speedily thanks to the marvellous skills of the medical professionals who have treated me and the amazing advances in orthopaedic surgery that mean I will be back on my feet within the next few weeks.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Is It Possible to Create New Wealth?

My fellow blogger, Lindsay Mitchell, directed readers of her posts to the maiden speech of newly elected ACT Party MP, David Seymour. I found the speech a little weird, to be honest, but that was more about Seymour's use of language than what he was trying to say. In the speech he posed an interesting question - is it possible for anybody to create new wealth?

If anyone has any doubts about the answer, they need only look at the graph below, which shows that as the population of the world has increased exponentially, income per person has increased at a much greater exponential rate [source].

Human Population Growth and Income Per Person Over the Past 2000 Years

Clearly wealth is not a zero-sum game. This is contrary to the dire predictions of those who believe in Malthusian catastrophe and the theory of limits to growth popularised in modern times by the doomsayers at the Club of Rome.

A zero-sum game view of wealth is the primary economic frame of reference for the political left-wing. Socialists believe that the wealth I accumulate I take from others. Clearly their view is not supported by the facts as the second graph below (ibid) illustrates - as global wealth has continued to increase exponentially over the past few decades, the number of people below the global poverty measure (in absolute terms, not just proportionately) has dramatically decreased. Note that this decrease coincided with the period of greatest economic liberalisation and retrenchment of the state in more than a century.

Poverty is Rapidly Declining, The Economist June 2013
So why do Socialists continue to claim that my gain is someone else's loss? Some of them just may be gullible fools and we can excuse their stupidity. The rest are frauds - they know better but advocate their doctrine out of a petty and spiteful view of humanity. These are the truly dangerous ones. Like the monstrous Ellsworth M. Toohey in Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead, the frauds claim to represent the poor and oppressed but actually are pursuing far less noble interests. They can't create wealth themselves so want to deny anyone else the opportunity to do so, preferring that everyone is poor than some people other than themselves are wealthy. Of course, they see themselves as running their utopian, egalitarian world, enjoying the benefits of wealth and power without ever having to earn it.

One of the reasons David Seymour is in Parliament, and we have a pragmatic, centrist government rather than a diehard Socialist one, is that in the recent general election New Zealanders rejected the politics of envy. They voted for politicians that they thought would allow new wealth to be created so that they themselves can enjoy the benefits of that growth. In other words, they recognised that a rising tide raises everyone's boat.

UPDATE: If you want a real life example of an Ellsworth M. Toohey, there is none better than Paul Krugman, the economist and New York Times columnist, who is now calling for the greatest innovator in the publishing industry in the last 50 years, a company that has enabled writers such as me to bypass the traditional book publishing oligopoly, to be hobbled by the US Government.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Self-Determination, Nationalism and Maori Treaty Rights

The New Zealand election campaign brought with it the usual xenophobia from looney right-wing parties such as New Zealand First and Conservative, and at the same time we heard that the Government is to guarantee the Maori tribe Tuhoe some degree of self-determination under a settlement of their Treaty of Waitangi land claim.  All this was against a background of the Scottish vote on independence from Britain and the territorial gains by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and it got me thinking about self-determination and how far it should be taken as a matter of rights.

I am a keen student of American history and I am particularly interested in the Civil War, that most ignominious conflict in US history. At a political level the US Civil War was about self-determination - the right of the states to determine their own laws versus the right of the US federal government to impose overarching laws on the states. Of course, it was also about the morality of slavery but that was in many ways secondary as a cause of the conflict to the issue of 'states rights'.

My views on self-determination come from my libertarian politics and the Objectivist philosophy on which those political views are based. I believe that individuals are inherently sovereign and that governments are (to borrow a phrase from an important American document on the subject) "instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." This means that self-determination, if it means anything at all, must apply at the individual level - in other words I should be able to determine how I am governed. But many would say that individual self-determination is impossible, or at least in practice it would amount to anarchy. After all, how can the individual self-determination of 4.5 million New Zealanders (or 300 million Americans for that matter) possibly be compatible with good government?

The answer is, it depends on what you mean by "good government". The American founders defined the ideal as government that protects the rights of its citizens, that is the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To those good men, government had no other function than to protect the individual rights of its citizens. Good government is, by their definition, the collective expression of the self-determined and voluntary will of the people to protect their rights. They understood rights as being inherent in man and that the rights of one individual could not infringe upon the rights of another (their heinous error in not applying rights to slaves notwithstanding). They accepted that in order to maintain individual rights, governments must act to prevent individuals abrogating the rights of others and should arbitrate in disputes over rights between individuals. In other words, they understood that as long as governments only protect individual rights and do nothing else, there is no inconsistency between individual self-determination and collective government.

Taken to its logical conclusion, self-determination means that any group of individuals should be able to decide to opt out of any existing governing structure (be it nation, city or neighbourhood) and set up an alternative. This is, of course, exactly what the American founders did. Which brings me back to the Tuhoe, the Scots and ISIS. The problem with all of these groups' aspirations for greater self-determination is that none of them wants to protect individual rights. Tuhoe want to impose a traditional form of Maori government, wherein political power was seized by the strongest and most brutal members of the tribe, and women, slaves and outsiders had no rights at all. The Scots independence campaigners wanted to retain and enhance their socialist economy wherein taxpayers are forced to part with an ever-larger portion of the fruits of their labour to pay for whatever the government wants to spend it on. And the Islamic State rebels want to impose Sharia law wherein women and 'infidels' are second class citizens and no one is free to choose what religion they practice, who they marry and what they say. In all of these cases the alternative form of government is less protective of individual rights than the one they are seeking to replace. That is not self-determination in my book.

I have no truck with nationalism. All nation states are artificial constructs, no matter how old or grand they are, and there is nothing inherently good in one national structure versus another. I'm all for tearing down anachronistic national or empirical structures where they do not serve the citizens they should be serving. I believe that smaller, more local government is generally better at protecting individual rights because it is easier to hold accountable than larger, more geographically spread government. But self-determination is not worthy of the name unless it protects individual rights.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Common Sense of the New Zealand Voter Prevails

The general election in New Zealand produced a result that is both extraordinary and comforting. It is extraordinary because the National Party won a third term in government with an overall majority of seats and an increase in votes - the first time a third term government has increased its vote since Richard 'King Dick' Seddon's government in 1899. The left-wing Labour and Green parties both saw their vote decrease over the 2011 election. The race-based Maori Party also saw its vote decrease and the Internet-Mana Party, Kim Dotcom's personal political vehicle for ensuring he maintains his legal sanctuary in New Zealand, was wiped out.

It was comforting because New Zealand voters ignored all of the distractions from left-wing commentators and the mainstream media to ensure the current government's middle-of-the-road economic policies would continue. Voters saw the distractions, including allegations that the National Government has abused the powers of the security services to target New Zealanders and its political enemies, as disingenuous, rightly questioning the motives of those who were making the allegations.

I was hoping for the libertarian ACT Party to do better and particularly that its leader, Jamie Whyte, would make it into Parliament, but nevertheless I am well satisfied with the result. Had the outcome of the election been radically different, with a Labour-Greens coalition introducing new punitive taxes and other economically damaging policies, I would be seriously reconsidering whether I would continue to call New Zealand home. But that is not necessary, at least for another three years, and for that I am grateful for the common sense of the New Zealand voter.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Kiwiwit's Easy Guide to Voting

I imagine the whole world knows there is a general election in New Zealand this Saturday, given I have seen articles about our ridiculous election campaign in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and many other international publications over the last month.  Many other bloggers are publishing their voting guides, giving their careful assessment of candidates in each electorate. My voting guide is much simpler. It has three easy principles that the discerning libertarian voter can apply to ensure New Zealand ends up with the best of the bad bunch:

1) Don't vote for the looneys. That includes all Conservative, Green and New Zealand First party candidates.

2) Vote for the ACT candidate if you have one in your electorate. If you don't, vote for the National candidate. Yes, I know, voting for that bunch of unprincipled wimps in the National Party sticks in my craw as well, but as bad as they are, the others are worse.

3) Give your party vote to ACT.

Simple really.  And remember the old Democratic Party slogan, vote early and often!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Moment of Truth for Dotcom Will Come Saturday

When the Dotcom case first hit the news in New Zealand, I had some sympathy for the corpulent German. New Zealand law enforcement agencies, acting upon the instructions of US authorities, had grossly abused their legal powers and Dotcom's rights as a New Zealand resident by subjecting him to a humiliating arrest and confiscation of assets - all in pursuit of criminal copyright charges that even the US courts have been extremely reluctant to enforce in any case where a service provider like Dotcom's Mega-upload business has been the defendant. But any sympathy I might have had for Dotcom has evaporated as he has attempted to use his considerable wealth to pervert the New Zealand electoral process in his own interests.

I didn't watch the coverage of Dotcom's so-called 'Moment of Truth' rally last night in Auckland but I've read accounts of those who were there. The Mega-man was expected to reveal damning evidence showing that Prime Minister John Key knew about him before the New Zealand authorities acted on the US arrest warrant. Furthermore, he claimed that he was lured to New Zealand with the express purpose of the New Zealand Government extraditing him to the United States. Unfortunately for Mr Dotcom's credibility he revealed no evidence to support these claims. The only credible allegations were those by Edward Snowden (who joined by video from Russia) and journalist Glenn Greenwald that the New Zealand Government has been engaging in mass surveillance of its citizens. John Key has categorically denied these allegations and has released declassified documents that he claims support his denial.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am more than a little suspicious of our modern security state. The security capabilities that are meant to be directed at external threats are often used for internal surveillance and any legal constraints on their misuse are inadequate or ignored. The use of New Zealand's security agencies to enforce the copyright infringement case against Kim Dotcom is proof of this. However, the New Zealand courts have already shown a willingness to uphold Dotcom's legal rights and there is every likelihood that they will eventually dismiss the extradition case against him. But that is not enough for the the former Herr Schmitz.

I believe anyone should be able to exercise their rights to free speech by putting their money where their political mouthpiece is, but I think no one should have any illusions about what Dotcom is trying to do here. This has been a torrid election campaign with the left-wing opposition engaging in what has looked like increasingly desperate tactics to topple the Key Government. The latest polls show the National Party's support as holding at around 50% and it seems likely that, come the election next Saturday, New Zealanders will respond to Dotcom's cynical misuse of our electoral process by denying him and his political allies any representation in Parliament. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Scottish Yes Vote the End of 'Great' Britain

While here in New Zealand we wrestle with the choices of who is the least bad political party in a crowded general election field, on the other side of the world a more crucial vote is about to take place. I am writing, of course, about the Scottish referendum on independence, which, if you believe the polls, is going down to wire.

Like most distant international observers, at first I regarded this referendum as something of a sham. Early indications were that the 'No' vote would win by the best part of 20 percentage points and that the Scots would soon get back to complaining about the weather and their lack of success on the football turf. My reaction to the latest poll, which has the 'Yes' vote one point ahead, initially was shocked disappointment. Britain is the country in which I have lived the most years of my life after New Zealand and I have a immense fondness for the place.  But on consideration, another part of me concludes that 'Great' Britain died a long time ago and the dismembering of the corpse is overdue.

Britain today is a country that ignores mass child abuse in the name of tolerance. It is a country where you can be arrested for quoting its greatest prime minister. And it is a country that chose to launch the Olympic Games with a celebration of a moribund public health system in which people are much less likely to survive cancer than in other countries. In other words, it is not a country its citizens should be particularly proud of. However, does that justify the Scots seceding?

The problem for the Scots is that the things they want to preserve by becoming independent are the things that have caused Britain to decline from its former glory. They want more National Health System, more welfare and more government interference in their social and economic lives. They think they are a more caring society than the rest of Britain and they want even more of it. The problem for the Scots is that England, or more specifically the Southeast of England, pays the bill and they delude themselves that North Sea oil will continue to pay for their already over-extended Socialist economy. Nothing could be further from the truth. North Sea oil is already starting to run out and without it the Scottish economy will look more like that of Greece or Portugal.

But in my view the worst thing about a Yes vote in the referendum is that it is a point of no return. Britain seemed like a lost cause once before - in the 1970s - but Maggie Thatcher dragged it kicking and screaming back into a position of world political and economic leadership. I have liked to think that the decline since Thatcher was just one more good prime minister away from being reversed. A Yes vote will lock in that decline and Britain will never be Great again. Personally I feel that is a very great shame.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The True Cost of Election Bribes

We have an election campaign underway in New Zealand. You would need to be a blind and deaf hermit to miss all the bullshit the media have been spouting about it. But in between the wall-to-wall coverage of the petty name-calling and downright lies, we are beginning to see some policy announcements from the parties and almost every one of them is trying to bribe voters with promises of more government spending. Even the so-called centre-right National Party thinks it can bribe first home buyers into voting for it (and Not PC gives a very good account of why that is a silly idea in this blog post). 

Unfortunately, many voters are too gullible to question where the money for these bribes comes from. Every dollar has to come from some hardworking taxpayer's pocket. In fact, every dollar of government spending means that around $1.25 has to come from a taxpayer because there is a transaction cost in collecting and spending the money. It costs to run the tax department and it costs to run all the government agencies that spend the loot the government extorts from taxpayers - and despite the ease of the task, they're none too efficient at spending the money because they have no incentive to be efficient (unlike businesses who have to compete with other businesses to be ever more efficient at producing the products and services they produce). 

But, in reality, it's even worse than that. The true cost of the government spending one dollar is much higher because the taxpayer's $1.25 probably would have been invested in a business (either directly by buying shares or indirectly via a bank) and that $1.25 of capital might have enabled the business to produce an additional $20 worth of products or services. That $20 worth of revenue to the company would have been spent on, say, $10 in wages, $5 of supplies and $3 in rent. And the workers that earned the wages would have spent their additional $10 on food at the supermarket or put it towards an Air New Zealand flight to see grandma, and the supplier would have spent some of his $5 on wages, and the landlord would have spent some of his $3 on paying a contractor to get the roof fixed, and so on and so forth.

Now you start to see the true cost of that one dollar the government is promising to spend on you. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Friday, August 22, 2014

What Keeps People in Poverty

I have observed that in the current general election campaign in New Zealand there has already been much of the usual commentary about 'child poverty'. The phrase is meaningless because minors cannot have legal title to assets and therefore can't really be rich or poor. What the politicians and commentators really mean is parental poverty.

I have been interested in seeing whether there is anything new in the election commentary about poverty and came across this article by Kate Tindall on the Tindall Foundation's website. The Foundation was established by New Zealand businessman Stephen Tindall and his family and engages in charitable activities. The article quotes the Auckland City Mission on the factors it thinks keeps people in poverty and while I agree the factors exacerbate the difficulties of people in poverty, I think they are symptoms rather than causes and I disagree with most of the proposed solutions.

The Mission blames 'fringe lenders' for keeping poor people poor, as if lenders somehow press-ganged their customers into borrowing, and a 'poverty premium' in the form of higher interest rates. Anyone who knows anything about the finance industry knows that interest rates are proportional to risk. I can borrow at very low interest rates because I have never not paid back a loan. I am sure many of the Auckland City Mission's clients pay much higher interest rates (if they can get anyone to lend to them at all) because either they have a track record of not paying the money back, or no track record at all. The solution, according to the Mission, is to cap the interest rates charged by all lenders. Of course the outcome of this is that no one will lend to these people at all - why would they when they can't get a sufficient return to cover the losses on the default loans?

The Mission talks about the serious impact of having a family member in prison, as if this situation was merely an unfortunate accident rather than the result of the criminal activities of the family member in question. Somewhere, some other family is living with the consequences of that person's criminal action - perhaps the loss of a primary breadwinner with the result that the victim's family in now in poverty through no fault of their own. The Mission talks about making more use of the Clean Slate Act, as if state-sanctioned lying about someone's criminal activity is going to make everything better.

The Mission calls for 'a minimum standard for all rental accommodation' including private rentals. This is similar to the cap on interest rates. Putting additional compliance costs on private landlords is not going to magically create better, less-expensive housing - rather it will push up rentals and discourage property owners from renting out their properties at all.

The Mission calls for 'tougher monitoring' of casual employment and legislated increases in minimal wages. Again, the obvious effect will be the exact opposite of that intended as employers will be discouraged from hiring the very people the Mission claims to care about - the least skilled and qualified - with the consequence that they will be denied a very real opportunity of gaining work experience and improving their lot.

Dental Care
Dental care is already free or heavily subsidised for school children and there are welfare grants available to low income people to pay dental bills. The reality is that dental care is not cheap and the higher taxes that will be required to pay for increased state-provided dental care will mean taxpayers will be less able to provide for their own dental bills.

The Mission says its clients struggle to provide school lunches to their children. I suspect that in many cases the problem is not that the money is not available at all but rather that money spent on school lunches is regarded as discretionary and a lower priority than competing adult 'needs' such as beer, cigarettes and poker machines. I imagine another problem is that many low income people simply do not know how to make a cheap nutritious lunch such as sandwiches and a piece of fruit and instead give their children cash (when they can afford it) for fast food - hardly a cheap or nutritious choice.

This is probably the one area where the concerns expressed and proposed solutions are valid. Negotiating government services is labyrinthine, particularly for those who have to deal with government a lot. To their credit, MSD is doing much to try and simplify and improve their services, but more certainly needs to be done.

Finally, the Mission says that 'course providers who receive government subsidies must guarantee sustainable employment outcomes.' This is probably the craziest of all their solutions. How on earth can an education provider possibly guarantee employment for their graduates? If this were to be enforced, it would force education providers out of business.

It might seem from my comments above that I am unsympathetic to the plight of the poor. That is not the case. There was a time in my life when I was down to my last few dollars and was genuinely unsure of where my next meal would come from or where I would spend the night. I just don't think that the ill-conceived and clearly illogical policies advocated by the Auckland City Mission are likely to have any real impact on poverty in this country. There is only one real solution to poverty and I would have thought Stephen Tindall and his family would know what it is - a vibrant and growing economy that creates demand for labour and thereby increases employment and wages and salaries. It is only by creating greater prosperity through economic growth that we will provide opportunities for the unskilled and unemployed to improve their lot.

The Auckland City Mission needs to think about what conditions are required to create a vibrant and growing economy and to support policies that will achieve this. Stephen Tindall knows what these conditions are because he (and his many thousands of employees and suppliers) benefited from them during the period of greatest growth of his retail empire during the 1980s and 1990s - deregulation, low taxes and minimal government involvement in the economy. 

At best the solutions proposed by the Auckland City Mission are Bandaids, at worst they will make the problem worse.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Very Small Village

I woke up this morning to the news on Radio Live, a national radio news station here in New Zealand. Normally, an internet jazz station wakes me but this morning I wasn't in my own bed and had to make do with the station that was tuned on the clock radio. You see I make a point of avoiding the New Zealand mainstream news media and the early morning news report today reminded me why. 

There was the usual petty political bickering - we are in the midst of an election campaign after all - and an article about a fatal road accident somewhere down south, and a story about a kitten caught up a tree (or something similar - I forget the exact details), and then it was straight on to the sport.

You would never know, if you relied on the local New Zealand media, that the world was agog with stories of great achievements and great horrors. You wouldn't know there was a worsening Ebola epidemic in Africa or that the hideous thugs from the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had decapitated an American journalist the day before, or that the militarised police in Ferguson, Missouri thought the appropriate response to a protest march was to use Iraq War surplus tanks and M16s against their fellow townspeople. You also wouldn't hear of the wonderful achievement of the scientists behind the comet-chasing Rosetta spacecraft, the fastest vehicle mankind has ever built, that set off in 2004 to fly beyond Jupiter so it could circle back and chase down Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, finally arriving in the last few days and sending back spectacular close-up pictures of a strange and wonderful alien world.

New Zealand might as well be a very small village as far as its mainstream media are concerned. Our news is mostly 'village pump' stuff. I suppose that in a crazy world we should be grateful for the peaceful country we live in. It would be nice, however, to hear about what's going on in the world.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Anti-Semitism Lies Beneath Anti-Israel Bias

Anti-Semitism “is to be regarded not as the enemy of the Jewish people… but as the common enemy of humanity and of civilization” 
~ Christopher Hitchens

Several years ago I had a friend to dinner, a highly educated and cultured man with whom I enjoyed discussing all manner of social and political issues. We agreed on much that was wrong with the world and on what the solutions were but I was shocked when he announced that Israel should be wiped from the face of the earth. He admitted that his views were based mainly on his experiences during a visit to Israel a few years before. I thought it a bit extreme to advocate the destruction of a country based on a few negative experiences as a tourist but when he went on to say, "They are an arrogant people, they think they are superior to everyone else," I realised that, of course, he was not talking about getting rid of Israel but rather the Jews. And I think it is that sentiment that is at the heart of everyone who opposes the state of Israel.

Israel is not a bad country by any measure. It is a democracy with universal suffrage and is a relatively prosperous, uncorrupt and tolerant society. The Basic Laws of Israel define the country as a 'Jewish state' but they protect freedom of religion and establish equal legal rights for the more than 20% of the Israeli population that are Arabs - to an extent that is exceptional in the Middle East. The effectiveness of the Basic Laws has been demonstrated by the willingness of the Israeli Supreme Court to rule against the government in matters such as settlement in the occupied territories, the conduct of the Israeli armed forces in conflict zones, and protecting the rights of its Arab citizens. Successive Israeli governments have repeatedly demonstrated the country wishes to live in peace with its neighbours, having handed back territory it occupied in defensive wars to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority.

The reason for the current actions of the Israeli armed forces in Gaza is the legitimate protection of Israeli citizens against the unprovoked aggression of the Hamas government in Gaza. After months of enduring escalating rocket attacks by Hamas against population centres in Israel, the Government of Israel did what any other government would be applauded for doing - sending its armed forces into the aggressor's territory to stop the attacks. The fact that there are inevitable civilian casualties does not make the actions of the Israeli government any less legitimate or any different to any other combat situation. A few media outlets have reported the incredible efforts of the Israeli armed forces to avoid civilian casualties such as telephoning occupants of buildings in advance of bombing and detonating small charges in advance of the main strike. Israel is taking these extraordinary measures to ensure civilian casualties are minimised despite the illegal actions of Hamas in using civilian facilities such as hospitals as launch sites for missile attacks on Israel and despite the likelihood that Hamas combatants are able to escape from the targets before they are hit.

It has been interesting to note that hardly any of Israel's neighbours have condemned its current actions in Gaza. This is because almost all other Arab nations regard Gaza under Hamas as more dangerous than their traditional enemy in the Jewish State. They rightly see Hamas as a puppet of the Iranian regime and it is Iran, not Israel, that they truly fear. Extraordinarily, it has been left to the 'liberal' Western media to condemn Israel in some of the most ill-informed and one-sided reporting of any conflict in modern history. Why has the Western media condemned Israel to an extent that is not evident in the coverage of say, France's intervention in Mali, or Barack Obama's use of drone strikes against targets in Northern Pakistan?

I have recently read some interesting theories that explain this highly selective and biased coverage. Douglas Murray, the British conservative commentator, in this interview with podcaster James Delingpole put forward what I'd term the 'guilt complex' explanation. In short, Murray believes the European commentariat are still trying to live down the Holocaust and by projecting some of the characteristics of the Nazis onto the Israelis they can say that, yes, even Jews can be indiscriminate killers so we're not that bad after all. This explanation has some resonance when you hear the references to 'genocide' that are used in regard to the relatively few civilian casualties of the Israeli military action.

Jonah Goldberg, in his book Liberal Fascism, is more blunt. Western liberalism has its roots in the progressivism of the early 20th Century, which was also the root of...well, that political movement started by Benito Mussolini. Incredible as this may seem after decades of the political left-wing labelling its opponents Fascists, Goldberg makes a pretty good case for the common roots of Fascism and modern liberalism. If you accept his argument it explains a lot, such as why Western liberals find common ground with murderous thugs like Hamas and the ISIS army in Syria rather than with a genuinely liberal country like Israel.

I don't know whether Murray's or Goldberg's theories have any basis in reality but I do know the current vilification of Israel is completely inconsistent with any regard for freedom, democracy and the legitimate rights of a nation state to defend itself. The hypocrisy of Western media and commentators means we must ask ourselves what is so different about Israel. The answer is obvious - it is the Jewish state. Anti-Israeli views cannot be separated from anti-Semitism, despite efforts of some Western liberal commentators to finesse the issue.

I should declare that while I am not Jewish, I have Jewish blood on my mother's side (which - and I cannot escape the sobering thought - would have made me eligible for the gas chambers had I lived under Nazi rule). I like to think I would feel the same way even if I did not have Jewish blood, but I admit I find myself getting angry about the treatment of Israel to an extent that I do with few other issues. My response to my friend's comments over dinner were a little less considered than what I've said above so I won't repeat those words here, but instead I will bookend this post with another quotation - the words of the great David Ben Gurion, the founding prime minister of Israel:

"Let me first tell you one thing: It doesn't matter what the world says about Israel; it doesn't matter what they say about us anywhere else. The only thing that matters is that we can exist here on the land of our forefathers. And unless we show the Arabs that there is a high price to pay for murdering Jews, we won't survive."

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Racial discrimination in NZ law has to stop

Life in New Zealand is pretty good. Our country is uncrowded, our economy has come through the global recession in relatively good shape and we have been able to retain our open, largely self-reliant society in the face of the post-9/11 security craziness that has engulfed the rest of the world. However, there is a cancer that threatens to overturn all that is good about New Zealand. That cancer is racial discrimination in favour of Maori.

Last week we saw one of the most disgusting cases of this discrimination when Auckland District Court judge Philippa Cunningham discharged a young man named Korotangi Paki without conviction on charges of drink driving, burglary and theft (see the NZ Herald article here). These are not trivial charges. New Zealand, like many other Western countries, treats driving while under the influence of alcohol as a significant crime, in some cases sentencing perpetrators to prison. Paki, who is 19 years of age, had a breath-alcohol reading of 761. The limit for adults over 20 years of age is 400 but for drivers under 20 it is zero. As for the burglary charge, anyone who has been the victim of a burglary knows just what a terribly intrusive crime it is, even if there is no associated violence. These are not Paki's first criminal offences - he was charged with dangerous driving as a result of a motor vehicle accident in 2011.

So what were the grounds for discharging Paki without conviction? It was simply that he was the son of the so-called Maori king. I say 'so-called' because Paki's father, Tuheitia Paki, who is the head of a group of Maori tribes in the middle of New Zealand's North Island, has no legal or constitutional authority and is not even recognised as the monarch by most other Maori. 

I recall the case of Princess Anne in 2001 who was convicted of breaking the speed limit and accepted her conviction and fine without evasion. Her conviction was a symbol of the 'without fear or favour' that historically has been characteristic of English law and is what we expect of our public figures and the judiciary in New Zealand.

I can reluctantly accept the New Zealand taxpayer dolling out vast sums of money to Maori tribes for Treaty of Waitangi claims (although I have previously written about the highly dubious merits of some of these claims) but I cannot accept some New Zealanders being treated differently by our criminal justice system because of their race. Equality before the law goes back in our tradition to the Magna Carta and it is one of the benefits Maori received when they accepted British rule in 1840.  As a society we have nothing without equality before the law and the discharge of Paki is a huge indictment on New Zealand's legal system and society. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Scepticism is Essential to Good Science

I am, as I claim in the sidebar to this blog, something of a science nut. I read widely on a range of scientific issues, often delving into a level of detail that most non-scientists would avoid. My favourite scientific discipline is physics, particularly the fields of cosmology and quantum mechanics and I like to think I have an understanding of these fields that eludes the casual reader. I don't claim that my understanding is due to any particular intellectual strength but rather a perseverance when it comes to deciphering scientific jargon together with some grounding in university-level mathematics. So I was very interested to read in this Quanta magazine article that a group of scientists are challenging the consensus around quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics is the area of physics that covers the behaviour of particles at the smallest scale. It is established scientific wisdom that sub-atomic particles do not behave as do larger objects with 'classical' physical properties. The properties of particles at the quantum level are said to be 'probabilistic', that is they cannot have a particular position and velocity at any one time but rather only a probability of being in a set position and velocity. But the Quanta article suggests that 80 years after Danish physicist Niels Bohr and others of the 'Copenhagen' school gave us the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics, a classical explanation of the behaviour of sub-atomic particles is rearing its head again. If it is proven right (and we are a very long way from that), it will justify Albert Einstein's own scepticism about the probabilistic interpretation when he famously said, 'God does not play dice'.

It is not unusual for long-held, consensus scientific theories to be overturned by new evidence. Indeed, that is the way of science. Copernicus and Galileo overturned the earth-centric view of the cosmos, Einstein himself overturned the belief that the speed of light could not be constant, and in 1982 the long-held modern medical consensus that stress is the primary cause of stomach ulcers was overturned by Australian scientists Dr. Barry Marshall and Dr. Robin Warren, who correctly identified a bacteria, Helicobacter pylori, as the culprit.

Which, of course, brings me to climate change. We are told by such luminaries as President Obama that there is a 97% consensus amongst scientists that climate change has a predominantly anthropogenic (i.e. human) cause. The 97% figure comes from this paper by John Cook and others that was based on their review of scientific literature. Leaving aside the thorough debunking of the research that has been done by the likes of meteorologist Anthony Watts, when faced with such as a claim of scientific consensus we should ask, so what? 

Einstein apparently said that 'genius abhors consensus because when consensus is reached, thinking stops', and I agree with him on that. When introduced to the climate change debate by a well-known (pro-anthropogenic) New Zealand scientist about ten years ago, I decided to do my own investigation. Hundreds of published scientific papers and articles later, I am as sceptical as ever on the theory that all, or even most, climate change in the modern era is man-made. Physical experiments have proven that mankind's carbon emissions have some impact on heat retention in the atmosphere, but the dire predictions of ever-increasing global temperatures resulting from mankind's emissions depend on feed-back mechanisms that have not been proven. In fact the slow-down (or complete absence, depending on how you look at the trends) of global temperature rises since the mid-late 1990s has proven that the mechanisms do not work as climate science models up till then predicted.

I don't know where the on-going search for knowledge in the fields of quantum theory and climate change will lead us but, as John Bush, the MIT professor of applied mathematics in the Quanta article says, 'time will tell...the truth wins out in the end.' In the meantime I will, like Einstein, remain a sceptic.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

On Innovation

Two articles in the Wall Street Journal this week have got me thinking about the subject of innovation, or the lack of it, in Western economies today. The first was this article in the Wall Street Journal quoting molecular geneticist Jan Vigj in his book The American Technological Challenge who said that the number of inventions in America has dropped markedly since 1970 [and hat tip to Mark Steyn who said a similar thing in his book America Alone]. The second article was this one about Uber, the Internet-based taxi booking service that is challenging regulators and established taxi companies in 100 cities and 36 countries around the world.

To understand why the West is not innovating, we need to go back to the Renaissance to appreciate why the West has been so economically successful in the first place. Economic historian Niall Ferguson has identified six 'killer apps' that he believes underly the enormous growth of Western economies over the past 500 years, viz. political and economic competition, the scientific revolution, the rule of law, modern medicine, education and the work ethic. Ferguson expounds on his theory in his book, Civilization, and goes on to say that the erosion of these achievements is responsible for the decline of the West in recent decades relative to emerging economies such as China, which have increasingly adopted these values.

In my view Ferguson's six killer apps can be further reduced to just three things - individual rights, capitalism and the rule of law. In other words, the classical liberal values that became entrenched in the political and economic systems of Britain and the Netherlands in the 17th Century through the writings of John Locke, and that were picked by in the 18th Century in America by the likes of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

The innovative human mind is like a packet of dried seeds - without the right soil, water and sunshine, they will either remain inert or any shoots that do sprout will soon wither and die. The environmental conditions in which the human mind flourishes are the freedom to live and work as one chooses (subject only to the right of others to do the same), the freedom to enjoy the fruits of one's labour, and the protection of laws that guarantee these freedoms for all people. These are the classical liberal values mentioned above that we have so abrogated in the West today. It is little surprise, therefore, that we are losing our innovative edge.

The exception over the past decade or two has been in the realm of information technology and the Internet. Often compared to the 'Wild West', the on-line world has remained lightly regulated with few barriers to entry or innovation. On-line businesses like Uber are able to innovate precisely because they sit outside the highly-regulated traditional markets they are challenging. In the West we have in effect two parallel operating environments - the traditional political and economic environments in which innovators face huge regulatory hurdles in getting their products and services to market, and the on-line environment in which heavy-handed government involvement has been largely absent until now.

The United States provides the starkest example of this dichotomy. Traditional 'bricks and mortar' markets such as banking, manufacturing, transportation and medicine are subject to overbearing bureaucratic control and as a result American companies in these sectors are struggling to maintain their global leadership. Most economic growth in the United States in the last couple of decades has come from lightly-regulated 'digital' sectors such as software, entertainment and on-line services. But this is starting the change. The desire of Western governments to heavily regulate even the on-line world is starting to choke innovation in these sectors.

Western governments, including that in my own country, New Zealand, like to think the answer is more government. They like to think they can pick winners and encourage innovation through government investment and subsidies to certain industries. But history shows us that governments are poor gamblers when it comes to innovation. The clearest example of this in recent years is government investment in so-called 'green' businesses such as solar panel manufacturers. In the United States and Europe in particular, such investments have been disastrous.

Governments have a role to play in providing the fertile environment for innovation, i.e. in maintaining the institutions that uphold the classical liberal values that are responsible for Western political and economic success, but the most important thing they can do to encourage innovation is simply to get out of the way.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

UKIP challenges cosy centre-left-right political establishment

This week saw the UK Independence Party (UKIP) defy predictions and the serried ranks of its opponents to win the largest share of the UK vote for the European Parliament. In doing so, UKIP had to overcome an unholy alliance of all other political parties and every mainstream media outlet that rallied against it. During the election campaign UKIP candidates and supporters were repeatedly slandered but it was to little effect as more than four million voters cast votes for the party portrayed as comprising so many looneys and racists. UKIP support has been built on disaffection with Britain's membership of the European Community and admiration for the no-holds-barred style of its leader, Nigel Farage. Its policies, far from being lunatic fringe, are now being firmly embraced by the other political parties.

The closest equivalent to UKIP in New Zealand is New Zealand First, which, like UKIP, is anti-immigration and built around an almost cultish devotion to its leader, Winston Peters. I think what makes UKIP and New Zealand First appealing to a small but significant segment of the population is that they both defy the traditional stereotyping of the left-right spectrum. Both parties derive their support as much from 'working class' and Labour Party supporters as from the well-heeled and Conservative/National Party supporters. What I enjoy about UKIP's success is that it sends a strong message to the political class that the traditional assumptions about what constitutes a Labour or Conservative voter are no longer valid.

Recently a friend of mine called me a 'libertarian conservative' and I pointed out to him that the term is an oxymoron. The current political system in most Western nations is heavily statist and crony-capitalist and no one would seriously describe it as libertarian. Conservatism, by definition, is about supporting the status quo. Really, I am a radical. I want to see radical change to our political and economic systems and I find that often I have more in common with radicals of the left than conservatives of the centre-right.  I believe there is a significant and growing segment of the population in most Western nations who believe as I do - people who want both social and economic freedom, who distrust state intrusion into their lives in both work and personal arenas.

I wouldn't describe UKIP as libertarian but it is certainly more radical than either Labour or the Conservatives and any party that seeks to overturn the cosy centre-left-right arrangement that passes for political pluralism in most Western nations has some appeal to me.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Michelle Obama's Pathetic Hashtag Photo Won't Help Kidnap Victims

My teenaged daughter has been invited to attend a protest march against the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by Islamist militant group Boko Haram. The name Boko Haram means 'non-Muslim teaching is evil' and the group believes that Islam forbids the education of women entirely, which is why it targets girls in Nigerian state schools as kidnap victims (although the group's willingness to sell the girls into slavery suggests a more mercenary motive).

The protest will take place at Parliament Buildings in Wellington and has been organised by fellow pupils at her inner city girls school. To her credit, my daughter has decided not to join the protest, not because she doesn't care about the fate of the kidnapped girls - on the contrary, she is very upset by the matter - but because she realises the futility of protesting in New Zealand about the actions of terrorists half the world away. What these protestors want to achieve is unclear, unlike the aims of the kidnappers.

But as futile as the actions of these protestors are, they don't compare to the pathetic frivolousness of Michelle Obama's hashtag photo opportunity shown below. The US president's wife insults the victims of this horrible religious violence precisely because she is one of the few people in the world who has the ability to influence the outcome of this event.

There are only a handful of countries capable of rendering assistance to the kidnap victims. The United States, obviously, is one of these, but don't hold your breath waiting for President Obama to act. The President has shown himself to be a moral weakling where foreign policy is concerned. In Benghazi, he wasn't willing even to go to the aid of his own consular officials when the embassy there was attacked by an Al Qaeda militia on September 11, 2012. His so-called 'red-line' on the use of chemical weapons in Syria has counted for nothing, and his bluster on Ukraine is rightly treated as irrelevant by Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.

The first United States president to take his country to war against an external enemy was Thomas Jefferson, and the enemy in that case was Islamic pirates on the Barbary Coast who were kidnapping and enslaving American sailors. There is much that Jefferson would not admire today about the republic he helped establish but I think the thing he would least admire is the current president's lack of moral courage on matters of foreign policy. President Obama should be guided by the example of America's third president and take the fight to these Islamic extremists, wherever they are hiding, and his wife should drop the social media frivolity and urge her husband to grow a backbone.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Big Data, Big Brother and Donald Sterling

This week I read an article about a Princeton sociology professor, Janet Vertesi, who tried to hide the fact that she was pregnant from those who use 'big data', which sounds really scary but is really just a silly neologism for an old concept - trawling databases to find correlations that are useful to marketing people, researchers, intelligence agencies and the like. This woman seemed to be most concerned about marketers targeting her with product offers, but that is not something that particularly worries me. The worst that can result from receiving emails or telephone calls from people trying to sell you things is that you buy something.

The real concern is not big data but Big Brother, such as when Vertesi's husband tried to buy $500 worth of Amazon gift vouchers on her behalf and was told the transaction would be reported to the authorities. I am aware that in New Zealand any financial transaction of more than $10,000 is required to be reported to government under the AML-CFT (Anti-Money Laundering - Counter-Financing of Terrorism) laws and I understand this is the same in most Western countries, but obviously in America the threshold is now so low it covers transactions that are the equivalent of a modestly-priced suit of clothing or a good restaurant dinner.

Why would the government be interested in such trivial transactions? In this case it was clearly the anonymity of the transaction that led to the government's interest. The purpose of AML-CFT laws, as the name suggests, is terrorism and money laundering, but as we know from the recent revelations of the likes of Edward Snowden the US Government has used the powers it has garnered under anti-terrorism laws for all manner of purposes. Initially the expanded purview of such laws was serious crime such as drug trafficking, but ultimately governments cannot resist using such powers for any purpose they deem fit. In the case of Kim Dotcom, we saw the full power of New Zealand's state security apparatus including our GCSB spy agency used in a case of alleged copyright infringement.

Another interesting case this week was that of Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. Sterling came to our attention because his mistress released private communications in which Sterling objected to her bringing black men to Clippers' games. Clearly Sterling is a racist and, by all accounts, a sterling asshole, but as Mark Steyn points out in his blog, as bad as the comments Sterling made were, what the National Basketball Association has done to him is worse. Sterling made the comments in private and the NBA (which has fined him $2.5m and banned him from attending his own team's games for life) should have no interest in the matter. Neither should the media, especially the New Zealand media (many of which ran the story as their lead).

In the novel 1984, Winston Smith discovered that there is no freedom without privacy. If you cannot express your thoughts even to those whom you most trust without fear that you will be subject to a public witchhunt, or make a small, innocent purchase without inviting the surveillance of the authorities, then you don't have the freedom to think at all. And everything follows from that.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Royal Tour Reminds Us the Queen Should be our Last Monarch

You are no doubt already aware, irrespective of which country you are reading this in, that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are visiting New Zealand at this time. I have seen feature articles about the visit in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and even in Spanish language newspapers, hence my certainty about your knowledge of their visit. The royal couple have brought their infant son, George with them. The Duke and his son are third and fourth in line to the throne of New Zealand, which as a former British colony shares its monarchy with other British Commonwealth nations.

Most New Zealanders support the monarchy out of sense of tradition and probably because they find it provides a reassuring continuity in a rapidly changing world. I don't, for the simple reason that I find it offensive that a family from the other side of the world is qualified by virtue of its blood line to be the heads of state of New Zealand and my own children aren't. Our constitution conventions say that in respect of the right to occupy our top political office, all New Zealanders are second class citizens.

I cannot understand why we retain this vestige of feudalism in the 21st Century. The members of the royal family have no qualifications to be our heads of state other than their ancestry, an ancestry incidentally that is full of despotic thugs who practiced every manner of heinous crime known to mankind - ethnic cleansing, genocide, mass torture - to maintain their grip on power. And this is not all ancient history - the wealth of the current royal family came from the wholesale theft of Catholic lands and other property after the so-called Glorious Revolution. 

I have a fond spot for Queen Elizabeth II and think she has done as good a job as any modern monarch could, but I think the institution should die with her. Charles, her heir, has proven himself unfit for the job, with his ill-advised, partisan meddling in political matters such as the climate change debate and his admiration for despotic Islamic regimes. And the idea that William and his son George have some sort of legitimate claim to be head of state of New Zealand, or any country for that matter, is utterly ridiculous.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties. ~ John Milton

Milton meant the freedom to think and speak is the foundation of all other liberties and without this most basic of freedoms, we cannot be truly free. At one time this was a given in Western liberal democracies but recently we have seen a great deal of evidence that many in the West regard freedom of speech to be dispensable.

Last week the CEO of Mozilla, Brandon Eich, was dismissed by the company because five years ago he gave a personal donation to the National Organisation for Marriage (NOM), an organisation that supported Proposition 8 in the 2008 Californian state ballot opposing gay marriage. Now I happen to be a supporter of gay marriage, but I'm an even bigger supporter of free speech and of the right of anyone to support the political causes they choose. In case you think Eich's political views are irredeemably rightwing, I'll remind you that Barack Obama only came out in favour of gay marriage in May 2012 and was opposed to it prior to that.

As unreasonable as Mozilla's position is, there is an even more sinister aspect to this whole business. How did the media find out that Eich supported NOM? They discovered his donation because NOM's tax return was leaked to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), NOM's main opponent in the campaign for Proposition 8, and published on HRC's website. The NOM return listing the donors appeared on the HRC website complete with obvious redacted codes that are placed on documents only after they are received by the IRS, so it must have been leaked by someone in the IRS. There has been no thorough or conclusive investigation into this leak, which is a serious criminal offence.

If you think all of this is acceptable then you need to imagine the boot being on the other political foot. Consider, for example, a conservative administration leaking the details of those who donated to women's groups that support abortion liberalisation. Would it be acceptable to hound a chief executive out of her job because she donated to such a group?

In New Zealand we are not immune from the same type of anti-free-speech witch hunts. Three years ago Employers and Manufacturers Assocation president Alisdair Thompson was hounded out of his job for making the point that women take more sickness leave than men because of their menstrual cycles. This is, of course, a statistical and medical fact but that wasn't any defence to the hysterical screams of the supposedly offended feminists. There are some things you just aren't allowed to say.

Free speech protections aren't for those things you want to hear. They are for the things you don't want to hear. I would have thought that was obvious. So when someone says, "I support free speech except for...," you know they are really saying they don't support free speech at all.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

CIA Spying on Senator Feinstein A Step Too Far?

Just when you thought the revelations about out-of-control US government intelligence agencies couldn't get any more interesting, the latest news out of Washington DC has even hawkish conservatives shaking their heads in disbelief. It turns out that the CIA may have been illegally spying on the office of Dianne Feinstein, the geriatric Democrat who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee that audits the activities of the intelligence agencies themselves. The Feinstein allegations go further, that the CIA actually deleted documents from the senate committee's computers and destroyed documents on their own systems showing CIA malfeasance in its so-called rendition programmes where suspects were kidnapped by the CIA and taken to other countries for torture. These accusations are deliciously ironic because Feinstein has been one of the intelligence agencies' staunchest defenders against the revelations of whistle-blowers Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden.

Dan Carlin, the political and historical podcaster who is sufficiently well-regarded to have been asked to advise the US military on strategy, said in his most recent podcast that he believes the actions of the CIA might lead to President Obama's impeachment if it is revealed the president knew and approved what was going on (and the CIA has suggested this was the case). Even if that does not happen, it could lead to a constitutional crisis with Republican Senator Lindsay Graham saying 'Congress should declare war on the CIA.' As the CIA is part of the executive branch, this is a call for war on the White House.

I look forward to ongoing developments in this case.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Tony Benn was a great Socialist

I have been a libertarian since university but in politics I hold the greatest contempt not for those who have diametrically opposed political beliefs but rather for those who insist on always occupying the so-called "middle ground." At university one of my best friends was a revolutionary Marxist. He used to joke that "come the revolution you'll be first up against the wall...bang, bang, bang!" My response was always, "not if I get to you first!" We both knew that neither of us was entirely joking and that, given the right circumstances, we might one day find each other on opposite sides of a fight that involved more than just rhetoric, but we were best mates nevertheless and liked nothing more than a heated political debate. Occasionally we found common ground, such as our contempt for crony capitalism and religious conservatives.

When I lived in the UK in the 1980s there were two politicians whom I admired. Both towered over their peers in the philosophical sense. Margaret Thatcher, of course, was the first of these. The other was Tony Benn. The former Viscount Stansgate (for Tony Benn had renounced his peerage in the 1960s so he could sit in the House of Commons) was a doctrinaire Marxist and as such, I had little in common with him politically. But I admired his principled beliefs and his forthright manner in expressing them.

Benn believed in a pure, democratic Marxism that is, in my analysis, as illusory as fairy dust. He stuck to his principles, even when they put him in conflict with those who would ordinarily be his allies. He detested the Soviet Union and he was as much a thorn in the side of the Labour leadership as he was to the Tories. I had the impression that there was a reluctant mutual respect behind the open contempt between Benn and his political nemesis, Margaret Thatcher. Certainly, he had a sense of humour where Thatcher was concerned, introducing to parliament in 1990 a private members' bill entitled the Margaret Thatcher (Global Repeal) Bill.

Tony Benn died last week aged 88. I tip my hat to him as that rarity in politics these days - a man of principle and courage. Give me a Tony Benn any day over the unprincipled likes of Tony Blair, David Cameron or John Key.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The hypocrisy of the West towards Russia

Tomorrow, Crimean voters get to decide in a referendum whether they shall rejoin Russia. This vote has been condemned by Western leaders who, when it suits them, love to make a big issue out of self-determination.

Gauging the reaction to Russia's response to the state of affairs in the Ukraine, you'd think the former was the biggest threat to world peace since Nazi Germany. Western leaders such as Obama, whose countries have invaded numerous independent nations over the past couple of decades, posture and pontificate as though Putin was a foaming maniac who is about to launch another world war. Here's a few facts to consider.

Russia gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 when both countries were part of the USSR. As part of this deal, which survived the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia was allowed to maintain troops in Crimea. The Western media has reported that Russia has invaded Crimea. It hasn't, it was already there.

The events in Ukraine over the last few weeks have seen the (albeit somewhat corruptly) elected government of Viktor Yanukovych overthrown by violent protests by a unholy alliance of opposition groups that include a significant presence of Neo-Nazis. The symbolic leader of those groups is a former Yanukovych ally and gas industry oligarch named Yulia Tymoshenko, who heads the All-Ukrainian Union "Fatherland" party.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1990, the United States gave Mikhail Gorbachev assurances that it would not expand NATO east into former Soviet republics. These assurances counted for nothing with Germany joining NATO in 1990, Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary joining in 1999, and Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and Croatia all joining since then. Thus NATO now virtually surrounds Russia from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Is it any wonder the Russians are nervous about Ukraine moving into the Western European alliance? Imagine if Canada and Mexico had joined the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War and you get a sense of how Russia must see these developments.

We saw a further example of Western hypocrisy during the Sochi Olympics with Western politicians and celebrities jumping on the bandwagon to condemn Russia's new law against promoting homosexuality. Personally, I think this is a pretty despicable law, but it needs to be put in perspective - homosexuality is legal in Russia and remains so and eight US states still have similar laws on their books to that introduced by Russia. Besides, where was that chorus of protest from all those Western politicians and celebrities when Iran recently hung two men from cranes for their homosexuality?

Vladimir Putin's Russia is not a paragon of liberty and human rights, but neither are many Western nations.  President Obama claims the right to extra-judicial killing by drone of anyone, anywhere in the world. His government still imprisons suspected terrorists without trial or due process in Guatanamo Bay, Cuba, and his intelligence agencies claim the right to extra-judicial mass surveillance of law-abiding people both within the United States and abroad. Perhaps Obama and other Western leaders should put their own liberties in order before taking such a sanctimonious attitude towards Russia.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

North Korean Regime Compared to Nazis

The crimes against humanity perpetrated by the North Korea communist regime are 'strikingly similar' to those of the Nazis according to Michael Kirby, the Australian judge who headed the United Nations inquiry set up to investigate the abuses. Kirby said the commissioners had written to Kim Jong-un, the young despot who inherited the North Korea leadership upon the death of his father, to say they would recommend the matter to the International Criminal Court. Although this may be cold comfort to those who continue to suffer in North Korea and their relatives in the South, it is encouraging that someone in the usually ineffectual UN has had the backbone to state the facts as evidenced by the accounts of more than 300 witnesses. The video in this Sky News article shows the stories of a mother and son who escaped from the hideous North Korean political prisons and even these brief accounts are tear-inducing.

The comments by Michael Kirby are interesting in view of my last post reviewing Jonah Goldberg's book about the fascist origins of the modern political left-wing. Many of today's so-called 'liberals' claim sympathy with Marxist doctrine and some even go so far as to defend the genocidal regimes of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung. Few challenge them on these sympathies. And yet, as Michael Kirby points out, Marxism as it exists in North Korea is indistinguishable from Nazism. The evidence about North Korea has been available for many years but there have been many in the West, including in my own country, who have defended this most indefensible regime. I do not accept ignorance as an excuse any more than we now accept that as an excuse for the collaboration of many in Occupied Europe with the Nazis. People who excuse the North Korean regime, and who defend Marxism, are complicit in these crimes.

The common factor in all dictatorships is the subjugation of individual to the interests of the state. It is the belief that individuals should be forced to live their lives for the benefit of the collective - whether that is defined as the nation, the race, or the proletariat - and this is the moral slippery slope that ultimately leads to North Korea. Once you have decided that individuals should be forced to live their lives for the benefit of the collective, there is ultimately no sacrifice of the individual that you can't or won't justify. You start with supposedly noble, altruistic aims and end up with concentration camps. It is the moral dilemma defined by the joke about the millionaire and the pretty woman - once you've established the principle, all that's left to argue about is the price.

In respect of the immediate problem (if you can call a problem that has existed for 60 years 'immediate') presented by North Korea, the world must now back up the courage shown by Michael Kirby and his team and force the North Korea leadership from power and release its subjects from slavery. Just as we judged our forefathers by their response to Nazism, so we will be judged by our response to North Korea's awful Marxist regime.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Liberal Fascist

I am currently reading Jonah Goldberg's book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, and I recently read Victor Klemperer's I Shall Bear Witness, his personal testimony to life as a Jew in Nazi Germany. These books have in common the subject of fascism, its origins and its language.

Goldberg's book is a revelation. I had not read anything else by this American writer and I was not expecting much of his book, despite it being a New York Times bestseller (I am sure much to the New York Times literary editor's chagrin), but I discovered his book is very well researched and his theories backed by much evidence. The gist of the book, as you might guess from the title, is that modern liberalism (i.e. left-wing) politics has its origins in fascist ideology. 

This is not entirely surprising to me and I have blogged on the topic of socialists being kin with National Socialists before, but Goldberg shows the provenance of modern liberalism following a direct line from philosophers like Rousseau, through the Jacobins of the French Revolution to Mussolini (both in his initial allegiance to the Italian Socialist Party and subsequently his establishment of his Fasci di Combattimento), and thence to Adolf Hitler's National Socialist German Worker's Party. Along the way he traces the origins of American Progressivism as adopted by Woodrow Wilson (undoubtedly the most dictatorial US President ever), Franklin Roosevelt (the second most dictatorial), and on to modern liberalism through Lyndon Johnson and ultimately Barack Obama.  

The interesting thing about the provenance that Goldberg outlines is how successful modern liberals have been in covering the trail. These days it is accepted wisdom that Hitler and Mussolini were right-wing reactionaries just like modern conservatives such as US Republicans. But anyone the least bit familiar with Hitler and Mussolini's political beliefs and writings knows that they were first and foremost socialists (and certainly both proclaimed their socialist credentials right to the end) with a large dollop of popular pragmatism, just like modern liberals. Hitler, in particular, held to many of the same beliefs as the modern Green parties - that the patrician state should regulate every aspect of our social and economic life for our own good health and that of the environment. 

Hitler (but not Mussolini) was also a racist and eugenicist. Surprisingly, so was Woodrow Wilson and, to some extent, FDR. As recently as 1972, the Democratic Party was fielding as a candidate for president a prominent racial segregationist, George Wallace (and he probably would have won the nomination if it hadn't been for the assassination attempt that left him paralysed). Today, people forget it was a Republican president who abolished slavery and Southern Democrats who led the rebellion to retain it.

The parallels between Goldberg's book and Klemperer's first hand account of fascism in practice is interesting. Like Goldberg, Klemperer focuses to a large extent on the language of fascism (and in fact he later wrote the authoritative treatise on the subject, The Language of the Third Reich). He concludes that the Nazis, like Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984, were able to achieve so much of their hideous agenda because they controlled the language. Many Germans came to believe the Jews were greedy, dirty, degenerate, sub-human beings because Hitler was so successful in inculcating these beliefs into the language. If you repeat something often enough, people come to accept it as truth, just as today it is accepted wisdom that US Republicans are racists.

It is tiring, as well as ironic, to be branded a racist when you believe all races should be treated equally before the law, to be branded a fascist when you believe in a small, non-authoritarian state, or to be branded a 'denier' when you point out that the scientific method has been abandoned in the extreme predictions of some climate scientists. It is interesting that it is the so-called liberal side of the debate that is always most ready to engage in such propagandist name-calling when anyone challenges their policies on these matters. Goldberg may be engaging in the some of the same techniques that he abhors in modern liberal discourse, but if he is giving liberals some of their own medicine, then that is apposite. And he certainly weaves a credible story about the origins of their techniques.

Finally, I am saddened to see the very brilliant British blogger James Delingpole (whose blog is listed on the sidebar) is giving up his pen. I have corresponded with James on one occasion and found he was as engaging individually as he is in his blogs. James has been one of the greatest fighters for classical liberal views in the world over the few years and we can ill afford to lose him. I hope that he is not giving up the fight for good, although if he is, I can certainly understand why (for the reasons outlined in the previous paragraph).  I hope he will pop up in a new role in which he will be just as great a thorn in the side of cowardly, liberal fascists as he has been in his blogging career. Thank you, James. It's been a laugh.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What Has Happened to Great Britain?

I have a soft spot for Britain. I lived there for several years in the 1980s and as a New Zealander of predominantly British extraction I look to it for symbols and trends that inform me about life in my own country that shares so many institutions and traditions with the Mother Country. Unfortunately, these days I do not like what I see.

Great Britain gave us the Magna Carta, the Common Law and the rule of law, the (original) Bill of Rights, John Locke, Thomas Paine, Adam Smith, the abolition of the slave trade and the bulldog spirit that stood alone against fascism for the first two years of World War II.  These great traditions made Britain by the 19th Century not only the wealthiest and  most powerful country in the world but probably the best to live in for the vast majority of its population. And it wasn't just the homeland that enjoyed this great, liberal tradition - it was the template for successful nation states all over the world. But today Britain is choosing to abandon all that has made it great and, in a sad irony, is adopting the characteristics of the despotic regimes its people have fought against down through the years.

Britain has more surveillance cameras per person than any other country on earth with an estimated 20% of all the world's public CCTV cameras - 5 million in total or 1 for every 11 people. It has revoked the right to silence in criminal cases (an important historical protection against the use of torture for obtaining evidence). More recently British judges have started jailing people for abusive comments on Twitter and following the Leveson Inquiry into hacking of cellphone records by News of the World journalists, the three major British political parties have agreed to introduce the regulation of all content of newspapers and other media. And in the latest assault on a free press and on free speech, a proposed 'deregulation bill' enables judges to authorise the seizure of journalists' notebooks and digital files in secret hearings.

That great British writer, George Orwell, would recognise all of this from his prescient novel, 1984. Orwell modelled his fictitious society on the Soviet Union when he penned his novel in 1948 but he was sounding a warning for his own country. It is a shame that the model for liberal, democratic society all over the world is now looking like the model for Airstrip One.