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.