Friday, April 28, 2017

Trump at 100 Days

Tomorrow is the 100-day mark in Donald Trump's presidency and like jouranlists and bloggers all over the world, I am taking the opportunity to provide my assessment on how I think he is doing.

The 45th president of the United States of America certainly set a cracking pace (as I wrote about here) but more recently he seems to be getting bogged down in the swamp he said he would drain. I have looked at a number of his campaign promises in various policy areas and graded them from A+ (completely achieved) to E (has done nothing) and then averaged them to get an overall grade.

Healthcare: He promised to repeal Obamacare, but rather than trying to repeal it he supported Paul Ryan's replacement American Care Act, which was withdrawn when it failed to gain enough support to pass in in the House. His professed approach now seems to be to wait for Obamacare to implode, which is a bit pathetic really. Therefore, he gets a D for this.

Immigration: Repeated knock-downs of Trump's executive orders by the federal courts has meant he has failed to implement his policies in this area, but that is not a bad thing in my view because his policies were ill-advised and poorly thought out. It also shows the American system of government with its separation of powers is working. But in terms of Trump's delivery, he gets a D for this.

Taxation: He has announced tax reforms including lowering rates for companies and individuals, and simplifying the Byzantine system of deductions - so he gets a B-, but maintaining or improving on that grade will depend on follow-through.

Draining the Swamp: He promised to reduce the size of government starting with a freeze on federal hiring, and to stop officials becoming lobbyists after they leave their government jobs. He has signed executive orders to give effect to these policies, so a good start and a B+ for effort.

Reduce Government Compliance: He promised to introduce a requirement for two federal regulations to be elminated for every one introduced. He has signed an executive order stating that two regulations have to be identified for elimination, so, again, a good start and a B+.

Trade: He said he would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. He also said he would label China a 'currency manipulator'. He has fudged on the first, signed a memorandum to effect the second, and backed down on the third. These were all silly policies in my view but a B- for partial delivery.

Energy: He promised to lift restrictions on fracking and clean coal production, and build the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. He has issued executive orders on all of these, so he here he gets an A+.

Climate Alarmism: He said he would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord and stop payments to UN climate change programmes. He hasn't done either yet, reportedly because Ivanka doesn't like these policies, so he gets an E for this.

These are not all the campaign promises he made but they are enough to give an overall grade for his commitment to delivery. The average is a C+, which is not brilliant but probably better than most presidents achieved after just 100 days in office.

So what grade would you give Donald Trump for his performance so far?

Monday, April 24, 2017

The irony of the Washington science march

Albert Einstein once said, "Genius abhors consensus because when consensus is reached, thinking stops."

The participants in the so-called March for Science in Washington DC over the weekend should heed the great man's advice. I am sure they missed the irony of a protest march in the US capital against political interference in science. It is obvious from photographs of the march (such as the one below) that many of those present had a political agenda that has nothing to do with maintaining objectivity in science. They were marching to force their views on everyone else and that doesn't make them right, it makes them thugs, and thuggery has no place in science.

Marching against political interference in science!
Science, unlike politics, is not a matter of opinion and it doesn't matter what the consensus is. The scientific method works by challenging the consensus. The oft-quoted 97% figure of scientists supporting the consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is factually wrong (which I wrote about here and here), but it wouldn't matter if the figure was 100%. Scientific breakthroughs are usually made by individuals or small teams of scientists challenging the consensus, often years after the science is considered settled.

Over the weekend we also had the ridiculous sight of Bill Nye, the self-titled "Science Guy", criticizing CNN for including Dr William Happer in a discussion about climate science. Bill Nye is an television personality who made his name hosting a science programme for children. He has a Bachelor of Engineering degree but has never worked as a scientist. William Happer, on other hand, is one of the top physicists in America, having been a full professor at both Columbia and Princeton, and he is responsible for the invention of adaptive optics, the technology that allows telescopes to adjust to disturbances in the Earth's atmosphere when imaging space. Happer has been outspoken on AGW and as a scientist whose specialist field includes the properties of the Earth's atmosphere, he ought to have more credibility on the subject than Nye. The fact that Nye would have CNN deny a voice to Happer and provide a one-sided platform for his own beliefs, says a lot about Nye.

The most delightful part of the Einstein quotation above is that he went on to say to his students, "Stop nodding your head." Einstein didn't want people agreeing with him, he wanted to be challenged. He understood that you cannot claim to be on the side of science if you wish to shut up those who disagree with you.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Governments' use of data is scary

The answer to poor government is always more government, at least amongst those who are part of the Leviathan. New Zealand's National Government says it is driven by values of 'personal responsibility' and 'limited government' and Prime Minister Bill English has talked a lot about reducing state dependency and targeting services to those in highest need. He has been explicit about how he plans to do this, most recently in his statement to Parliament in February in which he said, 'the Government will this year further improve the way in which data is used to underpin decision making through initiatives like the Integrated Data Infrastructure.'

The Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI) is a big database held by Statistics New Zealand that receives feeds from many government and some non-government organisations, including the Ministry of Social Development, Inland Revenue, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, Department of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Justice and New Zealand Police. There is a belief that the data in the IDI is anonymous but that is not true. The database uses a common identifier to link the records from the different agencies and, although sufficient personal information to readily identify the person is not usually provided to third parties, the IDI records are linked to real people.

I have had a great deal of experience in the use and protection of information both in the private and public sectors and I believe many people in government have little idea of the risks involved in the aggregation of data. Even if we accept that government agencies are good stewards of people's data (and, as I show below, the evidence is that they are not), the IDI opens up this data to almost anyone who wants to use it. There is an application process but few checks on those who apply. I do not believe those responsible understand the power of technology available to mine and de-anonymise the data and have little appreciation of how it might be used.

An overseas example of the risks is the United Kingdom's experience with care.data, a National Health Service initiative to aggregate health and social care data and make it available for research purposes. Soon after the initiative was launched in 2013, it was rumoured that private sector organisations such as insurance companies were de-anonymising the data to reveal whether customers were withholding information on pre-existing conditions and risk factors such as mental illness. A report into the risks concluded that 'the current care.data program is highly problematic in its flawed protection of patient anonymity, an unsuitable opt-out system, unclear criteria for accessing the collected health data, and the risk it poses to the trust between patients and general practitioners.'

There are many other examples of the lack of adequate protection for individual data in government, including here in New Zealand. The 2012 revelation that Ministry of Social Development's self-service kiosks could be used by anyone to access confidential details of at-risk children is just one example. I have personally seen other examples of significant security flaws in agencies' information systems that have not been revealed publicly. But the risk is not confined to the information falling into the wrong hands - there is also considerable scope to link the wrong data to the wrong person. Statistics NZ admits that 'some records can be linked incorrectly or the link could be missed'. I am sure I don't need to spell out the implications of a law enforcement agency using incorrectly linked data.

I think governments' increasing aggregation of personal information and policies of allowing almost unrestricted access to it, are dangerous and unnecessary. I accept that there is the potential to deliver services to people more effectively by better understanding their needs - after all, this is exactly what Amazon and every other online merchant does - but the risks with governments misusing the information are far greater. The worst Amazon can do is to try to sell you something you don't want, but if the government draws the wrong conclusion from the data, it could destroy your life.

I think it would be better to rethink the role of central government in providing many of the services for which it believes it needs aggregated data. People in need can be better served by local service providers that are closer to the people requiring the services, using information collected from the individuals concerned and those in the community who understand their needs better than any central government agency. The more government tries to manage and target the services it delivers through centralised aggregation of information, the more intrusive into all our lives it needs to become and the greater the risk of wholesale misuse of the data. Central government is always a blunt instrument when it comes to dealing with the problems in individuals' lives and trying to build a sharper sledgehammer is not the answer when what is needed is a scalpel.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Trump and Syria - the entire dumbass neocon package

Well, that didn't take long. Donald Trump has ditched perhaps the most sensible of the policies he was elected on - a less interventionist foreign policy - by bombing Bashar al-Assad's Russian-supported forces in Syria for their alleged use of chemical weapons. I say 'alleged' because I think it is far from proven yet whether Syrian Government forces deliberately used these weapons and, as Chris Trotter says, it seems odd that al-Assad would suddenly order their use at a time when his forces were winning the civil war and he was being accepted back into international peace talks.

Trump's order should at least have the redeeming feature of ending the ridiculous conspiracy theories about Putin controlling Trump, although the immensely deluded commentators at MSNBC seem to think the whole thing is an even more convoluted conspiracy in which Putin allowed Trump to bomb his ally Assad's forces to put the media off the scent of the original Putin-Trump election conspiracy. Occam's Razor be damned!

I have always thought a Putin-Trump conspiracy defies commonsense. The biggest on-going threat to Russia is the economic threat of low oil prices, and the main reason for the decline in oil prices in recent years is US oil and gas production from fracking. And the one person most committed to increasing America's energy independence by removing carbon emission rules, building new oil pipelines and encouraging fracking? Well, that would be Donald Trump.

The worst thing about Trump's decision to bomb Syrian forces is that it indicates the neocons have taken control of the White House again, despite the fact that Trump seemed to be the one Republican president they couldn't control. The neocons are the people from the military-industrial-political complex who love to start wars because they benefit from them - in jobs, profits and political careers - people like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Bill Kristol. Trump's recent removal of Steve Bannon (who has some unadmirable policy positions but a militaristic foreign policy is not among them) from his National Security Council signalled this shift.

I almost could have forgiven Trump his dumbass immigration and trade policies for the prospect of a more considered foreign policy, but now we're just left with the entire dumbass neocon package.

Friday, April 7, 2017

On Morality and Religion

Dennis Prager, who is an American conservative political commentator, claims in this video* that you can't have morality without God.

I consider I am a moral person and most people who know me would agree. I am an atheist and I don't rely on the Bible or any other external source for my morality, so where does my morality come from? Is it merely a desire to conform to others' ideas of morality? I am not much of a conformist, as you can probably tell from the views expressed in my blog, so that doesn't seem likely.

I am moral because I think. Reason is the basis of my morality and in fact is the real source of all human morality, not religion. It is because we perceive the world through rational eyes that we have a morality at all.

Let us take the maxim, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Jesus said this, right? Well, actually it predates Jesus and is common to many early human cultures including ancient Egypt, China and India. Thales said it in ancient Greece and Seneca in Rome. In fact, it is so universal it is known as the Golden Rule. Do we need religion to derive this principle? No, of course not. All we need is a rational mind that can conceive of the potential consequences to oneself of doing something awful to another. A little experience of life teaches us that human relations are based on reciprocity - if I act decently towards you, then it is more likely that you'll be decent to me. On the other hand, if you believe that I am evil because I don't believe in your god, the chances are that you won't treat me fairly no matter how well I treat you.

Few would dispute that the moral standards to which mankind generally adheres have improved over time. Many things that human beings accepted in the past as perfectly moral - such as slavery, the torture and killing of so-called heretics, the stoning of adulterers, etc. - have become morally repugnant in modern societies precisely because we are in an age of greater reason. In fact, all of these practices were not only condoned in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Bible exhorts them.

Prager trots out the usual facile point that Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin were atheists and were evil, as if this is proof of his argument. Actually, Hitler was a Catholic all his life and Stalin was a Russian Orthodox seminarian before he became a Communist, so they hardly support his case. He then goes on to say that it is no coincidence that it was Judeo-Christian societies that first abolished slavery. I would have thought anyone who looked to the Bible for moral guidance would realise how hypocritical it is to claim its teachings led to the end of slavery. And anyone with a sense of history wouldn't engage in a moral pissing contest in defence of religion.

I think Prager has the facts exactly reversed. If your morality comes from an external source, such as belief in a divine being who tells you what is moral and what isn't, then you have no intrinsic morality. In other words, you are amoral, if not sociopathic. Of course, even religious people use rational judgement to determine which of their faith's moral precepts they apply in their own lives. But only those who derive their morality from their own reasoned judgement can be said to be truly moral.

* H/T: Craig Biddle from The Objective Standard, who brought Prager's video to my attention, has responded in greater detail and more philosophical terms here.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Resource Bill is anathema to democracy

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the possibility of a populist leader, à la Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, coming to the fore in New Zealand politics. I said that the lack of real choice in policies between the major New Zealand parties, National and Labour, could cause New Zealanders to look for populist alternatives in this year's election, but I also said that New Zealand doesn't have the same groundswell of political division and frustration that resulted in the electoral wins for Brexit and Trump. However, I think we are seeing the rise of an issue that could be a game-changer in New Zealand politics.

New Zealanders have put up with increasingly undemocratic changes to our legal and constitutional frameworks since the 1970s, all in the name of redressing alleged historical wrongs to Maori. People of Maori descent comprise about 15% of the population of New Zealand but those who identify as Maori today often have only a small fraction of Maori ancestry. They are likely to be more of English or Scots descent as Maori, which makes their contemporary grievances all the more ridiculous - they are calling for redress for the actions of one lot of their ancestors against another lot.

The Treaty of Waitangi, signed by many Maori chiefs in 1840, and by Governor William Hobson on behalf of the Crown, made all Maori British subjects, and their descendants (by constitutional succession) New Zealand citizens. Maori today are represented in government both through their vote in general electorates and through a small number of race-based electorates. Tribal leaders, who are chosen through family links and traditional alliances, have no constitutional role in national or local governament - but that is about to change.

The Resource Legislation Amendment Bill, which may pass into law this week, grants tribal leaders the right to sit on local councils with full voting rights. This means every decision of a council in future will be determined by people who are not elected or accountable for their decisions - people who often have conflicts of interest in the matters they are deciding. Few New Zealanders realise the implications of the legislation because the government has been at pains to keep its dealings on this bill from public scrutiny. New Zealanders do not realise that every local government decision concerning their properties, livelihoods, recreation and taxes in future will be subject to the whims of unelected tribal representatives.

I believe this Bill is very wrong for several reasons. Firstly, it is racist and contrary to principles of universal suffrage to give members of any race a position of privilege in our government. Secondly, the tribal leaders do not represent even the vast majority of people of Maori descent, who live in urban areas and often do not have strong affiliations to their ancestral tribes. Thirdly, it shows a contempt for democracy and constitutional safeguards and is likely to lead to corruption.

Lawyer and former member of parliament Stephen Franks says, "So far as I can tell from the Bill there is virtually nothing to prevent power sharing agreements with iwi/hapu [i.e. tribes] from by-passing democracy and diving below the current legal safe-guards against dishonesty and self-dealing."

Former ACT Party member of parliament Rodney Hide says, "Tribalism is the worst form of economic organisation. It’s collectivist, it lacks incentive to perform, the principals can’t readily sack their agents and there’s invariably a complete lack of transparency and hence accountability. The structure works to the advantage of tribal bosses, not members."

I couldn't agree more. This is one of the most significant constitutional changes in New Zealand's history and it is being sneaked into law. Once the public realise its implications it may become the issue that drives New Zealand voters into the arms of a populist leader like Winston Peters (who is of Maori descent but opposed to race-based privilege).

I think the silent majority has had enough of the gradual erosion of democratic rights and legal equality in New Zealand and that people are ready to fight back in the same way as British and US voters did last year. The political establishment will express bewilderment just as they did in Britain and the US, but they will only have themselves to blame.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Failure of health care bill proof American Republic is alive and well

Many have seen the failure of the American Health Care Act, which has just been withdrawn because of lack of support in the US House of Representatives, as the first major test of Donald Trump's presidency. The reality is that even though Trump promised in his election campaign to repeal and replace President Obama's Affordable Care Act, the new bill was Speaker Paul Ryan's baby much more than Trump's, so its defeat probably won't cause Trump any significant political harm.

I think the bill's defeat is a victory for America for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the bill itself was universally considered to be unworkable and it certainly did not meet Trump's promise of "affordable coverage for everyone, lower deductibles and health care costs [and] better care." More importantly, it demonstrated to all those who have been painting Trump's victory as the end of the American Republic, that nothing could be further from the truth. The separation of powers is alive and well and Congress just exercised its power to cast out a proposed new law that the president supported. 

One of the great characteristics of the American system of government is that its participants do not slavishly act according to their party affiliations. Republicans may control the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Presidency, but that doesn't mean a Republican bill has an easy ride to become law. Here in New Zealand, our MPs tend to toe the party line, as dictated by the prime minister and his cabinet, far more than they do in America.

The recent decisions by the federal courts to stay Trump's immigration orders is further evidence that reports of the death of the Republic are premature. America may have its problems, but a lack of democracy and checks on power are not among them.