Friday, April 20, 2018

New Zealand's very own Donald Trump

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

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

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

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Fact Checking Ardern’s Speech on Climate Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The UBI and the Future of Employment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 26, 2018

Catalan leader's arrest demonstrates totalitarian nature of EU law

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The greatest irony of identity politics

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

School shootings are a reflection of militaristic police state

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Problem with Young Men

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

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

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

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

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

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