Thursday, February 16, 2017

Islam and the West

A brief exchange on Not PC's blog has made me realise how ignorant many non-Muslims are about Islam. I wrote a comment saying that Islam has two main tenets - submission (which, of course, is what Islam actually means) and the belief that it is the one final religion for all of mankind. The gentleman who took issue with my comment said that Christianity and Judaism are equally about submission. This illustrates his ignorance about all three religions.

The central tenet of Christianity is faith, not submission - faith in God, faith that Jesus Christ was his Son (and was God at the same time) and faith that belief in Him will redeem your sins.

The central tenet of Judaism is the law, which God gave the Jewish people so that they may live righteous lives.

Christianity and Judaism emphasise the concept of free will, which is almost completely absent from Islam. Free will implies genuine moral choices. In Islam there is only the words of the book - the Koran - and you are meant to follow them without interpretation or ambivalence.

One area in which Islam is not unique is the perpetration of violence in its name. All the Abrahamic religions adhere to the Old Testament, which exhorts violence in the name of God almost to the point of tedium. Christianity at least tempers this with Christ's message of pacifism.

We often hear, usually from non-Muslims, that Islam is a religion of peace. This is perhaps the most misunderstood statement about Islam. It is true in one sense - if you submit to Allah, you will find peace. Islam is like Buddhism in this respect - its adherents seek to find inner peace through their belief. This does not mean Islam is a pacifist religion.

Islam is growing at a rate that will soon make it the biggest religion in the world and there is little doubt that it presents the biggest philosophical challenge to modern Western values since Communism. It is a mistake to regard it from a position of ignorance and prejudice but it is equally a mistake to put our heads in the sand and believe that it has the same values as classical Western liberalism.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The truth is out on climate science

The subject of anthropogenic (i.e. man-made) global warming (AGW) is what prompted me to start blogging and many of my posts have dealt with it. Anyone who writes or speaks critically about this topic knows that it takes a thick skin to do so because, as I discovered early on, the debate very quickly becomes ad hominem. Over the years I have maintained my position in spite (or perhaps because) of some pretty nasty personal attacks. My view, which is based on having read literally hundreds of scientific papers on the subject, is that the science indicates mankind's role in rising global temperatures is minimal. If you want to read in more detail about my conclusions, I summarised them about a year ago in this post.

I am not a scientist but I studied statistics and applied maths at university and climate science is primarily a subject of numbers, so when I started to delve into the science I found I had a good understanding of the analysis behind the computer models that climate scientists rely on for their predictions. I became particularly concerned by the so-called 'hockey stick' that purported to show a straight line of stable temperatures over the last 1,000 years and then a sudden uptick in temperatures in the 20th Century, and I could see that it was based on highly flawed data collection and analysis methods. It is now generally accepted in the scientific community that the graph is garbage.

I was encouraged by the release of the 'Climategate' emails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit that showed scientists colluding to hide data, undermine the peer review process and discredit other scientists who did not support the so-called consensus. But with some pretty effective obfuscation by supporters in the mainstream media (who focused on the 'hacking' of the information rather than the content it revealed), the controversy died down. There have been other revelations of unscientific behaviour and methods amongst the climate science community but none that have severely dented the credibility of the AGW theory - until now.

It has been revealed that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the main US Government organisation that provides climate data for policy-making, deliberately exaggerated critical data in support of Barack Obama's diplomatic efforts to reach an agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015. The NOAA data was critical to the Paris accord because it purported to show that the so-called pause in global temperatures since 1997 did not exist. Predictions of climate disaster are based on contentious theories of 'feedback' effects whereby temperature rises are compounded as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases. Mankind's carbon emissions have continued to increase significantly over the period since 1997 but if temperatures have not increased proportionately then that gives credence to the alternative theory that rising CO2 levels have a diminishing, not increasing, effect on temperatures. Retired NOAA scientist John Bates told the Daily Mail that NOAA cooked the data to hide the pause with the intent of influencing the Paris conference outcome.

This may be the final nail in the coffin of the credibility of the AGW theory. The revelations come at an opportune (or inopportune, depending on your view) time with an avowed sceptic in the White House and critics of AGW in senior cabinet positions. Trump had promised to kill the Paris agreement and AGW-related regulatory impediments to fossil fuel exploitation before these revelations came to light and this will give strength to his case.

As Shakespeare said, at the length truth will out, and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to see the entire AGW scientific and policy edifice finally crumbling as the lies and fraud on which it is built are finally exposed.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Milo, Berkeley and Fascism

Last week Milo Yiannopoulos was due to speak at University of California, Berkeley, as one of many speaking engagements on his 'Dangerous Faggot' (really!) tour of academic institutions that started during the 2016 presidential election campaign. Yiannopoulos is a British journalist and a senior editor with Breitbart News, the conservative news and opinion website that was run by Steve Bannon, who is now Assistant and Chief Strategist to President Trump. As the title of his speaking tour suggests, Yiannopoulos is gay and his views are considered by some people to be dangerous. His speaking engagements have attracted criticism and protest but none until now on the scale of what happened at Berkeley, where the protest became violent with masked, black-suited agitators smashing windows, tearing down crowd barriers, starting fires and throwing Molotov cocktails.

Yiannopolous burst on to the United States' political landscape last year like some British actors break into Hollywood - sort of a political version of Tom Hiddleston. He was a minor blogger specialising in technology and computer gaming (and was best known then for his articles on the 'Gamergate' controversy), before moving to America and latching onto the Trump campaign. The fact that he is gay, English, and highly articulate are all factors in his rise to prominence but undoubtedly it is his support for Trump that is the most significant reason why people started paying attention (after all, 'Gays for Trump' was a somewhat unexpected adjunct to the campaign of a Republican presidential candidate).

I have listened to several of Yiannopoulos's podcasts and I found it difficult to determine exactly what he believes because everything he says is delivered in a highly satirical manner. He has been accused of being homophobic, racist, sexist and Islamophobic, however, as a gay man who claims to prefer black men (at least sexually), it seems unlikely that he is guilty of the first two of these crimes. Women, or more precisely lesbians, are the target of much of his humour, but again he doesn't appear to be seriously misogynistic and the fact that young women are some of his most ardent supporters bears this out. He is certainly strongly critical of Islamic fundamentalism and he is a supporter of Trump's immigration ban, but in those views he is no more extreme than more mainstream conservative commentators like Mark Steyn and Douglas Murray.

In any event, even if he is seriously homophobic, racist, sexist and Islamophobic, that doesn't mean he doesn't have a right to express his views when he is invited to do so by student groups on American campuses. After all, the right to free speech is not there just to protect those whose views everyone agrees with.

Yiannopolous has been described, inevitably, as Fascist, but no behaviour seems so Fascist as that of the uniformed agitators who took over the Berkeley campus last week.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Waitangi Day

It is Waitangi Day, which, for overseas readers, is sort of like New Zealand's Independence Day. I say 'sort of like' because, having celebrated July 4th in America, I can tell you Waitangi Day is really nothing at all like Independence Day. The national day in the United States is universally celebrated and an opportunity for Americans to express pride in their nation and unity in being Americans, but in New Zealand it is a day of protest and division. Almost no one here feels national pride on Waitangi Day - if there is a day when those feelings come to the fore it is Anzac Day, which is our Memorial Day, although on that day pride is mixed with sadness at the sacrifices of our countrymen in war.

The problem with Waitangi Day is that it has become all about Maori grievances and the separatist politics of Maori activists. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed by Governor William Hobson on behalf of the Queen and by many Maori chiefs in the place it was named after on this day on 1840, but in recent years official ceremonies at Waitangi have been marred by protests and violence. Successive prime ministers have been treated with contempt by local Maori, with the result that Prime Minister Bill English has refused to attend the 'celebrations' there this year.

Many of the Treaty of Waitangi grievances are, in my view, baseless. The Treaty is a very short and simple document with three articles that recorded the following:
1) Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty to the British Crown
2) Maori tribes, chiefs, families and individuals were guaranteed their existing property rights
3) It made all Maori British subjects.

Articles 1 and 3 effectively abolished Maori tribal government and made Maori individually British citizens, but ironically the Treaty has been interpreted in recent years to bring about a return to the tribal rule that it ended. I think it is clear that the Treaty gives no superior political rights to any tribal leaders today and claims that it established some sort of on-going 'partnership' between tribal political entities and the government of today are entirely spurious. There is nothing in the Treaty that gives legitimacy to current tribal leaders who claim to represent people of Maori descent - unless they are elected to our contemporary democratic institutions, in which case they represent all New Zealanders, not just those of Maori descent.

Governor Hobson said, after the initial signing of the Treaty on 6th February 1840, "now we are one people." It would be nice if that ideal was recognised on this day rather than it being seen as yet another opportunity to promote an entirely bogus separatism and seemingly irreconcilable grievances.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

How do we assess Trump?

Donald Trump has been president for less than two weeks and people are already calling for his impeachment. The call is precipitate to say the least, but it was about this time in Barack Obama's presidency that he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize so it is no more of a rush to judgement than that. The timing is perhaps understandable given the extraordinary pace that Trump has set since assuming office on January 20th. I guess his opponents realise that if they leave the impeachment too long, there may not be a Constitution under which to impeach him!

Among the blitzkrieg of policy announcements and executive orders from Trump during his first week and a half in office we can count:

  • an order to “secure the southern border of the United States through the immediate construction of a physical wall”
  • the announcement of the US withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement
  • an immediate federal hiring freeze
  • an immediate freeze on new regulations
  • the reinstatement of George W. Bush's ban on US foreign aid to international organisations that "promote abortion"
  • the announcement of a new system to fast-track infrastructure projects
  • a call for a “major investigation” into voter fraud during the last election
  • advancing plans for the Keystone and Dakota pipelines
  • an order blocking all immigration from Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan for 120 days and from Syria indefinitely
  • an order withholding federal funds to cities that do not comply with federal immigration laws (i.e. that are 'sanctuary cities')
  • an order that allows agencies to eliminate Affordable Care Act taxes and requirements
  • a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May
  • the sacking of Acting US Attorney-General, Sally Yates.

As one wag put it, what the hell were all the other presidents doing during their first few days in office? You've got to hand it to Trump, he is not shy of wielding his presidential powers. I am sure he realises that frustration with politicians not following through on their promises is precisely one of the reasons people voted for him. But when it comes to political decision-making, quantity definitely does not equate to quality.

The immigration order has received the most comment internationally and I agree with most of the criticism in that it is short-sighted, discriminatory, ineffective and most likely to hurt the United States itself by costing American society far more than the impacts of the risks it attempts to address.

On the other hand some of what of Trump has already put into action, such as his resurrection of the Keystone pipeline - the first step in his promises on energy policy and climate change - has my support. It is expected that he will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and refocus the US Environmental Protection Agency on genuinely protecting the environment rather than being, as it is currently, an end run around the legal and constitutional barriers to Obama's global warming evangelism (and if you want to know more about this, I suggest you watch this video of a press conference by Trump's EPA transition chief, Myron Ebell).

So how do we judge Trump from a libertarian perspective? Do two environmental policy reforms outweigh one discriminatory immigration policy, or is it a case of dog-shit yoghurt where the bad contaminates all of the good? I think that overall Trump will not be good for the cause of freedom. This will be particularly true once the inevitable electoral backlash results in a swing back to the Democrats, who are likely to throw out any good policies Trump may have implemented and deal out more of their own bad medicine.

UPDATE: John Stossel describes the libertarian dilemma about Trump better than I do in this article, quoting Robert Higgs, who says "Trump talks about many things...but...there is one topic that he never mentions, and that is freedom". So true.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Trump and the Left-Right Divide

Recently I completed a survey that evaluated the political views of New Zealanders and matched them to the policies of the main political parties. My views, perhaps unsurprisingly, most closely matched those of the (relatively) libertarian ACT Party, but it was the left-leaning, environmentalist Green Party that was my second closest match. I wasn't surprised at the latter as the Greens are socially liberal - supporting decriminalisation of soft drugs, equal standing before the law for gay couples and greater protection for civil rights - all of which are in line with my own views.

This got me thinking about the traditional left-right divide, a dichotomy that always frustrates me because I don't see myself as belonging to either side. Too often people like me with classical liberal views are characterised as right-wing along with others who hold quite statist and authoritarian views, such as Donald Trump.

There have been attempts to build more complex models such as the Political Compass, which has two dimensions with an economic and a social scale, as shown below.

This matrix allows a more detailed representation of political views but in my view it still does not provide an completely accurate picture. For example, it puts Hitler at the very top of the social scale but in the middle of the economic scale, and Stalin on very left of the economic scale, whereas I see their Fascist and Communist philosophies as very similar in every respect. It is one of the great myths about Fascism that it allowed economic freedom. In Nazi Germany and Mussolini's Italy, private companies were permitted to operate only under the strict control of the state and only then when they served the state's interests. Thus, many companies were forced to move production capacity to armaments manufacture rather than the products their owners would have preferred to produce. That is hardly economic freedom.

The chart below shows the positions of various historical figures.
So where do I fit on the matrix? Here is my position:

What about Donald Trump? The Political Compass website assessed the US presidential election candidates as follows:

Trump is quite far up the social axis towards authoritarianism, as is to be expected, but perhaps not as far to the left of the economic scale as I would have thought. This is probably due to a bias in the framing of the questions that equates crony capitalism with economic freedom, which is essentially the same problem that places Hitler in the middle of the economic axis, as noted above. The closest of the historical figures on the chart to Trump is Margaret Thatcher, although I think Thatcher was significantly more economically liberal (and perhaps more socially conservative) than Trump.

Trump is the man the left-wing loves to hate but in reality his policies have far more in common with the views of those who describe themselves as 'lefties' than they do with my philosophical beliefs. It is ironic that Trump's first significant executive order was to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, an action he completed as people were marching in protest against his election. Many of those who were protesting were undoubtedly the same people who had protested against the TPP. It is revealing that in the above chart Hillary Clinton is further to the right economically than Trump - again something many of her supporters would be surprised to see.

I think there is really only one axis when it comes to political beliefs - authoritarian vs. liberal - and anyone who claims they can be at one end of the axis on social matters and the other end on economic matters is deluding themselves. The economist Milton Friedman (whose views are shown in the second chart above) said that a country could have economic freedom without political freedom, but not the reverse. I disagree - freedom is freedom, and economic freedom without social or political freedom, or vice-versa, is contradictory and unsustainable - but that is probably a subject for another blog post.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Life in the 'Neoliberal' Era

One of the most delightful Twitter posts that caught my attention in the pre-Christmas period was Johan Norberg's 'progress advent calendar' showing 24 indicators that demonstrate how much life has improved for human beings over the industrial era. My favourites were Day 2: Famine deaths have been reduced by 98% in 100 years, even though world population grew fourfold; and 15: The homicide rate has been reduced by half since the 1980s, and by 98% since the 15th century.

Norberg has continued to tweet good news since Christmas and today one that particularly tickled me was this graph of what has happened in what many left-wing commentators (such as this one) disparagingly call the era of 'neoliberalism'. Clearly, this neoliberalism is a pretty good thing.

The left survives on painting the world as a dreadful place that is getting worse by the year. They are the modern doomsayers, the equivalent of those sad religionists who used to walk around with sandwich boards saying, "the end of the world is nigh." This is no more so than when they are talking about the environment, which has replaced class struggle as the touchstone for political orthodoxy. Norberg even addresses this, pointing out that farm productivity since 1961 saved 3 billion hectares from becoming farmland - the size of USA, Canada and China, and that oil spilt in our oceans has been reduced by 99% since 1970.

He has a wonderful way of putting things in perspective. In response to Oxfam's recent statement that 8 people are richer than 3.6 billion, he says, "So? My daughter, who has $20, is richer than 2 billion. So the problem is poverty, not inequality." Of course, this is not mathematically kosher, but we get the point.

We need more people like Johan Norberg. The doomsayers dominate the media and many of their claims are never challenged. The facts tell us that life in the so-called neoliberal era is better in so many ways than ever before in human history. The more people point this out, the less traction the leftwing doomsayers will get in the contest of political wills.