In 1984 New Zealand began its great experiment in open and free markets, minimal regulation, and user pays. Strangely it was all started by a Labour government, which would traditionally be far from enthusiastic about these concepts. But that government had been hijacked by extreme idealists form the libertarian camp and bore little resemblance to what would normally be expected from them.
Since then these extreme neo-liberal policies have peaked and are now gradually being backed away from, unless you are one of the few people left in the libertarian wing of the dying Act party. So the experiment has clearly been a failure although some people might argue that things would have been even worse if we hand’t followed the path we did (but who can prove or disprove that?)
And this phenomenon didn’t just happen in New Zealand. As I said in a recent blog entry titled “Zeitgeist”, during the late 70s and 80s it seemed to be an idea whose time had come and many countries were following similar ideas, with Reagan in the US and Thatcher in Britain being great enthusiasts for it.
But let’s just move all the politics and economic dogma aside and look at the concept of user pays from a purely logical perspective. Whatever the political ideology it is usually associated with, is it a good idea? Actually yes, in many ways it is a good idea, but only in certain contexts. Let me explain…
A basic idea behind user pays is that nothing is free. Every user pays for what they need – for housing, food, education, electricity, etc – and the market will establish appropriate prices for these items based on true costs and on market forces such as competition.
So if electricity supplies don’t keep up with demand then the price will go up which will either persuade people to economise to save power or will provide more money to build new power plants. It sounds great in theory and in fact it can be a very effective economic mechanism.
But there are certain necessities for living which any person living in a relatively rich, modern democracy like ours (or in the US or Britain for example) should expect. There is no real excuse for New Zealand having a whole family living in a garage or in a single room, or in getting sick because they can’t heat their homes (or their garage) in winter, or for relying on charities to supply them with food because their other expenses are so great.
So user pays is fine as long as the users can afford to pay for the basics. And in many cases today that just isn’t true. Many user actually can’t pay for housing or for electricity or for food in an open market because their income just isn’t sufficient.
And that is also a natural outcome of user pays. Most employers will pay as little as they can get away with and will claim they are just following the model (which they are). But at the same time people who own rental housing will charge as much as they can get away with. So the user pays a lot but isn’t paid a lot to compensate.
User pays seems to be naturally suited to making the privileged minority much richer while they prey on the majority of “users”. And that’s exactly what we see in every case. I discussed the obscene extremes this phenomenon has reached in the US – where the top 1% have about as much wealth as the bottom 90% – in a blog entry called “When the Revolution Comes”.
So in summary I support the idea of user pays but only if the minimum income is linked to how much a user needs to survive with a reasonable standard of living. Where that point is will depend on individual opinion, but I think compromise is possible. One thing’s for sure: the point certainly isn’t at the income level which the minimum wage provides.
And if there are no jobs for a significant number of people and if the income of many people on poorly paid jobs isn’t sufficient then a user pays system simply isn’t appropriate. We can’t have it both ways: we have to either make sure people have enough to participate in the user pays system or use a different system. It’s a simple choice.
Many of my political opponents – mainly consisting of conservatives and extreme libertarians – like to rant about how evil or incompetent those more on the left of politics are. And because they are so extreme in their views they see even moderate philosophies as being the opposite of their own beliefs, so even centrists to them appear “far left”.
Now I will be the first to admit that I have been known to indulge in the occasional rant myself, but at least I recognise that and I even have a tag “rant” which I use on the WordPress version of this blog and a rating system on my OJB blog with red indicating that the post tends towards controversial ranting!
But in future I am going to try to limit my use of rants to special occasions and therefore make the times I do use that rhetorical technique even more rewarding!
So I am not going to rant about the New Zealand government’s latest budget, even though it is basically hopeless as far as I am concerned. In fact I am going to avoid ranting about our right-leaning parties at all, useless they particularly deserve it of course!
Why? Because I look at the mindless rants of my opposition and I don’t see why I should bring myself down to their level. They rant on about the Labour (left-leaning) Party being hopeless financial managers even though I can show them figures which prove this simply isn’t true. They rant about left-wing conspiracies and communist influences even though the true left and communist supporters would be horrified at how far towards the center-right Labour (and even the Greens) have moved.
So my opponents look pretty stupid (is this starting to sound like a bit of a rant on my part now?) when they take extreme positions. Now I am going to evaluate the current New Zealand (center-right) government, especially in terms of their just released budget, without ranting or making silly, extreme statements!
For a start, the current government isn’t extreme right, but neither is the opposition extreme left – not even the Greens, despite my opponents’ assertions to that effect. An extreme right government would never have passed the marriage equality law and they would have fully privatised our assets instead of just selling 49%, for example.
But a true far-left opposition would have announced they would nationalise those assets when they returned to power, instead of just saying they will create a mechanism to try to control prices in the electricity market the right have created.
So the National Party aren’t evil or incompetent, they just follow a philosophy which I disagree with. Primarily this involves a naive belief in the powers of the market and in private enterprise, and a refusal to use government powers directly to achieve political outcomes.
The Labour Party – at least as it is evolving now, because in the past 30 years it has really just been a clone of National – are prepared to intervene when they think it is necessary. Sure, government intervention sometimes produces unintended consequences and occasionally is poorly considered, but I would say that the risk of a poor intervention to correct market failures is better than not even trying.
And anybody who says anything like “markets never fail if they are left alone to work the way they are supposed to” should have a think about the logic of that statement. How do they define market success? Usually it’s achieving what the market wants. So they are really defining market success using a circular argument: market success is defined as the market doing what it wants, and doing what it wants leads to success.
I say we should allow markets to operate (they will anyway) but to shape them and limit them for the greater good. How do we know what that greater good should be and therefore in what direction markets should be lead? I think we all know the answer to that…
If we see a tiny fraction of people becoming incredibly rich while an increasing proportion of the population can barely survive, then I think we have a market failure. If people can’t afford to buy milk, even though we are the biggest producer in the world, but can afford as much Coca Cola as they want, then I think we have a market failure. If the price of electricity rises several times faster than anything else, despite the fact we have a high proportion of cheap hydro power, then I think we have a market failure. The list of failures could go on for pages.
People who deny the reality of these failures aren’t really evil or incompetent – at least not in most cases – they are just wrong. They are wrong because they have let their minds be trapped by the ideology of the market. They will probably never escape this trap because, like most ideologies: political, religious, or philosophical, there are built-in excuses for when the ideology fails.
Pointing out the deficiencies of mindless rants about these problems by so-called left-oriented people like me is just one of the ways the market ideology tries to hide its failures. So what’s the point? Maybe I should be more positive. As I said above: at least we have a government which isn’t actually evil or incompetent… they’re just wrong!
I haven’t done an entry on my favourite things for a while. If you haven’t read one yet, these posts are about cool (usually geeky) things I think are really amazing and worth talking about. So far I have done the Voyager spacecraft, the iPhone, the Hubble Space Telescope, the McLaren F1, and the SR-71 Blackbird. So what is as cool as these? How about the Large Hadron Collider?
In the unlikely event that you haven’t heard of the LHC or that you want to know a little bit about what it does, I should briefly say what it is. Let’s look at the name: the Large Hadron Collider, and break it down a bit.
First, it’s large. I like the understatement of that word. This thing is huge. Depending on your definition it is the single biggest machine ever built. It is a ring controlled by cooled superconducting magnets 27 kilometers in circumference buried up to 175 metres deep on the border of France and Switzerland near Geneva.
So moving on to “Hadron”. A hadron is a particle made of quarks. The most well-known (if you have done even basic science at school) are the proton and the neutron. The LHC moves protons around its 27 kilometer ring very fast, giving them huge amounts of energy.
Finally there’s “Collider”. After the protons are spun quickly (99.9999991% of the speed of light) around the ring – one beam in one direction and one in the other – they are brought together and collide. The energy is great enough to completely destroy the particles and cause them, and their energy, to transform into a complex shower of exotic particles, including some which might never have been seen before.
So that’s it. It sounds simple doesn’t it? A big ring which spins protons around quickly and crashes them into each other. What’s the point?
Physicists have a model of how the particles in the universe work and there was one element of this model which seemed to be missing. It was a field which gave particles some of their mass (or gave things “weight” if you want to be a bit less technical). There should be a particle associated with this field called the Higgs Boson.
Right, time to explain that. Let’s look at the name again: Higgs Boson. The “Higgs” part refers to Peter Higgs, who is one of the physicists who theorised that the particle should exist in 1964. And “Boson”? A boson is a class of particle and the most important type carry forces. So when a magnet attracts a piece of metal it is because of a stream of bosons called photons.
So a Higgs Boson is just a particle which gives other particles mass (just some of it, not all). Because the Higgs has a high mass it was hard to create in a low energy particle accelerator. Remember that, according to Einstein, mass and energy are related through the famous equation E=mc^2. The LHC is the only accelerator (more or less) with enough energy to make a Higgs.
And the discovery of the Higgs has been tentatively confirmed. In fact that uncertainty is just scientists being cautious because they have found something and, if it isn’t the Higgs, it’s certainly something that is very like one!
Of course the LHC will be used for many other experiments apart from the discovery of the Higgs. Many experiments in particle physics use accelerators to perform collisions and the LHC hasn’t even been run at anywhere near its maximum power yet. There will surely be many more great discoveries made with it.
So now I want to discuss some amazing facts and figures about the LHC. These have been sourced from various web sites but I want o get all the best stuff together in one place here.
1. When the tunnel containing the LHC was dug, after 27 kilometers of digging the two ends met within an accuracy of one centimeter.
2. The cables used at the LHC contain 6000-9000 threads of superconducting niobium–titanium, each one 10 times thinner than a human hair. If you added all the filaments together they would stretch to the Sun and back over six times (about 2 billion kilometers).
3. The particle beams in the LHC only contain 2 nanograms (2 billionths of a gram, or about 10,000 times less than a grain of sand) per day, yet those contain more energy than a 400 tonne train travelling at 150 km/h, and could melt half a tonne of copper.
4. The protons make a complete circuit of the 27 kilometer ring 11,245 times per second. Each beam can circulate for up to 10 hours and travel 10 billion kilometres (equivalent to over 300,000 times around the Earth) in that time.
5. When the experiments are running at the LHC, the four detectors generate 15 million gigabytes of data every year, that is equivalent to one thousand times the information printed in the form of books annually.
6. When the two beams collide they will generate temperatures more than 100,000 times
hotter than the center of the Sun (the highest temperature in the Solar System) but the cooling system that circulates superfluid helium around the LHC keeps it at minus 271.3 degrees Celsius (the lowest temperature in the Solar System).
I often hear people say something like “Why spend tens of billions on the LHC? What practical benefit is there?” I answer that in several ways: first, why must everything have some practical benefit? Some things are just worth doing for themselves. Second, over the time period the cost wasn’t very much, less than what Coca Cola spent on advertising in a similar time. And third, it is impossible to say what unpredicted benefits might come from both the fundamental research from the LHC, and the awesome engineering which went into building it. I’m sure it will repay its cost easily.
Many people think the LHC is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. I agree.
I think there is little doubt that the corporate world is out of control. They are drunk on their own power and they are arrogant enough to use that power in the most cynical and self-serving ways. And even after they complete their immoral activities they still expect the rest of the world to admire them for their cleverness.
I’m not denying that many corporations have some positive aspects as well as negative. But the same could be said about any group or organisation. I could make a case for some positive aspects of Nazi Germany (they created a great rocket program used by both the US and USSR after the war) or Stalinist Russia (Stalin was a strong leader which made the defeat of Germany possible), for example. It is the balance which really matters.
For example, take one of the most admired big corporates in the world: Google. I think Google’s search engine is brilliant. I use it in preference to all others. And while I cannot get enthusiastic about their Android platform (I am an iPhone and iPad user) I still recognise it as a valuable basic operating system, especially for cheap devices. And Google Glass shows some promise although I think it is so far from being genuinely usable that it’s future is very uncertain.
But that’s where it ends: an excellent search engine, an adequate operating system, and a new technology with some potential. But what is my complaint? Well the main one (but certainly not the only one) would be that, like all big corporates (as far as I know), Google is very good at avoiding their tax responsibilities. Not only do they use every dirty trick imaginable to avoid paying tax but they are proud of their achievements in that area.
At the end of last year the Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, defended their tax avoidance strategy and said he was proud of the steps they had taken to cut their tax bill, and that it was just “good capitalism”.
In the UK (the country this particular story applied to, although similar strategies are used everywhere) Google generated 2.5 billion pounds in sales but paid only 6 million pounds in corporate tax. That is a tax rate of 0.24% which is practically zero.
I understand that many people don’t like tax and don’t like the way the tax they do pay is used, but that’s not really the point. Those of use who can’t afford to pay experts to help us avoid tax still pay it, and at a rate a hundred times higher than Google. And quite honestly, even if I could afford to avoid it I wouldn’t because, even though I know the tax system has a lot of faults, it is still the best system we have to fund many essential services.
But when I see Google not paying their fair share I do feel a lot more resentful about paying tax myself. Google have more money than they could ever use, and certainly a lot more than they deserve for what they do, yet they fail to participate in a system the rest of us do contribute to.
And yes, I now that technically their avoidance practices are legal, but it is also legal not not hide profits in Bermuda and to pay the full tax which you know you are responsible for. And which is moral? Schmidt trots out the same old tired excuse: that they are responsible to their shareholders, but that is just a feeble justification and a way to shift the blame to someone else.
He also says “It’s called capitalism. We are proudly capitalistic. I’m not confused about this.” Well if he is proud of a system which is so deeply flawed and unfair then maybe it’s the system we should be trying to change, not those who exploit it. And of course that is the answer: capitalism in it’s current form simply doesn’t work and we need either a better version or an entirely new system. Since I’m not sure what that new system would be I guess I have to regretfully recommend a new form of capitalism!
Remember that I am only using Google as an example here and I know that other corporates, including Apple, are just as bad. But I think Google deserves a little bit of extra criticism because of their arrogance in saying “no, we don’t pay tax and we’re proud of it” especially after their original catchphrase which was “don’t be evil”.
Well I’m sorry but refusing to participate fairly in a society which can only operate the way it does because of the tax the rest of us pay, and which has made you very rich, is evil!
When you are an IT consultant there are two elements of the job which you have to be aware (or maybe afraid) of: the first is the computer and all it’s complex, and possibly conflicting, parts; and the second is the user, generally an even more bizarre and unfathomable part of the equation.
Many people think computers give far more problems than they should do, and wonder why this issue is so common. They compare computers with other machines which seem to have far fewer faults and accuse computer experts of being somehow negligent in being responsible for these problems.
There is a certain element of truth in this criticism. Computers do seem to develop more faults than most other technology, but I would say there are several really good reasons for this which I will go through here.
First, computer technology is relatively new. The computer as a common workplace tool is only about 20 or 30 years old. Some common functions of computers, such as use of the internet by non-specialists, were developed much more recently than that. So I think there is a partial excuse in saying that computers are still being developed to be more reliable and easy to use and maintain.
Look at how good they are now compared with 10 years ago and it’s obvious considerable progress has already been made. I agree that there is still room for improvement, but how good were cars (for example) just 25 years after they were first mass produced? I would suggest they had progressed nowhere near as far as computers have in the same time.
Second, computers are extremely flexible and tend to be configured with components from a large number of different manufacturers. The computer might come from one company, the operating system form another, various drivers from a third, software from several others, and various peripherals from still others. It is almost inevitable that there will be some compatibility issues when all of these components interact.
Imagine if you bought a car from Ford, then put a Toyota engine in it, with an engine management unit from Mitsubishi and a gearbox from VW. Would you expect these parts to all work together easily? Clearly there are likely to be more issues with this approach, but that is basically what happens with many computers, especially Windows PCs. One reason Macs tend to give a lot less problems is that Apple provides more of the components (hardware, OS, drivers, and some of the software) which are more likely to work together in harmony.
Third, people tend to fine-tune and customise their computers far more than other technology. Traditionally computers have been completely open to reconfiguration by the owner, which has provided clear benefits, but a lot of problems as well. There are exceptions to this approach, for example the iPhone which is a much more closed system, but one where software conflicts, security issues, and crashes are almost unheard of.
To use my car analogy again, it would be like the owner being able to change the way components of the car worked. Would we be surprised if a car stopped working after the owner started fine tuning the engine management system, or disabled the cooling system, for example?
Finally, there has been (especially in the past but not so much today) a trend by major software and hardware companies to engage in a battle with their competitors to see who can create the computer with the best specs or the program with the most features without worrying too much about how relevant those specs were to the average user, or how well those features worked together.
We now have programs like Microsoft Word which can do almost everything but which does all those things really badly, or we have stuff like Flash which comes from the distant past and has just been added to in an attempt to keep it relevant. Both of these approaches result in more functionality theoretically but in less useful functionality in practice.
So when all of these difficulties are considered it’s fairly impressive that computers are as good as they are. It’s not clear which direction these trends will go in future. Apple is making its systems more closed which makes them more reliable, secure and consistent, but also less flexible and configurable. Microsoft is also reducing some of the flexibility of the past. But Google seems determined to offer maximum openness in its Android OS (and that has always been the case with Linux).
As I said above, it’s not clear which is the best approach, but it does seem to me that every other area of technology has become more closed off to the user (few people can service their cars now for example) while becoming more reliable and sophisticated. If that trend also applies to IT then maybe Google is taking the wrong approach.
I think computers will continue to become more reliable and less prone to the problems we still get today, but even now I think a lot of progress has been made. Considering what we ask of them, modern computers (even PCs) are remarkably problem-free.
I seem to have spent a lot of time describing the first difficult element in computer support. The user is in many ways a far more fascinating topic but that will have to wait for another entry.
I recently listened to an item which featured Steve Job’s first boss, from the company Atari. He thought that Jobs was an unusual and difficult person to work with, and that he might have a lot of trouble even getting a job in the modern work environment. He thinks most employers reject individuality and difficult and critical personalities in favour people who are easier to get on with and more compliant.
Clearly Jobs was an awkward person and it’s easy to see why he might have been seen as difficult to manage, so there is an obvious reason why he might have had trouble being hired, but whose fault is that really? Sure Jobs was difficult but he was also brilliant. It seems to me that most modern personnel management policies favour people who will fit in a mould rather than do genuinely brilliant work.
Of course having an awkward personality in no way guarantees that a person is brilliant but there does seem to be a correlation between the two. It seems to make sense that people who are going to be able to make a genuinely unique contribution to a company are likely to “think different” from the rest and those people are unlikely to fit in with the standard profile most managers are looking for.
There is also the possibility, which I have discussed in the past, that managers might feel threatened by someone who would be employed in a position below themselves but might be far more capable than they are.
The ultimate example of the failure of a conventional mediocre leadership was the “bad times” at Apple. During the time when Jobs wasn’t there and the “suits” controlled the company they almost destroyed it. Apple is an exceptional case and relies on constant innovation and cutting edge design but it does make me wonder whether every company being run by suits (that is, almost all of them) is achieving well below its potential and could do so much more if they were just prepared to take on an exceptional person instead of just another one from the same old mould.
In my experience I have seen this phenomenon a lot. I see very mediocre people with no innovative ideas at all in senior roles and far more capable and original people being controlled by them. So the less brilliant people are not only enjoying the benefits of seniority themselves but they are also holding back those below them who might otherwise really achieve something.
I do recognise, especially in large organisations, that creative people do present a risk because while they might be theoretically capable of excellent original work, that might not fit in with the “bigger picture”. I also recognise that most bigger companies are very risk averse, and would generally prefer to sacrifice the possibility of a very positive new innovation if there is also a chance it could go wrong.
This problem (if it really is a problem) extends to all levels of human organisation: from national politics all the way down to small groups. Despite the claims to the contrary there is generally very little chance of anything genuinely innovative coming out of a typically organised company or other institution.
It’s difficult to say where the cause of the problem lies. It could be, as I have suggested above, that innovative people are blocked from advancement because they are seen as a risk or a threat. It could be that innovative people do get promotions but they are forced to become part of the “machine” once they do gain senior status so their ideas are wasted. And it could be that creative people just aren’t interested in politics or management. I suspect it is all three.
There is no obvious answer to the problem because the people who need to make the changes are exactly the ones who can’t see that there is a problem which needs to be solved. The best we can realistically hope for is that the power of big corporations and senior business and political leaders is kept under control. But how realistic that is, I really don’t know.
Maybe we’re all doomed to living in a world of increasing mediocrity, where people like Steve Jobs are often wasted. It certainly seems that way to me.
OK, before I go any further I have to admit that the title of this entry is probably a bit unfair because it is a bit extreme and deliberately confrontational. The two people I am going to discuss clearly aren’t really complete morons, they just act that way sometimes. In reality at least one of them is very intelligent most of the time, but just acts like a moron occasionally. The other seems to act like a moron almost all the time, so maybe he more clearly deserves the label.
And yes, I know the original meaning of the word was for someone with a mental age between 8 and 12, but I’m sure we all know by now that it has changed to be a general term of disrespect for someone who shows a lack of mental acuity.
Anyway, who are the two people in question and under what circumstances are they morons?
The first is our old friend, Christopher Monckton and his area of moronity (yes, I believe that really is a word) is global warming denial (note that I use the word “denial” here, in preference to “skepticism”, quite deliberately).
The second is a well-known defender of Christianity who I haven’t ranted about before (yes, I was surprised too). His name is John Lennox and he is a British mathematician and philosopher of science who is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. You would have to assume this guy is pretty smart in general (how else would he attain those lofty heights in academia – by the way that isn’t sarcasm) but when defending his Christian beliefs he really does sound like a moron.
The phenomenon of being really brilliant in one area and totally hopeless in another is quite common. I have already discussed it in relation to Francis Collins in a blog entry titled “Brilliant Stupidity” on 2009-09-22 and John E Hare in “Religious Intellectuals” posted on 2011-08-14.
So let’s look at some of the claims these clowns (I love that word in this context) have made in recent interviews on Radio NZ. Let’s start with Monckton…
First, he claims to be a mathematician and consistently implies he is an expert in the area of climate change. This is simply not true. He has no advanced formal training in maths or science, he has published no scientific papers in reputable journals, and he has done no original research in the area. If he genuinely believes these claims he is deluded. If he knows they are false yet makes them anyway then he is a liar.
If you read his biography on a neutral source such as Wikipedia it quickly becomes obvious that he has a fantasy-prone personality having made many fanciful and false claims about many aspects of his life. Clearly we should be highly skeptical (I use that word in the real sense) of his opinion based on this alone.
So clearly Monckton has a person has no credibility at all but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. What about some of the “facts” he quotes? Well he’s not wrong about everything and he does make some reasonable points, for example regarding the safety record of nuclear power and how many people from the “Green” side of politics have an illogical dislike of it, but that doesn’t detract from the numerous false and misleading statements he makes about climate change.
Just as an example he makes the false claim that there has been no warming since 1998. All real statisticians know that a single data point like that cannot be used when trying to establish a trend. If Monckton really was an expert he would know that too. Maybe he does.
The numbers he quotes regarding the costs and benefits of global warming reduction interventions are just about as far from reality as you can get. Maybe he sourced them from somewhere with credibility, I really don’t know since he didn’t say, but at the very least he’s taken the most extreme numbers from any source and used them in a misleading way.
And so it goes on for point after point. The interviewer, Bryan Crump, generally has a rather neutral (often to the point of vapidity) style, but you could tell from his responses that he knew he was being scammed by Monckton. Dishonesty of that sort is hard to hide.
So let’s move on to the second interview of John Lennox done by Kim Hill. Kim certainly has a reputation for not putting up with too much nonsense and, while she didn’t exactly outright challenge Lennox as being deliberately deceptive, you could see that she also knew she was being scammed.
As I said, unlike Monckton I have no complaints about the academic standards of Lennox but he is a Christian apologist and I’m sorry but in my experience if someone can be labelled that way (and it certainly applies to him) then they simply have to misrepresent the truth, you simply have no alternative because your worldview, when examined logically, simply cannot withstand any scrutiny. So even people who use the most rigorous techniques and critical self-examination in other areas of their life just demand a “free pass” to repeat unsupported nonsense when defending their religion.
So let’s look at some examples…
He claims the new atheists aren’t driven by scientific thinking and are confused about the nature of both science and god. OK, some of them aren’t science oriented – Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris would probably be more seen as having a political or philosophical approach – but surely others, such as Richard Dawkins, are very much science oriented and understand what it is.
As to what the nature of god is, well who knows? Every believer seems to have a slightly different idea and even Lennox seems to change his definition to fit the particular point he wants to make. So if the new atheists are confused about what god is then so is everyone else. Why? Because god doesn’t exist except int he mind of the believers. Is it surprising the idea of god has no consistent meaning?
He claims science and god are compatible and also claims his religious views are evidence based. But later in the interview he makes morality based decisions simply because that’s what is attributed to Jesus in the Bible instead of what makes sense. Clearly evidence and logic don’t matter to him that much, unless they fit in with what he wants to believe, of course!
He uses the tired old argument about how great contributors to science, like Newton, were also religious. That really doesn’t work though because at the time people almost had to be religious, and it was a requirement for the post that Newton held. Also, Newton was also an alchemist. Does that mean that science and alchemy are also compatible? It just doesn’t make sense and surely Lennox knows this. But because he has to defend a false belief he is obliged to use weak arguments like this one.
He cherry-picks the most ridiculous statements from the Bible in an attempt to validate his beliefs. Accepting the idea that the words “in the beginning” from the Bible vaguely agree with the Big Bang theory while ignoring a dozen other errors on the same page is deeply dishonest.
He also defends Christianity with the old “no true Scotsman” fallacy. According to him anyone who acts badly because of their beliefs isn’t a true Christian but anyone who acts in a good way is. Well you really can’t do that. If people act badly because of their religion then their religion is to blame.
And of you think the problem is one of interpretation then God should have made his message a bit clearer instead of disguising it in a confusing, contradictory, obscure, outdated text like the Bible. Buy any reasonable analysis Lennox loses on this point.
That’s enough. As I write this I’m listening to the interview again and I can’t take any more. It’s not nice being lied to and mislead. In the case of Monckton it’s not so bad because he’s just a joke, but in Lennox’s case it somehow seems more egregious because he is an intelligent person who is prepared to use any means to advance his point.
Maybe I should correct my original title. In the case of these two people, only one is clearly a moron, but the other is much worse!
The biggest local story here in New Zealand over the last few days has been the passing of same-sex marriage legislation, making us the 13th country in the world, and the first in the Asia-Pacific region, to legalise same-sex marriage. Considering we have a conservative government this is quite an impressive achievement and shows what happens when MPs are allowed to vote based on their conscience instead of voting for what their party tells them to.
Surely all votes should work this way. Apart from the dictatorial NZ First party all the others have members who voted for the legislation even when you might not expect it (Act and United Future for example). You have to ask if these votes are “conscience votes”, does that mean that the others require some MPs to vote against their conscience? Is that really OK?
Anyway the vote was fairly comprehensive in the end – 77 for and 44 against – which is considerably better than the more common 61 to 60 votes we get when people vote based on their party’s orders rather than what they think is right.
Of course the more conservative (and nutty) parts of society are already predicting disaster just like they did when other controversial social laws were passed.
When homosexuality was made legal, when prostitution was made legal, and when the anti-smacking law was passed the more extreme conservatives predicted disaster but of course nothing happened.
Let’s look at some of the ignorant, bigoted comments about similar changes in the past.
When the homosexual law reform bill was passed in 1986 some politicians predicted that it would cause a decline in morality, that homosexuals would come to New Zealand in their thousands, and that the country would be a Mecca for homosexuality and sodomy. I see no signs that this has happened.
When the civil union legislation was passed the Destiny Church suggested that we should not forget the name of Lord God Almighty (what is that exactly?) and organised a march of 5000 people against it. They predicted legalised child sex and bigamy would be next. Again, I see no signs that this has happened.
When the prostitution law reform law (decriminalising prostitution) was passed in 2003 there were predictions it would lead to more prostitutes. A later review showed no signs that this has happened.
When the ani-smacking law was passed there were dire predictions that innocent people would be prosecuted for reasonable discipline of their children. Since 2007 there have been 8 prosecutions for smacking, and the police (hardly a source of liberal propaganda) say the guidelines are working fine. So yet again there are no signs that the bad predicted outcomes are real.
So what predictions are we getting this time?
Family First predicts marriage celebrants will be bullied into performing same-sex marriages against their will. This right is specifically protected in the law and who would want a ceremony to be performed by someone who doesn’t want to do it anyway? It’s just silly, bigoted nonsense.
The National Marriage Coalition says it will be an open door to group relationships and incest type marriages. This is the old slippery slope argument. Another good one is the prediction that people will be able to marry animals in the future. There is a general trend to liberalisation of laws and who knows, maybe one day group marriages will be OK, after all many respected characters in the Bible had multiple wives, so it must be OK!
The Catholic Bishop of Auckland tried really hard to sound reasonable and to not admit that his objections were based on the intolerant ideas promoted by his belief system. But you could see they were, and it was hard to listen to a member of the Catholic Church lecture the rest of us on the topic of sexual morality. Is it possible to think of anyone with less credibility on the subject?
He made a few vague references to it being a sad day for New Zealand, and to re-defining the meaning of marriage being bizarre, and not being sure what the implications might be for the future (presumably his god will take a terrible revenge on us after he has dealt with the other 12 countries who have already taken this step).
After all of this mindless drivel it was refreshing to hear from a supporter of the bill who treated the subject with intelligence and humour. He described how he had received messages from Christians threatening eternal torment in Hell. He replied that he had calculated the thermodynamics of burning in Hell and it would take only a few seconds for him to be consumed: a sacrifice he was prepared to risk! Ridicule of primitive superstition is great!
But the way so many believers react so badly in these situations is bizarre. They are always so intolerant and unforgiving. Didn’t they listen to what Jesus told them? As I always say: if you really want to see an example of true evil have a look at religion!
Many people ask me why I care. Well that’s the whole point, I shouldn’t. I’m not gay, and I don’t know any gay people who want to get married, so why should I care? It’s just a matter of fairness. The people who object to this law might find gay and lesbian lifestyles unpleasant, and it’s their choice to feel that way, but what real difference does it make to them if same-sex marriage is allowed or not?
Some people say it discredits the “real” meaning of marriage. I would say that there are plenty of heterosexual couples who have done a good job of that already. Celebrity marriages which last a few days, people who marry multiple times and split up seemingly at a whim, married couples where the relationship is maintained through violence and intimidation. What else could possibly make it worse than it already is?
Another argument is that marriage is primarily to produce children and gays can’t do that. Well neither can post-menopausal women or people with various medical disorders. Should that be a pre-requisite for being allowed to marry as well?
In reality there is no good reason not to allow same-sex marriage. There is really only one (bad) reason to reject it in the final analysis: that the objector is uncomfortable with same-sex relationships. Well they are a fact and it’s time to grow up and accept them even if you don’t like them. Progress is inevitable and by trying to halt it, especially by presenting dishonest objections which disguise your real opinions, you just look like a fool.
And just like with past changes of this sort, in a few years we will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.
If I get a bit bored and there’s nothing to watch on TV (that is, most of he time) I often go on a trolling expedition on YouTube. I like to find a controversial video and leave some comments there to deliberately aggravate my philosophical opponents, such as religious fundamentalists and political conservatives.
Some of the best places to find sources for these “debates” are YouTube videos involving Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. If you have read this blog in the past you will know I am a great fan of “the Hitch” and have commented on his vicious and unstoppable wit on many occasions (most recently in an entry titled “Thank You Hitch” from 2012-01-06 shortly after his death from cancer).
The latest video I watched was “Hitchens versus Hitchens” where Christopher Hitchens (aka “the Hitch” – there was only one *the* Hitch) debated his brother Peter Hitchens who is also a well-known essayist and commentator but with a very different perspective on politics and religion.
Initially I thought Peter Hitchens was a fairly intelligent, reasonable person but as the debate progressed he became more and more desperate to score any points and it became obvious that a lot of his opinions are in fact just as nutty as most other political and religious conservatives. For example, he denies global warming and supports intelligent design without having any apparent knowledge of either.
So it soon became obvious that this was yet another debate where the Hitch was giving his opposition a good old fashioned thrashing, maybe the best since another recent video I watched where Hitchens and Stephen Fry destroyed a Catholic bishop and conservative politician by swinging the vote from 678 for 1102 against, to 268 for 1876 against (they were debating against the proposition that the Catholic Church is a force for good – yeah I know – too easy!)
The Hitchens versus Hitchens debate included many topics, but the section on religion was the most interesting I think. The Hitch didn’t spend a lot of time on the idea of whether Christianity was true and whether there is any evidence supporting it (which is an interesting subject in itself but not one which either side was focussing on this time). Instead he concentrated on the philosophical aspects of belief, especially relating to morality.
This is a more interesting subject in many ways because really the truth of Christian belief and the evidence for God is fairly well settled (most Christian beliefs are myths and there is no evidence for a god) whereas the moral aspects of religion (especially Christianity) are a bit more open to debate.
So here are some of the Hitch’s points (along with my interpretation and commentary on them)…
He sees religion as a form of slavery or totalitarianism, and uses North Korea as a comparison. But religion is much worse because God knows more about you than any despot can ever know, and you cannot even escape his influence after death because that’s when he really gets judgmental!
I’m sure there are many moderate Christians who don’t see it this way, but by doing that they are rejecting the essential doctrine of their belief: that God knows all of your actions and thoughts, and judges you accordingly. Hitchens (and I) would suggest this whole idea is quite malicious.
Christianity claims Jesus was sent to save us. But from what? And he supposedly takes the blame for our sins, and we are all sinners and born into sin. Does this not sound like a form of mind control where the victims are told they are lacking in some way but if you just do what you are told everything will be OK? Obviously this is also hideously hurtful and manipulative.
Many believers think morality is impossible without a religious belief. Hitchens obviously rejects this whole notion. I would take it further and say the opposite: you can’t be moral if your source your morality from a religious belief. Why? Because morality cannot be just lifted from an old book written by a particular group of people with a particular personal perspective in the past, it has to be carefully considered and arrived at by the individual. And I know that not everyone will get to exactly the same place but most sane, sensible people do agree on what is moral to a remarkable degree.
Not every religious person just takes their entire morality from their holy book. Many pick and choose what to accept. But if they do that then surely they are rejecting one of the most important aspects of their belief system and are no longer getting their ultimate moral rules from their religion. Anyone who creates a personal morality by parroting something from an old book is lazy, ignorant and often immoral.
In the past religion was a best attempt at explaining the world and creating rules for living. It turns out that it wasn’t at all successful with the first aim and only slightly better with the second. We now have other tools to tackle these issues: science to explain the world, and philosophy to deal with morality and other less well defined issues.
It might be that these tools are in turn replaced with something even better in the future, but at the moment they are the best we have. Anyone who insists on continuing to use religion to explain the reality of the world (such as insisting that creationism is an explanation for life on Earth) or to provide moral answers (such as saying homosexuality is an abomination because the Bible says so) are being wilfully ignorant and usually bigoted as well.
Hitchens used to ask his opponents and audiences a question to make these points on morality a bit less abstract. He would ask people to name a good or moral statement or action which can only be made by those who believe in a god, then to name a stupid or evil action which only believers could make. Few people could come up with anything very convincing to answer the first question but everyone could immediately think of examples of the second.
As an example of a bad action which requires religious belief consider this obvious example: only people who think they will get a reward in the next life will sacrifice their lives by joining a crusade or becoming a suicide bomber. That’s not the sort of behaviour a non-believer is likely to indulge in.
But answers to the first challenge are a lot more difficult to find. A common one was exorcism. Only believers can perform this rite. But surely this cannot be counted as a good action, and the fact that some believers dared to even suggest the idea shows how out of touch they really are.
Another answer was a lot better though. One person suggested that great poetry and other art was created by believers. That is a good point. There is a lot of great art, music, architecture, and poetry which was created directly because of religious belief.
There is a counter to this argument though. A lot of great art hasn’t been inspired by religion too, and some which seems like it might be in fact wasn’t. For example, Verdi wrote his Requiem even though he was an atheist (or agnostic if you prefer that). At the very least you would have to say that people are inspired by many things, including religion, so if this is the only positive it hardly seems worth it!
The Hitch was a great debater and extremely knowledgable about most of his topic areas (he certainly knew his religion, history and politics but was weak on science and technology and sometimes didn’t respond to questions around areas such as cosmology and biology very well) but maybe his greatest advantage was just that he was right.
As I have said in the past to people who have complimented me on my debating skills: it’s a lot easier when the facts are on your side!
The way that different ideas become established at different times in history is interesting. It seems that often an idea reaches a point where it becomes inevitable and nothing can really stop it from taking over the mindset of the leaders and people of the time.
The original reason I cam up with this topic was the recent death of the ex-prime minister of the UK, Margaret Thatcher. She is well known, of course, for introducing a radical form of neo-liberal economics to the country and, depending on who you listen to, either saving it from inevitable decline or destroying a lot of the existing positive aspects of British society.
Thatcher was extraordinarily good at pushing through these “reforms” because she had a strong personality and – right or wrong – was single minded in achieving her aims. She is admired by many for her strength and that is fair enough. Whether the direction she took the country in was good or bad was much more open to question.
But it probably didn’t matter because, as I intimated in the opening to this entry, the neo-liberal revolution was probably inevitable and would have happened anyway. Thatcher was lucky because the UK entered a war with Argentina over the Falklands which gained her a lot of patriotic support, plus oil was discovered during her time in power giving her a financial bonus as well. Note that neither of these events could be attributed to her and were more a matter of luck than anything else.
But during roughly the same period of time similar policies were being pushed through in many other countries. Reagan was doing it in the US, and a bit later here in New Zealand we had one of the most radical and “pure” forms of neo-liberalism forced onto us by the 1984 Labour government (who were totally hijacked by a libertarian wing lead by Roger Douglas). Labour would not be traditionally associated with these types of policies but maybe this was an idea whose time had come, even here in distant New Zealand.
There is also the fact that after the governments who initially set up these changes were replaced with their opponents the policies continued without major changes. In the UK the conservatives were replaced by Tony Blair’s Labour which was intent on continuation of the new agenda. And here in New Zealand the opposite happened: the Labour Party was replaced by the conservative National Party and again things just continued on their course.
So even a complete change (theoretically at least) in political perspective didn’t change much. It really does seem that the idea was inevitable and couldn’t be stopped. I do have to say though, that just because an idea is inevitable doesn’t mean it’s right!
I basically reject neo-liberal economics, as will be obvious to anyone who reads this blog. I’m not much of a fan of extreme left-wing economic dogma either but I really think we have gone too far in the direction of classic free-market libertarian politics. And a correction back to more moderate economic policies does seem to be the new zeitgeist, at least I hope so.
By almost any standard the great libertarian experiment has failed.
Economic turmoil has been constant since the 1980s because banks and other private financial institutions have been given great freedom. They have taken advantage of that privilege for their own benefit but the vast majority of people have suffered as a result. The problems with financial institutions over the last few years are a clear result of the policies of the the 1970s and 1980s.
Whatever income equality previously existed has been totally destroyed by the reforms. In every country the rich are becoming overwhelmingly richer, and the poor are worse off in real terms in almost every case. I discussed this and showed how incredibly unbalanced wealth distribution in the US is in a blog entry called “When the Revolution Comes” on 13 March.
I haven’t looked at recent figures for other countries but I know that if you look at the numbers for New Zealand it soon becomes apparent that since the economic revolution here almost every indicator has become worse. Unemployment is greater, total foreign debt (including private debt) is greater, we have less democracy, we have less control of our own resources, we have more income inequality, and we have a lot less economic certainty.
So what has really been achieved? For the top 5% the revolution has been great. Big corporations and foreign banks can demand freedom from government intervention so they can do what they want (of course they don’t get total freedom but get a lot more than they should). But when things go wrong it’s time for government handouts they are the first in the queue.
And as I said in anther recent blog entry (“Personal Responsibility” on 4 April) the new aristocracy are given huge salaries and complete respect (and agan plenty of free handouts) even though their competence is highly debatable.
But if the revolution only favoured 5% of the population why do the other 95% continue to vote for these policies? Well in many cases their is really no alternative. Both major parties in the US are very pro-big business and very much accept the existing economic ideology. The same has been true in the UK and New Zealand where the traditionally left-wing Labour parties have embraced the new ideas as much as anyone.
But there is also the idea I started with. These ideas’ time had come and people were swept along on a tide of change without really understanding why. There are definite signs that this is finally starting to change. The “left” is in power in the US and demographics have weakened the Republican party there. The Tory government in the UK is unpopular. And even our current conservative government in New Zealand has backed away from the extreme policies of the past. Sure they still want to sell off assets but only 49% instead of the lot like they would have done in the past.
There are signs that the new zeitgeist is more moderate than that of the past. I just hope that it is real and can be as irresistible as the last one which has turned out so badly.