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Archive for August, 2009

Good Value?

August 31, 2009 Leave a comment

Are politicians worth what we pay them? Are they worth anything? Why are politicians treated with such deep disrespect and distrust by so many people? These are a few questions I have been considering recently, main because of the politicians payments scandal, then the CEOs payment controversy (which I have blogged about recently), some comments from various people I have discussed this with, and a news item today where an accountant calculated what MPs really cost us.

Its fashionable and just too easy to criticise politicians but I think most of the criticism is misplaced. Many criticisms made against them are unfair and for those that are fair many apply equally or more to other professional groups in society.

So first of all, are they worth what we pay them? Of course, like any other group some are worth very little and others are probably worth even more than what they get. Also it would depend on what you expect. For example if a government decides to spend more on health and less on education then doctors would probably say the politician’s salary was well spent whereas teachers might question that assertion!

For many years most governments have done a reasonable job running their respective countries. OK there are some really bad ones (Zimbabwe’s springs to mind as an example) and even the greatest western democracies could have been a lot better (I hesitate to mention George Bush here) but in general things are OK considering the potential disaster we might expect if we were going to be totally cynical regarding human nature.

Even when major disasters do occur (the financial crisis for example) most governments handle the situation in a reasonable way. Sure the right criticise Obama’s handling of it but that’s really just their job and I doubt whether they would ever be happy with a policy the ostensibly left oriented US government would be likely to implement.

Inevitably I’m going to compare our politicians’ performance with other leaders’ in society to see how they stack up. Let’s compare the prime minister of New Zealand with the CEO of Telecom (no surprises there right, he’s my number one public enemy at the moment!)

The politicians are ultimately accountable to the people. We can vote them out at any election so (at least theoretically) we have ultimate control. The CEO is only accountable to the board, who are accountable to the shareholders, but those shareholders are mainly foreign and not associated with the way Telecom operates, so effectively the people affected by Telecom have very little control compared to what we have over politicians.

What about the services the government and Telecom offer? Well that’s a hard one to measure of course, but from a technical and consumer perspective I would say Telecom is somewhere between barely adequate and quite poor. The government, on the other hand, I would say are just average. OK, “just average” isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement but its a lot better than what we get from Telecom (and other large companies).

So now we come to salaries. The CEO of Telecom gets $5 million per year which is over ten times what the prime minister gets. Obviously the PM gives us far better value for money yet he (and other politicians) are always criticised for their expenses. As I have said before, the old argument that the private sector has the right to spend money any way it likes doesn’t work for me because we have no real choice except to use their products and services which means the money they have comes from us in almost the same way as tax money goes to the government.

So it seems to me that its really unfair to criticise politicians too much. Sure they get a few perks which they probably shouldn’t get but compared with some other sectors of society I think they provide good value. CEOs could learn a lot from them!

More Shameless Greed

August 28, 2009 Leave a comment

The issue I blogged about 2 days ago seems to be gathering a bit of momentum here. Now its not just unions who are commenting on the immorality of executives getting huge salaries – even farmers are indicating some disquiet, and incredibly the head of the New Zealand Institute of Management described them as obscene.

Yes, obscene is a good word and so is disgusting, greedy, immoral, corrupt, and many others. Even if these people did do a good job its debatable whether they really deserve what they are paid. The fact that most of them actually get fairly ordinary results, even based on the single minded way most businesses measure success, makes it even worse.

The argument that we need to pay high salaries to get the best people in a global market doesn’t really work. That’s just an excuse for this obscenity. If a person takes a job because of the pay rate that seems to be encouraging someone who is greedy rather than someone who is dedicated, forward thinking, brilliant, or any of the other positive attributes the spin doctors dream up for these clowns.

I often belittle a person by calling them a clown although there’s nothing funny I can see about the actions of the top echelon of “corporate criminals”. And I think there is some justification in using the word criminal (although its in quotes) because, even though they don’t break any laws, the sort of behaviour big business indulges in would probably not be tolerated in many other areas. Strictly speaking its usually legal but it might be more appropriate to call these people moral criminals because they break the basic laws of common decency and normal social behaviour.

I’m totally confident we could get someone at least as good as Paul Reynolds to run Telecom and pay him (or her, although women CEOs are clearly no better than men) a fraction of the extravagant sum currently being paid.

After all, a CEO really only needs to act on the advice of people who know what they are talking about. I know it can sometimes be useful to have a person at the top with an overall vision but I wouldn’t think someone who requires a vast salary to do the job really has the right attitude to do that.

And its not just Reynolds I despise. The CEOs of Fonterra, Air New Zealand, and anyone else being paid over one million dollars a year is equally guilty. When you consider that the prime minister of this country (who has far greater responsibility and pressure than any CEO) gets paid a tenth what Reynolds does it really gives some perspective.

Many people like to criticise the government and public sector for extravagance and waste but I think that’s probably trivial compared with the amount that goes on in the private sector. And I totally disagree with the old excuse that “its their money they can do what they want with it” applies. Its not their money. Its money they have extracted from you and me in payment for products and services we need. I don’t really see that as being any different from a government tax. At least with the government we get the chance to dispose of them at elections. The fat cat CEOs just continue on rolling in their piles of cash and having a good laugh at how many people have been sucked in to treating them like heros.

Shameless Greed

August 26, 2009 Leave a comment

A controversy has erupted here in New Zealand over the substantial salary (plus bonuses and other incentives) being paid to Paul Reynolds, the CEO of Telecom which is our main telecommunications company. The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) has labelled the NZ$5 million payment as “shameless greed” and I think I would agree.

It would be bad enough under any circumstances but in the middle of a recession when so many other people have been asked to economise its particularly immoral. I always find it interesting that the people demanding economy from others never seem to apply the same rules to themselves.

Telecom recently changed the employment conditions for their engineers, making them owner/operators, but effectively removing the company’s responsibility for their work conditions and salary. How can it be OK to save money that way and waste it in others?

Of course there is the argument that CEO is a responsible job and he deserves that level of pay for the stress and pressure the job entails. That’s just another part of the big lie that management spreads, in my opinion. I really think they have fooled themselves as much as everyone else into thinking that managers are brilliant and hard working. Because they really believe this it makes accepting these huge salaries “shamelessly” easier I guess. If that delusion didn’t exist maybe they would feel a bit of the same shame most people would in the same situation.

But someone must think he’s worth it or they wouldn’t pay him, right? The problem with that theory is that the people making the decision are also part of the culture of greed which pervades big corporations. It happens again and again: gross incompetence from leaders is rewarded (look at the payments made to the leaders of big American corporations during the recession at the same time as the corporations were failing).

I know this is beginning to sound like a bit of a conspiracy theory but I think there is a certain amount of validity in it. Why would anyone pay a CEO a full bonus even when the company profit has dropped by over 40 percent? You’ve really got to wonder what he could do to not get the bonus.

I suppose dreaming up this disgusting trick he has played on the engineers is worth a big payment. Bonuses seem to be linked to being immoral, greedy and antisocial. I wonder if Reynolds will ever reach the lows of his repulsive predecessor, Theresa Gattung? That would really take some great work on his part but he seems to be well on the way!

Science Communication

August 24, 2009 2 comments

I’ve noticed an emerging trend in recent science news, podcasts and other information sources. That is the need for science and technology to be communicated to the rest of the world so that important messages get through to the majority. Important messages might include things like: the need to minimise the activities which cause climate change, the need to look for alternative energy sources, and the need to invest in fundamental research even during a recession.

So why has this become an issue recently? It seems that people are less trusting of science than they used to be. For example, the scientific findings on climate change are intensely distrusted by many people even though there is really very little doubt about the facts on the situation.

The problem is that science and technology are really the only ways that the world’s problems can be solved. Politics can’t really do it, economics and business can’t really do it, and religion certainly can’t do it. Science is really the only hope for the majority of the world’s population to continue to exist in comfort and safety.

Before anyone starts criticising me for neglecting the undoubtedly real effects of politics and economics I should say that I agree they play a part but only really to provide a mechanism of action for technology. The big revolutions have been the result of deployment of technologies like steam engines, railroads, roads, electronics, computers, and the internet. That’s why the major changes in the way the world works are called things like the enlightenment, the industrial revolution and the information revolution.

The internet has been an important factor in communicating science to everyone but not always in a positive way. Because there is little review and criticism of information on the internet it can be very polarising. For anyone who was determined to deny global warming for example there are plenty of web sites to support the denial viewpoint and many of them are superficially scientific.

Of course, its also possible to only visit sites which support the scientific consensus and that is also not the best option (although its a lot better than the alternative of following conspiracy theories, faulty logic and carefully cherry-picked data). Anyone who really wants to be informed should visit both sides of the debate and evaluate the big picture. Anyone who does that fairly will undoubtedly conclude that global warming is true but the facts do change and its always worth continuing to examine both sides.

One factor which is against science is that its hard. Anyone visiting an evolution site and comparing it with a creationism site will find it much more difficult and uncertain. While there is no doubt that evolution is real there is always doubt about the details, such as the exact dating of fossils, the ancestry of species, etc. Anyone seeing this and comparing it with the totally certain way the (false) information on creationists sites is presented could easily get the wrong impression.

The problem is that science is all about uncertainty and honesty about that uncertainty. Any good scientists will look for ways to negate his own theories and if he doesn’t his colleagues certainly will. Compared with this the purveyors of pseudoscience present a very united front. Even though its all fake that might not be obvious to a non-specialist who isn’t familiar with examining claims critically and skeptically.

I don’t think its reasonable to ask scientists to present their data in a form that is easier for the public to understand because that would be contrary to the way they usually work. That means that we need more specialist science communicators and its good to see how that is becoming a recognised academic area with many universities setting up programs in that field.

Maybe there’s hope. It only takes one truly brilliant communicator, such as Carl Sagan, to make a big difference. We haven’t seen anyone like Sagan since his death but, if science communication becomes a respected and serious subject itself, maybe it won’t be long before we do see someone else who’s almost as good.

Principles

August 20, 2009 Leave a comment

I have already predicted that the National government’s very incompatible partners, Act and the Maori Party, would never peacefully coexist for long. Now there seems to be a major point of difference emerging where the leader of Act, Rodney Hide, has threatened to resign as local government minister if the new Auckland “super” city arrangement has Maori seats built in.

Its an interesting issue and one I’m not totally sure about. Its great to see that the so-called “honeymoon” period the new government was enjoying is well and truly over. There is also a protest and major poster campaign happening here in Dunedin over the fact that the government will spend $40 million sending the SAS (or what the campaign describes as “trained killers”) to Afghanistan while cutting $30 million from the education budget. I guess that’s the sort of priorities we should expect from a right oriented government.

Its not so much that I dislike this government (although I disagree with a lot of what they are doing I think they have been reasonably fair up until now) its more about not having a strong government which feels that it can get away with anything it wants because its so popular.

So what about the Maori seats issue itself?

First of all, I’m sure many people would be really relieved if Hide was no longer Minister of Local Government. When someone like him is in charge you can be sure the same old unimaginative Act money-saving cuts won’t be far away. So the threat of his resignation would be celebrated by many.

Many people have rightly pointed out that one person from a party which received such a small proportion of the vote shouldn’t be trying to control a process which the majority might want to see happen. If he’s going to be part of the government he should accept compromise and not start making wild treats just because he can’t get his own way.

An alternative view is that he’s keeping to his principles. Hide doesn’t believe that some groups in our society should get special privileges and I must say that I think most people would agree. Many people I discuss this with are sick of Maori being given privileges other people don’t have, being given hand-outs, and generally being treated as if they are more important than the rest of us. The junk the Maori Party usually come up with some nonsense about being a special partner through the Treaty is just pathetic. If that’s what the Treaty really says (I’m sure it doesn’t) then its time we eliminated it.

So there is a certain appeal in Act’s message and, while I think they are dangerous and I would never consider voting for them, I do admire their principles even if they are misguided.

There’s also the way this affects the debate on MMP. One of the major objections to MMP is that small parties can have too great an influence on bigger ones. This is a possible example of that happening although there is no real threat to the stability of the government because of it.

So I think its an interesting issue with no clear right and wrong sides. It will be interesting to see how it proceeds but its sure to cause a bit of strife for the government (which they need) so even that is a positive thing.

The End of the World

August 19, 2009 6 comments

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are an odd lot. They wander around the city looking so neat and pleasant yet their message is anything but pleasant. A couple of days ago a pair of them (unusually two women) visited and handed me an invitation to a meeting to discuss how to survive the end of the world.

The thing about these cults is that they find the end of the world such a convenient event to help push their message. Usually the only way to survive is to join their group, convert to their religion, attend a meeting, or pay some sort of membership fee or tithe. Its all very convenient.

The fact that the end of the world has been predicted seemingly forever doesn’t seem to bother them. Even Jesus (allegedly) predicted it will happen within the lifetime of his audience (Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30 and Luke 21:32 but not in John who presumably didn’t think it was important enough to mention) but 2000 years later it still hasn’t happened. I’m afraid its getting just a little bit difficult to take the idea seriously after all those false predictions! If you’re interested, I listed some of the more amusing predictions in a blog entry titled “Where’s Jesus?” from 2007-03-13.

But I really have to say that its pretty sick using these sorts of scare tactics to try to persuade people to join your cult (or sect, or denomination, or church, or whatever you want to call it – all those words really mean about the same thing in the end). You would imagine that after a few years people would realise the reason they joined was bogus and would want to leave again but I guess by then they have been so mislead by propaganda that they can no longer distinguish fantasy from reality. I certainly know one person who joined the JWs and seems to have that problem.

Its unfortunate that people get all concerned about the wrong things. If they were more concerned about genuine threats to our civilisation – things like overpopulation, pollution, global warming, terrorism, exploitation of the environment, and the oil/energy crisis – then that concern could be used to make some real difference. Going to meaningless meetings, wandering around town proselytising, and believing a load of worthless mumbo jumbo isn’t a good way to tackle the real threats.

Maybe someone should set up a new church which re-interprets the Bible and finds messages there about these subjects. I’m sure Jesus’s (alleged) words could be twisted around a bit to become a warning about global climate change. They’ve certainly been changed around for more negative reasons and it would be nice if they were used for something positive for a change.

Next time the JWs visits I might offer them that suggestion, or maybe they would prefer to stick to their current, simpler message even though its based on pure fantasy!

The Exorcist!

August 18, 2009 Leave a comment

Who would have thought that the death of a young woman after being tortured by her family leading to a trial where the accused were more-or-less excused for the incident would have caused so much trouble? I’m being sarcastic here because this is an issue which should be discussed more and I think a very poor precedent has been set by our legal system which is already seen by many people as being out of touch with reality and more aligned with political correctness than real justice.

I’m talking about the now infamous (in New Zealand anyway) exorcism killing of a 22 year old woman by her family who believed she was possessed by some sort of demon. The prime minister has even made his opinion known that the judge’s decision not to jail the family was justified. He said the killers (note the word) were truly misguided but not malicious and that putting them in prison would serve no useful purpose to society and that they were unlikely to reoffend.

I partly agree. Its true that jailing them would server little purpose but that could also apply to a lot of other people who are jailed for far less serious indiscretions and where they would not be likely to reoffend. I was under the impression that jail sentences were supposed to match the crime, not whatever whim the judge might have had that day. For example, a person who is momentarily distracted and kills someone while driving is likely to get a more serious punishment yet surely they also had no malicious intent.

There are two elements here which might have resulted in this decision. First the family’s bizarre behaviour was motivated through some weird religious belief; and second the family were Maori. A senior opposition politician has pointed out that if the people had been white they would very likely have been imprisoned. Of course, we don’t actually know if that is true but I suspect he’s got a point.

So, even though the current government promised tougher sentences for serious crime (and what could be more serious than spending a day torturing someone then killing them?), that apparently doesn’t apply to indigenous minorities or people with strong religious beliefs. Well, as I said, the (so-called) justice system isn’t enjoying much support and this might be a good reason why.

I agree that jail might not have really made any difference to these people’s future behaviour but they should have been jailed anyway because the message has to be sent that people must be responsible for their own behaviour and even those who are so incredibly stupid that they still believe in demons should not be excused for their disgusting actions, no matter how it was motivated.

This is part of the wider idea I blogged about recently (titled “Victimless Crime” on 2009-08-12). I basically said that religion should be more open to criticism because its only through criticism that deficiencies can be exposed and fixed. I can’t prove it but I’m fairly sure this sort of thing would never be excused if it resulted from bizarre behaviour from any other belief system apart from religion.

The judge said the death was a “product of tragic and random circumstances and not a fanatic ritual”. I wonder if he really believes this himself because it sounds like pure rubbish to me. How can an exorcism not be a fanatical ritual? Come on, of course it was! Maybe the Maori culture academic has it right. She said these people should have known more about their own culture. I guess exorcism is one of the more stupid aspects of western culture so she has a point!

And regarding the Maori aspect of this. Yes, there have been times when our indigenous people have been treated more harshly because they were Maori but that doesn’t excuse the opposite bias now – two wrongs do not make a right (sorry if you believe in affirmative action but I think you’re just wrong).

So maybe I sound like a crazed political conservative here – exactly the sort of person I’m usually ranting against! I guess in some ways I do but I do believe in natural justice and the same laws applying to everyone. Many people see Maori as being given extra privileges the rest of us don’t have (again, the opposite occurring in the past is no excuse) and are quite naturally rather disgruntled about it.

Giving one group special benefits because of their ethnicity, religious or cultural beliefs is no way to serve justice. In fact, quite the opposite is true.