Archive for September, 2010

GST Be Gone!

September 30, 2010 Leave a comment

An interesting political debate has recently erupted here in New Zealand. It involves our goods and services tax, GST, and whether it should be universal or not. The tax was originally conceived by the 1984 Labour government which revolutionised New Zealand economically – and not necessarily for the better. That government was very ideologically driven and the tax (originally 10%) was to be applied to everything. And it has stayed that way ever since (except, inevitably it has increased to 12.5% and soon will be 15%).

The new policy from the current Labour opposition is to make certain healthy food free of GST to encourage people to eat more healthily and reduce obesity and other medical problems associated with poor diet.

Naturally the current conservative government and its ideological partner, Act, are totally against the idea, although one partner in that government, the Maori Party – was the group which first suggested it.

There are several questions which have arisen over the issue. The first is: should GST be kept universal simply because that is a neater and simpler idea. Second is: are there practical expenses relating to having some goods free of GST. Third is: will there be ridiculous situations where rules about which foods are GST free and which aren’t make little sense. Fourth is: will decreasing the cost of healthy food make people more likely to eat it. And finally: is this just a political game rather than a serious proposal.

So let’s look at these issues. First, having GST universal is neater and simpler so, if all else was equal, that would be a preferred option. But other tax rules are hideously complicated because they have been designed to achieve certain outcomes. Why not use a relatively simple fine-tuning of GST in the same way?

What about the expenses relating to implementing the scheme? There would be some involved for sure but they are unlikely to be much worse than what is involved with changing the current rate from 12.5 to 15 and the same type of scheme works fine in Australia, so again it seems that the potential positives outweigh the negatives. Of course the retailers don’t want the bother – it would be surprising if they did – but they have a very narrow focus on the subject.

So moving on, what about inconsistent application of the rules? Limiting the zero rate to fresh fruit and vegetables is arbitrary in some ways. Critics have pointed out that imported fresh fruit will be covered but local frozen vegetables won’t (and frozen veges are just a nutritious as fresh) so that does seme inconsistent, but I think it’s a good start and might be extended to other foods in the future. And, as I said before, there are plenty of other inconsistent and arbitrary laws. If we let that act as an absolute rule against anything we would have no rules or regulations at all!

But a more critical question might be this: will it work anyway? Will healthy foods being cheaper encourage people to buy them? According to Labour, a university study showed that removal of the current 12.5% tax would result in an 11% rise in consumption. According to a government minister a tax working group found it would have no effect. Personally I would have more confidence in a university study that the opinions of a tax working group but obviously this point is disputed.

Finally, is this just a political game anyway which Labour is using to boost their flagging popularity? Well maybe it is, because all political decisions in a democracy must be partly motivated by this requirement. But even if it is, does that mean it’s a bad idea? I don’t think so. I think the idea should be examined on its inherent merits, not the possible political reasons behind its origins.

The current government has done nothing for most New Zealanders. They have cut income tax but increased GST. Someone on the minimum wage will receive $3 per week extra through the tax cuts (which will be gone several times over after other increases hit) but the minister of finance will receive $300 more. Is that fair? Of course not, but that’s what National governments are all about: the old reverse Robin Hood maneuver (giving to the rich while taking from the poor!)

There are some negative aspects to having zero GST on some foods but I think the positives outweigh them. First, it will reduce the cost of living for the poorest part of the population, and second it will improve the overall health and that will benefit everyone. The right wing ideologs should use a little bit of common sense for a change and implement this policy themselves. That way we will get a small amount of much needed fairness in our tax system.


God the Deceiver?

September 27, 2010 7 comments

Nothing can ever be proven 100%. Well at least that is true outside the theoretical areas of topics like pure logic and mathematics. Most people know and accept this and it should be enough to demonstrate something with 99% certainty. After all, the whole world could be an illusion and the only thing we know for sure is that we ourselves exist (just as Descartes said) and even that has been questioned (although I don’t necessarily accept that argument). So anyone who wants to have any sort of sensible interaction with the world really has to be pragmatic and accept 99% certainty as being enough. Note that the number 99 is purely arbitrary but it makes a good number to work with, at least.

So apart from the fact that any conclusion can be questioned because here is always that last 1% of uncertainty it should be possible to prove certain things: both true and false (contrary to the popular belief that you can’t prove a negative).

Now, to get to the point. I have been thinking for a while now about a way to disprove some of the most idiotic ideas some people continue to hold, and what could be more idiotic than young Earth creationism! So in this blog entry I’m going to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that young Earth creationism is wrong.

First of all let me define what I mean by the term. The most common belief is that the entire universe was created by the Judeo-Christian God about 6000 years ago. If I can show that any part of the universe is over 6000 years old then we must reject young Earth creationism. Most people assume that is easy but creationists have spent a huge amount of time inventing ways to make the disproof of their belief less credible so, in fact, it’s not as straightforward as you might assume.

There are many ways to show the Earth and the universe as a whole are older than 6000 years: geological evidence, radiometric dating, evolutionary processes, geographical changes, astronomical observations, the list is almost endless. But because of my interest in astronomy I decided to go with an astronomical proof. Here it is…

We know that light travels at a specific speed. That speed has been measured in the lab and in the universe outside. If a star is so far away that its light has taken more an 6000 years to get here then the universe must be more than 6000 years old. But it’s actually surprisingly difficult to measure the distance to stars. Direct measurement techniques (using parallax) frustratingly don’t work for distances as great as 6000 light years.

Other methods do work for thousands, millions, and even billions of light years in distance (meaning the light has been travelling thousands, millions, or billions of years) and these disprove a young universe, but the indirectness of those measurements leaves them open to attack.

There is a simple way to establish the distance to objects which requires nothing more than common sense though. Galaxies can be resolved into individual stars using modern telescopes. We know how many stars there are and how bright they are, so we can easily determine their distance. The nearest big galaxy is 2 million light years away so the light we see from it has been travelling 2 million years. So the young Earth theory is refuted.

But you can’t say “QED” so quickly, there are a few loopholes. First, how do we know the stars in distant galaxies are the same as the closer ones we can directly measure the brightness of? Maybe they are dimmer and much closer than we think. Well they can’t be because the processes inside stars are fairly well understood and they require a certain mass and temperature to proceed. Spectroscopic analysis of the light from these stars show the same processes as in local ones, so we know they are the same brightness.

Objection 2: maybe there is something between the galaxy and us dimming the light and making the galaxy seem dimmer and more distant. Actually there is, but that has been taken into account already. Also it’s possible to look at the size of the galaxy to establish it’s brightness and that isn’t affected by dimming.

Next objection: maybe the galaxy is 2 million light years away but is still only 6000 years old because the light was created already in transit to the Earth. I guess that’s possible but it does seem like an odd thing for God to do. Also, there are other problems. The spiral arms of galaxies are formed by compression of gases which results in new stars. The arms are tens of thousands of light years wide so they must have existed at least that long. Maybe God created the light in transit to the Earth so that we could see it but how likely is it that exactly the same delusion could be in place regarding star formation? Is God just the great deceiver? And if he is, what else has he deceived us about?

The final objection is that scientists are misreporting their data. In other words, everything I have told you is a lie, either by me or by the scientists I am reporting. In other words there is a global conspiracy involving almost every astronomer on the planet. Again this is possible but it’s now fairly simple for amateurs with advanced telescopes to make all the observations I have mentioned. I admit I haven’t done them, but others have and I have never heard that they have been assassinated or inducted into the great conspiracy.

So really I think I have disproven the young universe with at least 99% certainty. Anyone who still believes in a young universe is just being willfully ignorant. In other words, they want to be deceived. That’s fine, if you’re a creationist and want to believe in a young Earth go ahead, believe in a fantasy. But don’t pretend for an instant that there is any real validity in that belief.

What Jesus Would Do

September 22, 2010 1 comment

How bad can it get for the Catholic Church? I mean really, after the worldwide condemnation of its handling of the child abuse cases, after the criticism of its various social agendas, after the protests against the Pope’s visits to Britain, now we have the Vatican Bank being investigated over money-laundering.

Instead of engaging in primitive superstitious rituals like beatifying alleged saints and engaging in propaganda campaigns involving Catholic school children supporters why doesn’t the Pope try to do something useful? Like sorting out the numerous endemic problems plaguing the church and robbing it of more of its already negligible credibility every day. Or maybe do something even more useful: dis-establish the church, dedicate its staff to charitable work and disperse its assets to the poor.

That’s what Jesus would do (I love that phrase). And it’s odd the way people who ostensibly support Jesus’ teachings are the last to really act in a way he would approve of. (Naturally I’m assuming here that Jesus existed at all and that the description in the Bible bears at least a superficial resemblance to reality).

Do the Catholics really think Jesus would approve of a huge, global bureaucracy with many arbitrary and counter-productive rules and headed by a person who claims to be the only representative of God on Earth? Do they believe that? Really?

And what about the fundamentalists? Do they really think Jesus would really approve of their hateful attacks on groups such as gays; of their blind stupidity in rejecting the obvious truth, such as evolution; and their intolerant dismissal of every form of faith apart from their own? Does that really sound like the forgiving, understanding character Jesus is often portrayed as? Does it?

I think that if Jesus existed and he returned to Earth he would feel most at home with the free thinkers and the people who are genuinely interested in understanding the universe and in establishing the best moral principles for humanity at this time. I think he would appreciate the (so called) radicals like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. And I think he would enjoy some of my little rants against the people who misrepresent what he really stands for.

Yes, good old JC and me would be good buddies. What would the religious bureaucracy and the lunatic fringe think of that?

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The Right is Wrong

September 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Things have certainly changed in New Zealand politics. Roger Douglas, the architect of the great revolution in New Zealand economics in the 1980s and the founder of the libertarian Act party, has been rejected by his natural ally, John Key, leader of the center-right National party.

Yes today Prime Minister Key said he could cope with anyone as leader of Act except for Roger Douglas! I don’t blame him at all of course, because Douglas is a crazy ideologue and is far more interested in continuing his unfortunate economic experiment than making practical changes which are genuinely better for the country.

So it looks like extreme libertarian economics is out for the the foreseeable future. A lot of people will be very relieved about that! But it also shows how National has become more of a populist party rather than a traditional conservative and business focussed one. Key has demonstrated on many occasions that he would rather do what is popular rather than what is right (not that those two things are always mutually exclusive).

So I guess that means that Act won’t be able to pursue their pure economic objectives and will continue along the populist route which their current leader, Rodney Hide, obviously prefers. But if National want to occupy the center-right populist postion will that leave room for Act? I don’t think so which is why I think Act will cease to exist.

Political norms and trends proceed in cycles, moving from the left to the right and back again, and it certainly seems obvious at this point that we are moving away from the right oriented policies of the past. I guess this happens because neither the left nor the right can offer any real long-term gains and the voters inevitably grow tired of both after a few years and vote the other back in.

This might not seem to make much sense but, in the end, the left and right need each other. Theoretically the left make the big changes and the right maintain the stable, sensible status quo. I know that is a gross simplification but there is some truth in it.

National could easily be dragged down by the self-destruction of Act so they are obviously being careful about how they manage their association. And Act are caught between their two power groupings: the libertarian purists can’t win because neither the public nor their allies want them, and the populist grouping has been thoroughly discredited through the hypocritical actions of its main members: Garrett and Hide.

If I didn’t despise the bunch of ideological misfits and cynical populists in Act so much I’d almost feel sorry for them! As it happens I just enjoy every new step they take to their inevitable doom!

This Much I Know

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

British philosopher, AC Grayling, recently contributed to a Guardian article called “This much I know” where he commented on some of his philosophy on life. I generally like his thoughts, especially relating to religion, so I thought I might comment on some of them here.

Here’s his first comment: The democracy of blogging and tweeting is absolutely terrific in one way. It is also the most effective producer of rubbish and insult and falsehood we have yet invented.

Whether this is literally true or nor is hardly relevant. The point is that the internet in general provides a great way for both good and bad information to be distributed. But there’s nothing very original about that idea so I do wonder what the purpose of the comment really was.

Here’s another: I am putting together a secular bible. My Genesis is when the apple falls on Newton’s head.

That quite appeals. I have mentioned on several occasion that I would like to see a non-superstitious “religion” started which is based on science and facts instead of myths and institutionalised mind control. On the other hand, most atheists and skeptics aren’t religious because they don’t follow a fixed set of beliefs so perhaps the idea is unworkable and maybe that’s a good thing.

This one was rather good: I would imagine Jesus was a kind of Jewish reformer. If you were looking for an equivalent to the figure you dimly perceive through the gospels it would probably be a Richard Dawkins.

I won’t get into a debate about whether Jesus existed or not, or whether, if he did exist, how close the real person was to the portrayal in the Bible. If Jesus did exist and if what he believed bears any resemblance at all to what the Bible says then, yes, he was a radical in many ways. This is somewhat ironic when viewed from the perspective of conservative Christians. I’m sure Jesus would have found them quite repulsive!

This is interesting: I’m a vegetarian, but I wear leather shoes. Some people say that’s a contradiction; I say I’m doing my best.

I interpret this as a comment on moral issues in general. I assume the comment on vegetarianism in relation to wearing leather is a general reference to “doing the right thing” and how most people are inconsistent in their morals. But that doesn’t detract from the effort in doing the right thing in the first place. Attempting to be perfect and failing is better than not even trying. Note that I reserve comment on whether being a vegetarian is more moral than eating meat.

Heres another good one: When I was 14 a chaplain at school gave me a reading list. I read everything and I went back to him with a question: how can you really believe in this stuff?

I think everyone should have good cause to reject religious texts as ridiculous. Many adults have been so brainwashed by society that they just accept religion (at least the dominant religion in their society) even if they would see it as absurd if they really analysed it. That’s why children often see it for what it is when adults won’t.

Many would agree with this: Christian churches and Muslim groups have no more right to have their say than women’s institutes or trades unions. The government has actively encouraged faith-based education, and therefore given a megaphone to religious voices and fundamentalists.

It does seem to me that religious groups are given extra privileges beyond what other, non-religious groups get. This includes tax exemptions, freedom from criticism, and other obvious and more subtle benefits. Few people would say that religious groups should be banned (actually some would but usually those people are from religious groups themselves who want every group except theirs banned) but it is time they had equal status to other self-interested groups.

Then there’s this: I have enough faith in statistics to know there must be conscious life on other planets.

That certainly seems to make sense and I have commented on the subject in this blog before. The puzzling thing is why have we not found signs of life already. But I do have to say that we don’t know enough of the relevant parameters to really have faith in the stats so perhaps we have no real right to expect to have found life.

This is great: Science is the outcome of being prepared to live without certainty and therefore a mark of maturity. It embraces doubt and loose ends.

Both atheists and believers often see religious people as lacking maturity and being like children. The difference is that believers (especially Christians) see it as a positive thing where non-believers see it as a reason to despise those who are too weak to seek the truth. Either way believers are like children. I recently commented that it’s one reason they are so difficult to debate with. I noted that debating with religious people is like debating with children, they can’t argue at the same level as you, when they lose the debate they don’t even realise it, and you gain little satisfaction from having beaten them anyway!

I like this too: Life is all about relationships. By all means sit cross-legged on top of a mountain occasionally. But don’t do it for very long.

I guess the meaning here is open to interpretation but I see it as both an acceptance and criticism of “alternative beliefs”. Sitting on top of a mountain is supposed to be a way to get closer to god, or nature, or the spirits, or whatever alternative belief you have chosen. Sure, there’s no harm in having those sorts of beliefs but don’t take them too seriously: don’t sit on that mountain too long.

Finally: Every professor of philosophy needs a nine-year-old daughter. Mine has a habit of saying, “Daddy, that is a very silly idea.” She is always right.

Obviously this isn’t literally true but maybe he’s saying that we all need to look at things in a simplistic way with all assumptions and complexity stripped away. A naive person’s perspective is often quite revealing in finding flaws in the greatest ideas.

So overall I think these things are very perceptive. Of course, his worldview does significantly parallel mine so I guess that was almost inevitable. Maybe I really need to look at a “this much I know” article from someone with a different perspective than mine.

Who to Support?

September 16, 2010 Leave a comment

I don’t know who my friends who support the more extreme right of New Zealand politics are going to vote for at the next election. The two obvious choices are National (the center-right party currently controlling the government) and Act (a libertarian/populist party currently a very junior partner in the government). But these might no longer seem so attractive to my nutty friends. Here’s why…

National have incurred the wrath of many right wingers by teaming up with the Maori Party (another member of the government coalition) and that party probably epitomises everything the right dislikes in politics. The latest deal concerning ownership of the foreshore and seabed is unlikely to be viewed positively and the assurances that Maori won’t take advantage of the situation will convince no one.

What about Act? The last time I asked a right leaning friend about this he was quite positive about them but at the rate they are going now they may not even exist at the next election. And even if they do, surely even the right will realise their credibility is gone. The perk-busting leader has been busted for his own use of perks. The MP who keeps talking about getting tough on crime turns out to have been convicted of a crimes himself twice. So when you consider the “three strikes and you’re out” policy that seems a bit hypocritical.

I’m not saying that other politicians are free from these same issues but no one else makes such a big deal of them and no other party relies on an open and squeaky clean image. If you are going to enter politics and use acting on these issues as your basic commitment you’d better make sure that you aren’t guilty of them yourself. Act clearly totally fails to live up to its own standards.

Plus there are the problems within the party where the pure libertarian part is obviously in conflict with the more populist part controlled by the leader. And there is the other issue that it’s only the leader, Rodney Hide, who allows them to be there at all because there total vote is pathetic.

The libertarians are dangerous ideologues and as long as they are suppressed by the populist part of the party things aren’t too bad. But if Act totally self destructed I think a lot of New Zealanders would be very relieved because the last thing we need is a popular party like National, who already have right-leaning tendencies, being encouraged even further in that direction by libertarian extremists.

I always say that politics is all about choosing the least bad party as opposed to choosing the best so I guess the right will now have to face that choice. I guess it’s not that much different from the far left who also have no obvious options. But that’s probably a good thing because in a stable democracy like New Zealand extremist parties should never really be allowed to exist for long.

On Strike Again

September 15, 2010 Leave a comment

New Zealand teachers are on strike again, which is just typical of them. Obviously they don’t take their work seriously enough and are more interested in sabotaging the government’s new programs and making more money than they are are in really making education better in this country.

That’s an attitude I’ve heard in various places and its pure garbage, of course. For a start the teachers rarely strike. This is the first one for many years. And I’m sure it’s more than coincidental that it has happened while a conservative government is in power (the type of administration who are notoriously hostile to education – just look at the idiots they choose as education ministers for example).

So the claim that teachers are always on strike is clearly nonsense but what about the other common criticisms I mentioned above? Are teachers intent on sabotaging the government’s innovative programs? Well yes and no. This argument gets back to the old claim that people don’t like change. This is often used as an excuse to push ahead with reforms even when the people affected don’t want it. It’s not change as such which is the problem, it’s the type of change which most governments and management want to impose on others which results in resistance.

Do you think the teachers would be complaining if the changes included much greater pay, reduced class sizes, and less administration work? I think they would be quite happy to cooperate with that kind of change but who can blame them for objecting to change where they get paid less for doing more and are inflicted with a lot of extra mindless paper work as well? Clearly it’s not change which is the problem, it’s the type of change which causes conflict.

So it’s not that teachers automatically want to work against any new programs a conservative government introduces, it’s that conservative governments tend to introduce poorly considered and ideologically driven programs which the experts (including teachers) can see won’t work.

What about money? The teachers claim they are most interested in getting better educational outcomes for their students and the pay is purely secondary. In this case I think they might be being a bit disingenuous. I suspect it’s the pay (and conditions) which are their prime interest. That’s perfectly fair too. Why shouldn’t they try to get paid fairly for an increasingly difficult and complex job? I do wish the teachers’ representatives would be a bit more honest about this though because I suspect most people see through their claims that “educational outcomes” are their first priority.

The same argument applies to the medical professionals who are also currently considering strikes. It’s interesting how these people are the first who are ripped off by a government like the one we have now although it has become almost to be expected given their social and economic agenda.

The government claim that they can’t afford to give the teachers the rather moderate increase of 4% they are seeking but why should the teachers care about that? It’s the education administrators job to find the money to pay the teachers what they are worth. If the ministry doesn’t think it can afford it with their current budget then they should start doing their job and finding the money somewhere else. And the claim that they increase cannot be funded is clear nonsense anyway. As I said in a past blog entry, the government can find almost $2 billion to save a private finance company. Why can’t they find enough to help something which is potentially far more important? The answer is that they can. They just don’t want to.

Teachers are professionals so shouldn’t they be cooperating with the management? After all, they all want what’s best for the students, don’t they? No, they don’t. The managers want to do what their more senior management and political masters tell them because that’s the easiest way for them to get paid the large salaries they get for doing basically nothing. And the teachers are interested in good education but they a have to look after themselves as well.

So the management/worker system isn’t cooperative, it’s adversarial. The management really are the enemy and cannot be trusted. Yes, sure, I know there are a few exceptions but that is the basic situation in most workplaces. And whether it’s more professional to cooperate with the managers even when you disagree or whether it’s better to do what you think is best despite instructions from above is very much open to question.

The government want New Zealanders to catch up with the better wages and conditions enjoyed in Australia. Their pure dishonesty should be very apparent when you consider they think they can achieve this through driving wages down and decreasing education standards. They either totally dishonest about that aim, or they really live in an ideological dream world, or they are truly incompetent. I’m not sure which is worse!