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The Limits of Science

February 28, 2011 2 comments

Is there a limit to what we can know? Does the scientific method stop working after a certain point? And if there is a limit, how close are we to the edge and how will we know when we get there? These are questions tackled in a recent Guardian Science podcast by Peter Atkins, the professor of chemistry at Oxford University, author of a leading physical chemistry text book, and author of popular science books “Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science”, and “On Being: A Scientist’s Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence” (which deals with origins and other fundamental topics).

Atkins is optimistic that there is nothing science can’t answer, and that it will replace all myths about the unknown. He agrees there are many things that we have no answer for now: consciousness, and what came before the Big Bang would be two examples. But he thinks that just because we don’t have an answer now that doesn’t mean will never have one.

Naturally, I agree. There is no way to really prove that science can answer every question and there is no way to prove that it’s even the best way to answer any question, but there are two informal reasons why I think we should accept both of those ideas. First, science gets results: in all the years various philosophies have been applied to the world’s problems it is only since we used science that we have made significant progress. And second, it just makes sense. If you want to understand something you should observe it in an objective way and set up unbiased experiments to test ideas. That is the scientific method.

Atkins identifies three routes to “knowledge”: old texts (religion); sitting around thinking about it (philosophy); and examining the world, and doing experiments (science). Of course the word knowledge in that context doesn’t really mean facts. After all, how can examining old texts lead to facts when they all say something different and there’s no way to tell which (if any) might be true? And just thinking about a subject is a great way to come up with ideas but how do we know which ideas are real unless we use experiments and observation?

When asked why it had taken so long to get to the point where science is extensively used he replied that it was a matter of breaking the power of those who prefer the other methodologies.

The Greek philosophers generally used pure thought to decide what was true. Famously Aristotle thought women had less teeth than men. A simple observation would have tested that idea! Note though that there might have been good reason for the belief: apparently at the time women were often deficient in some vitamins leading to greater tooth loss. But Aristotle could have counted the gaps. Still, the point is not as simple as it initially seems!

And religious leaders rely on revealed “knowledge” from holy books and oral history. Reading something in a book or hearing it from an elder is fine but unless there is some skepticism about the information errors will never be corrected. Plus there is the problem that a lot of the content of religious books is designed to strengthen the religious group rather than reveal real truth.

Science flourished in the western world after the Enlightenment when the authority of the church was broken and science, skepticism, empiricism, maths, and logic took over as the preferred way to establish the truth. Clearly that process is still happening and many churches are still fighting a ridiculous rearguard action against the facts of science, such as evolution, today. They can’t win because the truth always becomes apparent in the end. It just takes longer for some people!

When asked “Is your intention in the book to do away with mythical creation type stories?” He replied “Oh, absolutely … Myths are placeholders, not actual explanations of what went on … Science is showing that reality is even more wonderful than what the myth makers have imagined.”

Again, I completely agree. Myths were ideas some people had when there was no good information to formulate a real theory. They are interesting and fun but they are useless as an indicator of what is true. It’s great to see authors not being scared to criticise religion. It has taken a while but Hitchens, Dawkins, and the other new atheist have lead the way.

He says don’t resort to referring to handbooks (such as the Bible, Koran, etc). They are collections of anecdotes about people’s ideas on solving problems in the past. You can use them as a guide, but don’t treat them as a unarguable authority.

So he doesn’t seem to be inspired much by theologians and religious people, what about philosophers? I’m afraid he’s pretty condescending to them as well! He sees philosophy as a millstone around science’s neck. It is used to point out the deficiencies in theories of knowledge (which is fair enough) but to also suggest that some things just cannot be done or known.

I think this is a bit unfair. I agree there are some philosophers who say science can never know anything but there are plenty of others who recognise the validity of the scientific method. If anyone was being truly honest they would say we can never be 100% sure of anything, even of our own existence, but most would embrace a more pragmatic compromise view where certain things were assumed to be true even if that isn’t strictly formally accurate.

But what about areas of knowledge where science doesn’t work? Are there any? The areas of ethics and spirituality might be good examples. Atkins says what we often regard as being outside of science’s domain: religion, spirituality, etc, are actually open to scientific investigation because they are aspects of the psychology of people.

It’s hard to disagree. In my opinion the only subjects which cannot be answered scientifically are “non-questions”. That is sets of words which seem to be questions but when they are analysed carefully they have no meaning. Here are a few “profound” questions I found on the web…

Question: Why did the Creator become man and identify himself with us, dying for us? Answer: He didn’t. There is no creator, and the Jesus story is almost entirely a myth.

Question: Who am I? Answer: I presume you want a deeper answer than your name and other identifying information. If you do then ask the question in a way which makes it clear exactly what you want to know.

Question: Why do we yawn? Answer: Because we’ve read too many boring, inane questions. Actually that’s not true. This is actually a really good question and no one seems to have a definitive answer yet. There are various theories involving increasing oxygen intake, social signals, and others, but (as is always the case) more research is needed!

Question: Does anything really exist or is it all just an illusion of our mind? Answer: Wow! Great question. I can’t think of any way that science (or religion or philosophy) could really prove that anything really exists. After all, even if we devised an experiment to prove something wasn’t in our mind couldn’t that experiment be a delusion created by our mind as well? Maybe that’s one genuinely difficult question which nothing can answer!

But are there some things which are just too hard for our brains to comprehend? Maybe, but the internet now allows for faster collaboration which helps minimise those limitations. And there is some reason to believe that computer technology might advance to the point where computers can do the thinking for us. A thinking computer might be the last invention ever necessary.

Finally, despite all the enthusiasm for science Atkins was gloomy about the future. First there is fundamentalism which he says diminishes self respect and imposes constraints on real progress. Plus the related topic of what he calls stupidity: wars, terrorism, etc.

This certainly seems to be true but there are signs that things are gradually improving in the west. The Islamic world just seems to sink further into the depths of superstition and ignorance though. That is unfortunate, as is the fact that a large part of the population, even in the US, still doesn’t believe a theory (evolution) which has such overwhelming support that it would require willful ignorance to reject it.

So out of all the contentious points which arose in the discussion it was only the outright rejection of philosophy which I was a bit doubtful of. The rest was totally realistic!

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Strike Off Their Heads!

February 23, 2011 2 comments

I know many conservative Christians derive a perverted pleasure from pointing out the inadequacies in other religions, especially in Islam, and of course, they are quite right to do so. Islam is a bad religion (is there any other type?) in two major ways in my opinion. First (whether it is fundamentally violent or not) it does cause a lot of violence and other conflict. And second, it causes ignorance and suppresses progress in other ways.

I know it’s possible to make a counter-argument to these points. For example, there are people who maintain Islam is a religion of peace and point out that the majority of Muslims don’t murder others or even incite violence against others. That may be true but it’s also a fact that Islamic fanatics are primarily fanatical because of their religion. If it didn’t exist their fanaticism would be gone, or at least greatly diminished.

And regarding ignorance, clearly this is not inherent in Islamic beliefs because, in the past, Islamic scholars preserved and extended knowledge during the period the Christian church repressed free thinking and progress in the West. But there’s no doubt that the current lack of contribution Islamic states make to human knowledge is largely due to the way their religion stops them from thinking freely and honestly about the real world. Look at the number of Nobel prizes awarded to Muslims, Christians, Jews, and atheists and you will see a very obvious trend. And it can’t all be due to anti-Muslim bias.

So Islam causes violence and ignorance. I’m sure it has some positive aspects as well but can they really be sufficient to counter those two huge problems? Obviously I think not, and that’s one thing (maybe the only thing) that I have in common with conservative Christians!

But they shouldn’t be too smart about that. For example, they like to quote Koran verses such as: “I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, strike off the very tips of their fingers – Quran 8:12”. Sounds nasty! But I could quote the Bible too: “In that day those the Lord has slaughtered will fill the earth from one end to the other. No one will mourn for them or gather up their bodies to bury them. They
will be scattered like dung on the ground. – Jeremiah 25:33, NLT”. Even more nasty!

So I find it ironic when Christians criticise Muslims for doing the very same things they are guilty of themselves. Are they not familiar with this: “Let the person among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her – John 8:7, ISV”. Is there not a clear metaphor in that passage (one I fully agree with despite being an atheist). Maybe, as is so often the case, the Christians prefer to be selective about which parts of the Bible they follow.

Most people are too sensible to allow something written in an old book to influence their lives too significantly. Few Muslims go around striking off heads and fingertips and few Christians think anyone should undervalue human life to the point of treating the bodies of a group they have a disagreement with as dung! But people who are more prone to believing fantasies (such as those in holy books) often will read those passages and act on them. Who knows, maybe they would find a different justification for violence if they weren’t religious, but it’s clear those violent writings don’t help.

As I indicated above, I find some parts of the Bible quite inspiring, although I do find the vast majority of it backward, irrelevant, and mind-numbingly boring. If I spent some more time reading the Koran I’m sure the same would apply. There is good and bad in all philosophies and religions. Everyone should look at these and incorporate them into their personal morality. But if you are convinced one book is the inerrant word of a god (even though it’s totally obvious it isn’t) you are trapped into believing that without thinking. Then you are obligated to believe the bad as well as the good and you miss out on the good parts of other books you might be forbidden from reading.

So faith and religion just can’t be good by their very nature. They stop people thinking for themselves, and if they stop that they are open to manipulation by religious and political leaders who don’t always (in fact very rarely) have their best interests in mind.

The famous enlightenment philosopher Voltaire said several things which I think are very pertinent here: “Atheism is the vice of a few intelligent people”, and “Those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities.”, and finally “It is hard to free fools from the chains they revere.” But there is one other thought from American social writer and philosopher Eric Hoffer which is even more relevant: “Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.” Strike off his head!

Deluded Nutters

February 18, 2011 Leave a comment

In the Herald today I read about two of New Zealand’s more well known deluded nutters, both well meaning (at least, I think so) but both also totally deluded and completely dedicated to a their outdated ideologies. One was political and one was religious (with a bit of politics thrown in as well). Both are potentially dangerous but probably at the point where their credibility is destroyed so that they are unlikely to cause any real issues in the future.

So who are these two nutters? First there’s out old favourite extreme libertarian politician and the architect of the great New Zealand financial revolution of (ironically) 1984: Roger Douglas. Then there’s someone even more out in cloud cuckoo land: Brian Tamaki. Notice that I didn’t refer to Douglas as Sir Roger or to Tamaki as Bishop Brian because I don’t think either deserve any special recognition of their imagined esteemed position.

Douglas was in the news because he is retiring from politics. Even his right wing mates in National refused to work with him so he was totally ineffective anyway but it is nice to see a symbolic end to the era of oppression he brought to the country. I think it will be a long time before anyone is allowed to pursue such extreme idealistic actions again. Even the far more moderate efforts of the National government are unwelcome enough.

When asked whether he had any regrets Douglas said: “I would have liked to have done a lot more in terms of social policy, the agenda we started in the 1980s carried through to health, education and welfare. There are regrets, but that’s life.” I’m so glad he has those regrets. It’s just unfortunate he didn’t have a lot more because I think we are all pleased to see the end of him so that he can’t completely screw up those areas of New Zealand life that he never got a chance to change back in the 80s.

Tamaki was in the news because of an attack by conservative commentator Garth George who accused him of becoming a cult leader after rejecting the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. In reply he claims he was misquoted and that he doesn’t really reject the idea, although he should because there is no good reason to think it ever happened. Still, if you are going to bother to be a Christian I would have thought that the resurrection is an important part of the mythology that you are supposed to believe.

According to the article, in October 2003, at a church conference, Tamaki received cheers and a standing ovation when he told the gathering: “I predict, in the next five years by the time we hit our tenth anniversary, and I don’t say this lightly, but we will be ruling the nation … I feel very strongly in my heart that the word of the Lord came to me very strong … that this will actually be the first nation historically in the world to be under the governance of God.”

What a nutter! Being under the governance of his hideous god would be even worse than being under the governance of the horrible Roger Douglas. Luckily religious prophecies are about as reliable as… well, I don’t know actually because they are all a total joke. If you ever hear one immediately go down to your local gambling agency and bet against it. You’ll probably make a bit of money!

Not that it makes any difference to the believers. They just carry on blindly following their leader because the facts are of no relevance to them at all. In fact, the best way to overcome a failed prophecy is to escalate the rhetoric even more. A couple of years ago Tamaki declared he was the church’s “spiritual father” and produced a document where he claimed to be “the tangible expression of God” and “God’s special and unique representative on Earth”. Delusions of grandeur perhaps?

Both of these nutters are very charismatic and are probably quite convincing to the people who take on their message without really examining it for credibility. Both make grand claims but conveniently ignore the failures. Both work more by faith than by facts. And both are living in the past where they haven’t realised their belief system has been discredited by more recent events.

Luckily Douglas’s Act party seems on a course of self destruction and all but a few New Zealanders were sensible enough not to vote for Tamaki’s Destiny Party at the last election. So they are both irrelevant I guess, except to act as a warning about how dangerous the unthinking following of a charismatic (but deluded and nutty) leader can be.

I Didn’t Vote for Them

February 17, 2011 1 comment

I’m getting worried about New Zealand. I really am. If this government gets back into power again at the election (and it probably will) I can see a very bleak future ahead. The initial honeymoon period that John Key and the National Party enjoyed at the start of their current term is well and truly over. Now we see the real John Key: a nasty, self-centered, ideologically driven, but skillful politician, with no new ideas and very little real concern for the country as a whole.

The consequences of his tax cuts for the rich are now becoming apparent. The rich must be having a good laugh sitting on their piles of money while many New Zealanders look for work in Australia, double the number live in poverty and need food banks to survive, uncaring corporations push food prices up beyond many people’s ability to pay, and the government borrows hundreds of millions a week to pay for its generous gift to them.

Have the rich company owners and managers returned this undeserved handout by giving something back to the country? As the well-known ad campaign would say: yeah right! They just make things worse by laying off more staff, buying expensive items from overseas (and making our overseas debt even worse) and generally mismanaging the organisations they are in charge of.

We need an attitude change here. The vast majority of rich people aren’t to be admired for their hard work, intelligence, innovation, or dedication to our nation’s economy. They are to be despised for their greed, simple-minded beliefs, and self-centered attitude to gathering as much wealth for themselves with little regard for anyone else.

In case you hadn’t already noticed this blog entry is descending into a bit of a rant and I admit that I have no real statistics to back up my views on this subject. But common sense clearly shows what’s happening. Fact: since National took power the rich have got richer and the poor poorer at an unprecedented rate. Fact: double the number of people live in poverty now compared to before the current government’s reign. Fact: Australia was affected by the global crisis just like us, it has a more left-leaning government, yet it is significantly outperforming New Zealand.

So by any reasonable criteria you want to name this government is a dismal failure. And whatever they say they will never be any good because they are driven by the discredited ideologies of the past. Privatisation doesn’t work. Tax cuts for the rich don’t work. The trickle down effect doesn’t exist. And cutting costs does not improve the economy.

The latest manifestation of the problems we are facing is the price of food and the price of milk has been a particular focal point because New Zealand is one of the world’s major dairy producers. Many families can’t afford milk in New Zealand any more because the monopoly which controls milk production is determined to squeeze every cent they can out of the poor consumer.

And there’s no need for it at all. It’s not like the dairy farmer – the person who does all the work – is making a lot out of the inflated price of milk. Sure, many dairy farmers are getting rich (I won’t start on the policy of selling off our farms to overseas investors – or should that be “exploiters”) but, according to my calculations farmers are paid just 68 cents for the liter of milk which retails for between $1.45 and $2.60. Someone is doing rather well for doing very little, aren’t they?

And what’s behind the fact that the same company sells the same milk (under different brand names) for such varied prices? The CEO made some lame exclude regarding research and development on TV yesterday but, like most CEOs, he’s nothing more than a skilled liar. Why don’t these people just get honest and admit they are simply using dirty tricks to maximise their profits.

The health benefits of milk are well established and I do wonder how many deaths this irresponsible clown has been indirectly responsible for because of the poor health resulting from his greedy pricing practices. Oh, but that’s the market in action and we must all pay homage to the mighty market. Sorry, but your market just doesn’t work.

And now the ultimate insult: John Key has responded to reports about increased demand for food parcels by saying “…that anyone on a benefit actually has a lifestyle choice. If one budgets properly, one can pay one’s bills. That is true, because the bulk of New Zealanders on a benefit actually pay for food, rent, and other things. Some make poor choices, and they do not have money left…”

I see. So surviving for a year on what Key makes in a week just involves a lifestyle choice. Is starving a lifestyle choice? Is joining the growing New Zealand underclass a lifestyle choice? Is being a victim of National’s great campaign of handouts to the rich a lifestyle choice? I guess it must be because John Key would never try to mislead us, would he.

Just to be fair I do have to say that I’m sure there are people out there who are at least partly to blame for their own predicament – maybe they spend too much on cigarettes or alcohol for example – but trying to suggest this is the cause of all poverty is just dishonest.

It’s possible there will be a miracle and National will be removed from power at the upcoming election. But I doubt it and that will mean we are faced with more of the unthinking, formulaic stuff that the current government seems to favour: selling off our valuable assets, stealing from the poor to give to the rich, and refusing to accept the blame for our steadily worsening economic position. When all this happens don’t blame me. I didn’t vote for them!

Cosmic Jewish Zombie

February 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Today, through some convoluted process, I came across a discussion forum which debated religious beliefs in facetious, yet somehow meaningful, terms. It listed short, humorous, but essentially accurate (well, sort of) descriptions for some common religions and for atheism. Some times this sort of material can “cut to the chase” and really reveal the strengths and weaknesses of a belief system where a more complete discussion can obscure the essential simplicity with a lot of meaningless details. OK, so without further preamble, here are some of the definitions…

Christianity: The belief that a cosmic Jewish zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

That single sentence does sum up a lot of the essential beliefs of Christianity. Sure, there are differences in interpretation expressed by different Christian sects but they don’t change the essence of the story. And how does it make Christian beliefs look? Pretty damn stupid, don’t you agree?

Many Christians will try to get around the silly myths by claiming they are metaphorical. But these stories only became metaphors when the possibility of them being true was removed by modern science and historical research. In the past (and often even today) people thought they were literally true. Maybe the story of Christ is also a metaphor. Maybe he never existed? Does that change what Christianity is all about?

And the silliest (and most pernicious) aspect of all is the guilt invoked by the story of original sin. Think about it: an omnipotent, omniscient, good god created a man and woman, and a tree, and a snake. Well, if he didn’t make the snake he made the devil who made the snake. Or did he? Christian mythology is rather unclear on this point. But even if he didn’t make the devil surely he could control him (since he’s omnipotent).

Anyway, the situation was created by God and allowed to happen (even though he knew it would happen before it even started because he’s omniscient) and since then all humans have been tortured because of it. Huh? Then he sent his own son (or was it himself in a different form) who he had to allow to be tortured an killed to save everyone. From what? A situation God himself created? It seems an odd way to fix the problem.

The whole thing is just silly beyond reasonable doubt and anyone who believes it literally is either crazy, deluded, or incredibly ignorant. But I would say anyone who believes it even metaphorically is hardly much better. It’s an obvious and very cynical attempt (and a very successful one) at controlling the minds of the followers of the church. If all Christians looked at that single sentence maybe they would see the light (and I mean the real light, not the fake one their church wants them to see).

So what about Islam? Oh, that’s much worse: the belief that a magic man in the sky told an ancient pedophile the secret to how to avoid the magic man in the sky torturing you forever after you die. The secret is to grovel 5 times a day and telepathically tell the magic man in the sky that you love him and that he’s great. Also, women aren’t really people.

Again the crazy belief that god creates odd ways for people to circumvent the situation that he himself created in the first place. The big difference is that Mohammed isn’t as nice as Jesus (as well as being a pedophile he’s also more violent). So Islam should be rejected by any sensible person as well. It’s also a deeply superstitious, psychologically damaging, and (I’ve got to say it) just plain silly belief system!

And if the original description wasn’t silly enough here’s an addition to it: the pedophile rides a magical part dragon, part person type creature abajillion miles in order to climb a magical ladder in the middle of some random night in order to meet a bunch of undead zombie wizards that are hanging out on different levels of clouds, each one a more self important servant of the magical man in the sky.

I’m not going to let Judaism off lightly either: The magic man in the sky really loves one particular ethnic group and doesn’t much care about the others. If you’re part of the special group follow the rules (except the ones we don’t anymore) and he won’t smack you around too much. If you aren’t part of the special group who cares about you? Oh, and women aren’t really people. Plus there’s this extra detail: chop the tip off your penis and your son’s penis in return for being the magic sky-man’s favorite ethnic group.

Inclusiveness is usually an important part of successful religions. If a religion doesn’t claim that its followers have some special privilege then it wouldn’t be able to trap people into believing it. And the magic man in the sky sure is a weird one. Even if he did exist who would possibly want to follow his weird and wacky directives. What a joker!

Those three religions are closely related. What about a different one entirely? Here’s the description for Hinduism: The magic man in the sky reveals himself as lots of different magic men and women. He put you into your current position because you deserve it based on how good you were in your past life. Don’t waste time feeling sorry for people worse off than you because they deserve it. Social mobility is sinful. One additional thing: women aren’t really people.

Interestingly again we get back to the idea of a god who refuses to accept responsibility and transfers his guilt onto humans. Plus there’s the repeated theme of misogyny which clearly shows these ideas were invented by powerful men for their own benefit.

But I’m being unfair here. What about the facetious description of atheism? Here it is: The belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason whatsoever into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs.

Put that way it does sound a bit silly but notice that, even accepting that humorous definition, there’s no attempt at claiming exclusivity. There’s no attempt at creating guilt, or at saying one group, gender, or anything else is greater than any other. There’s nothing made up for no good reason. And there’s no sky man whose existence just pushes the problem of origins back one step.

So atheism, even when presented in that way, is far more honest and reasonable than any other belief (although I do emphasise that atheism is basically a lack of belief). All it really says is that many of the most fundamental processes aren’t fully understood. Isn’t that better than making up a story (involving zombies, a magical man in the sky, or a mystic pedophile) which is obviously untrue and refusing to reject it and look for a better one? I think so.

Nationhood

February 8, 2011 1 comment

Why do New Zealanders have such a weak sense of nationhood? We don’t have many institutions or traditions which bind us as a nation, and most of us are extremely cynical of attempts to achieve this. I’m not saying we should be singing hideous renditions of our national anthem at every opportunity like the Americans do. Or saluting the flag at every opportunity. Or have some misplaced notion that we are better than other nations and that we should go around inflicting our allegedly superior values on the rest of the world… (sorry America, but it’s true)

Anyway there must be some compromise between rabid nationalism and cynical apathy. I actually prefer the low key NZ approach to the fake and sickening US one but why not aim for some healthy middle ground here? I hesitate to mention it but more like Australia maybe?

First, the evidence for the indifference of New Zealanders. In a recent NZ Herald poll, out of about 25,000 responses, only 23% said “Yes” to the question “Is Waitangi Day important to you”. A quick TVNZ phone poll showed only 14% cared about Waitangi day. And in a Yahoo Xtra poll which asked “Should Waitangi Day be celebrated?”, 52% said “no why celebrate something that has created so many issues?”, 22% said “yes but not as our national day, since it’s not a day of unison”, and 21% said “yes it has a great historic significance to all New Zealanders”.

Some of these polls were not done with a great deal of care to achieve a statistically valid result, but the overall trend is clear: New Zealanders either don’t care about or actively dislike their national day. I saw interviews where many people had forgotten it had even happened. Would you see that in Australia or the US?

The problem seems to be that Waitangi Day has been hijacked by one part of the population: the people who see it as a Maori cultural event. Many people don’t care about Maori culture. For example, I have no real interest in it and find most of it rather dreary although I like some of the Maori myths. So when our national day involves some tedious speeches about Maori issues, a few waka (canoes) being paddled around, and the incessant complaints from the Maori grievance industry I just prefer to ignore the whole thing.

I guess some people would say I’m anti-Maori or racist or something like that, but I’m really not. I just have no interest in Maori culture. That’s just my opinion. Is that so bad? If a ceremony involves some sort of Maori component I tend to listen to my iPhone instead. Would it be better I just pretended that I liked some sort of monotonous wailing, or antagonistic war dance, or speech in an irrelevant language, or meaningless prayer like I’m supposed to? I don’t think so.

I know many people share this view although a lot are scared to say so. And it’s not just conservatives or older people or the unenlightened. I have found it extends across society (although I admit I have no real data to support this observation). The ironic thing is that, in the past, before Maori culture was forced on us all, it was a lot more appreciated. People don’t tend to like being told what they should think is important and relevant.

Waitangi day is supposed to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi which was an agreement between two cultures: British and Maori. If the Treaty is so important why do so many forget this part: “the recognition of Her Majesty’s Sovereign authority over the
whole or any part of those islands”. It seems to me that British rule is firmly established (and the Queen of England is still theoretically though not practically our head of state) so where does the argument over Maori self-rule come from?

The Treaty seems to be originally intended as a uniting document but more recently it has become the opposite. The grievance industry and Maori politicians seem to be seeking to establish special rights and privileges for Maori. There’s the often repeated claim that Maori have a special spiritual bond with the land. No one seems to be brave enough to dispute this nonsense. Many people have a bond with the land and many don’t. I see no evidence to suggest that one group has exclusive rights to this dubious claim.

Maori politician Pita Sharples said we must continue to have a national day and it must be called Waitangi Day. That’s an opinion many people would disagree with. Currently we have a national day which is completely irrelevant to the majority of the population, which produces far more divisiveness than bonding, and is primarily concerned with the past rather than the future. So why exactly is this day so good?

Ironically it was conservative National leader Rob Muldoon who changed our national day from New Zealand Day back to the previous title of Waitangi Day. But official celebrations only started in 1947, 100 years after the signing, anyway. It seems to me that New Zealand day is a far more inclusive term and one which would get far greater support. But I think political correctness and political expediency will prevent us ever returning to that name.

So New Zealand will just become more and more divided and apathy will reign (attendance at Waitangi Day celebrations this year was down on last year despite the good weather). I’m not that enthused about symbolism generally but it does seem unfortunate that we really don’t have a national day that means anything. The worst thing is that, because it fell on a Sunday this year, we didn’t even get a day off. And it’s sad that that’s the issue which annoys most people more than any other!

A Fair Market

February 7, 2011 Leave a comment

I just read an article titled “Wealth gap divides nation” which stated that recent commentary and surveys showed that New Zealand is one of the worst performing countries in the developed world in terms of the gap between rich and poor. A survey, conducted by Horizon Research, showed increasing resentment from the “have nots” for what they perceive as government hand-outs to the rich, while the rich also increasing resent the poor.

The recent tax cuts did almost nothing for the poor, very little for the majority, but were a massive boost to those who already have the most. No wonder those who are worse off while watching the top earners get even more are becoming more outraged at current government policies.

And many of those getting the highest incomes are complaining about the drain those on welfare put on the economy. And they do have a point. In a simplistic sense those people are a drain and do contribute little to the traditional economy.

So there seems to be increasing inequality in New Zealand society and that is leading to an increased gap between rich and poor and that, in turn, is leading to resentment and anger.

Supporters of tax cuts and other assistance for the rich generally give two justifications: first, that the rich drive economic growth and tax cuts will produce more growth which will help everyone; and second, that the rich work for their money and deserve to keep more of it.

The “trickle down” theory that helping the rich will also help the poor has had a poor track record. That was one of the key ideologies during the 1980s when New Zealand went through its great economic transformation and it was then that inequality rose faster here than in any other country in the world. So much for that argument!

The “they deserve it hypothesis” isn’t much better. Do they really? Who says so? The common statement is that the “market” gives people the salary they deserve but that’s a rather circular argument (at best). They deserve it because they get it and they get it because they deserve it? That’s supposed to be an argument?

If we want a truly free environment then let’s have one where the oppressed can use the influence they have too. I would suggest armed rebellion might be an appropriate action (just making a rhetorical point, I don’t really condone violence). After all, stopping that sort of behaviour is just government interference isn’t it?

My point is that every “free market” and “open economic environment” isn’t free or open at all. The free market is an environment designed by humans and enforced by governments. There’s nothing more natural about it than any other political-economic system. It just happens to be the one which is dominant at the moment (to a large extent because large corporations which benefit from it have a lot of political power).

So we could easily choose a different system instead. I would suggest a “fair market” as an alternative. That would involve rules where financial systems are used to support greater well-being for the people rather than the other way around. It would ensure that the difference between the poorest and richest never exceeded a mutually agreed amount. And if someone wants to make more money they will be taxed heavily and the proceeds re-allocated to a worthwhile cause such as medical research or the arts.

What is the point of having a strong economy (under the current definition of the words strong and economy) if the vast majority are losing because of it? And what’s the point of growing the economy if it results in more pollution, hazards related to global warming, and destruction of the environment New Zealanders supposedly consider really important? And what’s the point of encouraging investment when the end result is profits disappearing overseas, lower quality services, and wages and conditions being driven down?

There’s nothing fundamental or intrinsic about what we currently call free markets. There’s no inherent advantage to them. The rich get rich because they know how to manipulate the system, not because they are superior in any other ways. Many poor people make a greater contribution to their society than the rich. Many poor people work harder than the rich. The reason we have inequality is not primarily because some people are just “hopeless” (although some are) – it’s because the system just doesn’t work. We need to change it. Now.