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Neoliberalism has Failed

April 30, 2017 Leave a comment

Sometimes it takes our leaders years to figure out what we already know, and other times they never figure it out at all. Take neoliberalism for example (by this I mean free markets, globalisation, open borders, laissez faire economics, flexible labour, privatisation, austerity, small government). Most of us could see from the start that it wouldn’t work, and we certainly figured it out after a few years of miserable failure. Now, almost 35 years since the experiment began in New Zealand, that should be obvious to everyone, except those most ideologically wed to the idea.

Former New Zealand prime minister, Jim Bolger, has certainly got the idea by now. He put it pretty plainly when he said that “Neoliberalism has failed New Zealand”. Of course, he was only a moderately strong advocate when he was PM. He actually got rid of the vile Ruth Richardson (a strong supporter of neoliberalism and creator of “Ruthanasia”) and put Bill Birch in as minister of finance.

Just to show how mad Richardson really was, even the relatively moderate Birch who replaced her is still clinging to the dream. He still spouts the old lines about people having “more choice” under neoliberalism. More choice for what? To get ripped off by an employer or suffer through degrading unemployment, I guess. Or maybe the choice is whether to live in your car, stay in your friend’s garage, or to share a room with 10 other people. Gee thanks, Bill. Those are great choices.

Bolger clearly gets it now. He even thinks that unions need more power. He can see that the changes in the labour market his government forced through have been bad for the majority. And I think that most of our current politicians can see that too.

Even the center-right National Party (the same party Bolger was the leader of back in the 90s) has backed away from extreme neoliberalism. They haven’t gone far enough, of course, because most of the damaging policies are still there, but at least they haven’t taken it any further. There hasn’t been another major privatisation (which almost inevitably end in disaster) for many years, for example.

It will probably be many decades before we again repeat the mistakes of neoliberalism. After all, before the current cycle the last one was just prior to the Great Depression (coincidence? I think not), so we might have up to 50 years of relative sanity.

That hasn’t stopped those who have gained most from neoliberalism from trying to defend it. The chief executive of Business New Zealand claims everyone is now better off. This is obviously untrue (you just need to look at the real, inflation adjusted, wealth figures to see this) but these people follow Joseph Goebbels’ philosophy and think that if they repeat a lie often enough it will become the truth – unfortunately, it often does.

I often use the idea of the “zeitgeist” when I discuss world trends in this blog. I think there is a clear global mood now to reject neoliberalism. Regrettably this seems to have been replaced with nationalism and conservatism, which has its own problems – again, people never seem to learn from history.

Another interesting thing I have noticed recently is for people to laugh at Any Rand, one of the spiritual founders of neoliberalism. I have heard comments like “yeah that person has about as much credibility as Ayn Rand!”. And, now that I’m thinking about it, a lot of people weren’t exactly upset when Margaret Thatcher died a few years back. In fact, it’s interesting how many women were strong supporters of the ideology. If you ever needed any proof that more women in politics is not automatically a good thing, then surely this should convince you of that idea.

So, yes, neoliberalism has failed… or has it? All of the stated aims: smaller government, more open markets, a more flexible work force, etc have been achieved. But there is one more thing we were promised which hasn’t happened: the benefits trickling down. Undoubtedly the “trickle down” part of neoliberalism has been conspicuously absent. I guess that was always the intention. But you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. And the people aren’t being fooled by this pernicious ideology any more.

ANZAC Protests

April 26, 2017 Leave a comment

About 2 years ago I commented on an incident where an Australian sports commentator was fired for making some tweets critical of Australia’s record in past wars. The tweets were made on ANZAC Day which is a day observed in Australia and here in New Zealand to commemorate the sacrifice of our military personnel in past wars, especially the Gallipoli campaign in World War I.

The general conclusion I reached then was that the tweets were (probably deliberately) provocative and somewhat insulting, and in most cases not particularly accurate, but also did raise some valid issues related to that country’s participation in war.

On ANZAC Day this year in New Zealand we have had a controversy which was also related to criticisms of our past war record. This time, we had a group protesting the lack of a serious investigation into allegations of the possible involvement of New Zealand troops with war crimes in Afghanistan.

They held a sign protesting civilian war deaths (which read “Lest We Remember: No NZ support for war”) and attempted to place a wreath on a war memorial to remember the civilians allegedly killed by a botched raid lead by New Zealand military personnel in Afghanistan in 2010.

At that point they were verbally attacked, especially by a minor political official of New Zealand’s populist party, New Zealand First, and his particularly loud and obnoxious 12 year old son. Up until then any protest had been minimal and the solemnity of the occasion had hardly been disturbed.

They approached the protesters and shouted that they should not be there. The boy then said “Do it tomorrow, do it the day before, do it any day – but today it is wrong, wrong, wrong” and “You are so inappropriate, I just cannot believe this.”

Note that word “inappropriate”, which I have commented on before. This word is used (and I must admit to being guilty of this occasionally myself) as a way to say that you don’t like something but want to make it seem like your dislike is based on something more universal or objective.

So instead of saying “I don’t like that” a person will say “that is inappropriate”, because whether something is inappropriate or not is, in most cases, a matter of opinion. And it certainly is in this case.

In fact a poll run by NZ news organisation Newshub showed 67% of respondents supported protests on ANZAC day as being OK. I do need to emphasise this wasn’t a scientific poll and (at the time I voted) only had 2500 votes, but it did seem to correlate with the majority of comments I saw on the subject.

The protesers were peaceful and reasonable and the only time the subdued mood of the occasion was broken was when they were shouted at. Even then, they replied in a quiet and reasonable way.

I should also say that if someone is going to criticise another group, especially in a context like this, then they should expect to get criticised in return, and I do think it is good that people make their strongly held opinions known, but it is really a matter of how these things are done and the vigorous, loud, and seemingly tactless attack on the protesters was unacceptable (see how easy it is to use that word?)

Many people think New Zealand’s official national day, Waitangi Day, has been spoiled by protest (and I have blogged about his in the past) and it might be that another important day for this country is heading that way too.

I don’t think that is necessarily bad, but the protests have to be reasonable and they shouldn’t be over-done. That is bad for two reasons: first, too much protest spoils the event for others; and second, too much protest loses any meaning and just becomes background noise.

One of the claims made about our country’s past reasons for going to war was to protect our freedoms, such as the ability to speak out against injustice and to protest. It is sort of ironic now if those freedoms are being denied. And it is also ironic if a protest about a protest is more disruptive than the original protest!

If people would just settle down a bit, recognise that there are alternative views on every topic, including the way that our military personnel have acted, and just talk about these things reasonably instead of shouting mindlessly, then everyone would benefit. Will that ever happen? Probably not.

Next

April 21, 2017 Leave a comment

I recently finished reading (actually listening to the audiobook version of) the Michael Crichton novel, Next, which I found both compelling and interesting, and hard to “put down”.

I know that his work gets a certain amount of criticism because of his failure to follow what many deem to be the standard mechanisms writers should use to produce the best results (clear leading characters, strong single plot lines, full and complex character development) but I find his books quite engrossing because of the complex plots and interesting treatment of ideas and controversies.

Next was the last book Crichton wrote before his death from cancer in 2008 at age 66. I have read or listened to most of his other books and liked them for the same reasons I liked this one: he includes a lot of credible scientific and technical details; he often has several plots and sub-plots running simultaneously and interacting in complex ways; and he always has a greater philosophical, political, or scientific point to make.

I should emphasise that this is fiction based on science. In the introduction to the book the author says “this novel is fiction, except for the parts that aren’t.” and in a New York Times Book Review they described the book as “a barrage of truths, half-truths and untruths”.

Maybe the best example of this is in another of his novels, Jurassic Park (the one the movies were based on) where the dinosaur DNA is sourced from amber. This is a genuine technique but not one which is likely to allow recovery of material more than 65 million years old.

But the real point of Jurassic Park is not about *how* dinosaurs might be brought back to life but *if* they should. In the book the dinosaurs get out of control – as predicted by the expert in chaos theory (also a real thing and basically well portrayed) – despite the best efforts of the people in charge.

And this is a common theme in other Crichton books. They usually involve failures to allow for all possible problems, greed and unrealistic optimism leading to bad decisions, and incompetent and corrupt people causing systems to break down.

I found it interesting, as the book proceded, to try to guess which parts were true and, if they were based on fact, how much fact. So all of the following are parts of the book which sound odd but are essentially true: cells taken in medical procedures are used for profit by universities without the donors’ consent; body parts are harvested by morgues and funeral directors and sold; transgenic species, including monkeys, have already been created; modern human blonde genes probably originated in Neanderthals; and an artist has used his own fat (obtained through liposuction) to make a meatball served at a dinner party!

Actually, the only “fact” I checked which I couldn’t verify was the existence of a group mentioned in the book called the “society for libertarian biology” which doesn’t appear to exist. No doubt there are many other fictional elements too, that was just the only one I checked.

So here are some of the themes/ideas presented in the book which I agreed with, or at least found interesting…

We need to stop patenting genes. This is totally absurd from a logical perspective, it is intolerable from any reasonable moral viewpoint, and it doesn’t even make much sense from a business or economic angle, except for the company who has the patent for something they have no right to. There are many examples already of gene patents causing great harm to both individuals and society. The processes of science and discovery in general have been warped by business.

We need better rules for tissue storage and we need to enforce them. Again there are many examples of where companies have acted in very morally doubtful ways to profit from cells they “own”. The pursuit of profit has warped basic moral standards.

The real outcomes of research and development must be made public. Research and trials of new drugs and treatments sometimes leads to bad outcomes for the subjects, including death, and this should not be hidden behind commercial sensitivity and trade secrets. In fact (this is just my opinion), commercial sensitivity should always be rejected: all information relating to large organisations (companies, universities, etc) should be public. The pursuit of profit has destroyed basic fairness.

Studies of commercial products need to be transparent and performed by neutral scientists. Under the current system 90% of drug trials give positive results for the person funding the trial. It seems a clear case of where science has been corrupted by business.

We should avoid bans on research. All research is useful although some caution needs to be used in potentially dangerous or morally ambiguous situations. Again we need a scientific approach rather than a commercial one

Universities have become too commercial and their original function as unbiased commentators on society and originators of pure knowledge have largely gone. In public universities the taxpayers pay, the universities profit by selling their new discoveries to corporations who sell them back (with extreme profits) back to the taxpayers who paid for them to start with. Again, science has been corrupted by commerce

Look at the last sentence of each of those points and it is pretty obvious where the problem lies. The problem is the same one responsible for most of our modern problems: uncontrolled capitalism. It’s a point I have made many times and it is interesting that the same point is apparent in Crichton’s work, even though he is often considered a libertarian.

Finally, I liked this book. it was thoughtful but also fast paced, serious but also humorous in parts, based on fact but those were portrayed through fiction. The ultimate recommendation: I started another Crichton novel as soon as I finished this one!

Classic Fighters

April 17, 2017 Leave a comment

On Saturday I went to the Classic Fighters Omaka 2017 air show in Blenheim, New Zealand. I had been intending on going to this show since it first started, but being at the opposite end of the island I just never quite made it. This year I was visting my in-laws in Nelson, so I thought the 90 minute journey to Marlborough would be worth it.

And despite the bad weather a lot of New Zealand (including Marlborough) has experienced recently, the day was brilliant. There were almost no clouds, a light (to moderate) wind, and a temperature of 22 degrees. Great conditions for watching warbirds (although maybe a bit less wind would have been good).

I have been to the other big South Island, New Zealand air show, Warbirds Over Wanaka, several times in the past, and have put reports from all of these, including photos and movies on my web site, so I will do the same for this one over the next few days.

Both air shows have a variety of aircraft, but Wanaka seems to specialise in World War II planes and Omaka in World War I. So there were plenty of Fokker Triplanes, Sopwith Camels, and other aircraft from that era (all replicas, of course) plus Spitfires, a Corsair, a Kittyhawk, and some Yaks from World War II.

My favourite display was the Yak 3 Steadfast, powered by the 1750hp Pratt and Whitney R2000 radial engine and capable of over 650 kilometers per hour. It had smoke generators on both wing tips and left twin smoke trails which formed all sorts of cool patterns and smoke rings in the deep blue sky.

The saddest part of the show (apart from it taking over an hour to drive the 100 meters to the car park exit) was the A-4 Skyhawk sitting in a hangar. This one had it’s engine stripped out of it to use as a spare part when the other New Zealand Air Force Skyhawks were sold.

I remember watching the Skyhawk displays in Wanaka back in the 1996, 1998, and 2000 shows and they were awesome. Of course, they were a bit of an obsolete aircraft by American standards, but at least the NZ planes had updated avionics and weapons systems.

So I’m glad I went to the trouble of watching this show. I really didn’t like it quite as much as the best Wanaka shows, but it was still very good. My only regret is that I didn’t get there a little bit earlier because I missed some of the first WWI displays.

As I said above, I will have a report on this show with photos and videos on my main web site (ojb.nz) in the next few days so check there if you are interested (and I apologise in advance if it takes longer – it’s surprising how much time the photo and video processing, researching facts, and general writing of those reports takes).

Play the Ball

April 11, 2017 Leave a comment

When I engage in one of my (extremely infrequent) rants I often get a bit personal. I often describe the groups (it’s usually a group rather than an individual) under discussion in somewhat unflattering terms. Words like stupid, mindless, bureaucratic, corrupt, incompetent, and (good ol’ plain) scum tend to predominate.

If I use the search function on my blog for the word “scum” I come across criticisms of Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Martin Shkreli, Serco (a company that runs prisons in New Zealand), Alice Walton, the Genesis Energy board, the CEO of BP, a spokesman for Westpac bank, the National government, Ports of Auckland, Affco, Westboro Church, the people in charge of the global financial system in general, Fonterra, the American movie industry, the NZ Evangelistic Society, News Corp, and Theresa Gattung.

That’s quite a list, isn’t it? In my defence, I only used the word in 27 posts (out of a total of almost 2000) in almost 15 years of blogging, so I don’t over-use to quite the extent you might think, and there is a good mix there of politicians (usually of the right), corporate leaders, large businesses, and some more unpleasant examples of religious institutions.

But a basic tenet of good debating is to avoid informal logical fallacies, such as the ad hominem. So I should be criticising the idea or action, not the person involved. In other words, I should “play the ball, not the man” (or woman).

Like all informal fallacies though, the ad hominem isn’t necessarily always wrong. Sometimes an individual really does deserve severe criticism. While it might be something which has been done or said that I am most offended by, there’s still a person who who did it or said it, and I’m sure that a lot of bad things done by one person would not be done by another.

The response to criticism is often “I’m just doing my job” which is usually referred to as the “Nuremberg Defence” after the Nazis who used it at the Nuremberg war trials (it’s a real term so this is not an example of me breaking Godwin’s Law). I mentioned this subject in a post “The Nuremberg Defence” from 2014-11-20.

But people always have a choice. Given the same situation some people will make the wrong choice just because it’s easier, or they can use it for their own benefit, or they haven’t bothered checking the true consequences, or for many other reasons. In every case though, these decisions are made as a result of a character flaw in the individual.

I think a “better person” would not have done the same thing. They might not have simply refused an order, but they might have taken steps to minimise its harm, or to work “behind the scenes” to work against it, or at least to carry it out with some element of contrition.

So ad hominem attacks are OK, as long as the reason for the attack is clear. And the attack on the person should follow a reasoned critique of their behaviour, not the other way around. In other words, it is not OK to criticise something because a certain person did it (as I often see with criticisms of Donald Trump’s actions, not all of which are bad) but it is OK to say someone is a bad person because they did bad things (after why those things are bad is logically explained).

Informal logical fallacies are OK but it is important to remember that they are informal and are not infallible. Just because it looks superficially like an ad hominem has been used doesn’t mean the argument can be ignored. It does mean the argument should be looked at more carefully, but it’s important to remember that some people just aren’t as good as others.

And most importantly, it is essential to remember that often the people with the most power also have the greatest character flaws. My “scum list” above shows that very clearly!

Judgement Day

April 6, 2017 Leave a comment

I have made a few comments recently on the theme of the “next great change” in society, when we will transition from the industrial age to the information age. I’m sure a lot of people think my ideas are just crazy dreams, and I sometimes wonder whether that is the case myself, but I was interested to see that the famous science historian, James Burke, said very similar things in a recent podcast he was featured in.

Our current society is concerned with distributing resources in an environment of scarcity, controlling the means of production of those resources, and recruiting the labour necessary for production on the best possible terms for the people in control.

The inevitable result of this is a deeply divided society where a tiny fraction of the people get most of the wealth available, and we certainly see that today in the grossly uneven ownership of wealth by the top 1%.

But let’s look at the massive changes which are about to make everything we currently know obsolete. Some of this is my opinion of what will happen in the next 20 to 30 years, and some is from the Burke podcast where he takes a more extreme view than me, but one which might be placed a bit further in the future too.

The basic point is that there will be no shortages. Chemical synthesis and 3D printing will provide any materials needed. Efficient power generation (it’s unclear exactly what that will be, but it could be ultra-efficient solar, improved nuclear such as Thorium, or the ultimate power source: fusion) will provide all the power needed. Robotics will provide all the physical labour. And artificial intelligence will provide the creativity, invention, and overview.

Once a robot is made which can make more robots (of course with small improvements with each generation controlled by an AI) there is no need for a human to ever make anything again. And if the thinking machines (AIs) can design and improve themselves then everything changes because the rate of improvement would inevitably escalate exponentially.

Within a relatively short period of time there will be literally nothing left for humans to do.

And when that happens all out political structures, our economies, and even our value systems will become meaningless.

To many this sounds like a bleak prospect, and I agree to some extent. But what’s the point of resisting something which is inevitable? The Luddites resisted change which they saw as negative – and they were right in many ways – but they couldn’t stop the industrialisation process once it got started.

No doubt vested interests will try to stop these changes, or at least try to maintain control of them, but that just won’t be possible because there will be no point of leverage for them to base their power on. Who cares who has the most money when everything is free?

So getting back to that point about humans having nothing to do: what our role will be will very much depend on how the machines feel about us, because I’m sure that eventually we will no longer be able to control our ultra-intelligent creations.

If the machines decided that humans were pointless maybe they would just eliminate us, and maybe that would be the kindest thing. Or maybe they might find there is something about organic life which synthetic life couldn’t match so it still might have some value. Or maybe they might just want to keep humans around because we are self-aware and deserve a certain level of respect.

I do have to say that if I was an ultra-intelligent machine and looked around at how humans have behaved both in the past and present, I might be tempted to take the first option! Maybe it’s time for us to start behaving a little bit better so that when we are judged by our new synthetic masters we might be allowed to live.

It’s all rather Biblical, actually. Maybe there really will be a judgement day, just like Christianity tells us. But the type of god doing the judging won’t be the one imagined by the writers of any religious text. For a more accurate fictional appraisal of that future we should look at science fiction, not theology!