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More Red Tape

June 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Controversial commentator, George Monbiot, thinks the disastrous fire in the London tower block serves as a warning about removing “red tape” from society. He sees this as a consequence of the neo-liberal agenda followed by successive governments – which would traditionally have been from both the right and left – in the UK. And there is no doubt that a very similar situation has arisen in many western countries, such as here in New Zealand.

On the other hand many other political pundits have suggested that we need a lot less regulation. They say that worthwhile commercial and social programs are being held up by excessive regulation and laws which stifle all forms of innovation.

So who is correct?

Well, in many blog posts I have commented on how I think there are too many rules and regulations, but in others I have said that large corporations and other organisations get away with too much as well. So, which is it? Do I want more or less regulation?

Well, I want both. Both the opinions above are correct. It is not so much the number of rules we have (although I still think there are far too many), but the type.

To take an example in New Zealand: one of the biggest disasters here in recent times was the Pike River mine explosion and fire. There is little doubt that it occurred because of incompetent and irresponsible management, something I should note has not really been addressed in the years since the original tragedy began.

On the other hand we have ridiculous health and safety rules in workplaces with no real hazards which have no reasonable chance of preventing any deaths or injuries in any event which could realistically occur.

So there is both stupid, stifling bureaucracy (and a whole class of bureaucrats to enforce it) and a lack of regulation and enforcement where it is actually needed. We seem to have chosen the worst of all possible worlds!

Now I should discuss how this relates to the recent London fire. Before I do I should admit that the exact direct and incidental causes of the Grenfell Tower disaster have not been established yet. However I think there is sufficient evidence on what happened to make my following commentary (AKA rant) relevant. If it turns out that the causes aren’t what currently seems obvious then I will retract this post.

For a start, the facts…

First, a massive fire in an accommodation block in London has resulted in the loss of many lives (about 60 at this point) along with many injuries and missing persons.

Second, the block had recently been renovated by applying panels to the outside, and these panels were primarily decorative and contained a highly flammable material.

Third, the building was not protected by sprinklers and had no (or only defective or inferior) fire alarms and smoke detectors, and the residents were told to stay in their apartments in the case of a fire.

Finally, the residents (who were poorer people even though it was in a rich suburb) had warned the owners that the building was dangerous but had been basically ignored.

So putting the facts together, and reading between the lines a bit, here’s what I think really happened…

The building was in an affluent area and didn’t look up to standard to the rich people living there, so the building owner was pressured to improve its appearance.

The owner, or the contractor doing the work, tried to save a few pounds (in other words make more profit) by using a cheaper building material even though it was a major fire hazard (the cladding used cost 90,000 pounds less than a fire resistant alternative, and was part of a multi-million pound contract). This could happen because building regulations had been loosened by recent governments.

Warnings that the building was dangerous were ignored because the owner simply didn’t care. There was probably nothing illegal about the building itself (although some reports suggest the material was banned). In many ways bad regulations are worse than no regulations at all, because the owner can claim that the building follows the standards.

When the fire started it spread rapidly because of the material used and the fact that the money was spent on superficial cosmetic improvements instead of real safety features like sprinklers or modern alarms. In addition the residents were told to stay in their apartments during a fire – I know it’s hard to believe, but I’m not making this stuff up!

The following might not have made a lot of difference, but because of austerity measures the number of fire fighters serving the area was less than it had been in the past.

The government has made insincere, totally inadequate, and late efforts at helping. Of course an investigation is under way, but we all know how biased those usually are.

Now there are protests over this issue. But who should be the target and what, specifically, went wrong? I don’t think one person or one action can be blamed. This is a systemic thing which might be able to be improved to a limited extent but will never really be OK under the current system.

So, again I get back to the theme that we need revolution and not evolution. If one good thing comes out of this tragedy it might be to wake people from their apathy and have them finally realise that the ruling elite are both incompetent and grossly immoral.

To get back to the original issue about regulations. Do we need more? Well the best option would be to get rid of capitalism so that most decisions weren’t driven entirely by greed. Any decent building owner (assuming people were allowed to own housing at all, and I don’t think they should be) would want to provide safe accommodation, not to make some superficial changes to a squalid death-trap. But until we put decent people in charge we need regulations to control those who currently have all the power.

In summary, until the revolution comes we (regrettably) probably have little choice: we need more red tape to control the worst excesses of a system which is rotten to its very core.

More Free Speech

June 6, 2017 2 comments

Most people agree that free speech is an important right. In fact, some say that there should be no limits at all on what an individual should be able to say. But when the right of free speech is taken too far even those with that extreme view tend to become a bit more moderate.

I tend towards a view supporting the maximum right to free speech. I think it is very important and the people who try to shut it down are often those who have most to lose if that right is exercised. So I am usually very suspicious of people who want to suppress discussion and criticism of any kind. For example, most large organisations – including companies and governments – keep very tight control over what the members of that organisation are allowed to say about it, even when that is likely to be far more truthful than the official sources.

On the other hand, people should also have a right to privacy and few people would say that one person has the right to free speech to the extent that they share another person’s personal information for no good reason. For example, I know a lot of people’s passwords. Do I have the right of free speech to post them all in this blog post?

So there are two competing rights there: the right to free speech and the right to privacy, and like just about every issue in the realm of fairness and ethics, it is unclear where the balance should lie.

One interesting idea recently shared by a commenter on my blog is that the right to free speech should be absolute, but if that speech leads to negative consequences then the person exercising that right should have to suffer the consequences.

So if I shared the passwords here, that would be OK, but if the owner of one of the passwords lost the contents of their bank account as a result, I would have to reimburse that amount or suffer some form of punishment. The result of this would be that I wouldn’t share passwords because of the risk. Of course, I wouldn’t do it anyway because it is against my moral code!

But what about the situation of a whistle-blower? That is the person who shares some information that would normally be considered private and not the sort of thing a “moral” person would usually distribute but might be justified in being shared to bring attention to a case of corruption affecting the public.

The consequences to the person “owning” the information are negative but to the wider public the result might be positive. So is it the greatest benefit for the greatest number? It’s easy to see how this simple idea could go badly wrong, unfortunately.

So maybe it should be simply based on law. But surely this cannot work because most activities of whistle-blowers is illegal even when it is the right thing to do.

Although this is a difficult issue, I think the current balance is towards too much suppression of ideas, so we need more free speech rather than less. While I would like to move towards the right to say anything at all, for the reasons I listed above, that doesn’t seem practical.

But here are a few areas where we could immediately improve the situation…

Any company or other organisation which operates in the public space (that is, basically all of them) should not use excuses such as “commercial sensitivity” or “executive ownership” to hide facts about their activities.

Anyone should be able to present their opinion on a subject even when it is against the prevailing ideas of political correctness, in fact it is then when contradictory views are most important.

Names and other details of legal procedures, especially those involving the rich and powerful, should not be able to be suppressed, and in jury trials the jury should be given all the facts, not just those deemed relevant by a judge.

You can probably see how these extended rights might be misused, but I have some solutions to that possible problem.

First, there is the idea mentioned above, where real negative consequences resulting from information publicised for poor reasons could be used as the basis of a case against the person revealing the information. And second, I think there should be a mechanism where contrary views and fact checking could be easily associated with any opinion expressed publicly.

For example, if anti-vaccination campaigner is interviewed on radio or TV, a real expert should be involved as well so that the inaccuracies in the first person’s argument could be revealed. Or an argument by a politician wanting to reduce freedoms to fight terrorism could be countered by pointing out what a small risk terrorism really is and how reducing freedom is the exact aim of the terrorists.

The real issue isn’t that controversial views should be suppressed, it’s that they should be negated with a better argument opposing them. And if there is no good argument which can negate their effect? Well maybe that controversial view has some merit and really deserves to be given publicity after all.

One thing’s for sure: suppressing free speech doesn’t make awkward opinions go away, it just makes them even harder to handle because the fact that they are suppressed and never effectively countered just makes them look more powerful to those who follow them.

Have a look at recent political events and this phenomenon is very obvious. Suppressing speech doesn’t suppress ideas, it just builds resentment and hostility.

Islam Again, Again

May 31, 2017 7 comments

I said in my last post that I had some thoughts on terrorism and its causes, mainly after thinking about the Manchester attack. I think the there are two big problems which have lead to poor analysis of the situation: first, people tend to form conclusions based on their existing political beliefs instead of trying to reach an unbiased verdict; and second, they tend to look at things too simplistically instead of accepting that there is never just one cause for a complex social phenomenon.

In the last post I briefly mentioned my initial reaction when I first heard about the attacks. That was that it was probably “Islam again”. By that I meant that Islamic beliefs were likely to be an important part of the motivation for the attack. And that was clearly the case. But what I didn’t mean was that Islam was the only cause or that all Muslims should share equal blame.

Another important point is that, no matter how evil these attacks are, they really don’t represent a great threat when looked at statistically. There are plenty of stats out there to show this.

For example, the Washington Post reported that on the day that 130 people died because of the Paris terrorist attacks, roughly three times that number of French citizens died from cancer. They also say that in the US more people have been killed by being crushed by furniture than by terrorist activity since 9/11.

Those numbers should be accepted but that doesn’t mean that taking terrorism seriously isn’t important. It could be that because terrorism is treated as if it is far more dangerous than it really is that it has been kept under control to some extent. And disease, road deaths, and work related accidents are just an unfortunate side effect of people living their lives. Terrorism is far more malicious and deliberate and has no positive side making the losses a bit more tolerable.

So a death from a road accident and a death as a result of a suicide bomber aren’t really equivalent. People shouldn’t be scared of terrorism, but they shouldn’t become complacent and they should make their abhorrence of it clear even if they are unlikely to be affected by it directly.

I think I have made a case for treating terrorism and terrorists with the utmost contempt, what about the more difficult question of what or who to blame? Is Islam actually the problem?

Well yes and no. As I said above, all complex political or social issues have multiple causes. But the statistics make it very clear that Islam is a major factor. Find a list of terrorist attacks and you will see that the vast majority would be carried out by Islamic groups or individuals motivated by Islam. This cannot be denied, and I don’t think it can be denied that Islam is one of the most significant causes of terrorism.

People will say Islam is a religion of peace, of course, but that has become more a knee-jerk reaction than a statement which is the result of serious and considered thought. I don’t think it is a religon of peace at all. In fact, there are many reasons to think that it is one of the more violent religions. It’s true that most Muslims don’t act on these more aggressive aspects of their faith, but that doesn’t mean that they are not there and that they don’t encourage people with a predisposition to extremism.

Another excuse offered by Muslim apologists is that many of the problems in the Islamic world are caused by the unwanted meddling of the West, especially the US. I totally agree. I think US foreign policy is one of the biggest causes of political instability around the world today. But does the fact that a major power interfered with the politics of your country give you the right to kill innocent children at a pop concert in a different country? Only an incredibly sick-minded person whose human decency has been warped by a vile ideology could believe that.

Not many people would be prepared to sacrifice their own life and take those of many innocent people without some incredibly powerful ideology being involved. No one is going to strap on a suicide vest after considering a problem rationally. To do that takes something like strong political views… or religion, of course. The problem is currently Islam, but any Christian who thinks they can take the high moral ground on this should have a look at the history of their own faith and maybe reconsider that thought.

So was it Islam again? Yes it was, but it was also political frustration caused by western interference again, and it was many other things again too. Should there be greater scrutiny of Muslims because of this sort of event? Yes, but it should be in proportion to the potential threat.

These things are nuanced, and neither side: neither the people who always spring to Islam’s defence, nor those who automatically condemn all Muslims, are right. The truth is somewhere in between. Sure, it was Islam again and it will continue to be Islam again, but what our response should be to that fact is the real issue.

Shouting Fire!

May 25, 2017 2 comments

First, I want to make a quick comment about the big news from yesterday: the terrorist attack in Manchester. As soon as it was reported I commented “Islam again?” and I was right, it was Islam again, and it almost always is. I will write a bit more about this in a future post but I just needed to say something now because so many people are defending Islam and I think that defence is often taken too far.

But the main subject of this post is freedom of speech, and what limitations should be put on it. This subject arose after a prominent New Zealand doctor disrupted a screening of the anti-vaccination film “Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe”. He told the audience the arguments behind the film were “based on lies and fraudulent information that harms children”.

He’s right, of course, but did he have the right to do that? I should note that, as far as I can tell, the people were not prevented from watching the film, they were just warned about it first. But they were warned in a rather extreme way, including (for some bizarre reason) a haka (a traditional Maori war-dance or challenge).

So first, is there any good evidence that vaccination either doesn’t work or is dangerous? Well, like all medical interventions, there are some risks and it might not be effective in a small number of cases, but generally it is both safe and effective. Well respected organisations like the World Health Organisation, UNESCO, and the Center for Disease Control have estimated that millions of people have been saved from death and disease by vaccinations.

Against this are a small number of poorly designed studies, some of them discredited and retracted, and contrary beliefs largely based on emotional arguments, personal opinions, anecdotes, and broad claims backed up with little specific evidence.

It’s possible that some vaccines have unknown hazards and it’s even possible that some might not be as effective as currently believed, but the only rational conclusion possible at this time is that vaccination is a valuable disease prevention technique.

So it is reasonable to say that vaccination works and is safe to the extent that any small risks are easily compensated for by the potential benefits.

But the second question is less straightforward. Is it OK to try to stop people from exercising their right to freedom of opinion? Should the “authorities” prevent films like this one from being shown? And should opponents of the film’s message be allowed to present their opinions to an audience who really don’t want to hear it?

I believe in personal freedom of expression but I think everyone would recognise there must be limits to this. This is the old classic question: is it OK to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire? If you have freedom of expression then why not? Does that freedom trump the risk of people being injured when trying to exit the theatre?

I suspect that most people, including those at the screening of “Vaxxed”, would say that falsely shouting fire is a bad thing and that’s probably what they thought the doctor was metaphorically doing. But, as I indicated above, he was really doing the equivalent of shouting “fire” when there really was a fire. Because, if the movie persuades parents not to vaccinate their kids in large numbers it could result in new epidemics of disease which would cause far more deaths than those likely to occur in a theatre fire.

Another case could be made to say that the doctor was not inhibiting freedom of expression because in offering his own opinion he was actually enhancing that expression. If presenting one side of the “controversy” (note that there is no real controversy) is seen as giving freedom of expression then surely presenting the other side as well just improves that. Anti-vaccination protestors seem to think it is their right to turn up at pro-vaccination events so what’s wrong with the opposite scenario?

Finally, do people have the right to be ignorant? I would say no, but even if they do, do they have the right to inflict their ignorant views, and the negative consequences of those views, onto others? Many of those people who go to “Vaxxed” will be parents and some of those will fail to vaccinate their kids as a consequence. That’s causing potential suffering to another person because they’re too naive to see through anti-vaccination propaganda themselves.

It seems to me the doctor was a hero in many ways. Maybe he got a little bit too confrontational in the way he did what he did, but was he right to do it? I think so.

The Law’s a Joke

May 12, 2017 Leave a comment

They say that any news is good news, so New Zealanders should be pretty happy with all the exposure this country is getting in the US at the moment, mainly thanks to it being the subject of ridicule by comedian, John Oliver.

I’m not complaining here because I don’t think the material is nasty and it is presented with good humour. In many ways it makes New Zealand look a bit wacky and maybe just a bit less boring than it might be otherwise. Also, after looking at the news today, I can see Oliver’s point – there really is some pretty silly stuff going on here.

So here’s a list of some of the better stories coming out of New Zealand in recent times: our prime minister’s (at the time) weird and creepy obsession with pony tails; the famous “dildo-gate” event where politician Steve Joyce was hit in the face by a sex toy; a really embarrassing court case involving the illicit sexual fantasies of conservative party leader, Colin Craig; and the National Party’s use of an alleged rip-off of Eminem’s song, Lose Yourself, in its election campaigning.

Maybe the only country that should be even more embarrassed about the frivolous use of its legal system is Ireland, where Stephen Fry’s alleged blasphemy is being investigated by police (to be fair, I should say that the investigation was terminated shortly after I wrote this because of “an insufficient number of outraged people”).

As I said above, I do think a lot of this stuff is just amusing and I don’t take it too seriously. I was really impressed at the good natured way Joyce accepted the indignity of the “attack” on him, for example.

But it is pretty ridiculous how much effort is going into some of these court cases (especially the campaign song copyright case, and the Colin Craig defamation case against right-wing blogger Cameron Slater). Considering how much money is being spent on these and how many more important cases are currently waiting to proceed, it is again rather embarrassing how our legal system is being made to look like a bit of a joke.

But I have always considered our so-called “justice system” a joke, or to use the more common phrase: the law is an ass. By the way, that phrase goes back to 1653 where it was used in a publication in England. The word “ass” was used to indicate that the law is obstinate and inflexible like an ass (or donkey) has the reputation of being.

We are all expected to follow the law, and ignorance is no excuse. But even the prime minister admitted that he was unaware of our blasphemy laws, when the subject arose after the situation in Ireland was discussed. Also, our attorney-general admitted to enjoying a good bit of blasphemy on occasion. So the country’s chief legal officer enjoys breaking the law, apparently. I guess this is is another aspect of its asinine nature.

In this post I have concentrated only on how stupid the law is, but if that was it’s only fault I would be quite happy. The real problem is a much darker one. That is how unfair, inconsistent, incomprehensible, and inflexible the law is. We really have got ourselves stuck in a corner where everyone is more worried about what is legal rather than what is right.

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.