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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.

Easily Offended

May 17, 2017 2 comments

Language constantly evolves, and words inevitably change their meanings over time. Sometimes this causes no real problems as people adapt to the new meanings, but other times a word might get used in such a confusing context, or with such poor intent, that it is better not to be used at all.

When I say “with such poor intent” above I mean that words are used by some people to shut down a discussion, or to disguise a real issue, instead of engaging in honest debate.

Of course the preceding paragraphs are to introduce the subject of my favourite words which have become meaningless through over-use or dishonest use, and without further ado, here they are…

Number one: offensive. I reject the use of the word offensive because it implies there is some fundamental attribute of a statement or action which makes it offensive. I would say a better way to look at the phenomenon is to say “I am offended”. That means it is the person making the claim who is the originator of the offence, not the object it is being aimed at.

For example, if I say (as Stephen Fry did) that God is “stupid” and an “utter maniac” then I might expect some religious people (like some bishops in the UK) to be offended. But the statement itself isn’t inherently offensive. I for one, would say it is letting God off fairly lightly! And, more seriously, I think it provides an interesting starting point for a discussion of the classic theological problem of evil.

So if the bishops said “I am offended” instead of “that is offensive” we could get onto a useful discussion about why they are offended. Is it because the problem of evil has no viable answer, even after thousands of years of discussion? Is it because they want to shut down the discussion to avoid embarrassing revelations on the nature of their theological beliefs? We will never know because they refuse to discuss comments which they claim are naturally inherently offensive.

Even in situations where the implication of a comment against me was mildly insulting I would never use the “offence defence”. For example, if someone said to me “you atheists just want to avoid your moral responsibility to God” I could say “that’s offensive” and demand an apology, or I could be more honest and explain why that makes no sense.

The phenomenon isn’t limited to religion, of course. Any criticism that a person or group wants to avoid can be labelled offensive and can therefore be avoided. I see it a lot in sensitive political situations, especially those involving race and gender. There are some comments which should be perfectly reasonable but could almost be guaranteed to illicit either real or feigned offence by both the target of the comment, and maybe even more frequently, by people apparently not directly affected but still prepared to let their moral outrage be shown.

The most egregious part of this phenomenon is not the way it punishes transgressors, but the way it inhibits people presenting dissenting opinions in the first place. If a person wants to make a perfectly reasonable point but knows that type of point has been labelled as “offensive” in the past then he might not make the point, either because it might be seen as anti-social or even because there might be consequences such as being forced out of a discussion, being forced to apologise, or even being forced to resign from a job.

So I believe phrases like “that is offensive” are best not used at all. People should take ownership of their opinions and admit that the offense arises from them. They should say “I am offended” instead and expect to have to explain why.

I gave a few examples (some quite humorous) of use of offense in a cynical context in a post called “That’s Offensive!” from 2015-11-30. Have a look at that for some further comments on this idea.

At this point it seems I have written enough on my first word alone to make a long enough blog post. The other words to avoid will need to wait for a future post. To give my readers an idea of what to expect, here are the other words I want to cover: inappropriate, racist, misogynist, privilege, dictatorship, troll, and literally.

Do you use any of these words? Do you think your use of them is justified? If you do, you should read the future posts or comment on this one.

Dilbert Cartoons

May 9, 2017 Leave a comment

I have a Dilbert cartoon which has the following dialog: Dilbert’s manager says “What does MFU2 mean on your timeline?”, Dilbert replies “That’s management foul-up number two. It usually happens around the third week.”, the manager responds “We don’t anticipate any management mistakes.”, Dilbert answers “That’s MFU1.”

Like many Dilbert cartoons it is amusing because it is so often true. Not only do we know this through personal experience, but it is confirmed by research in psychology, especially in the famous Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Basically, not only are many people incompetent, but they are too incompetent to even realise how incompetent they actually are! It’s fine for people to not be perfect, because that is just reality, but it’s important that people understand their deficiencies, and when that doesn’t happen big problems are the usual result.

I sometimes put it this way: it’s OK to be ignorant (we all are to some extent), and it’s OK to be arrogant (that can be justified for sufficiently skilled people), but the combination of ignorance and arrogance is the problem.

I am discussing this here because I recently heard a podcast which included an interview with Professor David Dunning himself, one of the people who introduced the effect. I have discussed the Dunning-Kruger Effect before, in “They Are Idiots” from 2016-05-11 and “Peter, Dunning, and Dilbert” from 2012-02-16, so it is one of my favourite cognitive psychology phenomena. But here I want to concentrate on a slightly different aspect of the subject: how to minimise it.

In summary, the way to minimise the errors our “leaders” are likely to make is to introduce a “devil’s advocate”. I don’t think this is totally true because a traditional devil’s advocate usually argues against a point whether they genuinely believe what they are saying or not. I would suggest that a person who really believes something contrary to the leadership would be a better choice.

But, either way, most people’s experience would indicate the opposite usually happens. Leadership is rarely open-minded enough to be amenable to opposition to their ideas. Generally contrarians are shut-down before they can expose any glaring deficiencies in the accepted wisdom. And this is a conscious strategy which I would have to interpret as leaders knowing they are potentially wrong but being determined to proceed with their preferred path anyway.

So why are so many people surprised when executive decisions end up being so bad, if the system we have in place virtually guarantees that they will be?

Maybe it is because people don’t don’t listen to as many podcasts which feature discussions of cognitive psychology, especially common cognitive biases and logical fallacies, as I do!

Or maybe it’s that I am the one who is deluded and everything is fine… but seriously… I honestly think that is unlikely because what I see happening in society matches what expert psychologists and other researchers are reporting after doing real empirical research.

Another point that Dunning mentioned in the interview is that it is difficult to self-evaluate. A better way to get a true perspective on your abilities is through an honest appraisal by your peers. The problem is that this almost never happens. People tend to form self-reinforcing cliques and groups. A politician will get positive feedback from other members of his party no matter how bad he is, and will get bad feedback from opposing politicians no matter how good he is.

And the same applies other types of groups such as management sections of large organisations. There is just a constant commitment to members of the group because any show of doubt over the group’s competence to exercise authority might lead to its collapse.

It’s possible that without these groupings having this authority the whole of society might collapse after some sort of dysfunctional anarchy takes over. But it’s also possible that a better way to run the world might be possible. The first step is to admit there is a problem.

So the answer is for people to admit the existence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect and to admit that they are often wrong. Maybe a good starting point would be to read (and understand) more Dilbert cartoons!

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.