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Posts Tagged ‘society’

A Ponzi Scheme

August 14, 2017 Leave a comment

Everyone has heard of Ponzi schemes, right? If not, here’s the dictionary definition: a form of fraud in which belief in the success of a non-existent enterprise is fostered by the payment of quick returns to the first investors from money invested by later investors. It is named after Charles Ponzi who set up elaborate money-making ventures based on the system in the early 1900s.

Typically the first few people involved in the scheme promise to pay huge returns to the “investors” and when these are demanded they are paid from the initial investments made from other investors. It can never last, of course, but the original perpetrators usually try to get out before it all turns bad.

A related scheme is known as a “pyramid scheme”. In these the early “investors” are paid a fee by those they recruit and a lesser amount by those the recruiters recruit, etc. It works as long as new people are recruited, but the “deeper” into the scheme you are the less you will get and the more you will be paying those at the peak.

A unique feature of these schemes is that the organisation or individual running the scheme doesn’t actually need to do anything apart from run the scheme. They don’t need to sell anything or provide any service, for example. The scheme is entirely about shuffling money from one place to another (generally from the “suckers” who sign up late to those who were involved in the initial setup of the scheme).

As we all know, there are some pyramid schemes which also sell products (I’m sure we can all name some) but that is more or less just a cover for the dishonest underlying structure.

I was thinking about this recently and realised that there are many aspects of our modern economic system which make it look like just another Ponzi scheme. The economy only works well while there is “growth” or “increased efficiency or productivity”, yet these aims are totally unsustainable in the long term, and even during the short period that they are sustainable they are often undesirable.

In New Zealand a major election issue is immigration. New Zealand allegedly has a healthy and growing economy – and some stats support this view – yet the vast majority of people don’t feel as if they are doing well. How is this possible? Well basically it gets back to the fact that this alleged “growth” we see in our “rock star economy” is all fake. It is primarily due to increased population, provided by immigration, and no real progress has been made at all.

Unfortunately for the politicians supporting this scheme, it cannot last. Like most rock stars our economy will crash and burn when the excesses of its existence overtake any worthwhile contribution it is making. Eventually everyone will realise they are just being ripped off by a giant Ponzi scheme. But by that time the people in government who have created this situation will probably be gone.

Of course I should point out two things here. First, a pyramid scheme is probably a better description that a Ponzi for the economy, but Ponzi just sounds cooler so it better serves my rhetorical narrative; and second, the economy isn’t a pure Ponzi or pyramid scheme and almost everyone would admit that it works well in some ways.

Despite the obvious and numerous faults in capitalism, for example, it does produce the goods and services the First World needs to maintain its lavish lifestyle. As I have pointed out many times in the past, the system is grossly inefficient, poorly focussed, and generally corrupt, but I would never claim it doesn’t have some good points as well, especially for the original investors in the Ponzi or the people at the top of the pyramid (AKA the 1%).

But it will fail because indefinite growth is impossible and because the 99% who support the people at the top of the pyramid will eventually catch on to what’s really happening and rebel. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Like all Ponzi schemes it will fail and it will probably happen through catastrophic collapse rather than a careful restructuring.

When it happens it won’t be pretty, just like poor old Charles Ponzi’s slow and painful decline and death after all his wonderful and elaborate schemes failed.

Care, Think, Vote

August 10, 2017 Leave a comment

On what might be the most important day of the year so far for New Zealand politics (when the leader of the opposition was changed) a reporter from Radio NZ went out to South Auckland, which is a traditional Labour constituency. She asked what they think of Andrew Little (the old leader) and Jacinda Ardern (the new leader). Here’s what people said…

Reporter: Do you know who the Labour leader is at the moment? [possibly to see if they knew the leader had been changed]

First person: No [nervous laugh], no…

Second person: Umm, no I don’t actually, to be honest, no.

Third person: Ah, no I don’t actually.

Fourth person: Um, not as this morning, unless it’s changed already. [so you would know if it had changed, but not if it hadn’t?]

Fifth person: Um, I forgot his name, but I support him 100% [so that’s full support for someone whose name you can’t remember… OK] Yeah. [when told it was Andrew Little] Andrew Little, oh yeah, that’s his name, yeah. He’s a good guy, he’s a good guy. Yeah. [when told he had quit this morning] Well we needed him for like, you know, to win the election. But, I’m a bit gutted now, yeah.

Sixth person: Um, is it Bill English? [no, that’s the prime minister] Am I right? [reporter: have you heard of Andrew Little before] Um, I think so, maybe, years ago. [poor Andrew, he did have trouble reaching the people]

Seventh person: I don’t know. [reporter: What about Jacinda Ardern] Nope. [reporter:Do you know any Labour MPs] Oh, is Helen Clark one? [her friend laughs, and says “yeah”] There you go, Helen Clark. [she was leader about 10 years ago] [reporter: The new leader is Jacinda Ardern] Oh, OK. Cool, cool. [reporter: What do you think about that?] I think that’s a good idea. She’s young, vibrant, you know, she’ll have a lot of ideas, so yeah. [reporter: Do you know who Kelvin Davis is?] Yeah, I do. [reporter: He’s the new deputy] Is he? Well, that is pretty good, yeah.

Reporter: What would make you want to vote?

Eighth person: Build their “module” on more American style of politics which is more, I guess, showmanship, razzamatazz, probably get us a bit more interested in our politics, ’cause our politicians – no offence – are really quite ugly and boring, [no offense taken, I’m sure] so, it’s hard for millennials when all we care about is Rhianna and Drake. [reporter: What about Jacinda Ardern though] Oh, I don’t know, I mean, she’s no Helen Clark in my eyes, who’s a boss-as bitch. [best… comment… ever]

Overall, I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. I mean, even in the past when I had no interest in politics at all I could at least name the leader of the opposition (as well as the PM and a few other key ministers) so the ignorance of these people is truly astonishing. And considering there will be a general election here in a few weeks you might expect political knowledge to be a bit better than this.

But in contrast, when interviewing people in South Dunedin after Jacinda Ardern became the new leader, we got these responses…

First person: Probably better for them, but too late, I don’t think I’d want to be Jacinda and inherit the Labour Party. [The Labour Party has done very well since Ardern took over]

Second person: She’ll be good but they still won’t get in. [This is still uncertain, but they have a lot better chance now than they did before the change]

Third person: She seems really like a typical NZ person with ambition. I didn’t have too much faith in Andrew Little. [Fair call. I actually liked Little, but he didn’t communicate well with the average voter]

Fourth person: I just think it’s cool having a younger person leading a party ’cause you always see these old men. [Another fair call. Some “old men” did connect with the people, but neither the current PM nor any recent previous Labour leader did]

Fifth person: I don’t know enough about her. I know nothing. [Well at least they admit it, and to be fair we don’t actually know much about her]

Sixth person: She’ll probably put everybody off Labour, unfortunately. [Judging by the polling this person could not be more wrong]

Seventh person: She’s charismatic but it’s too close to the election. It’s a bad look for the party. So yeah, maybe next time. [Apparently it is not too close. Things can change very quickly in politics]

So the question must be at this point, considering that everyone has a vote no matter how good or bad their knowledge of politics is, does democracy even work and is it really the right system?

There are a few caveats I should state here…

First, South Auckland is probably an unusually bad area to look for astute political commentary. Maybe other areas might offer a far better level of understanding (and the South Dunedin responses were better, so this idea has some support).

Second, we don’t know if the people on the broadcast were representative of all the people interviewed – maybe they were just 8 bad examples and there were hundreds of extremely knowledgeable people who didn’t appear… yeah, I doubt that too!

Third, is political “trivia” like this a good indicator of a person’s ability to make a well informed and meaningful vote? After all, I am only using naming the leader of the opposition as a proxy for the general knowlege necessary to vote well.

As you can probably tell by my dubious tone above, I’m not very convinced by these ideas. I think that most people do not have good knowledge of politics and current issues, and probably don’t really deserve a vote. But that is a very anti-democratic idea and it would be difficult to establish a system giving some people a vote while denying it to others.

So I guess we get back to that great quote attributed to Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government… apart from all the rest.” Or maybe the Opportunity Party’s tag line should be more appropriate: “Care, Think, Vote.”

Waking Up

August 2, 2017 Leave a comment

I have already mentioned in some past blog posts how interesting I find the ideas of neuroscientist and philosopher, Sam Harris. I recently started listening to his podcast “Waking Up” and before that had read a lot of material he has produced (including the books The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation) and watched many of his debates and lectures on YouTube.

It must be tempting for some of my debating opponents to say “of course you like Sam Harris – he is another militant atheist, just like you” but it goes beyond that. I find everything he says genuinely thoughtful and he doesn’t just fit in with a stereotype such as materialist, anti-theist, or liberal.

I like this because I am always suspicious of people whose ideas closely match a particular political, religious, or philosophical “clique”. For example, in the past it intrigued me how libertarians always supported the idea of free markets but rejected the truth of climate change.

Those two things aren’t really linked in any meaningful way, but if you found someone who thought a laissez-faire economy was a good idea they would probably also think that climate change was a conspiracy. That is not so much true today because climate change is becoming increasingly difficult to deny, but it was common 10 years ago.

And with conservatives it might be common to find other ideas such as aggressive military intervention and being anti-abortion associated. These really do not seem like they should be linked in any way, yet they are.

Finally – and this is something I might have been guilty about in the past before I “woke up” – liberals are also susceptible to this phenomenon. Many would (and still do) believe in strong environmental protection while also being against genetic modification. A strong case could be made that in order to protect the environment genetic modification is almost a necessity, although I admit there are other options as well.

My point here is that it is unlikely that individuals have some to these conclusions based on deep and unbiased examination of the facts. If they did I would expect to see a lot more variation in how the ideas I have listed are linked. For example, there should be a lot more environmentalist who strongly support research into genetic engineering.

It seems far more likely that these ideas have come about as a result of them being “absorbed” from other people in their social group. So if you live in a conservative environment you would absorb diverse attitudes such as being anti-abortion, pro-guns, anti-welfare, etc, while if you came from a liberal environment the exact opposite would be true.

Both Harris and I seem to be less easily classifiable into commonly recognised groups. We get quite strong negative feedback (often it is genuine abuse and threats) from all sides of the political spectrum. Of course, Harris is a well-known public intellectual and I am just an obscure blogger, but I would still like to think we share a lot in common.

So to give you an idea of why I count myself as a “rationalist” rather than any of the more traditional groupings, such as “conservative” or “liberal” or “libertarian”, here is a list of my attitudes on some contentious subjects…

Equality. I think everyone should get a fair chance to succeed and utilise their talents, but I am very suspicious of political correctness and affirmative action. I would be far happier seeing equality achieved in ways which don’t simply give advantages to “minority” groups even if there is good reason to think they are disadvantaged in some situations currently.

Environmentalism. I strongly support environmental protection. I think a natural consequence of unfettered capitalism is the destruction of the environment, so capitalism must be controlled. I tend towards the idea that we must move on from capitalism completely, but in the interim controlling it is sufficient.

Immigration. I think it is good to have some variety in the backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs of people in every country, but I don’t want that to extend to people with extreme beliefs that might destroy the positive character a country already has. For example, for a Muslim to come to New Zealand they should first prove they don’t take their religion too seriously by eating a pork sausage or some similar test!

Free Markets. I understand why people don’t want their government controlling the economy in too fine detail (or at all in some cases) but I can’t see the advantage in handing over control to large corporations which are probably even less likely to have the best interests of the majority in mind. So I think markets should be controlled where it makes sense but not to a ridiculous extend such as where obsolete industries are artificially kept running.

Abortion. I am conflicted here. The problem is that there is no obvious point where a cell becomes a foetus and a foetus becomes a baby. I think abortion in the very early stages of a pregnancy is OK but how to determine where the point is when a distinct, conscious individual is involved is difficult to determine.

Gun Control. I understand that the best way to avoid gun deaths is to eliminate guns and that is at least partly practical in some countries. But in others, such as the US, that chance has passed so guns must be accepted as a necessary evil. It should be necessary to prove a high degree of competency in using one before a license to own a firearm is issued though. I know that the “bad guys” will just get guns without a license, but at least the legal owners will have a higher level of skill and that might make the defensive advantage of guns greater.

Racism, Misogyny, Xenophobia, etc. I reject the idea of being biased against anyone because of factors such as race, gender, or country of origin. I also know that scientific tests show that everyone is biased in exactly these ways, often subconsciously! But at least knowing that, a person can try to overcome that bias. But, I also reject the over-use of these terms. For example, saying I don’t want a fundamentalist Muslim allowed into the country isn’t racist because Islam isn’t a race, it’s an idea. I reject bais against people, but not against ideas.

I hope that by looking at those opinions I could not be easily labelled with any of the traditional stereotyped political identities. I see some good points in all political positions and yes, I’m not afraid to admit that I agree with a few things controversial figures like Donald Trump have said.

And unlike most of my opponents I can justify my opinions with rational reasoning, not with simple-minded dogmatic hypocrisy which I so often see from people who obviously identify with one political movement. Instead of trying to fit in with that identity and to impress their friends with similar beliefs they should learn to think for themselves. They should wake up!

Ignorant, and Proud of It

July 7, 2017 Leave a comment

I understand how people want to give other people – especially those from groups which might be seen as being disadvantaged – a bit of extra help and support. These people usually mean well and just want everyone to have a fair deal. And they often see anyone who doesn’t share that view as being ignorant, bigoted, or self-serving, and sometimes they are right.

But equally they should be open to alternative ideas and should have the humility to listen to opposing views, and perhaps modify their own ideas slightly as a result. After all, especially in the realm of social issues and politics, it is very easy to get stuck in a mindset which is never challenged by your usual friends. Contrary views should be welcomed and fairly considered instead of being dismissed with no thought.

But that’s not usually how things work, as illustrated by a “conversation” I had recently where my points – which were contrary to the other participants in the discussion – were just ignored without any appraisal at all.

The discussion was over a flyer produced by a New Zealand group, the Hobson’s Pledge Trust, which encouraged making political decisions (including voting for parties supporting their ideas) leading to equal rights for all groups, no matter what their ethnicity or origin.

I ended up debating the person (let’s call her “L”) who posted on Facebook regarding her distaste for the flyer. Here are the first few comments in that debate…

L: As Tama Waititi (NZ actor/director) says every bit of racism helps and this political offering delivered in our letter box today by Hobson pledge has a huge amount of it. Feel free to contact them!

Me: Is there anything untrue in that material?

L: Ahh Owen I will answer. Yes everything because it is written from an ignorant and racist perspective perpetuating hate and ignorance.

Me: I think it’s dangerous closing down a particular political view, whatever we think of it, by just applying a label like “racist”.

L: Nope very happy to :*)

Me: You should have a think about that.

L: Owen Baxter I have and very comfy thanks. :)

Me: OK. That’s your view. Just accept that other people have different views which can be justified at least as well as yours.

Before I comment I do need to say that I am no great supporter of the people behind Hobson’s Pledge. However, like all groups, I think they make some good points, and even if they didn’t, the correct response is to show that they are wrong, not to just refuse to even engage in discussing a view which has a fairly high level of support.

If you look at the discussion above you will notice how there is no attempt at all to answer my initial question on whether there is anything untrue in the material. More importantly, notice how L admits to wanting to close down the debate by simply applying a label with no justification.

This is simple ignorance, and ignorance is bad in itself, of course, but L seems to be proud of it! And to show now she is not alone, here are a few other comments which I collected from various sources on this topic…

One person said “I’m burning it without reading it”. Well, that’s very mature and fair, isn’t it. What are they scared of? Maybe, that it might make sense and cause them to change their mind. We couldn’t have that, could we? It’s better just to stay ignorant.

Another commented “We cannot allow it to happen because of the violent reaction to the abolition of affirmative action.” So this sounds like, if affirmative action (which is just another way of saying some groups, based on race, are given special privileges) is removed there will be a violent response. This isn’t an opinion based on right and wrong, just a threat of violence if a particular political view isn’t followed.

Here’s another, somewhat more reasonable, comment: “voters have moved on from the ‘negative sentiment’ of Hobson’s Pledge.” There might be some truth in this, but that doesn’t mean the idea isn’t worth taking into consideration. I also suspect there is a lot more support for it by the “silent majority” who are too scared to enter into any discussion on the topic.

And, “people, including politicians, are appalled by this racist leaflet.” OK, but don’t just be appalled, tell us why you are appalled – is it wrong? Is it immoral in some way? And please, try to avoid applying that label “racist”. It really has got to the point where all it really means is “someone who disagrees with me on a matter involving race politics”.

Finally, it was said that the Human Rights Commission has received complaints. But, of course, none of those complaints were upheld which seems to indicate that the flyer was not racist according to them.

I have made several posts in the last year describing how I am moving away from being identified with traditional left views. This is part of the reason why. It seems that the left are just as bad as the right on most issues now. They are just as self-righteous, just as inflexible, just as ignorant, and just as wrong.

Making Us Smart

June 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Many people think the internet is making us dumb. They think we don’t use our memory any more because all the information we need is on the web in places like Wikipedia. They think we don’t get exposed to a variety of ideas because we only visit places which already hold the same views as we do. And they think we spend too much time on social media discussing what we had for breakfast.

Is any of this stuff true? Well, in some cases it is. Some people live very superficial lives in the virtual world but I suspect those same people are just naturally superficial and would act exactly the same way in the real world.

For example, very few people, before the internet became popular, remembered a lot of facts. Back then, some people owned the print version of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and presumably these were people who valued knowledge because the print version wasn’t cheap!

But a survey run by the company found that the average owner only used that reference once per year. If they only referred to an encyclopedia once a year it doesn’t give them much to remember really, does it?

Today I probably refer to Wikipedia multiple times per day. Sure I don’t remember many of the details of what I have read, but I do tend to get a good overview of the subject I am researching or get a specific fact for a specific purpose.

And finding a subject in Wikipedia is super-easy. Generally it only takes a few seconds, compared with much longer looking in an index, choosing the right volume, and finding the correct page of a print encyclopedia.

Plus Wikipedia has easy to use linking between subjects. Often a search for one subject leads down a long and interesting path to other, related topics which I might never learn about otherwise.

Finally, it is always up to date. The print version was usually years old but I have found information in Wikipedia which refers to an event which happened just hours before I looked.

So it seems to me that we have a far richer and more accessible information source now than we have ever had in the past. I agree that Wikipedia is susceptible to a certain extent to false or biased information but how often does that really happen? Very rarely in my experience, and a survey done a few years back indicated the number of errors in Wikipedia was fairly similar to Brittanica (which is also a web-based source now, anyway).

Do we find ourselves mis-remembering details or completely forgetting something we have just seen on the internet? Sure, but that isn’t much to do with the source. It’s because the human brain is not a very good memory device. If it was true that we are remembering less (and I don’t think it is) that might even be a good thing because it means we have to get our information from a reliable source instead!

And it’s not even that this is a new thing. Warnings about how new technologies are going to make us dumb go back many years. A similar argument was made when mass production of books became possible. Few people would agree with that argument now and few people will agree with it being applied to the internet in future.

What about the variety of ideas issue? Well people who only interact with sources that tell them what they want to believe on-line would very likely do the same thing off-line.

If someone is a fundamentalist Christian, for example, they are very unlikely to be in many situations where they will be exposed to views of atheists or Muslims. They just wouldn’t spend much time with people like that.

In fact, again there might be a greater chance to be exposed to a wider variety of views on-line, although I do agree that the echo-chambers of like-minded opinion like Facebook and other sites often tend to be is a problem.

And a similar argument applies to the presumption that most discussion on-line is trivial. I often hear people say something like “I don’t use Twitter because I don’t care what someone had for breakfast”. When I ask how much time they have spent on Twitter I am not surprised to hear that it is usually zero.

Just to give a better idea of what value can come from social media, here is the topic of the top few entries in my current Twitter feed…

I learned that helium is the only element that was discovered in space before found on earth. (I already knew that because I am an amateur astronomer, but it is an interesting fact, anyway).

New Scientist reported that the ozone layer recovery will be delayed by chemical leaks (and it had a link if I want details).

ZDNet (a computer news and information site) tweeted the title of an article: “Why I’m still surprised the iPhone didn’t die.” (and again there was a link to the article).

New Scientist also tweeted that a study showed that “Urban house finches use fibres from cigarette butts in their nests to deter parasites” (where else would you get such valuable insights!)

Guardian Science reported that “scientists explain rare phenomenon of ‘nocturnal sun'” (I’ll probably read that one later).

ZDNet reported the latest malware problem with the headline “A massive cyberattack is hitting organisations around the world” (I had already read that article)

Oxford dictionaries tweeted a link to an article about “33 incredible words ending in -ible and -able” (I’ll read that and add it to my interesting English words list).

The Onion (a satirical on-line news site) tweeted a very useful article on “Tips For Choosing The Right Pet” including advice such as “Consider a rabbit for a cuddly, low cost pet you can test your shampoo on”.

Friedrice Nietzsche tweeted “five easy pentacles” (yes, I doubt this person is related to the real Nietzsche, and I also have no idea what it means).

Greenpeace NZ linked to an article “Read the new report into how intensive livestock farming could be endangering our health” (with a link to the report).

Otago Philosophy tweeted that “@Otago philosopher @jamesmaclaurin taking part in the Driverless Future panel session at the Institute of Public Works Engineers Conference” (with a link).

I don’t see a lot of trivial drivel about breakfast there. And where else would I get such an amazing collection of interesting stuff? Sure, I get that because I chose to follow people/organisations like science magazines, philosophers, and computer news sources, but there is clearly nothing inherently useless about Twitter.

So is the internet making us dumb? Well, like any tool or source, if someone is determined to be misinformed and ignorant the internet can certainly help, but it’s also the greatest invention of modern times, the greatest repository of information humanity has ever had, and something that, when treated with appropriate respect, will make you really smart, not dumb!

Criticise the Idea

June 22, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about some of my recent blog posts and I have come to realise that they could be interpreted as me having a rather simplistic view of some of the topics I have discussed, especially in relation to beliefs I disapprove of, like capitalism and Islam.

There are two major nuances regarding my thoughts on these topics: first, nothing is ever entirely bad, or entirely good; and second, even if I think the belief is wrong that doesn’t mean I condemn all of the people who practice that belief.

So the anti-capitalism rant in my previous post wasn’t meant to suggest that all business owners or other people who participate in the capitalist system (which is all of us to some extent) are bad. What I meant is that capitalism has a lot of negative consequences, along with some good ones, and that I believe that, on balance, we could do a lot better.

There are a lot of greedy, self-centered, sociopaths who are deeply involved in capitalism, but there are many reasonable, hard-working, moral people too. The problem is that the core tenets of capitalism include pursuit of maximum profit, winning against competition, and minimising non-monetary elements of doing business, and by systematising and normalising what I (and a lot of other people) see as negative attributes it encourages anyone who has an existing propensity towards them.

So if a person has a natural tendency towards what otherwise might be thought of as anti-social behaviours, like greed, then that will be rewarded by participating in a capitalist system. That person will do well in such a system where a more generous, sharing person might fail.

There are some possible good outcomes of being greedy too. It might drive a person towards creating a bigger, more efficient company which might employ a lot of people or produce products more effectively, for example.

As I said, it’s about balance and I think that on balance we could do better than capitalism. But that’s not to denigrate the efforts of the minority of participants who used it for positive ends. There are a few obvious, high-profile examples, such as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, but I’m sure there are many others we never hear about, as well.

And exactly the same argument applies to Islam. Many Muslims are great people but I believe that the underlying philosophy of Islam (and most other religions) leads to many negative consequences.

Religions tend to encourage people to believe their core dogmas and not look for anything better. It makes them think they already know everything worth knowing. Humanity has progressed through exactly the opposite attitude to this.

And they tend to make their followers feel like an “in-group” and everyone else is in some way inferior because they don’t share the special knowledge pertaining to that religion’s beliefs. Surely, we don’t need any more reasons to separate people into competing cliques than what we already have.

And they discourage free thought. Religions tend to tell people the facts are all recorded in a holy book or in the beliefs of religious leaders. If someone believes that why would they ever question potentially dangerous or incorrect beliefs? There’s a very good reason the metaphor of sheep is often used to describe religious followers.

So again there are plenty of religious people who haven’t fallen into any of the traps I described above, but undoubtedly religions make that far more likely, simply because of their underlying nature.

In summary, nothing is all bad or all good, but that doesn’t mean that criticising things that are bad on balance can’t be justified. And criticism of an idea does not automatically equate to criticism of people who hold that idea, but if the person is implicated in by an idea they hold that is just an unfortunate side effect. I always try (but don’t always succeed) to criticise the idea, not the person.

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.