22 September 2023

New Zealand election 2023 - The case against Labour

So it’s that time when you get a chance to have a tiny say in what group of politicians pass laws on what you can do, and how to spend a portion of your money, or what to do with your property. They gain the power of legitimised violence over people’s bodies and their property, and they do it because the majority of voters let them do it.  They'll say they'll buy you healthcare, buy you education for your children, buy you a retirement income, and buy you some roads, policing and of course, keep you "safe".  They'll also all claim that they - people who produce nothing, and who have power - "create jobs" and "steer the economy", when of course they do this by interfering in it.  They produce money out of thin air, and then proclaim that they will "solve" inflation.  They take money when you work, when you invest and when you spend, then tell you they are "helping" you when they give some back to you (or more often than not, give some to a smaller group whose votes they are keen to get).

In a liberal democracy we live in relative freedom in that there are plenty of people living in countries with either totalitarian or authoritarian regimes that have an all-pervasive interest in what their subjects do, and also many who live in countries where government is incapable of protecting people from each other.  The latter are only free in the sense that you have to organise your own security and hope that the infrastructure that politicians provide doesn't collapse and kill you (see Libya).  

New Zealanders are fortunate to live in a developed liberal democracy, with rule of law, a lot of property rights and a relatively high degree of social and community cohesion, although the latter very much depends on where you live, and who you live with. It has that because of capitalism, private property rights, rule of law and a relatively high degree of freedom to interact, trade and employ people.  

For advocates of freedom and capitalism, the main advantage of a general election is that it is a chance to evict incumbents from power, to remove their power. The main disadvantage is that this is mainly done by giving your endorsement to another lot, the key for any libertarian is whether the other lot will, on balance, do less to interfere with your individual rights, tax you less, enable you to have more power to choose your healthcare, your kids’ education and hopefully protect you from criminals. 

Fortunately this election comes as a chance to evict the most leftwing Labour Government in decades, much moreso than the Clark Government and even the Kirk Government. 

It's hardly surprising that I want rid of a Labour Government, because it simply doesn't reflect my values. I don't want a government that believes in constant growth of the state, including the welfare state, to make more and more people dependent on other taxpayers.  I don't want a government that thinks that its role is primarily to take the wealth generated by others to give to other people or businesses.

However, this Labour Government in particular deserves to be defeated.  While I could go on about the government that fueled inflation by loose monetary policy and even looser fiscal policy, or the constant accretion of costs to business whether it be a new public holiday or extra annual leave or increasing the minimum wage far beyond inflation.  I could go about the mediocre outcomes in education, which has become increasingly centralised in a Wellington bureaucracy that not only micro-manages the curriculum, but strangles the supply of teachers by demanding they have many years of training, and be ideologically aligned to Labour's view of the role of the Treaty of Waitangi. There is no shortage of failure, but there is a strong pattern seen across almost all of the policies of the Labour Party:

Obsession with centralising power and control: It's seen in the creation of single national entities for technical education and for health delivery. This not only concentrates power, but it also stifles innovation and creativity, it provides no basis to compare performance, except by measures that the single entities set up for themselves.  Diversity in education is not encouraged, and diversity in the skills and talents of teachers (let alone their belief systems) is also discouraged.  All of this makes it easier to control, but also easier for rent-seeking professional associations (glorified unions) to control supply of professionals, and to demand pay increases and a lack of accountability for performance of any government.

Distrust of individuals and individual freedom and property rights:  Whether it be the spending of other people's money, it's continued lack of belief in using private property rights as a basis for laws on planning or its concern with regulating speech (whether it be "hate speech" or "misinformation") or its creeping ban on tobacco, it inherently treats individuals as needing guidance, as not being particularly fit to make their own choices.  It did seek to prohibit speech that ridiculed religion by default, before backing down. Now it funds a whole academic project against misinformation, which has enormous blind spots when it comes to anti-science and anti-reason claims popular on the left, such as on nuclear power, or genetically modified organisms, or even on whether NZ not taking action on climate change threatens humanity.  It certainly doesn't care about politicians lying about what they have done, or lying about each other in an election campaign.

The culture around speech, expounded by Labour, and much of the media and academia, is one of hysterical name-calling and cancellation of those who are less able to articulate what they don’t like and what they oppose.  Anyone who opposes a structuralist/post-modernist view on Maori issues is “racist’, anyone who questions gender self-assignment and puberty blockers is “transphobic” and anyone who questions cycleways or lower speed limits want “children to die” or wants “cyclists under attack”.  Furthermore, the taxpayer funded Disinformation Project had quite the blind spot for those spreading nonsense about nuclear energy, GMOs and other leftwing “cause celebres”.  It’s hardly surprising from an organisation that is committed to “the realisation of Tiriti justice” or the sinister UNESCO definition of freedom of speech meaning the “free flow of ideas by word and image that contributes to peace, sustainability, poverty eradication and human rights”. Heaven help us all for the vast panoply of human expression that doesn’t do that!  It’s also throughout academia, how else to explain the ranting invective of Professor Mohan Dutta towards former newspaper editor Karl Du Fresne

Support for post-modernist identitarianism and the dishonesty about its support:  One of the most toxic philosophical trends, emanating primarily from the United States, is the embrace of post-modernist structuralist theories about power, privilege, advantage and groups. Central to that is a view that the "world" is designed and run (which assumes highly centralised command and control) for the most successful identities of people, and this is done by them systematically oppressing the least successful.  In the NZ context it basically means that wealthy able-bodied European heterosexual men (not trans-men of course) have designed the economy, social systems, laws and society to suit their success, and that the systems they designed cannot possibly suit the needs of those who are poor, disabled, from other races, other sexualities and other sexes (and genders).  The "evidence" for this is seen in unequal outcomes for various groups, particularly Maori and Pasifika, particularly women.  Whether it be crime, poor health and educational outcomes, employment or the like, it is primarily because the systems that exist are designed at worst to oppress, at best to ignore the needs of others.

This philosophy is absolutely promoted throughout much of academia, but also significant parts of the bureaucracy. Instances of racism when identified are only seen as symptoms of systematic oppression, and in the NZ context it is "colonisation" that caused it.  Statistics showing people of some other backgrounds (e.g. Asian) doing well in some contexts are blanked out, because the narrative is one of oppressed vs. the oppressor.  The Greens and Te Pati Maori are explicit about this, as it was blurted out by Marama Davidson saying all of the violence in the world is due to "cis white men". It's nonsense of course, but it's the world view of people who pigeon hole everyone into groups.  It is a more sophisticated version of Maoism, which simply deemed those who were wealthy or related to those with wealth as being the enemy, who exploited the proletariat, and so had to be demoted, purged and punished.  

The elements of truth behind all of this is that the state does have people who are bigoted by multiple identity categories, and the state's health and education systems let a lot of people down.  It lets down people of poorer and less-educated backgrounds more than others, because if you are wealthier, you have options to go elsewhere and more confidence to complain and get better service. So there are absolute merits in enabling more choice, more variety and more tailoring of services to meet individual needs, but Labour (and its allies) think it is more. See the report commissioned by the Human Rights Commission called Maranga Mai! which claims:

 "New Zealanders need to understand that colonisation, racism and white supremacy are intertwined phenomena that remain central to the ongoing displacement and erosion of tino rangatiratanga"... and "To eliminate racism throughout Aotearoa will require nothing less than constitutional transformation and we urge the government to commit to this much needed change".

Labour is happily funding government entities promoting a narrative of radical constitutional reform and that anyone getting in the way of it will be subject to direct action against the "settler-colonial status quo".

However, it is also supporting law and tax setting powers being shared with unelected politicians.  Labour supported local government having appointed politicians, in the example of Environment Canterbury which has unelected Mana Whenua representation. This is an entity that passes bylaws, that regulates private property and taxes property owners, which Labour has decided should include members that no one can vote out of office.  This reflects a belief in constitutional reform that sees Maori not as individual citizens with freedoms and powers to vote, be consulted with and to advise their representatives on what they think, but to treat Iwi as a bloc of power that elected politicians share power and decision-making with.  None of this was part of the Labour manifesto, and the ease by which so many of its politicians regard criticism of this as "racism" is contemptuous of the general public.

Focus on image and virtue signalling over outcomes:  Policy on climate change is primarily, although not exclusively about image.  When Jacinda Ardern said climate change was New Zealand's new "nuclear-free" moment she was right of course, as the nuclear-free policy was at best, virtue signalling, and at worst a policy conceived by the hard-left to isolate New Zealand from its traditional allies. New Zealand's nuclear free policy did nothing to cut nuclear weapons or the threat of nuclear war, and does nothing now to reduce the risk of nuclear war in Asia or Europe. Ironically, climate change policy for New Zealand is about virtue signalling.  An honest government knows that whatever emissions reductions New Zealand undertakes will make zero difference to climate change, but that the main rational reason New Zealand undertakes to cut emissions is to avoid trade sanctions from some bigger economies.  However, Labour has treated it as an opportunity to "show off" by adding costs to the economy, and by going faster and further than others. 

There's plenty else, such as the pull peddling that Labour embraced during the pandemic, whereby a DJ, or sports stars, or thespians and jesters, could all get MIQ “slots” because they were approved important people, whereby ordinary New Zealanders wanting to go to funerals or worse yet, visit terminally ill relatives and friends, would find access to their own country subject to a lottery. It was the fact that wealthy and famous people could visit New Zealand because it tickled the fancy of Cabinet Ministers, over letting the dirty prols come home. Then it split the country into those who took vaccines, who would be allowed to largely live a normal life, and those who refused, who were ostracised, in part because of the false claim that being vaccinated significantly hindered the spread of the virus.  

But overall it is a government that thinks it knows best, not just in spending your own money, but in centralising control over key public services.  In education, as Damien Grant amply put, it heavily constrains supply of teachers requiring them to have six years of training, and then to be vetted by the Teaching Council according to their ideological beliefs. This isn’t just to suit the teachers’ unions, who like any monopolists are obsessed with containing competition, but also the philosophy that education should be supplied according to one view of pedagogy and moreover one view of philosophy. It used to be up to schools to decide if teachers were competent, because unlike medicine or engineering, it is not a complex technical skill.  Many people have the skills to teach and explain concepts, in fact good parents do it every day, many also have the skills to be social workers and mentors. However, Labour thinks unless its bureaucrats and in effect, its monopolist professional unions don’t have a stranglehold on curriculum and supply of teaching, children are at risk. Labour doesn’t trust parents, doesn’t trust individuals to set up schools and hire teachers based on merit and their assessment of performance.

This is also the government that talked of wellbeing and kindness, and demonstrated it by handing out free money, by increasing welfare benefits, and handing out corporate welfare in multiple forms. However, it is also a government that took an approach to law and order that while laudable on one level (interest in rehabilitating those who committed low level crimes), was driven by not believing that the number one job of the justice system is to protect the public from people who want to be aggressive towards them. Prisons protect people from those who want to do violence against them.

Most of all though, I am fed up with this meddling government. I don’t want Chris Hipkins to be “In It For You”, I want him to leave me alone, I want him and his group of mediocre minor achievers to get out of the way. To let more skilled and talented medical, educational, engineering and construction professionals into the country, not tied up by the monopolistic practices of gateway unions and associations, or the petty authoritarianism of immigration officials. I don’t want the Reserve Bank to be as concerned about climate change and Te Tiriti as it is about inflation. I don’t want a government or public servants that celebrate growth of public sector employees from 320 to 1200 as an "achievement".  I want Labour out.

and of course almost all of these criticism go for the Greens and Te Pati Maori as well.

02 August 2023

A poor critique of National's transport policy

It’s entirely in keeping with their philosophical bent, for taxpayer funded RNZ to publish as a lead article on its website, a piece by Timothy Welch, senior lecturer in Urban Planning at University of Auckland. It’s also hardly surprising that the taxpayer funded Spinoff has published the same article, as they share a common view of the world, which is predominantly sympathetic to the objectives and ideology behind transport policy in NZ since 2017. 

I am sure Mr Welch is a smart man, so it is pity that it seems to have been written in a rush because it is such a poor critique of the National Party’s transport policy. The views he expresses exemplify why I’m sceptical of urban planners. The very problems they seek to fix are in some considerable part because their predecessors had an overly simplistic view of the complexities of cities, economies and the wants and needs and preferences of human beings.  However, even more important is to understand that the philosophy of transport policy expounded by the Government, which also comes from some academia and is essentially the ideology promoted by the Green Party, which is to treat transport modal choices as a hierarchy that essentially devalues the personal preferences of the public relative to what the planners think is “good for society and the planet”. It devalues people’s time (by wanting people to travel more slowly), money (by wanting to tax them more for infrastructure and services they don’t use) and comfort (by wanting people to use less comfortable modes), in favour of choices that whilst certainly having merits in many circumstances, are for many users inferior to their own preferences (and do not reflect people’s willingness to pay).  What is worst is that much of the argument is based on overly simplistic rhetoric and claims that some of people’s choices are either morally wrong or based on them being “addicted” to driving.

So what about Welch’s article?

It was clearly written as a hit-job on National’s recently released transport policy, which itself has strong hints of central planning, command and control in picking projects it wants to advance, although these are mostly projects to facilitate faster and safer travel of motor vehicles, whether cars, buses or commercial vehicles.  Let’s be clear National is hardly advancing a free-market libertarian vision of transport, but it is a contrast from the view of the Greens and the Labour Government, which want to cut kilometres driven by cars and light commercial vehicles by 20% on average across the country (which in cities means much more than that, given the scope to cut driving in rural areas is much lower).  Just consider that, Labour wants you to drive 20% less, regardless of whether or not you have an EV.  Labour hasn’t quite swallowed the Green approach completely, as the Greens treat any road building as at best a waste of money, and at worst a crime against the planet which fuels people’s “addiction” to their cars (which they would only break away from if they were instead forced to pay for billions in subsidies for other modes of transport). 

Welch starts by claiming there is an old joke about “just one more lane” to relieve congestion, even though the main part of this proposal is actually about building intercity 4-lane highways between major centres, in the manner of countries like Finland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark, the UK and Ireland. Sure there are a few proposals that expand urban road capacity, but in none of these cases does it involve adding lanes to roads recently expanded. For example, New Zealand's first motorway - Johnsonville to Tawa, has the same number of lanes today as it did when it opened in 1950.  Maybe the old trope of the Greens that lanes just keep having to be added isn't universal after all?

He claims that National wants to build a four-lane highway from Whangarei to Tauranga for $6b when the $6b claim is only for four projects that cover only a fraction of the route (noting 205km of the route is already motorway/expressway with 177km remaining). He ties himself up in a rough calculation to say it couldn’t cost $6b, when he could have simply read the policy document in the first place.  It literally proposes $6b to four-laning Whangarei to Port Marsden, Warkworth to Wellsford, Cambridge to Piarere and Tauriko West SH29. 

He then claims that “The opportunity cost of these projects also needs to account for those who don’t – or don’t want to – drive a car”.  That begs two questions, why? And how don’t they? None of these projects hinders people who don’t want to drive, indeed building new highways offers opportunities to improve cycling on existing routes, and can support faster and more efficient bus services, and improves the amenity of towns bypassed for walking and cycling.

Furthermore, what is the opportunity cost of using funds collected from motor vehicle users (fuel excise and road user charges) to pay for roads? He would have a point if Crown (general taxpayers’) funds are being used to pay for them, but it is the opportunity cost of using ANY taxpayers’ funds? It takes money away from people spending on their home, their kids’ education, books, food, investing for their retirement. It doesn’t need to account for those who don’t want to drive, anymore than it needs to account for those who don’t want to consign freight by road. If people don’t want to drive they can catch scheduled bus services between Whangarei-Auckland-Hamilton and Tauranga, they can fly and if they are keen they could bike, but there is a curious blindspot among some planners about intercity bus services. They simply pretend they don’t exist because they see rail as the holy grail of virtuous, environmentally friendly transport, but it’s a shame they actually don’t want to pay for it out of their own funds.

He critiques National wanting to scrap light rail proposals for Auckland and Wellington, but then gets it wrong saying “National argues that additional motorways and tunnelling in Wellington would be more cost-effective”. National is proposing no new motorways in Wellington at all, but rather a second Mt Victoria Tunnel (which is not a motorway) and improved approach roads to it. 

The policy says “National supports bus rapid transit and bus priority lanes for Wellington to make it easier to get into and around the city. A duplicate Mt Victoria Tunnel will allow for greater bus access to the east, bus priority lanes on the roads leading to the tunnels, and much more free-flowing traffic through the tunnels, including for buses”. So did he just blank-out that National actually thinks bus rapid transit is better in favour of agitprop that it’s all about motorways, when literally no motorway is proposed?  Furthermore, the current LGWM Mt Victoria Tunnel proposal doesn’t include light rail anyway, but bus rapid transit.

Welch continues by claiming that light rail is “fast, efficient and equitable”, yet the LGWM proposal for light rail to Island Bay would still be slower than driving and slower than the current express bus service from Island Bay, because it would stop frequently.  It wouldn’t be efficient because it could never recover its capital costs, and it would be much worse in recovering the costs of operation compared with bus services. It wouldn’t be equitable because its eye-watering cost would be paid by ratepayers and road users throughout Wellington even though most would never use it (and it would, if LGWM is to be believed, significantly uplift land value along the corridor thanks to that subsidy).  He compares it to Sydney’s Randwick and Kingsford lines recently opened, even though the NSW Auditor Office notes that the project, originally costed at $2.1b ended up at $3.1b and that the project benefits have had to be revised downwards. Of course Sydney does have a population greater than New Zealand

Welch continues by claiming buses and trains produce about 80% less carbon emissions per passenger kilometre than cars, which is entirely dependent on patronage. Trains and buses with few people on them are not exactly environmentally friendly, and it is highly dependent on type of vehicle.  A plug-in hybrid has lower emissions per passenger km than a diesel bus. Bear in mind the ETS internalises the costs of climate change by putting a levy on the price of fuel, so motorists are already paying for the emissions they produce, and that price will be rising over time. In short, policies to reduce emissions are incentivising people to change behaviour, it’s just that it’s not enough for Welch.

Welch makes the claim that “Given the observable realities of the climate crisis, many have questioned the logic of leaning into road expansion as a policy, especially at the expense of efficient public transport”.  I’ll let you speculate on who the “many” are (and let’s leave aside the abuse of the term “efficient” again), but the whole basis of this is a widely cliché’d claim that “More roads encourage more traffic and more driving, often leading to even worse congestion”. Bear in mind that the bulk of the National proposal is for intercity highways to be upgraded and be faster and safer and have more capacity, and is not about congestion.  However, the “build more roads, watch them fill up” claim is neither universally applicable, nor takes into account a key element – price.

Most roads in New Zealand carry traffic volumes at a tiny fraction of their capacity, because the mere presence of a road doesn’t generate demand beyond what origins and destinations generate for personal or freight transport. Sure, expansion of an urban highway, especially one parallel to a public transport route, without any price signals to reflect cost and capacity, can encourage more demand and relocation of housing and businesses to reflect the lower generalised cost of travel.  Auckland has witnessed this as its population has increased and motorways improved, this has reduced travel times and encouraged more use of them. However, this is not a problem if the roads are paid for by those using them and price signals are set to manage demand.  This is where Welch is being wilfully blind because

“National will also introduce congestion charging as a new tool to help reduce travel times in our congested cities

Congestion charging can mean new roads can be built and not get congested, it can mean motorists pay more to use roads as a scarce resource at times of peak demand and less when there is plenty of capacity.  Congestion charging is supported by the Greens (albeit as a tool to punish motorists), but it would do more to reduce emissions than building boondoggles. LGWM estimates congestion charging could reduce car trips into central Wellington by 8%, but you can speculate for yourself as to why Welch doesn’t celebrate this and rethink his narrative. Bear in mind also that the Labour Government received reports on Auckland congestion pricing in late 2019 and has essentially sat on it for three years, and Phil Twyford actively opposed Wellington congestion pricing when he was Minister. 

Welch then rightfully points out that EVs are a small proportion of the fleet, yet ignores the significant growth in hybrids and plug-in hybrid vehicles as well, which cut emissions by between 55% and 85% respectively on average. In short, the light vehicle fleet profile is one of lowering emissions, and this is likely to continue as such vehicles get cheaper, and the secondhand import market’s share of hybrids grows so much.

Then we get Welch’s weirdest comment:

“EVs require the same amount of road space and, due to their increased weight, potentially cause more road damage. But EV owners don’t buy petrol, which means they don’t pay excise tax – the same tax that pays for expanding roads”

The differences between EVs and petrol and diesel powered cars in terms of weight are insignificant in terms of road damage, this is why there is one rate for road user charges (RUC) for vehicles under 3.5 tonnes.  Around half of road damage costs are due to the effects of weather, and most of the rest are due to heavy vehicles, a few hundred kilogrammes of additional weight in a car are not important in terms of road wear. The bigger error is ignoring road user charges RUC by weirdly saying EVs don't pay excise tax (on petrol), but then neither do diesel vehicles.  EVs used to be liable for RUC, but have an exemption until 1 April 2024. Assuming the exemption is not extended, EVs will start to pay on a per kilometre basis then. This comment of his is fairly pointless.

Finally Welch claims the policies are akin to those from the 1950s and 1960s, which is perhaps an overly simplistic view of the time. In the 1950s Wellington had its biggest expansion of electric passenger rail in the country’s history to date, with construction of the line through the middle of the Hutt Valley and electrification to Upper Hutt, along with the development of Tawa that followed EMU service introduction to Paekakariki from 1949.  Yes governments did embark on gradual motorway building, but did so in a haphazard manner (Auckland’s North-Western Motorway didn’t even extend all the way to the city until 1983), largely responding to a public that preferred driving to the monopoly local authority owned and operated bus services, which suffered from regular strikes, lack of capital spending on new vehicles and poor quality of service (e.g. exact fare requirement in Auckland for many years).  It was also hardly car-centric when central government for decades taxed the importation of new cars by up to 60% or simply restricted the numbers permitted. This saw the price of cars inflated above market prices, and the fleet remain much older and less safe than it would have been otherwise. This didn’t completely end until 1998.  

There is nothing behind the claim that the road building of the past made transport “less efficient and less equitable”. Indeed the 1950s and 1960s were also dominated by a law that prohibited freight being moved more than 30-40 miles in competition with railways, because Welch’s predecessors in the world of planning thought they knew best how freight should be moved about in NZ.  The shackles of regulation on freight and passenger transport, and tariffs and import restrictions on vehicles were thrown off in the 1980s and 1990s making transport significantly more efficient. The idea it would be more efficient for motor vehicles to be using the Great South Road to travel between the Port of Auckland and Waikato, than the Southern Motorway is just ludicrous.  There are sound arguments to be made that the highly invasive motorway building through central Auckland did not take into the opportunity costs of the land used, which could have encouraged an alternative approach such as tunnelling or redirecting through traffic towards the west, but the simple point is that the past saw enormous inefficiencies and costs to safety and the environmental because one set of planners decided they knew what was best.

There are reasons to criticise the National transport policy. Who knows what the net economic benefits are of the proposals? Why isn't there a bypass of Te Aro for Wellington? Is Waka Kotahi the right structure for undertaking so many operational and regulatory activities? What should be the future of road user charges and fuel duty?  Should Kiwirail be split to encourage more rail operators to come to the market? What are the barriers to competition in various transport markets?  It's unclear how road safety will be addressed, and are there too many road controlling authorities? Is Auckland Transport performing efficiently and responsive to the needs of transport users? What about the public transport funding framework implemented by the Government.

Unfortunately Welch’s rant seems like an ill-focused take that could have just come from the Green Party press office. I expect he can do better than just ‘cars and roads bad, trains and trams good’.

10 July 2023

Inter-regional passenger rail - a dearth of serious analysis

I LOVE travelling by train, I caught long-distance passenger trains as a child. My father took me on the Northerner in a sleeper to Auckland and back on the Silverfern, I rode the Southerner from Christchurch to Dunedin, I rode the Picton-Christchurch Express and the Christchurch-Greymouth Expresses, and my first long-distance trip by myself was on the Wellington-Gisborne express.  I took the last Bay Express from Napier to Wellington.  I rode the Indian Pacific on my honeymoon, I've ridden Amtrak, I rode umpteen trains in the UK when I lived there, including the sleeper from Paddington to Penzance, I was a frequent traveller on Eurostar. I rode by rail from Pyongyang to London, on five different trains across China, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany and France. 

So nobody can accuse me of not liking trains. I had a model railway as a kid, and yes I have a transport nerd's knowledge of a lot of trains, and I wished the Silverstar had returned to service and I even wrote to the Minister of Railways at the time pleading the case (who was Richard Prebble!).

I would be thrilled if there could be more, viable, long-distance passenger rail services in New Zealand, but I am not thrilled by the idea that they are, somehow, special and deserve to get taxpayer subsidy over air and coach services, let alone private motoring. 

The Transport and Infrastructure Committee of Parliament has wasted time and taxpayers' money investigating whether taxpayers should pour money into subsidising long-distance passenger rail services (called inter-regional by the Committee), and has produced a report that largely consists of "reckons" by activists with a complete paucity of evidence and analysis as to the costs and benefits of doing so.

The fact that the Committee has produced such a poor quality report reflects both on the understanding of the majority of its Members (from Labour and the Greens), and the staff supporting the Committee, who seemed to be incapable of undertaking some fairly basic research or analysis (or perhaps were directed not to bother too much).  You would think they could at least have gotten some information from this book.

It made six recommendations, of which my favourite (for the wrong reasons) is "We recommend that funding arrangements for future inter-regional passenger rail services reflect the level of national benefit of such services to New Zealand". At best that would be nil, at worst it means the Committee thinks subsidies should equal benefit, so each dollar of taxpayers' money spent should return a dollar, which displays the level of economic ignorance of the Committee.

It's worth a read, as it exemplifies the standards of critical analysis that are deemed acceptable by many MPs today, and it shows how far there is a dearth of economic and policy analytical depth today.  Noting this Committee was supported by the Ministry of Transport, the Infrastructure Commission and an economist. 

Take the introduction which mentions how lots of people used to catch trains then:

"However, as private car and air travel became more popular and accessible, many passenger rail services were cancelled. The national railway network then experienced decades of underinvestment."

Hang on, so WHY did private car and air travel become more popular?  The first because of flexibility, you didn't need to wait hours or a whole day till it was time to travel, and it didn't necessary go from where you live to where you wanted to go.  Plus trains were simply slower. Air travel is obvious, it is fast and it became a lot cheaper over time, as did car ownership.  Modes that were faster, more convenient and more flexible and ultimately cheaper saw people abandon passenger rail.

However. the "decades of underinvestment" claim is quite something. For a start, there was underinvestment from the 1920s onwards, NZ Railways didn't bother reintroducing dining cars after World War 1, and the last remaining one operating in 1930.  There was no on-board catering (beyond tea and coffee) until 1970, so the "underinvestment" was par for the course by the Railways, as it treated its peak passenger demand like many monopolies do, it took them for granted.

To claim there was underinvestment as demand tailed off implies there should have been more "investment" poured into passenger rail, in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, but why, and for what ends?  In reality the major problem was that the NZ Railways Department operated as a heavily-unionised government department with monopolies on much of the market to move people and goods. It was simply a lazy, non-customer focused organisation, it was focused on political and industrial relations imperatives.  Business travellers moved to airlines and leisure travellers to cars, and it wasn't until the Lange Labour Government stop subsidising long-distance passenger rail that it became much more responsive to passenger demand and was business oriented.  That Government gave the Railways Corporation its final subsidies as a lump sum to upgrade services and make them viable, which it did at the time. It's just that over the subsequent 20 years demand changed, airline competition saw fares drop substantially in real terms and the removal of protectionism for local car assembly saw new and used car prices drop as well. People's mobility improved and demand for long-distance rail travel eroded. The routes with growing overseas tourism demand thrived, like the Tranz-Alpine and Coastal-Pacific services between Christchurch and Greymouth and Picton respectively are scenic trips, and are viable in their own right. The Auckland-Wellington Northern Explorer has hung on marginally, but the largely locally used Southerner and Bay Express had insufficient patronage. Rotorua's Geyserland Express suffered because the cost of the service had to bear the full cost of the track as freight traffic was not viable from Rotorua to Waikato/Auckland, and the Kaimai Express to Tauranga had insufficient patronage on a regular basis (also not a route significant in scenery or as an overseas tourism destination).

However, the Committee didn't get told that. 

In the Background (p6), another enormous error is published:

"Over time, and particularly in the early 2000s, focus shifted away from passenger rail services towards providing rail freight services."

This is complete nonsense, railways in New Zealand have been focused on freight for literally decades. In the 1970s the Railways Department noted that the proportion of its business that is passenger traffic was less than 20%.  Unlike railways in Europe and Japan, passenger traffic has not been the focus for railways in New Zealand perhaps since the 1920s.  It is the same in Australia and the United States.

The report summarises Te Huia without really shedding any light on whether it actually contributes to what the report says is the point of the inquiry, which is whether there are any net benefits in expanding inter-regional passenger rail.  There is NO data on how many Te Huia passengers previously drove a car to take the same trip compared to how many are new trips (and whether it enabled people to take jobs they didn't have before, or if they are simply leisure trips). There is no data on the effects on competing, unsubsidised bus services, in other words the analysis is just how many passengers ride it, how happy they are and how taxpayers/ratepayers are paying more than 85% of the costs of RUNNING the train, let alone the capital costs of purchasing and refurbishing the rolling stock and upgrading the stations.  Where's the economic analysis?

It summarises the Capital Connection service (Palmerston North-Wellington) without noting it was set up and operated on a fully commercial basis for many years, without subsidy.  There is no data on daily patronage (just annual) and none on farebox recovery, but there is this odd insertion of a generic definition in the report:

"The Capital Connection service uses older rolling stock that is nearing the end of its life. Rolling stock refers to railway vehicles, such as locomotives, carriages, wagons, or other vehicles used on a railway."

The authors forgot to write a definitions section, and also forgot to mention how much money was spent to acquire rolling stock for Te Huia and build a new station (and upgrade another) (it was $49 million).

The report continues with a completely odd section about historical services, which it could have largely left, or it could have focused on those that operated until 2001.  However it is just full of mistakes (p7-8).  Without nitpicking...  Auckland-Tauranga and Auckland-Rotorua were reinstatements of services that were cancelled in 1967, because of poor patronage. The Waikato Connection seems odd to include as it was a trial of less than a year, especially since Te Huia is essentially the same route. The Northerner did start in 1975, but was a successor of the first Main Trunk overnight service started in 1908.  Why mention that and not the Silverstar? 

However there was no Endeavor (sic) between Gisborne and Napier, Gisborne hasn't had passenger rail service since Cyclone Bola in 1988, and the Endeavour ceased operating in 1981 and never returned to Hawke's Bay (it was used as a substitute train from Wellington to Auckland, and the rolling stock later refurbished (with higher density seating) returned to use as a pool for several unnamed services).  It is also odd to talk of the "New Plymouth express" starting in 1955, when it finished in 1955 and was replaced by a railcar service, until 1977.  There are umpteen books about this, and it wouldn't have taken long for the Committee to get an actual rail enthusiast or two to confirm all of this.  

I could point out minor errors in the descriptions of the roles of agencies, such as "The NLTF is made up of revenue from fuel excise duty, road user charges and road tolls, vehicle and driver registration and licensing".  No, driver licensing fees do NOT go into the National Land Transport Fund.  Seriously, how hard is it for the Ministry of Transport to not fact-check such basic stuff?

The bulk of the report is a summary of what submitters said with little analysis as to its merits. For example, on p13:

"Submitters highlighted that inter-regional passenger rail would also benefit users of other transport modes. For example, if more travellers used inter-regional passenger rail there would be fewer cars on the road. This would reduce congestion, thereby shortening journey times and reducing costs for road users. Some submitters suggested that investing in rail and alternative transport modes would reduce wear on roads and save on expensive road upgrades."

This assumes the extra demand comes from car drivers, it assumes that congestion arises from inter-regional car driving (which outside peak holiday times is simply not true) and the marginal cost of car use on road wear is so tiny (most road wear is caused by heavy vehicle axle loads and the effects of sunlight, rain and temperature changes), so it simply wouldn't reduce road wear in any meaningful way.  

This utter nonsense is repeated lower on the page:

"Passenger rail could also enable more efficient use of existing transport infrastructure. This is because a reduction of vehicles on the roads would be likely to improve the longevity of road infrastructure, reducing maintenance costs and the volume of emissions-intensive resources needed to support maintenance and renewal programmes for roads."

No it wouldn't, this is just ridiculous. Fewer cars has next to no impact on the maintenance of state highways, and to talk about "emissions-intensive resources" to maintain roads, without noting that railways need resources to be maintained as well, and are a duplicate network to roads is completely lunatic thinking, and it's shocking that such claims are giving the credibility to be in a summary.

Further nonsense appears below:

"Submitters noted that passenger rail could improve New Zealand’s resilience to the effects of climate change, natural hazards, and other events. For example, if natural hazards or extreme weather events prevented access to roads or air travel, rail could provide an alternative method for moving people and goods."

Those submitters are morons. Unless you happen to live near a railway station (walking distance) the idea you will get there or that consumer goods would get to you by rail if a road is closed is largely fanciful. Most parts of the rail network are much more vulnerable to closure than the road network, and there has never been any case of a natural disaster which left the railway intact to perform access functions that the road could not (in fact very much the opposite). 

The absurd claims continue, until on pg 14 there is this:

"Some submitters also suggested that inter-regional passenger rail would offer an alternative to domestic air travel, thereby reducing aviation emissions"

Yes if you have a lot of time to spare.

Claims on emissions don't include key caveats, such as patronage or whether or not a car driver is driving an electric car.  

"While a diesel train is generally a lower-emissions form of transport than petrol car or air travel, an electric train can produce around three times less emissions than diesel train"

Besides the pointless reverse mathematic of "three times less", this is entirely dependent on how many people travel on the train compared to the car or aircraft.  Before many services were stopped in 2001 and 2002, the average patronage of those services was much less than a busload.  There is absolutely no analysis about what levels of patronage or modal shift would make sense from an emissions point of view (and of course the fact the Emissions Trading Scheme caps emissions from domestic transport is blanked out, officials and politicians so often just pretend that cutting emissions has no cost, or that they aren't replaced by emissions from others, unless the cap is reduced).

The Committee's response is rather entertaining...

"We think that inter-regional public transport could bring demonstrable public value to New Zealand."

..."While it is evident that there are wide societal benefits associated with passenger rail, it is difficult to measure or quantify these benefits."

Here's a clue, the people who benefit from passenger rail can quantify the benefit according to ... whether they are willing to pay the costs of providing the service!  It isn't "evident" because there was literally no evidence published from submitters in this report, just "reckons".  No evidence whatsoever!

The report isn't without some glimmers of sense though.. on pg.16:

"Increasing inter-regional passenger rail will likely require a high level of investment in the national rail network. On the other hand, historical trends suggest that inter-regional passenger rail services are unlikely to result in a high commercial return without services experiencing patronage growth. Careful assessment will be needed of whether inter-regional passenger rail services are the public transport option that best benefits the public."

Maybe if they had a high commercial return you wouldn't get involved? The last sentence is perhaps generously stating that there is unlikely to be any reason why inter-regional passenger rail services are the best option.

Then there is this claim, throwing the bus sector.. under the bus:

"We note that several commercial bus or coach services operate inter-regionally. While these options do not provide the same level of public benefit as passenger rail, particularly in terms of accessibility and environmental benefits, they remain a viable option for many people."

That's right, buses are MORE environmentally friendly than trains, and their accessibility is likely to be higher because they can stop just about anywhere.  Then the committee of politicians and bureaucrats make this empty claim:

"If passenger rail services are designed efficiently, accessibly, and in a manner that meets people’s needs, there is real potential for large-scale uptake."

In short, if you design a service that people want to use, they might use it.  However, what does any of this actually mean?  What demand IS there on the key routes submitters discuss? Couldn't the Committee have obtained data on intercity bus service demand and long distance car traffic, and if not, why not?  How many people drive between Auckland and Tauranga each day, surely you need to know this if there is likely to be some assessment of potential for a rail service?

Fortunately the Committee isn't completely mad as it decides to be focused on... more evaluation:

"At this stage, we think what will be most useful is identifying specific inter-regional services that should be investigated further. We need to better understand the costs and benefits of specific services before we can properly evaluate their potential."

No, you can't evaluate any of this.  You don't decide what routes Air New Zealand and other airlines fly, or routes Intercity operates, so you shouldn't be doing this.

Then Te Waihanga, the Infrastructure Commission, weighs in on pg.18, without thinking more widely about the point:

"Te Waihanga told us that KiwiRail’s commercial mandate means that investment decisions are often made based on the economic viability of services, rather than consideration of any wider societal costs and benefits. This means that, even if a rail service would be worthwhile from a public-value perspective, investment is still unlikely to occur."

Well it doesn't happen for air or bus services, or inter-regional freight services, so why is rail special? Indeed, regional councils ARE mandated with thinking about public transport subsidies and "public-value", so they actually can work together on this.  What matters more is that Kiwirail has a monopoly on managing access to the rail network, so no other business can readily obtain access to that network without Kiwirail approving it. This looks likely to be provide one option for enabling at least other commercial operators to have a chance at providing more services.

Te Waihanga can't identify the "public-value" of these services, but maybe it thinks this should be its job?

Ultimately the report seeks a growth in bureaucratic involvement in transport by saying"We recommend that the Government identify an agency to act as system lead for interregional public transport.".

Why? Because it can't identify whether inter-regional passenger rail is worthwhile, or specify how it might be. So it calls for a new role for government to "lead" not just rail, but bus and even ferry (maybe even airline) services.

This is absurd, because unless there is a clear case for this, it would set up an agency with responsibilities that it would, no doubt, decide, needed to be expanded. You can see a return to the days of 1970s when transport licensing was undertaken based on demand, with intercity bus services regulated (can't have them "undermining" inter-regional passenger rail), and the heavy hand of central planning seeking to respond to the demands of whoever the Minister of the day is.

The remainder of the report is the Committee's "reckons" as to routes worth further investigating.  Tauranga-Auckland is suggested with zero analysis of potential demand, Auckland-Wellington suggested whilst dismissing the fact there is already a service, it is geared towards tourists people who are willing to pay the costs of using the service.  The claim for Auckland-Wellington is that it should be "affordable" which is code for "paid for by someone else". The case for why one mode of travel between Auckland and Wellington should be subsidised when none of the others are is not made.  It then suggests Napier-Wellington. Why? Who knows, because literally nothing the report backs that route as an option over say Christchurch-Dunedin (it also falsely claims there is no station in Napier, when the old station remains very much intact). Likewise, extending the Capital Connection to Feilding is presented with zero evidence as to why.  This is literally just bureaucratic and political reckons based on nothing, although the report claims "The case studies we have identified in this chapter are what we consider “low-hanging fruit”."

However, this is based on virtually nothing, except the wild claims of rail enthusiasts. 

The only saving grace of this report is that the National and ACT members dissented, presumably they could see how ridiculous this all this. 

It's all quite simple.

Inter-regional passenger transport is, by and large, commercially viable or privately funded.

Air New Zealand, Jetstar, Air Chathams, Soundsair, Originair and other domestic airlines operate such services fully funded from users, paying airports to use the infrastructure and including the cost of the Emissions Trading Scheme in their fares. 

Intercity operates commercial coach services, again fully funded from users, paying road user charges and also paying for emissions through the ETS.

Private car owners and renters of cars pay for their own cars, paying for fuel including fuel tax and the ETS, again paying for the road.

Kiwirail runs commercially viable inter-regional rail services between Auckland and Wellington, Picton and Christchurch and Christchurch and Greymouth. If it sees business opportunity in starting new services it should do so. Likewise if any other business wants to start up such services on the rail network, Kiwirail should not get in its way.

However, there is no serious public policy reason to spend taxpayers' money to set up new passenger rail services. The state highways are generally not congested outside a handful of holiday periods, and will not be relieved by a few daily passenger rail services.  Almost all rail routes are significantly slower than the parallel state highways (and one train a day will not justify pouring hundreds of millions of dollar in speeding up rail lines).  The dream of an overnight sleeper train service between Wellington and Auckland may seem nice, but realistically most business travellers would rather fly, and the density of sleeping accommodation to be competitive would be akin to couchettes because more standard sleepers would just be too expensive compared with flying (and beyond Friday and Sunday nights, patronage is unlikely to be high).   However, of course, the advocates for this, don't want to pay the full cost of providing the service - even though the passengers on Airbus A320s pay for theirs.

There are merits in ensuring Kiwirail doesn't unreasonably block the entrepreneurship of other rail operators in establishing passenger (or indeed freight) services using the infrastructure taxpayers now own - but to spend much time or money investigating the merits of long-distance passenger rail is wasteful.  Meanwhile advocates might want to use existing services much more frequently and demonstrate they are willing to spend more time travelling than other modes, before they call to force everyone else to pay for new services.

14 May 2023

Considering transgenderism from a libertarian perspective

I've spent a lot of time thinking about what is simplistically called "trans" issues, but given transgender activists (and their challengers) see it as being a collective of issues, I'll happily deal with them together.  I am writing it bearing in mind I have a trans-relative, and so I have some appreciation of how sensitive it is as an issue. It's hardly trivial for most people who assert a change in gender

Transgender adults should be considered as having the same individual rights as other adults.  Live and let live, as in most cases, it is nobody else's concern whether or not you want to claim to be a different sex.  

The non-initiation of force principle indicates that if you want to live your life identifying differently from your sex, then you should be able to without it being subject to other initiating force against your body or property.  Unlike sexual behaviour, which involves another person, if you want to be assert that you are now a different sex, then whose business is it other than your own? If you want to pay for surgery or other medical treatments to reinforce it, then similarly, as long as you are an adult (so able to consent to the procedure) you should be able to choose. Indeed I'd go so far to support the recent move by the ACT Government (Australia) to prohibit unnecessary medical procedures on those born intersex. Letting people choose what to do with their own bodies, when they have the capacity and capability of fully understanding the consequences of those decisions.

But what about the issues that get most publicity?

  • Trans-women using female only spaces
  • Trans-women competing as female in sport
  • Use of language to describe trans-people
  • Gender self-identification on demand
  • Trans-gender treatment for children
  • Drag queen story time
There are principles for all of these, and it wont please everyone.

Property rights should govern questions about spaces and any organisations.  If you provide toilets, changing rooms, then it is up to you how you handle this issue.  If someone doesn't like it, then that person is not compelled to use your establishment.  This includes womens' refuges, or indeed any property owner that wants to restrict access based on sex or gender.  Lobby whatever you wish to property owners, but you have no right to decide what businesses, voluntary organisations or any private entities do around rules about access.

That is, of course, for privately owned property that doesn't have a statutory monopoly (those with a statutory monopoly do, effectively, use the state to force consumers wanting their goods or services to use their property). 

 However, for government owned property the issue becomes more complex, in that there is an expectation that it should treat everyone with similar levels of respect.  It becomes more important when this government property has sex segregation for sound public policy purposes. It might be healthcare (where the body you objectively have is likely to be important), or the criminal justice system (whereby it can rather matter a lot what prison someone gets sent to, for their own sake and that of fellow inmates).  These cases need to be dealt with based on a framework that protects individual rights, which when properly defined allow someone to be who they want to be, but not to threaten or violate the rights of others to control their own body or property. 

Sport is also a property rights issue. World Athletics Council has made a decision on this issue, which it is fully entitled to do.  In most countries sports is led and managed by private entities, so let them do as they see fit.  Likewise those women (and realistically this is only about women) who regard the policies around transgender athletes to be unfair, should be able to freely boycott and leave organisations they think do not do their sport justice (and vice versa with transgender athletes).  For some sports it wont be an issue (e.g., does it really matter with archery?), but for others it is.  This goes to freedom of association.  You are free to join whatever organisation you wish, including employer, and they are free to adopt whatever policies they want around sex and gender identity.  

Freedom of association:  This is the extension of property rights. Nobody has a "right" to demand that others associate, contract, socialise or engage at all with them. It is your body, your life and any organisation you belong to, or associate with, is both your choice to associate with and their choices to let you do so. You cannot force anyone to be your friend, just as they cannot force you. 

Freedom of speech governs questions about what people are called and what language is used.  Use whatever pronouns you like, say "trans-women are women" or say "trans-women are trans-women not women".  Use the term "cis" or don't, or TERF or whatever.  However the state should not force anyone to use any terms or any definitions.  There is quite some culture war going on about this, notably regarding women, largely because women and girls DO have specific health needs separate from men and boys.  As long as language isn't being used to threaten, then the person has the right to say what they wish, and you don't have a right to not be offended. Someone may say you're "CIS" you can object to that, but that's it, you don't have a right to insist someone calls you anything except that if someone does go out to deliberately antagonise you, you can then choose to ignore them, not trade with, employ, engage with or otherwise.  No one is required to please you by the use of terms you dictate, but obviously if someone deliberately fails to do so, presumably to antagonise, then why bother engaging if it means so much to you?

Again, what government does matters here, in relation to goods and/or services supplied by the government.  The state should never be ambiguous, it should be clear what it means by terms like "woman" and if it needs to differentiate between people, it ought to be absolutely neutral on this and use terminology that is clear. Sometimes "woman" will include "trans-woman", sometimes not.  

What gets many agitated is the banal use of so-called "inclusive" language which is largely in relation to medical issues affecting women and girls such as pregnancy, menstruation and the like. I don't think there is an orchestrated attempt to eliminate women anymore than there are plans for genocide of trans-gender people, but there are issues where there should be some clarity and certainty as to the boundaries of people's rights, and how to treat people's identity such as...

State record of identity: Birth Certificates are generated to identify the birth of a human, by date, name and sex. Sex is identified at birth (not "assigned", like children being told which sports team they are allocated to). It is a statement of record, it should not be amended subsequently unless there is an obvious mistake. If you change your name, you may want a separate record of your change of name, and likewise if you wish a gender change, then there should be a record of the date of that change, but it should not  change the birth certificate, which is an objective declaration of fact on a specific date.  

If you want to change your gender and get that formalised in some government authorised documentation, then that should require some threshold to enable it. It should not be undertaken by a minor, because children are not entitled to contract or to consent to many procedures or activities, but as an adult it should be possible to have a record as to your gender (and indeed if you engage in surgical activity to do so, you may have a change of sex recorded). However, this should not be a procedure able to be undertaken in order to obtain any sort of advantage. 

There are sound reasons to separate sexes in the criminal justice system, specifically because men generally have more physical strength and aggression than women, and have the capability to harm women in ways they cannot harm men because of physiology. So for a man to identify as a woman in order to be treated differently in the criminal justice system, particularly following being charged for an offence (particularly a sexual offence) is irrational and unjust. This is patently opportunistic. 

However, why does it matter if people can switch their gender identity, as long as other people can exercise their individual rights of freedom of association (including non-association), property rights and freedom of speech? i.e. if you want to change anything about you, don't expect the force of the law to force people to associate with you, allow you into spaces set up for people of a different sex or gender exclusively, or for people to call you what you want (even though they ought to be polite, it is not a crime to misname or misgender someone, for a good reason -  it isn't actually a violation of any rights). 

A is A but so what?: I read an article published by objectivist economist George Reisman on 11 April after I started writing this post, where he makes a case to completely reject transgenderism as irrational.  In short, he challenges the idea that you should be able to self-identify as anything you want, as being a complete rejection of objective reality.  I understand his point, that simply proclaiming that because of subjective emotions you can declare you are something you are biologically and objectively not, does not make your feelings actually a reflection of objective reality. Yet more fundamentally, if everyone else simply has rights to property, freedom of association and freedom of speech, who cares if a person identifies as another gender, another age or another thing?  Nobody is seriously going to expect a 50 year old man to be treated as a 5 year old girl and be admitted to a primary school because he says he identifies as the latter.  Indeed that should be called out, with people applying their rights to ignore, block and reject anyone who does so. However, if a 25 year old woman says she is now a man, then whose rights is it infringing upon? You may think it is absurd, illogical and denying reality, but you need not associate with that person, invite him/her into your property or call him/her by whatever name or pronoun wanted.

This is why Reisman is completely wrong that someone who seeks to be another gender should be given hormones of their biological sex as therapy, because this simply isn't a medical answer to what might be a psychological condition or issue.  Of course if someone wants to do that, then good luck to them, but neither he nor I is qualified to make such a judgment as to its effectiveness or its secondary consequences.

This is also why it is critically important that in the cultural sphere, there should be unlimited space for people to live, dress, act, talk and exist peacefully without being bound by any historic or culture-bound stereotypes about what it means to be a woman or a man.  Nobody knows what it feels like to be a boy or a girl by any logical reference point, because the alternative is unknowable - and the responses of other people to how you look and act are a reference to your behaviour and appearance. Indeed girls should be anything, as should boys, they should strive to follow their own passions, interests and aesthetic, and not feel bound by what others say they must be, as long as they live a life of peaceful fulfilment.  This leads onto perhaps the most difficult issue...

What to do about transgender youth?  My basic position on childhood vs. adulthood is that until someone is an adult, there is no ability to make decisions that the child is unable to fully understand the nature and consequences of, especially if it is irreversible. This is why I believe that puberty blockers and surgery for anyone below the age of 18 is wrong.  The use of such drugs interferes with and can harm fertility, and since there is widespread public consensus that below a certain age nobody should be able to make decisions that create irreversible impact on the body of a minor for non-medical reasons.  Certainly they should be given all of the counselling support and encouragement to be themselves until they reach full adult age, after which if they wish to medically change their bodies, it is their choice to do so.

Drag queen story-time? I literally don't care about this issue, as it should be up to parents to decide whether their children attend, and should be up to property owners to decide whether they host such an event.  Judgments can be made about whether people around children should dress provocatively or act such, and parents will know what they think of that, but that is up to them, and the freedom to support or reject it should be clear.

In conclusion... the rise of post-modernist identitarianism has seen the rise of trans-genderism as a new "frontier" in collectivising people based on perceptions of oppression and power.  There is a three-way culture war underway on this issue between:
  • Post-modernist identitarians
  • Traditional identitarians
  • Feminist identitarians (who may be a mix of modernist and post-modernist).
The post-modernist identitarians believe everything is subjective, so if someone says "she" is a "woman", then not only is that "real", but that if you do not recognise it, you are part of the traditional power structure that has "always" oppressed trans-people, like it oppresses (insert list of oppressed collectives).  They want the power of the state to initiate force against those who refuse to accept their demands around eroding property rights, freedom of speech and freedom of association.

Traditional identitarians regard trans-genderism as an illness or perversion and seeks at best to discourage it, and at worse to prohibit it. 

Feminist identitarians see trans-women (they are not so concerned about trans-men) as men pretending to be women to enter women's spaces and organisations, and so are not able to really reflect the reasons why women set up such spaces and organisations in the first place.  They see being a woman as being distinct, and as a group of humanity historically denied basic individual rights, that having men claiming that identity, undermines women's progress for such rights. Some may also say that trans-men reflect backwards thinking around feminism, that girls do not think they can be full individuals without changing gender to be boys/men which undermines feminist objectives for girls to not have to pander to stereotypes about what gender is.

While all may have some legitimate concerns at some level, rejecting identitarianism completely sees a position based on individual rights. That position is that whatever an adult does is nobody else's business a long as it does not interfere with the same rights of another adult, including control over one's body, property and who you associate with. For children those rights are held in trust by parents until they are adults, and cannot be abused by parents to deliberately or recklessly undermine the ability of a child to become a fully functioning adult. 

So let people be, but also respect others when they say they only want women on their property, and they choose not to include trans-women. They exclude men, so they can exclude others. It is polite to call people by the name they want and refer to them by the pronoun they prefer, if you ever do that in front of them, but the state and the law should not exist to police rudeness which does not constitute a threat.  Finally, there should be robust discussion and debate about medicine, especially psychology and trans-genderism, and it should not be hindered by fear of causing offence, regardless of what position someone takes. There should be caution about medicalising any mental health condition for minors, as a matter of course, and care given around people's feelings, because in most cases this whole issue arises because people are not feeling good about themselves. Having individual dignity, self-esteem and feeling able to pursue life and happiness are core to being human.  The quest to belong to a group, to have support from others and to collectivise also happens to be human, but the latter (the desire to collectivise and "belong") should never be used to undermine the former (the need for self-esteem and to be an individual). 

12 May 2023

What is "fair" tax?

There's been quite a lot of commentary about whether the "rich" are paying their "fair share" of tax, with an inferred moral and philosophical position that what is "fair" is "a lot" and is not just tax on income from employment or businesses, or tax on consumer goods, but tax on property acquired after both earning income and paying tax on the purchase of that property.  This is the concept of a "wealth tax", so let's consider both what this actually means, and whether a different conception of what "fairness" is might see the debate going in a different way.

Let's say you have land, or shares in a business, or an expensive asset (motor vehicle, boat, aeroplane, art work), and a socialist government (which is what it would be) decides you should pay it some proportion of whatever value it deems appropriate, in tax.  This is likely to follow you having already paid the following taxes:

  • Income tax on your employment, or dividends from a business, interest from investments.  After all, to acquire an asset, you need to acquire income to get it.  Yes some people inherit wealth, some people are gifted wealth, but many earn it from employers or their own business.  Government already taxes that, and if you are wealthy the marginal rate of tax on most of that is 39%, so if you earned say $1 million, $370,000 in income tax is already paid on it.
  • GST on your purchase. Yes this doesn't apply to land and buildings, unless you actually build something, or refurbish it. It also doesn't apply to buying shares in a business, but it does apply to cars, boats, aeroplanes, art works, jewellery and the like. 15% of the price is added on and taken by the government assuming it is bought through a business beyond a certain threshold. It doesn't apply to private sales of course.
So after paying tax to earn money, paying tax to buy the asset, the money-grabbing socialists want MORE, and of course if your cashflow is poor (you may have retired), then you will need to liquidate assets to pay a tax on wealth.  Yet who asks the question, why should you pay tax on owning property?

What does "fair" even mean?

From the socialist mindset, which is that of David Parker, the Greens and Te Pati Maori, and indeed appears to be that of multiple journalists, it's only fair if the state gets to take a share of everything you earn and own, including any increase in value in assets you may happen to own.  However, this idea of fairness is rooted in several concepts:
  1. There is something immoral about owning property and it increasing in value without being forced to share that with the state (and enable politicians to spend that money).
  2. People only obtain a lot of property because the state enabled them to do so, and so (despite them already having paid other taxes in the process of earning income and buying goods and services) the owners of such property should keep "rewarding" the state (and by extension "the community") for letting them succeed.
  3. The actual amount of taxes confiscated from people should bear no relationship to the extent to which they avail themselves of what the taxes are spent on.
  4. The state can spend your money better than you can, and in ways that are virtuous and benevolent to society, whereas you only spend money to benefit yourself and your family, and what you value.  Your values as a taxpayer are subordinate to the altruistic values of politicians who know how to spend your money to be kind.
This is largely nonsense. There is nothing immoral about owning anything and having its value rise without other people sharing in it, any different from it being somehow moral to own property and see its value fall, and require other people to help you out because of your losses.  Of course the socialist wealth tax advocates are never too keen on people getting big tax breaks or subsidies if their wealth collapses due to bad investment or simply the market for their assets evaporating.  

There is a kernel of an argument that a stable government with rule-of-law and property rights enables people to thrive, but the amount of state that does that is a fraction of its current size. The GST paid by the consumption of wealthy people could pay for all of that (indeed Roger Douglas proposed in the 1990s that GST could not only pay for the core functions of the state, but the welfare functions as well).  However, even if this is extended further, is it really a rational argument that the wealthier you are, the more the state has done to enable it (except for those who own businesses granted effective statutory monopolies through regulation or import tariffs/controls), and even if you pay more and more in income tax (even if it was a flat tax, a high income generates more tax than a lower one), it can never be enough?

The third point should be the centre of fairness. Treasury estimates around half of all taxpayers are net receipients of taxpayer funds through the welfare and tax credit system.  Why is that fair?  Let's assume those taxpayers occasionally consume the health system, many have children that consume taxpayer funded education and some will have taxpayer subsidised housing. An argument can be made for public goods to be funded collectively, but there are precious few of these. Why should people who have generated considerable income and acquired assets legally be expected to pay for the costs of services other people consume, many many times over themselves?  What is the fairness in being forced to pay for someone else's private goods and services? If taxes are to exist at all, they should only exist to pay for public goods.

The fourth point is clearly nonsense, the state is not a more moral actor than you are, and on average it isn't either.  This is a philosophical point of difference. Statists and socialists think governments are better placed to spend money (because it can "help" people) than you are, whereas libertarians and free-market liberals are sceptical of this. After all, a government may raise salaries for teachers, but this typically rewards both the best and the worst ones, which is a distinction that a government supported by teachers' unions does not recognise.

The real truth about tax is that it is theft and it isn't "fair" at all, it is at best a necessary evil to fund a substantial state, and the amount people pay is based on no moral basis whatsoever. Unless you believe people who have a lot of money have got it through immoral ends or are beneficiaries of a large state (regardless of how this has little evidence), then tax is simply a means to an end - the end being politicians spending money on what gets them re-elected.  The only way to make tax fairer is to have it lower and flatter, and simpler, so people get to keep more of what is theirs, and those who want you to spend it on other things, have to persuade you to give them your money

Be wary of anyone wanting to make tax "fairer" because the bottom-line is that they just think that they (or people they support) are better placed to spend your money than you are.  Oh and the spin-merchants of so-called "wealthy" people who say they "want" to pay more tax (but wont actually do it unless others are forced to) are a bizarre breed who actually think politicians and bureaucrats can spend their money better than they can, for benevolent purposes.