Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Te Huia - a nice idea, but a lot of money to achieve very little

The launch of the Te Huia commuter train from Hamilton to Papakura has obtained a lot of publicity today, showing how journalists love an excuse for a train ride, and the lack of any high profile easy to understand positive news in New Zealand.

It is easy to see why some would be convinced this might be a good idea.  After all, there has been a daily commuter train from Palmerston North to Wellington (the Capital Connection) since 1991, running until very recently, as a commercial (unsubsidised) service, although it carries more people from intermediate stations like Levin and Otaki especially, than from Palmerston North.  However, experience for passenger rail travel from the Waikato to Auckland has been not so good.  The last time this was attempted was in 2000, commercially, by the then private TranzRail with a train called the Waikato Connection.  It ran once daily from Hamilton to Auckland, but had most of its passengers boarding at Pukekohe (which then had no service) and Papakura (because it basically offered a faster/non-stop more luxurious option than the basic diesel commuter trains), so that at the end less than a seated bus load of passengers used it from Hamilton. 

The latest attempt is not even a train from Hamilton to Auckland, it is from Hamilton to Papakura, to connect with the electric commuter train to Auckland, so it actually takes 2.5 hours from Hamilton to downtown Auckland.  This isn't exactly competitive with driving, which is around 1hr 40-50 minutes from station to station (and realistically almost everyone isn't starting or finishing their trips at either) although congestion can worsen that towards 2hrs.  The train has two stations in Hamilton and one in Huntly, with no other stops, so it offers nothing for any commuters in Ngaruawahia, Taupiri, Mercer or Pokeno for example, although those in Ngaruawahia or Taupiri might drive to Huntly to leave their cars.

The cost is eye-watering, at $67.6m in capital spending, $58.5m from road users' taxes and $9.1m from local authorities. Another $29.3m in being spent over 4.5 years in subsidies, mostly $22.1m from road users' taxes.  Over $1m has been spent to make Huntly Station operational in itself.  Given $55.1m is being spent on public transport subsidies for all other Waikato services in 2018-2021, this is a lot of money to take from road users and ratepayers for one service, operating two times a day weekdays.

The media reports indicate it could remove 73,000 cars off the road... a year.  The train has capacity for 150 people (not much at all bearing in mind that the Capital Connection has 448 seats).  Now given there are 262 working days a year, this means it should take 279 cars off the road each weekday return. Page 16 of the last Household Travel Survey 2015 indicated mean NZ car occupancy per trip is 1.51 so if we optimistically assume this is car occupancy for potential users of the train, that means that the train need to carry 421 people per day (which is significantly above its capacity of 300) to remove 73,000 car trips a year.

Media reports today variously indicated 90 people arriving or 70, but even if 90 all drove a car each, for each service (and don't now) it would still only be around 47,000 car trips a year removed from the road.  However, it is highly unlikely 90 all drove or would drive separate vehicles, so it all seems a bit far-fetched.

Even if it DID do this, at what cost? is it worth nearly $100m to take 279 cars off the road a day? In emissions terms it is meaningless, because the ETS means that the emissions from cars simply get consumed by someone else (and if the cars still drove someone else wouldn't be using those emissions).  In congestion reduction terms it might make a small difference to travel times, but it isn't worth $100m

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Water - the last utility of the Soviet era

You could hardly not notice the growing list of scandals seen in local authority supplied water, sewer or stormwater services in recent times and wonder what has gone wrong.  From lead in water supplied by Dunedin City Council in a number of small towns, to the Havelock North water supply contamination and the breakdown of multiple parts of Wellington's water networks.  Imagine if a private water bottler had been caught with the contamination of supply seen by some local authority systems, the howls of outrage from politicians would be palpable, but it isn't quite that way - you see water in New Zealand is perhaps the last bastion of what socialists call the "democratic control of the means of production, distribution and exchange" of the key utility networks.

Unlike electricity, gas, telecommunications, ports, airports, railways and even roads, water (outside Auckland) in New Zealand was shielded from any serious economic reform during the 1980s and the 1990s. That was a time, which seems so long ago now, when there was widespread commercialisation and in some cases privatisation of utility networks, and either liberalisation of market entry or the application of independent oversight and regulation of the management and supply of the services concerned.

Before then, local electricity distribution was led by local authorities, which managed them much like water and the results were underinvestment in power line networks in some places, gold plating in others, and frequent power cuts as parts of the networks failed.  Now these networks are either privatised or run by local trusts, but all subject to regulatory oversight around capital spending and how much they can charge consumers for maintenance and renewal of their assets. 

You see local authority issues with infrastructure don't mean all infrastructure, because they actually have little struggle at all with the infrastructure they are not responsible for owning, managing or funding.  Electricity, gas and telecommunications networks all grow, expand and get maintained with little recourse to ratepayers or indeed the "democratic control" that the left is so keen on.  Now that isn't to mean that there isn't some government intervention, such as the vast spending on fibre optic networks funded by central government but undertaken by private enterprise, but this is not the model by which water networks are funded or managed in New Zealand - you see water remains the last bastion of the Soviet style era of socialist management of a utility.

If you want to take a nostalgic trip back to the era of Rob Muldoon, the era that the late Jim Anderton and his Alliance Party, and indeed at one point Winston Peters, pined for, you need only look at how the "three waters" (supply, waste and stormwater) are supplied and managed in New Zealand today.  Indeed, it is a case study in exactly how the principles of democratic socialist economics work in practice.  You can see the vestiges of this thinking in Green Party policy today, which says "Ensure Council Controlled Organisations are only used where this has benefits over direct service provision by local authorities".  

Leftwing opposition to reform of water is long standing.  It is almost laughable today to recall when former Green MP (and still Wellington Regional Councillor) Sue Kedgley regarded reforms to the Local Government Act allowing local authorities to choose to contract private companies to provide water infrastructure for contract periods of longer than 15 years as  "the potential to be hugely harmful to the public".   She much prefers a democratically controlled water supply that sees lead enter it, with the ultimate penalty being... you might not get re-elected as a city councillor.

However, it is the late (conspiratorially minded) Penny Bright, who founded the wittily named "Water Pressure Group" in Auckland that for many many years was the squealer that regarded any private sector involvement in the water sector as beyond the pale.  She regarded water as "a basic human right", albeit one that she thought was best delivered by a bunch of politicians re-elected every three years directing a bureaucracy.  She was passionate about her beliefs, but wrong.

The problem with water is the problem that was seen with telecommunications when it was run by the Post Office, or electricity when it was run by the Municipal Electricity Department of Wellington City Council (or whatever council) et al, which is that political control of the funding and of the taxation needed to maintain and renew a complex utility was extremely poor at being accountable to those who "own" the infrastructure and consume its services, because there is little link between what you pay, where that money is spent and how much is spent on the water networks.  The NZ Post Office once thought it was a great idea to install "triple twisted copper cable" for telephone lines in the Wellington suburb of Khandallah, despite it not being the international standard for phone lines, because some engineers thought it would improve its robustness - at the same time upwards of 50% of coin operated public phone boxes did not work (there were no mobile phones then).  Bureaucratic service delivery agencies don't get driven by customer needs, but their own internal imperatives and those of their political masters, which understandably are pulled in many different directions - but customer service (being a monopoly, funded from taxes) isn't upper most (unless of course, in a few cases, it is to help a Councillor or his mates out).

Local politicians almost never campaign for election on issues like renewing water infrastructure, but they sure like big shiny showoff things like convention centres, sports stadiums and "visions".  After all, why campaign on something that involves digging streets up and nobody really notices, when you can get your name put on a park or a building instead?  Imagine if the issue of installing more mobile phone capacity were up to local government and it were paid for by rates, would it ever get done?  Water supply pipes, wastewater pipes, stormwater pipes, none of them matter much to most people most of the time, until their service stops or their property is flooded - so they are easy for politicians to defer spending on. 

There is one exception in New Zealand, which is Auckland.  Watercare Services was set up in 1991 as an example of how to commercialise water delivery (albeit not stormwater), and it is from this that the leftwing backlash against water reform arose.  Opposition to commercialisation, opposition to people paying for the water they use was central to this.  The idea that it is somehow fairer for the single pensioner who uses barely enough water for a few cups of tea and a shower a day to cross subsidise the water used by a family of four was not an argument worth having with the organised, almost hysterical, opposition to reform.  So Watercare Services was not replicated elsewhere, albeit that local government reforms did allow local authorities to do so if they wished - but rare is the local politician willing to relinquish control.  It's notable that Auckland doesn't seem to have the issues with supply or wastewater of other cities, although stormwater remains a major issue (and is outside Watercare's remit).

So water, as it remains, has all of the symptoms of a centrally planned, "democratically accountable", bureaucratically delivered service.  It's funding for capital is entirely dependent on local politicians choosing to allocate rates money to it or to borrow to pay for large investment, and so it has to plan from year to year based on how councillors manage their priorities - whether it be convention centres, minimising rates increases or getting elected.  It is only when water infrastructure gets critical (i.e. pipes bursting, supply running out or being poisoned) that political attention is given, and that is frankly too late. Water in New Zealand is socialism in action, and it demonstrates that it is profoundly difficult to get politicians to focus on long-term priorities that are not seen as trendy (note that some are extremely eager to make interventions under the auspices of trying to stop climate change, even though the impact of those interventions is infinitesimal, it's much more about being seen to do the right thing).

Ironically, the recently elected Labour Government has decided to reform water in a way that a previous Labour Government refused to do so for roads - by encouraging local government to take water out of its control altogether and putting it into a handful of centrally government controlled organisations.  Yes it is arguably nationalisation, but it is a transfer from barely capable local control to something else.   It is almost admitting that local democratic control of a critical utility has failed as a delivery model, and that having arms-length professional organisations (let's call them State Owned Enterprises maybe?) that charge consumers for the services they provide, recover capital costs from consumers over the lifetime of those assets and seek to optimise costs and service delivery (with regulatory oversight) is a much better model - i.e. the model that many politicians on the left would have called "neo-liberal" and a precursor to that nastiest of words "privatisation".

However, NZ has had decades of water being supplied "not for profit" and with "democratic control", maybe it's about time it was left to professionals, with the political role being to set up the legal framework to ensure that water is run as a business like other utilities.  The Government's proposals are encouraging, although I would be much more draconian and just take it off of councils and legally require them to cease charging water rates or cut general rates that fund water, and then establish a mix of metered or uniform charges for water consumers.

Of course the UK privatised water many years ago, and hasn't looked back. Some stats on that experience (source: Statement of Professor Chris Binnie, former President of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (not uncritical of the water privatisation process):

  • Drinking water quality measured at tap increased from a 99% pass rate to 99.96%
  • Properties at risk of low water pressure reduced from 2% to 0.001%
  • Properties subject to unplanned water supply interruptions of 12 or more hours reduced from 0.4% to 0.003%
  • Leakage dropped from 4,980ml/d to 3,306ml/d by 2000, but is still too high (3,183ml/d) in 2018
  • Residential water meter use raised from zero to 55%, with a target of 80% by 2040.
  • Per capita water consumption dropped from 155 l/h/d to 141 l/h/d (with more households, each household using less water)
  • Household properties at risk of internal sewer flooding reduced from 32,000 to 3,000.
  • Non-compliance with the EU Bathing Water Directive (regarding dumping of wastewater at sea) reduced from 16% to 1%
  • Failures to respond within 10 working days to complaints dropped from nearly one third to 0.4% failure within five working days.

Sure there is plenty to criticise (e.g. Thames Water remains slow in addressing leaks, but it has reasonable incentives to address it, because it can't charge consumers for water leaking from its system and it is generally more costly to provide more capacity for storage than to fix leaks), but it is notable that the water problems are as much about an ideological resistance to reform as they are due to the failings of a system that is not well set up to incentivise investment, supply of services to consumers and deliver long term outcomes.

It looks like New Zealand (except Auckland) is coming to an end of its Soviet-style/Muldoonist era in water management, thanks to a left-wing Labour Government acting to implement reforms that are not far removed from what the Lange/Palmer/Moore Labour Government or the Bolger/Shipley National Governments might have done. It's also telling that the much vaunted "power of general competence" that the first term of the Clark Government granted local government has proven to not be competent in managing the three waters in so many cases.  

Perhaps there are other compentences that local government should be freed from as well?


Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Damien O'Connor - Beijing's new handmaiden

Last week was meant to be a point of triumph for Damien O'Connor as Trade Minister. As a member of the more conservative "right" faction of this Labour Government, he was happy to crow as to the success of the "updated" free trade agreement between New Zealand and the People's Republic of China (PRC).  

StuffRNZ  and TVNZ all largely reported the press release from his office about the "upgraded" agreement and for sure, for New Zealand trade access to the PRC it is largely good news, with 98% of NZ exports to be tariff free (by 2024 for dairy, notwithstanding the government's apparent tolerance for suggestions that the dairy sector be partly wound down to meet Paris Agreement commitments).  There will be reductions in compliance costs and overall on the face of it, it seemed positive from the point of view of a believer in free trade.  

However I was curious as to what the PRC gained from this, because none of the NZ news outlets seemed to ask any questions about that side, but repeated O'Connor's assurances that (RNZ):

"Protections in the existing agreement that are important to New Zealanders, such as our rules on overseas investment and the Treaty of Waitangi exception, remain in place"

Stuff report: "Rules for Chinese investors in New Zealand would not change in light of the agreement"

The flavour of it all is that the PRC is just like any other country, except of course we all know that it is not.  It is an authoritarian one-party state that brutally suppresses dissent, is one of the world's biggest cyberwarfare actors, is engaging in military expansionism in the South China Sea, is regularly threatening liberal democratic Taiwan and most recently has effectively destroyed the liberal rule of law in Hong Kong.  Most recently it has engaged in aggressive trade retaliation measures against Australia, NZ's closest ally, for it simply seeking an international investigation into its handling of Covid 19 - a pandemic that originated in China and was almost certainly mismanaged by the PRC. It isn't just another trading partner, but a regime that is antithetical to the values espoused by the NZ government, you would think.

So why not query further, given the context of relations between the Western allies and the PRC has gone downhill markedly under the rule of Xi Jinping?

Yet it takes little curiosity to find out what was being reported by the PRC's series of state news outlets about the free trade agreement:

China Daily published the following image:

It shows that NZ has effectively removed tariffs on ALL imports from the PRC, putting it on a parallel with Australia.  Now I'm no opponent of eliminating tariff barriers, but you'd think that there would be at least some querying of this. PRC businesses can now export to NZ on the same basis as those from Australia, and with no further barriers NZ has little more to "give away" to Beijing in future negotiations. 

The PRC gets new market access in legal services, project and management consultancy services in NZ, which may not seem like a big deal, but do NZ companies have equivalent access in the PRC?  Well it's a bit complicated as it depends on the sector, but NZ is much more open than the PRC on this.  For example, for project management, it HAS to be a joint venture in the PRC, but not in NZ. In construction NZ is already open to PRC firms, but the PRC wont let NZ firms enter unless it is a project fully foreign financed (i.e. you pay for it, you can work on it). One wonders why it was seen to be so important to let PRC firms enter markets in NZ that they are unlikely to add much value on, other than perhaps obtain experience and IP that they can use elsewhere.  

Yet there is something far more alarming in the agreement, which is the provision on foreign investment.  

Global Times, which might be described as the "aggressive" arm of the PRC state news propaganda apparatus said that:

"Under the new protocol, New Zealand will not investigate Chinese government investors with investments of no more than NZ$100 million ($71.82 million) or non-government investors with investments of no more than NZ$200 million, China News Service reported."

Now sure, that does mean that PRC investment is on a parallel with the CPTPP threshold, but let's pause a moment.  All PRC owned businesses invest in NZ with the explicit or implicit authority of the PRC and the Communist Party of China.  Experience elsewhere indicates that this intent may be anything but benign. PRC companies are known to engage in industrial scale Intellectual Property theft both domestically with foreign partners and internationally. This is hardly a surprise, as it is the core of Marxist-Leninist belief to use the systems of capitalist countries against them, with IP theft used both to advance its own industries and for military purposes.  For example, Siemen's entered into a JV in China to produce high speed trains, only to find that its majority PRC JV partners now re-exporting its technology to compete with it in Germany.  By law, all PRC citizens and businesses are required to comply with directions from the State security services wherever they may be, which is seen to be one reason why Australia's supplies of PPE were raided by PRC companies and citizens to be exported to China at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic (which resulted in Australian law being changed to stop this). 

PRC government entities can spend NZ$100m buying any property or business in NZ without any scrutiny or oversight, and non-government but government endorsed entities can invest NZ$200m.  Sure there are many laws in NZ to deal with intellectual property theft, after the fact, but the trade practices of the PRC internationally show that it has little interest in rule of law, given how quickly it has embarked on dubious sanctions against Australia, because Australia simply wanted some questions asked. That's how sensitive the tyrants in Beijing are.

So there are some serious questions to be asked as to the upgraded NZ-PRC free trade agreement that haven't been asked by the media.

Yet O'Connor went much much further.  On CNBC he played a tune that is familiar to China-watchers, which is to get the ally of an adversary to take on the adversary in foreign relations. Besides saying "nationalism is not the way forward" (being absolutely blind to the PRC's hyper-nationalism in recent years), he decided to give Australia some "advice":

“I can’t speak for Australia and the way it runs its diplomatic relationships but clearly if they were to follow us and … speak …(with) a little more diplomacy from time to time, and be cautious with wording… hopefully (they) can be in a similar situation"

"Speak with a little more diplomacy" presumably means ignoring the PRC's grotesque mismanagement of Covid19 that resulted in it being spread globally, not signing up with allies on a statement on the breaching of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, not complaining if PRC businesses and citizens buy up the PPE and medical equipment in your country to export it to China during a pandemic and then finger-pointing at your closest ally on command.  O'Connor supported mediating between the PRC and Australia because:

"We have a mature … relationship with China, and we’ve always been able to raise issues of concern"

Of course in part he is echoing Nanaia Mahuta who in December said that NZ could mediate between the PRC and Australia - which is exactly a tactic that Beijing wants.  This call is utterly disgraceful, and essentially represents the tyranny in Beijing peeling the NZ government away from its most important trading and defence partner, to effectively imply that the differences between Australia and the PRC are as much Australia's fault as the PRC.  It is Beijing asserting that there is moral equivalence between Australia and the PRC.  

"Raising matters of concern" is how the PRC likes things to be, for there to be diplomatic back-channel talk, whilst not publicly changing the relationship at all.  It means the PRC can break international treaties, threaten its neighbours and engage in aggressive actions internationally whilst the front window looks like a new free trade agreement and all is well. 

Beijing already used the NZ government as a pawn to attack Australia in this report by saying:

"The current difficulties facing bilateral relations are of Australia's own making. Only a real change in Canberra's hostile attitude towards China can ease the tensions, and reset bilateral trade ties between the two sides."

furthermore:

"Australia's provoking and smearing will only damage its reputation among Chinese enterprises and people, and hurt trade relations, Chen said, noting that "Canberra should consider Wellington as model and restore its relations with China by taking concrete action."

In short, Beijing claims that Australia's concerns, over Covid 19, Hong Kong, investment, South China Sea and Taiwan are not issues New Zealand shares similar concerns about.  "Wellington is a model" of obsequiousness.

The extension of this is that New Zealand is also not aligned with the United States, which looks like seeing little change in policy with Biden compared to Trump over China

NZ is, after all, almost irrelevant to the PRC, because NZ has virtually no military capacity to project and its trade potential is minimal, but NZ does have a great deal of intellectual property around agriculture and capacity to provide education for its elite. Australia is more important because its mineral reserves are vast and arguably the easiest to access of any major mining country given its legal/political structure, proximity and infrastructure, but also because it is strategically important militarily.

Beijing thinks it has turned NZ into a "neutral" party between itself and NZ's two biggest allies, and the fact that it has so easily played Damien O'Connor, and to a lesser extent Nanaia Mahuta should cause concern in the government and to New Zealanders more generally.

So what Beijing got out of the updated FTA with NZ was much more than unhindered trade access to a small economy, and almost unhindered investment access, it got a new friend that has broken away from Australia - that's worth much more strategically than access to a market the size of part of Shanghai.

So the next time Jacinda Ardern chooses to berate Australia over either its treatment of New Zealand citizens resident in Australia, or climate change, or indeed any other foreign policy issue, she might just wonder why the great ANZAC ally might just tell her to go ask the government's new mates in Beijing to help out, then she can wait and see if O'Connor might have enough time to spare once he has washed himself up after being ever so gratifying to the Communist Party of China.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

President of the US 2020?

In the song Mrs Robinson Simon and Garfunkel say:

Going to the candidates' debate
Laugh about it, shout about it
When you've got to choose
Every way you look at this you lose

This US election looks like that.  I'm far more tempted to take this article from Reason by John Stossel, which is to note that the most important parts of life are outside politics and we should be SO grateful for that, because in totalitarian countries, this is not the case.

You're meant to care about it, because it is for the leadership of the world's largest economy and military power, and as a result the great leadership of world institutions and norms.  However, it is a contest between two incredibly flawed individuals, neither of whom care much for the freedom of the individual, neither of whom care much for the rule of law and neither of whom have visions beyond the attainment of power.  It is hardly impossible to note how most media comment and news reporting on Trump is negative, and this is in part because it isn't hard to see the negative in a man who is utterly counter-cultural to the narrative as to what is good in a political leader or even a human being.  It is difficult to look past that, but that is what has to be done.

It is difficult to not take into account John Bolton's (a hawk if ever there was one) critique of Trump as being amenable to foreign leaders flattering him, even if nothing is ever achieved.  Sure, his wooing of Kim Jong Un achieved virtually nothing, and was never likely to, but Trump has not been afraid to confront the PR China, largely on very sound grounds (although China is all too keen to portray him as being racist to undermine this).  Sure, Syria remains a mess, as does Yemen even moreso, but the Middle East in general is more peaceful than it has been in many years. Iran is more contained than it has been, and Russia remains in retreat.  The biggest critique of Trump on foreign policy is his opposition to multilateralism, which has given China huge inroads to fund and populate such institutions with their own people, by paying off smaller countries to back their candidates.  Trump's withdrawal is a blunt mistake. He would be better off leading the WTO and pushing UN organisations to be more accountable and transparent. He was right to critique the WHO, because of its woeful performance and disgraceful isolation of Taiwan (and its disgraceful leader, former Ethiopian dictatorship Minister Dr Tedros who peddled accusations of racism against Taiwan).  Biden is likely to be more amenable to international institutions, but he is as much a protectionist as Trump. Given the Obama Administration's largely passive approach to China and the Middle East, it is difficult to expect Biden to be better overall, other than he might be able to get more US influence internationally because he isn't Trump.  Bigger questions have to be whether Taiwan would get military support more from Trump than Biden? Frankly, who knows.  On climate change, there is an obvious difference, because Biden is willing to surrender this issue over to multilateralism, although he might be able to do that with little actual change in domestic policy on the issue, given reductions in emissions in recent years.

A lot is made of Trump being racist (talking about many Mexican immigrants being criminals and rapists secured that accusation), and him appearing to be not be 100% critical of far-right extremists, although some wont think this blundering of his isn't just that, there isn't much evidence policy wise of this. As a President who is vehemently in support of Israel, and has been a part of peace deals between Israel and Bahrain, the UAE and Sudan, he's no neo-Nazi (although he has not been effective at deterring white nationalists).

The biggest criticism of Biden recently is allegations of corruption linked to his son Hunter, none of which is a huge surprise.  Corruption is endemic in much of US politics, in both parties, the difference is Trump is less susceptible because he doesn't need the money, but his appointment of relatives to high level jobs in the Administration is ludicrous, although much less toxic than some of the allegations against Biden.  What it does show is that both men are more than willing to use power to advantage their families, which is one reason why I think there isn't much between them.

Domestically, Biden has had to embrace some of the socialist agenda that part of the Democratic Party has embraced.  He'll increase taxes (on those on high incomes), but of course wont reform taxes in any meaningful way.  He'll subsidise the rent-seekers in the renewable energy sector and promise that his big spending will be better than Trump's. It's all mindless stuff, it will largely be a waste and be captured by businesses that will make a lot of money out of it.  He's feeding a Marxist style battle between capital and labour, which will be bad for education in the US, and bad for employment and economic competitiveness.

And on Covid? Trump has been chronically inept, that's no doubt and it's difficult to believe Joe Biden could be as worse (at least he wouldn't be diverted down all sorts of dead ends). 

So really I don't care. I'll have residual schadenfreude if Trump wins, because it will so upset so many on the left, but if he loses his ego will take a hit, assuming that he ultimately accepts defeeat. 

More importantly, whoever wins wont make a big difference.  What I DO hope is that no one party wins the House and Senate and Presidency.  So if Biden wins, the Republicans should retain the Senate, and if Trump wins, the Democrats should retain the House. Both men will grow the debt, will feed the monetary policy addiction bubble and neither will accomplish anything significant.  If Trump wins, he will at least not kneecap the economy with more regulation, taxation and climate change sacrifices, but there will no doubt be agitation from BLM and Antifa.  If Biden wins, he will at least rebuild multilateral institutions to move them away from Chinese dominance, but he'll waste more money and engage in follies that are futile and there will be some agitation from a few far-right groups.  

and no, Jo Jorgenson isn't worth it either.

My own philosophical journey

Well I am back in New Zealand, indefinitely, and so I thought I'd reflect on my own political journey, not least because as I've gotten older my expectations have lowered somewhat as to what to expect in political change.  So I thought I'd pontificate and largely reiterate what I want from a New Zealand government in 2020, review what I think of the registered political parties and what matters. See if there is one thing you can be sure of with libertarians, is that they can easily disagree and lot, and vehemently, on points that are an honest disagreement on what is meant by individual freedom. However there are quite a few people who "identify as" libertarians, but whose views are not consistently so (and probably plenty would say the same about me). Furthermore, it isn't just about individual freedom for me, but it is also about reason, science and a sense of what the purpose of life is - this is what I get from objectivism. 

Now if you know me, you know I can go on and on and on about a lot of stuff, so let's make this fairly quick:

  • I support capitalism, not just empirically, but morally. I believe that competitive, open, free market economics can, mor often than not, reflect a balance between personal preferences and the costs of supplying goods and services, and that the best way to address issues of scarcity, price and monopoly is to allow this to be open.  It doesn't mean people have the right to use force and fraud in trading, because that isn't freedom. Sell something that isn't what you said it is, and you're a fraudster. Misrepresentation is fraud.  Morally, capitalism is the only system that allows free people to own property and trade their efforts (labour), ideas (intellectual property) and property with others.  As such, it is not concurrent with slavery, nor is it concurrent with legal monopolies or the use of threats to inhibit the choices of others to sell or buy.  It is also not without consequences.  Sell a product that is designed or produced negligently or recklessly and you should face legal consequences.
  • I support freedom of expression, tempered by expression that initiates force or fraud against others. On private property, that freedom of expression is limited by the permission of the property owner. If you use expression to threaten others, you are initiating force, whether you are threatening specific individuals or groups of individuals.  If you steal intellectual property, you are initiating force (and yes I know some think intellectual property is not libertarian, to which I say, you probably have never written a book, recorded a song or created a patent that others are willing to pay for). If you defame someone, you are initiating fraud and force (people's reputations are their "property" and you don't have a right to claim someone is a criminal if it is not true). You don't have a right to be protected from the words of others offending or upsetting you.
  • I support private property rights, as a corollary of the above and believe that greater use of such rights can enhance environmental as well as economic outcomes. Property is the fruit of your own efforts, including relationships (why people gift or bequest their property to you), it is not anyone else's.
  • I support freedom of religion. Sure I'm an atheist, but people's private beliefs are their business and they have the right to hold those beliefs and express them.  The line is drawn when those beliefs (including non-religious beliefs) are used to promote or plan violence against others or their property. Yes, I really don't care much if you are a Salafist or a Marxist-Leninist or a Nazi, until you move from quietly living your life in peace according to your beliefs, to attacking, planning to attack or promoting attacks against others, for any reason. Violence is an act of hate. 
  • I'm an atheist, but people of faith shouldn't be ridiculed for their private beliefs. Most people with faith are good people who raise families and live quiet lives doing the best they can, and as long as their religious beliefs don't cross a line of infringing on my (or anyone else's rights), the fact of them existing should be respected.  Live and let live.
  • I believe constitutionally limited liberal democracy is the best political system that has been devised to date (not liberal democracy untrammeled). However, I doubt very much if there is sufficient support to contain the role of the state with a written constitution at this stage.
  • Racism, sexism and all other forms of bigotry are irrational and immoral. All people should be judged primarily on the basis of their actions, intentions and beliefs, not on immutable characteristics. No government authority should apply any such bigotry to its actions and no laws should seek to force distinctions based on such factors, unless it is objectively relevant (e.g. segregating female and male prisoners). Racial supremacists should be ridiculed for what they are, troglodytes who think pride should be based on your DNA. The post-modernist identity politics shysters should be as well, classifying people based on race, sex, sexual orientation and other factors into the oppressor and the oppressed, and seeking to undermine and overturn economic, political and legal systems based on the false premise that unequal outcomes need to be reversed into a new set of unequal outcomes.
  • Corporatism and subsidies or protectionism of industry is immoral, outside the context of war or civil emergency. Government should not take money from some to give to others for producing, nor should it penalise others for producing. Sure the international trading system does allow for some leverage to be exercised to open up foreign markets through reciprocity, but rarely does protectionism of trade benefit an economy or the population. Free trade IS fair trade, but that doesn't mean consumers shouldn't trade wisely and consider preferences or boycotting products because of where they are from, due to their own political beliefs. Boycott goods from China or Israel if you like, or prefer them, that's your choice.
  • The welfare state should ideally be replaced by benevolence as a means of helping those in need. My ideal is that human beings help each other out voluntarily, whether they be family, friends, neighbours or more widely through communities, charities or other non-governmental means. Compassion doesn't come from the state taking money by force and handing it out to others.  Having said that, the welfare state isn't going anywhere soon, and without enormous transformation in how people live and act with one another, there is going to be taxpayer funded education and healthcare to ensure universal service, and a taxpayer funded welfare state as a safety net.  The welfare state in NZ is much much bigger than this, and includes subsidies for employers and subsidies for having children, as well as the ludicrously unfair National Superannuation.  Welfare should be reformed to a social insurance model with individual accounts, so people pay to have insurance for unemployment, sickness, injury or other loss of income, and if they do not claim it extends to their retirement (and it gets topped up for a lengthy transitional period).  
  • Education should be under minimal state control and regulation. Schools should be autonomous and able to teach whatever they wish, within legal limits around promotion of illegal behaviour. Pay and recruitment of teachers should be completely decentralised to schools. Funding should follow pupils directly through vouchers to whatever school parents choose. Curriculum standardisation should be scaled back to a minimum, and schools should teach English, Maori or whatever languages parents demand. It is critical that education be driven by what works to raise the skills and knowledge of children in their capacity to think critically about the world around them, and no, critical theory doesn't do that.
  • The Western alliance of NATO, ANZUS and other bilateral allies, centred around the US, as well as much of Europe, has a patchy history of many mistakes, but it is still the most positive force for international rule of law in a world increasingly challenged by authoritarian regimes ranging from the PRC to Russia, to the DPRK, Iran and Syria, as well as multiple non-state actors. New Zealand contributes inadequately to this because it spends too little on defence (and has eliminated its air strike capability). The UN is useful as a talking shop, but is incapable of taking action against any of the Permanent Members of the UNSC, and so the Western alliance needs to be prepared to respond to military aggression, industrial espionage, spying, hacking and other actions by those wishing a new world order. It doesn't mean NZ should follow the US always, but it doesn't mean NZ should solely depend on the UN Security Council to determine when military action is justified.
  • Climate change is real it is accelerated by human action, and governments should get out of the way of technologies and innovations to reduce emissions. Policies to reduce emissions should be based on net benefits and not be absolutist, like many groups like Extinction Rebellion and the Greens insist. However, just because a policy appears to reduce emissions doesn't mean it is good to implement. There is no point kneecapping industries in one country to have them relocate to another with similar or greater emissions. Climate change is not the end of the world and humanity needs to learn to adapt to it, and there are much bigger issues and higher priority issues that can be addressed, at lower cost, than reducing emissions, to improve humanity - e.g. access to drinking water, vaccinations. Indeed it is immoral to cause net economic harm to achieve incremental reductions in emissions that do nothing.  If you want to fight climate change, then change your own behaviour, not having children is the number one thing you can do. What should government do? Get out of the way of innovation and don't subsidise the use of fossil fuels (and to be fair most Western economies don't). I'm highly sceptical of the merits of meeting the targets under the Paris Agreement because it gives a free pass to large growing emitters like China to not care and so import high emitting industries from other countries, and grow its economy with little scrutiny from others.
  • Conspiracies are almost always nonsense. People you don't like aren't conspiring on a global scale with an agenda you disagree with. Sure, there are institutions with philosophical goals and methodologies to achieve them you will disagree with and I do too.  The moral equivocation of the United Nations is almost unbearable as is the gratuitous rent seeking behaviour of some of the staff and leadership and recipients of its largesse, but overall the world is better off to have a talking shop of the good, bad and the ugly than not (although it would be better off if some of its subsidiary bodies reformed or were replaced).  5G isn't going to kill you and vaccinations are almost always a good idea. Covid19 isn't a conspiracy.

The great enemies of individual freedom and humanity today come in a number of forms, but all have a common theme, a belief that some humans have the right to do violence against others or their property, to achieve some state of nirvana or heightened collective goal.  Today we see it most virulently in:

  • Environmental catastrophism:  There are many legitimate issues with the environment, but it is the catastrophists of Extinction Rebellion and much of the mainstream Green movement that seek to undermine capitalism, individual freedom and human productivity to reach certain utopian goals. This includes "zero emissions" or "zero plastics", both of which would harm humanity and shorten life in the ways that are suggested.  Their focus is monomanic, has no scope for nuance and no sense of balancing costs and benefits (and certainly little concern about actual impact).
  • Islamism: Easily the most toxic religious-political philosophy is the advancement of Salafist-Wahhabist stone-age beliefs with politics and militarism. This form of fascism lures young people in many part of the world into a death cult of a totalitarian dark age of slavery, misogyny and eliminationist violence. A big source of political violence in recent years.
  • Post-modernist collectivist authoritarianism: Whether it be the banal identity politics view of oppressor vs. oppressed based on race, sex and other characteristics, or the "cancel culture" intolerance of views that are not the "correct line" and seek to destroy individuals and businesses because of their incorrect views, it is new form of Maoism that pervades much academia, but also parts of the media and elsewhere.  It is seen in the need for outcomes to be equal, not just opportunities or treatment, and for "representation" based on race, sex etc to be equal in everything from government to businesses, for there to be fairness.  None of those touting these concepts loudly believe in freedom of speech, private property rights or even the rigorous use of science or objective analysis to inform decision making (after all that's white supremacist patriarchal talk).  Everyone's opinion is to be seen through the lens of their race, sex, sexuality and background, just like the Nazis, just like in Maoist China.  Note that this lot turn a blind eye to Islamism and paint the first as a symptom of the problem, being the white hetero-normative patriarchy that wants to keep everyone else in their place.
  • Reactionary fascism:  In response to the third are the so-called populist, far-right reactionaries who use the language of freedom to claim the right to proclaim superiority of their race and of men, with lashings of anti-semitism and conspiracy theories about the wiping out of white Europeans. Few they are, but their methods are violence and in NZ it culminated in the vile terror attack in Christchurch.  
  • Socialism: It seems that forever more, there are plenty who think no only that people in need should have their needs provided for, but that the entire economic/social system should seek on the one hand to take forcibly from those who are most financially successful, and to give others as much as possible "for free" paid for by this confiscation.  The calls are endless, it's gone well beyond universal healthcare and education, and a basic welfare state, to taxpayers being told they should buy food for the children of people who aren't going hungry, or to buy sanitary products for all women and girls, to buy public transport for those who happen to find it convenient, or to pay for high income professionals to send their children to childcare.  The draws on taxpayers are endless, it's "fair" for everything to be free, except that it corrodes personal responsibility and generates a culture that you don't need to do anything if you claim a "need" except make anonymous people pay taxes to provide for you. 


Thursday, October 15, 2020

So who should get your party vote?

Having returned to NZ, I'm amused by the list of registered political parties.  So for the hell of it, I thought I'd say some words about the party vote choices in alphabetical order:

ACT:  Mild mannered free market liberalism and now socially liberal as well (in some cases too liberal for me). Has sought to win some of the gun-owners' vote, and diluted economic policies given Covid19. Supports a smarter, high-tech approach to Covid19. Social liberalism has burnt off some socially conservative support. Big question is whether some of the team will match the capability and competence of David Seymour.  I'd give 8 out of 10 for ACT, points off for not being more courageous on education, for being a little too bureaucratic on some issues, and David Seymour's position on abortion (I'm halfway between the two extremes). ACT will likely be a vibrant part of the opposition, so watch the maiden speeches of its new MPs.

Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party:  Hopefully the ALCP will disband if the referendum goes the way they will support. It has been consistent, and although it is largely full of dopeheads who just want to be left alone, there is nothing wrong with that from my point of view. They aren't going to hurt me.  Sure, regular cannabis use is harmful and it is particularly destructive for young people to smoke cannabis, but the answer isn't the status quo.  ALCP gets 10 out of 10 because there is one issue it campaigns on, but there is little point voting for the party this year, because the referendum on cannabis is your chance to have your say.

Heartland New Zealand Party: Who?  Nothing wrong with a rural party, and this is basically campaigning for more taxpayer funded services in rural areas, although some of its principles I could sign up to (it sounds a lot like the National Party back in its founding years).  Backed by Harry Mowbray, I can't help but think he'd be better off donating and influencing the National Party or ACT instead.  There is a little bit of economic nationalism, a climate change policy that looks like ACT. The review of Auckland Council ought to be welcomed, but let's be realistic, Heartland New Zealand has little influence and even less chance of getting elected. Heartland New Zealand can get 5 out of 10 for freedom.

Mana Movement: What was once the radical breakaway from the Maori Party is now endorsing the Maori Party and isn't competing in the 2020 election. That should give reason to be fearful of the Maori Party now that it has absorbed the ultra-nationalist Mana Movement.

Maori Party: John Tamihere's latest endeavour for power having failed to be elected Mayor of Auckland (on an incoherent centre-right platform) is the Maori Party, which has gone toward the left and advancing an explicit agenda of racial separatism, including a highly corporatist agenda of compulsory quota of Maori businesses having to win government procurement contracts.  For example, it means 25% of road maintenance contracts would have to go to Maori businesses (are they 51% Maori owned?), even though no such businesses exist (and what if there were only one, this monopoly could encourage rent seeking and poor performance). I'm all for devolution of power to lower levels and encouraging individual self-determination, and Maori finding their own solutions for social problems, but the Maori Party now touts the highly debatable notion that Maori social problems are all about racism, and institutions that are structured against Maori. It wants a Maori Parliament, which implies separate laws for Maori. It wants to segregate fully Maori representation in Parliament and local government in Maori seats. No one who believes in limited government and equality before the law would tolerate this ethno-nationalist seek to "nationalise" Maori into an almost parallel state (and you can be sure they aren't to be paid for by only Maori taxes). Tamihere is an opportunist, and will change his stripes as he sees fit.  Hopefully the Maori Party wont make it (it needs to win an electorate), but on a freedom rating it gets 1 out of 10.  Maori are better off sticking with Labour in electorates.

New Conservatives: This is finally a good serious attempt at setting up a socially conservative and free market oriented government to the right of National.  It's good because it's not an explicitly Christian party, like previous attempts (although spot the non-Christian in the candidate list, this shouldn't matter).  Sure it plays hard on drugs and abortion (only the latter I have a bit of sympathy for). It's opposition to excessive action on climate change is positive, although I don't like its policy on binding referenda (I'm not keen on rights being up to a vote).  It's puritanical on alcohol, but surprisingly relatively liberal on prostitution (yes, really). It's approach to porn online is to block it unless it is requested, which I get (to minimise access to children), but this failed in the UK because it's impractical (pretty much impossible to filter out adult content from social media).  The health policy is actually one of the better ones (barring euthanasia, but that's a different issue), and on education, the policy on school choice and funding is good (although I am sympathetic around concerns about gender dysphoria, as I'd leave this up to individual schools to address as a matter of philosophical choice).  Overall (and unsurprisingly) the New Conservatives have some policies that shrink the state, and others that grow the state.  It gets 6 out of 10, if only because it has some philosophical underpinning that respects individual liberty, and some good policies.  It's a shame it wont reach 5% because there is a place for this party and for its views to be debated, but it wont be in Parliament this time.  It's a bigger shame that 2-3 other smaller parties are probably taking away support that should go to this party.

NZ First: I'll give Winston Peters credit for holding up restrictions on freedom of speech, and being a bit of a brake on Labour and the Greens, but then he wouldn't have had to be had he not selected them to be leading the government in the first place. NZ First is generally benign, in that it doesn't do much to undermine freedoms, and generally just wants money thrown at pork barrel sectors like racing and the railways. I have a bit of time for Winston's fiscal conservatism and his correct fears of PRC investment and influence, and also more recently hesitancy around levels of immigration (if only because of the inability of politicians to ensure infrastructure is adequate and concerns about PRC influence).  NZ First gets 5 out of 10, because it doesn't tend to do any harm, and occasionally some good. 

Labour: The best that can be said is that it is a party of incrementalism. For a party doing so well in the polls, it is promising to do very little other than spend up the next generation's money and continuing to accrete the welfare state in scale.  The more government it provides, the more it finds it needs yet more again.  It's the party of ever more state, but you could do worse.  The main problem is that the worse option would pull Labour further over (because fundamentally they DO want to spend a lot more and regulate more). 3 out of 10.

NZ Tea Party: Like a breakaway from ACT, the Tea Party is much more pro-immigration, and has an odd mix of policies that don't form a coherent whole.  Education policy is all about foreign students and export of education.  There isn't really much going on here, and the patronage of Sir Roger Douglas whilst nice, isn't apparent in policies (I mean you'd expect Unfinished Business to be seen here).  Why would you bother when ACT exists?  6 out of 10.

NZ Outdoors Party: Its website operates as a speed that indicates it has a 28k dialup modem connecting it to the internet. It has aspirations of everyone having a home, something called holistic education and sustainable agriculture. Sure it wants a different approach to Covid19, and I have a little time for thinking more broadly about it, but then it turns against 5G which is simply conspiratorial anti-scientific bullshit. Zero waste policy is nice in theory, but it wants a "plastic free New Zealand", a policy that will kill people (by banning medical equipment) and has vast unintended consequences. This party, once a proud party for hunters and shooters is now polluted with a mix of anti-scientific hysteria and "in the clouds" vagueness. 4 out of 10.

ONE Party: A party with theocratic origins which does talk about freedom, and which is sceptical about foreign investment.  Not sure quite what the point is, other than those who think the New Conservatives are too liberal.  It's a Christian party, and although it has some policies that would advance freedom it has plenty that don't. 4 out of 10.

Sustainable New Zealand Party: Like the Greens, but don't them being so left wing, then this is the party wanting your vote. However, it seems an awful lot like a wishlist of the Greens. I note the desire to spend what would be tens of billions of dollars on railways, and a vast range of pricey tech-led projects from recycling to building corporatist environmentalist businesses.  Where's the money coming from?  What about health?  What about education?  2 out of 10.

Advance New Zealand Party: Sure it talks about freedom, and how can I not like a few policies (like income tax free threshold) but it's just anti-reason and anti-science.  The finance policy is lunacy. You're not insane, just avoid. 1 out of 10.

Greens: More tax, more regulation, more government, more borrowing, New Zealand can save the world if only it taxes and regulates businesses and individuals more because of climate change, and if it doesn't, the world will come to an end. More welfare, more "free" stuff and collectivisation (pigeon holing everyone into identity categories). Mining should only be for materials that serve a "socially useful purpose" (seriously?). This is the party that's against capitalism, against private property rights and wants to regulate speech.  Children should both be mollycoddled and not be accountable for what they do, but ought to be able to vote.  Beyond euthanasia and cannabis, the Greens offer nothing for individual freedom. 1 out of 10.

Democratic Party for Social Credit: Funny money is mainstream, but this is still even funnier money.  Just print more for current spending. This movement was an embarrassment of New Zealand politics for years, now it is just an embarrassment for those who advance this nonsense.  1 out of 10.

National Party: Slightly lower taxes, but more spending and less appetite for the identity politics advanced by Labour. Nationals's record, except 1990-1996 (and to a limited extent 1996-1999) is to reverse hardly anything Labour does. Judith Collins is more conservative and probably better than many recent leaders on some freedom points (excluding cannabis of course). National has principles that it could do well to return to, but Labour has successfully fueled a culture of spending and regulation as the answers to any problems, through its utter dominance of the education system and the culture of much of the media.  National gets 6 out of 10, because it at least points in the right direction and has the power to effect change.

The Opportunities Party:  The centre-left policy wonks' party. For clever people that would usually vote Labour, and think they can solve many solutions if only the tax system were tinkered with.  There are a couple of clever people here, but it just the intellectual wing of the Labour-Green parties, and takes its support from there.  Long may it do that.  4 out of 10.

Vision New Zealand:  More Christian theocratic than the ONE Party, it's Destiny NZ Party revived (now with Hannah Tamaki being a more friendly face than Brian). Peppered with nationalism, this is a detailed vision, and one that has little room for individual freedom.  2 out of 10.