05 October 2018

Brett Kavanaugh: Both sides have lost the plot

To paraphrase Rod Liddle on BBC Question Time on 27 September 2018:

"If you are against Trump then Brett Kavanaugh is a rapist, no trial needed.  If you are for Trump then Christine Blasey Ford is a liar who has been manipulated by the Democrats."

An issue that should be a matter for cool heads, considering evidence on its merits, both questioning those making allegations, but also not dismissing them outright as obvious lies, has been completely dominated by the toxic binary tribal polarity that has become the trend.

Yes, you have to wonder with Kavanaugh having had a high profile career for some years why these allegations have emerged when Trump nominates him for the Supreme Court?  If he had been a Hilary Clinton nominee, and so had different views, would he have been similarly challenged?

Likewise, being nominated for the Supreme Court is the highest profile judicial appointment in the US.   Some women who have been sexually abused do not report it straight away, or even over some years, due to shame, fear of disbelief and the obvious difficulties of presenting evidence to police or to a court, and being cross examined.  The nature of sexual abuse is that shame, self-blame and self-doubt all come into play.   The one useful element of the #metoo movement is that it did reduce the stigma of sexual abuse victims speaking out as they should (what went wrong with it the idea that anyone speaking out automatically means that anyone accused is guilty until proven innocent).

So Kavanaugh has become on the one hand, a challenge to the fundamental maxim of our civilisation that anyone accused is innocent until proven guilty.   However, some of those defending this are also challenging the notion that someone who raises an allegation of a sexual crime should be listened to and given emotional support in making a complaint.   It is not contradictory to both accept that victims of a sex crime (which almost always happens in private, so is a matter of she's says/he says or vice versa)  need to have channels to speak out, and should be listened to by the Police and complaints taken seriously as with any other crime, BUT also treat anyone accused of any crime as innocent until proven guilty.

Few say that women who claim to be victims of sex crimes should shut up or not report the offences.  It has been more a case that police have been reluctant to take on such cases, not least because of the difficulty and complexity of gathering evidence and proof, which is inherent in the very nature of those crimes.  However, it is important that complainants be treated with due respect.  The sooner a rape or sexual assault is reported, the more likely that action can be taken on it, and the more likely that evidence will be believed.  

Specifically, the bill would require "an affirmative, unambiguous, and conscious decision by each participant to engage in mutually agreed-upon sexual activity." Getting consent is "the responsibility of the person who wants to engage in initiating the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the consent of the other person to engage in the sexual activity." The consent has to be "ongoing" throughout any encounter.

What this means is that in a sexual encounter, acquiescence wont be deemed to be consent, which depending on what presumption you place on such encounters, can mean two things.

If you assume that, in most cases, most people act with mutual respect and the interactions they have with people in such circumstances (who they consent to be with, and be close with) are based on that, it means that no one can just kiss, or reach out and touch another person intimately without it being effectively a crime.  Even if you are in a sexual relationship with someone,  it literally means actively consenting to every step in an encounter.  "May I kiss you? yes.  May I touch your thigh above your knee? Yes. " etc etc.  

BUT WAIT (the outrage builds)

What if you assume that in these circumstances there is a relationship of power (identity politics states it is a misogynist culture, dominated by men with rules by men for men,  or even a rape culture)?  Then yes you (men only really) SHOULD have explicit consent for touching a woman, for touching her genitals, for every step in the process, otherwise YOU are the problem, because you're basically a potential rapist.

Pardon me if I think that if someone believes they have been sexually assaulted, in any institution, their first recourse should be the police and the criminal justice system, not some sort of kangaroo justice system.  

However, that is another issue, and a serious one that not only libertarians, but most people across the political spectrum who believe in the fundamentals of common law and the criminal justice system should be concerned about.

30 April 2018

Korea: Real change or the cycle of bluff?

North Korea watchers are split on what the outcomes of the latest diplomatic activities on the Korean peninsula will mean.  There was the usual, tiresome, anti-Trump kneejerk reaction to his threats to the DPRK, which of course follow the DPRK's missile and nuclear tests, all of which breach UN Security Council Resolutions.  Trump rightfully declared that no regime oppresses its citizens like North Korea.  Liberty in North Korea gives you more on this, which I wont repeat.  It's a regime that controls movement of its people not only to leave this prison state, but to leave your own town.  It runs gulags in which it incarcerates entire families for the political "crimes" of one (that mean elderly relatives down to babies).  It is difficult to exaggerate the scale of this, but it's also important to remember that this ISN'T a priority internationally.  

So let's be clear about what the DPRK is.

  • Totalitarian regime with unrivalled levels of control on media, speech, movement of people compared with virtually any other country.  There is little internet access, almost no access to broadcasts from outside the country, and very few ever have permission to travel outside the country.  There is very little private enterprise, with what there is being restricted to informal (but tolerated) market stalls.  All other retail and trading activities are undertaken by the state, and economic activity is directed by central planning with limited use of price as a tool to manage demand and supply.
  • Highly militarised, with a standing army of 1.1 million (and over 8 million reservists) out of a population of around 25 million, with the military taking around 20% of GDP.
  • It is the creation of the USSR, which entered the northern half of Korea near the end of World War 2 as the US entered the southern half, as Japan withdrew its imperial forces.  Japan had occupied Korea and treated it is a vassal state since 1910, treating Koreans in many cases as slave labour.  The UN sought to hold elections across Korea, but the USSR refused to allow the holding of an election in the northern half.  The south held elections, and the Republic of Korea was formed, with the first President Syngman Rhee.  The north declared the Democratic People's Republic of Korea shortly thereafter, with a Stalinist system led by Kim Il Sung.  At the end of the 1940s the US withdrew from south Korea, and Kim Il Sung was given approval from Stalin and Mao to reunify Korea under a communist system, starting the Korean War.  After three years of bloodshed, including UN intervention on the side of the south (led by the USA), the war ended roughly at the same point as where it started.  The DPRK declared "victory" as it claimed the south started the war, led by "US imperialism".  
  • The USSR instituted Kim Il Sung as Supreme Leader of the DPRK, with a Constitution and party/state structure mirroring that of the USSR at the time (under Stalin).  Kim Il Sung was a minor guerrilla fighter who led a small band of resistance against the Japanese, before fleeing to the USSR where the Red Army schooled him in Stalinism.  
However, it is important to remember what it tells its citizens:
  • They are the luckiest people in the world with (as Barbara Demick's book was titled) "Nothing to Envy in the world".
  • South Korea is a "puppet regime" run by the USA as a slave colony of fascism, where the people revere the Kim dynasty and ache for reunification under their leadership.  South Korea would quickly reunify with the North if the US imperialist withdrew their "troops of occupation", but the USA treats its south Korean "subjects" like the Japanese used to.
  • Kim Il Sung led an army which was responsible for liberating ALL of Korea from Japanese imperialism, and he entered Pyongyang to adoring crowds grateful for his feats of military acumen.  Kim Il Sung was the most intelligent, skilled, amazing, adoring and generous man of all history, he is admired globally by billions of people, and his works are consumed by them and inspire their own feats.   
  • Other countries are either impoverished or comprise a small rich elite that take advantage of a mass of downtrodden workers, who are all impoverished, without the wondrous goods and free housing, healthcare and education of the DPRK.  
  • The Korean War was NOT started by the DPRK, but by the USA wanting to aggressively turn all of Korea into a slave colony.  The US has always wanted this.
Kim Jong Un's number one priority is regime survival.  This has two elements.  One is protection from foreign attack (primarily the US, seeking to destroy its nuclear arsenal) and the other is internal revolt.

Kim Jong Un may have a big ego and be ruthless, but he is no fool.  For decades, the DPRK relied on the Cold War to ensure that it didn't really fear any US attack, because that was deterred by the USSR.  However, with US military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein, to support the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi and to strategically attack military sites in Syria, there is real fear of the US (particularly under Trump, compared to Obama), striking the DPRK.

Yes Kim Jong Un knows the US fears the DPRK striking back, not so much with nuclear weapons, but with a massive conventional attack on south Korea, which may also include chemical and biological weapons (it is widely believed that the DPRK has all three primary types of WMDs).  However, he also knows that the US and south Korea can easily defeat the DPRK on the battlefield with conventional weapons and if nuclear weapons were used by the DPRK, Pyongyang would almost certainly be levelled by a similar response.  He is as deterred by the devastation and scale of death as the US is, so he is keen on lowering of tensions.

His survival also needs protection from internal revolt.  The only institution capable of doing this is the military.  Mass revolt by the population is almost inconceivable, as the whole country outside Pyongyang faced starvation during the late 1990s and there was little sign of resistance.  However, shortly after Kim Il Sung's death in 1994, his widow (who was not Kim Jong Il's mother, but his stepmother) apparently sought to get the military to stage a coup against Kim Jong Il (widely thought of as a lazy psychopathic playboy), but failed.  His response was the "Songun" (military first) policy that effectively sidelined the Korean Workers Party as the centre of authority, making the military the priority of the party, the state and the economy.

This is where the rational interest of denuclearisation, reduction of tension and peace on the Korean peninsula faces a conflict of interests with those of the Korean People's Army.  Kim Jong Un will know that if he significantly reduces the economic commitment of the state to the military he risks the military taking over.

So he has TWO choices, assuming that ignoring the military isn't an option.

1.  Don't demilitarise at all.  Re-enter the familiar cycle of detente, with rhetoric of peace.  Conduct no more nuclear tests, even allow unprecedented levels of inspection of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site (which is already destroyed) and seek a lowering or ending of economic sanctions. It will not dismantle its existing arsenal, but it will buy time for trade and investment.  It will demand that the US withdraw from south Korea before anything else happens (despite claims to the contrary) and after a period of a year or two of more trade, the cycle of sanctions and threats will recommence.

2.  Corporatise the military.  Sign a peace treaty, get US assurances of non-aggression, but retain WMDs and a formidable defence capability, but redirect the defence sector's activity more towards trade and the (black) economy.  Let the army run businesses, allow limited foreign investment in factories and infrastructure and become rich.   The military can then be part of a pseudo-capitalist reform programme that enriches those within it, enables it to upgrade its own equipment and grow the economy.  This will also mean that the current elite can enrich themselves through a mild form of liberalisation and capitalism.  Think China in the 1970s, but don't go too far down that path.

For as long as the Kim clan lead, the Kim Il Sung myth needs to be sustained.  That means that the big lies of the regime must be protected.  North Koreans can't know that their brethren in the south live with a level of prosperity AND freedom that they could hardly imagine.  So don't expect very much loosening of trade and travel between north and south.  South Koreans will be able to visit very carefully managed resorts (and be expected to spend a lot of hard currency), but north Koreans wont be travelling.   The tight control on media, movement of people and information will have to be maintained, otherwise it risks the broad mass of the population who are neither in the military nor the elite, asking questions and demanding to live more like south Koreans.  They'll want the houses, the clothes, the electrical goods, the cars, the freedom.  All of that will bring down the DPRK, particularly if the military split.  

So what do I think will happen?

I think there will be a lot of talk.  I think the US will demand, as a bare minimum, full inspection and verification of the dismantling of the DPRK's nuclear arsenal and concrete steps to build confidence between the sides.  That could mean allowing unrestricted family reunifications across the border,  greater travel from the south to the north, trade and investment, and allowing cultural and sporting exchanges.

However, the DPRK only wants three things: the US to withdraw from south Korea, a guarantee to not be attacked and an end to economic sanctions.  It can't afford to open up, so it is stuck.  

By no means should Trump agree to US withdrawal from south Korea without a least full verifiable dismantling of the nuclear weapons programme, and ideally also chemical and biological weapons (if the DPRK opens those up then it will be a transformative change).  Although it could certainly agree to a non-aggression treaty based end to the war, it still needs to maintain deterrence against conventional attack.   However, what should not be neglected is the push for closer interaction between the Koreas at the personal level.  I'm far from convinced that Kim Jong Un is doing anything other than playing for time, cementing his reputation in the north and pushing to get economic sanctions eased to help enrich the elite of his regime (and encourage some investment.

He is stuck between the legacy of his grandfather (and father's) web of deceit and the military's position to overthrow him.  The China reform option isn't really there.  However, let's take the calming of tensions as a good thing and hope that it's an opportunity to break the regime open a bit more.  The more that happens, the better the chances for the millions north of the DMZ.

20 April 2018

Ignorant transport policy "advocates"

Stuff has posted a story by Bevan Woodword who is cited as: the project director for SkyPath and spokesperson for Movement, an alliance of national organisations seeking safe journeys for active transport users.

It's typical of what passes for "analysis" in transport policy among many advocates, and those who are part of the "green" central planning school of transport thinking.   It's shoddy and full of errors, which I'll outline below.  He outlines "six interventions that would make our transport system safer, more efficient and sustainable"...

1. Let's tax fossil fuels:  Hang on.  Existing taxes on petrol, excluding GST are over 69c/l (including the Emissions Trading Levy).   The Government is already planning to increase it.  Yes there is only a small 3.33c/l on diesel, but that's because Road User Charges recover the costs of maintaining and improving roads from diesel powered vehicles.   There ARE taxes on fossil fuels (except fuel oil for shipping and aviation fuel for international flights, but I don't think he thinks about modes off the land).  Taxes on petrol have been increasing by inflation for some years now.  

However, he argues that the taxes should be punitive, not for a purpose other than to make it more expensive to own a car that burns fossil fuels, so that those who can afford it can buy electric cars.  He says "the air we breathe will be healthier", yet there is little evidence New Zealand has a serious air quality issue due to pollution from road vehicles (although there are localised problems in parts of Auckland).  So it's just a guess.  He says the "tax money can fund better alternatives to driving".  Yet, over 15% of the revenue collected from road users is spent on public transport, cycling and walking infrastructure.   

It's as if he is completely unaware of the current government transport revenue and funding system.  No doubt he thinks making it more and more expensive for everyone to drive, including the poor, the elderly and in particular people in regional and rural areas, is good for them because it will "fund alternatives".   So if you're in Kaitaia, Kaitangata, Karori or Katikati, you'll pay more, even though the odds are that in only one of those cases you might have an alternative that Bevan "approves".

2. We need to reward those who use public transport:  Of course many urban public transport users are already rewarded, because on average about half of the cost of their travel is subsidised by road users and ratepayers.  It is nonsense to say "Every person using public transport is helping to relieve traffic congestion and reduce the need for expensive new roads". A fair proportion of those using it either have no reasonable alternative or would share a car trip with another, not everyone on public transport can hop into a car (or would) if it wasn't there.  Yes, airlines (which do provide public transport). reward frequent flyers, but that is a market, it is commercial and it appeared spontaneously.  Long distance public transport (coaches, trains, ferries and airlines) is not subsidised in New Zealand, but that isn't what Bevan thinks of.

3. Put safety experts in charge of our country's road safety:  Um, who does he think works for NZ Transport Agency (which incorporated the Land Transport Safety Authority). NZ's road death rate is twice the rate of the UK because the UK had 15x the population, and most of its major highways are equivalent to a motorway standard in New Zealand (so no head on collisions and few loss of control accidents).  Norway and Switzerland also have low accident rates because the road network in those countries is so superior.   He says:  In New Zealand, politicians are required to approve road safety decisions - such as whether to implement pedestrian crossings, protected cycle lanes, safer speed limits, road safety improvements, compulsory third party insurance, and mandatory professional driver licence training. Most politicians have no expertise in road safety.

No, you wont fund a Minister approving a pedestrian crossing, or even a cycle lane or road safety improvements. Yes Councillors have some role in this for local roads, but state highways are managed by professionals.  Compulsory third party insurance is largely irrelevant in New Zealand because of ACC (which is compulsory socialised "insurance").  Yes, most politicians have no expertise in road safety, but you don't either.  

4. We need to replace the Benefit-Cost Ratio (BCR) approach used to assess and prioritise transport projects:  Do keep up Bevan, this was significantly diluted around 15 years ago with the Land Transport Management Act. BCR is only one factor used to prioritise projects.  It is "biased towards roading projects" because, surprise surprise, it is funded by road users.  It does take into account carbon emissions, but it doesn't value them above everything else (the UK did this a few years ago, encouraging low CO2 emitting diesel vehicles over others, and local air quality got worse).  Don't worry, the tool that prioritises what road users want their money spent on isn't used how you think it is.

5. Apply road pricing:  Now I'm fine with this, but Bevan doesn't realise that NZ already has road user charges.  Yes, I'm all in favour of a commercial market approach to charging for roads, but that doesn't include taxing fuel and it means roads being supplied on a market approach as well as priced that way.  He thinks the poor can be helped out by free public transport, though he is unlikely to find that works for people in Huntly, Carterton, Westport or Tuatapere.  I don't think Bevan really wants a market though, because it would go against most of what he wants.

6. Treat our roads as valuable spaces. Our streets must not become traffic sewers: What does that even mean?  Does it mean he thinks vehicles on roads are "sewerage", whether they carry people or goods?  That's just trendy pejorative nonsense.

He wants to "reduce traffic", but implies that a lot of traffic necessarily interferes with walking, cycling and horse riding.   It doesn't if it is on roads purpose built for traffic, and local streets are left for local access.  

The truth is that there is a congestion problem, mainly in Auckland, mainly because market mechanisms aren't used to manage both the demand and supply of roads.  However, road transport has never been safer, never been cleaner (in terms of pollution) and never been cheaper.  Yes, local authorities haven't always thought about how pedestrians fit into the urban environment, and there are locations that could do with traffic bypassing areas better suited for pedestrians and cyclists, but this set of measures devalues the freedom, flexibility, time saving and comfort that private motoring offers millions. New Zealand DID have railway services across much of the country, also with complementary bus services, but New Zealanders bought cars when they could afford them, paid petrol tax to improve the roads, and politicians by and large responded accordingly.  Many other changes in transport patterns have occurred over the years, including huge expansion in air travel, and the recent growth in Uber, all due to individuals and entrepreneurs responding to opportunities.

Bevan, unfortunately, is seeking the command and control central planners' approach to transport.  He wants to tax the choices people currently make, to pay for the ones he thinks are good for them. Unfortunately, he doesn't realise that most of his suggestions are already in place in one form or another.

I think urban design should be supportive of pedestrian access, and cycling where there is demand to justify it.  However, too often this slips beyond advocating for improvements, to a barely disguised attack on motorised road transport, to make it slower, more expensive and less desirable.  If people want to walk and bike, then good luck to them, but why do these advocates for walking and cycling think it is their business to get in the way of people who drive for work, pleasure or business?


SkyPath is the advocacy group for a project to put a cycleway and walkway on the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

Movement describes itself as "a strong, effective, national voice for active transport users (including elderly, disabled and children)."  Well we are all "active transport users" as we all walk.  

Its vision is: 
For people walking, cycling or using mobility aids, conditions are often unsafe or unpleasant.
Their only option to be completely dependent on a private vehicle. Providing good facilities for active transport, delivers immense benefits: a healthier society, less traffic congestion, more livable communities and an enhanced environment.

Bevan Woodword's profile says: Bevan’s work with BetterWorld NZ includes a wide range of sustainable transport consultancy. He has worked towards the goal of walking and cycling across the AHB for more than 10 years, along with many other initiatives to improve transport choice for Aucklanders. 

16 April 2018

How to explain the hard-left's position on Syria

When a one-party state, led by a dictator, with a personality cult, who inherited his position from his father (who himself gained power by military coup), repeatedly uses chemical weapons against his opponents and the residents of areas governed by his opponents, you'd think there would be universal outrage and condemnation.  

But no.  Setting aside the regime itself and its foreign backer (Russia - which has used its airforce to quell dissent against the regime, with little apparent concern for civilian casualties), there have been two groups who tend to hold one (or even more than one) of three views of these events:

1.  The chemical attacks didn't happen (the "false flag" believers).  As such it was staged by one or more opposition groups, or the more ludicrous claims that it was a CIA, MI5, Israeli orchestrated charade.

2.  The chemical attacks did happen, but were undertaken either by an opposition group (which has no air power, given the Syrian Air Force is well equipped) or by the UK (says Russia), to discredit Assad and Russia.

3.  The chemical attacks did happen, but no one can prove it was the Assad regime, and besides any military action just "makes it worse", will "escalate conflict", will "benefit Jihadists", is "illegal", etc.

One group are non-interventionist libertarians, who at best simply oppose military action by governments on principle, unless it is for self-defence.  Some are conspiracy theory cranks who share a lot with the other group.  I'll discuss them all another day.  Suffice to say, while I respect high levels of scepticism over intervention, I am not a non-interventionist.  I think there is a considerable interest for us all, for those governments with some values of individual rights, rule of law and secular liberal democracy, to take steps to ensure that the treaty based commitment of state to not use chemical weapons, is enforced, with some urgency especially if that state is using it against civilians.  There is merit in arguments against such action, but this post is not about those arguments.

This is about the much larger and vocal "other lot", the so-called "peace" movement on the left.  It's view, as exemplified by the far-left hypocritical "Stop the War Coalition" in the UK, is fairly simple.  It opposes absolutely all Western military action of all kinds, and happily cheers on military, terrorist and other insurgency action by any entities confronting the West or its allies. Loud on US intervention, silent on Russia.  Most of the libertarian non-interventionists are fairly consistently opposed to both, but the far-left are much more obviously hypocritical.

With a Hat Tip to Dave Rich on Twitter I thought his explanation of the hard-left worldview of these events, alongside the Skripal poisoning and indeed many foreign policy issues is as applicable to the NZ Green Party as it is to the UK Labour Party, and to equivalent far-left movements in other countries.