28 February 2022

The international system is turning against freedom and liberal democracy

The last monumental change in the international system occurred in 1989-1991, with the end of the Cold War, driven by Mikhail Gorbachev's unwillingness to keep a jackboot on the throats of Soviet citizens and just as importantly, its satellite states, along with the US and the UK and their allies being willing to try to put international relations back on some sort of legal footing.  The Gulf War was a test of that, with the UN Security Council generating unprecedented international support for action to evict Iraq from its occupation of Kuwait.  It is difficult to underestimate the optimism of the time, with half of Europe freed from Marxist-Leninist dictatorships (including some of the most evil in history in Romania and Albania), the end of Cold War tensions between the former USSR and the USA, and even though China brutally suppressed dissent in Tiananmen Square, it seemed to accept a new world order based on rule of law.  Victory against Iraq at the time indicated a willingness to not tolerate territorial aggression.

So much has changed in 30 years. 

9/11 was critically important in refocusing Western attention on Islamist insurgency, but it paralleled change in Russia, as the relatively benign Boris Yeltsin was replaced with the altogether more sinister, ex. KGB official, Vladimir Putin. Russian liberal democracy has been wound back so much, it is little more than a fascist, organised crime syndicate running an authoritarian militarist dictatorship. China having become rich with capitalism under Marxist-Leninist rule, has seen the rise of Xi Jinping, who takes inspiration from Mao's era. Except now instead of being a gnat with a few nuclear weapons, China is the world's second largest economy, with businesses from Europe to North America and Japan all heavily invested in it. China is a major trading partner of many economies, and its requirement for local partners and investors has enabled it to steal intellectual property from some investors, and then copy what they do, at a lower price.

For much of the last 30 years Russia and China were content maintaining their regimes and growing richer. Russia on oil and gas (although this was severely dented for some years once fracking made the US in particular, capable of supplying its entire domestic demand), although little else. China on being a manufacturing hub. However, both have become bolder as Western liberal democracies have become weaker defenders of the international order.

Western liberal democracies have been damaged by 

  1. The war to overthrow Saddam Hussein: This demonstrated how utterly incapable Western democracies are in nation-building, and their lack of capacity and willingness to occupy and transform a defeated enemy. The blood and treasure lost in Iraq, and even the aftermath of the limited intervention to overthrow Gaddafi in Libya, have not been seen as worthwhile in most liberal democracies.  This has caused most to want to withdraw militarily.
  2. Weak Western commitment to the international system: President Obama was committed to a future of US pulling back from conflict, and this was followed by European powers that by and large took the same view.  When Russia invaded Crimea, the Western reaction was one of resignation.  When Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk shot down a Malaysian airliner, only the Netherlands and Australia demanded explanations so vocally. Obama's "red-line" over Syria using poison gas against its own population was backed up by little.  Trump for his bluster, has largely been uncommittal on anything. Biden is yet to be tested, but looks and sounds weak.
  3. Western ideological self-hatred: The weak commitment has been backed by both right and leftwing apologists for Russia and China.  Ones on the right regard China as a great business opportunity that shouldn't be disturbed. They also see Russia as a "traditional Christian" state, that has "understandable" interests in neighbouring states. They downplay Putin's authoritarianism. Ones on the left are back in the Cold War, thinking it is "time" the West stopped dominating, after all, it's Western capitalism that they blame for most of the world's ills.

The international system is led by actors that have proven unwilling to deter or confront Russia from irredentist behaviour.  Russia currently occupies not just Crimea, but Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, it also effectively backs a rogue breakaway entity called Trans-Dniestr in Moldova, and is Belarus's biggest friend.  

Russia's narrative that if Ukraine joined NATO it would provoke it was complete nonsense, as it is clear that HAD Ukraine become a NATO member some years ago, the chances of an attack would have been more remote.  

For what it's worth, the international reaction to the attack on Russia has largely been uniform and positive. Widespread condemnation, and the emergence of sanctions and increasing military and economic aid and assistance.  Yet it still looks pathetic for Ukraine to not be subject to military support from powers that completely support it politically and ideologically. Russia's vile defamatory narrative that it is "de-Nazifying" Ukraine (against its Jewish President!!??!) is laughably absurd.

Indeed, the Russian ethno-nationalist narrative Putin is expounding is absolutely fascist.  It is blood-and-soil, historical revanchism, that blanks out the USSR's alliance with Nazism that backfired, and glorifies the Soviet defeat of the USSR.  See this Twitter thread for an excellent summary of that, and how Putin now uses revival of WW2 myths to bolster Russian nationalism.

Let's be crystal clear, Putin is a nationalist neo-fascist.

Of course the West cannot directly intervene against Russia, not least because the price could well be risking nuclear war. What it CAN do, is make it crystal clear that it will use all necessary means to defend NATO member states, which means including nuclear weapons. Russia is only deterred by the risk of overwhelming force.

There have thankfully been very few voices seeking to downplay Putin. However, in NZ Chris Trotter, who has valiantly stood in favour of freedom of speech has revived his tankie instincts over the "tragedy" that the USSR collapsed. The Green Party's Golriz Gharaman has OPPOSED New Zealand sanctioning Russia unilaterally, implicitly accepting that Russia vetoing UN sanctions is preferable, but also essentially claiming sanctions just hurt ordinary people so shouldn't proceed.

Of course then she is happy to share a platform with Roger Waters, who supported Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea and Noam Chomsky who actively supports the Russian imperialist narrative.

Maybe she is more concerned about Palestine and attacking Israel, than actual imperialist warmongering, which simply reflects the weak-willed vacuousness of hard-left anti-Western so-called "peace" activism.

By contrast the Australian Greens, have got a backbone:


as do, it appears, a lot of governments that we perhaps otherwise didn't think had it in them. Finland and Sweden actively discussing joining NATO. Germany finally capitulating to cancel Nordstream 2.   Then there is this magnificent speech from Kenya.

We can only hope that the brave people of Ukraine, finally having some support (except direct military assistance) against Putin, can hold out and Putin can be rolled back into some capitulation.  Putin wants ALL of Ukraine for himself, but he will likely have to resort to accepting a ceasefire in the Donbass, unless he is willing to unleash a fury of weaponry that may cause more Russians to turn against him.

Let us hope that this puts paid to the PRC's ambitions to attack Taiwan.  A firm resolve is needed.  Ukraine is a test of the international system, a test of the resolve of the USA, under a President who has looked weak from day one (with the withdrawal of Afghanistan having been such a mess), the UK and France, the EU and the community of liberal democracies

14 February 2022

About those protests

I’m of two minds about protests generally.  On the one hand freedom of assembly and freedom of speech come together in protest marches, and so they are a key part of a free society, especially protests which challenge Parliament, an institution which derives power directly from counting heads (in this case heads that choose representation). They are particular potent in societies that are not free because people literally risk their lives in order to get the attention of others, so that they might just break down the order of the system of power.

On the other hand I’m not a great fan of protests in liberal democracies, because they rely on the idea that because you can get a few hundred or thousand people to walk with some signs that this grants greater legitimacy to a political position than if it were held by one person. I’m no fan of counting heads rather than what is in them. Yet there is a place for them to highlight injustice which isn’t being reflected through mainstream discourse, through the media or through politics more generally.  

The protestors in Wellington would put themselves in that category, because their views are not supported by most politicians or media. Beyond debating vaccine mandates, I don't support much of the other rhetoric that seems visible.

I don’t support vaccine mandates for private property and private businesses, it should be the choice of individuals as to whether they get vaccinated, and whether their staff or customers must be vaccinated or not on their premises.  However, the health system is dominated by taxpayer funding and state owned institutions and as such, the state must decide as to whether it simply wants to promote vaccines or require vaccines for its employees in such facilities.  It has the right to do that, based on evidence and if you don’t like it, then you should be free to work privately, for others who wish to pay for your services.  There is a case for doing all that is reasonable to protect the vulnerable in a pandemic.

I’d be much more sympathetic if the protest was against how opaque this government is, how evasive it is over OIA requests, Parliamentary questions and the effort involved in managing narratives. This is everything from MIQ to Three Waters to inflation. For a government that has largely had support because it kept Covid19 at bay, the litany of other outcomes are worthy of protest. Housing costs that have skyrocketed (because of monetary incontinence and decades of supply constraints), inflation spiralling at nearly twice the rate of Australia, ICU capacity that is second bottom in the OECD per capita (after Mexico), at mediocre educational performance by global standards, and much more. Imagine the fear of this government (or any) if tens of thousands marched for housing.

I don’t have time for those who think there is some grand conspiracy around vaccines, or who tout quackery. Those engaging in quackery deserve to be challenged as much as they challenge others. Yes, there are also a few flotsam and jetsam that joined the protest that are vile and distasteful, including actual fascist/racial supremacists inciting violence, and some anti-semitism, and they deserve to be challenged, they ought to be confronted by protestors, and anyone who threatens violence should be arrested.  

What protest do you want to be on with this sort of vileness?

There is good reason to be wary of such people given Christchurch, but I am loathe to condemn the majority of protestors with such a label, although it has become a common trend to simply treat those they dislike as being “fascists”. Don’t be mistaken, such types deserve to be ostracised, condemned and monitored, and the protestors ought to know by now that letting such elements be tolerated utterly decimates sympathy they will get from many people. Yet what of those who oppose vaccine mandates and find that some of their fellow travellers are Nazis? What do you do if a largely anarchic protest attracts totalitarian eliminationists? You kind of have three choices. Confront the Nazis, ignore the Nazis or don't go and surrender the issue. To do the former requires some collective effort and will, the do the second is damaging and evasive, and to do the third might seem like surrendering the issue that matters to you. None of those types believe in individual freedom, not remotely.

Other protests do go down dark paths of promoting violence though, and it doesn't get the same attention from the left when it's not in power.

You see when lefties go on a protest that results in paper face beheadings of John Key, Bill English and Judith Collins 

a protest backed by Labour and the Greens (called Aotearoa is Not for Sale), you’re just meant to blank that out. Meanwhile, Jacinda Ardern thinks there is something sinister about the anti-mandate protests to be "imported" (in that they are no doubt inspired by similar protests overseas), but it is just fine for BLM and climate change protests to be inspired by similar protests overseas. You see implying the anti-mandate protestors aren't "real" Kiwis is just the sort of noxious rhetoric seen by some of her nationalist opponents against Ardern and other leftwing politicians. It's not only mindless, but toxic as well. 

See it's awfully ironic when organisations like the Victoria University of Wellington Student Association (VUWSA) (which once warmly defended forcing students to belong to and fund it) openly take a conservative view of protest. when it almost certainly wont support this approach to protests when it comes to backing its own causes, which almost always are about demanding more of other people's money and more government. 

There are good reasons to arrest anyone who is threatening anyone, or vandalising property, and those inciting violence, but the recent trend for some politicians to treat the protestors as being somehow lesser citizens is both unfair and counterproductive. It’s hard to spin your way out of this, and people who feel treated as second class citizens (literally) are much more willing to hold out when they feel they have nothing to lose. They are also more likely to be aligned to seriously sinister types when they are the only ones giving them any form of succour. 

Unfortunately no MPs will talk to the protestors in part because they are fearful of violence from the protestors, but also because they know they will be hounded and vilified by media and other politicians for doing so. The only way to nullify that would be for one MP from each of the parties in Parliament to agree to talk with a few representatives - that would help to reveal whether this is just about mandates or not. 

It might also give the protestors some reason to move on, because they might feel that they have been heard.

UPDATE: David Seymour does appear to spoken to someone at the protest, and while the cynic might say it's because polling is looking not too great for ACT given Luxon seems to resuscitated the Nats, I'd like to think he actually is embracing the idea that mandates need to be phased out.

03 February 2022

Auckland light rail - some thoughts UPDATED

The Government's announcement that it has chosen a nearly $15b option to build a single light rail metro line from Wynyard through the Isthmus to Mt Roskill then Mangere and the Airport utterly astonishes me, Although I obtain some schadenfreude from the urbanists upset that it isn't a street tram (in part because they WANT it to take away road space from other traffic), I remain utterly gobsmacked that the amount of money concerned and the hype surrounding what it is mean to do doesn't appear to have much concern at all from The Treasury.

On purely opportunity cost alone the idea that it is worth spending that amount on money on ONE fast tram line ought to be shades of the Think Big debacles of the 1970s and 1980s.  Sure it is easy to question whether some of the motorway projects the National Government advanced were the best use of road users taxes, but this is in another league.   If you were to put all of Kiwirail on the market, and even guarantee ongoing operating subsidies for commuter rail in Auckland and Wellington, I doubt you would get one-tenth of the capital costs of that single line - that ought to put in perspective what this is about.

What gets me the most is that the very basic pure public policy questions surrounding this project haven't been asked, it looks just like a politically driven legacy project, fueled by Phil Goff on the one hand, with Michael Wood and Grant Robertson willing to jump on the boondoggle.

Of course it has an "indicative business case", which like all massive government projects aren't business cases at all, because there is no business here. Auckland Light Rail will never generate a financial surplus of revenue over operating cost, let alone a return on capital.  Of course, large government transport projects rarely do, but the language used is instructive, because some companies will make a fortune from Auckland Light Rail, in construction and technical consultancy.  A common assumption that NZTA historically used for major projects was that 15% of construction costs were consultancy and technical advisory services, and there are multiple companies circling around that trough, after all it's over $2b in fees. NO consultancy has a commercial interest in being critical of this opportunity to obtain serious bonuses for their New Zealand operations. 

Anyway, what about this business case (PDF).

It says:

The following sets out the problems that the proposed investment in rapid transit will address:
• A high reliance on cars is adversely affecting the climate as well as increasing harm from injury and pollution
• Increasing congestion will further disrupt and lengthen travel times, threatening investment and quality of life
• Some communities have worse access to public transport connections, creating inequity and reducing social cohesion

This is frankly pathetic.  So the problems are "too much car use", "congestion" and "poor public transport connections".

Even if you leave to one side the absurdity that high reliance of cars in Auckland is adversely affecting the climate (like a child urinating in Lake Taupo is poisoning it), climate change policy is addressed through the Emissions Trading Scheme, which caps emissions from transport.  The efficient tool to address this is to lower the cap, increasing the price of fuel, so people drive less. If this is about climate change it's a monstrously wasteful way of doing it, and it wont have any meaningful impact.

The claim of "increasing harm from injury and pollution" is questionable.  MoT resources state:

and there is no evidence of increasing pollution, largely because engines are getting cleaner and there is a growing number of low and zero emission vehicles.  However, it doesn't really matter.  If you think a primary reason to build a light rail metro is to address injuries and pollution on the roads then you're a moron.  You can reduce injuries by better enforcing drink driving laws, speed limits, traffic light violations dangerous driving, not build a light metro line.

Then there is congestion.  The reason there is traffic congestion is that demand for roadspace exceeds supply and politicians choose to price that roadspace the same, everywhere in NZ at all times. Price it higher at peak times and locations and congestion will ease. Price the roads properly and there is more space for buses, and buses can run more frequently and reliably, but that's not exciting for politicians.

Building a light rail metro wont ease congestion, although it WILL provide a fast link, given that passengers are forecast to not be willing to pay more than a small fraction of the cost of building and running it, suggests they don't value time THAT much, and more importantly, that congestion isn't bad enough for them to pay a lot more to avoid it. 

"Threatening investment" by whom? If you think Auckland Light Rail will relieve congestion across Auckland you're a moron, in fact you're a moron if you think it will relieve congestion on the corridor it will serve too.

Finally there is the badly worded "Some communities have worse access to public transport connections" worse than what? This is no doubt true in some form, but do you really think $15b is best spent on a single light rail metro line when you could almost certainly spend a tenth of that on frequent cross-city buses and bus priority measures to seriously uplift the city's public transport network? 

After all this connection will be nice for people in Mt Albert and Mt Roskill wanting a quick trip into the CBD (remember only 13% of Auckland jobs are in the CBD), noting that Mt Albert already has a railway station connecting to the City Rail Link underground electric railway under construction.  Who wants to go from Mt Albert and Mt Roskill to Onehunga and Mangere? I doubt many do.  From Onehunga, the light rail metro will probably be slower than the existing train service, and from Mangere it is quite the indirect route to the CBD, but it is good to get to the airport.  Remember that, this will be a slow route from the airport into the city centre, but be marginally useful from Mt Roskill.

Then take this utter drivel from the "business case":

Using public transport to travel from Māngere to the city centre takes more than twice as long than using a private vehicle. As a result, private vehicles account for 85 percent of all journeys to work by Māngere residents

According to the census (using this remarkable visualisation), the number one destination for people from Mangere Central to work or school is Auckland Airport

It's a logical non-sequitur to claim that because it takes twice as long to go by public transport to the city centre than by car that this means that most journeys to work by Mangere residents are by car, because in fact only 5% of them actually work in the city centre.  

So when it estimates that nearly 32m rides will be taken on this line by 2051 you have to take it with a pinch of salt.  In 2019 there were 103m rides across ALL railway, bus and ferry routes in Auckland, so to expect ONE line to carry about a third of that is ludicrous. For that travel it is going to cost $109m a year to operate, so it needs to charge $3.40 per fare to break even on operating costs, but that's not going to happen is it? It is meant to have the capacity of 32,600 people per hou, this is not far short of London's Victoria Line (at 37, 226), does anyone seriously think that EVEN with intensification there is going to be that level of demand on this line?

So given THOSE problems to solve, Auckland Light Rail is an abject failure, it doesn't address any of these effectively.

So I'll make some not-so-bold assertions, that I would happily have refuted:

  1. Auckland Light Rail will make next to no impact on traffic congestion (and the business case ADMITS this on pg. 59. 
  2. There isn't going to be continuously growing demand for travel on this corridor to and from the CBD.  In fact, Covid19 and changing work trends mean that the norm will be that people wont be in offices five days a week, which completely undermines the case for large scale peak transport capacity in cities
  3. For 1% of the cost of this project, there could be some significant improvements in bus reliability and travel times along corridors, with bus rapid transit, bus priority measures at intersections and use of road pricing
  4. For 3% of the cost of this project, Auckland could have an interconnected cycle lane network across the whole city
  5. For another 6% of the cost of this project Auckland could have a comprehensive network of bus lanes and bus priority measures, higher frequency services AND payment using contactless debit and credit cards which would address all of the social issues, and encourage people to drive less.
  6. Auckland Light Rail not only wont and cant stop urban sprawl, but also is unnecessary to support housing intensification, primarily because most jobs are still not going to be anywhere along the proposed corridor.  Furthermore, housing intensification along the corridor will have a marginal impact on housing pricing

and no, there is even LESS point building the slow tram along the street that the Greens want, because they mainly want it to take away road capacity.  Tradespeople, freight and delivery are unimportant to them, it's just the war on driving, so that rightfully has been dismissed.

Auckland Light Rail is an incredibly expensive folly, it isn't transformative (but the money it costs COULD be transformative in more subtle, more geographically spread and more effective ways that aren't so exciting to politicians) and it is almost certain there wont be anywhere near enough demand to justify it. 

Fares wont pay a cent towards its capital costs, and even property taxes that could be levied to pay for it, wont pay for more than a small fraction of the project. Ratepayers aren't willing to pay for it, and there isn't enough money raised from motoring taxes to pay much towards it either. It needs to be scrapped, and Auckland transport planners (and both Auckland and national politicians) need to focus on how to make existing networks work better, rather than the exciting fetish of a big shiny high capacity boondoggle....

UPDATE:  Of course taxpayer-funded radio (RNZ) discusses light rail with a critical view from.... the Green/left perspective.  The argument Matt Lowrie from the urbanist blog Greater Auckland is partly opportunity cost (it's cheaper to build a slow tram than a fast metro, so there is money to spend on... more slow trams), but then he's quoted as saying it is needed for Wellington, Christchurch, Hamilton and Tauranga? It's economic insanity, but why should anyone be surprised that state radio regards a different perspective to only be from its own tribe of Green Party supporters.