Monday, May 31, 2004



Contradictions

David Farrar's article has also laid bare an interesting contradiction in right-wing thinking.

We are constantly told that the government should be "doing more" to produce higher economic growth, and that higher growth is good because it produces higher government revenue which therefore allows us to increase funding to government services - such as health, education, and welfare. Don Brash was at pains to point this out in early interviews - he wasn't advocating growth for its own sake, oh no, it was so we could better afford the things we wanted.

But when it comes round to the government actually collecting and using that increased revenue, all hell breaks lose. "They'll be collecting an extra $30 billion a year!"; "They should return this money as tax cuts!"

So, why should we pursue growth again...?

(This really pulls the rug out from under the right's tax-cut argument as well. So, we should cut taxes - and therefore spending on services - to produce higher growth, the eventual increase in government revenue being used... to support more tax cuts. And meanwhile the poor starve and the sick die. Fuck that for a joke).

Land of the free?

A San Francisco gallery owner who had the temerity to display a painting of US soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners has been forced to close indefinitely after she became the target of death threats, vandalism, and violence.

Ah, the "land of the free"... where "patriots" use thuggery to defend the destruction of the principles the nation was founded on, and those who speak out are intimidated into silence.

Disingenuous

NZPundit's new "high-brow" group-blog is online, though if David Farrar's "tax and spend" article is any example, the brow is set rather low. David tracks the growth of government revenue since 1990, and points out that, according to the government's own financial projections,

[t]he increase from 1999 to 2008 is forecast to be a staggering $30 billion, of which over $20 billion is taxation alone. If re-elected Labour in 2008 will have state revenue of $72 billion, which is a gigantic 71% increase over nine years.

This is fairly disingenuous, even for a former spindoctor. Why? Because he is working in raw dollars rather than as a percentage of GDP. This allows him to throw big numbers ($30 billion!) around for shock value, but is misleading (to say the least). If you actually look at those financial projections, you get rather a different story, as can be seen from the chart below:

10 year trend information

(Stolen from the Budget 2004 forecast financial statements.)

David is looking at total crown revenue and expenditure, and this does increase over the period 1999-2008. However, note the significant discontinuities in 2003. The government changed its accounting practices then, and now includes all revenue and expenditure of Crown Entities and SOEs in this category (for an idea of what is included, see the appropriate sections of the Crown Reporting Entity). So, in 2003 "total crown revenue" included things like Air New Zealand earning money by selling plane tickets; in 2002 it didn't. That single example is about $3.6 billion a year, by the way, so you can see how this makes a substantial difference.

The truth can be seen in the trends in tax and core crown revenues as a percentage of GDP (and indeed the trends in total crown revenue on either side of that accounting discontinuity) - they're remarkably stable. Tax revenue hovers at just over 30% of GDP, core crown revenue at around 33.8%, and total revenue at either 40% or ~43.5% depending on how you measure it. And that gives us the real story: the $30 billion increase in crown revenue (and $20 billion increase in tax revenue) that David is so incensed about is due primarily to GDP growth. In 1999, GDP was just a smidgen under $100 billion. In 2008 it is projected to be $167 billion. To paraphrase David, that's a gigantic 67% increase over nine years. And since the percentages of government taxation and total revenue are now stable (give or take that accounting discrepancy), they will naturally increase accordingly.

Sunday, May 30, 2004



Vampires, vampires, sucking on your neck

On Saturday night I went to see the Bloodworks production of Dracula. I'd say good things about it, but I think Matt has already beaten me to it...

National Anthem

So I started out channel surfing between TV2's National Anthem and the movie on channel 3. National Anthem showed promise, Zed had a go and they even dusted off the Verlaines. But when I flicked over and found they had dragged out Paul Ubana Jones and the Top Twins to really get the kids rocking, I flagged it. I'd rather watch some guy wanking into a tube sock than watch the Top Twins (carefully checks paragraph to see that he wrote "than" and not "while").

I disagreed with the whole idea of the thing to start with... we should be having, what was essentially a telethon, for worthy causes... like feeding the world's poor, curing cancer or unseating George Bush in November... not for something like this.

When you think about it, it is the recording industry who will benefit from any new talent that develops from this exercise... and they certainly don't need our charity.

Saturday, May 29, 2004



Blair, Antinomianism, and American Moral Exceptionalism

Geoffrey Wheatcroft has an interesting article in The Atlantic this month on The Tragedy of Tony Blair. Unfortunately it's not online, but there is an interview with him which covers some of the same ground.

One of the most interesting bits in the main article talks about Blair's constant hypocrisy - he "evinces strong morality in principle but a tendency toward notable amorality in practice". One way of explaining this is to say that Blair is a Manichaean and a consequentialist - he sees the world in black and white terms, and believes that the ends justify the means. But Wheatcroft goes further - he thinks that Blair isn't just a Manichaean, but an Antinomian:

The quaint sixteenth century heretics who took that name believed that "to the pure all things are pure," so if you were of the elect, you could eat, drink and merrily fornicate in the certainty of salvation.

Very often Blair is like that - not in the eating and so forth, but in his belief that his inner virtue justifies whatever means he chooses to employ.

Hence the lies, the spin, the "dodgy dossier" - though not because Blair is part of some obscure sixteenth-century heresy, but rather because of his utmost faith that the sun shines out of his own arse.

This sort of faith in one's own supreme goodness is also seen in the Americans - except the results are rather more dire. The belief in American moral exceptionalism, that America can do no wrong precisely because it is America, mirrors the Antinomian doctrine - what matters is not actions, but inner virtue. So, sponsoring coups against democraticly elected governments, running death squads, violating international human rights standards, the mass-killing of civilians - none of it matters, because America is (by definition) "the good guys". OTOH, we are yet to see whether this sense of exceptionalism covers torture and rape. The great hope of the Abu Ghraib scandal is that Americans will look at themselves and what their government is doing, and say "no more". The great despair is that that old belief in American exceptionalism will kick in, and they'll say "so what?" To the pure, all things are pure...

Part 6 of Morgue's trip to Palestine is now up.

Open season

A Chilean court has lifted former dictator General Pinochet's immunity from prosecution. Now there's a small chance that he'll finally face justice for his crimes.

Friday, May 28, 2004



Booty

Some of the books I plundered from the book sale today:

  • Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution. Burke is the grand-daddy of British conservatives, an opponent of individualism and human rights who placed great store in custom and prejudice (meaning not bigotry, but literally pre-judging gut instincts - Leon Kass applied to politics).
  • Alexis de Tocqueville's The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution. Got a lot of mention when I studied the period, and is supposed to be one of the chief early thinkers on the Revolution's causes.
  • Not In Our Genes by Rose, Lewontin and Kamin. This is one of the books Pinker slags off in The Blank Slate, so I thought it was worth acquiring.
  • Chairman Mao's Little Red Book - because it was there!

And several others.

But the big question is, when the hell am I going to find time to read all of this?

Sadr one, Americans nil

Remember Fallujah? In response to the murder and mutilation of four US mercenaries, the Americans invaded the place, killed 700 civilians, and then withdrew after it became apparent that they weren't going to get what they wanted. Well, the same is happening in Najaf: after demanding for weeks that Moqtada al-Sadr disband his militia and turn himself in, waging war in Shia Islam's most sensitive areas, damaging several major shrines and killing numerous innocents, the Americans are now... withdrawing because they're not going to get what they want.

It was obvious from the beginning that this was not a battle the US could win politically. So why did they fight it in the first place? Pressing hard and expending so much effort has made them look like losers - and pissed off a hell of a lot of people in the process.

Good on him

The Whig is following my advice and trying to organise a counter-campaign to oppose Greenpeace's views on GE-fed chicken. I wish him luck. Unlike those who simply whine and demand that other people stand up for their views, he is at least putting his, er, mouth where his mouth is.

One of the few good things about living in Palmerston North is the Red Cross book sale - and it only comes once a year. So naturally, I'm going to be one of the sad bastards queuing outside in the cold until the doors open...

The death penalty is a liability in the war on terror

The US's addiction to the death penalty may be about to disrupt the war on terror. They're trying to extradite Abu Hamza, a radical Muslim cleric living in Britain, on charges of hostage-taking and providing material assistance to Al-Qaeda. Bush's Attorney-General trumpeted that the maximum penalty for the charges was death. The problem? Britain hates the death penalty, and cannot extradite (or even provide evidence) unless assurances are given that it will not be pursued or carried out.

Abu Hamza isn't the only case where this is a problem - the UK has reportedly threatened to boycott Saddam's trial and refuse to turn over senior members of the Ba'ath party or provide evidence to Iraqi authorities if they face death.

In cases where the British have custody, the Ameicans are going to have to give way - which is really going to stick in the craw of the Bush administration. But strangely, I don't mind that at all.

In the guise of a book review, Crooked Timber has some interesting thoughts on why democracies lose small wars...

Exploiting the crisis

I see the threat of another electricity crisis has the loonies coming out of the woodwork again, with Holmes giving a lot of airtime to Brian Leyland's suggestion that we go nuclear. Regular readers will know that we think that's a dumb idea; New Zealand simply has too many earthquakes and too many active volcanos for it to be safe. And even if we look past that fact, it still makes no sense whatsoever simply on economic grounds. The capital cost is enormous and (unless we spend vast amounts of money seriously developing local industry) would require much of the equipment and expertise to be imported. Ditto fuel - while we have uranium, we have no local means of enriching it, which again means either serious investment to develop an industry or importing it from Australia (or worse, Britain). And then there's the cost of decontamination, waste disposal and storage. Simply put, there are much cheaper options. It's a telling indicator that even at the height of its "Think Big" madness, the Muldoon government didn't build nuclear - it built the (still ludicrously expensive) Clyde Dam.

Quite apart from that, we simply have no need for nuclear power in this country. We have 1000 - 2000 MW of additional hydro capacity waiting to be tapped (and possibly more), as well as one of the best wind resources in the world. We can easily aim for - and achieve - a green mix of hydro, wind and geothermal for baseload, with a small amount of coal or gas for peak load and "firming" - and all at a cheaper cost than nuclear.

Meanwhile, Fighting Talk's Lyndon Hood speculates that the impending South Island power crisis is a con. While I admire his healthy sense of cynicism, I think he's probably wrong. Potential supply problems in Marlborough were highlighted in Transpower's system security forecast (see Ch. 4, "South island issues"), though from the figures there it was not expected to be a problem until 2007. Unfortunately the SSF does not include similar data for Canterbury.

The February 2003 update presentation briefly mentions that "South Island load growth appears higher than SSF assumptions", but unfortunately does not provide further details. So it seems that the possibility for a problem was known over a year ago. What's interesting is that Transpower seems to have sat on it until the last minute, rather than warning generators or retailers (who could have shipped in temporary generation capacity or encouraged conservation measures given sufficient warning).

As for how to solve this, one obvious solution is to build more lines or otherwise improve infrastructure. Transpower hasn't done this becuse it's not profitable enough, and I'm unaware of any price feedback mechanism which can send them a signal to do it significantly in advance (meaning that it doesn't get built until after the fact). The other solution is to add more generation capacity in these areas, thus removing the need to transfer power in via the national grid. There are already plans for a 70 MW hydro scheme in the Wairau valley, which should be online by 2006 - 2007 (unlike Aqua, it seems popular with the local community, so the RMA shouldn't cause too many delays), and while I don't know of any concrete plans, Canterbury is likely to get a windfarm at some stage. As Transpower isn't talking about upgrading their lines until 2009 or so, it's likely that this sort of mid-size, local generation will end up filling the gap.

Thursday, May 27, 2004



Delivering the social dividend

After four years of relative fiscal austerity, of delivering only small and incremental gains while running ever-larger surpluses, Labour has finally delivered the social dividend it was elected to do. Increased family support payments and wider eligibility. A new "In-Work" package which rewards low-income families. Free early-childhood education for 3 and 4 year-olds. More funding for education and health. Critics are dismissing it as a pre-election spendup and a lost opportunity to cut taxes, but this is what government exists to do: to provide those services, and to help out those at the bottom so that everybody can participate in our society and pursue their individual goals.

At the same time, though, it doesn't seem like enough. The government is still ignoring the elephant in the room - the student loans scam. While they've extended eligibility for student allowances, which will reduce the problem somewhat in the future, they have not universalised them, so people will still be having to borrow to eat. And they've made no mention of moves to reduce the debt burden on existing borrowers. Student loans are already having an enormous effect on our economy: they're preventing people from buying their own home (bad for the Kiwi dream, and bad for banks), and they're delaying the age at which people start families (bad for future generations). They are, to paraphrase Chris Trotter, a great steel straitjacket over our young people's future. Something needs to be done, and the longer the government waits, the worse it is going to get.

And unfortunately, it's not going to be done anytime soon. Labour is committed to being even more financially hard-nosed than the hard-noses, in wanting to pay down our gross crown debt to less than 20% of GDP. And the new spending contained in the budget has reduced room for maneuvre in future years. Effectively they're giving any future government a poison pill: if they want to cut taxes, then they must cut services or borrow to do so - both of which are likely to be unpopular with the electorate. It's electorally cunning, but it means that nothing significant is going to change for at least three years.

More when I've digestd the detail and seen more figures...

You've got to be in to win

Every time I make sarcastic remarks about how the odds of winning lotto are practically the same if I don't buy a ticket, some smart-arse reminds me that (as Lotto's latest advertising campaign puts it) "you've got to be in to win".

Hah! What do they know? According to a piece of email I've just received from a "Mr Antonio Gomez, Vice President", I've just won 850,000 Euros in a Spanish lottery - without ever having entered...

Iraqi sovereignty

The ultimate test of the sovereignty of the new Iraqi government will be whether it has control over the occupying forces after the handover. Will it be able to direct coalition military policy (tightening the US rules of engagement so that they don't shoot so many innocent people, for example), veto politically sensitive operations (such as a repeat of the Fallujah massacre), or ultimately ask the coalition forces to leave and never come back? Britain says "yes". The United States says "no". Which one do you think is actually calling the shots?

If the US is only going to hand over "sovereignty-lite", then the rest of the Security Council should tell them where to go. The UN should not sully its hands with acting as a rubberstamp for US Imperialism. The Americans will no doubt claim that refusal would make the UN irrelevant, but I can think of no better way to make the UN irrelevant than for it to fatally compromise the ideals on which it was founded.

That's an awful lot of "bad apples"

A secret report by the US Army has found that abuse of prisoners is widespread in Afghanistan and Iraq. The abuses described are sadly familiar - beatings, humiliation, outright torture and sexual assault - and include several deaths described as homicides. Despite this, no charges have been filed against anyone involved. I guess torturing prisoners is fine provided it doesn't make the TV...

Search term of the day

interrogation in the Treaty of Waitangi

Wednesday, May 26, 2004



When the market is the problem, deregulation is not the solution

ACT's response to the prospect of power supply problems in the South Island? "More market and less Government", of course.

Unfortunately, this problem is caused by market forces. It is not the case that TransPower has been prevented by the RMA from building further lines; it has chosen not to build them because it is not profitable enough. Privatisation or gutting the RMA will not change that - in fact, judging by the example of TransRail, privatisation will only make things worse, as the new private owners will demand a far higher rate of return on their investment and run assets into the ground to get it.

An efficient national grid is a vital piece of infrastructure with enormous implications for other sectors of the economy. It's a public good, just like roads or a justice system. The problem we are facing is that TransPower is trying to manage that public good by the imperitives of the market - and as a result, it's not running it properly.

The Official Information Act is your friend

About a month ago, out of curiousity mostly, I asked the government a few questions about what exactly New Zealand soldiers were doing in Iraq. Chief among these questions was "have they shot at anyone?". The answer, it seems, is "no":

The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) light engineer group in Basrah conducts monthly range practices on gazetted ranges in order to maintain weapon-handling skills. The typical ammunition expended during practice is 100 rouns of 9mm pistol ammunition, 2 belts of 5.56mm machine gun ammunition and 1-2000 rounds of 5.56mm rifle ammunition.

There has been one alleged accidental discharge of an NZDF weapon, currently under investigation, which took place on a gazetted range during a controlled training activity and involved no risk to human life or property. There has been no occurence of NZDF weapons being fired other than on a controlled range during training.

This has reassured me that, despite the fact that their rebuilding efforts haven't really achieved much, the deployment is mostly harmless. This doesn't mean that I particularly want them to stick around - it seems to be getting too dangerous, and it doesn't really seem worthwhile given their ineffectual rebuilding efforts - but it does mean that, at least for the moment, I can remain happy about it.

New Fisk

The things Bush didn't mention in his speech

The US Army is trying to silence those who have departed from the official line on Abu Ghraib being the acts of "a few bad apples"...

The market bites us in the arse again

Electricity companies are now talking of power shortages and brownouts in parts of the South Island this winter - not because of any lack of supply, but because the national grid can't cope with the load. Why not? Because Transpower (which, as an SOE, must operate under commercial imperitives) hasn't thought that there's been enough profit in it for them to upgrade the lines. In other words, we've been bitten in the arse by the market - again.

Why do we continue to tolerate this? We knew from TransRail that running a big piece of infrastructure according to free-market values meant running it into the ground. The national grid is simply too important to allow that to happen. If Transpower cannot properly plan and invest in infrastructure as an SOE governed by the free market, then we need to either bring it back under full crown control or turn it into a crown entity. Either way, it must have a charter which clearly spells out that its sole reason for existence is to provide, support and run a national grid which meets our electricity needs. If we fail to do that, if we continue to make important infrastructure decisions by short-term NPV analysis, then we're all going to be left in the dark.

Hard Choices

James Lovelock, arch-environmentalist and author of the Gaia hypothesis, says that nuclear power is the only green solution to the problem of global warming. And he's right. If we want to seriously prevent climate change, then we need to dramaticly reduce our use of fossil fuels now. And sadly, the best technological option to do so looks to be nuclear fission.

Climate change is a global problem. Nuclear power is, at worst, a local problem. Compared to burning coal, it is clearly the lesser of two evils. That isn't to say that countries like the US, Britian and China should focus only on nuclear; rather, that if they are serious about reducing greenhouse emissions and slowing global warming, it should play a larger role in their energy mix.

As for us, our situation is nowhere near dire enough to justify the risks of siting a reactor in New Zealand. We have plenty of options for "green" generation - and we're not being slow in pursuing them (this year's electricity demand growth will be met almost entirely by wind turbines). We're lucky enough to have good hydro, geothermal and wind resources, and this should allow us (once the market distortion of cheap Maui gas has passed) to generate almost all of our electricity from non-greenhouse-emitting sources, without having to resort to fission.

US to demolish Abu Ghraib jail

Very good - but shouldn't they have done this a year ago?

Tuesday, May 25, 2004



Mass psychosis

Another article about those loony American fundamentalists:

The Covert Kingdom: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Texas.

The more I read about this, the more it worries me. All of that fear about some fundamentalist with a lust for armageddon like Osama bin Laden getting his hands on nuclear weapons, while back in America people with essentially the same beliefs have their man in the White House and their fingers on the button...

Part 5 of Morgue's trip to Palestine is now up.

Alternatives

With all the kerfuffle about teenage sex, I think its timely to remind people of the British solution: outlawing any sexual conduct or contact involving someone under 16. This has the side effect of criminalising a teenage snog behind the bike sheds. The police have been directed not to prosecute, but the effect is to make the law into a Trojan-horse size ass.

Must Read

Jim Evans on untangling the foreshore. The Whig - and Don Brash - should pay particular attention.

Political Theory 101: Thomas Hobbes

So, who is this Hobbes guy anyway? I keep talking about him, and referring to things as "Hobbesean". What the hell am I talking about?

Thomas Hobbes of Malmsebury is one of the first truly modern political philosophers. He wrote during the mid seventeenth century, around the time of the English Civil War. His general outlook was materialist - he tried to explain human psychology in terms of the motions of the body - and the unpopularity of his views caused a certain amount of controversy. His books were placed on the Index by the Catholic Church, and "Hobbists" were fired from Oxford. His notoriety as an atheist was so great that he was blamed by Parliament for bringing the "dreadful judgement" of the Great Fire of London upon them (god presumably having much the same discrimination and aim as the Americans). But it's really the political philosophy laid out in his Leviathan for which he is remembered, and which I'm primarily interested in.

The key question for Hobbes is how do we justify the State. By what right does the State claim its authority, and is challenging that authority ever justified? Hobbes answers these questions by imagining what life would be like if there was no government.

Firstly, he starts off with people. People are roughly equal in physical and intellectual power. While there are differences, none are so great as to automatically make any one person master; anyone can be overcome by treachery or a coalition of others. This rough equality leads to trouble, because it gives rise to an "equality of hope in the attaining of our ends". Where interests conflict (and Hobbes takes it as a given that they will, sometime), then no-one has any reason to give way to any other. The net result is that people will fight, and that no-one is secure in their life or property:

if one plant, sow, build, or possess a convenient seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united to dispossess and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life or liberty. And the invader again is in the like danger of another.

Hobbes calls this situation the "State of Nature, and characterises it as a "war of every man, against every man", in which

there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Or, to put it another way, it's Mad Max, or what people generally think of when they use the term "anarchy".

How do we get out of this mess? Hobbes believes that we all have some desire for security and an urge towards self-preservation; in fact, he thinks that it's not just an urge, but a moral duty; we ought to take whatever steps we think necessary to protect our own lives. And the rational step to take is to seek peace where others are also willing to do so. The problem with the State of Nature is that we each have a right to all things; Hobbes thinks that we should (if others are also willing to do so) surrender this right, and "be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself".

And so we have the "Leviathan" for which the book is named: people give up their right to all things to the State ("an artificial man; though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended"), which then acts as an arbitrator and enforcer of laws and ensures that people are secure. Hobbes goes off into absolutism at this point - because he thinks that it is necessary to prevent civil war - and it's about there that I lose interest. Locke or Rawls have better answers from this point on.

Why do I find Hobbes interesting? Well, firstly I think his formulation of the problem and its solution is essentially sound (though not historical). In a practical sense, we are as unconstrained as those Hobbes imagines in the State of Nature; any of us can kill, steal, rape, or rob. The only way we can live together as a society is if we voluntarily refrain from those courses of action. Hobbes may reach the wrong conclusions about the sort of government people should establish, but he at least gets the basics right on why we have some government rather than none.

Secondly, the argument he makes is essentially game-theoretic. The State of Nature is an enormous game of Prisoner's Dilemma, with the important difference that we can all talk to one another. In these circumstances, it is obvious that we should all agree to co-operate, and to punish cheaters. I find game theory a useful lens to view politics and society through on occasions, and so Hobbes is a good place to start.

And thirdly, I like his outlook. Like Machiavelli, Hobbes is a hard-nosed naturalist who talks about the world as it is rather than the world as it should be. He's pessimistic about human nature; while he acknowledges that we can be nice, charitable, generous and altruistic, he's too smart to rely on it. Likewise, he talks almost entirely about power and pragmatics (rather than authority and obedience) because he's not stupid enough to think that morality is a significant factor. We don't have a government because it is the moral thing to do or because its the way god wants us to live; we have a government because we have to. If you're a naturalist trying to build a political theory from the ground up or analyse the state without regard for "spookiness", then this is the place to start.

Old saws

Tony Ryall is harping on that old saw, parental consent for teen abortions. And so, in the same spirit, I'll just regurgitate what I said about it last year:

Parental consent laws mean parents forcing their children to have children. They treat young girls in bad circumstances like brood mares. Bill EnglishTony Ryall may be fine with that, but I regard it as a fundamental insult to human dignity.

People have a right to sovereignty over their own bodies - even teenagers. Forcing women to have children (or, conversely, to have an abortion) is a particularly invasive violation of that right, akin to sexual slavery or enforced prostitution. We throw the book at people who do that, and we throw it harder for people who do it to teenagers. So why the hell should we let parents get away with it?

Children are not property, and they should not be treated as such. Tony Ryall should be ashamed of himself for suggesting that they be.

Monday, May 24, 2004



Those wanting to pretend that there is or was no problem with the way US soldiers use force in Iraq may want to read this...

Friends in strange places

The Whig thinks he has friends in strange places over flag burning. Hardly. A quick look at the political compass or my previous posts on similar issues will show where I stand. I may be a lefty, but I'm very definitely from the libertarian or liberal end of that broad church.

Freedom may not be the only thing I believe in (I tend towards value pluralism, though I'm by no means certain about that yet), but it is absolutely central to my political philosophy. People need as much freedom as possible to pursue their disparate visions of the good. So, I support the greatest possible system of coextensive rights for everyone, and the widest possible sphere of state non-interference. And the sorts of justifications I accept for restricting freedom ought to be recognisable to any other liberal - consent, preventing harm to or preserving the freedom of others. There's no such justification for forbidding people from burning the flag, and so I oppose laws against flag-burning.

Where I differ from right-wing or "big-L" Libertarians is that I want that freedom to be substantive rather than formal. Traditional libertarianisms (such as Rand or Nozick) talk about freedom a lot, but when pressed, you find out that that freedom is nothing more than a cruel joke. The shackles of the state are simply replaced - and strengthened - by contract law, with "consent" extracted by economic duress. The Enlightenment project of destroying privilege and extending universal rights has been perverted into a defence of economic slavery and the assumed privileges of wealth.

Fuck that. That's just freedom for the pike. I want something more.

In order for people's freedom to be meaningful, they must be able to exercise it - in practice, not just in theory. This means preventing the powerful from limiting other people's freedom (justifying employment law and anti-discrimination legislation), enabling people to make the most of themselves (hence state-provided (or at least regulated) education), and insulating them from the vagaries of fortune, of ill-health or poverty, so that they will be able to pursue their vision of the good (or at least not completely lose sight of it) regardless of circumstance (giving us social welfare and a comprehensive health system). In other words, your standard redistributive liberal-democratic welfare state, supported on the grounds that freedom is for everyone, not just the rich.

(BTW, the political compass graph is somewhat out of date, and does not include many of our newer political bloggers. If you want to be on the graph, then all you have to do is take the test and email me your score. My munged address is on the sidebar to your left...)

The witnesses are coming forward...

A military lawyer for a soldier charged in the Abu Ghraib abuse case stated that a captain at the prison said the highest-ranking U.S. military officer in Iraq was present during some "interrogations and/or allegations of the prisoner abuse," according to a recording of a military hearing obtained by The Washington Post.

The lawyer, Capt. Robert Shuck, said he was told that Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez and other senior military officers were aware of what was taking place on Tier 1A of Abu Ghraib. Shuck is assigned to defend Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick II of the 372nd Military Police Company. During an April 2 hearing that was open to the public, Shuck said the company commander, Capt. Donald J. Reese, was prepared to testify in exchange for immunity. The military prosecutor questioned Shuck about what Reese would say under oath.

"Are you saying that Captain Reese is going to testify that General Sanchez was there and saw this going on?" asked Capt. John McCabe, the military prosecutor.

"That's what he told me," Shuck said. "I am an officer of the court, sir, and I would not lie. I have got two children at home. I'm not going to risk my career."

[...]

At the April hearing, Shuck also said Reese would testify that Capt. Carolyn A. Wood, who supervised the military intelligence operation at Abu Ghraib, was "involved in intensive interrogations of detainees, condoned some of the activities and stressed that that was standard procedure."

More here.

Thoughts on regional unity

Simon Upton's column on EU expansion has got me thinking on the subject of super-national organisation in the South Pacific. The recent Australia - New Zealand Leadership Forum was explicitly aimed at bringing our two countries closer together, with talk of an eventual "single market" and even political union. And the topic of stronger co-operation has been raised at recent meetings of the Pacific Islands Forum. But what purpose would such co-operation serve, and what would the resulting forms of organisation look like?

The most obvious starting point is to look at the purpose of closer co-operation - and here we immediately begin to see differences with the EU. The driving force behind the unification of Europe has always been political - the early steps were taken with the explicit goal of making France and Germany so interdependent as to make future war between them impossible. While the EU has expanded since then, the goal has remained the same: to increase interdependence and stability, and thereby prevent war in Europe.

By contrast, the chief motivation underlying talk of closer relations between New Zealand and Australia is primarily economic. We want open access to each other's markets, and free passage for capital, goods, and people. But there's no driving pressure to unify to prevent war because war between our two countries is already unthinkable (and has been for a long time). Our shared history as British colonies, our enormous cultural similarities and the fact that we are so interconnected by family ties sees to that.

As for the wider Pacific, the motive here is primarily one of ensuring good governance, with a hefty dose of security. Discussion is driven by the larger states - Australia and New Zealand - who believe (with some evidence) that their smaller neighbours cannot properly govern themselves. Either they are plagued by corruption, nepotism, and outdated tribal structures to the detriment of their peoples, or are too small to be "viable". Either way, there is also a great deal of fear that these countries will collapse into "failed states" and so provide a haven for terrorists, drug dealers, and organised crime - all of which pose a threat to the larger states' security. And so we encourage them to get together - but primarily for our benefit, not theirs.

With these differences in underlying motivation you would expect the resulting organisations to look very different. So for example the EU is all about creating political and economic interdependence and unity, and so it has centralised political, legal, and bureaucratic institutions to serve these ends (a European Parliament and commission; laws and people to enforce them; a European Court of Human Rights; a common currency). But what would a future NZ-Australia or South Pacific "superstate" look like?

In the case of New Zealand and Australia, it probably wouldn't look like a superstate at all. Merging the two markets will require a lot of negotiation and compromise, but this can be done by the two governments sitting across the table from one another. While it will require shared regulatory authorities to set standards on things such as food and safety, there's simply no need for any superstructure over this. No need for an ANZAC parliament, no need for a court with jurisdiction beyond the intergovernmental agreements concerned, no need even for a common currency (while it would ease the way a little, it is not required). Political union may come by public sentiment, but there's no pressure there.

As for the Pacific, any supernational organisation created there is likely to be even weaker. The pacific states are mostly subsistence economies, with little in the way of industry or trade between them. So what reason is there to get together? Australia and New Zealand have suggested "pooled regional governance" and shared resources - for example, a regional police college and regional airline - but the suggestions all seem to be driven by an agenda of ensuring our security, rather than a real interest in the needs of smaller states. And given the past colonial history in the region, that's not a recipe for unification.

The thing is, there are plenty of issues that pacific states could get together on - controlling fishing in their vast exclusive economic zones, for example - and the problem of small-state viability is a real one that could be countered by reducing the duplication that multiple governments entails. But the latter is demanding something much stronger than the EU - stronger than the United States, even - and so is far less likely to happen. And it will absolutely never happen if New Zealand and Australia insist on being a part of it or on driving the agenda; the suspicions about colonialism and worries about dominance by vastly larger countries are simply too great. We may be better off stepping back, promoting unification as a solution to this problem, and simply funding it out of the aid budget, rather than trying to strongarm our smaller neighbours into doing things "for their own good".

Participate or perish

Drawing together some of the below with some comments made on NZPundit: why am I so keen for people to get out there and make their opinions known?

Simple: despite everything I think about the proper role of the state and the relationship between the state and the individual, the underlying basis of politics (the "facts on the ground", as it were) is ultimately Hobbesean1. The social contract does not end the war of all against all - it merely outlaws force and the more obvious forms of coercion2. This has the effect of moving our struggles into different battlegrounds - such as politics, civil society, and the market.

Liberal democracy is one way of providing a battlefield where people don't get killed - and I think its a good one. However even in a liberal democracy, great swathes of social, political and ideological "territory" are still up for grabs, undetermined by anything other than a naked clash of interests between disagreeing parties. And where a clash of interests is involved, you've got to be in to win. If you want other people to take your interests into account, you have to let them know what you think.

I regard it as axiomatic that if you are unwilling to advocate for your interests and in consequence get walked all over by people who do, then you have no-one to blame but yourself.

So: participate or perish. Vote. Advocate. Organise. Outsource, if necessary. But whatever, make sure that your memes are in the pool and that people know you care - because people aren't always going to be polite enough to ask.

1 I say "Hobbesean" because he is the key thinker here, identifying the key problem: one of power and a clash of interests. While Locke identifies a far better solution to the problem than Hobbes' absolute Leviathan, and rightly puts the focus on "the consent of the governed", he muddies the waters of the State of Nature by trying to stick God and Christian morality back into it...

2 Here I am using "social contract" in its weakest sense, of a widely shared consensus against using force and coercion, imposed on those that don't agree by force and coercion. I'm also using "interests" very broadly and abstractly, to encompass beliefs about how things should be done, "moral interests" and such - "advancing your self-interest" can here mean working in the cause of unselfish memes.

Update: Added link to Thomas Hobbes.

Well, that was quick

The government has backed away from its plans to decriminalise consensual sexual behaviour between teenagers.

What are the odds that Peter Dunne quietly threatened to withdraw confidence and supply over this?

Update: And on the other hand, what is Tony Ryall on? Contrary to his assertions, the government is not planning "to legalise older men having sex with 12-16-year olds, if they can prove they took reasonable steps to ascertain the age of the young person and believed them to be 16-years-old or over." That's already legal. In fact, as David Farrar points out, the government is significantly tightening legislation in this area. There is already a defence of "reasonable belief" that someone was over 16; now you have to actually have asked...

Submit!

Parliament's Fisheries and Other Sea-related Legislation Committee is finally soliciting submissions on the Foreshore and Seabed Bill. If you have an opinion on this (and doesn't everyone?), then why not make a submission?

They're after 25 copies by 5pm on Monday, 12th July, sent to:

Miles Reay
Clerk of Committee
Fisheries and Other Sea-related Legislation Committee
Bowen House, Parliament Buildings
Wellington

(No postage required)

There's a guide to making submissions here.

A progressive step

That's the only way to describe the government's plans to decriminalise consensual sexual behaviour between teenagers.

I know people don't want to face up to it, but (shock! horror!) teenagers experiment with sex. It is not neccessarily a good thing, but where it is consensual and non-exploitative, the threat of prosecution can only make things worse. If we put the interests of the child first (rather than the interests of outraged and scandalised parents), then we must acknowledge that this is something that should generally be dealt with by parents and educators - not the criminal justice system. The state should only be involved where there is coercion, predation or exploitation; beyond that, it should step back and leave teenagers to decide for themselves what they do with their own bodies.

Sunday, May 23, 2004



Cheese-eating surrender monkeys strike back

Michael Moore's Farenheit 911 has won the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

This is one movie I will be shelling out money to see...

Say no to coalition impunity

The US/UK are trying to get the UN to grant their soldiers immunity from Iraqi law as part of the June 30th "handover".

There are three reasons to oppose this. Firstly, legal jurisdiction is a central part of sovereignty. Excluding American and British soldiers will undermine the sovereignty (not to mention the legitimacy) of the new Iraqi government. After all, what sort of "sovereignty" is it when you are forbidden from enforcing your own laws in your own territory? It is one thing to surrender those rights voluntarily, but to have them unilaterally denied? It makes the whole handover a joke.

Secondly, it's already quite clear that American and British civilian and military law have failed to deter abuses, and that there may be significant problems establishing jurisdiction over some people accused of crimes (such as civilian contractors). Making coalition forces subject to Iraqi law will solve this problem, and help ensure that members of the occupying force who commit crimes can be brought to justice.

Finally, there's the whole question of why this is before the UN in the first place. Normally status-of-forces-agreements covering things such as legal jurisdiction are negotiated between the countries involved, without the intervention of third parties. If the US and UK wish to remain in Iraq, they should negotiate such an agreement in good faith with the new Iraqi government after the handover - not attempt to unilaterally impose one by an outside agency. This is the sort of decision which should be made by the Iraqi people or their representatives, not by the US/UK, and not by the UN.

One of the biggest problems with the occupation is lawlessness - not just the lawlessness permitted by the occupiers, but the lawlessness of the occupation forces themselves. From day one, they've been killing civilians in dubious circumstances with no legal consequences. Whenever a bomb goes off, they start shooting at random. And then there's the beatings, abuse, humiliation and torture. US authorities have turned a blind eye to most of this (their rules of engagement seem to allow them to kill civilians at will and at random in the name of "force protection"); it's only with the recent Abu Ghraib photos that they've been spurred to act. And that simply isn't good enough. Granting immunity will continue the current US culture of impunity. The only way to change that culture is to subject US forces to a legal jurisdiction independent of US military or civilian authority.

(I've focused on the US in the last part because the UK is already subject to an independent jurisdiction: the International Criminal Court in The Hague. This acts as a strong incentive for the British to both set civilised rules of engagement (you may notice that British soldiers don't shoot at anything that moves), and to swiftly prosecute criminal behaviour and violations of the laws of war. They can't turn a blind eye or gloss over abuses, because if they don't prosecute, then the ICC will do it for them...)

Bush scores own goal - Iran 1 USA 0

This article (thanks to nz pundit for the link) might explain why Ahmed Chalabi has fallen so spectacularly from favour. There must be some very smug people in Tehran at the moment.

Crooked Timber has an excellent post on some arguments over liberalism. Some of the links in it are worth folowing as well...

Saturday, May 22, 2004



Fresh Python

Terry Jones: Support America - dump Bush

More deaths

First it was 25 prisoner deaths in US custody. Now it's 37 - with as many as 10 of them being murders. Not "justifiable homicide", not "self-defence", not "shot trying to escape" - murders.

But hey, they're only Hajjis, right?

Proof

More photos from Abu Ghraib, as well as statements from detainees. Meanwhile, details are emerging of outright torture - including drugging, beating and suffocation - being performed at a US special forces "battlefield interrogation facility" near Baghdad airport:

According to two top U.S. government sources, it is the scene of the most egregious violations of the Geneva Conventions in all of Iraq’s prisons. A place where the normal rules of interrogation don’t apply, Delta Force’s BIF only holds Iraqi insurgents and suspected terrorists - but not the most wanted among Saddam’s lieutenants pictured on the deck of cards.

These sources say the prisoners there are hooded from the moment they are captured. They are kept in tiny dark cells. And in the BIF’s six interrogation rooms, Delta Force soldiers routinely drug prisoners, hold a prisoner under water until he thinks he’s drowning, or smother them almost to suffocation.

If any of this sounds familiar, it's because it is exactly what Seymour Hersh talked about in the New Yorker last weekend: the same techniques originally approved for use on top-level Al-Qaeda operatives (and used on them by the CIA), applied to ordinary Iraqi insurgents by US special forces (who are the sorts of people you bring in to run the business end of that sort of project). Despite the Pentagon's denials and attempts to smear Hersh as a raving conspiracy theorist, we now have the proof. "Copper Green" (or whatever it's called) exists. The US government ordered people to be tortured, in violation of US and international law. Do you understand now why we need the Hague?

Resignations?

A former US diplomat who resigned from the Nixon administration over the decision to invade Cambodia is now calling on US diplomats and intelligence officials to follow his example, and refuse to be a part of the Iraq disaster:

It is your dedicated work that has been violated -- the flouted treaties you devotedly drew and negotiated, the estranged allies you patiently cultivated, the now thronging enemies you worked so hard to win over. You know what will happen. Sooner or later, the neoconservative cabal will go back to its incestuous think tanks and sinecures, the vice president to his lavish Halliburton retirement, Bush to his Crawford, Texas, ranch -- and you will be left in the contemptuous chancelleries and back alleys, the stiflingly guarded compounds and fear-clammy, pulse-racing convoys, to clean up the mess for generations to come.

[...]

No, it is you whose voices are so important now. You alone stand above ambition and partisanship. This administration no longer deserves your allegiance or participation. America deserves the leadership and example, the decisive revelation, of your resignations.

Your resignations alone would speak to America the truth that beyond any politics, this Bush regime is intolerable -- and to an increasingly cynical world the truth that there are still Americans who uphold with their lives and honor the highest principles of our foreign policy.

I wonder how many will take him up on it?

Friday, May 21, 2004



I bet NZPundit will laugh at this too

From the sound of it, the latest from Abu Ghraib is more sickening than anything we've seen so far:

In one video clip, five hooded and naked detainees stand against the wall in the darkness, each masturbating, with two other hooded detainees crouched at their feet. Another shows a prisoner handcuffed to the outside of a cell door. He repeatedly slams his head into the green metal, leaving streaks of blood before he ultimately collapses at the feet of a cameraman.

In one photo, a soldier is seen cocking his fist as he holds a hooded detainee in a headlock amid a pile of several detainees. Later, he is seen kneeling atop the same pile, flexing his muscles, a broad smile on his face, posing. Another soldier is seen in a photo brandishing a black baton as a naked prisoner - cuffed at the ankles and smeared with a brown substance - stands at the center of the prison hallway and holds his arms spread to either side.

There's also a throwaway line in this BBC report that Muslim detainees were force-fed pork and alcohol. While that's not greatly harmful in the grand scheme of things, it does reveal a lot about the attutides of the guards. They're childish bullies; like schoolkids with guns and power. And to them the prisoners are not people, but playthings to be abused and humiliated for sadistic pleasure.

As for NZPundit, it looks like I was wrong - he simply thinks that reports of people being "savagely beaten" and "repeatedly humiliated sexually" are "beyond parody". Charming.

ACT and flag-burning

Stephen Franks has once again proven that the only "freedom" ACT cares about is the freedom of the rich not to pay taxes, with his claim that "flag-burning is not speech".

Flag-burning is perhaps the ultimate example of political speech (second only I think to burning yourself). It conveys a powerful message - that of being so disgusted with one's country that you are willing to burn it in effigy. This is obviously offensive to those who aren't so disgusted (or who preach blind loyalty to a country regardless of what it does), but frankly that's part of the point - and its tough shit. There is no right not to be offended, and this follows very clearly from Mill's Law.

Liberalism is primarily about freedom, and its answer to the question of how far that freedom should extend is simple: as long as it doesn't hurt anybody else. John Stuart Mill captured this in the introduction to On Liberty:

the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection

Or as the pagans put it, "and it harm none, do what thou wilt". Giving offence is not "harm". Therefore suppressing it, either by state action or private use of force, is unjustified.

While we're on the subject of Mill, he also had this to say:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

If Franks had any commitment at all to the principles ACT purports to stand for, he'd be supporting Paul Hopkinson's appeal, not opposing it. But sadly, he doesn't. Maybe liberal ACT members should protest by burning him in effigy?

Update: Not everyone in ACT is as illiberal as Stephen Franks, and his press release has brought out the best in at least one of them: The Whig. He may argue from property rights, but he gets to the right place in the end:

To be sure the flag is a fundamental symbol of New Zealand, our way of life, our democracy and our aspirations. But people have the right to disagree with these things. The right to disagree and dissent is in fact what the flag represents. The New Zealand flag, as I see it, is a symbol of our right to burn it.

It may offend people to burn the flag, but to make it a criminal offence to offend people is the mark of a fascist society. People who wish to protect the flag in this manner are not worthy of having it as their ensign.

Nothing from any of ACT's other denizens on the web, though.

Consequences

New Zealand has attracted criticism from the UN Committee Against Torture regarding our treatment of Ahmed Zaoui, and asylum-seekers in general.

Thanks, Lianne and Phil, for dragging our international good name through the mud.

Latest on Abu Ghraib

US interrogators there mistreated a child to get his father to talk.

This violates all standards of decency, international law, and the US's own anti-torture statute (which forbids threatening harm to others). But will there be serious prosecutions? I'm not holding my breath...

Economic independence for Timor!

East Timor turned two yesterday - but spent most of the time worrying about its lack of economic resources required to rebuild the country.

What really bites is that the resources are there - Timor is literally sitting on billions of dollars worth of oil and natural gas. Unfortunately, its currently subject to a border dispute with Australia, who are refusing to give it up and are trying to use their economic muscle (and control of aid money) to monster the fledgling country into signing away their rights - despite the fact that the Timorese position is the standard one in international law.

And what is the New Zealand government doing about this? Nothing. We have taken a strong role in helping Timor along the path to independence, but Timor will never be truly independent until it can stand on its own two feet economicly - and that isn't going to happen if Australia gets its way on the border. As a country which traditionally supports international law, we should be using our close relationship with Australia to argue for the Timorese cause. Friends don't let friends bully their neighbours.

Correction

In my post on the Israeli massacre of protesters in Rafah, I followed initial reports and blamed a missile from a helicopter. That was incorrect. From the news reports I saw last night, they used the main guns of tanks. Repeatedly. Not that that's any better.

OTOH, it makes for easier comparisons. What sort of regime uses tanks against peaceful demonstrators? One like this...

No way to treat friends

The Greens are wrong here, but they have a point. While the denial of New Zealand citizenship to Western Samoans born or resident in that country after Independence is strongly supported in international law, the way in which we did it was overtly racist and in the context of our history and close relations with Western Samoa, not morally supportable.

While repealing the law or extending or offering citizenship is not the right solution, we can do a hell of a lot better. Western Samoa is an ex-colony for god's sake, as well as one of our closest Pacific neighbours - and yet they need a visa to travel here and immigration is controlled by strict quotas. Why?

Instead of restricting the travel of Samoans, we should be welcoming them. Australians are allowed to visit and live here without any requirement for a visa or permit; we should extend the same privileges to Samoa. Our past history means that they're not just friends - they're family.

We're doing what?

Appently Immigration is requiring Tongan women to have pregnancy tests before visiting the country.

For fuck's sake. Is there no indignity they won't stoop to now?

Signs

Two comets and a plague of locusts. But the rapture undex is on a low 144. Do you think they're missing something?

The changing fortunes of Ahmed Chalabi

Ahmed Chalabi was once the NeoCon's golden boy, their preferred choice for the Iraqi presidency - which is surprising, given that he's been selling them out to Iran. But while they could tolerate him providing faulty intelligence and thereby helping them lie their way into a war, his recent demand that the post-handover Iraqi government should control its own oil revenues was obviously going too far. And so the Americans are retailiating. Earlier in the week, the CIA cut off his generous monthly stipend (which they paid in exchange for lies); today US troops raided his house. Can arrest and extradition to Jordan to face jail for fraud be that far off...?

Thursday, May 20, 2004



Typical

In a fairly typical display, NZPundit and his cronies are laughing at the latest photos from Abu Ghraib...

Chicken feed

In response to a public campaign waged by greenpeace, McDonalds NZ has announced they will be switching to non-GE chicken feed.

A victory for consumer protest, I guess.

Who's confused?

The Whig thinks I'm confused about Don Brash's position on the Treaty, saying that it's simply "an issue of interpretation". Hardly. What Don Brash is claiming - that cession of sovereignty was also a cession of property rights - has no support in either the Treaty, its judicial interpretation, or in common law.

British common law has a well-established concept of "aboriginal" or "customary" title, which essentially holds that the locals retain their property rights (including usage rights) when a country is settled or colonised. The Treaty confirmed that the this concept would apply in New Zealand, and early jurisprudence was consistent in upholding it. Justice Prendergast's dismissal of the Treaty as "a simple nullity" on the basis that a deal with "savages" was not binding put a hold on the legal use of aboriginal title for a hundred years, but a decision in 1986 resurrected it, and it has since gained widespread judicial and legal support. What Don Brash is saying - that sovereignty necessarily equals extinguishment - is simply not the case.

The crown did gain the right under article one of the Treaty to entinguish Maori property rights by legislation - but that is not what Don Brash was claiming (and in any case the Court of Appeal found that that right had never been exercised with regards to the foreshore and seabed, meaning that any aboriginal title that existed at the time of the Treaty was still intact).

Brash may wish that the government had expropriated the foreshore, and he may wish that we were still back in the dark days of Prendergast when the crown owned everything and deals with "savages" were not binding, but it did not and we are not. There is simply no basis for his claim that Maori ceded property rights with the Treaty. He is either fundamentally ignorant, or being deliberately misleading. Either way, he should correct himself publicly at the first opportunity.

More on community education

Another polytech caught running a community education course with no classes, no assessment, no exams and no final qualification at the end of it - and scamming $15 million from the government for doing so. Ho-hum. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: it's the market, stupid. Underfunding tertiary institutions while demanding they operate according to commercial imperitives is simply asking them to exploit every loophole in the "bums on seats" funding model.

Though unlike twilight golf, Christchurch Polytech's self-directed computer course is at least useful. Extending basic computer knowledge to people who don't normally use them is exactly the sort of thing we have community education for. But why the hell were they getting $795 per student for a course which costs them less than $10 per student to "teach"?

The loophole has apparently been plugged, and hopefully there'll be more of a requirement for polytechs to expend resources (as in: actually teach people in a classroom) if they want to get funding. At the same time, though, this is an innovative model (people do actually learn from these things), and I've no problem at funding it at a level more in line with its cost if student participation and progress can be verified. And on the third hand, monitoring costs money, and it is cheaper and easier not to bother. Rather than paying polytechs per student to use shotgun methods, just pay someone a flat fee to develop the material, then host it on a central website and make it freely available to all. I'm sure it would be cheaper than paying every institution to develop its own material and then checking to see whether the students actually exist...

Newspeak

The Americans have renamed Abu Ghraib, and are now calling it Camp Redemption.

What a lovely piece of newspeak. Camp Redemption - where the innocent go to be beaten and tortured. Could they have thought up anything sicker?

Well, OK, yes, they could have. But still - it seems like a perfect example of the "cold joke" on a massive scale.

Anniversaries

One that doesn't seem to have made the news in a big way yet: Parliament will be 150 years old on monday.

New Zealand's House of Representatives first assembled on May 24th, 1854. It differed in three important ways from the modern institution. Firstly, there was the obvious method of election - FPP reigned supreme back then, and there was no truck with ideas of proportionality or fairness. Secondly, there were no parties - everybody was an independent. And thirdly, it didn't actually govern the country, being simply a legislative body with limited powers to enact laws for the Governor.

Our aspiring politicians weren't happy with that, and spent their entire first session passing various motions demanding "responsible government" - that executive power be devolved to ministers selected by and from Parliament. The only other business they considered was setting up a pub for themselves: Bellamy's. Plus ca change, I guess.

Anyway, the Greens have organised a public seminar on monday night on the next 150 years of Parliament. If you're in Wellington, why not go?

Murderers

Israeli forces have killed ten people and injured sixty when they fired on a Palestinian demonstration in Rafah. Many of the casualties seem to have occured when a helicopter fired a missile into the crowd as a "warning shot".

What sort of regime attacks demonstrators with helicopter gunships? The Israelis are nothing more than murderers.

Shameful and unjust

Jim Anderton asks himself "what's a kiwi like me to think?" over the government's foreshore & seabed legislation. Well, this "pro-Treaty, pro-New Zealander, pro-Maori, anti-racist" New Zealander thinks that it is shameful and unjust. Oh, it's better than National's "alternative" of flat-out confiscation and denial, but it is still unjust. Not because it fails to recognise the possible customary rights or guardianship of Iwi (those parts of the legislation are perfectly acceptable), but simply because it treats Maori as second-class citizens. It denies them rights guaranteed both by the Treaty (articles two and three), and by our general democratic principles of fairness and equality.

On the Treaty front, article two is quite clear. Maori were to enjoy the continued possession and enjoyment of their lands, estates, fisheries etc. for as long as they desired. Absent alienation or expropriation by the government, if they owned something in 1840, then they are still entitled to it today. Whether they actually owned patches of foreshore in 1840, or merely enjoyed various usage rights is something for the courts to determine. However, by denying the ultimate remedy of freehold title, the government is stacking the deck, and greatly enhancing its hand in subsequent negotiations for compensation.

More importantly, there's a clear breach of article three, and our general principles of fairness and equality, in that we already allow various people to freehold foreshore and seabed - a right the law would deny to Maori claimants. Shouldn't we be treating everyone equally? If we are saying to Maori "you cannot own it, but we will compensate", shouldn't we also be saying the same to existing landowners? And conversely, if it is OK for foreign millionaires to own beaches, then why not Maori?

Yes, allowing the courts to award freehold title runs the risk of more foreshore falling into private hands - but it is what justice and equality demand. Besides, there are alternatives. Using the customary rights scheme to create universal presumptive customary rights of access, navigation and recreational usage across all foreshore (or at least, all foreshore not granted a permit to restrict) would make the whole question of private ownership fundamentally irrelevant.

We have to get this issue right, otherwise we'll be poisoning our race relations and creating a problem for future generations. Fortunately it's not too late. The government still has time to change from its current shameful path, and find a solution which will uphold all our "kiwi" values - justice, equality, and beaches for all.

Be afraid. Be very afraid

Remember that scary Monbiot article last month about how US foreign policy was being driven by apocalyptic Christian fundamentalists who believe that they must start a world war so they can sit at the right hand of god? Well, Village Voice has more details on these people's influence on US foreign policy - for example, the way they were consulted before Bush's rejection of the "road map":

The e-mailed meeting summary reveals NSC Near East and North African Affairs director Elliott Abrams sitting down with the Apostolic Congress and massaging their theological concerns. Claiming to be "the Christian Voice in the Nation's Capital," the members vociferously oppose the idea of a Palestinian state. They fear an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza might enable just that, and they object on the grounds that all of Old Testament Israel belongs to the Jews. Until Israel is intact and David's temple rebuilt, they believe, Christ won't come back to earth.

Abrams attempted to assuage their concerns by stating that "the Gaza Strip had no significant Biblical influence such as Joseph's tomb or Rachel's tomb and therefore is a piece of land that can be sacrificed for the cause of peace."

The Apostolic Congress claims credit for Bush's subsequent rejection of the roadmap and endorsement of a massive Israeli landgrab in the West Bank.

Why should we be worried? Simply put, these people are not interested in peace in the Middle East. The only thing they are interested in is their Biblical vision of the end of the world. If this requires a bit of war, carnage and death, then so be it. After all, isn't eternal life in heaven worth it?

In an ordinary person, these views would be insane, but mostly harmless. But when the most powerful man in the world is outsourcing his foreign policy to loonies like this, we should all be very, very afraid.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004



Torture cover-up

Dozens of soldiers - other than the seven military police reservists who have been charged - were involved in the abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, and there is an effort under way in the Army to hide it, a key witness in the investigation told ABCNEWS.

"There's definitely a cover-up," the witness, Sgt. Samuel Provance, said. "People are either telling themselves or being told to be quiet."

More here.

Guilty

Specialist Jeremy Sivits has pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to maltreat detainees, maltreatment of detainees and dereliction of duty relating to his abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. It will be interesting to see what sentence he gets.

More on ignorance

The Whig wonders why I think that this survey lends weight to the idea that Brash's support on Treaty issues is built on ignorance. Simple. If a third of the population doesn't even know when the Treaty was signed, they are unlikely to be familiar with its nuances - or even its obvious features, like protection of property.

This allows Don Brash to get away with (for example) deliberately conflating the Treaty's surrender of sovereignty with a surrender of property rights:

SIMON But didn’t Maori have those property rights isn't that why they feel aggrieved they didn’t have a right then to ...

DON No on the contrary Maori surrendered sovereignty to New Zealand in 1840, I think that’s one of the fundamental points at issue here, there's a feeling that somehow Maori did not surrender sovereignty and that they should therefore still own the seabed and the foreshore. Maori surrendered sovereignty in the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 clear from the preamble of Treaty, clear from Clause 1, so basically that’s the point to establish.

(Emphasis added).

While Maori indeed surrendered sovereignty in Article 1, Article 2 guaranteed them continued possession and enjoyment of their property. Saying that they surrendered any rights they held in the foreshore and seabed with the Treaty is simply nonsense. If Brash had even a passing familiarity with the Treaty, he'd know that. So the conclusion is that he's either fundamentally ignorant of our founding document, or that he's deliberately spreading lies to advance his own political agenda. Either answer isn't good for a man who hopes to be Prime Minister.

The Day After Tomorrow

For those who haven't heard, the above is an SF-disaster movie about catastrophic climate change bought on by global warming. The greenhouse-deniers are already kicking up a stink about it being unrealistic and having shonky science - and it hasn't even been released yet. So how bad is it?

Well, the basic scenario - freshwater from the melting north pole shuts down the gulf stream, kicking Europe and America into a new ice age - is possible, and has certainly happened before. Hollywood then takes this basic premise, amplifies it to the max, and time-compresses the results to fit their typical short attention span. So there's silliness - unexplained tidal waves which exist solely as an excuse for special effects; warm summer turning into a deep-freeze practically overnight - but it doesn't sound any worse in that regard than, say, Armageddon.

Those complaining that it is premised on an extreme scenario frankly need to get over themselves. Extreme scenarios are what disaster movies are all about. Yes, the vast majority of asteroids miss the Earth completely, the vast majority of dams do not burst, and the vast majority of towering buildings do not turn into infernoes - but disaster movies are about what happens when things go wrong, not when they go right.

Not that any of the above necessarily means I'm going to go and see it, of course. I'm not a great fan of disaster movies, and paying money to see Lost In Space has made me reluctant to shell out for Hollywood crap. Besides, with the price of movies nowdays, I could just buy a book instead - and Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain would seem to be just the ticket...

Tuesday, May 18, 2004



Ignorance

Adding more weight to the argument that Brash's support on race-relations is built on ignorance is the news that only a third of New Zealanders even know when the Treaty was signed...

Stretched

The US is planning to redeploy troops from South Korea to Iraq. It's a telling indicator of just how far the US military is stretched - they're having to pull troops from their core defence commitments just to keep their head above water in the Middle East.

The positive side of this is that it means they can't really fight any more wars - they just don't have the troops for it. NeoCon dreams of Syria or Iran being next are just so much hot air. And the negative side is that they can't really fight any more wars - so if things go pear-shaped in Korea, or China decides that now is the time to retake Taiwan, the US will be limited to watching from the sidelines.

Overall, I'm not sure that this is a good thing...

Update: Kevin Drum has more details on what other barrels the US is scraping the bottom of, and its scary. Sometime soon, they're going to have to make some hard political decisions - draft, withdrawl, complete callup of the reserves - and the results won't be pretty.

Part 4 of Morgue's trip to Palestine is now up.

Responsibility

Colin Powell has finally admitted that the claims he made to the UN Security Council were wrong and based on faulty intelligence.

Crooked Timber draws an interesting contrast between the different standards of responsibility demanded of the media and practised by politicians in these sorts of cases. If the Daily Mirror publishes photos which later turn out to be fakes, heads must roll. If politicians build a case for war on information which later turns out to be false, that's just business as usual. But I guess the difference is that we still expect some truth from the media, even from the tabloids. Wheras it was Powell's job to get up there and lie to the UN, to sacrifice his credability so Bush could have his war.

Monday, May 17, 2004



Only hours to go...

...until gay marriages are legal in Massachusetts. People are already queuing.

So, why the hell are we settling for Civil Unions again?

Double jeopardy

On the face of it the government's plans in this area seem fairly reasonable. Allowing the police to go back to correct an "error of justice" where there has been perjury or witness intimidation seems fair enough. But a retrial on the basis of "new and compelling evidence"? I don't think so. Given the number of hoops that must be jumped through to get a re-trial on those grounds, the mere fact that one is being held would be a pre-judgement of guilt which would irreversibly taint the jury.

Yes, it is unjust if murderers escape justice - but it is also unjust if we pre-judge them, or lower our standards to convict them and thus increase the risk of punishing the innocent as well. The general maxim is that it is better for ten guilty men to go free than punish an innocent, and so we should oppose this change. Instead, we should encourage the police to do a proper job the first time round rather than lower our standards in this way.

Sunday, May 16, 2004



Somebody's going to jail

Seymour Hersh's latest instalment in the New Yorker is earth-shattering:

The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focussed on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s decision embittered the American intelligence community, damaged the effectiveness of √©lite combat units, and hurt America’s prospects in the war on terror.

According to interviews with several past and present American intelligence officials, the Pentagon’s operation, known inside the intelligence community by several code words, including Copper Green, encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq. A senior C.I.A. official, in confirming the details of this account last week, said that the operation stemmed from Rumsfeld’s long-standing desire to wrest control of America’s clandestine and paramilitary operations from the C.I.A.

The short version: After September 11th, Donald Rumsfeld established a secret operation to kill, capture, and interrogate "high value" Al-Qaeda targets, with blanket permission to do whatever they thought was necessary. This included torture and sexual abuse - whatever would get people to talk. Later, when the insurgency in Iraq was going badly and US forces were floundering in the dark without any idea of who they were fighting, the project was expanded into detention facilities there. In order to cope with the number of detainees, Military Intelligence interrogators were bought into the loop - and there it started to go wrong. The overworked interrogators got the prison guards to help them (how else to explain these photos of Military Intelligence staff and MPs cooperating in abusing prisoners?) - and things spiralled out of control. It's unclear whether all the abuse was at the behest of interrogators, or whether some of it was done for recreational purposes by sadistic guards (describe as "recycled hillbillies" by one of Hersh's sources), but either way the techniques originally approved for use against terrorist masterminds were being applied to "cabdrivers, brothers-in-law, and people pulled off the streets". Then, when people who weren't supposed to know found out - people like the MP's superiors, and General Taguba - an investigation was started and the whole thing hit the media.

Hersh's sources are quite clear on where ultimate responsibility lies: with Stephen Cambone, the deputy under-secretary for intelligence. He had direct oversight of the program, and approved its expansion. Donald Rumsfeld and General Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are also in the gun, for approving it and "[creating] the conditions that allowed transgressions to take place". Command responsibility goes all the way to the top.

What's interesting is that people have come forward. Violating secrecy and leaking the details of a classified program to the media is a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment. Even knowing about this when you are not supposed to results in the cancellation of security clearances. Yet senior figures in the Pentagon and intelligence community have come forward to talk about it. I guess the stakes have simply got too high. This is bigger than Iran-Contra - someone is going to carry the can for it in the end, and people are desperately trying to make sure that it's not them. And they're doing it by leaking and pointing the finger in advance.

But the worst bit is that it hasn't stopped. According to one of Hersh's sources:

“The black guys”—those in the Pentagon’s secret program—“say we’ve got to accept the prosecution. They’re vaccinated from the reality.” The [program] is still active, and “the United States is picking up guys for interrogation. The question is, how do they protect the quick-reaction force without blowing its cover?”

Not "why are we torturing people", not "how do we stamp out this practice", but "how do we cover our arse and keep doing this." Well, now the program's cover is well and truly blown, and there will be a shitstorm of epic proportions. Media coverage, investigations, congressional hearings, indictments and prosecutions. This will drag on for months, years even. But at the end of it all, hopefully, somebody will be going to jail.

Showcasing

Bush wants the venue of the G8 summit next month to showcase his "environmental stewardship" - so he's holding it in one of America's most polluted counties, in an island resort surrounded by toxic waste dumps.

Quiet satisfaction

The photos were fake, but the story wasn't. Soldiers from the Queen's Lancashire Regiment will be charged next week in relation to the death of Baha Mousa, and other charges are pending. Due to the severity of the crimes, the cases are likely to be dealt with in a civilian court rather than a military court-martial.

So much for the regiment's "quiet satisfaction" that its honour had been restored...

An interesting question

Surely the CIA's use of "water boarding" violates the Federal anti-torture statute?

Presumably the agents and operatives are US nationals; the practice clearly falls under the definition of "torture" (making someone "believe he might drown" sounds like a threat of imminent death to me). The only quibbles would be either to argue that it wasn't intentional, wasn't severe, or was a lawful punishment - none of which pass the laugh test.

The same does not apply to members of the US military - they are subject to military justice - but there is the interesting possibility of executive accountability. Donald Rumsfeld approved the use of sensory and sleep deprivation at Guantanamo; according to Stephen Cambone, his under-secretary for intelligence, he "insisted on being asked for permission" each time these techniques were used. In addition to ordinary physical violence, the anti-torture statute also bars "procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality" - such as sensory and sleep deprivation. Does this open Rumsfeld to charges of conspiracy to commit torture?

An interesting question indeed...