Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Isn't it beautiful?

(Image stolen from NASA/JPL)

After seven years and 3.5 billion kilometers, Cassini is about to enter Saturn orbit.

More spaceporn is available here.

Rights and autonomy; contracts and games

Philosophy, et cetera has been revising for his exams, and so has a pair of excellent posts on "political fictions" and John Stuart Mill.

The "political fictions" post is about the problems with natural rights and the social contract - two things I seem to talk about a lot. I say "seem" because I'm not a natural rights theorist (despite rights being a central plank of my ideas about relations between citizens and the state), and I don't think that there was ever a historical social contract where everyone sat down and signed a piece of paper laying out their mutual rights and obligations (except maybe in Scotland). Despite this, I think they're both very useful ideas which touch on something important, so maybe its worthwhile to elaborate a little more on my thinking in these areas.

Firstly, natural rights based in natural law don't exist. They are, as Bentham put it, "nonsense upon stilts". Quite apart from the ethical arguments against natural law theories (see Hume's "is-ought" distinction), if we adhere to any sort of scientific worldview then we have to accept that the universe does not give a shit about what we do. Facts about morality have to come from reason, or (somehow, and I know exactly how hard it is) from us and what we value.

Despite this, I think that the idea of rights is a good one. Laying down a list of things the government just can't do to you, or that you're entitled to receive from it seems to be a relatively good way of managing the relationship. And the commonly accepted lists of human rights (large and small) generally encapsulate how I want people to be treated by governments (or by each other). The problem is providing them with a moral basis.

Fortunately, there are other options besides natural law here. You can ground a system of rights in rule-utilitarianism, or in personal autonomy. I prefer the latter - rights exist to protect our autonomy and allow us to exercise it without interference - but I'm not exactly hostile to the other option. There's a great deal of overlap between respect for personal autonomy and preference-based utilitarianisms - both are ultimately about people pursuing their own goals - and a system of rights grounded in rule-preference-utilitarianism would be virtually indistinguishable from one grounded in a simple respect for autonomy.

(While you can also ground rights in a social contract as resulting from mutual restraint of our practical liberty, that's more a matter of pragmatics than ethics; there's really nothing moral about it. Still, if you want to build a political theory that broadly supports liberalism, is compatible with a scientific and naturalistic worldview, and avoids the pitfalls of dependence on a particular ethical theory, that's the way to go...)

Of course, grounding rights in utilitarianism or personal autonomy simply pushes the question back another level, from "why are rights valuable" to "why is autonomy (or happiness or preference-satisfaction) valuable?" And the answer to that is that you have to start somewhere. In any moral system, you eventually have to pick something and say "this is what we value". And while you can often make persuasive arguments as to why a particular value should be preferred, usually rooted in moral psychology or theories of human nature, these tend to run into Hume's is-ought problem again. The fact that we want to be happy or that we have goals and the ability to choose between them, and get frustrated when other people presume to make choices for us doesn't actually give us reason to place moral weight on those things. So at some stage, you just have to say "fuck it", assert something as an axiom, and hope for the best.

Secondly, social contracts. What social contract theories are good for is showing us why we have some government rather than none at all, and firmly establishing the idea that society exists by mutual restraint and government by consent. I don't think anybody seriously disputes either of these points. Instead, quibbles tend to focus on questions of historicity and how people can be said to consent to an agreement they were never personally party to. But both these problems are because people are focused on the word "contract", implying a one-off, legally binding agreement which imparts obligations on its parties. I think that this is missing the point a little.

The core of social contract theory is a game-theoretic argument that we are all better off by exercising mutual restraint. If I don't kill you, and you don't kill me, then we can both go about our business without too much trouble. Those with a passing familiarity with game theory will recognise this as a giant multiplayer form of Prisoner's Dilemma. But rather than being played only once, sometime in the distant past (as those arguing over consent seem to think), it is played constantly, every minute of every hour of every day, by everyone. As a practical matter, we are every bit as free as those Hobbes imagines in the State of Nature; each of us can kill, steal, rape, or rob. Every time we refrain from doing that, we reaffirm our commitment to the social contract and each other. It's not just government which is a perpetual referendum, but society as well.

Isn't this just tacit consent in a poor disguise? Not quite - because if we view it as a game, rather than a contract, questions of consent become irrelevant. It's not binding, it's just a good idea. We should play the game and practice mutual restraint not because we agreed to and should keep our word, but because it's in our own best interests to do so.

But isn't it the case that sometimes it may not be in our best interests to play? That sometimes we may in fact benefit from lying, cheating, and killing people? Certainly. Each of us is of course free to choose not to honour the social contract, to become a defector in the game. The problem is that if you do, the rest of us will hunt you down and punish you (if we can catch you, and if you have too few friends to back you up).

This is why I said above that there was nothing moral about social contract theory. It's pragmatics, not ethics, rooted in power and violence and force. The State of Nature is always with us - we've just papered over it.

Despite that nasty, brutal fact, I think that we still need to worry about consent. Why? Because while the social contract gives us government, it doesn't give us legitimacy. To get that, we need consent, not mutual intimidation and a balance of terror. How do we get that consent? Philosophy, et cetera hints at the answer - we should build a government and society worthy of people's consent, one they will freely support irrespective (rather than because) of the big stick lurking in the background.

Comfortable margin

The Omnibus Bill, the "other half" of the Civil Unions Bill which does all the legal spadework, has passed its first reading by a comfortable margin of 77-42. Less overt bigotry in the speeches, it seems, though there is this curious bit from Nick Smith:

In Labour's eyes it just makes no difference whether a couple is two men, two women, or a man and a woman, it is all the same.

You mean it's not?

Seriously, those opposing the two bills on the basis that "not all relationships are equal" should front up and explain exactly how relationships differ in moral status on the basis of the parties' gender. If they can do it without relying on underlying axioms of homophobia and bigotry, then I'll eat my hat.

The limits of Iraq's "sovereignty"

The new, "sovereign" Iraq isn't even a day old, and it's running into the limits on its "sovereignty" already. Yesterday, the US-established Central Criminal Court acquited a prisoner on cahrges of attacking US troops and ordered his release. The US response? Ignore the verdict and throw him straight back into Abu Ghraib, of course. This is apparently justified because Iraqi judges "were reluctant to sentence Iraqis for attacking coalition forces". But if you're going to ignore the verdict, then why bother with the pretense of a "court" at all?

The US was happy enough to respect the court's authority when it issued an arrest warrant for Moqtada al-Sadr. It should also respect it on matters of guilt or innocence. Iraqi sovereignty and the rule of law demand nothing less.

New Fisk

The Handover: Restoration of Iraqi sovereignty - or Alice in Wonderland?

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

"A state of war is not a blank check"

In a sign that perhaps all is not lost in America, the Supreme Court has taken a firm line on human rights, ruling that both Yasser Hamdi and the Guantanamo detainees enjoy the full protection of the US courts and may challenge their detention.

Skimming the Hamdi decision, it's striking how strongly the courts oppose the government's position. Eight of the nine justices argued that Hamdi was entitled to counsel and due process, though they disagreed on exactly how and on whether his detention was legal (the plurality believed that it was, but that it must be able to be challenged; Justice Scalia took a hard line, arguing that the government must release Hamdi, suspend Habeas Corpus or charge him with treason). The only justice to dissent from this overwhelming view was (of course) Clarence Thomas, who buys into the administration's claims of un-reviewable war powers hook, line, and sinker. Fortunately, the majority of the court recognised the danger in such thinking - though they avoided tackling it head on, and instead decided the case on other grounds.

Supreme Court decisions on human rights usually contain some strong statements on the matter, and this one is no exception. The core of the court's ruling lies in these two sentences:

We reaffirm today the fundamental nature of a citizen's right to be free from involuntary confinement by his own government without due process of law


[A] state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation's citizens.

The Guantanamo case is less interesting, being primarily concerned with the question of whether the US has legal jurisdiction over the base there (it does), and some previous precedents relating to captured enemy soldiers (which were found not to apply). Like Hamdi, they will get to challenge the factual basis for their detention in court, and force the government to justify it to the satisfaction of a judge. Hopefully that means that a few more taxi-drivers will soon be released.

A third decision was issued in the case of Jose Padilla, finding that his appeal for Habeas Corpus was invalid on jurisdictional grounds. Some have dismissed this as cowardice by the court, but its not really. The issue has been effectively decided by the Hamdi decision, and when Padilla's lawyers refile in the appropriate jurisdiction, there's little question that he'll also get his day in court.

Update: KiwiPundit's comments are here.

The weight of history

There are days when you should feel the weight of history, and today is one of them.

June 28th (European time) marks 90 years since the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. The assassination was the beginning of the great tragedy of the twentieth century: the blind stumble into war, the mass-slaughter of the trenches, the humiliating "peace" which guaranteed the renewal of hostilities twenty years later (itself driven by a desire for revanche for a French defeat forty years earlier), the Russian Revolution, the Cold War... we're facing the consequences even now, in Iraq - a country born from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in the post-war settlement - and in Palestine, a patch of land promised by Britain to both Jews and Arabs in exchange for their support against the Turks.

The fatal shots were fired by Gavrilo Princip, a young Serb nationalist. He had hoped to spark a nationalist revolution which would free Bosnia-Herzegovina from Austria-Hungary; he had no idea that he would start the greatest slaughter humanity had yet seen (ironically, he was too young to be executed, and spent the war in prison before succumbing to Tuberculosis).

It took just thirty-six days to go from two pistol shots to a Europe-wide war. The Austrians waited almost a month, then issued a humiliating ultimatum to Serbia. The Serbs unexpectedly complied with almost all of it, but the Austrians wanted a war, and used the Serbian refusal to allow Austro-Hungarian participation in the inquiry into the assassination as the excuse to start one (students of recent Balkan, or indeed Middle Eastern history may find this tactic familiar). Serbia appealed to the Tsar, who mobilised his troops against Austria-Hungary; mutual fear of troop mobilisations led to a series of ultimatums which brought in Germany, then France, and eventually Britain. Apart from Austria-Hungary, none of the participants wanted a war - all allowed themselves to be trapped by pride, fear, miscommunication, and (as von Moltke explained to the Kaiser) train timetables. Once the stone was set rolling, it was impossible to stop, and so ten million people went to their deaths.

The socialist intellectuals of the Second International resisted the war, believing that the international working class should refuse to fight for their rulers. But when push came to shove, the workers chose nationalism over socialism, and gladly marched off behind the aristocrats thinking that it would all be over by Christmas. It wasn't, but a consoling thought is that the war devastated the European aristocracy, directly causing the collapse of three dynasties (the Hapsburgs, Romanovs, and Hohenzollerns). And the virtual extermination of the minor nobility "officer class" led to meritocracy by necessity, without a single guillotine being erected.

When he heard that it was to be war, the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, commented that

the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.

Or indeed his children's lifetime. It is only in the last ten years, now that we are free of the Cold War, that the lamps have begun to shine again. Europe is united, from Ireland to the Polish border. The only area left out is, ironically, the Balkans, where it all began. War between France and Germany is now as unthinkable as war between Australia and New Zealand, or Canada and the US - they are both now too interdependent for it to be a real possibility. In a way, the War to End All Wars has achieved its purpose - eighty years too late.

How different would it all be if Princip had missed? Ninety years on, its impossible to know. But we know that it would be vastly different, and looking at the death toll - ten million in the first war, forty-five million in the rematch, it's practically impossible not to think that it would have been better.

Early handover

The US has handed over sovereignty in Iraq two days ahead of schedule.

In a real sense, this changes nothing. The interim government has been de-facto sovereign since the dissolution of the IGC earlier in the month. The violence will no doubt continue. And the "sovereignty" will be highly contrained by 135,000 well-armed American soldiers, who will continue to wage war on the Iraqi people with or without the new government's approval. But despite all this, it's impossible not to feel happy for Iraq. While I'm pessimistic, there's some chance that things will turn out OK, and that the new democracy won't be stillborn into martial law, a security crackdown, and endlessly "postponed" elections.

And in other good news, they will apparently be arresting and formally charging Saddam Real Soon Now. The Iraqis get first crack at him, and while I disagree violently with their plans to execute him, there's no question of jurisdiction. At the same time, the fuckers who propped him up, and turned a blind eye to his abuses because he was a useful tool against Iran should be in the dock too. Hmmm - I guess that's another foreign jurisdiction Rumsfeld won't be able to visit.

Apparently I'm spiritually bankrupt

Well, I do my best.

Others have already commented on the irony of the head of an organisation which conspired to cover up child sex abuse presuming to lecture the rest of us on morality, but there is a bigger problem with Cardinal William's essay. Namely, that the whole thing rests on a gross misperception of the role of government.

Contrary to Williams, government does not exist to legislate virtue. It exists to provide a basic framework to keep people from one another's throats. The aim is not to force people to be good (except in a minimal sense of refraining from killing or otherwise harming one another), but to leave them free to pursue their own vision of the good.

Underlying this is a core belief in personal autonomy - that people are the authors and "owners" of their own lives, and are therefore uniquely privileged to make decisions on how they should live. Liberals regard personal autonomy as valuable, and want it to be respected. Liberal toleration follows from the Golden Rule, or from Hobbesean mutual restraint: if I want my own autonomy to be respected, then I must also respect the autonomy of others. The sole reason for interference in people's autonomy is self-protection, to prevent direct harm to others.

None of this is incompatible with Christianity. What is is incompatible with is the desire that everybody believe and behave exactly as you do. Hence the constant hysterical warnings from our self-appointed "moral guardians" about "spiritual bankruptcy", "moral decline" and such. The "problem" is that their preferred modes of behaviour have failed to compete on the memetic battlefield; they therefore call for legislative intervention to force people to behave according to their preferences. This would be unjustified even if they were right, because it would fail to respect people's autonomy. Freedom includes the freedom to be wrong, and unless there is direct harm to another, there is no justification for intervention. Harm to oneself, or the "harm" of doing or believing the wrong thing, are insufficient.

If Cardinal Williams believes his traditional values and Judaeo-Christian ethic are worth living by, then he will have to convince us, rather than relying on his supposed moral authority. And if he cannot, well, an idea that cannot survive without the backing of the dungeon and the stake deserves to perish.

Monday, June 28, 2004

The Whig asks "how do you get sick from food that's "contaminated" with antibiotics?!"

Two words: antibiotic resistance. You don't get sick (yet...), but it's an exceedingly dumb idea in the long term.

Delusion, disrespect, and dignity

Over the weekend, Bush gave a rare sitdown interview with Radio & Television Ireland [video]. During which he said

Most of Europe supported the decision in Iraq. And, really, what you're talking about is France, isn't it? And they didn't agree with my decision. [...] But most European countries are very supportive and are participating in the reconstruction of Iraq.

Which I guess is a perfect example of the delusional worldview you get from not reading the newspapers (Doonesbury pointed out the other obvious problem last weekend). Most of Europe? Very supportive? Just France opposed? He really is on another planet.

Meanwhile, the interviewer's tactic of actually asking substantive questions hasn't gone down well. Apparently it's "disrespectful" for the media (or indeed, the public) to expect the President to defend his views. Can you imagine this bullshit being tried in any real democracy? Properly elected leaders expect to have to regularly front up to the press to have their views vigorously probed - not give an interview every couple of years and then complain that its not about fashion.

(BTW, what's the point of submitting questions in advance? Why not just interview the President's speechwriter instead?)

And while we're on the subject of Ireland, is anyone else amused by the reaction to Bush being photographed peering out his window in his underwear? The embarassing pictures were censored immediately as damaging to the dignity of the President. Why, the thought that he might wear underwear like everybody else! Next people will be saying that he eats, breathes and shits too!

And people say the US isn't a monarchy...


Another example of the Orwellian nightmare the US is becoming: their latest terrorism suspect was stripped of his identity while in federal custody:

Attorney Mahir Sheriff said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that after Nuradin Abdi's arrest last November, he was booked into an immigration jail under the name "John Doe."

"His jailers addressed him as John Doe and any correspondence he received was addressed to John Doe," Sheriff said. "His family ... and all other relatives were not allowed to see or visit with him despite their efforts to do so."

What purpose did this denial of identity serve? To dehumanise the suspect, make them what Orwell called an "unperson". It's also a piece of calculated psychological torture - you're not a person, you don't exist, they can do anything they like to you. Traditionally, this is done by replacing the prisoner's name with a number - but I suspect that even Americans would have noticed the totalitarian symbolism in that.

As for the effectiveness and cruelty of such tactics, after six months of being nothing, Abdi is a completely broken man. He may not even be mentally fit to stand trial - though that's never stopped Americans when vengeance is on their mind.

But he's only a terrorist, right? There are two answers to that: firstly, this tactic is incompatible with any semblance of human dignity. It is deliberately treating a person as a thing. If you think that people have any worth at all, or if you want to be treated as a person yourself, then you ought to oppose this. Secondly, Adbi is only a suspected terrorist. Once upon a time, the United States used to have a principle of "innocent until proven guilty". Now that seems to have been replaced by the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment before you even get to trial.

Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Jose Padilla, and now this. Do we really need any more evidence that the War on Terror has eaten America's soul?

"Speak English or die"

That's essentially what one Auckland employer is telling his employees - and he's threatening them with dismissal if they don't stop speaking "Indian", even in their lunch break.

NZPundit and the propertarian absolutists would no doubt approve, but the rest of us should be asking ourselves exactly how much we are selling when we go out to work each day. Selling our labour - physical, emotional or intellectual - is one thing. But how much more is an employer entitled to? Can they demand crawling obeisance as well as basic civility? Thinking only "good thoughts" about them, and an end even to private and unspoken cynicism and doubt? The supplanting of our conscience and values with theirs?

No. None of the above are consistent with human dignity, and neither are general bans on which language is spoken in the lunchroom. This isn't treating employees like human beings, it's treating them like slaves. And its clear that the only reason the ban exists is because of Massa's insecurities that people are being rude about him behind his back.

Unless there's something in the job requiring that a particular language be spoken, then this demand is an unwarranted intrusion. I hope this guy gets taken to the cleaners, as he so richly deserves.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Post-vote thoughts

The Herald has a list of the ayes and nays on the Civil Unions Bill here.

People have commented that it looks grim; the prostitution bill got 86 votes on its first reading, and only passed by one, so if this has the same degree of falloff it will fail. Fortunately I think the core support is harder here - there probably won't be that many Labour MPs who are going to switch sides, and that plus the core liberal support from the Greens and Progressive Coalition gives a solid base of at least 50 votes to work from (plus probably 4 from ACT). The swingers are likely to be those 2 NZFirst and 5 National MPs, plus ACT's Stephen Franks and Gerry Eckhoff (who voted against prostitution refom, remember). These are the people to target.

Meanwhile, I'm pleased to see that ACT are acting more like a liberal party, and that Stephen Franks' illiberal attitude towards prostitution and flag-burning doesn't seem to extend to civil unions. But why the hell are Deborah Coddington and Muriel Newman even in the party? This is a matter of fundamental freedom and equality - the freedom to choose who you spend your life with, and to live with them free from unjustified discrimination from the state. It's also about people's freedom to choose their own social arrangements, rather than being subjected to government "social engineering". How can a member of ACT - a party which brands itself as the "party of freedom", and which ails constantly against "social engineering" - possibly oppose that?

I'm also pleased to see that Don Brash stuck to his principles and voted "for". I'm not fond of him, but at least he's a social liberal. Unlike most of the rest of his party. Jesus, where do they get those knuckle-draggers from? If we needed proof that National needed new blood so it could catch up with the rest of us and join the 21st century, we just got it today.

As for other opponents of the bill, I think that the bigotry and hatred displayed during the debate neatly proves Metiria Turei's point. When people start describing extending equality to others as an "abomination" or talking about the Imminent Demise Of Society As We Know It, then you know you're dealing with bigots and homophobes.

Other comments: Big News, David Farrar, Justleft, KiwPundit.

Thursday, June 24, 2004


According to pointy-head radio, the Civil Unions Bill has passed its first reading by 66 to 50, and is off to select committee. I'll post a list of who voted for and against as soon as I find one.

While it's a victory, it's by a relatively narrow margin, and there's a long way to go yet. We need to keep the pressure up to ensure that those currently supporting it don't waver.

The accompanying Omnibus Bill is unlikely to be voted on until next week.

But what's the point?

Scientists have discovered a strain of arabica coffee plants that do not produce caffeine. They plan to propagate them to produce naturally decaffeinated coffee.

I think this is missing the point somehow...

A victory for the rule of law

The US has withdrawn its resultion to renew its immunity to ICC jurisdiction while participating in UN-sanctioned operations, after it became apparent that it could not muster the nine votes required to pass. This represents a victory for the rule of law - and a low point for the US's influence at the UN. Even with all their arm-twisting, they couldn't bully enough countries into bowing to their demands. The world stood united against the US - and won.

As for the consequences, the US has said that they will "need to take into account the risk of ICC review when determining contributions to UN authorised or established operations" - but this is a hollow threat. As I pointed out earlier, all their troops are either in Iraq, coming home from Iraq, or preparing to return to Iraq. They don't have any troops to contribute to UN operations anyway, and its likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

Crunch day

It's crunch day for the Civil Unions Bill. Parliament will vote later this afternoon on whether to send it forward to select committee, or whether to kill it dead. Stuff thinks the bill will pass, and they're probably right - with the votes that have been announced so far, there'd need to be an unusually high number of Labour defections for it to fail.

I'm disappointed to see that there are ACT MPs planning to vote against, though. For a supposedly liberal party, they have an awful lot of traditional social conservatives among the ranks...

If you're looking for people to lobby, try Maurice Williamson. He's undecided, but not sure whether gays should be treated the same as everybody else...

Update: OK, Williamson isn't undecided - he plans to vote against on the basis that "some gay couples want to be able to join heterosexual institutions such as marriage". So focus on asking him why they shouldn't be allowed to, and force him to examine his underlying assumptions.

I hate Garth Nix

I stayed up too late last night reading Lirael, got to the last hundred pages or so and realised that as this wasn't a Robert Jordan novel, there was no way that he could resolve the plot in the remaining space. And sure enough, he didn't - it's half a book, intimately tied to Abhorsen, and my copy is currently out on loan and unavailable till the weekend.

Bastard. Bastard, bastard, bastard. I hate Garth Nix. But in a good, "keep on writing stuff like this, please" kind of way. Because my disappointment is not because it's bad, but because I've got to wait two whole days to start the next one...

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

More non-denial denials

NZPundit is making a lot of noise about Bush's latest "denial" of torture - unfortunately it's just another non-denial denial. And it will remain so until Bush stands up and tells us exactly what he means by "torture" - whether, for example, he's using the commonly accepted definition, or the absurdly tight one used in the legal advice he's received on the matter. Sadly, the media are not pressing him exceptionally hard on this point.

If Bush wants to appear serious and escape the shadow of the torture memos, then there's a simple thing he can do: order a serious investigation into the allegations of the use of "water-boarding" against "high value" captives. Drag it out into the light of day and prosecute those involved. Make an example of them, so that the whole world can see that the US does not condone such behaviour. But I won't hold my breath.


With the Civil Unions Bill seeming much dicier than it did last week, supporters should pull out all the stops to make their voices heard. MP's email addresses can be found here; it is probably best to concentrate on those Labour MPs named in the story, and the ACT MPs who betrayed their supposedly liberal principles by voting against the Prostitution Reform Bill (if you need to know who voted against that Bill and is therefore likely to vote against this one, there is a full list here).

To save you some effort, here's a list of priority targets with email addresses already added. Just click on the link to send them an email.

I have no idea whether they actually listen to us, but its worth making the effort. So go off and make your voice heard!

Update: Simon Power is undecided. Email him as well.

Doing the decent thing

New Zealand is accepting the last 21 of the Tampa boatpeople still languishing on Nauru. It's the decent thing to do, but there's still a nagging feeling that our humanitarianism is bailing out Howard. Have we inadvertantly allowed ourselves to become part of the "Pacific solution", a final destination for refugees out of sight and mind of the Australian electorate?

Not that this should deter us in any way from doing what is right, but we should make damn sure the Australians know our views. We shouldn't be complicit in allowing Howard to treat people as a political problem whose suffering must be covered up and kept out of sight and out of mind.

Unjust and stupid

I normally ignore any sort of sports news, but the story of the boxer whose Olympic spot is threatened by past convictions raises some interesting issues.

In 1995, Soulan Pownceby killed his baby. He was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to four years jail. After his release he gained several more assault convictions. However, he since seems to have turned his life around, having kept out of trouble for the past four years and built a career as a boxer.

People are now demanding that Pownceby be kicked off the Olympic team because of his past crimes. This is both unjust and stupid. Unjust because it is continuing to punish him after he has served his sentence, and stupid because such treatment gives criminals no incentive to change their behaviour. After all, if you're going to continue to be punished regardless of whether you continue to offend or not, then you might as well continue offending.

The Prime Minister's suggestion of an apology is helpful, but it should not be necessary. Pownceby has done his time, and paid his debt to society. He should be left alone to get on with his life.

Creepy distinctions and social engineering

In the post below, I mention the Maxim Institute drawing a distinction between "preferred" and "tolerated" relationships. I must admit that I find this distinction rather creepy - it smacks of the "social engineering" the Maxim Institute so decries.

As a liberal, I believe that the government should not be preferring or legally privileging any relationship between consenting adults. It should not be trying to use the law to "guide" people into particular social arrangements. These matters are for individuals to decide, not the government; the latter should step back, provide a neutral legal framework, and leave people to choose their own social arrangements. Anything more is theocracy - or, as Lyndon Hood put it:

[T]he further the goals of government get from the material wellbeing of its people, the closer it gets to the gas chambers. Trying to make people behave according to particular moral standards is the spiritual equivalent of making the Trains Run on Time

The Civil Unions and "Omnibus" bills may not take us all the way, but they're an enormous step in the right direction - away from government social engineering and towards a truly neutral, secular and liberal state.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

"Love the fundamentalists, but hate their fundamentalism"

Ouch. Metiria Turei of the Greens has delivered a stinging attack on the opponents of the Civil Unions Bill, calling a spade a spade and pointing out that opposition to the bill is rooted in simple bigotry and homophobia:

"All this talk about upholding the sanctity of marriage is just a PC way of masking rampant homophobia," said Ms Turei, the Greens' Associate Spokesperson on Justice.

And she's right. The underlying assumption of many opponents is that same-sex relationships are "defective" or inferior in some way that makes them unworthy of legal recognition. The Maxim Institute makes this explicit when it draws a distinction between "preferred" and "tolerated" relationships, with only the former worthy of state sanction. You can guess which category they put gays in. Like it or not, "bigotry" is the appropriate word here, and if opponents of the bill don't like it, then they shouldn't be bigots.

But best bit of is a neat play on the homophobe's "love the sinner, but hate the sin" line:

"I urge all supporters of the Civil Union Bill to be tolerant. We should love the fundamentalists, but hate their fundamentalism," she said.


This is why I love the Greens. Despite their perceived fluffiness about tree-hugging and spiritual values, they have been consistent advocates for a secular and liberal society which allows people the freedom to follow their own vision of the good. And they've been the most outspoken defenders of human rights in the present Parliament, opposing government legislation on principle unless it conforms to international human rights standards (though to be fair, Matt Robson has been giving them a run for their money, and gets the No Right Turn stamp of approval as well). No matter what you think of their positions on GE or TV advertising, they can't be faulted on this front.

Civil unions in churches

Opponents of the Civil Unions Bill are getting outraged at the prospect that same-sex civil unions may be held in churches. A couple of liberal Wellington ministers have announced their intention to become civil union celebrants and make their churches available. Judith Collins and Peter Dunne think that this is proof that CU's are "gay marriage under another name" - which is a colossal non sequitur that shows the depth of their ignorance about the Marriage Act.

What makes a marriage a marriage in New Zealand? Dunne and Collins would have you think that its something to do with being married in a church, but that's not what the law says. What makes a marriage a marriage is that both parties say something like "I AB take you CD to be my lawfully wedded husband" in front of a government-recognised celebrant, and then sign a bit of paper. Venue is irrelevant - you can hold your wedding underwater, in a hot-air balloon, in an abbatoir if you so desire. All that matters is that you say those words and sign that bit of paper in front of an official of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

The Civil Unions Bill is the same, except that instead of "lawfully wedded husband", you say "partner in our civil union", and the bit of paper will have some different words at the top. And that's it, as far as proceedings are concerned.

Some couples may well choose to celebrate their civil unions in a church, in front of a minister - and why shouldn't they? It's a private arrangement between the couple, celebrant and venue, and no concern of the government. And it certainly says nothing about whether its a "marriage", gay or otherwise - to think that it does is to conflate the ceremonial trappings with the thing itself.

(I happen to think that civil unions are "gay marriage under another name" - but that doesn't excuse Dunne's or Collins' shoddy reasoning in any way)

"I think I'll back off a little bit now and ride my bike"

SpaceShipOne has become the first privately-owned manned spacecraft to leave the earth's atmosphere.

Next stop: the X-prize.

The New Zealand political spectrum II

DeepRed has updated his political compass scores for NZ's political leaders (by way of comparison, the original is here):

He's added a lot more politicians so you can get some idea of the political "range" of at least some of the parties. Interesting points:

  • ACT's Muriel Newman is the third most authoritarian on the chart, after Winston Peters and the National Front's Kyle Chapman; and
  • Don Brash is more Libertarian than either Rodney Hide or Richard Prebble.

Update (25/06/04): DeepRed has updated the graph, adding a number of former Prime Ministers. Robert Muldoon was practically a Stalinist, and Don Brash is more extreme than Roger Douglas. Actually, the latter ought to scare us all...

Civil Unions Bill

Is here.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Two concepts of marriage

In discussions around the Civil Unions Bill, it has become apparent that there are two concepts of marriage - a secular one and a religious one. The debate about Civil Unions is really about which of these concepts should have pre-eminence in our society.

The secular conception sees marriage as a voluntary partnership - essentially a contract - recognised by the state and conveying certain legal rights.

The religious conception sees marriage as a sacred union blessed by god.

Two things are immediately apparent: firstly, there is nothing in the secular conception which says anything at all about the gender of the parties involved. It is thus inherently liberal (the religious conception may or may not be, depending on the whims of your deity of choice). Secondly, the religious conception is a moral relationship, whereas the secular conception is merely a legal one. While there are moral issues involved (for example, surrounding adultery), the secular conception sees them as being purely between the parties involved, rather than any concern of the state.

Needless to say, I think that a modern, secular state like New Zealand should not be encoding religious conceptions of marriage in its laws. We should be providing a neutral legal framework, not trying to legislate for a particular conception of virtue.

Positive side-effects

When the Treaty of Rome creating the ICC came into force, the US threatened to end its participation in and funding of UN peacekeeping operations unless that body granted them a blanket exemption from ICC jurisdiction. The UN reluctantly agreed. Now that exemption is up for renewal - and thanks to Abu Ghraib, it looks as if the motion doesn't have sufficient votes to pass. Nobody is going to veto, but enough nations look to be abstaining that the vote will fail. This doesn't mean that the US will suddenly be subject to the ICC - rather that the normal jurisdiction of countries playing host to UN troops and officials will be restored.

This is a positive side-effect both of Abu Ghraib, and of the US's unilateralism. The former has driven home the necessity of a framework for international law allowing torturers and human rights abusers to be prosecuted. The latter has destroyed the goodwill that would normally have resulted in the exemption being renewed (its already been renewed once).

The US will probably throw a hissy-fit and threaten to withdraw from UN operations, but I suspect the reply will be "withdraw what"? All the US's troops are in Iraq, coming home from Iraq, or preparing to return to Iraq. They have none to spare, and so wouldn't be directly in participating anyway (besides, they think it's beneath them). Or they could threaten to withdraw funding, but from a country which routinely didn't even pay their membership dues, that's a rather empty threat.


The Holden Republic, devoted to bringing about a Republic in New Zealand.

Capital Diary, compiling political news from Wellington.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Inching towards unity

The EU has agreed its constitution. Now we'll see if the member states themselves will ratify it.

The European project is not like the American project. The sheer diversity of the states involved means that any central government will be far weaker even than that desired by "State's rights" advocates. The aim is not so much to found a new nation, but to grow one - a vast swathe of Europe where people are overwhelmingly rich, happy, and free.

Sure, it has its problems; it is primarily an agreement between states, so decisions are taken by the governments themselves rather than a democraticly elected body - but the same was done in the early US, and greater democracy will no doubt come. And in any case, it's an interesting experiment to watch - a continent inching towards unity. It's not every day you get to see that.

More on Status Anxiety, America and meritocracy

The Grey Shade has some thoughts here.

De Bottan's comparison between Aristocracies and meritocracies does indeed seem facile if you look at it as the be-all and end-all of happiness - but its not if you remember its context. De Bottan is focusing on status anxiety as one cause of unhappiness in modern socieites. He regards it as an important cause - but that is precisely because those societies have been so successful at ensuring that their citizens are generally free from want and free from fear. Slaves have many reasons for unhappiness, as do peasants, but now that most of those problems have been effectively solved (at least for most of us), the effects of status anxiety have become more important.

I think that the US was chosen as an example precisely because it is so unrepresentative of western democracies. The US is meritocracy gone toxic, where no-one has any security and thus anxiety is at its peak. It's an extreme case, allowing us to see the trends in their purest form - and it may also be a look into the future for the increasingly Americanised Anglospphere. I think de Bottan expected an understanding among his audiance that other countries did it better (for whatever reason); there was certainly a heavy subtext of laughing at the freakish Americans in there.

If you take de Bottan's thesis seriously, the question is not whether the US is really less class-bound than the UK; it's whether Americans think that it is. And fairly clearly, they do. The great American myth is that anyone can grow up to become President, grow up to be a millionaire, grow up to be a superstar. The fact is that the US has greater inequalities of wealth than any European nation, and that social mobility is declining - but Americans are blissfully ignorant of this. As a result, they are more likely to pursue the unattainable, and run smack into that unhappy gap between myth and reality.

As for comparisons with other western democracies, I don't think different attitudes are due to remnants of aristocracy so much as simply different values and an acknowledgement of luck and chance. In America, everyone is a self-made man; your status is seen as being the result of your own efforts. Everywhere else, we know that that's not the whole story. Life can deal you a crap hand, misfortune can strike out of the blue, talent can fail to be recognised. In America, the poor are seen as losers and blamed for their situation. Elsewhere, we're much more likely to say "there but for the grace of god go I". This acknowledgement that we could have been sharing their position, if not for chance (or might soon be sharing it if misfortune strikes), leads to more compassionate policies and attitudes.

Finally, I think de Bottan will probably have a fair bit to say about other reasons for status anxiety (such as consumerism) - but we'll have to wait for the next few episodes or buy the book to see.

Friday, June 18, 2004


The US has finally started to charge those of its soldiers who murder Iraqis. First into the dock is an army officer:

"The charge stems from a May 21 incident which took place near Kufa. Soldiers conducted a high-speed chase with a vehicle that they believed to be carrying suspected members of Moqtada Sadr's militia," [the US Army] said. "During their pursuit, soldiers fired at the vehicle, wounding the driver and passenger. Shortly afterward, the driver was shot and killed at close range."

(Implication: the driver tried to surrender, and the defendant shot him anyway. Or he was simply executed after being captured. Either is enough for a charge of murder).

The US needs to make a few examples of its soldiers, pour encourager les autres. The threat of prosecution is the only way to end their lawless behaviour.

There's a good post in the comments of Just Left's work-life balance thread on the idea of a shorter working week.

What the hell is going on?

A senior Tongan official doesn't attend a conference here after being asked to take a pregnancy test. Imigration's response? "It's her own fault and she should have realised she didn't need a visa anyway". Now there's a second official making the same claims:

Mrs Mafi, the first woman governor of a Pacific Island central bank, said she was also asked to take a pregnancy test and to present herself for an interview at the Immigration Service's Nuku'alofa office. She was surprised and "humiliated".

"I have had two children already and I didn't have them in New Zealand. I thought that being the governor of the Reserve Bank also, that there was some mutual trust and respect between ourselves."

She had sought an 18-month multiple-entry visa similar to those she had held in the past but was granted only a one-month visa.

What the hell is going on here? Why are we humiliating our friends? And will Immigration blame the victim again?

We simply should not be doing this. It's grossly invasive and humiliating, an insult to the dignity of any person. If we're worried about a handful of foreign mothers giving birth in New Zealand hospitals, then by all means bill them. But this sort of pre-emptive testing is simply vile.

Aquaculture settlement

I'm simply appalled that National is objecting to the aquaculture settlement as "space for race". For those who have forgotten their recent history, aquaculture was left out of the mammoth Fisheries Settlement several years ago as being too hard; today's announcement is an attempt to finally settle it. The settlement is in line with the previous deal, which gave 20% of all new quota to iwi, and nobody loses out. If there aren't enough aquaculture spaces remaining in an area, then the government will either find someone willing to sell, or compensate.

National meanwhile seems to have abandoned the consensus that we should right the wrongs of the past. Since they need the reminding, I'll spell it out: the reason Maori "get it for free" is because we stole it from them. Giving iwi a mere 20% of what they're entitled to seems to be quite a good deal for us. The reason we have a settlements process is because massive injustices were committed in the past, which stripped an entire people of their economic base and relegated them to disposessed poverty in their own country. After Orewa, Don Brash was at pains to recognise this injustice, saying that National would "set right" clear Treaty breaches, and "accelerate and then conclude the process of Treaty settlements". Today's reaction by his fisheries spokesperson show the lie behind that statement. Don Brash clearly has no commitment to righting past wrongs - at least, not when there's votes to be gained by bashing Maori instead.

Thoughts from Status Anxiety: America's pathological meritocracy

If you skipped Status Anxiety tonight, you shouldn't have. Alain de Botton - of Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness fame - is taking a look at one of the major sources of unhappiness in modern society: "status anxiety". This week he used America (and Grover Norquist!) as a stalking horse to look at meritocracy, and how it affects people's views of others, and their happiness.

The basic idea is this: under the Ancien Regime, social mobility was limited - if you were born a peasant, you would in all likelihood die a peasant. This decreased expectations, because your social status was not under your control - and if its not under your control, you're less likely to be unhappy at it not changing. Unhappy at the fact that Marie Antoinette is telling you to eat cake while you're starving, but not unhappy at the idea that you're not a noble living in a fancy castle per se.

Of course, the American and French Revolutions put paid to all that, and now in the West, we generally live in meritocracies. Social status depends less on birth and more on talent. How much more is a question of how cynical you are, but I think most of us would agree that there's at least some correlation (living fossils like the English monarchy notwithstanding). This has led to a rise in expectations - if just anyone (well, anyone with appropriate talent) can be a rockstar or corporate CEO, then why not you? It has also led to a corresponding rise in unhappiness as those expectations are not fulfilled.

Enter America. The United States thinks of itself as the most meritocratic society on earth, where anyone can grow up to be President ("your father doesn't have to be President first, but it helps!") Success is therefore seen as a result of effort, talent and hard work. The flip side of this is that failure is seen as a result of the reverse - of laziness and stupidity - or, as Grover Norquist put it between calling taxation theft and yelling at his office boy, of "choice". In America, the poor have "chosen" to be that way; simple bad luck - illness, your employer going bankrupt, being born in a shit neighbourhood with shit schools to shit parents - doesn't enter into it. As a result, they don't do welfare to any real extent, and the poor lead squalid, desperate lives.

It's an extreme example, and clearly pathological - and it doesn't need to be this way. Other western countries (NZ, for example) manage to be meritocratic, without descending into either a caste-system or the toxic "blame the poor" behaviour as practiced in the US. This is because, unlike the US, we do acknowledge some element of luck, and take steps to correct it. So here in New Zealand we try to ensure that everybody gets a decent start in life - decent healthcare, a good education - so that they have a chance to make the most of their abilities. And we try to ensure that there is a level beneath which you cannot fall, so that even those who then fail (or who fell through the cracks) can try again, or at least have a roof over their heads.

Americans (and ACT weenies) would call that "communism". I call it having some sense of fairness and decency.

The other solution to the problem of meritocracy (and one not mentioned by de Bottan) is self-knowledge. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses, what you can achieve and what you can't, will hopefully lead to a better alignment of expectations with ability, and therefore less unhappiness. Unfortunately, people have a significant capacity for self-delusion (Stephen Pinker thinks its evolutionarily adaptive to believe your own bullshit, at least some of the time), and so at least some of us are doomed to frustration as we chase dreams we can never attain. Such is the human condition, I guess.

De Botton also touched on religion, but apart from some laughing at twisted American churches who believe that worldly success is a sign of divine favour, it was all opium of the people stuff. And as a confirmed abstainer from that memetic drug, I'll leave it for someone who cares.

How much more will it take...

...before the American people figure out that Bush lied them into a war? Saddam's supposed arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons has not been found, and neither have his mobile laboratories or other production facilities. Why not? because they're weren't there - they were all dismantled during the inspection regime after the first Gulf War. And the 9/11 Commission has pretty conclusively debunked the idea of a Saddam - Al Qaeda relationship. The reasons Bush gave for invading Iraq have turned out to be lies, and over 800 US soldiers have died as a result.

If that's not a "high crime and misdemeanor", then what the hell is?

(Actually, we know what is: thinking that it's nobody else's business who you screw. Yeah, great sense of proportion there...)

New Fisk

Iraq, 1917

All the way to the top

The other day the Telegraph claimed that documents would shortly be revealed showing that the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib had been approved at the highest levels of the Bush administration. It seems that the shit has started to hit the fan already. Remember that prisoner who was ordered to be kept off the books and hidden from Red Cross inspectors by Lt General Sanchez? Well, it seems that Sanchez was getting his orders from higher up - specifically, from Donald Rumsfeld.

So, what else did he order then...?

Thursday, June 17, 2004

I feel dirty

Having spent the morning slagging off United Future and calling them bigots, I then go and hand them a great wodge of free opposition research with which to beat Rodney Hide. I know the enemy of my enemy is my friend (or at least my useful idiot), but even so...

"Filthy fucking weasels"

That's what The Whig is calling United Future (and myself) for revealing/propagating the fact that ACT's tax policy would result in tax increases for the majority of New Zealanders. Rodney himself denies Gordan Copeland's claims, saying that:

My speeches and my questions in Parliament have all been concerned with the cost and implications of dropping the top rate of income tax including company tax to 20 cents in the dollar. Of course, that is not a flat tax because many people pay less than 20 cents. I have never suggested that their tax rates be boosted as you claim.

So, does this mean Rodney is officially repudiating ACT's goal in its 2002 tax policy of "a flat tax rate of no more than 20%"?

Or the words of former leader Richard Prebble in his post-budget presentation, where he advocated for "a flat tax rate of 20 cents in the dollar for both companies and individuals"? (A demand repeated in The Letter just two weeks ago?)

Or indeed his own words a year ago when you said that "The best tax policy is a low flat tax of 20 cents or less"?

A quick Google of ACT's website on the phrase "ACT flat 20% tax" shows that that has been their consistent policy over many years. Methinks that Rodney is being more than a little disingeuous here. As for The Whig, maybe he should check his facts first before launching into the name-calling.

Update: Meanwhile, The Whig seems to be having some trouble with the meaning of the phrase "flat tax rate". Apparently it's supposed to mean something other than a single rate of income tax (as advocated by Steve Forbes on ACT's website here).

The fact is that ACT has consistently advocated for a single, flat tax rate for years. And yet now, when somebody points out that its actually a tax-hike on the poor, that’s not what they really meant? Pull the other one; it's got bells on.

More on Civil Unions

The Civil Unions thread over on Just Left seems to be ticking along nicely. Meanwhile, Big News has expanded on some of his thoughts. One of his concerns is that both supporters and opponents of change aren't distinguishing between the two bills involved. Partly that's because the media has talked about it as if it was one piece of legislation, and partly it's because opposition has focused on the CU Bill. Just to summarise:

The Legal Recognition of Relationship (Omnibus) Bill will remove unjustified discrimination on the basis of marital status from existing laws, allowing de facto couples to do things like fixing their partner's toaster or visit them in hospital. It does this regardless of the gender of those concerned.

The Civil Unions Bill confers state recognition on partnerships by creating legal "Civil Unions". These unions are gender-blind, able to be accessed by both straight and gay couples, but it is expected that (at least at first) the primary users will be gay couples who cannot presently access the Marriage Act.

The primary purpose of the Civil Unions Bill is to confer status, on the basis that the government should not be formally recognising some couples but not others. Dave rightly asks why that status isn't conferred through same-sex marriage. And I agree - the government should be amending the Marriage Act to make it gender-blind. But, like the government, I don't think that's politically possible at the moment - too many bigots around, some of them with their hands clenched around the government's nads. And in that situation, progressives should grit their teeth, support progress now, and keep on fighting for true equality.

What would that true equality look like? One option is that mentioned above - making the Marriage Act gender-blind, thus allowing same-sex marriage. Another is for the government to abandon the "marriage" word to the religious wackos who think they own it, offer only Civil Unions, and relegate "marriage" to a legally meaningless thing you do in church. This isn't actually that much of a change - the contents of the Marriage Act are already entirely secular - so all it would entail is gender-blinding and a rebranding (or simply a repeal, as we would have the CU Bill). Either option achieves the same results as far as I'm concerned.

"A tax cut for every worker"

United Future has rightly skewered ACT's regressive tax policy, pointing out that a flat income tax of 20% would result in a tax increase for three quarters of New Zealand taxpayers.

So much for ACT's public rhetoric of "a tax cut for every worker". All they care about is reducing the amount payed by their wealthy friends and backers.

So, why did they fight that war again?

US Vice-President Dick Cheney still seems to think that the invasion of Iraq was justified because Saddam was in bed with Osama. Unfortunately, the 9/11 Commission disagrees. Their preliminary statement on al-Qaeda says that

We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaeda co-operated on attacks against the United States.

While al-Qaeda had grovelled at Iraq back in the mid 90's to be allowed to set up training camps, Saddam told them to bugger off - and there was no collaboration post September 11th either.

So, why did the US fight that war again?

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Fresh Python

This won't hurt much


Five other candidates for a byelection which is pretty much a foregone conclusion. That's a reasonably healthy democracy, I think.

And OTOH, they're all relatively boring candidates. We need some Monster Raving Loonies to liven things up!

Via Just Left: An online petition in support of the Civil Unions Bill:

Karpinski fingers Sanchez and Miller

With careers (and pensions) on the line, the serious finger-pointing is beginning, with Brig Gen Janis Karpinski (the commandant of US prisons in Iraq and ultimate commander of the MPs at Abu Ghraib) laying blame for events there at the feet of Generals Sanchez and Miller.

In a radio interview for the BBC, Karpinski said that Lt General Ricardo Sanchez (the commander of US forces in Iraq) "should be asked what he knew about the abuse", and that Maj General Geoffrey Miller (the commander of Guantanamo and new commander of Abu Ghraib) told her to treat detainees like dogs:

She said current Iraqi prisons chief Maj Gen Geoffrey Miller - who was in charge at Guantanamo Bay - visited her in Baghdad and said: "At Guantanamo Bay we learned that the prisoners have to earn every single thing that they have."

"He said they are like dogs and if you allow them to believe at any point that they are more than a dog then you've lost control of them."

None of this gets Karpinski off the hook, of course - she is responsible for everything that happened in her command, whether she knew about it or not, and guilty of a gross failure of leadership for allowing torture to occur "on her watch". But what it does tell us is who else ought to be in the dock with her. And it's becoming clear that both these generals are in this up to their necks - Miller for recommending that Abu Ghraib be "Gitmo-ized", and Sanchez for authorising abusive interrogation techniques and ordering that a prisoner be hidden from Red Cross inspectors. So why aren't they being held to account?

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Non-denial denials

The headline screams "Rumsfeld says torture not allowed". But when you look at what he said, there's an enormous gap in his words which some journalists really ought to be probing into:

Mr Rumsfeld sought to dispel fears that the US military was regularly using methods of torture.

"There is no wiggle room in the president's mind or my mind about torture," he said.

"That is not something that's permitted under the Geneva Convention or the laws of the United States.

What Rumsfeld wasn't asked - and didn't say - was whether the beating, humiliation and sexual abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, or the use of "water-boarding" on "high value" prisoners, counted as "torture". Why not? Because saying so would expose the above as a "non-denial denial", reliant on the same sort of hypertechnical parsing that Clinton once used to deny having sexual relations with that woman.

From the legal opinions we've seen, it's quite clear that the Bush Administration does not regard what it is doing as torture (the pain isn't "severe" enough; there's no permanent harm done; no fingernails are pulled or live electrodes used; its being done by Americans). And if it's not torture, it's not illegal... (yet still shameful enough that they must do it in secret and try and distract people from it with fine-sounding words about how torture is unAmerican...)

So, the next time that Bush or Rumsfeld or Powell or whoever stands up there at a podium and spouts one of these non-denial denials about how torture is illegal under US law, journalists should challenge them. They should be hold up photos from Abu Ghraib, read out descriptions of what is being done to prisoners in US custody, and ask after each one "is this torture," "Would it be torture if it was done to an American"? The answers - or "no comments" - should be revealing...

The final part of Morgue's trip to Palestine is now up.

A moral Chernobyl

Christopher Hitchens calls Abu Ghraib "A moral Chernobyl", and he raises an interesting point: that it's not just a matter of how far up this goes (who gave the orders, who knew, who looked the other way), but of how far down as well. I've been occasionally thinking on similar lines, but in a darker direction. My worst nightmare is that the American people will look at Abu Ghraib, see the horrors their government has wraught, and go "so"? And if they do, the idea that the US is a beacon of liberty and human rights will truly be dead...

Thoughts on Bullshit, Backlash, & Bleeding Hearts

As I mentioned a few days ago, I was sent a copy of this book. So, what did I think of it?

Well, it's good. Like the original Treaty quiz, Bullshit, Backlash, & Bleeding Hearts aims to introduce some facts into the debates surrounding race relations and the role of the Treaty in this country. It succeeds admirably. It has a good quickie guide to how we came to get to where we are today - the history surrounding the Treaty and the subsequent breaches and injustices on the part of the crown, to our more recent attempts at remedying the situation - as well as deflating some of the more common myths surrounding current policies. "Undefined" treaty principles? Been defined since 1989. A "Maori veto" on development? A right to be consulted (the same right that everybody else has, to boot) is simply the right to try and make your case, not a veto. A "Treaty gravy train"? The government has spent about 0.1 percent of its spending over the past five years on the settlement process, and Maori are getting back a fraction of what was unjustly taken from them - some gravy train.

There's a few sticks poked in the other direction, but they're more in line of solutions to current problems than deflating myths. Rather than relying on boilerplate references to Treaty principles in legislation, we should instead analyse the issue, figure out how the Treaty applies in this particular area, and write specific clauses to suit (as was done in the Local Government Act). And rather than thinking about the Treaty as a one race, one vote "partnership", we should think about it in slightly weaker terms, as a co-operative venture. The metaphor here is that it's like moving a couch - you're setting out to do something together, and you have to take care of one another on the way. The good thing about this view is that it has a place for more recent immigrants as well - because everyone that lives here is part of the New Zealand project.

(I've generally interpreted "partnership" as meaning that Maori must be equal participants in our society, rather than being relegated to its fringes and ignored...)

So, will it actually do any good? Depends if anyone reads it, I guess. Unfortunately, the very people who need it most seem to think that you're a "conceited dickhead" for thinking that basing your views on facts rather than bullshit might be useful (a view they quickly discard when they want to push Greenhouse denial). But Michael King's History of New Zealand (which presents much of the same information on racial injustice, only in more detail) seems to have taken off in a big way, so maybe this will too.

The untermenchen are getting uppity

The Iraqi interim government is demanding that US military contractors be subject to Iraqi law. The US is not impressed. Untermenchen, demanding to be able to sit in judgement over Americans! Next they'll be wanting to actually run their own country or something!

Update: Spelling corrected on the advice of Running Blog Capitalist. Those similarly outraged by my choice of language should check out this article from the Telegraph a few months ago, in which a British army officer accuses the US of casual racism and viewing the Iraqis as untermenchen:

Speaking from his base in southern Iraq, the officer said: "My view and the view of the British chain of command is that the Americans' use of violence is not proportionate and is over-responsive to the threat they are facing. They don't see the Iraqi people the way we see them. They view them as untermenschen. They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life in the way the British are. Their attitude towards the Iraqis is tragic, it's awful."

I knew I should have put in a link.

The torture memo

The full text of the "torture memo", where US government lawyers argue that the President is not bound by either Congress or the Constitution, is available here.

BTW, anybody else think Bush's response to this just doesn't stack up? When asked about it, he says things like "we act according to the law" - but the whole point of this memo is to weasel ways to say that torture is legal. Unfortunately, no one in the US media has actually had the balls to fire back with "so does that mean you torture people, or that you don't?"

(It's also amusing to see Bush - the man who pledged to "restore honour to the White House" - engaging in the same sort of hypertechnical parsing that he criticised Clinton for. But maybe it's just a matter of proportion. After all, Clinton was screwing an intern! He was having sex in the oval office! How can a little thing like torture even begin to compare to a crime like that...?)

Update: Looks like I was wrong: during a press conference at the G8, the BBC did have the balls to ask Bush the obvious question. Unfortunately, his answer was just more of the same:

QUESTION: Mr. President, I wanted to return to the question of torture. What we've learned from these memos this week is that the Department of Justice lawyers and the Pentagon lawyers have essentially worked out a way that U.S. officials can torture detainees without running afoul of the law.

So when you say that you want the U.S. to adhere to international and U.S. laws, that's not very comforting. This is a moral question: Is torture ever justified?

BUSH: Look, I'm going to say it one more time. Maybe I can be more clear. The instructions went out to our people to adhere to law. That ought to comfort you.

We're a nation of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on the books. You might look at these laws. And that might provide comfort for you. And those were the instructions from me to the government.

Well, it might provide comfort if Bush would actually say something so simple as "torture is wrong" or "lawyers can argue that anything is legal, but at some stage you have to draw a line", rather than engaging in all this dodging around the point. It's not as if he hasn't been given the opportunity...

Monday, June 14, 2004

Part 7 of Morgue's trip to Palestine is now up.

A minor victory on the Identities Bill

The government has backed away from removing the automatic right of citizenship by being born here in the new Identities Bill, but it's still far from perfect. The chief problem - and the one I did my nut about when the bill was first floated - is that the government can take your passport off you and forbid you from travelling "where national security is threatened". While this has been tightened up considerably, with the introduction of a time-limit and rights of appeal to the High Court, it still is not enough. The balance is still tilted too far in favour of the government; the default is that you lose your passport until you successfully appeal (assuming you can afford to). This flies in the face of the presumption of innocence, one of the pillars of our whole legal system. Furthermore, it will allow unscrupulous Ministers to abuse the system, relying on the expense or length of the appeals process to effectively bar people from travelling overseas for specific events (my obvious fear here is the targeting of those wanting to attend international protests or conferences, where NZ participation may be embarrassing to the government-of-the-day). Unless it shifts the balance so that the government must go to court and prove its case before being allowed to forbid travel (surely a requirement in a free and open society?), or an automatic, cost-paid, expedited appeal (which amounts to the same thing), this move should be opposed.

The bill also tightens up the requirements for moving from residency to citizenship - a move which seems to be driven mainly by mean-spiritedness and a desire to pander to Australian fears about people using us as a "backdoor" to their country. This goes against our long tradition of being a generous, open and welcoming nation, and it should likewise be opposed.

So, while there's been a minor victory on this bill, there's still a lot of fighting to be done.

Civil Unions

Just Left asks about Civil Unions. Where do we all stand?

To be blunt, I don't think it goes far enough. As a matter of basic equality, gays are entitled to have their relationships recognised by the state. The way we currently do this is through marriage. The government should go the whole way and amend the Marriage Act, not try and implement some "separate but equal" status to keep gays in the ghetto.

Unfortunately, I don't think that's politically achievable at this time. And Civil Unions are certainly a progressive step - granting everything but the name. In a country with strong anti-discrimination legislation like ours, that may not be so bad. So I'll support the bill as a progressive step, while continuing to push for full equality.

"But what about the children?", you ask? Well, what about them? Contrary to the assertions of people like the Maxim Institute, state involvement in marriage is not about children. We inherited our marriage laws from Britain, and their original reason for getting involved was to prevent the "perils of clandestinity" - i.e. bigamy. We have state involvement to provide a register - so we know who is married and who is not - and standards - so other people cannot say that you are not married because the ceremony wasn't conducted according to their peculiar religious tradition (the latter being the primary reason for the British introduction of civil marriage in 1836). It's really the same reason for government involvement in land titles - to provide clarity and enforceability.

I think the above sort of framework is perfectly justifiable in a liberal society, provided it is done on a non-discriminatory basis. And that's where our current legislation falls down. We allow heterosexual couples to marry, but not gays. This should be corrected.

Check out those Panther Moderns!

OK, it's not a Panther Modern suit, but its close: Japanese scientists have invented an "invisibility cloak". It's essentially a giant array of pixels and a few cameras; the view from the cameras is projected on the opposite side of the cloak, so you blend into the background.

Obviously, the military is very interested.

According to David Farrar, I was the second most prolific Kiwi blogger last month. The most prolific being NZPundit, of course.

Ah well, it's not as if I needed a life anyway...

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Energy: why Lomu won't save us

If you've been paying attention to the news, or my occasional posts on energy policy, you'll know that the biggest medium-term problem we face in that area is Maui running out. In a year or two, the last few GigaJoules will be extracted, and we'll have to rely on other sources. Unfortunately, because Maui gas was so ridiculously cheap, it discouraged exploration, so we don't have many other sources. We're already seeing the consequences of this - Methanex (the people who turn natural gas into fertiliser and industrial chemicals) have been bid out of the market, and electricity prices are already rising in anticipation of the generators having to pay more for the gas they burn.

But according to the Sunday Star-Times, there's some hope: explorers in the Great South Basin (the area around Stewart Island) are chasing some pretty good prospects - including "a prospect potentially so big it has been named Lomu". They're also paying a lot of attention to the "Toroa" prospect, which is estimated to hold twice as much gas as Maui.

This is great, except for one small problem: it's all in the wrong place. Our gas power plants, and gas infrastructure, is all in the North Island. And because there's no gas or gas infrastructure in the South Island (no, the "landfill gas" system in Christchurch doesn't count), there's not much of a market for it there.

So, we either have to move the gas to a market, or move the market to the gas. Either is likely to be expensive.

Moving the gas to the market will mean shipping it around in LNG tankers. This apparently adds a substantial amount to the cost (almost doubling it, according to one estimate I've seen), but allows us to use our existing gas and electricity infrastructure. The fields being explored are all a fair way offshore anyway, and so tankers may be cheaper than an undersea pipeline. And once the stuff is on a boat, it doesn't matter so much how far it goes.

Moving the market to the gas is a much bigger prospect. This would involve building a pipeline infrastructure and powerplants in the South Island. It would also involve having to seriously upgrade the national grid (particularly the Cook Strait Cable), and shift the generation balance even further in favour of the South. OTOH, think of the jobs! Invercargill would become a gas boomtown (so I guess they'd be in favour of it).

But I'm foolishly talking as if we actually have a decision here. We don't. We've devolved power in this area to the market, which means that it's really up to people like Genesis, Contact, NGC and Methenx. And this means that we have a problem, because either option involves enormous upfront capital investment (the latter far more than the former), without which nothing at all will happen. It's a chicken-and-egg problem, and if they don't solve it, we all lose.

Worse, even if we do solve the infrastructure problem, Lomu won't save us anyway. Either way, we'll be paying more for gas and electricity, whether because of transport or infrastructure costs. This applies no matter how much gas we find in the South Island. The only way we can escape our medium-term energy problem is by finding more gas in the North Island - and I haven't heard much good news on that front. While there are areas worth exploring off Northland and the Wairarapa, I haven't heard of anybody looking there. If it is planning to offer incentives for oil and gas exploration (as mentioned in several post-budget speeches), then the government must ensure that that exploration happens in these areas, where the gas can actually be used, rather than at the arse-end of the South Island.


A house in Auckland got hit by a rock. Just a small one, though, so there's only a big hole in the roof and some damage inside, rather than a smoking crater.

I'm surprised that the insurance company is paying for the damage; if a falling meteorite doesn't count as an "act of god", then what does?

Saturday, June 12, 2004

The consolations of philosophy

I've been watching Alain de Bottan's Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness on Saturday mornings for the past month, and lamenting the fact that it doesn't have a better time slot. It's excellent TV - educational, witty, and encourages you to think - but condemned to obscurity becase of its timing (after Willie Jackson, for Christ's sake!)

Now I see that TV One is showing his other series, Status Anxiety, during primetime on Thursday nights, and I'm eagerly anticipating it. I should also read the book some time, but my reading list just gets longer and longer...

As for Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness, it's been interesting viewing. De Bottan focuses on philosophers that aren't normally a part of the traditional academic curriculum, mainly because he's interested in people that give actual, useful advice about the practicalities of how to lead a relatively happy and fulfilling life. Anyone who's stdied philosophy at university will know that this isn't what you look at - instead, it's all about epistemology, the study of language, general theories of ethics or how the mind works. Academic philosophers simply aren't interested in something so mundane as practical advice on being happy - that's the domain of (sneer) self-help manuals, not a respectable subject for academic inquiry.

Which is interesting, because Socrates was the original self-help writer (though he never wrote anything down, and his advice can be boiled down to "start thinking"). His core question was about "how we ought to live" - and not just in the sense of how to lead an ethical life, but also how to lead a happy one. But somewhere along the way, philosophers have decided that that question just isn't very interesting (or nowdays, that you can't publish any papers on it), and so have wandered off to ask about other things instead.

Not that I'm really complaining, because I think that questions of political theory, logic and ethics really are more interesting anyway. Or at least, certainly require a little more thought. One thing that you really notice about the people Bottan talks about is that most of the time they're reminding us of what we already know. Montaigne said that happiness is about being comfortable with yourself. Seneca said that unhappiness (and anger in particular) was a matter of frustrated expectations. And Epicurus said that friends are more important than money. This is pretty much folk wisdom, stuff your mother tells you when you're four, and the fact that we need books or TV shows to remind us of it simply shows how fucked up most of us are.

Blogging pays off

David Slack has sent me a copy of Bullshit, Backlash and Bleeding Hearts. I'll knock it off over the weekend and hopefully post something about it when I'm done.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Equality, one state at a time...

Having won in Massachusetts, the battle over gay marriage has now moved to New York...

Bring on the dancing Cossacks

National is accusing the government of "Communism by stealth" because its "working for families" package significantly reduces income gaps between families.

They look at two families, both single income, two kids, one on $38,000 and one on $60,000. After accounting for income tax and government transfers, the first family's net income is $42,860. The second family gets $45,236. The difference is only ~$2500! Communism!

Of course, that small difference does not result because the government is penalising the higher income family (or, for tax-haters, it is not "penalising" them any more than they are now); the difference results because, essentially, one family gets assistance, and the other does not. The higher income family is basically paying tax but receiving no direct income support, while the lower income family is effectively getting all its tax back, plus a some extra on top.

In other words, National's core problem with the scheme is that it is so generous. Generous to the extent that some families are getting almost $200 a week extra in the hand from the government.

This generousity may very well cause people to value time spent with their children higher than the marginal returns of working an extra hour, but so what? We work to live; we don't live to work. The fact that we now need effectively two incomes to support a family where we previously needed only one has been a very real (but mostly invisible) impoverishment of New Zealanders, and this will go some way towards correcting it, at least for some people.

But National is right - the incentives set by this scheme will have an effect on the economy. The labour force will shrink, as people with children decide not to work part time or work that extra hour. But this simply means more work for the rest of us. There is still plenty of underemployment in this country - people who would like to work longer hours - and I'm sure the 93,000 people on the dole wouldn't mind filling in a bit here and there. And the fact that they should be able to get higher wages as the labour market tightens is not going to hurt one iota.

Hmmm... more people being able to spend more time doing the things they enjoy rather than working, more opportunities for the unemployed to move into work, and upward pressure on lower-end wages. If this is "communism", then bring on the dancing Cossacks!

Update: Added link to table. That'll teach me not to read the Herald the whole way through before posting.

Charter TV

I watched "State of the Nation" tonight, and was struck by how ambitious it was. The old, corporate TVNZ would never have tried something as risky as sticking a hundred people in a room for two hours and letting them talk. This was clearly Charter TV.

But did it work? Well, it was interesting seeing our national conversation on the Treaty, race relations and foreshore on the TV, and the informational segments were both humourous and informative. At the same time, people didn't actually seem to talk much, and they talked primarily to the camera rather than to each other. Which, I guess, is why nobody had changed their minds at the end. Why would they? Rather than a conversation, they'd seen a collection of (only vaguely linked) positions and questions.

And on the other hand, it may have been successful in getting people to talk (or at least think) about some of the issues, and in getting some facts into the arena. But I guess we'll never really know (unless David Slack's book sales spike enormously).

I was impressed that it managed to remain so civil for most of the time, even though there were some ugly views expressed. The ugliest by far, BTW, was the older Pakeha woman who was upset about Maori "returning to the province" after having been all but completely evicted. While she was factually incorrect, just think about what she was saying: "we'd ethnicly clensed them, and they had the gall to come back!" Even when its based on falsehood, that's a very, very ugly worldview. The traditional slanging over cannibalism pales in comparison.

Finally: TVNZ should sack their stats mook. The analysis of their phone poll was so lacking that the only thing you could tell was that most callers were Pakeha. They should have compared down, not across...