Monday, January 31, 2005

New Fisk

Cheering ’democracy’ as the Iraqis still die

Every idea is an incitement

Laws against sedition are often justified on the basis that they ban not abstract speech, but "incitement". I think the best response to this was given by US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his dissent in Gitlow v. People:

Every idea is an incitement. It offers itself for belief, and, if believed, it is acted on unless some other belief outweighs it or some failure of energy stifles the movement at its birth. The only difference between the expression of an opinion and an incitement in the narrower sense is the speaker's enthusiasm for the result.

According to Holmes, only speech which attempted to induce immediate and concrete action (rather than action at some indefinite time in the future) could be dealt with by the law. Anything short of this - in th e case in question, publishing a pamphlet advocating the violent overthrow of all forms of government - did not pose a "clear and present danger" of "substantive evils" justifying intervention.

As for the long-term threat posed by allowing such advocacy, Holmes was quite sanguine:

If, in the long run, the beliefs expressed in proletarian dictatorship are destined to be accepted by the dominant forces of the community, the only meaning of free speech is that they should be given their chance and have their way.

Democracy should stand or fall on its own merits. If it can stand against the best arguments of opposing systems, it does not need legal protection; if it cannot, it does not deserve it. Either way, laws protecting it from criticism or preventing the advocacy of opposing ideologies cannot be justified.

A success

The Iraqi elections have been declared a success, with a turnout estimated at around 60%. That's something to celebrate, at least. These elections were the one good thing which can be salvaged from the entire bloody mess of Iraq, and while I do not think they were worth the estimated 100,000 excess deaths, they at least are some compensation which will hopefully lead to a better future for Iraqis.

Meanwhile, former British foreign minister Robin Cook sees the elections as an opportunity to change the direction of British policy in Iraq. He starts by making the obvious point:

we must recognise that the longer the occupation has continued, the stronger the resistance to it has grown. There can be no credible programme to reduce support for the resistance unless we convince the Iraqi people that we have an exit strategy within a realistic timeframe.

In this, he's simply recognising the empirical data on why occupations succeed or fail. One of the key determinants in whether an occupation will be successful is whether there is a credible guarantee to withdraw and turn over power. So far this has been entirely lacking in Iraq, with the US government engaging in manipulation to ensure a compliant, pro-US puppet regime.

His second point should also be familiar to those who read the Dobbins piece on disengagement:

[we must] avoid repeating the mistake of the past year in which we have allowed the interim government to become identified with the occupying authorities. We should welcome, not discourage, any measure of independence demonstrated by the new assembly, such as repealing the Bremer decrees on the foreign purchase of Iraqi assets.

To this end, he suggests ending the taint of collaboration with the occupiers by relocating the Iraqi government outside the Green Zone, putting the reconstruction in the hands of Iraqis rather than companies widely seen as Bush's cronies, and ending all rhetoric about Iraq being "a model for the region". The underlying idea, which has been so-far absent from American plans, is that Iraqis should get the government they want - not the one that people in Washington or London want.

It's a sensible plan; the only question is whether the British and American governments will accept it, or whether they will continue to try and gain some return on their "investment"...


Just a reminder that submissions on the Prisoners' and Victims' Claims Bill are due on Friday. So, if you were planning to make one, now is the time to polish it off and post it.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

New Fisk

One man’s belief in the triumph of good over evil should give us all hope
This Election Will Change the World, But Not in the Way the US Wanted

An archaic law that must be repealed

The charging of Tim Selwyn with publishing a seditious statement over the pamphlets distributed as part of the axe attack on the Prime Minister's electorate office last year marks a new low for freedom in this country. Here a man is facing up to two years in jail, not because of something he did (that is covered by a seperate charge of conspiring to commit criminal damage), but because of something he said. This criminalisation of speech is an affront to our democratic values which must be ended.

The charges have been brought under an archaic section of the law which criminalises making, publishing, or disseminating any statement expressing a"seditious intention". A "seditious intention" is defined as an intention to "bring into hatred or contempt, or to excite disaffection against" the Queen or the government, to "incite... or encourage violence, lawlessness, or disorder" or any offence that is "prejudicial to the public safety", to incite "hostility or ill will" between different classes or groups of people, or to incite the public to bring about constitutional change by unlawful means. While some of this sounds reasonable, or even necessary to protect the rule of law, there is a serious problem: the question of what excites "disaffection", "lawlessness" or "hostility" is entirely at the whim of the authorities. And generally, it has been used as a tool of political persecution. In the past, sedition charges have been brought against unionists, conscientious objectors, and those advocating unpopular or "unpatriotic" political causes. Peter Fraser (the future Labour Prime Minister) was jailed for sedition in 1916 for advocating the repeal of conscription, and Bishop James Liston was charged in 1922 over a St Patrick's Day speech criticising the behaviour of the British in Ireland. Conceivably, such charges could also be brought against those agitating for republicanism, urging civil disobedience, or questioning the prevailing interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi.

This history of abuse shows the fundamental problem with laws against sedition: they are primarily targeted not at immediate incitement, but at abstract advocacy. Calling for an end to conscription, for Irish independence, or even for proletarian revolution does not entail any immediate danger to people or property which would justify criminal sanction. Instead, they are simply ideas the governments of the day did not like. But in a free and democratic society, the government should not be dictating what its citizens are allowed to think and say. Democracies do not believe in "ThoughtCrime".

The criminalisation of sedition is fundamentally incompatible with modern conceptions of a free and democratic society, and fundamentally incompatible with the affirmation of the right to freedom of expression in our Bill of Rights Act. It is an archaic remainder of a bygone age which has no place in modern New Zealand. It is time for this law to go.

Justified fears

In a comment on a previous thread, GeniusNZ opined that expatriate Iraqis fearing retribution against their relatives were simply being paranoid. Unfortunately, it seems he's wrong. Voting was disrupted at the Sydney polling station after a small riot broke out when Wahabi protestors were discovered to be photographing voters. The polling station was later closed for an hour due to a bomb scare.

If this had happened in an Australian federal or state election, there would be a very clear remedy available. But as this is an international election, conducted by the International Organization for Migration, the best they can do is apply laws against stalking, intimidation and assault. Hopefully, that will be enough.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

With "protectors" like these, who needs terrorists?

From the beginning of its Iraqi adventure, the US has refused to release any figures on the civilian casualties it has caused, with one general infamously declaring "we don't do bodycounts". The reason for this is simple and obvious: Iraqi civilian casualties are bad PR. They undermine the claim that the occupation is being conducted on behalf of the Iraqi people, while also raising ugly questions about the ability - or willingness - of American soldiers to differentiate between friend and foe. Because of this, America has taken extreme measures to prevent the collection of casualty figures, including at one stage banning journalists from hospitals. This has forced a reliance on third-party estimates, such as Iraq Body Count.

However, the Iraqi Ministry of Health has been collecting figures for its own use. Because of their sensitivity, they are normally avaialble only to Iraqi cabinet ministers. Now, someone has leaked them to the BBC - and they pretty much confirm everyone's suspicions about the reason for secrecy:

The data covers the period 1 July 2004 to 1 January 2005, and relates to all conflict-related civilian deaths and injuries recorded by Iraqi public hospitals. The figures exclude, where known, the deaths of insurgents.

The figures reveal that 3,274 Iraqi civilians were killed and 12,657 wounded in conflict-related violence during the period.

Of those deaths, 60% - 2,041 civilians - were killed by the coalition and Iraqi security forces. A further 8,542 were wounded by them.

Insurgent attacks claimed 1,233 lives, and wounded 4,115 people, during the same period.

So, Iraq's "protectors" are more dangerous to ordinary Iraqis than the terrorists they are supposed to be protecting them from. And the blame can be laid fairly and squarely on the Americans' indiscriminate use of firepower and their emphasis on "force protection". While claiming that the occupation is conducted for the benefit of Iraqis, American forces offload the risks of military action onto the very people they are supposed to be protecting. Dropping thousand pound bombs in civilian neighbourhoods and responding to snipers with tank shells and heavy machine gun fire is done specifically to reduce the risk to American troops - but at a terrible cost in Iraqi lives. With "protectors" like these, who needs terrorists?

But what's staggering is the sheer scale of death: over 300 a month. Scaled for population, that's the equivalent of the death toll from the September 11th attacks, every single month, from US "collatoral damage" alone! One such incident caused the United States to embark on a crusade against the world - and yet Iraqis are expected to sit back and meekly accept it, month after month after month.

And Americans wonder why Iraqis hate them...


There's a pair of articles in Foreign Affairs this month which advocate US withdrawal from Iraq. The first, "Iraq: Winning the Unwinnable War" by James Dobbins, is direct and to the point:

The beginning of wisdom is to recognize that the ongoing war in Iraq is not one that the United States can win. As a result of its initial miscalculations, misdirected planning, and inadequate preparation, Washington has lost the Iraqi people's confidence and consent, and it is unlikely to win them back. Every day that Americans shell Iraqi cities they lose further ground on the central front of Iraqi opinion.

The war can still be won--but only by moderate Iraqis and only if they concentrate their efforts on gaining the cooperation of neighboring states, securing the support of the broader international community, and quickly reducing their dependence on the United States.

Dobbins believes that US tactics are fundamentally counterproductive, because they are solely military and conducted with little regard for the lives of Iraqi civilians. But guerrilla wars are not won by killing insurgents, but by winning over the civilian population and thus drying up their support base. In the end, then,

the success or failure of an offensive such as the November assault on Falluja must be measured not according to body counts or footage of liberated territory, but according to Iraqi public opinion. If the Iraqi public emerges less supportive of its government, and more supportive of the insurgents, then the battle, perhaps even the war, will have been lost... Pulverizing cities to root out insurgents may restore some control to the Iraqi government, but the benefits are unlikely to last long if the damage also alienates the population.

On this measure, the US's efforts so far have been nothing less than a disaster, expanding rather than shrinking the number of people willing to passively or actively support the resistance. And they have been so great a disaster as to permanently taint any government propped up by US forces. While the Americans can counteract this to some degree by "using better-calibrated warfare tactics" - shifting the burden of risk from Iraqi civilians to US soldiers by using less indiscriminate firepower - Iraq's stability ultimately depends on their departure. And this requires the backing both of Iraq's immediate neighbours and the broader international community.

It's here that Dobbins falls down. He suggests a broad dialogue "based on the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity" - which is likely to be a hard sell in the wake of the US's blatant disregard for those very principles in the lead-up to the invasion. And it's difficult to see why Iran in particular would support such a move. As Dobbins points out,

if Iraq is not stabilized, there can be no prospect of dimming Tehran's nuclear ambitions

Which gives the present Iranian regime a hell of a reason to ensure that Iraq is not stabilised for a good few years yet. And on a broad scale, the same applies to the international community as a whole: as long as the US is tied up and bleeding in Iraq, its capacity to cause further trouble is greatly reduced.

One way of resolving this dilemma is suggested in the second article, "Iraq: The Logic of Disengagement", by Edward Luttwak (subscriber only, but most academic libraries will have an online subscription). Luttwak's piece is unashamedly US-centric, dripping with contempt for Iraqis for their ingratitude towards their occupiers who "have been unselfishly expending their own blood and treasure to help them". This US-centrism leads to a "solution" which gives no regard to the interests of Iraqis, and which turns previous dialogue on how the US can withdraw without sparking a vicious civil war on its head. According to Luttwak, the desire to avoid civil war has been the problem all along; the US has

persisted in futile combat against factions that should be confronting one another instead.

(My emphasis)

The presence of American troops has allowed Iraqis of all sects to unite against the invaders, "without calculating the consequences for themselves of a post-American Iraq". According to Luttwak, the credible threat of an imminent withdrawal will force the occupation's greatest beneficiaries - the Sh'ia - to

confront the equally imminent threat of the Baath loyalist and Sunni fighters the only Iraqis with recent combat experience, and the least likely to accept Shiite clerical rule.

In other words, Luttwak's "solution", despite his repeated protestations to the contrary, is for the US to threaten to unleash anarchy in Iraq in order to blackmail concessions from others. It's the sort of plan which only a sociopath could love - but then "sociopathic" seems to describe US foreign policy in a nutshell, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, Luttwak misses an important point. While the US purports to be concerned with avoiding civil war in Iraq for humanitarian reasons, it also has cynical, foreign policy reasons as well - namely the risk that it would result in a dramatic expansion of Iranian influence, and perhaps even turn Iraq into an Iranian client-state. And it's very difficult to see why the Iranians wouldn't react to this plan by backing a theocratic Sh'ia faction in the hope of gaining exactly that.

So, while both authors agree on the need for disengagement, neither offers a workable way of escaping the Iraq tar-baby. And given the people currently running the US administration, I can't really see them putting in the hard work of diplomacy and humbling themselves before the international community required to get a solution which works. Instead, they're likely to go for something half-arsed and sociopathic, which will leave Iraqis even worse off than when this mess started.

Friday, January 28, 2005

The march of freedom

The Canadian government intends to pass a gay-marriage law. While the article predicts a tough fight, I think Candians supporting equality have one overwhelming advantage on their side: Americans. At the last election, several US states passed referenda outlawing any equality in marriage legislation, and Bush's Republicans - the dominant political voice in the US at the moment - have campaigned strongly against it. But as a people who seem to define themselves by not being American - not being Americans over healthcare, not being Americans over guns, and not being Americans over kicking over other countries - there's really only one thing Canadians can do...

Voting has begun...

The first votes have been cast in the Iraqi elections, by Iraqi expatriates living overseas. Unlike most Iraqis, they can vote with the security you'd expect in any decent democracy - but even then some are staying away for fear of endangering relatives still living in Iraq. Which gives you some idea of the amount of fear there is about this.

As for Iraqis actually living in Iraq, they face not only the threat of suicide bombs at the polling booth (journalists in Baghdad are apparently running a macabre pool on how many minutes it will take for the election to rack up its first atrocity), but also that of later retribution. And while President Bush is urging them to "defy the terrorists", any black American over the age of 60 could tell him it's not that easy. Southern rednecks were able to suppress the African-American vote for decades simply by threat of beatings; fear of a bullet in the back of the head is likely to be an even more powerful deterrent.

On the optimistic side, there seems to be a genuine desire to vote; it's just a question of how many people are willing to risk dying for it. And there are plenty of people who have chosen to seek change through the ballot box rather than the gun - even some of Saddam's former generals. Some Iraqis want to make it work, and this is a Good Thing. Unfortunately, they'll have to contend with those who are not so keen trying to stop them. I guess all we can do is hope for the best.

But quite apart from the threat of violence, there is an important sense in which the entire exercise is a charade: the most significant locus of power in Iraq today - the US occupying forces - will not be subjected to any form of democratic discipline through these elections. Whatever government eventually comes out of this process will not be able to order a change in their rules of engagement, investigate their actions, or hold them to account for their abuses. Because of America's prickly sense of nationalism, those decisions will be reserved for Americans, and thus made in American interests rather than those of the people whose interests they are supposedly acting in. And as a result, they will continue to act like a marauding army of occupation, with little respect for Iraqi civilian lives - rather strange, considering that the entire occupation is supposed to be being waged on behalf of those they are so casually killing.

In other words, the problem with the Iraqi elections is that they do not go far enough...

Sometimes humour is the best response

Te Radar takes on Don Brash's beneficiary bashing this morning, and once again shows that sometimes humour is the best response. But it's not just funny, it's also pointy - for example, this bit:

To be fair, the scheme greatly reduced the numbers of unemployed up until the early 1980s. The only difference was it wasn't called "work for the dole", it was called the Post Office, or the Railways.

I do find it rather curious that those advocating work-for-the-dole are the same people who opposed these government "makework" schemes. If it was a bad idea then, why is it suddenly a good idea now?

How to promote freedom

While I think the Powers article (discussed below) is interesting becuse it lays out the biggest problem facing the left at the moment, Sock Thief seems more interested in using it as ammunition to support his perpetual claim that the left has turned its back on those suffering under tyranny, approvingly citing this section:

One of the left’s glories has been its tradition of heroic internationalism, still alive in the anti-globalization movement’s insistence on workers’ rights around the world. (Typically, though, "anti-globalization" sounds negative rather than positive.) But when it comes to foreign policy these days, the left appears lost. I get depressed hearing friends sound like paleocon isolationists or watching them reflexively assume that there’s something inherently tyrannical about the use of American power. It’s not enough to mock Norman Podhoretz’s insistence that the battle with Islamic terrorism is World War IV. Just as the left lacked a coherent position on what to do with murderous despots such as Milosevic and Saddam - it won’t do to say, "They’re bad, but . . ." The left now needs a position on how best to battle a Muslim ideology that, at bottom, despises all the freedoms we should be defending. America should be actively promoting the freedom of everyone on the planet, and the key question is, how would the left do it differently from the Bush administration?

Timothy Garton Ash provides the answer: by using the Ukranian model, rather than the Iraqi one. Ultimately, freedom has to come from the grassroots. We can help by providing ideological support, international monitors, and pressure on governments to respect human rights and open themselves to change, but we must always be careful to ensure that we are not supplanting the goals of local activists with our own, or trying to impose freedom rather than letting it evolve. Because while Bush is right in saying that everyone wants to be free, an important part of this freedom, sometimes even more important in people's minds than the freedom from tyranny, is the recognition of independence and self-government it brings. To the extent that imposed freedom undermines this recognition, it is counterproductive - something Isaiah Berlin noted in "Two Concepts of Liberty":

It is this desire for reciprocal recognition that leads the most authoritarian democracies to be, at times, consciously preferred by its members to the most enlightened oligarchies, or sometimes causes a member of some newly liberated Asian or African state to complain less today, when he is rudely treated by members of his own race or nation, than when he was governed by some cautious, just, gentle, well-meaning administrator from outside.

Berlin was writing in 1958, before people realy realised just how "rude" some of those new rulers could be, but his underlying point remains. And it poses a serious problem for attempts to impose freedom from outside. In Iran, the mere threat of US intervention caused people to flee the nascent democratic movement and turn to the Mullahs overnight (and who can blame them, given the sordid history of US intervention in their country?) But OTOH, Ukraine and Georgia showed that the problem is not insurmountable.

As for what to do about Islamic terrorism rather than freedom in general, I've said it before many times: treat it as a law-enforcement problem. Track down, arrest and try terrorists for their crimes, while fighting a battle of hearts and minds to win over their support base. The latter involves addressing some of the Muslim world's problems - poverty, injustice, and the results of all those sordid interventions, for example - while showing that Islam is not incompatible with western democracy. Unfortunately, rather than showcasing their Muslim citizens as examples of how freedom need not mean giving up your values, many western governments seem to be doing their utmost to make them feel unwelcome.

This strategy isn't flashy, and doesn't produce many photo-opportunities, but it is likely to be far more effective than America's present ham-fisted efforts.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

An alternative vision

Sock Thief links to an interesting article in the LA Weekly, A Vision of Our Own: Four ideas for the left to redefine itself, by John Powers. The first part laments the decline of the left in America, and correctly points out that it is due essentially to laziness: the American left took their dominant position in the 60's and 70's for granted, and rested on their laurels. Meanwhile, funded by a small group of wealthy ultraconservatives, the right was building a network of political committees, media organisations and thinktanks - the infrastructure which underlies their curent ideological dominance. But behind this is a deeper problem. As Powers points out,

Forty years ago, the left represented the future - it crackled with pleasurable possibility - while the right symbolized the repressive past, clinging to dead traditions like shards of a wrecked ship... These days, all that has been stood on its head

Now it is the right that has the clear vision: a market society in which capital is totally dominant, it's holders a new and entrenched aristocracy of wealth. While the left has a good critique of that, it doesn't seem to have a positive vision of its own to offer as an alternative. Now that communism is dead and buried, unable (as Powers says) to act as either a threat or a promise, we are seemingly adrift.

Powers' solution is simple: the left needs to once again define what it stands for. As a starting point, he suggests reclaiming virtue, freedom, pleasure, and utopia from the clutches of the right. These are good ideas, and fleshed out provide a definate alternative vision: a tolerant state, where people are respected regardless of gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation; a state which maximises real freedom for all, rather than focusing on a stunted formal freedom which benefits only the rich; a "leisure society" where a universal basic income frees people from the necessity of having to work simply to eat, and gives them the freedom to make work suit their needs rather than those of employers - or at least one where workers enjoy substantial protections to prevent their employers working them into the ground, and where the goal is to have fewer people working for less time, not more. Mixed together, these are hardly utopia - and besides, utopias are dangerous - but certainly provide a vision that is far better than what we have now.

If all this seems familiar, it's because it's the sort of thing I've been advocating here in various proportions for the past two years (coupled with a strong emphasis on a just international order, rather than one which is simply a tool of the powerful). The alternative visions are out there (given the sheer breadth of the left, they've always been there), it's just a matter of publicising them.

Simply doing his job

Judith Collins has seized back her welfare portfolio long enough to attack Families Commissioner Rajen Prasad for being "overtly political" in his criticisms of Don Brash's latest bout of beneficiary bashing. Except that there's nothing political about it: Prasad is simply doing his job.

The Families Commission Act 2003 lays out the functions of the commission, which include a broad role of being an independent advocate for "the interests of families generally". This includes encouraging and facilitating informed debate, and advocating for "policies designed to promote or serve the interests of families" - no matter where they come from. Prasad would have been remiss in his duties had he not commented on Brash's family-unfriendly proposals.

What about public service neutrality? The Families Commission is a Crown Entity, not part of the public service; its empowering Act also includes a clause making it clear that no commission member or employee is part of the public service - meaning that the Public Service Code of Conduct does not apply. These are the same sorts of conditions which Don Brash was under when he was Governor of the Reserve Bank. At the time, he was more than happy to advocate for policy and criticise that of political figures, despite it being no part of his job description to do so. He can hardly complain now when others with a formal policy advocacy role do the same to him.

Changing the scenery

The British government has finally bowed to its highest court and accepted that it can no longer indefinitely detain suspected terrorists without trial. Instead, they plan to introduce administrative "control orders", allowing them to restrict suspects' movements and communications, or subject them to house arrest. Unfortunately, it's still without trial. Methinks they're just not getting it. The problem with arbitrary detention is that it is arbitrary - based on uncontested "evidence" and not subject to effective review. Changing from imprisonment to house arrest is simply changing the scenery - the underlying atrocity of interfering with fundamental liberties without any form of acceptable proof or judicial process remains.

A labour market policy, not a welfare policy

Something else that strikes me about Don Brash's speech: he's presenting a labour market policy, not a welfare policy. The goal is to reduce wage pressure on employers by forcing those on the DPB and sickness benefits into the labour force - the same policy he pushed the then-National government to implement in the mid-90's when he was Governor of the Reserve Bank and unemployment of only 7% threatened to allow workers to ask for higher pay. It's the three-month "trial period" that really gives it away, though - while being sold as a way of encouraging beneficaries to risk work, it doesn't actually address that problem, as the chief barrier is the perverse incentive structure set by WINZ's standdown periods. It will, however, reduce new workers to casualised peons, and allow employers to fight wage demands with the threat of instant "penalty-free" (for them) dismissal.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Don Brash: simple solutions for simple minds

A few thoughts on Don Brash's much touted "Orewa II" speech:

Firstly, those who have tarred the speech as beneficiary bashing are entirely correct. Like Orewa I, this speech is a finely-crafted exercise in divide and rule, singling out a segment of our society, demonising them and casting them as the enemy, and targetting them out for further victimisation. In his first Orewa speech, Brash did this to Maori. This time round, the targets are beneficiaries - specifically solo mothers, invalids and sickness beneficiaries - who Brash essentially accuses of being frauds, criminals, and malingerers, "ripping off the system" and "living off the rest of the community". Brash has plausible deniability on this, of course - his speechwriters put in careful caveats here and there which he could point to and say that of course he wasn't trying to tar all beneficiaries in that way - but at the same time it is undeniably the impression his speech was intended to convey. As for the facts that fraud is a relatively minor problem, that the vast majority of sickness and invalids beneficiaries really are too ill to work (though partly this is due to not getting the treatment they need for their conditions - something the government is now, finally, working on correcting), that 45% of DPB recipients are already in part-time work and less than 10% are still on the benefit by the time their youngest child turns 14 - in other words, that the "problem" for which he is offering a "solution" is vastly less serious than his punitive tactics would suggest - well, why should they get in the way of stirring hate?

Those who accuse Brash of resurrecting the failed policies of the past and going "back to the future" are likewise correct - there's very little here that wasn't tried (unsuccessfully) under Jenny Shipley in the late 90's. Though Brash's comment that adoption should be seen as an "acceptable option" suggests that he's looking beyond the late twentieth century, and all the way back to the nineteenth - the very era New Zealand was established as a reaction against. A significant strand of our ancestors fled halfway around the world to try and grub a living out of the forest and the swamp to escape the workhouse and the orphanage - not to recreate them.

The policy proposals themselves are best described as simple solutions for simple minds. They make good soundbites, but as shown during the Shipley government, fail to work in practice. Work-for-the-dole simply stops beneficiaries from looking for real work. Work-testing the DPB turns single-parent families into no-parent families. And work-testing those on sickness and invalids' benefits was nothing more than black comedy, with terminally ill cancer patients being dragged from chemotherapy to discuss their future work prospects with WINZ. There are far better options available - making work actually pay (rather than promoting a low-wage, low-skill economy) being the chief one. Others include providing proper healthcare so that sickness and invalids beneficiaries can work and have a life again, providing grants so that the unemployed can relocate in search of work, and removing WINZ's vicious clawbacks so that those on benefits can ease themselves into the workforce through part-time work. But such positive policies are anathema to a party seemingly committed to the idea that those on benefits are shiftless, demoralised bludgers rather than people who want jobs and lives like everybody else.


I may not have made it into the 2005 Bloggies, but I've been nominated for a Koufax Award in the "best series" category for my writing on the Civil Union Bill last June. The posts in question are:

If you'd like to read them all at once, they're all together on an old archive page here.

The Koufax awards are "intended to honor the best of the left of blogtopia" and awarded by public vote. You can vote in the comments on the thread above. And if you don't vote for me, please vote for Obsidian Wings' Maher Arar series.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Fuck Iraq, part III

Remember our hopes for Iraq? That by getting rid of Saddam, Bush's crusade would lead to a democratic "beacon of freedom" which would inspire change throughout the Middle East? Or that it would at least end Saddam's reign of torture and murder, and give Iraqis a government which respected fundamental human rights? Even those of us who opposed the war believed that these would be good results; some of us disagreed on the scale of costs and benefits, some on whether the same result could not be achieved by other means, some on whether those results could be achieved by force at all, and some on the terrible precedent it set in international law - but I don't think anyone seriously argued that it would be a Bad Thing if Iraq were a democracy or if Iraqis weren't tortured.

For me, those hopes were crippled the day panicked American soldiers mowed down a crowd of demonstrators in Fallujah, and died on reading in the Oregonian that US forces had discovered a torture facility run by their Iraqi allies - and were ordered to just walk away. The new boss was the same as the old boss; the US had overthrown Saddam, only to recreate him in a new guise.

The latest report from Human Rights Watch - The New Iraq? Torture and ill-treatment of detainees in Iraqi custody - is just the final nail in the coffin. In it, HRW details gross abuses by the Iraqi regime, including

systematic use of arbitrary arrest, prolonged pre-trial detention (up to four months in some cases) without judicial review, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, denial of access by families and lawyers to detainees, improper treatment of detained children, and abysmal conditions in pre-trial facilities.

This "torture and ill-treatment" includes:

...routine beatings to the body using cables, hosepipes and other implements. Detainees report kicking, slapping and punching; prolonged suspension from the wrists with the hands tied behind the back; electric shocks to sensitive parts of the body, including the earlobes and genitals; and being kept blindfolded and/or handcuffed continuously for several days. In several cases, the detainees suffered what may be permanent physical disability.

Hosepipes. Strapado. Electrodes to the genitals. As HRW says, "the people of Iraq were promised something better than this". Those who supported the war as a humanitarian intervention against torture ought to be asking themselves some pretty serious questions right now. Such as how this is better than what went on under Saddam (and whether it is 15,458 dead civilians or approximately 98,000 excess deaths better)? Or why, if torture justified using military force against Saddam, the same argument doesn't apply to the regime which replaced him? Or who the "supporters of torture" are now - the people who condemned Saddam while saying that force wasn't a good solution, or the people who look the other way at what their "humanitarian war" has wrought?

Sniping aside, it ought to be crystal clear to everyone now that the Iraqi regime does not deserve our support. No country which uses torture does, and that applies to Iraq's current crop of torturers as well as its past ones.

Not even considered

Over the past few months I've been using the Official Information Act to do some digging into the Department of Corrections' abusive Behaviour Management Regime (BMR). I've just received back their response to my latest request. In it, I focused on how the BMR was developed - who was responsible, what their position with the prison was etc. I also asked for copies of any document which raised concerns about compliance with any of the following:

  • Penal Institutions Act 1954
  • New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990
  • Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
  • United Nations Standard Minimum Rules For The Treatment of Prisoners
  • Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under any Form of Detention or Imprisonment
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
  • Any other New Zealand legislation or international agreement to which New Zealand is a party.

(These are simply the most obvious laws and agreements governing the operation of prisons, and formed the basis of the complaints in Taunoa v Attorney General, in which the BMR was found to violate both the Penal Institutions Act and the NZ BORA).

Corrections' response was short and to the point:

We have not located any documents which meet this criteria

Which should give pause for thought regardless of how it is read. Either the question of compliance with the legal framework governing our prisons was not even considered, or (given the blatant nature of the breach of the Penal Institutions Act) Corrections has some utterly crap lawyers. Either answer suggests gross negligence on the Department's behalf, and given the amount of money this has cost us so far, is reason enough for heads to roll.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Someone has died...

So there'll be nothing here for a few days.

The issue that won't die

How can anyone oppose voluntary euthanasia in the face of a story like this?

Here we have a rational, intelligent person who has decided that their quality of life will deteriorate so much as their disease progresses that they will be nothing more than a prisoner inside their own skull. But because of the current state of the law, they have to take a particularly slow and painful way out while they still can, because no-one will be allowed to help them later, and even those who simply provide the tools face prosecution for murder.

This is, at its core, a question of autonomy and authorship over our own lives. And as such, there is only one way it can be answered. We own our lives. They do not belong to god, and they do not belong to the state. The decision on when and how to die should (insofar as it is under our control) belong to us.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Nothing to be ashamed of

The government has finally announced its (previously foreshadowed) increased contribution to the asian tsunami, and it comes to NZ$68 million - a little smaller than the NZ$100 million figure some were talking about, and nowhere near Australia's generosity, but still a substantial commitment and nothing to be ashamed of.

The tables comparing aid contributions by population and GDP have of course been updated.

The announcement also included a large amount of detail on how the money is expected to be spent, which should make it easier to check up on whether we keep our promises.

More on referenda

Public Address today has a guest column by Michael Wallmansberger of the Campaign for Civil Unions on why he opposed a referendum on the bill. Some of the reasons - such as not wanting to waste time "responding to... hatred and irrational bile" - are poor. But the fundamental one is one I can wholeheartedly endorse: we should not be having referenda on whether people are entitled to justice and equality under the law. Those who are currently denied such fundamental rights should not have to beg to be treated in the same way as everybody else.

More generally, the risk of majoritarian tyranny is the great problem for refereda, and why I oppose them without safeguards to protect minority rights - just as I oppose regular legislation without such safeguards. No law - whether passed by popular vote or elected representatives - should be allowed to deny people justice and equal treatment, target specific individuals for punishment, or turn them into second-class citizens. These things are simply beyond the authority (but sadly not the power) of government.

Despite this risk, I think the case for greater use of referenda is strong. Fundamentally, they are about people governing themselves and choosing the shape of their society - an ideal which lies at the heart of democracy. And greater participation is something we should encourage because, as George Monbiot points out in The Age of Consent, it creates a positive feedback cycle:

democracy has the potential to be politically engaging. The more politically active citizens become, the more they are able to affect the way the state is run. The more success they encounter in changing the state, the more likely they are to remain politically active.

The more we use tools like referenda, the more reponsive our state will be, and the easier it will be to hold power to account. And that I think is something worth promoting.

Thinktank: liberal issues

Now that I have comments, I thought I'd try something new: the No Right Turn Thinktank, where I solicit readers' opinions for a small political project. I am planning on doing this with some select committee submissions, but I thought to kick things off I'd start with something broader: what do you think will be the important liberal and human rights issues of the next Parliamentary term? And what do you think we can or should try to push our representatives into acting on?

I can think of a few. There's unfinished business over gay equality, particularly with regards to adoption, and the Civil Union Bill needs to be leveraged into full gay marriage at some stage. And I expect vouluntary euthanasia will be back again; someone will have a private member's bill on the topic. Are there any other obvious causes? And which can we prioritise and how?

From this I am hoping to develop a short candidate quiz to send out before the election, with an eye to publicising the answers (or at least the interesting ones). The goal will be to reccommend the most liberal candidate in each electoral contest, regardless of party.

New Fisk

Hotel journalism gives American troops a free hand as the press shelters indoors

A seditious question

If Prince Harry excites disaffection against the royal family by behaving like an arse, is it sedition?

Monday, January 17, 2005

New Fisk

Not even Saddam could achieve the divisions this election will bring

Unveiled justice

I'm not sure which way I really swing on the issue of Muslim women being forced to reveal their faces whle giving evidence. On the one hand, yes, the defence must be able to effectively challenge the prosecution's witnesses, and part of this involves assessing their demeanour to see whether they're lying. And on the other hand, given the strong prohibition on women revealing their faces in some Muslim clades, this is the equivalent to asking a western woman to appear topless - intrusive and humiliating, and likely to affect people's willingness to testify. And the fact that this is exactly why the defence was doing it - as a form of witness intimidation - leaves a very nasty taste in my mouth.

The judge at least has ruled that the women can be protected from public view by screens, which is entirely reasonable, and according to TV3 News at least one of the women is happy with the decision. If she can live with it, I think we all can.

Putting their cards on the table

Over the weekend, Jeanette Fitzsimons of the Greens gave a "state of the planet" address on Waiheke Island. Media coverage has focused on the sensational aspect - the (rapidly approaching) demise of cheap oil and consequent need for change - and in the process missed something important: there is no mention whatsoever of the issue that divided the Greens and Labour last election, genetic modification. Instead, the Greens are signalling, both to Labour voters and their own, that they want there to be a left coalition (rather than a right one) after the next election:

we have to work with Labour. We have to encourage them in their infant steps to sustainability, convince them of the urgency of the energy issue, oppose them strongly when they panic and slip back to authoritarian and unsustainable ways. We will lose some of the battles. But we are asking you to give us the numbers and the power this year to give New Zealand, and the planet, a future.

And their silence on GE shows that they are willing to give up something significant to do it.

This can only be good news for the left. The Greens and Labour should be natural allies, not enemies.

Hikoi to the ballot box

Since the last year's Hikoi to Parliament it has been clear that the government will be facing a Maori backlash this election over its expropriation of the foreshore. And that backlash is looking larger and larger; the Maori Party has grown to 9000 members, which isn't too shabby for a party which didn't exist a year ago. Labour will be facing a serious fight in the Maori seats, with at least half of their Maori electorate MPs likely to be punished with de-election and the others having their majorities slashed. On current polling that isn't likely to threaten Labour's ability to form a government - but it is likely to establish the Maori Party as a possible coalition partner (especially if they get an overhang). Just think of the coalition negotiations that would cause...

Either way, it looks like the Maori Party is going to become a presence in Parliament - quite possibly for a long time to come.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

New Fisk

How a flying carpet took me back in time - until I landed in Baghdad
’They put a hood on me, tied my hands and took me to Camp Fallujah’

A sickening Inconsistency

Here's an inconsistency: today, Specialist Charles Graner got ten years for abusing and torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Meanwhile, the companies who provided the contract interrogators who ordered him to do it - CACI International and Titan - were rewarded with valuable new contracts by the Pentagon.

Between them, the companies provided half of all interrogators and analysts at Abu Ghraib. Several have been accused of serious criminal behaviour in the various investigations into what happened there. Steven Stefanowicz of CACI ordered people to physically abuse prisoners. John Israel of Titan is accused of lying under oath, while Adel Nakhla (also of Titan) raped a child prisoner. Other employees of these corporations were found to have beaten or ordered the beatings of prisoners, used unauthorised "stress positions", and used dogs to intimidate and maul prisoners. Both companies clearly have a problem with ensuring that their employees conform to military standards for running and working in a prison. Neither has fired anyone for these abuses. Yet rather than being banned from further contracts until they clean their act up, CACI has had its US$16 million contract for Abu Ghraib renewed, and Titan has been given US$164 million of new business.

US$180 million for perjury, beatings and child rape. I guess the Bush administration felt they were doing a good job...

Doing something about third world debt

Third World indebtedness is one of the great problems of our age. Developing countries struggle to pay off crippling levels of debt - often racked up by military dictatorships in exchange for guns to point at their own people - but because of extortionate interest rates, they never seem to make any headway. And of course the money going to overseas lenders as debt servicing is money that cannot be spent on economic development or on serving the needs of their own people. So it's good to see the UK doing something about it; they have forgiven their share of Mozambique's debt and will pay 10% of its debts to the IMF and World Bank. There is a string attached, but on that isn't too onerous: the money saved must be spent on health, education, and infrastructure - all things that help a country stand on its own two feet.

It doesn't end there, either - the UK is planning to do the same for the entire developing world. In other words, they are serious about the problem and want to do something real about it, rather than simply wringing their hands. The trick as always is going to be getting other nations to follow suit.

The right will probably decry this move as "setting the wrong incentives" and "encouraging financial profligicy" or similar, but no doubt the pentakosiomedimnoi said the same to Solon before the seisachtheia. And they would be defending exactly what the rich of Athens wished to defend: debt-slavery. The only difference is one of scale.

If the moral argument does not convince, then consider this: debts that can never be repaid provide an incentive for only one thing - default. If creditor nations do not take steps to lift this burden, then debtor nations may one day simply refuse to carry it any further. And as Argentina shows, the consequences of that are far worse for creditors than debtors. Better then to try and manage the transition smothly, and possibly get something (even if only good will) rather than holding out for a hundred percent of nothing.


Specialist Charles Graner has been jailed for ten years on five charges relating to the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. It's an excellent result, but at the same time some of those responsible for these atrocities seem to have escaped punishment entirely - notably the military intelligence and CIA personnel who seem to have given the orders (and committed abuses of their own in the course of their interrogations).

Not that acting under orders excuses Graner in any way, of course - the Nuremburg principle establishes that - but shouldn't everyone involved face justice?

The trial itself was in many ways a proxy trial of American right-wing pundits' (and their blogosphere parrots') attitude towards torture. Graner's defence lawyer tried to argue that the abuses pictured in the photographes were not torture, claiming fatuously that stacking naked prisoners in human pyramids was "a valid control technique" which could not be torture as cheerleaders did it - completely overlooking the aspect of voluntary consent (rather than fear of beatings) on their part. He also tried the same tactic in response to the famous picture of Private Lynndie England dragging a naked prisoner around on a leash:

"You've probably been at a mall or airport and seen children on tethers; they're not being abused," he argued.

"You're keeping control of them. A tether is a valid control to be used in corrections," he said.

"In Texas we'd lasso them and drag them out of there."

Which I think says more about the sadism prelevant in the Texas "corrections" system than it does about dragging people round on leashes.

But when it came to testimony from some of the Graner's victims, who reported being forced to masturbate for his amusement, being violently beaten (and in particular, being beaten on the site of a fresh bullet wound) and being forced to eat excrement, the defence had no response other than appealing to "patriotic" hatred:

"It was the face of the enemy. It's very clear that he hates America," he said.

I'm very glad to see that a court martial found these "arguments" unconvincing. But I doubt those pundits wil notice...

As for what hapens next, the Bush administration will claim that this means that the Abu Ghraib scandal is over - but this is no longer just about Abu Ghraib. Since then, the evidence that torture has been used in other US detention facilities (in Iraq, in Guantanamo, in Afghanistan and elsewhere) has become overwhelming. It will not be over until everyone responsible has faced justice. Charles Graner should be the start, not the end.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Further proof of failure

The CIA's National Intelligence Council is warning that Iraq could become a breeding-ground and a haven for terrorists, similar to Afghanistan under the Soviets. Rather than "flypaper", attracting terrorists which can then be killed, they see it as driving recruitment and providing training to a new generation, the survivors and leaders of which will then carry their training and skills around the world - again, as happened in Afghanistan.

One of Bush's excuses for his invasion was to make America (and the world) "safe from terrorism. But rather than making us safer, he has in fact increased the danger. On this count too, then, the Iraq war must also be considered a failure.

Three floppy disks

Like a mayfly, Huygens brief time has come and gone. Last night it descended through Titan's atmosphere and landed on whatever was under it, lasting for about seven hours against the cold. In process, it has shot about 750 images and collected enough data to fill three floppy disks. This sounds unimpressive compared to the prodigious output of probes like Viking or the Spirit rover, but it's a stunning success as far as the scientists are concerned - they were expecting to get only a single floppy from the whole exercise.

Now they get to pore over the data and find out what Titan - or at least that part of it that Huygens saw before it froze - is made of.

No pictures have been made available yet, but I'll be checking the ESA Cassini-Huygens site for details.

Friday, January 14, 2005

New Fisk

We won’t go home and we won’t vote, say refugees of Fallujah

Just depressing

Is there any other way to describe the prospects for the Iraqi elections? With just over two weeks to go until the poll, the interim regime has admitted that violence will prevent voting in some parts of the country. While they are downplaying the extent, the provinces they are talking about contain about 50% of the population of the country - and the capital. In other words, we are looking at an "election" where the majority of the population - and the majority of Sunnis, who are already hostile to the new order in Iraq - will not be able to participate.

Riverbend's latest report isn't exactly encouraging either. There's an open market in ballot papers and candidate names are being kept secret for their protection; with people being murdered right left and center, you can hardly blame them, but what sort of democracy is it when people are not allowed to know who they are voting for? The whole thing is turning into a farce, and people know it. If Riverbend's reaction is anything to go by, the resulting government won't be seen as legitimate by many Iraqis.

And on the other hand, 50% of an election is better than no election at all (or the sorts of "elections" practised under Saddam). Something may be able to be salvaged by providing representation for those who cannot vote, backed by the promise of local elections at the first available opportunity, but it will hardly be the shining pillar of democracy that the Americans promised. By this measure then (as with so many others), the war should be considered a failure. It's a testament to the ability of the Americans to fuck things up that they've managed to turn "elections" into a dirty word...

And on the other hand...

While Tim Barnett is right in labelling Brash's call for more referenda "desperate", his general objection to referenda is a little over the top:

He said Dr Brash was floating a "very different kind of democracy" where decisions could end up being made by a version of "mob rule".

That very much depends on what sorts of safeguards there are and the balance of power between Parliament and popular votes. The chief worry with referenda is that they could erode the rights of unpopular minorities. A secondary concern is that they could result in contradictory entrenched budgetary demands (as has happened in California). A third is that without spending controls they could simply become a tool for monied interests able to afford expensive publicity campaigns. But on the other hand the Swiss have managed to do them properly with no significant problems for over a hundred years.

I think there's definitely a role for citizen's initiated referenda, either as a direct legislative mechanism or as a "people's veto" on unpopular legislation. The question is how we implement it, not whether we should do it - and it's in that complete and utter lack of detail that Brash's "proposal" really falls down.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Brash's desperate populism

In the Herald this morning, Don Brash argues that MMP has led to a decline of accountability and consensus, and pushes for a referendum on the electoral system and greater use of referenda generally. Just Left has already pointed out that this is little more than insincere populism on his part; Brash voted for the Prostitution Reform Act and supported the Civil Union Bill on its first reading. He seemed quite happy at the time to impose his will on the public, despite not having campaigned or sought a mandate on either issue. For him to turn around now and say that there should have been a referendum is simply hypocritical on his part. He is also being dishonest in claiming that these changes were made without a mandate; both civil unions and the Supreme Court were part of Labour's manifesto at the last election (here and here respectively), while prostitution decriminalisation was a private member's bill, not government policy. But as the post-Orewa "race debate" showed, dishonesty is hardly unusual for Brash, and he seems quite happy simply to make shit up if the facts are inconvenient.

This move to populism show's Brash's desperation: he has one shot at becoming Prime Minister, after which he is likely to be rolled in favour of a younger, more electable candidate. And as the Civil Union debate showed, he will adopt any political position that he thinks will improve his chances - even those violently at odds with his claimed principles.

What about the substance? Unfortunately, on the referenda front, there isn't any - which is why I dismiss Brash's position as empty populism. At least Winston went to the effort of developing a (deeply flawed) legislative framework when pushing for referenda; Brash hasn't even bothered to do that. When National comes up with a proper referendum scheme, I will take them seriously on this issue - but until then, they're simply appealing to the grumpy vote.

On electoral reform Brash has more concrete proposals, echoing National's long-standing desire to make Parliament less representative and restore the executive dictatorship. He also plumps for the supplementary member system - the "salmonella" option in the 1992 referendum, which combines the worst features of MMP and FPP: party lists without proportionality and majority government without restraint. And the reason for this is quite obvious: Brash can't win an electorate seat (he went down to Social Credit twice in the early 80's), and thus needs a list to get into Parliament.

But what about the "problems" a return to a less representative electoral system is supposed to fix? Parliament has been more consensual this term, with bills generally attracting wider support than under FPP, and the newer parties displaying a more constructive rather than oppositional culture. While there are "back-room deals", they are more open than under FPP, when they happened within parties rather than between them. As for accountability, we will have a chance to hold our representatives accountable for their votes later this year. And with his voting record, Don Brash should be worried.

Keeping our promises

One of the biggest worries about aid is that promises made today may be forgotten tomorrow when the disaster or crisis drops off the TV. The 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran, is a case in point - a hundred million dollars was pledged by donor nations, but less than US$20 million has actually been paid out. So it's particularly good to see that the New Zealand government has already paid most of the $10 million it has pledged to the victims of the asian tsunami.

However, the general problem remains: how do we make sure our governments live up to their promises, rather than simply exploiting claims of generosity for political gain? Freedom of information and open government laws are particularly useful here, allowing us to watch our governments and make sure they deliver. All we need to do is remember to submit the requests, and publicise the results.

So, here's a promise: over the next year I will be using the OIA to keep an eye on the government's progress in this matter. I hope that some of you in other jurisdictions with freedom of information laws - the US and UK in particular - will do the same.

Shrinking coalition watch

Ukraine is out.

So, is this torture?

Or simply murder?

a prisoner under interrogation by the CIA was abused in October 2003 by two or three SEALs. On another occasion a month later, the witness said he watched as SEALs punched, choked and poked their fingers in the eye of Iraqi Manadel al-Jamadi, who also was punched by a CIA official when he did not answer questions.

Mr. al-Jamadi, a suspect in the bombing of a Red Cross facility in Iraq, died a few hours after he was captured during a joint CIA-special operations mission in November 2003. He died while being interrogated by CIA personnel in the shower room of the Abu Ghraib prison.

One of the men involved - a US Navy SEAL Lieutenant - may be facing assault charges, but no-one has been charged with murder, or even negligent homicide. I think that shows more than anything how "seriously" the US takes its human rights obligations. A group of men beat a prisoner to death - and yet no-one will be held properly responsible for it.

New Fisk

Fear stalks city where the police hide behind masks

Ending the pretense

The US has stopped even pretending to look for WMD in Iraq. I guess they got sick of not finding anything.

So, what was that war all about again?

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Sleep and evolution

Over at Philosophically Made, Stephen Cooper asks:

Is it in human nature to be rational? If one takes an evolutionary stance, then one thinks that evolution thins out irrational points of view.

But then, we get all sorts of behaviour that really isn't conducive to survival.

If I sit on the couch watching TV, how is that good for survival? Am I contributing to human extinction this way? Some might say humans need to rest, to recouperate and give more the next day. But then, wouldn't evolution provide us with a human that doesn't need to rest?

The simple answer is that it's just not energetically efficient to do so (or rather, wasn't in the evolutionary situation in which the strategy of sleeping evolved, way back in the depths of the animal phyla). While there are fairly obvious opportunity costs to sleeping (including the risk of being eaten), they fairly obviously do not outweight the extra expense of being active all the time.

But there's also a great deal of confusion in Stephen's post. Evolution doesn't act on "points of view". It acts on the genes, through their vehicles, individual organisms. Rationality is not necessarily desirable in an evolutionary sense; all an organism needs is the ability to solve common problems in its environment, and as digger wasps show, it need not do this by thinking. And if an environment is sufficiently unchallenging, you can get by without thinking at all - look at trees. In such circumstances, having a brain is simply a waste.

There's also a trace of the biggest confusion surrounding evolution: conflating its values with those of people. Evolution may "judge" behaviour by whether it is "good for survival" (or rather, reproductive success), but we can - and should - have other standards. Rape, murder and cannibalism may all be "good for survival" (if you can get away with them), but it does not follow that we should act that way.

Energy: the growth of wind

There's an interesting article in the Dominion-Post this morning on the growth of wind power in New Zealand. Between them, TrustPower and Meridian are planning to install 450 - 500 MW of turbines in the next two to three years, and there are many other projects being pursued by smaller players. In all, it looks as if we will be able to meet our energy demand growth from wind alone - which has to be good for our long-term sustainability.

Why such intense interest? One reason is the ease of gaining resource consents. While some object to windfarms on the basis of noise and visual pollution, others find them quite beautiful, and public support for new projects is generally strong. Meridian's Te Apiti windfarm near Palmerston North reportedly took just three days to get its resource consent, and their planned farm near Mossburn took only eight. Compare this with the expensive multiyear struggle over Project Aqua...

But the real reason is even simpler: generating electricity from the wind is now economically viable in New Zealand. Good wind resources mean that New Zealand wind farms are over twice as productive as those in Europe - and almost approach hydro in terms of capacity (Trustpower's Tararua farm generates 45% of the time, Te Apiti approaches 50%. Hydro averages only 58% due to variable rainfall). This means that wind electricity is cheap - Meridian thinks it can generate for less than 6 cents per kWh, even cheaper than gas. And while the government is providing carbon credits to promote clean generation, these are "icing on the cake"; these projects are being pursued because they are commercially viable on their own terms.

It is interesting however to note which of our electricity companies are catching the wind and which are not. Wind seems to be being pursued by generators with most of their assets in hydro, because of the obvious synergy (you can generate with wind and save water for later). Those companies with large sunk investments in gas, OTOH, seem to be ignoring it and betting everything on imported LNG. The latter, I think, are setting themselves up for an expensive fall in the long run. With the price of gas set to rise as Maui runs out, and rise further to pay for LNG infrastructure, there will be a definite incentive to conserve at peak times rather than risk exposure to the spot market. And this is going to decrease the demand for gas even further. It won't disappear, but it will almost certainly play a smaller role in our national grid than it does at present.

New Fisk

Deputy of Baghdad police assassinated in car with his son

New kiwi blog

Three Point Turn - "Because what NZ needs is another irrelevant weblog". And none of them have ever worked for bFM (neither have I for that matter...)

Now, if only they had some content...

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Fresh Python

Terry Jones: Why are there no fundraisers for the Iraqi dead?

Disingenuous Hide

Dog Biting Men are back from holiday, with a vicious dismantling of Rodney Hide's latest employment law "sob story". A company was ordered to pay $10,000 for summarily dismissing a troublesome employee, despite following correct procedures. But digging deeper, DBM finds that the reason they were ordered to pay was because they didn't bother to contest the case. This would have happened under the ECA, or any other even remotely fair legislative regime, and the "victims" really have no-one to blame but themselves. Not that Rodney mentioned that vital fact of course, as it would have detracted from his argument somewhat. Maybe he's been taking disingenuousness lessons from Stephen Franks?

More on altruism, genes and selfishness

My previous post on space for altruism attracted some criticism from Philosophy etc, who points out in an update that the idea that "we are selfish because our genes are" is deeply confused, conflating the metaphorical motives of the genes with the real motives of people. I agree; un fortunately I couldn't get the stuff I wanted to say about it into my original post. Fortunately, though, Sock Thief has given me a perfect opportunity:

I don't agree with Philosophy, et cetera's distinction between Biology and Psychology. Although it is wrong to ascribe psychological motives to genes, it is our biology that provides the foundation of the cognitive abilities of belief, desire and motivation. Individuals can, and often do, have different goals from those of their genes but that does not mean that our psychology is free from their influence.

But it's not about freedom from influence - it's about different levels of explanation.

There is no question that our genes strongly influence our psychology. The logic of kin selection and reciprocal altruism applies to humans as well as ants, and these concepts provide a good explanation for parts of our psychological makeup - our concern for family, our sympathy for other human beings, our outrage at those who cheat. The rest of our basic psychology - things like our desire for revenge, flight or fight reactions, and pursuit of status - also exist for adaptive reasons. As evolved organisms, we must also have evolved minds. This makes adaptationism a powerful method for explaining why we think the way we do - but it does not mean that it is the only way of explaining it, or that it should be the preferred one.

Philosophy, etc has pointed out that there is another level of explanation available: psychology. This is ultimately grounded in genetics and in chemistry - but that does not mean that its theoretical entities don't exist. The fact that happiness is just a chemical concentration in the brain does not make it any less real. And the fact that altruism is ultimately caused by the genes doesn't make it any less real either.

The question then is which explanation we should prefer. And the answer is "whichever is most useful". And in explaining altruistic behaviour, it is far simpler and more useful to talk about altruism than about the strategies of the far-off genes.

As for the argument that we should reinterpret human motives in light of the genes as those motivations ultimately have a genetic origin, I think that the compatibilist argument for free will is informative here. Compatibilists believe that we are meaningfully free despite the fact that our brains are deterministic and therefore our actions are ultimately caused by events beyond our control; we are free insofar as our actions stem from our beliefs and desires. It's about ownership, in other words. A similar argument can be made with respect to motivations. Yes, many of our motivations are genetically caused - but that does not mean that they are not ours, or that we should usurp them in favour of their ultimate causes.


The wowser's bid for a referendum on prostitution law reform has failed, falling 70,000 signatures short.

Hopefully the same will happen with their efforts on civil unions (assuming they try).

The pissing contest goes local

Don Brash thinks the government hasn't given enough to tsunami victims - and he's right. While I don't think we can come even close to matching the sheer generosity of the Australians, we can do a lot better than we have. Our self-image is one of a generous country which digs deeply for this kind of thing. Shouldn't we live up to it a little more?

And, as obligatory political points scoring, I look forward to seeing Dr Brash supporting a substantial increase in our aid budget this year.

Update: It looks as if I blogged too soon. The government is apparently considering a NZ$60 - 100 million aid package spread over three to five years. This doesn't come close to Australia, but it is a very respectable contribution, and one far more in keeping with New Zealanders' idea of who we want to be.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Sadly unsurprising

NZPundit thinks that death-squads are an "excellent idea". Unpacking that a little, he thinks its fine to murder innocent civilians to terrorise others into politically supporting the murderer's chosen cause. And yet, he claims to disapprove of terrorism...

Alternative coalitions

In a comment on my post on forcing Labour's hand, Jordan Carter of Just Left raises some interesting points:

[A] Labour/Green coalition would have been ok 02-05 with the transfer of votes you discuss. If that had been the government, though, what would politics look like now? Would Labour, hijacked to the left, have been in contention for a third term?

The lesson Labour's current leadership has taken is that progress needs to be slow to endure, and that the failure to be patient destroyed the second and third Labour governments. Going in the wrong direction destroyed the fourth.

What would the politics look like if Labour had gone the other way? I'd have expected a greater commitment to civil and human rights and a restraint on Phil Goff, also less pissing about over Civil Unions. Economically, I think Cullen would have acted as a brake on the Greens just as he acts as a break on the tax-cutting impulses of United Future. Possibly a little more money and a slightly smaller surplus, possibly a quicker implementation of Working for Families, but not really a hell of a lot of change on that front. Labour is clearly delivering

I'm not sure about progress having to be slow to endure. How slow was the first Labour government to implement its programme? And how much of the fourth Labour government's blitzkreiged "reforms" have been rolled back? It's lasting more than one term so that things have a bit of time to settle down that seems to be important - but that's a matter of choosing which reforms to push through, and maintaining a public consensus behind the changes. The current government has one behind working for families, and seems to have one on the Cullen Fund as well; if it is re-elected, then both these policies will become the status quo, and the political cost of reversing them will be substantially higher. (I should also note that you can't maintain a public consensus if you make no attempt to build one. Labour's cravenness in justice policy is thus something of a self-fulfilling prophecy; they claim there's no public support for opposing the "hang 'em high" brigade, but part of the reason there is no public support is that sensible, mainstream voices like Labour haven't taken a stand. It's the same reason British (and NZ) food used to be so bad...)

Do New Zealanders want a more left-wing government? I think the consistent strength of Labour and the Greens in the polls show that they do. If we don't get one, it will be because Labour has abandoned its roots again, not because there is no public demand.


Another day, another group of innocent Iraqis dead, killed by trigger-happy US soldiers who seem to regard any Iraqi near the site of a roadside bombing as a legitimate target. Even when they're wearing a police uniform. No-one will face charges or be discliplined in any way, of course; killing bystanders is perfectly within the rules of engagement.

And they wonder why people hate them...

Against judicial recalls

In an opinion-piece in the Dominion-Post on Friday, Stephen Franks suggested allowing voters to vote out judges. It sounds like a good idea, until you realise what it actually means: the demise of an impartial and independent judiciary.

Perhaps a history lesson is in order. Once upon a time, judges served at the pleasure of the monarch. Their judgements therefore had to conform to monarchical prejudice, or else they would find themselves removed from office (as Sir Edward Coke was removed by James I). This was understandably bad for justice, which is why we have lifetime appointments with Parliament able to remove judges only for "misbehaviour" or incapacity.

Introducing judical recalls will simply replicate this seventeenth century problem, only with the people in the place of the king. Judges will ensure that their decisions conform to popular prejudice - regardless of what the law says - in order to avoid being voted out of office. This will undermine the core purpose of the judiciary - providing impartial justice.

Our present system is by no means perfect - it makes it very difficult to hold a judge who consistently ignores precedent to account - but it is far better than the alternative. Introducing judicial recalls will result in partial and compromised decisions. if we care about justice, we should reject them.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Palestine votes

It's not going to be anywhere near a perfect election, not with the Israeli military standing by with guns and the Israeli government restricting the movements of candidates it doesn't like, but it'll probably work out OK. And it will make it far more difficult for Israel to try and sideline the winner and negotiate with someone else. As Mahmoud Abbas, the frontruner, said on friday,

"Mr Prime Minister Sharon was elected by his people. We have no right to ask for that to be changed," he said. "We have no other choice but to sit with him..."

The same applies from the other direction. Whoever wins this election will have been elected by their people, and it is only they - rather than the government of Israel - who have the right to choose their leader. Hopefully the Israelis will remember that.

Bad company

Further to the below, the Wikipedia article on death squads gives a good picture of the sorts of monsters who use these tactics. It's basically a rundown of the twentieth century's worst genocidal maniacs: Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, the Rwandans, Milosovic, and of course Saddam Hussein, who used his Fedayeen Saddam to murder rebellious Shiites, Kurds and Marsh Arabs.

Such tactics are sadly not new to the US. In Vietnam, there was a little thing called the Phoenix Program, a campaign of indiscriminate murder aimed at qwelling the Viet Cong insurgency and eliminating possible leaders and supporters. And in Latin America, the US armed and trained death squads in Honduras, Guatamala and El Salvador, resulting in thousands of murders of leftists, trade unionists, and religious leaders.

If the US uses such tactics on the Sunni, Iraq really will have come full circle. Rather than ending Saddam's reign of torture and terror, the US will have simply installed an equally monstrous replacement, who will carry on exactly where Saddam left off. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

I really do wonder what Sock Thief and his "decent left" friends will think of this - whether they'll somehow manage to doublethink it away, or whether they'll finally see where their "humanitarian" intervention has taken them.

Death squads for Iraq

According to Newsweek, the US is considering a radical new measure to qwell the popular uprising in Iraq: death squads.

Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, the Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success - despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal. (Among the current administration officials who dealt with Central America back then is John Negroponte, who is today the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Under Reagan, he was ambassador to Honduras.)

Following that model, one Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria, according to military insiders familiar with the discussions. It remains unclear, however, whether this would be a policy of assassination or so-called "snatch" operations, in which the targets are sent to secret facilities for interrogation. The current thinking is that while U.S. Special Forces would lead operations in, say, Syria, activities inside Iraq itself would be carried out by Iraqi paramilitaries, officials tell NEWSWEEK.

Why are they proposing an outright campaign of murder? Because the insurgency has broad support. According to one source quote in the article,

"The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists," he said. "From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation."

By murdering them in cold blood to terrorise them into backing the government. A tactic which was, incidentally, used by Saddam Hussein to maintain power. The "new" Iraq is looking more and more like the old Iraq every day; only the names have changed.

How bad does the US's behaviour in Iraq have to get before people admit that it has lost its soul?


In response to nagging I've finally updated the NZ blog spectrum graphs. Links on the sidebar to your left.

Note that if you've linked to them, you'll need to update the URL, as it will point to the version on the now out-of-date weekly archive pages.

New Fisk

A routine tale of our times: abuse, beatings, imprisonment and injustice
Suddenly, there is debate in Beirut: how can Syria keep Lebanon while condemning Israel?

Jared Diamond's latest

Salon interviews Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, about his latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. It's history from an ecological perspective, looking at how the success of civilisations has been influenced by their environment. The Guardian also has an extract from the book (with topical lead-in about the tsunami), which points out the striking agreement between a list of countries facing serious environmental stress and those considered the world's "trouble spots" and breeding grounds for war, revolution and terrorism. And the link is fairly obvious when you think about it: serious environmental stress encourages political instability because

[w]hen people are desperate, undernourished, and without hope, they blame their governments, which they see as responsible for or unable to solve their problems. They try to emigrate at any cost. They fight each other over land. They kill each other. They start civil wars. They figure that they have nothing to lose, so they become terrorists, or they support or tolerate terrorism.

ObservatioNZ attacks this idea as "stuff and nonsense", but this relies on a crude equation of environmental stress with population density, with no conception of carrying capacities. At the same time, it needs to be pointed out that environmental stress is not the only story, and in fact a key focus of Diamond's book is on how societies react (or fail to react) to environmental problems.

Anyway, after GG&S, I'm going to have to buy this one too...

New kiwi blog

Bertrand Bargolias, by Michael Wood, the Labour candidate for Pakuranga.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Thinking long-term

At the moment the US posesses unrivalled hegemony; they're top dog, and many Americans (including their President) seem to revel in rubbing it in. The problem is that it isn't going to last. A quick analysis by MaxSpeak shows that the "unilateral moment" is likely to pass sooner rather than later as the Chinese economy grows. Matthew Yglesias looks at this and concludes that

The policy goal of indefinite American military hegemony is simply incompatible with the goal of continued growth in Chinese and Indian prosperity. A policy of trying to deliberately perpetuate the impoverishment of 3 billion human beings would be morally problematic, as well as pragmatically hard to pull off. Thus, no indefinite American military hegemony.

Right-wingers like to pooh-pooh the Chinese economy, claiming that growth rates are overstated, that it's all just flash in the pan, and that China will inevitably collapse - meaning no threat to American dominance (at the same time they're usually frothing at the mouth about the "ChiCom" danger - which is a great example of doublethink in action). But even if they're right, and if China descends into civil war again (as it did for half the twentieth century), the underlying point remains: nothing lasts forever. America's empire, like all empires, will eventually fall. America would be wise to plan for this eventuality. Yglesias again:

we really should be spending the next five (and ten, and fifteen) years on trying to make sure that the global system is on a trajectory such that we can continue to be comfortable with that trajectory once we are no longer hegemonic.

Instead though, the US is trying to undermine the present international system in favour of a "winner take all" model. But if they succeed in this, they are going to be very uncomfortable indeed when someone else is eventually the winner...

2005 bloggies

Nominations for the 2005 bloggies are open. There is a best Australian and NZ category, so why not nominate some of your favourite NZ blogs?

Friday, January 07, 2005

Space for altruism

In light of the world's outpouring of aid, Philosophy etc considers the old problem of altruism. But as Sock Thief points out, from an evolutionary perspective, there is no such thing as altruism, only a higher form of selfishness. Biologists examining the problem quickly realised that altruistic organisms would be less fit than selfish ones which invested all their resources in themselves rather than sharing with others. But at the same time, "altruistic" behaviour was widespread in nature, ranging from food-sharing in numerous species of animal, the complex social structures of the social insects, and wealthy humans assisting both members of their own communities and others in far-off countries struck by natural disasters. How can this be explained?

One explanation revolves around the genes and the concept of inclusive fitness. One gene is more "fit" than another if more copies of it are present in the next generation. The conceptual breakthrough behind inclusive fitness was realising that those copies need not be present solely in the genomes of direct descendants, but could be anywhere; all copies are equal as far as the genes are concerned. The fitness of an individual organism therefore depends not just on the survival of its descendants, but also on the survival of its close relatives and their descendants, who are statistically likely to share its genes. This leads directly to the idea of kin selection - that organisms will help their relatives because doing so is (to some extent) helping themselves.

These two ideas have been remarkably powerful in explaining animal behaviour, particularly that of the social insects (and their creepy mammalian mimics, the naked mole rats). But they're by no means the whole story; animals do not limit altruistic behaviour to their close relatives, but help non-relatives as well. Here biologists fall back on game theory. It's intuitively obvious that a strategy of undiscriminating altruism will be beaten by a strategy of exploitation or cheating (accepting help and giving none in return). But once you add discrimination into the mix, then everything changes. In particular, a strategy of discriminating strongly against people who have cheated you in the past - holding grudges, in other words - can outcompete both (it is what is known by biologists as an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy, or "ESS"). And once you add communication, allowing individuals to share information about who the cheats are<, the balance tips even further. This explains the leftover altruism in higher animals (those capable of distinguishing different individuals and tracking past behaviour).

So according to biologists, we're not really altruistic. All that money is being contributed not because we genuinely care for the victims of the tsunami, but because we expect them to one day pay us back.

Does this leave any space for altruism? Yes. The important thing to remember is that we are not our genes. Instead, we are "survival machines" built by them to assist in their replication. And most importantly, we are survival machines with minds of our own. Yes, those minds are shaped by our genes - but beyond establishing some broad personality traits and default desires to guide us in the right direction, we are on our own. Those broad personality traits include some designed to promote kin selection and reciprocation - concern for close relatives, sympathy for those in need, and anger at those who cheat us - but they certainly don't dictate, and they certainly don't rule out altruistic behaviour. Our genes may be selfish, but we don't have to be.