Thursday, September 30, 2004

Just Wars, The UN and Iraq

Following the military intervention by the USA and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq and the relative inaction of the World in Rwanda and Darfur it seemed appropriate to take a step and look at the general principles governing when or whether armed intervention is permissible (or mandatory).

The Just War

Western civilisation has, over time, built up the concept of "the Just War". The principles of a "Just War" may be summarised as -


1) A just war can only be waged as a last resort. All non-violent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.

2) A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority. Even just causes cannot be served by actions taken by individuals or groups who do not constitute an authority sanctioned by whatever the society and outsiders to the society deem legitimate.

3) A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered. For example, self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause (although the justice of the cause is not sufficient--see point #4). Further, a just war can only be fought with "right" intentions: the only permissible objective of a just war is to redress the injury.

4) A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.

5) The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace. More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.

6) The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered. States are prohibited from using force not necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered.

7) The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target.

or look here for a fuller discussion.

Of course we might choose to dispute some of these. (2) for example, would seem to suggest that it's not OK for a group of citizens to overthrow their legal government and that a government may do what it likes to its people. Most of us would dispute that and accept that there is a point at which a state loses authority and at which rebels opposing a state may gain it and that even in the absence of any organised opposition some human rights violations are so serious that it is not morally tenable to permit them to continue. But we need to think very carefully before acting on these grounds. A clear "moral case" could have been made for intervention in East Timor many years ago (Fretilin had the support of the population and the Indonesian government did not) but had the West done so would the peace (if there was peace) today be better than that achieved by peaceful engagement.

Justification by Outcome

A simpler approach is to say that a war is justified whenever the outcome after the war is better than it would have been without the war. But better for whom and who is to judge this. If every potential belligerent is permitted to judge whether their war will "make the world a better place" then we are simply returning to the law of the jungle. To make matters worse the actual outcome will not be known until it is too late. A belligerent may create an unmitigated disaster and then plead that it wasn't meant to end that way. A war which is "justified by outcome" will meet condition (5) of a just war but may fail all the others.

It is of course possible for evil actions to have good outcomes just as well-intentioned actions all too often cause harm. The eventual outcome in Iraq (and I offer no prediction) will be precisely the same regardless of whether the USA was motivated by a genuine concern for Iraqi human rights or whether it was a naked grab for Iraqi oil with a chance to make a fast 20b for Halliburton as a bonus.

Ideally there should be a supranational body that determines whether the use of force is justified in any circumstance. If we allow the USA to play judge and jury in its own case then we create a future environment where less friendly powers may do the same at our expense.

The United Nations

The United Nations Charter provides us with a quasi-legal framework for resolving disputes peacefully. In article 2 of the charter all member states give up the right to go to war except as mandated by the Security Council under articles 41-49 or for individual or collective self-defence (article 51).

Where action is mandated by the Security Council it is the responsibility of the Council to consider the Just War principles and all other matters. Article 51 is very restrictive and allows action only "if an armed attack occurs against a member state".

The greatest weakness of the United Nations is that the Security Council is subject to a veto by any permanent member. This means that the council is all too often paralysed because a single state holds out against the majority. But it is a weakness that is capable of reform. It just needs enough pressure to be exerted on the permanent members.

Afghanistan

There is no doubt that the war in Afghanistan was a response to an "armed attack on a member state". It might be argued that the government of Afghanistan was not responsible for those attacks and that the response should have been directed specifically against Al Qaeda. It would, however, be militarily impractical to attack Al Qaeda without engaging Afghani forces.

More importantly, the action was duly authorised by the Security Council and so did not weaken the UN or the USA's alliances. We still don't know whether Afghanistan will end up better off than before, but we can hope. Al Qaeda has been weakened and denied a sanctuary but they are far from finished. There is still a good deal of unfinished business. The war in Iraq may well be one of the main reasons why that business is unfinished.

Iraq

The ostensible justification for this war was preemptive self defence. This justification fails to satisfy Article 51 as no "armed attack on a member state" had occurred. It might satisfy the conditions for a "Just War" if there was a general and reasonable belief that Iraq had WMD and was about to use them (or give them to terrorists) and that the risk was too imminent to allow peaceful resolution. We now know that there were no WMD and I, at least, find it very hard to believe that either George Bush or Tony Blair really thought the risk so immediate that they could not risk pursuing a peaceful settlement.

The United Nations resolution 1441 calls on Iraq to comply with earlier resolutions on disarmament and cooperation with weapons inspectors but does NOT authorise the use of force by anyone in the event of non-compliance. The USA tried to get such a clause inserted and failed. The resolution simply requires the inspectors or anyone else to report any further breaches and for the council to reconvene when any such report is received. Further, the fact that Iraq had no WMD means they were in substantive compliance with the earlier resolutions. The breaches were procedural or documentation failures. Iraq's human rights record is irrelevant in this regard none of the resolutions had anything to do with human rights.

That leaves justification by outcome. It may yet be that Iraq will be better off without Saddam (it would after all be hard to be worse off). But this does not necessarily make the action wise or just. We may applaud the Magna Carta while deploring King John or the Bill of Rights while believing in the rightfulness of the Jacobite succession. Had the USA/UK alliance proclaimed "justification by outcome" at the beginning of their adventure they might have retained some of the moral high ground but they said they were going after WMD, and then that they were authorised by resolution 1441. To plead "Justification by Outcome" only when their previous reasons have been discredited has no credibility.

If we are to determine that the war in Iraq is justified by outcome we must look at all the outcomes. The final outcome in Iraq lies in the future but what of the "collateral damage" to the United Nations, to the Western Alliance and the Rule of Law between nations. These may in time be rebuilt and perhaps sooner than the chaos in Iraq is cleared but this will take more good will, humility and wisdom on all sides than has been evident so far. And who is to say that the damage done to the UN was not a partial cause of that body's inability to act in Darfur. If so the casualties of Bush and Blair's adventure stretch far beyond the borders of Iraq.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Green Drug Policy

The Greens have just announced their new drug policy. The fine details are left open but it's good to see an emphasis on consistent treatment of all drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) and expert evidence-based assessment of which drugs get which legal treatment.

See also

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

A simple solution for STV confusion

Holden Republic and Kiwi Pundit have both commented on the confusion caused by STV voting and, in particular, voting with a mixture of STV and FPP. It occurred to me that there could be a simple solution.

STV only needs a sequence and there is no (mathematical) reason why it shouldn't allow ties. I assume that ballots with 3 candidates marked A 2,B 3,C 10 or A 1, B 2, C 2 (and the remaining candidates unmarked) are currently informal but they needn't be. A 2, B 3, C 10 defines exactly the same ranking as A 1, B 2, C 3. A 1, B 2, C 2 defines a similar ranking but with B and C tied for 2nd. The computer program that counts the results could either randomly break the tie or apportion the vote between the tied parties (or whichever of them are still live). A 1, B 2, C 2 would then count as a vote for A in the first round. If A then drops out the vote becomes 0.5 of a vote each for B and C (if both are still live).

Adopting this system means that ticks can still be counted. A voter who ticks A, B and C and leaves the rest unmarked is simply treated as if he had put a 1 beside each ticked candidate.

Monday, September 27, 2004

The N Word

I was a little disappointed in the 20/20 item on Nuclear power. It came across as a technical case for nuclear power (pushed by a small number of "experts") counterbalanced by an emotional case against (well presented by Rob Donald). In fact, a more balanced polling of technical experts in the New Zealand electricity industry would have revealed a more sceptical view of nuclear energy - at least for New Zealand. It's not that there isn't an urgent need to reduce (or at least hold) CO2 emissions or that replacing fossil fuel power stations by nuclear power won't do that. Expanding or at least retaining nuclear power in the USA, Japan, France and Britain may be a good idea (at least in the short term) but introducing it to New Zealand makes much less sense.

The risk of a Chernobyl accident is not the main issue. Nuclear power plants can be made safe enough (at a price). The waste problem is more serious - humanity simply has no precedent for safeguarding dangerous materials for the millenia required. At the very least it is a substantial external cost which has yet to be paid. The real problem for NZ, however, is one of scale. We simply don't justify the technological infrastructural overheads that are required to establish a nuclear industry.

New Zealand already generates about 1/3 of its electricity by burning fossil fuels. We should certainly not increase our greenhouse gas emissions from this source and we probably need to reduce them over the next decade or two but we do not need to reduce them to zero. There should be little objection to maintaining fossil fuel stations (we already have plenty - or would if the national grid had sufficient capacity) as reserve power for dry years. Not all fossil fuels are equal - coal produces roughly twice as much CO2 per MJoule as oil while natural gas produces about 20% less CO2 than oil.

New Zealand can meet its near-term requirements for electricity by expanding wind power (already happening), energy conservation and biomass. None of this requires any new technology but we might have to review our power pricing objectives to make them all happen. Electricity prices in NZ are only about 60% of the OECD average. This distorts the market so as to inhibit uptake of a number of technologies (heat pumps, solar water heating, wood-fired space heating, double glazing, high-efficiency light bulbs, etc) which have the capacity to replace electricity or otherwise reduce electricity consumption.

The 20/20 programme raised the longer-term prospect for replacing motor fuels with hydrogen (from electrolysis) and suggested that even if we could meet our ordinary needs we couldn't do this without going nuclear. However, if we replace fossil fuels with hydrogen produced by electricity generated from fossil fuel we do not materially increase our overal emissions. Further, hydrogen production provides a new form of energy storage and would let us generate a larger proportion of our power from wind (or other intermittent sources).

We shouldn't get too hung up on long-term power needs. It is likely that additional technologies will come onstream in the next 20 years. Photovoltaics can already produce solar electricity at about four times the standard price. If this price can be brought down we have an effectively unlimited supply of clean renewable energy. The current price of photovoltaics includes the cost of batteries. This cost component largely disapears if surplus power can be fed back to the national grid. Then (the real bolter) someone might crack the problem of controlled nuclear fusion. Or find a way of permanently sequestering the CO2 from burning coal. Whatever happens we may get our planning wrong and we may wind up burning more fossil fuel than we hoped and paying a Carbon Tax - or we might incur an unplanned cost in some other way. But that won't melt the polar ice cap and in an imperfect world we're always likely to pay something for past planning errors.

New Zealand is Nuclear-Free for a good reason. We don't like nuclear weapons and we don't like the hazardous technologies that go with them. Nuclear power shares the same tecnologies and provides a dangerously easy route to nuclear weapons proliferation (India, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea). The world would be a safer place if these technologies were confined to the industrial powers that already have them. We allow the use of other nuclear technologies such as radio-isotopes and particle accelerators because they do not share the technologies needed to make nuclear weapons and do not require us to adopt any such technologies to support them.

If we did have a nuclear power station we'd have to import the fuel here and export the spent fuel (or reactor core) overseas (to Japan?). This leaves us open to environmental (or terrorist) disaster. We'd still need facilities for short-term storage of high level waste until it cooled down sufficiently to be exported. Finally the World's reserves of high-grade uranium ores are quite limited. Without breeder technology, less than 1% of natural uranium can be "burned" and this makes it uneconomical to mine low-grade reserves. Better to leave the world's dwindling stock of naturally fissionable uranium to be burned by those nations who have already sunk the costs and risks of developing a nuclear industry.

UPDATE
SageNZ has pointed out (comments below) that an article in the SST which suggests that there would only be about 3 years supply of Uranium in the World if all electricity were produced by nuclear power. Like Rich, I suspect there probably is somewhat more Uranium available than that but it IS quite limited if we use non-breeding technologies. This is because you need quite high-grade ores (or easily concentratable ores) to get a net (never mind cost-effective)energy gain if you are using non-breeder reactors (and therefore burn only 0.7% of the Uranium). Uranium is quite an abundant element but high-grade ores are scarce.
Breeder reactors burn all the Uranium which means
(1) the high grade ores give 140 times more power per tonne of uranium (so SST 3 years becomes 140)
(2) low grade ores (which are abundant) become economic making the resource very large (millions of years)
Unfortunately this is an expensive technology and poses huge proliferation and security risk. If the World generates a significant fraction of it's power by this cycle then it will be awash with more weapons-grade fissile material (Plutonium) than Kazhakstan has ever dreamed of.

This technology can give us all the energy we could ever use - at a price. But so do renewables. NZ's total current electricity production could be met by photovoltaic panels covering less than 0.02% of our land area using existing technology.

The mind boggles!

According to todays Dompost,Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens) was barred from entering the USA because there was "some other Youssuf Islam" on a no-fly terrorist name list. Now Islam may not be quite as common a surname as Mahommed but it's still pretty common. Is every Yusuf (however spelt) Islam in the world to be denied entry to the USA because one person of that name is allegedly a terrorist? Or should middle initials be compulsory?

Would the Americans attempt to keep out all Fred Smiths if that name had appeared on the list? Or is Smith "not a terrorist name".

Or is this part of a cunning plan? Surely out of all the John Kerrys in the world there must have been at least one or two in the IRA.

UPDATE
The Dompost article was sourced from Time. The original article seems to be ambiguous as to whether the listing was really meant to be Cat Stevens (albeit spelt differently) or someone else. I still don't understand how a 19,000 name list can fail to hit an awful lot of people who just happen to have the same name as a "terrorist suspect". Names like Mahommed, Ali, Ibrahim are very common in Islamic countries and names like "Mahommed Ibrahim" must be so common they're almost bound to be on the list and will affect hundreds of innocent travellers if they are.

RE-UPDATE
It appears reality has already trumped my speculation about other names on the list (OK Edward Kennedy not John Kerry but..)

The Campaign Manager Did It

Hot off scoop. John Banks' campaign manager has confessed that he was behind the NBR "pamphlet" distribution and resigned.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Who's a Terrorist

With the "War on Terrorism" in full swing and overlapping with other more conventional wars (The Iraq War and the Afghanistan War) there seems to be some concern over the labels we attach to the various sides. There is a view that if you call an Afghan or Iraqi taking who takes up arms against the occupying forces or the regimes they support an "insurgent" or "rebel" you are some sort of "Terrorism Denier". This is, of course, utter rubbish. Not every opponent of the American occupation is a "terrorist" and even if they are, that doesn't stop them also being "insurgents", "rebels" or even "freedom fighters".

Terrorism has nothing to do with the cause you are fighting for. It is an illegal tactic directed against civilian rather than military targets with a view to intimidating a government or civilian population into a course of action favoured by the attacker rather than the legitimate military goals of securing a military objective, denying a militry objective to the enemy or reducing the enemy's ability to fight. Terrorist acts may be committed by insurgents or governments, rebels or loyalists, invaders or defenders and regular or irregular forces. For example -

1) The twin towers bombing was the worst of many vicious terrorist acts carried out against peaceful Western democracies.

2) The Beslan murders were a smaller but even more vicious terrorist attack.

3) Bombing infrastructure in Belgrade with the objective of inducing the Serb population to overthrow Milosevich was an act of terrorism.

4) Bombing urban areas is an act of terrorism if the "collateral damage" is disproportionate to the military value and the attacker knew or showed reckless disregard for this fact.

5) Setting off a bomb in a crowded marketplace is an act of terrorism.

6) Setting off a bomb alongside an enemy army vehicle or in a queue of enemy soldiers, police or recruits is not an act of terrorism.

7) Sinking the Rainbow Warrior was an act of terrorism unless the DGSE believed (and not even the Shadow knows what evil lurks in the fevered imaginations of intelligence services) it was a potential threat to their ability (not will) to conduct the Mururoa tests

8) Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the biggest terrorist acts of all.

This is not just a pedantic exercise in semantics. Never forget George Orwell's words

Unless words have specific, precise identifiable and common meanings how is it possible to conceive of ideas such as freedom, oppression, resistance and the like. If it is no longer possible to formulate abstract ideas and communicate them then action and creativity are no longer posible and control is absolute and complete ... Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime, literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Is Tax Sustainable

SageNZ quotes Murray McCully reporting that total government tax revenue has increased from 30.2 billion in 1999 to 42.5 billion in 2003 and asks whether the 40% increase is sustainable. The short answer is (mostly) yes. In 1999 GDP was 101 billion and in 2003 it had grown to 126 billion (a 25% increase). The growth in GDP includes inflation and population increase (which government revenue needs to match for sustainability) and real growth (which needn't but can afford to match). Revenue would have increased to 37.7 billion just to match gdp growth leaving a net increase of only 4.8 billion (about 12% over the four year period). In fact this increase is all reflected in the surplus - government expenditure has remained constant at just under 28% of gdp.

The government has therefore held expenditure as a proportion of GDP but increased taxes or allowed taxes to rise by about 4% of gdp or 5 billion dollars. This includes about 3 billion to cover future superannuation liability and about 2 billion which (along with future revenue growth) could be returned to the public. SageNZ and Murray McCully would no doubt like to see this returned as a reduction in the top tax rate (Murray even suggests an 18% flat tax) but imho most New Zealanders would prefer it to be returned through the sort of measures in the Working for Families package, improved health and education services and universal student allowances. 1999, after all represented the endpoint of a massive redistribution of purchasing power from beneficiaries and low to middle income earners to the wealthiest. And we (or at any rate most of us) didn't vote for that.

It's also hard to argue that a 39% top tax rate is damaging economic growth. The last four years have been some of the highest growth years in our history (and we've actually caught up some of the ground on Australia). Besides Australia has a 47% top tax rate, New Zealand had a 33% top rate only for the period 1988-1999. Before that the level was 48% and for most our post-war history it has been over 60%. The decision on whether we want lower taxes or a "decent society" should be based on the preferences of the NZ public. History suggests we will advance the cause of growth far better by scrutinising the quality of public expenditure than blindly adoption a low-tax, low-spending strategy.

I Was Just Wondering

Perhaps the upcoming US presidential elections should be conducted without Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and a few other former hardline "confederate" states. After all, as Donald Rumsfeld says

Well, so be it, nothing is perfect in life, so you have an election that's not quite perfect. Is it better than not having an election? You bet.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Freedom of Speech and Defamed Politicians

Auckland mayoral hopeful Dick Hubbard is to sue the NBR for their attempted "hatchet job" on him. Kiwipundit thinks this is dreadful and sees it as a threat to press freedom.

Imagine what would happen if every politician who was ever defamed by a media outlet decided to sue. No newspaper would risk printing negative stories about politicians, at least not about ones who were rich enough to afford good lawyers.

I am not an NBR reader and, living south of the Bombay Hills, did not receive an anonymous copy of the article in my letter box. I am not, therefore, qualified to discuss the specifics of this case. I happily leave that to the jury. What I take issue with is the suggestion that politicians should not be allowed to sue for defamation.

Western democracies, some more than others, value freedom of speech. The USA has the strongest possible protection in law with the first amendment to the constitution stating that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech" although freedom, in practice, is less absolute than the simple wording might suggest. Yet the USA (like all other Western democracies) has similar defamation laws to New Zealand. If any person (including the press) publishes defamatory lies about any other person then they will be liable to pay damages.

Defamation laws are as likely to be a defence against repression as a vehicle of it. At the height of the McCarthyist era John Henry Falk brought a successful libel case against a vigilante organisation that had blacklisted him not because of his politics but because (in the best witchfinding tradition) he had opposed their blacklist. The libel case allowed the alleged facts to be properly investigated and they established that

(1) John Henry Falk was not a communist or communist sympathiser (whether that should have mattered is not the point)
(2) AWARE knowingly and maliciously set out to destroy his career with a pack of lies

These facts would have remained matters of public conjecture had it not been for the defamation case.

Defamation suits have long been considered the appropriate way to defend one's reputation and failure to sue was often considered an admission that the defamation was true. In 1976 Jeremy Thorpe was accused of a homsexual relationship (probably true) and of trying to murder his ex-lover (less probable). He was then forced to resign as leader of the British Liberal Party (it was 1976). In fact, the main reason for the forced resignation was that he refused to sue for defamation. His party felt (probably correctly) that this refusal "proved" the truth of the homosexual affair - and even if it didn't the voters would see it that way.

In bringing a libel suit Dick Hubbard exposes his personal character and his record as a businessman and employer to searching public scrutiny. He presumably knows that - if he didn't his legal advisers will have told him. Perhaps his willingness to be cross-examined suggests that his record really is clean and that the material in the NBR article(s) really is false. At the very least let's suspend judgement until the court case.

Some commentator's have wondered whether Bush could sue Michael Moore over Fahrenheit 911 (or what about CBS over those memos). He could. It wouldn't be great tactics at this stage of the campaign but how about after the electon? If, however, Bush were to sue he would have to show (at least on balance of probability) that the alleged facts were untrue. In practice, he'd have to deny the charges on oath and subject to cross-examination. He'd have to tell us exactly where he was during those National Guard years and exactly when and why he didn't take those medicals. For my money he won't sue. And neither will John Banks (though I'm not sure who he would be suing for what).

The final argument is that the press should have a licence to print untruths in case they (like CBS) were caught with a story they thought was true but turned out not to be. NZ Law already provides protection for media (or anyone else) who act in good faith on matters of public importance. Lange v Atkinson established a defence of qualified privilege for a journalist publishing falsehoods that they genuinely believed to be true unless they act "maliciously" or with a "reckless disregard" for the truth. It may be argued that the limits of how much checking a journalist needs to do or how "reasonable" their belief must be is as yet inadequately tested in case law but that is an argument for clarifying the current law, not disallowing a politician's right to sue, or decrying those brave enough or wronged enough to try.

Update
Kiwipundit has updated his post responding to this post. He raises two legitimate (although not entirely new) points. That journalists should not be forced to disclose their sources and that a wealthy candidate might use his wealth to intimidate other less well-heeled candidates as well as professional mainstream journalists. The first point (non-disclosure of sources) is viewed sympathetically by the courts and a journalist will be able to testify that they relied on an (undisclosed) source and to the steps they took to check the story in establishing a defence of qualified privilege. They may also subpoena any relevant witness or document if they use a defence of truth. Further a politician's right to sue for defamation is limited to allegations of fact - we may call John Banks an overbearing bully or Dick Hubbard a sanctimonious waffler with impunity.

The issue of money is a much wider one. Arguably we can never have true justice when one party to a dispute cannot seek redress (or defend themselves) without incurring ruinous expenses. Certainly any move which reduces the cost of justice to individuals is to be applauded. But there are significant balancing factors with political libel. If a politician were seen to use a vexatious libel suit to intimidate a poorer opponent or (worse) an impecunious citizen blogger the public would likely react by
(1) contributing generously to the opponent's defence fund
(2) wreaking an appropriate revenge on polling day

Dick Hubbard did not sue a defenceless orphan. He sued a mainstream newspaper which has the means to contest his action, has probably profited significantly from the relevant articles and certainly has the resources and clear duty to get its facts right.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

That's a Wrap

So we now have a concession from CBS that the memos "might have been forgeries". We can safely assume that the grotty images posted are the only copies CBS has and that their unimpeachable sources were anything but. Clearly this whole sorry affair should never have happened - but it did. As the credits roll let's look at the roles/futures of the protagonists

Dan Rather: Surely now is the time for a long-desrved and long-overdue retirement.

American Journalistic Standards: Have been AWOL for too many years - perhaps they will now report for duty.

George W Bush: This man has had the luck of the devil. This incident has (in the eyes of too many voters) discredited his opponents and the earlier allegations about his TANG service (based on officially realeased documents). And he hasn't even had to perjure himself with a denial.

Karl Rove: Was not behind the original leak to CBS. He is , however, behind the rumours that he was.

John Kerry: Has won a fourth purple heart for collateral damage. Injuries may be fatal.

Oh and what about that $10,000 prize: There was nothing in the terms about the memos being genuine -just so long as they were reproduced on a 1972 typewriter. If anyone out there has an IBM Executive Model D (or Selectrix Composer) with a TH key I'd be happy to split the proceeds.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Royals and Foxes

While I have always subscribed to the view that "He prayeth best that loveth best all creatures great and small" I have generally regarded fox-hunting as a barbaric but remote practice. Something that was neither of immediate concern to New Zealand nor near the top of the list of evils afflicting this unhappy world. Last night I happened to hear the subject debated on BBC world and was reminded just how alien a species a traditional British Tory is to a New Zealander (and no doubt to most British). Suddenly it wasn't just about foxes any more. It was about a pompous windbag being able to declaim that "in the home of democracy itself [well they did get universal suffrage in 1928] the government is putting vermin ahead of individual liberty" without anyone in an international panel crying "bullshit".

Today we learn that the current and future monarch of New Zealand are both apparently prepared to put the interests of their own privileged class ahead of their constitutional duty and the clear wishes of the majority of their subjects and their duly elected representatives - to say nothing of (I suspect) the near-unanimous view of Her Majesty's New Zealand subjects. This is deeply disturbing to those of us who have tempered our distaste for the corrupt (and unNZ) privilege represented by the monarchy, with respect if not affection for the personality of the incumbent.

The argument that hunting is a town versus country thing and that "Blair doesn't understand the country" is a crock. Hunting splits people who own country estates and apartments in Belgravia from everyone else - and the country would get by just fine without them. Nor is their any merit in the "individual liberty" claim . Dog-fighting has been illegal in Britain since 1885. If it is a crime for working-class men to watch two dogs tearing each other apart, why should it be legal for the gentry to watch a whole pack of dogs tearing a hapless wild animal apart? One might as well argue that the legal age of consent denies the individual liberty of paedophiles.

Nor is anyone banning people from riding to hounds - just from inhumane killing. Drag hunts (where nothing gets killed) are already popular in England and many other countries (including NZ). True they tend to demand higher standards of horsemanship than many traditional hunts but there is no reason why lower-grade drag hunts could not be set up for gentlefolk who were too old or too drunk for the real thing.

If the report of the Queen's (or Prince Charles') positions on a law that is only bringing England into line with Scotland, New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries should be confirmed then their fitness to be the monarch of New Zealand (or leader of the Commonwealth) comes in to question. Perhaps the Republic needs to roll on a little faster.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Typewriters, memos and bloggers

There's been a lot in the local blogosphere (and not just from the usual suspects)about the memos featured on the CBS (60 Minutes) programme. Most right wing blogs (DPF is an honourable excepion) seem to be taking it as gospel that the documents have been forensically proven to be forgeries and the only remaining question is whether John Kerry typed them personally or got someone else in his campaign team to. Left wing blogs are much more dismissive of the "forensic evidence".

Having (unlike, I suspect, most NZ bloggers) actively authored numerous memos, letters and technical documents over the relevant period (1972-3). I thought I might have some contribution to add. In those days very few of the people who wrote memos or documents could type so it is hardly surprising that Lt Col Killian could not. We hand-wrote rough drafts, put them in our out-tray and waited for an immaculately typed and laid-out copy to appear in our in-tray for checking and signature. No doubt the procedure was similar in the TANG.

Any copy of the CBS memos that I have seen show evidence of substantial (up to 50%?) spatial distortion and coarse pixelation (to 60dpi or worse). This is consistent with passage through a low resolution Fax or hand-held scanner but makes it impossible to judge the precise font or to tell whether letters are, in fact "kerned" (half pixel overlaps don't count).

The specific alleged pieces of evidence I have seen raised are -

1 Coincidence of exact MS Word Times New Roman font - but is it? Sure you can produce something very similar to the memo font by reducing MS Word Times New Roman to 60 dpi, but you could do the same with virtually any font (certainly any New Roman font) when you butcher the resolution that far.

2 Proportional spacing - unusual on 1972 typewriters. But on the other hand it did exist. The TANG may have bought one or more brand new IBM Selectrix typewriters in 1972.

3 Headline Centering - according to my wife (who did this sort of thing for a living at the time), you fold the paper (very lightly) in half to locate the centre; measure half the width of the heading (if necessary print the whole heading out on a separate sheet) and mark with a very light pencil. Then put the paper in and slide the carriage to the correct position before typing.

4 Kerning - This would be a smoking gun if you could show it happened, but you can't. The low resolution means that the images are randomly "blurred" by 1/120 inch (at least) and this obscures any kerning.

5 Superscripts - This one gets really interesting. Typewriters (even quite old ones) often had special keys for fractions (1/2, 3/4, etc) and some golf-balls also had special keys for the ordinal suffixes (th, st, nd). It would therefore be a simple matter to do high quality suffixes (similar to typing TM as Ctrl-Alt-T in Word with standard settings). Word automatically superscripts (at least with my settings which I believe to be default) ordinal suffixes and so we might expect to see superscripts whenever the ordinal is typed without a space (111th) but not when it is typed with a space (1 st). In fact no such pattern exists. The May 4 memo has no spaces in ordinals yet superscripts one of them and leaves two unchanged. Given that (manual) superscripting in Word is a pain it seems hard to see why someone would go to the trouble of doing it twice (in the four memos) but not elsewhere. If the superscripts were done automatically why bother removing them unless you had realised that they gave the game away (and then surely you'd be more careful). If done on a typewriter it would be equally easy to type superscripted or not (providing the right golf-ball was installed) so the inconsistency is easier to understand.

The real point, though, is that the CBS memos didn't add anything new. Material about Dubya's (eg less than heroic service has been around for some time and CBS could have made the same points with less suspect (if only because of low resolution quality) material. But of course, they couldn't have taken the credit in that case. The real Achilles heel of the "mainstream" media may be the "you heard it here first" syndrome rather than partisan bias.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Poverty and Inequality

Just Left has an interesting post on income equality.
No Right Turn has already noted that the survey quoted is too old to reflect the actions of the current Government, but I'm more concerned with the wider issue of the relevance of income inequality.

I pointed out in comments to Jordan's post that real poverty can be measured by looking at what people would spend an extra dollar a week on if they were given it. If people are strict economic rationalists then they will use whatever money they have on their most important needs first. A really poor person will not be able to meet all of even their most basic needs (eg feeding their children adequately) and would therefore spend their additional dollar on these basic needs. Better-off people will have already satisfied the basic needs and would spend the money on something less critical (eg put it towards a home computer and internet connection to help the kids learn more). The very rich will only have entirely frivolous things (eg always drive the latest model Porsche) left to spend the money on. In economic terms we call this the "Marginal Utility of Expenditure" and it will generally (more or less) fit a single falling curve when plotted against income.

If a society had a fixed amount of income to distribute then the falling marginal curve would imply that everyone should get an equal share. Any person with more than their share would have a lower marginal utility than anyone with less than their fair share and, in consequence, redistributing income from the person with the most to the person with the least will lead to a net increase in "total utility". Real societies don't have fixed amounts of income to distribute and, in practice, redistributing income from high to low earners will act as a disincentive to earning and reduce total income. Policy therefore needs to strike a balance between maximizing utility of income by redistribution against the loss of income by disincentivisation.

I was interested to see that at least one commentator thought it OK to tax a (rich) person so that a poor person could feed their children adequately but not just because "his marginal utility is higher than mine". I accept that the latter phrase lacks the emotional appeal of the former but it is really just another way of saying the same thing (for a large enough difference in marginal utility). I would assume that the commentator means that they are only willing to be taxed so as to help really poor people rather than everyone with higher marginal utility.

Of course the need to balance disincentives against redistribution ensure that we would never take taxes off any taxpayer to help everyone who was on a higher marginal utility - that would be tantamount to complete equalisation. Whether, however, we can set a threshold level of poverty (or marginal utility) is another matter. The difference in marginal utility between the very rich and someone just above the threshold may be greater than that between an average taxpayer and the poor.

Suppose we have a society of three people (A,B and C) earning 0, $500 and $1000 respectively per week and suppose that we need at least $300 per week to sustain an "acceptable" standard of living (ie threshold marginal utility corresponds to $300 per week on the standard curve). We must redistribute at least $300 to A and can raise this only by taxing B and C. Suppose we adopt a flat tax of 20% and take $100 from B and $200 from C. B might now argue that he now has only $400 and that he would have had $300 had heearned nothing. His effort in earning $500 has left him only $100 per week better off. If we took the whole $300 from C then B would be left better off by $200 than A and C would be $200 better off than B - but which is the fairest? In neither case is C's money actually going to B. Pragmatically the second solution is likely to cause the least "disincentivisation" (both B and C keep 40% of their earnings) and also gives higher total utility.

Jordan also talks of inequality from the point of view of an inclusive society and appears to contest Rodney Hide's suggestion that we would all be better off in a society where everyone had more money even if it meant greater inequality. I beg to differ. The thing about Rodney's suggestion is that it has nothing to do with the real choices facing us or that we faced in the recent past. The poor did not just become relatively worse off compared to the rich in the late 80s and early 90s they became worse off in absolute terms. The increase in the gap between rich and poor may have resulted in part from the propensity of the rich to "leverage their wealth into income" as one commentator suggested but Occam's Razor would suggest that active government policies of cuts in top tax rates, benefit cuts, reductions in government services, the ECA and cuts in minimum wage rates probably had more to do with it.

My main problem with the concept of relative (ie distributional) poverty is that I don't believe that the poor (or anyone else) measure their perceived position against some statistical median. Surely the only real people they can measure themseves against are those with whom they most commonly come in social contact - their family, friends, workmates and neighbours. In most cases these people are likely to come from a similar income group to themselves. An unemployed factory worker in Otara is unlikely to come in contact with a stockbroker in Remuera and how, therefore, will he feel socially excluded by the disparity in their incomes?

To the extent that the gap between the aspirations and reality of our disadvantaged can be blamed on unrealistic expectations rather than unacceptable reality, we should look for the cause of those aspirations. In my view it is not to be found in the real or perceived lives of our affluent but in the prevalence of commercial mass media and an advertising industry that devotes obscene amounts of money to selling the single message that "your life sucks". Perhaps our nostalgia for the "good old days" owes more than a little to the non-commercial TV we used to have. Perhaps the "cultural colonisation" that commercial TV and its associated consumerism-gone-mad has brought us cuts deeper into our society than we realise.

What is important is that we retain the most important of our Kiwi values. That we respect the human and civil rights of all citizens and that "participation" in our society does not have a price tag or come with first and second class versions. A decent, inclusive society need not mean that any person may (regardless of their talents) freely choose their walk in life or that people from different walks of life should enjoy the same disposable income. Rather it means that we should all alike walk tall and that all should be valued alike regardless of circumstance or fortune, and that influence, justice, freedom or equality should never be for sale. Whenever I hear the BRT or local Chamber of Commerce bemoan the "Tall poppy syndrome" I feel a surge of hope. Kiwis know how to honour real heroes (Edmund Hilary, Fred Hollows, Peter Jackson) but we also know that an oaf with money is just a rich oaf. If we can hold on to this a little income inequality may not matter.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Alcohol, Tobacco and Cannabis - Class D drugs?

Willie Jackson's Eye to Eye (watch out for the coming new treats from TVNZ - Hand to Hand, Mouth to Mouth, Nose to Nose, Cheek to Cheek and Navel to Navel) featured the continuing debate on decriminalising cannabis. The defenders of the status quo don't seem to deny that cannabis does no more harm than alcohol or tobacco but claim that MPs who support both Smoke-Free legislation and decriminalisation of marijuana are sending kids a "tobacco bad, pot good" message.

I got to wondering whether we shouldn't look at the general law on drug abuse before applying it to specific instances. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 does not consider normal recreational use of substances - in effect it assumes that any non-therapeutic use is abuse. Cannabis leaf, codeine syrup, barbiturates, valium and paracetamol are all class C drugs (moderate potential for harm) but are subclassified as C1 to C6 according to the relative likelihood of therapeutic use as opposed to abuse. There is little doubt that alcohol and tobacco would also be C1's if the criteria of the act were applied to them - although it could be argued that tobacco should be a class B drug given its high addiction potential.

In practice, alcohol and tobacco have been exempted from the provisions of the MDA by the simple expedient of not submitting them for classification. Instead they are regulated through separate acts which provide no criminal sanctions against manufacture, possession, use, non-commercial supply or licenced sale to an adult. This is not the way the law should work. If we wish to allow any recreational drugs (and we obviously do) the law should define general criteria and apply them consistently to all substances.

I would respectfully suggest that we might accomplish this by amending the Misuse of Drugs Act to provide for a new class D (low to moderate potential for harm) of substances which -

(1) have an overall potential for harm similar to class C substances;

(2) have a substantial potential for non-therapeutic use with no or little harm to users; and where

(3) the overall social advantages of the less regulated environment clearly outweigh any increase in the potential for harm arising therefrom.

The regulatory regime for class D drugs would be the same as that for alcohol as provided in the Sale of Liquor Act. The legislation could specify that alcohol, tobacco and cannabis were all class D drugs or (better) could provide an open process for submitting any substance (including alcohol, tobacco and cannabis) for (re)classification by an independent "Substance Classification Board". The new act could also specify that it supercedes the Sale of Liquor Act with respect to any class A, B, C or D substance. All class D substances would be liable to excise duty at a rate to be determined by the Minister of Customs.

Smokefree and Drink Driving laws should also be generalised but these are separate issues. I would, however, envisage a bar where you could (legally) buy a plate of hash brownies, a pack of Pall Mall filters and a pack of Rothmans "Greens" (I know - but they would) with a round of drinks. You could consume the drinks and the brownies on the premises but would have to take both the cigarettes and the pot home. If you drove home (and were unlucky) you might get stopped and tested for proscribed (instant fine) or "deemed impairment" (serious trouble) levels of alcohol, THC and amphetamine (or whatever).

The primary issue is not intergenerational, class or race (though it may seem that way). It is an issue of consistency and proper application of the law. It is proper that the law should operate consistently from general principles to specific outcomes. It is not proper to make or manipulate the law on an ad hoc basis to produce outcomes preferred by those in power. Nor is it proper to enact separate and unequal laws to regulate competing products which differ only in the political clout of the vested interests behind them.

One law for all substances!

Friday, September 03, 2004

Chris Trotter on the Treaty

The Dominion Post has an article by Chris Trotter ostensibly about "Margaret Mutu's threat of war" but, in fact mostly about rubbishing the Treaty of Waitangi. His tactic is to accept the most extreme interpretation of the Treaty and then use that to suggest that the treaty cannot and should not have any legitimacy.

I would be the first to concede that the plain text of the treaty (in either language) is not suitable for a constitutional document. The same, of course, is true of the ten commandments, the sermon on the mount, the Gettysburg address and the American declaration of independence but that does not diminish their value or relevance.

The claim that lies at the heart of Trotter's (and maybe Mutu's) case is that the reference to Tino Rangatiratanga in article 2 of the Maori version of the treaty means that Maori (chiefs) retain "Sovereignty" regardless of article 1. In Trotter's words -

In the minds of the chiefs who signed the document, New Zealand was nothing more than a geographic expression. Their tribal territories, like the territories of the princes, bishops and margraves of the Roman empire, remained sovereign and inviolate.
The "Roman" model Trotter alludes to was also used in the British empire (particularly in India) but is specifically excluded by Article 3 of the Treaty which (in either language) grants the "rights and privileges of British subjects" to "nga tangata maori katoa o Nu Tirani" (all the Maori people of New Zealand). The common people in the Roman (Indian) models remained subject to their local prince, bishop or margrave (or rajah) and certainly did not enjoy the rights of Roman citizens.

The exact meaning of "Rangatiratanga" and "Kawanatanga" to the Treaty signatories must remain matter of conjecture - not least because both words were, at the time, recently coined but it seems reasonable to suppose that their meaning would approximate -

Rangatiratanga - The traditional powers and rights of a "tribal chief"

Kawanatanga - The powers exercised by a "Kawana" such as the Governor of New South Wales.

Maori are promised tino rangatiratanga in article 2 with respect to lands etc but it is not mentioned in article 1. Any tenable interpretation of the whole treaty must recognize that kawanatanga is subtracted from rangatiratanga (in the fullest sense of the term) and tbat which is promised to Maori is what is left. Trotter's demonizing assertion that
Tino rangitiratanga - the sovereign powers of the tribal chieftains - was in no way diminished by their recogniton of kawanatanga

implies that kawanatanga is a nullity. It is an interpretation that the vast majority of Maori do not demand, is not accepted by any judicial authority in New Zealand and has no chance of ever being accepted as any part of NZ law or constitution. The Waitangi Tribunals report on the Foreshore and Seabed Policy specifically states that -
It is clear that kawanatanga gives the Crown the authority to make the present policy and enact it as legislation.

Of course the Government has a duty to respect rangitiratanga (and justice, fairness, etc) but these duties do not deny their authority.

It seems clear to me that the Maori concept of "rangitiratanga" (after ceding "kawanatanga") means something more than the English concept of "ownership" but somewhat less than the English concept of "sovereignty". If we are to embody the Treaty principles in a New Zealand constitution then perhaps the first step must be to define that difference (Mana whenua? Ancestral Rights?). But we must define them in terms which are clear and acceptable to a broad concensus.

That a minority of Maori have been driven to reject concensus and make aggressive (or even taiha-rattling) demands for extreme interpretations of sovereignty is unfortunate but understandable given the raw deal they have historically received. Chris Trotter's "Bring it on" response is no less unfortunate and a great deal less forgivable.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Face to Face with Destiny

I found last night's Face to Face featuring Brian Tamaki a little disappointing. From a purely intellectual perspective it was a strange and wondrous thing to see someone talk down Kim Hill but it would have been so much better to see Brian asked the really big questions.

I feel the inteview did establish Brain Tamaki's homophobia (or at least the strength of his belief in God's homophobia) but the session on tithes was particularly disappointing. Kim wasted the time in an arid discussion of the Morality/Theology of tithing rather than going for the real questions -

"Well Brian, how much did your church raise in tithes last year?" "And what did you do with it?" (Televangelists should always be confronted by auditors).

And if you're going to allude to a chapter in Hebrews which apparently suggests tithing is no longer appropriate for Christians why not, under the circumstances, explore exactly what money Abraham tithed to Melchisedec when he, according to St Paul, foreshadowed the replacement of the Levitical priesthood by Jesus.

According to Genesis it was the loot recovered when Abraham rescued the Sodomites from their enemies - in other words Abraham fought as well as prayed for his neighbours in Sodom. How does Brian Tamaki square up to that.

The Cloak and Dagger of Parliamentary Privilege

Winston Peters is at it again (see also David Slack). What possible grounds could there be for publicising Peter and Coral Shaw's experience with Edwards (David McNee's killer)? The reason is obvious - there are enough rabid homophobes out there who will

(a) jump to the conclusion that Peter Shaw was Edwards client in yet another assignation that went wrong
(b) applaud (and vote for) Winston as a fearless exposer of faggotry in high places.

The rest of us may very well conclude that Winston is the sort of weasel that gives vermin a bad name - but we already knew that anyway.

Winston may believe he is following in his Mentor's footsteps but Colin Moyle was a political opponent and current front-bench MP when Muldoon outed him - Peter Shaw is an innocent bystander. And few historians would call that Rob's finest moment.

Winston has attempted to give his cynical malice a gloss of "legitimate public interest" by alleging a cover-up - that someone leaned on the police to drop the case. Too make such an allegation without any evidence to back it up is fatuous nonsense even by Winston's standards.

I do not know and do not wish to know why Coral and Peter Shaw chose not to press (or continue) charges in this case but it is their right to do so. It is also normal police practice (although not legally mandatory) to drop a case if the victim does not wish to pursue it. There is simply no basis for alleging anything improper or unusual in the police dropping this case. It is a flimsy attempt to disguise the gratuitous character assassination by innuendo of a private individual.

Unfortunately Peters knows all too well that "you can fool some of the people all of the time" but OTOH even weasels despise weasels who deny their essential weaselness.