Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Holiday Reading

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In the last couple of weeks George Monbiot has written a couple of barnstorming columns in the Guardian. One on the myth of free market capitalism and one on automobiles and speeding.

Both are well worth reading and mulling-over, over the holiday season.

[UPDATE: And now he's written this - he just keeps getting better; while the, almost always good Johann Hari, offers his own little Xmas present - an thorough debunking of Ayn Rand (yay)

Treasury Strikes Back! (well that clears things up)

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To my intense excitement Treasury have finally responded to my request for references substantiating their claim that "there is a [rich]…body of international studies that can inform and support" the belief (held by Treasury) that reducing marginal tax rates will stimulate economic growth. Here's the important bit from their response:

You ask for the references relating to mention made on page 20 to recent ‘studies that have found that taxes on personal income, company income, payroll and property damage growth, while taxes on goods and services have a more muted effect on growth’. I appreciate your interest in our briefing, which is part of Treasury’s ongoing work in this area. I can confirm that the briefing as written provides as full a summary of this analysis as is possible at this time and that we intend to publish our review of the literature once it is ready, probably as part of our working paper series.


As I noted in my original post with the help of academic databases I was able to find a few studies making the low taxes high growth claim. The blogger Genius was able to find a few more. But nothing I read convinced me that cutting top tax rates inevitably leads to higher economic growth. Particularly, given that, when individual country’s histories are studied there are all sorts of examples of the opposite happening (low tax periods having low growth). Needless to say, Treasury’s response hasn’t done anything to help in this respect. I mean how hard would it be to list the names of a few papers in an email? After all, if you are confident enough to base a government policy recommendation on the papers, surely you’d be confident enough that they would stand up to the examinations of a mere blogger.

Oh well.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Turtles Can Fly

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I reviewed the movie Turtles Can fly shortly after I saw it in the film festival. The current issue of the Listener now has a review of it, which makes me think that it must be coming back to cinemas in New Zealand. My original review is here. Read it if you are interested; however, most importantly, go and see the movie.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Lambert 1, Fumento 0

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This is old news now but it is well worth a laugh. Tim Lambert catches a crazed Fumento stalker. Or not.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

C.S Lewis

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The Listener has a good piece on CS Lewis and his Narnia books this week. In it, the charges of Lewis’s critics (principally Phillip Pullman) are examined. The Listener concludes (correctly I think) that Pullman is wrong to say that Lewis’s books lack love; and its example of evidence against this: Digory’s Love for his sick mother (in the Magician’s Nephew) is a good one. The Listener’s arguments are more fragile when it tries to claim that Lewis’s Calormen aren’t a racist stereotype, however. (Although it makes the fair point that, in The Last Battle, he lets one/some of them into heaven, despite their worshiping of Tash, because they are good people).

And I totally agree with the point made in the article that, when Lewis works allegory hardest (The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and the Last Battle), it is at its least effective. He could have toned down the Christian imagery some, and the message – the underlying Christian message – would have been stronger in my mind.

The article also mentions Lewis’s relationship with Tolkien. Now I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings books and though Peter Jackson did a good job with the movies, but – by the time the last movie was released – I was sorely tired of the whole phenomenon. Accordingly, I was cheered to read that Lewis (who thought the books sprawled on and on) once – supposedly – exclaimed to Tolkien “not another fucking elf”.

Here, here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Against State Killing

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I sent the email to Singapore's High Consul this morning. If you consider their plans to execute convicted drug mule Nguyen Tuong Van wrong, please do something similar yourself.

Their email address (in NZ) is: shcwlg@xtra.co.nz

For more information on the case read here and here.

The email I wrote (quickly and poorly) reads follows:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am sending this email to you to register my deep disappointment at your government's plans to execute Nguyen Tuong Van.

While Mr Tuong Van is, in all probability, guilty of the crimes that he is charged with, his killing by the State of Singapore will – in my mind – only be addressing his crime by committing a much greater one (murder).

It will also be imposing the punishment of a lifetime’s suffering on a totally innocent person: his
mother.

Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest that such punishment does anything to diminish the drugs trade.

For all these reasons I urge your government to re-consider the death penalty in this case.

While you may consider that this is an internal issue to the state of Singapore and, as such, none of my business, I would ask you to reflect on the fact that, in today’s globalised world there are very few internal issues anymore. And that some things, such as human rights, are universal and do not stop at national borders.

Kind Regards

Johann Hari Interviews

There is a great interview with Johann Hari (in two parts) here and here. He discusses a lot, from the media, to Chomsky, to Hitchens, to Galloway, to Israel, to Iraq. And, in my mind, what resonates in the points he makes is a combination of common sense (a commitment to reality over dogma) as well as a real belief in leftwing principles (democracy, economic inclusion etc.). I can’t think of a columnist who I read more avidly than Hari (Krugman and Monbiot are close I guess: Monbiot’s almost as good; and I like Krugman, although there is a lot in his older work that I disagree with and he suffers from economists’ arrogance).

Interestingly, in the interview, Hari comes close to a mia culpa on Iraq too. There is certainly an admission of great uncertainty, which is refreshing (and what is missing from the writings of Hitchens, Cohen and Harry’s Place). [Dislosure: Unlike Hari I opposed the invasion but did so with considerable uncertainty too.]

Really, there’s only a couple of things I’d take issue with in the interview: first Hari’s characterisation of Galloway as anti-abortion. Which, as I understand it, is unfair. Galloway, I think, is personally, morally opposed to abortion but doesn’t think it right to impose his beliefs on other women. While there is plenty to dislike about Galloway, I don’t think this position is unreasonable (plent of pro-choice people I know hold it; Bill Clinton said (paraphrase): “I think abortion should be safe, legal and rare”). And I certainly don’t think that it is fair to label this position as anti-abortion as – as I understand it – Galloway still supports the right of women to have safe, legal abortions if they so choose.

The second thing is Hari’s claim that “markets create wealth”. This is wrong(ish) although only in a pedantic way. Really, if you are talking about why our quantity of life (rather than quality because that is a more complex issue) is much higher than it was 100 years ago (cars, washing machines, medication, running hot water, super markets - which is what I understand by the meaning of the word “wealth”) then the answer is actually technological change.

Markets may be the best way of providing the incentives necessary to drive technological change but markets and technology are not the same thing. Indeed, many of the major technological changes that have taken place in the last 200 hundred or so years have come from either:

* Eccentric scientists who followed an idea because of their love of knowledge not their love of profit.

* State funded research (computers, planes etc.)


* Serendipity. (I doubt I’d be alive at present if it weren’t for antibiotics; it’s strange to think that there discovery was entirely an accident).


This isn’t to say that markets don’t serve a social function. Quite the opposite, they do provide some incentives and are a pretty good way of distributing goods (if you can mange inequality they are certainly better than Soviet style bureaucracy). They, also (if you can manage market failures well enough) are probably the best way of maximising utility without unduly restricting liberty.

Yet I don’t think that it is strictly correct to say that they create wealth. It certainly would be wrong to say that they are the only way of creating wealth.

Monday, November 28, 2005

CPAG vs the Government

missing

Another day in aching bones…

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File under the joys of living with Reactive Arthritis. It’s 6pm and I am absolutely exhausted. Partially this is the result of a poor night’s sleep (caused in part by being in pain), and mostly it is the result of the big day I had.

Well, actually it wasn’t that big at all, but it demonstrates how small things shrink to big asks when you are arthritic.

10:20am – Trying to find a park in the city, I get lucky - fortunately - and find a park only half a block away from my destination.
10:30am – Meet up with the friend of a friend in a café. He used to be afflicted with a similar ailment to my own, but – after 5 or so years – managed to kick it. It’s great talking to him as (a) he gives me hope and (b) he gives me some good treatment ideas.
11:45am – Move my car to another car park so as not to exceed the 2 hour max time limit (my car already has a big blue chalk mark on the tire to remind me of this). Once again I am lucky – I get a car park close(ish) to where I need to go.
11:50am – Blood sugar levels low – I walk a few blocks to find somewhere which sells some food I can eat (chips).
12:10pm – I walk a couple of blocks to my next meeting for the day (which was close to the first). The meeting – which is about a server transfer affecting a website I manage (voluntarily) for a sports club – has been moved down the road. Which leads to another couple of blocks walk (power hobbling this time as I am late).
1:30pm – Walk back to car – drive up to university.
2:00pm – Lucky again, a car park close to the university means only a few hundred metres walk to hand in my timesheets for the last few weeks. Then back again to the car and then home. Where I have spent the afternoon working a little bit on a paper and distracting myself on Harry’s Place.
6:00pm – Exhausted total distance walked in the day: probably less than a kilometre. But it feels like 10kms.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Comment Moderation On

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For the time being I am going to switch the comment moderation feature of Blogger on. This means that after you post your comment it will go into a cache and it will only become visible on the blog after I've okayed it. (This ought to take place fairly swiftly, unless you are posting from another time zone).

In practice I will ok all comments except those that are deliberate trolls, or openly racist or homophobic.

Chris, however, you are an exception to this rule - any comments you post whatsoever will be deleted.

[Update - correct spelling of racist now in place - thanks Sunny]

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Freedland on Inequality

Jonathan Freeland has a barnstorming column in the Guardian on inequality.

Bed-time for Democracy

Oh my god.

Read this.

Bush wants to bomb an allied country to rid himself of the pesky problem of its free press, Blair mercifully talks him out of this. Britain's newspapers get wind of the story; Blair threatens them with court action if they publish. I suppose we can be thankful that he didn't bomb; but, nonetheless, democracies are only as good as the information flows within them. Accordingly, England's democracy is starting to look a little shaky.

Meanwhile in the USA, republican lobbyists are buying votes.

Race to the bottom anyone?

Bro Town and Stupidity

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One of these day's I will write a longer post about what bugs me about Bro Town (the New Zealand made "comedy"); however, for now I'll just provide a link to Johann Hari's tirade against a UK comedy called Little Britain. I've never seen Little Britain, but a lot of these criticisms could be applied, in my opinion, to Bro Town (starting with the fact that it isn't actually funny; ending with the fact that calling one of your characters Abo is insanely offensive - and being Samoan is no excuse here - to the Aboriginal people of Australia).

More takes on Iraq

The Progressive US website Tompaine.com has a couple of interesting opinion pieces on Iraq's future. The first argues "we need to leave but we need to do so sensibly", while the second is more "cut and run" (and flawed, in my opinion). They are both worth reading though.

Also worth reading are the opinions of Johann Hari (a lefty who supported the invasion, but who is genuinely troubled by its aftermath). He suggests here amongst other places that the decision to stay or go should be made by the Iraqi people, which - when you read his arguements in full - seems sensible.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Time to leave Iraq

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And then, seconds after I made the last post I read this:

Most noteworthily:

An assault weapon the marines were using had been armed with warheads containing "about 35% thermobaric novel explosive (NE) and 65% standard high explosive". They deployed it "to cause the roof to collapse and crush the insurgents fortified inside interior rooms". It was used repeatedly: "The expenditure of explosives clearing houses was enormous."


The marines can scarcely deny that they know what these weapons do. An article published in the Gazette in 2000 details the effects of their use by the Russians in Grozny. Thermobaric, or "fuel-air" weapons, it says, form a cloud of volatile gases or finely powdered explosives. "This cloud is then ignited and the subsequent fireball sears the surrounding area while consuming the oxygen in this area. The lack of oxygen creates an enormous overpressure ... Personnel under the cloud are literally crushed to death. Outside the cloud area, the blast wave travels at some 3,000 metres per second ... As a result, a fuel-air explosive can have the effect of a tactical nuclear weapon without residual radiation ... Those personnel caught directly under the aerosol cloud will die from the flame or overpressure. For those on the periphery of the strike, the injuries can be severe. Burns, broken bones, contusions from flying debris and blindness may result. Further, the crushing injuries from the overpressure can create air embolism within blood vessels, concussions, multiple internal haemorrhages in the liver and spleen, collapsed lungs, rupture of the eardrums and displacement of the eyes from their sockets." It is hard to see how you could use these weapons in Falluja without killing civilians.
This looks to me like a convincing explanation of the damage done to Falluja, a city in which between 30,000 and 50,000 civilians might have been taking refuge. It could also explain the civilian casualties shown in the film. So the question has now widened: is there any crime the coalition forces have not committed in Iraq?

It's hard to see any benefits for anyone from doing more of this.

Withdraw from Iraq?

Paul Krugman has a good column in today’s NYT (it’s behind the pay wall; remember, if you have access to the library database Proquest you can get your fix of NYT comment that way) on why the US ought to leave Iraq. Most noteworthily he makes the following comments:

The fact is that we're not going to stay in Iraq until we achieve victory, whatever that means in this context. At most, we'll stay until the American military can take no more.

Mr. Bush never asked the nation for the sacrifices -- higher taxes, a bigger military and, possibly, a revived draft -- that might have made a long-term commitment to Iraq possible. Instead, the war has been fought on borrowed money and borrowed time. And time is running out. With some military units on their third tour of duty in Iraq, the superb volunteer army that Mr. Bush inherited is in increasing danger of facing a collapse in quality and morale similar to the collapse of the officer corps in the early 1970's.

So the question isn't whether things will be ugly after American forces leave Iraq. They probably will. The question, instead, is whether it makes sense to keep the war going for another year or two, which is all the time we realistically have.

Pessimists think that Iraq will fall into chaos whenever we leave. If so, we're better off leaving sooner rather than later. As a Marine officer quoted by James Fallows in the current Atlantic Monthly puts it, ''We can lose in Iraq and destroy our Army, or we can just lose.''

And there's a good case to be made that our departure will actually improve matters. As Mr. Murtha pointed out in his speech, the insurgency derives much of its support from the perception that it's resisting a foreign occupier. Once we're gone, the odds are that Iraqis, who don't have a tradition of religious extremism, will turn on fanatical foreigners like Zarqawi.

The only way to justify staying in Iraq is to make the case that stretching the U.S. army to its breaking point will buy time for something good to happen. I don't think you can make that case convincingly. So Mr. Murtha is right: it's time to leave.


To be honest I'm still not sure when the Americans ought to leave Iraq. I opposed the war in the first place, but after all the bad things we have done to the Iraqi people I think that the question that needs to be asked now is: what course of action will be best for the people of Iraq?

In which case, there are three possible outcomes of a withdrawal of American troops in the near future:

1. With the visible enemy removed from the country, much of the impetus for the insurgents is removed. Those insurgents who are motivated primarily by dislike of the Americans (like the ex-Baathists and ex army members) are able to do a deal with the existing government, while those insurgents who are motivated primarily be religious fanaticism (Al Qaeda in Iraq) are marginalised and loose the support of ordinary Iraqis. As it is very hard to run an insurgency without popular support, they quickly become a minor force. Somehow tensions between the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are diffused and the nation of Iraq heads towards a tolerable future.

2. The country collapses into a sectarian civil war (Shiites versus Sunnis, while the Kurds try to secede). Of all wars, civil wars tend to be the most bloody with the worst abuses of civilians (see former Yugoslavia or Rwanda or the USA). The end result is tragic and may destabilise the whole region.

3. A full scale civil war is averted but the existing government enters into a significant war with the insurgents; one which leads to large human rights violations; and, ultimately an Iraqi government which is almost as brutal as Saddam was.

Krugman, however, makes a couple of additional points which are well worth considering in this calculus. The first is that, due to the economic, political and social costs of the war to the US, the ultimate departure of US troops will, in all probability, not be dictated by “victory” (victory meaning leaving at a time when the Iraqi government is capable of handling internal tensions and the insurgents) but by necessity. Or, in other words, the Americans will pull out, not when they “win” but when they can take no more (this being much sooner than any “victory”).

In which case the question which needs to be asked is to what extent would pulling out ASAP make increase or decrease the chances of 1 (above) happening. I think that there’s a good case that it would increase the chances. That being said there is a reasonable case to be made for waiting until the Iraqi army is stronger/strong enough to fight the insurgents as well. Although that assumes that the Iraqi army will ever be this strong.

On top of this Krugman also brings into the equation the economic and military costs to the US of sticking round. Which are worth considering too, given that a large scale recession in American will be felt around the world (similarities here to the probable role of the Vietnam war in the stagflation of the 1970s). Of course, you could argue that America with a crippled army mightn’t be so bad – it would certainly reduce their taste for adventurism in the near future. However, it’s also worth considering that the words “crippled army” conceal within them the huge suffering of the US troops (who come, disproportionately from the poorer sectors of US society). It’s also worth considering that, while the US has a horrible record with international interventions, it isn’t the most-nasty player on the world stage, by any means. If a crippled US army led to a new era of multi-literalism that would be great; if it just leads to the unchecked rise of China along with increased belligerence from: the Sudan, Iran, North Korea etc. that might not be so great. Furthermore, in the past, reluctance – on the US public’s behalf – for conventional war hasn’t really led to better behaviour by the US. It’s just led to covert action.

All in all a complex situation, although I have to say that I am increasingly leaning to the “troops out soon position”.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Bolivia

The New York Times has and almost-good article on Bolivia (the article will be free to view for a week or so, although you may have to register). Which is to say the article would be good if it weren't for its silly attempts (particularly in the last paragraph) to compare Eva Morales with Che Guevara.

Let's see shall we:

Guevara Was born in Argentina, was a violent revolutionary and died (in Bolivia) because he failed to achieve the support of the Bolivian working class.

Morales on the other hand was born in Bolivia, is a democratic politician and comes from (and has the support of) the Bolivian working class.
Of course none of this means that Morales is destined to succeed or that he is perfect; but he ain't Guevara.

Other than these quibbles the article is good though; and it illustrates the United State's continuing role in undermining and resisting democracy in Latin America.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Joys of Living in Wellington

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Ahhh yes, just another balmy day in Wellington. The sun’s out and the trade winds are rustling the leaves of the trees. They are also breaking off the branches of the trees too; and carrying old ladies and domestic pets through the air; and trying their best to rip the roofing iron off my flat.

Last night I had the joy of sleeping with ear plugs in, and I was still woken by the stronger wind-gusts. Of course, it doesn’t help that my flat is perched on a hillside and set like a sail at 90 degrees to the wind.

The photo below is from the Beacon Hill Webcam (taken today).
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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Why Treasury’s Got it Wrong on Tax Cuts

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Back in the 1980s and 1990s New Zealand’s Treasury was notorious for functioning more like a rightwing pressure group than a government department: they were cheerleaders of the economic reform process; they published briefings with Orwellian titles like “Government Management”; and, eventually, many of their staff from that time did move on to join rightwing pressure groups or political parties. Theoretically, at least, this all came to an end some time in the late 1990s with Treasury – who, presumably, were somewhat chastened by the social and economic consequences of the reforms they championed – retreating from their role of small-government activists and starting to behave a bit more like a government department again.

That’s the theory at least; however, treasury’s most recent “Briefing to an Incoming Government” makes me wonder whether ideology hasn’t started to creep back into Number 1 the Terrace; either that or the people responsible for the briefing have a very strange grasp of public economics.

Particularly ideologically driven (or poorly thought out) is the recommendation in the briefing that the government reduce the top two personal tax rates. Doing this, according to the briefing, will have a “substantial [positive] growth impact”; a claim that is – supposedly – based on two things: economic theory and empirical evidence.

In terms of theory, the argument Treasury makes runs something like this: progressive taxation (increasing marginal tax rates), by reducing the take home proportion of higher income earners’ pay packets, provides a disincentive for working harder (or seeking promotion; or behaving in an entrepreneurial manner) which, in turn, leads to lower productivity and less growth. This theory is pretty much accepted unquestioningly by mainstream economists; yet as far as theories go it’s a pretty tenuous one; after all, it ignores the fact that, unless marginal tax rates are over 100%, workers still end up richer when they cross a tax threshold. It also ignores the fact that people may be motivated to work harder for more than just purely financial reasons. For example, they may be motivated to work harder by the desire for status that comes with promotion; or for the autonomy and decision making power that comes with being higher up the employment ladder; or by competition with co-workers (remember any promotion is still going to make them richer at the end of the day); or by professional integrity; or by the belief that their job actually helps attain greater social good (plenty of teachers feel this; yet apparently treasury officials are unaware of any such potential altruistic motivations. Why I wonder? Do they never feel them themselves?). On top of all this, as heterodox economists since John Kenneth Galbraith have noted, higher marginal tax rates may actually make people work harder, putting in the extra hours so they can purchase the goods they want. (For a good discussion of the motivations of economists see the last four paragraphs of this column; for a good discussion about theoretical arguments around marginal tax rates see here).

So the theory – then – is a little shaky; what about the evidence? According to the treasury report (on page 20):

[T]here is a…[rich] body of international studies that can inform and support our analysis. These studies have made significant advances in recent years, analysing the aggregate effect of taxation on the economy, and analysing the specific channels through which taxes impact on growth. Taken together, these studies strongly suggest that high marginal tax rates damage growth, though there is still some debate about the scale of this effect.
This I found interesting as my understanding about the relationship between taxation and growth was that there was very little evidence to suggest that countries with higher levels of taxation had lower levels of growth (economist Brian Easton makes this point here). Unfortunately, while the Treasury briefing refers to studies, it doesn’t provide any references for them (and Treasury haven’t – of yet – replied to my request for such references) so in trying to find where treasury got their data from I have been limited to using Proquest (an academic database). From Proquest I did find a few studies which claimed to have found associations between higher marginal tax rates and lower economic growth (hardly a rich body of evidence but, to be fair, Proquest may not contain everything that has been written on the topic).

Perhaps the most comprehensive of the studies I could find was Padovano and Galli in the journal, Economic Enquiry (Jan 2001). In this journal article Padovani and Galli claim to have found a correlation between lower marginal tax rates and higher economic growth. In doing so, they note that they are at odds with almost all other empirical studies on the topic of taxes and growth; however, they argue that most of these studies only use average tax levels and so do not capture the impact of higher marginal tax rates. Having now read through Padovani and Galli’s several times there are certainly aspects of it which seem a little questionable to me, including the fact that they estimate marginal tax rates for the countries involved (they do test this though), and also the way they do or don’t take into account the positive effects of government spending; but, to be honest, I don’t know nearly enough about econometrics to know if these questionable areas are significant or not. What I do know, however, is that cross country analyses are a fraught way of determining the effects of government policy (Dani Rodrik discusses this in this PDF file).

The alternative to cross country analysis is, of course, to examine the economic histories of particular countries; and once you do this it becomes pretty clear that, if there are growth benefits from reducing marginal tax rates, they are easily overshadowed by other economic factors. For example, in the United States the strongest period of growth in US history was in the 1960s, a time when the top marginal tax rate was 70 percent plus, likewise the soc-called long boom of the 1990s took place after Bill Clinton raised the top marginal tax rate (reference here) On the other hand, the post war decade with the lowest economic growth in the US was the 1980s, also the decade with the lowest top tax rates (for more discussions of the US context see here and here). Likewise, in Great Britain the top tax rate was cut from 60% - 40% with no discernable impact on economic growth (reference here). While in New Zealand the Labour Government’s 1984 tax cuts were followed by almost 10 years of economic decline and then a further 5 or so years of intermittent growth. And when a new Labour government raised taxes in 1999 the following 6 years where characterised by solid economic growth. Of course, none of this means that high marginal tax rates increase growth, or even that they don’t slow it down somewhat. But it does mean that any negative effect that they do have must be much smaller than other economic processes.

And, particularly in New Zealand’s case, other economic factors are important. If – for example – any tax cuts were to take place at present, with our economy almost at capacity, the consequence would, almost certainly, be a rise in interest rates. Something that would be best avoided if possible, given that New Zealand’s interest rates are already high by OECD standards and given that higher than average interest rates (everything else being equal) lead to currency appreciation, which harms exporters. (People who, if you haven’t noticed, our economy tends to rely on.)

In a similar vein, Brian Easton notes that poor fiscal policy, and its impact on currency rates, was probably the cause of New Zealand’s economic malaise in the 1980s and early 1990s. Which begs the question: do we really want to go through that again?

Of course, it would be possible a (as Treasury suggests latter in the briefing) to postpone tax cuts until the economy comes off the peak of its cycle, thus avoiding the need of interest rate rises. Yet at the same time, this also robs us of some of the potential for interest rate cuts (and, therefore, the chance of getting our interest rates back in line with the rest of the OECD).

All of which leads me to beleive that the economic benefits of Treasury’s tax cuts are far from clear. On the other hand, the costs are much more obvious. Despite talk of huge budget surpluses (which is just that – talk) New Zealand’s fiscal position leaves little room for significant tax cuts. Meaning that any such cuts have to come from expenditure. Something that Treasury fails to make clear in its briefing and something that I think “mainstream New Zealand” would be strongly opposed to. (My evidence for this belief is based on the number of political parties in the last election who campaigned loudly on cutting core services such as Health and Education. Answer: 0 parties which polled over 2%.) Of course, the natural conservative response to the question of where will the money come from? is that money won’t be cut from core services, but rather, “bureaucracy and hip-hop tours”. Unfortunately, the idea that cutting funding for the arts (Hip Hop tours etc.) could pay for substantial tax increases is absolute nonsense as I have discussed here. And, as for cutting bureaucracy, while small cuts could be made here and there (at a cost to services) there is very little significant that could go. When it comes to expenditure cuts Graeme Scott is bang on the money when he says that “it has to be done with a scalpel not an axe” (hat tip: Brian Easton) What’s more, given New Zealand’s aging population, and the associated health costs of this, in the long run, government spending is going to have to increase; something that tax cuts will leave little scope for.

None of this, however, features in Treasury’s analysis, nor do other impacts of the cuts like rising inequality. New Zealand is already one of the most unequal countries in the OECD and given that inequality has been shown to lead to increased violent crime and poor health outcomes as well as lower levels of happiness (a relevant link can be found here) it seems odd that treasury completely fails to discuss the distributional impacts of the proposed cuts.

All of which – like I noted at the beginning – appears to be evidence of one of two things: either Treasury is moving back to its 1980s role as an ideological pressure group, or they really don’t understand the fundamental public policy issues facing New Zealand.

Personally, I don’t know which is worse.

[Update: Sunday morning (yawn) after sleeping on this article I changed the first three words of paragraph 11 to "In a similar vien".]

[Update 2: Padovani became Padovano - thanks Genius]

Friday, November 18, 2005

Noam Chomsky

The Guardian has published an apology and removed its hatchet job interview with Noam Chomsky. What remains to seen is if Harry's Place and Oliver Kamm (google him if you wan't to find the link: I find him too odious to link to) will make this fact known. They ought to, considering the chortling that followed on their websites after the interview was published.

On the other hand Israeli (left leaning) newspaper Haaretz has a good interview with Chomsky (although it still gets some stuff wrong).

Robert Fisk

Radio New Zealand had a great interview with Robert Fisk. The link is here (to an audio file), although it will only be active for a week. It's really quite a moving interview; one that touches on Fisk's personal life and the way history seems forever destined to repeat in the Middle East.

[Udate: Norightturn - have provided what I think is a permanent link to the Fisk interview - have a look here ]

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

SOS Pakistan/Kashmir/India

I don't usually, post messages on this blog suggesting that people give money to emergancy appeals. The reason for this is simple: no one actually reads the blog anyway, so what help is my relaying of an SOS actually going to do.

Still, in this case, I'm going to make an exception, for the reason that the situation in post-earthquake Pakistan/Kashmir/India is so dire that any extra help is crucial.

So, on the off chance that you have stumbled on this blog (wrong URL perhaps? virus on your computer?) please consider the following extracts from this CNN report:

UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- One month after a massive quake rocked South Asia, the top U.N. humanitarian official called it a "race against time" to help more than 200,000 people in the higher mountainous regions of Pakistan.

Predictions for an "unusually harsh winter" meant the roughly 200,000 people above the snow line in Kashmir and the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan were in urgent need of help, Jan Egeland, U.N. Emergency Relief coordinator, said on Monday.

"We have to face what is happening now in Kashmir," he said. "What is particularly difficult in Kashmir is, of course, that people freeze to death if they don't get assistance in weeks."

The U.N. official said it was even more urgent to help survivors hit by the October 8 quake than survivors of hurricanes or tsunamis or even Africa, because of the freezing temperatures.

"So, this is the whole nature of the race against the clock that we have been talking about for some time. We have two, three, four weeks more before the whole area is covered by deep snow and the whole area is above the snow line of 2,000 meters (6,000 feet)."

As many as 20 percent of 200,000 people had not been reached at all and most of them had received "inadequate assistance," Egeland added. Another 150,000 people coming down from the high mountains and into camps would need assistance as well.

The death toll from the quake stands at 73,276 people, Reuters news agency quoted a government comission supervising Pakisatn's relief effort as saying on Tuesday.

Earlier a U.N. spokeswoman had put the toll at more than 87,000.



Several weeks into a disaster, aid crews typically move from life saving into humanitarian aid work, but Egeland said it would be a "marathon sprint" throughout the [northern hemisphere] winter, with life-saving work a necessity until the snowmelt in April.



Egeland called for more donations from Asian and "oil rich" nations, and said some countries should move their pledges towards reconstruction into relief aid.

In addition to cash aid, the United Nations needs helicopters as well as stoves to heat the half million tents they estimate will be used.

Because of what Egeland described as a weak reaction from corporations, the United Nations is appealing to the general public and private corporations.

"We have too little, really, from the general public and we have too little from corporations, compared to the enormous, enormous effort that we have going on today."

Asked why the response to tsunami relief had been so much greater, Egeland cited both the timing -- during the Christmas season -- and the television footage as factors.

"If there had been more images from more tourists of the actual earthquake and how it fell on the children and on the people and how people didn't drown in the wave, but they drowned in rubble, I think we would have seen more outpouring," he said.


Egeland's last point is worth noting: Despite the fact that the death toll relating from it is huge, the Asian earthquake has not led to anything near the flows of emergency assitance that followed the Indian Ocean Tsunami; yet money is desperately needed, and if it is not given 10s of thousands of people may die.

So if you are able, please consider donating. Oxfam's always been my favourite development agency so I have provided links to their websites below. But any reputable agency will do.

Oxfam New Zealand

Oxfam Australia

Oxfam Great Britain

Oxfam USA

Oxfam International

The French Riots...coming to a country near you

post missing

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Alex Higgen's Blog

Alex Higgens has updated his blog; and, as always, it is really good reading - so have a read. Be warned though, it takes a while to open.

No good name for this illness

There is a long and funny (and slightly delicate) story to be told some day about my experiences in London in May of 1999. And one of these days I’ll write it out in full. For the time being, however, I’ll spare you the details and myself the blushing, and only provide the briefest of recaps. I had just spent the (northern hemisphere) winter meandering around the Cape Verde Islands and, amongst marvelling at the beauty of those odd, lost, Saharan-sand covered ghosts of volcanoes, I managed to contract Salmonella. At the time, it really wasn’t too much of a problem though – it anchored me to a toilet for a couple of days and left me feeling shaky for a while, but was mild enough that I didn’t even bother to go to a doctor in the Cape Verdes. I wasn’t highly feverish nor was I throwing up and, as I was due to fly back to Portugal a couple of days later, it seemed sensible to wait until I could converse with a medical professional who spoke English.

So I never bothered the Cape Verde Islands’s medical system with my problems and on the appropriate date took my flight to Lisbon. When I arrived in Portugal – being the cautious type – I did stop in to see a doctor though. A doctor who, ironically enough, spoke hardly any English, which led to me having to wrap my broken Portuguese around words such as [special Portuguese speaker’s bonus] casa de banho, mucu and sangue. Which was followed by the doctor – slowly and patiently – confirming my suspicions that there was nothing more than mild dysentery to worry about. He wrote me a script for antibiotics but, because the last of my symptoms cleared up by the following morning, I never collected the meds. Instead I went surfing and flew back to London a few days later.

End of story.

Erm no – actually, more like beginning of story: a few weeks later – crashing at a friend’s house in Fulham – the damnest things started happening to the strangest parts of my body and – hey presto – I was back at the doctors before you could say “my god! how on earth did that get there”. What then followed was humorous – or, at least, has elicited laughter from those people I have told the full story to – and involved two misdiagnoses, a whole heap of waiting around Charing Cross Hospital, a professional medical photographer taking photos of my symptoms, and much anxiety before a kindly Scottish doctor said to me “Terence, you haven’t got herpes you’ve got Reiters Syndrome.” Like I said, there is a whole bundle of detail missing from this summary of events, but it’s getting close to dinnertime and I want to finish this post, so the said detail will have to wait for another date.

For now, I’ll just note that Dr Winchester’s informing me that the aforementioned diagnosis was actually a misdiagnosis had me falling to my knees and punching the air. Or at least it would have, had my knees not been swollen to the size of softballs at that moment. And had the expression on his face not suggested to me that – whatever Reiter’s syndrome was – it was probably worse than herpes.

What followed was about 9 months of extreme discomfort – swollen joints, exhaustion, and an occurrence of what was probably Iritis. Iritis, can leave you blind, although I was lucky and experienced no damage to my eyesight. I did, however, experience acute pain from it – Iritis is definitely the second most agonising experience of my life to date. Indeed, it would be the most agonising were it not for the fact, that a couple of weeks before the Iritis, I had the joy of experiencing having my knee drained of fluid by a nasty fat syringe while insufficiently anaesthetised. There were also a few other symptoms to my illness that I will gloss over for now. But, basically, what I’ve told you is a reasonable enough description of life with a type of auto-immune arthritis..

Luckily for me, about 9 months after the initial attack of the illness I went into remission, which afforded me almost two whole years of symptom-free life (read globetrotting and surfing). Less luckily, in late 2002 the illness returned and since then I haven’t been able to shake it. It’s been better and worse but never have I been symptom free. For what it’s worth, at present, it is about as bad as it gets. Mercifully, I haven’t got any problems with my eyes though, but my spine is a long slivering snake of pain, my right knee is swollen, my feet hurt to walk on and my right arm is giving me gnawing on and off pain. At times I am reduced to crutches. More than this though, I am suffering from what feels like a mild fever (although my temperature is normal) and I am totally exhausted.

All of which brings me to the point of this ramble: there is no good name for this illness. My affliction used to be called Reiter’s Syndrome; a name which seemed to fit the bill, with the word syndrome appropriately, implying – in my mind at least – a variety of symptoms. What is more, as a wannabe writer, I quite liked the phonetics of the name.

The trouble is – as I found out last year – Hans Reiter, the doctor who first described the illness and who got to lend his name to it was a eugenicist and – arrgghhhh – a supporter of the Nazis. Moreover, according to the New Scientist, Reiter, during the Second World war:

designed typhoid inoculation experiments that killed more than 250 people at the Buchenwald concentration camp.


Now one thing I promised myself, when I made the decision to blog about my illness, was I that I would really try to avoid drowning my posts in self pity. (After all, things could be a lot worse.) But that is just my fucking luck . To be afflicted by an illness that was named after a Nazi war criminal.

Thankfully, though there is an alternative name for my affliction: Reactive arthritis. A name which is being increasingly used in light of a campaign by some doctors to free this illness from its named-after-a-Nazi past (needless to say this is a campaign I completely approve of).

So reactive arthritis it is. Which is the name I use now when people ask me what is wrong with me (actually I usually say something like: “I am afflicted with reactive arthritis, left wing politics and an incurable urge to hug trees”).

The trouble with Reactive Arthritis though, is that it seems to imply that the symptoms of my illness are limited merely to joint pain. Which isn’t the half of it. The joint pain is bad, but the exhaustion and on and off fevered feeling makes things much, much worse. Likewise, joint pain alone is unlikely to kill me but damage to my heart (which can occur in reactive arthritis) might.

So I’m left with a dilemma – obviously I won’t be calling my illness Reiter’s – but Reactive Arthritis doesn’t seem right either. It just seems to imply something less than that which I’ve got. And this isn’t just semantics either as I have, from time to time, experienced the problem of some significant people (but not all) in my life not understanding just how difficult my uncooperative body makes things.

A strange dilemma right. One I never would have imagined having to deal with. But then again, I never ever really imagined having to live with disease either.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Chavez articles Update

Harry's Place also linked to the NYRoB articles on Chavez and the comments section turned into a fascinating pro/anti Chavez debate - have a read...

Monday, October 31, 2005

El otro lado de Chávez

The New York Review of Books has a couple of interesting articles on Hugo Chávez; ones that focus on the aspects of his rule that I am definitely uncomfortable with. And I thought I'd link to them (here and here) as a counterpoint to the favourable interview/article from Mother Jones that I linked to below.

One of these days I’ll write more about this but for now I’ll restrict myself to three comments:

1. Chávez’s indirect media repression is definitely worrying; but in a country where almost all of the private media is controlled by his opponents (and when his opponents are by in large – but not entirely – the same ruling class who have plundered Venezuela’s wealth and kept the vast majority of the country in poverty; and when these same opponents have shown, via 2001’s coup, that their commitment to democracy is significantly less than Chávez’s) – it isn’t really fair to say that he is impeding the free press in Venezuela: the press was never free there anyhow. This, of course, begs the question: what is worse, media controlled by business elites who don’t give a toss about the poor, or media controlled by a strongman (albeit a democratically elected strongman) who does seem to care about the poor?

2. Chávez’s behaviour about ‘La Lista’ and his harassment of his opponents is (if true) very troubling . It’s undemocratic and it could be the start of a slide towards more totalitarian behaviour. Of course, as I mentioned above, his opponents have shown themselves to be a whole heap less democratic – but that doesn’t excuse Chávez his behaviour (although I’m sure it has contributed to it). So once again we have a devil’s choice for Venezuela: is it better to be ruled by an increasingly authoritarian (but democratically elected) strongman who is actively working to improve the lives of his country’s poor; or to be ruled by a not entirely democratic opposition who did very little for the poor?

3. For a book review, the reviewer pays scant attention to the books being reviewed. Richard Gott’s book (which we can assume is going to be favourable to Chávez) is mentioned once in the review and once in the footnotes. Twice in an almost 5000 word article. To be fair the review has a sub-heading “books mentioned in this article”; as opposed to “books reviewed”. Still it is the New York Review of Books, and they do list the books at the beginning of the article (like any other review) so it strikes me as strange that so little is said…

Hat tip Martha Bridegam via Harry’s Place.

Rejection

History is full of famous authors who were deluged with rejection letters before they became published writers, so the example below isn’t anything new; but there is something about it (probably the detail it goes into in the course of being rude) that made me want to stick it up on my blog.

The letter was sent to Ursula Le Guin (it’s addressed to her agent); Le Guin went on to become one of the World’s most famous (and critically respected) science fiction authors. She also wrote “The Dispossessed” which is one of my favourite books. The letter follows:

Dear Miss Kidd,

Ursula K. Le Guin writes extremely well, but I'm sorry to have to say that on the basis of that one highly distinguishing quality alone I cannot make you an offer for the novel. The book is so endlessly complicated by details of reference and information, the interim legends become so much of a nuisance despite their relevance, that the very action of the story seems to be to become hopelessly bogged down and the book, eventually, unreadable. The whole is so dry and airless, so lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have had is entirely dissipated by what does seem, a great deal of the time, to be extraneous material. My thanks nonetheless for having thought of us. The manuscript of The Left Hand of Darkness is returned herewith. Yours sincerely,

The Editor

21 June, 1968


You can read it yourself here on Ursula Le Guin’s very cool website.

If I ever meet Ms Le Guin, I will be sure to ask her whether the pain of receiving such a letter was ultimately offset by the dang tootin’ satisfaction of, many years later, getting to publish it on your website.

Oh, by the way, the Left Hand of Darkness, went on to win both the Hugo and the Nebula awards…

Hat Tip (for Le Guin's website at least): Martha Bridegam

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Madness of Queen Muriel?

Tragically, it appears that the near demolition of the ACT party in last month’s elections and her own ejection from parliament have had an unhinging effect on Muriel Newman. Or, at least, I hope that her recently espoused views on New Zealand's history are the product of a temporary, defeat inspired, malaise. If they’re not, then we will all have to accept the rather chilling reality that New Zealand’s parliament was home to someone not only lacking any knowledge of New Zealand history but who also believes in the zaniest of conspiracy theories.

Muriel, you see has got herself a website. And in this website, amongst the predictable ranting against the evils of the welfare state, is this opinion piece on the state of race relations in New Zealand. Once again, most of it is predictable enough in an Act-ista kind-of way, but buried in there amongst the one-law-for all bluster is this worrying little nugget:

The Maori Party’s strategy is based on indoctrinating the public - starting in the schools and imposing their propaganda on the public service. But some argue there are fatal flaws in the fundamental basis of their claims and dispute whether they are indeed the tangata whenua. They point to Moriori pre-dating Maori and a body of evidence suggesting the existence of people before them.

The first worrying aspect of this quote has to do with the troubling presence of the Moriori; and the significance of their presence to the debate on race relations in New Zealand. By “the troubling presence of the Moriori” I don’t mean, of course, their presence in the Chatham Islands, nor am I alluding to the thoroughly debunked myth that the Moriori predated the Maori in New Zealand. What troubles me is the presence of this myth in the commentary of a former New Zealand politician (and an aspiring pundit). As Russell Brown notes this is pretty convincing evidence that she hasn’t picked up any history texts in the last 30 or so years. Even more disturbing, however, is the allusion to a body of evidence that “suggesting the existence of people before them [the Moriori].” When Ms Newman starts alluding to the presence of people in New Zealand prior to the Moriori (or Maori) she is moving beyond the realm of once widely believed but now discredited nonsense and into the parallel universe of conspiracy theory lunacy. To guide us through this universe Ms Newman helpfully provides a box of quotes from some gentleman called Matin Doutre. Mr Doutre informs us that:

“I continue to write articles about the Patu-paiarehe people who were here before the Polynesian / Melanesian Maori (described by Maori as kiri-puwhero and uru-kehu, which means light complexion, reddish tint skin and reddish tinged, blondish hair). It's only in the past thirty years or so that this, once, regionally accepted fact has been muted and removed from our more modern history books or any honourable mention in conversation (due to the ushering in of political correctness & racial sensitivity issues).”
Which is not only nuts but also starts to sound just a little bit like people who claim that the holocaust is a myth and has been inserted into “our more modern history books”. To be clear, I am in no way implying that Mr Doutre is a holocaust denier, but his language and paranoid conspiracies about re-written history certainly shares a methodology with holocaust deniers, if not an intent.

Still, I was somewhat intrigued, so I decided to follow a link provided by Mr Doutre to a website called CelticNZ (the link is on Ms Newman’s website, so presumably she approves). At CelticNZ I was regaled by ‘evidence’ that the first settlers in New Zealand were not actually Maori (nor even Moriori) but actually Celts. And, among other ‘evidence’ there were some nifty photos of ‘Celtic Stone Circles’. Right Here! In New Zealand! I’ve pasted in a couple of these photos in below:








These photos and others can be found here.

And for comparison’s sake I’ve also inserted a shots of Stone Henge (a genuine British Stone Circles) (photo copyright; source here; also photos of Avebury another stone circle - take a look.)



The similarities are – how shall we put it – rather underwhelming. No? At least, in my opinion; but you be the judge and I’ll restrict myself to one final comment.

If this is the sort of ‘history’ that Muriel Newman has to resort to, to justify her political beliefs I feel very, very sorry for her.

Hat Tip: Russell Brown

Monday, October 24, 2005

How Rich Are You...

Been feeling a bit under-paid recently. Have a look at this website, it ought to cheer you up (or maybe not). You simply enter your salary in the box (remember to choose the most appropriate currency for where you live), click on the button, and presto! find your position on the World's rich list. I can almost guarantee that it will be a sobering experience.

(By the way, $1 NZ is worth approximately $0.7 US - so to convert your New Zealand salary multiply it by 0.7)

Hat Tip: Melissa

Labour Day

Norightturn has a great post reminding us of the significance of Labour Day. Read it here.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Chuckle chuckle...


I stumbled across this cartoon in Richard Layard's excellent new book 'Happiness'. I'll try and review the book at a later date; but for now, the cartoon.


cartoon is copyright Charles Barsotti - for more info refer here

Friday, October 21, 2005

ARRRGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH

Apparently Winston Peters is to be the minister in charge of Overseas Development Assistance.

This is the same man who suggested that the most humane thing to do for Somali refugees was to send them back to Somalia.

He is the head of the same political party who couldn't even be bothered to respond to the Council of International Development's questionaire on development priorities (link to PDF).

We'll just have to hope that he completely ignores ODA and lets NZAID get on with thier excellent work. Otherwise, I get a funny feeling we'll be seeing a change in development focus, probably towards Tauraunga. That's if the bridge is anything to go by (link to PDF).

Thursday, October 20, 2005

World Watch

Hhhhmmmm.........was I saying nice things about the UN yesterday .... sigh .... this report on sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers has certainly taken some of the gloss of my UN love-fest. I sincerely think that, in a globalising world, the UN is essential; yet, as it exists at present, it is a troubled organisation (kind of like the World it represents really). It definitely needs meaningful reform (as opposed to John Bolton style reforms). One of the main problems that the UN faces is that it is very hard for it to be more than merely the sum of its member organisations.

The Times writes (quoting Prince Zeid the author of one of the reports on the abuse):

"The entire responsibility for this mess is with the member states," he said, adding that meetings he had scheduled after his report was published were only sparsely attended.
Meanwhile the Independent has this sobering report on the environmental consequences of China’s economic development. A couple of worthy extracts:

Because of their increasing reliance on coal-fired power stations to provide their energy, the Chinese are firmly on course to overtake the Americans as the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, and thus become the biggest contributors to global warming and the destabilisation of the climate. If they remain uncontrolled, the growth of China's carbon dioxide emissions over the next 20 years will dwarf any cuts in CO2 that the rest of the world can make…

The ecological damage that China's breakneck industrialisation is having on the country itself has been widely recognised. In an interview earlier this year, China's deputy environment minister, Pan Yue, said five of the 10 most polluted cities worldwide are in China; acid rain is falling on one-third of the country; half of the water in its seven largest rivers is "completely useless"; a quarter of China's citizens lack access to clean drinking water; one-third of the urban population is breathing polluted air; and less than a fifth of the rubbish in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable way.
And meanwhile lawmakers in the US state of Georgia are trying to impose a poll tax of sorts. The consequence of which will be disenfranchisement of poorer voters (and you can guess what race they will be - predominantly). The New York Times writes in an editorial:

Critics of Georgia's new voter-identification law, which forces many citizens to pay $20 or more for the documentation necessary to vote, have called it a modern-day poll tax, intended to keep blacks and poor people from voting...Georgia Republicans, who get few votes from African-American voters, pushed a bill through the Legislature this year imposing the nation's toughest voter-identification requirements…Under the new law, voters with driver's licenses were not inconvenienced. But it put up huge obstacles for voters without licenses, who are disproportionately poor and black. Most of them would have to get official state picture-identification cards and pay processing fees of $20 or more. Incredibly - beyond the cost imposed on such voters - there was not a single office in Atlanta where the identification cards were for sale.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Schadenblogging

What’s this? The head of a morality think tank admitting to a moral lapse? Well I never…

Meanwhile, at a somewhat chagrined the Christchurch Press, the idea that Maxim might have had an agenda or that newspapers ought to fact-check are novel ones apparently. The Press’s editor is quoted:

The Press's editor, Paul Thompson, said Logan's actions had severely damaged, if not destroyed, Maxim's reputation as a credible commentator.

"I suspect few editors would now touch them with a barge pole," he said. "While this looks like an extreme example of what can go wrong, it does show how vulnerable newspapers are to this type of bad faith from contributing writers.

"It is no longer enough for newspapers to accept that their material is sound. Our checking systems will need to be vastly improved."
Also of interest, the Maxim institute have named their journal Evidence … this, presumably, is an attempt at irony.

For the blog story which led to all this see here (three cheers for the Fundy Post).

(P.S. Unfortunately, the links above to Stuff.co will break in a few days. PPS. For an explanation of Schadenblogging – and a good example of it - see here)

Africa, Bullets and Ballots

Today’s Guardian has a good article about the current presidential elections in Liberia. After the brutal civil war that this country has been through these elections are surely a sign of hope. Among the interesting snippets in the article a couple of things are worth noting.

The first is that the two front runners in the elections are retired AC Milan striker George Weah, 39, and Harvard-educated economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, 66. If Ms Johnson-sirleaf wins she will be Africa’s first female president. Mr Weah on the other hand seems like a promising candidate too: someone committed to his country, with a history of philanthropy and who has worked as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.

The second point of note is one of the sadder ironies of Liberia’s history. The country was formed by freed slaves from the USA yet:

The freed slaves who founded Liberia in 1847 lorded it over the indigenous people, who made up the majority of the population. The indigenous were treated harshly by the educated elite, who emphasised their difference by walking about in morning coats despite the blistering West African heat. They practised a system of forced labour that was tantamount to slavery.


And the final interesting point is that, whoever wins the election, they will actually have little say over how the country is run, as the Guardian notes:

Ultimately, whoever the next president of Liberia is, they will have limited freedom to act. A Liberian army is being rebuilt from scratch, but in the meantime there are 15,000 UN troops keeping the peace. Western donor countries insist on intrusive financial measures to ensure that aid money is not squandered.

Liberia has quietly become a trusteeship for the international community. Under an economic management plan known by the acronym GEMAP, foreign experts will be inserted into key arms of the state with co-signature authority on government spending.


This isn’t a bad thing per se. Yet I’ll be interested in what limitations our foreign ‘experts’ place on spending in the country: if it’s just controls on corruption and military spending that’s great; if, on the other hand, it’s another austerity programme – then don’t hold your breath waiting for Liberia’s recovery.

Meanwhile, The Human Security Centre has just released the Human Security Report 2005 and the good news is that – globally – conflict is on the decline. One major reason for this, according to the report’s press release:

Analyzing the causes of the improvement in global security since the early 1990s, the Report argues that the UN played a critically important role in spearheading a huge upsurge of international conflict prevention, peacekeeping and peace building activities.

Although marred by much-publicized failures, these efforts have been the major driver of the reduction in war numbers around the world. The Report examines alternative explanations for the decline and finds them wanting.

Something that all you ‘aid is no good and the UN no use’ conservatives might want to consider sticking in your pipe and smoking…

While UN peacekeepers and those people who work in peace-building can take some credit for decreased conflict, Johann Hari in a splendid column on the arms trade gives us a few pointers as to who shouldn’t be taking the credit for the reduction in conflict:

Emmanuel Jal first held an AK47 when he was seven years old, and he first killed a man when he was 10. When I met him in London this week - now in his mid-20s - he spoke with a quiet, brittle calm about his life as a child soldier…But he stressed that this is not just another African horror story. This is a parable - and the lesson is for us. "Every single one of those guns was supplied by the outside world. Nobody in Sudan manufactured them."

They came - directly or indirectly - from the five countries that make up the permanent members of the UN Security Council: the US, China, France, Russia and - yes - Britain. "Why did the world make it possible for children to kill children with your guns and your bullets?" Emmanuel asks. "Why are you still doing it?"

Hari continues:

In a sane world, we would be turning off the tap of weaponry to the poorest people in the world, and trying to slowly disarm tyrannies and non-state militias. Instead, the Big Five economies are ramping it up, pumping out another 8 million small arms every year, along with enough bullets to shoot every single person in the world twice. Of the 14 countries in Africa where there is a conflict, Britain has sold arms to 10 of them…The problem is not simply that we allow arms suppliers to the poor and tyrannical to operate in this country; it is much worse. The [English] Government actively lavishes cash and political energy on them. Arms suppliers receive subsidies topping £990m per year from your taxes - enough to build 10 hospitals.

All of this is worth bearing in mind when you consider today’s news that conflict is on the rise again in Sudan.

If all this compels you to action, have a look at the following websites:

http://www.caat.org.uk/
www.controlarms.com

Monday, October 17, 2005

Ever Get the Feeling That You've...

post missing

Of Patents and Bird Flu

Oh my god, sometimes the insanity of medical patenting and patent laws just can't be captured with words. This below is from the blog Maxspeak - something to think about when your are gurgling your last pneumonic breaths a few months from now...

One of the key issues is whether the government should be stockpiling large quantities of Tamiflu, the drug deemed most effective in combating Avian Flu. The major obstacle to large-scale stockpiling is that the drug is under patent by Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical company. Roche has limited manufacturing capacity for Tamiflu, and would charge a high price in any case. Roche has been pressured to license the manufacture of Tamiflu to other companies, but has thus far resisted this pressure. Roche, with the support of the pharmaceutical industry, has claimed that forcing it to license Tamiflu would reduce incentives to develop new drugs. It has also claimed that the manufacturing process is so complex that it would take 2 years for other companies to get facilities up and running in any case.


It turns out that the claim on manufacturing complexity is not accurate. The Indian drug manufacturer, Cipla, determined how to reverse engineer the drug in two weeks and is now prepared to begin making a generic version of the drug available in January. (For those not familiar with Cipla, it is one of the world’s largest producers of generic drugs and its products routinely meet the highest safety standards.) So, we are left with the prospect that millions of people in the United States could risk death because our government does not want to infringe on Roche’s patent monopoly.

Ouch

The Left Business Observer pillories Jeffrey Sachs.

Ouch!

Their final paragraph is particularly of note:

We're back to Sachs's enormous ego, which exposes almost anything he does to the suspicion that he's in it mostly for the attention. But while his work in Russia, though it drew attention, was mostly destructive - something he still can't admit to - his concerns today are a lot more admirable. His criticisms of American warmongering and Western indifference to the poverty of a billion or two of our fellow humans are mostly on the side of the angels. Maybe the best summing up of the latest incarnation of Jeffrey Sachs comes from David Ellerman: "I hope he gets what he wants, but that he doesn't get any credit for it."

The Liberal Case for the War

Johann Hari (one of the pro-war left) has been brave enough to publish, on his website, two hostile reviews of a book that he contributed a chapter to. The book is called:

A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq

And the reviews are here. Both are great reviews and well worth a read.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Hugo Chavez

Mother Jones magazine has a good article on Hugo Chavez. To be honest there are aspects of Chavez's rule that I am still uncomfortable with. But, god only knows, he is doing a better job (for now) than Lula (my orginal reformer of preference) at tackling issues of social justice in Latin America.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Democracy Gains Ground

I stumbled across this graph in the 2005 Human Development Report; and it provides cause for optimism: democracy is infinitely preferable to tyranny; and so its rise is a very positive trend.



And yet when it comes to democratic governance there is still much cause for concern in the world. For a start, in many parts of the world (Latin American being a good example) the switch to democracy, while bringing human rights benefits, has not yet brought economic benefits to the poor in a way that might be hoped. Likewise, in many countries democracy is a relatively shallow phenomenon, and what is still lacking is substantial participation from all sectors of society in the decision making process. Furthermore, there is some evidence that the globalisation of financial capital flows has limited the scope, at a national level, for alternative economic policies. Finally, democracies are only as good as their information flows, and with media consolidation and the rise of Murdoch-news, in many countries it appears that the information flows are getting worse.

In some ways this could be described as the democracy paradox - as the number of countries with democratic governments is increasing, the 'depth' of democracy world-wide is decreasing.

More on what could be done about this in a later post.

Monday, October 10, 2005

HIV and Human Development in Africa

I stumbled across this today on the Earth Institute's website. It's a pretty stark illustration of what HIV has done to life expectancy in Africa.


Sunday, October 09, 2005

Four Fallacies of African Development

Someone called Chris has placed a comment below my last little piece on aid and conditionality and, as is sometimes the case when he resists his impulse to troll, he has made some almost-sensible points. Or at least, points that have had much currency in the mainstream media and debates about international development. So I thought I’d take the time to discuss them here.

In his post Chris wrote:

...the fact remains, Africa's problems are by and large internal…True, agricultural subsidies must be lifted by the US and the EU, but simply throwing aid money at the problem will ultimately come to no good. After all, even when African countries do possess sources of great wealth--diamonds in Sierra Leone and oil in Nigeria, for instance--those resources often end up being a curse on95% of the respective country's populace. On the other hand, a few nations have done better through internal improvements; Botswana is often cited as an example of this, but their 40% Aids rate--definitely attributable to rampant sexual activity--is impossible to overlook.

Encapsulated in this spiel are what could be termed ‘the four great fallacies of the Africa Debate’. I’ll attend to each of these in turn.

Fallacy 1 - Africa’s problems are by in large internal

There’s no denying that some of Africa’s problems are internal but the claim that they are entirely (or even by in large internal) is demonstrably false: it ignores history and turns a blind eye to the interconnected world that we live in.

For a start, many of Africa’s current problems stem from the colonial epoch; and colonialism was hardly an internal process. Instead, an external force (that’s us – the Europeans) plundered Africa’s natural and human resources and set in place tools of governance (involving an extractive local elite) that still haunt the continent today. The example that Chris uses above of Botswana is illustrative in this case. One of the reasons that Botswana did relatively well after colonialism was that it benefited from a policy of benign neglect during the colonial epoch. Because Botswana lacked strategic significance and extractable resources (that were known about at the time) the ruling colonial power in the country (the British I think) intervened in Botswana much less than they did in other countries. This is one of the major reasons for Botswana’s post colonial success (it’s not the only reason mind you).

Above and beyond colonialism it is simply naive to say that the actions of the rest of the world aren’t contributing to Africa’s problems. Take the example of Angola above: Chris is right to say that an abundance in natural resources (in this case diamonds) have played a role in Angola’s grief (and who, I might add buys those diamonds Chris? Not other Africans.) Yet, Chris’s formulation ignores the role that the superpowers played in fuelling Angola’s conflict. Likewise, Chris also ignores the role that western business interests have played in more recent African conflicts (Shell and Nigeria being an example). Furthermore, Chris ignores the role that western arms traders have played in perpetuating many African conflicts (go on Chris – who sells them the guns?).On top of this, the ‘Africa’s problems are internal’ claim ignores the role that western multi-laterals have sometimes played in undermining the economic development of African countries. (Joseph Stiglitz in Globalization and its Discontents provides good examples of this). Chris does at least mention the unfair global trading regime that demands that African countries open their economies to exports and then floods them with subsidised agricultural products – yet even this basic point is missing from many of the “Africa’s problems are its own” diatribes.

Finally, the “Africa’s problems are Internal” slogan misses the probable environmental catastrophes that await parts of Africa as a result of global warning. The gas guzzled by American (and New Zealand) SUV’s is a pretty strange example of Africa causing its own grief.

Fallacy 2 – Africa’s problems are the result of poor governance and corruption

According top this fallacy, the primary impediment to Economic Growth in Africa is poor governance and corruption (and at a deeper level institutional problems). Institutional issues are certainly a major problem in Africa (for two very good discussions of the role that institutions play in economic growth see here and here - links to pdf files). Yet Jeffrey Sachs in his book The End of Poverty provides convincing evidence that – while institutions are important – they are not the only issue effecting economic growth: geographical constraints, disease issues, conflict, and the global trading system all matter as well. On top of this Sachs makes the worthwhile point that the relationship between corruption and economic underdevelopment is not simply one way. While corruption does contribute to economic underdevelopment, economic underdevelopment also (through low salaries providing a greater incentive to take bribes) also leads to corruption.

Fallacy 3 – Aid has no role to play in assisting Africa; indeed it only leads to more corruption and less growth

When this claim is made it is often backed up by references to studies by economists such as Paul Bauer and William Easterly which purport to show that aid has an inverse effect on economic growth. Yet makers of this claim fail to note that accompanying such landmark studies such as Bauer’s and Easterly’s are numerous other studies which show that Aid does have positive effect on economic growth. Moreover, across the board claims that aid has a negative impact on economic growth ignore the fact that all aid is not equal. In the past much economic assistance was given for geopolitical reasons, tied to purchases of donor country products, accompanied by poorly advised economic conditionalities, or wasted on ridiculous infrastructure projects. Much other aid was given as famine relief (and so shouldn’t be expected to stimulate economic growth – simply keep people alive), or was spent on education and health projects, which one would expect not to have a short term impact on economic growth but rather a long term impact – the type not easily captured in econometric studies. When studies take these considerations into account (such as this study) the positive relationship between aid and economic growth becomes much stronger. Moreover, when the criteria for successful development assistance are broadened beyond mere economic growth to take into account a variety of other human development indicators there is considerable evidence that aid can be a force for good in Africa. One needs only to look at the results of successful, well designed aid programmes like the campaign against River Blindness to see this.

Finally, the idea that aid fosters corruption is an oversimplification. While there can be no denying that some aid programmes in the past have gone mainly to lining the pockets of corrupt officials, much of this took place as the result of a cold war climate that saw aid money being given regardless of how it was spent simply to ensure that dictators stayed “our dictators”. The statement that aid fosters corruption also ignores the potential that aid can be used to fight corruption by enabling a strong civil society to act as a watchdog on the government. There are already examples of this taking place in Africa.

Fallacy 4 – That HIV in Africa is a result of Sexual Promiscuity

This, our final fallacy, ignores one glaring fact. The glaring fact is that HIV transmission isn’t the result of sex as such but rather the result of un-protected sex. While this may seem trite it is an important point: countries that have been successful in stifling the rise of the AIDS epidemic – such as Thailand – have done so through the promotion of condom use. This isn’t always easy and it can be complimented (in some cases) by campaigns promoting limiting the number of sexual partners that one has – but the safer sex massage is integral to stopping the spread of the disease, at least until medical technology improves. On top of this, glaring omission, there are a few minor misunderstandings that need attending to here as well. The reason why AIDS is rampant in Africa is not entirely (or even primarily) the result of promiscuity. For a start, the disease is most common in Africa because it that is where it came from. Secondly, nutritional factors (or, more specifically, the impact of under-nutrition on peoples’ immune systems) may also play a role in the spread of the disease. Furthermore, the unavailability of treatment drugs (which can – if I recall correctly – make people less infective) aids the spread of the disease. If you really want to understand why HIV is so prevalent in Africa you need to consider these facts – not engage in simplistic formulations which link the illness only to a stereotyped image of African people.

And – finally – one last point: not only sexually promiscuous people contract HIV. As is witnessed by women in Africa (and other parts of the world) who have stayed entirely faithful to their partners but have contracted the illness as a result of their partner’s infidelity. HIV transmission is there result of a lot of factors not the least of them being the fact that – in many parts of the world – women do not have effective control of their sex lives.

Ok – that’s enough for now. I have to admit that I had had better things planned for my Sunday morning than typing away a blog entry that hardly anyone will read. However, it seemed important to be to have a go at disposing the four great fallacies of development and Africa. After-all only once these mistaken beliefs are put to rest can Africa and the rest of the World begin to move towards creating a happier future for the continent.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Aid, Conditionality and a rather good point

Oxford academic Ngaire Woods has a good book review in Prospect discussing the potential that Aid has for reducing poverty. The article is here although, unfortunately, you'll have to pay to read it.

There is one particular quote in the review that made me chuckle. While discussing conditionality Woods makes the following point about certain countries not always practicing what they preach when it comes to economic policy:

But this objection assumes widespread agreement as to what constitutes competence in economic policy. Many would argue that a government which runs a massive budget deficit, spends a huge proportion of its budget on a non-defensive war, increases subsidies to major sectors such as agriculture and steel before elections, and lives off foreign capital inflows is incompetent, yet economists within the Bush administration make their own case for this.

chuckle chuckle – touché Ms Woods.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Terror and the Left

Sasha Abramsky, writing in Open-democracy, has a good article on the radical left and the “war on terror”. The link is here – because it’s Open Democracy, you may have to register to read the article; it’s free to do so however.

To my mind, Abramsky is a little unfair in the way that he groups different commentators under the same heading (Klein, for example is quite different from Fisk and Pilger). And Abramsky also fails to examine closely enough some of the alternatives to the war on terror that the left have offered. Nevertheless, his central point is a good one. While the radical left is an excellent watchdog on the excesses of our own power, too often it argues as if we (the West) are the only source of evil in the world, and that if we just started behaving ourselves the world would be a much better place. Unfortunately, things – as Abramsky shows – are much more complicated than that. The real challenge for progressive politics is to find ways of defeating deeply regressive movements like Al Qaeda while at the same time preserving those aspects of our own societies that make them better places to live in than theocratic regimes. And, in addition to this, global progressive movements need to work on ways of expanding genuine freedoms (in the sense of Amartya Sen as opposed to neo-con freedoms) across the globe.

No one said it would be easy but, compared to the alternatives, it is crucial.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

John Kennith Galbriath

I've just stumbled across this book review and it is well worth a read:

The book is - John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics. Richard Parker. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005, 820 pp. $35.00

And the reviewer is J. Bradford DeLong who (of all people) gives Galbraith a sympathetic hearing. The review is in Foreign Affairs.

Towards the end DeLong makes the point that Social Democracy is something that goes against what he thinks is America’s self image: individualism and the Horatio Alger dream of upward social mobility. I’m not sure that I agree with this entirely, but I do think that the Alger myth has been a strong tool in American history for the stifling of progressive change. I also think that DeLong makes a sensible additional point that Social Democratic reforms are much easier to implement when memories of a time of crisis (the great depression in this case) are still strong in the public’s mind.

The New York Review of Books also has an excellent review of Parker's book - it can be found here.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Still trying to understand what motivates terrorists...

Sydney Blumthenal has an interesting article on how the Bush administration continues to blunder its war on terror. The whole article is worth a read, however, the thing I thought most interesting, had to do with the motives of terrorists. Blumenthal writes citing a US researcher Robert Pape:

Pape's research debunks the view that suicide terrorism is the natural by product of Islamic fundamentalism or some "Islamo-fascist" ideological train, independent of certain highly specific circumstances.

"Of the key conditions that lead to suicide terrorism in particular, there first must be the presence of foreign combat forces on the territory that the terrorists prize. The second condition is a religious difference between the combat forces and the local community. The religious difference matters in that it enables terrorist leaders to paint foreign forces as being driven by religious goals."


Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Islam and the War on Terror

I meant to add this link to the last post but forgot to. It's to an excellent column by Timothy Garton-Ash on the way the west views Islam. The column is balanced and instructive and, in it, Garton-Ash examines 6 possible relationships between Islam and terrorism.

Very briefly, his possible explanations of the relationship are that:

1. The fundamental problem is not just Islam but religion itself.
2. The fundamental problem is not religion itself, but the particular religion of Islam.
3. The problem is not Islam but Islamism.
4. The nub of the problem is not religion, Islam or even Islamism, but a specific history of the Arabs.
5. We [the west] not they, are the root of the problem.
6. Whatever your view of the relative merits of the west and Islam, the most acute tension comes at the edges where they meet. It arises, in particular, from the direct, personal encounter of young, first- or second-generation Muslim immigrants with western, and especially European, secular modernity.

For what its worth (and I this is only my ‘working opinion’ – I’m no expert on the topic) I would argue that current tensions between the west and the Muslim world (and their manifestation in terrorism and the War on Terror) are a combination of points 1,3,4,5 & 6.

Or, in other words: much of the problem stems from the - unjust - way that the west has intervened (since the beginning of the colonial epoch) in Muslim lands and, in particular, in Arab (and Persian) Muslim lands. Too often we have supported reactionary forces at the expense of progressive forces (see for example our support of the Shah of Iran at the expense of Mossadech - spelt wrong sorry). Too often have we backed unjust dictators (see Saddam) and unjust actions (the repression of the Palestinian people). In doing so we have contributed to (but are not the only cause of) the dysfunctional politics of the Middle East. This has provided social space (and recruiting tools) for the reactionary elements of Whabbist Islam.

Radical Islamism itself is certainly part of the problem too: it is a vicious, reactionary and repressive movement. It is also one that has spread in the vacuum created by the failure of the state (and the repression of progressive segments of civil society) in much of the Muslim World.

While the ugliness and violence of radical Islam is - in the most part a product - of the repressive world that it has grown in, part of its nature is a also product of religion itself. After all, all (or almost all) religions have their own violent and repressive sects. Something which, in my mind, is a product of two things:

Firstly, the fact that - throughout history - religions have played a role as a tool of social control.

And, secondly, the fact that religions - through their appeal to the greater good - also provide an excuse for human evil. (Or, in other words, it's ok to harm another human being because you are acting on behalf of something that is greater than humans and human suffering). In saying this I am not arguing against religion. Although I'm agnostic (or a Pantheist on a good day) I believe that religion has the potential to be a motivating force for much good. Unfortunately, it also provides an excuse for much harm too.

To summarise then: Islamic terrorism, in my view, is a product of a repressive take on religion that has formed amongst a repressive part of the world. A part of the world where much injustice has been committed - some of which is the West's fault.

None of this, however, explains the terrorism committed by young (often educated and middle class) Muslim men living in the west. This is where Reason 6 comes in. People alienated in the manner described by Garton-Ash in Reason 6 - when provided with evidence of injustice and also the seduction of simple explanations (and solutions) to the problems they see and the discontent they feel - are prime recruits to a murderous cause. In this case a cause where murder is justified by an appeal to a 'higher' being.

Ok that’s enough for now. Although I would like to end with a disclaimer: explaining the causes of terrorism is not intended in any way as an attempt to excuse the phenomenon – there is no excuse for it. However, by trying to understand where terrorism comes from we – hopefully – give ourselves a better chance of vanquishing it.