Sunday, June 29, 2008

Our leaders will save us...

...Johann Hari thinks not. (And I only partially agree, but that's the subject of another post).

Southerly Storm Blogging!

I have a soft spot for southerly storms. I grew up in Eastbourne, deep inside Wellington harbour, where for me and my teenage friends southerly storms were the main source of surf. Storms meant hail and blistering white-squalls but they also meant waves. And, as surf crazed kids, that was what mattered.

We would watch weather maps and hope. We would gaze south out of classroom windows and wait, our eyes scanning for the first clouds of the cold front. Anticipation would build all day with the rising gale.

We would talk loud on the bus home, everyone wondering why such miserable weather made us so happy. We would change into torn hand-me-down wetsuits in the shelter of battered Pohutukawa. And we wold run, jubilant, through the stinging sand into the sea.

I don't surf in storms so often now, but residual excitement remains. For this I'm lucky. What other emotion could better accompany days when the waves close Cook Strait, and snow starts to fall on the hills east and north of town?

And so, this evening, as dusk thickened the sky, tired and frustrated from a day of trying to write, I donned the raincoat I brought when I went to Greenland, and ventured out amongst it.

First I climbed to the top of the hill at the end of our road. On fine days it affords views across the south coast. But this evening I could hardly keep my feet let alone take in the view. I actually crawled to the summit such was my fear of being blown over. I then clasped onto the small trig that stands there and looked out to sea, my eyes stung by rain. Out in the Strait the wind tore white strips from the water. Waves met their end on the rocks, their explosions of spray mixing with the rain.

I didn't last long before retreating in an awkward gale-assisted stumble. From there I walked my regular road loop. Sheltered by houses for the most part I could hear the storm everywhere. Tormenting powerlines and coaxing trees into roaring song. As the daylight faded streetlights began to map out the suburbs.

By the time I got home the sky was dark, dark grey except for two pale strips in the western sky where the cloud was less thick and maybe the storm less intense.

I stopped for a moment breathing in the smell of smoke from someone's wood fire and then hurried in out of the rain.


Maybe it's just because it gives the fundies another opportunity to exert their disproportionate influence in this country. Maybe it's simply the reminder of how misogynistic we still are. Maybe it's because rhetoric will quickly crowd out facts - again.

But the rekindling of the whole abortion debate just depresses me. And this is in spite of the fact that the most likely outcome, I think, will be that our law ends up more sensible - with a social clause along with the mental health one in the appropriate statute.

Anyhow, the issue was covered - fairly poorly? - in Insight on Radio National this morning (link to audio and will break eventually). Afterwards I send them the following email.

Dear Chris,

Absent from your discussion on abortion this morning was one key point.

A recent, comprehensive, survey conducted by the World Health Organisation and the Guttmacher Institute found that abortion rates vary little between parts of the world where the procedure is legal and those where it is not. It is surprising, given this fact, that those who see abortion as morally wrong do not do more to concentrate on non-legal and effective means, such as sexuality education and contraception, to reduce its incidence.

At the same time illegal and unsafe abortions lead to the deaths of over 70,000 women every year.

It surprises me that an organisation which calls itself Right to Life would want to bring this problem to New Zealand.

Kind Regards


On re-reading I was worried that this email would suggest that abortion is morally wrong and that my only quibble with Right to Life is how best to reduce its frequency.

So I thought I'd expand things here.

Like Deborah I'm sceptical of rights claims made in an absolute sense. I support human rights not because I think they are God-given or afforded to us simply by virtue of being human but rather because they provide us with a sound framework for reducing suffering and increasing wellbeing. I'm a (sortof) rule utilitarian who thinks that rights, when well-thought out, are very important rules.

Having said all this, much of my thinking (in other words: much of my muddling through within my own head) on abortion has been in terms of rights (rather than some sort of crude utilitarian calculus which is kind of what is going on in my email above). Which is fine, although to be consistent at some point of time I should pin these rights back to wellbeing, but that won't be today. So, in addition to my standard disclaimer (IANAPNAE - I am not a philosopher nor an economist - just someone who worries about things) I should add that my thinking here is incomplete.

But here goes...

Should abortion be legal?

In answering this I want to start with two positions which I think can't be correct. 1. That a woman has an unconstrained right to do what she wants with her body and 2. That, from the moment of conception, the fetus has a full set of human rights, equal to its mother's.

The first position flounders in the same way that libertarian arguments for absolute self-ownership do. I can't have absolute control of my body because in doing so I can violate your control over your body. Quite rightly our society prohibits me from using my body to do violence to others. Likewise it prohibits me from putting my body behind the wheel of a car and driving drunk. Obviously, despite this, I maintain considerable rights over what I may do with, and what may happen to my body, but they aren't absolute. To an extent, my rights are constrained by the impacts of my actions on the rights of others.

Which means that, if we can show that fetuses are entitled to full human rights we're going to want to do our best to eliminate abortion*. But should fetuses be entitled to full human rights (position 2 above)?

To me such a position seems acutely counter-intuitive. If you choose the moment of conception as the moment where a full set of rights are bestowed you are effectively granting equal rights to a collection of cells who may someday become a recognisable person, over the needs of an actual living woman. And these needs, when we consider the medical risks of pregnancy, not to mention the impact on the life of the woman in question are not insignificant.

Similarly, seeing as you have declared the fetus as having equal rights as its mother then, to be internally consistent, you must also ban abortions where there is a risk that the mother may die giving birth (certainty of the fetus's death versus probability of the mother's). All this despite the fact that what we are talking about here is a few cells that are in no way recognisably human. (True they may come to be recognisably human in time, but as you have decided to convey full human rights from conception you need to explain why they apply to the entity that exists the moment after conception).

If you want to see how ugly rights at conception are in practice have a read of the following article on El Salvador in the New York Times.

So if both the first position (that a woman has absolute rights) and the second (that a fetus has the exact same set of rights as a full human being) are wrong, then what is the alternative.

To me, at least, it makes sense to do the following.

1. Deal with the issue as one of competing rights sets. So a pregnant woman (like everyone else in society) does not a have absolute rights over her body and, in the case of abortion in particular, her rights need to be weighed up against those rights that we give to a fetus.

2. (And this is the important bit). The rights of an entity change as an entity changes across it's existence. There's no need to worry about 'big bang' moments such as when human-hood starts (which is going to be hard to pin down, I think). Just worry about when entity X has a sufficiently significant rights-set for these rights to restrict the actions of entity Y.

If it sounds strange for me to advise not getting caught up in when human-hood starts consider the following. Not all human beings have the same rights. This may seem appalling but it's just a statement of fact. We don't afford babies the right to vote, or children the right to choose where they live. We force teenagers to stay in school, but we don't force adults to stay in work. And so on... Of course we do afford all living human beings some core rights (not to be murdered, for example**) But the central point is that there is already a perfectly reasonable precedent set here - that people's rights sets change as they change.

And so what's left for us to decide is when does the developing fetus develop sufficient rights for these rights to prohibit its mother from having abortion? The short answer to this is never. Or, at least, its rights are never so significant that they should stop a woman from having an abortion when carrying the pregnancy to term would put her life in real danger. We don't legally oblige men to leap into burning buildings to save their children when doing so would be a risk to themselves (not even in El Salvador). Why should we compel women to take the same risks for a fetus? Of course we do compel parents to take due care of their children, when this doesn't involve risking their lives and, similarly, we are right, I think, prevent abortions in non-life threatening situations for a fetus close to term.

But we would be wrong to prohibit abortions in non-life threatening circumstances right from the moment of conception. We would be wrong in doing this because, even when we aren't talking about a life threatening pregnancy, having a baby is something that will have massive consequences for the woman involved and as an actual living individual her right to have control over something as significant as this takes precedence over those rights that the fetus has developed.

At some point in time this balance changes of course, and then the some of the fetus's rights (like the right to a chance at life) take precedence over some of hers (the choice about pregnancy in non-life threatening circumstances, in particular). For a variety of practical and biological reasons (the subject for another post maybe) sometime around viability seems like the best time for this switch.

For now though, I want to make one final point, this is that the whole idea of competing rights sets (and the idea that fetuses are in the process of acquiring rights) does mean that, while I support the legal provision of abortion, I have a strong preference for preventing unplanned pregnancies in the first place. And I would definitely prefer to live in a country that taxed its wealthy more and used the money to provide people with decent sexuality education and which did more to encourage contraceptive use and so on...

Ok - that was my first attempt to write down the product of an internal ongoing conversation I've been having about all this. I don't know if it worked, but I do know that I want to get outside and catch some Southerly Storm in Cook Strait. So enough for now.

*Which, of course, doesn't necessarily mean outlawing it as laws aren't always the best way to achieve societal ends.
** Except in cases of the death penalty which I oppose and self defence, which seems more reasonable.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Anti-Capitalism, Distopia and the Absense of the State

Once, in the days before this blog, I ended up in an email argument with an economics professor. My reward for daring to ponder the political impacts of trade liberalisation was a diagnosis. I suffered, I was told, from a latent hostility to capitalism. The only cure, apparently, was a regular dose of Hayek and Freidman.

Now I've spent a fair bit of time with doctors over the years and been told some pretty strange things about my auto-destructing body. So I'm well aware that it's natural, when on the receiving end of bad medical news, to think "no! that's not right! that's not me!" But, even taking this into account, I still think he was off the mark.

Certainly his prescription seemed unlikely to cure me of anything. Hayek and Freidman are very smart and Hayek not quite the libertarian his followers claim, but their utopian vision of unfettered markets strikes me now, as it did then, as completely unconvincing.

On the other hand, the social democracy of economists as diverse as Paul Krugman and John Kenneth Galbraith, seems like a capitalism that could and, indeed, almost does, work.

Krugman also has the best argument in capitalism's favour that I've read. This is simply a paraphrase of Churchill. Capitalism is "the worst system we've tried except every other system we've ever tried". Private property and markets, tempered by democracy and the welfare state aren't always pretty but we've lived through an awfully ugly century and maybe it's time to settle for second best.

And yet: "ever tried" and "might ever try" are two completely different things. So, at the same time time, I'm still interested in alternatives even if I'm not convinced that they exist.

In this fascinating paper on utopias and the left Erik Olin Wright provides an excellent system for evaluating leftwing alternatives to the status quo.

We should evaluate utopian projects he argues in terms of desirability, viability and achievablility.

Desirability - is the proposed world one we'd really want to live in an ethical sense?
Viability - could the proposed world ever actually work?
Achievability - could we get there from here?

One alternative to capitalism that has been proposed but never put into practice over long periods of time on a large scale (and which, therefore, emerges unscathed from the last 100 years) is Anarchism.

Anarchism certainly, I think, passes the desirability test; in an ethical sense a world free of coercion and held together by cooperation sounds beautiful, if it could work.

But could it? Is it, to use Wright's terms, viable? Maybe, if you believe in entirely altruistic human beings, but I don't. I don't believe in the opposite either (in the solely self-interested individuals of some economic theory). But surely there's enough self-interest in our psyches to necessitate some formalised coercion to prevent injustice? Maybe we could call this instrument of coercion something other than the state but that's what it would be.

One counter argument I've heard is that an anarchist world would also be a localist one. In it we would all live in units small enough that our impulse to care for our neighbours would be sufficient to hold society together. And maybe it would. But units that small, unless they traded heavily, would also be deprived of all the economic benefits scale and specialisation can bring. We might, in other words, be wealthy ethically, but materially we would be dirt poor. Maybe, then these communities could trade together? But who would regulate such trade? who would make sure it was fair? The state?

Finally, we have the issue of achievability. Even if such a world could work, could we ever create it from the one we have at present? This isn't an issue just for anarchism of course, but any major reforms, including plenty I am in favour of. And Wright's thoughts on achievability, and its relationship to viability are definitely worth reading.

Now in saying all this I am most definitely not attacking anarchists. All the anarchists I've met (admittedly a small sub group) have been kind, smart, committed people. I'm also aware in writing this that I'm no expert on anarchism so it may well be the case that I'm missing something. And I know my objections above aren't new, so maybe there are some good counter arguments. If this is the case I'd be really interested in reading about them.

Finally, I do think that there are some important insights in some anarchist thought, too. Particularly about the de-hierarchialisation of power. Insights which could provide all sorts of ideas for deepening democracy, if not actually replacing capitalism. Those thoughts, though, are for another post.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

She'll be Right

They call him the Professor, although he's not an academic as far as I'm aware. In the world of Wellington surfing even something as simple as the ability to read a weather map can garner you a reputation for bookishness and a moniker to match.

He's a slightly portly, balding middle aged man who rides a boogie board and the first time we met we didn't get off to a great start. We were surfing my regular spot when a wave came through. In all fairness it was probably his, but I hadn't had a wave for a while so I tried to nab it off him. I was the regular, I figured it was mine. He figured it was his. And quite some grumpiness and nasty stares ensued.

Did I ever tell you that I can be a dork in the surf?

It could have been the beginning of an ongoing enmity - the sort that spoils numerous surfs - but the ocean had other plans for us. A few days later the two of us ended up surfing alone in very good waves at another nearby spot. Now I'm a dork but I'm not that much of one. Neither was he and, rather than wreck the best surf we were both going to have in a while pretending not to notice each other, to our credit we both did the sensible thing. We smiled and talked.

And since then, we've done our best to be cordial in and amongst the desperately scare resource that is good Wellington waves.

Sometime last year I was driving to my favourite local spot, when I saw him walking along the road. The last section of that drive is on private property and he took the "No Driving Beyond This Point" signs seriously. No one else did. I stopped and offered him a lift.

"Sure. Thanks"
"Looks like that wind's swung round to the north"
"Yeah, real clean. I think it was westerly earlier so we've got lucky"
"Swells a bit small though."
"But hey"
"There's waves."

By that stage we'd parked the car and were walking to the beach. And I thought I'd broaden the discussion. "So, how's things been otherwise", I asked.

"Oh, not so good, I've been diagnosed with cancer. I start chemo next week"
"Sh#t. That's not good. What's the prognosis?"
"There's about an 80% survival rate."

In my defense, it wasn't the sort of conversation I was planning on having that afternoon. And, really, I'm much wiser if I have a chance to jot down a few speech notes ahead of time. So my reply was pretty much stock standard.

"Oh well. 80 percent's pretty good. She be fine I'm sure mate."

At 80% the odds are in your favour. They're even better at 95%. And better still at 99%.

And it's these latter two numbers that are following me round at present. For someone young and fit like myself the risk of dieing in a simple aortic valve-replacement operation is probably under one in one hundred. If my aortic root needs to be replaced it's more like 5 in 100. The risk of a stroke or some sort of brain damage, or other unpleasant complications, is somewhat higher but the numbers are still on my side.

Which is good. But not good enough to stop me from feeling frightened. When it's you contemplating lying on the operating table, even a small risk of disaster starts to feel uncomfortably large. what was my point? Oh, yeah, I figured I wanted to blog about open heart surgery honestly. And being honest - I have to admit I worry. And I suspect that, over the coming weeks, my ongoing battle with this worry will be unavoidable. Something I need to get on top of. And I imagine this is the case for most people in my situation.

And my other point: being on the other end of those stats now, I'm pretty sure that my "she'll be right mate" response to the Professor wasn't the right one." I've had people say the same to me, and I really appreciate them trying to be reassuring, but I think if I were in the same situation again I'd say something like "oh, how do you feel about that?"

And maybe I would have, that afternoon, with the Professor, if given more time. But right at that moment a particularly good wave came through. And we were both racing to get into our wetsuits and out into the water before the sun started to set behind the Kaikouras.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Internet Argument

Oh - could this be the best XKCD ever?

Internet Argument

hhhhhhmmmmmm...well the competition for 'best ever' is tough. But this cartoon rings true to me.

Not about everyone I've ever argued with, but for a certain type of internet adversary (hello Neal are you still out there?). These people infuriate you at first but, while you may never end up agreeing with them, at some point in time, through some mysterious mechanism, you end up realising that they're just another person like you. With different - mistaken! - beliefs, certainly. But also with their own fears and hopes, cruelnesses and kindnesses, and all those other shared things that get lost in between servers.

Once you realise this it's much harder to be ruder to someone online than you would be in person...

An interesting read

(no, really, it is!) a nice simple summary [PDF] of the political economy of taxation in Latin America.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Asymmetric Information

Sigh. Life would be easier as an agent in an economic model.

After my valve replacement surgery, assuming everything goes to plan, I'll be taking blood thinners for the rest of my life. Being on blood thinners doesn't mean that if I knick myself shaving I'll bleed to death. But it will increase the hassle of this activity. And, to be honest, it's a hassle enough as it is. So I'm thinking of buying an electric razor.

Easy enough.

Or not.

For a start I have no exact idea how much I'm willing to spend (or, to be more specific the worth of the extra utility I'll gain for it). But I'm guessing I'm aiming for something mid-range.

The main thing though, is that I want to buy something at least semi-decent. But, every different shaver I've seen makes that promise. The trouble is I have much less idea how true these promises are than the people who make them. I have, in other words, an asymmetric information issue.

I've tried to correct this by:

1. Consumer magazine: nothing on shavers.
2. Choice magazine: nothing on shavers since 2004 and even that was pretty crappy.
3. Which magazine. Something on shavers in 2007, which claimed that even quite cheap ones can do a good job. The problem is that I need a subscription to Which to find out any more. Which I'm willing to get except that the F'ing magazine only offers online payment options to people in the UK or Ireland.

So I still don't know what to get. If anyone has any suggestions I'd love to hear them...

[Update: comments. Which might mean this blog has no readers. But I doubt it. I suspect something quite different.

Typical Laanta Reader]

The Butterfly Effect

If a butterfly hadn't flapped its wings on a warm autumn morning somewhere in New South Wales, then that small low pressure system floating in the Tasman might have never picked up extra water.

And if it hadn't picked up the water, maybe it wouldn't have rained so hard as it crossed the lower North Island.

And if it hadn't rained so hard. I mightn't have driven my car slushing over the melted gravel roads to a river mouth in southern Wairarapa hoping to catch waves at a spot that never breaks.

And if I hadn't found those waves, I might never have surfed in the gritty water around the bar as the storm run off mixed into the sea.

And if I hadn't surfed in that water I might have never picked up that ear infection.

And if I hadn't got the infection maybe my arthritis wouldn't have come back so bad.

And if it hadn't, maybe it wouldn't have damaged my aorta.

And if my valve wasn't damaged then I wouldn't be worrying about open heart surgery.


And if I ever find that butterfly, trust me, there are going to be some strong words.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


Were there any peeping Toms in Island Bay last Wednesday they would have been in for a shock. At 7.21pm, towards the eastern edge of the suburb, a man could have been spotted leaping from the bath, and running naked into the lounge shouting 'I've found it!'. Which was a bit of an undue claim, as it happens, as I hadn't found anything. I'd just finally got my head around the concept of discounting as it relates to climate change. All this was thanks to a very handy paper from Geoffrey Heal of Columbia University [pdf]. Heal's paper also explains how William Nordhaus is able to get such counter-intuitive results from his economic models as to whether or not we should do anything about climate change. Nordhaus, while admitting that climate change is real and serious, argues that the economics of the matter suggest that we do little. Nordhaus's models have been used by people like Bjorn Lomberg to suggest that we should turn a blind eye to the issue and by others to 'prove' that the Stern Review on climate change is wrong.

My recommendation is that you read Heal's paper yourself to get an understanding of all this. What follows is just my own attempt to crystalise my learning by trying to explain it. I may get it wrong.

Discounting is a tool that economists use to help us weigh costs and benefits across time.

There are several important components to any discounting equation.

The first of these is the pure rate of time preference, which is a function that reflects, in Heal's words, "the rate at which we discount the welfare of future people just because they are in
the future".

A rate of zero will mean that we discount their welfare not at all. Rates greater than zero will suggest that we place less value on their lives. Stern chose a pure rate of time preference slightly higher than zero to take into account the fact that there is a slight chance that there may be no future generations (if, for example, the Earth is hit by an asteroid). If you choose rates much higher than Stern's you are essentially saying that the lives of people living in the future are less valuable than those living at present. Discriminating across time in other words. Like all forms of discrimination, discrimination across time is hard to defend in any ethical sense. Yet a surprising number of people who call for little action on climate change on economic grounds are doing so because they make use of models with high pure rates of time preference. Their argument is, in effect, that, we shouldn't take action now because your grandchildren don't matter as much as you do. Seriously.

The next important component is simply the degree to which you think consumption will increase between now and the day of reckoning. This seems simple enough, yet as Heal points out most economic models of climate change are based on a simple consumption function that uses a single consumption good. In reality we consume many goods, and there are important ones of which our consumption may decrease, despite increasing overall consumption. Goods (services) related to natural capital may, in particular, decrease as a result of climate change. And these are some of the goods most important to our wellbeing. The models, in other words, are a bit fuzzy on the stuff that matters. They're also fuzzy on distributional issues (i.e. who does the consuming - rich or poor).

The third important component to our equation is the impact of consumption on utility (wellbeing). Perhaps one of the most sensible assumptions that one can make in economics is diminishing marginal utility. That is, the more we have, the less the next unit of consumption will contribute to our wellbeing. So when discounting a number is included into the equation to reflect the fact that future changes in consumption will be less important than current ones because we'll be richer then (and diminishing marginal utility would suggest that a change in consumption of value x will have an impact of y on wellbeing now but less than y in the future when x is greater). One thing to note is that Partha Dasgupta takes Stern to task for under assuming diminishing marginal utility. I'm not sure Dasgupta is right to do this but that's a post for another day. Another point to note is that there are also distributional issues at play. Most regimes for addressing climate change are structured so that wealthier nations bear the brunt of the costs. On the other hand if we do nothing it may be the poorest who are hit hardest - so therefore diminishing marginal utility could be inserted into a model in a manner opposite to the way it is used at present. Meaning that it would increase the case for action rather than decrease it.

Now, where was I? Oh, that's right, so what's the matter with Nordhaus's model. In a nutshell he calculates the pure rate of time preference from the observed rate of return on capital. Heal details all the problems with this but the most glaring one to me is simply that Nordhaus is confusing 'is' with 'ought'. Which is just so wrong in this instance it isn't funny. There are also all sorts of other problems including the way risk is managed and the assumptions needed to even consider deriving discounting from the rate of return to capital but you're better reading them from Heal's mouth than mine. I gotta run now...dinner needs to be cooked...but in the meantime remember this one thing:

Nordhaus's work like so much in economics brings with it the veneer of certainty that comes with numbers and maths. But underneath the surface is a much less clear world - one of philosophy. At the very least this ought undermine the tone of certainty with which people appeal to Nordhaus when they argue against action on climate change. But I also think it's worse than that. I think Nordhaus gets the philosophy horribly wrong. As far as dicsounting goes, we ought to discount Nordhaus.

[Update: added a bit more under diminishing marginal utility.]

Really smart religious person thingy

A common criticism of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is that they only ever argue against a dumbed down version of religion, and that there are more subtle, sophisticated arguments out there which they have no answer for. As an agnostic I'm open to this line of attack; I've no dog, or god for that matter, in the race really, and I'm genuinely interested in whether a better case can be made for the various divine beings of the various holy books.

So I listened intently when Kim Hill interviewed respected religious philosopher William Lane Craig this morning (link to audio and will break after a few weeks unfortunately). To be fair to Mr Craig, Kim Hill, in between her rapid-fire thinking and interruptions, isn't the easiest sparring partner*, but I thought he was really, really weak. He had no satisfying answer to the problem of evil, nor the existence of other religions. And his 5 key arguments (or however many there were) were shot full of holes. At other times she just clobbered him with his own disingenuous debating points (like how he stays out of politics except on abortion which is an ethical issue, to which Ms Hill kindly pointed out that most people would consider at least some of the other stuff covered in politics ethical).

Really, if this is as good as the theists can do**, then the New Atheists do seem to be pitching their arguments at just the right level.


*And, to also be fair to Kim Hill I should point out, for her faults, she's still pretty fab. I could do with out the how to cook duck stuff. And the interruptions every time the interviewee pauses for either breath or thought are infuriating if you're trying to actually understand the subject at hand. But, despite all this, she's smart, knows her stuff, and has covers some excellent subject matter.
** I had a hack at trying to make the case for a kind of Christianity here.


Two comics which made me laugh.



Tuesday, June 10, 2008


George Monbiot on the merits of small farms.

[Update: Paul Collier argues the opposite (more or less)]

Monday, June 09, 2008

Chavez reconsidered, reconsidered

The suburb in south Melbourne where I visit the Naturopath and GP who treat my arthritis doesn't gel. Like a mismatched jigsaw puzzle the pieces fit together but not quite right.

Travel by train, or car along the gritty traffic-light strewn Nappean highway, and you'll be treated to all the ugliness of suburbia meeting main drag amongst the sprawl of a large city. And yet, if you park your car and walk two blocks you end up on the edge of Port Phillip bay. Which, every time I've been there, has been still and shimmering under a bright blue sky. I make it one of the treats of my travel to Melbourne to take my shoes off and wade among the clear and not too cold water and then dry my feet walking on the scrunching golden sand.

Back along the highway it's all alternating super-markets, takeaways and news agents, but even these have their secrets. Often-nice food (it is Melbourne after all) and the one newsagent I usually stop at, somehow manages to coax market forces into letting it sell political journals amongst the usual fare. There's Quad-rant, if that's your thing; the Australian version of Dissent; The Quarterly Review (name wrong?). And there's Foreign Affairs, which is where I started reading Francisco Rodríguez's 'An Empty Revolution: The Unfulfilled Promises of Hugo Chávez'. In it, Rodríguez claims that Chavez has badly mismanaged Venezuela's economy and that, contrary to conventional wisdom, has done next to nothing to help the poor.

The case seemed convincing enough but, as I read I couldn't help thinking, 'I wonder if Mark Weisbrot might have something to say about all this. And sure enough: he did. Enough even to elicit a response from Rodríguez, which itself led to Weisbrot responding again too.

Simon has carefully been keeping score throughout the rally, and I while pretty much agree with his tally I thought I'd add my own two cents. My reading of the duel thus far has Weisbrot well ahead: he's shown Rodriguez mixing data, muddling methods, and mis-representing his own claims.

He hasn't done enough to make me an avowed Chavezista though (which, to be fair is probably not his intent). Chavez has presided over a significant fall in poverty, a rise in social spending and a trend of falling inequality. And while, we don't really know how effective this social spending has been, Chavez's continuing popularity in the barrios is suggestive of something. And yet, as Rodriguez and Weisbrot agree, Chavez has also mismanaged the economy (deficit spending during a boom!) in a manner that may well harm long run performance. And his achievements have all been made during an economic growth spurt caused by oil prices, rebound from the business-strike recession, and expansionary (not to mention inflationary) fiscal policy. How well he, and his much touted economic model, would perform in tougher times is anyone's guess.

And, while Weisbrot shows that Chavez's achievements in the realm of pro-poor growth (growth which disproportionately benefits the poor) are not to be dismissed, at the same time, if his 21st century socialism was as transformative as some of his acolytes suggest would it have even been possible for Rodriguez to start a debate on this matter?

And at the end of the day this is what bugs, as well as fascinates, me about the whole Chavez phenomenon. Once you get close enough towards the Centre (and particularly the centre of the US foreign policy establishment) it's like some weird tractor beam operates which drains the pundit of any form of capacity for unraveling contradiction or displaying subtlety. Chavez is bad. Everything he does must be bad!

Meanwhile, if you travel away from the centre you don't have to get too far to the left before a competing tractor beam starts up and leaves you surrounded by a bunch of people to whom Chavez is a revolutionary hero who couldn't possibly do anything bad. Onwards the revolution etc.

You'd think that the first cold war would have removed everyone's enthusiasm for blind idealism. The whole Chavez debate suggests not - quite a few people out there are just itching for the sequel.

So where do I stand? I think that overall his policies are helping the poor in Venezuela. But, at the same time, I think that amongst the good work there are some real mistakes being made, and - look as I might - I just can't spot this wonderful alternative economic model he supposedly has on offer. Its better bits look like social democracy to me, coupled with macro economic giddiness. Now even social democracy would be no mean feet in a country as unequal as Venezuela, but when I hear Chavez's supporters argue that we should bring the Venezuelan model to New Zealand I'm just left wondering. Which bits? The Cuban doctors?

Politically, I don't think that Chavez is the dictator his foes claim him to be (and it must take some real chutzpah to make this claim given all the elections that keep taking place there). At the same time though I am seriously troubled by his autocratic tendencies and think that he could turn his back on democracy in the future. This doesn't mean I like the Venezuelan opposition, who seem considerably less democratic. And it certainly doesn't mean that I support the US government's appalling approach to dealing with him. But it does make me wonder why the movie on Chavez that I got to watch at the human rights film festival here recently couldn't find any time whatsoever amongst all the hagiography to at least mention some of his more draconian moves.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

oh my

I've just been to see the Warren Miller Ski flick, Playground. The skiing was interesting enough to me, a non skier. But then the movie ended with something called speed riding or something. Here's an example...

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Freedom of Speach and its Discontents

Both Ethical Martini and Poneke think Frog was wrong to recommend to its readers that they not watch, or consider a Broadcasting Standards complaint, over the Great Global Warming Swindle 'Documentary', which was screened recently on prime TV.

Ethical Martini, which is an interesting and worthwhile blog, would have preferred that Frog Blog encouraged its readers to argue the issues. I'm not so sure. Debate is great, but what debate is there actually to be had in the case of this documentary? What would really been achieved given that the long, long list of errors and falsehoods in Swindle have been pointed out many times without to-date causing its producer to resile from his position; nor stop media outlets from showing something they must now know to be dishonest, albeit good for the ratings.

Poneke's objection is less hard to glean but a generous reading of his or her post would suggest that Poneke's primary problem is Frog's attempt to stifle free speech through the threat of a BSA appeal.

As a defender of free speech I have been mulling over an abstracted version of this argument over the last few days and here's what I think:

First let's start with human rights. As some sort of rule utilitarian I support human rights, not for deontological reasons, but rather because I think they lead to a better world, which contains less suffering. They provide a basis for a sensible social contract where the individual is afforded protections from the collective; and history provides us with ample evidence to show that their violation leads to tragedy and horror.

Free speech is a particularly important human right - if it is prohibited, we can't even speak out to defend other rights. Free speech is essential to democracy too; indeed it is inherent to democracy.

Freedom of speech is also not so simple an issue as some of its defenders would make it seem.

The primary reason for this is that, as I have written previously, rights can be rivalrous. In other words, me making use of my rights can lead to you being deprived of yours. I can use my right of free speech to call for you to be silenced, for example.

In the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda radio stations were a key tool in mobilising the genocidaires in their attempted extermination of the Tutsi. Do we really want to defend free speech even when this speech is calling for genocide? Probably not. And, indeed, most nations don't - they have laws on their books that prohibit incitement to murder.

This is a clear infringement of people's right to free speech, but it seems justified.

And there are other ways that most democracies limit free speech to protect people. Lying, as we all learn one way or other, can be harmful. Not so harmful that we'd want to outlaw it, of course, at least in most instances. Yet in some cases it can be particularly harmful - say if a major newspaper were to accuse someone of being a foreign spy with no evidence. For this reason we have liable laws. Similarly, if a car dealer sells me a car which he claims to be 'as good as gold' while knowing it has dangerous faults, this could cause me physical and personal harm. So we have laws about that too.

When you think about it there are many ways in which democratic and apparently free societies restrict free speech for what appear to be quite justifiable reasons.

None of this is to say that some of these restrictions aren't problematic: liable laws, for example, (or threats of) are used all the time to silence what may well be reasonable criticisms. This is a real issue but few people would use it to argue the case that we should eliminate libel laws altogether - instead we just need to get the balance right.

Laws curtailing freedom of speech can also be dangerous through their unintended consequences - regulation, which may well-intentioned, could subsequently be used to silence genuine political dissent. Hate speech laws, and the recent debate around them in the UK, are a good example of this argument being played out. For this reason, and the danger of the ever-present slippery slope to authoritarianism, we need to be very wary about introducing new laws which may impede free speech.

So it's not simple. But this doesn't change the fact that we already restrict free speech in quite a few ways, most of which seem justifiable.

The relevance here to the Broadcasting Standards Authority, and our broadcasting laws, is that they too are a way of stifling certain types of speech. Frog provides us with the relevant section of New Zealand law:

Broadcasters should refrain from broadcasting material which is misleading or unnecessarily alarms viewers.

Setting aside the unnecessarily alarms bit (which I'm not at all sure is justified) this law reasonable enough. Less so now, perhaps, in the age of the internet, but for much of New Zealand's history, broadcasters occupied a particularly privileged position in New Zealand discourse. Often the enjoyed a near monopoly in information provision or, at the very least, were likely to be the only source of information for most people on most issues. Which puts them in a position of considerable power. Power which when abused can cause considerable harm.

Imagine, for example, if a New Zealand broadcaster produced a series of documentaries which claimed to show, without justification, that vaccinations caused cancer. And that this led to a significant number of New Zealanders not vaccinating their children. Herd immunity is perilously easy to loose and even if not everyone watched or believed the documentaries we could see a situation where epidemics broke out again and people died. To me it seems perfectly reasonable to stop this from occurring.

Just to be clear though: I don't think that anti-vaccination campaigners should be silenced. They should be free to speak their minds and to try and prove their claims scientifically (good luck to them, but that's another topic). But until these claims can be backed by fact they shouldn't be broadcast as such. The risk of harm is too great.

It's true that broadcasting laws can be abused and that slippery slope arguments against them are plausible enough but, once again, I think that these aren't arguments against their existence. Instead they show why we need to take time to get them right.

I'm open to being dissuaded from this stance - just as free speech itself is problematic so are almost all restrictions on it - but one thing that really doesn't wash is to start implying that someone is trying to silence free speech by using a law which has been long established without first making a coherent case, outside of one's views on the specific context, against the law.


As an aside, Prime could probably defend any BSA complaint by arguing that that they held a panel debate after the documentary showing, but I'm not sure. Firstly, is this really balanced? You've already given one side of the 'debate', surely balance would suggest giving the other side equivalent space, not sound bites in and amongst an argument. Also, in terms of public broadcasting and the complexities of science, is the hurley burley of a debate really the best way to let these be presented? Why not have let David Wratt (the only climatologist on the panel) simply outline the errors in an uninterrupted segment afterwards?

[Update: in comments Ethical Martini points out that he didn't claim Frog was wrong to recommend BSA complaints. In my original post, I didn't suggest this, I noted that I thought that this point was at the centre of Poneke's problem with Frog's post (although, to be fair to Poneke, I can't even say this with 100% certainty - it's hard to figure out what his/her actual problem with Frog's post is). I thought my original post was clear in its distinction here, but perhaps not - so I'm adding this update just to make doubly sure.]

Thursday, June 05, 2008

MRI, where am I

[Note: some of the info. in this post is out of date; I misunderstood - see here]

Last week I had an MRI scan. Nothing near as dramatic as an angiogram, but claustrophobic enough to make me glad I'm not a vampire and don't sleep in a coffin.

Anyhow, the purpose of the MRI was to determine whether my aortic root was stretched sufficiently to warrant having it replaced as well as my aortic valve. It was, and this means I'm in for more complicated surgery although, according to the cardiologist, it shouldn't make for a worse prognosis or longer recovery time.

The other thing the MRI picked up though was the fact that the walls of my aorta are thickened. Which probably means that there is still active inflammation there.

Now this is a problem, as inflamed tissue is harder to perform surgery on. So we need to find some way of reducing the inflammation before surgery. The trouble is that the three top candidates for doing this - steroids, methotrexate and TNF inhibitors - all have side effects that aren't particularly desirable if recovering from open heart surgery is your thing.

So it's a bit of a worry. Although - and this I need to bear in mind - not too much of a worry. People on steroids, for example, are subjected to major surgery all the time and do just fine.

Summary: a bit less ok, but still ok. Sigh.

Two Great Blogs

Kathy G

Simon Bidwell (wonderful Wellington based musings on international development).

The African Economic Miracle?

Here's a great discussion at the Boston Review on Africa's recent economic lift off, it's causes and its sustainability.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

William Easterly Jumps The Shark

William Easterly is capable of being perfectly sensible [audio file]. And when he is, he's well worth listening too. Other days though you've just got to wonder.

From Trade Diversion we get this extract of his latest FT column.

What to do in a world of such unpredictability? There are some general principles and they do not require experts. Another Nobel laureate gave the crucial insight a long time ago – the answer is freedom for multitudinous individuals to figure out their own answers. Friedrich Hayek said: “Liberty is essential to leave room for the unforeseeable and unpredictable; we want it because we have learned to expect from it the opportunity of realising many of our aims. It is because every individual knows so little and ... because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it.”

The evidence for this vision is not found in those baffling fluctuations of growth rates, it is in the levels of development attained in the long run. Confirming Hayek, systems that give more liberty to individuals – featuring both more economic and political freedoms – are associated with much less poverty. The evidence for this comes from both history (for example old, despotic, poor Europe compared with modern, free, rich Europe) and cross-country comparisons (for example South Korea compared with North Korea, former West Germany compared with East, New Zealand compared with Zimbabwe). This alternative paradigm has a much smaller role for experts, because experts cannot direct or impose freedom from the top down (or else it would not be freedom).

Yes, the same man who criticisies development experts and their grand plans has one of his own. Liberty - free markets and free politics. It's a nice ideal, particularly if you take freedom to include positive freedoms as well (in which case Hayek should be replaced by Sen). But ever so slightly simplistic, no? And comparing North and South Korea, Zimbabwe and New Zealand (which, by the way still clings to the sort of social democracy that Hayek hated)? That isn't evidence in any meaningful sense of the term. And when you do compare the evidence, it turns out that countries with smaller states (and hence freer markets) don't grow any faster than those with greater government involvement. Similarly, democracies suffer fewer famines and have better distributive outcomes, but the evidence to suggest that they grow faster is pretty week. South Korea, readers will remember, took off economically while a dictatorship and it's growth was state-led.

In saying this I'm not defending dictatorships. I'm not even making the case for a universal social democratic model for the world. I'm just sayin' that Easterly is a hypocrite - accusing others of grand plans while fostering his own - one which can't even be backed up by evidence.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Trade and International Development

A few weeks back the folks at the Victoria University International Development Society very kindly asked me to speak at a debate/panel discussion which they had organised on international trade agreements. My fellow panellists were Lindsay Mitchell (ACT), Roger Kerr (Business Round Table) and Russell Norman (the Greens, I think he still posts on Frog Blog). Both Lindsay and Roger deserve credit for coming to speak on what could hardly be described as home turf. And Roger, in particular, made some good points (albeit ones I disagreed with for the most part). He also made my night by calling me a mercantilist. I've been called a few names over the years but that one is definitely a keeper. I wonder if I could get it on my business cards?

The star of the show though was Russell, who was funny and well-informed. He was also convincing: I was surprised to find myself agreeing with so much of what he said. At least until afterwards when I decided that there were things we disagreed on - he was just so polished though I didn't realise it at the time. This, I think, is the mark of a a good politician.

As for my own performance, I've certainly done better. My speech was as much musings for myself as something designed to win anyone over. And while some of my comments in the ensuing debate were clear and concise, at times I felt like I was confusing even myself. The audience I imagine must have been even more baffled.

My speech is pasted in below. One thing I want to do before hand was deal with a good point that both Roger and Lindsay made, and which I don't think I responded to at all well on the night.

Their point was that much economic theory suggests that reducing trade barriers unilaterally will be beneficial to a country regardless of what other countries do. And that given this fact, even if the EU and US maintain subsidies, the developing world should lower tariffs.

The problem with this argument is that basic trade theory is posits gains from tariff reductions in terms of relative prices. And getting prices right is important but not so much to countries where most people earn less than a dollar a day. Their problem is growth. And most trade theory (at least as I understand it) doesn't deal with this directly. One can still make a case for trade liberalistion as being growth-enhancing but it's not as tight. And by that point the interesting questions become empirical - and most recent empirical research provides no evidence that countries with lower tariffs grow faster.

Ok, enough from me - here's the speech.


Tricks of the Trade Deals – Trade and International Development

Thanks. Over the next few minutes I hope to give you a brief outline of an NGO staffer perspective on trade, trade deals and development. Obviously, I’m not claiming to speak for all NGOs or all NGO staff but hopefully I can give you some sort of very general development perspective.

Starting with what development workers care about. Central to development, obviously, is a concern with poor parts of the world and, usually, the poorest people in these regions. This isn’t exclusive – I’m also concerned about the fate of poorer sectors of our own society too – but it is important; much development work focuses on people who live on next to nothing. And this, in turn, leads to a set of values which may differ from those of my fellow panellists.

The first of these is a strong belief in something that economists refer to as ‘diminishing marginal utility’. This is simply the idea that money matters more to people who have less of it. If you give someone who earns a dollar a day a pay rise of one dollar this will contribute to a significantly larger improvement in their welfare than if you were to give the same pay rise to me. That extra dollar to them may mean the difference between receiving or not receiving medical care, or shelter, or food for their children. For me, it’s pocket change. This seems like common sense. But you’d be surprised how often it is absent from economic analysis and particular types of political discourse.

What does it mean in terms of trade agreements? It means that the first thing I want to know about any such agreements is: what will their impact be on the least well off?

Another reason why I want to know this is because, like most development workers, I’m aware of the vulnerability that comes with extreme poverty. For people living in extreme poverty, shocks, even if they are only temporary, can be disastrous. The English economist John Maynard Keynes once wrote that, “in the long run we’re all dead”. But if you have no savings and live in country with no social safety net, and you loose your job, you’ll die just as easily in the short run too.

So when we think about trade agreements we are also concerned about even temporary setbacks that they may inflict on the very poor.

With my biases thus declared I now want to offer a basic statement about trade that is both simple and uncontroversial. And then unpack it a bit.

The statement: Increased international trade benefits countries as a whole.

I agree with this but it does not follow that I necessarily support what is called free trade or all trade agreements. Why?

Very quickly:
1. “Countries as a whole” is not the same as everyone within the country. Change almost inevitably brings winners and losers. And, what I want to know first, is who the losers are and whether they need to be, or indeed can be, compensated.
2. Carte blanch trade liberalisation does not necessarily lead to increased trade. Almost every developed country as well as recent developing country trade success stories used strategic barriers to protect their infant industries. Trade agreements shouldn’t deny developing countries this option.
3. What we call free trade really isn’t that free but tends to reflect the respective political power of the bargaining partners. Powerful countries get to keep protections they don’t need – weaker nations are asked to remove those that they do.
4. Trade has a role to play in economic development but it isn’t everything. Domestic policy is equally, if not more, important and trade liberalisation if taken to far can remove key domestic policy options – some balance is needed.

Having said all this I want to emphasise again that I am not opposed to international trade. For many people in developing countries it is perhaps the only route out of poverty. But this fact alone means that it is crucial that we approach trade in a pragmatic fashion which helps rather than harms the least well off.

Dueling with the Visible Hand (GST is regressive!)

Over at TVHE (guess which blogs I've been reading lately) Matt argues that:

The main criticism I often hear about this is that GST is regressive. Now I used to spout that line as well, after all poor people have a lower marginal propensity to save then wealthy people, as a result they spend more of their income, and so more is taxed.

However, then I was told to think about it a different way. Over our lifecycle we should spend all our money, so that we are on the boundary of our budget constraint. As everyone spends all their income over their lifetime, GST must be a flat tax.

I read TVHE not only because Matt and his co-bloggers are smart but also because they have a near monopoly on interesting counter-arguments to my own beliefs. I enjoy what I read even when I disagree with it, because I'm always learning something.

Having said all this, I have to confess that I think Matt's got it plain wrong here. Surely the mere existence of inheritance taxes provides fairly sound proof of the fact that people don't spend all their income over time. And I'd imagine, although I'm open to being dissuaded by evidence to the contrary, that the wealthy tend to die with more than the poor do. What theory suggests about people's consumption patterns and what they actually do are two different things altogether.

Yet, even if the wealthy really did not save more than the poor, GST would still be a regressive tax. Why? In three words: diminishing marginal utility. Which, in this context, is a fancy way of saying that money matters more to those who have less of it. If you give a person who earns a dollar a day a pay rise of a dollar a day it will improve their wellbeing significantly more than if you give the same pay rise to me. The idea of diminishing marginal utility is so strongly intuitive that it ought to be axiomatic, I think. Moreover, most of the recent happiness research confirms its existence. It is, in other words, a pretty safe bet.

And, as good (albeit troubled) utilitarians, we ought to think about tax in terms of its impact on people's wellbeing (utility) rather than on money. Money, after all, is but a means to an ends.

And, in the same sense that a pay rise matters more to someone in poverty than it does to someone who is well off, a rise in costs will also harm someone who is poor more than it well their wealthy compatriot.

For example:

Imagine an economy where no one saves and with only three goods: rice, cheese and caviar.

Rice alone is sufficient to fulfill our needs, but cheese tastes better and caviar better still*. So, where they can, people will replace rice with cheese and cheese with caviar. Upgrading from rice to cheese or cheese to caviar will make people happier (and so better off) but the most important thing to their wellbeing is that they consume calories sufficient to stave off hunger and ill-health.

Now imagine two people - Karl and Milton.

Karl earns $5 a week, Milton earns $15. Both need to eat 1kg of rice, cheese or caviar, or some combination of the three to avoid hunger. Rice costs $5 a kg, cheese $10 and caviar $15/kg.

So Karl is full if unfulfilled eating a kilo of rice a week. Meanwhile, Milton's styling on pure caviar.

But one day the Nolanists sweep to power in a landslide election victory, and they decide to impose a GST of 20%**.

Rice now costs $6 a week and Karl's health suffers as does his happiness, eaten away by gnawing hunger. Milton on the other hand shifts some of his caviar consumption to cheese. He's worse off, but not by nearly as much as Karl.

And this is why GST is regressive: it disproportionately impacts on the wellbeing of the least well off, even if the proportion of income effect is neutral.

*Obviously, I'm stretching the truth here: in the real world caviar is repulsive.
**I'm ignoring the corresponding income tax cut here because I'm too lazy to do the maths, and because it doesn't actually change the picture if distributed evenly and if revenue neutral.

Dueling with the Visible Hand (utilitarianism edition)

Over at TVHE Matt has replied to my reply to his reply to my post on the trouble with utilitarianism.

I'll keep my reply brief for two reasons:

1. I am a utilitarian myself and the last thing I want to do is construct an argument so good it convinces me; then I'd have to go find a new political philosophy, which would be a real chore :)

2. I don't want to scare off my tiny readership - and I'm worried that arguments about arcane political philosophy may well do this...

Ok - here we go:

Starting with the good news: both Matt and I agree that utilitarianism is no different from other political philosophies insomuch as that it ultimately makes claims that can't be anchored perfectly to something deeper (appeals to value-judgements, I guess). Matt, however, thinks that utilitarianism provides more transparency in dealing with value judgments. I'm not so sure: I think we could appeal to Rawlsian liberalism, or the libertarianism of Robert Nozick with equal transparency.

I also agree with Matt that people will feel better about chicken pies they buy than they will about those they steal. As I said in my second post, incorporating our preferences for justice into people's utility functions is perfectly sensible.

Where we seem to differ is that Matt believes we can combine consequentialist and non-consequentialist beliefs into one overarching philosophical model. I understand the appeal; most of us do this in our day to day philosophising (we support some things because they improve people's lives, others because they seem fair). But, at least to my non-philosopher mind - in terms of constructing sound and rigorous frameworks for weighing policy and economic choices, the two ways of arguing what is right are completely incompatible.

This, I think, is our fundamental disagreement. And going back to my original post, the fact that justice can't be brought into the picture (except as rules in rule utilitarianism or as something that make us happier) leaves me uncomfortable in this unjust world of ours.

The Standard has the numbers on benefits...

...and they show that the conservative talking point that "unemployment has only dropped because people have been moved onto sickness benefits" is total nonsense.

Burke's Law*

States that:

The trickier the driving maneuver you are attempting, the greater the number of cars that suddenly appear on the scene will be.
I was reminded of this today as I tried to turn right out of a partially obscured side alley. No sooner had I nosed the front of the car out into the previously empty street when, 2 SUVs, a van, 3 cars and a weird sit-down cycle came plunging at me from different directions.

*Burke's law is not named after that conservative thinker bloke, but rather its inventor, and surfing buddy of mine, J Burke.