Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Socially Stupid Seasteaders

Five years ago I mocked the seasteaders. One year ago, responding to news that Peter Thiel is an undercover citizen of New Zealand, Eric Crampton mounted a non-economic* defence of that secret decision and rubbed it in with strong support for the seasteading mission.

But new shit has come to light, dude, and it's starting to look like seasteaders are just another corporate looking for a hand-out.

Seasteading is a libertarian fantasy, driven partly by Milton Friedman's grandson and financed partly by NZ's own Citizen Thiel, where in Eric's words
people could set up a wide variety of different ways of organising society could be attempted on the high seas. Think of a Seastead as being like a body corporate, but with complete freedom to set whatever rules it wanted – about everything. And its residents, if they didn’t like how things were panning out, could simply unmoor their boat from the Seastead and float on over to an alternative. (emphasis added)
The cool thing is that no-one is imposed-upon because all this happens on the high seas, beyond the environment as the late-great John Clarke might have put it.

Sadly, sometime recently this beautiful theory ran aground. The "high seas" became a lagoon in French Polynesia and the local residents became NIMBYs. Have you already guessed that our old mate Citizen Thiel found another schmoozable government?

Oh yes he did. A deal was struck between the seasteaders and the French Polynesian Government back in January 2017. Then in May 2017 a big conference was held in Tahiti, presumably to persuade local residents that dumping a floating resort in their lagoon would be a great idea. 

Not all were persuaded though and if you've had much to do with Pacific lagoons you'll understand the initial hurdle pretty well. Add to that questions about taxes the floating resort would pay and exactly what benefits would be guaranteed to locals.

You'd think the uber-rational seasteaders would have thought all this through right? They'd have prepared the ground with detailed and honest discussions. Ooops.

Independent film-makers with the seasteaders permission interviewed people around the May conference. Their output included strong local opposition to the whole thing.

At this point, if you were in Citizen Thiel's shoes, you'd realise that your prep-game was massively under-done. That whole line about no-one being imposed-upon is not ringing true here.

So now, if you subscribe to the creed, you have to make things right with the aggrieved.

Or, you could ratfuck them. Maybe that'd be cheaper?

So here are your choices

  1. We hate governments and all that social stuff but we can't persuade people to buy islands floating on the high seas so we need to make a deal like this to get the business proposition rolling but the whole thing is so valuable we can afford to buy out all the opposition.
  2. Who the fuck do these people think they are? Yes, maybe we could buy them out but we made a deal with the government, and we're on a mission to create a better world. How dare these impudent locals challenge us. Let's ratfuck them.

Guess which one the seasteaders picked? Oh yeah. As reported by Rhizome they basically stole the IP of the independent film-makers at that conference.

These people are a social menace.


* Eric's argument is non-economic because it doesn't consider the counterfactual scenario. He assumes that a brilliant tech investor, knowing about great opportunities in NZ, would forgo them unless we breached our own citizenship rules. 

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

From Neo- to Ordo-liberal Policy

Simon Wren-Lewis has a nice post on what he calls the "fatal inconsistency" within neoliberalism. You really should read the whole thing, but here are a couple of gems:
...neoliberalism that might have started as extolling the virtues of the market ends up as “a consultancy racket, in which corporations purchase complex models to justify their chosen strategy”
 ...you can be pro-market and anti-neoliberal. More generally, just because neoliberals can use ideas from economics to argue their case does not mean there is something wrong with economics (as opposed to some economists)
Wren-Lewis discusses this issue with reference to Coase's theory of the firm. He also compares neoliberal industry policy with the German concept of ordoliberalism, which relies on the state to promote competitive markets. The rationales for each differ in the attitude assumed towards large firms. Neoliberals see them as having succeeded for benign reasons (skill, innovation, scale economies etc) whereas ordoliberals worry that they are crowding out market competition by internalising so much activity, or as Wren-Lewis asks
To what extent have firms internalised the market so that they can exploit customers, ... exploit workers, ... or as a vehicle for managers to exploit shareholders?

These questions may resonate for anyone affected by the fall-out from bad moves by large corporates, such as recent examples by Fletcher Building and Fonterra

Some parts of the NZ economy have seen a transition from neoliberal to ordoliberal policies, telecommunications being the most obvious example. At the end of the 1980s a bunch of neoliberals privatised our telecommunications monopoly without regulation, consistent with their blind faith that private enterprise would somehow solve the obvious looming competition problems. The fig leaf of "light-handed regulation" was invented to provide cover for the absence of actual regulation. Predictably, the resulting corporate beast controlled the market, dictating terms to its would-be rivals. 

A series of government interventions began 10 years later. Telecom was regulated and eventually the government-driven UFB (fibre) project led to its vertical separation. These new fibre access networks were built using the strength of the government's balance sheet to manage uptake risk, with investors paying back the governments capital as end-users were/are connected. 

There are still policy issues to work through, and they'll of course raise the inevitable tensions between public and private interests. But all of this is now happening in an ordo-like framework. Oh, and the outcomes are pretty good (pdf) by international standards. 

Further evidence of a shift came this week with news that Treasury is adopting broader economic objectives, adding "natural, social, human and physical impacts" alongside its traditional financial focus. 

Bravo. There has long been a requirement for local governments to pursue broader objectives, so its great to see central government getting on board with the concept. It seems consistent with an ordoliberal approach and it's difficult to see a plausible downside. The Economist has observed that rigidly ordoliberal macroeconomic policy could be disastrous, but while it's possible that our boffins might go that way it doesn't seem very likely.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Travels with a Naive Extrovert

I've learned a bit about social conditioning this last week from hanging around with our 2 year old grand-daughter. She lives in New York and we've been riding public transport - ferries, buses, subway and a cable-car - sometimes in busy hours.

She's quite verbal and getting more so by the day. We're getting 2-word combos now: 'red bus', 'other people' and 'good morning'. These are complemented by gestures: pointing, waving or the classic "where is it?" signal - upturned palms + quizzical face.

Everywhere we go, she's fascinated by 'other people'. She'll often stare at someone nearby until they acknowledge her, and then just go with the flow after that. It's so cute that reactions are always positive.

And she is utterly undiscriminating: children, little old ladies and very tough-looking guys all get the same treatment. In fact the weirder they look, the more likely she is to be interested.

I guess the world will find a way to beat this out of her, but I really hope it doesn't.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Merchants of Woo

Back in the day, woo was a verb. Young men would woo/court a young woman with a view to marriage. There were also business applications: trying to woo a patron of some sort.

Sadly, the skeptics* have subverted 'woo'. It's now mostly a derogatory noun or adjective, selectively applied of course:
Woo, also called woo-woo, is a term for pseudoscientific explanations that share certain common characteristics, often being too good to be true (aside from being unscientific). The term is common among skeptical writers. Woo is understood specifically as dressing itself in the trappings of science (but not the substance) while involving unscientific concepts, such as anecdotal evidence and sciencey-sounding words. [links in original]
This definition is consistent with a recent conversation I had with a prominent science communicator, so let's run with it. There are two interesting things in the definition:
  1. it refers to "explanations" that are "often...to good to be true"; and
  2. unscientific concepts are involved.
In practice, skeptics* call woo on people who share or trade natural remedies or health tips, or commit other crimes against the status-quo. Woo is a slur for punching down on curious people who doubt the dominant paradigm.

This usage is profoundly unscientific. It lacks two hallmarks of good science and scientific thinking: Doubt/curiosity and transparency.

Doubt and Curiosity
Doubt and curiosity are central to science. As the great physicist Richard Feynman said
it is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature.  To make progress in understanding we must remain modest and allow that we do not know.  Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt.  You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer.  And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.
Notice how Feynman links doubt and curiosity as co-motives: one begets the other in Feynman's view of a scientist. He's pointing to a form of duality between doubt and curiosity.

Here's my hypothesis: doubt and curiosity are rampant among people working on alternatives to the status quo in many areas (including health/remedies, and more sustainable forms of agriculture, energy, transport etc) but people favouring the status quo are not curious about alternatives.

In agriculture/food/health/energy, seriously questioning the dominant paradigms (doubt) tends to makes people curious about alternatives. But don't expect much curiosity from skeptics* if you say that olive leaf extract was effective against your shingles, or that celery seeds broke up your brother's kidney stones or that you grew a crop without pesticides. More likely, you'll hear: "Woo, woo this is all woo."

Woo throwers these days are incurious doubters: semi-scientists at best.

Transparency
As defined above, the woo word is used when an "explanation" is not reasonable, placing an obvious focus on transparent disclosure of the explanation/reasons for any claim.

Siouxsie Wiles strongly supported transparent disclosure as a basic scientific principle yesterday and was rightly lauded by the scientific community for doing so, including by a gmo developer. In Siouxsie's motivating example, scientists rigged a report to get extra research money. If scientists would do that, what would ruthless business-people do?

Gosh I don't know, but we don't get much transparent information on pesticides, do we? Nor on publicly funded gmo research.

Conclusion
If lack of transparent disclosure for your claim is enough to be woo, then the few big pesticide/seed companies look like woo merchants to me.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Cheers Lorde

Lorde canning her Tel Aviv gig is a superb capstone to a year in which women finally got some cut-through in exposing sexual predators, and a brilliant young woman became our Prime Minister against massive odds. What a wonderful Christmas present.

Earlier, Lorde had appreciated reading this piece by two women, both New Zealanders, one Jewish and one Palestinian, in helping educate her. So yeah, it's smart and brave women all the way down here in Aotearoa.

The backlash started immediately, making plenty of noise but very little sense. Keep politics out of music is a desperately weak reed to cling to, ignoring everything from social commentary in Royals through to in-your-face protest songs.

Hypocrisy is the main charge though, as featured on on Page 1 of the anti-boycott playbook. David Farrar was particularly quick out of the blocks calling Lorde a hypocrite but it wasn't long before he was joined on this ridiculous platform by Israeli officials. The line seems to be that if you don't play in Israel you can't play in Russia either.

I'm not buying it. We all do what we can, right? If I see some guy hassling people on the street, my natural instinct is to intervene and make him stop. That's ok for me because I'm a big guy & not worried about physical interaction. Others might call the police, or try to persuade people who look more like me to have a go, or maybe just silently pray. We all do what we can in the moment.

In this situation, the hypocrisy-vendor does nothing but accuse others of moral failure: "oh, well, if you're going to intervene here, why aren't you also confronting violent gangs, joining the police force, or agitating for more spending on mental health". In his eyes, doing what you can in the moment, which is one good thing, is the worst of all sins.

Boycotts work if their target cares enough. Rugby boycotts of South Africa worked because those white people really loved rugby. A boycott of international tiddly winks or flower arranging wouldn't have had the same effect. So the impact of Lorde's decision should be measured by the rapid response from senior Israeli government officials: it's a home run.

There may well be a personal cost: the Israelis will be doing their best on this front. But nothing worthwhile is costless.

Thank you Lorde and kia kaha

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Reasons to be cheerful

Optional background music

Yea though verily do we stand on the cusp of special things, like massive rapid climate change, war in Korea and fascism in those formerly United States, and yeah, though pillocks and fucking morons do indeed walk freely among us, yet there are reasons to be cheerful, down here in Aotearoa.

Feminism for a start. Celebrities are being publicly outed as sexual predators, fired & sued, all of which is reducing their much-vaunted personal "brands" to a terrible liability. This is a huge win for civil society, reaching across the whole demographic spectrum including politics & religion. So far, the wave hasn't really struck these shores but at least we can celebrate the knowledge that it's brown trouser time for lots of really horrible men.

Closer to home, the official attitude towards welfare has changed too, from punitive to rational. Where I've recently roamed this has been enraging certain people. I reckon its the most-whinged-about topic, post-election. Some people are *really* down on 'beneficiaries' and ultra-keen to punish the bludgers, as was previously the official policy. The official stance is now much different, hence the rage.

The old punitive approach spread through government agencies for 9 long years & was fed by law changes, which is why imprisonment rates are now skyrocketing. I look forward to being more like Holland, were they're turning empty prisons into commercial accommodation.

Jacinda & the rest are caning it too, are they not? If I recall correctly, Jacinda was supposed to be a delicate flower, not quite up to the task, a pretty lightweight. Yet against strong protestations from the opposition, she credibly threatened retaliation if Australia put the slipper into 4000 kiwi students. They folded. Well-played Jacinda: more please.

There will be tussles to come for sure. But we do have plenty to celebrate as 2017 winds down.


Sunday, 17 December 2017

NZ has a Driving Problem: Respect

It's been a bad year on NZ roads: the highest road toll in 7 years and a horrible spike in cyclist deaths. I trust that the policy agencies are all over this but my concern is that we are massively under-emphasising one of the three official messages. 

The advice seems to be: belt-up, drive safely & respect other road users. I think we need much more effort on the third leg of this stool: respect.

Exhibit 1: Mark Richardson. What a wanker. Mark delights in cruising at 95km/hr in the fast lane of a two-lane highway. 

As a fledgling shock-jock, Mark only says out loud what (he reckons) lots of people are thinking. I reckon his reckon is right: there is a regular supply of anti-social arseholes out there on our roads. They've bought into the slow=good message to the point where they actively enjoy slowing other people down.

We use SH6 often between Blenheim and Nelson. There are a few safe passing places but only a few. Lots of other roads have similar features. 

I prefer to drive at 100km/hr unless conditions dictate otherwise. Often we run up behind trucks, road maggots & other rentals obviously happy to beetle along at 80 - 90km/hr. If it's a large infestation we just beetle along too. But other times there is a real chance of getting past slower traffic safely. 

In this situation, you might think that everyone benefits from successful overtaking, because the slow drivers know they're slow. Feeling bad about holding-up other people, they like seeing you overtake them. 

Sadly, other drivers accelerate, trying to race you out of a safe overtaking move. As Mark Richardson knows, lots of people have this attitude. They're not in any hurry so why should anyone else be? They'd prefer to hold people up than let them through. I really don't understand this mentality. 

The police say "it is easy for drivers to get distracted, or lose patience with other road users", such as that selfish arsehole who doesn't want you to pass. Reportedly, the police also "despair at the failure of drivers to heed repeated messages and their willingness to take needless risks"

Deliberate moves to prevent overtaking are needless risks, part of the respect problem we have on NZ roads, and a contributor to our road toll. 

So while you're on the road this summer: be respectful; don't be like Mark Richardson.