Friday, 27 November 2015

Animal welfare

*A few thoughts on this topic ahead of Sunday's documentary about calves in NZ's dairy industry.

I despise the cruelty that I know is regularly inflicted on animals including human animals. The culprits need challenging and we should all do that, directly, as much as we dare. Cruel bastards need to be tracked down, exposed and stopped, whether they are cops, teachers, doctors, scientists, politicians or farmers.

The SAFE crew should therefore be congratulated for exposing evidence of cruelty to dairy calves. I'll look forward to hearing what DairyNZ and MPI have to say about the industry's systems for policing cruelty and expect that extra regulation might well result.

I reckon that the vast majority of dairy farmers in New Zealand would agree with me up to this point. Cow farmers generally like cows, just as teachers generally like students. Exceptions are those who should never have been in that role and those who've grown cruel over time.

In my dreams, the report would also prompt broader questions about the ethics of farming animals and indeed plants. There is a yawning chasm of space, devoid of knowledge much less understanding, between the smart and engaged early 20s that challenged me on this topic at a party recently and most of the dairy farmers I know.

* the pic is from our calving this year

Friday, 20 November 2015

Skeptics have a Conference

The NZ Skeptics annual conference is underway in ChCh and the headline international speaker is
the magnificently-named Dr Karl Haro von Mogel, a science communicator specialising in genetic engineering. This is him, putting the emotion back into science.

Pretty obviously, Dr Karl is not of a skeptical disposition when it comes to GE. He is convinced that GE 2.0 will be just awesome. He might well be right but GE 2.0 is many different things, not all of which have been invented yet. At least for skeptics, the jury is still out. So I'm guessing that Dr Karl is there because he's skeptical about people who are skeptical about GE.

Which just deepens the mystery for me. In fact I'm struggling to understand why skeptics have a conference at all. Are they all just sitting there rolling their eyes and silently mouthing "says who?" or "bull shit" during the speeches? And if not, why not?

I'm a big fan of public argument (as you may have gathered) and would love to hear two of the speakers at this conference (Kim Socha and Mike Joy) sometime. However I confess to being utterly confused by the concept of a skeptics conference

Why don't they host an argument instead? Pick a topic and invite all of the people espousing strong views about that topic. Design a format that exposes those views to rational scrutiny, and let attendees make up their own skeptical minds.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Section 36 principles

Most countries have laws aimed at firms with substantial market power, seeking to stop those firms
from "taking advantage" of their very strong market position in ways that restrict the process of competition. In New Zealand, that law is section 36 of the Commerce Act 1986.

The general view of competition experts in NZ is that section 36 is toothless. You can of course find supporters of the law: just call the competition experts advising firms with substantial market power. However the Commerce Commission has basically given up taking s36 cases, which leaves powerful firms unfettered and the rest of us with three options:

  • sack the ComCom & appoint new people with a stronger appetite for expensive but hopeless litigation;
  • change the law; or
  • do nothing.

We've been trying option 3 for a few years but I understand that MBIE is now preparing a discussion paper on the topic, so option 2 might soon be in play. So it's time to think about how to improve and we might as well start getting our thoughts in order now, before the discussion paper emerges.

Building on Andrew Gavil's excellent work from 2013, some principles might be a good start. I'll get the ball rolling...

1: Privilege.
Firms with substantial market power are in a privileged position in our society. NZ has small domestic markets and influential people have successfully argued for relaxed merger policy on the basis that it reduces unit costs, so we have lots of market power.

2: Perspective. The advantage taken belongs to the perpetrator, so analysis should focus on that firm's perspective, not some hypothetical firm.

These principles seem rock solid to me but both of them add teeth, making life harder for firms with substantial market power. What about the opposite problem of condemning efficient conduct? We still want the big firms to fight hard after all. Come in item 3...

3: Proportionality. This would be the fertile hunting ground for the monopolist's friends. They'd get creative seeking ways to rebut the presumption that firms with substantial market power tend to play dirty. There are some obvious lines available: if an elephant is competing with tigers, harm visited upon gnats that would be trampled by either group should not be protected. 

Basically I'm suggesting that we should be harder on conduct because we are softer on structure. In other respects it's just business as usual: case law will develop guidance for big firms to the extent they're willing to pay for it.