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Saturday, November 29, 2003
MAKING YOUNGER CRIMINALS: Following a Christchurch boy's escape from conviction for rape (because he was too young to be tried as an adult) Phil Goff has indicated his preliminary support for lowering the age at which children can be charged for serious offences, to 12. He has asked the Ministry of Justice, in conjuction with the Ministry of Social Development, to examine the case for lowering the age, and expects a report by early next year.

I havn't yet formed an opinion on whether this is a good idea or not. However, I am always sceptical of laws (especially those involving criminal sanctions) promulgated in response to isolted cases like this. The infamously unworkable "home invasion" legislation (which was later repealed) is perhaps the best example of poor legislation arising out of a knee-jerk reaction to such a case. And while there has not been the same degree of public outcry about this particular matter, which perhaps gives us less cause to distrust it's motivations, we would still do well to remember the well worn chestnut "bad cases make bad law".

What I'm working towards here is that - like most namby pamby liberal apologists for hardened teenage criminals - I hold to the Benthamite view that civilised societies should not, as a rule, base their criminal law on a primeval urge to punish for punishment's sake: I do not think retribution, of itself, is a valid policy goal (or at least one that desrves much weight). This will no doubt put me out of favour with the law-and-order brigade (though in fact, I am as committed to the preservation of law and order as they are). However, I confess that the tenacity with which many cling to the "they deserve it" mantra, has always puzzled me somewhat.

Many of these same people cling, with equal tenacity to the idea that envy is an illegitimate motivation for public policy (i.e. redistribution). What, pray tell is the difference? One involves inflicting harm (taking of property) on a group (the rich) for no other reason than it makes another group (the poor) feel better, and the other, um ... inflicts harm (incarceration etc.) on a group (criminals) for no other reason than it makes another group (victims) feel better.* This is not to say that either emotion - envy or vindictiveness - is illegitimate per se: both are perfectly natural and understandable human responses, and have a fair amount of evolutionary use. However, this does not make them legitimate motivations for public policy.

The key question must be: "will lowering the age of responsibility reduce serious offending?" (Because we are talking about "serious crimes" rape etc. rather than the more everyday, run-of-the-playground variety, I am comfortable not placing too much weight on the negative impact of the effect of incarceration on the offender: the value of one rape prevented is probably worth the disbenefit of 10 years in jail.) Criminal sanctions have traditionally been thought to do this in two ways: by deterring offending through fear of punshment; and by removing people's opportunity to reoffend.

To be honest, I am unsure how effective a deterrent lowering the age would be for children in the 12-14 age bracket. It may be that some of these children are so well acquainted with our justice system that they are in fact making "rational" calculations to offend, safe in the knowledge they cannot be prosecuted. I just don't know. (How you weigh that up if the some are and some aren't, I don't know. Perhaps it depends on the degree of prosecutorial discretion: will all kids be subject to adult penalites, or will there be an option for some to continue to be processed through the Family Court, which currently imposes less serious forms of penalty on underaged offenders?)

Perhaps more worrying is the effect of a prison sentence on future offending. While the kids certainly won't be able to offend while they're in the slammer, the usual argument fromt the right is that prison doesn't reform people (if anything, it just makes them worse). This is usually used to butress an argument for longer sentences. However, the case with children is probably different. Unlike adults, who may go into prison with rap sheets as long as, um ... a long thing, young kids, especially those as young as 12 are more likely to be able to be reformed. So the question is whether sending them to prision will just make them worse. If so, then this could potentially outweigh the deterrent effect of exposing them to adult punishment.

As I've said. I still don't know whether this is a good idea or not - it depends on a number of empirical issues that I imagine the Minsitry's mentioned above will be looking into closely. However, I can only hope that, whatever the decision, it is made for the right reasons.

*Of course, this criticism acn cut both ways: by this logic, lefties shouldn't be able to insist on the invalidity of retribution, while at the same time practicing the politics of envy. While I think a consequentialist view can reconcile the apparent inconsistency (if a sufficiently lower value were placed on freedom from taxation as opposed to freedom from imprisonment) the difficultly is, I think, insurmountable on a natural rights view of the situation (which should mandate interference with freedom (by either taxation or incarceration) only to the extent necessary to preserve the freedom of others: envy and vindictiveness don't count).

You might also be able to get around this by adopting a social contract-type approach whereby those who break the law forfeit their rights: thus legimating punishment for crimes, but not for economic success. However, such a view has the potential to lead to some messy results: taken to the extreme it would seem to permit torture of criminals etc. and if you don't take it to the extreme, you need to explain why some rights (e.g. to freedom from torture) are not jettisoned, while others (e.g. freedom to walk around in the street) are. Moreover, even if you buy into social contracts in general, children of age 12 might reasonably be suppoosed to cause some problems for you (in addition to the usual no-one-actually-ever-signed-up type objections).

Friday, November 28, 2003
THE TROUBLE WITH PRINCIPLE: No Right Turn had a nice post the other day pointing out some of the practical problems with Winston's proposals for citizens' initiated referenda, and also promising to attempt to address some of these in a future post. This sort of stuff is usually right up my alley, so I've been feeling a little guilty about not posting anything myself.

I suspect much of my reluctance stems from the fact that Peters' proposal sounds so good in principle. As both Tim Bale and NRT note, it "is difficult to criticise [Winston's proposal] without coming over as a sniffy liberal afraid of real democracy."

Indeed, my own qualms about binding referenda are ultimately based in what is probably a rather unpopular lack of faith in the ability of people in general to make good decisions. To be honest, I'm actually quite attracted to the idea of government by Platonic philosopher kings. (This is probably partly due to the arrogant, somewhat Nietzchean, delusion that I'd be one of them. But even were I not, I still think that if I could trust someone to balance my interests against those of others in society, and to draft laws that best served those interests, I'd have little problem submitting to their rule.) It seems that I too, like NZPundit, am at heart just another 'authoritarian bastard'.

Nonetheless, I am an 'authoritarian bastard' with some empirical evidence to back me up. Exhibit A, Californian budget deficits, which are notoriously unmanageable largely as a result of binding referenda passed by overly myopic majorites. (Califiornian referenda seem to provoke a similar response to Holmes' pre-election worm: government spending = good; taxes = bad. Unfortunately, high spending (good) + low taxes (good) = massive budget deficits (BAD).) Now Winston, clever boy that he is, tries to get around this particular problem by requiring that proposals be subject to a fiscal feasibility test. Aside from being incredibly vague, I think this misses the point: most people's myopia isn't limited to fiscal matters. The fact is that, when considering an individual referendum proposal, people will usually consider just that, the individual referendum proposal, not it's side effects. This is likely to result in a damaging lack of co-ordination in government policy.

Moreover, I have serious concerns about the potential for more direct forms of democracy to trample minority rights. Elected politicians have an incentive not to do too much trampling, as many of them rely on collections of minorities to stay in power. Voters in a referendum have no such incentive: even were there advantages to a strategy of reciprocal restraint (in case one ends up in the minority on a future vote), there would be significant collective action problems involved in making such a strategy work. Of course, all this could be accommodated by subjecting referenda to judicial review. But, given that I believe representative democracies usually make better decisions than judges on such matters, to me, this would be a backward step.

I also share NRT's concerns over the problem of clarity: at the moment, most referendum questions are simple one-liners; in California by contrast, the people vote on specific and detailed pieces of legislation. If referenda are to be binding, I think the latter is the only way to make it work. But it also brings with it massive problems.

Our normal legislative process makes much of the opportunity for detailed scrutiny and amendment of proposed laws - both through select committees, and the requirement of having three readings in the House before a bill becomes law. Unless we're planning to have three referenda on each proposed law (which would make the process unworkable), the safeguard that this provides would be lost. I doubt many people would suggest removing this safeguard as a mater of course from the normal parliamentary process, so why is it appropriate here? One might attempt to draw an analogy with the passage of legislation under urgency, but I think that would be quite a stretch. Prima facie, the principles of clarity (necessary) and detailed scrutiny (highly desirable) seem inconsistent under direct democracy.

On the flipside, I think we also need to seriously question the need for citizen's initiated referenda. Mr. Peters claims to be driven by

[t]he fact that a large majority of the country can oppose a certain piece of legislation and be ignored by the MPs who were supposedly elected to represent them

and maintains that:

[p]etitions, polls, marches, sit-ins and non-binding referendums mean absolutely nothing. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions that got nowhere and non-binding referendums that were totally ignored.

John Armstrong has a more plausible explanation. However, ad hominem aside, we need to ask ourselves whether the problem is as great as Mr. Peters suggests, and, even accepting that it is, whether binding referenda are the answer.

On the first point, I think he's on far weaker ground than he makes out. However, it's the second that I'd prefer to focus on. Here, there are a couple of alternatives people appear not to have thought of. It is true that governments can ignore non-binding referenda. However, it is misleading to suggest that they can do so without cost: if the government really goes against the will of the people they will suffer in the polls - and if they don't, then that would suggest that people didn't really care about the issue that much after all. Nonetheless, there are ways to increase the cost to government of "ignoring" referenda without making them absolutely binding. One could follow the approach taken by Canada in relation to judicial review of government legislation: the result must be implemented unless agreed by a majority in Parliament. (NRT appears to dismiss this idea as being ineffectual, but I think this relies on too formalisitic a view of power in modern democracies: a decision to actively override a referendum would cause far more electoral headaches for a government than quietly ignoring it.)

Alternatively, we could adopt a similar system to that which obtains under the Human Rights Act, in relation to judicial declarations of inconsistency: if a court decides that a piece of legislation breaches the right to freedom from discrimination, the government of the day is obliged to respond formally in the House, and to outline what steps it will take to implement the decision, or, if it does not intend to implement the decision, setting out reasons why. Again, some might scoff at this as a soft approach, but I think it would raise a real barrier to simply ignoring referenda, and governments would be unlikely to do so without good reason. This avoids all of the problems set out above, while still providing a higher level of accountability.

NB: I couldn't finish without reiterating something John Armstrong said: for Winston to promote this intiative the way he is doing is completely hypocritical. Here he is, extolling the virtues of direct majoritarian democracy, while seeking to advance this agenda as the bottom line of a minor party (with less than 11% of the popular vote) going into coalition negotiations.

Sure, it's ad hominem, but it feels good.
WATCHING THE WATCHERS: It's hard to imagine David Cohen picking an easier target for this week's media watch in the NBR than Ian Wishart, but defending Helen Clark?

ALSO: the most recent addition to the (rather thin) ranks of right-leaning media watchers: Media Cow "Prowling for Media Bull in Aotearoa, New Zealand" is deifinitely worth a look.
Thursday, November 27, 2003
IT'S ALL ABOUT FAMILY II: In response to the previous post, NZPundit does his typically entertaining bluster-without-much-of-an-argument thing here. No Right Turn responds here and then asks me the following question:

NZPols says:

...the question we need to ask is "what is the most effective way of changing this situation?" If attempting to change family structures is it, then we should do it. The potential returns are great enough that it warrants the "intrusion".

And if the most effective way of changing things was to force people to go to church, would you countenance that as well?

If so, then are there any limits at all to State power?


In short: yes, and yes.

At the level of considering the morality of any particular cause of action, I would countenance just about anything. I wouldn't necessarily do it, but I would countenance it. Being a fairly rabid consequentialist, I don't really believe that anything is inherently off limits - it all depends on the situation. If, for example, the only way to save a nation from being destroyed (physically, not "morally") was to force the population to go to church then I would think the tradeoff worth it. I confess that's pretty unlikely, but so, in my opinion, is the idea that forcing everyone to go to church would be the most effective way of saving the children.

It's also worth noting, by the way, that I mean "effective" in the sense of "cost-effective" i.e. taking he disbenefits of any particular method of social engineering into account as well. I suppose I could hacve been clearer about that. As such, what I was envisaging with respect to modifying family structures falls well short of locking people up if they choose not to marry the mother/father of their child. I'm talking about financial incentives, tax breaks, publicity campaigns etc. I think this makes a real difference to the nature of the case.

That said, I accept that there are real dangers involved in having a system where it is seen as legitimate for the state to wade in in situtations like this. In making these decisions, we never have perfect information, and it's relatively easy for groups that might support two-parent families on non-consequentialist moral grounds (which I think would be an illegitimate reason for state action) to dress their concerns up behind consequentialist arguments, which I think are legitimate reasons for state action. If you prohibit government interference, then you potentially forego legitimate solutions to quite serious problems. But if you allow it, you risk unjustified interference in personal choices. There are losses both ways. My own opinion is that you don't need a carte blanche ban on government interference to overcome this problem, you just need to make the burden of proving it legitimate very high - which is where the doubts I expressed in my original post come in.

It's kind of a presumptive rule consequentialism, if you like.
Wednesday, November 26, 2003
IT'S ALL ABOUT FAMILY: In an opinion piece in today's Herald, Emma Davis and John Read argue that family structure is not the key to stopping child abuse. In the course of doing so, they lend some support to Steve Maharey's claims earlier this week, that he "know[s] of no social science that says a nuclear family is more successful than other kinds", maintaining that "[r]esearch shows that poverty, social isolation and family conflict are better predictors of poor outcomes for children than family structure."

However, because of the way these factors interrelate, I have to say I think this is a little misleading: there are for example clear correlations between family structure and poverty. Some studies have argued that changes in family structure have been the primary driver of household income inequality over the past two decades or so. Given this, the question we need to ask is "what is the most effective way of changing this situation?" If attempting to change family structures is it, then we should do it. The potential returns are great enough that it warrants the "intrusion".

Nonetheless, I do have a few qualms about this. The case for intrusion depends on two separate contentions: one, that there is a causal relationship between family structure and poor social outsomes; two, that the government has sufficient leverage over family structure to make it worthwhile, without incurring undesirable costs. I'm open to being convinced on this, but I'm not sure either of these claims is particularly strong.

First, although there does appear to be an observed correlation between family structure and violence etc., this doesn't necessarily indicate much in the way of causation. Rather, my suspicion is that the sort of people who are more likely to abuse children etc. are also often the same sorts of people who are more likely to end up as single parents. If this is true, then, even if there are some returns to increased "familisation", these are unlikely to be large: the same problems will arise regardless.

Second, I confess I doubt the degree to which government policy can influence family structure, at least without incurring heavy costs. The claim is often made that the DPB has resulted in a massive increase in the number of single parent families. Again, while one can cetainly point to a historical trend, this is some way from showing causation. Any number of other factors could have contributed to this increase: changing sexual mores, ghettoisation etc. Moreover, while the economist in me says that people respond to incentives, I find it difficult to accept that people choose to become solo parents because they can get money for it. Sure it decreases the disincentives, but being a solo parent generally isn't a lot of fun to begin with. I think the natural disincentives are pretty big. If people don't respond to them, then I don't know that cutting their benefit is going to help. And it'll certainly hit the children. Promoting the benefits of nuclear families might be alright. But I'm not sure punishing the single parents is a good idea.

I'd welcome the views of anyone who actually knows anything about this.
WHEN DID CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGE BECOME SO SEXY? Labour abolishes the Privy Council, Winston Peters is calling for binding citizens-initiated referenda (No Right Turn has a nice post on this here - I'm personally not sympathetic to binding referenda but I'll leave that for another time) and now Peter Dunne is proposing a written Constitution. I'd have to see more details before I could make any call on this last one, but I can't say I see any particular need myself. Does anyone really care?
WHAT'S SO BAD ABOUT PRAGMATISM ANYWAY?: Speaking in favour of tough restrictions on on the sex industry in Auckland, Parenting With Confidence spokeswoman Mary Grant stated:

We ask that the council act for reasons which are not pragmatic at all but which are based on the council's passionate concern for the well-being and safety of children.

Why do people detest pragmatism so much? It seems like some bizarre form of shoot-the-messenger: "when reality gets in the way, I'd rather just beat up on the person who points it out than actually deal with it." I don't get it.

NB: There is an older meaning of pragmatic, which I suspect Mary'd be more in favour of: "Active in an officious or meddlesome way."
WHO NEEDS FAITH WHEN YOU'VE GOT BILL ENGLISH?: On Monday, Kiwi Pundit stated that:

I'm not sure whether Zaoui's detention is unjust, because we don't know what classified information they have. It seems doubtful that one person would be singled out like this for no reason at all.

No Right Turn was quick to claim that we cannot take this on faith, and to argue that

[i]f the government wants to lock someone up, they should prove it in a court, before a jury - or at worst, before a panel of judges in camera. But they should not be allowed to imprison people simply because they've convinced themselves that it is justified.

However, tradition has a different way of dealing with these matters: briefing the Leader of the Opposition. If anyone's likely to jump all over a government they believe is doing something wrong, it's them. So what does the (now ex-) Leader of our faithful opposition have to say about the matter: Bill English reckons that there is substance to the claims the Zaoui is a security risk and that he is "more than satisfied the Government is going down the right path."

I'm with KP.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003
WE ARE EXPERIENCING TECHINCAL DIFFICULTIES: The site template has been temporarily bloggered ... doesn't appear to have affected anything apart from the links. Should have them back shortly.

UPDATE: All better. (Well, almost.)
HOME HOME HOME HOME HOME: I'm coming home today! I'm coming home! I'm taking off from dreary dark England after more than a year away, and returning to the place my heart never really left. 10 hours and counting.
Monday, November 24, 2003
WHY THE MASSACHUSETTS COURT WAS WRONG: A couple of other NZ blogs have endorsed last week's Massachusetts' Supreme Court decision that a prohibition on gay marriage breached the state's constitution, and the human rights of the gay couples. I myself made similar comments following a similar decision in Canada earlier this year. Before embarking upon what follows, I should make it clear that I have not, in any way, changed my opinion in the intervening time. I believe now, as I did then, that the denial of the benefits of marriage to gay couples is unjustified. If it were up to me, I would allow gay couples to marry.

Nonetheless, I am not sure that I think the position taken by the Massachusetts Court was a good thing. My qualms about the decision are not legal ones: I do not know enough of Massachusetts constitutional law to pass judgement on the legal, as opposed to moral, reasoning of the judges in the case. However, I do have serious concerns about the desirability of judges making this sort of decision.

I have argued previously that most rights arguments likely to come before courts are not susceptible of easy answers, and for this reason would be better entrusted to democratically elected legislatures. However, I also noted there that the situation may be a little different in two particular instances.

The first concerns democratic rights: questions of who gets to vote, how electoral boundaries are drawn or whether we should adopt proportional representation are ones in which politicians have a vested interest, which may create a presumption that these things should be decided by courts, referenda or perhaps other more impartial bodies. The vested interests of the large parties in the FPP voting system in NZ, and what the US euphemistically calls "redistricting" (read gerrymandering) are prime examples of the potential effect this can have.

The second concerns minority rights. Unless somehow protected, the argument goes, majoritarian democracies will display a tendency to trample the rights of particular minorites, whether they be indigenous or immigrant groups, religious minorities, or those of a frowned-upon sexual orientation. Hence judicial review. It is this that provides the prima facie case for judicial intervention in the issue of gay marriage.

This view is not without problems. Just because legislators may make "bad" decisions, we should not necessarily rush into the arms of judicial review: after all, the judges might be even worse. (As Churchill noted, democracy is the worst possible form of government, apart from everything else.) Indeed, there are examples of judicial complicity in gross human rights violations (the usual example is Korematsu v US, where the Supreme Court upheld the forced internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, though I think the Supreme Court's decision in that case was acceptable on the ground that it lacked the knowledge necessary to decide whether the measure was justified under the circumstances). And there certainly exist "enlightened" legislatures that have overcome the potential problems of majoritarianism in providing for minority rights (e.g. the Scandinavian countries allowing civil unions).

Nonetheless, I still think that, on balance, judges are likely to better balance minority with majority rights than legislatures. (At least provided the appointment process remains apolitical: otherwise judges simply function as a majoritarian parliament with 20 year electoral terms - the worst of both worlds.) If this were the only consideration, I would have only slight hesitation about endorsing judicial review on this basis.

But there is another, more practical problem. Although courts may make better decisions on balance, it is doubtful whether this will give better results. This might happen if a judicial decision were the end of the matter - the judgment is handed down, and the court's opinion implemented. But that's not how it happens in the real world. The unfavourable majority does not simply evaporate as a result of judicial fiat. Indeed, the opposite can happen, and has happened in the United States: rather than packing their bags and going home, an adverse ruling may instead provide a "moral majority" with a rallying point for action.

This not only increases the likelihood that a democratic legislature will, bowing to political pressure, attempt to subvert, circumvent, or simply overturn judicial decisions (perhaps through increasing politicisation of the appointments process), it also has the potential to irrevocably polarise public debate on the issue, and to prevent reasonable compromise solutions from emerging. Although in a different context, this is precisely what appears to have happened in relation to the abortion debate in the US (see e.g. "The War that Never Ends"), and could happen similarly here. By pushing for gay marriage (as opposed to the civil union solution adopted in Scandinavia and Vermont), the Massachusett's court may have done more damage to the cause of gay rights than it did good. The decision has again prompted calls for an amendement to the federal constitution, and probably alienated that section of the public who would wear civil unions, but draw the line at marriage. (Indeed, this is already the ground being staked out by those "serious" Democratic aspirants to the White House who do not opposed the idea completely.)

For this reason, it may be that the courts' "impartiality" is actually their weakness: their tendency to adopt purer, more principled solutions, rather than attempting to seek acceptable compromises, undermines their ability to actually achieve change, and instead results in either endless partisan to-ing and fro-ing or the majority trampling that it originally sought to avoid.

Why can't everyone just get on?

P.S. I think it interesting to note the potential for a similar dynamic to emerge in NZ in relation to Treaty issues. The legalisation of the Waitangi Tribunal and the rights discourse surrounding it may ultimately do more damage to the Maori cause than good, because it tends to eschew compromise solutions, and prevents (in the language of namby-pamby psychoanalysis) "true healing" to take place.
LOOK ON MY WORKS, YE MIGHTY, AND DESPAIR: The NZ blogworld has spawned a clone at Nation States, an online simulation game. We've all been encouraged (by each other) to create a nation reflecting our politics. It's a fun site, if a little slow-moving at first. NZPols has taken up residence in Zealandia (naturally) as The Allied States of Couture and Catwalk. Our flag is dope.
Sunday, November 23, 2003
HA! Well, it would have been nice if they'd done this six months ago, before I spent my summer hanging around offices all day in Quito, waiting for my research subjects to finally turn up and be interviewed.

Ecuador has started a national "punctuality" campaign, the Economist reports.

About time.
Friday, November 21, 2003
YOU CAN"T ALWAYS JUDGE PEOPLE BY THE COMPANY THEY KEEP: From No Right Turn:

National Party Corrections spokesman Tony Ryall is outraged by a UN finding that our preventative detention system is breaches [sic] human rights. His response? "NZ decides its justice laws, not UN". But perhaps Ryall should be aware of the company he is keeping here. National sovereignty is the same excuse used by China, Cuba, and every other shitty despotism with an appalling human rights record. We don't accept it from them, so why should anyone accept it from us?

He doesn't have comments (hint) so I have to respond here:

How about because we're a liberal democracy and they're not?

This may sound snide, but it's not. I haven't had a chance to look at the ruling in any detail yet (and frankly, after reading the abysmal coverage in the Dom-Post I'm none the wiser as to what the actual issues are). But the key point to remember with just about any human rights issue is that there are usually legitimate differences of opinion over whether the right balance has been struck between individual rights and the common interest. It is unlikely that one side of this debate will be obviously right and the other obviously wrong. So if you favour the UN's opinion over ours, then you need to have reasons why you think they're better at striking the balance than NZ's democratically elected legislature. If, like me, you're sceptical of the idea that there are 'right' answers to these questions at all, then you'll probably come down on the side of democracy.

I have the impression that a lot of the UN Human Rights Committee's time gets wasted with (comparatively) minor and often quite debatable cases from rich countries with decent human rights records, instead of focusing on the countries where real and obvious improvements are required. This has the unfortunate side effect of continually raising the bar for many nations in the latter group, and potentially discouraging them from reform even more (a kind of "we're never going to meet their standards anyway so why bother?" type effect).

On the other hand, there is something to be said for the argument that countries like NZ should follow these rulings because otherwise other countries won't: despite the fact that we may think the HRC is wrong, coming into line may be the price we pay to secure a reasonable standard of human rights in nations with poorer records than ours. It might have been better for the HRC to stay out, but given that it's waded in, perhaps the best solution is to grin and bear it.

Sadly, it seems that (while logically suspect) the rhetorical force of NRT's question has a practical effect.
Thursday, November 20, 2003
JUSTIFIED HYPOCRISY II: It's always struck me as odd that a purportedly socially liberal party like ACT can be so strongly in favour of the traditional nuclear family. Muriel Newman jumps on the cause again today, responding with incredulity to Steve Maharey's claims that he "know[s] of no social science that says a nuclear family is more successful than other kinds."

It's the same old message: free choices are all well and good, unless I happen to think you'd be better off doing as I tell you.

Nonetheless, as I've said before, inconsistent with ACT's principles doesn't mean wrong. And in fact, Muriel's spot on with respect to the factual point. We've all seen the statistics she obligingly recites:

Swedish research - involving almost a million children - found that children growing up in single-parent households are twice as likely to suffer mental illness, commit suicide or develop an alcohol-related disease than children who live with both parents.

Meanwhile, British research shows that children whose parents are not married are more than twice as likely to have under-age sex and have unwanted pregnancies.

US research has also found that the safest environment for a child is where `the biological parents are married and the family has always been intact', and that `the rate of abuse is 14 times higher if the child is living with a biological mother who lives alone'.


You may agree with Steve that we shouldn't attempt "to reinforce any particular kind of family structure", and you would have a variety of defensible grounds for doing so (you might think it wouldn't accomplish anything, or that it's better to work on improving outcomes for those in single parent households for example) but to claim that children in solo parent families aren't in general worse off that those in traditional nuclear ones seems pretty far fetched.
Monday, November 17, 2003
JUSTIFIED HYPOCRISY: Accusing people (mostly politicians) of hypocrisy is one of my favourite things. I find a strange sadistic joy in telling people how their their actions belie some of their most cherished beliefs - especially when those people are ACT. From proposing tougher enforcement of drug laws and nationalisation of Maori property (which, to their credit, they later u-turned on), to attempting to use party-hopping legislation that they still believe is an ass to remove Donna Awatere-Huata, ACT consistently stretch the credibility of their claim to be parliament's only party of principle.

Just for a change, I thought I'd point out a case of justified 'hypocrisy' on their part. Today, Rodney Hide laid a complaint with the race relations conciliator over some pretty bizarre comments made by Dr Paparangi Reid, that non-Maori have 'stolen' Maori people's life expectancy. Rodney reckons that this is likely to incite hostility against Pakeha or bring them into contempt, and thus breaches section 61 of the Human Rights Act. Of course, like any good liberal (of the classical variety) Mr. Hide should think the hate speech prohibition contained in that section is an ass. But he's still prepared to use it, and justifiably so.

Mostly, this is because the his complaint is simply designed to illustrate how silly the law is. He doesn't really think it's likely to succeed, and it probably won't. But even if this wasn't the case, and Hide was actually attempting to use the Act to silence political opponents, he would still be justified in doing so. Why? Because it can be okay to do things you think are wrong when it's necessary to counteract other wrongs, or to protect yourself against others using what you think to be illegitimate rights. The alternative would be kind of like refusing to defend yourself against someone who keeps kicking you in the head. I've never really understood pacifism.
Saturday, November 15, 2003
Two great quotes from the front page story of The Times today.

Bush is visiting the UK right now, the Times reports. Oddly, the following paragraph -- containing the first great quote -- is missing from the online version of the story. Here it is in full:

All sides concede that Mr Bush's arrival in London contains the potential for deep political embarrassment. "It seemed like a good idea at the time," one American official said of a three-day visit hatched long before the war.

And both the print and online editions conclude with this quote from Bush himself: “We’re at war. We are at war, see? We’re at war now. We’re at war with terror.”

I remember reading an article a year or so ago about how reporters in the West Wing (the real one) gloss over Bush's malapropisms, staccato phrases and repetitions. They either don't report them, or they 'sanitise' the quotes before they use them.

Seems someone on the Times has a bit more of a sense of humour.
Thursday, November 13, 2003
LEFT WING AGAIN: Just as I was beginning to get comfortable with my newfound rightwingedness, someone comes up with another test that says I'm left-wing again. According to Political Survey, which some are touting as superior to the political compass, I score as follows:

left/right -1.9899 (-0.1198)
pragmatism +7.4081 (+0.4459)

(The numbers in brackets are on a scale of -1 to 1, and are probably a better indication than the raw figures.)

I have to say I don't like the rebundling of social conservatism/liberalism, nationalism, and economic considerations (which I guess is responsible for my 'leftward' shift). I think it shuts out important distinctions within the traditional right-left wing spectrum that the political compass test brings out. Moreover, though I am glad of my apparent pragmatism, I actually have no idea what the second axis is trying to measure.
Tuesday, November 11, 2003
FREEDOM OF SPEECH IV: NRT is onto it now. See his latest posts here and here. (Although I should note as a disclaimer that I wasn't seriously suggesting that University funding be assigned explicitly according to political viewpoint. The post below was just musing.)
NEW SUPREME COURT JUSTICES: Have been announced. They are:

- Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias (ex officio)
- Justice Thomas Munro Gault
- Justice Sir Kenneth James Keith
- Justice Peter Blanchard
- Justice Andrew Patrick Charles Tipping.

Now, it's been too long since I've studied law seriously for me to remember the ideological bents of the above mentioned justices, and it's too late to go hunting through judgments to refresh my memory. But elevating the most senior Court of Appeal judges seems pretty sensible to me. I'd be interested to know what the Supreme Court conspiracy theorists think about them. Also interesting to note that they're all Privy Council members.

UPDATE - RIGHT WING BIAS ON NATIONAL RADIO (SHOCK, HORROR!): Law Professor and sometime NBR columnist James Allan was discussing this on National Radio this morning. His take: elevating the most senior Court of Appeal judges was "the best of a bad situation." He made sure to emphaise the "bad situation" part and not talk about the "best of" unless absolutely necessary. He also noted a degree of disappointment at the way we now look at judges through ideological goggles. But of course, commentators like himself, who took every opportunity to talk about how the Supreme Court was going to be turned into a Margaret Wilson fan club (and have now been proven completely wrong) had nothing to do with that.

UPDATE II: ACT's response is mixed. Although expressing reservations about the size of the Court and the potential for activist judges to be appointed to vacancies, Stephen Franks seemed to accept that the appointments make the Supreme Court more palatable.
Monday, November 10, 2003
MORE NRT BASHING: In another post, this time on the four weeks leave issue, NRT writes that the delay in introducing the measure:

is a perfect example of the problem with the Labour party at the moment - that they are now more interested in cosying up to the business community than in standing up for their traditional ideals. And when they do do something that benefits ordinary people, it's done so grudingly you get the impression that their heart just isn't in it. While they haven't sold out as much as Tony Blair, they're well on the way...

Now this is what I'd expect unions to say publicly: it's their job. But as a serious political comment it's silly. On the contrary, the willingness to listen, albeit grudgingly, to business is exactly what's right (no pun intended) with Labour at the moment. It's the shift to the centre, which occasionally entails listening to people other than unions, that is keeping Labour in power. Moreover, (and contrary to what most on the left appear to think) this is even more important now that National are beginning to look like a viable alternative government.

In any event, if Labour wanted to cosy up to business, it could have picked a better way to do it. The 3 and a half year delay doesn't do much to change the fact that this is going to cost NZ business a bucketload. The left did far better out of this that the right (it remains to be seen whether workers will be any better off, or whether there will just be fewer of them), and they shouldn't knock the 'sop' to business if it helps keep Labour in power. Ideological purity is a waste of time if you don't have your hands on the purse strings.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH III: In his most recent post on the freedom of speech spat (which I've commented on previously here), No Right Turn makes some interesting comments about what would be required for the state to considered to be acting in a 'neutral and impartial manner' with respect to political speech.

It must not discriminate on the basis of belief in the benefits it assigns, and it cannot apply political content tests to recipients of government funding. Its expectations in funding academic institutions can only be in terms of measures such as papers published, research done, or students graduated.

I share the sentiment, but I'm not sure it's implementation is correct. Assuming logistical difficulties could be overcome, would there be anything inherently wrong with saying that all political views were to receive an equal pool of funding, or a pool of funding commensurate with their support amongst the general population, or some mixture of the two? (In fact, I believe that something like this dictates allocations of advertising time for political parties in the leadup to elections: it would be absurd to allocate time on the basis of ads produced.) All of these explicitly take account of the content of political speech, but they're not obviously in breach of the content neutral test. Content neutral doesn't necessarily mean content blind.

In fact, this throws up an interesting possibility: that the US measures NRT reviles so much, might actually be justified on the basis of a very left-wing idea: affirmative action. The left wing bias of the US Academy is well-documented. Assuming you buy into affirmative action to begin with, it could ground a defensible case for reducing support for left wing views. It doesn't play particularly well with the 'marketplace of ideas' justification of free speech, which is probably why I don't buy it myself. But I'm sure you could work it into a decent argument.
THE BUSINESS: Charles, Diana, Camilla, Rape Tape, Paul Burrell, Michael Fawcett, gin and Bolly, libel, scandal, gossip, gay. If you want to know where to find the "internet rumours" are that the mainstream media keeps referring to, they're here. Keep scrolling down.
Sunday, November 09, 2003
RAWLS AND THE LAW: Lawrence Solum has excellent coverage of the Rawls and the Law conference held at Fordham this weekend (12 posts in total!). Start here and scroll up.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH PT. II: No Right Turn argues that "a bill requiring university international studies departments to show more support for US foreign policy or risk having their funding cut ... is about as gross an attack on academic freedom as you can get short of locking people up."

Running Blog Capitalist responds - arguing that "if you're for government control of this and government control of that, like leftists are, you shouldn't be surprised if mommy doesn't give you your allowance if you're being a pottymouth. This isn't an attack on any kind of freedom. Universities are still free to say whatever they want. Just not with funding from a public that is largely supportive of its government's foreign policy."

The first point is just silly pointscoring: it amounts to saying "if you like anything that government does, you have to like everything it does." (Yeah, what's with democracy anyway?)

Nonetheless, the second point has a little more substance to it: the US Government isn't infringing the right to freedom of expression at all, if you interpret the right in the traditional, negative sense. That right doesn't require government funding be provided for particular political views to be aired, and to suggest it does is misguided. However, that doesn't save the measure, because what the US Government is doing is discriminating on the basis of political opinion in how it chooses to recognise the right. I'm no expert on the equal protection provisions of the US Constitution, but I'm pretty sure that in NZ you'd have a fair argument that this is a breach of the section 19 of the Bill of Rights Act. And with good reason: Universities shouldn't be mouthpieces for government propaganda.

This spat between NRT and RBC is especially interesting in light of recent right wing commentary by Jim Allan in the NBR, that National Radio should be more balanced in its coverage. I'm with Jim and against RBC: if government is going to be involved in funding the production of political speech (and there are reasons to suggest it should be), it needs to be balanced.

UPDATE: They're still at it. NRT responds. RBC counter-responds. NRT has another go. And so does RBC. Unfortunately, they're still fixated on the freedom of speech point, and are consequently talking past each other.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH PT. I: Yesterday's Herald reports that a "school teacher, Paul Barry Hopkinson, 37, of Porirua, has become the first New Zealander convicted of burning the national flag," and faces a fine of up to $5000. All courtesy of section 11(1)(b) of the Flags Emblems and Names Protections Act 1981, which provides that:

Every person commits an offence against this Act who ... in or within view of any public place, uses, displays, destroys, or damages the New Zealand Flag in any manner with the intention of dishonouring it.

Whether you agree with the guy or not (he was protesting against Australian support for the war on Iraq) he should be entitled to express his opinions publicly in any way he sees fit (provided he's not burning other people or other people's stuff). That's democracy.

I haven't seen the judgment, but I would have thought this would be a perfect case for a declaration of inconsistency with section 14 of the Bill of Rights Act.
Friday, November 07, 2003
IDENTITY CRISIS: Tim Lambert has a nice wee graph showing where various bloggers are on the political compass test.

I generally hate tests like this that try to jam you into what are invariably rather ill-fitting boxes, but I took it anyway - in fact I took it three times (in an attempt to account for varying interpretations of some of the questions). Anyway, it appears that I (and a few others) may have to be a little more careful about referring to myself as 'left'. Left of the majority of the NZ Blogosphere to be sure - but the fact that, in two out of three attempts, I ended up marginally right wing, probably confirms suspicions of a somewhat schizophrenic centrism.

My friends in the National party will be well pleased. Sigh. At least my libertarian credentials haven't been too badly damaged.
Tuesday, November 04, 2003
MAKES ME HOMESICK: This site, an old Neil Finn relic, contains a really beautiful amalgam of atmospheric music and gorgeous representations of (what I imagine is) the landscape around Waimarama. Stirs my soul, anyway. You need to click on "Land" in "Old and New" then play around, click some pictures, go a bit cross-eyed and misty, to make it really cool.

Of course, preferably, you'd be stuck in wintering England where it got dark today at 4.30pm and it rains all the time and you'd be looking forward to November when you were hopping on a plane and getting out somewhere that looked a lot like the pictures.
IRAQ INRAGED:This, from NZPundit, is brilliant:

I've read through this twice now looking for the smallest hint of irony or acknowledgment of parodic elements.

IRAQ’S football coach yesterday denounced the United States-led coalition for ignoring the needs of the national team and threatened to resign unless authorities help the squad prepare for the upcoming Asian championships.

"In a country without any working cinemas or theatres, where people are afraid to go out at night, the successes of our team are a matter of huge national pride," he said. "That’s important for the return of normalcy. Doesn’t the coalition, doesn’t Paul Bremer understand this?"


I think things are better in Iraq than the NYT tells us.

Monday, November 03, 2003
TE REO EVERYDAY: Doing some research for an essay about Maori and the GM issue, I came across this Maori dictionary. It's pretty awesome. I entered "mauri" and came up with 49 contextualised references for all occasions:

Sports advice:
Ko te ringa taumauri e mau ana i te hoe àkau ka toa i nga whakataetae.
A cool hand on the steering paddle wins races.

Sex advice:
Kia ai te tangata ka eke ki te tokomauri.
People can have an orgasm when they copulate.

and, um, Treaty claim advice:
Mauria te reta nei ki te ròia.
Deliver this letter to the lawyer.


He wehe kè te mauri o to màtau komiti à iwi i to te kaporeihana whenua.
Our tribal committee and the land incorporation are entirely separate entities.
Saturday, November 01, 2003
EVEN MORE TAXING: On a slightly different note ... does anyone know of any empirical evidence regarding the comparative effects of high end tax cuts vs. low end ones? The debate about the overall tax burden doesn’t say much one way or the other about where tax cuts should come, and a lower initial tax rate would seem preferable from a welfare-to-work perspective.
TAXING: Kiwi Pundit responds to my doubts about the positive revenue effects of tax cuts, by claiming that eventually (after 20 years or so) compounding GDP growth will bring revenue back up to its former level. NZPundit approvingly follows suit.

Now, it may be that we’ve been talking past each other. If tax cuts promote growth, then of course at some point following tax cuts, tax receipts will eventually get back to their original level. I certainly never claimed otherwise. My problem is with the implication that this means tax cuts are a good thing from a government revenue perspective. (I realise that KP never explicitly claimed that they were, but it’s this latter claim that actually matters. If it’s wrong, then who cares whether the tax take will reach it’s old level in 50 years’ time.)

This latter point all depends on how you weigh up current costs against future benefits. Once both are taken into account, it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that tax cuts will reduce government revenue.

To begin with, it may well be that tax cuts don’t actually affect an economy’s long run growth path, but simply provide a once-off boost to GDP: growth rises temporarily, but ultimately settles back to a rate that has nothing to do with the tax burden. Indeed, this is the case made by the IRD study KP links to in his post (which, incidentally, also argues that government revenue would fall if a growth optimizing tax rate were adopted).

[T]he neoclassical growth model also implies that changes in a country’s tax structure should have no impact on its long run growth rate. Such changes allow a country to move to a higher or lower level of economic activity, but the new long run path grows at the same rate as the old long run path.

And then, after discussing the empirical data:

consistent with the neoclassical model of economic growth, a one-off shock to the tax system has no impact on the long run rate of economic growth. It does, however, allow the economy to shift to a higher level of output, and so during the transition period (which may be long) the rate of growth accelerates.

In fact, while KP’s examples suggest a growth optimizing tax rate could increase our long run growth by about 3.5%, the IRD paper suggests instead a one-off GDP increase of just under 17% (which is about enough to sustain a 3.5% pa increase for 5 years).

Assuming this is correct, cutting tax to the optimal rate would result in a drop in the present value of tax revenue of between 1/3 and 1/5, depending on your assumptions about the level of the current tax burden. (This result doesn’t appear to be greatly affected by the discount rate used.)
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