Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Hack on blogs

The mainstream media has another look at blogs.  According to Philip Matthews at The Press, "left wingers" blog because they have to ("to do something about the Right’s dominance of the blogosphere" apparently), "right wingers" blog because they're angry, and "far-Right bloggers" -- well, they're all just "bottom feeders."  So much for the in-depth analysis of Mr Matthews.

As for libertarian bloggers like Lindsay Perigo and Liberty Scott and Lance Davey (and that's just libertarians starting with 'L'), we don't even exist -- although if we did exist I'd suggest libertarians blog because they'd like the world to be a freer place, and because they have a low tolerance for bullshit, big government and other braindead nonsense. On the latter, Mathews mostly qualifies.

UPDATE: Most of the cast who appeared in Mathews's piece are discussing it at Kiwiblog, as they are at the SubStandard, Kiwiblogbog and Sprout & Bean,

Historian in the house

I'm very excited about something, and let me tell you what.

It's said that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are bound to be bitten in the arse by the lessons they failed to learn.  As science fiction writer John Wood Campbell used to say, "It's not so much that History repeats herself, it's that sometimes she screams 'Won't you ever listen to what I'm trying to tell you?' and lets fly with a club."

Now, like many of you I certainly failed to learn from the history that was delivered at school.  There wasn't much of it, and what there was was mostly nonsense delivered poorly.  Historian Scott Powell wants to change that: arguing that philosophy killed history (read his four-part series on that argument: Part one, two, three and four), he's put together an online history course for adults that differs markedly from any history course you've yet encountered because it recognises how we actually acquire and use knowledge -- and I'm going to 'attend' the next one, on 'The Islamic Entanglement,' right from the comfort of my own house.  That's why I'm excited.  Explains Scott,

The Islamist Entanglement is part of [an online] history program I call "A First History for Adults." I developed this program because I realized there were many adults out there who want to learn history but have no place to start. Time and time again I've seen adult students who are committed to learning about the past ask historians in frustration, "Where can I get started?" It's one thing to enjoy a book or lecture by a great historian; it's another thing to actually gain knowledge for yourself. It doesn't just happen by being exposed to someone else's expertise...

My aim is to create a presentation of history that specifically builds upon the context of knowledge of the average educated adult, and allows you to create a real foundation of knowledge. I help students create a "skeleton" or framework upon which more elaborate research and abstract thinking can be profitably pursued. Probably the most important thing that I do is eradicate as many non-essential facts as possible, and then show how the really pivotal ones can be grouped into useful historical abstractions, called "periods." It's not a magic serum, but it is the most productive way to build general historical knowledge.

Gus Van Horn sayss "History as taught by Mr. Powell is not just fascinating. It is powerful stuff!" And Diana Hsieh reckons learning history with Scott Powel is "like nothing I've ever experienced before, either in school, with my history reading, or from Objectivists."

I'm finally learning -- and really learning, not just hearing in one ear and out the other -- and integrated, essentialized history. Now, when I read more detailed accounts of some era or event, I'll not just be able to place that new material in a clear context, but I'll also be able to use his methods to essentialize, integrate, and retain that new knowledge. So I cannot recommend his "First History" course highly enough.

Learn more about Scott's history project at his website or his blog, or by reading Ed Cline's interview with him about the upcoming course.  And you can find out more about the course on Islamist Entanglement and sign up for it here and here

Oh, and if you want to prepare for the course, here's the latest posts on Scott's Middle East Milestones series on some of the key developments that have shaped the region.

I wish they *didn't* work so hard

Poneke posts on how hard most politicians work, poor lambs, which gives an indication of just how motivated one must be to spend all that time dreaming up and implementing schemes to do us over.

Frankly, I'd rather have my MPs working less.  Much less.  In fact, I"d like to see all one-hundred and twenty-one MPs take Judith Tizard as their model, and attempt to emulate her work rate -- or lack thereof.

The country would be a much better place, I assure you.

Reason, freedom, and raising fine children

A guest post here by Brian Scurfield, who argued recently that the future of liberty depends on the idea taking root that it is possible to educate children in a coercion free environment.  He lays out his argument in this post.

What I want to argue in this post is that the way we treat our children is intertwined with the future of liberty.

Most parents want to give their children a good education and to inculcate in their children good values and respect for reason. Yet, despite these intentions, our education system has failed our children. Why is this? Is it simply a case that the problem lies with State schools and that all will be well and good if schools were privatized? While privatization would be a step in the right direction, I don't think this in itself would solve the problem. For the problem is much deeper than just a question of who should run the schools. The problem in fact lies with some deeply entrenched ideas about how children should be raised.

In their starkest form, these ideas hark back to the old idea that "to spare the rod is to spoil the child". Of course, most parents today would find this idea abhorrent, and rightly so, yet many parents are willing in one form or another to practice coercion on their children. They would argue that coercion is necessary to get their children to learn, that it is OK to coerce children because children, after all, are not miniature adults and that parents have more knowledge and experience than children.

I would like to ask these parents how you can inculcate reason if you are willing to employ coercion?

A person that employs coercion to inculcate reason demonstrates by their very actions that reason - not to mention liberty - can be overridden in the pursuit of a goal. But these things can't be overridden: Not only will you probably not achieve your goal or getting a child to learn, you will end up with a whole lot of bad and unintended consequences. Many of these you may not even become aware of.

There is a link between the inculcation of reason and freedom from coercion.

The idea that coercion should play no part at all in child-rearing apparently is an idea that many people, including libertarians, have difficulty accepting. Libertarians often pull out the property-rights argument, that it's my house and my rules. Yet this is to confuse one's legal rights with one's moral obligations. Just because you think your child shouldn't be watching that soap opera doesn't mean it is a morally right for you to simply turn off the TV. Just because you think your child should be attending Auckland Grammar doesn't mean you should force your child to go there.

You can't just raise a child any way you please. That is to deny that children are people possessed of ideas, motivations, and a will of their own. It is also to deny how knowledge is created.

Children are not buckets that you pour ideas into. Children learn best when their learning is self-directed and governed by interest. It's how you learn best isn't it? Young children are naturally inquisitive, but it is only too easy to stamp out that inquisitiveness through coercion.

Parental authoritarianism and thinking "I know best" is just as corrosive as State authoritarianism.

Furthermore, if "knowing best" gives you the right to coerce your child, then that argument will be used against you by others who claim more knowledge and more experience than you. Which, of course, it is.

It is because the creation of knowledge and the inculcation of reason are strongly intertwined with freedom from coercion that the future of liberty depends on how we treat our children. A future libertarian society is going to require lots of new knowledge, including knowledge about freedom, but that knowledge will not be won, nor that society last, if children are not allowed the freedom to control the contents of their own minds.

I believe it is possible to educate a child in an environment free from coercion. This doesn't mean that you become a doormat for your child or that what your child says goes. But how is it possible? Well, it requires lots of things. It requires acknowledgement that both you and your child are fallible, that one or both of you may be wrong, that problems can be solved through reason, that by working with your child you can find a common preference where nobody need get hurt. Yes, these things may not always be easy, but that's no excuse for not trying. The whole approach is called Taking Children Seriously.

Minds beat stomachs

Most of you will know of the famous Paul Erhlich v Julian Simon bet.   For a decade beginning in 1968, Ehrlich insisted the population is exploding, resources are running out, and we're all gonna die. Our time is up, he reckoned:

  • The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. Population control is the only answer.
    —Paul Ehrlich, in The Population Bomb (Ballantine Books 1968)
  • I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.
    —Paul Ehrlich in (1969)
  • In ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.
    —Paul Ehrlich, Earth Day (1970)
  • Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity…in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion.
    —Paul Ehrlich in (1976)

Ehrlich was taken seriously at the time, and his arguments are taken seriously still by Russel Norman and the Greens.  Economist Julian Simon was one of the few at the time to call Ehrlich's bluff. Simon maintained that more people meant more opportunities, not less, the reason being (as Owen McShane summarises) "that minds outperform stomachs" -- as we get more minds with access to more knowledge and producing more and more innovations, then minds win by an ever growing margin

Ehrlich was so outraged by Simon's argument that in 1980 (by which time the paucity of dead fish should already have told him something) he accepted a bet with him.  Simon invited Ehrlich to choose a basket of goods that he insisted would rise in value by 1990 due to their increasing scarcity. Wikipedia summarises:

The essence of Simon's position in the bet was that, despite the population growth that was sure to occur during the 1980s, the effective supply of natural resources would increase during this decade because human beings would figure out how to find, extract and use such resources more efficiently.

And the surest measure of this increased supply would be lower inflation-adjusted prices of resources.

Convinced that higher population is a curse, Ehrlich accepted the $1,000 bet. He chose (for Simon gave Ehrlich the choice of which resources to bet on) a bundle of copper, chromium, nickel, tin and tungsten and bet Simon that the real price of this bundle of resources would be higher in 1990 than in 1980.

In 1990 the prices in September of that year were compared to the prices of these resources in September 1980. Simon won convincingly. The real price of each of these five resources had fallen over the course of that decade, indicating that their supplies had grown even though human population had also grown by more than 800 million during that same time.

So over the decade of 1980-1990, Ehrlich was proved comprehensively wrong -- which in the way of such people hasn't stopped him mouthing off since. (On the release of Bjorn Lomborg's book Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World in 2001, Ehrlich ranted, "If Lomborg had done some arithmetic, he could have . . . spared us a book as thick as a brick and almost as intelligent." And if Ehrlich had spared us his comment, he might have spared us forming for ourselves the fairly obvious conclusion about himself...)

There are some who still insist the result of the bet was just bad luck.  That the decade chosen was unfortunate. That concern has now been summarily dismissed by economist Don Boudreaux, who wondered recently what would happen if the same bet had happened over the decade from 1990-2000.

As Mark Perry summarises, the result would have been the same:

Simon would have won again (see chart below), since all of the metals declined in real price except for tungsten, and the average price decline of the 5-commodity group was -19%.

Case closed.  Again.  Minds still beat stomachs.  Always will.


Mrs Thomas Gale House - Frank Lloyd Wright (1904)

                                          S098 Laura R Gale Residence (1904) 2

Mrs Thomas Gale House  by Frank Lloyd Wright (1904), in Oak Park, Chicago.

                                           A2 Frank Lloyd Wright - Gale House - Oak Park
Interpretive model below:


Monday, 18 February 2008

Fonterra fallout

With Fonterra's reform plan 'dead in the water,' dairy farmers and commenters such as the bloggers at The SubStandard demonstrate today they understand nothing about either international trade, innovation or capital markets. Meanwhile, in commenting on the whole affair and on dairy farmers' irrational favouring of real estate over innovation, Bernard Hickey shows he knows an awful lot -- particularly about "NZ investors addicted to mediocrity."

Silenced by sex?

Deborah Coddington defends the wetness of Katherine Rich.  Rich was right to resign, says Coddington, and right to resist her former leader's welfare policy requiring a bare minimum of responsibility in those receiving the taxpayers' involuntary largesse.

How could Rich, mother of two very small children and sitting pretty on a substantial taxpayer-funded salary, tell struggling beneficiaries to live on the smell of oily rags?

Lindsay Mitchell answers the question that Deborah clearly hoped would remain rhetorical:

If Katherine refused to say these things because it made her feel personally hypocritical or, heaven forbid, judgemental, then she was either letting her opponents silence her or she was in the wrong party...

Since National is the party of never saying what you pretend to believe in, the latter clearly can't be true.  Can it.  In any case, Mitchell sees more than a whiff of collectivism in Coddington's comments on Rich's whinge.  After all, surely it's not a matter of who says something but of whether or not they're right?

Hell, do we have to find a beneficiary to stand on a soap box before anyone will listen? In fact, that is what political parties do. They buy into this nonsense. Get a Maori or you can't credibly talk about matters Maori. Get someone who used to be on the DPB so we can talk about welfare credibly... But this is just collectivist crap. Your skin colour, your sex, your sexual orientation are NOT more important than the ideas that drive you...

Too right.  Something Ms Coddington, Mrs Rich and America's registered Democrats might all care to reflect on.

Mohammed Idol

mohammed_cartoon In solidarity with the brave Danish cartoonists and publishers of the Mohammed cartoons who have elected to republish them "as a nose-thumb against the plotters and the unspeakable wannabe tyranny they represent," and with the Danish Prime Minister who has so staunchly defended their republication with the telling remark that "in Denmark, we have freedom not only to think and talk, but also to draw," SOLO has announced the Mohammed Idol competition: your images of the "prophet" Mohammed, to be judged in various categories such as,

  • Most Humorous,
  • Best Political Satire,
  • Best Swimsuit,
  • Best Image in a Compromising Position, and
  • the Grand Prix: Image Most Likely To Get You Killed.

The winner is promised 72 virgins, gender of choice, in THIS life.  Do be careful what you wish for.

It's saving, stupid

How many times have you seen stories telling us: "Stockmarkets surged on the back of a rise in consumer spending."  Or, more recently, "The Dow and Nasdaq slipped on Friday on concerns about consumer spending ."

What the headlines describe is sheer foolishness, but nowhere near as scary as headlines announcing "President George W. Bush has signed the two-year, $168 billion economic stimulus package, hoping to pump spending money into the ailing American economy."

No wonder the American economy is ailing when it's 'conventional wisdom' such as this that guides those who like to meddle with it.  The conventional wisdom that consumer activity is all good is not just all wrong, it's destructively and provably and always wrong.  What drives economic growth is not consumption, it's saving -- as George Reisman explains here.  It's long, but until you understand his point you're not qualified either to meddle or to comment intelligently on the meddlers.

Obama: No change at all, really

If Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama stands for anything, he stands for "change."  Up to now, that's the only policy plank he's promoted.

Change?  In what direction?  As Liberty Scott discovers in examining Obama's economics policies, it looks like a "change" towards even bigger government.

In other words, not much of a change at all.  No wonder America's Marxists are backing him, as Trevor Loudon has been tirelessly pointing out.

UPDATE:  An anonymous commenter gets it right:

His policies are "change" as in "small change," which is what will be left of taxpayers money after he has had his bite.

Should you ever lie to a thief? (updated)

The return of the cache of stolen war medals including the medals of Charles Upham to Waiouru Army Museum has opened a debate on the method by which they were recovered, particularly on the question of whether is appropriate to lie to thief to gain the return of that which they stole.

Put simply, do you owe a thief your honesty?

The detective in charge of the recovery Detective Sergeant Bensemann thinks you do -- at least, that's what he says.  Now that the medals have been returned by the thieves, he and his team are "honour bound" he says to stand by their promise to the thieves to pay up for their return as they agreed.

This is certainly a fairly common view of the "honourable" thing to do -- that one should never lie and should always keep your word, no matter what.  I disagree.  There is no moral necessity to keep your word to a criminal -- and no honour to be had in doing so.

The virtue of honesty is defined and described by philosopher Leonard Peikoff as

the refusal to fake reality, ie., to pretend that facts are other than as they are...   The virtue of honesty requires that one face the truth on every issue one deals with: the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Considering the whole truth in this context must include the fact that, first, one is dealing with criminals, ie., those who live by dishonesty -- who make their living by appropriating the values of others; and, second, that moral principles are neither "divine commandments" nor "categorical imperatives" -- they are guides to action applying within a certain framework of conditions; "like all scientific generalizations, therefore, moral principles are absolutes within their conditions.  They are absolutes--contextually."

In other words, there is nothing within the virtue of honesty that compels you tell the truth to someone who would do you over.  You  have no obligation to tell the truth to a Gestapo officer seeking the location of your wife, or to a kidnapper to whom you're promising a  safe escape in return for the release of his hostages, or to a criminal who has returned a collection of war medals in return for reward money and some degree of immunity from prosecution.  In fact, if there is any obligation it is in the reverse direction of that one usually considers; as Peikoff explains, "lying to protect one's values from criminals is not wrong":

If and when a man's honesty becomes a weapon that kidnappers or other wielders of force can use to harm him [or his loved ones], then the normal context is reversed; his virtue would then become a means serving the ends of evil.  In such a case, the victim [or his agents] has not only the right but the obligation  to lie and to do it proudly.

I would like to think that this is the sense of honour understood by men such as Charles Upham VC -- and I'm quietly confident that Detective Sergeant Bensemann feels the same.

UPDATE 1:  The intelligent reader will have noticed that the view of honesty espoused here is based on the Objectivist ethics, a "philosophy for living on earth."  As Greg Salmieri and Alan Gotthelf point out,

Rather than deriving its virtues from a vaguely defined human function, Objectivism takes “Man’s Life” – i.e. that which is required for the survival of a rational animal across its lifespan – as the standard of value. This accounts for the nobility ascribed to production by the Objectivist ethics – it is “the application of reason to the problem of survival."

Unlike the ethics of religionists, Objectivism derives its moral principles not from stone tablets or burning bushes or caliphate commandments  -- not on what's needed to live in heaven or paradise  in some supernatural realm -- but from from the needs of man's survival and flourishing  right here on this earth.

The contrast with religious morality could not be greater: for the Objectivist, moral principles are guides to action intended to enhance and sustain one's life.  For the religionist however, moral principles are divine commandments that act like a ball and chain -- a dogmatic straitjacket commanding one's obedience, even if when talking to a Gestapo officer it could lead to your own  death or that of a loved one.  For the Objectivist, the answer to a Gestapo chief is outside the bounds of morality altogether: morality ends when the Gestapo chief's gun begins.  But for the religionist, telling the truth is an absolute necessity even if it entails the sacrifice of your life and that of your loved ones.

It's no accident then that martyrdom and self-sacrifice are considered virtues by religionists the word over, whereas with Objectivists what's valued is flourishing.  No surprise either to find that Lucyna the Catholic disagrees with me, (as does, incidentally, most of the Muslim world).

UPDATE 2: Matt Flannagan agrees with my conclusion, but disagrees with both my reasoning and my assertion that the religionist is obliged to follow divine commandments without question.  On behalf of her own religious beliefs, Lucyna disagrees with us both.  It's hard to keep up with a religionist!

"Sustainability." Not just a meaningless buzzword

"Sustainability."  Chris Trotter reminds us in yesterday's 'Sunday Star Times' that it's not just a meaningless buzzword, it has "revolutionary social and economic implications":

It means that private enterprise must acknowledge the need for restraint: for regulations that are no longer light-fingered but heavy-handed...

"Sustainability," he concludes, " isn't just a fast track to re-election, it's a clarion call for revolution.

Isn't that what I've been warning you?  "Sustainability" has nothing to do with "future generations -- except to ensure they're both poor and enslaved.  More accurately,  it's the longed-for link for a certain kind of socialist between feel-good environmentalism and do-you-over authoritarianism: making it necessary for the productive to ask permission from the unproductive in order to produce.

Such is the dream of The Trotter, and of others just like him.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Beer O'Clock: Bad Beer! Bad Beer!

Where better to post Neil's first Beer O'Clock post of the year than from the Schnappa Rock bar here at Tutukaka. Here's Neil from Real Beer on some beers best avoided...

One of my favorite beer writers, the incomparable Stephen Beaumont, wrote “it is not ‘just beer,’ it is a noble and ancient beverage which, like wine, food and television advertising, can be extraordinarily good or unmercifully bad."

This edition of Beer O’Clock focuses on the “unmercifully bad.”

When I was just a fledgling beer scribe, an impish brewer said to me: “Yeah, well, you like every beer ever made.” That comment made me stop and think. It certainly wasn’t true. There were plenty of beers so bad I wouldn’t serve them to Al Gore if he was on fire, but at the time it was true that I didn't really write about them. I wanted to concentrate on the positives and talk about all the great beers out there.

Of course, I eventually learned the lesson that most journalists and columnists know – vitriol sells. Readers often like hearing how “unmercifully bad” something is. This tendency applies to everything from sports to politics, from celebrities to food. It certainly includes beer.

My most popular articles have been my most scathing – pummelling the MASH range of “beer” (now defunct) or slating the Loaded Hog in Wellington (just hanging on). So, I thought I would kick off Beer O’Clock for 2008 with a look at three pretty bad beers.

Trying a bottle of Desperados (5.9%) was a first for me. I had never had a French beer flavoured with Tequila before. It was different – but not in a good way. The beer throws up an unusual yet dodgy nose, like a shandy with some lime and even pineapple lurking in the background. The taste is fruity, sour and zesty with a light mouthfeel. It finishes with a sour lemon aftertaste which makes it hard to imagine drinking many of these. If confronted by a Desperados, the best advice is to surrender then run away.

A brand new arrival in New Zealand is Miller Chill (4.2%). It uses a little lime and salt in the brew and is unashamedly made to compete head to head with a Corona. Corona is the Lion Red of Mexico – I’m surely they are secretly (but rightly) laughing at the Gringos paying $10 a bottle for it. Miller Chill is light, soft and has a hint of lime cordial. I had very low expectations and this beer probably just exceeded them. However, there is no way to justify the astronomical price tag the beer carries here. Try a proper pilsner.

My review of Flame Beer (5.2%) prompted a number (two) of furious Letters to the Editor lasting year. My specially convened tasting panel concluded that Flame was “easy to carry, hard to drink”, “has a smell familiar to students who have set their couches on fire” and “I imagine this is what a jandal tastes like”. According to the angry correspondents, I was apparently unable to handle the “power” of Flame. I will let you know when I’ve stopped laughing.

Cheers, Neil

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Another apology we'd like to hear

Seeing as it's Sorry Week, here's an apology some honest education department apparatchik might like to deliver.

Today I'd like to honour the New Zealand children who were delivered by government force into our care, and whom we rewarded by abusing their parents' trust and depriving them of the human potential with which they were born.

We reflect on your past mistreatment, and we have to say: we were responsible.

We reflect in particular on those New Zealanders who due to decades of our mismanagement have emerged from our factory schools functionally illiterate and wholly unemployable -- unable either to read or write or count, and who as a consequence now fill our prisons and the wastelands of our welfare facilities.  On behalf of all my colleagues with whom I share the responsibility of putting you  there, to you all we  say sorry.

To the nearly one-million New Zealanders who have emerged blinking into the modern world -- unable to function in it due to the failure of our teaching methods and good for nothing beyond stuffing a ballot box -- we say sorry.

I say to you that the time has now come to turn a new page in history by recognising the wrongs of the past, and by ensuring with the end of our dominion over this country's children that they never, ever happen again.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive governments and curricula and educational regimes that have inflicted a profound emptiness, suffering and loss on you our young New Zealanders.  The public school system stole you away from your parents and turned your minds to mush.  From the very springtime of your youth We took your bright, eager young minds -- we took them, your normal minds, and replaced them with mental retardation.  To all of those whom we made unconscious for life by means of your own brain, we say sorry.

We apologise for teaching you that you do not belong to yourself, but that you are public property; that you must be taught not to amass wealth, but to seek instead your duty.  To you all who were taught that contributing to the wants and demands of the state is superior to learning the virtues of rationality, independence and productivity -- for enlisting you into the great organic vitality of society, whether you like it or not, for the greater good -- we say sorry.

For substituting "group discussions" for delivering knowledge and "class projects for genuine understanding, we say sorry.  For placing group hugs and socialisation over conceptual development and the acquiring of real skills, we say sorry.

For delivering you into the world as adults barely able to function, we really are desperately sorry.

And finally to parents who were forced to delivered up to us your children and your tax dollars and to whom we repaid by returning you burnt-out hulks coddled with therapy -- with dangerously inflated self-esteem and and an "appetite for destruction" -- we say sorry.

As you can see, we have a lot to apologise for.

We the former educational apparatchiks of New Zealand respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered.

For the future of those of you whose minds we have mangled we have no hope, but for the rest of you we take heart in knowing that we are now removing ourselves from the ability to do any more harm; resolving that this new page in the history of this great country can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all New Zealanders still able to function.

A future where our parliament resolves that the children of New Zealand be kept free from our malign influence so that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again .

A future where you can embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where our old approaches have clearly failed.

We are really a very, very sorry lot, and we resolve hereby to never darken your lifetimes again.

There ought to be a law against it!

David Farrar's inner authoritarian comes out again.  Consumers are being "forced" to buy multiple devices just to view all the free to air channels.  Thunders David (I'm a libertarian) Farrar,

"It shouldn’t be allowed..."  If a channel is free to air, one should be able to tune your device to receive it.

Jawohl, Herr Farrar! 

Sheesh.  At least when Jim Neanderton insists on a "right" to free-to-air TV he's honest enough to call himself a socialist.

Self-Help Tips to Living in a Free Society

Gen L Greca is the author of Noble Vision, an award-winning novel about liberty, and of “The Self-Help Guide to Living in a Free Society,” for which she appeared on CNN on Monday.  The host was Glenn Beck, who read tips from her article such as:

#1. If you don’t go to school and don’t work hard to get ahead, don’t expect the same rewards as those who do. You haven’t earned them.
#2. Don’t expect others to pay for your foolishness. If you spill hot coffee on yourself, be more careful next time. Don’t sue the restaurant that served you or push for a law to regulate the temperature of coffee. And if you’re on a jury, don’t award huge sums for being irresponsible.
#3. If you choose to live in a hurricane zone, then buy insurance or take your chances . . .
#9. If you default on a loan, accept the consequences, lick your wounds, and avoid making the same mistake again. Don’t expect the government to bail you out with money fleeced from the taxpayers who made more prudent lending and borrowing decisions.

You can read a transcript of the interview here [scroll down to last quarter of the show], and download a free copy of the magazine in which Gen's tips appeared here.

Envy and irrationalism

In one easy lesson Michael Shermer explains both the appeal of socialism, and why contrarian investors are so often right. [Hat tip SubStandard]

Would you rather earn $50,000 a year while other people make $25,000, or would you rather earn $100,000 a year while other people get $250,000? Assume for the moment that prices of goods and services will stay the same.
Surprisingly -- stunningly, in fact -- research shows that the majority of people select the first option; they would rather make twice as much as others even if that meant earning half as much as they could otherwise have. How irrational is that?

Katherine Rich - no loss

Vacuous.  That's the word that occurred to me as I listened to the retiring Katherine Rich MP tell Catherine Ryan why she's leaving parliament.  "It's all about the choooldren," she all but dribbled.

But if it's all about her choooldren, wouldn't she want to stay on and be education minister to sort out the bloody system in which her brats are going to be chewed up and processed?  Does she know she'd be unable to do that job; or doesn't the state of their home for fifteen years bother her at all?

And does anyone really think she won't be taking up a new job which will have equal pressures to this one, which will keep her from her children about as much as the one she was going to have ?

Frankly, I've never had time for the woman.  She's a politician without a point.  An MP with nothingto say.  Listening to her tell Ryan why she's leaving reminded me how much of how little she really stands for, and how few reasons she ever had for being there in the first place.  Cactus Kate sums up the most telling point against her:

I am a firm believer that it is important how your enemies see you when you are no longer in competition with them. If they say nothing then it is a good sign, if they continue to criticize you then it is a great sign. But run out plaudits about how great you are and what a loss you will be, then chances are your time has not been well spent.
Katherine Rich is no exception.

As Cactus say, she's not rich pickings, and

I am not buying the “spend more time with children” line.
She should have just announced she didn’t want to be an MP anymore.
I would have understood and wished her the best, because not many sane people want to be an MP either.

Which is true -- which is why if you're sane and an MP you need to have a purpose.  To her credit the pursuit of power isn't enough, but without a purpose the likes of Katherine Rich are just vacuous empty vessels.

No wonder her enemies like her.  If David Cunliffe is the Minister of Useless Journeys, then Rich would probably have been Minister of No Journeys at All.

UPDATE: David Slack offers another plausible position:

Perhaps she was hoping to be a part of a Velvet Revolution and she has dejectedly concluded that it's not worth hanging around for something as slight as a Beige Makeover.

The Expensive Box

p251645-Wellington-Te_Papa When I first visit a building I always like to see where it leads me.  When I first visited Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand which is ten years old today, it led me straight back out the door again. 

The "lowbrow theme park" sits there on Wellington's waterfront like a Soviet submarine pen, and is just about as welcoming.  It's original name was Te Papa Tongarewa, which a friend versed in Maori scholarship loosely translates as 'Expensive Box.'  It's an accurate description.

It's an ugly and unattractive box -- unsympathetic to its wonderful site, and completely without the capacity to display the treasures its curators likes to keep in storage.  And it is expensive -- a box for which each and every taxpayer paid over $300 to build, and we've kept paying for it every year since.

That first visit there  led me through the front door, up the stairs to the top and then straight back out the front door again. It took two minutes.  Subsequent visits haven't shown me I've missed anything. As a museum it fails in the very first point of a museum: exhibiting its wares. There are too few real exhibits, and those that are there are displayed just too randomly and unsympathetically to be attractive. It's not just the 'gee-whiz' approach taken by the curators -- who all too evidently fear that anything other than flashing lights and dumbed-down displays will scare off the peasants -- the very building itself is designed to support this. 

The building barely even performs the most basic role of a museum. Most of the stuff for which the museum is responsible is not displayed, it's in storage, and when it is displayed it's very poorly supported  - the previous home of the Wellington museum had more better display space, as does the far superior Auckland museum, and most city art galleries are able to display their wares better, and more cheaply.

As a  'national' museum' it's no more than a symbol, and neither a good looking nor a cheap one.

As just one example  of how it fails, have a look at the museum's Treaty of Waitangi section.  The museum was intended to symbolise New Zealand's "bicultural heritage"; in the design that was finally built the responsibility for conveying that notion falls almost entirely on this exhibit, hence its location at the atrium centre and the size of the display itself.  By the standards of the building this is intended to be the centre-piece, yet  just note how little the exhibit itself really explains, and how much space is taken up not to say it.  It's a symbol, and it's a very empty one.

Curiously, when I've heard Te Papa's primary design architect Pete Bossley discuss his biggest project, he's always seemed rather apologetic about how the thing turned out.  And he should be.

Minister of Useless Journeys

David-Cunliffe_small Minister for Arrogance, Nationalisation and Health David Cunliffe is starting to sound like he's channeling former All Black coach John Mitchell.

"In our short history, we [New Zealanders have been on a journey." We are "journeying together towards maturity as a nation."  We're  "on a journey" to "shape a knowledge society" he told UNESCO.  Young people are "on a journey of reflection"; the economy is "on a journey"; and Telecom's copper network is on a journey.  He's even "on a bit of a journey" himself.  As a Dad.

It all smells like bullshit to me.

This morning, he told Radio NZ that the state health system which is in a shambles and for which he's responsible -- he's running the show, remember -- is also "on a journey."  Presumably he thinks that  explains  the recent high profle deaths?

Looks like we're all "on a journey."

It's a curious phrase to describe the state's unsafe die-while-you-wait health system, but if you examine the direction of that journey for the last ten years you'd have to say it's one of costing more, delivering less, and having people die because of it

Not really a "journey" anyone should want to buy into, really.  It's looking about as successful as the "journey" on which Mitch took the All Blacks four years ago.

Edgewood Cottages - John Rattenbury

                                  lookout-thumb                 fllwright_rttnbry

    The ideal Valentine's Day retreat for the romantic-souled American midwesterner is one of these cottages at Canoe Bay, Wisconsin. "

   Being cooped up never felt so good" says the Chicago Sun-Times.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008


stoleycorey I have to confess, my own knowledge of the history behind today's apology by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is sketchy, but as Tim Blair suggests, I have to suspect "the effect of the apology on those it’s aimed at is a secondary concern. This is more about smug white folks feeling nice about themselves. That’s why, despite it being an apology for allegedly terrible events, everybody is smiling."  Whatever the truth of historical claims, this is people apologising for things they didn't do to people to whom those things weren't done.  That always makes me suspicious.

On the face of it the whole act is backward looking, and likely to engender the same backward-looking sense of entitlement engendered here in New Zealand by our own indigenous grievance industry.  Tim quotes John Howard's favourite aboriginal Noel Pearson, who makes good sense when he says,

One of my misgivings about the apology has been my belief that nothing good will come from viewing ourselves, and making our case on the basis of our status, as victims.

We have been—and the people who lost their families certainly were—victimised in history, but we must stop the politics of victimhood. We lose power when we adopt this psychology. Whatever moral power we might gain over white Australia from presenting ourselves as victims, we lose in ourselves.

My worry is this apology will sanction a view of history that cements a detrimental psychology of victimhood, rather than a stronger one of defiance, survival and agency.

I think that's true whatever the actual history is-- and while I do take note of historians I admire like Keith Windschuttle, who suggests much of the 'stolen generation' history is fabricated, I note too that despite the many gaps in my knowledge I am aware that the history of European settlement in Australia is far less benign than it has been in New Zealand -- for all sorts of reasons, many of which remain to this day.  Despite that, to paraphrase Thomas Bowden, "today's Aboriginals, to whom this apology is directed, enjoy a capacity for generating health, wealth, and happiness that their Stone Age ancestors could never have conceived.  From a historical perspective, the proper response to such a gift is not resentment but gratitude."

That the apology offered today was brought about by resentment and likely only to engender victimhood is telling.  As Ayn Rand liked to say, don't bother to examine an obvious folly, ask only what it is designed to bring about.  In this case, expect visions of taxpayer dollar bills to begin floating in front of those apologised to very soon, and the rumble of "compensation" to begin.

UPDATE: I like this comment on Leighton Smith's show:

Who would be saying sorry now if someone in New Zealand had stolen the Kahui twins from their parents.  Or Nia Glassie.  Or Lillybing.

Makes you think, huh.

A drop in the world's oceans

Greenland is melting -- "melting faster than ever, according to researchers." 

Frightening?  Depends how fast.  Depends how much.  According to Konrad Steffen of the University of Colorado at Boulder, melting this year was ten percent higher than in 2005, the previous record year.   According to Steffen: 'The amount of ice lost by Greenland over the last year is the equivalent of two times all the ice in the Alps." Twice the ice in the Alps! Crikey.  Surely that's "alarming."

Actually, not. Explains Rob Lyons at Sp!ked Online [hat tip HW], "in truth, this amount of water isn't much more than a drop in the ocean." 

Spread that melted ice over the whole watery surface of the Earth [which is 361million km2] and it amounts to about 0.5mm per year, or one-fiftieth of an inch.

At the current "record" rate of melting, to raise sea levels to the alarming level predicted by Al Gore, this would take about 12,800 years.

A more sober estimate of the effect of global melting is given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Working Group
I report earlier this year. 'Global average sea level rose at an average rate of 1.8 mm per year over 1961 to 2003. The rate was faster over 1993 to 2003: about 3.1 mm per year.'  The IPCC estimates that total sea level rise over the twenty-first century will be between 18cm and 59cm - and the highest figure is based on a degree of warming (6.4 degrees) that is rather unlikely.

As Lyons says, if the world every does get that warm, and there's really no evidence that it will, then we will have much bigger problems than rising seas. So in the meantime, can we now have our beachfront properties back from the planners who are pinching them in the name of alarmist rubbish?

Love Songs for Valentines Day

It's nearly Valentine's Day so I'm reposting my own list of twenty-nine favourite love songs. Songs that make you weep. Songs that say it all. (Songs that might even some sort of 'guilt by association.') And yes, I've added a few, and I've kept all the original comments -- feel free to add your own choice for the thirtieth.
  • Are You the One That I've Been Waiting For - Nick Cave
  • You (Bring Out the Worst in Me) - Legionnaires
  • Hallelujah - John Cale (after Leonard Cohen)
  • Je T'Aime (Moi Non Plus) - Serge Gainsbourg
  • Into You Like a Train - Psychedelic Furs
  • Dance Me to the End of Love - Leonard Cohen
  • Wintersturme/Du bist der Lenz - Wagner (Die Walkure)
  • Coney Island Baby - Lou Reed
  • Pale Blue Eyes - VU
  • Summer Song - Louis Armstrong/Dave Brubeck
  • Black - Pearl Jam
  • Dein ist mein Ganzes Herze - Frank Lehar (Land of Smiles)
  • Che gelida manina - Puccini (Boheme)
  • You Can Put Your Shoes Under My Bed - Paul Kelly
  • Constant Craving- KD Lang
  • Flower Song - Bizet (Carmen)
  • European Female - Stranglers
  • Un Bel Di (One Fine Day)- Puccini (Butterfly)
  • Transfiguration - Wagner (Tristan & Isolde)
  • Bailero - Canteloube (Songs of the Auvergne)
  • Hooky Wooky - Lou Reed
  • Surabaya Jonny - Dagmar Krause (Kurt Weill)
  • Business Time - Flight of the Conchords
  • Creole Love Call - Duke Ellington
  • Stardust - Louis Armstrong (Hoagy Carmichael)
  • A Love Supreme - John Coltrane
  • I'm Sticking With You - Velvet Underground
  • Another Girl, Another Planet - Only Ones
    and, finally,
  • Love Song - The Damned
(Painting at head of the page, by the way, is Denouement, by Michael Newberry, depicting, as Newberry says "a story about what I think is the most sublime moment that one can experience in life: love" -- in other words, saying in paint what love songs should say in music.

Pictures above, by the way, show two composers who feature twice in the list of songs: Puccini (in a painting also by Newberry); and Leonard Cohen, photographed out and about in LA recently.)

More meddling while houses turn (updated)

Attention is finally being paid to the problem of housing unaffordability just as the housing market itself shows signs of turning, and there's naturally a lot of talk this morning about the policies announced to combat the problem of housing unaffordability -- specifically the problems of over-regulation and consequent undersupply which have been compounded by the massive amounts of credit pouring out of government printing presses.  (You can see what I said yesterday about the policy announcements here and here.)

Affordable homes in the world's cities cost about three times the average incomes in those cities.  In New Zealand's main cities that factor is now closer to seven.  (See studies here.) There is an affordability problem, and even a thirty percent market correction won't fix that.

Despite taking at least half-a-dozen years for politicians to even notice the problem that they themselves created, there's nothing new in the unaffordability problem.  Let me make it simple.  Over-regulation of land and construction has pushed up land prices and strangled construction on the little land the planners have left available.  What we now call housing unaffordability we used to call a housing shortage.   The main difference now is that for at least a decade the printing presses of the world's central banks have been pouring credit into people's pockets, which in NZ has mostly found its way into the under-supplied housing market -- a market that's about twelve-thousand houses a year short. 

Too much credit chasing an artificially restricted supply of houses and, 'bingo!' you have an unaffordability problem. 

If those huge price rises happened in the market for any other product -- if petrol, food or phone services rose by the huge amounts that houses have -- there'd have been an outcry before now.  That there hasn't been is first of all because middle class NZers have been able to borrow on the back of their house price rises, making them feel richer than they really are; and, second, because incumbent governments generally like middle class voters to feel richer than they are, which tends to come back to incumbent governments in the voting booths.  (It's also because a spineless opposition has never had a clue what's been going on, just as they haven't now.)

Naturally, nothing from either main party is proposed to combat the rampant credit expansion, which Alan Bollard and his fellow central bankers continue to ramp up (the latest name for the expansion of counterfeit capital is a 'stimulus package').  And very little of what's been proposed by either main party will 'fix' the problem of housing unaffordability, since the only two things that can have a substantial effect are the immediate removal of the planning profession's grip on our cities, and a bonfire of the growing mass of building regulations strangling innovation and supply.

In other words, get the hell out of the way.

Despite some little talk, that's never seriously on the agenda of either major party.  Both parties are blowing hard in election year to try and look good, and they're mostly blowing in tune, but neither are willing to perform in the only manner that's seriously needed.  instead we have more meddling.  Let's look at how Clark proposes to meddle again in housing, since in most respects her plans are the same as those of John Key (you can read what I've said before about U-Turn Boy's similar offerings here).

* Clark wants to force developers to produce so called affordable housing on land made unaffordable by earlier regulatory force

   The first refuge of the political scoundrel is always force.  The second refuge is scapegoating.  There is no better scapegoat in existence for the failures of a socialist government than someone who looks wealthy.  A developer is perfect.  Clark clearly hopes that forcing developers to act against good sense will play well in the voting booths, and that no-one will notice how poorly it plays out in reality.  
   The result of forcing developers to build low-cost housing will be to build the slums of tomorrow, and at a cost much greater than building affordable houses would be without the force.  Developers already hamstrung by rising costs will simply be forced to build cheaper houses on land worth far more than the houses they'll be forced to build, and to pass on the cost of the new slums to the buyers of other houses on that same land which will lose value immediately by their proximity to the slums.
   King Canute could have done no better in trying to turn back the tides.
   The bill purports to foster a method by which more affordable housing can be built: it does so by making life impossible for the builders and developers who will deliver them.  In Ireland, builders have been walking away from being forced in this manner.  Over a ten year period, in US markets where mandated affordable housing mandates have been implemented, they have reduced supply, on average, by ten percent, and increased house prices, on average, by twenty percent. [Hat tip Owen McShane]. In San Francisco, the scheme has added up to one-hundred thousand dollars to the cost of new homes in new developments.  The Prime Minister told Morning Report this morning that these programmes are "working" in Australia and elsewhere, but as Owen McShane points out, while they may be "operating" they are certainly not "working" -- if by "working" we mean generating genuine public benefits. Governments everywhere are prone to confuse a pledge to spend taxpayers' money with delivering tangible results.
   The fact is that forcing the construction of 'affordable' houses makes housing affordability worse, and has done so everywhere it's been forced on homebuilders.  I suspect that unlike the illiterate Chris Carter who first announced the scheme, Clark and Maryan Street both know that.  The thing is, they just don't care.

* She wants to force land-owners to build even when they're unwilling to build.

   Clark has signalled she intends to strip land-owners of their property if in the view of state goons and council planners their land isn't being used as the goons and the planners would like, and give that land to other developers to use.  As he announced at last year's National Party conference, John Key agrees.  We knew that property rights were almost dead in New Zealand; we didn't know we'd be slapped in the face with that fact from both sides so soon. If you want a simple image of why this is wrong, think of Daryl Kerrigan in The Castle.  
   As is the case with the growing abuse of 'eminent domain' in the U.S., this is a signal for the government to play favourites with large private partners, giving them the power to steal from smaller property owners.  Donald Trump used it to have the New Jersey legislature try and throw people out of their houses in Atlantic City, so that he could build a new parking lot for his casino. It was in the 'public interest' he argued. General Motors had Detroit City authorities condemn a whole neighbourhood to make way for a new auto plant.  This too was in the 'public interest,' they argued.  70 families in Fort Trumbull, New Connecticut were targetted by the City of New London to make way for a 90 acre private development -- 'public interest' was once again misquoted, and once again private interests used the government's gun to steal what they couldn't have acquired otherwise.

* She wants to use spare crown land to contribute to new urban housing projects.

   This is an unsuccessful 'Army Surplus' approach to housing pinched from British Labour in which the bottom of the Crown land barrel is scraped to provide spare land, in a way and at a rate that will have no impact at all on housing prices, while providing plenty of scope for election-year photos of ministers in hard hats.  Like much of New Labour, it's another victory for spin over substance.
   The announcement pretends that using the spare half-percent or so of unwanted Crown land around the country to build new government slums will somehow have more impact than would be achieved by removing the planning controls that keep ninety-nine percent of the country's land locked up, and the remaining one-percent that is urban New Zealand enmired in planning restrictions. 

* Clark promises to "tackle issues in the building consent process which were adding unreasonably to the costs of building a house, beginning with simplifying the design and building consent processes for first homes."

   Good luck.  Anyone who thinks this is anything more than the empty electioneering we hear every three years from every major party should give me a call about a bridge I have for sale.

* The Department of Building & Housing is also looking at "a proposal by Building Minister Shane Jones to design a standard simple 'starter house' which could be fast-tracked through the building consent process, to cut the price of getting a consent."

   What makes Shane Jones think he's so special? 
   There are already literally hundreds of designs for simple starter homes around the country, any or all of which could be 'fast-tracked' -- just as every single housing project in the country could be fast-tracked if the growing mass of building regulations strangling innovation and supply were put to the blowtorch, and the number of people on the 'dark side' administering the regulations went back to their jobs of producing houses rather than getting in the way of house production. 
   This is nothing more empty attention-seeking that makes about as much sense as a former Labour housing minister's plan to have all the country's state houses lifted up and rotated so they all face the sun.

* The Clark Government is working on a shared-equity housing scheme where the taxpayer puts up part of the capital of a house and takes a share of the gain (or loss) when the house is sold. This could cut the amount first home buyers themselves have to put up by as much as half.

   This plan to make the taxpayer a sub-prime lender is in the end as empty an electioneering policy as Labour's 'Welcome Home' Loans, which have been taken up with all the enthusiasm people have for flat beer the morning after, and are just as flatulent.    
How empty it is can be seen in the fact that the scheme already been announced fourteen times before, and the many problems associated with its introduction have still yet to be ironed out so it can be introduced.
   And in a market in which the problem is under-supply, even the likes of Michael Cullen, Bill English and any other random observer of U.S. sub-prime lending should be able to work out what happens if you try and supercharge demand with another subsidy for high-risk buyers. 
   Put simply, to the extent the scheme is picked up to any great extent, the greatest effect of it will be to fuel price rises of the very 'starter houses' it's supposed to help people into.

So there you have it.  Another winning combination of flatulence and force.  And if you think you've heard much of my analysis before, then it's very possible you have.  Most of it has already appeared before in my swathe of posts on housing, building and urban design.  Help yourself if you want to know more.

Cheers, PC

UPDATE 1: Now here are three genuinely creative solutions to making housing less unaffordable that don't rely on smacking builders, developers and land-owners around the head: three simple solutions that can be effected tomorrow to bring about cheaper rural, urban and suburban housing.  See 'Three Simple Remedies for Housing Affordability.'

UPDATE 2:  Owen McShane points out that "land-banking," which is blamed by planners, politicians and all assorted busybodies for the problems they themselves have created, is actually a symptom of the problem -- it is not the cause of it.  "'Speculation' only takes place when prices rise faster than holding costs," and it is planners, politicians and sundry assorted busybodies whose meddling has driven prices up.

There is nothing to be gained from holding on to land unless the increase in value of the land is greater than the total holding costs over the same period... if annual holding costs are higher than the annual increases in value then the landowner has every incentive to bring the land to market.  So we should not blame the landowners. We should blame those whose rules and regulations strangle the supply of land and inflate prices.

The real offenders are not the landowners, but are the regional and local councils who administer the Resource Management Act and the Central Government for endorsing and encouraging these policies of Growth Management or Smart Growth.

The solution is release land for market and reduce compliance costs.

Lykes House - Frank Lloyd Wright

The Lykes House was the last to come from Frank Lloyd Wright's hand: he died in April 1959 just two weeks after sketching out the basic form of this desert house wrapped around a mountain . He was ninety-two.
The drawings and the 1994 renovations were completed by Wright apprentice John Rattenbury.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

I love it when he talks Austrian

Ron Paul.  "I love it when he talks Austrian," says Dale Amon.
Hayek? .... Check!
Hazlitt? .... Check!
Von Mises? .... Check!

Ron Paul gave an extremely cogent economics talk to Seattle Business leaders which you can watch here.  He even wants to dump Sarbanes-Oxley. What more could you ask?
Well, as a commenter suggests, how about a candidate who doesn't wear a tinfoil hat and who will finish the job in Iraq.  That said, when he takes off the tinfoil and talks Austrian he is damn good.  Given Alan Bollard's regular departures from reality and Don Brash's own venture into tinfoil-hat territory in the middle of last week, it's a speech they urgently need to listen to themselves.
UPDATE: By the way, if you're in or near Auckland and you too want to talk Austrian economics, then my colleague Julian is about to start delivering a comprehensive year-long course based on George Reisman's textbook Capitalism, which will involve one lecture a week and deliver the goods like nothing else will [course details here].  There are still a couple of places left, so email me if you're interested: organon@ihug.co.nz.

The welcome of the west

Discussing multiculturalism and western individualism with Tariana Turia one evening a couple of years ago, I pointed out that the real joy and great strength of western individualism is that it's open to everybody, and has nothing to do with race.  Unlike the tribal culture she promotes, Western culture is a culture of welcome -- it doesn't say "Go away," it says "Come in."  Naturally she demurred politely ("I've never heard anything so unintelligent," she sniffed), but I explained that I couldn't stay to finish the discussion as I had to go to concert in the Town Hall that rather demonstrated my point: a concert of Russian classical music performed in Auckland, conducted by a Peruvian, with a young Chinese soloist on piano and played by an orchestra containing people hailing from at least a dozen different countries.

I thought of that again when I saw this piece promoted on the Samizdat blog under the heading 'The Plus Side of Multiculturalism': its Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water, performed by a Japanese kabuki orchestra...

Not even a Grammy award for New Zealand's fourth-most popular folk-comedy duo could be as unlikely.

Tree huggers versus solar lover

Irony abounds in California.

California's Solar Shade Control Act protects solar panels from obstructions from sunlight, and in January, Santa Clara County officials sought to enforce the law against homeowners who themselves are staunch environmentalists.  Since the back yard of Prius-owners Richard Treanor and Carolynn Bissett contains lush redwood trees that block their neighbor's panels, the county ordered that the trees be cut down... [SOURCE: Houston Chronicle]

WARNING: White noise on housing (updated)

HLA-NZ-2yr Fascinating to see that in today's speech to parliament outlining her election-year programme, Helen Clark has signalled that her government will be making crown land available for new housing.  This is Clark's first genuine salvo in the battle with increasing housing unaffordability, and a bid to outflank John Key's platititudinous four-point plan for housing affordability announced at last year's National party conference. 

If the Clark scheme does manage to spike one of U-Turn Boy's key 2008 campaign guns, it will only be like spiking a pop gun -- even if the powder of Clark's own scheme is as wet as I expect.  On its face the idea is a good one and I look forward to the details, but I expect that we'll be looking at a similar sort of scheme proposed by the British Labour government last year -- one that that British writer James Woudhuysen called "a kind of Army Surplus approach to housing."

‘Public sector land use’ ... turns out to be barracks, canals, railway sidings, and turf owned by the National Health Service (NHS) or by local councils. Here we are asked to scrape the bottom of a very small barrel. In effect, the [government] searches for the public sector bits of the 5.5 per cent of England’s surface that is brownfield land.

In effect, as Woudhuysen says, this amounts to little more than a little massaging of existing "ultra-restrictive land provisions" in the addled expectation it will have some effect.  It won't. 

The hope is that a tiny relaxation of planning constraints will encourage the private sector ... and numerous hybrid housing vehicles, state monoliths and quangos to build more homes, especially homes that are ‘affordable.’

That approach won’t work. It will mean some extra homes are built, but it will not make proper home ownership cheap. It will provide jobs for – and protracted quarrels amongst – many happy middle-class people: planners, architects, building employers and environmentalists. Yet precisely because what it is proposing amounts to a job-creating exercise in changing jurisdictions and diffusing authority, the government will find that all its eye-catching, bullet-pointed initiatives will not lower the sale price, the rent, the maintenance costs or the buildings insurance attached to a real home.

houseprices1 It's impossible to say without seeing Clark's own eye-catching, bullet-pointed initiatives, but I suspect her proposal is little more than election-year white noise.  Even if Bernard Hickey is right that house prices will drop by up to thirty percent over the coming year, something more radical is needed.  Woudhuysen has such a proposal, one on which both Clark and U-Turn boy should sit up and take note.  I paraphrase his proposal for a New Zealand audience:

Real homes will only become affordable if, in principle, everyone can go to a farmer, buy a hectare of land for $30,000, and freely build a house there at a cost, perhaps, of just $100,000. That kind of transaction would lead to significantly lower prices than the $390,636 average asked for a home in NZ today. The state should stop preventing deals like this from being done. It should step back, and instead provide the infrastructure to let that house-on-a-freely-bought-hectare thrive.

That such deals can't be done, and won't be done as a result of either Clark's or Key's announcements is a measure of the overbearing powers of the state in relation to the land.

Ever since the Town and Country Planning Act of 1927, to buy that $30,000 hectare of land and build on it has been illegal. The nanny state, not the popular will, determines who may build where. The state essentially retains a complete monopoly over what land can be developed for housing and what cannot. To end house price inflation therefore, Britain must end its state-imposed scarcity of land.

The lack of affordability that characterises Britain’s housing market is not about too many people – single-person households, divorced families, immigrants and their children – chasing too few homes. It is not simply an economic question of supply and demand. The housing market is profoundly distorted by the political intervention of the state, which imposes drastic limits on land that can be developed upon. Only a similarly drastic counter-attack on state controls, amounting to a veritable bonfire of National's Resource Management Act and the country's forty-odd District Plans will allow housing in NZ to acquire a semblance of either rationality or efficiency.

What's needed in other words is not massage or spin, but a planning revolution -- one that sees the country's planners joining the shortened queues of the unemployed.

UPDATE 1:  The bureaucrats have obviously been given their talking points this morning ahead of the Prime Minister's speech this afternoon

Government  building 'experts' BRANZ (the chaps who okayed the cheap Tuscan claddings on nineties housing) for example have two chaps talking up Clark's bullet points in advance.  Ian Page is an economist with BRANZ, and if you find yourself wondering what sort of economist would want to work for this sort of organisation, then you only need to read his analysis to find out it's a very poor one.  Burgeoning land prices are affecting housing affordability, says a 'report' co-authored by Page, while developers are controlling ample supply.  Says 'research strategy manager' Chris Kane of BRANZ, the problem is not the state's restrictions on land development but greedy developers who are keeping their land off the market. Wellington City Council urban planning director Ernst Zollner followed on the talking points by "confirming" there were "huge tracts of land in Wellington zoned for housing ... but that doesn't mean it's available. In Wellington the land is tightly held by a few men," he said.

All this is a miasma of bureaucratic bullshit, as just a moment of thought and a sprinkling of real fact is enough to show. 

First of all, New Zealand's cities are among the least dense in the world, and land in them amongst the most expensive compared to income -- it's the planning restrictions put on land by councils themselves that makes them so.  And as with Auckland's planning gurus boasting about "releasing" land (ie., taking some rules off land owned by you and me), the amount 'released' is nowhere near the amount of land that's needed under current planning rules.

Second, and with all New Zealand's major cities ring-fenced by zoning, there's a rent-seeking bonus for any land-owner who owns land just outside the ring-fence or in a lower density area if he can sit tight until the zoning changes (or if he can wine and dine the planners and councillors and encourage them to change it). With the holding costs of empty land, you're only going to keep it empty if there's a huge windfall profit at the end of it -- such profits only come when plan changes rezone land from higher densities, which is what those developers are waiting for, and one reason they have such good budgets for wining and dining*.

Frankly, both ring-fencing around cities and enforcing lower densities within them are the twin causes of the problems (and its the state giving planners power to do both that needs to be expunged).   There's no problem with sprawl if the ring-fencing were relaxed (New Zealand's urban areas account for less than 1 percent of the total country, one quarter of that in the Auckland region. If all of NZ's 1,471,476 existing households were to be rebuilt on an acre of land -- which was the sort of thing proposed by Frank Lloyd Wright in his Broadacre project, right-- we'd all fit in an area less than one-quarter the size of the Waikato , and just think how easy it'd be to thumb a lift out to Raglan!).  And there's really no problem with higher densities within cities if the planners are muzzled, if the private sector gets to offer buyers what they want, and if the state is barred from building the sort of thing the state always likes to build -- which is building the slums of tomorrow.

What it comes down to is choice.  If people were only left free to live in the way they wanted -- however apoplectic that made all the many enemies of choice -- the problems of housing unaffordability would disappear overnight.
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* As James Woudhuysen explains the point,

A housebuilder once typically took out an option with farmers so that he could buy their greenfield land at an agreed price in the event that he secured planning permission. However, once state policy shifted decisively toward high density, brownfield development, housebuilders found options on urban land much more expensive than the old sort. That made them build up their own stocks of land, whose price they could rightly expect to appreciate very nicely over just a few years. Land banking is a symptom of the inability of the housebuilder to deal with farmers through options, [and] because the state has decreed that low-density suburbia can no longer be his core business.

UPDATE 2:  Owen McShane told Leighton Smith the BRANZ report itself is one of the best he's seen, and says nothing like what's been reported -- which if true means it's the reporters who are following the Prime Minister's talking points, and those like me who relied on the reporters' integrity have again been misled.

What the report does show, says McShane, is that in Auckland for example it's the ring-fencing of the city by Auckland Regional Council planners that is causing land prices to explode.

UPDATE 3:  McShane also warns that Clark's speech and the talking points foreshadowing it are likely to see the announcement of a new policy from Team Red allowing the taking of private land by the state, to be given to other developers who suck up to nanny.   If true, this  presages the worst violation of property rights ever in this country, and shows what happens once respect for property rights is dead.

And there'll be no opposition at all from the blue corner, since it's a policy already announced by John Key in his point 2a of his "four-point plan" announced last year.

UPDATE 4:  Regarding that speculation about new laws to be introduced by the Clark Government allowing the involuntary acquisition of private property by the state, I could have said its introduction would effect the worst property rights violation proposed since National's U-Turn Boy proposed it himself last year ... or I could have said it will be the worst legislative attack on property rights since the National Party introduced the Resource Management Act in 1991 ... or I could have said that it presages the worst property rights violations since those empowered under the Public Works Act, which was introduced by the National Party in 1981...  Do any supporters of the National Socialists see a pattern here?

As it is, Helen Clark and the Red Team will simply be completing the path of property rights destruction begun by the Blue Team.  Remind me again why anyone would think the National Socialists are the answer?

UPDATE 5:  Helen Clark's speech is here.