Monday, February 16, 2009

Monday, February 16, 2009: Drugs, princes and roundtables

Free drugs: I have written before about the National government cancelling conferences and thereby angering the conference industry. Well, the latter can take a breath of fresh air, as the Ministry of Health is part-funding a conference on drug policy. However, the 'big story' here is that the conference will also be part-funded by "one of the world's leading advocates of decriminalising marijuana use" - the Open Society Institute, founded by the billionaire George Soros, previously best known for being the currency speculator who allegedly precipitated the "Asian Crisis" in the late 1990s. So these are the facts of the case: drug policy conference being held; government funding said conference; liberal non-government organisation (NGO) also partially funding conference; founder of NGO in favour of drug reform. Not much of a story in my book.

Of course, as usual, my problem here is not with the news, but with the reporting. Firstly, the headline screams "Govt, pro-cannabis billionaire jointly fund drug conference, but I'm unsure of how they know or why they care he is pro-cannabis. He is (allegedly) pushing for law reform, not pushing drugs; it's like the old trick of calling pro-choice campaigners 'pro-abortion'. Secondly, the funding isn't from George Soros - it's from the Open Policy Institute, which supports many different causes including democracy, human rights, public health and education. Without wanting to appear as if I'm on the OPI payroll, it's surely dismissive to write about their contribution as if it is a campaign contribution for drug legalisation. Why this ought to be "embarrassing" for the government, as Patrick Gower, political reporter, claims, is unclear. I suppose the idea is that the government is against drug liberalisation, and they are 'joining forces' with people in favour. This raises the question of why you would hold a drug conference at all if all your were going to do was sit around holding hands and saying 'drugs are bad'. Yet this seems to be precisely what the government wants - the conference is being opened by my vote for greatest living New Zealander, Peter Dunne, "who would be telling those attending that 'the Government absolutely does not support the decriminalisation of cannabis and is committed to a strong enforcement of the law.'" So don't get any crazy ideas about open discussions.

I'll ignore for now the case for decriminalising marijuana - if you're interested in the arguments, here is an excellent paper that sums it up in a political context. It's just dispiriting that it's not just our politicians who want to avoid any discussion on the issue, but (implicitly) our media as well. So much for the Fourth Estate.

Hypocrite prince: Now, I'm no fan of royalty in general, let alone the British (aka German) royal family. Look at them: delusional, aristocratic 'people's princess'; racist old man; playboy prince keen on borrowing army helicopters to get to parties; ginger Nazi idiot; and so on. Then there is Prince Charles. He makes it into the paper today because an "eco-tour" of South America, where he will be trying to raise awareness of environmental issues, involves a private jet "with a VIP lounge, master suite, satellite phone, printer [!], fax [!!] and luxury leather seats". The trip will cost up to $820,000, or 322 tonnes of carbon - depending on your choice of currency. Naturally, the prince is being labelled a hypocrite, but I have two issues with such a claim.

Firstly, this isn't some guy - it's the Prince of Wales. I've said it before and I'll say it again: if you're going to have a royal family, you have to treat them like a royal family. What's the point of calling them 'your grand high royal majesty' if they just live next door in the council flats? What did people expect Charles to fly in? Economy class? Either get rid of the parasites, like the sensible French, or get used to them being rich and snooty - after all, it's not like royalty just started acting this way recently.

But the second objection is probably more important. Hypocrisy simply isn't that important. Of course, it's not great, but is it really the worst thing people can do? The United States produced over six billion tonnes of carbon emissions in 2006, which puts the 322 of Charles's trip into perspective. The idea that one can only promote environmentalism without harming the environment at all seems pretty reactionary to me. If the world gets itself out of this mess, it is going to be due to collective action, and if public actions like the prince's tour help promote that collective action then they can be thought of as an investment, not a cost. Of course, all this assumes that it is a good investment - perhaps the rather ridiculous prince won't help the cause at all. And, of course, it may well be that the nature of the luxurious tour militates against him being taken seriously. But, and this is the point, this isn't one of the criticisms that Charles has faced (in this article at least). It's easy to sit around and call people hypocrites, but if that's all we did then we would never get anything done.

Knight of the Roundtable: When I was teaching undergraduates critical thinking, one of the lessons we taught them is to recognise and avoid what are called ad hominem arguments. These are where you reject an argument because of something about the person putting it forward. It's a sensible lesson to learn, but sometimes it can be very hard to faithfully apply. Today there is an opinion piece by Roger Kerr, the "executive director" of the Business Roundtable. There's a lot I don't know about this organisation. Who are they? What do they do? Is the table literal or metaphorical? If literal, is it actually round? But there is one thing I do know, and that is that they have a tremendous interest in moving New Zealand economic policy to the right. That's only natural - they are, after all, high-flying businesspeople. It's for this reason that I find it hard to take seriously the argument Kerr puts forward today, that "faith in government spending as a solution to financial woes is misplaced." I am slightly wary of entering such a debate, having little formal education in economics: but I am reasonably well read in 'popular' economics, and I think I am justified in being suspicious if Kerr's claims clash with those of others.

According to Kerr, "hundreds of economists in the United States are saying the Obama administration's so-called stimulus package is reckless." That is impressive until you consider that there must be tens of thousands of economists in the US, a number of whom I have read saying the government must put forward a stimulus package to save the economy. He claims that it is "widely considered" that government policy caused the Great Depression, a controversial-enough claim even without the obvious implication that the same has happened this time around, and that "New Deal spending was largely ineffective", in direct contradiction to the writings of many other (I have no idea if Kerr is actually an economist) economists.

I'll stop there. He pretty much goes on to say the usual things: cut spending, cut taxes, let's be like Singapore. My point is that, on some level, I am simply unqualified to judge his arguments. Even then, however, I feel somehow justified in rejecting them simply because of who he is. Does that make me a bad person?

A defence of "Your Views" - sort of: Not a defence of the opinions in Your Views, of course. Or a defence of the concept of YV, where anyone can just go onto the internet and receive a forum to moan and complain (*ahem*). What I mean is a defence of the reasonableness of citing YV in this blog. A friend (and fan) mentioned to me the other night that he was concerned that bringing up YV was too easy, and that it resulted in, if anything, straw man arguments. I thought that he had something of a point, and that I ought to address it here.

I decided that I use YV for two different purposes. First, it can be a little light relief, as well as a humbling realisation that the people who write these things are the demographic of the Herald (and the media in general) as well. But, secondly, I think that it can have a more insidious aspect. The haka issue last week was a perfect example - with massively sensationalised reporting of the issue, the Herald provided the spark - and with the YV question they provided the fuel. No one should be surprised that what resulted was an inferno. If the kinds of entries that I mentioned came up, and to the extent that the angry atmosphere that results affects policy in a democratic state, the Herald must be held somewhat culpable. As such, I feel that, within reason, YV is an important aspect of my task here at Editing the Herald. If you have any doubt of that, go to Friday's YV on the sentencing of Bruce Emery (the man who stabbed Pihema Cameron to death after Cameron tagged his property) - I honestly don't know whether to laugh or cry.


  1. All you can do is laugh...

    "To be honest I'm not sure if the sentence is fair. But if Emery property [sic] had been tagged for a while what else could he do?"

    What else could he do? Yeah, that's a tough one alright. Let's see... well, for a start he could have NOT FUCKING KILLED SOMEONE. Then perhaps go buy some paint.

    It's amazing how easily so many people find it to equate the right to a clean fence with human life.

    My two cents on the YV thing is include them but add in all necessary 'sic's, to make them funnier.

  2. Thought I'd add my 2 cents to Your Views


  3. I'm rather enjoying this blog of yours old sport.

    I have in fact sat in on a Business Roundtable meeting, and can confirm that the table is not round but a series of oblongs. It is also hilarious to watch as a bevy of cliches argue over some particular issue - you will never see a larger group of fatcats/Jabba the Hutts in real life.

    It's an interesting point you raise about rejecting Kerr's views because of who he is. I've often thought that whenever there is some business-related issue that there is really little point in asking them what they think as you already know. Similar, of course, is expecting us to act surprised when the Council of Trade Unions does not approve of something that negatively alters workers' rights.