Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Will the Greens never learn?

A prominent feature of recent Australian politics has been the growing influence of the Green party in inner city electorates. Particularly in state elections where tired and unpopular Labor governments are opposed by state Liberal parties that, particularly in NSW, are a shambles populated by the barking mad.

At the weekend the Greens got the balance of power in the ACT.

Why is the Green party not doing better in inner city electorates in New Zealand?

Because they continually display the political nous that led them to declare prior to the election that they would not support the National party in Government. This despite the fact that an exactly similar declaration saw them kept out of the Cabinet after the last election. Russel Norman sometimes seems to understand the issue.

"Labour taught us a good lesson: you can't trust Labour to do anything except look after themselves, and I think National's the same. So you have to be tough."

Then they go and walk into the same old trap a second time. Twice seems like carelessness.

The Greens desperately need electorate seats so that they don't continue to rely on the 5% margin to get them into Parliament. These seats could well be one of the three with "Central" after its name but the Greens would have to break some eggs to get them.

However they persist in 'campaigning for the party vote' at least in Christchurch Central (where my parents live) and Auckland Central (where I have to decide who to vote for). I couldn't name the Green candidate in either electorate.

In both seats if they stood a warm body with a good list place and a long term committment to the electorate and campaigned agressively for the electorate vote they would attract significant support. This could damage relations with Labour in the short term, but as I have noted the Greens should have punished Labour for last election's shenanigans and this seems to be one way they could have made the point. Better still with effective challengers from National standing in both seats it might possibly have had the effect of giving the seats to the Nats.

This would be ideal for the Greens since these seats will never be safe for the right of politics and a warm Green body with the advantage of list incumbency and growing urban support would maximize the possibility of eventually winning the seat.

I can't resist pointing out that this was a particularly good year to initiate this strategy in Christchurch Central. The popular Labour MP has retired and Labour has seen fit to nominate in his place a spin doctor who has never previously lived in the city. I can assure you that Christchurch people very much dislike having to vote for these Labour carpet-baggers. (I was naive enough to believe that MMP had put a stop to the practice.) Moreover in last year's local body elections Green candidates unseated several Labour incumbents representing central parts of Christchurch on the regional council. They did this by running against Labour-led council and Government support for an enormous irrigation project on the Canterbury plains. This shows that local environmental issues could be big winners for the Greens, and the issue could have been revived for the general election by an enthusiastic campaigner.

The Green party of New Zealand is asleep at the wheel.

Just as well the anti-science Greens are one of my least favourite parties in the New Zealand Parliament. A genuinely Green, genuinely political, Green party would however be an asset.

Small town activism

I lived in South Pasadena for a couple of years. Despite being in the middle of the conurbation that is Los Angeles, it's a beautiful little enclave of California bungalows and tree-lined streets. There's a great little coffee shop next to the park in the middle of town where you can overhear students discussing their projects and scriptwriters their scripts. You can buy the best Baja fish tacos at Senor Fish and get your groceries at the original Trader Joes. It's the kind of place where people still take little kids trick or treating and the whole community lines up to cheer the fire department at the 4th of July parade before heading to the fireworks in the evening.

It's probably not the kind of small town Sarah Palin thinks of as breeding good people but it's a wonderful small town all the same. It's great to see some in South Pasadena getting behind the effort to defeat Proposition No 8 which would overturn the California Supreme Court's decision that same sex marriages are legal in that state. Their ad which features many gay and lesbian families and marriage ceremonies has appealed to many who are dissappointed with the oblique approach of the main "No on 8" campaign.

Hat-tip: Andrew Sullivan

A question for our politicians as they stand for re-election. Is it still the policy of New Zealand to recognise marriages performed in other jurisdictions?

Say what?

A colleague passed through the Qantas lounge in Auckland at the weekend and brought back a copy of the Sunday Star Times.

I find that they have started a "Wise Heads" column alternating Doug Graham and Margaret Pope.

Good for Doug Graham, I nearly voted for him as President! This week he called for an independent anti-corruption authority. A wise and timely idea.

But Margaret Pope?

Trans-Tasman contrasts in response to financial crisis

The Australian government dedicated half its surplus or $10.4 billion dollars to a stimulus package. The money goes out before Christmas to those most likely to spend it; pensioners and their carers, low income families and first home buyers ($14,000 from the State when you buy a house! That's twice the Howard government level.)

This was done without any detailed Treasury modelling because both officials and politicians were of the opinion that immediate action was needed. In particular it appears that Australian and international experts are not very confident of the continued health of the Chinese economy which is the main driver of growth in resource rich Australia.

The economy is still dominating the front pages and Rudd has announced the goal of avoiding recession and developing regulations in response to the crisis that will be a model for international developments. This is consistent with his extraordinary ambition to be seen as a player on the world stage.

I suppose that it is no surprise, given the Election season, that by contrast the front page news on the New Zealand Herald website at the moment is that Lockwood Smith has been known to make a dick of himself. Who knew?

Cullen will be happy to find that fishhooks in the detail of the Government's bank guarantee were big news in Australia this morning. So Australian moves are not without percieved missteps.

Meanwhile the outcome of the NZ election is not a topic of great interest.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

US Presidential Race

McCain's campaign is currently in tatters, that never seems to last long though!

Last weekend he allowed his campaign operatives to make the extraordinary statement, to the Washington Post I believe, that they wished to "turn the page" on the financial crisis and move to attack Obama's judgement and character. They let all and sundry know that they would raise the Ayers issue, possibly even in the debate Tuesday. Reviews, even from conservative commentators like Peggy Noonan on Meet the Press, were very negative and polls have continued to move in Obama's direction.

Sure enough Ayers was not mentioned Tuesday and everyone agrees that Obama came off best. McCain-Palin events are whipping up quite nasty rhetoric from the more redneck element though, which is again creating concern among commentators like George Packer, for example. This has led McCain to once again dial back the rhetoric and another outbreak of playing nice.

On the other side I think we saw a trademark Chicago shove from Obama. (This whole "Bambi" thing was always a fiction. The reason to like Obama is that he is very considered and also tough, I hope his more dewy eyed supporters are not too disilluisioned, they should definitely reader the Lizza profile in the New Yorker as well as the earlier one.) After McCain announced his intention to increase the negative attacks we saw Obama release a 15 minute account of the Keating Five scandal on the web.

Last weekend also saw (with suspiciously apt timing) the release of an extraordinary polemic against McCain in Rolling Stone. It'll take a while for you to get your jaw back up off the floor after you read it.

Some good quotes: this one from a fellow prisoner of war in Vietnam (and I am leaving out the best bit)

Dramesi, who went on to serve as chief war planner for U.S. Air Forces in Europe and commander of a wing of the Strategic Air Command, was not surprised. "McCain says his life changed while he was in Vietnam, and he is now a different man," Dramesi says today. "But he's still the undisciplined, spoiled brat that he was when he went in."

And in honour of local corruption hawks this one:

There is no small irony that the Reform Institute — founded to bolster McCain's crusade to rid politics of unregulated soft money — itself took in huge sums of unregulated soft money from companies with interests before McCain's committee. EchoStar got in on the ground floor with a donation of $100,000. A charity funded by the CEO of Univision gave another $100,000. Cablevision gave $200,000 to the Reform Institute in 2003 and 2004 — just as its officials were testifying before the commerce committee. McCain urged approval of the cable company's proposed pricing plan. As Bradley Smith, the former chair of the Federal Election Commission, wrote at the time: "Appearance of corruption, anyone?"

But really read the whole thing.

Oh and the NYT has finally noticed Obama's extraordinary ground operation.

Preparing for worse if that's possible

The response to the G7 communique and Paulson's subsequent press conference seems to be very negative. Many commenters hoped that the G7 would move to a British style scheme of partial nationalisation of the banks. Paulson's press conference suggested he is moving ahead with that but is still looking for private capital to assist also and the G7 communique is very vague. (The authority to buy equity in the banks was not in the original rescue package put forward to congress but clearer heads prevailed and it now seems that the bailout package will look very different.

It's really not reassuring when Paul Krugman says "Paulson sounds terrified" and others comment that he is loosing all credibility. But given that he has downplayed the crisis at every turn for the last 18 months this is perhaps not surprising.

Lets hope that Morgan Stanley does survive the weekend.

Australian Response to Financial Crisis

Treasurer Wayne Swan is in Washington and New York this weekend, attending the G20 meeting and lobbying bigwigs. I've just listened to his interview with Barry Cassidy on Insiders, and I don't think you could really describe him as calm and collected. It seems that there is no government program that will not be reconsidered in light of the financial crisis.

Back in Canberra the Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has announced that the finance subcommittee of the Cabinet will meet later today.

What are New Zealand's alleged leaders doing this weekend?

THE government's cabinet budget committee will meet later today to take any action deemed necessary from key meetings of the International Monetary Fund and Group of 20 finance ministers in New York today.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said there was a growing realisation that the international financial crisis was worse than originally thought.

Update: Account of Clark's campaign opening speech just up, she does at least announce a deposit guarantee scheme.

How are New Zealand's banks really doing?

We were told on Morning Report Friday morning that the Reserve Bank believes that New Zealand banks have $60 billion of overseas debt to turn over in the next 40 days. I've listened to that several times to be sure that is really what was said.

That figure appears to be nearly half of New Zealand's GDP.

My limited understanding of the situation at the moment is that internationally banks are simply not lending money to other banks.

Worse still other nations are moving to guarantee or buy stock in their banks. Australia seems likely to increase its guarantees on its banks (which admittedly own ours) in the next few days.

We're told that the Reserve Bank has moved to allow banks to borrow from it secured by the value of mortgages. However I can't help noticing that the total value of New Zealand houses is about $2.11 billion, so there better be some hefty mortgages on commercial property out there if that's really going to solve the problem.

Could someone, preferably the boss of a bank and the leader of a major party, say something reassuring but convincing about the position of New Zealand's banks?

Finally, if you were Jim Anderton and you'd set up a government owned bank that doesn't borrow overseas you would have to be pretty happy with yourself.

Update: Clark has just announced a deposit guarantee scheme.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Dilemma of Attribution

It's been a great decade for Nobel Prizes in theoretical physics. In 1999 it was awarded to 't Hooft and Veltman "for elucidating the quantum structure of electroweak interactions in physics", in 2003 to Abrikosov Ginzburg and Leggett "for pioneering contributions to the theory of superconductors and superfluids", to Gross, Wilczek and Politzer in 2004 "for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction", and in 2005 to Roy Glauber "for his contribution to the quantum theory of optical coherence" (that contribution amounts to creating, out of the pretty much the whole cloth, my field of theoretical quantum optics and proceeding to do a frightening amount of the interesting work in it).

This year's prize is more cause for excitement since it goes to three more theorists: Yoichiro Nambu "for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics" and to Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa "for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature".

All of these well-deserved prizes recognise wonderful advances in our knowledge. Theoretical physics is an activity undertaken by a relatively small community of researchers and it's in the nature of ideas that often a large number of people have made significant contributions to any major development. When it comes time to award the prize only three names can be up in the bright lights. Those of us who have read enough physics texts to recognise the terms "Nambu-Goldstone boson" and "Cabbibo-Kobayashi-Maskawa matrix" might wish that there were a better way to reward the great ones among us and achieve for them appropriate public recognition.

It's probably fair to guess that David Politzer's Nobel Address got his co-recipients offside from the first paragraph. It does, however, provide a fascinating if bleak assessment of how science really gets done and the challenges facing those who decide on who gets and who does not get a Nobel Prize.

Keep Physicists Off Wall Street

I've long been of the opinion that overly complicated and insufficiently commonsensical analysis of risk by theoretical physics and mathematics Ph.D's may have played an unfortunate part in the creation of the incredibly complicated arguments that dressed sub-prime mortgages up as AAA investments and thus contributed to the current parlous state of international credit markets.

Dave Bacon seems to agree and has a great idea to avoid this state of affairs in future; increase science funding to keep theoretical physicists away from money markets!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The State of the Free Market

Could I second the Hive's plea that we all take the US financial crisis more seriously?

I can't resist arguing the cause of social democracy though. John Quiggin here in Brisbane has a great trade for those who argue that the current difficulty is not some failure of "the free market" on account of the US not being a free market. I'll have to quote it almost in full

I will agree that
(a) the US is not a free-market economy, and its failures do not constitute evidence against the claim that a pure free-market economy is the best possible form of social organization
(b) no other actually existing society is, or has ever been, a free-market economy, and no actual or conceivable events anywhere constitute evidence against the claim that a pure free-market economy is the best possible form of social organization
(c) In discussion with parties to the agreement, I will not contest the claim that a pure free-market economy is the best possible form of social organization

All I ask in return is that the counterparties to the deal agree not to advocate, oppose, criticise, or comment on any policy or political position that might actually be implemented, to ensure that the purity of the free-market ideal is not compromised by actual experience.

John is also willing to make the same offer to Marxist-Leninists for pretty obvious reasons.

He also thinks we might have seen the back of neoliberalism, I'd post a link including his assessment of the New Zealand situation but his site seems to have crashed just at the moment.

The Dark Side

TPMCafe is discussing Jane Mayer's book the Dark Side currently (both Christopher Hitchens and Slate's Emily Bazelon are part of the group). If you are interested in the Bush administration's use of torture you should read the book, not just the New Yorker articles.

In the discussion Mayer asks about the possibility of war crimes prosecutions in the next administration. Since such prosecutions are unlikely she also asks what effect this precedent will have both on future US administrations and the international standing of the US.

Mayer succinctly outlines the facts on which such a case would be based

In secret dungeons, U.S.-held prisoners were waterboarded, stripped naked, kept chained and near frozen, bombarded with unbearable sounds, deprived of daylight, kept isolated from human contact for months, fed barely enough to live on, beaten, confined in dog cages, and deliberately mistreated in other carefully-regulated ways under a policy set in place by the highest-ranking officials of our country. An unknown number died. A larger unknown number simply disappeared. We know that the Red Cross -- an independent non-partisan organization - warned the President and other top officials that at least fourteen of the individuals currently held in Guantanamo -- people who the Red Cross was able to interview -- were tortured. Not maybe. Definitely. The Red Cross also warned the President that he and others in his administration were in danger of being held liable for war crimes

We know an increasing amount about the intelligence community's division on this issue. Scott Horton has some very interesting comments on the state of affairs at the CIA.

In my mind, Jane is asking the most important question--the accountability question. I also have had a run-in with a senior CIA official who described to me in some detail being briefed on the new policies. "I decided that afternoon that I was taking an early retirement," he told me. He went on to note that "it seems quite a few people took early retirement after getting that briefing." He also told me his thinking was simple: "It's not that this was bad policy. It was a crime. Black and white." It's clear that these moves were very controversial within the intelligence service. Although the pushback in the military is now very well documented, the pushback at CIA remains anecdotal. It will come in time, I think.

US Senate passes Indian nuclear deal; where next for nuclear non-proliferation?

The NYT made one last desperate case against it but the Senate was unusually busy today, and passed the US-India nuclear agreement that got through the Nuclear Supplier's Group with New Zealand's reluctant support.

At the moment this move by New Zealand looks like a very good tactical retreat. Firstly we have the move by the US to sign a free trade agreement with the P4 nations. Secondly there may be secret side agreements in Vienna that would make us happier, or maybe not. Thirdly US lawmakers seem to be clear that a nuclear weapons test by India would end the US supply of uranium (but can the same be said for France and Russia?

In private correspondence with Congress that was made public last month, the administration said the United States would terminate nuclear trade with India if it conducted another nuclear test. But the administration refused to add such terms to the Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver, and an amendment to the bill that would have made them explicit failed to pass last night. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, argued that the amendment was not necessary because U.S. laws made it clear that the deal was off if India tested again.

"There should be no doubt" because of the floor debate, Kimball said. "There will be practical consequences if India tests."

Both presidential candidates are in favour of the deal.

But the agreement had the strong support of both presidential candidates, helping grease the way to victory. The House approved the bill Saturday, 298 to 117.

Just to throw the cat among the pigeons. If India is to become part of the "mainstream" of civilian nuclear trade then it seems only fair that so should Israel.
(While we are at it Israeli "nuclear opacity" may have run its course.)

Given the current parlous situation, good luck to Kevin Rudd's efforts to reinvigorate international non-proliferation efforts I say and lets hope Gareth Evans is serious about his efforts to bring India, Israel and Pakistan under some form of restraint.

Australia's former foreign minister, Gareth Evans, will co-chair the event with Yoriko Kawaguchi, an ex-foreign minister in Japan, the government said. Senior Indian diplomat Brajesh Mishra and Pakistan's ex-army chief Jehangir Karamat are to be among the delegates.

Evans has recently said all nuclear powers _ including those who have refused to join the nonproliferation treaty such as India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel _ must be included in the new process if the world is to ever achieve disarmament.