The Dim-Post

April 21, 2015

Who spied on whom?

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 8:59 am

Who were the 88 New Zealand citizens or residents illegally spied on by the GCSB? We’ll probably never know for sure (other than Dotcom). Ian Fletcher assured us they were very bad guys involved in ‘weapons of mass destruction development, people smuggling, foreign espionage in New Zealand and drug smuggling’.

But the latest Snowden revelation about the GCSB intercepting communications between the Chinese Consulate in Auckland and its visa office makes me suspect that some of – if not most of – the subjects of illegal surveillance were NZ citizens or nationals working at embassies targeted by the GCSB. I don’t know about the Chinese consulate, but most embassies hire a bunch of locals to do non-diplomatic work, so if you’re spying on an embassy you’re mostly intercepting traffic to-and-from those local hires.

On the one hand, spying on embassies is what intelligence agencies do. The law should allow them to do that. But politicians can’t say in public ‘We need the legal right to spy on the local staff at the Chinese consulate’, so you’re going to get a smokescreen. On the other hand, during the debate about the expansion of the GCSB’s powers, John Key and the GCSB’s apologists roared with outrage at their critics, who wanted us left defenseless against all those WMD wielding terrorists that only the security agencies protect us from. Now every week brings another revelation that these agencies have absolutely fuck-all to do with protecting anyone from anything.

The other thing you’re supposed to do when you’re a secret intelligence agency is keep your intelligence secret, and the Five Eyes network seems to be not-so-great at that. If you’re hacking into the secure transmissions of your largest trading partner you really don’t want to get caught, and all China needed to do to catch us is compromise one analyst anywhere in the network, and they’d have access to the same trove Snowden did. I doubt the Herald report is the first they’ve heard of this.

April 20, 2015

Beltway issues

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 1:42 pm

Contra DPF, I think there is some value in opposition parties targeting the government with so-called ‘Beltway issues’. But the fundamental job of the opposition is to show that the government can’t run the country, but the opposition can. That hasn’t been happening, hence little movement in the polls.

New Zealand First is trending up and the Greens are trending down. Given poll bias New Zealand First is almost certainly more popular than the Greens right now.

It’s a long way until the 2017 election but the most likely outcome at this point is a National/New Zealand First government. And I just can’t see Labour capturing enough votes off National to overcome the combined Nats+NZF.

April 11, 2015


Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 9:04 am

It must be tricky to replace a beloved but declining prime-time TV show. You want to boost your ratings, but you don’t want to alienate the actually pretty large number of people still watching the show you want to replace. You want to keep those viewers and build, not lose them too. And there are all the wider issues of protecting the company brand, protecting it from employment litigation etc.

Fortunately TV3 has highly paid wealth-creating thought-leading executives like Mark Weldon and Julie Christie, who get paid the big dollars to carry out these tasks that appear so daunting to lesser beings. I don’t think they’ve quite nailed this, though, what with the nationwide outcry and viewer petitions and pending lawsuits and allegations of political interference and government cronyism. Only six-figure bonuses for them this year!

April 9, 2015

Hooton’s Law

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 11:06 am

There’s been a debate on twitter over the last couple of days about the issue of political commentators and conflicts of interest, and Bryce Edward’s asked me to articulate my thoughts on the matter so here they are.

I’ve said before that I think Matthew Hooton is currently our best political commentator, even though our ideologies are very different. That’s partly because Hooton is articulate and very smart, but mostly because of his unique position in the New Zealand political landscape. He’s a long-time National Party insider, which means he understands how the governing party works, but he’s also engaged in a very bitter feud – driven partly by ideology, partly personality and partly commercial interest – with several powerful people in the National hierarchy, which means he uses his insight and acumen to openly critique his own team.

Which is awesome. But doesn’t that create a massive conflict of interest? I don’t think so. No more than someone like Michelle Boag, undyingly loyal National cheerleader, who is motivated to comment to promote National rather than critique it because it advances her interests and those of her allies. All of these people have agendas, and I think Hooton’s law would go something like:

The more insight an insider has into the political process, the more calculated their agenda in disseminating those insights

I’m more concerned about commercial conflicts of interest among commentators and other media figures. There’s a wildly lucrative and very shadowy marketplace out there where journalists and commentators provide ‘media training’ or ‘communications consulting’ for politicians and their parties, and then pop up on TV or radio speaking as advocates for them without disclosing that. This would be very easy for media outlets to fix. All it takes is a disclosure statement, and if the commentator can’t make one because their relationship with their political clients is ‘commercial in confidence’ then they shouldn’t be given a platform. Hooton quite often discloses a conflict of interest when he’s talking on Nine To Noon, but it’s not something you hear very often from any other pundits. And there are big, big conflicts-of-interest out there.

Innovation and complexity

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 8:57 am

This jumped out at me yesterday: a conversation between Tyler Cowen and billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Cowen is one of the most influential economists in the world, and he introduces Thiel as:

one of the greatest and most important public intellectuals of our entire time. Throughout the course of history, he will be recognized as such.

And then they talk about innovation and Thiel says:

There’s the question of stagnation, which I think has been a story of stagnation in the world of atoms, not bits. I think we’ve had a lot of innovation in computers, information technology, Internet, mobile Internet in the world of bits. Not so much in the world of atoms, supersonic travel, space travel, new forms of energy, new forms of medicine, new medical devices, etc. It’s sort of been this two-track area of innovation.

There are a lot of questions of what has caused it and I think maybe that’s a good part to start in terms of what gets you out of it. On a first cut, I would say that we lived in a world in which bits were unregulated and atoms were regulated.

If you are starting a computer software company, that costs maybe $100,000, to get a new drug through the FDA, maybe on the order of a billion dollars or so. If the FDA were regulating video game technologies, and you had to do a double-blind study to make sure that the video games weren’t addictive, damaging to your brain, etc.

Is government regulation really the primary reason there’s more innovation in software than biotechnology? Surely the big difference between the two is that from an engineering point of view, software code is the easiest material you can possibly work with. That’s what’s great about it. The barriers to entry are almost non-existent. You can develop something amazing in your garage and take it to market for about $100,000. Smart teenagers with laptops can just start messing around with software development tools and build stuff, which isn’t something that can happen in biotech. The smart teenager would need access to a multi-million dollar lab, and if they just started messing around in it they’d kill themselves very quickly.

Software can become complex, but working with it is easy. Pharmaceuticals, on the other hand, are just really hard to work with. You need labs filled with expensive specialist equipment, and lots of people trained to use it, and the biological systems that your product interacts with are many magnitudes more diverse and complex than the IT platforms that software interacts with. And, of course, there’s a regulatory burden because video games don’t cause birth defects or increase your risk of heart failure, or give you cancer. It costs virtually nothing to test a software product, but drugs mean large scale double-blind placebo clinical trials, and that’s just really expensive. Thiel is like a guy who watches someone build a sand-castle, and then points to a skyscraper and says, ‘Sand-castles are unregulated but you need a permit to build that, so skyscrapers are more expensive because of government regulation.’

Now, you’d think that a brilliant economist and ‘one of the greatest intellectuals of all time’ would realise all this, and you’d also wonder why they don’t. Cowen and Thiel are very smart guys but they’re also libertarians and that places a huge barrier of magical thinking between them and anything sensible they might say about issues involving government or regulation and markets. There’s a huge web of libertarian fantasy around free market alternatives to drug regulation, involving patients making rational choices about medication based on perfect information, and orphans sending price signals by winning tort cases against multi-billion dollar drug companies that accidentally kill their parents.

It’s all preposterous, but it matters because guys like Thiel are hugely influential among political and media elites. He made all that money! He must be right about stuff! But he’s not, and a lot of what passes for wisdom or insight among what Cowen refers to as ‘the hyper-meritocracy’ or ‘the cognitive elite’ is simply uninformed oblivious nonsense.

April 8, 2015

To train a censorship debate

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 10:33 am

The discussion about ‘How to Train a Child’ – the book in Auckland Library that instructs parents to beat children under one year of age with a ‘willowy branch’ – seems to focus on people being ‘offended’ by the book. And of course no book should be removed from the library just because it offends someone. There is no right not to be offended. But infants do have a right not to be beaten with sticks, and children have a right not to be tortured to death – which is what’s happened to some of the children whose parents’ have followed the advice of this book – and that seems like a right libraries should uphold, not undermine.

April 5, 2015

Explain this to me slowly

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 7:27 am

The latest idea to sweep Parliament is that Winston Peters will use his victory in Northland to transform New Zealand First into a ‘country party’:

With his talk of “two tiered economies” and “second-class citizens”, Peters is already looking well beyond Northland’s boundaries to sell his message of Government neglect to the inhabitants of other regions, such as Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, eastern Bay of Plenty, Wanganui and the West Coast, who – rightly or wrongly – feel they too have been chucked on the economic scrapheap while metropolitan New Zealand prospers.

What will really be troubling Key, however, is that Peters’ repositioning of New Zealand First as some kind of “Country Party” will see him wreaking havoc behind National’s well-fortified frontline – territory previously considered to be impregnable.

That is Key’s nightmare. Not that he will be allowed to sleep in peace anyway.

The fall of Northland means there will be sleepless nights for nervous National MPs who thought their seats in National’s supposed “heartland” were safe forever.

The National MPs representing all of these heartland seats aren’t likely to resign in disgrace en masse, so Peters will have to wait until 2017 to campaign in them. And let’s say people in those provinces are as excited about Ron Mark and Tracey Martin as they are about Peters himself. And let’s say that Labour doesn’t stand candidates in those seats, or signals that their voters should vote strategically for the NZF candidate. And say that ceteris paribus, Peters wins NINE electorate seats, an astonishing victory. Surely nothing really changes, because he already qualifies for nine list MPs?

Okay. What if he uses these electorate battles to campaign for list votes. ‘Two ticks New Zealand First’. That might be a big deal. But, based on the Northland outcome, the majority of those list votes would come from Labour voters. Labour’s collaboration is vital to the success of Peters’ ‘Country Party’, but in a General Election they’d be the big losers. Wouldn’t they? How would this plan actually work?

April 3, 2015

On performance

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 9:44 am

Here’s a recent story I don’t think got as much attention as it deserved. This piece by Vernon Small revealing Finance Minister Bill English’s role in (basically) bankrupting Solid Energy:

Labour has tabled documents in Parliament showing that ministers put pressure on Solid Energy in 2009 to increase its debt levels and pay bigger dividends, despite warnings a falling coal price could crimp its profits.

Finance Minister Bill English confirmed the instruction in a letter from then State-Owned Enterprises Minister Simon Power to the state coalminer’s chairman, John Palmer.

“The Government, in its first term, looked at SOE balance sheets and decided many of them could carry more debt. It made a decision to allow Solid Energy to take on more debt,” English said.

He had approved a higher debt level in 2009.

Ronald Reagan was once asked if his acting background helped him become US President. Reagan replied, ‘I can’t imagine how anyone who wasn’t an actor could do this job.’

I think about that line whenever I see Bill English talking in his gruff, serious voice about belt-tightening and prudence and fiscal discipline. English is very respected around Parliament and among the pundits: the common-sense, no-nonsense Southland farmer who is balancing the books, running a tight ship, counting every penny etc.

Which is ironic, because English’s performance as Finance Minister has been one multi-billion dollar debacle after another. There was the great tax switch, which was supposed to be revenue neutral and stimulate consumer spending, but which the government still borrows $1.5 billion/year to pay for and which preceded a consumer recession. There was the finance company debacle. The botched partial privitisation of the asset sales. The ongoing housing crisis. The seventy billion dollar debt and series of stealth tax increases and feeble accounting scams to pretend we’re back in ‘surplus’. Now his role in Solid Energy’s collapse.

English’s actual performance as Treasurer is mostly awful but his performance as a dour, gruff very competent and serious Senior Minister is flawless and, politics being what it is, the latter is what counts.

March 30, 2015

On deals and false equivalence

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 2:11 pm

Andrew Little signaled to Labour voters in Northland that they should vote for Winston Peters (and they did). So the press gallery and wider punditocracy are all aflutter about Labour’s hypocrisy. ‘They condemned National’s deal with ACT in Epsom,’ the argument goes, ‘But now they’ve done the same thing in Northland! Labour has lost the moral high ground!’

They haven’t done ‘the same thing’, of course. I don’t like Winston Peters or New Zealand First, but it is an actual party that people vote for, and Northland voters were more likely to vote for Peters than any Labour candidate. ACT, on the other hand, is a fake party that no one votes for, lead by nobodies who would never win anything. Epsom voters didn’t vote for David Seymour, they voted for a loophole in the electoral law that benefits National.

Gallery journalists understand this on an intellectual level. They’re smart. But National’s media strategists are smarter. They exploit the anxiety political journalists have of being seen to be partisan. ‘How can you attack our deal but stay silent on theirs? Whaddarya? Biased?’ Journalists and commentators know that if they condemn both deals – or both sides of any other issue even if there is no moral equivalence – then they can’t be accused of media bias. They’re doing their jobs!

This doctrine of false equivalence is National’s most reliable spin-tactic. They trot it out every-time they’re in trouble. Dirty politics? What about that time seven years ago when Mike Williams did something dirty? Tim Groser’s WTO spying scandal? Chris Finlayson instantly implies that ‘Helen Clark did it too’. ‘Labour is just as bad’ is almost always the first excuse out of Key’s mouth, because he knows it is the argument the press gallery will be most sympathetic to.

March 29, 2015

And more on Northland

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 11:48 am

There were a whole lot of counter-balancing things going on in Northland. On one hand it was a super-safe National seat. On the other hand, that whole Sabin thing. But then again, the National Party political machine: Key, Joyce, Crosby/Textor, Curia, shitloads of money – they threw everything at this. But their actual candidate was a total novice going up against Winston Peters. And there was strategic voting. And the media bias against National was overwhelming. And voters could ‘send a message’ without changing the government.

I feel like all of these things should have factored against each other to produce a narrow win for National. Maybe a really narrow contested-on-the-specials win for Peters. And I was wrong. It was a landslide. Two factors counted for a lot more than they should have. They were, I think:

  • The National machine under-performed. Not only did they get the tone of their messaging horribly wrong – the bridge bribe, the fleets of crown limos – but the actual on-the-ground organisation was, apparently, a total shambles until the final week of the campaign. People told me that while the campaign was underway and I simply didn’t believe them. How can you pour that much money and that much expertise into something and deliver such a catastrophe?
  • Like I said in a previous post, the huge number of Labour supporters who turned out to cast strategic votes for another party in a by-election was (a) decisive and (b) surprising.

What does it all mean? The symbolism is obvious. All the actual result tells us is that in extraordinary circumstances a strong populist conservative candidate can win a seat off National so long as Labour doesn’t contest it.

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