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My vote for IEEE President-Elect 2015 goes to…

Tariq Durrani. Fred Mintzer is also good. But first, just not Barry Shoop.

This ended up being quite long, so here’s the short, TL;DR version. Barry Shoop was questioned on his priorities, and he said his top priority was “to increase IEEE’s value for our members, our profession and the public.” This isn’t a credible answer—it’s everything the IEEE does. He wants to prioritize everything, which is the same as having no priority, and he gives no means for how he would achieve everything. His lack of a defined vision for his term is, in my view, alone enough reason to rule him out.

Fred Mintzer and Tariq Durrani are both decent candidates. I think Dr Mintzer’s basic diagnosis on networking and collaboration is more correct than Prof Durrani’s, but his means is wrong. The online tools Dr Mintzer advocates are not properly conducive to networking. In any case, while it comprises engineers, the IEEE as an institution is not well-placed to develop high-quality software. It would be better for everyone if a software start-up or open-source project did this instead.

Prof Durrani has a longer wish list, and I don’t agree with everything he proposes. I have reservations about the usefulness of an advisory panel of CEOs and CTOs. But a few of his core proposals would help. His encouragement of practitioner-driven conferences is welcome. An expansion of the e-learning library to professional development isn’t a perfect solution, but it has some merit. He offers some small steps towards globalization in the IEEE. It’s clear he has put a lot of thought, in concrete terms, into what he wants to achieve as the IEEE’s chief executive.

For those reasons, my vote this year goes to Tariq Durrani. A more detailed discussion follows.

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Disclosure
I have never met any of the three candidates and I am not involved in any of their campaigns. Two years ago, I wrote in this blog backing Tariq Durrani. Like this post, that one was based on an honest assessment of publicly available material, and I had at the time met neither of the candidates and was involved in neither campaign. After the election, Prof Durrani e-mailed me, and I took the opportunity (as I often do with senior volunteers) to point him to a series of posts I wrote about the IEEE in 2011. That series still reflects my general stance today. In the IEEE, I have been a Student Branch chair, GOLD (as it was at the time) vice-chair, Section secretary, and have been to three Region 10 Student/GOLD/WIE Congresses, one of which I did the program for. I like to think this is a null disclosure, but if you think it taints my position, then, well, I guess disclosure has achieved its purpose.

First, not Barry Shoop
The Institute asked all three candidates for their “top two priorities”. Prof Shoop’s answer, like his position statement: “to increase IEEE’s value for our members, our profession and the public.” Professor, that’s not a “priority”. That’s everything the IEEE does! When someone asks what you will prioritize, “everything” is not a valid answer.

I am honestly tired of presidential candidates giving a catch-all when asked for their priorities. I criticized Roberto de Marca for the same thing in 2012. Too many candidates for senior IEEE positions don’t seem to have any specific goals in mind. But to be fair, this is Prof Shoop’s position statement, so maybe he just has a very long list of specifics he’d like to accomplish?

Unfortunately not. On his website, he talks about “tailored products and services”, “public policies that support the profession” and “increase IEEE’s influence”. In the abstract, these are laudable visions. But he leaves no idea what any of them concretely mean, or how they would be accomplished. Would “tailoring” mean members choosing for themselves from an unnavigable smorgasbord of  benefits? Do “public policies” mean that IEEE should start advocating to governments outside the US? What are the barriers to IEEE’s influence today? Prof Shoop spares us the details. Evidence that he has any is hard to find.

I make no apology for making this a veto factor in voting. Parts of the IEEE are working well, but a lot of it is broken. Most practicing engineers don’t think they’ll get anything useful from IEEE membership. Continued calls by and to IEEE volunteers to “add value” have so far achieved nothing. Any worthy presidential candidate must be able to lay out in at least some detail what they would do to help.

Readers might be surprised at the bluntness of my advocacy against Prof Shoop. Such scrutiny isn’t typical for IEEE elections, which tend to focus on positive campaigning. This is of course a good thing, but it’s still important to critique what potential presidents have (or don’t have) in mind. Leading the world’s largest technical professional association is a huge responsibility. Avoiding attack-style campaigns shouldn’t mean avoiding criticism.

I really wish I could support the alumnus of my university, and I have no doubt that he is a superb professional and dedicated volunteer. And there are certainly points in his favor. Asked by The Institute about how to engage the next generation, Prof Shoop’s ideas resonate with me the most: only he emphasized that engineers talk too little about their impact on the world. But wanting to prioritize everything, with neither any focus nor any idea how, is a poor case for a chief executive.

Choosing between Mintzer and Durrani
Having eliminated one, choosing between the other two was somewhat harder. Both had enough detail for me to imagine what they mean. While both list four areas, I only took the first one or two seriously: in both cases, the latter ones lack elaboration and seem thrown in there to cover bases. I don’t mind this—I think it’s fine to acknowledge that something should be done, while saying you’ve put a lot more thought into something else. But I really want to understand what change the candidates will personally want to drive in the IEEE.

On Frederick Mintzer
Dr Mintzer advocates “professional productivity and collaboration tools” based on social media. It would support both existing IEEE communities and ad-hoc ones, would support “collaborative research and authoring” and an “opportunity to reinvent publications” with article, discussion and supplements in one.

I would really like to see Dr Mintzer’s vision come true. But I don’t think the IEEE is the organisation to do it. The most fundamental building block for collaboration tools is good-quality software. While you might think an engineering organisation would be capable, the IEEE is ultimately a non-profit organisation, and one without the skill set to develop something genuinely usable.

This isn’t a guess. The IET, the IEEE’s UK-based counterpart, tried to implement almost exactly the same thing in their MyCommunity platform. I met some of the staff who were involved, and their dedication was genuine. But the IET found it really hard to get it off the ground. They sought feedback to improve it, but the sad truth is, tweaks would never be enough. The software is just very poorly designed.

In order for these collaboration tools to be developed by the IEEE to an adequate standard, you either need (a) volunteers experienced in software to commit their spare, out-of-work, time to developing commercial-grade software, or (b) to contract a software firm to do it for you, in return for a lot of money. Neither is likely: volunteers tend to want to organize things, not do more of their day job, and there is too much emphasis on cost reduction in the IEEE for anything of commercial quality to be viable. The only other option I can think of is an open-source effort, akin to Django or MediaWiki. To my knowledge, no successful such effort has originated with a large non-profit whose primary activities are somewhere else.

Rather, if there is really a need for these tools, there should be a market opportunity for it. Engineers and researchers (or their employers) should pay to use it. It should be a fully-fledged software project, with research into customer workflows and requirements. And if there’s demand for it to be linked to geographic communities, as Dr Mintzer suggests, then they will add that feature. I don’t hold this idea for everything IEEE does. But it’s true for tools, like source control, issue tracking, collaborative editing, circuit simulation and computer-aided design. Research collaboration is no different—I believe it will be better for the profession if it is done by a company or open-source project specializing in that activity.

On Tariq Durrani
Prof Durrani’s statement remains largely unchanged from when he ran last year, and two years ago. When he ran against Roberto de Marca, it was enough for me to note that Prof Durrani had some detail. (I didn’t advocate for a candidate last year, partly because I was busy, but partly because Howard Michel and Prof Durrani were equally good candidates.) This year, a comparison with Dr Mintzer demands a more analytical approach.

Prof Durrani has been keen to emphasize his plans to “establish a panel of chief executive/technology offers” to help IEEE better engage with industry. I have reservations. The hardest part of rectifying the disconnect is finding people who aren’t already involved in the IEEE. The people who are don’t know understand why people don’t join or what would sway them. But people who aren’t have little reason to help an institution desperate to welcome them but with nothing to offer. Volunteers will have to use their thinking caps and learn more effectively through informal channels with non-members, not by another initiative to seek advice.

Similarly, a number of his bullet points are empty. It’s not clear, for example, how he would “enhance global visibility of IEEE Standards”, nor how he would “ensure major IEEE role in 21st Century Global Grand Challenges” (whatever those are).

Still, there are promising nuggets in Prof Durrani’s wish list. His plans to expand the IEEE e-learning library for continuing professional development aren’t ideal—I find online courses a poor means of delivering CPD—but it’s not hopeless, and CPD is a core role of professional associations. Support for delivery of in-person courses would be expensive, but a much better return on investment. For this reason, his encouragement of practitioner-driven conferences has more hope. It would be an uphill battle, but real-life meetings are what truly drive networking and learning, and this would do better than most ideas to turn around the IEEE’s academic-only reputation. He also gives some small but credible steps towards globalizing the IEEE, in membership models with progressive benefits and more balanced international representation.

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Dr Mintzer’s fundamental diagnosis, I would argue, is more correct than Prof Durrani’s. There is only one strength intrinsic to IEEE: that it is a worldwide community of engineers, and by mutual education and robust exchange of ideas, they can advance the profession. For this reason, Dr Mintzer’s priority of “networking and collaboration opportunities” is to be applauded. But his means is wrong—online collaboration is a complement, not a substitute, to in-person meetings, and we should stop pretending the internet is our solution.

By contrast, Prof Durrani’s main areas lack Dr Mintzer’s realization. His general manifesto is more service-based, which is not ideal at a high level. His details are more promising though: they point to genuine, specific gaps in what the IEEE can provide to potential members. I hope he drops some of his ideas, but overall, it’s easier to visualize meaningful change with his manifesto.

But my final message is my first one. If a candidate has never said anything you disagree with, he is probably not the best one. You might feel included in Prof Shoop’s catch-all “priority”, but it’s not possible prioritize everything without prioritizing nothing. That is an excellent recipe for getting nothing meaningful done. Based on their websites and answers to questions, Dr Mintzer and Prof Durrani are more likely to achieve something.

On Winston, Wongs, name puns and a sense of humour

Winston Peters wasn’t taking a friendly jibe. He was using humour to make a serious point, and that is how his joke should be judged.

Almost all of the commentary following Winston Peters’ “two Wongs don’t make a right” joke has focussed on respect, historical context, how old the joke is, whether people of the name Wong find it funny, and indeed, whether it’s funny at all.

I’m glad to see ample criticism, but these are all the wrong questions. These commentators talk about his joke as if Mr Peters made some sort of ill-chosen, insensitive punchline, as if he needs better jokes. It was indeed insensitive, but it wasn’t just some error of judgement. Mr Peters wasn’t cracking some light-hearted joke. Mr Peters was trying to make a point—to remind his audience that the Chinese are taking over our country—and he used humour to achieve it.

This should not be a revelation. Humour is a common, and effective, rhetorical technique. Good orators, like Mr Peters, use it well for persuasive effect. In this case, Mr Peters was rebutting the claim that, because Labour once did similarly, National is justified in continuing their relaxed approach to foreign ownership. “As they say in Beijing, ‘two Wongs don’t make a right’.”

The joke is clever precisely because it plays on the racial group that Mr Peters has been targeting for some time, particularly with regard to foreign ownership of property. He was a vocal critic of the sale of farms to the Shanghai Pengxin group, accused the Huka Lodge of selling out to Chinese buyers, and jumped on the bandwagon after the Conservatives’ Colin Craig exposed the Lochinver Station sale. (He was strangely silent on a $1 billion deal involving Canadians.)

Absent that context, the line would have made no sense. Imagine if he had made a joke about a common English or Dutch surname. Whether it would’ve been offensive isn’t the point—it just would have looked completely random. Conversely, if Mr Peters’ crusade against foreign ownership fretted the Canadians, or just the world in general, the joke would have come out of nowhere. You would’ve been confused, not amused.

In other contexts, it’s appreciable that the same joke might be made light-heartedly. It’s not surprising that some Wongs are used to it: name puns aren’t necessarily offensive. But name puns only work when the target is actually involved—otherwise it’s not a pun. The pun here is that the topic of foreign ownership is about the Chinese. It’s only funny if you have at least some sympathy for that position. If not, there’s no double meaning to form the pun.

This is the reason the joke is racist. It’s not intrinsically culturally insensitive: as Mr Peters says, a sense of humour is still worth having. And it’s not merely ignorant. It’s offensive because Mr Peters had a genuine political point to make, and he chose his line deliberately to do so. As much as he wants to talk about how he heard it in Beijing and how his companion there found it funny, it remains that he wouldn’t have used it in the first place if he didn’t have the Chinese in mind. And at the point where there’s a specific class of people you want shut out, you’ll have no qualms cracking a joke that makes fun of them.

It’s a good joke—but only if you agree with Mr Peters’ racist stance. I hope that applies to no-one.

Honestly misleading taxpayers

Act’s “Honesty for Taxpayers” policy sounds nice, but if the objective is clarity, it will be unhelpful or worse.

In America, every government form has a small “OMB Approval Number” in the corner. In line with the Paperwork Reduction Act, all government departments must have all forms approved by the Office of Management and Budget every three years, and show an “estimated burden time” alongside the approval number. There’s probably some benefit to this: perhaps agencies would otherwise have a habit of asking for more than they need. And the direct costs aren’t too bad—less than $10 million (Shapiro 2013). But the irony of creating a bureaucracy to fight bureaucracy seems lost on people. Approval, required to collect any information from more than ten people, takes 60 days including a public comment period, often longer in practice. If the problem is inefficient governments, slowing down the government seems like a counter-intuitive move.

Supporters of Act’s new “Honesty for Taxpayers” policy would do well to keep this in mind. This doesn’t mean that the policy is a net harm, of course, but the equation is not nearly as simple as its leader, Jamie Whyte, makes it out to be.

Why so much spending?
Some of Dr Whyte’s diagnosis is woefully misattributed. He blames the absence of checks and balances for making New Zealand “the fastest spenders in the West.” Perhaps so, but fast isn’t the same as wasteful or opaque, and more dire cases of wasteful spending are found in America, where checks and balances run galore. America’s legislators are notorious for sneaking unrelated clauses into bills that push federal spending towards pet projects in their constituencies. Each line is small in the context of the whole federal budget, but they add up. The second chamber and entrenched constitution don’t seem to help.

Also, Dr Whyte forgets that speed runs both ways. Just as governments can increase spending easily, they can cut programmes—as the current government did with student allowances and the R&D tax credit, much to the chagrin of left-wingers and the tech industry.

Similarly, California’s administrations may have been overspending, but only because they were bound to by direct democracy initiatives. Act might like how, in California, tax increases require a two-thirds supermajority of both houses. But Californian voters also had a habit of approving spending for new programmes in voter initiatives, which means that their legislators get little discretion over the government budget—and hence, the trade-offs they should make when spending starts to run away.

Perhaps Act believes that California would not have voted that way if Act-style income tax warnings had been included in the official guides, rather than just the total costs (though that’s not what they said). Maybe that’s the case. But if they want “honest”, useful information, Act’s proposal is an odd way of going about it.

This won’t mean anything, either
A back-of-the-envelope calculation to derive Act-style income tax figures is relatively trivial, but like the total cost, it’s useless information. In no world without Working for Families would “the 17.5% income tax rate be 12.5%”, because no responsible consequential tax adjustment would change just one tax bracket. Assuming we wanted to keep the tax system equally progressive and non-distortionary, all tax brackets would be adjusted, along with the company and trust rates to follow the top income tax rate. It might be sensible to adjust bracket boundaries as well as rates, and maybe GST too.

In fact, the warnings Act proposes could be dangerously misleading. Someone who understands income tax would realise that if the 10.5% rate drops to 3.5%, that’s (mostly) just another way of saying $980 per earner per year. But one would be forgiven for thinking that WfF comprises close to a majority of the government budget, or that they’d have 7% more of their income. This isn’t stupidity. It’s the natural at-a-glance impression of anyone who, unlike me, hasn’t spent hours musing about taxation. Perhaps the extremity of that example would bring people to their wits, but something like “the 28% company tax would be 25%” would not.

If we applied this analysis to superannuation, which Act strangely forgot about, you could wipe the 10.5% rate completely and drop the 17.5% rate to probably about 4%. [1] There’s a reason Act neglected this: canning superannuation would, unlike canning WfF, be universally unpopular. What’s more realistic is peeling back superannuation: raising the retirement age or means-testing it, for example. Act’s policy doesn’t allow for transparency in the nuances that matter.

Far from being meaningful revelations, Act’s policy would open a new can of worms. How do we determine where the tax burden of a policy lies? Do we assume it’s equally distributed by person, or proportional to the tax they pay now? Some difficulties are by design: an Act-style income tax statement would make no sense for a national highway funded by an earmarked road tax. Some require thought about the counterfactual: would tax cuts for welfare cuts be aimed at the poor, or would welfare be funded by taxes on the rich? (This is a dichotomy: think about it marginally.) And would estimates take into account the impacts on the behaviour of consumers and companies? Or savings elsewhere: say, for a corrections policy, savings resulting from a reduction in reoffending?

Act for honesty, or Act for small government?
There is a more basic tension in Act’s proposal. Act opposes government spending beyond the basics, and said as much in Dr Whyte’s speech. In most cases, the misleading effect of their statements would probably make spending seem more significant than it really is. Supporters of small government are unlikely to complain about this if it means people turn off government programmes that they think are wasteful.

Yet it is difficult to reconcile this with the policy’s stated objective. Dr Whyte says that people “should have a clear idea of the price of [an] agency in their taxes or rates”, that “good decision-making depends on good information.” You would think, then, that the policy is about providing high-quality information. The sort of back-of-the-envelope calculations Act proposes are the precise opposite. And they give themselves away at the end:

Politicians from the big spending parties will oppose this policy. That shows what a good idea it is. The bureaucracy will also resist it, because voters will be surprised to realise that much new spending is generated by bureaucrats.

Their language doesn’t really contemplate the possibility that oftentimes, the cost will be worth it. The information they provide focuses only on income tax rates, and not on all the other factors a policymaker would (and should) take into account when making a decision. Act dresses this up as being about informed citizens, but they are really only interested in certain information that will help achieve the objective they seek.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you might know where I’m heading with this. Demanding the disclosure of information to help voters is a value-agnostic procedural policy. Act is curiously selective about where they apply this principle. You should bear this in mind when reading their rhetoric about “honesty”, “information” and “accountability”. It’s really about something else.


[1] This is an extremely rough estimate based on the Treasury numbers on the effect of changes to tax rates. Crucially, it assumes that the effect of a two-percentage-point change is twice the effect of a one-percentage-point one and so on, which is patently wrong, but should still give a ballpark figure.

Freedom of speech, if it’s me that’s speaking

The Climate Voter initiative wants to think that electoral law doesn’t apply to their campaign. They’re wrong.

There’s been enough commentary on why the six groups comprising the Climate Voter initiative are obviously wrong, so I won’t rehash the analysis here. In a nutshell, Climate Voter disagrees with the Electoral Commission’s opinion that, because their campaign is electoral advertising, they must comply with the relevant Electoral Act provisions. They seem to think being “non-partisan” makes them exempt, but as many have pointed out, that is both dubious and irrelevant.

I don’t have anything to add to those several commentators, except that this feeds into a more general obsession of mine: cases where people claim to support principles “above” political persuasion, like freedom of speech, but in reality only do so when it’s convenient for their cause. I called the anti-asset sales campaign out on this late last year. Their refrain was about electoral mandates. Conveniently, these parties (Labour and the Greens) had already shown their willingness to ignore popular opinion in the smacking referendum in 2009. Journalists had also pressed them on the inconsistency, so there was a wealth of backpedalling comments by them ready to be pounced on.

Matthew Bruenig has commented on this general topic in the American context with respect to free speech and market coercion of opinion. I’m tempted to include sovereignty arguments in the mix too. It’s not strictly a procedural argument like free speech and electoral mandate, but it shares some characteristics. It’s about power, in this case what power a country should “give up” or retain. It comes up often with TPP opponents in New Zealand, who conveniently forget about human rights treaties we sign up to and the loss of sovereignty there. People who make sovereignty arguments do so because they sound generic, but it only seems to matter when they disagree substantively with a policy.

I try not to accuse groups of inconsistencies before I can point to some specific demonstration of it. But I would bet anything that, if there was a pro-business group that ran a “non-partisan”, “issue-based” campaign, Climate Voter supporters would be outraged if they could sidestep third-party electoral advertising laws. On Pundit, Andrew Geddis compares this case to the Exclusive Brethren case that motivated these laws in the first place. Accordingly, I’m cynical about Climate Voter’s concerns about “wider issues” of freedom of speech and “civil society groups”. Of course, they could just say now that they’d be happy for a right-wing (say, free trade) campaign to do the same as them. To my knowledge, despite the point being made by several commentators, they haven’t done so.

Rather, their reaction to the reactions is to claim that “there’s no clear consensus… a real lack of clarity exists”, “it could have huge implications” (relevance unclear) and “it’s a complex issue” (it’s really not). This is odd. Only one of the six commentaries Greenpeace cites argued in their favour. Two who are sympathetic to climate change issues are unequivocal, including Professor Geddis, who “just can’t, for the life of me, see how what the Climate Voters coalition are doing falls anywhere but smack in the middle” of the definition of electoral advertising. Greenpeace and Generation Zero are correct that the decision affects other groups, but that’s not an argument. If there is any lack of legal clarity, they are shy on how it arises.

I should say, I’m glad that at least some commentary pointing out that Climate Voter is wrong is from left-wing commentators (other than law professors) who support their campaign. This makes me happy not because they’re left-wing, but because it shows there are people who really will uphold value-agnostic principles even when their own side is affected. I wish there were more people like this.

To be honest, the point of this post is just to record it in a collection of cases where stances on procedural matters are dependent on substantive opinions. I normally don’t bother blogging if what I want to say’s already been said, but you’ll forgive the exception here.

Why the Greens’ 3D printing blueprint will fail

The Greens’ plans are a textbook example of what the late Professor Sir Paul Callaghan warned not to do.

It’s encouraging that the Greens recognise the value of technology, research and development. Their 3D printing blueprint seems well-researched and on first glance is a solid summary of the state of 3D printing. It would make for an excellent corporate white paper. Unfortunately, my praises end around there.

The most basic tension in the paper is their recognition that the rest of the world is investing heavily in it and their claim that 3D printing could be a “niche” that New Zealand could excel at. They seek inspiration from the late Professor Sir Paul Callaghan (blueprint, page 10), who argued that New Zealand’s best paths to prosperity lie in technology niches: “odd” things that we can do well and lead the world in because the markets are too small for bigger players to care about.

He warned against becoming “mired in fashionable cliché”, citing biotech as an example where we tried to follow and failed. He admired Fisher & Paykel Healthcare’s respiratory humidifiers and Rakon’s crystal-controlled oscillators, being technologies without major investment in bigger countries. He offered this criterion:

If a New Zealand technology business does something that sounds familiar, it will probably fail. If it does something that causes you to ask “what on earth is that?”, it is probably on to something.

Strange, then, to hear from the Greens:

As the late professor Paul Callaghan said, New Zealand’s path to prosperity lies in technology niches, and 3D printing offers a growing economic niche for the country. … Other countries are clearly investing significant sums into this technology and it is important New Zealand does not miss out.

This comes straight after a section explaining how the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and China were all investing in 3D printing. The Greens want us to compete with them. Yet this is exactly what Sir Paul advised against doing. By the Greens’ own evidence, 3D printing is not a niche. It is a technology with significant worldwide attention, enough for The Economist to run a leader and a briefing in 2011, which the Greens cited too. This is a key characteristic of what Sir Paul suggested we avoid.

Our competitive advantage
Perhaps I care too much about this inconsistency. There were few if any public figures of greater inspiration to me than Sir Paul, so to see his ideas misapplied bothers me at least a little. But even if the blueprint had disclaimed his vision, the Greens’ fixation with 3D printing is still troubling.

Most troublingly, while they do an excellent job of explaining the opportunities in 3D printing, they are scant on why they believe New Zealand is particularly well-placed to capitalise on it. They made reference to a few companies who use 3D printing and universities who find them useful. But they are not alone, and the Greens’ constant refrain that other countries are going there too hurts their case: it reduces our competitive advantage.

And in any case, using 3D printing is hardly a sound case for value-add. The technique is attractive because it can offer high customization at low cost, so they’re right to say it’s worth the uptake. But the whole point of the exercise is to reduce the degree of specialization required to manufacture customized parts. If it’s about using 3D printing, this more likely works against us, because 3D printing lowers barriers to entry for others to make the same things. If it’s about making 3D printers, then they omitted why they think we can excel at it.

Less obviously, the other countries they cited are investing in 3D printing alongside many other technologies. Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with some government R&D funds going to 3D printing, so long as we’re hedging our bets appropriately. But the Greens’ proposal sounds as if they want most of, or at least a lot of, our eggs in that basket.

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It’s great that the Greens want to raise public awareness of 3D printing. Its potential impact is huge; it should be on our radar. We should be mindful of how it will impact our existing economy and plan ahead accordingly. The government can and should keep an eye this; it’s a useful (albeit not authoritative) initiator of information-sharing forums.

But when they want us to “embrace digital manufacturing” so wholeheartedly, it is much more concerning. It’s bad strategy to choose a market with as many competitors, or even potential competitors, as the Greens describe. It’s even worse when there’s no existing strength you can use to outshine them. The Greens’ “blueprint for the future” sounds like a great way to run into the ground. I hope they’ll reconsider.

On sovereignty and international agreements

“Save our sovereignty” is a rousing catch-cry, but it’s a useless guide to international agreements.

National sovereignty’s been a recurring theme in opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). But the assertion rarely gets the examination it deserves, particularly for an argument that works against virtually every international agreement in existence.

It’s easy to see what makes the slogan attractive. There’s a strong, natural and relatively universal impulse to defend our right as a country to decide things for ourselves. This isn’t a bad impulse to have—indeed, I hold it strongly myself.

The problem is that any acceptance of an international agreement necessitates a loss of sovereignty. This includes every trade agreement that New Zealand is currently party to, every treaty and human rights convention. It would have included the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the Kyoto Protocol and its successor. Yet most TPP opponents, who happen to align politically left, would surely not believe that any country should have refused to sign those treaties. So what gives?

The difference between the “sovereignty” we gave up in signing Kyoto and what we will give up in signing the TPP is actually very obvious. The left likes what Kyoto binds us to do, but not what the TPP would. But in that case, national sovereignty is not a useful discriminant. The real question is whether the agreement is a worthwhile exercise in the first place.

Of course, that debate is far too complex to address in political rhetoric. As many have noticed, it depends on what’s in the agreement. What opponents probably mean when they talk about “sovereignty” is the tendency for TPP clauses to step on areas traditionally outside the domain of trade liberalisation. Indeed, almost everyone in New Zealand, including TPP proponents, opposes (for example) the intellectual property provisions sought by the United States. The question is whether such hurdles in negotiation should be cause to abandon the agreement altogether.

There’s probably a deeper question: many TPP opponents oppose free trade generally, but for other, better reasons of economic ideology. Still, it’s issues like intellectual property (which affects Pharmac, New Zealand’s drug-buying agency) that are the sticking points. Indications from Wellington and leaked documents are that New Zealand negotiators oppose these provisions. Free trade supporters, then, see it as just a challenge to work through; opponents see no hope.

But what’s sovereignty, anyway?
Would signing the TPP mean giving up our sovereignty? On closer reflection, it depends what we mean. Every time I sign a contract, say, accept a job offer, I’m giving up some self-determination: I accept an obligation to do something for someone else, in return for their commitment to doing something for me. In that sense, countries always lose some right to decide for themselves when they commit to multilateral agreements.

Yet by the same token, one might see it as a sovereign right to choose to enter agreements with other countries. Countries that signed Kyoto did so (presumably) because they figured that, if everyone was bound to cut emissions, progress would be better. If we thought it was a good idea, it was in our prerogative to sign up.

At this point, I’m playing with semantics. What does it mean to be a sovereign country? The problem with the former definition is that it literally prohibits all international agreements. While there probably exist some who would agree with that, I doubt that it describes most TPP opponents. The latter definition, though, renders the concept of sovereignty somewhat useless. By that conception, what agreement would violate sovereignty? Does it require the agreement to be somehow revocable?

Use better arguments
You could dig into this as deep as you like. But if you question an opponent hard enough, no-one actually cares about sovereignty, per se. They either care about specific provisions that it would be stupid to commit to (and make no mistake, in its current form there are quite a few), or they generally disagree with market liberalisation. Neither of those stances are unreasonable, and there’s nothing wrong with some healthy scrutiny. It would just be nice if we stuck to arguments that matter.

Picture credit: NZ Herald

On inequality and education

If inequality is the “real cause” for poor education, does that mean poor education doesn’t drive inequality?

It is the opposition’s job, I guess, to oppose. Sometimes, though, the efforts baffle me. Such an instance occurred after Prime Minister John Key made a major education policy announcement on Thursday. The policy, which would create new positions in which top teachers and principals share best practice with other teachers and schools, was met with uncharacteristic approval from the education sector, including teachers’ unions. But it’s completely misguided, say the Greens:

This poorly thought out policy assumes that a possible improvement in teaching practice will address the driver of declining standards, inequality. […] The policy is not a blueprint to address the real needs of kids in lower decile schools to help them learn.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider the corollaries of the Greens’ position. If they believe that the only way to address poor educational performance is to address social inequality, it must follow that any education policy aimed at the education system, as opposed to the economy or welfare system, is a pointless exercise.

Which is a perfectly acceptable stance to take. But it’s hard to keep consistent. For starters, it requires them not to propose any education policy aimed at lifting achievement, for the precise reason that they don’t believe they work: the “real” cause is inequality, not the education system.

But moreover, it requires them to believe that you can’t address inequality through education. Their claim is that only by addressing inequality directly can you hope to improve educational outcomes. So they must not believe even in the potential for education to give poor children the chance to become richer adults. They must not believe that giving schools in poorer areas more funding (i.e., the decile system) will do anything to help those students. Their rhetoric is based on kids being “sick and hungry”, and “living in poverty”—not what teachers and schools must do to help break the cycle.

It might feel like I’m taking their views to the extreme—except that I’m not. Their comments are unambiguous: National’s education policy is bad because it fails to address inequality. “The best teachers and principals in the world can’t feed or heal the hungry and sick kids that show up to school each day.” My general bias is to try to read statements in the best light possible. I’m finding better interpretations hard to find. If they thought there exists a better education policy that is not welfare or economic policy, why didn’t they hint at that?

To be fair, poverty is indeed an excellent predictor for educational underachievement. And the Greens are justified in campaigning to reduce it, just because it’s generally bad. What is confusing is that they would criticise a policy aimed at doing exactly that, for trying to do so by improving education.

There is plenty that could go wrong with this policy. As with any novelty, there are bound to be teething issues; any good opposition will make the most of them. It could yet prove impractical to ferry teachers between schools on a daily basis. Labour at least reiterated its belief in “encouraging quality teaching” and “collaboration with teachers”. The Greens seemed determined to say nothing even neutral, and ended up advocating a principle that will soon prove to be a straitjacket. Perhaps they are excited about becoming the lead opposition party, but they should be more careful to leave themselves room to make policies of their own.

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