Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Let's talk about Telstra and the NBN ... again

Today Stephen Bartholomeusz has followed up the item by his colleague Alan Kohler that I wrote about yesterday.

Stephen repeats the ground on the valuation gap but notes that any direct compensation by the Government to Telstra would need to be on budget and real.

That is very different to the NBN itself. Tony Abbott today was reported as suggesting that he'll save the budget by thre things, the magic public service cuts, cancelling the BER program and cancelling the NBN. We all know that public service cuts never reveal much and that Tanner is being pretty brutal on that anyway. The BER money will all be spent before Tony would have any post election chance to stop it. And the NBN is not a $43B on budget item, it is on budget only for $4.7B of which $2B was the communications fund. The marginal cost of the NBN is less than one year of the cost of Mr Abbott's parental leave scheme which he proposes to fund with a GREAT BIG NEW TAX. (All in caps because that's how Tony alway says it).

The point is that while there is no savng to be made by cancelling the NBN, the Government has no political rationale for paying Telstra compensation.

It looks that this Telstra strategy about the Government funding the difference is driven by the same Telstra strategy that thought that access prices should not just be based on cost but should effectively reimburse Telstra for foregone monopoly profits. They dressed this up in multiple ways over time, but it always amounted to the same thing.

There is some merit in the idea that the shareholders of Telstra bought the asset expecting to retain these rents - in the economics biz it is called capitalising the rent. But the prospectus for each float repeated the Government's policy in relation to telecommunications - which has always been about competition and has always therefore been about extracting rents. To buy the shares expecting the continuation of those rents was irrational (hands up all those shareholders who want to admit to making an irrational investment decision).

Ultimately the question is, as Stephen notes, how much pain does NBN Co need to endure if it has to go head-to-head with Telstra? The first thing to note is that Telstra's "threats" of competing with an alternative access strategy are this time all nonsense. They can't get enough wireless out there, they have major building access issues with HFC and they should be cricified by sharehlders if they try to over-invest in their PSTN. There might be an unhealthy period, but if the Government says "if it takes an extra $XB to make this happen we will do that by subsidising NBN Cos losses not Telstra's shareholders" then it is all over.

Telstra's strategy seems to be to convince analysts and media that the deal hinges on the Government topping up the difference, which then gives them nowhere to go when the Government still doesn't act.

Telstra also hasn't thought hard enough about just how many other ways the Government can make their life uncomfortable. enying access to spectrum is only one element of it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sometimes it doesn't take long (amended)

Sometimes it doesn't take long to find new information that would have improved an earlier post. In NBN madness I noted that Telstra shareholders who thought they were buying a network that would be operational for 25 years were delusional.

Then I saw the this story from David Braue about his personal experience with broadband. Yes folks - ead what he says about the PSTN being fundamentally broken.

As an industry practitioner I can understand a lot of what is going on in he processes here. But to deliver customers both high speed service and provider choice the NBN will indeed be the solution.

But in the interim we should also note the way our crappy processes affect customers.

Another example was on offer today - this time on a mobile. In reality this should be more configured as a problem for the banks because at core it is the problem of declining payment on authorised regular debits because a credit card expiry date has been reached. Do the banks realise just how many suppliers we'd have to update? Could the banks offer us a service that provides us with an automatic authorisation update?

in this case it might also be a telco problem, because as an industry it actually has a core of debt problems and so often has harsh credit terms, or harsh terms imposed by its bankers.

I wrote about one such experience last year, and also about customer service and regulation. This is the motivation behind recent comments by ACMA chair Chris Chapman.

It will be nice if the industry can respond well.

NBN Madness (amended)

I normally have a lot of time for Alan Kohler, but his comment today on Telstra seems to reflect that any long consideration of telecommunications policy will in the end lead to madness.

In this piece he begins by noting the obvious - that the price the NBN is prepared to pay for Telstra co-operation and the price that Telstra is prepared to accept for that co-operation are a long way apart.

He then, however, progresses the theory that Telstra's shareholders bought the business assuming "that it included a network that would be viable for at least 25 years". If there really are any such investors I want to meet them - I have a bridge I want to sell them. Most importantly the T3 investors knew it NOT to be the case. Telstra delivered to its principal shareholder in July 2005 (subsequently released to all in August) that outlined their plan to replace most of it, for which they argued they needed regulatory concessions.

The full plan was released in November with a rider on "regulatory certainty". That request wasn't for NO regulatory change, it was for regulatory change biased in Telstra's favour.

While it may be true that the Government can make a political decision to make transfer payments of taxpayer cash to anyone they care to - including filling this gap in the valuations - actually doing so is another matter. The 10 million voters who are NOT directly shareholders in Telstra would take a very dim view. More importantly those 10 million voters are probably more inclined to change their vote on the basis of an irresponsible action than would any of the 1.4 million shareholders.

I don't think the PM needs to consult his pollsters too closely. Remember, NBN Cos point of indifference is the value to them of having the Telstra assets (ducts and customers) - at that price they are just as happy to go it alone. Rudd doesn't need to close the gap therefore to make the NBN happen.

Why would he anger 10 million voters to thrill a mere 1.4 million.

Note: I bought Telstra shares in all three floats. like the dividends, I just wish management would hurry up and realise the value of structural separation.

NBN Co - why Tasmania?

The joys of being NBN Tasmania. The one thing you can be sure of is that you will be in the spotlight - such as this story about work practices in deploying fibre and OH&S.

Keynes, markets and the GFC

In a stirring review of Robert Skidelsky's Keynes: The Return of the Master, Joseph Stiglitz manages a very good quick critique of economists and of finance markets.

On economists he noted (this is heavily edited);

While most of the blame for the crisis should reside with those in the financial markets ... a considerable portion of it lies with the economics profession. The notion economists pushed – that markets are efficient and self-adjusting – gave comfort to regulators. They provided support for the movement which stripped away the regulations that had provided the basis of financial stability ...; and they gave justification to those ... who opposed doing anything about derivatives.

We should be clear about this: economic theory never provided much support for these free-market views. Theories of imperfect and asymmetric information in markets had undermined every one of the ‘efficient market’ doctrines... [critics] had explained that Adam Smith’s hand was not in fact invisible: it wasn’t there. [critics] had explained that if markets were as efficient in transmitting information as the free marketeers claimed, no one would have any incentive to gather and process it.

Free marketeers, and the special interests that benefited from their doctrines, paid little attention to these inconvenient truths.

It remains extremely distressing that the choice left for the average citizen is to be a believer in unrestrained free-markets or to be labelled a socialist or believer in a planned economy.

There is a middle way which is to base public policy on a better understanding of how real markets work, and that the error cost of dampening some market activity unnecessarily can be far less than the error cost of taking no action when action is required.

Stiglitz disagrees with Skidelsky mostly in the extent to which the latter asserts the errors leading up to the GFC were from confusing risk and uncertainty. Instead Stiglitz focuses on the way incentives operate to guide corporate behaviour. As he notes;

But markets are not necessarily rational, and even when they are, they are not always well intentioned. The objective of a speculative attack is to generate profits for the speculators, regardless of the cost to the rest of society. They can make money by inducing panic and then feel pleased with their ‘insight’: their concerns were justified, but only because of the responses to which their actions gave rise.

So to the author's claim that "underlying the escalating succession of financial crises we have recently experienced is the failure of economics to take uncertainty seriously’" (Stiglitz description), Stiglitz response is not that we fail to deal with uncertainty but that we continue to use models of markets that we know to be wrong.

This creates an interesting aside for the philosophy of science as applied to economics. Both a Feyerabendian view and an inductivist view (as most recently promoted by James Franklin in What Science Knows: And How It Knows It the usefulness of a theory is context sensitive. For Feyerabend we use the theory because it works, in Franklin's case the theory is used because it accords to the observations in what is usually then specified as a confined domain.

Both theories therefore allow for the ongoing use of Newtonian mechanics, but both ith the proviso that distances and speeds are of "human" scale. Economists keep making the error of having a very well developed theory of markets that works in relation to some very specific assumptions (fully informed, lots of buyers and sellers etc) and applying it in circumstances where those constraints do not apply.

Thankfully we do not rely on these economists for designing integrated circuits or for planning space missions. Unfortunately, we seem to rely upon them for far more serious issues - like how to organise our economy so that our needs and wants can be met from our limited resources.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Anzac Day

We tried to do something we wouldn't normally do, go to a movie on Anzac Day. But we couldn't get in.

So we had to wait for today to see Beneath Hill 60, a remarkable movie about the tunnellers in France. When we got there it transpired the difficulty in seeing the film was that Greater Union had it in their smallest cinema (normally for Silver Screen). At least it was shown at a major cinema chain!

The story is compelling but it really does leave you with the simple question, why did the troops keep fighting? Niall Fergusson in his Pity of War poses this question, and the answer that I can remember was the misinformation created about the treatment of prisoners by both sides. Unfortunately there were a few incidents on both sides that gave just enough credence to this.

It was refreshing to hear the minister at MacChap (whose grandfather was one of the tunnellers who survived) preach an Anzac Day sermon (sermon not loaded at time of writing) that was a sermon that preached that the only possible response to War is either to be a pacifist or that the war met a standard of a "just war". Good message, though of course the same message could be preached in a "humanist" or "secular" ethics. It is just that I don't see that many of those people bothering.

The service wasn't all brilliant. One person incorrectly described Villes-Bretineaux as a battle fought to turn back the German "fighting machine" and stopped it swarming Europe. Well, it can be figured as one of the "turning points" ... but the troops had been facing each other in essentially static trenches for two years.

Anzav Day is a great day to remember one thing. War is not the solution.

Having said that, I disagree with the Minister's view. When started the war in Afghanistan was a just war, but they blew it once they went to war in Iraq. By the same token threatening war in Iraq was the right strategy, but it should never have been waged without 100% European support (at which point it wouldn't have needed to occur - Sadam never believed the Americans would invade).

But exitting Afghanistan now would equally be unjust - the rules go you broke it you fix it.

Strangely, fixing it would be the mosy Christian of acts, but can only occur through the application of secular ethicial and political values.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Google take down requests

ZDnet ran a story today following the release by Google of statistics on take down requests. The author posed the question that 17 requests for 9 successes was a poor strike rate.

Elsewhere a blogger wondered which blog had been subject to a request. The article seemed to have the flavour that blogs must be innocent and any attempt to get one taken down must be motivated by some deep political goal.

Then along comes a comment on that post that read;

My household has two blogs currently subject to court orders, and thus shut down, of the half dozen we currently own.
Apparently, criticism of thieving landlords, incompetent government and police officials is enough to get a court order to shut down websites.
We're currently fighting to have such court orders overturned.
By our estimation, 2% of the Google "data requests" relate to our case, and at least 2 of the takedowns.

Interesting for all to note that the judicial system does in fact work that way, there is no unrestrained right to free speech and if you want one go campaign for a bill of rights not just assume you have the right because some IT geek told you the internet was free!

PS This blog is, as a matter of interest, hosted on blogger which is a Google site.

Ahhh - The Democrats

From the Crikey Tips and Rumours section today;

The failed candidate on the undemocratic Democrats: Jeanie Walker, the lead candidate for the Upper House in South Australia for the Australian Democrats, has resigned in anger from the party. She was unsuccessful in the election, winning only 0.9% of the vote -- the Democrats' worst-ever result in SA. Walker has blamed her poor showing upon the large number of other candidates, the low third party/independent vote, and David Winderlich -- whom she accuses of "stealing" her seat. She also blames individuals within the SA Democrats who did not support her as candidate. She has expressed her unwillingness to continue to work with certain individuals who are seeking constitutional reform within the Democrats -- and has accused them of "spamming" her, verging upon "harassment".

They really know how to rip into themselves. I have certain first hand experience on how the party choses to conduct itself as a collctio of personal campaigns and feifdoms. They make ALP factionalism look civilised by comparison.

The well meaning few souls who are trying to keep the ship afloat need to do something far more radical than they have been doing thus far. While their policy development work has at least revived their relevance hasn't.

The battle cries of "keep the bastards honest" don't reverberate, the need for a soft liberal party doesn't exist (it is mostly what the non-socialist ALP has become). Too much of their reason for being is to commemorate the glories of a Democrat past.

What they really need to do is claim the mantle of being the antithesis of the Howard Liberals. Totally libertarian in social policy, heavily social democrat in economic policy, and the champions for an internationalist outlook.

The underside of Web 2.0

No this isn't about facebook and privacy, but it is about a far simpler kind of "user generated content". I've written before about crowd effects of online recommendation or condemnation, but the generally accepted position is that the "risks" of these is that the contagion (the story) can spread faster than the antidote (often truth). We are also familiar with the idea of political groups - or people with a cause - swarming to start a crowd (if that makes sense).

In the corporate world we are particularly concerned about the prospects of well-meaning employees using aliases on forums to trash competitors or make unjustified positive assertions.

The latest though is the story that asserts that an academic's wife was writing reviews on Amazon to deneigrate her husband's "competitors". More bizarre is that the person alleged of the actions is trying to use defamation law to shut down the claims.

UGC is a great development, but we have to re-educate ourselves about the reliance that should be plced on it. Then again, we've long said that you shouldn't believe what you read in the papers, but we do.

It is one of the features I notice most in senior corporate xecutives - their angst that almost every story written about them or their firm gets the story wrong, but a fascinating ability to believe every story written about competitors or government policy.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Economic Consequence of ...

The economic understanding of supply shocks really only developed in the 1980s as finally economists came to full grips with the implications of the oil shock and the consequent syndrome of stagflation. Put simply, standard theory on how to respond to either inflation or unemployment revolved around fiscal or monetary policy to expand or contract the market.

However, if prices are increasing and unemployment is rising due to a "shift" in aggregate supply due to something dramatic happening to a factor of production then these responses are inadequate. What needs to happen is rapid radjustment of the economy.

That ultimately was the explanation for the success of the neo-liberal crusade - a whole lot of deregulation was necessary to enable economies to adjust to the new price of oil. In hindsight, negative supply shocks aren't all that uncommon, war being a major one on post war labour.

The current air transport shutdown over Europe provides an interesting example. Apart from the fact we can't blame anyone for it, it is important to note that there are three economic impacts.

The first two relate to the movement of people, one for business the other for pleasure. Business movement can be substituted with teleconferencing. Travel for pleasure - vacations - creates a significant damage to many countries tourism industries.

The more significant is the movement of goods. Few people realise the extent of air shipment of foodstuffs -from the exotic and expensive to more mundane matters like oranges and bananas. The source of much of the produce to Europe is less developed countries in Africa, Asia and South America. The interruption to trade ca have significant impact on their economies.

And all of this due to an event that the article linked to above reminds us we can't blame on anyone, not Tony Blair, not George Bush or even the nanny state!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Has the Earth moved for you?

No, I'm not doing a survey that assesses how many people share Lily Allen's sentiment in "Not Fair".

It just seems that there is a lot more seismic activity these days. In just the last week we've had an earthquake in China and the ongoing volcanic activity at Eyjafjallajokull. (For those struggling to pronounce that take a hint and shorten it to "the Eyja-fjalla glacier" - and the first bit is easier if you realise it is island falls.)

This follows on from Haiti and a slew of other earthquakes.

Now, it is entirely possible that there isn't a real increase in seismic activity, just an increase in the reporting of it. The reporting can increase both because of the extent now of seismic probes - every tremor is well documented - and the prevelance of communications and media technologies which makes reporting the event and dramatic pictures more readily achievable. The US geological survey supports the view that there is no increase in numbers just an increase in the ability to locate them. (at time of writing their page was last modified Page Last Modified: October 27, 2009 14:01:59 UTC aand said;

Although it may seem that we are having more earthquakes, earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater have remained fairly constant.

A partial explanation may lie in the fact that in the last twenty years, we have definitely had an increase in the number of earthquakes we have been able to locate each year. This is because of the tremendous increase in the number of seismograph stations in the world and the many improvements in global communications. In 1931, there were about 350 stations operating in the world; today, there are more than 8,000 stations and the data now comes in rapidly from these stations by electronic mail, internet and satellite. This increase in the number of stations and the more timely receipt of data has allowed us and other seismological centers to locate earthquakes more rapidly and to locate many small earthquakes which were undetected in earlier years. The NEIC now locates about 20,000 earthquakes each year or approximately 50 per day. Also, because of the improvements in communications and the increased interest in the environment and natural disasters, the public now learns about more earthquakes.

According to long-term records (since about 1900), we expect about 17 major earthquakes (7.0 - 7.9) and one great earthquake (8.0 or above) in any given year.

They even record a list of them.

Another expert claims an increase in seismic activity could occur through global warming as even few degrees increase in rock temperature softens the joints between geological plates. When the sea level rises, pressure of the water may also release energy between plates in tension. We are coming out of an ice age so this will happen anyway, global warming is just accelerating the process.

This asame person notes there is an "apparent" increase in the number of recorded earthquakes but that is due to the increase in the amount of research stations. Further, earthquakes and tsunamis will seem to get worse as the world population explodes, more people getting effected by seismic activity than before, and media or television coverage becomes more dramatic.

So it seems like the conspiracy theory about the large hadron collider is wrong.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Self-Referential Paradoxes

There is a roup of paradoxes which share in common being self-referential. The best example is the "set of sets which are not members of themselves". The paradox is that if this set isn't a member of itself then it is a member of itself, or if it is a member of itself then it is. Via lots of jiggery pokery you can get from this observation to Godel's theorem.

A while ago I fantacised about writing a self-help book called "How to stop buying self-help books". You can see all the delightful possibilities.

Today I listened to a podcast about something similar - a book called "How to write a book in 33 days".

This is about a non-fiction business book that really is a marketing pitch.

Given I've got two non-fiction books brewing in me - one on competition in telecommunications and ne that could be called "postcapitalism".

The podcast is actually quite useful as a standard guide to "report writing". Botto end is 35,000 words and really as a marketing technique 60,000 words. The author is a professional ghost writer of executive books - and her how to guide looks more like an attempt to frighten off authors.

Ethics Again

I already commented on the NSW Government proposals for a secular ethics class to be provided in schools as an alternative in the period devoted to religious education.

This week the SMH has reported on concerns by bishops that the program is a threat to teach ethics instead of religion rather than an alternative to it. That is, that this is the thin end of a wedge designed to see the secular ethics class replace religious education.

The correct response to that is "so what." If parents want to provide education in religion they have two options, choose a school run by a religion which we still absurdly subsidise (see especially the case the the Exclusive Brethren schools), or send their children to a "sunday school" or equivalent in their faith. I was always happier with what my kids learnt in Sunday School than anything that hapened in school scripture class. My own secondary school religious instruction (at a non-denominational private school) I found useful because we did study the Bible as a text rather than as a religion e.g. we had no prayers that I can recall). This was highly useful for other studies like history (helping to understand religious wars) and english. We also had a year where we did comparative religion - we each had to research and present the case for a religion - I did atheism!

Anyhow the complaint about the ethics classes is the topic today. Jim Wallace made the point raised by the Bishop's in the National Times last week.

However, with the pilot trial due to start next term in 10 public primary schools, it has emerged they are being pitched with the obvious aim to draw students away from Scripture classes, despite the Government's assurances they would not.

Wallace, however, repeats the delusion I referred to the other day that somehow or other our ethical system is inherently Christian. There is certainly plenty of causal effects that can be shown of how Judeo-Christian beliefs and values have informed our political system and ethical values. But there is no "correspondence."

His most outrageous claims revolve around what is sometimes called the Golden Rule.

He wrote;

The idea of loving one's neighbour as oneself – or do unto others as you would have them do unto you – is religious. More accurately, it is Christian.

In an earlier work I incorrectly labelled this as the principle of mutuality. It is better known as the principle of recipriocity. To just help all those Christians out there understand that the principle ethics of their religion exist not because God commanded them but because they work, here is a list of the principle of reciprocity as stated in eight leading religions. There is a poster that has the rule in 31 religions.

Christianity All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. Matthew 7:1

Confucianism Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against you, either in the family or in the state. Analects 12:2

Buddhism Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. Udana-Varga 5,1

Hinduism This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you. Mahabharata 5,1517

Islam No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. Sunnah

Judaism What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary. Talmud, Shabbat 3id

Taoism Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss. Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien

Zoroastrianism That nature alone is good which refrains from doing another whatsoever is not good for itself. Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5

It is an interesting feature that all the versions state the exhortation as an absolute, devoid of any reference to the deity.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Sciences, Politics and Religion

A bit of a grab-bag today triggered by a range of different thoughts. A few weeks ago I argued for the need for scientists to be humble. One respondant neatly responded that my analysis was wrng, scientific theories are improved upon not found to be wrong. I was, of course, asking for this by chosing to say Newtonian mechanics is wrong.

Like many theories the subsequent theories of mechanics can be found to reduce to the Newtonian model under certain constraints, and hence Newtonian mechanics can still be usefully employed when the assumptions (low speeds, human scale distances) apply.

In Saturday's SMF Lisa Pryor wrote about a 1948 book on parenting that she had received from her garndmother. Its prescriptions on caring for a baby - including the infamous thirty minute kick in the sun - are often misguided, if not hilarious.

But that volume was prepared on the advice of "scientists". In the hilosophy biz there is a distinction drawn between positive and normative theories, the first describe what is and the latter what one ought to do. We regularly use positive theories with another linking statement to decide what we ought to do.

That brings me to the second piece, from a week ago, by Chris Berg of the IPA, also writing in the SMH. Berg's topic is climate change and his basic position is that we should do nothing about climate change, as no Australian action can stem the problem and that the costs are probably greater than the benefits.

Berg seems to have no concern that his response seems to ignore the bulk of the theories of economic science, that the bast way to deal with an externality (pollution) is to price it so that decisions are internalised or that the best way to decide where on the globe the polluting should occur (i.e. decide where production is most efficient) is to trade it.

But the biggest problem is that Berg is allowed to misrepresent the nature of the risk, because the cientific debate has become too much focussed on the immediate question of whether the planet is warming rather than the proposition that the theory of anthropogenic climate change is sufficiently plausibl, and the consequences so dire, that the best option is to act now. The error cost of acting when we didn't need to is much muvch lower than the error cost of not acting if we did need to.

For Berg to conclude;

Growth will fortify us against a climate that always changes. For if you can't cure the disease, manage the symptoms.

Is to demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of the principles involved. Amongst other things, we can cure the disease. This would be like someone deciding that we can never cure the disease of selfishness that would make markets, contracts and democracy fail. Managing the symptoms in that case would involve imposing a dictatorship.

Which brings me to the last point, a report of an event to launch the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program. The participants were a predictable bunch from the IPA and a Qudrant contributors list. The report sugests that the event itself was a tad confused about its intent.

It seems to be a collection of people who would most normally line up with a copy of Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom in one hand and Hayek's The Road to Surfdom in the other trying to advance the case that a combination of postmodernism and "cultural relativism" had eroded the celebration of the achievements of Western civilisation and the Judeo-Christian tradition.

It seems a terrible shame to see Cardinal Pell aligned with the leading thinkers of the Libertarian right, after all the Catholic Church was the main opponent of the hard fought battles for democracy and freedom. While the Thirty Years War was on one level between Ctholics and Protestants, on another it was between absolute (church supported/divine right to rule) monarchy and nation focussed constitutional (secular state/freedom of religion) monarchy.

To claim there is any such thing as a valid Judeo-Christian tradition that is universally good. It is posible to argue that thre is a very good ethcal and political tradition in the West, that happens to have arisen from that religious tradition. However, much of what can be justly criticised within the West from the platform of that ethical and political tradition also was done in the name of that church - religious crusades, torture as a means of interrogation (a person could not be presumed to be telling the truth UNLESS they were tortured), slavery (never spoken against in the Bible), endless wars.

Just as scientists need to be more humble, those who wish to profess the wonders of the West need to do more than claim the wonders of a specific heritage. They need to do more than criticise those who they acuse of relativism. They need to enunciate the values that they truly stand for. Such clarity cannot be found merely in a reminisence for a school curriculum built around British jingoism and Australia moral superiority.

Finally, I heard a really great line in a sermon on Sunday.

Courage is not overcoming your fears, it is about continuing to fight despite your fears. The same is true of faith. Faith is not about overcoming your doubts, it is about continuing to believe despite your doubts.

That's the kind of faith I mean in my toika of faith, hope and love. I'm not a great Bible reader but I think Hebrews 11:1 should be read more widely "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."

Those people like Roy Williams (author of God Actually) trying to use design theory as "proof" of the existence in God miss the point. If you need proof you don't have faith.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

On Death

My mother, who was a dermatologist, used to regularly point out to me the illogicality of the argument "what price do you put on a human life" that is often used to attempt to justify any amount of medical intervention.

An economist would reply that the cost you would put on it would be the value to you of anything you'd have to give up to save the life - the opportunity cost. The problem is, of course, that health decisions are always of some collectivist nature - be it a Government decision of what to fund, or a private but corporate decision about what staffing levels to maintain.

The lates "health scandal" in NSW is the story of a patient who was not able to immediately be given a feeding tube iserted straight into his stomach when the tube down his throat had to be removed. The article was given the headline "starving to death".

Now this is at one level a tale that fits into the above description. The patient's daughter took the naive view of resourcing, that all resources need to be available all the time. She is reported to have said;

The system has become so appalling that people are dying simply because there is no one around to do what is needed.

But more worrying is the attitude to death revealed in the article. The paient is an 84 year old who we are told has "broken his neck". In the absence for a few days of a feeding tube the patients daughter is reported to have said;

He was just disappearing before our eyes and he was so terrified. He kept saying to me 'I don't want to die, I don't want to die'.

The first part of this is that a patient of that age, immobile in bed, getting intravenous glucose is not really likely to be "wasting away". But the truly worrying part is an 84 year old saying "I don't want to die."

We all will die.

In this particular patient's case there might be some factor I don't know about - like a soon expected first great grand child. But the fact we all have to deal with is that we will die.

There are three ways that people deal with this fact. The first is the religious way, that with death there is "hope" - of whatever the afterlife story is in that religion. The second is what I'll call the "rational atheist", in which the individual firmly believes that there is nothing after death but is fully accepting of death as a fact and that your "spirit" is the memory of what those who still live have of you (or other enduring impact).

The third, far more prevelant one, is the unthinking agnostic/atheist or uncommitted religious. This growing group has the same "fear" of death as ancient man before gods were created as a means of "explaining" life and death. They have often been shamed into their position by the likes of Peter Fitzsimons and other aggressive atheists who try to beliittle a god as an "imaginary friend" or have been successfully driven away from religion by the practitioners who deviate from my simple principles that religion needs to limit itself to "faith, hope and love".

The specific case may or may not reveal a failure in the approach to health care. But the story seems to reveal a far greater problem of a society that has become unable to accept that death is a reality that confronts us all.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Jesus and Refugees

Lots has been written about Tony Abbott's performance on Q&A last night. These included reports on his observation that "Jesus didn't say yes to everyone", and a claim that he "left his tough, macho, bully boy persona at home last night and almost managed to woo a room full of small-l liberals" (that commenator obviously didn't note that half the audience were rusted on young liberals who applauded Abbott regularly).

Abbott fairly noted that he doesn't see the PM or NSW Premier being asked to relate their Christian beliefs to matters of public policy. The reason might be because no-one anticipates it would be so much fun as seeing Tony struggle to reconcile the two.

Refugees offer a classic case. Abbott tried to argue the proposition that once a person has left their original country they are no longer in fear of persecution and have no reason to travel further. Apart from the fact that this means Australia should, by definition, never have to deal with refugees, it also misses the point about what "fleeing" really entails.

There are two things about a person fleeing that I think can be reasonably expected. Firstly they want to get a long way away. Secondly they are highly unlikely to have undertaken any calculus about what the relevant laws are like and the real advantages or otherwise of their specific destinations. That's why "deterence" is really a bad policy.

As for Jesus it is worth remembering (as excellently portrayed in the first episode of the History of Christianity showing on the ABC) that Jesus was a Jew. We also know - from both the Biblical and other records - that the Jews were a refugee race. They were not native to the region of Israel (nor were the Palastinians).

Where Abbott got himself more tongue-tied was on immigration and population policy in general. He tries to invoke the refugee intake as a big number in population planning. In reality it is not, and what's more the coalition Government of which he was a member was responsible for the biggest immigrant numbers we've ever seen. It was even the Government that experienced the biggest number of arrivals by boat.

Aside from these figures it is worth noting that the greatest number of "unauthorised" persons in the country are those over-staying their visas who entered by plane.

While Abbott stews in this mess, he has been caught out again with his pathetic interpretation of what "holding the government to account" means. He needs to recognise the need to stand for something other than raising the tax rates on big business.

While all parties now talk about holding policies back to the election, the big winners are those that are announced well before. The role of the NBN announcement in early 2007 in controlling the debate and creating the idea that the ALP stood for the future should never be under-estimated. It is fine for the likes of Malcolm Colless to continue to write nearly incomprehensible tirades against the policy, including again supposed carpeting of the Minister and winges by his Cabinet colleagues. But that policy was a significant factor in the win. As they go to the 2007 poll their excuse for non delivery will be opposition obstructionism.

Meanwhile the coalition is left with one place less to look with Malcolm urnbull's announcement that he is not contesting the next election.