Category Archives: Politics

Don’t stop Fake News

Given the rate of information flow in the social media generation, and the ability for information to go internationally viral in a matter of minutes — which only requires thoughtless button-clicking within a few degrees of separation — it’s undeniable that the propagation of Fake News poses a major threat. Whether it be malicious electoral interference, or the perpetration of nonsensical views on medicine, leading to the reemergence of deadly, but entirely preventable diseases, the implications are undeniably catastrophic, already have been, and pose a major threat to humanity.

For this reason it’s understandable that people want to put an end to it. Of course we don’t want measles (or Trump). But how do we achieve this? Many politicians around the world are pressuring social media giants to filter content to eliminate fake news, while others are advocating legislation to force them to.

I oppose such approaches outright, and believe they pave the way for even greater thought manipulation. (Interpret the terminology fake news prevention, as being synonymous with terrorists, drugs and pedophiles, as per my last article).

Most news is fake (or misrepresented)

What constitutes fake news, anyway? Given that even upon reading articles about the same event, as portrayed by two ideologically distinct, yet well-respected mainstream newspapers, the tilt can be so astronomical, with both sides criticising the other for bias and corruption, the notion of fakeness is hardly an objective one. When it comes to statements made by politicians it’s even more perverse.

There is no such thing as an unbiased media source, nor will any story we read have full access to all information, or the full background context, or be 100% verifiably correct. Essentially what propagates over the internet is a close approximation to white-noise. Applying the appropriate filter, you can extract any signal you want.

Any kind of enforcement of filtering or information suppression implies certain types of information being removed at the behest of those with the ability to do so. Those people are necessarily in positions of power and influence, and will pursue their own interests over the collective one. The ability to impose filtering, enables post-selection bias by mandate. In conjunction with the false sense of security that a filtering system creates, the outcome is even greater vulnerability to the self-reinforcement and confirmation biases we seek to avoid.

The pretext for power

The implications of the ability for those in power to manipulate this to their advantage is obvious, and the basis upon which totalitarian societies are built. Already in Singapore there have been deep concerns surrounding this, where anti-fake news legislation requires organisations to,

“carry corrections or remove content the government considers to be false, with penalties for perpetrators including prison terms of up to 10 years or fines up to S$1m.”

The term “the government considers to be false” is an illuminating one.

Once a mandate for filtering is established, its application cannot be confined to what is ‘fake’, nor can we trust those making that determination to wield this extraordinary power. With such a mandate in place, the parameters defining its implementation will evolve with the political agenda, likely via regulation than via legislation — isolating it entirely from any democratic oversight or debate. Regardless who is at the helm, be sure that it will be used to undermine those who are not. History substantiates this — it is why we hold them to account, rather than blindly trust them to do what is right.

How to fight fake news

Instead of relying on those with vested interests to take on fake news, we must arm ourselves to do it in their absence. We must do so in a manner that is collective, transparent, decentralised, and robust against malign political interference (i.e all political interference).

Education

By far the most powerful avenue towards combating fake news is for people being equipped with the skills to do so themselves. For this reason, the following should be taught to all, from the earliest possible age, including making them essential components of our education system:

  • Critical thinking and rationalism.
  • Recognising logical fallacies.
  • Elementary statistics and probability theory (even if only qualitatively at an early level).
  • Online research skills, and the difference between what constitutes research versus Googling to find the answer you want to believe (i.e confirmation bias — “I was trying to find out whether the Moon landing was a conspiracy, and came across this amazing post on 8chan by this guy who runs an anti-vax blog (he’s pretty high up) that provided a really comprehensive and thoughtful analysis of this! BTW, did you know that the CIA invented Hitler in the 60’s as a distraction from the Vietnam war? I fact-checked it with more Googling, and it works out.”).
  • Encouraging kids to take up debating in school, where these become essential skills.

Already Finland has reportedly had great success in pursuing precisely this approach at the school level, with similar discussions emerging in the UK and within the OECD. Finland’s approach (Nb: I don’t know the details of the curriculum), is foresighted and correct.

Algorithmically

Sometimes our ability to spot fakeness at a glance is challenging, and even the most mindful social media users will routinely fall for things, making software tools indispensable to a robust process. Certainly, modern analytical techniques could be employed for this purpose to reveal the reliability of information sources, usually with a high degree of accuracy. When it comes to social media giants applying fake news filters, this is inevitably the route that will be taken. It can’t possibly be done by hand.

If the purpose of such software tools is to make us aware of misleading information, then its manipulation provides an even more powerful avenue for misleading us than the underlying information itself, based on the false sense of security, and our own subsequent subconscious loosening of internal filtering standards.

To illustrate this, the exisiting social media giants, Facebook and Twitter, are already routinely accused of implementing their anti-hate-speech policies in a highly inconsistent and asymmetric manner. Everyone will have their own views on this, but from my own observations I agree with this assessment. Note that selectively preventing hate speech from one side, whilst not doing so for the other, is an implicit endorsement of the latter, tantamount to direct political support. This type of political support — the ability to freely communicate, and simultaneous denial of one’s opponents to do so — is the single greatest political asset one can have. The ability to platform and de-platform entire organisations or ideologies is the single most politically powerful position one can hold — it’s no coincidence that the first step taken under the formation of any totalitarian state, is centralised control of the media.

This implies that any tools we rely on for this purpose must be extremely open, transparent, understandable, and robust against intentional manipulation. In the same way that you would not employ a proprietary cryptographic algorithm for encrypting sensitive data, with no knowledge of its internal functioning, the same standard of trust must be applied when interpreting the reliability of information, yet alone outright filtering.

Simultaneously, these tools must be allowed to evolve and compete. If they are written behind closed doors by governments or by corporations, none of these criteria will be met. The tools cannot fall under any kind of political control, and must be decentralised and independent.

Tools based on community evaluation and consensus should be treated with caution, given their vulnerability to self-reinforcement via positive feedback loops of their own — a new echo-chamber. Indeed, this vulnerability is precisely the one that fake news exploits to go viral in the first place.

Will machine learning save us?

Identifying unreliable information sources is something that modern machine learning techniques are extremely well-suited to, and if implemented properly, would likely be our most useful tool in fact-checking and fake news identification. However, these techniques are inherently at odds with my advocacy for algorithmic transparency.

In machine learning, by definition, we don’t hard-code software to spot certain features. Rather we train it using sample data, allowing it to uncover underlying relationships and correlations for itself. A well-trained system is then in principle able to operate upon new data it hadn’t previously been exposed to, and identify similar features and patterns. The problem is that what the system has learned to see is not represented in human-readable form, nor even comprehensible to us, given its mathematical sophistication. If the original training data were to be manipulated, the system could easily be coaxed into intentionally exhibiting the biases of its trainers, which would be extremely difficult to identify by outsiders.

I don’t advocate against the use of machine learning techniques at all. However I very much advocate for recognising their incompatibility with the desire for complete transparency and openness, and the recognition that this establishes a direct avenue for manipulation.

Design for complacency

The biggest obstacle of all to seeing through fact from fiction, is our own complacency, and desire to even do so. Given that in just minutes a Facebook or Twitter user can scroll through hundreds of posts, if establishing the reliability of a source requires opening multiple new browser windows to cross-check and research each one individually, it will undermine the user experience — the average user (especially those most vulnerable to influence by fake news) will not be bothered to.

The tools we develop for verifying reliability must accommodate for this as the most important design consideration, providing a fully integrated and user-friendly mechanism, which does not detract from the inherently addictive, slot-machine-like appeal of the social media experience. If the tools detract from the user experience, they will be rejected and become ineffective at a mass scale.

Modern-day book burning

What interest does the State have in preventing Fake News? None, this is how they subsist. What they actually have a desire for is to selectively eliminate information which works against their interests.

In the presence of overwhelming white-noise, selective elimination is just as powerful as the creation of new misinformation.

Providing them with a mandate to restrict the information we are able to see (in the ‘public interest’ no less) is to grant them the right to conduct the 21st century equivalent of 1940’s book burning ceremonies. Needless to say, having established a mandate to hold the ceremonies, they will decide for themselves which books get burnt.

Rather than burn our books on our behalf, let us decide which ones we would like to read, but let us also develop trustworthy, reliable, and accessible tools for making that determination for ourselves. Admittedly, much of society is highly fallible and unreliable when it comes to making such self-determination. To those in positions of power this applies even more so, given that they necessarily have interests to pursue, and seek a centralised approach for that reason.

There is an important relationship between free people and those in power that must be maintained, whereby our freedoms will only be upheld if accountability is enforced. The latter is our responsibility, not theirs. To delegate the accountability process — of which the free-flow of information is the single most pivotal — to those being held to account, is to capitulate entirely, and voluntarily acquiesce to subservience via population control.

On the Bali 9 Duo

I oppose the death penalty. I oppose it per se. I oppose it regardless of the crime, and regardless who it is applied to. If, like me, you oppose the death penalty, oppose it outright, not because of the nationality of the victim.

Every year around the world thousands of people are put to death. Many are put to death via barbaric means for ‘crimes’ that shouldn’t be crimes. There are parts of the world where women are publicly stoned to death for the ‘crime’ of being a rape victim. There are places where women are drenched in acid until they are dead for the ‘crime’ of bringing shame upon their family. There are places where homosexuals are thrown from the roofs of ten story buildings for the ‘crime’ of being homosexual. People are put to death for changing religion, insulting their religion, or offending the leader of their country.

Where is the outrage and the media and political spectacle when these horrific forms of the death penalty are carried out? The politicians remain silent. The media says nothing. The general population don’t threaten travel embargoes or boycott products. And there are no candle-lit vigils on the victims' behalf. To stay silent whilst these kinds of acts are taking place, but then be outraged because two of the victims happen to be Australian, is effectively saying that the life of a guilty Australian criminal is worth more than the life of an innocent Saudi rape victim, or an innocent Iraqi homosexual teenager.

Oppose the death penalty - I do. But make your opposition to it consistent and not hypocritical. Oppose it because it’s wrong - always wrong. Don’t oppose it because the victim happens to be the same nationality as you.

The role of charity in civil society

This is the transcript of my speech at the recent annual Australian Libertarian Society Friedman Conference.

Today I’d like to talk to you about the role of non-monetary interests in civil society, and how they are absolutely essential for the proper functioning of society. By this, I’m referring to charity & volunteer work, donations & philanthropy, lobbying and political activism.

Your typical libertarian or fiscal conservative argues for individualism - that people should be free to pursue their own self interest, particularly when it comes to financial self-interest. And I couldn’t agree more with them on that. But having the freedom to choose to pursue financial self-interest doe not imply that we are at all times obliged to pursue financial self-interest.

I’m relatively libertarian-minded, but I also do a lot of charity work that I’ll tell you about shortly. And when I tell people about my charity work, it’s not uncommon for people to respond skeptically by saying “But Peter you’re a libertarian, don’t you believe that charity contradicts libertarianism and that all social needs can be addressed by a market comprising self-interested individuals?”. My answer to this is a resounding no.

Whilst libertarianism and fiscal conservatism argues that people should be allowed to pursue self-interest, it does not imply that they are obliged to. Libertarianism is not about forcing people to act with self-interest, it’s about allowing them to. But it’s equally about allowing them not to. And so I think that individuals engaging in charitable work without any self-interest in sight, is completely consistent with a libertarian vision for society.

The role of charities in our society is absolutely essential, both domestically and internationally. Charities are a major pillar in the proper functioning of our society, and without them, the society we live in would be a much darker place.

I’d like to tell you specifically about a charity that’s very close to my heart - Lifeline. I’ve been working for Lifeline as a telephone councillor for 2 years now. I’m sure most of you have heard of Lifeline. We’re a charity organisation that offers a free 24/7 counselling hotline to offer support to people in need of someone to talk to, for any reason whatsoever. We talk with people suffering mental illness, domestic violence, sexuality issues, rape, abuse, grief, loss, and above all else, people who are considering suicide. Lifeline takes on the order of 850,000 calls per year, many of which are people who are suffering so badly that they are on the brink of suicide. These people are typically lonely, and have no one else to turn to in life. And so, as a last resort, they turn to Lifeline. In my experience, maybe 10 or 20% of our callers are at risk of suicide. And of those, we are successful in the vast majority of cases in preventing those suicides from happening. It’s therefore safe to say that Lifeline as an organisation has saved tens of thousands of lives. Similar services exist in other countries, such as the Samaritans in the UK.

All our councillors have been subject to an intensive half year training program to train them in all the issues I mentioned, particularly in suicide intervention skills. Now, not only do our councillors work for free out of the goodness of their heart and the desire to build a better and happier society, but they actually pay $500 out of their own pocket to undergo this training program.

A Randian might argue that this is absolutely insane. Not only are these people not working for their own self-interest, but they’re actually working against their own financial self-interest, to the order of $500 and many hours per week in the investment of time, to pursue someone else’s interest.

So, how to we reconcile this apparent contradiction. Well, the answer is that a society based on the libertarian ideal of individualism does not mandate self-interest, but rather mandates personal choice. And so if someone chooses to pursue their own self-interest, that’s fine. But if someone chooses to volunteer themselves to pursue someone else’s self-interest, that’s fine too.

The example I have just given you, Lifeline, is just one single charitable organisation. Without that organisation alone, tens of thousands of Australians would have committed suicide. But there are countless other charities as well, all providing equally invaluable services. John Humphreys is with us today. Without his charity, the Human Capital Project, countless young people in Cambodia would not have had the opportunity to undertake a university education. Without Oxfam, countless people would be unnecessarily dying of malaria, missing out on basic education, or not having the resources to live a basic existence. There are literally hundreds of organisations like this in just Australia alone.

All of these organisations have a business model. They must have a business model or else they wouldn’t exist. But the point I’d like to make is that their business model is fundamentally different to the business model employed by regular companies and self-interested individuals. Their model is not about profit, but about pursuing a non-monetary interest. And having organisations with this alternate business model is as vital to our society as organisations with standard profit-driven business models.

The usual libertarian argument is that the 'invisible hand’ magically converts self-interest into the interests of society, and that therefore all societal needs may be addressed by self-interested individuals. But this is clearly not the case. Adam Smith’s invisible hand will never provide the kind of service that Lifeline provides. I cannot conceive of how a profit-driven business model could fulfil that role. It’s inconceivable to think that a user-pays service could replicate Lifeline or most other charities. There’s just no way that Lifeline could talk someone out of suicide after asking them for their credit card number or playing them a recorded advertisement over the phone.

Now I’d like to go on a slightly philosophical tangent and examine what ‘self-interest’ actually means. US-style Republicans would argue this means pursuing our own business interests. But how about we define ‘self-interest’ a little more broadly. Are people engaging in charitable activities really not self-interested? Well you could argue that they are. But they’re not acting in financial self-interest. Rather, they’re pursuing 'feel-good' self-interest - they’re doing something that makes them feel good. I’ll leave it to your own philosophical leanings to decide whether this constitutes ‘self-interest’ or not.

But for argument’s sake, if it is a form of self-interest, then people who advocate people pursuing self-interest must, by definition, support this kind of self-interest - the self-interest of feeling good by helping others. On the other hand, if it’s not self-interest, then it’s nonetheless a voluntary association. And libertarians, anarchists and conservatives alike are renowned for advocating the freedom to engage in voluntary association (albeit to different degrees). Therefore, I would argue that irrespective of your philosophy on what self-interest means, if you subscribe to a right-of-centre political viewpoint, then voluntary and charitable work must not only be accepted, but encouraged, if it is a voluntary choice, made without coercion.

The final issue I’d to talk about is the role of government in all of this. I raise this issue because social democrats and socialists will typically agree completely with what I’ve said about the need for organisations not driven by profit and the failure of Adam Smith’s invisible hand to provide all of society’s needs. They would then go a step further and argue that this is proof for the need of government to fill this gap and provide these services that self-interested individuals would be unable to provide.

We could get into a philosophical debate on this issue, and spend hours and hours going around in circles arguing the philosophical merits of government charity versus self-interest. I don’t really want to go there. So let’s instead look at this empirically.

The governments of all Western societies are social democratic to some extent or another, and they all attempt to fill the gap, the hole that is left unfilled by self-interested individuals. So let’s take an empirical look at the relative successes of governments filling this void versus charitable individuals and organisations filling this void.

Let’s start by looking at what governments do. At a domestic level, first and foremost, they provide social security, most notably in the form of unemployment benefits. This results in a massive disincentive to work, and it’s paid for by higher tax rates, which prices people out of the labour market and reduces the available capital with which to employ people. The net result is that we have higher unemployment, and a reduced incentive in society for people to make and expand businesses, seek promotion, and increase their labour productivity.

At the international level, governments hand out foreign aid, which more often than not gets spent by corrupt governments on expanding their militaries or downright cronyism.

There’s very little incentive for governments to spend so-called ‘charitable money’ in an effective way, because politicians win votes by handing money out and boasting about it, rather than by achieving goals.

On the other hand, let’s look at what charitable individuals achieve. Domestically, we prevent tens of thousands of suicides - see Lifeline. We provide soup kitchens to feed the homeless, people who are completely left out by government funded social security. We provide women’s refuges, to help women escape domestic violence and rape. And at the international level we give thousands of people the gift of sight (see the Fred Hollows Foundation), we prevent thousands of cases of malaria via charitable vaccination programs, we airlift food to starving peoples. Private sector micro-loan programs have proven incredibly successful at providing people with the capital to get an education or start a small business, with very high payback rates, enabling the money to be recycled rather than swallowed up.

It’s crystal clear that charitable individuals, associating voluntarily, can achieve things that governments never could, achieving better social outcomes than governments, because governments hand out money in an ad hoc fashion purely for the purpose of boasting about how generous they are, whereas charitable individuals are goal-oriented, and only continue to attract volunteers and donations if they demonstrate that they’re achieving their goals.

Therefore, what I’d like to leave you with today, is that non-monetary interests are essential to the fabric of our society. Not only are they essential, but they cannot be replicated by any self-interest-driven business model. And having charitable organisations that provide this service, is not contradictory to the libertarian ideals of individualism and self-interest. But actually, these kinds of charities could not exist without a society that respects individualism and encourages people to pursue their own agenda, whatever that agenda might be. And perhaps most importantly, it’s a goal that governments around the world have consistently demonstrated that they are unable to replicate.

The National Broadband Network – Government vs. Coalition

Some time ago I blogged about the Australian National Broadband Network (NBN), the centrepiece infrastructure policy of the current Labor government. I'd like to follow up on this issue from a different perspective. In the meantime, both the government and opposition have dedicated themselves to a national broadband policy. So I'd like to analyse the issue in this new context. In this post I will no longer ask the question "should the government build a national broadband network?", but rather "given that both sides of the House have committed themselves to a national broadband scheme, which is the superior model?". I'm firmly of the opinion that the Government's NBN policy is by far the superior model.

First let's compare the Government's and the Coalition's models. The Government's NBN policy will roll out optical fibre to almost every premise in the country (93% fibre coverage, with various other technologies, such as satellites or wireless, reaching the remainder that are remote and inaccessible). This is the so-called 'fibre to the home' (FTTH) approach. It will guarantee 100Mbps downstream bandwidths to all areas covered by fibre, and is easily upgradeable in the future to 1Gbps speeds (indeed optical fibre is capable of far more than this). The Coalition's scheme on the other hand relies on 'fibre to the node' (FTTN) technology, whereby fibre is rolled out to cabinets on the street corner, which are subsequently connected to individual premises using existing copper cables. The Coalition claims this will guarantee 25Mbps downstream speeds, but will be much cheaper than FTTH.

Let's begin by considering the cost issue. The Coalition criticises the NBN as being too costly, claiming that their FTTN approach is vastly less expensive (the Coalition claims $17b less). If we work off the assumption that the copper infrastructure 'comes for free' then this might be a reasonable claim. But it doesn't. The reality is that the Australian copper network is nearing the end of its lifetime and will be in need of complete replacement in the near future followed by ongoing maintenance. To my knowledge, this cost has not been factored into the Coalition's estimates, which significantly underestimates the total long-term cost of the network. Fibre has a very long lifespan - on the order of at least half a century. This is not the case for copper, which deteriorates very rapidly, requiring constant maintenance or downright replacement. I suspect that once this is factored into the pricing, the Coalition's plan will not be quite as cheap as touted. Telstra currently spends $1b per year maintaining their copper network. Accumulate that over the life expectancy of the NBN and you've got a hell of an expense on the order of $50b for maintenance alone. Then there's the energy consumption cost. Powering optical fibre is very cheap - light doesn't take much energy to produce and transmit. Copper on the other hand uses electrical signals, which, when deployed across the entire country, adds up to a very hefty electricity bill (according to one estimate I read, such a copper network would require the equivalent of at least a whole coal-fired power plant to drive). To my knowledge, this has also not been factored into the Coalition's estimates. In summary, it's highly debatable whether, all things considered, the Coalition's plan will actually be cheaper in the long term. But let's for a second give Abbott the benefit of the doubt and assume that he's spot on in estimating that his FTTN scheme is $17b cheaper than Labor's FTTH. With a population of roughly 22 million, and amortised over a life expectancy of around half a century, this amounts to $15 per person per year in net savings (admittedly not accounting for compound interest or return). This is a pretty small additional price to pay for an immensely better network, which almost certainly has economic multiplier effects worth well in excess of $15/person/year. The economic arguments being touted by Abbott and Turnbull seem like lunacy.

Next there's the bandwidth issue. The Coalition themselves admit that their FTTN scheme guarantees vastly inferior bandwidths compared to FTTH. In the case of FTTN they guarantee 25Mbps downstream (which can only be guaranteed if you're living right next to a node, and deteriorates exponentially with distance from the node). This is barely more than what lots of existing broadband customers can access with today's infrastructure. Furthermore, it's not upgradeable, as the 25Mbps figure all but saturates what's possible with copper technology. The Government's FTTH scheme on the other hand will guarantee 100Mbps downstream, which, as mentioned earlier, is easily upgradeable tenfold (and probably more) in the future. There are fundamental physical reasons why copper will never achieve these kinds of speeds (electrical channels are subject to capacitive coupling, interference and resistive loss - light isn't). Thus, if one of the objectives of a national broadband policy is to be future-proof then the Coalition's plan is dead in the water.

The Coalition's broadband policy seems incredibly shortsighted. We need to factor in Moore's Law - the exponential growth in demand for computing power and bandwidth. Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull have stated that their alternative caters to today's demands (Turnbull: "The Coalition plan would meet current demand for broadband services"). While a couple of tens of megabits (at best) may satisfy today's needs, it most certainly doesn't satisfy tomorrow's, and it strikes me as myopic to base a major technological infrastructure project worth tens of billions of dollars purely on today's needs. The advent of ultra-high-def (4K) video will already saturate the bandwidths being promised by the Coalition, not to mention applications in 10 or 20 years time (e.g. future developments in cloud computing or higher-def, multi-channel video). By the time the Coalition's infrastructure is complete, it is likely to already be obsolete technology. If we're going to spend tens of billions of dollars on such an infrastructure project, then the most pressing requirement should be that it caters for tomorrow's needs, since this infrastructure, being as expensive as it is, should last us decades, not months.

If we're going to invest this kind of money in such infrastructure, then we should only pay for the infrastructure once. The coalition's plan will require paying for it over and over again as the copper network deteriorates, until, ultimately, people realise that it can't provide the bandwidths we need, at which point we're going to have to reinvest in the infrastructure from scratch and roll out FTTH anyway. So why not just do it right in the first place?

The final issue I'd like to touch upon is that of competition. The Coalition consistently criticises the NBN for being an uncompetitive monopoly. I heavily dispute this. Inevitably such infrastructure will be a natural monopoly. It makes zero sense to have half a dozen fibre lines running into each household, each owned by a different provider, to compete with one another. It would be hugely economically inefficient since the majority of it would be unused (of course, if secondary providers do decide they wish to run additional cables into people's households, they shouldn't be legislatively prevented from from doing so, but I can't see this happening). So the best we can hope to achieve is to maximise competition within the context of this natural monopoly. The way the Government intends to achieve this is by structurally separating the wholesale and retail divisions of the NBN, such that the infrastructure is owned by NBN Co., but they don't have the right to sell it to individual consumers. Rather, there is a level playing field in which third-party retailers can purchase bandwidth wholesale from NBN Co. and resell it to the consumer. This is exactly what's being proposed by the Government. Under the proposed scheme, there will be no barrier to market participants purchasing bandwidth wholesale, so that even small competitors will be able to enter the broadband market. This will create the closest to a competitive market that we can realistically hope to achieve with such a project. A broadband market with a level playing field in which even small competitors can compete is a pretty decent deal.

Laughably, Tony Abbott recently said it's a mistake to put all our eggs in the one basket (i.e. spend all our money on fibre as opposed to spreading the investment across a diverse range of technologies). This is an absolute joke. When it comes to traditional investment and portfolio management theory, certainly the ethos "don't put all your eggs in the one basket" is a very wise philosophy. But when it comes to technological infrastructure, this doesn't make any sense whatsoever. Surely it makes sense to choose the superior technology (fibre) and use it universally rather than investing in a mix of inferior technologies (copper) just in the name of "not putting all your eggs into one basket". Should we equip school computer laboratories with a mix of cutting edge PCs and 1990's 386 computers, just because we don't want to put all our eggs into the one basket? No, we should just choose the best technology and employ it universally. Should we equip half of our defence forces with Soviet MiG fighter jets for the sake of diversity, or should we just universally adopt the latest NATO fighters? It's a no brainer.

Given that both sides of politics have committed themselves to investing in such infrastructure using public money, it makes zero sense to choose the technology to cater only for today's needs, which has to be continually replaced and upgraded, and which doesn't cater for tomorrow's needs.

The NBN is inevitably going to be one of the big policy issues determining the upcoming federal election in September, and the fact of the matter is that the Coalition's policy is a joke - it's much (much) slower, it's almost certainly not cheaper, it's not at all upgradeable (unless we abandon the copper and switch to fibre), and it doesn't accommodate for tomorrow's needs. Why waste the money?

The media and democracy

Democracy is about so much more than just voting for your leaders. There are many other facets like freedom of speech, freedom of belief, the right to a fair trial, the list goes on. One very important facet is freedom of the media. But equally important is an informed citizenry. Importantly, freedom of the media is not necessarily sufficient to achieve the latter. Why? Because any media source has its biases, which people are exposed to and influenced by. The key, therefore, is not just to have free press, but diverse press. These two objectives are not necessarily mutual. So how do we achieve both?

Many libertarians advocate zero government intervention in the press. I believe this needs to be broken down into two separate arguments:

1) Should the government regulate existing private sector media?
2) Should the government fund independent media to provide an alternate source to the private sector media?

I believe the answer to (1) should be 'no', and the answer to (2) 'yes'. If we were to do (1) we would effectively undermine freedom of speech and expression, dictating to people what they can and can't say, or dictating who has the right to say it. This has been a big issue recently in Australia in relation to Gina Rheinhart - Australia's richest person - who has been seeking large stakes in the Australian media. Many oppose this because, as a rich and powerful woman, she might have a right-wing bias. I'm sure she would. But any stakeholder in the media will have their inherent biases. So legislatively preventing her from having a stake in the media would be a very dangerous path to follow - it would put the government in the position of passing judgement on who can, and cannot, have a stake in the media, which would introduce systemic bias in itself. This has been a contentious issue in Australia recently, with the Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, attempting to implement a 'Public Interest Media Advocate' to make decisions on this issue. It hasn't received a very warm welcome. In relation to question (2) however, if we were to not do this, we would risk complete monopolisation of the media by a small number of private players, which may undermine diversity of views.

The significance of monopolisation of the media cannot be understated. Historically, this is how every dictator in history - Fascist, Nazi, Communist or otherwise - either came to power, or maintained a grip on power. Thus, centralisation of the media is an issue that needs to be taken very seriously, and for this reason I support government-funded independent media. Diversity of views is essential to the democratic process, and monopolisation of the media all but ensures that diversity of views in mitigated. In Australia, the ABC and SBS - the two government-funded sources - are the only media players I refer to when watching TV (which, admittedly, I hardly ever do). The others are typically shallow and populist, and I cringe to watch them. Personally I'm grateful for the existence of the ABC and SBS, and in particular their status as non-private sector players in the media market. If they were to either cease to exist, or become privatised, diversity of views in Australia would suffer.

There is one issue, however, which is far more important to diversity of views - consumer behaviour. If consumers choose to obtain all their information from a single source, then it's largely irrelevant how centralised the media is. The internet is our biggest blessing when it comes to disseminating different viewpoints, but one which is, sadly, under-utilised. Personally, on a daily basis I read at least half a dozen major news sources from around the world, plus numerous minor ones, and additionally many blogs. This information is at everyone's disposal in the internet age. The problem is that people are daft, and have too much faith in the mainstream media, to stand up and make use of this wealth of information that sits at their fingertips. Thus, in my mind, independent media, while important, is not the sole solution to the problem. The solution is a cultural paradigm shift, whereby the population is aware that all media has its inherent biases, and therefore the onus is on them to seek out a cross-section of different sources. In the digital world this can be done in a matter of seconds.

If media diversity is a priority, which it should be, then our number one goal should be to make people mindful of the need to seek different opinions and never take any one source to be the literal truth. I pity the poor soul who has their TV permanently tuned to Fox News. If they spent just ten minutes each day online reading competing international sources, voters would be far more informed, the quality of political discussion greatly enhanced, and leaders far more accountable for their policies.

Mining taxes anyone?

The Mineral Resource Rent Tax (MRRT), aka the Mining Tax, is a big issue in Australia lately. For the non-Australian readers, this is a tax on non-renewable resources that are exploited by the mining industry on Australian territory. Most people from my side of politics vehemently oppose the Mining Tax, criticising it as "yet another tax". If it is indeed yet another tax, then I certainly fit into the category of not wanting additional taxes. However, if it is a replacement for other taxes - notably income tax or company tax - while remaining revenue neutral (i.e. the total tax burden hasn't increased) then I would strongly support such a tax.

To justify this position, let's consider why taxes on companies in general are bad. In a globalised economy, it is very easy for businesses to shuffle around on the world stage. If company tax is too high in Australia, companies will begin moving offshore and we miss out on their jobs, productivity and tax contribution altogether. It is the fluidity of commerce in the globalised era that stipulates we must remain competitive by keeping company taxes to a minimum. This is a philosophy with which I very strongly agree.

Companies exploiting non-renewable resources are somewhat different however. These companies make their profit by digging up and processing what's under the ground. Unlike other forms of business, what's under the ground doesn't and can't get up and move to the other side of the world - it remains under the ground on Australian territory, irrespective of government policy. While it's true that excessive taxation on the mining sector might undermine companies' incentive to exploit our natural resources, who might instead turn to reserves in other countries, this isn't nearly as big a disincentive as company tax on the non-mining sector, where business operations are much more dynamic and can much more readily cease their operations here and resume somewhere else - the options for mining coal in other countries are much more limited than the options for running a tech startup.

So, do I support more taxation? No. But do I support introducing a mining tax if we are spending every cent of the additional revenue to offset taxes on non-mining companies? Absolutely. The question to me isn't "should we have more taxation?". I presume everyone knows where I stand on that issue. To me the question is "some level of taxation is necessary, so what method of applying it has the least adverse impact on the economy?". Thus, if presented with the question "should we have higher company taxes and no mining tax, or a lower company tax with a mining tax, but with the same net level of tax revenue?", my answer is squarely that a mining tax is the way to go.

I believe both sides of politics in Australia are arguing for and against the mining tax in the wrong way. If the government were to sell the mining tax using the logic I just presented, I think many more conservative/Liberal voters would see the sense in a mining tax. Small business, which makes up a significant conservative voter base, and a substantial fraction of the economy, would be attracted to the idea of a lower company tax.

It is frequently argued in the media that the Mining Tax will drive away investment in Australia. No doubt this is true. But if it were used to offset other company taxes, the flip side of the coin would be that it would attract investment in other sectors which are more dynamic. Unfortunately the level of political debate in the country is rather low and this issue is being argued by the media in a very simplistic manner - as is the norm in the Australian media these days (I'll save my issues with the media for a future post).

Thanks Bob

Recently, on behalf of a group of concerned Australian scientists, I sent a letter to the Australian Foreign Minister and Shadow Foreign Minister regarding the plight of a young Iranian physicist who was imprisoned in Iran for "communicating with a hostile government" (read the letter here). Today I received a personally signed letter from the Foreign Minister, The Hon. Mr. Bob Carr, indicating that the government had expressed concerns to the Iranian government about this case. A big thank you to those who signed the letter, and a huge thanks to Mr. Carr for his support.

Open letter to the Australian Christian Lobby

This is my open letter to Jim Wallace, managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby. Please share this letter via social media.

Dear Mr. Wallace,

In the last year the ACL has released significantly more statements on homosexuality than on all other social issues combined. This bias brings into question the agenda of the ACL and suggests that it is not one of advancing Christian values, but rather of promoting the narrow social interests of a niche clique with a radical social agenda.

Your organisation openly supports legislation to allow schools to expel students for being gay. You are in effect supporting segregation on the basis of biological traits. This is no different to the radical 'Christians' who 50 years ago supported segregation based on another biological trait - race. If you sincerely support segregating schools on the basis of sexuality, you are indeed intent on turning back time and restoring policies which, thankfully, are a part of our past and not our present. Rather than reverting to a White Australia Policy, you seem intent on implementing a Straight Australia Policy. Thankfully your views are so hysterically out of touch with mainstream Australia, and indeed the vast majority of the Australian Christian community, that your organisation is teetering on the brink of irrelevance.

You claim that your organisation is there to lobby for 'Christian values'. However your values are inconsistent with those of the broader Christian community. Recent polling indicates that the majority of Australian Christians support equal marriage rights, and I suspect virtually none support your policy of homosexual segregation in schools. This brings into question whose values you are really advancing. They are most certainly not Christian ones.

Recently your organisation received massive donations from the Gloria Jean's coffee franchise. Gloria Jean's is privately owned - in part by members of the radical Hillsong Church - with a global sales estimate of $500 million dollars. Perhaps, rather than being a beneficiary of these massively wealthy individuals, you should criticise the 'Christian' owners on the basis that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24).

During a recent television debate you equated gay rights activists with Nazis, suggesting they had a lot in common with Joseph Goebbels. I fail to see how people who are systematically discriminated against demanding equal treatment is tantamount to fascism. To my knowledge Joseph Goebbels was not a gay rights activist, nor particularly in favour of any form of human rights for that matter. To the contrary he was complicit in the mass summary execution of homosexuals. If anything is fascist it's your disregard for the democratic will of the people. Using its affluent business connections, your organisation systematically lobbies against the will of the Australian people and indeed against the will of the majority of Australian Christians whom it claims to represent.

On ANZAC day you posted the Twitter comment "Just hope that as we remember Servicemen and women today we remember the Australia they fought for — wasn't gay marriage and Islamic!". It now appears that, according to you, our servicemen and women are not dying to defend Australia, its democratic values and its pluralism, but only non-Muslim heterosexuals.

I notice from your portrait on the ACL homepage that you are an attractive, clean-shaved man. This must be an inconvenience to you given that Leviticus 19:27 states "Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard". Your suit is rather attractive too. I assume it's not made of pure wool, which is problematic given that Leviticus 19:19 reads "...nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together". But then again, it is obvious that these sections of the Bible are not intended to be taken literally - they need to be interpreted in their proper historical context - correct?

On the other hand, your arguments against homosexuality are based on a strict literalist interpretation of small segments of the Old Testament. If you identified as a Biblical literalist, at least we could give you merit for being consistent. However, if you were indeed a Biblical literalist you would be an institutionalised schizophrenic, serving ten consecutive life sentences in the Hague for war crimes. But until the day comes when you stop wearing that fancy suit of yours, you stop shaving and you stop eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:10), I am reluctant to give credit to your claims of biblical literalism.

What bothers me about your partial literalism is that you have a very pick-and-choose attitude as to what sections of the Bible are intended to be taken literally. You seem to very conveniently ignore the sections of the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, that would inconvenience your own lifestyle, while literally interpreting the sections that give you justification to preach discrimination and hatred towards others.

According to the interpretation of the New Testament I was taught as a child in Sunday School, the essence of the New Testament is to express love and acceptance towards others, irrespective of who they are. Certainly this is the message of "The Good Samaritan" (Luke 10:29). The New Testament tell us "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Matthew 7:1), yet the mainstay of the ACL is to judge and discriminate against those with different biological traits.

The New Testament is filled to the brim with references to helping the poor - "Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed" (Proverbs 19:17). But rather than donating money to help the poor, your organisation is financed by and cooperates with the super rich. Indeed, your public statements on the evils of homosexuality massively outnumber your statements on social policy towards helping the poor and homeless. Perhaps you should use the immense wealth of the ACL and its benefactors to run soup kitchens or provide subsidised housing for the destitute.

You routinely insinuate that homosexual relationships are prone to breakdown. Perhaps it's time you made public statements on heterosexual marriage breakdown. In Australia approximately one third of heterosexual marriages end in divorce. In relation to marriage, Mark 10:8 reads "You are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate". Perhaps you should focus your attention on addressing heterosexual marriage breakdown rather than advocating preventing loving people from entering marriage in the first place. The New Testament has made its position on divorce quite clear, but you don't seem to have much to say on this issue. On the other hand, I've been searching all morning and can't find anything about preventing loving people from getting married, yet you have a lot to say about that. And certainly there is no biblical precedent for segregation in schools on the basis of sexual orientation.

Mr. Wallace, your organisation does not represent the Australian Christian community - I think the majority of Australian Christians would be embarrassed by your organisation. You represent a clique with a fanatical sexual obsession with what goes on in other people's bedrooms. You and your organisation are deeply hypocritical and extremely selective in your interpretation of the Bible. I'm left asking the question "who does the ACL really represent?", because it certainly isn't the Christians.

Sincerely,
Dr. Peter Rohde