Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

RIP Hugo Chávez Frías

Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez Frías has died aged 58, after 14 years in power. Chavez had been seriously ill with cancer for more than a year, undergoing several operations in Cuba. He will be given a state funeral in the capital Caracas on Friday. Vice-President Nicolas Maduro will assume the presidency until an election is called within 30 days.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Bersih 2.0 Movement

Final Solution: Post-Bersih: Review 1


Almost everyone I know in Malaysia has an opinion about the recent Bersih 2.0 rally. You have the vehemently critical, the dispassionate bystander, and the overwhelming enthusiast. I state upfront that I belong in the latter category, and was proud to be part of the thousands that thronged the streets of Kuala Lumpur on the historic 9th July 2011 day to express my concerns with the current electoral system. It was multiracial, with people of all ages, hailing from all over the country, walking jubilantly with spirits that were hardly dampened by multiple rounds of tear gas, water cannons and police beatings.

A fuller account of the day’s events can be found elsewhere. Here, I would like to address just two points that have been raised recently against the Bersih 2.0 movement and corresponding rally, although I have no formal association with the coalition itself.
View #1: Bersih 2.0 Has Been Hijacked by Pakatan Rakyat
First, the view that the Bersih movement has been hijacked by the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, namely the Opposition at Federal Parliament level. Those who hold this view say that Bersih 2.0’s original intentions were genuine and pure, but that the opposition and many others reinterpreted the cause for their own politically expedient means, i.e. to woo people over to their side and, in so doing, vote against the Barisan Nasional government.
From what I understand, Bersih 2.0 made it clear from the start – when it was launched in September 2010 – and throughout its campaign that it is a civil society movement. All non-government organisations affiliated with it have no political association. However, any individual, party or otherwise was welcome to work alongside Bersih 2.0 if it subscribed to the same principles it upholds: towards free, fair and clean elections based on eight initial electoral reform demands.
Quite naturally, the Pakatan Rakyat coalition jumped on the bandwagon as Bersih 2.0 was articulating the very points they believed in. Any of the Barisan Nasional parties were more than welcome to be part of the group if they, too, held that the electoral process in Malaysia was in dire need of change. Ultimately, Bersih 2.0’s demands are to ensure a level playing field during the elections, and that each person’s vote carries equal weight. As far as I know, this objective has been well articulated and maintained throughout the campaign.
One should note the history of Bersih itself. When Bersih 1.0 was launched more than four years ago in 2007, leaders of the campaign were Pakatan Rakyat politicians, many of whom were soon after voted in as representatives in the 2008 elections. The baton was then handed over to non-party affiliated civil society players. To paint Bersih as completely apolitical is therefore inaccurate, as its cause would eventually allow for the possibility of shifting political power structures. However, it is also inaccurate to call Bersih 2.0 political in the “political party” sense of the word as the coalition itself holds no allegiance to any political party, including Pakatan Rakyat.
This raises a side point of how social movements ought to be conducted in Malaysia. The perennial question remains: how can civil society push through a movement and gain significant traction, without needing support from any political party? I have pondered upon this, where in an ideal world, the pillar of ‘civil society’ ought to be in and of itself sufficient to advance policy reform of any sort. This is not the case in Malaysia, where the channels of decision-making still remain largely within the hands of political parties through representation at Parliament – and ultimately, the Cabinet. So, until and unless civil society is recognised as an equal partner within formal committees, taskforces and the like for the purposes of policy reform, political parties will still be relied upon to push forward a movement.
View #2: Bersih 2.0 Did Not Need to Take to the Streets
There is a view that Bersih 2.0 should have taken up the option of using a stadium outside of Kuala Lumpur city, or not organised any street rally at all. Proponents of this view argue that holding it outside the city centre would have ensured no traffic congestion, traders and businessmen would not have been affected, and simply – that the memorandum could have been submitted to the Agong during the meeting with Bersih 2.0 leader Ambiga Sreenevasan. Former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed also very kindly suggested that street demonstrations are a last resort when all negotiations have failed.
Bersih 2.0 has been in constant negotiation with the Election Commission on its eight demands. From what I gather, they have been given welcome reception. However, many of these changes are political in nature, and in reality the EC would not do anything substantial without awaiting the green light from its political masters. Lobbying the EC has not been the most effective of means, and it seems to be futile effort.
We need to dispense with the view that street demonstrations will cause businesses to be affected. Numerous coffee shops, hotels, travel lodges and restaurants were filled up in the days leading up to the rally, booked by Malaysians from all over the country. Where some may have lost, others profited.
The more important point is that the police did not have to resort to such extreme measures in response to the rally. This has been repeated, that other countries’ law enforcement officers facilitate street rallies when conducted peacefully. What the government could have easily done: cordon off a section of the road for the rally to take place, offering alternative driving routes for cars (just like what they do for city marathons). Treating it like a street party would have avoided all the trouble.
Finally, sure, the memorandum could have been e-mailed directly from Ambiga’s office to the Palace on the very first day of the Bersih 2.0 launch. But what would be the point of calling it a campaign or movement at all? This is representative of the people (all 6,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 who showed up at the rally, depending on which newspaper you read) backing the Bersih 2.0 cause, and acts as a communitarian expression to the Agong, whose interests lie with them, or ought to. Also, having people gather together, walking for a common cause, allows for a sense of ownership of the movement and its demands.
An unfortunate incident did take place, the death of the late Baharuddin Ahmad, who collapsed after being reportedly arrested at the rally. A simplistic way of looking at this is: “This is the cost of the rally, and even a single death is not worth all of Bersih’s demands!” Whilst I am greatly saddened by his passing, again my position is the police did not have to resort to such violence, when those marching did so in peace.
It is precisely the fear of such costs that would continue to silence us into inaction, should we retreat from voicing out our demands. People know these risks, and turn up despite them. It is being fully conscious of the risks, and then taking them, that proves the intensity with which people are passionate, angered and concerned, and hence the severity of the situation. The Barisan government does not seem to have woken up to this.
In this particular instance, after the Agong’s statement to Bersih 2.0 that it could conduct the rally in any stadium of its choice, Bersih’s permit application for Stadium Merdeka was rejected. The authorities offered Bersih 2.0 little choice but to revert to its original plan of walking on the streets.
Moving Forward

The more important thing is to ensure Bersih 2.0 does not stop here. It has successfully drawn in support from Malaysians living around the world – kudos to the young Malaysians who walked in solidarity in over 30 cities abroad – and this tremendous social capital ought to be galvanised in a meaningful way. The real work comes in the nuts and bolts of, for example, having consultation with Malaysians on how they feel about electoral reform and voter education.
A final warning: it is the systems and institutions that are rotten to the core. If these are not corrected in the immediate future, any political party coming to power is equally at danger of falling prey to the system and succumbing to corruption and greed. Unless all citizens and political parties (BN included if they are interested) work together in reforming the electoral system to make it fair, Malaysians would not be able to trust that our votes really count where we want them to.
*Tricia Yeoh is member of the Monash University School of Business Advisory Board and the Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS) Advisory Panel at the Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute. She graduated from Monash University (Malaysia) with a degree in Econometrics, and has a Masters in Research Methodology from the University of Warwick, UK (Department of Psychology)


Friday, June 24, 2011

Kisruh Monarki dan Krisis Thailand

THAILAND yang sering dijuluki sebagai negara penuh senyum itu, ternyata menyimpan banyak masalah, khususnya terkait dengan korupsi dan tindakan represif negara. Setidaknya laporan  jurnalis ternama George Marshall yang sudah bekerja di Thailand selama 17 tahun itu, mengungkapkan sejumlah tindakan penyelewangan pemerintah dan pihak kerajaan. Menurut Marshall, Thailand tidak layak tidak layak disebut negara demokratis, tetapi negara otoriter dan opresif. Karena kebebasan pers di negara itu dikekang habis-habisan, tidak heran,  jika negara gajah putih ini menyimpan banyak rahasia  Pencitraan Thailand sebagai negara demokratis adalah tidak tepat karena pada faktanya, negara ini justru terbelakang dalam menerapkan azas kebebasan berpendapat yang jadi pilar penting dalam kehidupan demokrasi.

Akibat tulisan kritiknya itu, Marshall harus mengundurkan diri pekerjaannya sebagai wakil kepala biro Reuters di Bangkok sejak Mei lalu. Sangat disayangkan, kantor berita sekelas Reuters memilih untuk tunduk pada aturan yang represif terhadap pers itu.

Selama ini, tindakan negatif anggota kerajaan tidak pernah tersiar karena  hukum setempat dibuat sedemikian rupa untuk menangkal keboborokan monarki terungkap kepada publik. Salah satunya adalah undang-undang yang melarang pemberitaan buruk terhadap sejumlah anggota keluarga kerajaan, yaitu Raja Bhumibol, Ratu Sirikit dan Putra Mahkota Pangeran  Vajiralongkorn. Bagi pelanggar, hukumannya adalah 15 tahun penjara. Sudah banyak jurnalis dan akademisi yang harus dipenjara dan kehilangan pekerjaannya karena berani mengkritik pemerintahan dan keluarga kerajaan. Di antara mereka yang vokal menyuarkan kebenaran ini adalah Professor Giles Ungpakorn, yang kini hidup sebagai pelarian di Inggris untuk menghindari hukuman penjara akibat mengkritik keluarga kerajaan.  Bahkan, jurnalis senior Reuters Andrew Marshall pun harus kehilangan pekerjaannya senagai wakil kepala biro Reuters di Thailand karena menulis berita mengenai penyelewengan anggota monarki Thailand. Sejak 1 Juni 2011, pemerintah Thailand mencap Marshall sebagai kriminal. Pria plontos yang kini mejadi penulis lepas itu mengatakan, dia tidak menyesal menuliskan laporan soal kebobrokan monarki Thailand. "Saya sudah tahu dari awal bahwa tulisan saya ini sangat berisiko. Saya juga paham dengan sikap Reuters yang menolak memuat laporan saya soal kerajaan itu, " kata Marshall baru-baru ini dalam tulisan opini yang dimuat media daring Inggris "Independent".
Menurut Marshall yang sudah bekerja di Reuters selama 17 tahun in, dia lebih memilih kehilangan pekerjaan dan dimusuhi teman-temannya daripada harus menutup kebenaran. "Sebagai jurnalis, saya punya kewajiban moral untuk mengungkapkan kebenaran," kata Marshall menambahkan.
Memang sangat disayangkan, kantor berita sebesar Reuters pun takut dengan penerapan hukum itu dan memilih untuk mematuhinya. Sejumlah pihak menyebutkan, Reuters melakukan itu karena tidak ingin terdepak dari negara tersebut. Apalagi jumlah jurnalis lokal yang direkrut Reuters mencapai 1.000 orang. Jadi, mereka sangat berhati-hati dalam memberitakan keluarga kerajaan. Mungkin, kepentingan ekonomis yang besar telah membuat Reuters tega tidak memuat laporan Marshall.

Berdasarkan data, aplikasi hukum yang mengekang kebebasan pers ini merupakan yang terburuk sedunia. Akibat implementasi hukum jadi-jadian tersebut, masyarakat Thailand tidak pernah mengetahui apa yang terjadi di lingkungan monarki Thailand. Padahal, seperti dilaporkan Wikileaks tiga bulan lalu, monarki Thailand dibawah kepemimpinan Raja Bhumibol selama 62 tahun terakhir ini,  melakukan banyak penyelewengan. Dalam tulisan terbarunya di majalah Time, hal itu kembali diungkapkan Marshall. Menurut dia, Thailand saat ini sedang 'sakit" akibat ulah sejumlah anggota monarki. Begitu banyak kebohongan yang disembunyikan keluarga kerajaan dari publik Thailand yang selama ini begitu menghormati mereka.
Meski selama ini monarki Thailand menjadi perekat yang telah berhasil menjauhkan negara itu dari konflik saudara, tetapi pada faktanya, seperti juga diungkap Wikileaks, kondisi monarki Thailand saat ini diambang krisis. Bahkan, monarki ternacam perpevahan yang ujung-ujungnya dapat memicu konflik baru di Thailand. Apalagi, menjelang pemilu 3 Juli mendatang, situasi panas di kerajaan akan semakin menjerumuskan Thailand dalam situasi yang yang tidak menentu.
Laporan Wikileaks dua hari lalu  menyebutkan, pemilu Thailand dua minggu mendatang akan memicu konflik baru di negara tersebut.Apalagi, ada indikasi telah terjadinay friksi antar anggota keluarga kerajaan. Jurnalis Brian Rex menuliskan bahwa ada ketidaksepahaman antara Raja dan Ratu Thailand. Konflik diantara keduanya sudah terjadi bertahun-tahun. Sirikit pun dilaporkan tidak lagi berkomuniaksi dengan suaminya. Dalam hal ini, Sirikit memiliki pandangan politis yang berbeda dengan suaminya. Suaminya selama ini sering digambarkan sebagai sosok yang apolitis sehinga memilih utnuk tidak campur tangah jauh dalam masalah politik. Sementara istrinya, dalam bebearapa tahun etrakhir ini, teaptnya sejak 2008, justru menunjukkan sikap yang bertentangan. Dia tidak sungkan-sungkan menunjukkan simpatinya kepada kelompok Kaus Kuning. Banyak pihak yang menyesalkan sikapnya yang ikut campur dalam politik Thailand.
Sikap Ratu yang nyeleneh inilah yang mebuat banyak pihak khawatir pemilu mendatang akan berakhir dengan konflik. Apalagi hasil jajak pendapat yang dipublikasikan Universitas Bangkok menyebutkan, adik perempuan Thaksin Shinawatra itu berpeluang memang dalam pemilu mendatang.

Menonjolnya pengaruh Ratu Sirikit ini telah menyebabkan eksistensi Raja Bhumibol Adulyadej memudar. Kesehatannya yang  sangat rapuh juga menjadi salah satu faktor, peranan raja berusia 83 tahun itu tidak lagi begitu kuat. Bahkan banyak pihak yanga memperkirakan umurnya sudah tidak panjang lagi. Suksesi pun sudah ramai dibicarakan. Selama ini ada dua calon. Pertama, Putra Mahkota Pangeran Vajiralongkorn yang sosoknya sangat tidak populer akibat perilakunya yang suka perempuan dan obat-obatan terlarang. Kedua, anak perempuan Bhumibol dan Sirikit, Putri Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, yang memang sangat populer di kalangan masyarakat Thailand.
Perpecahan antara Sirikit dan suaminya akan dapat semakin merunyamkan suksesi dan hasil pemilu mendatang.  Apalagi diketahui Putra Mahkota sanagt berambisi untuk menggantikan ayahnya. Padahal,secara kualitas, dia tidak punya keahlian memimpin dan karisma yang dimiliki ayahnya. Laporan Wikileaks menyebutkan, anak pertama Bhumibol itu memiliki temparemen kasar. Tidak heran, banyak warga Thailand tidak suka dengan sosok pria playboy yang sudah menikah tiga kali itu.

Dilaporkan, rakyat Thailand lebih menyukai sosok Putri Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. Raja Bhumibol pun lebih merestui putrinya itu untuk menjadi penerus tahta kerajaan. "Saya punya empat anak, tetapi hanya dia yang benar-benar membumi. Dia tidak pernah menikah tetapi memiliki jutaan anak," kata Bhumibol dalam obrolannya dengan sejumlah diplomat AS di Thailand, seperti dibocorkan Wikileaks.
Melihat begitu kompleksnya perpecahan anggota keluarga kerajaan Thailand, tidak heran, banyak pengamat memprediksi, politisasi monarki Thailand oleh Ratu Sirikit itu, juga akan menyebabkan Thailand dilanda krisis baru. Penulis Eric John bahkan menyebutkan, politisasi kerajaan oleh Sirikit akan menjadi bumerang bagi keluarga monarki itu sendiri. Apakah ini berarti, sistem monarki Thailand akan berakhir.Masih terlalu dini untuk menjawabnya. Namun, yang pasti, kisruh monarki telah membuat gejolak politik Thailand semakin memanas.  (Huminca)***

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sarah Palin has been corrupted by wealth and fame

The Guardian
We've been reading this week about the folie de grandeur that has taken hold of Sarah Palin since she resigned as governor of Alaska to embark on a new and lucrative career as an all-purpose celebrity. She now reportedly gets paid up to $100,000 for a single speech – nearly as much as she used to earn as governor in a year – and is greeted everywhere with the fawning adulation of Republican activists. When John McCain made her his running mate in 2008, she was almost unknown, but made herself an instant hit with the party faithful by posing as a straight-talking, no-nonsense "hockey mom" and a fearless crusader on behalf of ordinary, hardworking Americans. This image was slightly dented during the campaign when it was revealed that she had spent $150,000 of Republican party funds on European designer clothes and a Louis Vuitton handbag. But that was nothing by comparison with the lavish treatment she now demands as a condition for accepting a speaking engagement.

Part of a contract rescued from a dustbin by students at the California State University, where Palin is due to give a speech in June, showed she had insisted on being flown there from her home in Alaska either first-class or on a private plane ("must be a Lear 60 or larger"), on being given a suite and two single rooms in a "deluxe hotel", on being provided with "all meals and incidentals", including a "laptop computer and printer (fully stocked with paper) and high-speed internet", and – no detail being too small for her consideration – unopened water bottles with bendy straws beside them. These are not normal demands. They are the demands of a person with a huge sense of her own entitlement, of someone who fears that she may not be treated with the deference she deserves. Palin would see no contradiction between her public posture as a salt-of-the-earth "pit bull with lipstick" and her aspirations to the lifestyle of a rock star. Fame, wealth and power have corrupted her.

From Kitty Kelley's new biography, Oprah Winfrey would appear to suffer from a similarly demented sense of entitlement on an even grander scale. Kelley claims that, flying twice- weekly on her private plane between Santa Barbara and Chicago, Winfrey requires that if she falls asleep en route, no one is to disturb her until she has slept at least eight hours, however long a wait on the ground that means for the crew. According to Kelley, she once even used to insist that the fuelling of planes in an airport hangar be suspended prior to her arrival so that she wouldn't have to endure any nasty smells during the 30ft walk from her plane to a security van. One never knows how much of Kelley to believe, but Palin and Winfrey could both be examples of people who think that their rise from obscurity – and in Winfrey's case, poverty – to riches and celebrity bestows on them a right to lord it over others in a way the people of more privileged backgrounds would never dare.

But it's not always so. JK Rowling is as rich and famous as can be, and she, too, was once poor – a single mother living mainly on benefits in a rented Edinburgh flat – but gives herself no airs at all. It would be impossible to imagine her demanding a private plane, let alone bendy straws. Instead, in a newspaper article this week she attacked David Cameron's plans to subsidise marriage as showing how ignorant he was of social realities. More than half of single mothers live below the breadline, and as formerly one herself, she remembered how indebted she had been to the British welfare state which, when her life had "hit rock bottom", had been "there to break the fall". So she has refused to be like Lord Ashcroft and go into tax exile because "it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first whiff of a seven-figure royalty cheque". Wealth and celebrity does not have to corrupt.
Children = happy old age

Yesterday's newspapers reported that, according to research carried out by Greenwich University, the possession of children or grandchildren had no bearing on the happiness of people over 60. This is such obvious nonsense that I am surprised any newspaper could bring itself to publish it. Everybody knows that to almost all old people, children and grandchildren are a source of great delight.

The research purported to show that having interests and a good circle of friends, not children, was the secret to a happy retirement. There is a valid point there. Relations between parents and children can be strained if children feel that their parents depend too much on them and have nothing else to keep them interested. The more parents show self-sufficiency and independence, the warmer their children feel towards them. I remember my mother, aged 95 and on her deathbed, telling my older brother: "Darling, you must go on neglecting your children. They love you so much."

There was more wisdom in that remark than in the conclusion of the university researchers that hobbies and a busy social life make old people happier than associating with their children. The point the researchers missed is that cheerful independence is a pre-condition for the greater happiness that children can bring.

Tranquillity and turmoil in Thailand

| Matthew Phillips | Comment is free |
The Thai new year is one of the highlights of the tourist calendar and has for two years now been marred with violence in Bangkok. This year that violence was some of the worst in the country's history and it was tourists on Khao San Road, the backpacking hub of south-east Asia, who had front row seats.

The crisis is clearly far from over, and yet there is little tourists can do other than try and get back to their holiday. Last Sunday afternoon, one journalist surveying the damage tweeted that 50 metres from where people were killed, tourists were watching the Blackburn v Manchester United match.

It would be unfair to ask tourists to think too hard about Thailand's problems; they are, after all, on holiday. Yet, whether they realise it or not, tourists are not just spectators to the political turmoil. All sides in this conflict use tourism as a weapon to achieve their aims. The decision of the Yellow Shirts to close the airport in 2008 was an audacious move, designed for maximum impact. As of yet, the Reds have not targeted tourism so explicitly, but that might well be changing.

The fact that the Reds have continued their protest, despite suffering the losses they did, shows how determined they are. Also, as they become more desperate, it makes sense that they will attempt to put pressure on the government through directly targeting the economy. This week the protest site moved from the area close to Khao San, to Ratchaprasong, the main shopping district and a stone's throw from the city's major hotels.

With tourism accounting for approximately 6.5% of Thailand's economy, the finance minister is now saying that the protests could drop growth by two percentage points as occupancy rates at hotels in Bangkok fall to only 30%. Groups representing the tourism industry are urging the government and the protesters to "join hands to solve the problem".

While such facts and figures must strike fear into those working in the industry, they are also being used as one of the most legitimate ways to reprimand the protesters. Unlike other industries which can get back to normal after political unrest, tourism relies upon a country's reputation. In Thailand, tourism developed during the cold war, when the country was regarded as an oasis of peace on a troubled continent. The idea that Thai society lived in harmony was itself commodified as a reason to visit the country. Since then, foreigners have often been used in state media as a device from which to view this pleasant society. And in recent years campaigns to urge against violence have from time to time asked the question, what will the foreigners think?

These messages work. Radio talk shows often have phone-ins about what foreigners think of the Thai people asserting the fact that Thais are good-natured and kind toward their guests. Also, normal Red Shirts are very conscious of embracing foreign guests. Last month, when a foreigner arrived to give blood to the Red Shirt campaign, what was most notable was the elation on the faces of those around. The woman taking the blood wanted to be sure a video was taken so that the Yellow Shirts would see that they too had the support of the foreign community.

But the problem for the protesters, whether they are Red or Yellow, is that statements about how good-natured they are, or should be, must not get in the way of achieving their aims. Particularly with the largely rural Red Shirts, these protests are in many ways fighting to break the very stereotypes with which they are labelled. They are asserting that they are not subservient and happy with the status quo, but active members of the political system.

Tourists who travel to Thailand for an "authentic" experience of local culture will continue to find it in guest houses and beach bars. But, while the best advice might be to stay in those bubbles, it is inevitable that they will increasingly be drawn into the reality of what is happening on the streets.

Friday, September 25, 2009

An American voice regarding the Obama's tax policy

Matt Lesser: Give Me Your Money! | Meet Matt Lesser
Times are tough and money is tight in households across Connecticut. Despite that fact the Democrats in the legislature insisted on a record tax and increase of $1.42 billion.

Democrats chose to tax everything from cigarettes to job-creating corporations in their zeal to grow government and attempt to increase their grip on the lowly taxpayers and residents of Connecticut.

Despite paying lip service to looking out for “working families,” Democrats have initialized a 10 percent surcharge on corporations like Pratt and Whitney, among others. So Pratt indicates it may leave the state (and take thousands of jobs with them) due to the onerous and burdensome taxes and regulations, and the Democrats pile another tax on them, all the while claiming to be “fighting” to keep Pratt in Connecticut.

The film tax credit program recently put into place has been one of the few bright spots in our economy. But guess what? Democrats reduced the film credit to get more “revenues” to feed their bureaucratic beast.

If you are one of the lucky ones in Connecticut and actually have a decent job, they’re coming after you, too. Nursing certificate fees, daycare license fees and all other occupational license fees have been doubled in many cases. Oh, and bus and train fares will go up also.

And when you are out of work, the Democrats want to crimp your leisure time by doubling your fishing license fee, for example.

The examples are endless, but the picture is quite clear: Democrats can care less about the average Connecticut citizen. All they care about is staying in office, and they have proven they are willing to tax you to death to accomplish that goal.

Democrats ignored the Republicans’ no-tax increase budget proposals, in a disgusting gesture that reeked of arrogance. Let’s be sure to return the favor and ignore Democrats’ pleas for votes at the polls in November.

Kevin Rudd as a Prime Minister should earn $1 million a year and the Opposition Leader $600,000

Barnaby Joyce calls for PM's salary to be $1 million | National News |
OUTSPOKEN Senator Barnaby Joyce has called for Kevin Rudd's salary to be almost trebled to $1 million as MPs yesterday defended another pay rise.

The Remuneration Tribunal's decision to boost the base salary of federal politicians next week to $131,000 - an extra 3 per cent - comes just months after the Australian Fair Pay Commission refused to give 1.3 million workers on the lowest wage one cent extra.

But staring down tough economic times and volatile poll results, the Queensland Government yesterday said it would stand by its 2009 election commitment and keep state MPs' salaries frozen.

Senator Joyce told The Courier-Mail that unless pay was comparable with the private sector, Federal Parliament would be filled with "lords, ladies and lunatics".

He said the position of Prime Minister should earn $1 million a year and the Opposition Leader's cheque should swell to $600,000.

Mr Rudd, is paid about $340,000 a year and Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull $242,000. Both are already millionaires.

But the senator stopped short of advocating pay parity with some of the country's top chief executives, such as Commonwealth Bank head Ralph Norris, whose fixed cash salary is about $3.25 million.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon yesterday agreed with Senator Joyce and said Mr Rudd was underpaid.

Acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the Government agreed with the "modest" payrise, the first since 2007. Mr Rudd ordered a freeze in 2008.

"Generally, we've seen wage movements of around 3.9 per cent across the economy," Ms Gillard said.

Asked how she could justify a payrise for MPs while the lowest paid missed out, Ms Gillard said: "The Government actually said to the Fair Pay Commission that it should award a considered rise to minimum-wage workers. That's what we argued for."

Acting Opposition Leader Julie Bishop would not be drawn into a debate on whether the payrise was justified.

"The value for money that each member provides to their electorate is judged by the public at every election," Ms Bishop said.

The independent Remuneration Tribunal usually sets increases to principal executive officers on reference salary A - which also includes some bureaucrats - in July.

However, it determined earlier this year it would wait until September.

In a statement yesterday, the tribunal pointed to the nation's improving economic outlook, and "noted" the positive August minutes of the Reserve Bank.

The Australian Fair Pay Commission in July rejected the ACTU's call for a $21-a- week increase because of fears any rise would cost jobs.

It meant the paypackets of low-paid workers remained at $543.78 a week. The last time the minimum wage was frozen was in 1982.

Greens Leader Bob Brown said he would oppose the rise unless "battlers" got one too.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Beyond the Reach of God

Overcoming Bias: Beyond the Reach of God

Followup to: The Magnitude of His Own Folly

Today's post is a tad gloomier than usual, as I measure such things. It deals with a thought experiment I invented to smash my own optimism, after I realized that optimism had misled me. Those readers sympathetic to arguments like, "It's important to keep our biases because they help us stay happy," should consider not reading. (Unless they have something to protect, including their own life.)

So! Looking back on the magnitude of my own folly, I realized that at the root of it had been a disbelief in the Future's vulnerability - a reluctance to accept that things could really turn out wrong. Not as the result of any explicit propositional verbal belief. More like something inside that persisted in believing, even in the face of adversity, that everything would be all right in the end.

Some would account this a virtue (zettai daijobu da yo), and others would say that it's a thing necessary for mental health.

But we don't live in that world. We live in the world beyond the reach of God.

It's been a long, long time since I believed in God. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family, I can recall the last remembered time I asked God for something, though I don't remember how old I was. I was putting in some request on behalf of the next-door-neighboring boy, I forget what exactly - something along the lines of, "I hope things turn out all right for him," or maybe "I hope he becomes Jewish."

I remember what it was like to have some higher authority to appeal to, to take care of things I couldn't handle myself. I didn't think of it as "warm", because I had no alternative to compare it to. I just took it for granted.

Still I recall, though only from distant childhood, what it's like to live in the conceptually impossible possible world where God exists. Really exists, in the way that children and rationalists take all their beliefs at face value.

In the world where God exists, does God intervene to optimize everything? Regardless of what rabbis assert about the fundamental nature of reality, the take-it-seriously operational answer to this question is obviously "No". You can't ask God to bring you a lemonade from the refrigerator instead of getting one yourself. When I believed in God after the serious fashion of a child, so very long ago, I didn't believe that.

Postulating that particular divine inaction doesn't provoke a full-blown theological crisis. If you said to me, "I have constructed a benevolent superintelligent nanotech-user", and I said "Give me a banana," and no banana appeared, this would not yet disprove your statement. Human parents don't always do everything their children ask. There are some decent fun-theoretic arguments - I even believe them myself - against the idea that the best kind of help you can offer someone, is to always immediately give them everything they want. I don't think that eudaimonia is formulating goals and having them instantly fulfilled; I don't want to become a simple wanting-thing that never has to plan or act or think.

So it's not necessarily an attempt to avoid falsification, to say that God does not grant all prayers. Even a Friendly AI might not respond to every request.

But clearly, there exists some threshold of horror awful enough that God will intervene. I remember that being true, when I believed after the fashion of a child.

The God who does not intervene at all, no matter how bad things get - that's an obvious attempt to avoid falsification, to protect a belief-in-belief. Sufficiently young children don't have the deep-down knowledge that God doesn't really exist. They really expect to see a dragon in their garage. They have no reason to imagine a loving God who never acts. Where exactly is the boundary of sufficient awfulness? Even a child can imagine arguing over the precise threshold. But of course God will draw the line somewhere. Few indeed are the loving parents who, desiring their child to grow up strong and self-reliant, would let their toddler be run over by a car.

The obvious example of a horror so great that God cannot tolerate it, is death - true death, mind-annihilation. I don't think that even Buddhism allows that. So long as there is a God in the classic sense - full-blown, ontologically fundamental, the God - we can rest assured that no sufficiently awful event will ever, ever happen. There is no soul anywhere that need fear true annihilation; God will prevent it.

What if you build your own simulated universe? The classic example of a simulated universe is Conway's Game of Life. I do urge you to investigate Life if you've never played it - it's important for comprehending the notion of "physical law". Conway's Life has been proven Turing-complete, so it would be possible to build a sentient being in the Life universe, albeit it might be rather fragile and awkward. Other cellular automata would make it simpler.

Could you, by creating a simulated universe, escape the reach of God? Could you simulate a Game of Life containing sentient entities, and torture the beings therein? But if God is watching everywhere, then trying to build an unfair Life just results in the God stepping in to modify your computer's transistors. If the physics you set up in your computer program calls for a sentient Life-entity to be endlessly tortured for no particular reason, the God will intervene. God being omnipresent, there is no refuge anywhere for true horror: Life is fair.

But suppose that instead you ask the question:

Given such-and-such initial conditions, and given such-and-such cellular automaton rules, what would be the mathematical result?

Not even God can modify the answer to this question, unless you believe that God can implement logical impossibilities. Even as a very young child, I don't remember believing that. (And why would you need to believe it, if God can modify anything that actually exists?)

What does Life look like, in this imaginary world where every step follows only from its immediate predecessor? Where things only ever happen, or don't happen, because of the cellular automaton rules? Where the initial conditions and rules don't describe any God that checks over each state? What does it look like, the world beyond the reach of God?

That world wouldn't be fair. If the initial state contained the seeds of something that could self-replicate, natural selection might or might not take place, and complex life might or might not evolve, and that life might or might not become sentient, with no God to guide the evolution. That world might evolve the equivalent of conscious cows, or conscious dolphins, that lacked hands to improve their condition; maybe they would be eaten by conscious wolves who never thought that they were doing wrong, or cared.

If in a vast plethora of worlds, something like humans evolved, then they would suffer from diseases - not to teach them any lessons, but only because viruses happened to evolve as well, under the cellular automaton rules.

If the people of that world are happy, or unhappy, the causes of their happiness or unhappiness may have nothing to do with good or bad choices they made. Nothing to do with free will or lessons learned. In the what-if world where every step follows only from the cellular automaton rules, the equivalent of Genghis Khan can murder a million people, and laugh, and be rich, and never be punished, and live his life much happier than the average. Who prevents it? God would prevent it from ever actually happening, of course; He would at the very least visit some shade of gloom in the Khan's heart. But in the mathematical answer to the question What if? there is no God in the axioms. So if the cellular automaton rules say that the Khan is happy, that, simply, is the whole and only answer to the what-if question. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to prevent it.

And if the Khan tortures people horribly to death over the course of days, for his own amusement perhaps? They will call out for help, perhaps imagining a God. And if you really wrote that cellular automaton, God would intervene in your program, of course. But in the what-if question, what the cellular automaton would do under the mathematical rules, there isn't any God in the system. Since the physical laws contain no specification of a utility function - in particular, no prohibition against torture - then the victims will be saved only if the right cells happen to be 0 or 1. And it's not likely that anyone will defy the Khan; if they did, someone would strike them with a sword, and the sword would disrupt their organs and they would die, and that would be the end of that. So the victims die, screaming, and no one helps them; that is the answer to the what-if question.

Could the victims be completely innocent? Why not, in the what-if world? If you look at the rules for Conway's Game of Life (which is Turing-complete, so we can embed arbitrary computable physics in there), then the rules are really very simple. Cells with three living neighbors stay alive; cells with two neighbors stay the same, all other cells die. There isn't anything in there about only innocent people not being horribly tortured for indefinite periods.

Is this world starting to sound familiar?

Belief in a fair universe often manifests in more subtle ways than thinking that horrors should be outright prohibited: Would the twentieth century have gone differently, if Klara Pölzl and Alois Hitler had made love one hour earlier, and a different sperm fertilized the egg, on the night that Adolf Hitler was conceived?

For so many lives and so much loss to turn on a single event, seems disproportionate. The Divine Plan ought to make more sense than that. You can believe in a Divine Plan without believing in God - Karl Marx surely did. You shouldn't have millions of lives depending on a casual choice, an hour's timing, the speed of a microscopic flagellum. It ought not to be allowed. It's too disproportionate. Therefore, if Adolf Hitler had been able to go to high school and become an architect, there would have been someone else to take his role, and World War II would have happened the same as before.

But in the world beyond the reach of God, there isn't any clause in the physical axioms which says "things have to make sense" or "big effects need big causes" or "history runs on reasons too important to be so fragile". There is no God to impose that order, which is so severely violated by having the lives and deaths of millions depend on one small molecular event.

The point of the thought experiment is to lay out the God-universe and the Nature-universe side by side, so that we can recognize what kind of thinking belongs to the God-universe. Many who are atheists, still think as if certain things are not allowed. They would lay out arguments for why World War II was inevitable and would have happened in more or less the same way, even if Hitler had become an architect. But in sober historical fact, this is an unreasonable belief; I chose the example of World War II because from my reading, it seems that events were mostly driven by Hitler's personality, often in defiance of his generals and advisors. There is no particular empirical justification that I happen to have heard of, for doubting this. The main reason to doubt would be refusal to accept that the universe could make so little sense - that horrible things could happen so lightly, for no more reason than a roll of the dice.

But why not? What prohibits it?

In the God-universe, God prohibits it. To recognize this is to recognize that we don't live in that universe. We live in the what-if universe beyond the reach of God, driven by the mathematical laws and nothing else. Whatever physics says will happen, will happen. Absolutely anything, good or bad, will happen. And there is nothing in the laws of physics to lift this rule even for the really extreme cases, where you might expect Nature to be a little more reasonable.

Reading William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, listening to him describe the disbelief that he and others felt upon discovering the full scope of Nazi atrocities, I thought of what a strange thing it was, to read all that, and know, already, that there wasn't a single protection against it. To just read through the whole book and accept it; horrified, but not at all disbelieving, because I'd already understood what kind of world I lived in.

Once upon a time, I believed that the extinction of humanity was not allowed. And others who call themselves rationalists, may yet have things they trust. They might be called "positive-sum games", or "democracy", or "technology", but they are sacred. The mark of this sacredness is that the trustworthy thing can't lead to anything really bad; or they can't be permanently defaced, at least not without a compensatory silver lining. In that sense they can be trusted, even if a few bad things happen here and there.

The unfolding history of Earth can't ever turn from its positive-sum trend to a negative-sum trend; that is not allowed. Democracies - modern liberal democracies, anyway - won't ever legalize torture. Technology has done so much good up until now, that there can't possibly be a Black Swan technology that breaks the trend and does more harm than all the good up until this point.

There are all sorts of clever arguments why such things can't possibly happen. But the source of these arguments is a much deeper belief that such things are not allowed. Yet who prohibits? Who prevents it from happening? If you can't visualize at least one lawful universe where physics say that such dreadful things happen - and so they do happen, there being nowhere to appeal the verdict - then you aren't yet ready to argue probabilities.

Could it really be that sentient beings have died absolutely for thousands or millions of years, with no soul and no afterlife - and not as part of any grand plan of Nature - not to teach any great lesson about the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of life - not even to teach any profound lesson about what is impossible - so that a trick as simple and stupid-sounding as vitrifying people in liquid nitrogen can save them from total annihilation - and a 10-second rejection of the silly idea can destroy someone's soul? Can it be that a computer programmer who signs a few papers and buys a life-insurance policy continues into the far future, while Einstein rots in a grave? We can be sure of one thing: God wouldn't allow it. Anything that ridiculous and disproportionate would be ruled out. It would make a mockery of the Divine Plan - a mockery of the strong reasons why things must be the way they are.

You can have secular rationalizations for things being not allowed. So it helps to imagine that there is a God, benevolent as you understand goodness - a God who enforces throughout Reality a minimum of fairness and justice - whose plans make sense and depend proportionally on people's choices - who will never permit absolute horror - who does not always intervene, but who at least prohibits universes wrenched completely off their track... to imagine all this, but also imagine that you, yourself, live in a what-if world of pure mathematics - a world beyond the reach of God, an utterly unprotected world where anything at all can happen.

If there's any reader still reading this, who thinks that being happy counts for more than anything in life, then maybe they shouldn't spend much time pondering the unprotectedness of their existence. Maybe think of it just long enough to sign up themselves and their family for cryonics, and/or write a check to an existential-risk-mitigation agency now and then. And wear a seatbelt and get health insurance and all those other dreary necessary things that can destroy your life if you miss that one step... but aside from that, if you want to be happy, meditating on the fragility of life isn't going to help.

But this post was written for those who have something to protect.

What can a twelfth-century peasant do to save themselves from annihilation? Nothing. Nature's little challenges aren't always fair. When you run into a challenge that's too difficult, you suffer the penalty; when you run into a lethal penalty, you die. That's how it is for people, and it isn't any different for planets. Someone who wants to dance the deadly dance with Nature, does need to understand what they're up against: Absolute, utter, exceptionless neutrality.

Knowing this won't always save you. It wouldn't save a twelfth-century peasant, even if they knew. If you think that a rationalist who fully understands the mess they're in, must surely be able to find a way out - then you trust rationality, enough said.

Some commenter is bound to castigate me for putting too dark a tone on all this, and in response they will list out all the reasons why it's lovely to live in a neutral universe. Life is allowed to be a little dark, after all; but not darker than a certain point, unless there's a silver lining.

Still, because I don't want to create needless despair, I will say a few hopeful words at this point:

If humanity's future unfolds in the right way, we might be able to make our future light cone fair(er). We can't modify fundamental physics, but on a higher level of organization we could build some guardrails and put down some padding; organize the particles into a pattern that does some internal checks against catastrophe. There's a lot of stuff out there that we can't touch - but it may help to consider everything that isn't in our future light cone, as being part of the "generalized past". As if it had all already happened. There's at least the prospect of defeating neutrality, in the only future we can touch - the only world that it accomplishes something to care about.

Someday, maybe, immature minds will reliably be sheltered. Even if children go through the equivalent of not getting a lollipop, or even burning a finger, they won't ever be run over by cars.

And the adults wouldn't be in so much danger. A superintelligence - a mind that could think a trillion thoughts without a misstep - would not be intimidated by a challenge where death is the price of a single failure. The raw universe wouldn't seem so harsh, would be only another problem to be solved.

The problem is that building an adult is itself an adult challenge. That's what I finally realized, years ago.

If there is a fair(er) universe, we have to get there starting from this world - the neutral world, the world of hard concrete with no padding, the world where challenges are not calibrated to your skills.

Not every child needs to stare Nature in the eyes. Buckling a seatbelt, or writing a check, is not that complicated or deadly. I don't say that every rationalist should meditate on neutrality. I don't say that every rationalist should think all these unpleasant thoughts. But anyone who plans on confronting an uncalibrated challenge of instant death, must not avoid them.

What does a child need to do - what rules should they follow, how should they behave - to solve an adult problem?

Posted by Eliezer Yudkowsky

Politics isn't about Policy

Overcoming Bias: Politics isn't about Policy
Politics isn't about Policy

Food isn't about Nutrition
Clothes aren't about Comfort
Bedrooms aren't about Sleep
Marriage isn't about Romance
Talk isn't about Info
Laughter isn't about Jokes
Charity isn't about Helping
Church isn't about God
Art isn't about Insight
Medicine isn't about Health
Consulting isn't about Advice
School isn't about Learning
Research isn't about Progress
Politics isn't about Policy

The above summarizes much of my contrarian world view. (What else should go on this list?) When I say "X is not about Y," I mean that while Y is the function commonly said to drive most X behavior, in fact some other function Z drives X behavior more. I won't support all these claims here; for today, let's just talk politics.

High school students are easily engaged to elect class presidents, even though they have little idea what if any policies a class president might influence. Instead such elections are usually described as "popularity contests." That is, theses elections are about which school social factions are to have higher social status. If a jock wins, jocks have higher status. If your girlfriend's brother wins, you have higher status, etc. And the fact that you have a vote says that others should take you into account when forming coalitions - you are somebody.

Civics teachers talk as if politics is about policy, that politics is our system for choosing policies to deal with common problems. But as Tyler Cowen suggests, real politics seems to be more about who will be our leaders, and what coalitions will rise or fall in status as a result. Election media coverage focuses on characterizing the candidates themselves - their personalities, styles, friends, beliefs, etc. You might say this is because character is a cheap clue to the policies candidates would adopt, but I don't buy it.

The obvious interpretation seems more believable - as with high school class presidents, we care about policies mainly as clues to candidate character and affiliations. And to the extend we consider policies not tied to particular candidates, we mainly care about how policies will effect which kinds of people will be respected how much.

For example, we want nationalized medicine so poor sick folks will feel cared for, military actions so foreigners will treat us with respect, business deregulation as a sign of respect for hardworking businessfolk, official gay marriage as a sign we accept gays, and so on.

This perspective explains why voters tend to prefer proportional representation, why many refuse to vote for any candidate when none have earned their respect, and why so few are interested in institutional reforms that would plausibly give more informed policies. (I'm speaking on such reform at a Trinity College symposium Monday afternoon.)

In each case where X is commonly said to be about Y, but is really X is more about Z, many are well aware of this but say we are better off pretending X is about Y. You may be called a cynic to say so, but if honesty is important to you, join me in calling a spade a spade.

Monday, October 06, 2008

9/11 links The Neo-Zionist Order: