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Insights 34: 14 September 2018
Listen: Eric Crampton on Newstalk ZB about the sugar tax briefing from Ministry of Health's chief science advisor
Read: Oliver Hartwich's Newsroom column on the EUís reverse Annie Hall problem
Have your say: What is good public policy in New Zealand?

Dissecting the 21st centuryís Great Untruths
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
It had to take an evolutionary psychologist and a lawyer to dissect (some of) the craziness of modern society and polity.

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s new book The Coddling of the American Mind is required reading for anyone wishing to understand 21st century politics, not just in the US but globally.

At first sight, the book is about good intentions, bad parenting, and the education system.

It shows how young people are being damaged by an emotional ‘safety first’ culture. Victimhood is the new moral status symbol and it is creeping into the public discourse to shape our politics.

According to the authors, three Great Untruths have taken hold among the younger generation. Superficially appealing, each has the potential to hurt those who accept them.

First among these untruths is the untruth of fragility: What does not kill you makes you weaker. This defies millennia of experience that it is through challenge that we grow stronger. For example, the human immune system needs early encounters with pathogens to build up resistance. Similarly, the mind needs challenge to develop the ability to reason.

Modern society, meanwhile, tries to shield us from both. Both peanuts and uncomfortable ideas have been hidden away from kindergartens and schools for decades now. As an ironic result, peanut allergies have increased, and critical thinking has given way to fearmongering.

The second untruth of emotional reasoning asks you to always trust your feelings. It is the logical consequence of our growing rejection of the need to think, let alone rationally. Instead, we are allowing emotions to dictate our actions. Evidence and reason are out, window-dressing and virtue-signalling are in.

In such a socio-political climate, the final untruth of us versus them is inescapable: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. Once we are subsumed by emotions and intentions, it is no longer possible to have constructive arguments across the divide. Anyone with an opposing view is ignorant, if not downright evil.

Taken together, the three Great Untruths embody the opposite of Enlightenment values. Yet they are increasingly ‘informing’ (lacking a better word) what students are ‘learning’ these days, turning society and politics into a moralistic, symbolic and emotional theatre.

Ironically, Haidt and Lukianoff have put their dissent into a book, possibly hoping some people still think.

The Acid Test
Dr Eric Crampton | Chief Economist |
Nutrient load is too high in too many New Zealand lakes and rivers. Cleaning up the mess featured prominently in last year’s election. Getting the job done requires looking at what works.

On that front, New Zealand has learned from America’s abolition of acid rain.

During the 1980s, sulphur dioxide emissions from American electricity generation plants made rain acidic, with damage to lakes building up over time.

The Acid Rain Programme aimed to reduce emissions to half of their 1980 levels but the best way of cutting sulphur dioxide emissions was far from obvious.

Different power plants had different opportunities and costs in cutting emissions: shifting to better quality coal, installing smokestack scrubbers to remove sulphur dioxide, or even shutting down. It would have been impossible for officials in Washington DC to prescribe what was really best for any one of them.

Rather than requiring each plant to halve its emissions, or prescribing types of coal or scrubbers, the government left those decisions to each generator. It set a cap on the total amount of sulphur dioxide that could be emitted, issued emission permits, and let them trade. A plant could emit as much sulphur dioxide as it wanted, so long as it had the permits to do it, and total emissions could not exceed the cap.

It worked. Acid rain ended. And because each power plant was able to find the solution that worked best for them, trading saved between $200 milllion and $500 million per year when compared to the cost of reducing emissions under blanket regulations.

New Zealand’s nutrient problems in lakes and rivers have some similar characteristics. And New Zealand has learned from the American experience.

Nutrient emissions around Lake Taupo are now managed within a cap and trade system. Total emissions within the catchment are capped, activities producing emissions require consent, and consent-holders can trade their allotment with others.

Motu’s evaluation shows the scheme to be generally successful. Different farmers face different circumstances; the trading scheme encourages emission reduction by those farms most able to do so.

There remains room for improvement. Trading is bespoke and costly, with trades requiring complicated approvals. Farmers often wish to sell their consent only for a few years rather than permanently, requiring different lease arrangements in the absence of futures markets.

Improving the system is well worthwhile as more catchments hit against environmental constraints.

Welcome to my safe space
Jenesa Jeram | Research Fellow |
I recently read an article that distressed me so deeply I feel it needed a trigger warning.

The article reported that millennials are more likely to support socialism. In fact, the piece was written by our executive director for this very newsletter.

Of course I was offended by such a smear, I am after all part of the snowflake generation.

As Oliver has written in his piece above, Lukianoff and Haidt are right in arguing that this snowflake culture is likely to set up a generation for failure.

It is a culture where controversial speakers are banned from university campuses. Students need ‘trigger warnings’ before being exposed to potentially harmful or offensive content. And comedians who tell off-colour jokes are not welcome.

But this snowflake is starting to feel a little left out. If everyone else is getting a ‘safe space’, I want one too.

Luckily, there are plenty of examples to draw inspiration from.

Content that blames neoliberalism for everything from poverty to rising house prices needs a trigger warning. In fact, any content that uses the term neoliberalism will almost always be offensive. Neoliberalism is normally a lazy descriptor for the free market. It is used by people who have probably never heard of Venezuela.

So-called nutrition expert Christine Cronau has been banned from several Australian university campuses for her dubious claims that a high fat diet can starve off cancer cells and cure almost any ailment from thrush to depression.

New Zealand campuses should take note. How fantastic would it be if speakers who failed to take an evidence-based approach to health were de-platformed? Sure, several Otago University public health experts might be out of a job. But personally, I would feel safer knowing that their advocacy is not leading to policy change.

The University of Queensland and Western Sydney University have policies against sarcasm. In my safe space I demand the opposite. I feel offended by people who do not pick up on sarcasm.

Don’t get me wrong, I have always considered myself more of an iceberg than a snowflake.

But as I appear to be in the ideological minority for millennials, perhaps university campuses should be doing more to protect the needs of my people.
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