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Insights 39: 14 October 2016
Roger Partridge: Why the Auckland unitary plan is soiled
Martine Udahemuka: Interest-free student loan scheme is a bribe that hurts the poor
Jason Krupp: Central government blamed for low voter turnout

Our moral, digital future
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
The future is uncertain but that technology’s role will become more important is as safe a prediction as any. This was the key message in a talk by renowned futurologist Peter Cochrane to the Initiative this week.

In his engaging and entertaining talk, Cochrane presented a wide range of technologies that already exist in prototypes and will change our lives in the future. Think of materials that self-repair, gadgets that continuously track your bodily functions, or a spray of stem cells that can grow back burnt skin.

Cochrane also showed us what his dream car of the future looks like. It would still be a vehicle on four wheels, albeit with tyres that bend if necessary. It would change its colour at the touch of a button. It would be specially coated so that it would never need to be cleaned. And of course it would drive itself.

Although all of this sounds good, or even too good to be true, there are also ethical and legal issues regarding most future innovations. Some may be resolved by applying existing legal principles. Some will require us to rethink what civil and criminal liability means in a world in which machines make decisions on our behalf.

To get a taste for the ethical dilemmas we will need to resolve, you only have to visit the Moral Machine website at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

The Moral Machine asks the audience to put themselves into the position of a driverless car in situations where the car will unavoidably kill some people or animals. It is the player’s role to determine who gets killed: Younger or older people, men or women, fit people or large people, doctors or gangsters.

I have played the Moral Machine game. My clearest preference was for saving people who obeyed traffic signs, followed by a preference for killing animals rather than human beings. Which probably means that I must be a rule-obsessed German with a law degree.

Now think of the implications for actual driverless cars. It would make a massive difference to have them programmed by an animal rights activist compared to someone like me. Yet we will need to have some rules and guidelines for these cars, and ideally before the first accident occurs.

As for myself, my dream car would be very different from Peter Cochrane’s. I just enjoy driving too much.

Pragmatism not idealism
Dr Rachel Webb | Research Fellow |
A motto I live by is to hope for the best but expect the worst.

As such, I was disappointed but not surprised to hear immigration minister Michael Woodhouse announce this week that the government is getting tougher on immigration policy.

If there is one thing to call this, it is pragmatic. Deserved or not, immigration has been the subject of a lot of belly-aching recently. Being seen to address popular concerns without resorting to drastic change is smart politics.

But are they smart changes?

As far as tinkering to placate voters goes, it could have been worse. There is little evidence that immigration is actually causing problems. Yet, immigration is often first to get blamed and voters are demanding action. 

Fiddling with the approval target might nip these concerns in the bud before the discussion gets any uglier. As discussions on immigration often do.  

Admittedly, there was nothing magic about the targets as they were. For most of the time the target was at this level, Kiwis were leaving in droves. We needed to bring people in to replace those we were losing.

But now, the beggar has turned chooser. While the rest of the world is getting uglier, New Zealand is looking much more attractive. Kiwis are not leaving as they used to, ex-pats are returning, and migrants are staying here longer. Now that we are popular, many people are calling for more selectivity over who gets to join the party.

Raising the points threshold on the skilled migrant category is an easy target. There has been a lot of criticism over the types of skilled workers being admitted under this category. 

Suspending the parent visa and tightening up the family category is also politically savvy. The migrants admitted under these categories generally contribute the least to the economy but do present a fiscal burden. 

Some businesses will now have more difficulty finding the workers they need. But it is unlikely that there will be major economic effects either negative or positive. 

The biggest loss will be to the 5000 or so migrants who will no longer have the good fortune to make New Zealand their home. My optimistic side was hopeful the government would keep these people in mind, my pessimist side is relieved that the changes were not more drastic. 

Safety cheese
Dr Eric Crampton | Head of Research |
Thomas Hobbes told us the State is necessary to protect us. The war of all against all that would ensue without a State to protect us from each other would be worse than even a terrible despot. 

New Zealand’s Hobbeseans can this week thank the State for protecting us from artisanal cheese. 

Biddy Fraser-Davies’ ongoing fight with the Ministry for Primary Industry again bubbled up into the media spotlight. She makes award-winning small-batch raw-milk cheeses in Eketahuna. Radio New Zealand reports that, last year, at least half of the $40,000 her four cows’ cheese earned went to cover the State’s regulatory fees. 

She says, “It works out that the raw cheese testing cost for me is $260 per kilo, which doesn’t include the ancillary costs of actually making the cheese.”

I was surprised that MPI still hounds Biddy. The 2014 Food Act was supposed to scale regulatory burdens to the risk imposed, but that doesn’t seem to have affected cheeses under the Animal Products Act. Biddy has to submit samples for expensive testing from ten consecutive tiny batches. She has four cows. 

There’s an old joke about farming under different political systems. Under communism, you have two cows that you have to take care of, and the government takes all of the milk. Meanwhile, under capitalism, if you have two cows, you sell one to buy a bull. 

Well, artificial insemination means you don’t really need the bull any more. But it looks like under New Zealand Nanny Statism, if you have four cows, you have to milk two of them to cover the regulatory compliance costs for the other two. And that’s its own load of bull. 

Worse, New Zealand raw milk cheeses are reported to be held to a higher standard than European ones sold in New Zealand. 

But just think how much worse it would be without the State to protect us here. Under the terrible, terrible ravages of voluntary interaction, makers of very safe large-batch cheeses would be able to put certification stickers on their cheeses advertising that fact. Makers of small batch cheeses could put labels on theirs saying that small-scale artisanal products are riskier than big commercial products, but sure are tasty. And consumers could weigh up the risks and make their choices. 

I wonder if Hobbes adequately considered the tyranny of those who would protect and torment us for our own good.

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