Monday, 19 August 2013

Ratings warning

I've done a fair bit of NZ cheerleading. Sadly, I have to warn of a potential downgrade of New Zealand immigration from a "buy" to a "hold".

Jason Sorens has moved, at reasonable personal cost, to New Hampshire, in pursuit of the free life and in support of the Free State project.
I also understand why libertarians who are promoting the cause in their own careers would see a career change and a move to New Hampshire as a step back. But most of what I have done as an academic does not promote liberty directly, and I have come to question seriously the “trickle-down” model of social change widely adopted by libertarian organizations. The idea, following Hayek’s essay, “Socialism and the Intellectuals,” is that creating new academic research showing the benefits of liberty will filter down through journalists and other “secondhand dealers in ideas” to the general public, eventually resulting in a freer society. But academic economics has long leaned free-market, and journalists don’t seem to understand the key insights of that discipline. If anything, the general public’s views are worsening in key respects. People under 30 are more likely to favor socialism than capitalism. The enterprise of educating the public via secondhand dealers in ideas seems doomed on a national scale, but it could work on a small scale.
Eric Crampton says libertarians should move to New Zealand. If only we were all lucky enough to have employers willing to sponsor our emigration there! They won’t just let you move without a job, after all. In my view, New Zealand and Switzerland are the only places in the world with a long-term better prospect for liberty than the United States, and I understand why some libertarians might move to those places. But they aren’t realistic options for most of us.
I fully agree with Eric that libertarians need to put their money (and bodies) where their mouths are. If they view liberty as important, either as a means to the ends that one enjoys personally or as a moral imperative for society, then it should be valuable enough to move for. Is enjoying significantly greater liberty worth a smaller car, a smaller house, a less fancy phone, slightly slower Internet, no cable TV, Chinese rather than Swedish or American furniture, making dinners at home rather than going out, or all of the above? If you think that gross injustice exists, don’t you have a duty to do something that plausibly could stop it? American society falls far short in protecting the rights and dignity of all its members. We have a real opportunity to change that situation in one place, and we are changing it.
Alas, things here have gone downhill a bit since 2011. I haven't started appending #Emigrate hashtags to NZ news tweets because it sure isn't obvious where one could go. But the reasons for coming here aren't as strong as they were.

On lots of margins, New Zealand remains excellent. Most of what I'd written on the merits of moving to New Zealand continues to apply. On a fair few margins, we remain the Outside of the Asylum. Other great stuff: New Zealand has moved from a prohibition regime for new party drugs towards a regulatory regime allowing the sale to adults of products that pass a safety check. Alas, we've not followed Washington State and Colorado.

Factors affecting today's ratings warning? Most substantially, the GCSB / TICS legislation. At the same time as pressure is growing within the United States to make their internet spy agency, the NSA, a little less spooky, New Zealand's giving new powers to its spy agency, the GCSB.

Where we'd had a market opportunity to be the "Outside the Asylum" destination for American tech entrepreneurs looking to establish cloud services in which customers could have some expectation of privacy, we instead seem to be determined to be every bit as bad as America. I'd worried about this back in May; Ian Apperley's since tried putting some numbers on the cost. Susan Chalmers from InternetNZ has similar worries. I haven't fisked Apperly's figures, which seem predicated on a reasonably optimistic view of the New Zealand counterfactual. I'm not even sure we really can quantify things: there was some possibility that we could have drawn in substantial American tech investment, but I couldn't possibly tell you what that probability was. But imagine you had a lotto ticket that only paid out if you got all 7 numbers right. Five of the numbers have just come up in your favour. Do you tear up the ticket before finding out what the last two numbers are? Entries on Slashdot and Boing Boing about how we're turning GCSB into a low-rent client of the NSA are a great way of ripping up that lotto ticket.

And think that New Zealand would be above the petty thuggery that the UK today imposed on Glenn Greenwald's partner? We can hope so, but there were a couple of worrying stories last year about hassles for people thought to be Kim DotCom's friends.

There are also a few longer standing issues that have contributed to today's ratings warning.

  • New Zealand's version of civil asset forfeiture kicks back seized funds to drug enforcement. We're certainly not as bad as the US on this one, and there's strong likelihood that the policy gets fixed before really bad stuff happens. But downside risks are substantial. 
  • Our revised censorship legislation is fully "Inside the Asylum" stuff. See here and here. Justice Minister Judith Collins says it's all about the kiddie porn, but the definition of "objectionable materials" includes marijuana growing guides and a bunch of pornographic materials involving homosexuality that were deemed objectionable in the 70s and continue to be banned. A pile of comic books are banned. An online vendor, Fishpond, copped $4,200 in fines for distributing a couple of movies that are widely available in the United States. Our whole film classification regime is nuts. You have to pay $1000 to get a ruling from the film classification office on whether a movie meets the NZ guidelines. This kills legal distribution of long-tail films here. At the same time, failing to get a film classified can risk your getting years in jail if the Censor's Office then deems it objectionable
  • The Christchurch earthquake was February 2011. Since then, the rebuild has been substantially hindered by regime and regulatory uncertainty caused by the government - both local and national, and the various acronyms now running the place. More worrying, very substantial problems both in the earthquake insurance scheme and in the regulatory regime around unsafe buildings have yet to be resolved for future earthquakes. This contributes to a ratings downgrade because, if you move to a part of New Zealand likely to be hit by substantial quakes while you're here, there are pretty substantial, foreseeable, preventable things that are going to happen despite their being substantial, foreseeable, and preventable:

If the GCSB and TICS legislation pass without substantial amendment, I'm moving New Zealand from a "buy" to a "hold". If worries about surveillance state issues weigh heavily in your utility function, and you're considering emigration from America because of it, parts of Europe are in much better shape than we are. Most importantly for those who consider the NSA mess to be a reason for leaving the US, it now looks like, whatever America does on surveillance, New Zealand will basically follow along. Maybe with fewer resources, maybe a bit less enthusiastically. But if you think that surveillance in America will get worse before it gets better, you should expect New Zealand to follow in lock-step.

But on plenty of margins we remain much more free than the United States. Our airports remain exceptionally sane: I can show up at the airport 20 minute before a domestic flight and, so long as I'm not checking luggage, just walk on up to the gate and board. Home brewing and distillation are legal. Prostitution is legal. Same-sex civil unions have been legal for years and the first full same-sex marriages were celebrated today.

And, even with the new GCSB legislation, I doubt we'll be worse on surveillance than America. We'll just all have to be far more diligent about secure computing.


  1. Even in the absence of a government spy organisation in NZ, it's questionable how much we could escape US internet surveillance. Our connections to the global internet are through cables that terminate in Australia and the USA, so our traffic can be intercepted at either end. Even if you encrypt all traffic then the NSA can still obtain metadata such as IP addresses and traffic volume, which can tell them rather a lot about you.

    Of course this should be no reason to accept the GSCB/TICS legislation. If an organisation has been proven to be incompetent then giving it more power and responsibility hardly seems like a good idea.

  2. All true. But:
    1. A strong-privacy NZ could allow a service that would mask the particular NZ-source IP address so all the US would know is "Somebody in NZ wants X". Thought TICS made strong privacy services based in NZ a bit tough.
    2. Being spied on by your own government is scarier than being spied on by an allied government, which is scarier than being spied on by some other government. Suppose that China had your full web history. What could they do with it? Maybe a bit of blackmail. America could lean on NZ to do stuff to you if you became interesting to them, but there's always the risk they could just get somebody's back up and face exposure. But having your own government do it... the ones who can send the cops over... more worrying.

  3. I think the Kim Dotcom issue proved that the US can send NZ cops over to your house if they want.