Big business

I’ve been following the views of Tyler Cowen for almost 30 years now, since he spent some time in New Zealand doing a review for the Business Roundtable of the (then) new Reserve Bank of New Zealand Act.    These days he is a prolific and prominent writer –  columnist and blogger –  and a professor of economics at George Mason University, all supported by (apparently) voracious reading.   There is almost always something stimulating and fresh in what he has to say.

But he doesn’t always get it right.  Back in the very early days of the Trump presidency, he ran a column on parallels between Donald Trump and our own Sir Robert Muldoon. I begged to differ, and mostly I reckon my argument looks stronger now than it did in early 2017.

A few days ago he had a column in the Washington Post (extracts here) drawn from his recent book “Big Business: A love Letter to an American Anti-Hero”.  In his column he argues that (so-called) progressives in the United States should embrace big business and see it as an ally in the causes they champion.   On some of the specific issues he lists, there is probably something to what he says (and I’m with him in pushing back against the Elizabeth Warren approach to capitalism and business), but as a general proposition (which is what he makes it out to be) what he claims –  that companies are a source of social and political good, going beyond merely the production they facilitate – is at very least arguable.

Thus, we are told that various large US companies “offered health care and other legal benefits for same-sex partners well before the Supreme Court legalized gap marriage”, and that these moves “put a mainstream stamp of approval on the notion of same-sex marriage itself”.   Some will have regarded all that as a good thing – certainly (which is Cowen’s specific point) the so-called progressives will have.   And in that case, one person’s additional remuneration doesn’t directly impinge on anyone else’s.

One could take the argument further.  There are papers around illustrating the way in which companies operating buses or street cars in the segregated American South championed the cause of bus desegregation.  That wasn’t because the owners were necessarily any more “enlightened” than the rest of the white populace, but because having segregated facilities cost them money.  Desegregation was cheaper and more profitable.

More generally, one of the arguments against the idea that there is some sort of meaningful gender pay gap, arising out of discriminatory practices, is that economic incentives are pretty powerful and should contribute to eliminating any such substantial differences –  if equally productive female workers can be had more cheaply than male ones, there are expected returns on offer to firms that focus on recruiting those women.  In the process, wages for women are bid up and, over time, any excess returns are eliminated.   In apartheid South Africa, it was the white unions not the mining companies that had a compelling interest in preventing the employment of blacks in skilled or supervisory positions.

So a competitive market economy probably is quite good at taking out any differences in remuneration based on employee characteristics that are irrelevant to the production process itself (the relentless tendency towards wage=marginal product), and it is also good at chipping away at regulatory and other barriers that impede the ability of shareholders to maximise risk-adjusted returns.    Street-car segregation might be a positive example of the latter, but it isn’t hard to think of less-positive examples (and as someone who favours low taxes on business and light-handed regulation of the financial system I’m not even going to those “progressive” favourites).  One could think of all manner of corporate welfare programmes that many firms fall over themselves to champion and defend (and which anyone who rejects using them can find themselves pushed beyond the margins of profitability), or incentives around environmental regulation, or financial system bailouts, firms that attempt to portray their corporate interest as the same as the national interest (eg those championing tariffs), or whatever.

And we could revert to Tyler Cowen’s example around attitudes to homosexuality.  He argues

The larger the business, the more tolerant the institution is likely to be of employee and customer personal preferences. A local baker might refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple [celebration of a their “wedding”]  for religious reasons, but Sara Lee, which tries to build very broadly based national markets for its products, is keen on selling cakes to everyone. The bigger companies need to protect their broader reputations and recruit large numbers of talented workers, including from minority groups. They can’t survive and grow just by cultivating a few narrow networks as either their workers or customers.

And yet it is Rugby Australia, pressured by large corporate sponsors, which is attempting to sack Israel Folau for quoting the Bible on his own social media accounts on matters quite unrelated to the production of rugby services.  The idea that large firms are generally tolerant of employee preferences and views seems hard to credit these days –  perhaps, on average, they are individually more tolerant of some differences than individual small firms, but individual small firms have much less market power (more places for employees to choose to work).

What is probably true is that big corporates don’t care who they sell to (there is a dollar in it) but are –  and perhaps always were, but on different issues –  quite intolerant of employees with a mind, or conscience, of their own.  The Colorado baker managed to get the backing of the Supreme Court for not being willing to bake a cake explicitly for the celebration of a gay “wedding”, but if an employee of a major chain had attempted to exercise the same freedom of conscience, most likely they’d have been out of a job.   Again in the US context, Brendan Eich was forced out as CEO of Mozilla for having made a modest donation to a campaign against legalising same-sex “marriage”.    In the last few weeks, a major tech company sent out a message to all staff, apparently cautioning that if staff weren’t totally onside with the corporation’s “diversity and inclusion” programme, it could affect their pay or even their future employment.

Now, in many respects those examples go to Cowen’s point: much of US big business is very much of the same ideological hue as the political “progressives”, at least when it comes to social issues.

But here again there is another side to the issue.   When Wilberforce was leading the fight to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire in the early 19th century, it wasn’t big business interests that were right behind him –  indeed, when slavery itself was finally abolished, it was only possible with large compensation payouts to those who had enriched themselves on maintaining in slavery their fellow human beings.

Or nearer to our time, take attitudes to the People’s Republic of China and the way that evil regime represses its own people (generally) and systematically persecutes various minorities (Muslims in Xinjiang, Falun Gong, Christians, human rights lawyers and so on).  It is business interests that quake at the very thoughts that political “leaders” in countries like our own might even speak up and speak out against such evil, business interests that sully themselves (but presumably don’t see it that way) by continuing to trade with the regime.  Fund managers continue to buy shares in Hikvision and similar companies.  And none of this is new –  foreign companies operating in apartheid South Africa might have wanted to be able to use labour more efficiently, but they had no interest in upsetting the regime; various US companies remained actively involved in Nazi Germany right up to December 1941, and few German companies displayed any great moral courage or leadership either.

This isn’t intended as an anti-corporate or anti-business post.  Private businesses are the form through which much or most of the staggering material wealth we enjoy today is realised.   But businesses are owned, staffed, and run by human beings, and are unlikely to be consistently any better than those human beings.   If anything, and around the limits and taboos that societies might seek to establish and maintain, they will often be worse –  even as they remain very narrowly efficient in marshalling inputs and generating outputs.  Why?  Because of the impersonality of the (widely-held) corporate form and the impersonality of the pressures on them. Widely-held firms are prone to pressure from the mob – on issues that mob has focused on in that particular moment – and, on the other hand, people near the top of a firm can detach from any strong personal ethical sense –  having perhaps a lot to lose individually –  under the guise of excuses like “everyone else is doing it”, or “fiduciary responsibilities”, or a focus on the share price.  Widely-held firms have no particular interest in any values or interests that don’t work to lift the firm’s own bottom line (thus no particular commitment to democracy, or transparency, or whatever, or about the character of those with whom they trade, so long as they honour contracts).   That can have positive elements to it –  the firm just gets on and uses resources efficiently – but stops doing so when firms themselves become political players.  We don’t let firms vote, but we do allow them to donate to political parties, and (more importantly) we give their bosses and boards access and influence in the corridors of power, in ways that aren’t always aligned that well at all with the values and interests of citizens.

So count me sceptical of paeans to big business.  We probably need to be almost as sceptical of them in many circumstances as we should be of big government.

 

 

 

Lawless Police

One shakes one’s head in wonderment that multiple guns could be stolen from a city police station in broad daylight (and chuckles at the suggestion I saw that perhaps Police could be prosecuted for failing to store firearms safely).  It isn’t, I guess, the direct responsibility of the government, but somehow it seems symptomatic of just how badly off course the government’s so-called “year of delivery”, transformational change etc, is.   The public sector can’t even get the basics right, even as the bosses parade around (in the Police case), advancing trendy political and social causes, asserting the right to carry firearms in all circumstances, and (wildly inappropriately for a supposedly neutral public servant) offering public adoration and praise of the Prime Minister.  How anyone can still have confidence in the New Zealand Police is a bit beyond me.

This is the same organisation which appears to simply choose to ignore the law when it suits.   Let me illustrate.

In mid-March, a reader drew my attention to an article in a Police magazine, gushing over the appointment of an Assistant Commissioner (formerly the police person in our embassy in Beijing) as a visiting lecturer

at the People’s Public Security University of China – the first foreigner to hold such a role.

The university is where China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) trains the elite of China’s police. …..

I wrote a post expressing astonishment that Police could think this was in any way appropriate, given the (official) PRC disregard for the rule of law, and the active part played by Ministry of Public Security in (for example) the large-scale repression and persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang (or any of the other systematic repressions the PRC prides itself on).  Political loyalty to the CCP will be a key consideration in recruitment, and in helping the Ministry, New Zealand Police buttress the agencies of a regime responsible for so much evil.  Mr McCardle though seemed quite chuffed at his appointment.

He says the university appointment is an endorsement of the healthy state of the New Zealand-China bilateral relationship, and “underscores the idea that New Zealand has values and ideas worth considering in the Chinese context”.

It also aligns with the aims and values of the New Zealand-China Friendship Society and the pioneering work of New Zealander Rewi Alley who fostered a life-long friendship with China from the 1930s.

As I noted

And what about that weird stuff in the final paragraph of the quoted excerpt?  The New Zealand-China Friendship Society has been around for decades and long-served as a Beijing front organisation in New Zealand, right through the horrors of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and on to their total silence today about repression in Xinjiang.    And Rewi Alley?   Well, he lived a fairly comfortable life in Beijing after the CCP took over, navigating this way through the thickets of changing CCP politics, reaching new lows when he published a jointly-authored book near the end of the Cultural Revolution defending the regime at its worst.  What possesses our Police to think these are “aims and values” to champion?   Why not, for example, the aims and values of the Tiananmen protestors, the Falun Gong movement, or the (underground) Catholic church?  But that wouldn’t fit the narrative I guess, of prostrating the New Zealand system before Beijing.

I wondered what thought, or analysis, went into the decision to accept this appointment, including whether relevant ministers had been aware in advance (and thus complicit).

And so I lodged a couple of Official Information Act requests, one with Police, and one with MFAT.    The request to Police asked

Please provide me with copies of all information relating to the appointment of Hamish McCardle as a Visiting Professor in the People’s Republic of China (as described in [the article])  Without limitation, this request includes any consultation with or advice to other government agencies, or government ministers (or their offices).

I had a response from MFAT fairly promptly, within 10 days or so of lodging the request.  MFAT noted that they were aware of my separate request to Police and responded that

MFAT 1That was useful information in its own right: presumably there had been no internal discussion at MFAT, and no briefing to, or consultation with, the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

And what of Police?  I had an automated acknowledgement of my request, and the MFAT response confirms Police were aware of the request.   Under the Official Information Act, agencies are required to respond as soon as reasonably practicable, but within no more than 20 working days.     That deadline has now long since passed and I have heard nothing at all from Police.

Given the other stuff going on after 15 March, I wouldn’t really have been surprised if Police had got in touch to explain that they needed an extension of time.  In the circumstances, I wouldn’t have been particularly bothered.   Agencies do it all the time, in much less compelling circumstances.  But I’ve heard nothing at all from the Police.  Earlier this week I even got in touch and pointed out that I had heard nothing, in case a reply had simply fallen through the cracks. I noted that if I had heard nothing by the end of the week I would be lodging a complaint with the Ombudsman.    As I now will be.

You might have hoped that Police would more scrupulous than any agency in ensuring that they, and their staff, complied with the law, letter and spirit.    But perhaps they’ve been imbibing some of the lawless values of the People’s Republic of China, whose repressive apparatus their Assistant Commissioner is now helping out, and with which they associate the once-honourable name of the New Zealand Police.  Opportunism not honour, just doing whatever they choose and think they can get away with, now seems to be the order of the day in the Bush-led New Zealand Police.

Police should start complying with the law, and releasing the relevant material under the Official Information Act.  Beyond that, they should rethink this appointment, and ministers should insist that McCardle withdraw from the appointment.  But, of course, there is no hope of the latter, as our government (and Opposition) fall over themselves to show who can do more to defer to the interests and preferences of the PRC.  And that, of course, is why the foreign interference inquiry Parliament’s Justice Committee is undertaking (submissions closed last night) has very little credibility: like foxes taking responsibility for investigating security on the hen house.

UPDATE: The PRC approach to policing and the rule of law –  the disappearance into custody, without charge or trial, of the (PRC) head of Interpol (as reported in a substantial article today in the Wall St Journal).  The sort of thing our Commissioner and Minister of Police are happy to associate with?

 

Polling marijuana

There was an interesting new poll out the other day on public attitudes to marijuana and the possibility of law reform (on which there is to be a referendum at the time of next year’s election).  The results certainly took me by surprise.

For the record, I don’t have very strong views on the law around marijuana.  A couple of years ago I’d got to the point where I’d probably have voted for full liberalisation, but since then I’ve swung back somewhat in the other direction (influenced in part by reviews of and extracts from this recent book, a copy of which I’m expecting in the mail any day now).  In an up/down vote today I’d probably vote against full liberalisation, but as to how I will actually vote next year, a lot might depend on the specific question.  One thing I really don’t like is a law on the books that isn’t generally enforced, but which leaves our untrustworthy Police free to use it when it suits them.

But I’d been under the impression that New Zealand public opinion was pretty favourable to substantial liberalisation of “recreational” use of marijuana.  So I wasn’t expecting this result.    Asked “which of the following statements comes closest to your opinion on cannabis?”, responses were as follows

mar 1

The margins of error get quite large quite quickly once the results are broken down, but young people are probably more favourable to liberalisation than old people, poor people probably more favourable than better-off people, and National voters much less favourable than Green voters (but only 53 per cent of the latter favoured liberalisation of recreational use, as posed this way).

The poll was commissioned by Family First who have been opposed to liberalisation of recreational use.  In itself, that doesn’t invalidate the results (probably almost anyone likely to be polling in this area in New Zealand is likely to be motivated in one direction or the other) but it is worth thinking about whether the questions posed are especially likely to skew the answers one way or the other.

One problem is this area is the array of possible options.  As someone without an intense interest in the topic, I struggle to remember the difference between, say, decriminalisation and legalisation, and as Family First notes the poll deliberately didn’t focus on either of those more-technical terms, asking instead about “lifting restrictions”.  In principle, you can lift restrictions partially or fully, and when I first looked at the question my immedate reaction was that it encompassed both. But perhaps many of the interviewees took “lifting restrictions” as removing all restrictions and penalties?  If so, that might help explain why support for recreational liberalisation appears so low.

Perhaps there is also an issue with posing both the medicinal and recreational options in the same question.   While lifting (in part or in full) restrictions on recreational use would seem to encompass freeing up medicinal use, it doesn’t actually say that.  Perhaps some people who care quite a bit –  or want to go on record as caring quite a bit –  about medicinal use plumped for that option, even if they actually favoured recreational use liberalisation, to ensure a resounding explicit vote on medicinal.  Presumably that won’t be the way next year’s referendum will be framed?

Some of the other results in the poll were also interesting.  There were six questions, and the questions on policy preferences is the last of them.  The preceding questions might, in principle, (been framed to?) influence how people answered the final question.

The first question was

mar 2

I’d have answered “increase” too, and I don’t think that result should be too surprising.  Reduce the effective price and, all else equal, consumption is likely to rise.  Note that the question is framed around “reducing” restrictions on use of cannabis, not about more specific choices, and that seems fine.

The second question was more puzzling

mar 3

I don’t know (and probably would have said so), but it would probably be rational for them to do so (the possibility of a new substance to market, and perhaps undermining restrictions on tobacco).  But one might wonder why the question was asked?  To prompt people to associate liberalisation with “big tobacco”?

What about question 3?

mar 4

This seems to be a pretty widespread concern (among serious opponents of liberalisation) so not an unreasonable question.  But note the “can” –  which is a possibility, and thus more likely to get a positive response than, say, a “does”.  Even 95 per cent of Greens voters –  people who end up favouring recreational liberalisation –  ended up saying “yes” to this one.

And then question 4

mar 5 Again, it is an argument you see around (including reviewing the experiences of US states that have liberalised), and actually the question doesn’t seem posed unfairly (both “more likely” and “less likely” are explicitly mentioned), and there is an overwhelming vote for “more likely”.    Of course, there might be a selection issue at work: respondents might think people likely to take marijuana were also already younger and less responsible (more risk-taking perhaps) so they might not be directly asserting causation.

Perhaps the same issue arises with question 5.

mar 6

Even 46 per cent of Green voters said “less likely” to this one, but again it isn’t quite clear what will have been going in behind the responses.  Some people will have been thinking ‘well, many firms have drug tests, and if you take drugs you will fail those tests and not get a job”.     Others will have been reflecting views on the potential work ethic of those who might take jobs.   Others again will have been worried about the potential mental illness effects (see earlier questions).

I don’t have too much of a problem with asking any of the questions that led up to question 6 (views on liberalisation itself).  After all, when the referendum comes people won’t be voting in a vacuum but will face a plethora of arguments, evidence, and pseudo-evidence on both sides.   Of course, if one wanted totally disinterested poll results –  wouldn’t that be great –  one might have wanted some other questions interspersed reflecting some of the arguments of those who favour liberalisation.  Perhaps “do you think people should be free to choose what they inject or inhale, without state restrictions?” or “even if you personally would never consider taking marijuana, do you believe Police should have discretionary power, often not exercised, to prosecute those who do?”, or “do you think current marijuana law encourages or discourages criminal gangs” or the like.

In the end, I’m not sure quite what to make of the results.    No doubt, the questions could be asked, and framed, in ways that produced higher numbers in favour of reduced restrictions on recreational use, and I doubt that –  in any real sense – only 18 per cent of New Zealanders favour some liberalisation of recreational use.  But I’m still left a bit surprised that, even on the questions asked on this poll, the support numbers weren’t higher.

Perhaps the result of next year’s referendum really will depend a lot on the specific question asked.  It would be good if, before long, the government were to give us some specifics on that, and on the whole associated regulatory or tax regime they are proposing.

 

 

Housing policy failures bear heavily on the poor

Last week a reader sent me the right hand part of this set of charts

aus housing 1

The data are for Australia, but it is hard to believe that, if we had up-to-date census data, the pictures now would be much different for New Zealand.

I’ve seen charts like the left hand one for New Zealand, but what I found sobering –  and frankly scandalous –  were the results for lowest and second lowest quintiles in the right hand chart.

A decent society has to be judged, in considerable part, by how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable among us.    People can run all the clever lines they like about how many of the people in those bottom quintiles have things now that comparable people in 1981 didn’t have.  But it is doesn’t excuse the entirely manmade disaster of the housing markets in New Zealand and Australia (and various other places).

In 1981, when our societies as whole were substantially materially poorer than they are now, (Australia’s real GDP per capita was about 80 per cent higher in 2016 than in 1981), young people at the lower end of the income distribution was just as likely to own their own home as those at the upper end of the income distribution.  But now people at the bottom are less than half as likely to own their own place.  In a well-functioning market that simply wouldn’t have happened. But we –  and Australia –  having housing and urban land markets rigged by central and local government politicians and their officials, and the people at the bottom are the ones who how most severely and adversely affected.

Sometimes people will try to tell you that preferences have changed, such that young(ish) people no longer want to own their own place to the same extent.    But look at how little the home ownership rates for the upper quintiles have changed.  That alone suggests that people are being forced to adjust to new affordability constraints, not that a whole generation of young people – given the opportunity –  no longer prefer to own their own place.

The chart is taken from a pretty substantial report by the Grattan Institute, a centre-left think-tank in Australia.   Flicking through some of the report, I found a couple of other charts.

One of the ways of adjusting to new, artificial, affordability constraints is simply to stay living at home for longer.

aus housing 2

Another is to get financial support from family.

aus housing 3

Back when real incomes were half what they are now (1970s), most people (in all quintiles) buying a first house by the time they were 34.  Now only about 35 per cent of lower income people are buying a first house by the time they are 44, and a much increased share of the (reduced percentage) buying a first home at all are needing financial help from family (presumably mostly) to do so.

There is simply no need for any of this –  the more so in a decade in which interest rates (and thus mortgage servicing costs) are lower than they been for generations.  It is what our governments have done to us, most notably to the poor among us.   It is shameful.

There are no excuses.  One day, those responsible (from both sides of politics) will face the judgement of history for their active complicitly, or quiet indifference.

And no, a capital gains tax would have made no material difference to any of these outcomes –  these are, recall, Australia data, and Australia had no CGT in 1981 but does now.  But perhaps some of the passion that fired those now so upset with the Prime Minister did reflect a sense of the failure of leadership in addressing this fundamental, longrunning, failure of policy around housing and urban land.  There is a real opportunity for the Prime Minister –  or for the Opposition –  to take a decisive policy lead, and actually make a change for the good, for the poor in particular.

(Not) reforming the calendar

A few weeks ago I was pottering in a local secondhand book shop and stumbled on Time Counts: The Story of the Calendar published in 1954 and written by British journalist Harold Watkins.   There was quite a bit of interesting history in the book –  including around the belated British adoption of the Gregorian calendar – but the main purpose of the book was to champion the then-rising cause of calendar reform.   The foreword was by Lord Merthyr, chairman of the British section of something called the World Calendar Association.

I’d never even known there was such a movement, which wasn’t just a marginal group of nutters and obsessives.   Their cause had been taken up by the League of Nations in the inter-war period, and at the United Nations in the late 1940s and early 1950s.    Numerous governments weighed in, mostly either supporting or somewhat indifferent to, the cause of calendar reform (in New Zealand’s case, the Labour government of the late 1940s had declared in favour).   At the time The Story of the Calender was published, it seemed as if there was a real prospect of reform.  But it didn’t happen.

It is hard to get inside the thinking of serious people who championed reform in a cause which has since died away almost completely.  Granting that the Gregorian calendar is an approximation (think leap years, and the adjustments at ends of centuries and of every four hundred years, and it is still an approximation) quite what was the practical concern?    What seemed to bother the advocates of reform was things like the irregular number of days in each quarter, the fact that any particular date falls on a different day of the week in successive years (you can’t immediately know that the 15th of July is, say, a Wednesday) and –  of course (and I’ll come back to this topic) – the moveable feast of Easter.  Oh, and you need a new calendar every year.

The first two of these simply don’t seem very burdensome at all.  But I guess that a key difference between now and 1954 is that we live in the age of ubiquitous computing power (smart phones in almost every pocket or hand-bag).  If, for some reason, I’m signing a contract maturing on 15 July 2099 –  and I wish to avoid weekends – it takes me perhaps five seconds to find that that will be a Wednesday.    If I’m analysing sales or production, seasonal adjustment procedures with trading day adjustments are relatively readily available, and so on.  And, on the other hand, there is something nice about not having one’s birthday celebration fall on, say, a Monday every year of one’s life.  And I rather like the fact that Christmas isn’t always on the same day of the week –  perhaps it is just what one is used to –  even if does mean that every year newspaper stories comparing retail volumes in the days leading up to Christmas are less valid than the publishers like to think because precise retail patterns depend to some extent on how close Christmas Day falls to the preceeding weekend.

Anyway, the reformers thought all these were significant issues worth addressing, and they managed to persuade a fair number of the governments of the world (from east and west, Christian origins and not) to go along.  There were, we are told, a bunch of different reform options, but support was greatest for the so-called World Calendar.    Here is a summary of what they were championing

The World Calendar is a 12-month, perennial calendar with equal quarters.

Each quarter begins on Sunday and ends on Saturday. The quarters are equal: each has exactly 91 days, 13 weeks or 3 months. The three months have 31, 30, 30 days respectively. Each quarter begins with the 31-day months of January, April, July, or October.

The World Calendar also has the following two additional days to maintain the same new year days as the Gregorian calendar.

Worldsday
The last day of the year following Saturday 30 December. This additional day is dated “W” and named Worldsday, a year-end world holiday. It is followed by Sunday, 1 January in the new year.
Leapyear Day
This day is similarly added at the end of the second quarter in leap years. It is also dated “W” and named Leapyear Day. It is followed by Sunday, 1 July within the same year.

The World Calendar treats Worldsday and Leapyear Day as a 24-hour waiting period before resuming the calendar again. These off-calendar days, also known as “intercalary days”, are not assigned weekday designations. They are intended to be treated as holidays.

And so each time 1 January would be a Sunday a few years hence, the reformers pursued their cause with renewed energy.    At the time this book was published, the next such occasion was 1 January 1956.  The transition to the new system would be most seamless if the world moved to the new system on a 1 January that was a Sunday.

It would be fascinating if someone were to write a proper scholarly history of this movement (I can’t find much when I looked), but it seems that all the enthusiasm finally came to naught because of religious objections –  religions, notably Christianity and Judaism – that worship on a seven day cycle.  Each regular week would still only have seven days, but around two additional days, weeks would have eight days.  Gathering to worship on the following (in the Christian case) day labelled “Sunday” would no longer be seven days since the last gathering (or the day of worship – and rest –  would drift off the official weekends).

I presume this was one of those issues on which zealots on both sides cared greatly, and few other people cared very much at all, which left the status quo in place by default.  The US Congress appears to have been responsible for the effective block on any action, when the US recommended in 1955 that the United Nations take the matter no further.   The Wikipedia entry on the World Calendar proposal records this statement from then-Congressman (later President) Gerald Ford.

“… I have received numerous letters in opposition to the proposed world calendar change. I am in complete agreement with the opinions expressed in these letters and I will oppose any calendar change. The Department of State advises me that the United Nations may set up a study group on calendar reform. Secretary John Foster Dulles and our representatives at the U. N. are not in favor of this action and the United States will officially oppose setting up this U.N. study group on calendar reform. I have also been informed that our State Department will hold to that position until there is Congressional authorization for the calendar study. From my observations it seems that Congress is in no mood to tamper with the calendar.”

And that, it seems, was pretty much that.  Apparently there is still a World Calendar Association, but it appears to be almost as unknown as its cause.

But what of the moveable feast of Easter (and associated days such as Ash Wednesday and Ascension, also public holidays in some countries)?   The Christian festival, and associated holidays, move around from year to year in a way that no ordinary person can really fathom, and we all simply have to look up the dates.  Some years Easter marks the end of the school term, others not.  Some years it falls in March and others in April and seasonal adjustment never quite captures all the effects.   And of course even with the wider Christian church (and Christian-shaped countries) there are competing dates for Easter –  the Orthodox churches mostly observe Easter next weekend.

Frankly, there probably is a case for a different model, at least if the (interested bits of the) world could snap their collective fingers and be with that model rather than the current one.  There would be some symbolic advantages for churches –  across the world celebrating Easter, the greatest festival of our faith, on the same day –  and some convenience for the rest of society, residually Christian or totally indifferent/opposed.

I had learned a few years ago that there was a strong movement back in the 1920s and 1930s to standardise the date of Easter.  But until I read Time Counts I was not aware that there is a law on the UK statute books, passed in 1928, to standardise the date of Easter Day to the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April (roughly the middle of the period in which Easter can now fall).  The law (a private member’s bill, following on from a League of Nations report) received the royal assent and sits on the books today (you can read it for yourself –  it is a very short law).  The change would have applied in the UK and its colonies and mandated territories, but not (of course –  but it is explicitly spelled out in a schedule to the Act) in the dominions (New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, Ireland, South Africa) or in India or Southern Rhodesia.

The law sits on the statute books today but the (UK) date of Easter didn’t change, because the operative provision required another vote of Parliament, which never occurred.

This Act shall commence and come into operation on such date as may be fixed by Order of His extent. Majesty in Council, provided that, before any such Order in Council is made, a draft thereof shall be laid before both Houses of Parliament, and the Order shall not be made unless both Houses by resolution approve the draft either without modification or with modifications to which both Houses agree, but upon such approval being given the order may be made in the form in which it has been so approved : Provided further that, before making such draft order, regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body.

And that has never happened.  You can read more here about some of what happened (and didn’t) subsequently.  The short answer is that the Christian churches have never reached general agreement on change, and although they don’t have a legal veto, in practice successive British governments have taken the view that legal change can’t run ahead of the churches.  In practice, I guess the law is now really just an historical oddity – not unrelated to the fact that England has an established church.  The British government simply can’t, in practical terms, unilaterally change Easter.

If, in some sense, the (affected bits of the) world might be a little better off with standardisation, it isn’t easy to see a way forward that will actually result in change.  Apart from anything else, it is a coordination issue: change is only likely if all the (major) Christian traditions, and all or most of the countries where Easter-related public holidays are on the books agreed together to make the change.   And in highly-secularised societies such as our own, it is rather more likely that there would be support to scrap Easter public holidays altogether (perhaps replace them with a couple of other days scattered across the year) rather than to legislate new and permanent dates.  And institutional churches are hardly likely to favour change without the assurance that the public holidays would be shifted (even recognising places like the US where Good Friday isn’t a holiday at all).   And there would probably be vocal minorities –  including in the US (recall 1955)  – of Christians opposed to any change to Easter dates at all.  If we knew, with confidence, the exact date on which the crucifixion occurred, perhaps standardisation would be easier…..but we don’t.

(Of course, in a New Zealand context, we get the tiny minority of ACT supporters sometimes championing abolishing statutory holidays altogether, to be replaced with additional leave entitlements, but that is simply never going to happen –  and nor in my view should it (regardless of whether the existing holidays have Christian roots or not).)

And so I expect that even if I live to 100, we’ll still be operating on the Gregorian calendar, and for all its endearing oddity, Easter will still be a moveable feast.

 

 

Critics of the Governor

There have been a couple of media stories this week that were less than flattering about the Governor of the Reserve Bank, Adrian Orr.  I was going to say “new Governor”, but checking the calendar I see that in another month or so he will be a quarter of the way through his first term.

The first story was by Stuff’s Hamish Rutherford, and centred on the Governor’s plan to require banks to greatly increase the share of their assets funded by equity rather than debt.   In the on-line version of the story, Orr is labelled “Mr Congeniality”.  The story begins this way

Since Adrian Orr became Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand he has built a reputation of being someone who likes to be liked.

Charming and jocular, but possibly sensitive to criticism.

But Orr is now in a battle with the bulk of New Zealand’s banking sector in a way which could see him demonised, probably with the focus on lending to farmers.

He knows it. Recent days have seen Orr on a campaign to explain itself.

I’m not sure he seems any different as Governor than he ever was before –  his well-known strengths and weaknesses have continued to be on display.

I’ve written quite a lot here about the substance and process around the Bank’s capital proposals – starting with the apparent lack of consultation and coordination with APRA, through to the weaknesses of many of the arguments the Bank advances, the lack of apparent understanding of how financial crises come to occur, the grudging and gradual release of further supporting material, and (presumably partly as a result) two extensions to the deadline for submissions.

In the article Orr is quoted thus, in perhaps the understatement of the week

The consultation process, in Orr’s words “could have been tidier”.

Done properly there would have been extensive workshopping of the technical material over months before the Governor ever put his name to a specific proposal.   As it is, we have a half-baked proposals, not benefiting from any prior scrutiny, and yet the same Governor who put the proposal forward is now judge and jury in his own case, with no effective rights of appeal for anyone.    And there is big money involved –  not just the additional capital that might need to be raised, but probable losses in economic output that will affect us all to a greater or lesser extent.

Presumably no one in the industry would go on record for Rutherford’s article.  Not upsetting prickly Governors is an art the banks have sought to master (even when it involved pandering to an earlier Governor who wanted a senior bank economist censored), although presumably the banks’ submissions will be fairly forthright.  (But will the public ever see those submissions?)

But some of the tone of the off-the-record concern is there in the article

Sources across several of the major banks are warning that if the bank pushes ahead with its plan it could act as a significant constraint on lending to farmers and small businesses,  sectors which are as economically important as they are politically sensitive

Both sectors are considered risky and when capital requirements go up the impact will be magnified.

Why those sectors?  Well, the “big end of town” (Fonterra, Air New Zealand or whoever) will have no difficulty raising debt either directly (bond market) or from banks that aren’t subject to the Reserve Bank’s capital requirements (which means every other bank in the world not operating here, as well as the parents of the locally-incorporated banks operating here).  And the residential mortgage market is both pretty competitive (including from some local institutional players that are less badly hit by the Governor’s proposals than the big banks), and more open to the possibilities of securitisation (which would then avoid the capital requirements too).   Idiosyncratic small and medium loans (including farm loans) aren’t, and farm loans in particular require a level of industry knowledge that newcomers won’t acquire easily (and offshore parents often won’t have).

Perhaps these effects will be large, perhaps they will be quite moderate in the end. But the point Rutherford didn’t make, but could have, is that none of this was analysed in the Bank’s consultative document.   When a really major change is proposed we should surely expect a serious analysis of transitional paths (not just for the banks, but for customers and the economy) as well as the long run.  But there was almost nothing, and nothing in any more depth has emerged in subsequent material that has seeped out.

It simply isn’t a good policy process, and that should concern both the Minister of Finance (and his advisers at The Treasury) and the Bank’s board.   The Governor simply isn’t doing a good job on this front.  If there is a compelling case for what he proposes, he hasn’t made it.  And that is almost as bad –  in a serious independent regulator –  as not having a good case in the first place.

The second article was by the news agency Reuters.   The focus in that article is Orr’s conduct of monetary policy, and particular his policy communications (which many had expected to be one of his strengths).

There are at least two strands to the article.  There are criticisms of Orr for not yet having given a single substantive on-the-record speech on either of his main areas of policy responsibility (monetary policy and financial regulation).  I’m among those quoted

Michael Reddell, an ex-RBNZ official who served with Orr on its monetary policy committee in the 1990s and 2000s, is critical of Orr for not giving a “substantive” speech on monetary policy in the past year.

“It would be unthinkable in Australia or the United States or even under previous governors here.”

I’ve been more and more surprised at the omission as time went on.  And in respect of monetary policy it is not as if there has been much from his offsiders either.  Sure, we get the rather formulaic paint-by-numbers Monetary Policy Statement every few months, but it simply isn’t the same as a thoughtful carefully-developed speech –  which shows more of how the individual/institution is thinking, and the omission has been particularly significant given that we had a new Governor and a refined mandate.

Orr’s response to this criticism is reportedly that it is “thin”.   Whatever that means, the fact remains that in other countries top central bankers talk, quite frequently, about their thinking in on-the-record speeches.  I’ve suggested, speculatively, that perhaps he doesn’t do serious speeches on core areas of responsibility because he just isn’t that interested (saving his passion for infrastructure, climate change, diversity, and all manner of other stuff he has little or no responsibility for).  I’d  like to be wrong on that, but nothing in this article provides any countervailing evidence.

But the bigger criticism in the Reuters article appears to come from financial market participants, concerned that they aren’t able to read the Governor’s policy intentions well.

Many traders who spoke to Reuters in the past two weeks blame Orr for confusing the message, and some have even been critical of frequent references to legends of the indigenous Maori people in his speeches, saying they served little purpose for financial markets eager for more policy clues.
“I am extremely frustrated at the lack of communications for global market participants,” said Annette Beacher, Singapore-based macro-strategist for TD Securities.
“Since Adrian Orr has assumed the role, he’s managed to surprise the market every six weeks. We don’t hear anything from him in between policy decisions,” Beacher said, echoing similar complaints from others.
“So what do I recommend to my trading desk? I’m saying trade the data but we’re not quite sure what is going to happen at the next meeting. It’s not meant to be this way.”

Here, to be honest, I’m not sure quite what to make of the criticism (I mostly don’t hang out with international markets people).   I’m sure there is a great deal of eye-rolling at the tree god nonsense that Orr continues to champion, but perhaps here the longstanding central banker in me comes out and I wonder if the offshore market people aren’t being a little precious.    Markets should not need their hands held to anything like the extent some of the comments in the article suggest, and if there is a little noise in market prices as a result that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

It seems that quite a few people the journalists talked to were grumpy about the move to an explicit easing bias at the last OCR review, I couldn’t help wondering how much of that was a disagreement with the Governor’s stance (market economists on average have been more hawkish than the Bank for years, and have been more wrong) and how much a sense that a forthcoming change hadn’t been signalled.  I was bit (pleasantly) surprised myself by the move to an easing bias, but mostly because I thought the Governor wouldn’t want to launch a change of direction days before the new MPC took over.  Perhaps that is one of the circumstances in which advance signalling  might have been appropriate?    And perhaps the two strands of concern come together here: we shouldn’t have the Governor or senior staff giving private previews to select contacts about their evolving thinking.  So it has to be serious interviews or serious speeches –  and, as Annette Beacher notes, we haven’t really had either.

The Bank has probably also suffered somewhat from being in transition. At the start of last year, they lost the ultimate safe pair of hands, longserving Deputy Governor Grant Spencer.  A new top-team took over, and within a few months Orr was restructuring, which included demoting longserving chief economist John McDermott.  He lingered for a few months before leaving entirely, but can’t have been entirely engaged.  The head of financial markets was also ousted, and it was only in late March that the new recruits started to take office.  As I’ve noted previously, on the monetary policy side of the Bank it is very much a case now of a Second XI at play (internals and externals) and there is now quite a challenge in getting communications onto a steady, sustainable, and functional path.   The goal shouldn’t be keeping overseas economists happy, but it is perhaps telling that Reuters couldn’t find a domestic one willing to go on the record defending the Orr approach.

What of the Governor’s response to all this?  I’ve already recorded his response to the concern about speeches.  Here is some of the rest of what he told Reuters

In an interview with Reuters earlier on Tuesday, Orr said he wants to reach out to a wider audience than just currency traders, analysts and bloggers.

“The broad audience for this bank is the public of New Zealand. We are seen as a trusted institution but they don’t know what we do. So that is my communication challenge,” he said.

Orr also defended the Maori references in his speeches as part of the bank’s efforts to reach out to wider groups.

“Metaphors have their limits and metaphors can be over used. I get all that, but metaphors need to be introduced and created sometimes.”

I quite get that he wants to communicate to people beyond just the likes of Annette Beacher or me.    But it is not much short of populism to pretend that the audience of people who do pay close attention to the Bank, and know something about it and other central banks (and can even think through the aptness or otherwise of his metaphors), don’t matter.  He can try to appeal over the head of the relatively knowledgable all he likes, but I suspect he won’t find many listening.  Most people have better –  more interesting and important to them –  things to do with their lives.  As it happens, the Governor released a while ago a record of which audiences he delivered speeches to last year, and despite all the rhetoric –  tree god and all –   I was a bit surprised by how relatively few and conventional the audiences were.  The only novelty seemed to be a lot of mention of the tree god – cue to eyes rolling from many of the audiences no doubt.   How many more readers, I wonder, have the cartoon versions of the MPS and FSRs won?  How many have tried twice?

There is a “retail communication” dimension to the Reserve Bank’s role –  when you are driving interest rate up (or down) and affecting people’s employment prospects, business profitability etc, you have to explain yourself.  Over 30 years of an independent Reserve Bank, successive Governors have done a great deal of it –  Don Brash almost to the point of exhaustion, in his nationwide roadshows.  But the core of the job is actually rather more “wholesale” in nature.  And the Governor doesn’t seem to have been getting that right –  at all re bank capital, and in some dimensions re monetary policy (I’m probably closer to his bottom line on the OCR than many other commentators).  All this should be a concern for the Minister of Finance, and for the Bank’s Board.

There is still time for the Governor to right the ship –  and perhaps the new MPC will end up helping –  but the signs aren’t good. Only this morning, a press release emerged from the Bank championing the cause of climate change.  Action may well be really important, but it just isn’t the core business –  or really any business at all in a New Zealand context, with the sort of loan book New Zealand banks have –  of the Reserve Bank.  It is what we have an elected government for.

Sadly, we can expect to hear more from the Governor on climate change and his tree god (flawed) metaphor, and there is no sign of any contrition around the lack of serious communication from him on monetary policy or (where he is still sole decisionmaker) financial sector regulation.

 

Honouring Israel Folau

This blog is, mostly, about things to do with economics and public policy.   The stepping-off point was my background in monetary policy, financial markets, and financial regulatory issues over the course of a long career at the Reserve Bank, together with something I had come to care rather more about, the decades-long underperformance of the New Zealand economy and the associated policy failures.  I range more widely these days, but always try to anchor (dragging as the anchor may be) more or less close to policy and associated analytical issues,  with a heavy weight on New Zealand issues and perspectives.

The blog is also, these days, the forum through which the most people encounter me.   And thus it represents something of who I am.  When I set up the blog, I took the opportunity to note quietly (on the About Michael Reddell page) that my first loyalty was to God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, and linked to another low-key, intermittently updated, blog I run in which I sometimes offer thoughts on matters ecclesiastical, the occasional interface with policy, the inspiration I take from great hymns and poems etc.  I didn’t, and don’t, want to make a great fuss about it, and the statement was in part a check on myself: the standard I try to live by in conducting the blog is a Christian one –  how I interact with people, when I do (and don’t) write and so on.  Better to make those standards explicit, and open myself to accountability if (when) I fall short.

I don’t suppose my faith ever had any impact on what OCR I recommended, or much impact on what I thought the inflation target should be (although the Bible is strong on honest weights and measures).   I don’t suppose those holding the dominant alternative faith (some sort of secular Enlightenment worldview) thought their beliefs made much difference to their views on such technical matters either.   But all of us, in the way we interact with others, the choices we make, the things we say no to, are influenced and shaped by our presupposition, beliefs, and cultures, theistic or otherwise.    There were libertarians and libertines in the course of my working life.  And there were serious and orthodox Christians.

So why this post?  It is about Israel Folau and what his treatment this week –  partly at the hands of the ARU, but more so that by media, politicians etc –  says about the room for orthodox Christian belief in public in modern day New Zealand and Australia (the situation seems similar in the UK and Canada, if more mixed in the United States).

There are things where I disagree with what I know of Israel Folau’s reported views.  There was a story out of Australia yesterday about some remarks he’d made recently in a sermon.

Celebrating Christmas and Easter is wrong, Israel Folau told parishioners at his church last month.

So too is wetting babies’ heads during Christenings.

For some time, the Wallabies superstar has been preaching during Sunday worship.

Folau, once purely a devout follower, has in the past 18 months developed into a church leader with strong opinions on Christianity.

He repeatedly attacks the Catholic Church and Christians who do not devoutly read the bible.

Giving the most comprehensive insight into Folau’s mindset and beliefs, a video obtained by The Daily Telegraph shows one of the world’s most famous rugby players attacking the “man-made” traditions of the two holiest periods in the Christian calendar.

“Christmas and Easter, that’s man-made,” Folau tells worshippers.

I don’t happen to share his interpretation on most of those points (the Bible, however, remains central to Christian faith, and should be read by those who follow Christ).  But I understand the case he is making.  There are whole Christian denominations that don’t approve of, or practice, infant baptism (“wetting babies’ heads during Christenings”) –  it was the tradition within which I was raised. In our part of the world, the denominations still holding their own (or growing) tend to be those which eschew infant baptism.

What of Christmas and Easter?   There is a perfectly respectable argument, grounded in Scripture, for the case Folau is making –  if I never quite shared it, I was once quite sympathetic towards it.   The celebration of Christmas and Easter (and Pentecost, the third great Christian festival) was banned during the Commonwealth period in 17th century England, and banned or simply not practised in a number of the US colonies long after that. Even today, there are plenty of Protestant churches –  perhaps especially in the US –  that would not have special Good Friday or Christmas services.   I recall once commenting to my mother about how our Baptist churches seemed not to do Good Friday well, and she responded by pointing out that when she was young her –  large established – Christchurch Baptist church didn’t have Good Friday services at all.

Folau’s views on these issues might seem odd to some (many).  But there is a long history of serious people with similar views.  People who take the Bible seriously, as their authority in faith and conduct.

But, of course, that story was really only a bit of colour to the Folau story, perhaps designed to feed some sense of Folau as a nutter.  No one would care –  Prime Ministers on two sides of the Tasman wouldn’t be commenting –  if a prominent rugby player had simply been heard declaring that he didn’t think Easter should be celebrated.  Probably neither do most atheists, and all Muslims.  As it happens, Good Friday isn’t even a public holiday in the (somewhat more Christian) United States.   Even within the Christian tradition, most –  I don’t know about Folau –  would treat most of this subset of issues as second order in nature.

No, what really bothered those who have been up in arms this week (and it carries through to editorials this morning in both our main newspapers) is that a top rugby player takes the essentials of his Christian faith seriously, and isn’t afraid of stating those beliefs –  not, it seems, in the middle of game of rugby, or even in team practices (where people couldn’t avoid him), but in church and on social media.

Those essentials?   Two, on my reading.  The first, the reality of sin, which puts on uncrossable barrier between God and man (see the story of the expulsion of the Garden of Eden for how the Jews captured this belief).  And yet God doesn’t give up on us.  Christians proclaim –  and (most) will celebrate specially next Sunday – that in the death and resurrection of Jesus God took the initiative and opened up the way to reconciliation.  Those who would avail themselves of this offer –  or call –  do so in repentance and humility, resolving to turn aside from their sin and, with the aid of God’s Holy Spirit, to seek to put on holiness.  Intent matters in this story, for in this life none of us succeed in putting off sin completely (indeed, Martin Luther once argued that the most holy people remained most conscious of how far short of God’s standard they still fell).

And the second, is what evangelical Christians term the Great Commission – the last words of Jesus on earth, at least as recorded in the gospel of Matthew.   Go, preach the gospel to all nations, make disciples, and teach them to obey. (“Obey” isn’t a popular word in our society.) From a Christian perspective, it is a glorious truth –  good news of salvation open to all human beings, a salvation that has implications for how we should live –  and a serious responsibility.

The responsibility stems, in part, from a belief –  firmly grounded in the Bible (even if it isn’t necessarily the only possible interpretation) – that continued rejection of the free offer of salvation, available to all who repent and will to turn from their sins, is eternal separation from God, often characterised (by orthodox creeds and believers) as Hell.  No serious believer could (or should) wish that fate on anyone –  not Brenton Tarrant, Adolf Hitler, Xi Jinping, nor our neighbours and friends.

Here, I’m not asking you to believe the Christian message –  the gospel, or good news – but simply trying to describe the world view of an orthodox Christian.  I don’t speak for Israel Folau, but they are my own views, and (from what I’ve read and heard) seem to be something like his.    He was an adult convert to Christianity –  raised Mormon apparently –  and I rejoice in his apparent zeal for the faith, and in his witness.

This was the Instagram post that has excited the mob this week

folau 2.png

That is the essence of the gospel –  sin abounds, and all of us fall short, and yet…..to all who repent, who turn away from sin, there is the offer of Christ’s sacrificial love and restoration.  He even puts a Scripture text alongside the simplified graphic.

It isn’t as if the text stands in isolation from the rest of the Bible.

Here, at a very general level, is St Paul in the books of Romans

23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Here, Paul writing (inspired by God, so the church has traditionally taught) to the church in Corinth

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men[a] 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

Or from the book of Revelation

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

I could go on.  These aren’t exhaustive lists: any unrepented sin that separates human from God.   It is New Testament teaching and Old –  read in Exodus or Deuteronomy how fearfully the people of Israel are recorded as receiving what we now know as the Ten Commandment.  It has been the consistent teaching of the church for the best part of 2000 years, and in the Jewish teaching and tradition before that.

(As a reminder, Christianity has been the religion that predominated in the West –  and western offshoot societies (including modern New Zealand) – for 1500+ years.  That doesn’t make it true, of course, but it played a key formative role in the societies that formed us.)

Of course, no one in the public domain was much bothered about Folau highlighting that adultery, theft, and lies fall short of God’s standard.   Even in today’s society –  degenerate as it is in many respects –  most people aren’t going to defend those sorts of acts (or tar anyone who suggests that such behaviour isn’t acceptable).   All the fuss was about Folau’s report of the biblical – and longstanding Christian and Jewish (and Muslim for that matter) –  view on homosexual practice. It is sinful –  wrong.  Note that in Folau’s list, homosexual practice isn’t singled out –  it comes between drunkenness and adultery, together with lies, sex outside marriage, theft and idolatry.   The Bible takes a dim view of homosexual acts and of sexual sin more generally –  reflecting, no doubt, the fundamental importance of sex in any society, and perhaps especially one teaching that men and women are made, in the image of God, to complement each other – but you will read the New Testament in vain for any sense of it as uniquely wrong.  The sins I struggle with matter just as much in God’s sight –  or at least so the church has traditionally taught.

I’m well aware that there are plenty of liberal Christians who will claim that all this is irrelevant –  that they know better than Moses, Jesus, St Paul, or the church through 2000 years.  I know many of their arguments around translations, social context, and so on and so forth.  Many are in a hurry to keep up with the spirit of the age, whichever chaotic direction that spirit leads

But those points are irrelevant here.  It isn’t for the baying masses, the leader writers of newspapers, Prime Ministers, or heads of rugby bodies, to define Christian faith and teaching.   As Folau presumably believes, (and I certainly do) these are revealed truths and teachings, the same yesterday, today, and forever.  It is the truth we seek to live by (however inadequately).  It was, I’m pretty sure, the sort of truth held by Billy Graham when he attracted tens of thousands to his New Zealand rallies only a few decades ago.

If –  as most New Zealanders and a large proportion of Australians now claim to –  you don’t believe in the existence of God, let alone of eternal separation from God or Hell, it is hard to know why what Folau is saying should bother you.   You surely believe he is simply deluded and wrong, as he will discover (or rather not) when he dies.

That probably is the view of a fair number of people in New Zealand and Australia today.  But it isn’t the view of those holding the commanding heights –  MPs, leader writers, columnists, business leaders and so on –  who have demanded that it be stopped.  They simply cannot abide the thought that someone of any prominence should openly affirm that sin is sin, and that homosexual acts are among the things labelled as sin.

Here I’m not mainly interested in the Australian Rugby Union. I have a modicum of sympathy for their position, even if (as I noted in an earlier post elsewhere on these issues) the problem was partly one of their own making.   Rugby could just be rugby, but that’s not enough for today bosses.

My interest is more in what it says about our society – New Zealand and, it appears, Australia –  that no prominent person is free to express centuries-old Christian belief (views backed, rightly or wrongly, by the law of the land until only a few decades ago) when it trespasses on the taboos and sacred cows (“homosexuality good”) of today’s “liberal” elite.  And if no prominent person can –  and it is interesting to note that not a single church leader has been willing to stand up openly for Folau, and the Scriptures –  how will those less prominent be positioned.   Folau may lose a multi-million dollar contract, but he’ll already have earned much more than many ordinary working people make in their life.   But what of the ordinary employee of a bank or of one of those right-on government agencies.  It might not even be a personal social media account, or a speaking engagement at the local church.  It might be nothing more than a reluctance to participate in celebrations of what (in their belief, in the tradition of thousands of years) sinful acts.   The issue here isn’t someone proselytising across the counter of the bank, any more than Folau’s “offence” involved activity in the middle of a game, but a totalitarian disregard for any view –  no matter of how longstanding –  that doesn’t fall into line with today’s orthodoxy.

I don’t envisage writing any more than usual here about aspects of Christian faith –  perhaps the odd Christmas and Easter post, and the occasional somewhat relevant allusion – but these are my beliefs: theft, idolatry, lies, adultery, dishonouring one’s parents, covetousness, homosexual acts, dispossessing the poor are all (among the) sinful acts.   The just wages of sin is death, and yet the free gift offered in Christ, conditional only on penitence and a resolve to amend one’s way, is salvation.  I won’t celebrate what God has called sin (or simply keep quiet).     The message of the gospel is supposed to be uncomfortable, but akin to the surgeon’s knife that offers a path to something much better.

If all that makes you uncomfortable reading what I have to say about the OCR, bank capital, immigration, productivity, the PRC or whatever, so be it.  You can choose to stop doing so. That is a choice that only you can make, consistent with your own beliefs.  For me, I will try to prioritise Jesus, focused on the long (and faltering) obedience in the same direction that he called his disciples to.

There is a line around the Folau case of the sort “why couldn’t he just keep quiet, and save his views for home and church”.  That isn’t what disciples of Christ are called to.

(Nor, probably, should it characterise a free society. Having said that, I’m sceptical of process liberalism, and doubt that any society can really tolerate too much diversity for long.)

I do end up wondering how long a very senior unelected public figure, serving in a field close to the Prime Minister’s own portfolio, can last when that person serves as President of an organisation  –  a mission organisation I donate too, and used to be involved with – whose statement of belief includes this

God, in revealing himself, inspired the Holy Scriptures so that they are entirely trustworthy and have supreme authority in matters of doctrine, faith and conduct.

and next

We all were made for fellowship with God, but disobeyed him. So we all have become sinners, guilty in God’s sight, under his wrath, and alienated from him.

and goes on

  • Jesus Christ took the sin of the world on himself when he died on the cross as our representative and substitute. This is how God showed his love for us and provided the only way for us to be forgiven and reconciled to him.

  • Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead by God.

  • The Holy Spirit brings us to trust Christ and repent of our sins, lives in us, and develops our new life in Christ in the fellowship of the Church.

That would seem to be very close to what Israel Folau has been saying to anyone who chose to read his social media posts (or the now countless repeats in media here and abroad).  And called out for doing so by the Prime Minister.

I honour Israel Folau’s courage, and am inspired by his example.   Perhaps our government will go the path of attempting to make such words “hate speech” (as, whatever the intent, seems to been happening in the UK), or perhaps not, but it is speech –  from the Bible –  Christians are called to proclaim and to bear witness to.

Finally, words of Jesus

33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.

It is almost always easier just to go along, to accommodate, to fit in, to keep quiet –  even in an erstwhile “private life” – (and that would be the advice of many to Folau –  including perhaps many who want to see him play rugby, something I have little or no interest in) but that isn’t the call of Jesus to those who chose to follow him.

It was an unusual post.  Then again, tomorrow begins what (most) Christians mark as Holy Week.  I’ll be back to monetary policy –  some older history of our institutions –  on Monday.