Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


Why do religious issues puzzle me?

I confess. I follow a number of religious and atheist blogs – probably more than are good for me. One thing I have failed to understand is why there is so much distrust, suspicion, and in some cases, open hostility between various factions. This enmity is part of the fascination that keeps me returning to blogs that I would otherwise avoid. I am genuinely puzzled as to why the enmity is felt so strongly by some people.

Some of my failure to understand how others feel about religious issues probably rests on the fact that I am autistic, but I think I have found another compelling explanation: I’m a Kiwi.

The Legatum Institute Foundation publishes a prosperity index each year, and among all the variables that go into measuring prosperity, are two pertaining directly to freedom of religion: governmental religious restrictions and social religious restrictions. The Foundation defines these respectively as:
Governmental restrictions on religion, efforts by governments to ban particular faiths, prohibit conversions, limit preaching or give preferential treatment to one or more religious groups
The degree to which there are social barriers to freedom of religion in a country, acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations and social groups

As a comparison, I’ve selected the 10 countries that WordPress reports as being the all time top 10 viewing countries of Another Spectrum: Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Hungary, India, Kenya, Aotearoa New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States.

When it comes to religious freedom, it is apparent that NZ is head and shoulders above the other countries in this comparison. Religious restrictions, both governmental and social are measured on a scale from 0 to 1, and NZ is the only country gaining a score of 1.

Governmental Religious Restrictions

1 New Zealand (1)
0.9 – 0.99 Brazil (7), Australia (21)
0.8 – 0.89 Canada (29), United Kingdom (47)
0.7 – 0.79 United States (75), Hungary (77)
0.6 – 0.69 Kenya (103)
0.5 – 0.59 France (109), India (112)

(the number in parenthesis after each country is its world ranking)

Considering that the first amendment of the US constitution guarantees freedom of religion, America doesn’t do very well when it comes to governmental restrictions on religion, ranking at 75th. In fact, over the the previous 10 years, its best ranking was 58th in 2009, while its worst was 104th in 2010.

Social Religious Restrictions

Socially, all the countries apart from Hungary place greater restrictions on religion than does the government, and while NZ doesn’t fare too well on a world ranking (there are 28 countries that do better), it still fares better than the other nine countries:

0.9 – 0.99 New Zealand (29)
0.8 – 0.89 Canada (67)
0.7 – 0.79 Australia (80), Hungary (80),
0.6 – 0.69  Brazil (109),
0.5 – 0.59 United Kingdom (118)
0.4 – 0.49 United States (127), France (128)
0.2 – 0.29 Kenya (138), India (144)
0.1 – 0.19

(the number in parenthesis after each country is its world ranking)

Governmental versus social restrictions

What I find really interesting is that there is often little relationship between restrictions on religion imposed by governments and restrictions on religion imposed by the wider society. For example the Chinese government all but bans religious expression, and where it is permitted, it is under state control. Iran on the other hand is an Islamic theocracy. In both countries, governmental restriction on religion are severe, but when compared to the United States, there are fewer social restrictions. I was surprised to see that Iran does better the the US:


This suggests to me that Americans are not as accepting or tolerant of different religious beliefs and non-beliefs as they think they are. It explains why a number of bloggers I follow are atheists, but are very reluctant to let that fact be known in their communities. It goes a long way in explaining to me why I and many other Kiwis are unable to understand why religion is such a hot topic in many parts of the world.


Equality on the decline?

In 20o5 Aotearoa New Zealand became the first nation in the world where all top positions were held by women: the Monarch, the Governor General, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Parliament, and the Chief Justice.

There have been other firsts that at first glance give the appearance that women are more equal here than elsewhere, including being the first country to grant women the vote. The 1976 relationship act and its amendments grant equal rights to both members of a relationship irrespective of marital status or gender is another.

Just as America prides itself on its liberty and freedom, NZ has always prided itself on its egalitarianism – both between the sexes and the population as a whole. In fact, back in the 1940s a visiting academic suggested we should build a statue proclaiming our egalitarianism in the much the same manner as the Statue of Liberty proclaims freedom in America.

The myth persists in both countries. Sadly America has slid well down the freedom and liberty ladder, even though over half the population believe it is the most free nation on earth. Our claim to egalitarianism has take a huge tumble since the mid 1980s. Fewer Kiwis believe in our own myth. Approximately 75% of the population no longer believe that everyone in NZ receives a “fair go”. But that leaves a quarter of the population still believing that we are a nation of equals.

Why the sudden change in equality since the 1980s? In what was a sort of political revolution, the leftist Labour party adopted radical economic reforms much like “Thatchernomics” in the UK and “Reaganomics” in the US, only more extreme. Known here as “Rogernomics” (named after the Minister of Finance, Roger Douglas) it saw the halving of the top tax rate, the slashing of social welfare, the privatisation of much of the public sector (sold mostly to foreign investors) and a reduction in the bargaining power of workers. Tariffs and other trade protections were eliminated resulting in a massive transfer of unskilled jobs overseas.

The initial result was high levels of unemployment and the social conditions that typically accompany it. Today unemployment is more “acceptable” but we now have a class of “working poor” that struggle and frequently fail at keeping their family out of poverty. Today, about one in five children live in households where the income is below the poverty line. I believe this is totally unacceptable.

New Zealand has the unenviable reputation of now being the nation with the fastest growing disparity between rich and poor in the OECD. While we are far from reaching the level of disparity seen in the USA and some developing nations, we approaching the likes of the UK. While it’s true that displays of wealth are still frowned upon, there is a growing acceptance that poverty is a “natural” part of the social fabric. I don’t.

One outcome of the economic reforms has been an increase in the disparity of income between men and women. Prior to the reforms, and into the first few years afterwards, the difference in income between men and women had been declining and was well on the way to being eliminated. There were dreams of Aotearoa New Zealand being the first country to achieve true pay equality. This has been shattered over the last two decades as the gender pay gap has increased markedly to around 12% (based on hourly income, more so if based on actual income).

One of the measures of freedom I take seriously is socio-economic mobility. This is the ability for someone to move out of the socio-economic group of their parents. In America, the “Land of Opportunity” around half or slightly less move to a different group. By contrast, in NZ it was around 75%. This has declined and is now hovering around the 70% mark.

It has barely been a generation since the economic reforms, and as they become a permanent feature of of our society, I suspect that socio-economic mobility will decline further. That, along with the growing disparity between rich and poor is a recipe for social disharmony – perhaps on the levels we see in Britain, the USA, and elsewhere. The mind shudders.

Equally unnerving is that it brings the prospect of us growing our own Trump –  someone gaining enormous wealth through a largely unregulated economy, and at the cost of a low skilled workforce, and then gaining political influence by telling those worse affected by those very practices that he will make things right for them. Yeah, right.


Will Trump ban Jews and Catholics too?

So the Trump wants to ban all Muslims (even US citizens) from entering America due to the “risk” they pose. Exactly how high is that risk?

Since 2001, a total of 45 Americans have been killed on American soil by Islamic extremists. While that’s 45 too many, it works out at 3.2 persons per year. Let’s put this in perspective. Over the same period 254 Americans were killed by home-grown right wing extremists.

While Islamic extremists have been responsible for 6% of terrorist related attacks, Jewish extremists have been responsible for 7% of the attacks. Just to be clear,  this is not based on the religion of the terrorist, but on the motive for the attack. On that basis it makes as much sense to prohibit the entry of all Jews into the USA.

According to FBI statistics, Latinos are responsible for 42% of all terrorist attacks. Perhaps Trump would like to ban them too? The predominant religion of Latinos is Roman Catholicism. While he’s at it, he might like to ban all Catholics as well.

How else could Trump make America a safer place? The communists and other left wingers are responsible for 21% of terrorist attacks, so a ban on all socialists and anyone favouring a public health system would be prudent. To be absolutely sure that no left wingers get by the ban, he might consider banning everyone who isn’t a registered republican.

Let’s not forget that the anti-abortion, animal rights and other single cause extremists are responsible for 16% of the terrorist attacks, so supporters of those movements should also be subject to the ban.

Now that the borders are closed to everyone who is not a card carrying republican with absolutely no axe to grind, America should be a much safer place.

Except we’ve forgotten:

More American women are killed by their husband or boyfriend each day than are Americans killed by Islamic extremists in a year.

For each American killed by an Islamic extremist, more than 100 American Children are killed by a parent.

For each American killed by an Islamic extremist, 2870 are murdered by someone they know, and a further 950 are murdered by a stranger.

Did you know that you are twice as likely to be killed by a Fourth of July firework as you are to be killed by an Islamic terrorist?

The chances of being killed in an elevator accident verses being killed by an Islamic terrorist is greater than 8:1.

You are fifteen times more likely to be killed by a lightning strike – an act of God – than being killed by an act of an Islamic extremist.

Did you know that American police officers kill more than 300 times as many Americans each year as do Islamic extremists.

For each American that dies at the hands of an Islamic terrorist, almost 12,000 Americans die in motor vehicle crashes.

While the threat of terrorism can’t be dismissed, the fear of terrorism is way out of proportion to the danger it presents. The greatest danger lies in the political reaction to that irrational fear. We are likely to allow our politicians to impose curbs on our freedom that cannot be justified by the risks terrorism presents.

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America the Land Of The Free: Fact or Myth (part 3)

In my previous posts in this series I looked at press freedom and economic freedom. In this post I’ll look at a freedom that every American believes they excell at – democratic freedom.

Democratic Freedom

Firstly, lets look at some figures from Freedom House.

What does Freedom in the World measure?
Freedom in the World assesses the real-world rights and freedoms enjoyed by individuals, rather than governments or government performance per se. Political rights and civil liberties can be affected by both state and nonstate actors, including insurgents and other armed groups.

Freedom House does not equate legal guarantees of rights with the on-the-ground fulfillment of those rights. While both laws and actual practices are factored into the ratings decisions, greater emphasis is placed on implementation.

Comparing our five countries, the USA, France, JapanSouth Africa and New Zealand, all achieve a score of  1 (Free) (on a scale of 1 to 7) for political rights and civil liberties, while South Africa scores 2 (Free) for each.

No doubt about it. The US does as well as many other countries. But lets look at another source – Global Democracy Ranking. According to their mission statement:

The Democracy Ranking is an annual ranking of all democracies (country-based democracies) in the world by focusing on the Quality of Democracy in an international perspective. The Democracy Ranking publishes the ranking scores and displays ranking score increases or decreases over time. The Democracy Ranking is a ranking of the Quality of Democracy in the sense that the ranking scores should reflect a ranking of democracies according to their differing qualities; and the Democracy Ranking is a ranking for the Quality of Democracy, because it wants to contribute conceptually to how democracy quality may be measured as well as wants to support the awareness how important democracy quality is for the further development, reform and enhancement of democracies.

They also state:

The Democracy Ranking applies the following conceptual formula: Quality of Democracy = (freedom & other characteristics of the political system) & (performance of the non-political dimensions) The non-political dimensions are: gender, economy, knowledge, health, and the environment.

The Dimensional structures (and weights) are: Politics (50%), Gender (10%), Economy (10%), Knowledge (10%), Health (10%) and environment (10%). The total score enables each country to be ranked.

Comparing our five countries we see the following rankings: USA 16th, France 15th, Japan 21st, South Africa 71st, and New Zealand 7th. The top three placings are held by Norway, Switzerland and Sweden.

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) also ranks countries by Democratic Freedoms. It measures five criteria: Electoral process; Functioning of GovernmentPolitical participationPolitical culture; and Civil liberties.

Overall rankings (and score out of 10) are USA 19th (8.11), France 27th (7.92), Japan 20th (8.08), South Africa 29th (7.90) and New Zealand 5th (9.26). The EIU ranks Norway (9.93), Sweden (9.73) and Iceland (9.65) as the most democratically free countries. What will surprise most Americans is that the most free countries are those that embrace the welfare state.

Breaking down the USA and NZ results, we get: Electoral processUSA 38th= (9.17), NZ 1st= (10); Functioning of GovernmentUSA 24th= (7.5), NZ 4th= (9.29); Political participation USA 15th= (7.22), NZ 3rd=(8.89); Political CultureUSA 14th= (8.13), NZ 14th= (8.13); Civil liberties: USA 44th (8.53), NZ 1st= (10). NZ out performed the USA on all but one criteria, where both are ranked equally.

I’ve now compared press freedom, economic freedom and political freedom, and America, while not doing too poorly is certainly not performing as well as I expected.

Of the five countries I’m comparing, the order of ranking so far is:

Press freedom: New Zealand, France, South Africa, United States, Japan

Economic freedom: New Zealand, United States, Japan, South Africa, France

Democratic freedom: New Zealand, United States, Japan, France, South Africa

While America may still be a land of the free, it’s no longer (if it ever was) the land of the most free.


America the Land Of The Free: Fact or Myth (part 2)

In my previous post in this series I looked at press freedom. In this post I’ll have a quick look at economic freedom.

Economic freedom

According to Wikipedia:

Economic freedom or economic liberty or right to economic liberty is the ability of members of a society to undertake economic direction and actions. This is a term used in economic and policy debates as well as a politicoeconomic philosophy. One approach to economic freedom comes from classical liberal and libertarian traditions emphasizing free markets, free trade and private property under free enterprise. Another approach to economic freedom extends the welfare economics study of individual choice, with greater economic freedom coming from a “larger” (in some technical sense) set of possible choices. Other conceptions of economic freedom include freedom from want and the freedom to engage in collective bargaining.

The Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal produce an annual survey of of economic freedom based on ten criteria: Business freedom; Trade freedom; Monetary freedom; Government size; Fiscal freedom; Property rights; Investment freedom; Financial freedom; Freedom from corruption; Labour freedom.

How did the five countries (USA, France, Japan, South Africa and New Zealand) perform? The rankings (out of 100) are: The land of the free, USA 12th (76.2), France 73rd (62.5), Japan 20th (73.3), South Africa 72nd (62.6), and New Zealand 3rd (82.1). The two Highest ranking countries were Hong Kong and Singapore, while the lowest ranked countries, as might be expected were North Korea and Cuba.

Of the 5 countries in my comparison, only New Zealand was classified as Free. The USA and Japan were classified as Mostly Free, while France and South Africa were classified as Moderately Free.

Comparing NZ and the US, America performed better at Labour Freedom (98.5 : 91.4) , Government Spending (51.8 : 43.0), and Trade Freedom (87.0 : 86.8), while New Zealand performed better at Property Rights (95.0 : 80.0), Freedom From Corruption (91.0 : 73.0), Business Freedom (95.5 : 88.8), Monetary Freedom (87.6 : 76.6), Fiscal Freedom (70.4 : 66.2), Investment Freedom (80.0 : 70.0), and Financial Freedom (80.0 : 70.0).

The Fraser Institute also creates an index of Economic Freedoms. They measure five broad areas: Size of Government: Expenditures, Taxes, and EnterprisesLegal Structure and Security of Property RightsAccess to Sound MoneyFreedom to Trade Internationally; and Regulation of Credit, Labor, and Business.

The most recent Fraser Institute report ranks USA 12th (7.81), France 58th (7.21), Japan 23rd (7.60), South Africa 93rd (6.73), and New Zealand 3rd (8.25). As with The Heritage Foundation index, Hong Kong and Singapore came out on top, but neither Cuba nor North Korea were included in the report. The Fraser Institute list the Republic of Congo, and Venezuela as the lowest ranking countries.

A comparison between NZ and the US shows America performed better at Size of Government (5.3 : 5.6), and Labour market regulations (9.0 : 8.7), while New Zealand performed better at Legal System and Property Rights (8.8 : 7.7), Sound Money (9.7 : 9.3), Freedom to Trade Internationally (8.5 : 7.7), Credit market regulations (9.9 : 8.5), and Business regulations (7.4 : 6.7).

It’s somewhat of a surprise that when it comes to economic freedom, a country with a mixed economy outperforms a country purportedly based on capitalism and private enterprise.


America the Land Of The Free: Fact or Myth (part 1)

Most Americans believe that the USA provides the highest levels of freedom and democracy anywhere in the world. This belief is also held by many people outside the USA. Is this belief based on fact, or is it simply a myth? I’ve chosen five countries for a comparison: USA, France, Japan, South Africa and New Zealand. The selection is purely arbitrary, but I have selected one country from the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania. There are many non-governmental organisations that monitor levels of freedom, and I have selected published results from just a few. Again the selection is purely arbitrary. I’m not trying to do a precise measurement of the levels of freedom but simply to gather enough evidence to support the claim that “America is the land of the free”. This post, the first of several on this topic, will look at press freedom. At the end of the series I will give my subjective opinion on whether the statement is fact or myth.

Press freedom

Reporters Without Borders is the largest press freedom organization in the world with almost 30 years of experience. Thanks to its unique global network of 150 local correspondents investigating in 130 countries, 12 national offices (Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Libya, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, USA) and a consultative status at the United Nations and UNESCO, Reporters Without Borders is able to have a global impact by gathering and providing on the ground intelligence, conducting cybersecurity workshops, and defending and assisting news providers all around the world.

Reporters Without Borders evaluates press freedom in approximately 180 countries each year. This year it ranked the USA 49th (score: 24.41), France 38th (21.15), Japan 61st (score: 26.95), South Africa 39th (score: 22.06), and New Zealand 6th (score: 10.06) . The top  three countries were Finland (7.52), Norway (7.75), and Denmark (8.24). The countries with the lowest levels of press freedom were Eritrea (84.83), North Korea ( 81.96), and Turkmenistan (80.81). Of the five countries, only New Zealand was rated with a good situation Press Freedom Index. The USA, France and South Africa were rated satisfactory situation, while Japan was rated noticeable problems. The USA ranking of 49th surprised me as I had thought the country would be in the top 10 countries and higher placed than New Zealand. I’m not sure why it received such a poor rating as I’m not aware of any US laws that limit press freedom more than in NZ. Perhaps the American press self censors more than the Kiwi press?

Part 2 of this series can be found here.