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Archive for September, 2002

Hypocrisy and drugs

September 30th, 2002 Comments off

William Burton has a well-thought out post, drawing on personal experience, arguing that currently illegal drugs should be regulated in the same way as alcohol. In an AFR Review Piece, I considered the same question from an opposite point of view. Suppose we accept the case that ‘legalisation of marijuana, cocaine etc. will send the wrong message’. Shouldn’t we then prohibit alcohol and tobacco as well as the currently illegal drugs. This would, of course, turn millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals, but our existing laws do that already. And it’s at least arguable, based on US experience in the 1920s, that there would be a net saving in lives. Although I started out with the intention of writing a reductio ad absurdam, I found that the case for consistent prohibitionism can’t be dismissed as easily as you might think. What is clear is that our existing policy is a hypocritical failure.

Categories: General Tags:

Looking back on microeconomic reform

September 30th, 2002 Comments off

That’s the title of the talk I’m giving to the Economists’ conference tomorrow. Here’s a sneak preview of my conclusion.

The set of policy programs advocated under the banner of ‘microeconomic reform’ is too complex, and the associated set of outcomes too varied, to admit any simple characterization. Microeconomic reform has been neither the success claimed by advocates such as the Productivity Commission, nor the disaster implied by many popular critiques of ‘economic rationalism’.
Taking the two decades of microeconomic reform as a whole, the aggregate impact of the reform program on the welfare of the Australian community has been close to zero. Periods of strong growth in productivity and output, such as the mid-1990s, did little more than recover the ground lost as a result of the impact of the 1980s ‘entrepreneurs’ and the associated ‘recession we had to have’. Much of the apparent productivity growth of the 1990s is likely to dissipate as workers find ways of winding back the increase in the hours and intensity of work extracted through the unilateral repudiation of implicit labour contracts in this period.
Some of the policy initiatives introduced as part of microeconomic reform, such as the removal of tariffs, appear irreversible. Whatever the costs of adjustment during the process of tariff reform, its seems clear that the reintroduction of tariffs would reduce welfare. In other cases, such as those of privatisation and financial deregulation, the process of reassessment has already commenced. Various forms of renationalisation are being considered, most notably in the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Similarly, it seems certain that the next decade will see an increase in financial regulation, rather than the removal of remaining regulations.
As with the curate’s egg, the only verdict on microeconomic reform that is both brief and accurate is ‘good in parts’.

Categories: General Tags:

The Bunyip rises to the bait

September 29th, 2002 Comments off

Professor Bunyip finally takes up my invitation to defend Mark Steyn’s claim (cited approvingly by Tim Blair, Miranda Devine and others) that:
“Of the 20th century’s three global conflicts – the First, Second and Cold Wars – who was on the right side each time? Germany: one out of three. Italy: two out of three. For a perfect triple, there’s only Britain, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand.”
As I pointed out here, this is a schoolboy howler. Belgium and (most embarrassingly for Steyn) France were on the Allied side in all three conflicts, as was Greece.
The Bunyip wants to rule out my first counterexample, Belgium on the grounds that it was a neutral country which only entered the world wars when it was attacked (this also applies to Greece in WWII). Unfortunately, this defence also rules out the United States, which remained neutral in both World Wars, entering the First only after the attack on the sinking of the Lusitania with the loss of 127 American lives, and the Second only after Pearl Harbour.
Bunyip then makes a series of attacks on French perfidy, most of which have already been dealt with the comment thread of my original post. This kind of argument does nothing to save Steyn. It’s like asserting that the British were on the Japanese side in World War II, then defending the claim by saying that they surrendered cravenly at Singapore. I’ll post a link shortly with a more detailed response for those interested.
Most strangely, there’s a lot of stuff about my supposed claims about the “Anglosphere”, a concept I have never mentioned, but which is a good metaphor for the thinking of Bunyip and Steyn. “Being on the right-side” means “blindly following the English-speaking leader”. Of course, with this definition, the English-speaking countries are always right.

Categories: General Tags:

What I'm reading this week

September 29th, 2002 Comments off

Lawrence Lessig The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. I’ve always found Lessig worth reading, and I’ve been interested in the concept of the commons for for many years – I’ve written quite a few academic papers on it. I plan on reviewing this book, probably for the AFR. It’s a fascinating read, and Lessig really knows his stuff, but I think he is too pessimistic. The slogan “information wants to be free” is facile and simplistic, but it’s also true. I’ll post the review here when it’s done and look forward to seeing Kim Weatherall’s thoughts.

Categories: General Tags:

Thanks, Terry!

September 29th, 2002 Comments off

Terry Lane was kind enough to end our interview with a free plug for this weblog. So a big welcome to any of his listeners who have come along for a look. If you have any questions about blogs or economics (or anything!) feel free to email me at [email protected]

Categories: General Tags:

The NYT on US unemployment

September 29th, 2002 Comments off

David Leonhardt notes that millions of American workers are Out of a Job and No Longer Looking. I made the same observation, and discussed Australia’s dire performance on unemployment, in my AFR column two weeks ago (to be fair, I drew on an earlier NYT report). It’s up at Australian Policy Online and also at On Line Opinion, and should be on my website soon.

Categories: General Tags:

More on my sporting commitments

September 28th, 2002 Comments off

As I’ve already indicated, my move to Brisbane has entailed a comprehensive reconsideration of my sporting commitments. Basketball is relatively easy. The players change clubs every season, so I have no problem in cheering for the home team wherever I live. I expect the Canberra Cannons to do very well this year, but I’ll still be barracking for the Bullets. In rugby league, by contrast, community solidarity overrides everything. The Rabbitohs may have lost most of their matches, but they beat Rupert Murdoch and that’s what counts. This won’t stop me backing the Canetoads in State of Origin, but I’m officially neutral in tonight’s preliminary final.

The really ticklish question is whether I can bring myself to take an interest in rugby union. My class prejudices and South Australian birth say No!, but perhaps it’s time to put these things away. I’ll keep you posted.

Categories: General Tags:

Change of religion

September 28th, 2002 Comments off

I’ve been planning a move to Brisbane, and the University of Queensland, for some time, and it will take place next year. Apart from the need to relocate my Web Site, this won’t make much difference to my Internet readers and interlocutors, except in one crucial respect. As a symbol of commitment to my new home, I’m ending my 40 years of (mostly thankless, I must admit) support for Geelong and switching it to Brisbane.

Go Lions!

5:30 Update: VICTORY!!

Categories: General Tags:

Vaclav Klaus admits defeat

September 28th, 2002 Comments off

Vaclav Klaus is the living embodiment of the idea that the collapse of Communism entails the final victory of capitalism over socialism. A close friend of the more famous Czech democrat Vaclav Havel, he became Finance Minister, and then Prime Minister in the first post-Communist government in the then Czechoslovakia. Unlike many dissidents in the former Soviet Empire, he rejected any idea of a ‘Third Way’ arguing for a free-market society modelled on the United States, but without the historical compromises of the New Deal.
in 1991 he visited Australia and gave a talk to the Centre for Independent Studies entitled ‘Dismantling Socialism: A Preliminary Report”, in which he set out the progress that was being made in the move towards free-market capitalism.
Ten years later, Klaus has accumulated much of the standard baggage of a political career, including accusations of financial improprietyand some distasteful compromises with the anti-immigration right. His friendship with Havel is very much a thing of the past. Having seen an expected election victory slip out of his hands earlier this year, he is currently the leading opponent of the social-democratic government of the Czech republic.
More interesting than his political career are his thoughts a decade on, given to the CIS in 2001 under the title Dismantling Socialism: An Interim Report. To summarise drastically, he concludes that, while Communism is dead, socialism (or more precisely, social democracy) has actually gained ground over the past decade. The Czech Republic and other East European countries are on the verge of joining the European Union. As Klaus observes, the commitments involved in the EU ‘acquis communitaire’ amount, for all practical purposes, to a constitutional guarantee of social democracy. (Both Ken Parish
and Josef Imrich link to another Klaus piecetaking much the same line.)

This is a good time for me to insert my long-promised discussion of the definition of social democracy and of socialism, and to explain why I now call myself a social democrat rather than a socialist. Social democracy is a fairly well-defined social order. Although it has no perfect exemplar, it has been realised, more or less, in most European countries, to a lesser extent, in Britain and its former colonies and, in to a much lesser degree in the United States. It is a social and economic system which includes a mixed economy with both public and private enterprises and an acceptance that society has a whole has a responsibility for protecting its members against the standard risks of the modern lifecourse (illness, unemployment, old age and so on) and for providing everyone with equal opportunities to develop their potential to the maximum extent possible. An immediate implication is that, while absolute equality of incomes is not necessary, inequality should not be permitted to reach the point where some citizens have massively more power than others, and where their children have a big headstart over other children.

While social democracy was advancing steadily (that is, from about 1945 to 1970), socialism could be seen simply as social democracy without the compromises – no big private enterprises, no inequality and so on. And, if you were prepared to put on the appropriate blinkers, the Soviet Union and its satellites could be seen as an embodiment of socialist economics, marred by undemocratic and therefore anti-socialist, politics.

Social democracy has been on the defensive from 1970 until very recently, and the Soviet empire has collapsed entirely. In these circumstances, the definitions of socialism that were prevalent a few decades ago are no longer relevant. What is left is a much older, 19th century aspiration (modified in the light of feminism), the ideal of a society based on the premise “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. This is still an inspiring ideal, but not, at present, the basis for a political program.

The current political struggle, therefore, is between social democracy and neoliberal capitalism. From the crisis of Keynesian social democracy in the early 1970s until the financial crises of the late 1990s, neoliberalism was gaining ground fairly steadily. But the neoliberal program has failed in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Eastern Europe and, most recently, in its heartland, the United States. Vaclav Klaus is right to despair.

Categories: General Tags:

Manifestations

September 28th, 2002 Comments off

I’ll be on Terry Lane’s National Interest program tomorrow (Sunday), talking about the IMF report on Australia. Also, I’ll be talking about microeconomic reform at the Economists’ conference in Adelaide next Tuesday. The peripatetic Jason Soon will apparently be paying a flying visit to the same conference.

Categories: General Tags:

More metablogging

September 28th, 2002 Comments off

Neither Jason Soon nor Scott Wickstein likes the definition of “Fisking” by Volokh, which was suggested by Bargarz in response to my earlier remarks. I assume they feel the same about my own definition “a sharp putdown in which vigorous abuse is essential and logical reasoning is optional”
Scott, in email, points me to this definition from the Libertarian Samizdata glossary
“Fisk
verb. To deconstruct an article on a point by point basis in a highly critical manner. Derived from the name of journalist Robert Fisk, a frequent target of such critical articles in the blogosphere (qv).
Usage: “Orrin Judd did a severe fisking of an idiotic article in the New York Times today…”
Comparing this to the Volokh definition, it’s focused mainly on formal structure. That is, just as a sonnet must have 14 lines, a Fisking, in this sense, must include a substantial reposting of the original article, interspersed with critical comments.
The other point about the example is the absence of any direct element of personal attack. The example refers to “an idiotic article” whereas the Volokh definition, and my personal observation, suggests that Fisking is typically directed at an individual, based on hostility to their total position, rather than the ideas expressed in an individual article. As I said in my last post, the same word is used in different ways by different people, and any quest for the “right” definition is doomed to failure.
I also had an interesting email exchange with John Ray, who makes the point that some right-brain or rightwing blogs are, more or less explicitly, “preaching to the converted” and shouldn’t be expected to respond to criticism from the (political or neurological) left. I agree that this is right in some cases, and certainly it applies to his own blog, explicitly titled “Dissecting Leftism”. But I think the political blog norm is one of open debate, and any exceptions should be announced openly. I’ll put the entire exchange in my files when I get time.

Also, don’t miss the comment thread below, where Tim Dunlop suggests “Steynwalling” as a term for a failure to respond to criticism.

A final point is that everyone has assumed I’m condemning Fisking. I was about to say that I enjoy a good Fisking as much as anybody, but given that I think there is too much Fisking in the blogosphere, while others can’t get enough of it, this is obviously not true. Still, I get plenty of enjoyment out of what I regard as a good Fisking, namely a sharp putdown backed by a good logical critique.

Update 30/9 My full exchange with John Ray is here.

Categories: General Tags:

Fisking the fiskers

September 27th, 2002 Comments off

My brief aside about Fisking has raised plenty of attention. It began with a post in which I pointed out the failure of “right-brain” Australian fans of Mark Steyn (such as Professor Bunyip, James Morrow and Tim Blair to respond to repeated demonstrations by “left-brain” bloggers that Steyn’s columns are routinely based on plagiarism (usually with misquotation), urban myths and historical errors.
In the ensuing comment thread, I wrote
The blogs I think of as left-brain are analytical, rational and linguistically complex. Right-brain blogs are mostly emotive, irrational or anti-rational, and based on sharp putdowns (Fisking) rather than logical critiques.
Both Bargarz and Scott Wickstein think I’ve been unfair to Fisking. As a relative newcomer to blogging, I wasn’t around when the term was coined and I’ve never looked seriously into it. All I’ve done is follow links advertised as “Fiskings” and form my own judgements about what I’ve found. As far as I can tell, the sharp putdown is the critical component in a good (that is, widely linked) Fisking, and logical critique is at best an optional extra.
Before going on, I’ll concede one point raised by Scott, namely that Fiskings typically include a link to the piece being attacked, and therefore let the reader make up their own mind. Otherwise, Scott seems to accept my view that Fiskings are short, sharp and not very logical, but points out that “it’s a very time friendly way to write”
Bargarz disagrees, saying “Fiskings can involve putdowns but they should always use logic and facts to debunk the words or scribblings of the fiskee”, though he notes “a good Fisking is like a good wine, it’s often advertised as such but is somewhat harder to find.” Checking on the definition by Volokh, linked by Bargarz, I found this:

“FISKING: Three people asked what “group-Fisking” means in this post, which borrows the term from an InstaPundit post.
     The term refers to Robert Fisk, a journalist who wrote some rather foolish anti-war stuff, and who in particular wrote a story in which he (1) recounted how he was beaten by some anti-American Afghan refugees, and (2) thought they were morally right for doing so. Hence many pro-war blogs — most famously, InstaPundit — often use the term “Fisking” figuratively to mean a thorough and forceful verbal beating of an anti-war, possibly anti-American, commentator who has richly earned this figurative beating through his words. Good Fisking tends to be (or at least aim to be) quite logical, and often quotes the other article in detail, interspersing criticisms with the original article’s text.”

This definition has something for everyone, including as it does both “forceful verbal beating” and “logical criticism”, so I thought I’d try and track back to the original attacks on Fisk’s Afghan story.

And this brings us back to the beginning of the circle. The most cited attack on Fisk I could find was by the egregious Mark Steyn. As you might expect, logical criticism was not a central point of Steyn’s piece.
Words are used in different ways by different people. But I’d say that, both etymologically and in most current usage, a “Fisking” is “a sharp putdown in which vigorous abuse is essential and logical reasoning is optional”

By the way, Bargarz joins the dreaded ABC in misspelling my name as “Quiggan”. This plays merry hell with the search engines. Also, I realise that, as usual, I haven’t got around to welcoming Bargarz before copping a critique from him (I won’t call it a Fisking). Anyway, he’s welcome!

Categories: General Tags:

Checks and balances

September 27th, 2002 Comments off

My colleague Alex Robson attacks the Fairfax press, and Ken Davidson in particular, for referring to a balance of payments deficit, saying that we have a “current account deficit” and that “the balance of payments always balances” since the current account deficit is matched by capital account surplus, that is by borrowing from overseas (if’s odd to think of borrowing as creating a surplus, but that’s the way the accounts work).

If you’re going to throw stones on this sort of thing, you need to be on firm ground yourself, and Alex’s ground is rather shaky. Official statistics don’t refer to a “current account deficit” but to the “balance of payments on current account”, which is routinely shortened to “balance of payments”, since as we know, the “balance of payments on capital account” is just the same number with the opposite sign. So it’s a bit rich to call someone “illiterate” for referring to a “balance of payments deficit”.

Alex offers a lot of other quibbles, but doesn’t address the crucial issue. Is a continuing deficit in the “balance of payments on current account” benign or dangerous. Economists have debated this vigorously over the past decade. I lean, with Ken Davidson, to the view that it’s dangeorus.

Categories: General Tags:

Outdated assumptions

September 27th, 2002 Comments off

Policy debates are often based on outdated assumptions, and this is certainly true of the US. For example, most Americans believe that the US is a big donor of foreign aid and would be better off attending to problems at home. Fifty years ago, the US was a big donor. The Marshall Plan consumed between 2 and 3 per cent of the national income of the United States in the years immediately after World War II. But today, he United States is by far the least generous donor in the developed world, allocating 0.1 per cent of national income to official development aid, about one-third of the proportion for the EU
As the US Agency for International Development notes, a strong majority of Americans say that the United States is spending too much on foreign aid. But this attitude is based on the assumption that the U.S. is spending vastly more than it is, in fact. Asked what an ‘appropriate’ amount would be, the median level proposed is 5 times present spending levels. …Asked to estimate how much of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, the median estimate was 15 percent, 15 times the actual amount of 1 percent. The average was even higher — 18 percent. When informed about the actual amount of spending on foreign aid, a strong majority favors either maintaining it or increasing it.

Much the same is true of the belief that US military might protects those freeloading Europeans. A typical statement comes from Janet Albrechtsen , citing US analyst Robert Kagan, who says:

“Europe is a military mouse. Kagan points out that Europeans spend their money on socially progressive welfare and indulge in their transnational pursuit of collective security in the comforting shadow of the US’s enormous military muscle”

This was a defensible claim when the NATO and the Warsaw Pact were facing off along the East German border. But today it’s just stilly

There is still a large US military presence in Europe. But it’s there for the convenience of forward basing near the Middle East, not to protect the Europeans.
Moreover, the idea that Europe is a ‘military mouse’ is nonsense. Four of the top ten military spenders are EU members, and there is no potential adversary who comes anywhere near the collective spending of the Europeans (China and Russia together spend less).

It’s true that the Europeans still have a force structure that’s basically oriented to fighting the Red Army on the North German plain, so they can’t match the US capacity to deliver large armed forces anywhere in the world. But even in such activities as protection against terrorism, it’s far from a one-way street. The day after Albrechtsen’s story, the French (until last Sunday the prime targets of American derision) rescued a bunch of American schoolchildren from rebels in the Ivory Coast.

Categories: General Tags:

BugZ

September 27th, 2002 Comments off

Vis Macintouch, I found this fascinating etymology (or entomology) for the term“bug”. I’d always believed the Grace Hopper version (an actual moth found in ENIAC). But I guess it was too good to be true. There was a real moth though, and it’s now on display at the Smithsonian.

Categories: General Tags:

Mickey's rose-colored glasses

September 26th, 2002 Comments off

Poverty is rising in the US, but the news is all good according to Mickey Kaus who seizes on estimates of a decline in the poverty rate for black children in 2001, despite a general rise in poverty and a decline in median incomes, and castigates the NYT for not mentioning it. Of course, welfare reform gets the credit. In Mickey’s world, welfare reform would get the credit if Saddam Hussein decided to resign. (I’m only half-joking. Mickey has, at least semi-seriously, tried to blame the S11 terrorists on European welfare states).
Mickey cops a hiding from Brad DeLong, who calls his attack sleazy and notes that the number of black children in the survey on which the estimates are based is too small to allow a statistically significant finding.
I got in touch with the top US expert on poverty data, Tim Smeeding of Syracuse University. He tells me that the data are collected in March of each year and cover the entire preceding year. This means that the current survey doesn’t really capture the impact of the recession and things will almost certainly be worse when the 2002 data come out.
I’d add one more point. Particularly in 2001, the recession was concentrated in manufacturing and had a disproportionate effect on men. Service industries, where most women, including supporting mothers, are employed, continued to grow, and have only recently started to slow. This can be seen from the fact that median income for women rose while median income for men fell (note to Kaus fans: since very few former welfare recipients get anywhere near the median income, so no credit can be claimed for welfare reform here). This reinforces the point that it’s the 2002 data that really matter.

Categories: General Tags:

The left brain talking to itself

September 26th, 2002 Comments off

Just about the whole of left-brain Oz plogdom has weighed in to the intertwining threads started by Ken Parish and me yesterday. There are lengthy posts from Jason Soon and Tim Dunlop, as well as comments from Scott Wickstein (politically on the right, but definitely a left-brain thinker). Gareth Parker(another rightish left-brainer) is away at the footy so we’re missing his thoughts.

On the other hand, even though I started out by pointing out that Mark Steyn, a favorite of right-brain blogdom, is a serial plagiarist (as Don Arthur puts it, a blogger without the links) and prone to historical howlers, none of our leading right-brain bloggers has bothered to respond, let alone to acknowledge error. As the dominant group in blogdom, they seem to have adopted the attitude they attribute to the ‘lefty mass media’ – namely that criticism from bloggers can safely be ignored.

Jason raises the issue of labelling and is inclined to deplore it, particularly when it’s pejorative. I think labelling is an inevitable consequence of the way our brains are wired – they are basically categorizing machines. This in turn reflects the fact that we evolved in a world where it was more useful to see discrete categories than continuous variables. For example, plants are safe or dangerous to eat, animals are predators or prey and so on.

In political terms category labels like ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are still useful, even though they are necessarily oversimplifications and therefore dangerous if misused. People use them as identifiers for their own side, as well as to label opponents. For example, both ‘economic rationalist‘ and ‘warblogger’ started out as in-group labels, although they are now also (mostly?) used in a pejorative sense.

It’s also true that political processes tend to convert a continuum of opinion into a few discrete groups. On Iraq, for example, you can class pretty much everyone into one of three groups
(i) those who want war, with or without UN approval
(ii) those who want Saddam disarmed, and are prepared to support a UN-backed war if he tries to stop inspections
(iii) those who are unconditionally against war
Each of these groups contains many shades of opinion. For example, some of group (i) would prefer to have UN and NATO backing, while others would much rather not. But at least for the moment, most members of any of the groups regard all fellow-members as allies, and members of other groups as opponents.

PS: For those who missed it, Ken Parish links to this Hemispheric Dominance Test. I turned out to be evenly balanced, basically because my physical existence is as chaotic as my mental existence is linear.

Categories: General Tags:

Discretion is not a one-way street

September 26th, 2002 1 comment

Stephen Odgers of the NSW Bar Association gives a useful critique of NSW Opposition leader John Brogden’s call for mandatory minimum sentences. He says

“An example is murder. Brogden will create three classes of murder, carrying mandatory minimum sentences of life (for murder of a police officer, in or out of uniform), 25 and 15 years. To test the merits of this policy, we should consider some examples.

Is 15 years or more appropriate for a son or daughter who gives a drug overdose to their terminally ill parent as an act of mercy killing? Or for a young man who was sexually abused as a child by an older man for a period of years, does not go to the police because he fears no-one will believe him and then bashes his abuser, killing him although he only intended serious harm? What about a woman who has been the victim of domestic abuse and decides, finally, to take revenge?

What about a pub brawl gone wrong? What about a mentally disabled offender whose capacity for judgement was impaired? A spur-of-the-moment act by an 18-year-old of good character who is deeply remorseful and unlikely ever to reoffend?”

Odgers is spot-on in saying that issues like the probability of reoffending are more relevant than “making the punishment fit the crime”. I’d be much more impressed, though, if he followed his logic through and argued for long sentences for habitual/career criminals, even if their offences are not as serious as murder. Consider for example, a violent burglar, or a standover man who severely injures somebody as part of an extortion racket. The community would be better off if such people were locked up until they were too old to do any harm. The same applies to some types of sex offenders, who are at very high risk of reoffending.

Categories: General Tags:

Hi Uncle

September 25th, 2002 Comments off

Another welcome, this time to “Uncle” whose blogtitle, ABCwatch, is self-explanatory and whose pseudonym I take to be a play on “Auntie”. In a reversal of normal blogging form, he’s started out by saying something nice about me.

“PLANET QUIGGIN. I like John Quiggin. He is good to travel with. Just make sure you get off before the terminus.

The occasion for this entry is John’s latest piece on how to deal with international aggression. If Auntie wishes to employ persons of leftish persuasion – and she should – she really should choose people with the integrity to argue their principles openly. Instead we get snide manipulation, on which, no doubt, I’ll be moved to say more later.”

Categories: General Tags:

Severing the corpus callosum of blogdom

September 25th, 2002 Comments off

The distinction between the left and right hemispheres of the brain is one of those startling scientific discoveries that has passed (in an oversimplified form) into popular folklore. As we all know, the left hemisphere is supposed to control rational thought, language and calculation, while the right hemisphere controls emotion and creativity.

Most of the evidence on this came from ‘split-brain’ surgery, where the corpus callosum (the bundle of nerves connecting the two hemispheres) is severed. As a result, information supplied to the left hemisphere is unavailable to the right hemisphere, and vice versa.

Something very similar seems to have happened in blogdom though the main problem seems to be with information flowing from the left brain to the right brain.

For example, when right-brain blogger Professor Bunyip observed that Ken Davidson had borrowed significant bits of a recent column, Ken Parish was quick to link to it and to give a thoughtful discussion of the issues involved.

By contrast, a good deal of recent left-brain activity has pointed out that right-brain favourite Mark Steyn’s columns are routinely based on extensive borrowing (usually with misquotation), urban myths and absurd historical errors. But Professor Bunyip, James Morrow and other right-brain bloggers have continued quoting Steyn with approval and without reference to the left-brain.Tim Blair, another Steyn fan, also ignored the issue, though I don’t think he’s quoted Steyn since it came up. A partial exemption goes to Bernard Slattery. Although he did not take much notice of the left-brain efforts, he took the trouble to do a Google search and noted the dubious quality of one of Steyn’s sources.

(To make the left-brain, right-brain metaphor work properly, we need to class Jason Soon with the left brain, since he certainly does engage in sensible debate with the left-brain of blogdom . But Jason is one of those hard-to-classify mixtures of libertarianism and social democracy, and can’t really be called a rightwinger).
Update: The comments thread for this post is intertwined with that over at The Parish Pump so you have to read both to get the full story. Comments are great, but I wonder how much interesting content is being lost forever in locations that are apparently inaccessible to Google and even more prone to failure than blog archives.

Categories: General Tags:

Double the fun

September 24th, 2002 Comments off

Of the many good things about the Social Democratic victory in Germany, the most delicious is that it’s succeeded in annoying the American government and the French government at the same time. They must be doing something right.

Categories: General Tags:

Semi-Daily Journal

September 24th, 2002 Comments off

Brad DeLong links to this piece from ultrabear Steven Roach, saying:
“Morgan Stanley’s Steven Roach lays out why he is so scared of the business cycle. He’s a lot more scared than I am–I am worried that deflation is a (relatively small) possibility two years hence, while he is worried that deflation is likely in the next year as what he sees as bubbles in housing prices and consumer spending pop. But he’s been consistent in his views over the past six months, while I have been moving in his direction… ”

I have a couple of observations. First, among the serious economists I know, Brad is the one I’d most readily describe as a natural optimist. When he starts getting worried, it’s time to start stocking up on gold bullion and tinned food (actually, if you buy a deflation scenario, you should start stuffing your mattress with dollar bills). Second, there’s some impressive irony in the fact that the most realistic analysis of the bursting bubble is coming from JP Morgan, which seems likely to be the epicentre of any really catastrophic collapse.

Categories: General Tags:

GM and foods

September 24th, 2002 Comments off

Tim Blair and others have been giving the Greens a hammering over GM foods for some time, so I thought I’d have my say. On this issue, I’m a big believer in the principle of subsidiarity, that is, letting the people directly affected make the decisions. Speaking for myself, I’m convinced by the scientific evidence that GM food is as safe as the ordinary sort, that is, not perfectly, but safe enough that I have plenty of bigger things to worry about. On the other hand, the idea of tomatoes with fish genes makes me a bit queasy, and I think I and others should have a choice about whether or not to eat them. Hence, I’m in favor of labelling and I think the producers of GM foods, as the innovators, should bear the cost of this. Taking it a level higher, I think that this is an issue that is within the competence of individual countries to decide. If Australians, contrary to my preference, decide to ban GM foods altogether, then that is our decision to make and we should not be subject to punishment by bodies such as the World Trade Organisation. To paraphrase our beloved leader, we will decide what foods we eat and under what circumstances. Obviously the same applies to poor countries that want to take advantage of GM foods – they should not be subject to bullying from anti-GM Europeans. My only dispute with Tim and others is that I haven’t seen much evidence of GM foods that are actually useful in feeding the poor. Rice with added Vitamin A sounds nice, but it’s scarcely the next instalment Green Revolution. Most of the effort seems to have gone into making crops like soybeans “Roundup Ready’, which is not much use in poor countries. I have a bit more to say in this 1999 article entitled, The pros and cons of labelling are food for thought

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Gore blasts Bush's war plans

September 24th, 2002 Comments off

This speech by Al Gore showed more guts than he displayed at any point in his election campaign. If the Iraq war goes well for Bush, Gore’s political career is finished. But very few wars go well for those who start them, something which Saddam Hussein should know after Iran and Kuwait even if Bush doesn’t.

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A big welcome to Alan

September 24th, 2002 Comments off

A big welcome to Alan McCallum who’s already got into the spirit of things by slamming one of my posts. Judging by his blogtitle, Alan seems to be mainly concerned with the ancient sport of bagging the ABC (Perhaps Ubersportingpundit could extend coverage to this popular activity).

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Kyoto counter-petition no-show

September 24th, 2002 Comments off

The economists statement in support of the Kyoto Protocol, which i helped to organise got nearly 300 signatures (around 30 per cent of the academic economics profession) in three weeks. The counterpetition, announced a month ago, has yet to be released, despite repeated rumors. I think we can conclude that the problem is a paucity of qualified signatories. (The only public Kyoto opponent of any stature in the Australian economics profession, Warwick McKibbin is proposing what is, in effect, a marginal variation on the Kyoto plan.)

Support among Australian economists for sensible economic policies designed to reduce carbon emissions is strong, if not quite as overwhelming as support among qualified natural scientists for the global warming hypothesis itself.

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Google searches

September 24th, 2002 Comments off

Unlike lots of bloggers, I don’t get many hits from strange Google searches. The most regular topics are “definition socialism” and “Bilal Skaf” (I appear to be one of the few to mention the latter by name). But I got a rather disturbing one today “Jew Jack Straw real name”. The name “Jack Straw” has always seemed too good to be true for a member of the Blair government, having been borne by a leader of the peasant revolt of 1381. But as far as I can tell from this Guardian Quiz it’s real – he has done no more than change from a change from a prosaic “John” to a more proletarian and historically resonant “Jack”. I have of course not bothered to enquire about his religion/ethnicity.
As an aside, the French culture minister of the 1990s bore the unlikely name “Jack Lang”.

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Another scary story gets a bit closer

September 23rd, 2002 Comments off

As the Washington Post notes, Loan Refinancings are Putting the Squeeze On Fannie Mae. But, as I point out here, the real trouble will come when interest rates start to rise again.
UpdateAaron Task of TheStreet.com manages the “Sum of All Fears” scenario, pointing out that Fannie Mae’s problems are intertwined with JP Morgan’s derivative business. Both look susceptible to a ’100 year flood’ event that hasn’t been factored into calculations.

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Europe swings left

September 23rd, 2002 Comments off

The re-election of the German Social-Democrat Green coalition last night, following that of the Swedish Social Democrats last month, marks the end of the European swing to the right that begin with the Austrian elections of 1999 when the far-right (see below) Freedom Party led by Joerg Haider gained 27 per cent of the vote and entered a coalition government with the conservative People’s Party, displacing their previous coalition partner, the Social Democrats. Over the next three years, similar coalitions of the right and far-right, or right-wing governments dependent on far-right support took office in Italy, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands. In addition, the French socialist government lost office after elections in which the most notable feature was a strong showing by the far-right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Most of the right-far-right coalitions are now in serious trouble. The Austrian government has collapsed following an attempt by Haider (a provincial governor) to reassert control over the Freedom Party against its national leadership. Elections are scheduled for November 24, and defeat for the coalition is predicted. Italian PM Berlusconi is frantically trying to change the law to protect himself from trial on corruption charges. In the Netherlands, support for the Pim Fortuyn list has fallen sharply following, among other things, the exposure of its deputy leader as a participant in a violent military coup in her native Surinam. English-language coverage of events in Denmakr and Norway is spotty, to put in mildly, but there’s every reason to hope that the right-wing governments there won’t manage a second term.
The situation is even better in the Eastern Europe, where the far-right has had a series of defeats in the Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It now seems almost certain that the expansion of the EU to encompass as many as ten additional Eastern European countries will proceed as planned. The expansion will dismay not only the European far-right, but many on the American right, who are counting on Eastern European countries to provide military bases for a successor to NATOand general support for free-market policies against European social democracy.
Note: The term ‘far-right’ is a convenient catch-all label covering the European parties listed above, as well as like-minded politicians and parties in English-speaking countries, notably Pat Buchanan, Pauline Hanson and Winston Peters. Although there are plenty of differences, there is a clear family resemblance. For example, all are hostile to immigration, although some object to Asians, others to Muslims and still others to Eastern Europeans. I’ll try and come back to this question, and the relationship of the Howard government to the Australian and European far-right, in a later post.

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Thanks to Heath Gibson at

September 23rd, 2002 Comments off

Thanks to Heath Gibson at Catallaxy for pointing out this piece of silliness from James Morrow who says, quoting the SMH:

“Remember that “hole in the ozone layer” that’s supposed to cook the Earth, drown tiny Pacific atolls, maintain full employment for an entire industry of academic, activist, and regulatory no-hopers? Put away the sun block; it’s closing up.

The level of chlorine from chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere is falling, and the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica should close by 2050, Australian scientists have revealed.

A jubilant Paul Fraser, chief research scientist with the CSIRO’s atmospheric research division, which made the discovery, said it was now clear that the pain Western nations, including Australia, had accepted after CFCs were banned in the mid-1990s had been worthwhile.

Of course, this will surely do nothing to mollify the sky-is-falling doomsayers who are pushing for Australia and the U.S. to hand over a hunk of their GNP (or, more accurately, stop producing it) via the Kyoto Accords. ‘

Morrow appears to be unaware that the Kyoto Protocol is modelled on the Montreal Protocol which phased out the use of CFCs and is responsible for saving the ozone layer. Similarly, Bjorn Lomborg triumphantly points to the reductions in various kinds of pollution while ignoring the environmental policies that delivered them. No doubt when Kyoto (and its successors) have been in force 50 years, some future James or Bjorn will be crowing that the environmentalists got it wrong on global warming.

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