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Un-Australian activities

October 31st, 2002 Comments off

One of the great dangers of political struggles is that of ‘fighting fire with fire’ and thereby becoming the same as your enemy. Nowhere is this more evident than among critics of ‘political correctness’. The standard critique of political correctness is that its practitioners believe that hurtful speech is oppressive and therefore seek to curtail freedom of speech. In the caricature version of PC, a reference to a 150 cm, 200 kg person as ‘fat’ is un-PC and must be replaced by a euphemism such as ‘gravitationally challenged’.
Opponents of political correctness are similarly quick to claim oppression whenever they are subject to verbal criticism. ‘Racist’ is the absolute taboo term for these reverse-PC types, followed by ‘McCarthyist’, but even something as neutral as ‘right-wing’ reliably calls forth howls of protest.
All of this confusion is exhibited by Janet Albrechtsen complaining about left-wing attempts to censor free speech on campus. Although she says this is a problem in Australia, the sole example she gives is that of Robert Manne criticising his off-campus opponents as supporters of a ‘new racism’.
Most of her examples are American. A typical instance is a letter written by some academics to an Oklahoma newspaper criticising a Web Site called Campus Watch. Janet was so upset about this that I initially supposed that the University of Oklahoma must be hosting the site and that the letter could be seen as an attempt to have it taken down. But no, in Janet’s world, a letter to your local paper counts as attempted censorship.
Intrigued by this, I went to the site and clicked on the first page an article entitled Harvard’s Un-American Activities. I assumed that this headline would refer to some committee established by Harvard, on the model of the famous House Un-American Activities Committee, to suppress non-PC comments on various issues. But, as it turns out, Campus Watch wants to suppress Harvard. The article refers in general terms to opponents of a war with Iraq as treasonous, and specifically stated that

The unconscionable decision to allow the commencement speech called “My American Jihad” – which whitewashed the real meaning of the term in favor of a mild vision of personal struggle – has now been followed by a faculty-signed petition against war on Iraq.

In other words, despite its frontpage claim to ‘fully respect the freedom of speech of those it debates’, Campus Watch is specifically engaged in attempts to suppress campus speech, and to label dissent as treason.
A few of final observations. First the term ‘politically correct’, like its Australian cousin ‘ideologically sound’, was almost never used seriously. It originated within the left as a term of relatively gentle mockery for those obsessively concerned with superficialities like the use of appropriate terminology and the avoidance of unsound choices in consumer goods.
Second, political correctness is, under the name of ‘civility’, widely praised by many who would shrink in horror from anything ‘PC’. The basic point of civility or ‘manners’ is to act in a way that is socially appropriate rather than acting in accordance with your own feelings. As such it is an organised system of hypocrisy. Considered as ‘the tribute that vice pays to virtue’, a certain amount of hypocrisy is socially useful. But ultimately, correct choices of words are no substitute for genuine sympathy with other members of the community, something that is distinctly lacking among many right-wing advocates of ‘civility’ and quite a few ‘politically correct’ leftwingers.
Finally, a week or so ago, the Oz was honest, or brazen, enough to reprint the entire controversy between Janet and Media Watch. Reading it at one sitting it was obvious that Janet was guilty as charged, of printing distorted and plagiarised quotes, then failing to retract properly despite complaints from the person being quoted. Her only defence was that MW was engaged in selective prosecution, a valid enough point, but not one that does anything to restore her own credibility.

Categories: General Tags:

I told them so

October 31st, 2002 Comments off

Forbes.com reports that online sales have fallen (relative to the same quarter last year) for the first time. The report includes this gem:

Along with economic weakness, and the inevitable slowdown in growth that comes from a maturing industry, this year’s online sales figures reflect more sophisticated strategies about what can and cannot be sold online.

In March 1999, I wrote

A more promising way of making money on the Net is by selling goods and services. Superficially, the scope for growth here looks limitless. So far, however, sales on the Internet have been strong only where a lot of business was previously done by phone or mail-order. Examples include computer hardware and software, books and CDs (particularly hard-to-get items), florists and travel services. Once the bugs are ironed out, the Net will offer a better service than a call-centre or paper catalog. So, business on the Internet should grow to a level comparable to that of the present mail-order and phone-order sectors.

The Harvard and Stanford MBAs who ran and financed the dotcom bubble companies spent around $100 billion to work out that home-delivering Internet-ordered dog food is not a viable business plan, and this is called ‘more sophisticated strategies’.

Categories: General Tags:

Privatisation policy doesn't hold water

October 31st, 2002 Comments off

Ken Davidson slams the fashionable policy of public-private partnerships. I recently appeared before a Victorian Parliamentary committee inquiring into this issue. I’ll post a link to my submission shortly.
Update Here it is (PDF file)

Categories: General Tags:

This is a short sentence

October 31st, 2002 Comments off

Ross Gittins has an interesting piece on the Western Australian decision to abolish all jail sentences shorter than six months. (Link via Professor Bunyip who includes an interesting personal anecdote, which gives clues to the continuing puzzle of his true identity, and pretty conclusive refutes my own hypothesis on this topic).
I endorse this decision. I hope it works satisfactorily and I think it should be taken further. As I pointed out here, once you accept that prison sentences don’t have much effect in either deterring crime or rehabilitating criminals, there’s no point in short sentences. On the one hand, there’s a strong case for locking hardened criminals up until they’re too old for crime. On the other hand, given that most juvenile institutions appear to be training grounds for adult criminals, there’s a strong case for second chances and slaps on the wrist for young offenders, based on the observation that a lot of them grow out of it naturally.

Let me throw another idea into the mix. One reason we resort to imprisonment so readily is that there’s no alternative punishment that’s really serious. Fines typically max out at a couple of thousand dollars, which is trivial for an employed criminal. I’d suggest making fines proportional to income and collecting them over a period of years using the same mechanisms that are used for child support. We could then impose much heavier fines as an alternative to short stretches of prison or pointless ‘community service’.

Update As always, there’s lots of good stuff in the comments thread. In response to Ken Parish, I want to clarify one point. My argument doesn’t rely on the assumption that criminal penalties have no deterrent effect, only that there is no significant deterrent effect from marginal increases in the severity of penalties e.g. short prison terms vs fines. I agree that greater probability of detection does have a deterrent effect.

Categories: General Tags:

Steyn does it (yet) again

October 30th, 2002 Comments off

Responding to my post on Philip Adams, Bernard Slattery mentions my personal jihad/crusade (the two words are exact synonyms) against Mark Steyn, and encourages me further by linking approvingly to Steyn’s latest. Can I, as promised previously, find a glaring factual error or misappropriated quote? Well let’s see.
Steyn denounces the press for mentioning John Muhammad’s Gulf War record and military training rather than focusing exclusively on his conversion to Islam. Then he goes on to attack Frank Rich for suggesting that Christian as well as Muslim fundamentalists should be subject to anti-terrorism policies. Here’s Steyn:

You get the picture: sure, Muslim fundamentalists can be pretty extreme, but what about all our Christian fundamentalists? Unfortunately, for the old moral equivalence to hold up, the Christians really need to get off their fundamentalist butts and start killing more people. At the moment, the brilliantly versatile Muslim fundamentalists are gunning down Maryland schoolkids and bus drivers, hijacking Moscow theatres, self-detonating in Israeli pizza parlours, blowing up French oil tankers in Yemen, and slaughtering nightclubbers in Bali, while Christian fundamentalists are, er, sounding extremely strident in their calls for the return of prayer in school.

Apparently, the words “Oklahoma City”* and “Operation Rescue” have disappeared down the Steyn memory hole, even though he mentions, and sneeringly dismisses, Rich’s allusion to terrorist attacks on abortion clinics.

Just to make Steyn’s day, another Gulf war veteran, disappointed with his grades, went out to the University of Arizona yesterday and shot three lecturers before killing himself. While Steyn couldn’t have known this when he wrote the article, it suggests that this aspect of Muhammad’s background is not as irrelevant as Steyn vociferously asserted.

Steyn is a shameless liar, as well as being a bigot and a hatemonger. As long as Australian newspapers keep running his pieces, and Australian bloggers keep citing him with approval, I’m going to keep pointing this fact out.

* There is some dispute about McVeigh’s personal religious views. But there is no doubt that his terrorist acts were motivated by the extremist views associated with fundamentalist Christian militias.

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Animus against Adams

October 30th, 2002 Comments off

One of the striking things about the right wing of Australian politics is the depth of hatred for Phillip Adams. This is evident reading almost any right-wing blogger and is reflected in the frequent claim that what the ABC needs is a ‘right-wing Phillip Adams’.

The indictment against Adams, as I read it, is that he’s a fat, pompous old windbag who assumes that anyone with an opposing viewpoint is a fool or a knave. If there is one thing this country is not short of, it’s pundits satisfying all of these criteria, particularly right-wingers. I could name half a dozen off the top of my head, and I’m sure there are plenty more.
In fact most of these characteristics are occupational hazards of punditry, or of life. From personal experience, I know that it’s hard for an opinion columnist to avoid pontificating and even harder to accept that most of your political opponents are intelligent people who sincerely believe in the policies they are advocating. On the other counts, old age comes to us all and, in a sedentary job, so does weight gain, or a never-ending struggle against it. Perhaps Adams is more prone to these faults than some other pundits, but he’s certainly far from the worst on any of the counts listed against him
So why the particular animus against Adams? His ABC show seems to arouse particular resentment, but would any of the top half-dozen rightwing windbags give up their existing gigs for a late-night show on Radio National? And, given the ubiquity of this kind of thing, what possible purpose would be served by putting on ABC show starring a second-string rightwing windbag In fact, I believe they tried for a while with Imre Saluszinsky but the experiment was not a success for some reason (A Google search reveals nothing to support my memory of an Imre show, so perhaps readers can set me straight on this point).
Adams also has a pretty big slab in the Weekend Oz, but this is mostly devoted to building up the Adams persona (on which more below). And only the most bigoted rightwinger could suggest that the Murdoch press has a leftwing bias.
I think the real reason for the hatred of Adams is that he has succeeded in creating a character. The much-publicized feud with God, the joke books, the rural retreat and simple longevity (has he been in the Oz since it started publication or just since the dawn of living memory?) have gone to create a complete persona – Adams’ political views are just a part of this. As a result, he has not just readers and listeners, but fans. A lot of people have tried this, for example bringing their spouses and children (usually with fey pet names) into their columns. But it’s not as easy as it looks, particularly when you add political comment to the mix, and few have succeeded.
The only pundit who’s been more successful than Adams in this way is John Laws, the truckies’ mate, homespun poet, battlers’ friend and so on. But Laws has exploited every aspect of his self-created character for commercial gain, to the point where even his listeners can hardly take him seriously. As the continuing attacks on him show, the Adams character is a long-running success story.

Categories: General Tags:

Ethics for Libertarians and other minorities

October 29th, 2002 Comments off

In the course of some research (into minimum wages of all things) I happened to run across an interesting journal called Social Philosophy and Policy with a number of articles devoted to libertarianism and specifically to its failure to gain significant popular support. This was of interest to me both because so many of my fellow-bloggers are libertarians and because many of the points raised were equally applicable to other minority viewpoints such as socialism.
Loren Lomasky focused specifically on the position of libertarians in a society where large-scale state intervention takes place with the support of 99 per cent of the population. He argues that libertarians must resist the temptation to view all those who disagree with them as fools or knaves, pointing out that libertarians themselves disagree about many of the points that lead others to be skeptical (e.g. the relationship between a hypothetical ‘initial position’ and opposition to redistribution of existing wealth). In my experience, the correlation between political views and personal character, while non-zero, is so low that judging a person’s character by their general political stance is almost always a mistake (IMHO, users of terms like ‘idiotarian’ are revealing more about their own intellectual capacity than that of the people they are attacking).
Lomasky also raises some interesting questions about moral conduct for libertarians. For example: Is a libertarian academic justified in taking the best available job, even if it’s in a state university (His answer “Yes”). Is a libertarian whose neighbour is causing him grief justified in tipping off the police about the neighbour’s drug stash (No). I can say from personal experience that very similar issues arise for socialists and even for consistently liberal social democrats (for my current self-classification, click here).
The other point raised by all the papers is one I noted myself a while ago. The debate among the inheritors of the classical liberal tradition has been fundamentally changed by the success of the social-democratic welfare state in providing a previously unimaginable level of security against economic hardship. Libertarians must either concede a lot of ground (Lomasky’s view, I think) or come up with more convincing market substitutes than they have produced so far (the line taken by Richard Epstein).

Categories: General Tags:

US to repudiate foreign debt?

October 29th, 2002 Comments off

Although there’s little in it that hasn’t previously been published by warbloggers like Steven den Beste, I found this piece by William Safire pretty startling. After all you can find just about anything on the web, whereas Safire clearly represents an influential strand of thinking within the US Administration and is writing in the New York Times.
Safire explores the warbloggers’ preferred scenario, in which the UNSC fails to accept a US resolution incorporating the term ‘material breach’ * and the US goes to war unilaterally. Safire envisages an old-style war of conquest in which a puppet government is set up (he doesn’t use the term, but he assumes the government will pursue predetermined policies that harm Iraq and help the US) and used to reward putative allies (Turkey, for example, is supposed to get royalties from the Kirkuk oil fields) and punish non-allies (the ‘corrupt’ debt to Russia is to be repudiated). Meanwhile the US and Britain get Iraq’s oil and pump like crazy, reducing world oil prices by a third.
I want to focus on just one element of this plan – the repudiation of debt on political grounds. Although Safire describes this debt as ‘corrupt’, it’s clear that, in his model, the debt would be repaid if the Russians backed a US invasion. So his proposal amounts to selective repudiation of the debts of a US-controlled government.
In writing about the relative merits of US and European government bonds a day or two ago, I mentioned the possibility of repudiation for the sake of logical completeness, but only to dismiss it as unthinkable. As of today, that is no longer the case. The occurrence of a chain of events leading the US to default on its own debt remains highly improbable, but it is no longer unthinkable.
One possible chain would run as follows. After an Iraqi repudiation dictated by occupying US forces, the Russians retaliate by selectively repudiating debts to the US or by seizing US assets. European financial institutions continue lending to Russia, so the Americans try to recover their losses from them. At some point in the process, wholesale panic breaks out and the US decides either to repudiate or to inflate its way out of trouble by printing unlimited numbers of US dollars.
In thinking about all this, it’s important to remember that the US is by far the world’s biggest debtor and borrower, whether we focus on the US government or the US economy as a whole. In 2003, the US will need to borrow around $500 billion from foreigners (mainly Europeans and Japanese) to balance its current account deficit. The Federal government budget deficit will account for about half of this, and with US household savings near zero, much of it will have to be financed directly by overseas borrowings. In these circumstances, even a slowdown in lending to the US could prove disastrous.
I regard the repudiation scenario as highly unlikely, in part because I don’t think it will get past the first hurdle. It appears unlikely that the proposed US resolution will even get enough support to require a veto from what Safire calls ‘the Paris-Moscow-Beijing axis of greed’. In these circumstances, while the US may be willing to go to war to defend the words ‘material breach’ it’s doubtful that crucial allies including Turkey, Qatar and the UK will go along. The US needs at least two of these, and probably all three, for a successful war. As regards Australia, it seems very probable that Labor would oppose participation in an invasion under circumstances of this kind. The government has been making noises of support for the US, but I suspect that they would try to sit on the fence if at all possible, rather than take part in an exercise like this.
So the prospect of debt repudiation remains a distant one. Still, if I were in the market for US government bonds, I’d want at least another percentage point on the interest rate after reading Safire.
* ‘material breach’ is supposed to provide an automatic trigger for a US invasion. The US resolution is highly ambiguous, however. It’s not clear whether the trigger requires Iraqi noncompliance with weapons inspections and, if so, whether the inspectors have to certify such noncompliance or whether the US can make a unilateral determination.

Categories: General Tags:

Crime and its causes

October 29th, 2002 Comments off

As a postscript to the recent gun debabe, Salon runs this wire story of an FBI report saying that US crime is up first time in decade. The coincidence of this rise with the increase in unemployment over the last two years is consistent with the (recently much-derided) view that its necessary to focus on the ‘root causes’ of crime, as well as on locking up criminals.

Categories: General Tags:

Moscow

October 29th, 2002 Comments off

I tend to be slow in responding to events like those in Moscow, or previously in Monash and Bali. Initially at least, I just find the loss of life overwhelming. Rob Corr has some excellent coverage of this tragedy.

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Another cheer for postmodernism

October 28th, 2002 Comments off

The postmodernists have been copping it from all directions lately, mostly in relation to their claimed infiltration of the High School English curriculum in New South Wales and elsewhere. In a post a while back, I pointed out three good uses for postmodernism:
“(i) Therapy for recovering Stalinists
(ii) A harmless target on which right-wing pundits can vent their rage
(iii) Some theoretical content for degrees in “communications”

In a marginally more serious vein, I’d like to say that the ‘old’ English literature curriculum displaced by postmodernism is, in my opinion, no loss. The basic task of students in the old curriculum was to learn to write literary criticism, mainly focused on Shakespeare in drama, and on Dickens and other C19 writers in prose. I object to this on the following grounds:
(a) The resulting literary criticism was very bad
(b) The world has more than enough literary criticism
(c) The favored writing style was ornate rather than efficient, and produced bad habits that universities then had to weed out
(d) Arguments about works of art are almost inevitably sloppy and illogical; and most importantly
(e) The subject inculcated a hatred of literature in the majority of students.
On the whole, I think deconstruction of TV ads and sitcoms is far less harmful and might even be beneficial.
Update Not surprisingly, I managed to annoy both traditionalists and postmodernists (a minority in the world of political blogs, but there are some around) with this post. Read the comments thread, which is great as always, but also check out Jason Soon for a statement of the traditionalist position that’s a lot better than you can find in the newspapers and Don Arthur for a reasoned defence of postmodernism. I think Don’s a bit too charitable to the PoMos, but I agree with his basic point. The problem with postmodernism in High School is that it’s too highbrow. To be done at all well, it requires a level of cultural knowledge and epistemological sophistication that is not feasible for a high school student, very rare in high school teachers and not all that common among postmodernist academics. The big weakness of the traditionalist position is the assumption that critical and analytical skills are best learnt through the critical analysis of great works of literature. This seems inherently implausible, and I can’t say that the old curriculum did much for critical skills. It seems much more reasonable to learn by criticising familiar material with a relatively mundane purpose, like ads, newspaper articles and even sitcoms.

Categories: General Tags:

Americans and Australians (Warning: metablogging ahead!)

October 28th, 2002 Comments off

The human brain is a classifying machine, and its favorite type of classification is a dichotomy, as in, “there are two sorts of people in the world, those who divide the world into two sorts of people and those who dont”. The runner-up is a spectrum. The Left-Right division can either be seen as a dichotomy, as in left-handed vs right-handed or as a spectrum.

In relation to Australian ploggers (this term for political bloggers is due to Ken Parish), there’s been plenty of discussion of the standardleft-right dichotomy/spectrum and the Political BlogMap also distinguishes authoritarian from libertarian. I’ve observed a significant shift on the first dimension in the few months since I’ve been blogging. Whereas ‘Ozplogistan’ was clearly right-wing when I joined it, it’s now much more reflective of the Australian political spectrum as a whole. The pronounced libertarian bias observable on the blogmap remains however.

Another distinction that had a good run was left brain (rational/analytical/verbal) vs right-brain (emotional/figurative). Again I think there’s been a clear shift to the left over time. In Ozplogistan, though not in the ‘real world’, there’s a strong correlation between left-wing and left-brain, so the parallel shifts aren’t surprising.

The gun debate and reactions to Bali made me realise that Ozploggers are divided on a third dimension, which I’ll call “American vs Australian”. ‘Americans’ are basically participants in the American blogosphere (mostly right-wing and right-brain) who happen to live in Australia and may add occasional local Australian color to their posts. James Morrow, who is an American expatriate recently arrived here, naturally falls into this category. So, to a very large extent does Tim Blair – as Tim Dunlop notes all his links are to US blogs. At the other extreme, Ken Parish is very much focused on events in Australia and comments on Australian blogs/plogs. Tim Dunlop is the mirror image of James Morrow: an American resident, but with a major focus on Australian events.

The gun debate was very revealing. Virtually all those I would regard as ‘Australian’ were pro-gun control and virtually all those I would regard as ‘American’ were anti. Of course, nearly all the ‘Americans’ are on the right, but ‘Australians’ with broadly similar views on most issues, like Gareth Parker and Scott Wickstein were strongly pro-control.

In writing this post, I thought about my own classification. I’m very interested in US economic developments, but otherwise would class myself as Australian in orientation. This led me to the further observation that whereas my ‘Australian’ posts get heaps of great comments, nobody much seems to be interested in my observations on the US economy. So I’ve decided to cut coverage of this topic to a minimum. If I get really energetic, I may start up a separate blog on it, just to record things that interest me.

Update: Possibly because I was trolling for compliments, lots of people have said they like the commentary on the US economy. So I’ll keep it up, but I’ll try and give it more of an ‘Australian/international’ angle, explaining why these issues matter to us and the world, and not worrying so much about keeping up with the American economic blogworld.

Categories: General Tags:

Great minds think alike

October 28th, 2002 Comments off

Tim Dunlop and I think alike so often we could be used as an experimental test of telepathy, or, for the more prosaic, of Merton’s theory of multiple discoveries. I regularly start work on a post only to find that Tim’s already written it, and I think the same may be true in reverse. My review of Baumol’s The Free-Market Innovation Machine, soon to be published at The Drawing Board, makes the point that

‘the Internet [was] a technological innovation created almost entirely by the public sector. The architecture of the Internet was set up with seed money from the US department of Defence, the network was built by the universities, and the World Wide Web was a gift from CERN, a physics research lab in Switzerland. The only significant private contribution was Unix, the last important piece of public good research done by Bell Labs before its effective demise.’

And here’s Tim:

[the] Internet was itself the product, not just of government regulation, but of public finance, research and expertise. It was then further “regulation”, under the influence of industry lobbying, that allowed it to move into the private sphere to the extent that it has, and which I presume Bargraz(sic) approves of.

. Tim’s argument elicits the counter from the redoubtable detective that ‘Tim’s presuming that I prefer privatisation over regulation. No so’, which is encouraging.
Of course, the fact that the Internet is a creation of the public sector is well-known except to those whose knowledge dates from after 1997, and to the writers at Wired, who presumably once knew, but have now forgotten. Still the coincidence between me and Tim is striking, especially in the light of another post in which Tim notes the failure of the other Tim (Blair) to link to any Australian blogs. This anticipates a new way of classifying Oz blogs which I was about to announce with great fanfare and will soon announce anyway without so much fanfare.

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What I'm reading this week

October 27th, 2002 Comments off

I’m still going through Trollope’s Palliser novels. Currently I’m reading The Eustace Diamonds. The leading character, Lizzie Eustace, is explicitly compared by Trollope to Thackeray’s Becky Sharp. In both cases, it’s hard for a modern reader not to barrack for these women playing the marriage market for all it’s worth in a society that offered few other choices. Jane Austen’s sympathetic treatment of Charlotte Lucas’ decision to accept the ludicrous Mr Collins is far more sophisticated than anything in Victorian literature.
Meanwhile, I still read quite a few magazines in print format. Both the Scientific American and Prospect (UK) have excellent web sites, but I’m happy to read the print versions. Prospect in particular is excellent, if a little bit Blairite for my own tastes.

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The case for a weak (US) dollar policy

October 27th, 2002 Comments off

American commentators are finally waking up to the fact that a strong currency does not necessarily imply a strong economy. I made this point 18 months ago, here and I think the analysis still stands up pretty well, even if US consumers are still spending.

One interesting point in the article is the idea that even though US investments are unattractive, investments in other countries are even less so. I disagree. If you accept that the $US has to depreciate at some time, then holding bonds denominated in $US, and paying interest rates lower than those obtainable in other currencies, is a dumb idea. Unless you think either that European governments are likely to default on their debt or that euroland is poised for inflation, eurobonds are a better bet, and similarly for Australian government bonds denominated in $A. But I’ve given up even the residual belief in the efficient markets hypothesis that would lead me to try and work out a coherent explanation of perverse asset prices.

Categories: General Tags:

Scott Wickstein has moved

October 27th, 2002 Comments off

Scott says “I’ve finally got a basic MT blog off the ground- It’s certainly not what I hoped it would be from the visual side of things, and I’m sure I will cop absolute HELL for it from some of the people I’ve written about for it being so lame; be that as it may, it’s up and off the ground. There will be certain tweaking of the code- and any feedback that’s not too complex for me to implement is more then welcome!
Thank you for supporting scottwickstein.blogspot.com. I hope my new site is even more thought provoking and successful.
The associated sites Ubersportingpundit and Oneblog in September will be up in due course. I hope to have Uber up within a week; OBIS might have to wait till next season.”

This looks like an open invitation (or maybe a troll) to visit Scott’s new site and bag out the design, so head on over

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The United States of Europe

October 25th, 2002 Comments off

My column in Thursday’s Fin argued that the future of the world is going to be determined in Europe and not in the fight between America and Iraq. Key points:
“like the embryonic United States of the early 19th century, Europe has both a doctrine of ‘manifest destiny’ and a well-established procedure for expansion. Since the original European Coal and Steel community was established in 1951, with the aim of preventing a recurrence of War between France and Germany, the core of the European vision has been one of a world governed by laws rather than naked force. ”
“European social democracy, and not American free-market capitalism, has ended up as the winner of the Cold War. By 2004, the European Union will have borders with Russia and will incorporate most of Eastern Europe. Under the EU Social Charter, all entrants are committed to a social-democratic system.”
“In the light of recent history, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area must be seen as the precursor to a Greater Europe encompassing the entire classical world. ”
“The success or failure of Europe in integrating Muslim countries, beginning with Turkey, will do more to determine future relations between Islam and the West than any military expedition. ”

Things didn’t look too good earlier in the year, as a string of social democrat governments lost office, mostly to coalitions of the ‘official’ conservative parties and far-right parties opposed to both immigration and European expansion. But now the right-far right coalitions are collapsing and expansion is going ahead at full pace.

A lot of pundits thought that the (expensive and silly) Common Agricultural Policy would prove a fundamental obstacle. But the French have very sensibly agreed to share the subsidies with new entrants, leaving the total cost fixed until 2006, with a commitment to reform thereafter. The NYT headlined this: A Fight Over Farms Ends, Opening Way to Wider Europe. This kind of messy compromise may not be inspiring, but it’s characteristic of the democratic political systems that have repeatedly outlasted and defeated more impressive-looking regimes with imperial aspirations.

Categories: General Tags:

Factoids of rich and poor

October 25th, 2002 Comments off

Arnold Kling presents a range of commentary on economic and technological issue that is always provocative and usually sensible. In
this post, however, he falls for a fallacious argument based on a confusion between price and income effects. He says:

” In my view, it is difficult to dispute that the rich are getting richer. However, it is equally difficult to dispute that the poor are getting richer. For example, W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm in Myths of Rich and Poor have pointed out that in spite of the rise in inequality a poor household in the 1990’s was more likely than an average household in the 1970’s to have a washing machine, clothes dryer, dishwasher, refrigerator, stove, color television, personal computer, or telephone. ”

The common feature of all the items listed in this quote is that their price has fallen dramatically relative to to the general price level. This means that even if incomes were exactly the same as in 1970 we would expect to see a big increase in consumption of these items.

Conversely, the income data, which show no significant increase in income for workers with high-school education since 1970, imply that consumption by the poor of some goods and services must have decreased. The obvious candidates ar e those goods that have increased in relative price, such as housing. Although it’s difficult to assess, the proliferation of prefabricated homes (aka mobile homes, aka trailers) supports the view that the poor are worse off in this respect.

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Modest proposals

October 25th, 2002 Comments off

A little while ago, I put forward a modest proposal to promote peace in the Middle East. Now new blogger Gummo Trotsky at Tug Boat Potemkin has put forward what I can only describe as an immodest (but very funny) proposal on gun control.
In keeping with recent discussion of attribution I’ll remind readers that the original Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift was a rather gruesome way to increase Irish exports.
On another topic, I’ve congratulated Gummo on a great choice of pseudonym – I also like “Derrida Derider” who appeared in my comment thread a while back, and I should also mention Mumble. Pseudonyms raise a natural curiosity. Some pseudonymous bloggers have revealed their secret identities to me and I’m pretty sure about some others, such as Stanley Gudgeon, but all secrets are safe with me. But I think Bargarz, whose comments are often serious and sensible, should consider revealing his true identity. I find it rather incongruous to say “I must agree with Bargarz’ analysis of the Iraqi question …” or similar.
Finally, apologies for not updating my blogroll. The number of bloggers is growing daily, and some sort of classification scheme seems to be necessary. I’ll try and link to all ‘Ozploggers’ of any interest, and I may set up a new category for humorous political & social commentary.

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I'm sorry Brad, I'm afraid I can't agree with that

October 25th, 2002 Comments off

Brad DeLong, in hisSemi-Daily Journal writes:

While the rate of advance of computer and communications technologies have vastly outstripped anything I imagined when I was a child … where are the robots?

I disagree with Brad’s premise that advances in computer and communications technologies have outstripped imagination.

We haven’t even got workable voice control, let alone a computer comparable to HAL in 2001. As regards communications, video telephony (a staple of imagined futures since Dick Tracy) is still off in the distance somewhere. I can’t believe Brad’s youthful imagination didn’t run to something more impressive than SMS text messaging.

And while the Internet is great, personal computers in other respects haven’t made more than incremental advances since the 1980s (or, in the case of Windows, since 1995).

Paul Krugman did a piece a while back looking at the technical predictions of people like the Hudson Institute. He found that, like economists with recessions, they forecasted all the main innovations we actually got and a bunch that we didn’t.

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Saunders vs Saunders

October 25th, 2002 Comments off

I can’t resist baiting from Ken Parish, even when he shifts the blame by heading his piece Bettina baits Quiggin. He’s referring to an article describing the debate between the two Peter Saunders whom I’ve mentioned previously. I’ve responded to the main arguments of the “New” or “CIS” Saunders here. I’ll just note the end of Arndt’s piece where she observes ” the huge gulf between the two men on the extent of poverty in Australia – Saunders the Old claims disadvantage is increasing, while the New cites evidence to show it remains constant ” (note, BTW, the use of “claims” vs “cites evidence to show”, a typical pundit trick)
In other words, after a decade when we have been told incessantly that Australia’s economic performance is ‘miraculous’, ‘world-beating’ and so on, the best that the advocates of free-market reform can claim is that poverty has remained constant.
Update Yet another comment thread that dwarfs (is this still a PC verb?) the original post in length, thoughtfulness and erudition. Be sure to read it. I plan a lengthy post covering the issues raised here, but I’ll have my work cut out.

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Desperately seeking aspirationals

October 25th, 2002 Comments off

Arthur Rorris of the the South Coast Labour Council has a very good analysis of the Cunningham by-election result, including an effective critique of the idea that Labor should be going after ‘aspirational’ voters. Having followed the entire debate on this, I conclude that “aspirational” refers to someone whose parents voted Labor, but whose economic situation and political views make them natural Liberal supporters, a description which applies to most of the leading members of the NSW Right.

The idea that former Labor heartland in the Western suburbs is full of these aspirationals is one of those factoids that takes a bit of work to refute. I have a go here, pointing out that lots of the Western suburbs are very like Pauline Hanson country in statistical terms.

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Truth and consequences

October 24th, 2002 Comments off

The debate over gun control rages on, but as far as I can see, no-one on the pro-gun side of the debate has taken up my invitation to present a principled libertarian position. Instead, as Jack Strocchi points out in the comments thread for a previous post, the pro-gun side is trying to make a consequentialist and utilitarian argument that widespread gun ownership will save lives. It’s dishonest to make this argument if, in fact, you would oppose gun control regardless of the net impact on murder rates and so on. So, I’m putting forward a proposition which I’m inviting pro-gun writers like Alex Robson to join me in endorsing:
Proposition: Since any other costs and benefits of gun policy are trivial in relation to the saving of lives, I support whatever gun policy is most likely, on the available evidence, to minimise the loss of life from homicide and related causes
As far as I’m concerned, anyone who is not prepared to endorse this proposition (or some marginal variant) should be assumed to be dishonest when they present factual claims about the effects of different gun policies on murder rates and so on.

Anyone who is genuinely interested in the facts should read the analysis posted by Ken Parish. My prediction, though, is that having lost both the statistical argument and the political debate, the gun libertarians will resort to Steynwalling.

Update The proposed response of the Howard government has been excellent – a ban on all handguns except for police, security guards and elite pistol shooters and a gun buyback. Importantly this means a total ban on most types of handguns, which are not used in shooting competitions. And after initially ducking the issue as is their wont, the Labor state premiers have sniffed the political wind and realised that their only chance is to be even tougher. Bracks is pushing for a change which would require sporting shooters to keep their guns locked up at gun clubs, and Carr is pushing to include a bigger push against illegal gun imports (a factor in the localised rash of gun crimes in Sydney’s inner west). My guess is that the combination of requirements for psychological testing and the impossibility of actually having a gun to stroke at home will deter most of the marginal types from taking the sporting shooter route to gun ownership, and that membership of gun clubs will decline precipitously as a result.

Further update I should note that a couple of libertarians have responded to my invitation. ct8o (can you believe that I’ve seen this sig about 50 times and not realised that it’s a fancy way of writing “Cato”) put up some points to which Ken Parish has responded both in the comments thread and on his own blog. John Humphreys has a comment under “Guns and Libertarians” a couple of posts down, to which I’ve responded.
As I’ve been getting a lot of new visitors lately, some of whom may be new to blogging, I’ll repeat my advice to click on the comment line. In my not-so-humble opinion, this blog has one of the best comment threads to be found anywhere. In quite a few cases, the comments add more value to the debate than the original post. And please, don’t be shy about adding your own comments. You can always use a pseudonym, or just “Anon”.

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Guns and terrorists

October 24th, 2002 Comments off

Lots of American warbloggers and pro-gun types (there’s almost 100 per cent overlap between these groups in the blogworld) have been arguing that the Washington shootings are probably being carried out by a terrorist – either an Al Qaeda operative or a ‘volunteer’ like Hessan Hadayat, who shot two people dead at the El Al ticket counter at LAX before being killed himself by a security officer. Tim Dunlop’s coverage has lots of links on this. We can be certain that, whoever is doing this, Al Qaeda hasn’t failed to notice his success in creating terror.
The reasoning of the US writers seems to be that the implications for the gun control debate would be more favorable if this killer turned out to be a terrorist. At least as far as Australia is concerned, I think the opposite is true. We are, sadly, becoming used to periodic multiple gun murders committed by professional criminals and by ‘ordinary law-abiding gun owners’ who’ve cracked under the various pressures of life. We must now face the new threat that some local supporter of bin Laden (or some other terrorist) will decide to martyr himself and, more importantly, other Australians.
For the American warbloggers, the answer seems to be that ‘ordinary’ Americans should be armed at all times, and that ethnic and religious profiling should be used to identify and disarm those who are not ‘ordinary’. Leaving aside the awful implications of such a policy, these guys seem to have conveniently forgotten Oklahoma City, not to mention many other acts of terror committed by a groups and individuals whose ethnic and religious profiles are very similar to their own.
The likelihood that terrorists will adopt a strategy of random shootings adds to the urgency of removing as many guns as possible from circulation. This might be of limited value against ‘professional’ terrorists, but it would reduce the risk of ‘volunteers’. If we diverted the resources currently allocated to chasing drug users into a crackdown on illegal guns, a lot of progress could be made. Guns are, after all, metal objects, and much harder to conceal than drugs.
Update The main suspect arrested in the sniper case, John Muhammad, appears to fit the profile of a ‘volunteer’ . Basically, as Jack Strocchi points out in the comments thread (does he ever sleep) a black Islamic version of Timothy McVeigh.

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Through a glass clearly

October 24th, 2002 Comments off

This NYT piece by Floyd Norris has been given the headline Looking Glass on Earnings Just Got Darker, but I think this is wrong, assuming “dark” is used correctly to mean obscure (it’s a slightly mangled quote from the Bible), and not to mean “dismal”.
The S&P definition of “core earnings” reported in the article is pretty much right. It
(i) expenses stock options
(ii) calculates pension costs correctly
(iii) does not allow the exclusion of ‘one-time’ charges for restructuring
(iv) allows the exclusion of charges for impairment of goodwill in acquisitions (this is correct in the case of stock-only mergers, it’s not clear whether it also applies when cash is paid).
The upshot is that core earnings give a much clearer picture of profitability than pro-forma earnings, operating earnings or Generally Accepted Accounting Practice (GAAP).
The bottom line – profits are less than half those reported by companies and the S&P 500 is currently trading at around 50 times earnings.

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Doonesbury cools debate

October 24th, 2002 Comments off

Doonesbury is running daily strips on blogging at the moment, but the Sunday strips are on a different cycle. Ken Parish should love this one.

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Guns and libertarians

October 24th, 2002 Comments off

Ken Parish presents a solid demolition of gun lobby lies, particularly those of John Lott in yesterday’s Oz. The claim that widespread ownership of deadly weapons is going to save lives is so silly that no-one without a strong prior prejudice could believe it, even without the glaring evidence of the US. The most common prejudice is that of ‘ordinary law-abiding gun owners’ who have no intention of killing anybody, and don’t see why they shouldn’t have a gun. Almost certainly, the Monash killer fell into this category until fairly recently.

Another possible prejudice is political/ideological. Jason Soon took the trouble to argue that gun control wasn’t inconsistent with his libertarian views, but most of those arguing against gun control (including John Lott) are ideological libertarians. Rather than fighting over the statistics, which are pretty clear-cut, I’d be interested to see some of these critics present a principled statement of a libertarian position (there’s obviously more than one) on gun ownership. In particular, does it extend to private armies, and to military weapons, that is, heavy weapons and not just firearms? This would seem to provide a defence against the state so feared by libertarians, whereas handguns just give citizens the means of killing each other.

Update: The two students killed in the Monash attack were Steven Chan and Xu Hui (William) Wu. We should think of their families along with all the others mourning loved ones in these dreadful times.

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Welcome

October 23rd, 2002 Comments off

A blogging welcome to Gary Sauer-Thompson who has a fascinating blog, but hasn’t yet learned how to hyperlink. The best way of learning all these things is to find a page with good stuff on it, save it as HTML and then copy what you want. But for those who don’t want to go to this trouble, Blogger.com has a “Blog this” button you can download. And of course you can always buy a book on HTML, and follow the advice of the classic acronym RTFM (read the … manual).

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How heroic are lecturers?

October 23rd, 2002 Comments off

Early news reports suggested that the Monash killer was disarmed by an econometrics lecturer, Lee Gordon-Brown, who tackled him, with the assistance of students. But this report says the helpers were another lecturer, Brett Inder (a distant acquaintance of mine) and a student who turns out also to be a part-time lecturer and martial arts champion. I certainly hope I never have to deal with anything like this, but these guys are setting a pretty high standard for the rest of us, whether or not they want to be called heroes.

At this stage, it’s not clear whether the push for better gun laws will fizzle out into meaningless tightening of rules that will be evaded as soon as our attention is diverted, or whether we’ll get a buyback sufficiently broad to remove most handguns from the community. I suspect that the politicians who are ducking for cover have misjudged the politics of this question (I’m sure they all know that the right policy is a near-total ban). At least in country Australia, rifles and shotguns were standard tools until quite recently, and restrictions on their ownership and use raised real concerns about the erosion of traditional ways of life. Handguns are the province of urban criminals, psychos, collectors (whose motives must be considered dubious) and a relatively small number of genuine sportspeople whose needs could be accommodated through an armoury system. A handgun ban will be much easier politically than the ban on semi-automatic rifles and shotguns.

Update Alex Robson weighs into the gun debate, showing in the process that you can prove anything with statistics, or at least give it the old college try. He quotes Joyce Malcolm saying:

In 1981 the American rate [of homicide] was 8.7 times the English rate, in 1995 it was 5.7 times the English rate, and the latest study puts it at 3.5 times ..(one sentence snipped)… Yet Americans still enjoy a substantially lower rate of violent crime than England, without the “restraint on personal liberty” English governments have seen as necessary.

If Americans “enjoy” 3.5 times the murder risk, I’ll stick with Australian misery. And while I’m not sure precisely what is meant by “restraint on personal liberty” , the reduction in American murder rates in the 1990s has been achieved, in part, by imposing the highest rates of imprisonment in the developed world (I think anywhere in the world, but I’ll check this).

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New on the website

October 23rd, 2002 Comments off
  • Unemployment on the rise. Australian Financial Review 12 September
    Summary: The real rate of unemployment is between 10 and 20 per cent
    Grab: Taking all the evidence into account it seems reasonable to conclude that unemployment in Australia is worse than at any time since World War II, except for the trough of ‘the recession we had to have’. This dismal outcome has been recorded at a time when our economic performance is routinely touted as ‘miraculous’ and ‘worldbeating’
  • Breaking the camel’s back. Australian Financial Review 26 September
    Summary: In the name of consumers, economic rationalists and managerialists have made life miserable for producers
    Grab: The fable of the straw that broke the camel’s back is, among other things, a warning about overburdening those who actually do the work. Economic reformers and enterprising managers have been adding straws to the bundle for at least a decade. It’s time to reduce the burden.
  • A case for equity partners. Australian Financial Review 10 October
    Summary: Responds to critics of a proposal to allow financial institutions to take an equity stake in owner-occupied housing. Surveys the housing bubble.
    Grab: There are plenty of unresolved questions about equity partnerships, but the proposal does not, as many have suggested, deserve instant dismissal. Along with a number of Australian and international economists, representing a broad spectrum of opinion on economic policy issues, I was a signatory of a statement arguing that further investigation of this proposal was desirable. Nothing I have seen in the ensuing debate has led me to change my mind.
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