Archive for December, 2002

Tuesday message board

December 31st, 2002 Comments off

It’s a day late, but it’s time for everyone to have their say. Suggested topic: predictions and hopes for the New Year, but, as usual, anything (clean and civilised) goes.

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Back on blog

December 31st, 2002 Comments off

Hi everyone! I’ve been travelling in various parts of North Queensland, most recently beautiful Mission Beach, but now I’m back on air, though it will still be fairly light for a week or so.

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Attack of the clones?

December 31st, 2002 Comments off

The announcement (still not verified) that a cloned baby has been born seems likely to produce the usual handwringing about Brave New World and technology running ahead of the law. In fact, while it will be almost impossible to stop human cloning, my assessment is that the net social impact will be close to zero.
The basic premise for this claim is that hardly anyone wants a fundamental alternative to the traditional method of conception. All the popular applications of human reproductive technologies have involved making the traditional method work more reliably – either by enabling infertile couples to have children or by preventing the transmission of genetic defects.
Conversely, most of the supposed ‘Brave New World’ applications have been feasible, using low-tech methods, since the dawn of time, or at least since the basics of genetics became properly understood around a century ago. The only widespread example of genetic selection has been the use of amniocentesis, followed by selective abortion, for sex selection. This is just a marginally modified version of selective infanticide, though for some, the differences are crucial. A similar point applies to the most likely non-therapeutic use of cloning, to permit lesbians to have children without male intervention.
With these marginal exceptions, interest in human applications of genetic engineering, both high-tech and low-tech, has been close to zero. From attempts at promoting eugenic breeding in the early 20th century to the ‘genius’ sperm bank of the 1980s, hardly anyone has been interested in improving the genetic quality of the species, and particularly not if it involved removing their own genes from the pool (of course, as the famous Darwin awards attest, many of the less-fit manage to find creative ways of removing their genes from the pool before reproducing).
Coming back to cloning, if a science-fiction version of cloning were possible, producing exact adult copies of a given individual, there would probably be men rich and egotistical enough to go for it (I can’t imagine women being interested). But I doubt that many men would really want an identical twin thirty years younger than themselves, and whose inevitably disappointing behavior can’t be blamed on anyone else.

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December 28th, 2002 Comments off

Humans have always tried to predict the future, generally with limited success. Before the modern era, most attempts at prediction relied on magical approaches. The only science with a record of successful prediction was astronomy, and this success gave rise to its magical counterpart, astrology.
Over the course of the modern era, the predictive capacity of scientific disciplines, from geology and meteorology to demography and economics, improved steadily. Nevertheless, on most issues of central concern in human society, our capacity to predict events more than a few years into the future remains modest, especially by comparison with the grandiose claims made by the 19th Century pioneers of the social sciences.
The idea of futurology as an organised effort to predict the future became popular around the middle of the 20th century, and was most closely associated with Herman Kahn and the Hudson Institute. The aim of futurologists was to bring a wide range of disciplinary perspectives to bear on the task of predicting future developments in society and technology.
The most notable innovation in futurology was methodological. In place of forecasts, futurologists introduced the idea of ‘scenarios’, a metaphor taken from the technical language of scriptwriting. In futurology, a scenario is a general description of conditions which forms the basis of more detailed conditional predictions of specific outcomes. Thus, we might consider a scenario for 2050 in which the United Nations has become a world government or, alternatively, has ceased to exist.
Scenarios were initially used to add rigor to informal forecasts. Increasingly, however, they have been used as a way of specifying parameter values for simulation modelling using large-scale computer models. The first such exercise to gain widespread attention was the ‘Limits to Growth” model produced by the Club of Rome in the 1970s. The weaknesses of this model, which predicted severe shortages of most commodities to emerge by the 1990s, supported critics who argued that the large scale of the model distracted attention from fundamental theoretical difficulties such as the failure to take price responses into account.
Scenario-based approaches to prediction of the future do not lend themselves to empirical testing, since they are, in essence, conditional forecasts and the conditions are rarely satisfied exactly. It is safe to say, however, that the prediction of social events remains an unsolved problem. Since the act of making predictions may well affect social outcomes, the problem may in fact be insoluble.

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Expected utility

December 27th, 2002 Comments off

In the 1930s and 1940s, economists reformulated economic analysis in terms of preferences, eliminating, seemingly once and for all, the troublesome notion of utility and the link between classical economics and utilitarianism. Almost immediately, however, the concept of cardinal utility theory was revived by von Neumann and Morgenstern in their analysis of behavior under uncertainty, and its application to game theory, based on the idea of expected utility maximisation. When faced with an uncertain prospect, under which any of a set of outcomes could occur with known probability, von Neumann and Morgenstern suggested attaching a numerical utility to each outcome and evaluating the prospect by calculating the mean value of the utilities. This procedure is feasible only for cardinal measures of utility.
Von Neumann and Morgenstern denied that the cardinal nature of the utility function they used had any normative significance, and most advocates of expected utility agreed. Savage (1954) warned against confusing the von Neumann–Morgenstern utility function with “the now almost obsolete notion of utility in riskless situations.” Arrow (1951) described cardinal utility under certainty as “a meaningless concept”. However, as Wakker (1991a, p. 10) observes
The same cardinal function that provides an expectation representing individuals’ preferences over randomized outcomes is also used to provide the unit of exchange between players. The applicability of risky utility functions as a means of exchange between players is as disputable as their applicability to welfare theory, or to any other case of decision making under certainty.
This view was adopted by Allais (1953), the most prominent critic of the expected utility model. Allais argued that a proper analysis of choice under risk required both a cardinal specification of utility as a function of wealth under certainty and a separate specification of attitudes towards uncertainty. Allais’ position has been strengthened by the development of the rank-dependent family of generalisations of the expected utility model (Quiggin 1982), in which there is a clear separation between diminishing marginal utility of wealth and risk attitudes derived from concerns about the probability of good and bad outcomes. These models have been combined iwth other generalisations such as the prospect theory of Kahneman and Tversky (1979).
The use of cardinal utility models of social choice has been encouraged by the popularity of contractarian models such as that of Rawls (1971). Rawls introduces the device of a ‘veil of ignorance’ behind which individuals choose social arrangements without knowing what place they will occupy in those arrangements. Rawls argues, largely on the basis of intuition about choices under uncertainty, that rational individuals will adopt a ‘maximin’ criterion, focusing on the worst possible outcome. This is an extreme form of the decision-weighting process represented in rank-dependent expected utility. From the maximin criterion of choice under uncertainty, Rawls derives his theory of justice based on concern for the worst-off members of the community. The approach used by Harsanyi (1953) may be interpreted in similar terms. Unlike Rawls, Harsanyi assumes that rational individuals seek to maximise expected utility. He therefore derives the conclusion that they will prefer utilitarian social arrangements.


Allais, M., (1987), The general theory of random choices in relation to the invariant cardinal utility function and the specific probability function: The (U, q) model – A general overview,, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique Paris.
Arrow, K. (1951), ‘Alternative approaches to the theory of choice in risk-taking situations’, Econometrica 19, 404–437.
Harsanyi, J. (1953), ‘Cardinal utility in welfare economics and in the theory of risk taking’, Journal of Political Economy 61, 434–435.
Quiggin, J. (1982), ‘A theory of anticipated utility’, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 3(4), 323–43.
Rawls, J. (1971), A Theory of Justice, Clarendon, Oxford.
Savage, L. J. (1954), Foundations of statistics, Wiley, N.Y.
von Neumann, J. and Morgenstern, O. (1944), Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, Princeton University Press.
Wakker, P. (1991), ‘Separating marginal utility and probabilistic risk aversion’, paper presented at University of Nijmegen, Nijmegen.

Categories: General Tags:


December 26th, 2002 Comments off

The concept of utility in economics refers to the pleasure, or relief of pain, associated with the consumption of goods and services. The terminology is derived from the utilitarian theory of social choice proposed by Bentham in the 18th century. Disregarding the difficulties of constructing a numerical measure of utility, Bentham based his utilitarian theory on the proposition that political organisations should be organised to achieve ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’ by maximising the sum of individual utilities.

Although utilitarianism, with its emphasis on rational optimisation, was compatible with the spirit of classical economics, economists made little use of utility concepts until the neoclassical ‘marginalist revolution’, associated with the names of Jevons, Menger and Walras. Their central insight was that the terms on which individuals were willing to exchange goods depended not on the total utility associated with consuming those goods, but on the utility associated with consuming the last or ‘marginal’ unit of each good. The critical point is the principle of diminishing marginal utility, based on the observation that consumption of any commodity, such as water, is first directed to essential needs, such as quenching thirst, and then to less important purposes, such as hosing down pavements.
It is the utility associated with the marginal use of the commodity that determines willingness to engage in trade at any given prices. The use of the principle of diminishing marginal utility led to a resolution of the classical ‘paradox of value’, exemplified by the observation that, wherever water is plentiful and diamonds are not, diamonds are more valuable than water, even though water is essential to life and diamonds are purely decorative.
The principle of diminishing marginal utility had egalitarian implications which Bentham almost certainly did not anticipate. If the marginal utility from consumption of an additional unit of each individual commodity is diminishing, the marginal utility from an additional unit of wealth must also be diminishing. If utility is represented as a real-valued function of wealth, diminishing marginal utility of wealth is equivalent to downward concavity of the utility function. If all utility functions are concave then, other things being equal, an additional unit of wealth yields more utility to a poor person than a rich one, and a more equal distribution of wealth will yield greater aggregate utility.
The rise of positivism and behaviorism in the early 20th Century reduced the appeal of theoretical frameworks based on the unobservable concept of utility. The ‘New Welfare Economics’ developed by Hicks (1938) and others, showed that ordinal concepts of utility, requiring only the use of statements like ‘commodity bundle A yields higher utility than commodity bundle B’ were sufficient for all the ordinary purposes of demand theory and could be used to derive a welfare theory independent of cardinal utility. An ordinal utility function allows the ranking of commodity bundles, but not comparisons of the differences between bundles.
Opponents of egalitarian income redistribution also attacked the use of cardinal utility theories to make judgements about the welfare effects of economic policies. Robbins’ (1938) claim that all interpersonal utility comparisons were ‘unscientific’ was particularly influential in promoting the idea that cardinal utility concepts should be avoided. The basic difficulty is that there is no obvious way of comparing utility scales between individuals, and, in particular, no way of showing that two people with similar income levels get the same additional utility from a given increase in income.
The apparent coup de grace was given by Samuelson’s (1947) recasting of welfare economics in terms of revealed preference. Samuelson showed that, the standard theory of consumer demand could be constructed without any overt reference to utility. Even the use of ordinal utility, Samuelson suggested, was purely a matter of expositional convenience. The analysis of consumer demand can be undertaken using only statements about preferences. Samuelson’s claim is correct in a formal sense.
However, consumers will have well-defined demand functions only if preferences over bundles of goods are convex, that is, if a bundle containing an appropriate mixture of two goods is preferred to either of two equally valued bundles each containing only one of the goods. The only plausible basis for postulating this kind of convexity of preferences is the principle of diminishing marginal utility.
Moreover, as is discussed , cardinal utility was no sooner driven out the front door of economic theory than it re-entered through the back gate of game theory and expected utility theory.

Robbins, L. (1938), ‘Interpersonal comparisons of utility: a comment’, Economic Journal 48(4), 635–41.
Samuelson, P. (1947), Foundations of Economic Analysis, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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December 24th, 2002 Comments off

For most of the 20th century, growth in the scale and scope of government activity appeared to be an irreversible trend in developed economies, at least those that had not embraced full-scale socialism. Many observers predicted gradual convergence between the economic systems of the capitalist and communist blocs, with the final outcome being some form of mixed economy.
Expansion in the scale of government activity was primarily the result of expansion in the importance, relative to the economy as a whole, of the services provided by government, such as health, education and social welfare services. Expansion in the scope of government activity was the result of a range of policies including the nationalisation of private firms. Outside the United States, most infrastructure services, including railways, airlines, electricity and telecommunications were nationalised. Beyond the infrastructure sector, nationalisation policies varied from country to country, but included a range of financial services, manufacturing and mining.
The case for nationalisation rested in part on socialist views about the undesirability of private profit. In the mixed economy, however, no fundamental challenge to the legitimacy of private business was posed. Arguments for nationalisation of particular industries rested on the view that governments would manage these industries better than private owners, by avoiding the exploitation of monopoly and by undertaking better-planned investment.
By the 1970s, however, disillusionment with the performance of nationalised industries was widespread, and a range of theoretical arguments in favour of private ownership were developed. These arguments focused on the role of private capital markets in guiding investment and disciplining the managers and employees of businesses.
The first large-scale privatisation program was that of the Thatcher government in the United Kingdom during the 1980s. Other English-speaking countries, including Australia and New Zealand, followed the UK lead. Privatisation soon became part of the political orthodoxy throughout the world, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
By the beginning of the 21st century, however, the first signs of a resurgence of public ownership were becoming evident. The collapse, and effective renationalisation, of Railtrack the privatised owner of the British rail network was an indication that governments could not walk away from the consequences of poorly-designed privatisations. Other English-speaking countries, which had taken the lead in privatisation, also appeared ready to reconsider the issue. New Zealand has renationalised its airline and accident compensation scheme, and re-established a publicly-owned bank.
The arguments for and against privatisation have become more sophisticated over the years. However, no final resolution of the debate is likely in the near future.

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Monday Message Board

December 23rd, 2002 Comments off

Like some other Ozploggers, I’m counting on my readers and commentators to keep the blog alive while I eat, drink and make merry for at least the next week! Comment on any topic (no coarse language and civilised discussion please).

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Monday morning reading

December 23rd, 2002 Comments off

Yet another excellent piece from Ross Gittins

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Blogging Christmas

December 22nd, 2002 Comments off

This is my first Christmas since I started blogging, and it’s a particularly big one as my son Leigh is getting married early in the New Year! I’ll be returning to the Deep North (Townsville and further) for a couple of weeks. The TiBook is coming with me, so there may be occasional posts, but obviously I’ll have more important things on my mind than blogging. Judging by visitor numbers over the past few days, a lot of readers have already blogged off, but I still feel the need to supply something for those who remain. Ken Parish has dealt with the problem by addressing a set of questions to his readers and letting them argue it out. The debate seems to be moving along pretty well, particularly on the perennial question “What should Labor do next?”. I’ll try to post the Monday Message Board as usual, but I thought I’d try something different.

Using the “Future post” facility of Blogger Pro, I’ve put up a series of posts on various aspects of modern thought (part of the dictionary project in which I’m involved) to be published at a rate of one per day. I’d really appreciate your comments. But if you’re the kind of person who prefers to rip open all their presents at once, the whole series is already available over at Modern thought.

I also plan, if I get time, to implement the “Best of …” feature discussed a while ago, resurrecting posts I found interesting and using them to fill programming gaps in the non-ratings season.

In case I don’t get back to blogging till 2003, I wish all my readers peace and happiness for the New Year and all who celebrate it a Merry Christmas.

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Alan McCallum on rural warming

December 22nd, 2002 Comments off

Alan McCallum has weighed with a rural view of the debate on urban heat islands . I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing his short post in its entirety

As promised in a comment to a post by John Quiggin, here is a splatter diagram of all available Oz rural stations. It is a mistake to believe that because there is a pronounced difference between cities and rural areas [urban warming, or UW] that warming trends are not happening at rural climate stations. I can duplicate this exercise for the world, or assign world stations to about a thousand zones and average in each zone etc etc. The result is the same: The RURALS, as measured, and taking all of them into account, are warming!! Next question??

Don’t just look at the diagram though. Visit Alan’s site for a fascinating comments on a wide range of issues. Alan and I disagree on a lot of things (he lists me as his ‘token leftie’), but I think we agree on a lot of basic values and a fair number of specific issues.

Like me, Alan started getting leery of Keith Windschuttle when he mounted his attack on Popper. And I’m pleased to say that reading Lomborg converted Alan’s view of the global warming issue from “sceptic” to “fence-sitter”. He says

I still think that the data is not in, but just because the data is not in it is still possible to take a “guess”. And this “guess”, the mainstream scientific opinion, is probably right to some extent on the simple grounds that it is [almost] impossible for me to imagine either a major conspiracy, or a complete failure of the peer-review system. If either possibility were true Science is in serious difficulties.

This isn’t far from my own view of the issue, though I see the evidence as a bit more solid than Alan does, certainly enough to justify precautionary actions like Kyoto.

Update Aaron Oakley at Bizarre Science has blogged at inordinate length about the fact that I didn’t provide statistical evidence of significance here. He doesn’t appear to have noticed that I am linking to a scatterplot drawn by Alan McCallum, so obviously I don’t have the original data. In any case, I presented a statistical analysis months ago showing that the upward trend in global temperatures is indeed statistically significant, and Oakley commented several times, so he’s well aware that this issue has been resolved.

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ABC Bias ?

December 22nd, 2002 Comments off

Here’s one for Uncle at ABCwatch. An ABC news report with the headline ” Polls show Labor support still sliding”. The report starts

Two polls out today say the Labor Party is continuing to lose support.

but the actual news is that

The Morgan poll said if an election was held this month, it would have been too close to call as the two-party preferred count is close.

before going on with a brief summary of a Newspoll, reported in more detail in the Oz under the headline Labor’s faithful desert Crean The key finding

According to a quarterly Newspoll analysis of polling in marginal and safe seats, done exclusively for The Weekend Australian, the Coalition’s support has risen in key marginal electorates from 41 to 44 per cent, while Labor’s is unchanged on 39 per cent.

At the November election, where marginal seats determined the Coalition victory, Labor support was 40 per cent and the Coalition’s 42.8 per cent. Were an election held now, the figures say the Coalition would have a clear victory.

So we have two polls, one showing a dead heat and the other showing a tiny swing to the Coalition on first preferences (the rise of the Greens, whose preferences strongly favour Labor, would probably offset this). Of course, Howard is romping in on the “preferred Prime Minister” poll, but the incumbent nearly always leads on this measure

In my view, the reporting of these polls is indicative of bias, but not of party-political bias. Rather it is the bias of the conventional wisdom (this marvellous phrase, like many others is due, I believe to JK Galbraith). The CW has it that Howard is sitting pretty and so evidence is reported as reinforcing it, even when it is, at best neutral.

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False Economies

December 21st, 2002 Comments off

Ross Gittins is one of the few economic commentators who understands that leisure and a pleasant working life are just as important as production, if not more so. In this piece, which came out when I was moving house, he asks

If micro-economic reform has been as hugely successful as the econocrats keep assuring us – and as the productivity figures confirm – why has the reform process virtually ground to a halt? Why have our politicians been struck down by “reform fatigue”?

and concludes that many of the apparent benefits of microeconomic reform are ‘false economies’. I get a nice mention as a ‘neoclassical iconoclast’.

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Back to back to back

December 21st, 2002 Comments off

While we’re on the subject of world-class cliches, does anyone else find “back to back”, as in “back to back premierships” a trifle bizarre? Applied to people, or to any objects with a back and a front, it implies “facing in opposite directions”. And after putting two wins (or whatever) “back to back” what are you supposed to do with a third?

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More odds on Iraq

December 21st, 2002 Comments off

I’m definitely in a minority of one in thinking that the odds of war with Iraq have declined over the past month. The Slate Saddamometer has the odds rising from 50 per cent, just before the Iraqi declaration (or non-declaration) to 72 per cent after Powell’s declaration that Iraq was in ‘material breach’. And virtually every newspaper commentary has declared that war is on the way.

It’s true, contrary to my expectation, that the Iraqi government seems to have made no serious attempt to account for (or even explain away) the stocks of WMDs that were unaccounted for in 1998. I’m more impressed, though, by the dogs that haven’t barked in the night. Two are particularly notable. First, at any time after the declaration, the US Administration could have brought the process to an end by producing the clear evidence it had claimed (or at least strongly suggested) it had of Iraqi weapons programs. Second, on Thursday the US could have declared that the omissions in the Iraqi declaration were, in themselves, grounds for war.

Now that neither of these has happened, the decision has pretty clearly been deferred until Blix reports on 26 January. According to todays NYT, the US will now begin handing over its evidence to the inspectors, but no-one seems to expect too much from this.

Obviously, if the inspectors discover weapons (or a susipcious factory with locked gates and armed guards) the game is up for Saddam. The same is probably true if interviews with Iraqi scientists produce a really convincing defector, though presumably such a defector could point the way to physical evidence in any case.

But the likelihood that the inspectors won’t find anything and won’t face serious obstruction has risen, not fallen, in the last month. Over a hundred sites have already been inspected, including those that the US and UK governments pointed to as most suspicious. Apart from a couple of low-grade incidents where the person with the keys was out to lunch, there don’t seem to have been any compliance problems. Presidential palaces, supposedly an insuperable sticking point, have been opened up promptly.

Suppose that this continues until 26 January. By then, hundreds of sites will have been investigated, the best US intelligence will have been tested out, and the key Iraqi scientists will have been interviewed. If nothing has turned up, I can’t see how Blix’s report can possibly provide Bush with a casus belli. And by then, it will be too late to go back to the omissions in the declaration.

If I thought that those predicting war had some particular expertise, I’d defer to their wisdom. But on issues of this kind, I’m happy to back my own judgement even against an overwhelming majority. After all, I’d be willing to bet that most of those reproducing war hype today swallowed the hype about Y2K three years ago.

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BOM incompetence ?

December 21st, 2002 Comments off

As I predicted, it didn’t take long for the global warming sceptics to deny the latest evidence that the world is getting hotter.

Irony alert on At least in the case of Australia’s Bureau of Metereology, Bizarre Science charitably prefers to blame incompetence rather than the political bias that is usually imputed to bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Apparently, the BOM’s statistics are wrong because they fail to take account of urban ‘heat islands’, a phenomenon of which anyone even casually familiar with the global warming debate has been aware of for years. Well, they are only meteorologists, after all … Irony alert off

Seriously, the urban heat island problem is a dead horse that shouldn’t be flogged any further. The issue has been investigated extensively, and found to be of very modest significance.

Here’s the IPCC summary

Clearly, the urban heat island effect is a real climate change in urban areas, but is not representative of larger areas. Extensive tests have shown that the urban heat island effects are no more than about 0.05°C up to 1990 in the global temperature records used in this chapter to depict climate change.

And obviously the BOM doesn’t think heat islands are a big problem or they would be adjusting their measurements and historical statistics to take account of them.

Update The irony alert didn’t work (sigh!) BS takes violent exception, accuses me of Lysenkoism, then sets the record straight (!) by saying ‘The BOM is not incompetent. But it is being selective about which data it uses to justify its “warmest year on record” claim.’ If I were with the BOM, I can’t say I’d be any more pleased by this imputation than by the suggestion that they had simply stuffed up.

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Decline of the American Enterprise

December 20th, 2002 Comments off

I had a dispute with William Zinsmeister a while back over his use of clearly erroneous statistics on European productivity. I must admit I assumed his American Enterprise magazine was a fly-by-night operation ripping off the respected, if clearly right-wing, thinktank American Enterprise Institute. This post from Brad DeLong shows that the truth is worse.

Zinsmeister’s outfit is the real American Enterprise Institute, but it has gone downhill a long way in the last few years. As DeLong says “Back in the late 1970s, the American Enterprise Institute ranked close to the Brookings Institution as a thinktank you could trust not to deliberately lie to you. Now it has fallen very deeply into the pit indeed”. Apparently, Zinsmeister used analysis of the political views of teacher’s in women’s studies courses and presented them as representative of the leftwing bias of academics in general.

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World class cliche

December 20th, 2002 Comments off

Professor Bunyip asks “Is there anybody else who winces at the use of “world class” as the all-purpose, inspirational modifier of Australian endeavour?” Me, me, me!

The same post suggests a panel confrontation between Windschuttle and his opponents, with the loser to be ‘driven from the academy’. But I think Windschuttle and the academy parted ways some time ago, so he’s on “a hiding to nothing”.

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New blog

December 20th, 2002 Comments off

I’ve set up a new special purpose blog. I’m writing some entries for a proposed dictionary of modern thought and I’d very much appreciate comments, suggested references and so on from my fellow bloggers and blogreaders. It’s here. I plan to try a few experiments like this and see what happens.

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Support for renationalisation

December 20th, 2002 Comments off

My column in Thursday’s AFR (subscription required) pointed out how the government’s own statements made the case for the renationalisation of Telstra. Among the political elite (that word!) renationalisation remains virtually unthinkable. But at least in the UK, that is not true of the general public. Thanks to Jack Strocchi for alerting me this Guardian survey which reported

The extent to which the pendulum has swung against the privatisation culture is demonstrated by the 76% who say they want to see the railways brought back into the public sector and is nearly matched by the 60% who want to see an end to private prisons.

OK, it’s the Guardian. But it’s backed up by this piece in the Economist, which argues that the reason the Tories are doing so much worse than the US Republicans is because British voters are far more leftwing than Americans. In particular, a substantial majority supports higher taxes.

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Brilliant Blix

December 20th, 2002 Comments off

Hans Blix has come in for a lot of criticism and caricature but he’s revealed himself as one of the cleverest political operators on the world scene today. His critical report on the Iraqi declaration got him exactly what he wanted. The US Administration passed up any chance of an immediate declaration of war based on the December 8 trigger and effectively made Blix’s interim report, due on Australia Day 26 January, the new trigger. On the other hand, the references to omissions and inconsistencies have put maximum pressure on the Iraqis to comply with all his demands.

All of this is good. If the Iraqis are hiding WMDs, the pressure Blix is now putting on will make it hard for them to conceal the fact. Even without an actual discovery, another negative report from Blix would certainly pave the way for a US invasion.

On the other hand, the Administration has given far more ground than seems to have been realised by most commentators. If Blix’s report is along the lines of ‘Iraqi compliance has been generally satisfactory, but more time and more inspections are needed’, it will be very hard to get UNSC support, or even domestic support in the US, for war. This in turn gives Blix a lot of leverage in pressing the US to hand over its evidence against Saddam (if in fact it has any useful evidence).

To summarise, Blix, not Bush, is now the person who will have the biggest say in deciding whether or not there is to be a war. When those inside the Beltway wake up to this, expect a dramatic change in the tone of discussion.

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December 20th, 2002 Comments off

Here’s a history of SPAM and the Internet from the makers of the real thing.

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Windschuttle and error

December 19th, 2002 Comments off

Keith Windschuttle has made a lot of play of errors and wrong interpretations by his opponents and the title of his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History makes it clear that any such errors and misinterpretations can arise only from ‘fabrication’ that is, academic fraud. He clearly has found some serious errors in Lyndall Ryan’s work, and has managed to discover one misattributed quotation by Henry Reynolds. His other line of criticism is semantic, attacking the use of words like ‘genocide’ and ‘guerilla warfare’, derived from European history, to describe what happened in Australia.

In only a few days, I’ve heard at least as many errors and misinterpretations from Windschuttle and his supporters as he’s managed to discover in years of painstaking work. First, there’s this statement reported by Miranda Devine

It told how Australia’s academic historians have “failed their public responsibility to tell the truth”, said Claudio Veliz, Boston University emeritus professor of history, who launched the book. The truth, he said, is that: “This is the first major nation in the history of the world to have secured full independence and sovereignty without killing anyone.”

This isn’t true even as regards Europeans. Veliz has apparently never heard of the Eureka Stockade and the Castle Hill rebellion, and obviously Windschuttle didn’t enlighten him. More importantly, even on Windschuttle’s own account of Tasmania, substantial numbers of Aborigines were killed in clashes with settlers and soldiers, so this claim must have some sort of postmodernist interpretation in which ‘killed’ doesn’t mean ‘killed’ but something else like ‘killed unlawfully’. Veliz’s claim that ‘no-one was killed’ is far more egregiously wrong that Lyndall Ryan’s suggestion that the Tasmanian Aborigines were victims of genocide – after all, nearly all of them died in a very short period. (Another possibility is that Veliz is talking about Federation – but if so, there’s no possible sense in which progressive historians have failed in their responsibility to tell the truth. In fact, as Donald Horne observed, it’s the conservatives like Howard who prefer the blood-soaked Anzac myth to the boring story of a peaceful referendum. In any case, this has nothing to do with Reynolds and Ryan).

Next, there’s Windschuttle’s statement quoted by Robert Manne, that the Tasmanians became extinct because ‘they prostituted their women’. Leaving aside the nasty racism of this, Manne correctly points out that prostitution is a concept that makes sense only in a money economy. Its application to a tribal society is considerably less justifiable than Reynolds’ suggestion that such societies could practise ‘guerilla warfare’. And there’s the implication that sexual relations between whites and Aborigines were invariably voluntary. For Windschuttle, rape didn’t happen if there weren’t any police reports.

Then there’s his performance on Australia Talks Back, which you can listen to here. Among the contradictions and errors:

Windschuttle initially suggests that the fabrication of Aboriginal history is the work of radicals in the last thirty years. But by the end of the program he’s claiming that fabrication started in the 1830s and has been going on ever since.

Windschuttle claims that the British were uniquely sensitive colonists, as witness the fact that Indian tribes fought for them against the French. He didn’t mention the French and Indian War, the American component of the Seven Years War. Although some Indian tribes fought for the British, at least as many supported the French.

A caller who had done extensive research on Fiji and New Zealand in the 19th century asked him why, if Australian treatment of Aborigines was so good, Europeans in Fiji and NZ saw it as a model of what not to do. Windschuttle gave a non-answer to the question, either because he misunderstood it or because he had no answer. Since for Windschuttle, there is no such thing as innocent error, I’m counting this as a fabrication.

That’s five errors I’ve noted in my spare time in the course of a single week. I’m sure there must be more. People who live in glass houses …

Update I mentioned this previously, but I’ll note again that David Morgan has lots of good stuff on this topic.

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Windschuttle and truth

December 19th, 2002 Comments off

I’ve read most of Windschuttle’s books, though not The Fabrication of Aboriginal History as well as a number of articles he’s written recently. I wanted to begin with my reaction to The Killing of History. Responding to this book, Brad DeLong observed

As I read the book, I found myself changing sides.

and my reaction was much the same. It was obvious that Windschuttle had moved to the right politically since he wrote Unemployment in the 1970s, but that didn’t bother me too much.

My problem was that, in methodological terms, Windschuttle threw out the modern baby with the postmodern bathwater. Not content with attacking the likes of Foucault and Derrida he denounced Thomas Kuhn and even Karl Popper (the most prescriptive writer on scientific methodology of modern times) as mushy relativists. His implied viewpoint, based on the work of David Stove, seems to be one in which historical truth can be directly apprehended from documentary evidence – a claim which I would have thought was discredited in the Middle Ages when the famous “Donation of Constantine” was found to be a fake. Of course, even Windschuttle admits that some documents are untrustworthy (for example, the writings of his opponents), but apparently right-thinking people such as himself are gifted with a special insight that enables him to dispense with the fallibilism of ‘irrationalists” like Popper, and to go straight to the truth.

An obvious corollary, which Windschuttle has expounded repeatedly, is that, if it isn’t documented it didn’t happen. His big objection to Henry Reynolds is that Reynolds took figures on the numbers of whites killed by Aborigines, added some limited evidence on relative casualty rates and estimated that ten times as many Aborigines were killed by whites. This kind of estimate would not raise any eyebrows among economists (in the absence of better evidence) but is taboo for Windschuttle. I find this about as sensible as the scientists who object to climate models on the basis that the only valid path to truth is through experimental testing.

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December 19th, 2002 Comments off

The Guardian reports that (New Labour oriented) think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research has found that the Private Finance Initiative (the model for Australian Public-Private Partnerships) is ” failing schools and hospitals”. The IPPR found better results with respect to roads and prisons. PPPs need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, but as long as they are promoted on the spurious basis that they can finance projects that governments could otherwise not afford, they will mostly be bad deals. I’ve written on this at length here (big PDF file)

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The Micawber strategy on Iraq

December 19th, 2002 Comments off

It’s now clear to all that the US Administration has no real evidence on Iraqi weapons -there might be enough hints to help the inspectors, but even that’s not clear. Evidently, the strategy has been to apply maximum pressure and hope something turns up. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the Administration is pinning its hopes on a defector, having finally abandoned the idea of ‘compulsory out of country interrogation’ or, as Hans Blix put it, ‘abduction’. Others are not so sure:

At the crux of the differences between the administration and the inspectors, however, are questions about the value of such interviews. Rumsfeld and others have said that Iraqi defectors provided the basic leads proving that Hussein had withheld prohibited weapons during earlier rounds of inspections. But the inspectors maintain that the productive leads came from their investigations on the ground, for which interviews with Iraqi scientists were among several tools.

“They think a lot of scientists are just waiting to get out and tell their stories,” said one former inspector about the administration.

The U.S. intelligence community is leery about taking large numbers of Iraqis out of the country, saying that such a process will not necessarily produce the information the administration is seeking, and that it may undermine the existing clandestine relationships it has developed in Iraq.

Something may well turn up. But there’s no reason to suppose that this will happen at a time convenient for the wintertime war the Administration still seems to be planning. And, as I’ve previously observed, no evidence will almost certainly mean no British participation.

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Hot enough for you?

December 19th, 2002 Comments off

According to those well-known lefties at the Bureau of Meteorology, El Nino’s return in 2002 helped raise global temperatures to the second-highest on record , with Australia experiencing its hottest year on record and the Earth scorched with widespread drought. No doubt Bizarre Science and its imitators will shortly be producing lengthy demonstrations that the thermometers and rain gauges have been tampered with.

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Declaration of interest

December 18th, 2002 Comments off

Before making a substantive post on Keith Windschuttle, I’ll declare an interest. Windschuttle’s press, MacLeay Press published a book by William Coleman and Alf Hagger (2001), entitled Exasperating Calculators: The Rage over Economic Rationalism and the Campaign against Australian Economists. I was criticized in the book (though not as sharply as others) and responded in kind in my review., which also covered a book by Wolfgang Kasper A short snippet:

lthough the authors claim to be responding to a ‘campaign against Australian economists’, their book contains more personal attacks on Australian economists, living and dead, of all schools and persuasions, than any other volume I have read. Those denounced include H.C. Coombs (‘elderly’ and ‘nostalgic’), Russel Mathews (‘frenzied’), Geoffrey Brennan (an ‘appeaser’), Stephen King and Peter Lloyd (‘indefensible’), Clive Hamilton (‘florid irrationalism’), Ted Wheelwright (‘insignificant’) and even Wolfgang Kasper, among many others. (The present reviewer gets off relatively lightly, as a ‘distinguished economic theorist’, who is prone to ‘foolishness’ in matters of policy).

My reaction to Windschuttle’s work is no doubt coloured by this book, which shares many of the faults he displays. It’s obviously polemical, but claims to be unbiased. The authors pick up trivial errors in the writings of those they want to attack, but (inevitably) their book is riddled with similar errors itself. They complain that opponents of economic rationalism haven’t defined the term, but offer no definition of their own.

In addition, although I didn’t want to waste the Fin’s review space on a personal gripe, I’ll use the freedom of blogging to suggest that the authors pinched the idea for their title from me. It’s a quote from W.K. Hancock’s Australia about the traditional Australian hostility to economists. In my book, Great Expectations: Microeconomic Reform in Australia, I quoted Hancock’s observation that ‘The Australians have always disliked scientific economics and (still more) scientific economists’ – I’m pretty sure I was the first to mention Hancock in the context of the microeconomic reform debate. Hancock’s reference to exasperating calculators is in the chapter following the one I quoted.

More generally, the historical discussion of economic rationalism in Exasperating Calculators draws heavily on my work and also on the work of Michael Schneider, without attribution (certainly in my case, and I think also in Schneider’s). It doesn’t rise to the level of plagiarism, a sin of which Windschuttle has been accused, but Coleman and Hagger are at least guilty of biting the hand that feeds them.

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Will Peter Foster save Saddam ?

December 18th, 2002 Comments off

This NYT piece on the Bush response to the Iraqi declaration takes a long time to get the point, but finally says that Bush will not claim that the well-publicised omissions are sufficient to justify an invasion

Mr. Bush, some aides expect, will take a cautious approach, denouncing Iraq but stopping short of any pre-emptive action. Most likely, some officials say, is that President Bush will declare that what Washington sees as Iraq’s failure to account for missing chemical and biological weapons, and Baghdad’s declaration that all its nuclear weapons research has stopped, are the latest in a series of steps that violate Security Council Resolution 1441.

“I don’t expect the President will say that this this alone is casus belli” — a cause for war — said one senior Administration official. “But it builds the case.

Of course, the NYT has its best sources in the peace camp within the Administration, and people like Rumsfeld are clearly keen to declare war now, but the crucial point made in the report is that the British government is unwilling to back the claim that the declaration is a “material breach” sufficient to justify war. This accords with my reading of the British press. As I’ve consistently argued, Britain has an effective veto, not only because its military contribution is significant but also because the US public won’t support a war without international support and British participation is a minimal requirement for this.

An interesting sidelight is that the recent ‘Cheriegate’ mini-scandal over Cherie Blair’s dealings with Australian conman Peter Foster have been perfectly timed to weaken Tony Blair’s capacity to dragoon the Labour cabinet into supporting a war, assuming that this is what he wants. But the crucial factor is the weakness of the US case and the increasingly strong evidence that the ‘dossier’ Blair used as evidence against Iraq was at best erroneous in key respects and at worst fabricated. In these circumstances, it’s doubtful that Britain will be inclined to support any action until the UN weapons inspectors have made their report.

Obviously, all this is speculation. But I’ve had a pretty good track record on this so far. By contrast, the warbloggers have repeatedly overestimated the likelihood of war, and underestimated the need for international support. In September, for example, Steven Den Beste predicted

Support for the war in the US will rise; concern about foreign support for it will fall; American unilateralism will reemerge; Congress will grant formal approval in October; and actual hostilities will begin no later than the end of December.

We’re right on track.

I pick SDB because he’s among the most sensible of the warbloggers. As I noted a while ago, the majority have now descended into self-parody, or else moved on to other things.

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Arianna's apostrophe

December 18th, 2002 Comments off

Taking a break from corporate corruption and the war of the rich against the poor, Arianna Huffington focuses on America’s apostrophe catastrophe, one which is at least as bad in Australia, where any plural word can come with a free apostrophe. She defends spending time on this trivial issue saying

sometimes a small thing like this can have much bigger ramifications.

Think of it as the literary equivalent of the broken-windows theory of crime fighting, which holds that by fighting small quality-of-life crimes like graffiti and vandalism, police send a persuasive message that antisocial behavior, of any scale, will not be tolerated. In this case, putting an end to the chronic misplacement of apostrophes could eventually lead to a better-educated populace, a greater sense of harmony and order, more fuel-efficient cars, a slimmer, trimmer you, cleaner air, an end to the heartbreak of psoriasis, the cancellation of “The Bachelor,” and, who knows, maybe even world peace.

At this point, if Arianna were a blogger, she would surely invoke George Orwell. Mercifully, she doesn’t.

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