Archive for January, 2003

The ultimate online quiz

January 31st, 2003 Comments off

I got Linux!. Well, at least it wasn’t Windoze. Meanwhile, I still haven’t found the time to shift from the Windoze of blogging software, which won’t even post images properly.

Categories: General Tags:


January 31st, 2003 Comments off

Virginia Postrel offers A Tool to Explain Affirmative Action. As with most discussion of this kind of problem, it’s stronger on analysis than prescription, but well worth reading.

Categories: General Tags:

Some more war links

January 31st, 2003 Comments off

While we wait for the next critical date on Iraq (Powell’s peek at the evidence on Saddam’s weapons), I find myself without much new to say, except for the obvious point that the odds on war have shortened considerably, going against my predictions on the subject. So I’m going to keep linking to people with whose arguments I broadly sympathise. Gene Healy says:

I understand people who argue for war with Iraq because they want to (1) liberate Iraqis; and/or (2) help Israel; and/or (3) spread democracy. I think those are illegitimate reasons in a constitutional republic whose governing document speaks of the “common defence” of the United States, and not the general good of the world at large. More important, I think they’re damned frivolous reasons for killing American soldiers, innocent Iraqi civilians, and, for that matter, Iraqi conscripts. But I understand the arguments: if these Wilsonian goals are worthwhile to you, invading Iraq is something you might want to do.
But I’m having an increasingly hard time understanding why any rational person would argue that invading Iraq is something we need to do in order to protect the lives, liberty, and property of Americans (you know, the legitimate goals of American foreign policy)

Risking getting things badly wrong again, I’ll classify Gene as an antiwar libertarian similar to Jim Henley who makes the excellent point (which I’ve previously touched on) that pro-war parallels with pre-1939 appeasement can be matched with an anti-war comparison of current US policy with the 1914 ultimatum to Serbia.

I part company with Gene in that I am prepared to take a Wilsonian view that the world community should be willing to act to overthrow dictators. My problem is that breaking with the doctrine of absolute national sovereignty is full of perils and should not be undertaken lightly. The idea that any country should have the right to overthrow another country’s government if it judges it to be dictatorial, threatening etc is a recipe for disaster. The idea that the US alone should have this right is less dangerous in the short run, but will come to the same thing in the end. That’s why I (and I suspect many others) are so concerned about getting a UNSC resolution clearer than 1441.

Categories: General Tags:


January 31st, 2003 Comments off

Thanks to Mark Chambers for alerting me to this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education, headlined “Taking On ‘Rational Man'”. It’s about the various challenges to the dominance of ‘neoclassical’ economics (the quotes are there because in this context, a very broad definition of ‘neoclassical’, encompassing most Keynesians and many behavioral economists, is being used).

I reviewed the book by Keen mentioned here and will try to post a link soon.

Categories: General Tags:

Centre forward

January 31st, 2003 Comments off

Everyone loves to argue about classifications. In his new (but perhaps temporary) blog, Ken Parish divides Ozploggers (political bloggers) into three roughly equal groups: “Left-ish, Right-ish, and Centre-ish”. There’s not too much doubt about the first two groups. Most of the “left-ish” ploggers, including me, write from the kind of position that used to be called ‘Left Labor’. Most of the “right-ish” ones, of whom Tim Blair is the most prominent, are part of the US-centred “warblogger” circle. Since I have little to say this group and vice versa, only a few of them are listed on my blogroll.

Inevitably, the centre group is the most problematic. Most of those in those group are either moderate and sensible right-of-centre ploggers like Gareth Parker and Scott Wickstein, or what I’ve called ‘cultural and satirical’ bloggers like Bright Cold Day. The fact that the centre of Ozplogistani politics is still a bit to the right of Oz politics in general is not surprising – a year or so ago the bias was much more marked.

But the classification has raised some issues for “Centre-ish” Jason Soon who, it has been suggested, is moving steadily to the left. Both comments by Ron Mead, and the rather grumpy departure of Mark Harrison from Catallaxy have raised this point.

In response, Jason has put forward a “Purpose statement” or Short lexicon of beliefs , which can be broadly summarised as strongly libertarian in terms of civil liberties, strongly market-oriented but nevertheless basically social-democratic in economic policy, and cautious in terms of foreign policy.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Jason has shifted position much in the time I’ve been debating issues with him. Rather, some aspects of his position have become apparent that were previously obscured. First, like a lot of people (including me) who supported the war in Afghanistan and the war on terror more generally, Jason is chary about the rush to war with Saddam Hussein. Second, in debates with me and others, Jason has made it clear that his support for social welfare policies is genuine, rather than being a rhetorical fig-leaf as it is for many advocates of free-market policies.

Will I follow Jason’s example? Not for the moment. Apart from the occasional bit of rhetorical abuse, I don’t seem to have much of a problem with people misperceiving my political standpoint, even when my opinions on particular issues aren’t quite what they might expect. So I’ll think I’ll blog my views one post at a time for now.

Categories: General Tags:

Lost comments

January 30th, 2003 Comments off

After working pretty reliably for several months, Haloscan seems to have lost most of today’s comments. With luck, they’ll reappear soon. For the moment, though, if people have comments they think are worth recording for posterity, save them in a text or word processor as well as posting them here.

Categories: General Tags:

Short sentences

January 30th, 2003 Comments off

This research, reported in the SMH confirms what I’ve said before about the uselessness of short prison sentences

The lead researcher, Dr Eileen Baldry, of the school of social work at the University of NSW, said jailing people for less than six months was counterproductive. Their situation months after release was worse than before they went to jail.

I’ve been meaning to make a general comment about the ‘law and order’ debate. The left has clearly lost the debate as it’s been posed for a long time, and deservedly so. To oversimplify, the standard debate sets a kneejerk ‘lock ’em up’ position (right) against a kneejerk ‘let ’em go’ response (left).

While neither is at all satisfactory, locking ’em up at least achieves incapacitation (that is, those behind bars are not breaking into houses). The shift of the more sensible left to ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ is a step forward, but doesn’t resolve the problem of what a sensible ‘tough on crime’ policy might actually mean (there are also plenty of problems with the various causes of crime such as unemployment, but more on that another time). In my view, it means being willing to use lengthy prison sentences to incapacitate habitual and career criminals, but not giving people schooling in crime with a string of short sentences. This means some very hard thinking about what to do about those who commit crimes but are not yet hardened crims.

Categories: General Tags:


January 30th, 2003 Comments off

I was going to work on a post on Bush’s SOTU speech, but it turns out all I need is a couple of links. My blogtwin says it all for me. In particular,

The biggest thing to come out of Bush’s SOTU speech last night was the promise that Colin Powell would deliver the goods on Iraq, the compelling evidence, in a speech to the United Nations on February 5.

Tim links in his turn to Jeff Cooper who says, in part

The president and others in his administration have repeatedly asked for our trust when it comes to Iraq: they have strong evidence of Hussein’s complicity in terror, they have strong evidence of his possession of weapons of mass destruction and his progress toward nuclear weapons, but that evidence is too sensitive to be released to the public; we have to trust them. But it’s difficult to grant that trust to an administration whose domestic policy positions are so plainly founded on fundamental dishonesty. Quite simply, the Bush administration hasn’t earned our trust.

I don’t share Jeff’s personal dislike of Bush, but I distrust and fear the administration as a whole. As Andrew Sullivan has correctly noted, a lot of the opposition to a war with Iraq is based on this kind of dislike/distrust, which, of course, he does not share. For me, the validity of any particular case for this war, put forward by this administration, is undermined by its transparent eagerness to make a case of some kind for war with Saddam, whether or not it is part of a coherent policy of any kind.

Categories: General Tags:

Thought for Thursday

January 30th, 2003 Comments off

My opinion piece in today’s Fin (subscription required), amplifies some themes that have been discussed earlier in blogs, notably mine and Kim Weatherall’s. Given the push towards effectively infinite copyrights and other forms of monopoly privilege for owners of “Intellectual Property” the traditional arguments for (and against) free trade aren’t particularly relevant in the debate over a Free Trade agreement with the US. The Americans don’t want us to remove trade barriers, they want us to adopt the policies dictated by their lobby groups in areas like IP, GM labelling, privatisation etc.

Short take

If the official negotiating stance of the US government contains some unappealing items, the demands that US lobby groups would like to push in subsequent rounds are even worse. The pharmaceutical industry wants to kill the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. The Recording Industry Association of America would like to ban parallel importing.

These groups have promoted their interests, with much vigour and few scruples, through their Australian hired guns, but have so far had limited success. Under the kind of agreement that is being contemplated at present, the US lobby groups would have as many second chances as they need. Far from promoting free trade, they want to turn Australia into a monopolists’ playground.

Update Jason Soon responds, quoting Henry Ergas on the benefits of regulatory harmonization. I will first observe that my piece opposed ‘ the kind of agreement that is being contemplated at present’ , rather than any agreement. I agree that, done right, a bilateral trade agreement could produce benefits.

But Ergas’ argument raises more concerns for me. The US is currently negotiating a string of these agreements on a bilateral basis. If they include regulatory harmonization, this can only mean that the other party adopts the US model, since otherwise the agreements would be inconsistent. Since I’m distinctly underwhelmed by US models of regulation, corporate governance and so on, this enhances my concerns rather than allaying them.

And I think the experience of NCP suggests the dangers of using an agreement negotiated in secret to ‘jumpstart the micro-reform process’. The bitter hostility to NCP that people like Pauline Hanson tapped into was as much due to the process by which it was presented as a fait accompli as to the actual content of micro-reform.

Categories: General Tags:

Word for Wednesday

January 29th, 2003 Comments off

This is planned to be the first instalment of yet another weekly feature. Each Wednesday, I plan to have a short piece with my definition of, and observations about a word that is used in current social and political debates. Your comments on this idea, as well as on the particular definition, will be most welcome.

Progressive Definition 1: In its political sense, progressive means ‘on the side of progress’. This incorporates a factual assumption that history is moving in some definite direction, and a political program aimed at accelerating that motion and overcoming obstacles to it. Antonyms are ‘conservative’ and ‘reactionary’.

Until about 1975, the facts seemed to be consistent with the idea of steady movement towards some form of democratic socialism. After this, economic and social policies moved substantially in the opposite direction for the rest of the 20th century, with large-scale privatisation and deregulation in many countries. This movement in turn seems to have ceased and even to have partially reversed in countries such as the UK and NZ.

In the 1990s, a new version of progressive rhetoric came into use, focusing on the notion of globalisation as an irresistible force for progress in the direction of free-market liberal democracy. Fukuyama’s End of History was the big text, while Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree was a successful popularisation. Many proponents of this account were unaware of the basic historical fact that world markets were more liberal and globalised in 1900 than in 1970. When this was pointed out, the notion of globalisation as inevitable progress went into decline, although it still has its proponents. The wave of financial crises from the late 1990s reminded people of the fact that unregulated capital markets are the result of policy decisions that may have been mistaken, not the product of inexorable technological forces.

If no clear direction can be discerned in history, or if reversals lasting for decades are possible, the whole idea of ‘progressive’ politics becomes incoherent. Unfortunately, the idea is deeply embedded in political rhetoric and is therefore hard to get rid of. As long as the term ‘progress’ is taken to imply ‘progress towards something better’, people will try to attach its positive connotations to their political programs. Even the connotation of ‘something not necessarily good, but irresistible’, has a lot of rhetorical power, as in ‘you can’t stop progress’ – Marxist historicism is the extreme example of this. Former social democrats like Paul Keating justified adopting the political program of their opponents by appeals to progressive rhetoric, treating current trends as both irresistible and desirable simply by virtue of their currency. At this level, though, ‘progressive’ politics is little more than adherence to prevailing fashion.

It may be possible to salvage some use for the term ‘progressive’ by defining ‘conservative’ as ‘opposed to rapid programmatic policy change’, without reference to specific policy programs, then defining ‘progressive’ as an antonym. I plan to explore this next week.

Progressive Definition 2: In tax policy, a progressive tax system is one in which the proportion of income paid in tax is higher for those on higher taxes. The antonym is ‘regressive’. As I noted in an earlier post, most actual tax systems are based on a mixture of progressive taxes like income taxes and regressive taxes such as payroll and consumption taxes, with the total effect being roughly proportional.

The term ‘progressive’ here, is basically derived from the mathematical fact that the rate of tax increases (progresses) with income, but also gains some support from the fact that progressive taxes are pro-poor and therefore progressive in the sense of Definition 1. This creates problems when we try to assess the distribution of benefits of public expenditure. Mathematically, an expenditure program would be progressive if the benefits flowed disproportionately to those on high incomes – this would mean that progressive taxes and progressive expenditure worked in opposite directions.

In practice, a messy compromise has prevailed. Expenditure patterns are typically compared to a starting point where the benefit is the same for everyone (this is fairly close to the actual situation in most countries). If programs that favor the poor (such as means-tested benefits) predominate, the system is described as progressive. If programs that favor the rich, such as protection of property, predominate, the system is described as regressive.

A bit extra Working out the final incidence of tax and expenditure programs is very complex. But here’s a rough illustration of what happens when you have proportional income taxes and equal expenditure per person – this, and the numbers used, are not too far from the actual situation.

Suppose we divide the population into quartiles by income, and suppose that the bottom quartile gets 10 per cent of all market income, the next quartile gets 20 per cent, then 30 per cent and the top quartile gets 40 per cent. Now suppose there is a proportional tax that collects 40 per cent of national income, and the proceeds are spent in such a way that everyone gets an equal benefit. So the bottom quartile pays taxes equal to 4 per cent of total income, and gets benefits equal to 10 per cent, ending up with 16 per cent. Similarly, the other quartiles end up with 22 per cent, 28 per cent and 34 per cent respectively. So a 4:1 ratio in market income ends up as a roughly 2:1 disparity in final income (including publicly provided goods and services).

Update I’ve added quite a bit of new stuff in response to comments, mainly those of Ken Parish. That way, the comments will help to improve the post. To help readers make sense of the comments thread, I’ll note that paras 3 and 5 were added, and para 4 amended after the first 10 comments were posted. I’m still experimenting with this process, so meta-comments as well as comments on the specific post are most welcome.

I’ll add here that a big source of inspiration has been Raymond Williams’ excellent little book Keywords. I don’t plan to acknowledge specific points I’ve taken from him and at this stage I don’t plan to give etymology as he does, but most things I write in this vein will reflect his influence.

Categories: Dictionary Tags:

Blix and Bush

January 29th, 2003 Comments off

Blix’s critical report to the UN has certainly strengthened the case for war with Iraq. Unlike those of us commenting from afar, he is, after all, dealing with the Iraqis on a daily basis, and is obviously running into difficulties. At this point, Bush could clinch things if, as some have suggested, his State of the Union address is the occasion for producing the evidence of Iraq’s weapons that he has long claimed to possess.

If this doesn’t happen, Bush will still have a stronger bargaining position with the UNSC than seemed likely a few days ago. Assuming the alternative to war is a redefinition of ‘active co-operation’, it’s clear that this must include everything on Blix’s wishlist – unchaperoned interviews, surveillance flights, and more documentation of ‘missing’ weapons.

The incentive for Bush to take this route is strong. Despite the tough rhetoric of the past few days, a decision to bypass the UNSC poses immense risks of all kinds. If it went even moderately badly, both Blair and Howard would be finished, and Bush himself would suffer grave damage. And as I’ve noted, Blix’s report increases the likelihood that Bush will be able to get the UNSC on board with sufficient patience.

At the bottom of all this is the question, still unresolved as far as I am concerned, of whether the Iraqis actually have a weapons program. If so, I think the evidence of past successful inspections, cited in Blix’s report suggests that, if the inspectors have a sufficiently free hand, they will be found in the end. This in turn means that Saddam will probably defy any UNSC resolution that is sufficiently tightly worded. If not, then, however humiliating the demands may be, he will have no rational alternative but to comply.

Categories: General Tags:

Ignorance is strength

January 28th, 2003 Comments off

In my discussion of the Canberra bushfires, I observed that Paddy McGuinness had made some ‘typically nasty and ill-informed’ comments, before going on to note that the blogworld does this kind of thing much better (or rather, much worse). In the Comments thread Me No No wrote

the real purpose of a column like that is to generate letters to the editor, so reminding SMH carpet strollers of why they pay an exhorbitant amount for columns that don’t really say much.

When tomorrow’s letters page is chockers with outrage, Paddy will feel useful again.

Looking at today’s SMH it becomes clear that the timing of this particular piece was also intended to provoke a flood of outrage from the chattering classes when Paddy’s AO was announced, to which he could respond with devastating wit. Instead, Lleyton Hewitt got the brickbats and the only response to Paddy was a letter from frequent commentator on this blog, Ron Mead, praising the award.

As a result, Paddy’s piece today was a bit sad. No-one even remembered that he was once a republican opponent of all kinds of honours, so he had to remind us of his own hypocrisy before defending himself. And his subtle self-comparison to Orwell, fighting against the “smelly little orthodoxies” of the left, came adrift when the sub-editor gave his piece the title, When no means yes, principle’s the same. This is Orwellian, but not in the good sense.

The person who should really be nailed on all this is John Howard. While he was saying all the right things about his concern for the people of Canberra, McGuinness, with the AO award already in the bag, was giving vent to the government’s real feelings on the subject.

Update Always vigorous in defence of his intellectual heroes, Jason Soon argues that

Paddy’s output of late has not necessarily been of sterling quality but that placed in the context of his past work his AO was well-deserved.

While I’m less of an admirer than Jason, I agree that McGuinness was a serious and credible commentator in the 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately, looking at the rest of the Oz Day Honours list, I find it implausible that Paddy got his gong, even in part, for pieces like the one Jason mentioned where he argued that “Keating was a better pro-market reformer than Thatcher”.The AO is a reward for the partisan vitriol of the past seven years rather than for his earlier work.

Jason also didn’t like my suggestion that Paddy’s comments on Canberra reflected the government’s real feelings on the subject. Having lived in Canberra for a good part of my life, I think I’m pretty well attuned to these things, and stand by what I said.

Categories: General Tags:

Last word on Windschuttle

January 28th, 2003 Comments off

My final say on the Windschuttle controversy has been posted on the Evatt Foundation website. It’s here. The final para:

I am always puzzled by the ease with which some people can repudiate their own past views while maintaining a dogmatic conviction of the infallible correctness of their current beliefs. Keith Windschuttle is, regrettably, an extreme instance of this phenomenon.

Before closing on this topic, I’ll mention that Saturday’s Courier-Mail included lengthy extracts from the diary of a senior Queensland police officer detailing numerous massacres and “dispersals” (I’ll add a link if possible). These academic controversies are absorbing, but get tiring in the end. I may post a bit more on the general question of historical truth, but I’ll leave Windschuttle himself (and also John Lott) to history from now on.

Categories: General Tags:

Lott’s of fun for everyone

January 27th, 2003 Comments off

As the world turns, the Lott soap opera goes on producing new plot twists on a more or less daily basis. The emergence of a witness, David Gross, supporting Lott’s story of a survey lost in 1997, and his acceptance by respected expert James Lindgren as a credible source, convinced many, including me, that the case of fabrication against Lott could not be sustained on the available evidence. The fact that Gross was a member of a pro-gun lobby group, which was known to Lindgren, wasn’t in itself a reason to doubt him. The NRA has 3.6 million members, so a survey of 2000 Americans ought to pick up twenty or thirty of them, and these are the people most likely to hear about the controversy and contact Lott.

Next came the news that Lott was posting all over the Internet in his own defence (including personal testimonials and book reviews) under the false name Mary Rosh. This was enough to convince me he was dishonest.

Now it appears Gross is not merely an opponent of gun control He’s Founding Director and Past Pres. of one of the most extreme pro-gun groups,. He condemns the NRA because it supports the enforcement of existing gun laws. Moreover, it’s been claimed (lost this link, sorry!) that , in a piece of sharp practice, he took over the registrations of a number of gun-control organizations when they were accidentally allowed to lapse, an impressive instance of either dishonesty or sharp practice, depending on your viewpoint.

The odds of Lott’s survey picking up a member of a pro-gun organisation are pretty favorable, but the odds of picking up someone as prominent and extreme as Gross are not. And the alternative hypothesis, that Gross is willing to engage in dishonesty for the cause and sharp enough to present himself as a credible witness, is looking better all the time.

Finally, Tim Lambert notes a piece in the Washington Times defending Lott. Tim is critical, but there’s a positive side to this. The Washington Times has a circulation of 100 000, making it about even money that at least one reader was involved in the putative survey. If the issue makes it into the mainstream press in a substantial way, we ought to get dozens of witnesses. Or not, as the case may be.

Update A mildly interesting fact I discovered is that the very first review of Lott’s book on Amazon (5 stars!) was by Glenn Reynolds, in the days before InstaPundit. You can read it. here – use the ‘oldest first’ option.

Update 1 Feb 02Thanks to Mark A. R. Kleiman, here’s the missing link on Gross dirty tricks from Atrios.

Categories: General Tags:

Never let a hold of nurse

January 27th, 2003 Comments off

Ken Parish has abandoned the brave attempt at a manual blog and returned to Blogspot. His new site is called Troppo Armadillo. I’m still thinking of making the break at least to MT, but as with everyone else, I’m finding the time pressure too much to do more then keep posting.

Ken has raised the prospect of a collective blog (we need a new piece of blog jargon for this – how about “Borg”). It’s an interesting paradox that most of the prominent collective blogs so far have been right-leaning while lefties such as myself have struggled on as sturdy individualists (or perhaps just bolshy recalcitrants).

Update My innocent jest on right-leaning collectives has provoked an entertaining, if occasionally ill-tempered, slanging match in the comments thread. Read, enjoy and join in! Comments threads are an alternative, minimalist, approach to collective blogging, and as I’ve often proudly claimed, this comments thread for this blog is as good as you’ll find anywhere.

Categories: General Tags:

Monday Message Board

January 27th, 2003 Comments off

It’s time for the Monday Message Board. Post your thoughts on any topic (civilised discussion and no coarse language please). Suggestion: your response to the Australia Day Honours.

I’ll just throw in a ‘touched by fame’ story about the Australian of the Year. The winner, Fiona Stanley, was an excellent choice, but I was hoping the NT nominee, introduced as Dr Edward Egan, would get up. He’s better known to thousands as Ted Egan, bush musician and balladist, and I once featured as the supporting act when he appeared at the ‘Three Weeds’ (Rose, Shamrock and Thistle) folk club.

Update “Fisking” has emerged as the topic du jour. Jason Soon and I, along with several interlocutors, had a discussion of this a few months back. In the comments thread, I suggest that the popularity of Fisking rested on the assumption of an audience which unanimously accepts the premises that the Fisker is on the right side and that the Fiskee is an idiot. As the blogosphere has become more diverse, Fisking has declined. Done well, Fisking can still be impressive. But the typical collection of putdowns and cheap shots that scored heaps of “Right on!” hyperlinks a year ago will no longer pass muster.

Categories: General Tags:

What I'm reading (and more)

January 26th, 2003 Comments off

The Invention of Tradition edited by Hobsbawm and Ranger. It’s about the process by which national and other ‘traditions’ were constructed, deliberately and otherwise, mainly in the 19th Century. Lots of interesting stuff. I knew, for example, that clan tartans were a C19 invention, postdating the destruction of the clan system by 70 years -the big stimulus was the first royal visit to Scotland by George IV in 1822. I was unaware, though, the the kilt was invented as a way of modernising Highland dress by an English manufacturer around 1720. I plan a big essay on this topic one day.

I’ve also acquired an iPod (I bet SDB won’t be surprised to discover I’m a Machead as well as a peacemonger). I’m enjoying listening to it, and I can justify the purchase on the basis that it makes a great portable hard drive as well.

Categories: General Tags:

A messy compromise

January 26th, 2003 Comments off

I previously promised to set out my ideas for a messy compromise (there’s no other kind) on Iraq. I start with the assumption that Blix’s report tomorrow will report Iraqi compliance with the demands that were explicit in 1441 and formed the basis of most discussion beforehand, such as unfettered access to palaces, government offices and so on, but that compliance has been less satisfactory in other respects. The other basis of my analysis is that Saddam poses no significant threat in the short-term (say one year) or at least no threat that could be reduced by an invasion (the risk that he will give WMDs to terrorists is enhanced, not reduced by an invasion).

On this basis, the compromise I favor and think likely is one that allows for continued inspections while raising the bar on Iraqi compliance. Obvious instances include requiring U2 flights and unchaperoned interviews with scientists, with or without their consent. As regards the gaps in the Iraqi declaration that WMDs have been destroyed, there is an obvious analogy with the recent fuss over John Lott and his supposed survey. The appropriate strategy is to identify specific types of records of the destruction process that should exist and demand their production.
The basic idea of the compromise is to continue applying pressure on Iraq until we reach one of the following clear-cut outcomes:
(a) A ‘smoking gun’
(b) Clear Iraqi non-compliance with a specific demand
(c) A clean bill of health

The other pressure that needs to be applied is on the US, to ‘put up or shut up’ regarding its evidence for war. If they have evidence that there are weapons in some specific location they should tip off the inspectors and watch the site to make sure nothing is moved. If they have more general evidence, they should publish it to the world. And if they want to assert that the inspectors are leaking material to the Iraqis, they should offer some proof of that.

Obviously, an outcome leading to war could arise at any time. A clean bill of health, leading to the removal of sanctions might take longer, say six to eight months. I don’t see a problem with this if the Americans are prepared to keep up the threat of military action. And if they don’t have the patience to keep an invasion force on hold for a few months they clearly lack the capacity for the years of occupation and nation-building that would be required after an invasion.

Categories: General Tags:

Conditional support

January 25th, 2003 Comments off

Steven Den Beste at USS Clueless writes.

If we fight, and if we win, and if we win rapidly, and if the rate of American casualties is low, and if the overall casualty rate is low, and if afterwards plenty of evidence is uncovered about Iraq’s WMDs and Iraqi involvement in terrorism – all of which I now think is quite likely to happen – then people will look back and see this as an example of leadership, and they’ll be right.

Well, yes, especially if as Den Beste also predicts, the invasion produces a democratic government in Iraq and if this is the beginning of full-scale democratic reform in the region. Granted these eight or nine “ifs”, I would support an invasion, and, should the invasion take place and produce these outcomes, I will admit that my opposition was based on an incorrect assessment.

I can’t see though, how the ultra-confidence of Den Beste and others in a quick, complete, nearly bloodless military victory squares with the insistence that the war has to start in the next couple of months before the weather gets too hot for fighting. The only obvious route to a quick and easy victory arises if Saddam’s armies mutiny and refuse to fight at all, and presumably hot weather will not reduce the chances of this. More generally, if we agree that a change in the weather will upset everything how can we rule out some other unforeseen contingency of the kind that wars have produced since time immemorial.

Although not strictly relevant to this post, I think it’s worth noting at this point that, even in purely military terms, a decision to go to war without letting the UN process reach a conclusion will have substantial costs, by curtailing any Turkish involvement and therefore foreclosing the “Northern option’.

Update My blogtwin, Tim Dunlop, quotes the identical para from SDB, then says “Well maybe, but I count six big ‘ifs’ in that paragraph…”. The BlogGeist strikes again, right down to turn of phrase!

Further update Steven Den Beste replies here, dismissing the northern option of an invasion from Turkey. I don’t have any basis to doubt his expertise on this, but this option certainly got plenty of apparently well-informed press. In the previous post he says, that he’s puzzled by the sharp swings in rhetoric coming out of Washington (me too!) and gives an exhaustive list of possible interpretations. He goes for misinformation, as he has in the past. I prefer the view I’ve been putting forward for some time, that Blair can’t persuade his Cabinet to dump the UNSC and join a US invasion. So there’s nothing new here that’s likely to change prior beliefs. Nevertheless, it’s well-worth reading Den Beste’s presentation of the alternatives.

Yet further update Kevin Batcho shares my analysis, pointing out the threat posed to Blair by Gordon Brown.

Categories: General Tags:

The peace camp and the challenge of international order

January 25th, 2003 Comments off

Jack Strocchi poses the challenge:

Now it is time for the peace bloggers to start doing their sums. If the US caves in, I issue this challenge to the most competent advocate in the peace camp: what will the long term consequence for international order be when the US is forced to backdown and relinquish global threat neutralisation responsibilty to the impotent and inept UN and the unwilling EU?

Given that Jack has adversely characterized the EU and UN, let me observe that the US is thoroughly ill-suited to the role of hegemon in which he wants to cast it. The US record in the Middle East proves this. The problem states in the region, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran (as well as the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and OBL himself) are current or former US clients, and the problems we have now can be traced directly to past US policy. In addition, the US has excluded all other powers from intervening in the Israel-Palestine dispute, and the disastrous failure to achieve peace must be laid at the door of the successive US administrations who have asserted ownership of the problem.

The defects of past policy are entirely evident today. The first is a black-and-white notion of good and evil, which, when combined with realist power politics produces disastrous outcomes. One regime is demonised as uniquelyevil, with the result that all its enemies are regarded as good. In the 1980s, Khomeini’s Iran was the villain and Saddam was “a thug, but our thug”, using weapons of mass destruction with the tacit approval of the US. Today, Saddam is the villain and the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments are good guys.

The other, even more noteworthy defect is a short attention span. In five years time, Iraq will still be a mess but the Americans will have forgotten about it and moved on to some other concern. If anyone picks up the pieces it will be the EU and UN that Jack derides.

The alternative to US hegemony is a series of messy compromises, formulated on a case-by-case basis. I’ll post more on what this means in the case of Iraq soon.

It’s getting harder to read the tealeaves as the UNMOVIC report (Jan 27) and Bush’s State of the Union speech (Jan 28) draw closer, but the latest reports saying that the U.S. May Not Press U.N. for a Decision on Iraq Next Week seem to support the messy compromise scenario.

Categories: General Tags:

Song for Saturday

January 25th, 2003 Comments off

The Erskineville Trendy

I’m pleased to meet you, my name’s Will
I’m doing up a terrace in Erskineville
Two up, two down and an outside loo
It’s a perfect steal, only 1.2
Hooray, home sweet home
Paying 6 per cent on a thirty year loan

Work a six day week and a twelve hour day
But the mortgage gobbles up all my pay
So I dabbled in dotcoms to make some cash
I lost the lot, now I’m dealing hash
Hooray, grateful thanks
For second mortgages and Japanese banks

I’m ripping up th floorboards and stripping back the walls
Putting potplants on the balcony and pictures in the halls
Getting bruises on my knees and blisters on my hands
Hooray, aches and pains
It’ll all be worth it for the capital gains

Prices keep on rising, I’m telling you
A man just doesn’t know what to do
The cost of a living is a perfect disgrace
You should see what they charge for iron lace
Hooray, ain’t that nice
Fifty grand more on the resale price

I’m between two railways with a flight path overhead
Very close to transport the agent said
But we’ve blocked off all the roads, it’s really neat
You need a degree just to find my street
Hooray, happy days
Living out my life at the bottom of a maze.

I pinched this one from the master of Australian satirical parody, John Dengate. The original was about a battler, who worked in a factory in Erskineville, and followed the ponies in a futile attempt to save the deposit for a block of land. My parody was written in the 1980s, but updating was easy – I just multiplied the prices by a factor of ten.

Categories: General Tags:

Departure and arrival

January 24th, 2003 Comments off

Alex Robson has announced that he is closing his blog and moving to intermittent posting at the new Australian Libertarian Society collective blog – this seems to be something of a trend.

Given that a significant proportion of the posts at ALS so far have come from the unspeakable “Strawman” (his pieces gloating over the Canberra fires represent the bottom of the Australian blogging barrel), additional input has to raise the average standard. At this point, I can’t resist the temptation to refer to the joke about an academic moving from Oxford to Cambridge and raising the average intelligence level in both places, but I’ll try to redeem myself with a serious comment.

While I’m not a libertarian, I’ve certainly learned a lot from libertarian contributions to public debate, particularly in the blogosphere. I’m always interested, for example, to read what Jim Henley or Jason Soon has to say on any issue of public concern. I wish the ALS site well, and hope that open debate there will strengthen the humane and rational strand in libertarian thought.

Categories: General Tags:

Coalition of the reluctant ?

January 24th, 2003 Comments off

Although Howard is still calling for more time for the UN process to be completed and denying that we have taken a decision to participate in an invasion of Iraq without UN sanction, our masters think differently.

It is their prerogative, if they choose, to be on the sideline,” the White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said of France and Germany. He said President Bush was confident that much of Europe, including Britain and probably Spain, Italy and some Eastern European countries, would “heed the call,” as would Australia.

We all know the score, and Fleischer is almost certainly right, but I thought the US government liked to make some pretence of deferring to the constitutional processes of its client states. The correct form is to give the orders to Howard and then let him announce them to us.

From what I can see, almost all the governments nominated by Fleischer as obeying US orders are still doing their best to keep the hope of some sort of UN sanction alive (even Blair has been careful not to commit himself all the way, despite his recent swing to tough rhetoric). This is a war that no-one outside Washington really wants, particularly given the desperately thin casus belli Bush is currently putting forward.

Update Judging by today’s papers, Howard has got his orders, but has yet to work out a palatable way of passing them on. In the meantime, here’s another take on the coalition of the not unwilling from Andy Borowitz. Link via Tom Spencer

Categories: General Tags:

Defensive gun use can be offensive

January 24th, 2003 Comments off

In the course of following up the work of John Lott, I came across some interesting points about defensive gun use (DGU). There has been a dispute between estimates based on surveys of crime victims, such as that of Hemenway et al, which show very low rates of DGU (less than 100 000 per year for the US) and others such as that of Kleck et al, which show as many as 2 million DGU’s per year. I came across an interesting piece by Tom Smith, which attempted a reconciliation between the two estimates. Among other things the the crime victimisation surveys exclude such crimes as “trespassing, vandalism, and malicious mischief”. By including these cases, Smith adds as much as 40 per cent to the derived from the crime victims survey, though this still doesn’t get him anywhere near the Kleck estimates.

It struck me that, even on the most generous definition of reasonable force, shooting or threatening to shoot a trespasser or vandal would be a crime more serious than the original offence, so I emailed Dr Smith to ask him about this. His response:

I’m no expert on American law, but such uses do meet the criminological definition of DGUs that has been used in the research literature. That literature also states that not all DGUs are necessarily legal or appropriate, just that the gun is used in response to a crime/threat in the mind of the user.

From this definition, it’s pretty clear that the kind of person who brandishes or even fires a gun in the course of, say, a dispute between neighbours over fence lines, could correctly record this as a DGU. The same goes for this case, where the outcome was more tragic (the killer was acquitted of a manslaughter charge, but that says more about Louisiana juries than anything else). Even the use of a gun in a street brawl would qualify, assuming that the shooter felt threatened.

On Smith’s estimates, such criminal misuse of guns constitutes as much as a third of all DGUs. The rate would be higher for the much more frequent use estimated by Kleck et al.

In summary, it appears that, if the Kleck estimates have any validity, they represent an epidemic of unrecorded gun crime.

Categories: General Tags:

Another anti-immigration party bites the dust

January 23rd, 2003 Comments off

This is good, if somewhat ambiguous, news. I’ll blog more on this at a later date

Categories: General Tags:

More renationalisation

January 23rd, 2003 Comments off

The Telegraph reports a public ownership plan for failing British Energy, the nuclear electricity generator privatised by Thatcher.

As yet renationalisation is primarily a device for picking up the pieces when privatisation has manifestly failed, but we can expect more aggressive action now that the taboo has been broken. And already the notion of privatisation as the inevitable wave of the future (taken as gospel only five years ago) is as dated as dialectical materialism.

Categories: General Tags:

Our worst policy failure

January 23rd, 2003 Comments off

As I mentioned, my last AFR piece on unemployment has been reproduced at australian policy online. Stephen Kirchner criticises me and says

The unemployment rate in NZ has already posted a low of 5.1% and could well push sub-5%. The NZ case demonstrates that a more liberal approach to labour market institutions can be successful in lowering unemployment.

I think this is drawing a pretty long bow. The National Party government in NZ passed the Employment Contracts Act in 1991. When the Nationals lost office in 1999 the unemployment rate was close to 7 per cent, above that in Australia. The incoming Labour government (which Kirchner criticises pretty regularly) repealed key aspects of the Act. The subsequent decline in unemployment (latest rate 5.4 per cent) may not be a consequence of Labor’s reforms but it certainly doesn’t help Kirchner’s case in the slightest.

Oddly enough, Kirchner goes on to endorse the ‘characteristically intelligent’ comments of John Edwards who begins by pointing out the failure of the radical free-market model in the US. Edwards goes on to respond to a number of the points that I raised in my piece (though he doesn’t mention names on either side), and concludes

If the Australian economy continues to grow over the next few years at the rate I expect, it won’t be long before we are more worried about finding workers than finding jobs.

Of course, a few more years of growth would imply a 15-year expansion, which would certainly be good for unemployment. This may happen, but I see no reason to suppose that Australia is any more immune to the business cycle than the US where similarly rosy predictions held sway until very recently.

Categories: General Tags:

Conned again

January 23rd, 2003 Comments off

As I’ve noted before, I hate being conned. It is now clear that John Lott has been conning a lot of people, including me. Given the favorable assessment by James Lindgren of the witness who claimed to participate in Lott’s survey on defensive gun use, I felt it was necessary ‘in the absence of new developments’, to drop the case of fabrication against Lott. The new developments did not take long to emerge.

According to Julian Sanchez it turns out that the ‘witness’ is a pro-gun activist with a focus on the specific issue where Lott made his name (concealed carry laws). This isn’t absolutely conclusive – there are enough such activists that the inclusion of one in the survey is not surprising, and this is obviously the type of person who would find out about the controversy and approach Lott .

But then it turns out Lott has been using a false identity (‘Mary Rosh’) to post pieces defending himself on Usenet. This is the last straw for me. In particular, Lott reviewed his own book under the name Mary Rosh. Although trivial in relation to the alleged fabrication of a survey, this is, in my view, a clear-cut piece of academic dishonesty. His university (he’s now at Yale) should take immediate action to investigate this and other allegations of misconduct.

Update Lott isn’t at Yale either, but has moved on to the American Enterprise Institute. Judging by my dealings with them (read here or search the site for “Zinsmeister”) he should fit right in.

Categories: General Tags:

Does he or doesn't he?

January 23rd, 2003 Comments off

Rather lost in the debate over plans for war in Iraq has been the question of whether Saddam Hussein actually has weapons of mass destruction. Those in the pro-war camp have generally taken Bush’s word for it that he does, while those opposed to war have implicitly taken the line that it’s up to Bush to prove it. I don’t find either argument entirely satisfactory.

The absence of anything seriously resembling a smoking gun after six weeks of inspections is proof enough for me that the US ‘dossier’ being flourished about six months ago, complete with satellite photos of suspicious installations, was worthless. The sites in the photos have been inspected and found to be innocuous. And the claim that the Americans have the evidence but don’t want to compromise their secret methods is inherently implausible. Assuming that they had enough evidence to nail Saddam, the fact that he might learn about their surveillance techniques seems pretty much irrelevant.

On the other hand, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. All the nasty things that Bush says about Saddam are true, even if they were just as true when Bush senior was turning a blind eye to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. Saddam is evil and dangerous, if he has kept stocks of weapons of mass destruction in the current crisis, irrational. So it’s important to consider what we’ve learnt.

First, I think it’s pretty clear that Saddam doesn’t have nuclear weapons or any operational program to produce them. The UN found and destroyed his plants in 1991 and he’s been under tight sanctions ever since. Moreover, this is just not the kind of thing that can be hidden easily, or dismantled at a moments notice and moved on a truck. Nuclear operations produce radioactivity and this can be detected. If there were a nuclear weapons program, the kind of inspections we’ve seen would have turned up something by now.

It’s harder to be sure about germ warfare. The Iraqis have produced stocks of various germ warfare agents in the past (though they claim to have destroyed them), and the facilities are easier to conceal than those needed for nuclear weapons. On the other hand, it’s hard to keep stocks of germ warfare agents from degrading in storage, and Moreover, unlike chemical and nuclear weapons, they’ve never been used. The horror associated with these weapons is such that all those involved would almost certainly face either deadly retaliation or subsequent execution, but the actual military effectiveness is probably quite limited. There are some discrepancies in the Iraqi account of what happened to the stocks they produced. However, based on the absence of evidence and the irrationality of persisting with germ warfare programs, the balance of probabilities favors the hypothesis that these programs have been abandoned.

The balance of evidence is much closer in relation to chemical weapons. Lots of these were produced and used and the amount unaccounted for is much greater. Moreover, it would be easy to hide a substantial stock in a bunker somewhere, with a much smaller risk of dectection than for germs or nukes. On the other hand, while scary, chemical weapons are clearly not a threat to be compared with nuclear weapons or with the possible uncontrollabe consequences of germ warfare. Despite extensive use, chemical weapons weren’t decisive in the Iran-Iraq war and Saddam didn’t dare use them in Gulf War I.

This means that the rational course of action would be for Saddam to destroy the weapons. On the other hand, while Saddam isn’t crazy he’s also not exactly rational. This justifies intrusive inspections, private interviews with scientists and continued demands for more documentation of the supposed destruction of these weapons. When this process is complete, a judgement will need to be made.

The threat posed by Saddam’s chemical weapons (if he has any) is not a clear and present danger. The possibility that they will leak to a terrorist group would, if anything, be enhanced by an invasion. The weeks of softening-up bombing implied by standard US practice in these matters would give Saddam plenty of time to arrange this, assuming that he was willing and able.

What is clearly not justified, on the evidence so far, is a pre-emptive invasion based on the absence of proof of a negative.

Categories: General Tags:

Thoughts for Thursday

January 23rd, 2003 Comments off

Because of the fires, I didn’t open up the message board as usual on Monday. So rather than put up my own “Thursday thoughts”, I’m asking for your comments (civilised discussion and no coarse language) on any topic. I’d particularly like further ideas on blame, chance and Fate, which has been the subject of some valuable discussion in earlier comments threads this week.

Categories: General Tags: