Archive for November, 2003

What I'm reading, and more

November 30th, 2003 Comments off

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien. A nice instance of alphabetical serendipity. I was in Borders, looking for another of the Patrick O’Brien Aubrey-Maturin series and this was of course on the same shelf. Thirty years ago, my friend John Stephenson had sung its praises and, while I’d read and enjoyed the Myles na Gopaleen columns by the same author, I’d never got around to At Swim-Two-Birds. I found it a little heavy going at first, but now I’m really enjoying it.

While I’m at it, I’ll take the opportunity to plug John’s novel The Optimist based on the early life of the poet Christopher Brennan. When I was young, Brennan was still a legendary figure in the classic-tragic-alcoholic mode, but he seems to be neglected nowadays. The Optimist is apparently out of print, but it’s well worth reading if you can pick it up. The echoes of O’Brien and Joyce are very evident.

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Labor as the natural party of government

November 30th, 2003 Comments off

The title of this post may seem strange when the Federal Labor Party is in such a dreadful mess. But the very fact that a party consumed by leadership brawling, facing a united government with a competent leader, a relatively strong economy and the kind of international tensions that favor governments, can still manage 50 per cent of the two-party preferred vote in a number of opinion polls is revealing.

Over at Crikey, Owen Outsider argues that there has been a long term trend towards Labor dating back to the Menzies era. I put forward a rather similar argument here, observing

In the past fifteen to twenty years, Labor has rarely lost a state election, except when it has displayed high levels of incompetence, arrogance or both. Even in the wake of fiascos like the Victorian and South Australian bank failures, the Liberals have struggled to gain a second term, and have never managed a third. By contrast, all the Labor governments on the eastern seaboard have won re-election by landslide margins, and all look set for extended periods in office.

In my view, the electorate is well to the left of the political elite (that word again!) on most domestic issues, so the Liberals can only win if attention is focused on foreign policy and (an important qualification) things turn out well for that policy.

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Beazley bio

November 29th, 2003 Comments off

If the majority of the papers are right, the Caucus will vote for Kim Beazley on Tuesday. I thought it might clarify my own thoughts to check out his bio. He’s been a member of Parliament since 1980 and was a minister throughout the term of the Hawke and Keating governments. That makes him (along with Ralph Willis) the longest-serving minister in the history of the Federal Labor Party [Keating was briefly a minister under Whitlam. However, he spent a very profitable interlude on the backbench after his first challenge to Hawke].

Here’s a list of the offices he held

  • Minister for Aviation from 11.3.83 to 13.12.84.
  • Special Minister of State from 14.7.83 to 21.1.84.
  • Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence from 11.3.83 to 13.12.84.
  • Minister for Defence from 13.12.84 to 4.4.90.
  • Vice-President of the Executive Council from 15.2.88 to 1.2.91.
  • Minister for Transport and Communications from 4.4.90 to 9.12.91.
  • Minister for Finance from 9.12.91 to 27.12.91.
  • Minister for Employment, Education and Training from 27.12.91 to 23.12.93.
  • Minister for Finance from 23.12.93 to 11.3.96.
  • Deputy Prime Minister from 20.6.95 to 11.3.96

From that entire list, the only thing I can recall him doing is ordering the Collins class submarines. In addition, I recall that he played some role in the mess that is Australian telecommunications policy, but I can’t remember exactly what. As Opposition Leader, I can recall that he had two narrow losses and that at some time he advocated something called Rollback.

Have I missed some achievement that would mark out a future Prime Minister?

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November 28th, 2003 1 comment

Despite repeated promises that the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme would not be on the table in negotiations about a Free Trade Agreement with the US, this NYT story says this is a key demand on the US side. Moreover

The [recently-passed] Medicare bill also requires the Bush administration to apprise Congress on progress toward opening Australia’s drug pricing system.

It’s increasingly clear that this game is not worth the candle.

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Backing Beazley: a guest post

November 28th, 2003 Comments off

Peter Brent from Mumble has contributed this guest post, putting the case for Beazley. My own views on the topic have only hardened since the last challenge, when I wrote this, and since giving up on Crean, when I wrote this. Peter’s argument begins …

Professor Quiggers has requested a please explain for my enthusiasm for Kim Beazley.

Here it is. Let me start by saying that, like most people, I’m not excited at the prospect of his return to the nightly news. In many ways he’s a relic from another era, and there are several others in caucus I’d rather see as PM.

But I think Beazley has the best chance of winning for the ALP. If he gets the job, Labor should walk in.

Read more…

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Soft power

November 28th, 2003 Comments off

Today’s Fin Review (subscription required) is running my thoughts on American “soft power” in the ReView section. You can read an earlier version here.

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After Crean

November 27th, 2003 Comments off

Crean is gone. No-one gets the kind of friendly visit he received today and survives as leader. Although my opinion of Crean rose somewhat over his time as leader, I think the time is right for him to go. In retrospect, his biggest mistake was spending his first year on party reforms that no-one except Tony Abbott cared about. It cost him heaps of political capital, earned him bitter enemies within the party, and made hardly any difference to the dire state of the branches. He could have saved the day after defeating Beazley if he’d been bold and consistent enough on policy, but that was never going to happen with Latham as shadow Treasurer.

Assuming he resigns soon, the best option for Labor, if it could be managed would be to draft Bob Carr. The obstacles are immense. It would require all the other candidates to shelve their ambitions, a self-sacrificing local member to give up a seat and the Parliamentary Party not to find some way of stuffing it all up. Appealing though the idea is, I don’t think it’s a goer.

Leaving that aside, the choice is, I hope, a no-brainer. Beazley and Latham both had lots of strikes against them anyway, and they’ve spent the last six months bagging each other. Excluding a bunch of candidates who might be good but who don’t have the profile to score a win, we’re left with Rudd. He’s not incredibly exciting, but neither was Carr as Opposition Leader (neither is Carr now, for that matter). Like all the other candidates he’s not particularly ideological, but unlike them, he hasn’t committed himself to a bunch of silly commitments on domestic issues.

Even with a change of leader, the odds would be against Labor. But the closeness of the polls in two-party terms indicates the lack of either broad or deep support for Howard. With Rudd as leader, and some good luck for Labor or bad luck for the government, the election will be a real contest.

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More research on speeding

November 27th, 2003 Comments off

One of the nice things about the US, from a research point of view is that, with 50 states, often going in different policy directions, it’s possible to do reasonably good statistical evaluations of policy, taking account of a lot of potentially confounding factors. (It’s also possible to do this badly and dishonestly, as the career of John Lott has shown, but that’s true of any research technique).

Here’s an NYT report of a study, using this approach, which estimates that increases in speed limits in the US led to nearly 1900 extra deaths over 3 years.

Update 27/11 Here’s another NYT story recognising, for the first time AFAIK, that the US trails other countries including Australia in road safety. As commenters on this blog have pointed out, the causes include not only speeding, but also more drink-driving and less effective seat-belt laws. There may also be an effect from the number of SUVs in the fleet, though this is controversial – heavy cars promote safety in some circumstances, and reduce it in others.

On the positive side, not noted here, the US moved earlier to make airbags standard equipment and has much better roads than Australia.

A final point is that the accident measure used here is fatalities per million vehicle miles. This is biased in favor of the US, since it effectively ignores passengers and pedestrians when calculating risks.

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Bankruptcy and divorce

November 26th, 2003 Comments off

In his summary of the debates between candidates for the Democratic nomination in the US, William Saletan lists as “Second-fishiest statement” this by John Edwards

If you’re a child in a middle-class family this decade, it is more likely your parents will go into bankruptcy than that your parents will divorce.”

But unless the middle class is atypical, Edwards is right on the money. As I point out here, in the year ending March 2003, more Americans went bankrupt than got divorced.

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The six o'clock swill

November 26th, 2003 Comments off

Monday’s Fin (subscription required) ran a highly aerated piece by Denis Dutton of the University of Canterbury about the horrors of life in New Zealand in the early 1980s, before the reforms of Roger Douglas. Phrases like “Stalinist Anglo-utopia,” and claims that “Objectively, apart from the fact that we spoke English, our inward-looking command economy’s closest counterparts could only be found in the Eastern Bloc” will come as no surprise to followers of the absurdly hyperbolic rhetoric that characterizes the advocates of reform in New Zealand. Even today, they routinely refer to Wellington as ‘Helengrad’, and talk as though the moderate government of Helen Clark has NZ well along on the road to serfdom.

But what struck me in the article was this claim about life in New Zealand “in the early 1980s”

The most notable example was the six o’clock swill, where the average punter got off work at 5pm and was required to down as much locally-produced grog as possible before the bars had to shut at 6pm. This got citizens, however drunk, home in time to the news on the government television service.

I visited New Zealand a couple of times before the reforms, and did not notice anything of the kind. On the other hand, I am just old enough to remember the abolition of the six o’clock swill in South Australia, by the reforming government of Don Dunstan. Six o’clock closing had been introduced during World War I as an emergency measure, then kept in place for fear of offending the wowser vote. On checking, I found that the history in NZ was almost exactly the same, introduced in 1918 and abolished in 1967, nearly 20 years earlier than Dutton claims.

In thinking about why Dutton would make such an obviously false claim, it struck me that he was reflecting an idea that I’ve encountered quite often in discussions with supporters of neoliberalism in New Zealand but which (with one important exception) was never seriously put forward in Australia,

This is the idea that free-market reform is naturally associated with cultural liberalisation and sophistication. It’s true that, while the New Zealand I visited in the 1970s did not have six o’clock closing, it seemed distinctly old-fashioned, much like Australia before the cultural opening up associated with figures like Dunstan, Whitlam and even Don Chipp.

The result was that the era of free-market reform in NZ coincided with the kind of cultural opening up and increasing sophisticatiion that Australia had seen a decade or more earlier. At least in the minds of supporters of the reform the two are seen as going together. There is no such association in Australia, and free-market reform is more generally seen as being associated with a narrowing of intellectual and cultural horizons.

The one attempt at linking economic and cultural liberalisation in Australia was in the rhetoric of Paul Keating. Keating routinely labelled his opponents as creatures of the 1950s (ignoring the two decades that had passed between the end of the 50s and the beginnings of reform). In his post-1993 reinvention, he suddenly emerged as a patron of culture and attracted some supporters from within the ‘arts community’. However, with the exception of this tiny group, few people on either side of the debate bought Keating’s rhetoric. Most of those who had supported Dunstan and Whitlam detested Keating. Conversely, most advocates of free-market reform remained violently hostile to art and culture, at least when its practitioners received any kind of government support or ventured to express opinions on political and social issues.

Categories: General Tags:

800 words

November 24th, 2003 Comments off

Matt Yglesias doesn’t like the 800 word length that’s standard for Op-ed pieces at the NYT and elsewhere

I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that the Gray Lady’s 800 words, twice a week columnist format is not exactly healthy for the quality of the writing they publish. It’s not so much that 1,600 words a week is too much for a person to write — I do more than that — but that the 800 word format is very hard to pull off. It’s notably that on the web, where you don’t have the typographical issues that make the 800 worder appealing to layout people (it’s roughly a full broadsheet column or a single magazine page, so you see it a lot), virtually nothing is ever published at this length. Cutting the fat out of an argument so that you can say something substantive and original in such a small length is tough, especially because convention dictates that you must have a proper lede and so forth taking up some of the space (link via Calpundit).

At least for me, nothing could be further from the truth. I love the 800 word format (actually, at the Fin, I only get 750). I find that it usually takes between 500 and 1000 words to develop a single point nicely in a first draft. If it comes out at the upper end, I usually find I’ve put in a para or two I don’t really need (often as a result of the academic instinct to qualify everything you say, which is the antithesis of opinion writing). After that, it’s just a matter of cutting out redundant words, rhetorical flourishes and so on. If it comes out at 500, there’s an opportunity for an extra half-point. This is an idea you can flag as being not fully developed, but which may be brought out in a later column. You can read my collected columns here.

Of course, I only have a fortnightly column, but I’d really love a weekly slot (BTW, have I mentioned my admiration for Fred Hilmer lately? :-).

I’m not so sure about the wisdom of the NYT policy of twice-weekly columns. That’s hard to do, and also limits the variety of the page.

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November 24th, 2003 Comments off

It was one year ago today that we arrived in Brisbane. Like everyone, I’ve had my ups and downs, but this has definitely been one of the best years I’ve had. I’ve liked just about everything about Brisbane, but especially the friendliness of the people here.

Among the jobs associated with moving, we finally got around to transferring the registration of our trailer, today, which entailed a trip in to the Queensland Transport office. In my experience this is a job which ranges from stressful and frustrating (most places in Australia) to the day from hell (my one experience in the US). But everyone was friendly and helpful, and the girl behind the counter was positively bubbly. We find this all the time.

In addition to the general pleasantness of life, there have been some big positive life-events, including some career successes and the marriage of my son. All in all, a very good year.

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Monday Message Board

November 24th, 2003 Comments off

It’s time, as usual, for the Monday Message Board. Post your comments on any topic (as always, civilised discussion and no coarse language, please).

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What I'm reading, and more

November 23rd, 2003 Comments off

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian. I’ve had good recommendations to read the series of historical novels of which this is the first instalment and the impending release of Peter Weir’s film (of which I’ve read mixed reviews) gave me the prod I needed. If I’m going to read a book, I prefer to do so before seeing a film of it. I enjoyed Master and Commander, but will need to read a couple more to see if I really get hooked.

I’ve also started the long task of converting my vinyl records to digital formats, going through AIFF to MP3. This is actually more work than converting to cassette, a task I once began, but never carried through. The process I’m using takes about six error-prone stages before the music ends up on my iPod. After the triviality of converting CD’s – stick it in the slot, download the info from CDBB and Bob’s your uncle – this all seems very slow. I estimate that, at one side a day, an discarding old stuff I’ll never listen to, the whole thing should take me about a year. And I’m clearly going to run out of disk space if I try to keep the lot in AIFF.

Against all that, there’s the amazing flexibility of digital music, at every level. I can do any kind of editing I want (for example, skipping over cracks in my old records and stripping out white noise) and rearrange the songs in any way I like.

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The city cartel

November 22nd, 2003 Comments off

This Buttonwood column from the Economist deplores the fact that house prices in London are being bid up by City types who, he suggests, have enriched themselves at the expense of their customers (he’s referring to the mutual funds scandals, but these are just the latest of many). He doesn’t, however, ask the obvious question: Why do these City types crowd together in London (and New York). After all, the same City types are busy telling us about a globalised world, linked instantaneously by the Internet. And, as Warren Buffett has shown, they are right. You can get all the information you need to formulate market-beating investment strategies while sitting in Omaha, Nebraska.

The two halves of Buttonwood’s observation are linked by the much older observation of Adam Smith (quoting from memory here)

Men of the same trade seldom gather together, even for innocent merriment, but the meeting ends in some conspiracy against the public.

The work that financial institutions are supposed to perform, trading assets and allocating risk in transparent markets, can be done anywhere on the planet. It’s the stuff they want to do without any inconvenient records, and with the kind of trust that’s needed for conspiracy that requires clustering in a central location where social bonds can be cemented by eating, drinking and sleeping together.

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Al Qaeda and Turkey

November 22nd, 2003 Comments off

Nathan Lott has a good analysis of the latest Al Qaeda outrages in Turkey. I argued here that terror attacks in Islamic countries will prove counterproductive for Al Qaeda and Lott generally agrees.

In fact, ideological terrorism has an almost perfect record of failure from 19th century Anarchists to the Weather Underground and similar groups (on both the right and the left) in the 1970s. The most any of these movements achieved was to bring authoritarian governments to power or to force governments to curtail civil liberties.

For a nationalist movement, bombings and assassination can work because the victims are seen as being on the other side, and because the weapons are the only ones available. As long as Al Qaeda was attacking targets in Western (or at least non-Muslim) countries, they could draw on Arab/Muslim nationalism as well as Islamism for support. But attacks in Muslim countries are a different matter. Inevitably, the majority of victims will be ordinary people going about their business, and it is the terrorists who will appear as demonic outsiders.

As Lott notes, Al Qaeda propaganda is trying to neutralise this effect, for example by claiming that the victims of the Saudi attacks were CIA translators. But this sort of stuff only convinces people who want to believe. Lots of Muslims wanted to believe that Mossad was tangled up with the World Trade Centre attacks. Not many will be motivated to believe spurious justifications for attacks where they themselves could easily have been among the victims.

Looking at longer term strategic implications, the big impact will be on Turkey’s case for admission to the EU. Supporters will undoubtedly push harder – Jack Straw has already made this clear. While some of the opponents, who don’t want a Muslim country to join Christian Europe, will be hardened in their opposition, it’s going to be very difficult for opponents like the German Christian Democrats to articulate this kind of line without being viewed (correctly IMO) as capitulating to terrorism. Of course, there’s still the perennial problem of Cyprus, but I expect the Turkish government will finally see the need to dump Denktash and support reunification without quibbling too much over terms.

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Love from your lawyer

November 21st, 2003 Comments off

I couldn’t resist reporting this bit from the Hearsay column of the AFR (subscription required), sourced to the Annual Report of the NSW Legal Services Commissioner, Steve Mark

When her husband Frank died, Margaret was touched when she received a card and a phone call from their lawyer, expressing his sympathy for Margaret and her family. The solicitor assisted Margaret with the execution of Frank’s will and she was happy with the service she received. That is, until she received the bill She was astonished to find that the lawyer had charged for both the telephone call and the card (emphasis added)

And no, it wasn’t a mistake.

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Peddling influence

November 21st, 2003 Comments off

This lengthy piece by Nicholas Confessore, (link via Brad de Long) gives plenty of insight into the operations of James Glassman’s Tech Central Station, which is among other things, a leading purveyor of global warming contrarianism. In essence, the site is a commercial lobbying venture, which pushes the political interests of its sponsors. Sponsors of the site mentioned in the article include ExxonMobil and General Motors.

Among the contrarians affiliated with the site are Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon, astronomers, lead authors of the recent “Harvard study” a survey of historical studies of climate which yields findings totally contrary to those reported by scientists who are actually qualified to study the topic.

While I’m on this topic, I’ll pass on these links supplied by Robert Parson, which give a good idea of Baliunas’ general approach. These are Congressional reports from one of the previous contrarian campaigns in which she was a leading advocate, denying the impact of CFCs on the ozone layer. (larchived version of “” from Wayback archive) and making the usual claims about scientific conspiracies as well as gross overestimates of economic costs of mitigation.

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A small win for good sense

November 20th, 2003 Comments off

A while ago, I noted that a US prosecutor was going after methamphetamine “cooks” on terrorist charges, on the theory that “drugs are chemical weapons”. I’m pleased to see that this piece of nonsense did not impress a North Carolina judge. I wonder if the US Supreme Court will display the same backbone with respect to “enemy combatants”, Guantanamo Bay etc.

Talking of stretching definitions, I’ll offer this free theory to any US prosecutors who may be reading this blog. Guns (like all weapons based on explosives) work by means of an exothermic chemical reaction, and are therefore chemical weapons.

(If you really feel like pushing your luck, you might want to observe that knives and clubs are made entirely of chemical elements, as are fists and boots.)

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Thought for Thursday

November 20th, 2003 Comments off

My column in today’s Fin (subscriprtion required) argues that the best explanation for our current good performance and low unemployment is the trivial one – we haven’t had a recession, and that microeconomic reform and productivity growth have nothing much to do with it. This is fortunate since the rapid growth in multifactor productivity experience in the mid-1990s has ground almost to a halt in the last four years.

I reject the idea that microeconomic reform ‘fireproofed’ us against going into recession during the Asian crisis. As I observe

To refute this claim, we need only look across the Tasman. New Zealand had much the same microeconomic reform as Australia; if anything the reforms were more radical. And the Asian crisis produced the same immediate outcome, a currency depreciation. But the NZ Reserve Bank raised interest rates to offset the depreciation, while the Australian Reserve Bank allowed our dollar to decline. The result was recession in New Zealand and a smooth adjustment here.

Interestingly, while wandering through the blogs this morning, I linked (via Stephen Kirchner) to this piece in the Oz by Alex Robson (formerly a colleague of mine when I was at ANU, and also a former econoblogger), who says

Taking low unemployment for granted is understandable, given that it has been consistently low for such a relatively long time. But it is a risky position for economic policy-makers to take. The primary factor behind the sustained growth in job creation is the stunning success of commonwealth-driven reforms during the past two decades – much derided as “economic rationalism” by the likes of economist John Quiggin, sociologist Michael Pusey and political scientist Robert Manne. It is these market-oriented policies that have led to substantial improvements in individual economic freedom for all Australians.

Robson is correct to nominate the past two decades as the period of substantial microeconomic reform. But there are a couple of problems with his claims about unemployment. The official unemployment rate now is only marginally below that of the previous cyclical minima in 1989 and 1979. When you take into account the growth in various forms of disguised unemployment (such as disability benefits) the rate is actually quite a bit higher. The proportion of men engaged in full-time employment has plummeted. So the growth in job creation has been anything but “stunning”.

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Please explain?

November 19th, 2003 Comments off

So I expect I’ll be watching the RWC Final like everybody else, but there’s still a basic point about the game I don’t understand, especially after the France-England game (I’m from the AFL half of the country, but I’ve watched a reasonable amount of rugby league). It seems as if it’s a lot easier to kick three goals than to score and convert a try. (This is certainly true in rugby league which is why you only get one point for a field goal.) So the obvious strategy seems to be to go for goals.(On standard game-theoretic grounds, you should make the occasional attempt at a try, just to force the other side to defend against it).

But most teams seem to have only one player who’s any good at kicking. If a team had three or four players who could regularly kick goals from 40 metres, the task of the defence would be just about impossible. As soon as the attacking side got to within, say, 30 metres, they could pass it back to a randomly chosen kicker for a set shot at goal. Even with 50 per cent accuracy, this ought to bring in 30+ points a game, which is usually enough.

Chicago-style reasoning (Isn’t that a $50 bill on the pavement? No, if it was, someone would have picked it up) says there’s something wrong with this analysis. Can someone set me straight before Saturday?

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David Smith defends the GG

November 19th, 2003 Comments off

Although being an opinion columnist gives me a great opportunity to air my views, one of the minor annoyances is that it’s customary not to respond to letters, no matter how obviously wrong they are.

But there is no such custom or constraint when it comes to blogs. David Smith (I assume the same one who announced the dismissal of the Whitlam government) has criticised my column on the constitution, which I mentioned here. Smith writes:

In their haste to continue with an open season on John Howard-appointed governors-general, some commentators, having made up their minds, do not want to be confused by the facts.

Michael Costello, former secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, criticised Governor-General Michael Jeffery for the way in which he gives the royal assent to bills passed by parliament, when they come before the Federal Executive Council (The Australian, October 24).

Costello gave details of alleged conversations between the Governor-General and ministers to illustrate the extent of the Governor-General’s interference.

But the Federal Executive Council does not deal with the royal assent, and ministers are not present when the Governor-General gives it.

Now John Quiggin, in “Our model constitution”(AFR, November 6), has followed suit. Quiggin has accused the Governor-General of politicising his position by “endorsing a policy of pre-emptive military action”. I have searched Major-General Jeffery’s speeches, and all I have found is a call for “co-operative interventionist action by the UN with a view to pre-empting bloodbaths”. That is the very opposite of what Quiggin has alleged.

Quiggin calls for a directly elected governor-general or president. Direct election of the head of state has been so roundly condemned by intelligent republicans such as a former governor-general, a former prime minister, a former chief justice of the High Court, and several legal and political academics of distinction, among many others, that it requires no further comment from me.

I can’t quite figure out Smith’s point in the second-last paragraph. Presumably he’s saying that because Jeffery called for the UN to be involved, his position was different from that of the government, though it’s still a stretch to say that the two are opposites. But I wasn’t concerned to criticise Jeffery’s position, merely to make the obvious point that it was a political one.

His final paragraph is a classic argument from authority. A former PM, a former GG and a former CJ disagree with me, therefore I must be wrong. This ancient fallacy is common, but I’ve rarely seen it in such a pure form.

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New blog from old blogger

November 19th, 2003 Comments off

Chris Sheil, late of Troppo Armadillo, has launched his new blog here

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An observation on evolutionary psychology

November 18th, 2003 Comments off

I’m generally sceptical about sociobiology/evolutionary psychology, on the grounds that, since we know almost nothing about the conditions under which we evolved (hunter-gatherer societies that survived into the 20th century are necessarily exceptional, and therefore unrepresentative), it’s very hard to see how we can make any useful inferences.

But the simple fact that our ancestors were hunters enables us to make one kind of inference with high reliability. Encounters with other*, armed, humans must have been a frequent occurrence

Two things follow, both of which have been remarked on, but typically by different people.

First, if even a modest proportion of such encounters led to armed combat, our ancestors would have wiped each other out

Second, if even a tiny proportion of such encounters led to armed combat, the death rate from violence would far exceed that associated with modern warfare.

(Do an example, and you can substitute your own values for “modest” and “tiny”)

From the first point, it follows that there must have existed some combination of cultural and genetic constraints that ensured that the vast majority of encounters between armed humans passed off peacefully. From the second, it follows that any cultural or genetic characteristic that increased an individual’s probability of surviving such encounters would yield substantial survival benefits.

If you emphasise either one of these in isolation, you can derive strong, and seemingly compelling hypotheses about genetic constraints on human behavior. But taking the two together, the picture is a lot more complex.

*The most frequent encounters would have been with close kin, but on any plausible assumption about the organisation of hunting there must have been plenty of encounters with distantly related or unrelated individuals (or social constructs such as territorial boundaries that acted to reduce the frequency of such encounters).

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Fact checking the Oz

November 17th, 2003 Comments off

The Oz runs this piece from the Weekly Standard on supposed proof of links between Al Qaida and Saddam. But they obviously don’t read blogs at the Oz or they would have known that the US Department of Defense has already denied this report (link via Brad DeLong and Tim Dunlop).

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Some pleasant surprises

November 17th, 2003 Comments off

For some reason, my career seems to have gone exceptionally well since I started blogging. I had two pleasant surprises last week. First, I was told that I’d been elected as a Distinguished Fellow of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society. This is a big honour for me, as agricultural and resource economics is where I started out, and still a core focus of my research (particularly on the Murray-Darling Basin). Admittedly, once academics reach a certain age, we like nothing better than to give each other awards, but that doesn’t detract from the pleasure in getting one.

Much more unexpected was receiving an email from Kenneth Arrow. There are a lot of very smart and insightful people in the economics profession, but in most cases I tell myself that, if only I work hard and think clearly I have a shot at matching them (this may not be true, but it keeps me motivated). Then there are a handful of people like Arrow, Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman. Reading their stuff, I get the feeling I could work for a hundred years without matching them.

Anyway, the email had a fairly generic title and I expected I was just on an address list. But when I opened it, it was an invitation to me to give a series of lectures on the economics of risk, in Jerusalem next year. Of course, I plan to accept.

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Guest post (the real thing)

November 17th, 2003 Comments off

I mucked up the first guest posting, putting up what was intended as a comment-length version. So here’s the full version of Brian Bahnisch’s thoughts.

The steel decision and the WTO

While the WTO steel decision poses a significant domestic dilemma for Bush, the implications for international trade relations are interesting. Pascal Lamy of the EU was very quick to remind the Americans about their taunts by saying that the cheese eating surrender monkeys are now biting back. You’d have to think they will hit hard with retaliatory tariffs.

Australia usually follows the correct pure free trade line, even against the US. On this one we did special deals, so can afford to sit back.

Japan, though, is considering sending a shot across the bows with a few hundred million dollars worth of sanctions against the US. It’s symbolic, but very significant.

The WTO has been a joint project of the US, the EU and Japan. With Canada, they make up the famous “Quad”, which calls the shots in the WTO. Dangerous cracks have opened up in Quad solidarity prior to Cancun and were unsuccessfully papered over. It was Japanese and South Korean intransigence above all that sunk Cancun.

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Monday message board

November 17th, 2003 Comments off

Another Monday, another message board. Have your say on any topic you fancy (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please).

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What I'm reading

November 16th, 2003 Comments off

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett. Dennett’s main concern is to ram home the point that, much as we might like the idea of some sort of special exemption from processes of undirected natural selection (a skyhook) we’re not going to find one.

Dennett naturally lines up with Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, but I find him much more satisfactory than either of these. While he’s remorseless in his basic argument, he’s careful to avoid slides into what he calls ‘greedy reductionism’. To caricature, the typical ‘greedy reductionist’ slide goes from “The existence of (say) the High Court” is the result of evolutionary events on the African savanna many thousands of years ago” (trivial true, except perhaps for some details about location) to “The best way to explain the decisions of the High Court is with reference to evolutionary events on the African savanna many thousands of years ago”. (silly).

As I observe in this review of Pinker, this kind of slide from trivially true to indefensibly strong arguments runs all the way through The Blank Slate. Dawkins is prone to the same fault, though not as much so.

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An observation on monarchy

November 15th, 2003 Comments off

A widely-noted feature of the debate over the monarchy, both in Australia and the UK, is that the Queen is considerably more popular than the Monarchy. Although there are a lot of factors of work here, one is a curious accident.

In a system where the monarchy is inherited by male primogeniture, the par outcome is that the monarch should be an old or middle-aged man who has spent most of his adult life waiting for the job. This was the case for most of the 18th century, for example. By some odd chances, however, more than half of the last 200 years of the British monarchy havs been occupied by two long reigns by women. As at the end of the 19th century, only a minority of people can now recall a time when the current Queen was not reigning. The only reign of the last 150 years that really fits the model I’ve described was that of Edward VII, and was not a great success.

In the past, when most positions of authority were held by men whose main qualification was to have lived a long time, the operations of primogeniture helped the monarchy, although even then the really successful kings were mostly those who started young. But I doubt that a modern monarchy could survive if the par outcome occurred regularly. Assuming the British monarchy sticks to the existing rules and Prince Charles doesn’t die prematurely, this is the likely pattern for the foreseeable future.

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