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Archive for January, 2004

The elephant's trunk

January 31st, 2004 5 comments

Via David Appell, I came across this marvellous quote from Freeman Dyson

In desperation I asked Fermi whether he was not impressed by the agreement between our calculated numbers and his measured numbers. He replied, “How many arbitrary parameters did you use for your calculations?” I thought for a moment about our cut-off procedures and said, “Four.” He said, “I remember my friend Johnny von Neumann used to say, with four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.”

It came to mind when I read this story in the NYT with the introductory claim What really stimulates economic growth is whether you believe in an afterlife — especially hell.The report is of some estimations done by Rachel M. McCleary and Robert J. Barro (the story notes that the two are married) published in American Sociological Review.

Barro is probably the biggest name in the field of cross-country growth regressions (a field in which I’ve also dabbled), and I’m sure he’s aware that thousands of these regressions have been run and that, with very limited exceptions, results that particular factors are conducive to growth have proved highly fragile. I haven’t read the paper, so for all I know, the results have been checked for robustness in every possible way. But my eyebrows went up when I saw this para

Oddly enough, the research also showed that at a certain point, increases in church, mosque and synagogue attendance tended to depress economic growth. Mr. Barro, a renowned economist, and Ms. McCleary, a lecturer in Harvard’s government department, theorized that larger attendance figures could mean that religious institutions were using up a disproportionate share of resources.

What this means is that at least two parameters have been used in fitting growth to religiosity and that the two have opposite signs – most likely it’s some sort of quadratic. In my experience, there’s always at least one arbitrary choice made in the pretesting of these models (for example once you have a quadratic, the scaling of variables becomes critical). That gives three free parameters, if not more.

I’m not John von Neumann, but with two parameters I can fit a dromedary and with three I can do a Bactrian camel.

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New discoveries in evolutionary psychology

January 31st, 2004 5 comments

I just got the latest issue of Scientific American, and noted with interest the Table of Contents, in which the Skeptic column promised an evolutionary explanation of the mutiny on the Bounty. I vaguely expected the usual stuff about alpha and beta males or somesuch, but I found that the ev psych boffins have come up with a startling new discovery. Young men like having sex. At this point the mathematics and biochemistry get a bit complicated for me (oxytocin is in there somewhere), but apparently this has something to do with the survival of the species.

Even more startling, though, is the fact that

Although Bligh preceded Charles Darwin by nearly a century,

he managed to anticipate this discovery. Who would have thought that a former governor of New South Wales (and not a successful one) would share with EO Wilson and Stephen Pinker the honour of founding evolutionary psychology? In Bligh’s words

I can only conjecture that they have Idealy assured themselves of a more happy life among the Otaheitians than they could possibly have in England, which joined to some Female connections has most likely been the leading cause of the whole business.

Delivery times are somewhat strange here in the Antipodes, and I thought perhaps I had an advance copy of the April edition, but the cover says February.

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Second-best blog in Queensland: Collect $10

January 31st, 2004 3 comments

There seem to be “Best blog” awards going on all over the place, but the only one where this blog a was serious contender was the Australian Blog Awards over at Keks. The contest was run on proper Australian lines with optional preferential voting, and when the preferences were all distributed, 60 per cent of the “two-blog preferred vote” for best Queensland blog went to 85 George Street, with this blog as runner-up.

Although not everyone is happy about awards and so on, I think it’s all good fun (It would have been even more fun if I’d won something!). Thanks to vlado at Keks for taking the trouble to run this, and thanks to everyone who voted for me or who took the trouble to vote at all.

Big congratulations also to Gianna, who got best NSW blog, Meika (Tasmania), Troppo Armadillo (NT), Ubersportingpundit, one vote ahead of Gary Sauer-Thompson in SA, and Sam Ward and Robert Corr in WA. I realise that I’ve missed out the two great Tims of Australian blogging and quite a few others, but if you go back to Keks you can see the entire list. As with the Laughing Clowns, just about every player has won a prize, which is as it should be.

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Too sexy

January 30th, 2004 17 comments

The Economist runs a piece endorsing the Hutton inquiry’s rejection of BBC claims that the Blair government’s dossier on Iraqi weapons was “sexed up”, but runs it under the headline George Bush and Tony Blair exaggerated, but they did not lie What, precisely, is the difference between “exaggerated” and “sexed up”
[Posted with ecto]

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Wendy James posts the thoughts

January 30th, 2004 5 comments

Wendy James posts the thoughts on public schools of pseudonymous teacher S. Whiplash, who says

If the figures are to be believed, increasing numbers of Australian parents are choosing to send their children to private schools. I believe this is happening totally – well, maybe not totally, but damn near – because parents are unhappy with the values being taught in public schools. Some of these values are taught overtly and some covertly. Either way, parents don’t like the values package on offer and are voting with their children’s feet.

As it happens, my opinion piece in yesterdays Financial Review (subscription required)was on this very topic, making the point that economists would look at the issue rather differently

Consider first the premise, shared by Howard and many of his critics, that the shift in enrolments from public to private schools must reflect increasing dissatisfaction with the public system. An economic appraisal suggests a much less abstract explanation.

Thanks to changes in Commonwealth government policy, subsidies to private education have been steadily increasing. Meanwhile the effective subsidy to publicly educated students has remained constant or declined in recent years. Standard economic analysis suggests that when a service is subsidised, its consumption will increase.

The analysis even works when comparing Catholic and other independent schools. Under Labor, the Catholic system received fairly generous assistance, but aid to the wealthier independent schools was limited. The Howard government has greatly increased aid to the wealthiest schools and enrolments have followed, with both government and Catholic schools losing market share in recent years.

From this perspective, in fact, the surprise is that the increase in attendance at private schools has been so small. In 1963, before the Menzies government began the provision of government aid to private schools, around 24 per cent of students attended non-government schools. After 40 years of steadily increasing public assistance, the non-government share has reached only 32 per cent. This suggests either that parental preference for non-government schools is very weak, or that the perceived advantages of private education have been declining over time.

I should observe that one reason for high attendence at private schools before 1963 was the effective subsidy provided by the voluntary labour of members of religious orders in Catholic schools. The gradual disappearance of this group and its replacement by lay teachers, paid out of public subsidies, has greatly reduced the differences between Catholic and government schools.

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Manners and political correctness

January 29th, 2004 11 comments

In my experience there is a close to 100 per cent correlation between the stated belief that society is suffering from a decline in “civility” and a willingness to proclaim that we are all being oppressed by “political correctness”. John Howard neatly illustrates this. A week or two ago, he was denouncing public schools as hotbeds of political correctness, and the excessive concern with offending religious minorities that (allegedly) led to the curtailment of Christmas celebrations. Now he’s calling for more civility.

The common analysis underlying both demands for “political correctness” (this actual phrase was never used, except jocularly as far as I know, until critics seized on it, but terms such as “sensitivity” or “inclusive language” cover much the same ground) and for “civility”, is that offensive words give rise to offensive acts. In both cases, there’s some ambiguity over whether the problem is with the offence to the recipient or with the reinforcement of the hostile/prejudiced attitudes of the speaker, but the central claim is that modes of speech are an appropriate subject of concern and that some form of government action to encourage more socially appropriate modes of speech, ranging from subtle pressure to direct coercion, is desirable. The only difference between the two positions is that they have different lists of inappropriate words.

I don’t have a sharply defined position on any of this, except that I find people who think that being “politically incorrect” is exceptionally brave and witty to be among the most tiresome of bores. I doubt that changes in speech will, of themselves, produce changes in attitudes. The obvious evidence for this is the rate at which euphemisms wear out and become as offensive as the terms they replaced (for example, ‘handicapped’ for ‘crippled’). On the other hand, I think there’s a lot to be said for avoiding offensive words and forms of speech and can see a place for (tightly drafted and cautiously applied) laws prohibiting or penalising various forms of collective defamation.

[Posted with ecto]

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Amazon finally has a P/E ratio

January 28th, 2004 Comments off

Having finally managed positive earnings over a full year, Amazon shares have now acquired that most basic measurement of value, a price-earnings ratio. With shares at $53 and earnings of 17 cents per share, it’s a bit over 300 to 1, which suggests that perhaps the New Economy is not dead after all.

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Copyright and copywrong

January 28th, 2004 5 comments

Thanks to the nice people at Copyright Agency Limited, I just got 77 cents in royalties on this article, reviewing Lawrence Lessig’s attacks on the extension of copyright.
[Posted with ecto]

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Belated congratulations

January 28th, 2004 16 comments

To Steve Waugh on being selected as Australian of the Year. Commentary on the award focused on the fact that Waugh was the third Australian cricket captain in a row to get it. The implied critique is that, if the award is thought of as rewarding excellence in some particular sphere, sport in general, and cricket in particular, get much more than their fair share.

My view on this is that, assuming the award is some sort of all-round commendation of a prominent Australian, Waugh is considerably more deserving than his two predecessors. His charitable work in India, and all-round good behavior seems to go well beyond the perfunctory good citizenship expected of sporting role models. I hope that Waugh’s award will set a high benchmark and that the committee (or whoever) will think long and hard before making another award based on nothing more substantial than a good batting average.

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Top-up fees (crossposted at Crooked Timber)

January 28th, 2004 5 comments

I’m not clear enough on the workings of the British Parliament to know whether Blair’s 5-vote win on the second reading of his education bill means that the political fight is over, but I thought I’d have my say anyway. The core elements of the bill are a substantial increase in fees, the right of universities to charge variable “top-up fees” and the introduction of a HECS-style repayment mechanism using the tax system. Thus it’s like a combination of all the education financing changes in Australia from the late 1980s, when HECS came in, to the recent Nelson package. Not surprisingly, I like some parts of it, and dislike others.

First, I’ll respond to other CT bloggers who’ve discussed this issue. Chris primarily makes the argument that, given that money isn’t going to come from anywhere else, or on any other terms, it’s better to take what’s on offer than to refuse on the basis that the terms are bad ones. I suppose I agree with this, but it’s not a helpful basis on which to discuss policy. Assuming you don’t want the Tories back, the same argument could be used for acquiescence in whatever policy Blair chooses to propose. Chris also dismisses concerns about variable fees, and I’ll return to this.

Daniel argues on risk grounds against the repayment mechanism (borrowed from the Australian HECS scheme) and, in my view, gets the risk analysis wrong. For precisely the reasons he outlines for not using NPV rules in assessing the effects of fees, the insurance implicit in the provision that no repayment is required until/unless earnings exceed some percentage of average earnings is considerably more valuable than he suggests. Assuming the proportion is set to give a level higher than the average earnings of non-graduates, it makes education a one-way bet. If you win, by earning more than you would have expected otherwise, you pay back some of your winnings. If you lose, you pay nothing. I don’t know what the actual proportion is, so I should stress that my support for the repayment scheme depends critically on this variable – in the absence of a high threshold substantial insurance, Daniel’s analysis is correct.

The critical sticking point, though, is not the level of fees but the principle of variable fees. If this provision had been dropped, it seems clear that the rest of the package would have passed fairly easily. The claim that these are not the same variable fees that were specifically excluded in the manifesto is nonsense, and the determination with which Blair and Clarke have stuck to them shows this.
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Some free publicity

January 27th, 2004 Comments off

The idea of a magazine about the Internet seems strange at first sight, but the idea that the Internet was going to wipe out print media can now be seen as one of the popular delusions of the late 20th century, and if I can blog about what’s in magazines, there’s no reason why magazines shouldn’t run stories about blogging.

Internet.au (whose very limited online presence is here has done just that in its February issue, including quite a few comments from me. There’s a teaser about how “blogs are so dangerous they could get you into trouble with your work, the government … or your mum …”, but the article itself is quite sensible, except that a piece from the Onion on the last point is reported as fact.

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More slackness

January 27th, 2004 3 comments

Talking of slackness, I looked at my blogroll and realised that I’d failed yet again to include Chris Sheil’s excellent Back Pages. This time, I promise I’ll get it right.

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Monday Message Board, late again

January 26th, 2004 8 comments

I realised as I was going to bed that I’d failed, yet again to open up the Monday Message Board on time, though it is still Monday in Queensland, just. I can only plead that a long weekend does not get me into a Monday mood. As we all return to work, please vent your frustrations on any topic (in a civilised fashion and without coarse language, of course).

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The Hard Way

January 26th, 2004 1 comment

My summer holiday activities over the last couple of months included a lot of work on my music collection (I’m slowly transferring from vinyl to MP3/AIFF) and rereading Nick Hornby. So, I was naturally struck by how rapidly the skill of making compilation tapes, a central theme of High Fidelity has gone from the esoteric to the everyday. Not surprisingly, not everyone is happy about this. Joel Keller, writing in Salon, says

Putting together a home-brewed compilation of songs used to be an act of love and art. Now it’s just too damn easy to be worth caring about.

and much more in the same vein, though his conclusion is more elegiac than polemical

When making the decision between practicality and artistic merit, I’ll choose practicality more often than not. I may be wistful for the old days, but I’m not an idiot.

So let’s have a moment of silence, for the mix as we used to know it is dead. Technology has overtaken the experience and made it cold and impersonal. But it’s time to look forward, as the Internet has allowed us to trade and download more varied types of music, making for better-sounding, albeit more antiseptic, mixes. One of these days, Nick Hornby should do a sequel to “High Fidelity” and list Rob’s Top 5 music downloads. I’m sure it’ll be a nice read. But it just won’t be the same.

The first time I heard this form of argument, it was from my Grade 4 teacher, lamenting the arrival of the ballpoint pen, and its adverse effect on the quality of handwriting. Possibly since I never mastered the steel nib/inkwell technology still favoured by the South Australian Department of Education in the 1960s, I was not impressed. Since then, I’ve seen the same argument applied to calculators, word processing and desktop publishing. And of course, the argument wasn’t new when I first met it – in one form or another, it’s been applied to almost any technical innovation that replaces a complex skill with an easily usable machine. (It’s separate from the income-distributional arguments that apply when skilled workers are displaced by unskilled ones, although the two are often entangled).

Before defending modernity on this , let me extract what I believe to be the core of validity in this argument. If the production of an item requires substantial skill and effort, the average quality of the items produced will be higher. This is for the same reason as (I ahve been told) some Japanese stores giftwrap their fruit – given the cost of a piece of fruit, giftwrapping makes sense. If making a compilation tape at all takes hours of work, and requires skills that only a music enthusiast will bother to acquire, a lot more effort and judgement will go into the selection and ordering of the tracks, correction of the levels and so on, than if a 14-year old can put together a CD in five minutes, as is now the case.

Similarly, when WYSIWYG word processing first became feasible, it was asserted that the quality of writing declined because students were spending too much time on flashy presentation. While this possible, I suspect the truth is that the total input of time declined substantially. Students judged (probably correctly at first) that an essay that looked professional, contained no spelling errors and so forth would get by even if the content was pretty weak. Moreover, cut and paste made it easy to produce an apparently final version without rewriting. In this case, the problem is that those setting the essays wanted to elicit some amount of work from the students but (with the exception of those students who actually wanted to learn something) the student’s objective was to minimize the effort required to do the job. At least until teachers learned to disregard cues like good presentation, the result was a decline in average quality which (if you agree that Teacher Knows Best) made everyone worse off.

Another case where average quality declined with bad effects, following an increase in ease of use, was that of Internet newsgroups. These were useful forums as long as the skills and effort required to use them confined access to those willing to make serious contributions. When they became easily accessible (roughly when AOL merged with the Internet) the newsgroups were flooded with garbage. It’s only since the rise of blogging software that the old vision of the Internet as a forum for debate that could bypass media monopolies has reasserted itself.

In most cases, though, (including that of blogging) a decline in average quality is quite consistent with an improvement across the board, in the sense that more and better good quality outputs are produced, even while the average is dragged down by people who would previously not have produced at all. People like Sal Tuzzeo, quoted by Keller may sneer that

On the subways you see people with iPods. They have, what, a thousand songs on them. Ten thousand, even. They stare random-glared into oblivion. [R]obots with s***ty music taste and too much money to spend on music-listening hardware and shoes, in that order

but why shouldn’t people be free to follow their taste, s***ty or otherwise? Keller argues that

Fewer people who are connected to the music they listen to translates into a less critical and picky audience for the crapola that the record companies and radio stations promote. The quality of music overall goes downhill.

but, again, why should anyone care about average quality or what is promoted on radio stations? People who are critical and picky, but don’t have the time or skills to make compilation tapes, chase down obscure records and so on, now have a much better capacity to find and reward those who are producing it.

By the way, talking of innovation, this post was produced using Ecto, a blogging client for Mac OS X currently in version 0.2.1, but already a big improvement on anything else I’ve used. Thanks to Brad DeLong for the tip.

[Posted with ecto]

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Assimilated by the Blorg?

January 26th, 2004 3 comments

Following my visit a month or so ago, I’ve decided to join the Crooked Timber collective. When I polled readers around the same time, the response was, as usual, in favour of the status quo, but I think the arrangements I’ve made will be a Pareto-improvement. I’ll continue to run this blog as normal, but posts I think appropriate to CT will also appear there. As far as I can tell, the overlap in readership is quite small.

One complication is that for posts appearing here and on CT, there will be two separate comments threads. I don’t think this is too much of a difficulty – the same issue arises when I put up several posts on the same topic, and it’s analogous to the case in comment systems that support multithreading.

Looking ahead, I’m planning on moving from mentalspace to a domain of my own. I see that Robert Corr who originally set me up on mentalspace, has just done the same. Although one can never tell, I hope the new arrangements will last for quite some time.

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Australia Day message

January 26th, 2004 18 comments

Australia Day seems like a suitable occasion to look at the question of whether and how Australia should become a republic. The whether question is, in my view, straightforward. Monarchy is an undemocratic institution. The monarch in a constitutional monarchy is at best, a dignified but powerless figurehead and at worst an undemocratic centre of power. In Australia’s case, the monarchical role is split between a political appointee with significant (if only occasional) power and a hereditary foreign monarch whose powers are presumed (but only presumed) to be nonexistent. The contribution of this setup to national dignity is negative.
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Pearson discovers DDT

January 24th, 2004 21 comments

This piece by Christopher Pearson in today’s Oz, denouncing green opposition to DDT, encapsulates everything that’s wrong with Australia’s right-wing commentariat. Not only is almost everything in the article either false or grossly misleading, but it’s a fourth-hand recycling of points that have been flogged to death in the blogosphere.

Pearson’s source is an article in Quadrant, which in turn relies on such authorities as Bjorn Lomborg, Michael Crichton and junkscience.com (Steven Milloy), none of whom have any scientific qualifications more advanced than Milloy’s master’s degree in health sciences, and none of whom have done any research on this topic.

Having accused the green movement of being responsible for millions of deaths as a result of DDT, Pearson’s sources come up with three specific claims.

First that the ban on agricultural use of DDT in the US was unjustified by the health risks. Whether or not this is true, widespread agricultural use of DDT was a major contributor to the rapid increase in resistance that rendered anti-malarial use of DDT largely ineffective in many countries. Illegal agricultural use is still a major problem.

Second, that Greenpeace is campaigning to close the factory in India that is the sole source of DDT. Greenpeace’s official position, easily discovered is that it supports a phase-out of DDT, and its replacement by safer, but more costly substitutes, to be funded by industrialised countries. More precisely

Financial and administrative mechanisms be included in the UNEP POPs treaty to assist less industrialised countries eliminate DDT production and use

Third, that aid agencies in Scandinavia refused to fund programs using DDT. This claim isn’t supported in enough detail to check it, but it’s scarcely much of a basis for alleging a global conspiracy, especially since there are equally effective and safe, but more expensive, substitutes which the Scandinavians may well have preferred to fund.

I’ve written more on DDT, indicating just how thoroughly Pearson is engaged in recycling, and how fundamentally the case he presents is undermined by consideration of resistance.

Meanwhile, shouldn’t journalistic and magazine ethics be extended to include some kind of Google rule, prohibiting the publication of articles that can be replicated by less than an hour’s Googling, or at least the payment of more than an hour’s casual rates for such pieces.

Update Various commentators have pointed out that this kind of thing is not confined to the right wing of the commentariat. Still, the DDT story is a particularly egregious example. And I can put my hand on my heart and say I’ve never signed my name to a recycled piece like this. I do occasionally repeat myself, but that’s because not enough people listened the first time I said it.

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Sistani and slavery

January 23rd, 2004 15 comments

Responding to my post on Sistani, Brad de Longsuggests that I need to read the Declaration of Independence , going on to assert that

A Bonapartist or a fascist or a theocratic dictatorship is not a legitimate government, no matter how large are its plebiscitary majorities and how enthusiastic are its crowds. The only governments that have even a possibility of being truly legitimate are those that maintain an underlying liberal order–which means protecting minority (and women’s) rights.

I’m tempted to snap back with Dr Johnson’s observation on the American revolutionaries

How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes (quote from memory here)

but Brad’s post and the comments thread raise a number of important issues.
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Men are from Microsoft, women are from Apple?

January 23rd, 2004 12 comments

I went to see Something’s Gotta Give recently and noted what appears to be a recently-established convention of romantic comedy and related genres. The sensitive, intellectual one (normally the woman) always has a Mac (more precisely, a late model Powerbook), while the opposite-to-attract has a Windows machine (also a laptop, brand depends on who bids most for product placement). This seems a pretty good convention to me.

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What this country needs is a good 5-cent anything

January 23rd, 2004 21 comments

A couple of times in recent weeks, I’ve had the experience of being at the front of a queue to pay a machine, with the exact money ready, only to discover that the machine doesn’t accept 5-cent pieces. I have a few observations on this.

First, this is really annoying, and I will do my best to avoid patronising the operators of these machines in future. I don’t mind them being slow in modifying machines to accept new coins, but what possible justification is there for modifying machines (or changing the design for new ones) to reject existing coins.

Second, since consumer sovereignty is invariably impotent in situations of this kind, I guess it’s time to exercise voice in support of the abolition of the (now-useless) 5-cent piece.

Third, this presumably implies that 5-dollar coins can’t be far away.

Finally, in all this process, would it be totally impossible to introduce a 50-cent piece with a sensible size and shape?

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Sistani rules, part III

January 21st, 2004 16 comments

I’ve been arguing for a while that the only sustainable course in Iraq is that demanded by Ayatollah Sistani, that is, early elections which will, almost inevitably, produce a Shia majority government and some form of official Islamism. The occupying powers have no legitimate basis to resist this demand.
Admittedly, legitimacy is not a major concern for Bush, either at home or abroad, but the lack of it produces practical adverse consequence. No serious decision can properly be made under these circumstances. The occupiers have already found this out in relation to their economic agenda of privatisation free-market reform and so forth

Now there’s the news that the ‘Governing Council’ appointed by Paul Bremer has revoked a lot of Baathist laws protecting the civil status of women. If Bremer overrides this decision, he’ll be exposing the Governing Council as a sham. On the other hand, since the Governing Council is a sham, a decision by Bremer to approve the revocation is, in effect, a decision by the US to deprive half the Iraqi population of civil rights without ever giving them a chance to vote on it.

It seems likely that the government produced by an election would adopt similar policies. But, although this would be undesirable, it’s the typical outcome of democratic government in countries where religion is taken seriously – divorce and contraception have been banned wherever Catholicism is dominant, for example. Just as the US would not have been justified in invading Ireland to reform its divorce laws, it is not justified in denying democratic self-government to the Iraqi people because they might pass illiberal laws.

Update This report from the Guardian suggests that the British government accepts the need for early elections.

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Beattie to win

January 19th, 2004 13 comments

Although described in the news as a surprise, the timing of the Queensland election was fairly predictable. The government wants to keep the campaign separate from the local council elections in March, and to avoid going after the elections which may turn out badly for Labor in Brisbane following the mishandling of Jim Soorley’s retirement. Since no one wants to campaign over Christmas, the timing is a forced move.

I’m in the happy position of agreeing with the pundits that Labor is virtually certain to win and in welcoming this. The current crop of Labor state governments may be unexciting, but they are uniformly preferable to their opponents.

In the case of Queensland, Labor has an advantage that does not seem to have been remarked on. The only plausible alternative government is a Liberal-led coalition, but for historical reasons, this isn’t on offer. In fact there are only three Liberals in Parliament and of these only one is running for re-election. Instead the Opposition is in effect the National Party (there are also the remnants of One Nation and assorted independents). Even though the Nationals have held office for most of the past fifty years, I don’t think we’ll ever see another National Party premier.
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Monday Message Board

January 19th, 2004 6 comments

By mid-day this time. I’m up in the Snowy Mountains with a very flaky phone and Internet connection, but that’s all the more reason for you to talk among yourselves (in a civilised fashion, of course, and without resorting to coarse, language).

Normal service will really, truly be restored by next week.

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What I'm reading, Part II

January 18th, 2004 10 comments

I also dug out some old books on ESP and the paranormal. These were from the 1970s, about the time of Uri Geller and the Bermuda Triangle. It struck me that the debate here seems to have moved on, in the sense that no-one any longer takes seriously the idea that ESP etc might be real in the same sense as (say) radio waves, and was a reasonable subject for scientific investigation. The exposure of Geller as a fraud, his subsequent career in the back pages of the Women’s Day and the derision visited on the scientists he fooled with his conjuring tricks seem to have put an end to all this.

Of course, there are still plenty of believers but the belief is now general recognised as quasi-religious and therefore not subject to refutation by empirical evidence.

At least that’s my impression. I’d be interested to hear whether others see thing shte same way.

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What I'm reading

January 18th, 2004 10 comments

The Neoconservatives by Peter Steinfels. This book, written in 1979, is billed as the first major study of neoconservatism and covers both the obvious names (Kristol, Bell, Podhoretz, Decter) and some who now seem a bit surprising (Moynihan, Brzezinski, Jackson). It strikes me that there have been two main changes affecting the neoconservatives since Steinfels wrote.

First, the rise of the centrist ‘New Democrats’ associated with the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1990s attracted the support of the more moderate neoconservatives (confusingly, DLC supporters like Clinton are often called ‘neoliberals’ in the US, a term which is used in an entirely different sense elsewhere, much closer to neoconservatism in its meaning). The remaining neoconservatives are now strictly Republican partisans and have continued moving to the right.

Second, the Jewish element in neoconservatism (more dominant as a result of the first trend, which was more significant among non-Jewish neoconservatives) changed its character. Prior to Oslo, the general position was one of support for Israel, normally interpreted to mean support for the general position of whatever Israeli government was elected by the Israeli people. The neoconservatives in general took a rejectionist position on Oslo and became partisans of its opponents, Likud, the settler parties and the maximalist advocates of Eretz Israel. There was a piece by Podhoretz in Commentary about the time of Oslo making all this explicit. It will be interesting, in this context, to see how the neoconservatives react if Sharon finally comes to blows with the settlers. I predict that they will be bitterly divided.

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One last time on Schneider

January 17th, 2004 10 comments

For those anxious to see the end of my series on climatologist Stephen Schneider, and the famous doctored quote, here’s my bottom line.

He’s an alarmist who tends to overstate and overdramatization environmental threats, and he doesn’t always argue fairly, but he isn’t deliberately dishonest. The much-quoted statement is a description (in fact, characteristically, an overstatement and overdramatization) of a real problem that affects anyone with expert knowledge engaged in public discussion. The frequency with which the statement has been (mis)quoted is, paradoxically, an indication that the point Schneider makes is a valid one.

Now, those who want the whole argument can read on.
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Intelligence?

January 16th, 2004 24 comments

Before the Iraq war, Kenneth Pollack The Gathering Storm was among the leading advocates of the arguments that Saddam’s weapons represented an imminent threat justifying preventive war. In this piece in the Atlantic he discusses why the intelligence on which he relied was so badly wrong.

What’s startling about Pollack’s piece is that he simply ignores the resumption of inspections in December 2002 and the declaration by Iraq that all its illegal weapons had been destroyed. These two events made it clear, within a matter of weeks, that none of the main suspect sites previously mentioned had any weapons and that the intelligence held by the US and UK (particularly as summarised for political and public consumption) was way off the mark. Until about a week before the Iraqi declaration, official statements from the US and UK governments implied not only that they had definite knowledge of Iraqi weapons but also that they knew where they were located. If this had been true, the weapons would have been pointed out as in the previous case of Cuba, and war would have been justified by the terms of Resolution 1441.

Even without such knowledge, it was obviously impossible to conceal nuclear weapons facilities under the UN inspection conditions. Since nuclear weapons are the only ones that represented a threat to the world more serious than that of ‘conventional’ weapons, the WMD-based case for war was greatly weakened by the beginning of 2003 and was completely untenable by the time the war actually took place.

The absurd legalism that suggests that war was justified because, although the weapons had been destroyed, Iraq’s accounting for the destruction was not sufficient to satisfy the Bush Administration, can be dismissed. This kind of argument would be available to justify any war of aggression, any time (that is, Country A asserts a violation of international law by Country B, demands an explanation, then asserts that the explanation is inadequate).

What remains defensible is the argument that Saddam was an evil dictator, and that the world community could justifiably overthrow him. This was the argument that should have been made. It would have required the issue of a postwar government to be addressed in advance instead of being left in limbo as it was, and still is.

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Language changing even faster

January 13th, 2004 6 comments

Quoted today’s Age

Seven’s director of programming and production, Tim Worner, said his network was not gambling heavily on reality TV. “That notion is querulous.”

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Bubbles

January 13th, 2004 13 comments

Here’s part of my next AFR piece, which will focus on the claim that long-term interest rates, particularly in the US, are bound to rise. Comments much appreciated.

The idea of bubbles in asset prices is a troublesome one for economists. To say that there is a bubble in the price of some asset is to claim that the relevant financial market is not doing its job properly. In the atmosphere of uncritical reverence for ‘the markets’ that prevailing during most of the 1980s and 1990s, such a claim was unthinkable for all but a handful of heretics (Will rational bubbles fall on the infallible markets ?, AFR, 24 Jun , 1994.)
Even now that a more measured view has been restored, the suggestion that market prices for assets are unsustainable raises what American economist Deirdre McCloskey has called ‘the American question’ – ‘if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?’. To make the point more explicitly, if asset prices are out of line with economic fundamentals, why don’t economists and others who can see this back their judgement in the markets and make large speculative profits. This argument is the cornerstone of the famous ‘efficient markets hypothesis’.
The now-standard response is usually attributed to the great economist and successful speculator, John Maynard Keynes (though there is no evidence that he actually said it) and states ‘‘the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent’. This point is illustrated by the experience of the greatest speculator of all, George Soros, who bet heavily, in 1998 and 1999, that the NASDAQ stock market was overvalued.
Soros was right, but the market kept on rising, and he was forced to liquidate his short positions. By the time the market turned down in April 2000, Soros had lost billions of dollars. As one of the many economists who shared Soros’ view of the dotcom mania (Don’t overrate E-commerce, AFR,,8 April 1999), I was glad to have stayed on the sidelines, although I did switch my superannuation strategy away from overvalued US shares.
The same issues arose in relation to the US dollar bubble that ended about a year ago. Although any competent economist could see that the US dollar was grossly overvalued (US dollar needs a pasting,AFR, 29 March 2001.), the currency was supported by the stated ‘strong dollar’ policy of the Clinton and Bush administrations, and the evident market belief that this policy meant something. Once again, a lot of money was lost by those who were prematurely right in their belief that the US dollar must depreciate.

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Monday message board

January 12th, 2004 4 comments

I’ve got my Powerbook back, but I’m still recovering from the hard disk crash. I’m only half a day late with the Monday Message Board – back to normal next week, I hope.

Please post your comments on any topic – civilised discussion and no coarse language please.

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