Archive for January, 2004

Battlers battered

January 12th, 2004 2 comments

Ozblogger Gianna points to this report in the Australian and suggests that it falls to me to sort it out. Looking at the thinning ranks of Australian econobloggers, she’s probably right.

The report is based on a Labor press release which appears to be based on the income tax statistics for 1999-2000 and 2000-01. The central claim

JOHN Howard’s battlers are going backwards, with new tax research showing that lower and middle-income earners suffered a reduction in real incomes of up to $430 a year between 2000 and 2001.

Analysis of Australian Taxation Office figures carried out by the Opposition, which adjusts earnings against increases in the cost of living, has found the incomes of Australia’s middle class shrank by between $150 and $430 a year.

The figures also show the gap between the rich and poor has widened, with the incomes of the wealthiest 5 per cent of taxpayers increasing by $4159 a year in real terms over the same period and their average taxable incomes increasing from $146,661 to $150,820.

I wouldn’t put a lot of weight on this – it’s only a couple of years data and the numbers were affected by the introduction of the GST in that year. That said, there’s no doubt that the basic claim of the release is true. Almost everyone (even, as I recall, the Centre for Independent Studies) agrees that the inequality of market incomes has been increasing over the past twenty years or so, though different studies date the increase at different times and attribute different causes.

Although real incomes have generally risen for all income groups over the past decade or so, the bulk of the gain has been concentrated among the top 20 per cent of income-earners. The rate of growth of real incomes for everyone else has been very slow. So it takes only a modestly bad year, or a price shock like the GST to see real incomes going backwards.

Under Hawke and Keating, the increasing inequality of market incomes was offset to some extent by progressive changes in tax and welfare policy, but the reverse has been true under Howard. One of the experts cited in the report suggests that the figures are distorted by tax concessions associated with negative gearing and encouraged by the cut in capital gains tax under Howard. That’s probably true, but, contrary to what he says, implies that the real picture is even more unequal than that given in the statistics.

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What I'm reading

January 11th, 2004 8 comments

From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Lifeby Jacques Barzun. As the title indicates, a rather dyspeptic, but very well-informed big-picture piece that raises two items of particular interest.

First, the book, published in 2000, employs a variety of quasi-hypertextual linking devices, though it does not mention either hypertext or the Internet. The Zeitgeist at work ?

Second, Barzun refers to Bentham’s famous claim that,

given equal pleasure, pushpin is as good as poetry

. The dictionaries I’ve looked at merely say that pushpin is an obsolete children’s game, but Barzun asserts that pushpin is bowling (I assume some relative of skittles).

For me, at least, this sharpens up Bentham’s point a great deal. I have to confess that, if Barzun is right, I get a good deal more utility from pushpin than from poetry (of course, the invention of the automatic pinspotter and the decay of modern poetry are relevant factors). On the other hand, I (implicitly, given my general position) support the use of taxes on pushpin to subsidise the production of poetry and the retransmission of old poetry to new generations.

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January 10th, 2004 8 comments

Comment spammers have somehow got around my IP banning and have rendered the display of recent comments largely useless. I’ll try to fix this as soon as I can.

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Free trade, but

January 10th, 2004 9 comments

This piece by Michael Kinsley is presented with the write-off (what Americans call the “lede”) “I’m for free trade but” usually means you’re not for free trade at all. Kinsley makes some good points in the article, demolishing a rather silly NYT Op-ed piece by Charles Schumer and Paul Craig Roberts but his central claim is contradicted by his own observation that

Almost everyone acknowledges some exceptions to the general rule that a nation is better off if it doesn’t try to tell its citizens what they are allowed to buy from or sell to foreigners.

In other words, nearly everyone, including Kinsley, is “for free trade, but”. Kinsley tries to salvage his argument in the next sentence where he says

A free trade butter (FTB) is someone whose exceptions take a big bite out of the rule itself.

(as an aside, I note that the annoying acronym is introduced but not used thereafter). This move won’t work. Who is to decide what is “a big bite” and what is a modest exception, acknowledged by “nearly everyone”, and therefore part of a “reasonable free trade position”?

The point can be made in relation to the issue of trade and labour rights which, as it happens was the subject of one of my earliest blog posts. Kinsley is hopelessly vague on this, as was the article by Kristof to which I referred then. He is open to the notion of

working conditions so wretched and wages so low and practices, like child labor, so heartless that you do want your own government to ban imports of the product at issue, to avoid the taint of association and, with luck, to pressure the exporting nation to change.

, but rejects the idea that American standards of health, safety and wages should apply globally.

These extremes leave a gap wide enough for a Hummer to drive through, and fail to make the distinction between process and outcomes. There is no reason why workers in poor countries should not have the same sort of legal protections and bargaining processes, for example with respect to rights of union representation, as those in rich countries. Given lower levels of productivity the outcomes in terms of wages and conditions won’t be as high as those in rich countries. It’s reasonable to use trade policy as a lever to demand protection of workers rights, but not to exclude imports simply because the people who produced them received low wages.

I haven’t got time to discuss capital movements where, these days, even free-trade stalwarts like Jagdish Bhagwati are in the “but” camp.

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Misquotable quotes

January 10th, 2004 9 comments

In a recent post on the ethics of quotation, I referred to a doctored quote by environmentalist Stephen Schneider, in which he is made out to advocate scientific fraud in the interests of the environment. As I’ll argue, the use of this quote has served to show up, as dishonest or inexcusably sloppy, dozens of Schneider’s opponents, while doing only modest damage to Schneider himself.

(Warning: Long post follows)
Read more…

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The IMF gets shrill

January 9th, 2004 5 comments

Paul Krugman is routinely called ‘shrill’ for his attacks on Bush’s economic policy, and particularly the shift to large and chronic budget deficits. He certainly invites this, with routine comparisons to banana republics like Argentina. So Krugman took some satisfaction a couple of days ago, in pointing out that former Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin is now speaking in similarly shrill tones.

Now the IMF is getting shrill too.

Update This is front-page news in most of the Oz papers today, but bloggers got to read it yesterday

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Changing language

January 9th, 2004 7 comments

Talking of the NYT, it ran this AP piece headed Powell Refutes Report Saying U.S. Overstated Iraq Threat. The body of the article makes it clear that Powell said he disagreed but produced nothing that would prove the report false (in debating terms, he rebutted the article, but in logical terms, he did not refute it).

At least in educated Australian English the use of “refute” for “deny” is still, I think, unacceptable. Has the language changed in the US, or has the NYT slipped up on this one?

Update watch 13 game of death in divx download hottie and the nottie the free Reader Sven notes that the NYT has changed “refutes” to “dismisses”. The blogosphere at work or just the sub-editors coming back from a long lunch?

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The Quote, the Whole Quote and Nothing but the Quote

January 9th, 2004 4 comments

The question of quotes has come up once again. This piece by Daniel Okrent called The Quote, the Whole Quote and Nothing but the Quote
from the New York Times gives a pretty good discussion of news ethics regarding quotes. The Times policy states that it’s completely illegitimate to change the actual words of a quote

Readers should be able to assume that every word between quotation marks is what the speaker or writer said,” according to the paper’s ”Guidelines on Our Integrity.” ”The Times does not ‘clean up’ quotations.

and the discussion makes it clear that it’s also illegimate to elide words or sentences from a quote without a clear indication that this has been done. In a newspaper, this would normally be done by separating the parts of the quote with additional text. In academic writing, it’s usually acceptable to mark an elision with dots … on the assumption that the omitted material was not relevant to the point being made.

This still leaves open the question of when a quote should begin and end. As Okrent observes a quote, by its nature, is always “taken out of context”.

except when a newspaper prints verbatim transcripts, all quotations are taken out of context. The context is the actual conversation or press conference in which words get uttered; the printed pages of a newspaper can only rudely duplicate it.

The rule Oklert suggests is that the quote cannot be shortened in a way that changes its meaning, for example by the omission of significant qualifications. The main discussion concerns a quoted statement by President Bush that ”I will support a constitutional amendment which would honor marriage between a man and a woman, codify that.” In fact, he said “If necessary, I will support a constitutional amendment which would honor marriage between a man and a woman, codify that.” without stating precisely the conditions that would make such an amendment necessary. The NY Times had to apologise for this error, but the initial apology wasn’t considered unconditional enough – hence Okrent’s article.

All of this is of interest in view of the controversy over the (in)famously doctored quotation by Stephen Schneider which has been reproduced all over the blogosphere, in which Schneider is made out to advocate scientific fraud in the interests of the environment. I’ll post more about this shortly.

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Some surprising data

January 8th, 2004 12 comments

Everyone who’s ever done research has run into cases where the data fail to match up to prior expectations. As the saying has it, there’s nothing so tragic as a beautiful hypothesis slain by an ugly fact. I’ve just run into something of this kind in relation to the debate over road safety that’s been going on for some time on this blog. I’m still thinking about how to interpret the data I’ve found, but for the moment I’ll just report it.
Read more…

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January 7th, 2004 12 comments

On the principle that we’ll remember it if he’s right, and forget it if he’s wrong, Chris Sheil predicts electoral defeat for Bush and Howard in 2004. A loss by Howard is certainly a possibility, particularly if the housing market tanks rapidly, but I think the odds in favour of Bush are strong.

Now that Saddam has been captured, I think Iraq will be, at worst, neutral for Bush. I think a substantial US pullout is on the cards once the June deadline is met. If there are genuine elections and a reasonably stable government by that time, it will be reasonable to claim ex post that the benefits of the invasion exceeded the costs. Even if this isn’t the case, the Republican base and much of the swing vote will be satisfied with shooting Saddam and pulling out.

On the economy, I think there’s probably enough momentum in the recovery to carry Bush through to November even if long-term interest rates rise substantially (as they ought to, in view of the CAD and budget deficits). Again, I see this as a near-neutral issue rather than a big winner for Bush.

The big advantage for Bush is that, given his political position, he doesn’t face a budget constraint. Bush can promise more tax cuts and more military expenditure while matching the Democrats on any domestic expenditure issue that has electoral bite. Of course, this will imply unsustainable budget deficits, but it’s already clear that no-one outside the Democrat camp is going to call him on this. The NYT Op-Ed page may not like the deficit but its news columns are sticking to “he said, she said”. If the Republicans say they have a magic money tree, that will be reported in the headline and any refutation will be buried in the body of the report.

It’s politically impossible for a Democratic candidate to match Bush on this, and even if this weren’t the case it would be most unwise. The adverse consequences of chronic deficits won’t emerge for a few years yet. For Bush that means, in effect, that the problems can be left to his successors. But for a first-term Democrat it would spell disaster. And the worst possible outcome would be for a Democrat to try and outbid Bush, then lose anyway.

If a victory is not to prove worse than a defeat,the Democrats have to run on the complete repeal of the Bush tax cuts (this is Dean’s position and, I think, Gephardt’s also). Unfortunately, I don’t think it will be possible to win on this platform.

While I’m linking to Chris, I’ll note that he picked up the slack while I was off air with this post which was better than what I would have written on the same point.

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January 6th, 2004 5 comments

At least one reader was kind enough to nominate this blog as the best leftwing blog in the Koufax awards being run at Wampum (I’m backing my memory for the assertion that Sandy Koufax was a well-known left-handed pitcher, but Google makes recall of such trivial knowledge increasingly irrelevant). Looking at the excellent and popular blogs on the list, I don’t think there’s any serious prospect of making the cut for the top ten, but thanks to whichever reader(s) nominated me.

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Monday Message Board (on Tuesday)

January 6th, 2004 17 comments

It’s 36 hours late, but here’s the Monday Message Board for this week. Fire away on any topic (as usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language, please).

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Back on air

January 6th, 2004 2 comments

With some excellent help from Pat Kelly (aka theMacGuy [email protected] if you are in Canberra and have any Mac tech support needs) I’m back on air. Things may be a bit flaky for a while, but seminormal blogging should be restored soon.

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Dragging Britain into the 19th century

January 2nd, 2004 21 comments

Tony Blair likes to be thought of as a ‘moderniser’. So it’s startling to see that, on a basic constitutional issue, his position is identical to that held by Australian reactionaries in the 19th century, namely that the Upper House should be nominated and not elected. Athough there are some differences between Blair’s position and that of the Australian opponents of democracy, they are minor and not all in Blair’s favour.

To begin with, it’s fair to concede that, relative to the starting point of a largely hereditary Upper House, almost any change would be an improvement. Proposals for a hereditary peerage in Australia, mainly put forward by WC Wentworth were laughed out of existence as a bunyip aristocracy, but Wentworth’s fallback position under which members were appointed for life was successful. This is, as far as I can tell, exactly the model proposed by Tony Blair. Similar models were adopted in other states.

A notable difference between Blair and Wentworth is that Wentworth wanted to constrain the democratically elected lower house, which he feared might undertake radical action, whereas Blair wants to avoid any check on the power of the House of Commons. But given that most recent British governments have had the support of less than 40 per cent of the electorate and that Blair opposes any reform to the electoral system for the Commons, it seems likely that an elected Upper House would be more democratically representative than the Lower House. The differences between Wentworth and Blair are marginal, at best. Moreover, even if Wentworth’s proposals were stacked in favour of his own social class, the idea that government should be subject to checks and balances is a sound one.

In Australia, the struggle for democratic election of both Houses of Parliament commenced with self-government and has continued for 150 years. Queensland Labor took the direct route, packing the Upper House with an appointed ‘suicide squad’ who voted themselves out of existence, but this cleared the way to a series of Lower House gerrymanders introduced first by Labor and then adopted and extended by the conservatives.

In the other states, progress has been gradual and mixed, but the ultimate outcome seems likely to be the same everywhere – an Upper House elected by proportional representation, with a term twice that of the Lower House and no power to overturn the government by blocking money bills.

This is, in my view, an excellent compromise, giving a legislature that is at least partly independent of the executive while maintaining the principal that the executive is responsible to the legislature.

Of course, these merits are precisely why Blair doesn’t support democratic reform. He doesn’t want any parliamentary check on the power of the executive government – in practice the PM. If he were honest, he’d advocate abolition of the House of Lords and not reform. If he were really honest, he’d advocate an elective dictatorship.

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Some good news for the New Year

January 2nd, 2004 5 comments

Victoria suffered less road deaths in 2003 than in any year since 1949. Both NSW and Queensland also experienced a decline relative to 2002, though 2001 was better still, at least in NSW. In total, about 100 people are alive today who would have been dead if safety had not improved.

As is shown by the contrasting experience of the United States, where road deaths are rising, the long decline in the road toll is primarily due to tighter law enforcement with additional contributions from better roads and cars, and improvements in emergency treatment of people injured in crashes.

Of course, even in the face of decades of evidence, there are plenty who want to quibble.

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Achilles and the tortoise

January 1st, 2004 14 comments

Among my standard New Year resolutions for quite a few years has been to work on my weight training to the point where I can bench-press my own weight. When I moved to Brisbane, I decided to tackle this seriously by getting a home gym setup (it only costs the same as year’s membership in a commercial gym), and I’ve been working pretty steadily all year.

At the end of 2003, I’d reached my original goal – 72kg. Sad to say, however, a visit to the scales revealed that, in the years since I first made this resolution, the goalposts had shifted, and I am still quite a few kilos short of my objective. I suspect continuation of my original strategy will keep me in the position of Achilles chasing the tortoise, so this years resolution will have to include “get on your bike”.

However, although lycra-clad cyclists whizz past my door every morning, I find summer in Brisbane a bit hot for daytime cycling, so I may have to substitute swimming for the moment.

Alert readers will notice that I haven’t mentioned the D-word. I don’t plan to, either.

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