Archive for February, 2004

What I've been reading

February 29th, 2004 18 comments

Valdis Krebs presents this map of purchasing habits for political books, using the techniques of cluster analysis. leftright Krebs’ main point is that the books divide readers into two sharply separate clusters, color-coded on the assumption that one group of readers are Democrats and the other are Republicans. The diagram also coincides with the standard left-right coding.

I have a couple of observations on this. The first is the trivial one that this color-coding is the exact opposite of the one that would naturally be used in Australia or the UK (back in my days as a folksinger, one of my more successful pieces (this is a highly relative term( was about a Labour leader who “went in [to office] Red and came out Blue”. Without wanting to load too much on to arbitrary signifiers, this does seem to me to support my view that there’s a bigger gulf between liberals and the radical left in the US than elsewhere. Even if the mainstream left party in other countries does not adopt the red banner of Marxism there’s sufficient continuity along the political spectrum to make it’s adoption by the right unlikely.

The second thing that’s striking is that, on the left-right orientation, I come out as a moderate. I’ve read nearly all the blue books that are within one or two links of the red zone, and none of those on the far left of the diagram. On the right, I’ve read only Letters to a Young Conservative .

Looking again at the titles of the books I’ve read, while there’s a vaguely leftish slant to them, one could scarcely call either Clash of Civilisations or Elusive Quest for Growth supportive of the left. The striking thing is that these are mostly the serious books, while those on either side are mostly lightweight polemics (I’m inferring this from the reviews I’ve read of some of them and the titles of the others). But it would appear from the cluster analysis that those who read leftwing partisan diatribes also tend to read serious books (and vice versa) while those who read rightwing partisan diatribes don’t read anything else.

In terms of the debate that’s been going on for some time about the relative intellectual capacity of the left and the right, the cluster analysis seems to imply that the left is doing a lot more to enhance its intellectual capacity than is the right.

(Hat tip to Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution)

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Self-defeating interest groups

February 29th, 2004 7 comments

This piece by Michael Shmith is mainly about smoking. But one passage resonated with me

Growing up in a smoking household was a rite of passage similar to the dreaded ceremony of school milk. Just as I remain convinced a generation of baby boomers are repulsed by milk because of the warm quarter-pints we were forced to consume at morning recess, I believe childhood exposure to secondary smoking often served as a subliminal early warning system

I think, though I don’t know, that compulsory school milk was the product of lobbying by the dairy industry. If so, there can have been few more counterproductive pieces of interest group politics. Like Shmith, and for the same reason, I never touch the stuff.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Beautiful one night, …

February 28th, 2004 2 comments

This has been just about the perfect Brisbane Saturday night for me. The temperature is a balmy 20 or so, with the gentlest of breezes. We caught the CityCat downriver to Southbank and cheered the Bullets to a one-point win over minor premiers the Sydney Kings, the winning margin coming from a three-point shot on the final buzzer by Ben Walker. The game made no difference to finals placings, but that doesn’t worry me at all. Then back upriver and home. It doesn’t get much better.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Blood libel

February 28th, 2004 23 comments

The notion that Jews are collectively responsible for the death of Christ may seem too silly for words, but it is obviously still taken seriously enough to require refutation, not surprisingly in view of the immense human suffering it has caused. My question is, has anyone ever suggested that Italians are collectively responsible?

To answer the obvious quibble, the term “Roman” referred, at the time in question, to any (free) inhabitant of Italy (Roman citizenship was extended to the whole of Italy in 89BC), and Pontius Pilate himself was of Samnite rather than specifically Roman origin.

I know from experience that irony is too dangerous for use in blogs. So, at the risk of boring 95 per cent of readers, let me be absolutely clear on my own position. I don’t think anyone now living can properly be blamed or praised for the actions of putative ancestors 2000 years ago. I also don’t believe we have, or are ever likely to obtain, sufficient evidence to attribute responsibility for the death of Jesus to any person or group.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail

February 27th, 2004 21 comments

The news that British spies bugged the office of Kofi Annan during the Iraq debate has a number of implications. First, for me, this is the point at which Tony Blair should go. The whole idea of going to the UN for authority to invade Iraq was his, not Bush’s, and now it’s clear that it was corrupt from the beginning. I won’t argue this in detail – no doubt a lot of people already thought he should go, and others still won’t be convinced.

The main point I want to make is that it’s time for Britain to get out of the spy game. More than any other democratic country, Britain is addicted to spies and their natural counterpart, Official Secrets. From Burgess and McLean to the present day, the spies have been a constant cause of embarrassment and worse. On the other hand, there’s no evidence that they’ve ever found out anything that was both useful and sufficiently reliable to act on (in this context, I’m excluding wartime codebreaking, which is always useful since, at a minimum, it disrupts enemy communications).

This isn’t a matter of bad luck, or even incompetence. Standard game-theoretic reasoning shows that, outside the zero-sum case of war, there’s unlikely to be a net benefit from actions like bugging offices. The problem is simple. If I bug your office and you don’t suspect me, I can gain potentially valuable information that you don’t want me to have. But if you suspect me, and I don’t suspect that you suspect, you can use my bugs to mislead me. As with all game theoretic reasoning, you can iterate this as many times as you like, but the end result is that the net value of information derived from bugging is zero. On the other hand, the costs of the activity are substantial. In an environment where bugging is routine, everyone learns to communicate in various forms of code, and decoding is costly and prone to error.

He’s often been dismissed as hopelessly naive, but US Secretary of State Henry Stimson was right when he shut down the State Department’s cryptanalytic office saying “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”
Read more…

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Free Bloomsday!

February 26th, 2004 8 comments

If you want to see what’s wrong with copyright and the concept of intellectual property, it’s hard to go past the obstacles being put up by James Joyce’s grandson Stephen to recitations of Ulysses on the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday (June 16 2004) in Dublin. Thanks to the extension of copyright to 70 years beyond the author’s death by the European Union in 1995, Joyce has absolute control over his grandfather’s work until 2011. It’s hard to imagine any moral sense in which Ulysses belongs more to an obstreporous descendant of the author than to the city that inspired it.

The issues are completely obscured by the use of the term ‘intellectual property’ which makes it appear that ideas belong to an owner in the same way that a car or a block of land does. This term, enshrined in mountains of legislation and treaties deserves about the same amount of respect as the contrary slogan ‘information wants to be free’ (if anything less so, since the latter is a half-truth, while the former is a falsehood)

In economic terms, the idea of copyright is to balance the interests of the public in the free dissemination of what is, once it is produced, a naturally public good (and therefore ‘wants to be free’), with the need to encourage authors to create works in the first place. The example of Ulysses shows how far we have got the balance wrong. Does anyone seriously believe that Joyce was motivated, even in the slightest, by the prospect of enriching a grandchild who hadn’t even been born at the time. (Of course, he would have needed extraordinary foresight to predict the successive extensions of copyright that would make this possible).

Even taking a forward-looking view, what kind of benefit do authors today get from the sale of copyrights extending up to a century after their death. For a publisher evaluating commercial investments of this kind, a 10 per cent discount rate would be on the low side, but this would be enough to ensure that royalties received 70 years in the future would be discounted by a factor of 1000. From the social viewpoint, on the other hand, the future costs of restricted access to copyrighted works should be discounted at a much lower rate, perhaps 3 per cent, which would imply that costs incurred 70 years in the future should be discounted by a factor of around 8.

All of this is particularly relevant to Australians, as we are one of the few countries still enjoying the benefits of the ‘life + 50 years’ rule, and have therefore been of particular value to public-domain exercises like the Gutenberg project.. Our government has just signed a so-called Free Trade Agreement with the United States. It does little or nothing to free trade, but a lot to protect monopoly rights, including an extension of copyright to life +70 years. Fortunately this needs legislation, which may be rejected. Given that the Irish have signed away their public domain rights, and we are still clinging to ours, the Bloomsday centenary would be an appropriate occasion for celebrating them.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Guest post from Brett McLean

February 26th, 2004 15 comments

I’ve received a guest post from Brett McLean which includes reference to a topic that’s been mentioned several times in comments, – the possibility that world oil output has peaked or will shortly do so. I plan to have my say on this before too long.

h3. Brett’s post.

The Treasurer, Peter Costello has repackaged and relaunched his Intergenerational Report in the last few days.   The essence of Costello‚s case is that the demographic changes caused by reducing fertility will have profound economic implications as the baby boomer crest moves into retirement, and in 40 years the proportion of the population over 65 to be double that of today at 25%, thus putting an intolerable burden on Government spending programs in Health and Disability and Pensions.    

Costello‚s discussion paper released on 25th February lists four choices to address this: raise taxes (to over 40% personal income tax); Cut back government spending; Run large deficits; and its preferred option increase the size of the economy through labour force participation.   Hence, Costello‚s plans to modify superannuation rules and create incentives for people to retire later.  

All these treasury projections are built on a series of economic growth assumptions which ultimately boil down to one single assumption. That productivity will grow at around its 30-year average of 1.75 percent per year, and this is where the Treasurer‚s planning could become seriously unstuck, because coming at us potentially in the same timeframe the world may very well start to run out of cheap oil.  

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

In the web of power

February 26th, 2004 1 comment

I’ve had some pleasant lunches with Peter Spearritt, who heads the Brisbane Institute[1], a local thinktank for which I do occasional odd jobs, such as speaking engagements and commissioned papers.

In all of this I never suspected that Peter was at the centre of Brisbane’s Web of Power. But that’s what Malcom Alexander of Griffith University has concluded, after performing an ‘interlocking directorships’ analysis of the kind popularised by C Wright Mills in The Power Elite. The most connected connectors are those who sit on the board of the Institute.

Among the features of interest are the small size of the elite. On the generous criterion of two board memberships, it contains only 314 people. From my interactions with them[2], it does seem that, within this group, everyone does indeed know everyone else. Brisbane is still that kind of place.

The other notable feature is the dominance of the public sector. Thanks to the ‘global city’ phenomenon, few large private corporations have head offices in Brisbane these days. All the noted by Alexander as being at the core of the affiliation network are in the public sector, with the exception of the Queensland Council of Unions. However, many of the members would also be directors of locally-based corporations.

To generalize this point, if, like me, you’re concerned about the concentration of power in global cities, and the potential for crony capitalism that it creates, this is an additional argument in favour of public ownership.

fn1. For those interested, I’d classify the Institute as non-partisan but mildly left of centre on balance. Its backers are more concerned with promoting Brisbane (and Queensland more generally) as an intellectual and cultural centre than they are about a particular policy agenda. As Australian readers will know, Queensland is in need of such promotion to offset the ‘Deep North’ image built up during decades of government by rural conservatives, and reinforced by the Pauline Hanson outbreak a few years ago.

fn2. I’m on the periphery of the Web,, being on the board of the Queensland Competition Authority which regulates, among other things, prices for infrastructure monopolies.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Four more years?

February 26th, 2004 11 comments

The announcement that Ralph Nader will again run for the Presidency raises the (almost) unaskable question -are there any circumstances under which we should hope for, promote, or even passively assist, the re-election of George W. Bush as against either of the remaining Democrat contenders? I feel nervous even raising this question, but I think it’s worth a hard and dispassionate look.

Regardless of their political persuasion, most people will agree, at least in retrospect, that it would have been better for their own side (defined either in ideological or in party terms) to have lost some of the elections they won. Most obviously, this was the case for the US Republican Party in 1928. Hoover’s victory, and his inability to cope with the Depression, paved the way for four successive victories for FDR and two generations of Democratic and liberal hegemony, which didn’t finally come to an end until the Reagan revolution in 1980. The same was true on the other side of poltiics in Australia and the UK, where Labour governments were elected just before the Depression, split over measures of retrenchment demanded by the maxims of orthodox finance and sat out the 1930s in Opposition, watching their own former leaders implement the disastrous policies they had rejected, but had been unable to counter.

So, is 2004 one of those occasions? The case that it is rests primarily on arguments about fiscal policy. Bush’s policies have set the United States on a path to national bankruptcy, a fact that is likely to become apparent some time between now and 2008. Assuming that actual or effective bankruptcy (repudiation of debt or deliberate resort to inflation) is unthinkable, this is going to entail some painful decisions for the next President and Congress, almost certainly involving both increases in taxation and cuts in expenditure. On the expenditure side, this will mean a lot more than the obvious targets of corporate welfare and FDW[1]. Either significant cuts in the big entitlement programs (Social Security and Medicare) or deep cuts in everything else the government does will be needed, even with substantial increases in taxes (to see the nasty arithmetic read these CBO projections, and replace the baseline with the more realistic “Policy Alternatives Not Included in CBO’s Baseline”)
Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

New on the website

February 25th, 2004 3 comments

I was getting badly behind on my website, so I called in some help from our local (UQ Economics) webmaster Craig Mosely. So far he’s eliminated the backlog of newspaper articles, putting up articles from September 2003 to January 2004. Responsibility for the uninspired webpage design is still mine.

Please visit , read the articles and give me comments, either on the substance of the articles or on the organization and layout of the site.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Don't believe the polls?

February 23rd, 2004 13 comments

It’s not unusual for a politician, faced with an unfavorable poll result, to say something like “the only poll that counts is the one election day”. And we all know that poll questions can be slanted to give the desired result, and correspondingly dismissed by those who don’t like the pollster’s choice of question. But I can’t recall a previous occasion on which a pollster has dismissed the results of his own polling, particularly when we are talking about a margin of 72 to 9. Yet, if we are to believe the editorial in today’s Oz, that’s exactly what Sol Lebovic of Newspoll did when his polling produced a result unfavorable to his client’s campaing for lower taxes. (thanks to reader Jethro for pointingthis piece out).

As discussed in more detail below, when asked whether they preferred a tax cut or more spending on health and education, the answer was 72 to 9 in favour of more spending. The same poll found 50 per cent of respondents believing that the top marginal rate was too high. In an editorial with the astounding (in view of the data) heading, Cutting income tax is a political winner, the Oz calls this a conundrum and cites Lebovic as saying

voters may be giving the “socially acceptable” answer on what they want the Government to do with the surplus.

The Oz goes on to say

In other words, while their consciences may be uneasy about cutting back the welfare state, their gut instincts are telling them we should be cutting back taxes. Mr Howard and Mr Latham would be well advised to respect the voters’ instincts.

It’s not clear whether Lebovic would accept this gloss, which suggests that his poll results should be discarded whenever they disagree with someone’s gut instincts (note that the claims about the instincts of the voters are baseless – the Oz editorial writer is expressing their own gut instincts and those of the political elite).

Lebovic is of course, correct to say that survey respondents often give socially acceptable, rather than accurate, answers. For example, surveys find that far more households take National Geographic than National Inquirer, but circulation figures tell a different story. Unfortunately for the Oz, it’s not a good basis for a political campaign if the viewpoint expressed is so socially unacceptable that only 9 per cent of people will confess to holding it. Moreover, voting is itself an expressive act. Someone who would secretly like a tax cut but doesn’t want to admit can’t actually secure the tax cut for themselves by voting that way – they only get the cut if a majority agrees with it.

A second problem, which undermines the idea of a ‘conundrum’ is that of the shifting majority. 72 per cent of people favored more health and education spending while 50 per cent said the top rate is too high – the number giving both responses could be as small as 22 per cent.

More importantly, there’s no necessary contradiction here. People might support cuts in income tax but think that health and education spending are more important. They could resolve the implied problem for the budget either by favoring a higher deficit, or by making up the difference somewhere else, for example through a higher rate of GST ( a suggestion raised in the previous comments thread by James Farrell) or lower defence spending.

Finally, it’s worth observing that the gut instincts of the voter have been tested in a number of recent state elections. Kerry Chikarovski went to the voters offering a literal fistful of dollars and was buried under a Labor landslide. Jeff Kennett cut services and was defeated by a Labor Party widely viewed as unelectable.

The Oz is grasping at straws when it claims that the overwhelming rejection of its policy line by respondents to its own poll is some sort of pretence. If I were Sol Lebovic, I’d be asking for more respectful treatment of my results.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Tax and spend

February 23rd, 2004 13 comments

Reader Jack Strocchi, pointed out this Newspoll report in today’s Australian, concerning voter preferences on taxing and spending. Written by George Megalogenis, who usually gets things straight, it bears the marks of intervention designed to adjust the finding’s to the anti-tax line that has been running hard in the Oz editorial column for some time.

The problems start with the headline Top rate too high, say half of voters. It might be inferred that the other half say that the top rate is not too high. But despite the fact that the excessively high top rate is the central theme of the article, we never find out the distribution of the remaining 50 per cent between “about right”, “too low” and “Don’t Know”. Looking at the partial numbers, I’d estimate that the “Don’t Know’s” at no more than 10 per cent of respondents, implying that about 40 per cent of respondent’s rejected the view that the top rate is too high.

The really interesting news comes in the second paragraph. By the overwhelming margin of 72 per cent to 9 per cent, voters would prefer more spending on health and education to a tax cut. Even among those paying the top rate, most of whom think it is too high, the margin is 69 to 13. If the Australian wasn’t determined to push its opinions into the news pages, this would be the headline.

The implication is that, as regards taxing and spending, the electorate is overwhelmingly more social-democratic than the current government, and arguably more so than the current opposition. It’s no wonder that even mediocre Labor state governments have routinely crushed their opponents since the Howard government was elected.

There are some interesting framing issues here. The “top tax rate” question appears to be framed in a “free good” way – that is, respondents are asked whether the rate is too high, but the fact that a cut would have to be financed somehow is not explicit. By contrast, the tax cut vs spending question makes the trade-off clear.

What really interests me, but isn’t clear in the report is the sequence of the questions (the Newspoll site hasn’t yet been updated). The preference for spending over tax cuts would be even stronger if, as the Oz report tends to imply, the “top rate too high?” question was asked first. Conversely, if the tax cuts vs spending question had been asked first, the framing bias in the top rate question would be reduced.

UpdateIn the comments thread, Don Arthur advises that the paper-based version of the Oz story gives the numbers as 50 per cent too high, 34 per cent about right, 8 per cent too low. Bearing in mind the absence of any mention that reducing rates might mean giving up services, I don’t find this too surprising.

Further update 24/2Andrew Norton at Catallaxy has a post on the same topic, with the same title. and with much the same conclusion. The only difference is that he regrets the outcome and I don’t. A fine illustration of the positive-normative distinction.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Monday Message Board

February 23rd, 2004 12 comments

It’s time for the Monday Message Board, where you get to post your comments (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). My suggested discussion starter – is it hot, or what??

Categories: Life in General Tags:

What I'm reading

February 22nd, 2004 13 comments

The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years by Bernard Lewis. Among much useful information, this book contains the interesting snippet that the name Palestine was imposed by the Romans after crushing the Jewish revolt of about 70CE and referred to the long-departed Philistines, and the claim that the first state religion, incorporating heresy hunts, persecution of unbelievers and so on, was Zoroastrianism in Persia.

I’m also rereading Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins. I agree with Dawkins on a lot on the issues he disputes with, for example, Stephen Jay Gould. Nevertheless, and particularly in relation to human society, he reminds me of those economists who have been so dazzled by their exposure to the powers of the market mechanism that they are unwilling to recognise either defects in the mechanism or the possibility that many phenomena are better explained in other ways. The most obvious example, in Dawkins’ case, is the attempt to model the development of culture in terms of memes. As with, for example, public choice theory or the economics of the family, there’s enough going for the idea that it can’t be demolished in a sentence. But, again as with these examples, and depending on way in which it is applied, it either:

  • explains only relatively trivial instances of cultural evolution, like jokes and catchphrases
  • is rendered vacuous through the use of redifinitions that render the theory irrefutable, for example by making ‘memes’ synonymous with ‘ideas’; or
  • provides an account of important phenomena that is obviously wrong, for example by failing to observe that political ideologies like, say, Marxism or political sociobiology owe more to conscious design than to selection and recombination

The relative absence of this kind of stuff is one reason I prefer Climbing Mount Improbable to much of Dawkins’ other work.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Axis of Evil, Part 2

February 21st, 2004 3 comments

My post on Cyprus raised some eyebrows with its reference to the relative insignificance, in geopolitical terms, of the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Looking back, I’m not surprised that this was controversial. After all, the idea that the war in Iraq is crucially important is a common background assumption in most of the debate, shared by both supporters and critics. Of course, geopolitics isn’t the only criterion of importance – the costs and benefits in terms of lives lost and saved, human rights and so on need to be discussed, not to mention economic impacts. But still, I think it’s fair to say that most people assumed that the presence in Iraq of more than 100 000 US troops, with a demonstrated capacity and willingness to overthrow governments, would make for big changes one way or another.

The most obvious candidate for such effects is Iran1. It is number 2 country in the Axis of Evil (and everyone knows North Korea was only thrown in at the last moment for rhetorical balance). It has advanced weapons-of-mass-destruction-related-program activities. And its current rulers are the same ones who humiliated the US in 1979 and who were, until Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, US Public Enemy Number 1 in the region.
Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

Equal opportunity for what ?

February 20th, 2004 4 comments

In the middle of yet another scandal about American college sports, the NYT chooses to run an editorial calling for cheerleading to be recognised as a competitive sport (It is implied, though not clearly stated, that this sport would be open only to women).

I prefer watching cheerleading to watching American football and I have no problem with claims about its athleticism and so on. And I’ll concede Allen’s arguments that injuries might be reduced if the activity were run on a more professional basis (of course she doesn’t use the dreaded word ‘professional’, anathema to the NCAA).

Nevertheless, this seems to me to be a case where unsound premises have been pushed to their logical conclusions, with predictably bizarre results. The basic problem is the mixture of higher education and professional sport, which makes about us much sense as if high school cafeterias doubled as French restaurants.

Isn’t there even one university president prepared to take up the banner of Robert Maynard Hutchins and get universities out of the entertainment industry?

Categories: World Events Tags:


February 20th, 2004 18 comments

No one much has noticed, but what will probably turn out to be the biggest geopolitical event of the year took place last weekend. I’m referring to the announcement by Kofi Annan of a referendum on the reunification of Cyprus to be held on 21 April this year. There’s still room for something to go wrong, but I’ll present my analysis on the basis that the referendum will be held and approved, which seems likely at present.

Why should settlement of a long-running dispute on a Mediterranean island, with no recent flare-ups, be so important ? Let me count the ways.

First, this is another victory for the boring old UN processes so disdained by unilateralists.

Second, a settlement of the Cyprus dispute would mark the end of hostilities between the modern states of Greece and Turkey that go back to the achievement of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire 200 years ago. Taking a longer historical view, the predecessor states of the modern Greece and Turkey have been at the frontline of hostilities between Islam and Christendom for 1000 years or more. By comparison with this dispute, the troubles in Ireland are of recent vintage.

Third, and most important, the positive role played by the Turkish government, until now the sponsor of the separatist government in Northern Cyprus, will greatly strengthen Turkey’s case to become a candidate for admission to the European Union. Admission of Turkey, which could be expected to follow by around 2010 would dramatically change the dynamic of Middle Eastern politics. Iraq, Iran and Syria would all have borders with Europe. With membership of the EU, Turkey would provide a model of an increasingly prosperous, secular and democratic state in a predominantly Islamic country. By comparison, the replacement of the odious Saddam Hussein with an imperfectly democratic Islamist government dominated by Shiites (the most plausible current outcome for Iraq) would fade into insignifance.

A decision by the EU to reject Turkey, despite its dramatic progress towards a fully democratic system of government, would be equally significant, but in the negative direction. The advocates of rejection, most notably the German Christian (!) Democrats would correctly be seen as being motivated primarily by anti-Islamic prejudice. This would be a big setback in the struggle against terrorist forms of Islamism.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Welcome !

February 19th, 2004 10 comments

My long-threatened change of hosts has finally come to pass. This is an occasion for lots of thanks. First, to Rob Corr who helped me make the move from Blogger to Movable Type, set me up on mentalspace and gave lots of technical support along the way. Second to everyone associated with – I’ve enjoyed your company. And last but not least to Brad Choate, author, among many other things, of the marvellous Textile plugin for MT, who’s now doing my hosting, and guided me carefully through the process of transferring the blog.

In the process, I’ve managed to recover a large number of posts lost in the great database disaster . There’s still a gap of a couple of months (maybe I was hanging out with GWB in the Air Force Reserve), but I have hopes of restoring the entire blog in due course.

Please update bookmarks, links and so on.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:


February 19th, 2004 2 comments

Comments from reader “George” jogged my memory to announce that I’ll be appearing tonight at a booklaunch for The Howard Years, edited by Robert Manne. Details are:
Date: Thursday 19th February
Time: 6.30pm
Venue: Avid Reader – 193 Boundary Street, West End, Queensland
Panellists: Mungo MacCallum, Ian Lowe and John Quiggin

Categories: Books and culture, Oz Politics Tags:

Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away

February 19th, 2004 3 comments

Alexander Downer, in today’s Australian

But, of course, if the international community knew early last year what it knows now about Saddam’s WMD programs, there would have been less debate in the Security Council about the appropriate action. Kay’s report shows that removing Saddam was the only way the international community could be assured that he would no longer threaten anyone with WMDs. Far from unstuck, the WMD case is proven.

Categories: Oz Politics, World Events Tags:


February 19th, 2004 Comments off

Via Deejbah I found this “what kind of postmodernist are you” quiz. Of course I’m no kind, but if I were one, this would be pretty much spot-on

theory slut
You are a Theory Slut. The true elite of the
postmodernists, you collect avant-garde
Indonesian hiphop compilations and eat journal
articles for breakfast. You positively live
for theory. It really doesn’t matter what
kind, as long as the words are big and the
paragraph breaks few and far between.

What kind of postmodernist are you!?
brought to you by Quizilla

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Political theory and molecular biology

February 17th, 2004 6 comments

I just got an invitation to a Brisbane conference on the 300th anniversary of the death of John Locke (Interested readers can email [email protected], there are also events at Yale and Oxford).

I was first introduced to Locke through his demolition of Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarchia in which the divine right of kings is derived from the supposed natural rights of fathers, beginning with Adam. Locke has great fun with this, pointing out that if Filmer is right, there is a single rightful monarch for the entire planet, namely the man most directly descended from Adam under the rules of primogeniture – by implication, all existing monarchs (except perhaps one) are usurpers who can justly be overthrown.

I was very disappointed then, to discover that Locke’s own analysis of property rights was no better than Filmer’s theory of divine right; in fact worse. Rights to property are supposed to be obtained by the first productive user and then passed on by inheritance and voluntary transfer. So, if we could locate the Garden of Eden, where Adam delved, his lineal descendent, if not king of the world, would be the rightful owner of Eden. To determine a rightful allocation of property, we would need to repeat the same exercise for every hectare on the planet. The Domesday Book wouldn’t even get you started on this task.

That was thirty years ago or so, and science has advanced a lot since then, to the point where we can award victory to (a modified version of) Filmer. By careful analysis of DNA, we can now postulate a mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam from whom we are all descended (of course, there’s no reason to suppose the two were contemporaneous). Suppose, following the practice of various hereditary monarchies, we identify the rightful heir of Y-chromosomal Adam as the man with the smallest number of accumulated mutations (defects from the point of view of a strongly hereditary principle). In principle, this man could be identified uniquely. In practice, I imagine it would be possible to identify the ethnic group to which this man belongs, probably somewhere in Africa, and crown some prominent member of that group. A feminist version, with descent on matriarchal lines, is equally reasonable and, on the current state of scientific knowledge, a litte more practical.

Of course, for those of us who don’t buy patriarchal/matriarchal arguments in the first place, this isn’t at all compelling. But I don’t find Locke’s theory of property any more compelling and, unlike Filmer, his theory is no closer to implementability than it was 300 years ago.
[Posted with ecto]

Categories: General Tags:


February 17th, 2004 11 comments

Ozplogistan has been buzzing over an article written by perennial target of the right, Phillip Adams, accusing Bush of lying in the leadup to the war on Iraq.. Professor Bunyip leads off, accusing Adams of plagiarism and fraud, and is followed up by Ken Parish (who echoes Bunyip in his initial post, but backs off a bit in the comments thread), Bargarz and Tim Blair.

The key fact, which seems pretty clear, is that Adams has taken a series of quotes, attributed to Bush and other administrative figures, from a piece in the New York Review of Books by Thomas Powers , all of which show the Administration claiming that Saddam had large stocks of WMDs. The plagiarism count doesn’t stand up, since Adams refers to Powers, though in my view the article fails the Google test, and was a fairly lazy piece of work.

The real problem, though, is that the quotation of Bush’s State of the Union speech is inaccurate, making it appear that Bush positively asserted the presence of

500 tons of chemical weapons, 25,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 30,000 prohibited bombs and warheads

In fact, Bush listed these amounts as estimates (quite wrong estimates as it’s turned out) of Saddam’s stocks in 1999, and then said that Saddam hadn’t accounted for them. Bush’s speech wasn’t paraphrased by Powers as asserting Saddam might have these weapons, and Adams then converted this back into a direct quote, omitting the “might”.

My guess is that this is sloppiness rather than deliberate distortion – it’s easy to find better, and more obviously false, quotes from Bush and the Administration. Still it is, or ought to be, a basic rule of journalism that you verify quotes rather than reproducing them from hostile sources, particularly when the original is as easily accessible as the State of the Union speech. Adams has failed to obey this rule and ought to publish a correction and apology – if he doesn’t the inference of deliberate distortion could fairly be drawn.

What’s interesting about this is that it is an almost direct parallel of the infamous Schneider quote, discussed at length on this blog, except with sides reversed. In this quote, widely circulated around the blogosphere despite repeated refutation, Schneider is made out to advocate scientific fraud in the interests of the environment by such quote-doctoring techniques as omission of sentences, running together of separate sentences and, in a version propagated by the late Julian Simon, outright fabrication.

Many of those who’ve complained about Adams have, in the past, taken a fairly relaxed view of the Schneider quote, and correspondingly derisive about my prissy concerns for accuracy in quotation. Quite a few still seem to see the two as differing in crucial ways. On the other hand, respondents from a left perspective have been inclined to suggest that Adams didn’t really change the meaning of Bush’s statements. (The comments thread to the Ken Parish post is a good place to observe the debate.)

In my view, the differences are entirely in the eye of the beholder. In both cases, people who are hostile to the person being quoted see the omitted sentences as mere weasel words, while those being quoted (and their supporters) see them as crucial. The same is true of fabricated additions such as those used by Julian Simon in quoting Schneider (one of many examples from both sides) – for the critics, it’s only a matter of inserting a sentence to show what the speaker “really meant”.

So we have a choice. Either we can make up whatever quotes we like and put them in the mouths of our opponents, provided we judge that the manufactured quote is an accurate reflection of the speaker’s real meaning, or we can stick to the rules of exact quotation*. Which is it to be?

* That is, quote the entire relevant statement by the person being quoted with omissions of irrelevant material denoted by ellipses. If the person being quoted objects to the omissions, or would be likely to do so, then they are not irrelevant, regardless of what the person doing the quoting thinks.

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February 17th, 2004 2 comments

This nicely spun piece from the Age makes it pretty clear that the proposed FTA with the US will mean a lot more money for Big Pharma coming out of the pockets of Australian taxpayers and consumers.

Medicines Australia chief executive, Kieran Schneemann, said the deal and changes to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) would act as an incentive for American firms to invest in Australia.

and suggested as much as $1 billion might be spent on research here.

I think we all know what “an incentive” means in this context. If Schneeman’s estimate of a response on the scale of $1 billion is remotely plausible, the incentive must be a really big one. It would be more cost effective to give a bit more money to the National Health and Medical Research Council

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Monday Message Board

February 16th, 2004 19 comments

It’s time for the Monday Message Board, where you get to post your comments (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). My suggested discussion starter – Is the Latham resurgence too good to last (or, if you prefer, a nightmare that will soon pass).

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Milloy again

February 15th, 2004 23 comments

Tim Lambert has a devastating critique of Steve Milloy, operator of the “” site attached to the Cato Institute, and model for many of the similar party-line science sites that have proliferated in the blogosphere. Most of these promote some combination of

  • global warming contrarianism
  • ozone layer contrariarianism
  • shilling for the tobacco industry, and
  • boosting creationism

but Milloy covers all bases. I’ve covered Milloy at length before and pointed out most of these things with links. However, in the light of this 1999 story linked by Tim, I’m disinclined to engage in the kind of contact with slime implied by a new link, so if you want to check him out you can type the URL yourself.

As with John Lott and the American Enterprise Institute, the link between Cato and Milloy raises the question of how an institution that has some pretensions to respectability and employs some decent people can justify supporting such unethical and intellectually bankrupt charlatans.

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What I'm reading, and more

February 15th, 2004 7 comments

Off Course: From Public Place to Marketplace at Melbourne University by John Cain and John Hewett, which I was alerted to by a couple of critical reviews from people close to recently-departed VC Alan Gilbert, the book’s main target. Andrew Norton’s was the better of the two, but still consisted largely of quibbles. As Norton says, the book doesn’t contain much that is new, but it certainly provides convincing evidence for several of the main propositions put up by critics of the university reforms of the past fifteen years or so.

First, the idea of ‘the enterprising university’ has been a failure. All of Gilbert’s big commercial visions – Melbourne University Private, the University Square development, Universitas 21 and so on – have come to nothing, or almost nothing, after chewing up tens of millions of dollars of public money. The same is true of the grandiose plans for international expansion that led to Monash claiming to be the world’s first “global university” and to the establishment of money-losing overseas offshoots by many others. As far as I can tell, the only successes have been those that have operated as low-cost feeders for fee-paying students to the parent campus.

Second, the managerialist thrust of the last fifteen years, while inevitable in some respects, has failed to deliver the goods. A really striking instance of this is the gradual re-emergence of discipline-based departments and the increasing reliance on (largely unpaid and sometimes unofficial) department heads to run the actual business of the university, while a proliferation of deans, deputy vice-chancellors and so on pass paper between themselves and the government

Third, increased exposure to market forces has not produced diversity among universities, a renaissance of liberal arts, or freedom from centralised government control. In fact, we have seen a proliferation of low-cost, high margin business courses, and increased homogeneity in organisation, teaching style, research orientation and almost everything else. Meanwhile, a shrinking public contribution is still sufficiently critical to be levered into absolute control that can be exercised at any level the Minister chooses (witness the recent fuss over ‘capuccino courses’, most of which were created in response to the very market forces that are still a central theme of policy).

The good news, in my view, is that, in important respects, the worst is over. Its generally recognised that universities are a lot worse off now than when the reforms began, and some of the worst cuts have been restored. Moreover, while the managerial class has not improved much in competence, it has gained in humility. Of course, given the record of the past decade or so, university managers have a lot to be humble about.

I also went to see Dogville, about a fugitive woman (Our Nic!) taken in by a town which then turns on her. I went despite bad reviews, which turned out to be justified. Adding to my difficulties with the film was a narrator who sounded identical to the one in Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy

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February 15th, 2004 8 comments

With Christmas, post-Christmas sales and Valentine’s Day all behind us, it’s time for the next season in the annual consumption calendar, so I wasn’t surprised to see Easter Eggs on sale when I went grocery-shopping today. I do however, have a couple of questions for historically-minded readers.

First, while I know that it’s traditional to have a day of excess at Mardi Gras, followed by forty days of feasting in Lent, and then another blowout at Easter, and that this festival of consumption follows an earlier Christian tradition, I have the feeling that there has been a subtle change somewhere along the line – can anyone tell me what it is?

Second, where does the name Lent come from? Is this considered a particularly auspicious time for adding to your consumer debt, or is that just a piece of folk etymology?

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February 14th, 2004 1 comment

Australia makes a rare appearance on the Op-Ed page of the NYT with an editorial denouncing the Free Trade Agreement and observing

The deal with Australia is a huge setback in the process of liberalizing global agricultural trade. Poor nations whose only viable exports are agricultural goods are hampered by excessive protectionism. And by making a deal with Australia that leaves out sugar, Washington has jeopardized chances for meaningful progress on a hemispheric Free Trade Area of the Americas, and the latest round of negotiations at the World Trade Organization. As part of this effort to lower trade barriers, developing countries are rightly insisting that rich nations stop subsidizing their farmers and open up their markets to competition.

The agreement sends a chilling message to the rest of the world. Even when dealing with an allied nation with similar living standards, the administration, under pressure from the Congress, has opted to continue coddling the sugar lobby, rather than dropping the most indefensible form of protectionism. This will only embolden the case of those around the world who argue that globalization is a rigged game.

A few observations on this. First, as the editorial notes, the exclusion of sugar from the deal is bad for the US as well as for Australia.

The NYT’s negative view of the deal is echoed by US and international commentators across the spectrum including The Singapore Straits Times, The Miami Herald, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the Washington Post (reproduced in the Oz). The only favorable comment from outside Australia I’ve been able to find is one also reproduced by the Oz from the Christian Science Monitor, which has no comment on the content of the deal and treats the whole thing as a continuation of the Iraq war.

Finally, I’d like to remind those who still seem to be supporting the deal that all Australians will pay for the failure to hold the line on sugar, in the form of more distorting and inefficient bribes to the sugar industry and yet more ethanol crony capitalism.

A surprising number of commentators have made the claim that only anti-US or anti-government motives could explain opposition to such a deal. The (nearly) universally negative reception it has received outside Australia suggests the opposite – only partisans of the government or those who advocate unconditional compliance with the wishes of the US Administration could support it, once they have examined all the evidence (The fact that the details are still secret, and that the summaries released in the two countries differed radically is, of course, evidence in itself).

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The Nationals and the FTA

February 13th, 2004 5 comments

My column in yesterday’s Fin (subscription required) argues that the Nationals should either return to the old days of the Country Party, negotiating coalitions to form governments but not in permanent coalition with the Libs, or else go the whole hog and merge with the Liberals. I also have a bit more. As website updates are a bit behind at the moment, I’ve appended the whole thing for anyone who wants to read it.

UpdateObviously, my analysis proved compelling. The day after its publication, not only did Queensland National Leader Lawrence Springborg call for a merger with the Liberals, but Trade Minister Mark Vaile admitted the FTA had been oversold and might require amendment to get through Parliament (the latter item only in the AFR report, which isn’t available online. From a government as tightly disciplined as this one, Vaile’s comments are like a shout from the rooftops that Howard made him sign.
Read more…

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