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Archive for August, 2004

The other deficit

August 22nd, 2004 11 comments

I was looking at the latest US trade figures from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and thought, rather unoriginally, that this is an unsustainable trend. Despite the decline in the value of the US dollar against most major currencies[1], the US balance of trade in goods and services hit a record deficit of $55 billion (annualised, this would be about 6 per cent of Gross Domestic Product) in June. The deficit has grown fairly steadily, and this trend shows no obvious signs of reversal, at least unless oil prices fall sharply.

This naturally, and still rather unoriginally, led me to the aphorism, attributed to Herbert Stein “If a trend can’t be sustained forever it won’t be”. Sustained large deficits on goods and services eventually imply unbounded growth in indebtedness, and exploding current account deficits[2], as compound interest works its magic. So, if the current account deficit is to be stabilised relative to GDP, trade in goods and services must sooner or later return to balance or (if the real interest rate is higher than the rate of economic growth) surplus

But forever is a long time. Before worrying about trends that can’t be sustained forever, it is worth thinking about how long they can be sustained, and what the adjustment process will be.
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Categories: Economics - General, Oz Politics Tags:

Notes from (Down) Under Ground

August 22nd, 2004 2 comments

Here’s a piece on the Australian political outlook I posted for an international audience on Crooked Timber
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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Gold for Gold

August 21st, 2004 25 comments

I was talking with colleagues yesterday about the economics of the Olympics of the medals and speculated that, with the East Germans gone, we spend more to enhance our chance of winning gold medals than any other country. This morning I received, from Jack Strocchi, a column on the topic from Andrew Bolt which makes exactly the same claim, giving an estimate of $50 million in public expenditure per gold medal.
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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

FTA vs PBS as the election issue

August 21st, 2004 16 comments

It’s looking increasingly possible that the conflict between the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement will become the central issue of the election. It is also increasingly apparent that, contrary to all the reassurances we got when the agreement was announced, that the FTA and the PBS are in mortal conflict, and that only one of the two can survive.

Today’s developments include a statement from US Ambassador Schieffer that the US may not certify that our legislation implements the FTA and more commentary from sources close to the government, all suggesting that this is a really big deal.

Reading Christopher Pearson’s column in particular, it is notable how thoroughly it undermines the claim that the FTA presents no danger to the PBS. He talks about the remedies available to the US in relation to Labor’s amendments. In addition to the possibility that the Americans will walk away from the agreement altogether, he points out two further possible courses of action.

The second aspect of the amendments likely to cause concern is that trade agreements are negotiated on the basis of “standstill”. In other words, once an agreement is reached, the parties are expected not to introduce legislation that would alter their relative positions.

Finally, the Americans could argue that the amendments are likely to give rise to a dispute under the “reasonable benefits” clause, in the event that their drug companies are unable to realise benefits that they anticipated would flow from the agreement.

What’s critical to note here is that these points have nothing to do with the specific content of Labor’s amendments. They apply to any legislation concerning the PBS that an Australian government might seek to introduce in the future and, arguably, to any administrative decisions made by Ministers. If Pearson is correct[1], the FTA gives the Americans an effective veto power over anything we might attempt to do to improve the functioning of the PBS. It’s notable that Pearson’s points are almost identical to those that have previously been made by critics of the deal, and pooh-poohed by the government.

It is critical, in both policy and political terms, for Labor to hold its ground. Even without the threat to the PBS, this was a lousy deal. If the Americans refuse to certify, Labor should announce its intention to renegotiate the entire deal, this time on equal terms.

fn1. Pearson is clever and well-informed, but he’s never shown any previous knowledge of international treaty law. In the absence of references to independent experts, I think it’s reasonable to take these claims as coming from sources inside the government.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Year zero

August 20th, 2004 16 comments

Turning to trivia for a moment, I thought I’d raise the question of when the 21st century began. The commonsense view is that it began on 1 January 2000, and I think the commonsense view is right. Against this we get a bunch of pedants arguing, that, since there was no year zero, the 1st century (of the current era) began in 1CE, and therefore included 100CE. Granting this, the 21st century began on 1 January 2001.
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Categories: Life in General Tags:

Sympathy for asylum seekers

August 20th, 2004 35 comments

This opinion poll, reported in the Oz is encouraging, and supports my view that the upsurge in support for Howard over Tampa was the result of a temporary panic, stirred up by a combination of racial/religious prejudice and law-and-order politics. Of course, Howard’s success was enhanced by the total failure of leadership on the Labor side, epitomised by Kim Beazley, who is quoted in the story, as lame as ever.

The poll (taken before the latest news showing Howard knew the children overboard story was false), shows that more voters now disagree with the Howard Government’s handling of the Tampa issue than agree with it — 43 per cent versus 35 per cent, and that most favor allowing at least some boatpeople into Australia.

I think the reaction against the policy has been driven in part by the obvious nastiness of the government’s campaign against asylum seekers, amplified a thousandfold in some sections of the press, not to mention the blogosphere. It is hard to imagine any decent person reading some of the stuff that has been turned out by pro-government commentators on this issue and not reacting with disgust.

It is now clear that the vast majority of those on the Tampa and other boats were genuine refugees. Even those who were not were desperate people willing to risk everything to make a better life for their families. None[1] had committed a crime justifying the kind of treatment of they received.

fn1. No doubt I’ll get someone pointing out that some of these people might have been criminals, political or common. I wonder if the same people protested when Ruddock used his ministerial power to allow a large group of members of the South Lebanese Army, an outfit with plenty of crimes on its record, to jump the refugee queue.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

A rare show of national unity

August 19th, 2004 22 comments

Having posed the question directly here, and had a look around the blogosphere, the opinion pages and so on, I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t a single person[1] in Australia who believes that John Howard is telling the truth[2] in regard to the children overboard story. Given that large percentages believe that Elvis lives, and a non-zero number believe themselves to be Elvis (or similar), I think this is an impressive level of unanimity.

fn1. Obviously, the relevant set includes Howard himself

fn2. That is, in the time-honored phrase, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The Iraqi National Congress Conference – a mixed bag

August 19th, 2004 7 comments

The meeting of the Iraqi National Conference has wound up in Baghdad, leaving, from the limited reports available, a very mixed record. Given the series of disasters we’ve seen in the last eighteen months or so, a mixed record is certainly better than the par outcome of total failure.

It was certainly good that the gathering was held at all, and appears to have encompassed a much broader and more representative sample of Iraqi opinion than anything of the kind held since the overthrow of Saddam (or, of course, while Saddam and his Baathist predecessors were in power). This report on the televised proceedings,at Healing Iraq gives an idea of what it was like.

On the other hand, the supposed purpose of the Conference, to elect an advisory council of 100 members to oversee the Allawi government, degenerated into farce. It appears that the Conference was presented with a slate of 81 members agreed by the big parties and a US-imposed decision that 19 members of the old IGC (originally 20, but Chalabhi was excluded after falling from grace). In the absence of any alternative, this slate was accepted by default.

But the biggest success (still not a sure thing, but promising) was the intervention of the Conference in the Najaf crisis, demanding that the assault by the US and the interim government cease and that Sadr withdraw from Najaf, disband his militia and enter the political process. Clearly, if it were not for the Conference, there would have been little chance of a peaceful outcome here, and the potential consequences were disastrous. Sadr has stated acceptance of the Conference’ demands, though it remains to be seen what that means.
Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

Google again

August 19th, 2004 7 comments

Scepticism about the capital market (as opposed to social) value of Google, led by econobloggers, and followed, much later by the financial press, seems to have had some impact.

Google said the new estimated share price range was $US85 to $US95 ($119 to $133), down from $USUS108 to $USUS135 previously. It also sliced the number of shares on offer to 19.6 million from 25.7 million.

The maximum the internet giant can now rake in, excluding over-allotments, is $US1.86 billion, a stunning climbdown from initial expectations of $US3.47 billion.

The new maximum price values the entire company at $US25.7 billion, down from $US36.6 billion.

Thanks to FX Holden for the alert.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Has anyone asked Costello ?

August 18th, 2004 73 comments

Has anyone asked Costello about the PMs “children overboard” claims? Maybe he’d respond along the lines of John Anderson, saying Prime Minister John Howard is a trustworthy individual and most Australians know it. Or maybe we’d get one of the more equivocal formulas (perhaps a quote from Howard himself) of which Costello is so fond. Unless things get drastically worse for Howard, I can’t see Costello making a challenge (Chris Sheil discusses this further) but I also doubt that he’d be willing to tie his own credibility to Howard’s.

As the story keeps running, I’m beginning to think it possible, albeit remotely, that Howard might be forced to ‘fess up. There’s been a new development every day, and there’s at least one more to come – the Liberal Party dirt unit’s campaign against Scrafton for having porn on his computer here’s an old newspaper article [PDF], linked by Crikey which reports the dirt unit’s role (hat tip to Ron, commenting on Ken Parish) This story gets a blogospheric run from Bernie Slattery here. This may damage Scrafton, but it will also remind everyone of previous similar campaigns, against Mick Keelty, the “doddering daiquiri diplomats” and so on.

In addition Howard’s attempt to parse as supporting his own story a statement from the former head of the Defence Department public affairs unit, Jenny McKenry, confirming Scrafton’s story invites a clarification from her.

And so far, I have yet to see a single person, no matter how vehemently they support Howard, willing to say that they believe he is telling the truth[1].

fn1. To be clear here, I don’t mean something “morally true” or “true enough to satisfy the Australian people” or “true in the postmodern sense”, or “true, given appropriate rules of grammatical construction”. I mean that when Howard says something like “at no time during his telephone calls with Mr Scrafton had he discussed photos relating to the sinking of Siev4 on October 8, 2001″, this actually means that the photos were not mentioned by either party.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The triumph of postmodernism

August 18th, 2004 41 comments

The Institute of Public Affairs has been an eager participant in History and Culture wars, vigorously assailing postmodernist notions of “multiple truths”. Plenty of people, including me, have made the obvious tu quoque pointing out that, in practise, truth for the IPA is whatever happens to be convenient at the time[1]. Now the embrace of postmodernism is official, or at least as official as it can be for such a slippery and ambiguous doctrine. In today’s Fin, IPA Fellow (and, I think, former Liberal apparatchik) John Roskam writes

One doesn’t necessarily have to believe in the post-modern idea that ‘there is no such thing as truth’, to appreciate the difficulty of establishing precisely what was said, or what was thought to have been said, three years ago

It sure helps, though.

I think what I like best in this passage is the ironic use of ‘necessarily’, a fine appeal to the postmodern sensibility. It adds eloquently to the ambiguity of Roskam’s position, with the hint that his adoption of postmodernism is the result of aesthetic choice rather than necessity. Roskam goes on to articulate the postmodern notion of “socially determined truth”, arguing that the election outcome will retrospectively make Howard’s position true in the only snese that matters.

To take him seriously, if we suppose that it’s impossible to determine the truth of clearly-defined events three years ago, with multiple witnesses, and plenty of additional evidence (for example, as regards the truthfulness or otherwise of one of the key witnesses), we might as well admit that no historical fact can ever be known.

As I’ve said previously, it would be much more sensible for the government and its defenders to come straight out and say “We lied, everyone knew it, and we still won. Get over it”.

fn1. For example, the IPA assails anti-science opponents of GM foods, but denounces the scientific establishment as a left-wing conspiracy when it comes up with the “wrong” answers on global warming and the Murray-Darling.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

A syllabus of errors

August 17th, 2004 6 comments

The WashPost runs an Op-Ed piece byPradeep Chhibber and Ken Kollman, claiming that the failure of third parties to do well in the US is due, not to plurality voting or other institutional factors but to excessive political centralisation. The claim is that since third parties

once competed successfully in congressional elections, winning significant portions of the popular vote and often gaining seats in Congress. This was true for most of the 19th century and even the early part of the 20th

the cause of their subsequent failure must be something new – political centralisation[1].

Chhibber and Kollman seem to be well-regarded political scientists. But their argument here is riddled with errors, or at least large logical gaps.
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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

October surprise ?

August 17th, 2004 10 comments

There seems to be a kiteflying campaign from commentators with connections to the government, suggesting that the US might reject, or threaten to reject, the Free Trade Agreement on the basis of Labor’s amendments regarding patenting. Howard raised the possibility when he agreed to the amendments, and the US Trade Representative spokesman Richard Mills, kept it alive, with the ominously worded observation

We have chosen not to intervene in the internal debate within Australia about the FTA implementing legislation and amendments at this point.

(emphasis added).
Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Elites again

August 16th, 2004 20 comments

Since the topic of elites seems to be popping up a bit, I thought I’d link to a piece I wrote a couple of years ago. Here are some extracts

Of course there is an Australian elite. In fact, there is more than one. Business wealth commands one sort of power, central position in political machines commands another, and senior office in the public service yet another.

The recent discussion of elites in Australia has focused on the ‘opinion elite’. Many of the assertions that have been made about the opinion elite in recent months, particularly by supporters of the Howard government, have been self-serving nonsense. Nevertheless, there is no denying the fact that some Australians have more influence than others in determining the ideas that are taken seriously in formulating public policy, and that, on many occasions the views of this influential group are not representative of the population as a whole

With the election of John Howard, and his advocacy (punctuated by occasional backflips) of the social agenda represented by Pauline Hanson, positions hardened. Today, the Australian elite is divided in much the same way as the population as a whole, between a right-wing group which favours both free markets and a conservative or reactionary social[1] agenda, and a left-wing group which supports republicanism and reconciliation, and opposes free-market reform.

The main difference between the elite and the population as a whole is the absence of any group corresponding to the One Nation support base, opposing both free-market policies and social liberalism. Because of this absence, the Australian elite is both more ‘economically rationalist’ and more ‘socially progressive’ than the population as a whole. However, it is increasingly uncommon to find both traits in the same person.

This is slightly less true of the blogosphere than of the opinion elite, but still not far off the mark.

fn1. In this context, I don’t regard attitudes towards sex and drugs as being significant markers of social views. In Australia, these issues are pretty much separate from views on broader social and economic issues.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Man Overboard

August 16th, 2004 33 comments

I just heard Howard being quoted on the ABC News with a very lame denial of the claim, detailed in today’s Oz, that he had been advised by Mike Scrafton, at the time senior adviser to then defence minister Peter Reith of the falsity of the “children overboard” allegations, the day before he went to the National Press Club and repeated those allegations. The PMs spokesman admits that the conversation took place, and doesn’t deny Scrafton’s account of why it took place, which I quote

“I rang Reith straight away and said to him that the best spin you could put on the tape was that it was inconclusive,” he told The Australian yesterday.

“It certainly didn’t support anything like children being thrown overboard. Nor, in my view, that threats had been made to throw children overboard. None of these claims were confirmed by the video.

“Reith said: ‘The PM will probably want to hear this.’ He rang me back about 20 minutes later and said: ‘I have given your mobile number to the PM and he will give you a ring back at some point during the evening’.”

but wants us to believe that Howard somehow still wasn’t told that the evidence was bogus. I expect they spent a lot of time discussing the prospects for the Ashes series.

Looking at the political implications, continuing lame denials will, I think pose a big problem for Howard and those who want to defend him on this. The line they really want to push is

Yes, he lied, get over it. Everyone knew he was lying and most people wanted to be lied to

But it will be hard to push this openly while Howard is still saying the opposite.
Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Monday Message Board

August 16th, 2004 39 comments

It’s Monday again, and time for the Monday Message Board. Post your comments on any topic (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Any reactions to the latest Children Overboard news?

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Marty Weitzman on the equity premium

August 15th, 2004 4 comments

Brad de Long points to a piece on the equity premium by Marty Weitzman and says,

Marty Weitzman is smarter than I am …This is brilliant. I should have seen this. I should have seen this sixteen years ago. I *almost* saw this sixteen years ago.

Weitzman’s idea[1] is the replace the sample distributions of returns on equity and debt with reasonable Bayesian subjective distributions. These have much fatter tails, allowing for a higher risk premium, lower risk free rate and higher volatility, in the context of a socially optimal market outcome. Here are some of the reasons why this is important

My immediate reaction is the same as Brad’s. Something like this has occurred to me too, but I’ve never thought hard enough or cleverly enough about it how to work it out properly. This is a very impressive achievement, and Marty Weitzman is very, very smart (which we already knew).
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Timing

August 15th, 2004 25 comments

The continuing speculation about the date of the Federal election, and the continuous state of semi-campaign, is getting really annoying. I’ve never been a fan of four year terms – the arguments in favour of them are generally anti-democratic, based on the idea that the further voters are kept away from policy, the better – but I’d happily accept a four-year term as long as it was fixed. While a four year term reduces accountability, the fixed term reduces the power of the Prime Minister, which is a good thing.

As regards the date, I think it would be really silly to run a campaign during the Olympics and Grand Final Season. If Howard tries this, I think (and hope) he will be punished for it by the voters.

If we rule out that option, our campaign will coincide with that in the US. This leads me to the suggestion that we could make a more informed choice if our election is held after the American election[1]. If Bush gets back in, that’s a significant argument in favour of re-electing Howard – relations between a Bush Administration and a Latham government are unlikely to be warm. If Bush loses, the credibility of Howard’s foreign policy is severely undermined.

fn1. Theirs is Melbourne Cup Day, first Tuesday in November, except when that falls on November 1 (the rule is “first Tuesday after first Monday“). Holding elections on a workday is one of the many ways in which the world’s leading democracy discourages voting.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Free riding

August 15th, 2004 Comments off

Ken Parish has reorganised his blogroll with a rough classification of ideological categories. If you hover your cursor over a blogger’s name, you’ll get a popup description. Unfortunately I don’t know how to link or cut and paste it, but he’s very positive about the comment threads here “sometimes better than the posts”, and I’m happy to agree with him.

Ken’s comprehensive list, along with that of Tim Dunlop leaves me free to be both slacker and choosier with my blogroll. Generally, I’ll link to any Australian political blogger who links to me (if they remind me and when I get around to it), but I feel free to make arbitrary exceptions to this rule.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

The new migration

August 15th, 2004 4 comments

Yesterday, I was at a conference put on by the Foundation for Development Cooperation. I was talking about Tobin taxes and emissions trading, but the really interesting development for me was one that came up after the speech given by Kevin Rudd, and was also mentioned at the Pacific Forum last week.

This was the idea that the only way to resolve the problems of the Pacific is to allow access for citizens of Pacific island states to the Australian and New Zealand labour markets. Howard said something along these lines last week, and Rudd promised a more substantial review, which would of course, involve negotiation with the ACTU.

I’ve long held the view that traditional models of economic development were unlikely to work in the islands. If we disregard the fact that these are sovereign countries, and look at the actual economics, they look a lot like Australian country towns. In the absence of barriers to migration, you’d expect to see young people going to the city to work, though perhaps returning home at some later point. In this context, for “the city” read Australia and New Zealand.

There’s a sense in which this is the Pacific solution, operating in reverse. Having bribed and bullied our neighbours into acting as detention centres for our unwanted visitors, we’re now in a much weaker position to put them outside the fence that says “We will decide who comes here, and under what circumstances”. So perhaps some good will come of the whole sorry process.

An asideAlthough it’s not strictly relevant, I thought I’d observe that the family reunion category of migration, much criticised in commentary on migration policy, now consists primarily of the spouses of Australian citizens (at least, this is what Deirdre Macken said in Saturday’s Fin). Certainly there are quite a few cases of this kind among my immediate acquaintance and extended family, and they give the lie to the “mail-order bride” stereotype that will undoubtedly be invoked. This is worth thinking about, and I will have some more to say about it sometime.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Get well soon

August 13th, 2004 6 comments

According to this AP report in the NY Times, Moqtada al-Sadr has been wounded by US shelling in Najaf. Sadr is an irresponsible demagogue, his political agenda is reactionary and authoritarian and his militia has been guilty of many acts of thuggery and violence. And we should all wish for his complete and speedy recovery from his wounds.

Update There is a ceasefire and negotiations have started for a truce. This is welcome news, and I hope the talks are successful. However, it only points up the fact that the bloody campaign to destroy Sadr was both morally indefensible (as well as being politically stupid). I restate the point I made when the fighting was at its peak.

Almost certainly, the current fighting will end in the same sort of messy compromise that prevailed before the first campaign started. Nothing will have been gained by either side. But 2000 or so people will still be dead. Sadr bears his share of the guilt for this crime. The US government is even more guilty.

Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

The letter and the spirit

August 12th, 2004 7 comments

John Howard finally let the cat out of the bag, with his suggestion that Labor’s amendments aimed at preventing evergreening of patents might ‘violate the spirit’ of the Free Trade Agreement with the US. As I pointed out last week

The letter of the FTA gives a fair bit of room to move, allowing for interpretations more or less favorable to the pharmaceutical lobby on the one hand and the PBS on the other.The government has tried to have it both ways, assuring the Australian public that the FTA clauses relating to PBS are meaningless words inserted to placate the Americans, while promising their (very close) friends in the pharmaceutical lobby that they can expect more favorable treatment, consistent with Wooldridge’s efforts to stack the PBAC and so forth. Passage of the FTA without amendment would have made it easy for the government to deliver to its friends when the elections were out of the way and the electors conveniently on the sidelines. Adding amendments directed at specific possible abuses implies, more generally, that Australia is committed to ensuring that the drug lobby gets nothing more than its minimum legal entitlement under the FTA – a nonbinding review, and observation of patent law.

Howard even raised the prospect that the Americans might walk away from the deal. If only!

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Keating, Howard and Hanson

August 12th, 2004 65 comments

Recent discussion has led me to start on a post I’ve been meaning to do asking the question: to what extent are the major parties and their leaders responsible for the resurgence of racial and religious prejudice in Australia, as represented by Pauline Hanson and the treatment of asylum seekers.
Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Republicans voting sensibly

August 11th, 2004 26 comments

The most plausible argument against a directly elected president is that a nominee of one of the major parties would almost certainly get up. If the President and Prime Minister were of the same party, the President would be even more a rubber stamp than the GG. If they were of opposite parties, there would be an increased risk of partisan deadlock. This is certainly undesirable, but is it a likely outcome?

This argument depends on the assumption that a large majority of Australians would vote for the candidate of their preferred party. How large a majority is needed? The evidence suggests that no more than 30 per cent of voters are ‘rusted-on’ Labor voters who would vote a straight Labor ticket in all elections, and similarly for the Liberals/Nationals[1]. That leaves 40 per cent who can be swayed either way.

This means

* An appealing independent candidate could win in a three-sided contest

* If one party chooses not to run a candidate, the other party’s candidate would almost certainly lose

So, given a widespread belief that the President ought not to be a partisan, I think it is unlikely that the major parties would run candidates and win the first time around. Once the norm of an independent presidency was established, it would be almost impossible for either major party, acting alone, to break it.

Ken Parish has more, repeating the point that we can, if we choose, have direct election without, or prior to, a Republic. He also has some nice points about experimentation in a Federal system. It’s fair to say we’ve been experimenting with different gubernatorial models lately, and not having a very high success rate.

fn1. In the last Senate election Labor got 34 per cent of primary votes, and at least some of these must have been swinging voters. Similarly for the coalition in 1998.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Republicans behaving badly

August 10th, 2004 19 comments

The recent departure of Tasmanian Governor Richard Butler has let the monarchists, long embarrassed by the antics of our hereditary ruling family, get a bit of their own back. Lots of people see prominent republican Butler’s (alleged, I should observe) arrogant and erratic behavior as a prototype for a Malcolm Turnbull presidency.

I’d suggest that the real lesson here is Churchill’s – democracy is the worst system apart from all the others. Perhaps if a President were selected by popular vote, the office might occasionally be filled by popstars or sporting heroes. But does anyone suggest that Butler or Turnbull, or, for that matter, Prince Charles, would ever win a popular vote?

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Only good news, please

August 10th, 2004 6 comments

The Allawi government’s decision to ban Al-Jazeera has received a lot of attention. Rather less has been paid to a subsequent announcement of a wide range of rules to be applied by the new Higher Media Commission. Prominent among them is a prohibition of “unwarranted criticism” of Allawi himself. This was reported in Australia’s Financial Review and also in the Financial Times (both subscription only) and also in a number of Arab and antiwar papers, but not in any of the general mainstream press.

For those inclined to a “slippery slope” view of censorship, this is certainly a case study.

Here’s a protest letter from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Categories: World Events Tags:

How many times do we have to hear this ?

August 10th, 2004 41 comments

John Howard’s attack on General Peter Gration reproduces yet again one of the silliest argument made by supporters of the Iraq war. He points out that Gration, like many other opponents of the war , made statements in the course of 2002 accepting the presumption that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. The same point has been made with respect to Bill Clinton and many others.

Those making this claim seem to have erased from their historical memory banks the period from December 2002 to March 2003. During this period, UN inspectors went all over Iraq, inspecting all the sites where Bush, Blair and Howard had claimed to have evidence of weapons programs. They found nothing[1], for the very good reason that there was nothing to find. They interviewed scientists, inside and outside Iraq and got the same (correct) story every time – the weapons programs had been abandoned years ago.

By the time the war broke out, it was clear to any reasonable observer that Saddam had no nuclear program, no large-scale programs for producing chemical and biological weapons, and, in all probability no biological weapons at all. More intensive searching would have been required to determine that there were no carefully hidden stockpiles of chemical weapons, and if Bush had not gone to war, followed by Blair and Howard, these searches would have taken place and (as we know now) found nothing.

This is glaringly obvious, and yet supporters of the war, almost without exception, keep parroting the same line, or some variant, such as the claim that, in the light of the evidence, the UNSC was unreasonable in not passing a second resolution favoring war.

Given the gross mismanagement of the situation in Iraq after the war, explicable only by a willingness to ignore obvious facts in favor of political fantasies, I lean more and more to the view that support for the war required a degree of detachment from reality that guaranteed subsequent failure.

fn1. More precisely, they found some missiles that had a range marginally longer than that permitted, and had begun their destruction when Bush declared war. They also found a handful of leftover chemical shells, of the kind that have turned up on a couple of occasions since.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Monday Message Board

August 9th, 2004 30 comments

It’s Monday again, and time for the Monday Message Board. Post your comments on any topic (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Any reactions to the latest Children Overboard news?

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

War crimes

August 8th, 2004 16 comments

It’s been argued at length whether the Iraq war as a whole was morally justified, given that many thousands of people died in the process of removing Saddam’s regime. I don’t think so, but if you suppose that Saddam would otherwise have stayed in power for decades, and make some optimistic assumptions about future prospects, it’s possible to come to the opposite conclusion. But what possible moral justification can there be for the two bloody campaigns against Moqtada al-Sadr? If the figures reported by the US military are true, nearly 2000 of Sadr’s supporters have been killed by US forces (1500 in the first campaign launched by Bremer just before his departure and another 300 in the last couple of days). This is comparable with plausible estimates of the number of people killed by Saddam’s police state annually in its final years.

These people weren’t Al Qaeda or Baathists, they were (apart from the inevitable innocent bystanders) young Iraqi men who objected to foreign occupation. Sadr’s militia is one of a dozen or so similar outfits in Iraq, and there are hundreds more around the world, quite a few of which have received US support despite having a worse record than Sadr’s. Moreover, there was no cause at stake that justified a war – the first started when Bremer shut down Sadr’s newspaper and the Sadrists retaliated by taking control of some police stations and mosques. The current outbreak seems to have had even more trivial causes. It’s the willingness of the US government to send in the Marines that’s turned what would normally be noisy disturbances into bloodbaths.

Almost certainly, the current fighting will end in the same sort of messy compromise that prevailed before the first campaign started. Nothing will have been gained by either side. But 2000 or so people will still be dead. Sadr bears his share of the guilt for this crime. The US government is even more guilty.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Opportunity cost

August 8th, 2004 3 comments

The NYT has a chart showing what the US and the world have foregone as a result of the money spent on the Iraq war. I had a go at the same topic last year.

Categories: World Events Tags: