Archive for November, 2004

Amity and co-operation

November 30th, 2004 19 comments

Linking a couple of recent posts, it ought to be obvious that Australia is in pretty dire need of improved trading access to the kinds of countries with which we run trade surpluses, that is with ASEAN members rather than the US. So it might be a good idea to promise not to invade those countries. But since Howard thinks that playing the regional hyperpower will play well in the western suburbs and with GWB, we won’t do it.

Meanwhile, rather contrarily, we’re pressuring them to ban landmines, an issue on which they can point to the US as a model.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Looking over the edge

November 30th, 2004 48 comments

Another big blowout in the current account, the trade account and foreign debt. Costello is blaming it all on the appreciation of the dollar but the housing boom on which the government won re-election is at least as much to blame. Here’s my take, from the Fin a couple of weeks ago.
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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Lavoisier, again

November 29th, 2004 82 comments

Tim Lambert links to a not-very-flattering profile of the Lavoisier Group, whose members appear to be mostly elderly gentlemen who believe that, if we all wish hard enough, Tinkerbell will summon the ghost of Lavoisier and make that nasty global warming go away.

Connoisseurs of the Australian network of right-wing front groups will not be surprised to find the inevitable Ray Evans, former executive officer of WMC, President of the HR Nicholls Society, Secretary of the Bennelong Society and Treasurer of the Samuel Griffith Society has found time in his busy life to act as secretary of, and main contact for, the Lavoisier Group.

The front groups I used to deal with thirty years ago, Concerned Stalinists for Peace and so on, made a bit more of an effort than these guys, who even, according to commenter Julian Russell, share the same IP address. I feel sorry for the handful of genuine sceptics who’ve been sucked into this deplorable scam.

Categories: Environment Tags:

The end of hyperpower

November 29th, 2004 53 comments

Something that’s really striking about the Ukraine crisis is the quiescence of the supposed global hyperpower. Powell took a firm line a few days ago, but he’s a lame duck who can’t be presumed to speak for the Administration. As was pointed out at (pro-war Left site) Harry’s Place, Bush’s own statement on the issue was anything but a ringing affirmation of democracy, perhaps because of Yanukovych’s membership of the Coalition of the Willing. In any case, the US has been happy to leave the running of the issue to the EU.

That’s not surprising, perhaps, given that Ukraine is a long way from Washington and right next to the EU, but how about the current situation in Iran? The US has 140 000 troops right next door to a potential nuclear power, and the threat is being dealt with (or perhaps not dealt with) by negotations with the EU.

The obvious point is that the resources of all kinds (military, diplomatic, financial and in terms of moral standing) expended on the Iraq crusade have weakened the US government to the point where it has nothing with which to impose its will on Iran. The US government can’t credibly threaten an invasion because it doesn’t have the troops, it can’t run a long bombing campaign in case the Iranians foment a Shia insurgency in Iraq, it can’t negotiate because it has already painted itself into a corner with the “Axis of Evil” line, it can’t rally the world to its cause because of its belligerent unilateralism in the past, it can’t buy the Iranians off because it’s broke, and it can’t use its intelligence resource to catch out the Iranians in any lies they are telling because US intelligence has been fatally discredited. Bush can still blow up the world, but then, so can Putin.

The era of hyperpower has been short indeed.

Categories: World Events Tags:

My take on the Ukraine

November 29th, 2004 5 comments

As I’ve said in the introduction to the excellent guest posts fromTom Oates and Tarik AmarI know very little about the Ukraine. But I’ve seen enough cases of rigged elections to make the judgement that the Viktor Yanukovych has lost, in the sense that he can’t resist the demand for a fresh election that he will almost certainly lose. In cases of this kind, it’s necessary for the incumbent to maintain a united front, keeping the courts, military and so on in line. Yanukovych has lost on almost every front, with the courts, parliament, official media and sections of the police turning against him. Crucially, he has hardly any support in or near the capital, and attempts to bus in large numbers of supporters have gone nowhere. Yanukovych’s only international backer of any note is Vladimir Putin, who is not a man given to sentiment. I expect that he will very shortly see the wisdom of salvaging some credit from the EU by persuading Yanukovych to do the decent thing.

As this NYT report indicates, Yanukovych’s main support base has effectively conceded defeat, by making pre-emptive demands for more autonomy in the event that their man loses. Bearing in mind my general ignorance of the situation, I’ll argue from first principles support for federalism that a deal which conceded a fair bit of regional autonomy in return for a democratic national outcome would be a good one all round.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Monday Message Board

November 29th, 2004 30 comments

It’s time, once again, for the Monday message board, where you are invited to post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

What I’m reading

November 28th, 2004 10 comments

The Scar by China Mieville. Slightly out of order as I read Iron Council first, so I could write a review as part of a mini-symposium that will be held at Crooked Timber Real Soon Now. This is quite an exciting venture for me, both as something relatively new in blogging and as my first move into full-length fiction reviewing.

Coming back to The Scar, I found it, in many ways, the most enjoyable of Mieville’s books considered purely as speculative fiction. There’s something about sea voyages[1] that works really well in this context and Mieville characteristically takes it to the limit with the idea of a giant floating city. And given that much of my work lately has dealt with issues of possibility and probability, I particularly liked the Possible Sword. On the other hand, I missed the political and social layers of the books set in New Crobuzon.

fn1. When I was young, I really loved CS Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, for example, and of course most of space fiction is in this genre.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

The case for war

November 28th, 2004 18 comments

Norman Geras presents a central part of the argument for war, arguing that war can be justified even when it is predictable in advance that it will do more harm than good, and that even aggressors aren’t fully responsible for the consequences of the wars they start. Here’s the crucial bit

in sum, those in the anti-war camp often argue as if there wasn’t actually a war going on – the real conflict on the ground being displaced in their minds by the argument between themselves and supporters of the war. Everything is the fault of those who took the US and its allies into that war and, secondarily, those who supported or justified this.

Except it isn’t. As I said in the earlier post, the war has two sides. One counter-argument here is likely to be that those who initiate an unjust war are responsible for everything they unleash. But first, this begs the question. Much of the case for the war’s being unjust was that it would have bad consequences. Yet, many of those bad consequences are the responsibility of forces prosecuting a manifestly unjust war – in both its objectives and its methods – on the other side. Secondly, it’s simple casuistry in assessing the responsibilities of two sides in a military conflict to load everything on to one of the sides – even where the blame for having begun an unjust and aggressive war is uncontroversial. Were the Japanese themselves responsible for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Adolf Hitler was responsible for many terrible crimes during the Second World War. But the fire bombing of Dresden? This is all-or-nothing thinking.

To respond, I’ll begin by asking a question. Suppose those of us on the Left who opposed the Iraq war had prevailed. To what extent, if any, would we have been responsible for the crimes that Saddam would undoubtedly have committed while he remained in power?
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Categories: World Events Tags:

Another guest post on the Ukraine

November 27th, 2004 25 comments

Following up the post from Tom Oates last week, reader Dan Hardie sends another (long) piece, by Tarik Amar, who, Dan says, is doing a PhD on Soviet history and speaks Ukranian, German and Russian, among other languages, and knows the place very well. Lacking any of these qualifications, I can only pass his analysis on to you with the observation that it’s well worth reading, and gives lots of detail on the machinations of the incumbent president.

From what I’ve read, including Tarik’s piece, this all seems very similar to Marcos in the Phillipines and Milosevic in Serbia, and hopefully will be resolved in a similar fashion.
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Categories: World Events Tags:

Academic blogging

November 26th, 2004 15 comments

There’s been a fair bit of discussion among academic bloggers about whether blogs count for the purposes of vitas and publication lists) and if so how. The maximalist position (so far not put forward seriously by anyone as far as I know) is that each blog post is a separate publication. The minimal claim is that blogs are a form of community service, like talking to school groups and similar. A good place to start, with plenty of links to earlier contributions, is this post by Eszter Hargittai at Crooked Timber.

Rather than engaging directly with the arguments that have been put up so far, I want to claim that the question will ultimately be settled by the way in which blogs are used and referred to. In this context, I have a couple of observations.

First, I’ve had one reader tell me that he’s cited one of my posts in an academic work, and I think this is not unique. Clearly, the more this happens, the more conventions for referring to blog posts will be developed, and the more easily they can be incorporated in vitas and so on.

Second, I had an interesting recent communication from the Senior Secondary Assessment Board of South Australia, which sets school examinations. They used this post in an exam paper for Year 12 politics. They wrote asking for copyright permission to print it in their set of past papers[1].
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Categories: Metablogging Tags:


November 26th, 2004 15 comments

i was intrigued by this report in the Australian of a mathematical genius who can find the 13th root of 100-digit number in seconds. I was even more intrigued to learn that the number was “selected at random”. The odds against a randomly selected 100-digit number having an integer 13-th root would be a nice problem for a math genius to solve in seconds[1] so I wonder what is meant by this.

Maybe you only have to derive the integer part, which, if my workings below are correct, is an eight-digit number lying in a fairly narrow range. Someone who knew the first three or four places of their log tables and was quick at interpolation could probably manage the feat in the time described.

Or maybe the number is selected from a list of 100-digit 13th powers. This would make life a little easier since you can get the last digit free or cheaply (with preparation, you could probably get a good handle on the last two digits).

I’m not planning on trying this at home, though.
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Categories: Life in General Tags:

Universities and diploma mills

November 26th, 2004 18 comments

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the idea of “teaching-only” universities. This discussion confuses two separate issues. The first is whether we should return to some variant of the binary system we had in the 1980s, with two kinds of universities. The research universities (the existing sandstones and some others) would carry on as before, while the teaching universities would drop research and PhD programs, and probably offer a somewhat different range of courses. In the Australian context, these would be low-status institutions, though the example of US “liberal arts” colleges shows that this need not be the case.

The other question is that of recently-arrived enterprises that don’t resemble universities in any sense except that they offer post-secondary education of some kind as part of their business. Examples are[1] Melbourne University Private also trading as Hawthorn English Language Centre and the various city centre “campuses” established by universities like CQU as well as potential commercial entrants from overseas, such as the “University” of Phoenix. In essence, these are trade schools offering business (and maybe computer) training along with English teaching to overseas students.
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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Hoist on their own petard

November 25th, 2004 10 comments

Having been involved in the debate over schools policy for quite a few years, I’m enjoying a bit of schadenfreude following the publication of a couple of regression analyses showing that students at charter schools (publicly funded US schools operating independently from the main public school system) score worse on standard tests than students at ordinary public schools[1]. I don’t have a particularly strong view on the desirability or otherwise of charter schools, but I have long been critical of one of the most prominent rationales for charter schools and other programs of school reform[2].

This is the claim that “regression analyses show that students in small classes do no better than those in large classes”. If you believe this claim, you should believe the same claim with “charter schools” replacing “small classes” since both are supported by the same kind of evidence.
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Containers, full and empty

November 24th, 2004 16 comments

If you want to see why adjusting the balance of trade will be a painful task for the US, it’s worth reading this generally upbeat article about the revival of the port of New York, thanks to imports from Asia. The money quote, several pages in

After unloading 1,120 containers from the [Hyundai] Glory, the longshoremen reloaded the ship for the return trip. Of 667 containers to be sent back, 419 were empty, being returned to Asia to carry more goods back to the United States. Of the rest, most were stuffed with two of New York’s biggest exports: wastepaper and scrap metal.

Even on the most generous interpretation of comparative advantage, I don’t think returning packaging material and scrap to your suppliers can form a sustainable basis for trade.

If you want to keep up with this topic, bookmark General Glut and Brad Setser

UpdateA comparison with Australia. The picture at container ports here is much the same, which is one reason I always found the focus on improving waterfront efficiency so odd. I’m not a mercantilist, but it doesn’t seem to me that, for a chronic deficit country, our top economic priority ought to be improving the efficiency with which we import things.

For most of the 1990s, our deficit on manufactures (which mostly come in containers) was pretty much offset by surpluses in agriculture (shipped in bulk carriers) and some services like education and tourism. So, we had a roughly sustainable position, with trade in balance. The current account deficit reflected payments to foreign capital and was broadly consistent with a stable ratio of foreign debt and equity to GDP.

In the last few years, however, our manufacturing exports have fallen in a hole, while imports have boomed, producing large and unsustainable trade deficits again (though not as bad as the US). The growing CAD has mainly financed investment in housing, as far as I can see, which is not a good sign as housing services are mostly not tradeable.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

The flight of the Kiwi

November 24th, 2004 17 comments

Tyler Cowen links to Martin Wolf (FT, subscription) on the failure of the radical free-market reforms undertaken by New Zealand from 1984 to the mid-90s. The results are even more striking when you observe that the only sustained period of growth has come after 1999, when the newly-elected Labour government raised the top marginal tax rate, amended the most radical components of the Employment Contracts Act, and undertook some renationalisation. I’ve written about all this many times, for example in this AFR piece and this Victoria economic commentary published in NZ (PDF file).
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Categories: Metablogging Tags:


November 23rd, 2004 21 comments

At the suggestion of reader wbb, I’ve reorganised the sidebar, promoting recent comments to pride of place, ahead of the testimonials and recent posts. I hope this will prove useful both to regular commenters and to general readers, who will be aware that the comments here are often better than the posts. I also cleaned up some minor blogroll problems (thanks, PML!).

I’d be happy to hear what people think of these changes, and if there are any other suggestions.

Update Of all the testimonials on my page, Jason Soon’s inspired comparison with Britney Spears has been the popular favorite, even getting a run in the Oz. So, at James Farrell’s suggestion, seconded by others, it’s in pride of place, below the photo.

Also, I’d appreciate advice from readers for whom the sidebar doesn’t work, for example if it appears at the bottom of the page.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Arrivals, departures and returns

November 22nd, 2004 10 comments

Following Chris Sheil’s recent departure, “Closed” notices have been going up around Ozplogistan. Among the departures, the intermittently brillianTugboat Potemkin and Paul Watson, supplier of comedy, media commentary and general Gen X bitterness. At the same time, Tim Dunlop is welcoming a flood of new arrivals. That’s great, but I still feel a sense of loss.

Whenever one of my favorite blogs shuts down, I feel guilty that I should have linked more to their posts. Then again I feel guilty about not linking to new bloggers and not updating my blogroll often enough.

On the other hand, lots of people seem to give up and come back, so maybe there’s not such a problem. Here, for example, is Don Arthur running a post that I was working out in my head this afternoon, and doing a much better job than I would have done.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Tips for Op-ed writers

November 22nd, 2004 4 comments

Andrew Leigh has some tips for Op-ed writers (PDF file). Most of them are sensible, and I’ll add my own, which is that a good Op-Ed piece should contain, on average, 1.5 ideas. That is, the piece should have a main argument that is spelt out and defended in full (there’s an art to doing this in less than 750 words), and an offshoot from the main argument that is stated or hinted at, but not fully developed.

This isn’t a universal rule. A decent piece must have at least one idea (a large proportion of opinion pieces fail these test) and can have two or three. But 1.5 is a good average.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Monday Message Board

November 22nd, 2004 28 comments

It’s time, once again, for the Monday message board, where you are invited to post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

What I’ve been reading and watching (crossposted at CT)

November 21st, 2004 7 comments

Yesterday, I went to see Cry of the Snow Lion, about the Tibetan independence struggle. The film was interesting and well worth seeing, and jogged me to start on a post I’ve been meaning to write for some time on the question: How long can the current Chinese government survive?

It struck me, after watching the film, that the closest parallel is with the last days of the Suharto period in Indonesia. Among the themes suggested to me were

* the gradual decay of Communist ideology, and its replacement by a vague nationalism, bolstered by rapid economic growth

* the rise of faceless nonentities like Hu Jintao to replace monstrous giants like Mao

* the role of the People’s Liberation Army in a range of business ventures

* transmigration programs of Han Chinese into Tibet and other minority areas

Just like Golkar in its latter days, the regime has no real class base, no compelling ideological claim to power, and a rapidly depreciating “mandate of heaven” derived from the revolutionary period.

The 60 million members of the Communist Party are now, for the most part, mere card-carriers. And although the party and army leaders have their fingers in plenty of business pies, they don’t constitute an effective management committee of the ruling class. Rather they are a backward and parasitic component of that class.

All of this, it seems to me, is symptomatic of a regime that appears immovable, but may collapse like a house of cards given the appropriate push, which may come either from an economic crisis or from a succession crisis, if Hu runs into some trouble or other.

Those interested in this topic might like to look at Fabian’s Hammer, which is focused mainly on developments in China. I don’t agree with a lot of the implied background position, but I share the author’s view of the Chinese government.

Categories: World Events Tags:

US and international productivity

November 21st, 2004 2 comments

Over the fold, there’s a long (1500 word) piece on productivity in the US. It refers to this piece in The Economist, which was criticised by Brad DeLong. My analysis splits the difference between the two.

Anyway, I’d welcome comments and criticism.
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Categories: World Events Tags:


November 20th, 2004 2 comments

There’s a story I read somewhere of a judge interrupting an unsatisfactory witness and asking

Are you trying to flaunt your contempt for this court ?

to which the witness replies

Oh, no Your Honour! I’m trying to conceal it.

I was reminded of the story by this NYT editorial, which accuses a Rhode Island judge of abusing the contempt power to pursue a vindictive campaign against a reporter, Jim Taricani, but then fails to name the judge in question. A one-minute Google search reveals that the judge in question is Chief U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres Given that it was defending the right of reporters to publish the truth without fear or favor, what exactly did the NYT have in mind here?

Categories: World Events Tags:

Weekend reflections

November 19th, 2004 14 comments

This is a chance to make comments on any topic of your choosing, to be written and read at the leisurely pace of the weekend. I’d welcome pieces a little longer than the usual comments, but not full-length essays. If you want to draw attention to something longer, try an extract or summary with a link. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:


November 19th, 2004 29 comments

I’ve been reading lots of stuff about the fundamental irrelevance of the Labor party and so on, and while this is inevitable in the aftermath of an election, it seems to be going on longer than usual. So let’s do a what-if. What if Labor had managed to get 3 per cent more votes than it actually did? The Liberals would have been out of government in every jurisdiction in Australia. Pundits would be falling all over themselves to point out the hopelessness of their cause, as witness the fact that they couldn’t win even with a strong economy and so on. This would be overstatement, but not as much as the corresponding claims with respect to Labor.

A related point is here at Crooked Timber

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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The inevitability of corruption (repost, crossposted at CT)

November 18th, 2004 8 comments

Scandals surrounding the Oil-for-Food program and postwar reconstruction in supply contracts, particularly with respect to Halliburton just keep on going. So I thought I’d repost this piece from six months ago, pointing out that it’s silly to try and score political points out of either of these.
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Categories: World Events Tags:

Last post ?

November 18th, 2004 8 comments

Chris Sheil has announced that Back Pages is closing down, after exactly one year. Chris is taking six months off to write a book, which raises the prospect that he may return to the scene at some future date. Chris has a lengthy farewell, but isn’t taking comments, so I’ll be glad to host any appreciations here (critical comments aren’t precluded, but I’ll be ruthless in enforcing the norms of civilised discussion, which include respect for the recently departed). Chris also offers a lot of useful advice for bloggers.

I haven’t had time to formulate my own thoughts, but I’ll try to write something later.

In the meantime, this is as good an opportunity as any to note that Chris’s blog and this one were joint winners, with Surfdom and Troppo of Lord Sedgwick’s award for blog which consistently attracts the best comments. So you can all give yourselves a pat on the back.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Time to stock up on drugs

November 18th, 2004 10 comments

The Free trade deal with the US has been settled.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, in Santiago, Chile for the APEC meeting, said Australia had agreed to what he said were some minor changes at the request of the US.

But that won’t affect the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, he said.

And if you believe that, I have a very profitable and mutually advantageous deal with a Nigerian bank manager in which you might be interested/

Categories: World Events Tags:

Common sense

November 16th, 2004 40 comments

Over at Crooked Timber, Kieran Healy complains that

When you’re a Sociologist like me, and your field has no credibility, people just assume you’re stupid and don’t bother sending you their Final and Completely True Theory of X in the first place. On the other hand, it does invite people to assume the answer to any problem you are studying is simply obvious common sense.

But sociology is a victim of its own success here. All of the big insights of sociology, from its beginnings in the 19th century up to 1950s work like that of Erving Goffman are indeed common sense, not because they were already known, but because they have been incorporated into the intellectual baggage of everyone in Western societies, educated or not. No one, for example, would be accused of talking academic jargon if they raised the problem of “peer group pressure” at their local school, or made a reference to ‘social status’.
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Categories: World Events Tags:

Guest post from Tom Oates

November 16th, 2004 4 comments

Expat Aussie physicist has sent me this personal view of the Ukrainian Presidential election. Well worth reading

‘I’m back in the USSR,
You don’t know how lucky you are boy…’

What exactly did Paul McCartney mean by that second line? The question ran through my head with a mixture of excitement and awe as I located Mykola’s wave and smile amongst the rainbow of babushka scarves on the platform at Kyiv Vokzal. A multitude of peaked caps were balanced precariously on the blond crew-cuts of rosy-cheeked teenage soldiers greeting girlfriends and mothers in the dim autumn evening. It was a relief to see Mykola’s familiar face after 24 hours on the Berlin-Kiev ‘express’. Through the train window the rural scenery presented the country as incredibly poor. Groups of farm workers digging potatoes by hand and antiquated soviet machinery were sparsely scattered between vast forests and the odd pollution belching industrial centre. A rude 2am awakening by a self important Ukrainian border guard, and subsequent mild interrogation, was smoothed over by my well ordered paperwork and an official letter of invitation from Mykola’s Professor at the Taras Shevchenko University to attend a physics conference.
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Categories: World Events Tags:

All I want for Xmas

November 16th, 2004 9 comments

Matthew Yglesias wants an iPod that doubles as a mobile phone. Doesn’t everyone?

Categories: Mac & other computers Tags: