Archive for December, 2004

Incompleteness and the precautionary principle

December 9th, 2004 17 comments

As commenters and my last post, and others, have pointed out, there’s a logical gap in my argument that, given imperfect knowledge and the recognition that we tend to overestimate our own capabilities, we should adopt a rule-based version of consequentialism which would include rules against pre-emptive or preventive wars[1]. The problem of imperfect knowledge also applies to the consequences of deciding not to start a pre-emptive war. As I’ll argue though, the symmetry is only apparent and the case for caution is strong.
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Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

Consequentialism for beginners

December 8th, 2004 30 comments

Now that, thanks to Kieran Healy and the Medium Lobster, we’ve all had our fun with Richard Posner’s case for pre-emptive war, complete with toy numerical example, it’s time for me to play straight man.

Posner’s starting assumption is consequentialism: that we should evaluate an action based on whether its probable consequences are, on balance, good or bad. I broadly agree with this, so I’ll try to explain why it shouldn’t lead to conclusions like those derived by Posner.

I’ll ignore a range of more complex objections and come straight to the first distinction learned by beginning students of the subject. Should we evaluate the consequences of general rules such as “don’t engage in pre-emptive wars” (rule-consequentialism) or should we evaluate each action on a case by case basis (act-consequentialism)

For perfectly rational decision makers, following the rules of Bayesian decision theory, the answer is easy and, in fact, trivial. It’s best to make the optimal decision on a case by case basis, and an optimal set of rules would be so detailed and precise as to yield the optimal decision in every case. Posner routinely assumes this kind of perfect rationality, which is why he doesn’t see any big problems with toy examples, or with claiming that this kind of reasoning can usefully be applied to improbable catastrophes with incalculable consequences.

There are two objections that can be made here

* Human beings are not perfectly rational and do not follow the rules of Bayesian decision theory

* Since war is a negative sum game, rational decision makers do not fight wars
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Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

Multinationals, chains and coffee

December 7th, 2004 39 comments

My views about multinationals and chains are generally pretty nuanced, except when it comes to coffee. So I’m happy enough to go to Borders in a (successful) search for “The Nutmeg of Consolation” (Patrick O’Brian) especially since, as I recall, there’s quite nice little independent coffee shop in a corner of the store. I get the book and order my coffee. I’m vaguely aware that something is wrong, but, given my decaffeinated state, it’s not until I look around and see everyone drinking out of paper cups that I realise the awful truth – the place had turned into a Gloria Jean’s. I drank the coffee anyway, and it wasn’t as bad as my previous experience several years ago, but I certainly won’t be going back.

Then I come home to write this post on multinationals, flick to the SMH, and discover that GJ is about to become an Australian multinational. I don’t have any particular thoughts on this, other than to say that the idea that there might be 240 000 people willing to pay to drink this stuff every day is alarming.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Kyoto: the empire strikes back

December 7th, 2004 52 comments

One of the nice things about being the resident opposition at the Financial Review is that, as well as lots of letters, my articles often attract full-length replies. Mostly these are from right-wing thinktanks, but on several occasions they’ve been from government ministers I’ve managed to prod into a response. This kind of thing tells me I’m doing my job (of course, I also welcome support in the form of letters to the Fin or directly to me).

Today’s Fin (Subscription required) has a piece from Ian Campbell, the new minister for the environment, responding to my piece on Kyoto, which I’ve placed over the fold. I’ve heard that my piece, which I thought was pretty mild, upset the government, and that the original draft was considerably hotter than the published version. I’m pleased to say that I agree with a substantial part (though not all) of Campbell’s intro which reads

Without intervention projected changes in global temperatures are expected to cause major environmental and economic impacts on agricultural industries, on human health, on businesses and through a greater number of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, drought, bushfires, storms and flooding.

Contrary to John Quiggin’s assessment (AFR, December 2), it’s precisely because Australia understands that climate change will not go away that we are working to meet our Kyoto target. However, we do not believe the protocol is an effective response to climate change.

At least on the science, this is a clear-cut rejection of the wishful thinking that still seems to have plenty of supporters.
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Categories: Environment Tags:

Bremer’s last gift

December 7th, 2004 11 comments

As the American ruler of Iraq, Paul Bremer had the amazing knack of being able to pick the worst possible decision on every occasion[1]. From the dissolution of the Iraqi army to his refusal to hold elections in 2003, when there was some chance they could have worked, he did everything wrong he possibly could. Now he’s gone, and most of his policies have been abandoned, but he’s left one last gift, which may turn out to be the most poisonous of the lot.

When Bremer set up the electoral system for the elections that are supposed to be held in January, he went for a single nationwide electorate, rather than having representatives of provinces or individual constituencies[2].

In any case, what this means is that, to the extent that fighting depresses the turnout in Sunni areas, Sunnis get less seats. Being a minority, they’re bound to lose most of the power they’ve traditionally held in any case, but under Bremer’s rules, they could be excluded almost completely. By contrast, under a constituency system, provided some sort of ballot could be held, Sunni candidates would be elected from Sunni areas.

To address this problem, Juan Cole is suggesting an emergency intervention, setting aside 25 per cent of the seats for Sunni candidates. It’s probably about the best that can be done in the circumstances, but the outlook is not that good.

Meanwhile, the onset of civil war has been announced, not by leftist opponents of the war, but by arch-hawk Charles Krauthammer who complains (haven’t we heard this before) about the unreliability of our native allies

People keep warning about the danger of civil war. This is absurd. There already is a civil war. It is raging before our eyes. Problem is, only one side is fighting it. The other side, the Shiites and the Kurds, are largely watching as their part of the fight is borne primarily by the United States.

I don’t recall Krauthammer mentioning civil war as part of the plan in 2003. But maybe this is one of those four-war things.

fn1. I don’t think this was simple stupidity. His orders were, as far as I can see, to establish a secular free-market democracy that would be a reliable ally of the US and Israel. Any halfway realistic policy would have required him to abandon these objectives, and settle for a moderately theocratic, semi-socialist and imperfectly democratic state, on the “Iran-lite” model, because that’s what a majority of Iraqis want. Instead, he followed the dream.

fn2. My guess is that his motive was to allow votes for Iraqi exiles who could be presumed to be more favorable to the occupation than the people who were actually experiencing it.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Blogs meet the Harvard system

December 6th, 2004 16 comments

Martin Pike at Northcote Knob:

I just got back a masters essay in which I used a reference to a post on John Quiggin’s blog. I got a distinction, and despite there being a rather large swathe of pedantic comments scrawled on the pages the blogref got through unscathed.

For nerds; I was using Harvard system (eg Pike, 2004) but added a footnote disclosing that it was a blog, and who Quiggin is (or claims to be!).

Anyone heard of this being done, or am I breaking ground here?

Categories: Metablogging Tags:


December 6th, 2004 10 comments

The discussion of Windschuttle has, not surprisingly, got us into the general nature-nurture debate. Here’s a link to my review of Pinker’s Blank Slate. I suggest that general comments on this topic, as well as responses to my review, be posted here.

Categories: Science Tags:

Straws in the wind

December 6th, 2004 8 comments

In the discussion of the current account deficit, commenter Homer Paxton has emphasised the importance of terms of trade, a point I’ve tended to neglect. As Barry Hughes points out in today’s Fin (subscription required) terms of trade (the ratio of world prices for the things we export to prices for the things we import) have improved steadily throughout the life of the Howard government, making their job a lot easier and meaning that the trade deficit is much smaller than it would be otherwise. Hughes thinks the terms of trade will turn down within the next year.

Meanwhile, the US bond market bubble may be just about to burst. Ever since Bush was re-elected, people have been losing faith in the assumption that somehow everything will come right. The people who really matter are the Chinese and Japanese central bankers who hold about a trillion in US government debt. The headline on this Observer story Japan threatens huge dollar sell-off is slightly alarmist, since the threats are being made by an LDP official, but the explicit reference to the need for higher US interest rates is the first I’ve seen coming out of Japan.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Monday Message Board

December 6th, 2004 21 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. My suggested discussion starter is that hardy perennial: What does Christmas mean to you ?

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

The R-word

December 5th, 2004 194 comments

My post on Keith Windschuttle’s statements defending the White Australia policy drew an interesting response. No-one, as far I can see, was prepared to defend Windschuttle outright, but there was a sudden and startling outbreak of caution. Maybe Windschuttle had been misquoted. Maybe the interview gave a misleading picture of his book and we should all wait to read it. Maybe the term “White Australia policy” was never used officially. Maybe the dictation test was administered so as to admit educated Indians. Maybe my links were inaccurate.

All of this is very uncharacteristic of the blogosphere. The nature of blogging lends itself to summary judgements based on limited evidence, not waiting for years until all the evidence is in. You read the papers, make a judgement and (at least among the better class of bloggers) if you turn out to be wrong, you admit it with good grace. Why has the response in this case been so different ?

I think it’s because of the R-word racism. There is only one real instance of political correctness in Australia today and that is that you are never, ever allowed to call anyone a racist. It’s OK to say that Adolf Hitler was a racist, and that apartheid was racist, but the idea that any actual Australian could be a racist is utterly taboo. Even I can’t resist the Zeitgeist on this one. In my post, I called Windschuttle “a consistent apologist for racism, happy to use racist arguments in support of his cause”.

It’s obvious why this taboo has emerged. Racism is an evil, bloodstained ideology and no one wants to admit association with it. Hence, almost no-one is silly enough to come out with a clear-cut statement like “white people are inherently superior to black people, and should be able to use them as they see fit”.

In this respect, racism is very similar to Communism. But while few people were willing to endorse Soviet Communism openly, particularly after the purges and the exposures of Kruschchev’s secret speech, there were plenty who were always willing to make excuses for the communists along the lines of “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” and so on. With his characteristic turn of phrase, Lenin called people of this type “fellow travellers” to their faces and “useful idiots” behind their backs.

Since his (still unexplained) swing from far left to far right about a decade ago, Windschuttle has consistently sought to excuse racist actions by whites (or, more precisely, British whites) by the usual range of strategies including denial of the facts, quibbling about irrelevant details, denunciation of witnesses and attacks on the victims as subhumans responsible for their own demise[1]. But, in politically correct Australia, that’s not enough reason to call him a racist. So, I’ll just call him a fellow-traveller.

fn1. There’s an obvious model for this kind of thing in the recent historical literature, but I’ll leave the identification as an exercise for readers.
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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

US Social Security

December 5th, 2004 8 comments

I’ve read lots of pieces on proposals to reform the US Social Security system, both positive and critical. Unfortunately, most of them include claims that are at best half-true and most of the rest assume a high level of knowledge of the issues. Over the fold, I’ve added a lengthy piece trying to explain the issues. Although I’m actively involved in debate on some of them, I’ve done my best to give a neutral presentation, at least until the final assessment of the proposals currently being discussed by the Administration and Congressional Republicans. This is primarily a matter of political judgement and can be summed up fairly quickly.

The Republican proposals involve accounting transfers amounting to trillions of dollars between different government accounts and newly created individual accounts. These transfers will almost certainly be packaged up with substantive changes to the Social Security system. Whether you support them depends on which you think is more likely:

* The transfers will be used to facilitate tough but necessary increases in contributions relative to benefits, eliminating the funding deficit. In doing this, the President and Congress will demonstrate their commitment to promoting the long term interests of the American people, even at the expense of short-term political pain

* The transfers will provide an ideal opportunity for all manner of pork-barrelling, from handouts to existing retirees to cosy deals for Wall Street investment banks, with accounting tricks being used to provide cover for a claim that the system has been restored to solvency

You may be able to guess which of these I think more likely, but you’ll have to read (or scroll) to the end to find out.
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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Windschuttle on White Australia

December 4th, 2004 107 comments

I see that Keith Windschuttle has turned his attention to the White Australia policy which, not surprisingly, he defends as a “rational and, in a number of ways, progressive, product of its times”. Although the story is somewhat garbled, it seems likely that WIndschuttle’s defence is that White Australia was not premised on racial superiority, but on the doctrine of “separate but equal” treatment used in the case of Plessy vs Ferguson to defend the Jim Crow laws of the American South and, in its Afrikaans form, as the theoretical basis for apartheid (separate development).

I feel sorry for anyone who defended Windschuttle’s earlier campaign defending the treatment of Tasmanian Aborigines on the assumption that he was an honest seeker after historical truth, rather than, as is now clear, a consistent apologist for racism, happy to use racist arguments in support of his cause. I’d welcome comments from anyone honest enough to retract their previous support for Windschuttle.

I’ll also be happy to publish comments from anyone seeking to use quibbles about the definition of “racism” to claim that a policy that openly defined itself in terms of skin colour was, in some sense, not racist. However, if you want to make such a claim, be aware that it has previously been made by the defenders of Jim Crow and apartheid, and don’t whinge when you get lumped in with them.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

A public job application

December 4th, 2004 9 comments

So Ziggy Switkowski is out as CEO of Telstra with a golden handshake of only $2.1 million. This seems a little unfair – executives with far worse records have got much more – but executive compensation remains a mystery to me. Perhaps the new book Pay without Performance will help me here.

Ziggy was a mate of Richard Alston (whose admiring assessment is currently enjoying top billing under my photo) but it seems that Peter Costello is less impressed. Since most of the internal candidates are implicated in Switkowski’s bad decisions, his replacement seems to be a bit of a problem.

On reflection, I’ve decided that I would be a great choice for this job. On almost every issue Switkowski and Alston got wrong, I was on the public record pointing this out and advocating something more sensible. For example:

* I said in 1996 that partial privatisation was ‘the worst of all possible worlds‘, as Costello now agrees[1]

* I opposed the great cable race between Telstra and Optus in 1996 and 1997

* I condemned Switkowski’s offshore ventures which were later closed down with huge losses

* I proposed selling off the dotcom part of the business in March 2000, just before the crash

* I attacked the idea of buying newspapers and TV stations, which ultimately sank both Switkowski and his CEO Bob Mansfield.

Based on this track record, I ought to do pretty well as CEO. But wait, there’s more! If I stuff up, I promise to leave with a token payment of $999, 999.99. That’s right! Less than a million dollars!

Please write to the shareholding ministers, Coonan and Minchin to support my candidacy.
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Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Comment spam attack

December 3rd, 2004 13 comments

Comments are currently turned off due to a massive attack of comment spam. I’d just like to repeat my observation that spam is financed, to a significant extent by major corporations, which deserved to be sued into bankruptcy and beyond. If there are any underemployed trial lawyers out there, please consider a class action. I’ll be happy to join up.

update 6:30 Comments have been restored! Death (or lengthy terms of imprisonment and crippling financial penalties) to spammers !

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Anne Applebaum can’t tell left from right

December 3rd, 2004 9 comments

Columns in the Guardian by Jonathan Steele and John Laughland, asserting that demonstrations against the rigging of the Ukraine election were a Western-funded plot, have been the subject of a lot of criticism here and on other blogs. As far as Laughland is concerned, there’s a good rundown on his views and assocations (which could broadly be described as lunar right) from Chris Bertram and more, in the Guardian itself, from David Aaronovitch.

Now we get this column from Anne Applebaum (reprinted in the SMH with the appropriately paranoid headline The plot against Americaclaiming that Steele and Laughland are part of a leftwing plot

The larger point, though, is that the “it’s-all-an-American-plot” arguments circulating in cyberspace again demonstrate something that the writer Christopher Hitchens, himself a former Trotskyite, has been talking about for a long time: At least a part of the Western left — or rather the Western far left — is now so anti-American, or so anti-Bush, that it actually prefers authoritarian or totalitarian leaders to any government that would be friendly to the United States.

Applebaum is generally well-informed and, while she does not name either Steele or Laughland, she says “Neither author was a fringe journalist”, which implies some familiarity with their positions. In any case, she presumably reads The Guardian. Why then doesn’t she acknowledge that the views they put forward draw the (minuscule) support they have attracted from the right as well as the left ?

Categories: World Events Tags:

Weekend reflections

December 3rd, 2004 7 comments

Following last week’s stuffup, when I thought I had posted, but didn’t, this purportedly regular feature is back.

It’s your chance to make comments on any topic of your choosing, to be written and read at the leisurely pace of the weekend. I 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:

More from Tarik Amar on the Ukraine election

December 2nd, 2004 4 comments

The Ukraine crisis is dragging on, and could still collapse into violence, but I’ll restate my view that the likely outcome is a new runoff election, which Yushchenko will win. He almost certainly had a majority to begin with, and has generally behaved in a statesmanlike manner after the election, while Yanukovich has floundered, and generally looked like the thug he apparently is.

I’m appending another eyewitness report from Tarik Amar, forwarded by Dan Hardie
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Categories: World Events Tags:

Spin doctors Moscow style

December 1st, 2004 2 comments

There’s a fascinating piece in the Moscow Times about the spin doctors from Moscow who tried to boost Yanukovych’s campaign. As we know, failed campaigns produce recriminations, and these are vitriolic. But I was particularly struck by this piece, regretting the poor targeting of xenophobia

The campaign, Markov said, was too concentrated on the media, and too few public figures were recruited to speak for Yanukovych. The campaign also relied too heavily on anti-American rhetoric, which works in Russia, but not in Ukraine, he said.

“Russians consider themselves equal to Americans, but Ukrainians do not. They don’t see anything wrong in having a big brother taking care of them. … I told them to use anti-Polish rhetoric, since Ukrainians consider themselves equal to that country,” Markov said.

Thse guys sound as nasty as Karl Rove, but not nearly as competent.
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Categories: World Events Tags: