Archive for September, 2005


September 30th, 2005 7 comments

From today’s NYT

“Even though DeLay has nothing to do with Frist, and Frist has nothing to do with Abramoff, how does it look? Not good,” said William Kristol, a key conservative strategist and editor of The Weekly Standard.

Unfortunately for Kristol’s rhetorical exercise, the relation “has nothing to do with” is not transitive, a fact of which he is presumably aware, given this choice of example.

From the previous para in the same story

the string of ethical issues so close together – including the indictment and continuing investigation of the Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was close to Mr. DeLay … is a source of anxiety in Republican circles.

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

Saddam trial

September 29th, 2005 24 comments

Gary Bass in the NYT comments on the possibility that Saddam could be sentenced to death and executed for a 1982 massacre of about 100 villagers, without ever being brought to trial on the main array of charges against him, including killing political rivals, crushing the Shiite uprising in southern Iraq in 1991, invading Kuwait in 1990 and waging the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds in 1988, including gassing Kurdish villagers at Halabja. As Bass says,

 A thorough series of war crimes trials would not only give the victims more satisfaction but also yield a documentary and testimonial record of the regime’s crimes.

But looking at this list raises a more basic question. Why hasn’t Saddam been charged with any crime more recent than 1991?[1]. In the leadup to the war, and in its aftermath, it was routinely claimed that Saddam’s regime, at the time it was overthrown was among the most brutal dictatorships in the world. Even among opponents of the war, including myself, hardly anyone doubted that the regime routinely practised murder and torture. Why then aren’t there any charges covering this period? Presumably both documents and witnesses are more readily available than for a crime committed more than twenty years ago.
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Categories: World Events Tags:

Meeting the economists

September 28th, 2005 6 comments

I’ve been at the Conference of Economists in Melbourne for the last few days. I econobloggers, Stephen Kirchner and Andrew Leigh[1], as well as Andrew’s co-author Justin Wolfers and lots of old friends and sparring partners. I gave a paper on Learning and Discovery, an attempt with Simon Grant to unravel the knotty problem of unknown unknowns. You can read a more accessible summary Unknownunknowns0509here

Olivier Blanchard gave quite an interesting paper on European unemployment, on which I’ll try to comment further. I also found out what’s wrong (and right) with the bootstrap (an econometric technique) and saw an interesting ranking of economics departments, which showed that one of my former homes was ranked #2 in Australia on per capita research output just at the time when it was closed down as part of the reform process.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

The singularity and the knife-edge

September 27th, 2005 21 comments

I’ve been too busy thinking about all the fun I’ll have with my magic pony, designing my private planet and so on, to write up a proper review of Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity is Near. The general response seems to have been a polite version of DD’s “bollocks”, and the book certainly has a high nonsense to signal ratio. Kurzweil lost me on biotech, for example, when he revealed that he had invented his own cure for middle age, involving the daily consumption of a vast range of pills and supplements, supposedly keeping his biological age at 40 for the last 15 years (the photo on the dustjacket is that of a man in his early 50s). In any case, I haven’t seen anything coming out of biotech in the last few decades remotely comparable to penicillin and the Pill for medical and social impact.

But Kurzweil’s appeal to Moore’s Law seems worth taking seriously. There’s no sign that the rate of progress in computer technology is slowing down noticeably. A doubling time of two years for chip speed, memory capacity and so on implies a thousand-fold increase over twenty years. There are two very different things this could mean. One is that computers in twenty years time will do mostly the same things as at present, but very fast and at almost zero cost. The other is that digital technologies will displace analog for a steadily growing proportion of productive activity, in both the economy and the household sector, as has already happened with communications, photography, music and so on. Once that transition is made these sectors share the rapid growth of the computer sector.
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Monday message board

September 26th, 2005 81 comments

It’s time, once again for the Monday Message Board. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

What I’ve been reading

September 25th, 2005 6 comments

I’ve been pretty much flat out lately, not too busy to read, but to busy to post much about it. I enjoyed “The Kite Runner” (Khaled Hosseini). I’ve also been reading“The End of Oil : On the Edge of a Perilous New World” (Paul Roberts) and “The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology” (Ray Kurzweil) and plan to review both at some point.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:


September 24th, 2005 12 comments

A great win for the Swans with a game-saving mark in the final seconds. And finally a reward for the South Melbourne faithful who’ve gone a biblical lifetime (threescore years and ten, with a couple over) without a flag. Tim Dunlop is similarly stunned.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Weekend reflections

September 24th, 2005 44 comments

Weekend Reflections is on again. Please comment on any topic of interest (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Feel free to put in contributions more lengthy than for the Monday Message Board or standard commnets.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

A trillion dollar war (crossposted at CT)

September 23rd, 2005 15 comments

Before the Iraq war began, Yale economist William Nordhaus estimated the likely cost at between $100 billion and $2 trillion. At the time most of the interest lay in the fact that the bottom end of the range was twice as much as the $50 billion estimate being pushed by the Administration. But with a couple of years’ experience to go on, Nordhaus’ upper range is looking pretty accurate. Assuming that Bush ‘stays the course’, it’s safe to estimate that the war will cost the US at least $1 trillion by the time all the bills come in, and it could easily be closer to $2 trillion.
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Categories: World Events Tags:

Lurker Week

September 23rd, 2005 41 comments

Via a chain of links starting at Crooked Timber, I found out that it was Lurker Day on September 21. This is the day when readers of blogs who don’t normally post comments are supposed to do so, ideally with some sort of comment about why they read the blog, how they found it and so on. Given that it’s Friday afternoon now, I’m making it a week instead of a day.

Don’t be put off by the term ‘lurker’ which dates back to the days of newsgroups, when there was a feeling that everyone ought to join in[1]. There’s nothing wrong with reading the blog and not commenting, but I’d really like to know that my page views aren’t all robots and spiders, so a short message from you, just this once, would give me lots of encouragement. Feel free to use a pseudonym; most of the regular commenters do.

fn1. Apart from which, if I can put up with ‘blogger’, anything goes.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Yet more elections

September 22nd, 2005 17 comments

Thinking about the German election outcome, it struck me that this would be an ideal test for betting markets. I’ve always thought that, if there’s a bias in such markets it would be towards the right, so the toughest test for them would be predicting a left-wing upset win like this one (I’m calling a win on the basis that left parties got a majority of the vote, not making a prediction about what goverment might emerge). A quick Google reveals that there is such a market, called Wahlstreet but my German isn’t good enough to deal with their site, which has lots of graphs bouncing around without an obvious control. Hopefully someone will be able to help me.

Anyway, if there’s a contract allowing a bet on the share of votes for the three left parties (SPD, Greens, Left party) and if, two weeks in advance, that market was predicting a vote share of more than 50 per cent (as actually happened), I’ll concede that the case for the superiority of betting markets over polls has been established, at least as a reasonable presumption. [I didn’t follow the polls closely but I had the impression that most of them were predicting a CDU/CSU win until the last days of the campaign].
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Categories: World Events Tags:


September 21st, 2005 44 comments

I’ve been reluctant to post on the Latham book, for a variety of reasons. In particular, I don’t much like politics as blood sport. I found the Brogden business pretty depressing, and similarly with this. The whole affair has certainly brought out the worst in a lot of people, including Latham himself.

Although I’ve seen various selected quotes, I didn’t watch the Denton interview until last night and I still haven’t got around to the book itself. Latham made some good points in the interview and had he chosen, he could have used his current position to make severe but constructive criticisms of the Australian political process and the Labor party. But on the whole he failed to do this, preferring instead to seek revenge on real and imagined enemies. Publishing a book of this kind is always a bad idea, and has obviously damaged Latham himself more than the targets of his indiscriminate attack. It’s also damaged the Labor party, though they are at such a low ebb in any case that it will probably not make much difference beyond the short term. But Beazley, his main target, seems to have emerged almost completely unscathed.
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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Racism and censorship

September 20th, 2005 53 comments

Via Jack Strocchi, this story about the censorship by Deakin University of an article on the White Australia policy by racist academic Andrew Fraser, accepted for publication in its law review.

There’s a lot of background on this from Catallaxy, Mark Bahnisch and Rob Corr.

My view based on limited information: the refereeing process was highly dubious and, from what I’ve seen of Fraser, any journal with decent academic standards would reject his trash. However, that didn’t happen and the university authorities should not have engaged in ad hoc censorship.

Fraser appears to be right in claiming that an academic publication in good faith is protected under the Racial Hatred Act, so the university would have to find a reason the publication was not in good faith, for example, that normal academic standards were waived in the interests of attracting controversial publicity. This seems plausible, given the recent record of Deakin Law School, but the University hasn’t made such a claim.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

UK soldiers ‘storm’ Basra prison

September 20th, 2005 99 comments


There’s loads of confusion about this story, but it seems to be common ground that British forces used tanks to break down the walls of an Iraqi prison where two soldiers, arrested for firing on Iraqi police, were being held. It’s increasingly evident that the coalition forces have become one of the array of armed militias in Iraq, all pursuing their own overlapping agendas and all claiming not to be answerable to anyone else.

Update This story is, not surprisingly, front page news in Britain and Australia, but the NYT barely covers it. It never made the front page of the website and, on the International page, it appears as a subheading to a story about the murder of an NYT reporter, also in Basra.

The latest statements from the UK government say that the soldiers had been handed over by police to a Shia militia group, presumably one of the Sadrist factions. The provincial governor, who has condemned the British action strongly, is also a Sadrist, it appears, though most of the reports I’ve seen suggest that the police are predominantly associated with the Badr brigade (armed wing of SCIRI, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who are currently regarded as ‘good guys’, being part of the national government). There’s more on this in the comments thread.

Categories: World Events Tags:

A case for instant runoff voting

September 19th, 2005 11 comments

This NYT article[1] discusses the problems New York Democrats are having with their primary system. If they use first-past-the-post, given a large field, they end up with candidates supported by only a minority of voters, who in turn are an even smaller minority of Democrat voters. So they have had a runoff system when no candidate gets 40 per cent of the votes, but this has caused divisions and delays.

The solution is obvious: adopt the instant runoff/single transferable vote/optional preferential system, listing favored candidates in order of preference and omitting those for whom you don’t want to indicate a preference.

Obvious as it is, this idea is almost certainly unsaleable in the US context. For reasons I don’t fully understand, the US, which was once the pioneer in all kinds of institutional innovation ( the primary system itself, for example, or decimal currency) is now intensely conservative about such things. The NY Dems have been radical, by US standards, in going as far as a runoff, and according to Wikipedia only outliers like Ann Arbor and San Francisco have been willing to try the instant runoff system.

More generally, in looking at the US, I’m struck by the fact that, with so many independent jurisdictions at all levels, there isn’t more institutional variation and experimentation. For example, all 50 states share the Federal model of a bicameral legislature and separately elected executive, even though there’s no requirement for this. I assume this is an example of institutional isomorphism, but I don’t know if there is any literature on how the process works in this case.

fn1. The NYT has just gone pay-per-view on its Op-Ed pages, and there does not appear to be a workaround for blogs. For me as a blogger, there’s no point in paying for something if you can’t link to it. So I probably won’t be linking to the NYT as much in the future, and only to news stories.

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

Monday message board

September 19th, 2005 51 comments

It’s time, once again for the Monday Message Board. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

German election results

September 19th, 2005 18 comments

There’s a lot of commentary on the German election results at Fistful of Euros. Mrs Tilton predicts the early demise of Christian Democrat leader Angela Merkel, and given that she was expected to win easily, this seems reasonable. More from saint, who takes the same view.

Strikingly, the only reason the CDU is even in the game is because of divisions on the left, with Social Democrat Schroeder refusing to contemplate a coalition with the Left party. This BBC report gives the combined left vote (SPD+Greens+Left Party) at 52 per cent, compared with 45 per cent for the right (CDU/CSU + FDP) yet quotes Merkel as claiming she has a mandate to govern. As elsewhere, the right relied heavily on the race card, in this case appeals to anti-Turkish prejudice.

I know that there are historical reasons for party nomenclature, but I still find it disturbing that we have an explicitly religious and now openly sectarian party contending for the government of a major European country.

Categories: World Events Tags:

The equity premium

September 18th, 2005 1 comment

The Economists’ Voice is one of the more interesting (at least to me) ventures in academic publishing on the Internet. The aim is to provide analysis of economic issues from leading economists, something that has been sorely lacking in recent years[1]. It’s intended to contain deeper analysis than is found on the Op-Ed page of the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, but to be of comparable general interest. Unfortunately, it’s not free but you can get guest access to read particular articles.

Simon Grant and I have an article on the implications of the equity premium, an issue that’s been discussed in various ways on this and other blogs.
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

NZ election

September 17th, 2005 61 comments

The polls are just closing in the NZ election, for which the opinion polls have been all over the place. I’m surprised the result is even close. Helen Clark seems to have done a pretty good job, the Nationals were terrible when last in office, and while Don Brash seems like a nice enough guy in personal terms, he wasn’t much of a success as head of the Reserve Bank. The Monetary Conditions Index he introduced was a disaster and he zigged where the RBA zagged at the time of the Asian crisis, producing an unnecessary recession. However, we’ll know the result soon enough.

Update 6:30 pm Although I don’t have any knowledge of the details of the NZ system (such as which areas are counted first), the Nationals have a big lead with 20 per cent of the vote counted, and will presumably form the new government, either with an outright majority or with the support of NZ First.

Further update Sunday AM A premature concession last night! As in Australia, it appears that rural polling places finish counting first. It looks as though Labour may be returned, although the complex relationships between the various minor parties may complicate this. A sidelight of interest in relation to the debate over economic reform is that ACT (Association of Consumers and Taxpayers) was wiped out. It originally stood for uncompromising support of the free-market reforms of the Rogernomics era, but broadened its basis with law-and-order and anti-Maori rhetoric. The disappearance of ACT is not really good news, since the Nationals have adopted much of the same rhetoric on race issues, but it can reasonably be said to mark the end of the era of radical reform.

Yet Further update Sunday PM Wrong again! Rodney Hide of ACT got back in with an electorate seat, and MMP may give ACT one more. That’s what comes of trying to follow elections while in dialup mode, I guess.

Categories: World Events Tags:

The coming dollar crisis

September 17th, 2005 38 comments

Brad DeLong has a great discussion of the opposing views on the coming dollar crisis.

More soon on this, but my one-sentence take is that the optimists believe that it is possible to generate as much US dollar liquidity as required to prevent a large increase in interest rates (despite a depreciation), without generating domestic inflation in the US. In this, they have recent US history on their side. The pessimists think that, sooner or later, this kind of policy will fail. In this, they have long-term history on their side

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Weekend reflections

September 17th, 2005 39 comments

Weekend Reflections is on again. Please comment on any topic of interest (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Feel free to put in contributions more lengthy than for the Monday Message Board or standard commnets.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

The cost of private tollways

September 16th, 2005 22 comments

Victorian Opposition leader Robert Doyle has been forced to abandon his promise to make the Scoresby freeway toll-free. What’s really interesting about the Age report on the subject is that it starts by referring to a “$2 billion” project, but ends by referring to an Econtech report saying it would cost $4.3 billion to buy out the private contractor. Roughly speaking the first figure is the actual construction cost and the second is the present value of the amount the public will have to pay (the Bracks government estimated the latter figure at $7 billlion). This is a fine example of the excess cost associated with PPPs and private tollways.

In any case, a toll on a road of this kind makes no economic sense. What is needed is congestion pricing, as in London. Having announced an inquiry into ‘radical’ methods of addressing congestion, the Bracks government has ruled out the only workable solution in advance

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

yet more on Telstra

September 15th, 2005 64 comments

My column in today’s Fin (subscription required) has yet more on Telstra, and the general direction of regulation. It’s over the fold
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Telstra and the guillotine

September 14th, 2005 35 comments

Having taken nearly ten years to sell half of Telstra, the government seems to be in an awful hurry to sell the rest, ramming the necessary legislation through Parliament with almost no debate. Yet it’s clear that they still don’t have a clue about how to sell Telstra for an adequate price, what control they want to exercise in the future or how to implement the policy of structural separation.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this resort to the guillotine was not due to any particular urgency about this legislation. Rather the government had the numbers and couldn’t resist using them. This is a bad sign for the future, both for Australia and the government. Such hubris generally turns out badly for all concerned.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Windschuttle flips again

September 13th, 2005 81 comments

Henry Farrell pointed me to this Financial Times report of an interview (over lunch) with Keith Windschuttle, which begins with Windschuttle saying he regrets his involvement in the dispute over Australia’s Aboriginal history, seeing as a distraction from his ambition to write a polemical defence of Western civilisation, aimed at the US market, and make heaps of money in the process.

â€?If you have a reasonably big hit in America you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars,â€? he says. “That’s my aim – to have a couple of big sellers and have a leisurely life.â€?

It is unclear how much of this is intended as tongue-in-cheek affectation, but it’s certainly consistent with notable elements of Windschuttle’s past career, which has been marked by repeated political and methodological somersaults.

Although a lot of attention has been focused on Windschuttle’s political jump from Marxist left to Christian right, I’ve always been more interested in his shift in methodological stance. Having made his name as a defender of objective truth against politicised history in both left-wing and right-wing varieties, Windschuttle has become a practitioner of an extreme form of politicised history, and now looks ready to abandon any remaining links to the world of fact.
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Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Monday message board

September 12th, 2005 78 comments

It’s time, once again for the Monday Message Board. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please. I’m hoping to do a post looking at the four years since 11 September 2001, but in the meantime I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Freedom on the March

September 11th, 2005 14 comments

The Egyptian elections were the subject of plenty of triumphalism when they were announced earlier in the year, and now it looks as if it was all justified. Not only did the elections go ahead, but with 88.6 per cent of the vote going to the pro-American incumbent, Hosni Mubarak, all that talk about how the ‘Arab street’ is opposed to US foreign policy has been refuted once again.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Education: more, please

September 10th, 2005 45 comments

In a post on education at CT, Chris

floats a hypothesis for commenters to shoot down if they want to.

However, since most of the commenters agree with Chris, it looks like I’ll have to provide the other side of the debate. I’m also not linking to any evidence, though I discussed a fair bit of it here

I’m going to argue, contrary to Chris and most of the commenters on his post that there’s no reason to suppose that, in aggregate, the proportion of the population undertaking post-secondary education is too high, and every reason to continue trying to remove obstacles to participation in education for students from poor and working class backgrounds. Further, I don’t think credentialism is an important factor in explaining observed changes in participation in education or the labour market.
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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Why I blog*

September 10th, 2005 16 comments

I’ve been asked to write a short general piece about blogging, why, how and so on. Draft is over the fold. Comments welcome.
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Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Weekend reflections

September 10th, 2005 19 comments

Weekend Reflections is on again. Please comment on any topic of interest (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Feel free to put in contributions more lengthy than for the Monday Message Board or standard commnets.

Categories: Regular Features Tags: