Archive for April, 2006


April 30th, 2006 12 comments

I’ve been very slack about linking interesting posts lately, so here’s a quick roundup, mainly on military topics, reflecting the week’s news. Jeremy Bray at Catallaxy has a fairly pessimistic update on Iran’s nuclear program, while Andrew Norton discusses the death of Private Kovco. On the latter topic Democracy and Justice looks at the role of contracting out (a policy first implemented under Keating, as several commenters have observed) and Tim Dunlop dissects a typical Greg Sheridan rant.

Apart from the individual tragedy of Private Kovco, and continuing statistical disputes over how many tens of thousands have died, there’s nothing much on Iraq where we seem to have run out of things to say.

The Oz attack on John Curtin seems to have halted for the weekend, but you can read another response from Mark Bahnisch and more on Anzac Day from Gummo Trotsky, David Tiley and Ken Parish.

Finally, JF Beck complains that I don’t link to his posts and it’s true. Let me try to compensate by observing that his site slogan Nothing’s fact until it’s history, and then it’s debatable is the most perfect statement of the rightwing postmodernist outlook that I’ve ever read or am ever likely to. Also, and unequivocally positively, Beck’s participation in the DDT debate has led him to run an appeal for donations to Swim for Malaria, which has raised nearly $US 1000. If right and left could compete more on this basis, we might actually get somewhere.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Galbraith dies

April 30th, 2006 15 comments

John Kenneth Galbraith has just died. Here’s an NYT obit. Galbraith wasn’t exceptionally influential as an economic theorist, but he had a huge (and I think, generally positive) influence as a public intellectual. He’ll always be remembered as someone willing to challenge the “conventional wisdom”, one of many phrases he coined that have gone into general usage.

Categories: Life in General Tags:


April 29th, 2006 38 comments

The body of Jake Kovco has finally returned to Australia. It’s hard to imagine what his family must be going through, starting with the news that they had lost a husband, a father and a son, and then compounded with the series of dreadful bungles (or worse) that we’ve seen.

It would be good to think that somewhere in the chain of command, someone will step forward to say “This happened on my watch, and whether or not I personally did anything wrong, I’m responsible. I offer my resignation”. So far, there hasn’t been any sign that anything like this will happen, but there’s still time.

Categories: General Tags:

Weekend reflections

April 28th, 2006 46 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 comments.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Guest post on the Hungarian elections

April 27th, 2006 2 comments

This comment from James Farrell, who’s spent a lot of time in Hungary, got stuck in moderation, but it’s worth a post of its own. See also Eszter at CT
Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

The roots of revisionism

April 27th, 2006 11 comments

As Ros points out in a comments thread below, the starting point for Stephen Barton’s revival of the Brisbane Line appears to be the work of Dr Peter Stanley, Principal Historian, Australian War Memorial, who has denied the ‘myth’ of a Japanese invasion, and criticised Curtin’s rhetoric on the subject. He relies almost exclusively on evidence that “.. there was no invasion plan. The Japanese never planned to make Australia part of its Co-Prosperity Sphere.” His main focus is criticism of statements by the Curtin government suggesting the opposite.

There’s a crucial ambiguity here, both in Curtin’s rhetoric and in Stanley’s response. If Port Moresby had fallen, and the Australian forces in PNG been destroyed or captured (and if the Battle of the Coral Sea had gone the other way), the Japanese would surely have pushed on to occupy ports and airfields in Northern Australia to deny their use to the Allies, and, if possible, knock Australia out of the war altogether. Such a move would have strengthened their position in the Pacific, and freed forces to fight elsewhere. On the other hand, an attempt to conquer the entire country and incorporate it into the Co-Prosperity Sphere would indeed have overstretched the Japanese capacity beyond its limits.

When Curtin referred to Kokoda as saving Australia from invasion, he was certainly justified, but, in motivating the war effort, it didn’t hurt to blur the difference between a partial occupation and a total conquest. By contrast, it’s hard to see how Stanley is serving the cause of historical accuracy by failing to make this crucial distinction.

Stanley can’t be blamed for the use people like Barton are making of his work, but he can certainly be criticised for intellectual sloppiness in his analysis.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Wikipedia doubling time

April 27th, 2006 20 comments

The English language version of Wikipedia had its one-millionth article on 8 March, and has just passed 1.1 million, 50 days later. That gives an implied doubling time of about a year. The doubling time seems to be fairly stable, since the 500 000 mark was reached in March 2005, and 250 000 in April 2004.

A straightforward extrapolation gives a billion articles in 2016. I’ll open this up for comments now, then give my own thoughts (taking advantage of yours, naturally).

Update over the fold
Read more…

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Yet more revisionism

April 27th, 2006 40 comments

The Oz runs yet another piece of anti-Curtin revisionism, though from the line has shifted 180 degrees. Whereas Stephen Barton argues that Curtin, as PM, should have allowed the Japanese to take Port Moresby and Northern Queensland, in order to fight in Europe, Bob Wurth counts Curtin as an appeaser of Japan. His story is incoherent to put it mildly, since he quotes generic statements of desire for peace in 1939 as appeasement, while noting that by 1941 Curtin was among the leaders in warning of war.

The main focus of the story is on Curtin’s friendly relationship with the Japanese ambassador (who became a prominent pacifist after the war) and an alleged agreement over Western Australian iron ore, reported by ambassador Kawai. Wurth’s story suffers from the fact that Curtin took office a few months after Kawai reported the supposed agreement, and that no such agreement was implemented. All in all, this sounds more like Curtin manipulating Kawai in the hope of assisting the peace faction in Japan than the other way around.

One feature that seems to pop up regularly in all of this is the name of Alexander Downer, who’s cited in the Wurth piece. He’s led the attack on Curtin in the past and he seems to be linked fairly closely to Barton, who wrote a full-length piece in Online Opinion to defend him against claims of draft-dodging. Certainly, if Downer disagrees with the latest attacks, and the Barton line that an invasion of Australia is a reasonable price to pay for alliances with the great and powerful, he ought to say so now.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The Brisbane Line in the 21st century

April 26th, 2006 37 comments

When I suggested yesterday that Stephen Barton had reinvented the Brisbane Line with his claim that Kokoda didn’t matter I was making the standard argumentative move of drawing a logical inference from Barton’s position which, I assumed, he would indignantly reject. Far from it! As Mark Bahnisch observes in comments, Barton explicitly endorsed the Brisbane Line strategy when he was interviewed on Lateline, saying

What I was saying was that it was an important campaign, but it wasn’t the battle that saved Australia. Australia was engaged in a world war. What that means is that events far beyond our control and far beyond our borders are ultimately going to secure our future. Now let’s take the worst-case scenario, that say they did a diversionary raid or they occupied part of Queensland. Now ultimately did that mean that Australia would lose the war? Well, once the allies won in Europe and the full might of the allies came to bear on the Japanese, ultimately the Japanese would be defeated. So it would have been a terrible situation, it would have been grim and appalling, but it ultimately would have been a temporary situation. We have to remember that this was a world war and when we talk about the battle that saved Australia, we’re sort of putting these parochial blinkers on and seeing the centre of the war’s gravity in New Guinea. We’ve got to sort of step back from that and recognise that it was a world war. (emphasis added)

Given that Barton explicitly draws parallels with the present, it’s reasonable to ask whether he thinks the same reasoning is applicable today. If strategic decisions made in Washington or London require that Australia be left open to attack or invasion, should we be comforted by the thought that “Australia’s security has traditionally been won far beyond our borders, as a member of grand alliances. ”

Barton has previously been a Liberal party staffer, and the ideas he’s presenting are consistent with (an extreme interpretation of) the government’s defence strategy of reducing emphasis on the defence of Australia in favour of a capacity to send expeditionary forces to distant conflicts. So, is anyone from the Liberal side of politics going to step forward and speak in favour of defending Australia, either in 1942 or today?

Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Who’s lying about Resolution 1441?

April 26th, 2006 62 comments

Among the articles of faith on the pro-war right, few have been had more megabytes of text spilled over them than the claim that the war on Iraq was authorised by UN resolution 1441. So, it’s surprising to see Mark Steyn denying this claim in the course of an attempt to score points off me, cheered on by Tim Blair and JF Beck. Steyn says

I don’t believe I was ever aware that Aussie prof John Quiggin had launched a competition to demonstrate I was a congenital liar, but apparently he did back in 2002, indignantly objecting to my “lie” that Australia, Spain, Italy and co were “on board” for an America-led Iraq invasion without UN authorisation. Yup, he certainly nailed me on that one.

I’ll note first that Steyn scores yet more points for my claim of congenital dishonesty with the “and co”, which, in the original, read “Qatar and Turkey”. Like most of the other countries on Steyn’s list, Turkey had made no public commitment to invade Iraq at the time Steyn was writing. Unlike most of the others, Turkey held a parliamentary vote, which led to a decision not to invade.

But the real issue is that of UN authorisation. As I noted at the time, Australia’s public position was exactly the same as that of Britain, the country where Steyn’s piece was published but one that curiously failed to make his list. That’s because, as Steyn concedes here (July 2003), Blair was publicly opposed to going to war without a UN resolution, and it wouldn’t have done for Steyn to say that it was all a sham. As he says

In the end, Britain officially went to war on a technicality, and … that technicality – Saddam’s technical non-compliance with Resolution 1441 – still holds.

Of course, as we now know, it was all a sham. Bush was going to war regardless, and Blair was privately committed to following him, despite his public pronouncements at the time which, I have to admit, I believed. But without the figleaf of the UN, and the bogus interpretation of Resolution 1441, it’s doubtful he could have conned enough Labour MPs into supporting him.

Howard similarly made a string of statements to the effect that there would be no invasion as long as Saddam complied with Resolution 1441. I don’t have any details on Berlusconi, Aznar and others, but I’d be surprised if the same wasn’t true of them too.

Categories: World Events Tags:

A sensible privatisation

April 26th, 2006 12 comments

I was somewhat alarmed to read in today’s Australian that “THE Beattie Government will today put up for sale the state’s two monopoly power retailers – Ergon and Energex – in an attempt to get the best price for the assets before they have to compete with private-sector companies.” While Ergon and Energex are indeed power retailers, their much more important role is running the electricity distribution network, an area where there is no capacity for competition.

The Courier-Mail does a better job, saying that the retail arms will be sold off, though it also fails to say what will be done with distribution. The estimated price of $1 billion is reasonable (maybe a bit optimistic, but I haven’t looked in detail) for the retail businesses, but far below the value of the distribution network.

To the extent that the current electricity model, including retail competition makes sense at all, selling off the retail arms of public distribution monopolies is a good idea. Retail and distribution don’t fit together at all well in this model. In fact, it would make some sense for electricity generators (most of which are publicly owned in Queensland) to buy or establish their own retail outlets. This would enable an efficient matching of risk.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:


April 25th, 2006 67 comments

The day before Anzac Day might not seem the best time to publish a piece claiming that the significance of the Australian victory at Kokoda was a myth propagated by the Labor party, but that’s what we got from Stephen Barton, a political scientist and former Liberal apparatchik.

The second part of the claim is both the most offensive and the most easily demolished. I got the full Kokoda legend taught to me at school in South Australia in the early 1960s, straight after saluting the flag and reciting our loyalty to the Queen at Assembly. That was about thirty years into the premiership of Sir Thomas Playford. The idea that the Labor party, or radical historians, managed to sneak the story into the school curriculum as propaganda is as unbelievable as it is offensive.

Now let’s turn to the substantive claim. I’m not an expert on military strategy, but neither is Barton, and he doesn’t cite anyone who is. He defends Churchill’s strategy of fighting Germany first and Japan second, and claims that

Japanese supply lines were overextended, their best troops were in China and their southern thrust had run out of steam


Had the Japanese driven south to Port Moresby it would have been a grim setback, but not a decisive blow.

This argument sounds plausible, but it would sound even more plausible if you crossed out “Port Moresby” and substituted “Townsville” or “Rockhampton”. The lines would have been extended even further then and the Japanese occupiers could have been left, as Barton suggests, to “wither on the vine” until the war was over. In effect, Barton has reinvented the Brisbane Line.*

* There’s no reason to believe the claim made by Eddie Ward that the Menzies government adopted, or even considered, a “Brisbane Line” plan. But it’s an obvious corollary of reasoning like Barton’s and there’s little doubt that such ideas were discussed.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Monday message board

April 24th, 2006 67 comments

It’s time, once again for the Monday Message Board. As usual, civilised discussion and absolutely no coarse language, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

BrisScience plug (again)

April 24th, 2006 1 comment

For Brisbane readers, tonight’s BrisScience lecture is on THROUGH THE ELECTRON LOOKING GLASS – John Drennan

In this second BrisScience talk, Prof Drennan will cross live to an operating electron microscope to take us on a real-time journey down to the atomic scale, from exploring the minerals that make up the deep earth to understanding biological cells.

Time: 6:30pm to 7:30pm (doors open at 6:00pm); complimentary wine, soft
drinks, and nibblies follow
Venue: Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts (420 Brunswick St,
Fortitude Valley)

Contact Jennifer Dodd (0408 796 357, [email protected]) with
any questions.

Categories: Science Tags:

Credibility up in smoke

April 23rd, 2006 64 comments

Among the scientists taking a public position sceptical of global warming, Richard Lindzen has always seemed the most credible. Unlike nearly all “sceptics”, he’s a real climate scientist who has done significant research on climate change, and, also unlike most of them, there’s no* evidence that he has a partisan or financial axe to grind. His view that the evidence on climate change is insufficient to include that the observed increase in temperature is due to human activity therefore seems like one that should be taken seriously.

Or it would do if it were not for a 2001 Newsweek interview (no good link available, but Google a sentence or two and you can find it) What’s interesting here is not the (now somewhat out of date) statement of Lindzen’s views on climate change, but the following paragraph

Lindzen clearly relishes the role of naysayer. He’ll even expound on how weakly lung cancer is linked to cigarette smoking. He speaks in full, impeccably logical paragraphs, and he punctuates his measured cadences with thoughtful drags on a cigarette.

Anyone who could draw this conclusion in the light of the evidence, and act on it as Lindzen has done, is clearly useless as a source of advice on any issue involving the analysis of statistical evidence.

Lindzen argues that we should be equally sceptical about both climate change and the link between smoking and cancer, but his argument can just as easily be turned around. If you accept Lindzen’s ‘impeccably logical’ view that the two arguments are comparable, you reach the conclusion that the link between human activity and climate change is now so well-established that it makes about as much sense to doubt it as to doubt the relationship between smoking and lung cancer, that is, no sense at all.
Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

What I’ve been reading and watching

April 23rd, 2006 10 comments

The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler. This will be coming out soon from Yale University Press and I have an advance copy for a seminar to be run at Crooked Timber. The book deals with the implications of networking, social production and similar issues that I’ve been excited about for some time.

On the viewing front, now that The West Wing has come to the ABC and is on at a reasonable hour, I’m watching it, though the episodes must be quite a few years old. It’s rather like a parallel universe, but one in which the White House is in the same universe, instead of, as in reality, two parallel universes.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Guest post on the Italian elections

April 22nd, 2006 8 comments

Nanni Concu, one of my colleagues in the Risk and Sustainable Management Group is currently teaching in his native Italy, and sent me some observations on the elections there.
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Categories: World Events Tags:

Still clinging on

April 22nd, 2006 5 comments

Twelve days after losing the Italian election, Silvio Berlusconi is still clinging to power, refusing either to concede defeat. This is in line with his arrogant and authoritarian character, but it’s also a reflection of how much he has to lose. Until the elections, Berlusconi controlled not only the Parliament, but also much of the mass media and the judiciary.

If he loses, he faces the prospect of being forced either to leave politics or to divest himself of control over his media empire. And without political office, he will lose immunity from prosecution for his many dubious activities. So, it’s scarcely surprising that he is refusing to recognise the outcome of the election.

It’s vital that the incoming centre-left government pursue him on every front to break his massive political power once and for all. Although this is a forced move in political terms, it looks possible that squabbling within the coalition might lead them to duck the tough actions. In this sense, Berlusconi’s irresponsible and anti-democratic actions are a blessing, reminding the new government of the kind of threat they are dealing with.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Weekend reflections

April 21st, 2006 38 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 comments.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

A counterexample

April 21st, 2006 13 comments

This report on a recent outbreak of mumps in the US midwest makes the point that the US has a far more stringent and effective system of universal vaccination than most European countries. For example, it’s impossible for a child to attend school without up-to-date vaccination records (at least that was my experience when I lived there).

Australia dropped the ball on this a decade or so ago when the Keating government (IIRC) passed responsibility to the states, but now seems to have restored effectively universal vaccination.

All of this is surprising to me. I would have expected that health scares about vaccination would be at least as easy to run up in the US as anywhere else, that objections on the grounds of individual liberty would be taken more seriously in the US than elsewhere, and that the complex patchwork of state and local management of health policy would lead to large gaps.

Is my general expectation wrong, or is there something special about the case of vaccination? Or is thus just an illustration of the fact that every predictive model fails sometimes?

Categories: Life in General Tags:

My day blog

April 20th, 2006 5 comments

My academic work is done with the Risk and Sustainable Management Group at the Uni of Queensland. We’ve had a website for a while, but static websites are a bit of a pain to maintain and update. So we’re taking the obvious course and setting up a weblog. It’s still in its early stages, but drop in and visit, and leave a comment or two.

Now I can blog by day and night!
Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Books and Blogs

April 20th, 2006 4 comments

Brian Weatherson at CT raises the question of blogs turning into books, and commenters give lots of examples. However, any addition to the supply of books generated in this way needs to be offset by the books that would have been written if their potential authors weren’t writing blogs instead.

Update Sarah Hepola makes exactly the same point, announcing in Slate that she is shutting down her blog to write a book. Coincidence, or the mysterious workings of the BlogGeist
Read more…

Categories: Books and culture, Metablogging Tags:

Waist deep in the Big Muddy

April 20th, 2006 7 comments

Just in case anyone’s forgotten how it goes. From Dick Gaughan who sang it at the National Folk Festival, but I’ve changed some words back to the original.
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Categories: Books and culture Tags:

BrisScience plug

April 19th, 2006 1 comment

The first BrisScience lecture I went to was very successful. The next one is on Monday, April 24. Details over the fold

Read more…

Categories: Science Tags:

Plague and polygraph

April 18th, 2006 16 comments

Following the Crooked Timber seminar on The Republican War on Science I heard from John Mangels, science writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who pointed me to this series of reports (free registration required) on Dr Thomas Butler, an infectious disease researcher who (apparently mistakenly) reported missing 30 vials of plague bacteria, and ended up being railroaded into prison by an FBI determined to get a conviction even after it became apparent that the events they were supposedly investigating had never occurred.

Read more…

Categories: Science Tags:

The bankruptcy of Hamas

April 18th, 2006 94 comments

The latest terror attack in Israel, and its endorsement by the Hamas party, points up the fact that Hamas is as morally and politically bankrupt as its government will soon be financially bankrupt. This kind of crime cannot be excused or condoned, no matter what the other side has done (for the same reason, I hope that Israel will not retaliate in kind). Considered in terms of its political implications, it only reinforces the logic behind the newly-elected Israeli government’s policies, and the destination to which they point: an imposed settlement based on the wall that is now largely complete, followed by a complete closure of the resulting border. This won’t be a fair or just settlement, but it’s hard to see who will object, given that Hamas opposes any settlement and refuses to negotiate.

More fundamentally, the strategy of terror attacks against Israel has been a disaster for the Palestinian people, particularly over the last decade. Hamas was the leading party pushing Palestinians to reject the Oslo peace process. It’s already clear that no better chance will ever arise for a settlement, and that the eventual outcome, after another decade or more of occupation, will be worse than that on offer from Barak and Clinton.

The only real hope is that the cutoff of funds from the EU and US will bring the unreality of Hamas’ position home to the point where the movement is discredited. Hamas has been promised $50 million by Iran, and Qatar and other states may follow suit, but that won’t last for more than a month or two and it’s unlikely to be followed by more, given that Iran has its own problems.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Back from my break

April 18th, 2006 1 comment

I’ve been at the National Folk Festival in Canberra, which has suggested a few possible posts to me. I had a great time, met lots of old friends as well as consuming much song and a fair bit of wine.

I suppose it says more about my social circle than about the crowd, but I met a surprising number of economists there – half a dozen or so.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Monday message board

April 17th, 2006 83 comments

It’s time, once again for the Monday Message Board. As usual, civilised discussion and absolutely no coarse language, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Waiting for the Easter Bilby

April 15th, 2006 14 comments

I hope everyone is having a good Easter break, like me, and looking forward to the visit of the Easter bilby.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Accountability theory at work

April 12th, 2006 148 comments

When the Cole Commission began inquiring into AWB, past experience of the operations of this government yielded the following conclusions

* Both Downer and Howard knew that the AWB was paying kickbacks to the Iraqi regime

* This information was transmitted in a way that preserves deniability, so no conclusive proof will emerge

* No government minister will resign

* Endless hair-splitting defences of the government’s actions in this matter will emerge from those who have previously made a loud noise about Oil for Food.

With only Howard, master of the straight bat defence, still left to appear, all of these conclusions have been borne out. The offices of senior ministers were flooded with dozens cables and other communicaitons warning them of AWB activities yet, as far as the official record is concerned, no one ever looked into these any further than to ask for, and receive, a flat denial from AWB. It’s obvious that they knew enough not to ask any official questions that might produce inconvenient answers, but as predicted, no conclusive proof of this has emerged. Resignations appear to be out of the question. The theory of accountability remains in force.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags: