Archive for June, 2006

Weekend reflections

June 30th, 2006 32 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:

The servant problem

June 29th, 2006 73 comments

The Howard government’s IR reforms (including, but not limited to, the most recent instalment) are a curious mixture of deregulation and compulsion. On the one hand, all sorts of conditions and requirements are stripped away, but in their place there has been created an array of new criminal and civil offences, prohibited terms in contracts, requirements to offer particular employment forms such as AWAs and so on.

To make sense of this seeming contradiction, we need only observe that the deregulation is all for employers, and the regulation is all imposed on workers and, particularly, unions. Lockouts are now almost unrestricted, but strikes are subject to strict regulation. Employers cannot be sued for unfair dismissal, but employees are prohibited from including protection against unfair dismissal in a proposed employment contract and so on.

An obvious interpretation is the Marxist one, that this is class-based legislation, designed to increase profits and reduce wages by driving down workers’ bargaining power. That’s part of the story but not, I think, the most important part.

The real issue, I think, relates to the personal power relationship between employers and employees. The complaints of employers (some of them can be read in comments here) about bad employees and the difficulty of sacking them echo very closely the complaints of a century ago that ‘you can’t get good servants any more’. The changes made in the IR laws make most sense if they are read as an attempt to remove constraints on the day-to-day power of bosses to be bosses, whether these constraints are imposed by law, by collective agreements or by individual contracts with workers.

This also helps to explain some of the class alignments we see in politics. While political alignments continue to be determined to a significant extent by income, there are groups with relatively high incomes, such as academics and other professionsals, who tend to support Labor. On the other side of the fence, managers tend to vote Liberal more strongly than their incomes alone would suggest. The obvious point is that managers are, by definition, bosses. Professionals, who mostly in hierarchical institutions, can identify either as bosses or workers, but with the rise of managerialism, most professionals find themselves on the workers side of the divide.

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:


June 27th, 2006 28 comments

Due to ‘a series of unfortunate events’, and despite at least moderate effort on my part, I managed to see only one of the goals scored in Australia’s World Cup campaign as it happened, and this was of course, the Italian penalty that ended our chances. I don’t know enough about the rules to tell, and I don’t suppose Guus Hiddink is an unbiased authority, but this seemed to me to be a pretty soft foul (maybe others can give a better-informed view on this). Of course, all sorts of chance happenings, such as injuries, rain and so on affect the outcome of sporting events, so it’s silly to complain. Then again, if we didn’t get to complain, half the fun of sporting events would be lost.

Anyway, relative to either our past record or our population (divided as it is among four different football codes), this was an amazing achievement.

Categories: Sport Tags:

Monday message board

June 26th, 2006 15 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Libertarians for social democracy ?

June 25th, 2006 80 comments

Several commenters on this post about the asymmetry of the case for and against war made the suggestion that, if I applied similar reasoning to domestic policy I would come out with libertarian conclusions. So can I be a libertarian social democrat?

Read more…

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

Weekend reflections

June 24th, 2006 9 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:

Blog birthday

June 19th, 2006 27 comments

The 21st of June is the winter solstice and also this blog’s fourth birthday. More than 3000 posts and maybe 50 000 comments (I have more than 40 000 on record and thousands more were lost in the database disasters of 2002 and 2003) make this a pretty huge endeavour. No doubt, much of the content has been ephemeral or worse, but I think there are some substantial contributions. Thanks to everyone who’s helped to make this a success and encouraged me to keep going.

I’ll be marking the occasion by taking a bit of a break. Feel free to talk among yourselves (politely, please!)

Meanwhile, there’s loads of good stuff around the Australian blogosphere. Tim Dunlop and Tim Lambert are reliably readable, and there’s always Tim Blair if you fancy a change of pace.

My econoblogging colleagues, Joshua Gans and Andrew Leigh have hit the headlines with their study of births delayed to get the government’s baby bonus, but fame doesn’t seem to have swelled their heads. Then there’s the group blogs, Catallaxy, Larvatus Prodeo and Troppo. I’ve had some great interactions with all of them.

I got some interesting links from some recent posts, including this one on my review of Yochai Benkler, which leads to an interesting debate about Wikipedia, and Harry Clarke on whaling.

Finally, if you’re one of the handful of readers who’ve been around from the beginning might remember David Morgan, one of the pioneers of Australian plogging, and one of the first to quit, when he found fatherhood more exciting than typing. He was on the ABC quiz show The Einstein Factor last night and won (he previously made big money on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, I think). Interestingly, his blog is still live, though it hasn’t been updated for years.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:


June 19th, 2006 40 comments

The votes at the International Whaling Commission look to be going in favour of whales and against the advocates of whaling, an outcome that owes a lot to the efforts of the Australian and NZ governments. Given that the issue is going to be debated again and again, it’s worth considering how well Australia’s anti-whaling position stands up to criticism. A relevant point is that we have not, for example, responded favorably to international campaigns against the culling of kangaroos (a point made by the Japanese delegate I saw on TV last night).

To start with, there seems to be little disagreement about the principle that endangered/vulnerable whale species (and other cetacean species) should not be hunted at all, and in this respect, whales aren’t treated any differently from other animals.

Let’s suppose, though, that some whale species aren’t endangered, or maybe that they will cease to be endangered some time in the future. Then, in general terms, the dispute is between people who want to protect whales because they like them, or want to help the whalewatching industry, (and maybe object to the way in which they are killed, but this is an issue that could be dealt with separately) and people who want to kill whales either to be eaten as a delicacy item or to keep the whaling industry going.

I don’t see that there’s any way of resolving this disagreement on the basis of generally shared principles; so within any given community it seems appropriate to resolve it on the basis of majority vote. So this would imply that if most Japanese support whaling in Japanese coastal waters, the Australian government shouldn’t try to prevent this through the IWC, although of course environmental groups should be free to criticise and campaign against the practice (exactly the same position applies with Australia’s kangaroo policy).

As regards international waters, I reach the same conclusion; there’s no first-principles way of resolving the dispute, so it should be decided by voting. In the absence of any general system of resolving such international disputes, the IWC is the relevant forum, and its voting rules (unsatisfactory as they may be) are the rules to go by. Since most Australians like whales and want to protect them, the Australian government is right to push this point of view, and to seek as much international support as it can.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Monday message board

June 19th, 2006 13 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:

Darfur Comments Challenge

June 19th, 2006 2 comments

Over at Larvatus Prodeo, Tigtog, Kim and Mark are running a comments challenge to raise funds for Darfur similar to the tsunami fundraiser held here last year (I got the idea from Michele Agnew who got it from somewhere else in the blogosphere). So go over and leave a comment. Obviously, the best sort of comment is one announcing a donation of your own, or joining the LPers in cash for comments.

Among the many other worthy causes, there’s still time to help with the Yogyakarta earthquake.

And while I’m on the topic, let’s hear it for Bill Gates, who’s taking a backseat at Microsoft in order to devote more time to giving his money away. There’s something to be said for billionaires; taken as a group they seem a lot more attractive than the merely rich.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Derbyshire’s war

June 18th, 2006 84 comments

Quite a few people have commented in John Derbyshire’s apology for supporting the war in Iraq.

I haven’t seen anyone deny Derbyshire’s suggestion regarding his National Review colleagues who still publicly support the war that

If wired up to a polygraph and asked the question: “Supposing you could wind the movie back to early 2003, would you still attack Iraq?� any affirmative answers would have those old needles a-jumping and a-skipping all over the graph paper.

but then I haven’t looked hard. I’d be interested if anyone can point to any examples [1].

My main interest, like that of many others is in Derbyshire’s reason for recanting his support. While he wanted a war with Iraq, his idea was that the US should drop a lot of bombs, demonstrate that it’s a power to be feared and then leave, without wasting time on futile projects like nation-building. As lots of commenters have pointed out, Derbyshire’s position is worse, in moral terms, than that of most of those who continue to support the war.

It does however, raise some important issues that go to the heart of the debate between supporters and opponents of the Iraq war and the debate over war and peace in general.

In the leadup to the Iraq war, many different arguments were presented for and against going to war, and many different predictions were made about the likely consequences of war. People supported war for a range of reasons, some of which were logically inconsistent, and the same was true of people who opposed war. Many people made many predictions, many of which turned out to be wrong. However, there is a fundamental asymmetry here.
Read more…

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

Draft Hugos preview

June 18th, 2006 6 comments

Here’s my draft preview of the contenders for the Hugo best novel award, some bits of which have appeared here previously. Comments much appreciated.

Update Thanks for some useful comments, which I’ve tried to take into account in the revision
Read more…

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Plinth for Plinth’s sake

June 18th, 2006 3 comments

When I was first told by my wife about this story, I expected it would turn out to be an Internet factoid, probably much-circulated, melding the old stories of paintings hung upside down, works painted by ducks and hailed as masterpieces and so on. But the Independent’s account gives chapter and verse. The Royal Academy, having received a sculpture by one David Hensel with the plinth packed separately, decided to reject the sculpture and exhibit the plinth.

Categories: Books and culture, Life in General Tags:

My piece from today’s Fin ReView section

June 16th, 2006 17 comments

Is about free sharing of information, and is rescued from behind their increasingly adamantine paywall.
Read more…

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Weekend reflections

June 16th, 2006 24 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:

Soccer or Football

June 16th, 2006 72 comments

Over at Crooked Timber, Kieran Healy raises the vexed question of “Soccer or Football”. I’m firmly in the camp of soccer, or, if you want to get prissy about it, “Association Football”. The various football codes are roughly contemporaneous, and the term football has always been used generically (also to refer to particular codes when there is no great danger of confusion).

If the argument is based on majority usage, the relevant majority for me is among English-speakers in some community of which I am a member. Whether I define this as narrowly as possible (say, people I personally speak to) or as broadly as possible (all English speakers in the world) I don’t get a majority of people using the term “football” to mean “soccer”. I think a claim of this kind is about as justifiable as if the martial arts renamed themselves as just plain “arts” and demanded that the term “art” be used consistently with this.

Quibbles about how much different codes use the feet don’t seem to me to valid, and in any case would not particularly privilege soccer (where the head and hands are used a lot), compared to say, Australian Rules. And the fact that people in non-English speaking countries mainly play soccer and therefore use terms meaning or sounding like football to refer to it cut no ice at all.

Categories: Dictionary Tags:

Golden Toilet Brush

June 15th, 2006 35 comments

The new IR laws take us back in many ways to the conditions of the 19th century. In some ways this is good for trade unions, since they need to campaign actively, rather than relying on industrial courts and awards. The LHMU which covers cleaners is taking the lead with its Clean Start: Fair Deal for Cleaners. Many employers have agreed with the broad principles of the campaign, described here. Others have not and the first Golden Toilet Brush has been awarded to property company Allco which has declined repeated invitations to meet cleaners’ representatives.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:


June 15th, 2006 20 comments

Having grown up in AFL territory, I don’t follow rugby league really closely, but in Brisbane it’s impossible to avoid being caught up in the State of Origin which was, after all, essentially a Queensland creation.

I couldn’t really understand all the doom and gloom that followed the first-round loss. It was only one point after all, and if it had happened that Queensland scored the last minute field goal all the rhetoric would have gone the other way. Anyway, there won’t be anything like that after last night. NSW played pretty well, but only a consolation try in the final minutes saved them from what would have been the most crushing defeat in Origin history. A great game to watch, too, with lots of open play and daring moves.

Categories: Sport Tags:

Should be good for the wool Industry

June 14th, 2006 6 comments

Today’s Fin runs the headline “Investors bale as market mood darkens”.

I assumed this was a subeditor’s error, but a check around the internets suggests that “bale out” is common usage in British English, even though the only suggested etymology (from bailing out a boat) clearly requires “bail” (= bucket).

In other news, the Fin is cutting back its free online presence even further, replacing it with AFR Access, described as

a flexible investment research application that combines our news and analysis with a range of renowned information and data sources and adds rich tools and unprecedented search technology.

This is interesting, given that WSJ and (I think) FT seem, if anything, to be opening up a bit. It’s clear though, contrary to Guy Rundle’s suggestion a while back, that charging for content is going to remain a very minor part of the Internet economy.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Back to full employment?

June 13th, 2006 125 comments

I’ve been arguing for some time that the government should use the current period of strong demand to make a really strong push to reduce unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment. This piece in the Australian looks promising, though on reading closely it’s hard to see whether there is actually a serious commitment of funds and effort or just another rearrangement of the existing programs. If the government was willing to put the kind of money it’s repeatedly splashed around in tax cuts into a program aimed at driving the unemployment rate down to 2 or 3 per cent (by putting people into jobs, not by pushing them out of the labour force), they would win my support.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

A puzzle on US politics

June 13th, 2006 30 comments

One of the striking features of US politics over the past fifteen years is the rise of partisan feeling. The blogosphere reflects this, and has helped to accelerate it. Whereas US political discussion used to be dominated by appeals to bipartisanship there now seems to be more party-specific rancour than, for example, in Australia.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of commentary about the absence of competitive races and the increasing advantage of incumbency.

These two trends seem inconsistent to me. Of course, with strong partisan loyalties you expect a fair number of safe seats for either party, but the discussion of incumbency is mostly about the strength of individual incumbents. And even with many safe seats, there ought also to be a large number of marginals.

Has anyone attempted to reconcile these conflicting trends?

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

Monday message board

June 12th, 2006 41 comments

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

As a discussion starter, should we continue to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday with a public holiday?

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Renationalise Telstra

June 11th, 2006 123 comments

Tim Blair cites my recent observation that privatisation in Australia is political poison and goes on to ask for further advice on the issue

Take the next step, Quiggler; tell us which industries or businesses should be nationalised. People will like it, apparently.

I’m happy to oblige. The best case for (re)nationalisation is undoubtedly Telstra, minus peripheral bits like BigPond which should be wholly privatised. I’ve been making this argument for years.

Although Tim correctly points out the logical symmetry – if people hate privatisation, and clearly they do, then they should welcome nationalisation – he seems to be in some doubt about the politics. There are overseas examples to help here. Helen Clark’s government renationalised both accident compensation and Air New Zealand and didn’t seem to suffer any political damage, but of course, that’s New Zealand. More interestingly, the government led by Tim’s UK namesake renationalised Railtrack, to widespread applause, a couple of years ago.

What these examples have in common is that the privatisation was badly bungled, so that renationalisation was easy to sell. Although it isn’t, like Railtrack and Air NZ, on the verge of bankruptcy, Telstra is also a prime example of a bungled privatisation.

As Tim notes, given the deep public opposition to privatisation, exhibited recently over Snowy Hydro, there’s no reason to suppose that renationalisation would be unpopular. The problem is that the elite (not the people who drink cafe lattes, but those in both parties, banks and big business who actually run the show) benefit from privatisation and have no desire to stop it.

Update Tim liked this suggestion, and now he wants more. Next cab off the rank, in my view, should be airports. The privatisation of these monopolies was followed by massive increases in navigation charges, as well as a whole string of petty imposts on travellers. Another large part of the attraction, in Brisbane at least, was the ability to (mis)use the power of the Commonwealth to evade state and local controls on land development. And the involvement of politically well-connected types like Max Moore-Wilton only made the whole thing worse in every respect.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Letting off steam

June 10th, 2006 5 comments

With a bit of welcome rain (well, drizzle, but every little helps) Brisbane is, unusually, both cold and humid today. As a result, after a fairly intense training session at karate today, my son informed me that I was, literally, giving off steam.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Darfur appeal last chance

June 10th, 2006 3 comments

The Darfur appeal ends today, and generous readers have contributed $400, which I’ll match. The target is $500, so I’m hoping someone will pony up part or all of the last $100 before 6pm today, when I’ll close off. To follow the tragedy in Sudan, visit Passion of the Present. There seems to be no end to the war, and no easy solution (though the world could surely do better than it has done) but we can at least help to stop people starving.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Weekend reflections

June 9th, 2006 13 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:

Zarqawi is dead. Hooray!

June 9th, 2006 85 comments

What effect it will have remains to be seen, but Abu Musab al-Zarqawi richly deserved his fate. As well as being responsible for many gruesome acts of terrorism and murder, he was one of the leaders in stirring up civil war in Iraq. Of course, it would have been better if he’d been dealt with in early 2003, when the Pentagon had him in its sights.

Categories: World Events Tags:

More conversions on global warming

June 8th, 2006 35 comments

It’s getting lonely for the denialists. According to the Sierra Club, even pollster Frank Luntz, author of an infamous memo urging Republicans to exploit doubt on global warming, has jumped ship.

More interesting perhaps is Tyler Cowen, who concedes that

It is by now pointless to deny that global warming is man-made to a considerable degree.

but is very pessimistic about our ability to do anything about it. (via Brad DeLong)

Since such pessimism is inversely correlated with faith in markets to achieve adjustments to changing prices, I find this quite surprising. Given a reasonable long-run elasticity of demand for C02 emissions, there’s every reason to suppose that very large reductions in emissions (say 60 per cent) could be achieved in the long run at a welfare cost of only a few percentage points of GDP.

Categories: Environment Tags:

A win for the spammers

June 8th, 2006 48 comments

I’ve always resisted imposing general restrictions on comments. To make life easy for genuine commenters, I’ve dealt with trolls and spammers manually. But, after a period when they’ve been in retreat, the spammers are back in force. So, I’m implementing a moderation scheme. If it works as intended, commenters will have their first comment moderated until I approve it, and will then be automatically approved.

To simplify things, regulars (or those who plan to be regulars) can just comment here, and I’ll approve them en masse.

If this doesn’t work, I’ll probably go to one of those annoying code-deciphering thingies. If readers would prefer annoying code-deciphering thingies, feel free to say so.

If it works well, I’ll be able to reduce the class of words, like pharm*cy that trigger the automoderation software.

Update It looks as if everyone who has a comment in the database is approved, unless they trigger the automoderation tests. And, so far, the spammers are being consigned to moderation, so this may work OK.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

The misallocation of scepticism

June 6th, 2006 37 comments

With today (6/6/6) bearing the number of the beast, my thoughts went back to the most recent scary date 1/1/00 when we were promised TEOTWAWKI thanks to the famous Y2K bug.

Oddly enough, although we seem to be overwhelmed with alleged sceptics on other topics, only a handful of people challenged the desirability of spending hundreds of billions of dollars to fix a problem which was not, on the face of it, any more serious than dozens of other bugs in computer systems. Admittedly not all the money was wasted, since lots of new computers were bought. But a lot of valuable equipment was prematurely scrapped and a vast amount of effort was devoted to compliance, when a far cheaper “fix on failure” approach would have sufficed for all but the most mission-critical of systems.

As far as I know, there was no proper peer-reviewed assessment of the seriousness of the problems published in the computer science literature. Most of the running was made by consultants with an axe to grind, and their scaremongering was endorsed by committees where no-one had any incentive to point out the nudity of the emperor.

Why was there so little scepticism on this issue? An obvious explanation is that no powerful interests were threatened and some, such as consultants and computer companies, stood to gain. I don’t think this is the whole story, and I tried to analyse the process here, but there’s no doubt that a reallocation of scepticism could have done us a lot of good here.

Categories: Life in General Tags: