Archive for September, 2011

Bolt, again

September 30th, 2011 182 comments

The case against Bolt began with a series of clearly defamatory claims against individuals, shown in the court decision to be false[1]. That’s never been part of the concept of free speech in Australian law, so, as far as the facts in this particular case are concerned, there is no problem. The main issues are whether it would have been more appropriate for the complainants to rely on ordinary defamation laws, and whether this case sets a precedent that might be used against legitimate expressions of opinion, for example on the appropriate criteria for determining indigenous status.

On the first issue, Mark Bahnisch (at LP, no link because of an annoying bug that stops me reaching the site from here) makes the point that the complainants wanted to address the attack on indigenous people in general embodied in Bolt’s piece, rather than simply the attack on their individual reputations. This is a strong argument. However, for cases of this kind, it might be better to change defamation laws to make racial attacks an aggravating factor, and evidence of malice, so that someone defamed because of their race could secure a judgement that made this clear, both in the findings and in the determination of damages. In particular, in a case like this, there should be no need to prove particular damage: the defamation should be sufficient for a judgement and damages.

As regards defamatory statements about a racial or religious group, of the general form “All/most Group X members display Bad Characteristic Y”, it would be possible to extend existing laws to allow class actions. That hasn’t been allowed in the past, but there is no good reason for a distinction between defaming someone as an individual and as a member of a group.

That would leave the case of statements that might “offend, insult or humiliate” members of some group without being defamatory in the ordinary sense of the term. While it’s easy to imagine some very troublesome cases, there are a number of defenses in relation to academic discussions, public interest matters and fair personal comment, and so far there isn’t significant evidence that the provisions have in fact worked to constrain free speech in any meaningful way. Still, if there are changes needed, this is the place to look.

fn1. In this context, the defence that Bolt honestly believed the claims to be true would be irrelevant. In any case, he obviously took so little care in his research that a defence of this kind would fail to meet the test of reasonable belief.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Midweek message board

September 28th, 2011 15 comments

Here’s an open thread for succinct posts on any topic. Lengthy side disputes and idees fixes to the sandpit, please. Also, thanks to everyone for (mostly) maintaining civil discussion, despite my limited monitoring. Please keep it up.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Another sandpit

September 28th, 2011 17 comments

At long last, another sandpit for those continuing debates people have been waiting for

Categories: Regular Features Tags:


September 28th, 2011 119 comments

An open thread on this topic. Obviously, please avoid anything that might be seen as defamatory, either of Bolt, the plaintiffs, other commentators or anyone else.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The five stages of Gillard grief

September 28th, 2011 41 comments

The stages of grief when a political leader is doomed differ a little in sequence from the classic Kubler-Ross order, since bargaining is a real process rather than an adjustment mechanism. Altering the order to Denial, Anger, Depression, Acceptance and Bargaining, I’d say the Labor Caucus is now in the Depression stage. Acceptance must happen before too long – the evidence that Labor will be crushed under Gillard is overwhelming and no-one really wants to try a third leader in less than two years.So, after Acceptance, it will be time for Bargaining. The key is for Rudd to accept enough collegial control to prevent a repetition of the failure last time.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The poverty of rationality

September 25th, 2011 90 comments

Steve Williamson has written a much longer critique of Zombie Economics. It’s a lot more temperate in tone than the blog post I criticised here, and there are some valid points. Nevertheless, the new version exhibits the same fundamental confusion I pointed out last time, trying to claim that rationality assumptions are both important and unfalsifiable.

I’m criticising it again because, in making this mistake, Williamson is not exactly Robinson Crusoe[1]. The same confusion is evident among a great many economists, and even more among proponents of rational choice models in political science and other social sciences. This, despite the fact that the key error was skewered by William Hazlitt nearly two centuries ago, writing on self-love and benevolence.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Living in the 70s* (repost from CT)

September 21st, 2011 114 comments

A bunch of standard measures of US economic wellbeing (median household income, real wages for workers with high school education, educational attainment by age 25 and so on) show strong improvement from 1945 to the early 1970s, followed by stagnation or very slow growth thereafter. A variety of arguments, have been put forward to suggest that the standard statistical measures understate improvements in wages, incomes and so on since the 1970s. Some of these arguments are valid (for example household size has fallen), some not (for example, the fact that we now have more of goods that have become relatively cheaper). Regardless of validity, the main reason people believe these arguments is that, for anyone who was around at the time, it seems implausible that our parents’ living standards in the 1970s were comparable to our own today (assuming roughly similar class positions)

This reasoning is invalid for a reason that should be familiar to those on the conservative side of debates over inequality. The measures mentioned above compare snapshots of incomes at different times. But (as conservatives regularly point out) standards of living are determined mainly by lifetime incomes, not by income in any particular year. Given the pattern described above, lifetime income for someone who worked, say, from 1940 to 1985 was well below that for someone in a similar class position who started work in 1970, just when the long increase in real wages was slowing for most and stopping for some. For every year of their working life, the 1970 starter gets a wage (adjusted for age, education and so on) that’s as high as the maximum attained by the 1940 starter after 30 years of steady growth. Unsurprisingly, that translates into a bigger house, and more of most items that require savings, whether or not their price has risen relative to the CPI.

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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

My comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East …

September 21st, 2011 20 comments

… got some interesting reactions on Crooked Timber. Its is set out over the fold. I’m confident readers who take a little time to think about it will realise it’s far superior to existing policy, and to any alternative proposed so far.

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Categories: World Events Tags:

The Oz as a (dysfunctional) group blog

September 19th, 2011 108 comments

The latest round of controversy between Robert Manne and The Australian has followed a pattern that is now familiar. Manne presents the evidence that The Australian routinely distorts the news to fit its political agenda, and equally routinely denies that it has any such agenda. The Oz responds with a stream of opinion pieces, snarky items in Cut and Paste, objectionable cartoons and so on.

If we try to understand this in old media terms, it’s a bit hard to follow. Not only does the Oz violate basic rules like separation between news and opinions, but its reactions seem absurdly oversensitive. As I and others have demonstrated many times now, a single piece of criticism from a relatively obscure academic can drive the country’s only national newspaper (not counting the Fin with its special focus) into absurd paroxysms of rage.

On the other hand, if you think of the Australian as a rightwing group blog (readers can fill in their own examples), everything makes sense.

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Categories: #NewsCorpFail, #Ozfail, Media Tags:

Obama flicks jobs switch

September 17th, 2011 20 comments

That’s the title of my most recent Fin column, over the fold

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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

The just fight not fought

September 14th, 2011 72 comments
Categories: World Events Tags:

Socialised health care as feasible utopia (crosspost from CT)

September 8th, 2011 69 comments

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I got a lot out of Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias, and am still hoping our long-promised book event comes to fruition. The general idea of the book was in line with my thinking that technocratic rationality, of the kind offered by, say Obama or Blair, is not a sufficient answer to the irrationalist tribalism of the right – the left needs a transformative vision to offer hope of a better life, both for the increasing proportion of the population in rich countries who are losing ground as a result of growing inequality and for the great majority of the world’s population who are still poor by OECD standards[2]. So, Utopia matters.

But it’s just as important that utopia be feasible. Utopia as a dream may be comforting, but is unlikely to inspire effective political action. And attempts to implement a utopia that isn’t feasible are bound to end in failure, quite possibly disastrous failure, as the experience of communism showed us.

So, my idea was to think about what kind of transformative vision might be both feasible, and capable of inspiring effective action. I had a first go at this here and here, in relation to education.

Turning to health care, we could start with a utopian ideal where everyone got all the health care that could benefit them. But that would be utopian in the pejorative sense – the scope for expanding health services is effectively infinite, and the resources available to society are not.

Thinking about feasible utopia, on the other hand, it seems to me that the system of socialised health care in modern social democracies is not a bad model. That is, if all of society worked like the health care system at its best, we could regard the political project of social democracy as a success.
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Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

Out of the Crooked Timber of Humanity, no Straight Thing was ever Formed

September 6th, 2011 18 comments

That’s the tagline of Crooked Timber, the group blog of which I’ve been a member for quite a few years. I knew that it was quoted by Isaiah Berlin as a translation of something written by Kant, but I’ve never, until yesterday, seen it in a more complete context. That’s when I finally stumbled across Berlin’s, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Chapter 1 of which ‘The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West’ ends as follows

a liberal sermon which recommends machinery designed to prevent people from doing each other too much harm, giving each human group sufficient room to realise its own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends without too much interference with the ends of others, is not a passionate battle-cry to inspire men to sacrifice and martyrdom and heroic feats. Yet if it were adopted,it might yet prevent mutual destruction, and, in the end, preserve the world. Immanuel Kant[1], a man very remote from irrationalism, once observed that ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.’ And for that reason, no perfect solution is, not merely in practice, but in principle, possible in human affairs, and any determined attempt to produce it is likely to lead to suffering, disillusionment and failure.

Broadly speaking, I’m sympathetic to what Berlin is saying here. Revolutionary utopianism has been a disaster, particularly for the left. But, we still need a feasible version of utopia to oppose to the appeal of irrationalist tribalism and the naked self-interest of the top 1 per cent. And, whatever Berlin may have intended by it, “prevent people from doing each other too much harm” should not mean leaving the rich to enjoy the fruits of a system constructed in their own interests, and letting the devil take the hindmost.

A social democratic and feasible utopia should giving all human beings (individually and as a member of various groups) sufficient room and resources to pursue their own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends with a reasonably equal capability of achieving ends that are feasible given the resources available to society as a whole.

It’s hard to spell out what that means, but I think easy enough to see that developed societies were moving in that direction, broadly speaking, until the 1970s, and are mostly moving away from it today (with some exceptions in areas like gay rights). The failure of the market liberal model to deliver on its promises, evident in the global financial crisis, along with the current struggle over austerity provides an opportunity to recover some of the ground lost in the last thirty years while, hopefully preserving the gains.

fn1. As in many such cases, our blog’s name and tagline owe at least as much to Berlin’s translation as to Kant’s original.

Categories: Philosophy, Politics (general) Tags:

After Gillard

September 3rd, 2011 186 comments

I’m not always in tune with the political zeitgeist, but my decision to run a post advocating a dignified resignation for Julia Gillard was made just ahead of the rush. Of course, the option of voluntarily stepping aside has now been foreclosed. When Gillard goes (I don’t think there’s a remaining question of “if”) it will be as a result the usual messy and unpleasant process of assembling a sufficient number of votes (not necessarily a majority) to render her position untenable.

Both because I don’t want to see any last-minute stuffups, I hope the carbon tax and mining tax legislation is passed before she goes. Certainly, whether or not she supported these measures, she did the hard yards to get them through.

On the question of her replacement, I had previously dismissed Rudd, on the basis that his abrasive personality and micro-management tendencies (not apparent in his public persona, but well-attested) would make him unacceptable to his colleagues. However, the High Court decision on asylum seekers changes all that. Rudd has more credibility on this issue than anyone else in the party. Labor has no choice but to revert to a more humane position and stress the point that the Court decision undermines Abbott as well as Gillard. It now seems highly unlikely that a policy based on long-term detention of people who have already been assessed as refugees can stand up, wherever they are held.

Stephen Smith seems like the natural choice for deputy, and it would be sensible to find a ministerial spot for Gillard, all of which would permit a reshuffle.

No one can tell for sure, but I think the return of Rudd would put the spotlight on Abbott’s total fraudulence, maybe even paving the way for the Rudd vs Turnbull election we should have had last time.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags: