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Tu quoque

April 19th, 2014 133 comments

I’ve written many posts and articles making the point that the political right, in most English speaking countries[1] has been taken over by a tribalist post-truth politics in which all propositions, including the conclusions of scientific research, are assessed in terms of their consistency or otherwise with tribal prejudices and shibboleths.

Very occasionally, intellectuals affiliated with the political right (conservatives and libertarians) will seek to deny this, arguing that isolated instances are being blown out of proportion, and that the right as a whole is committed to reasoned, fact-based argument and acceptance of “inconvenient truths’ arising from the conclusions of scientific research[2], [3].

But, far more often their response takes the form of a tu quoque or, in the language of the schoolyard, “you’re another”. That is, they seek to argue that the left is just as tribalist and anti-science as the right. Favored examples of alleged left tribalism included any rhetoric directed at rightwing billionaires ( Murdoch, Rinehart the Kochs). The standard examples of alleged left anti-science are GMOs, nuclear power and anti-vaxerism, but it is also sometimes claimed that US Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to be creationists.

I’ll argue over the fold that these examples don’t work. What’s more important, though, is what the tu quoque argument says about those who deploy it, and their view of politics. The implied claim is that politics is inherently a matter of tribalism and emotion, and that there is no point in complaining about this. The only thing to do is to pick a side and stick to it. What passes for political argument is simply a matter of scoring debating points for your side and demolishing those of the others. So, anyone who uses tu quoque as a defence, rather than seeking to dissuade their own side from tribalist and anti-science rhetoric, deserves no more respect than the tribalists and science deniers themselves, who at least have the defence of ignorance.

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Categories: Politics (general), Science Tags:

Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail (repost from 2004)

June 23rd, 2013 37 comments

One of the more tiresome points being made in relation to the revelations from Edward Snowden is that there is nothing really new here. And, of course, it’s true that, if you’ve been paying careful attention to all the news on this topic, disregarding both official assurances and the wilder conspiracy theories, and thinking through the implications, the material leaked by Snowden is more confirmation than revelation. But, sad to say, that’s not the case for most of us. I think I’ve been paying more attention than most, and I still learned a lot from the latest news.

That’s all a preamble for a repost of a piece I wrote in 2004, in relation to an earlier revelation along similar lines, with a link to an even earlier piece from 2001, making the general case that secret intelligence is useless.
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Categories: Politics (general), World Events Tags:

Non-core health promises

June 20th, 2013 8 comments

When campaigning for office, Campbell Newman promise public servants they had nothing to fear from an LNP government

Breaking that promise, and announcing 10-20 000 job cuts, Newman promised no cuts in staff delivering “frontline” services

Breaking that promise, and sacking large numbers of frontline staff, Newman promised that, even if staff were cut, frontline services would not be

Given this trajectory, it was only a matter of time before the word “core”, made infamous by John Howard’s “core promises”, appeared in government rhetoric. And here it is. Wide Bay Hospital and Health Service chief executive, Adrian Pennington, who is busy abandoning or privatising a wide range of preventative care services, services to the elderly and so on, says, of cuts to emergency staff

There have been no cuts to front-line services in our emergency departments in Bundaberg, Hervey Bay or Maryborough. Emergency departments are core services to keep our people safe.

Pennington’s claim is disputed in the article, but what’s notable here is the emergence, as with Howard, of the implied non-care category of services we will have to do without.

We can all expect plenty more of this under Abbott.

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Paris in the Spring (crossposted from Crooked Timber)

May 28th, 2013 27 comments

Sunday was Mother’s Day in Paris, and also the occasion of a big demonstration against equal marriage, titled “Manif Pour Tous”, presumably with the unspoken reservation “sauf homos”. I ran into a bit of the crowd, coming back from this event [^1], and they were certainly loud and boisterous. The idea that this was a rightwing version of a “Paris Spring” occurred to me, and also to this commentator in Le Monde.

I’ve seen it suggested that resistance to equal marriage is stronger in France, because there’s no legal recognition for church marriages – everyone has to go through the same civil ceremony. I’d be interested in other thoughts on that.

Overall, the real appeal of the right still seems to me to lie in anti-immigrant rhetoric and, within Europe, on attempts to blame the people of one country or another for a crisis of the entire global system of financial capitalism. The backlash against equal marriage seems to me to be the last gasp of the cultural right, rather than the basis for a sustained upsurge. But then, what I know about social developments in France would fit comfortably on a restaurant menu, so I’d be interested in what others have to say on this..

[^1]: I’m actually in town for this conference, where I’ll be talking about bounded rationality and financial crises. Essentially a preliminary attempt to describe the “Black Swan” problem in terms of formal decision theory, with the hope that this will lead to a more developed theory of financial bubbles and busts.

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

Explaining democracy (crosspost)

February 26th, 2013 77 comments

Crooked Timber recently ran a book event on The Priority of Dem>ocracy by Knight and Johnson, which produced a lot of interesting discussion about various kinds of arguments in favor of democracy. I’d like to look at a couple of related questions: why does (representative) democracy exist, and why has it become the dominant form of government in the modern world? Here’s a two-part explanation, which doesn’t invoke any ideal theory or even much of a pragmatic case that democracy will produce good policies.

(A) Representative government, with elections and a party system is attractive to those competing for political power because it provides a peaceful way of displacing one set of rulers with another, and gives the losers the knowledge they will always have another chance. It’s stable because it provides a set of rules for succession that (nearly) always work

(ii) Representative systems tend naturally to universal suffrage, since both those who gain the suffrage and one faction of the existing electorate will always benefit from extension

An obvious question on (i) is why representative government took so long to emerge. I have some ideas but I’ll leave it to commenters to discuss if you want.

If the explanation I’ve given works to explain the existence and survival of representative democracy, it doesn’t say much about the character of that democracy. It’s obviously consistent with a duopoly made up of two more-or-less similar factions in an oligarchic ruling class, but it doesn’t preclude versions closer to the ideal where representatives actually represent their constituents.

I’m an econ-blogger, not a political theorist, so I won’t be surprised to learn that these thoughts are wholly unoriginal. But they seem to have some bearing on our recent discussion, and not to have been raised there, so I’m opening up to others.

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

How feasible is a guaranteed minimum income (crosspost from CT)

August 8th, 2012 19 comments

We were talking at CT not long ago about universal basic income policy, and there were a variety of opinions about the desirability, political sustainability and implications of such a policy. But, before arguing about those issues, it’s useful to consider whether a basic income is feasible at all and, if so, what kinds of tax policies, and adjustments to other welfare policies, would be required to support it. I’ve considered the relatively easy case of a guaranteed minimum income, rather than a universal basic income paid to everyone, as advocated by Philippe von Parijs and others.

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Categories: Economic policy, Politics (general) Tags:

All culture wars, all the time

March 18th, 2012 27 comments

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a post about the way in which all US political issues are viewed, particularly from the right, through the lens of the culture wars. The same is true for the large segments of the right in other English-speaking countries that take their lead from the US. I decided to get it done after reading this piece from Jonathan Haidt in the NYT, which makes quite a few of the points I had in mind, but treats political tribalism as an eternal reality (here evo-psych raises its inevitable head) rather than a factor that varies in importance at different times and places.

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Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

Occupied interview

November 1st, 2011 28 comments

A week or so ago I did an interview by Skype videolink with Taryn Hart of Occupied Media, talking about the issues raised by Occupy Wall Street. It’s now available online. I never watch myself on video, but I did listen to the whole thing and, allowing for a fair number of ums, ahs, and circumlocutions, I think the questions gave me the chance to state my ideas, and in some cases to work out on the spot what I thought about various issues.

Categories: Economic policy, Politics (general) 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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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:

Inequality is bad for (almost) everyone

August 12th, 2011 30 comments

Yves Smith, whose Naked Capitalism blog is essential reading, is guestblogging for Glenn Greenwald this week. Her latest post sums up a lot of evidence on the adverse effects of inequality, and includes a reference to a post of mine. In summary, the huge growth of inequality in the US has harmed everyone below the 90th percentile of the income distribution in the obvious way – they get a smaller share of a cake that isn’t growing very fast, and has been shrinking since the crisis began

But even people above that level, but outside the top 1 per cent are worse off in important ways. They’ve maintained or increased their share of national income, but they aren’t rich enough to insulate themselves fully from the adverse consequences of living in a highly unequal society. Yves sums up a bunch of the evidence on thsi.

Finally, there are those in the top 1 per cent of the income distribution, now pulling in 25 per cent of all income. Members of this group can, if they choose, ignore the collapse of the society outside their gated communities, and focus on enjoying the wealth they extract from it. On recent evidence, that’s what they (or at least their political representatives) are doing, while also managing a very effective set of divide and rule tactics for the rest of the population.

Categories: Economic policy, Politics (general) Tags:

Marxism without revolution: Capital

July 1st, 2011 52 comments

I’ve been writing series of posts examining the question – what is left of Marxism, as a way to understand the world, and as a way to change it, once it is accepted that capitalism is not going to be overthrown by a working class revolution. The first was about class and the second about crisis. Now for the final instalment: capital.

By the way, the first post got translated into Spanish, here. It’s one of the things that I still find stunning about the Internet that things like this can happen.
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Marxism without revolution: Crisis

June 26th, 2011 39 comments

I’m writing series of posts examining the question – what is left of Marxism, as a way to understand the world, and as a way to change it, once it is accepted that capitalism is not going to be overthrown by a working class revolution. Last time I talked about class. This post is about crisis. As before, the shorter JQ is “there are lots of valuable insights, but there’s a high risk of political paralysis.”

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Marxism without revolution: Class

June 19th, 2011 48 comments

I’ve mentioned Erik Olin Wright’s Envisaging Real Utopias a couple of times, and I’ve also been reading David Harvey’s Enigma of Capital and Jerry Cohen’s if You’re an Egalitarian How Come you’re so Rich. In different ways, all these books raise the question: what becomes of Marxism if you abandon belief in the likelihood or desirability of revolution[1]? To give the shorter JQ upfront, there are lots of valuable insights, but there’s a high risk of political paralysis.

I plan alliteratively, to organise my points under three headings: Class, Capital and Crisis, and in this post I’ll talk about class

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The innumeracy of the right

June 7th, 2011 37 comments

I wrote a while ago that most of the denialists touting the line that “there has been no statistically significant warming since 1995″ wouldn’t know a t-statistic if it bit them[1]. There’s an even better example in the Letters page of today’s Fin, where JL Goldsworthy of Woorim writes “A carbon tax will save about 0.00001 per cent of anthropogenic emissions, if that”.

We can easily check this estimate. Australia is currently responsible for about 2 per cent of global emissions, and the carbon tax is intended to reduce emissions to 5 per cent below 2000 levels (a target that Tony Abbott also ostensibly supports). Business as usual growth will be at least 25 per cent, so the policy goal is an emissions cut of 30 per cent. Primary school arithmetic tells us that 0.02*0.3 = 0.006 or 0.6 per cent. That is, JL Goldsworthy of Woorim is out by a factor of 60 000.

While this is an extreme case, it’s pretty much routine for the rightwing side of the climate debate. Ludicrous numbers like Goldsworthy’s can be found on just about any rightwing blog you care to visit. I’ve pointed out similarly massive errors by Andrew Bolt, Greg Hunt and Terry McCrann among others.

And they don’t care. The point of the debate is not to get things right but to keep up a steady supply of talking points so that those who have been sucked in by the delusions their opinion leaders spout never catch up with the refutations.

Update Unsurprisingly, this number appears to come from the ludicrous, but dangerous, Alan Jones, already notable for the corruption of Cash for Comment, and for his promotion of race riots, thankfully a rare phenomenon in Australia. It’s hard to say anything good about Jones. But the “respectable” right, exemplified by David Flint and John Howard, embrace and defend him. And not a single self-described “sceptic” has tried to correct this absurd and dishonest claim. If there is a single person on the anti-science side of the debate who cares in the slightest for truth, this is an ideal opportunity to step forward – Bob Carter, Ian Plimer, Don Aitkin and William Kininmonth come to mind as candidates.

fn1. The minority who do know what statistical significance means, and keep circulating this spurious (and now factually false) talking point are even worse. I’ll come back to them in another post.

Categories: Environment, Politics (general) Tags:

May Day

May 1st, 2011 27 comments

It’s the evening of May Day, though as it falls on a Sunday we will (in Queensland at least[1]) celebrate it with that great Australian institution, a long weekend. Last year, I went on the march, this year I ran a triathlon instead[2]. My somewhat confused attitude is, I think, pretty characteristic of the position labour movement more generally.

Updated below

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Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

International realism and dictatorship

April 1st, 2011 41 comments

As a result of the events in the Arab world[1], I’ve been thinking some more about “international realism”, which I take to have the following central premises[2]

1. States have durable, long-term interests and their actions in international affairs are driven by the rational pursuit of those interests

2. The use or threat of military power is the pre-eminent way (or at least one of the primary ways) in which states pursue their interests

It struck me in thinking about recent events that this is essentially a theory for a world of autocracies. (Apologies to those for whom this is old news, but this is a blog, after all). In such a world, international realism reduces to the claim that individuals are driven by rational self-interest. While there are problems with this claim (it’s empirically problematic if self-interest is defined tightly, and tautological if it’s defined by “revealed preference”), it seems like a sensible starting point, at least for the kind of individuals who become successful autocrats.

Moreover, the idea that war is a central part of rational policy makes sense for autocrats. Although war is a negative sum game, it seems reasonable, under a wide range of circumstances to assume that the losses are borne primarily by the autocrat’s subjects, while the gains flow to the autocrats. Even a war that ends with the status quo ante can be beneficial to the rulers on both sides by providing a Malthusian check on a population that might otherwise prove restive, providing an excuse for increased taxation and so on. That implies the failure of the standard negative-sum game argument against war, namely, that both sides would be better off calculating the outcome of war, and agreeing to accept it without a fight.

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Bligh and Fraser sell Port of Brisbane … to themselves

November 10th, 2010 24 comments

According to the Brisbane Times, the Bligh government has just sold the Port of Brisbane to a consortium led by the Queensland Investment Corporation. This must have been a tough negotiation, given that the QIC website states

As a Queensland GOC, QIC’s shareholding Ministers are the Honourable Anna Bligh MP, Premier and Minister for the Arts, and the Honourable Andrew Fraser MP, Treasurer and Minister for Employment and Economic Development

Note: As with the QR sale, it looks as if the government has retained about $1.3 billion of debt in the Port of Brisbane Corporation, which now has no assets, so the net proceeds will be less than half the announced price of $2.3 billion.

Cosmopolitan social democracy

October 24th, 2010 17 comments

Angela Merkel’s recent denunciation of German multiculturalism marks another step in the tightening of ties between the market-liberal right and ethnic-national tribalism, evident in other European countries and in the US (most obviously with the rise of the Tea Party). In part at least, this is a result of weakness. The positive appeal of market liberalism has declined a fair bit since the triumphalist decades of the 1980s and 1990s, and the global financial crisis exposed the failure of its theoretical basis. But there are obvious problems for social democrats in responding to this development. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and have come to the view that it’s better to put up some half-thought ideas for discussion (and maybe debunking) than to wait for a perfect formulation.

The left needs to offer a transformational vision of a better society if it is to motivate the kind of enthusiasm needed to overcome a rightwing politics of tribalism and (often misperceived) self-interest. The 19th/20th century vision of socialism and class solidarity provides a model and a starting point, but that model is no longer adequate, and the political movements it gave rise to are in disarray. We need, a world view that extends the solidarity of social democracy to the whole of humanity [1].

The institutions of social democracy have been developed primarily at the level of the nation-state and the popular appeal of social democracy rests on notions of solidarity which arise most naturally in a relatively homogeneous society. Most of the last few decades have been spent defending the social democratic welfare state against attacks which were largely justified by claims about the need to respond to (market liberal) globalisation. That defence has been surprisingly successful, even when market liberalism seemed to have won conclusive intellectual and political victories. It’s natural to continue that defensive stance in response to the current push for “austerity”, and to organise that defence at a national level, while seeking to refurbish and to some extent rationalise the national welfare state.

That defensive struggle is necessary, but I don’t think social democracy can endure indefinitely in this defensive/managerialist mode. As I said a while ago we need to mobilise a positive alternative to the fear, anger and tribalism on offer from the right. That means setting out goals that are far more ambitious than the incremental changes debated in day-to-day electoral politics. The goals that seem to me to offer the most hope – a world free of nuclear weapons and extreme poverty, an end to the acceptance of war as an instrument of national policy, action to stabilise the global climate – all involve going beyond national governments and concepts of national interest. And, so I believe, does any plausible program to renew and extend social democracy.

The need for global action on issues like nuclear disarmament and climate change is obvious enough. The argument about social democracy is less obvious. In a world where national borders no longer act as an effective barrier to migration, it is harder to justify social welfare systems in terms of solidarity with people like ourselves (since the population is more diverse) or in terms of mutual insurance or past contributions, at least as regards recent arrivals. Particularly where migrant groups are concentrated at the bottom of the income distribution and are therefore net beneficiaries from the welfare state, including health and education systems as well as social insurance. Less obviously perhaps, internationally mobile workers are unlikely to be happy about paying taxes for welfare systems from which they may not benefit. Within the framework of national social welfare systems, the alternatives are to cut back the system for everyone, to discriminate against recent arrivals, or to tighten restrictions on migration.

The alternative is to extend the welfare state beyond national boundaries. This has already happened in a very modest (and often grudging) way with various agreements between national governments, and somewhat more systematically under EU rules which require national governments to treat all EU citizens equally with respect to some social services.

As between very rich and very poor countries, the benefits of this all go one way. People from poor countries gain from access to social services in rich countries, but not vice versa. But we can turn this argument around to say that the achievements of social democracy in the developed world can’t be secure as long as so much of the world is in extreme poverty. As Jeffrey Sachs has argued (and I’ve argued further), ending extreme poverty is entirely feasible, given an effort comparable to that the developed world has put into fighting pointless wars.

The ultimate goal ought to be one in which, everyone, no matter where they happen to be born has access to the basic requirements for a decent life. That doesn’t entail a world government (at least in the sense in which we typically understand the word “government” today) but it does entail a break with ideas based on nation-states as the ultimate focus of sovereignty. One relatively minor, but important step towards this would come with a “contract and converge” approach to CO2 emissions, which would ultimately imply equal entitlements to emissions per person in all countries [2].

All of this seems utopian in (at least) two senses. First, it seems very hard to sell politically. In part this reflects the long-standing distinction between a maximalist statement of long-term goals and a ‘fighting platform’ for a particular election. Part of my argument is that it’s the lack of long-term vision beyond the preservation of past gains that is sapping enthusiasm for social democracy.

But even after making the obvious adjustments to electoral reality, it’s far from obvious how to fashion a platform based on these ideas that is going to attract majority support in the short term. The power of nationalism and tribalism is strong, and the counter-appeal of global idealism goes only so far. On the other hand, it seems as if there is enough support for greens and leftish social democrats to form the basis of a significant minority that would support such ideas. Given a reaction against rightwing austerity politics, this group could form part of a majority coalition with mainstream social democrats.

More importantly, tribalism and monoculturalist nationalism belong to the past (as do essentialist versions of multiculturalism, in which people are defined by birth into some particular culture). The possibility of sustaining, in any country[3] a majority group (or even a dominant minority) that can be defined homogeneously in terms of race, religion, sexual politics and world-view (all at once) is slipping away fast. Part of the rage of the Tea Party is the fact that its adherents at once recognise this and are unwilling to concede the existence of an America that is not overwhelmingly white, Christian and traditionalist in terms of sexual mores and broader social attitudes. So, the more that social democracy and acceptance of social diversity are seen as two sides of the same coin, the better the long term prospects for social democrats.

The deeper question is whether such a program is feasible at all. Traditional views of international politics take the nation-state as an immutable atomic constituent of the system that can’t be wished out of existence by idealistic political movements. But the reality is that the sovereignty of nation-states has been eroded in all sorts of ways over the years since 1945. That’s most obvious in Europe, but all countries are bound up in a web of international arrangements that are increasingly hard to break out of. Big and powerful states like the US, Russia and China still act intermittently on the assumption that the rules don’t apply to them, but such displays (US and Russian military adventures, China’s attempted blackmail over rare earths) typically have high costs and few benefits. The real question is whether (as was assumed unquestioningly in the years leading up the global financial crisis) such constraints work inevitably in the interests of financialised market liberalism or whether they can be turned in more socially productive directions. I don’t know the answer, but I do think that the attempt to do this represents the best hope for a social democratic future.

Obviously, a lot of what I’ve written above is only partly thought through, and at least some of it is doubtless wrong. However, I’m not really interested in dealing with snarky nitpicking and general derailment, so I will exercise a fair bit of discretion in deleting comments I regard as unhelpful. I’ve opened up a new “sandpit” thread where I will direct snark and lengthy off-topic monologues and back-and-forth disputes between commenters. Since this topic will clearly interest Jack Strocchi, I will pre-emptively direct him to the sandpit.

Finally, a few links to things I’ve found useful (not necessarily because I agreed), from John Keane and Policy Network.

fn1. This certainly isn’t a new claim – Ulrich Beck has been arguing for a similar, cosmopolitan and social democratic, position for some time. But it certainly needs a lot of working out and discussion, and blogging provides me with an avenue to try out ideas like this.

fn2. Although I don’t believe the process is as conscious as this, the ferocious rightwing resistance to the reality of climate change ultimately reflects an intuition that some global action of this kind is the only possible response.

fn3. The big potential exceptions are China and perhaps Japan, although it seems obvious that maintaining current restrictions on immigration will be very costly for Japan.

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A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

April 27th, 2010 120 comments

My last post, arguing that the left needed to offer a transformative vision as an alternative to rightwing tribalism has drawn lots of interesting responses, and generated some great comments threads, both here and elsewhere (Some of them: Matt Yglesias,DougJ at Balloon Juice, Democracy in America at the Economist,Aziz Poonawalla at BeliefNet,Geoffrey Kruse-Safford |, and Randy McDonald).

Since my idea was to open things up for discussion, I don’t plan to comment on particular responses. I do want to respond to one theme that came up repeatedly, a combination of discomfort with words like ‘transformation’ and ‘vision’, and a feeling that a politics in which such words are employed is inconsistent with the pursuit of incremental reforms. Even though I stressed the need to learn from such critics as Burke, Hayek and Popper about the need for reform to arise from organic developments in society and to avoid presumptions of omniscience, the mere use of words like ‘vision’ set off lots of alarm bells.

To me, the difficulty of getting this right reflects my opening point in the previous post. After decades of defensive struggle, we on the left no longer know how to talk about anything bigger than the local fights in which we may hope to defend the gains of the past and occasionally make a little progress. But the time is now ripe to look ahead.

My main point in this new post is to reject the idea that there is a necessary inconsistency between incremental progress and the vision of a better society and a better world. (I’ll link back here to my earlier post on Hope, which might be worth reading at this point, for those who have time and interest.)

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After the dead horses (crossposted from Crooked Timber)

April 26th, 2010 24 comments

We’ve had a bit of fun at Crooked Timber lately, pointing out the silliness of those who are supposed to be the intellectual leaders of the right, in its libertarian, neoconservative and Republican tribalist versions. But, as quite a few commenters have pointed out (including Jack Strocchi using the same phrase that occurred to me) the exercise does seem to savor a bit of flogging dead horses.

It seems to me necessary to go beyond this, which was one reason for my post on hope the other day. To make progress, we need to reassess where we stand and then think about where to go next. This is bound to be something of a confused and confusing process. Over the fold, I’ve made some (quite a few) observations, making for a very long post, which is mainly meant to open things up for discussion.

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Hope (crosspost from CT)

April 20th, 2010 27 comments

I posted this at Crooked Timber. I plan something a little more specific to Australia when I get some time

One reason that many on the left of politics preferred Obama to Hillary Clinton is that his rhetoric, at his best, promised something more than incremental reform, a promise summed up by slogans like “Change we can believe in” and “Yes we can”.

Given the political realities of the US, and the obvious fact that Obama is instinctively a pragmatist and centrist, it was never likely that this would translate into radical policy action in the short run. Still, it seemed at least possible that an Obama presidency would begin a renewal of a progressive project of transformation, setting out the goal of a better world. One respect in which this hope has been fulfilled, for me, is in Obama’s articulation of the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and in the small but positive steps he’s taken in this direction.

I plan to talk about the specific issue of nuclear disarmament in more detail in a later post. The bigger point for me is that after decades in which the left has been on the defensive, it’s time for a politics of hope. We need hope to mobilise a positive alternative to the fear, anger and tribalism on offer from the right. Centrist pragmatism provides nothing to match the enthusiasm that can be driven by fear and anger, as we have seen.

What the politics of hope means, to me, is the need to start setting out goals that are far more ambitious than the incremental changes debated in day-to-day electoral politics. They ought to be feasible in the sense that they are technically achievable and don’t require radical changes in existing social structures, even if they may set the scene for such changes in the future. On the other hand, they ought not to be constrained by consideration of what is electorally saleable right now.

Over the fold, I’ve set out some thoughts I have for goals of this kind. At this stage, I’m not looking for debate on the specifics of these goals or the feasibility of achieving them (again, more on this later). Rather, I’d welcome both discussion of the general issue of what kind of politics the left needs to be pursuing, and suggestions of other goals we ought to be pursuing

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Which Road to Serfdom?

April 13th, 2010 125 comments

Both here and at Crooked Timber, libertarianism is getting a bit of a run. So, can anyone find me a copy of Hayek’s prescient 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom, which predicted that the policies of the British Labour Party (policies that were implemented after the 1945 election) would result in relatively poor economic performance, and would eventually be modified or abandoned, a claim vindicated by the triumph of Thatcherism in the 1980s? This book, and its predictive success, seem to play an important role in libertarian thinking.

Despite a diligent search, the only thing I can find is a book of the same title, also written by an FA von Hayek in 1944. This Road to Serfdom predicts that the policies of the British Labour Party, implemented after the 1945 election, would lead to the emergence of a totalitarian state similar to Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, or at least to a massive reduction in political and personal freedom (as distinct from economic freedom). Obviously this prediction was totally wrong. Democracy survived Labor’s nationalizations, and personal freedom expanded substantially. Even a defensible version of the argument (say, a claim that, Labor’s ultimate program included elements that could not be realised without anti-democratic forms of coercion, and that would have to be dropped if these bad outcomes were to be avoided) could only be regarded as raising a hypothetical, but unrealised, cause for concern.. Presumably, this isn’t the book the libertarians have read, so I assume there must exist another of the same title.

Chutzpah

March 23rd, 2010 14 comments

According to the Courier Mail

Anna Bligh has turned down an invitation to debate the opposition leader on her privatisation plans, arguing there would be no point outside an election year.

For chutzpah, this beats the classic illustration (the kid who murdered his parents then appealed for clemency on the grounds that he was an orphan). In case Premier Bligh has forgotten, 2009 was an election year, and she had ample opportunities to debate the proposal before the election.

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Ideology and agnotology

February 22nd, 2010 180 comments

The way in which I’ve generally thought about politics is in terms of ideology and particularly, the divide between the left (socialists, social democrats, labour and related groups) and the right (various strains of conservatives, market liberals and business advocates). But increasingly I doubt that this is the right way to look at things.
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Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy

January 26th, 2010 Comments off

Tristan Ewins has set up a website for the group, Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy. I’ve contributed an article. Go, read and comment (there, not here).

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The prehistory of “liberal fascism”

October 29th, 2009 16 comments

A week or two ago I was doing a bit of work on the Wikipedia article on political correctness, and I came up with what may well be the first introduction of the term (initialised as “p.c.”) to the general public, as represented by the readership of the New York Times, in an article by Richard Bernstein.

At least since the 1970s, the description “politically correct” or, in Australia, “ideologically sound”, had been used within the left to mock those who were excessively concerned with doctrinal and linguistic orthodoxy. The story of how “political correctness” turned from an inside joke to a Marxist-inspired assault on All We Hold Dear is reasonably well known. Bernstein traces its emergence as a pejorative to a conference by the Western Humanities Conference held, appropriately enough, in Berkeley.

For me, at least, the real surprise in this article came right at the end, with a quote from Roger Kimball, now of Pajamas Media, who said “It’s a manifestation of what some are calling liberal fascism”. Apparently, Jonah Goldberg owes him royalties.

Update I haven’t made proper use of the excellent NYTimes search facility until now. This search shows a string of sardonic references to political correctness in the Arts section (and one reference to its use by the Chinese CP) appearing in the years before Bernstein’s piece. After that, there’s an explosion). And “liberal fascism” made its first outing (post-1980 at any rate) in a 1988 story about the Dartmouth Review, spoken by then editor Harmeet Dhillon.

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Some amateur political theory

August 28th, 2009 35 comments

As I mentioned, I’m at a conference on Logic, Game Theory and Social Choice. Attending a session on experiments in voting theory (some very interesting ones for which I will try to find links) I started thinking about a case for Instant Runoff/Single Transferable/Preferential systems (like many Australians I’m a big fan of this system which works well for us, with none of the disasters we’ve seen produced in the US and UK by plurality voting). For those interested, an outline of an idea is over the fold. It’s not my field, so I’m quite prepared to be told my argument is wrong, well-known or both.

Update 29/8 The original claim I made was wrong, but now I have one that, I think, works better.

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Probity and economic liberalism

June 26th, 2009 158 comments

Coming out of the utegate/emailgate fiasco, I’ve seen a lot of variants on the claim that interventionist policies, like OzCar, are conducive to corruption, while economic liberalism reduces the scope for wrongdoing. I’ll just offer a few observations (readers with access to Google can fill in the details).

* If the standard of behavior implicit in criticism of Wayne Swan were applied to the Howard government, hardly any minister in that government could have remained in office. That particularly includes Howard and Turnbull.

* The Howard government breached standards of public probity on a scale never before seen with an Australian government, and approached only by the later years of Hawke-Keating and the worst of state governments. Not only did numerous ministers engage in activity that personally enriched them, and would have been regarded as corrupt in any preceding government, but the government consistently undermined the integrity of the public service, engaged in cronyism to an unprecedented extent and (Howard in particular) lied consistently and shamelessly. With relatively few exceptions, economic liberals didn’t complain about this.

* The Thatcher-Major, Reagan and Bush II governments were among the most sleazy and corrupt in the modern history of the UK and US (Clinton, Bush I and Blair were marginally better).*

In summary, the idea that economic liberalism goes with high standards of public probity doesn’t pass the laugh test.

* Defenders of economic liberalism may wish to disclaim one or more of these. But I’m not going to respond, except with derision, to anyone who tries to dodge the issue by any of the standard excuses familiar from apologists for the failure of Communism: never really tried, the fault of the individuals not the theory, etc.Meet the Browns film

Kruistocht in spijkerbroek psp

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A reminder to myself on terminology

November 24th, 2008 39 comments

I’ve done a few posts here on the implications of the financial crisis for the ideological/political viewpoint often referred to as “neoliberalism”. Various people have objected to this as pejorative, but usually without offering a satisfactory alternative. I’m just starting a paper on the topic and looking over my old files, realised that I’ve previously used “economic liberalism” which seems much more satisfactory.

The crucial point it conveys is that economic liberals may or may not be liberal in the more general political sense – Pinochet is the most extreme example, but the extensive support he got from the Mont Pelerin society and from authoritarian economic liberals like Thatcher illustrates the point. Locally, the range of possibilities consistent with economic liberalism includes authoritarians like Howard and Downer as well as more broadly liberal positions such as those of John Hewson, Malcolm Turnbull and, to some extent, Peter Costello.

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