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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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The big one

November 4th, 2008 42 comments

Barring an unforeseen catastrophe, Barack Obama will be elected president of the United States tomorrow. Barring an unforeseen miracle, by the time he is inaugurated, the US (and much of the rest of the world) will be in the deepest recession for decades. This is going to be a huge challenge, and two months of drift certainly won’t help. Paul Krugman is calling (not sure how seriously) for an interim government of national unity. It seems highly unlikely, though, even in the face of a failure as complete as that of any Administration since Hoover’s (or maybe Buchanan’s) that Bush will be willing to cede even one day of power to the incoming Democrats.

The situation when Obama takes over will be one of huge challenges and huge opportunities. The challenges are obvious: the economy in a gigantic mess, a string of foreign policy disasters and military misadventures and a deeply divided country. Only changes that are both radical and well designed will fix these problems, and this is a difficult combination to pull off.

The opportunities are the flip side of this. Not only does Obama seem likely to come in with big Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress and a big popular mandate*, but the severity of the crisis has undermined what seemed like unalterable political taboos. The Republican Administration has just nationalised a large chunk of the banking system, and has long since abandoned any adherence to notions like balanced budgets. In these circumstances, the idea that policies of expanded government intervention are too radical for Americans to contemplate seem only marginally less silly than a literal acceptance of the McCain clam that Obama’s victory would constitute a referendum in favour of socialism.

Looking at what Obama needs to do, the big items are bringing the financial system back under control, rebalancing the tax system while substantially increasing tax revenue in the long term and completing the New Deal, particularly with respect to health care. More on all these items soon.

* In this context, I don’t think it’s critical that the Dems win the 60 Senate seats required to stop a filibuster under the Senate’s arcane procedural rules. It’s usually possible to peel off a few moderate votes. And, in any case, it’s just a procedural rule that can be abolished by simple majority. The threat of that happening will probably be enough to prevent overuse of this device.

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Neoliberalism defined

September 27th, 2008 73 comments

I’ve been arguing since the dotcom boom and bust that the poor performance of (particularly US) financial markets provides strong evidence against the claim that neoliberalism provides a coherent and effective alternative to social democracy. One objection that’s been made to this argument is that “neoliberalism” is a poorly-defined pejorative. It’s true all political terms are elastic and it’s hard to find any that are used, with more or less the same meaning, by both friends and foes. The only one I can think of is “social-democratic”, though you could perhaps make a case for “liberal” in the US sense. Words like “conservative”, “democratic” and “socialist” have become just about meaningless.

By contrast, I think “neoliberalism” is a comparatively well-defined term. It’s mostly, though not exclusively used in a pejorative sense, so perhaps something like “free-market liberalism” would be better. This post from 2002 gives my definition and some reasons why I thought then that neoliberalism was a failure. I don’t see much reason to revise my assessment in the light of events between now and then.

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No Libationals today?

July 25th, 2008 11 comments

Having made the bold predictions, some time back, that neither the Nationals, nor the Liberals, would ever win another election in Queensland or nationally, I gave myself two bob each way by explaining that this was because a merger, or a completely new party, was a precondition for defeating Labor. Everything looked to be going swimmingly until last night, when the Liberals suddenly backed out of the merger they’d agreed with the Nationals. On the face of it, this didn’t look too good for my record as a political tipster (which had been improving a bit).

But the great thing about an each-way bet is that there is more than one way to win. Whatever happens now as regards the merger, the Libationals have made such a mess of things that it’s hard to see Labor losing here for another couple of terms, by which time the merger will presumably have happened. And what’s true in Queensland is almost certainly true nationally. Short of an econoic catastrophe, the next serious prospect for a Libational win is that provided by the lamentable NSW government, which is not due to face the voters until 2011, IIRC.

Update Thanks to a court order, the merger has gone ahead. Given these farcical events, my prediction looks like winning both ways. Not only have the Libs and Nats ceased to exist, but they still don’t look like a plausible alternative to Labor.

Great news!

July 22nd, 2008 40 comments

The arrest in Serbia of Radovan Karadzic is great news for the world and for Serbia. For the many victims of the genocidal campaign undertaken by Karadzic’s regime in Bosnia, there’s the prospect of long-delayed justice. Of course, Karadzic is entitled to a fair trial, and a conviction is by no means certain, given the need to prove his personal responsibility, but at least the issues will be tried.

It’s excellent also as a signal that the new Serbian government is going to be part of the world, rather than persisting with the poisonous nationalism that has done so much damage (to ordinary Serbs as much as anyone).

Finally, for all those in governments around the world who even now are giving orders for torture and murder, it’s a reminder that no matter how strong their position might seem and how long they can evade justice, it will catch up with them in the end.

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Photo mosaic for union rights in Zimbabwe

June 20th, 2008 10 comments

Among the many groups being persecuted by the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe are trade unionists. Here, via Eric Lee at Labourstart is one small way to help them in their struggle. From the UK TUC

Take action now to support Zimbabwean trade unionists on trial – We need your photo now!

On Monday 23 June, just days before the Presidential run-off election, Lovemore Matombo and Wellington Chibebe, President and General Secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) will be in court to face charges of ‘spreading falsehoods prejudicial to the state’ – or rather, telling the truth about violence in Zimbabwe. As part of their bail conditions they have been banned from addressing political or public gatherings for almost the whole election campaign. These charges and bail conditions are clear breaches of free speech and freedom to associate.

We are urging people everywhere to protest at attempts to silence these men, and at the state-sponsored violence and intimidation which has intensified since the first round of elections in March.

If Lovemore and Wellington aren’t able to address a public gathering themselves, you can help them to with this campaign action, but you’ll need to hurry.

We are making a giant photo mosaic of Lovemore and Wellington, using pictures of hundreds of their supporters from around the world – and we want to use your photo as one tiny part of it. We’ll get this printed on a large banner as a focus for the London demonstration on 23 June, and will make the image available to other international demonstrations and to the media.

This is a last minute campaign, so we need to get your photos in immediately.

Update The last minute has passed, unfortunately. I got an email in reply saying “Thanks for your email, however we’ve had now to stop accepting new photos in order for us to prepare the mosaic. There are still things you can do to help…

Contact the Minister of Justice in Zimbabwe, asking for the charges to be dropped. Visit http://www.actsa.org/page-1370-Action_for_democracy_in_Zimbabwe.html for more information on how to do this.”

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Voltaire, Mill and Steyn

June 10th, 2008 70 comments

Via Ken Parish at Troppo it appears that well-known bigot and war advocate Mark Steyn is being prosecuted under Canadian hate speech laws. At this point it’s customary to (mis)quote Voltaire about defending to the death his right to say things. It’s much better, in general, to point to John Stuart Mill whose works such as On Liberty provide an overwhelming case against restrictions on the freedom of speech, and particularly political speech.

In this case, there’s no need to go through Mill’s arguments in detail. A case like this is obviously going to turn out badly whether Steyn wins, and gets an undeserved triumph or loses and gets to paint himself as a martyr. It will certainly do nothing to refute his claims. Rather it’s better to point out his fraudulent bigotry, starting with this ludicrous 9/11 conspiracy theory. I had a few goes at this back in the day, when people other than RWDBs took Steyn seriously. At this point, refuting Steyn is scarcely necessary (or wasn’t until this silly prosecution gave him oxygen).

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Obama!

June 4th, 2008 78 comments
.!.

I’m very happy about Barack Obama’s win in the Democratic primary. A win for Obama would do a lot to change the perception of the US in the world, and the reality, greatly for the better. Of course, given that we are now into the eighth year of the worst presidency in US history, Hillary Clinton (or any other Democrat) would also have offered a huge change for the better, but Obama offers, in addition, a clear break with the past. The converse is that, if Obama loses, the consequences for US standing in the world will be dire. McCain has a largely unjustified reputation in the US as a moderate and a maverick, but the world as a whole would rightly see an election victory for him as a continuation of Bush.

My record tipping elections is not great, though I called the 2007 election for Labor ahead of most pundits. It remains to be seen whether I’ll get even a passing grade on my prediction, in January, of a relatively narrow win for an Obama-Clinton ticket over McCain-Lieberman for the Republicans. I’ve got the nominees right, and Hillary for VP seems like a no-brainer. On the other hand, while choosing an ex-Democrat Independent as a running mate still seems to me to give McCain his best chance of winning, he doesn’t even make most of the lists I’ve seen, though this guy shares my view.

Assuming Obama-Clinton go up against a ticket of McCain-genericRepublican, I expect and hope for a Democratic victory in November. But in politics you can never be sure.

The Wickeds buy

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The flame of nationalism

April 24th, 2008 58 comments

As the Olympic torch touches down in Australia, it is hard to see how any good can come of the entire exercise.

After Kevin Rudd’s visit to Beijing, which seemed to herald a newly mature relationship between Australia and China, we’ve spent a week or more embroiled in a petty squabble, of a kind which is all too familiar in international relations, over the role of Chinese torch attendants/security guards, with the Australian government insisting that all security will be provided by our police and the Chinese saying that the attendants will “protect the torch with their bodies”.

George Orwell observed over 60 years ago that

Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.

and history since then has given plenty of examples. It looks as if the 2008 Olympics will join them.
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Categories: Politics (general), Sport Tags:

Dead heats and democracy

March 13th, 2008 32 comments

I can’t resist a racing metaphor to describe the problem that’s now facing the US Democrats, but one that is a more-or-less generic problem for democracy. In any system of government, there is a problem of succession, which has a large contingent element. In monarchies, for example, the absence of an adult male heir can produce crises of all kinds (in England, this problem recurred in different forms for all the Tudors from Henry VIII onward). Dictators rarely nominate a capable successor until the last possible moment, so their sudden death often brings about the collapse of the regime. To avoid this, it’s common to see a quasi-hereditary succession which rarely works well for more than one generation.

In democracy, unexpectedly close election results can cause big problems, since there is always a range of uncertainty in which normally unimportant procedural decisions or rule violations become critical. Obvious recent examples include the Bush-Gore race in 2000, the Mexican election of 2006, the recent election in Kenya and now the Democratic nomination race. Such close races inevitably produce a lot of bitterness and can lead to disaster. At the moment it seemed as if the threatened breakdown of democracy in Kenya has been averted, but it’s by no means certain that the power-sharing agreement there will hold. And it’s far from clear that the closeness of the race between Obama and Clinton won’t produce a vicious contest that sinks the eventual winner.

It’s tempting, and sometimes correct, to argue that the sharp divisions that emerge at times like these were there all along. But often this is no more valid than the kind of analysis which ascribes civil strife to “ancient ethnic hatreds” when these are, in reality, little more than rationalisations of contemporary power politics. Certainly, in the case of the Democratic nomination, it’s clear that the vast majority of Democrats would be happy with either candidate and likely that the majority would prefer an immediate end, regardless of the choice, to a continued contest.

Rather than reflecting deeper underlying problems, to a large extent, these succession crises really are problems of institutional design. Some kinds of institutions manage succession problems better than others. Confining attention to democratic systems (broadly defined), I’d argue that there are substantial benefits to simple and definite procedures. If US national elections (including primaries) were based on popular vote (whether first-past-the-post or instant runoff) the likelihood of a result so close as to permit serious dispute would be very small. By contrast, when the result is reached from 50 state ballots, each operating under local and variable rules, the only surprise is that crises can be averted.

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

This one’s for you, Al

February 25th, 2008 40 comments

For quite some time now, regular commenter Al Loomis has been decrying representative democracy as no democracy at all, and extolling the Progressive alternative based on citizen’s initiative, referendum and recall. I don’t have a strong opinion on any of these, except that none would make enough of a difference for me to fight hard one way or the other.

The main reason I believe this is that all of these constitutional arrangements have been in place in California (along with some other US states) for many years, and my, admittedly casual, observation of that state suggests that it is no better governed than, say, Queensland. Moreover, to the extent that the special features of the Californian system have worked the results have been mixed at best.

As regards initiative and referendum, the most prominent instance is surely Proposition 13, which limited property taxes. While it’s no doubt an exaggeration to blame this measure for the decline of the California public school system, it’s pretty clear that this was a bad policy choice. That’s true even if you’re hostile to taxation, since the property tax loss has been made up in part by a range of other taxes and charges which yield less revenue but almost certainly more distortions.

The big example of recall was that of Gray Davis who was replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger. As far as I can see Davis was an adequate governor, as is Schwarzenegger, so my view that these provisions don’t make much of a difference is unshaken by this case, And even though these provisions date back to the early 20th century this was only the second time a governor had been recalled in US history.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to let Al have his say, at any length he wants, on why adopting these provisions would transform Australia into a truly democratic society. As always, keep the discussion civilised, but within that constraint, I’d be keen to see some vigorous debate.

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

What have the Romans ever done for us?*

February 22nd, 2008 45 comments

Most long-lived dictatorships have at least some positive achievements, and, the world being what it is, most dictators have some unattractive enemies. These facts have generated a couple of marathon threads at Crooked Timber, following Chris Bertrams post’ on Castro and mine on Suharto** , not to mention vast numbers on Saddam.

What are the implications of these facts, both for the policies we should support and for the moral judgements we should offer? I have a couple of fairly obvious points to make about policy, and some less clear thoughts about moral judgements.

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Sorry

February 13th, 2008 52 comments

I watched the opening of Parliament this morning, and the speeches by Rudd and Nelson. Like lots of others I was moved by the occasion, and hopeful that we as a nation can finally make good on the spirit of reconciliation. Rudd’s speech was the best I’ve seen from him, and the promise of co-operation on this issue was inspiring. Nelson was rather defensive, but much of this was probably necessary to secure the unanimous vote in favour of the motion, and his willingness to participate in a joint effort with the government is welcome. Bob Hawke, Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating were all present.

Hard though it was to get to this point, that was the easy bit. It’s going to take a lot of resources, and a willingness to ignore ideological shibboleths of all kinds, if we are to achieve the kinds of improvements in health, education and general living standards promised today by Rudd and Nelson.

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How big a disaster ?

January 15th, 2008 107 comments

The publication of new survey estimates suggesting that there were 150 000 violent deaths in Iraq in the first three years after the invasion, and as many as 400 000 excess deaths (relative to the death rate immediately before the war) has provoked a predictable flurry of blog activity. The main concern has not been the figures themselves, but whether and to what extent these results are consistent with previous, even higher estimates, by Burnham and others, often referred to as the “Lancet survey”. You can read the Crooked Timber view, with which I broadly agree, here and here, and follow links to others on all sides. For an opposing view from Oz, you can go to Harry Clarke.

It seems to me that most of this debate is, like most blog and media wars, is missing the main point. The central fact is that the Iraq war has turned out worse, on almost every count, than even the most pessimistic critics suggested .

As regards war deaths, there were few precise predictions, but suggestions that the death toll would amount to more than a hundred thousand were at the upper limit. Here’s a piece written two years into the war saying that such estimates were way off the mark. If the latest estimate of 150 000 violent deaths in the first three years of war is correct, the pessimists had already been proved right by then, and we’ve had nearly three more bloody years since. Almost certainly, the war has, by now, caused the deaths of well over half a million people who would be alive if the policy prevailing in 2002 (sanctions, but with essential imports of food and medicine permitted under Oil-For-Food) had continued. That includes over 4000 US and Coalition troops killed, along with tens of thousands severely wounded.

The UN suggested war would drive 1 million refugees from Iraq, and internally displace another million. The true figure could be twice as large.

While Treasury Secretary Lawrence Lindsay was sacked for predicting that the war could cost $100 to $200 billion, extreme pessimists like William Nordhaus were projecting a total cost of $1 trillion. It’s already clear that the total cost will be closer to $2 trillion, and it could well be more.

This war has been a disaster for everyone involved*. Quibbling over how large a disaster seems pretty pointless.

* With a handful of exceptions: mercenaries and contractors on the US side, Shia radicals like Sadr in Iraq, and the Iranian government waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces.

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

Ergas v Quiggin on risk and social democracy

January 8th, 2008 34 comments

A while ago, I wrote a piece for the Centre for Policy Development (PDF) , making the case that risk and its management, in various forms, would be the central policy issue of the 21st century. The central idea of the piece was to show how an improved understanding of risk could contribute to a modernised social democratic model.

The piece got a bit of attention, and has now been paid the compliment of a full length reply in Quadrant by Henry Ergas . Ergas raises some good points, and usefully extends the discussion in important respects. Unfortunately, he misses the point of the article fairly thoroughly, to the point where he often seems to be arguing against an imaginary opponent. His repeated claims that the paper is unclear reflect the problems he is having matching my paper to the one he thinks he is reading. The debate isn’t helped by the fact that, although Quadrant is now at least partly online, the idea of hyperlinks is too new for its editor, with the result that most of Ergas readers will probably not have read the piece he is criticising.
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Categories: Economic policy, Politics (general) Tags:

Weekend reflections (Iowa edition)

January 5th, 2008 73 comments

It’s time again for weekend reflections. With the 2008 US Presidential campaign now officially underway, I’d be interested in hopes, fears and predictions after Iowa. My massively premature call on the result: a relatively narrow win for an Obama-Clinton ticket over McCain-Lieberman for the Republicans. Feel free to fill in, and dispute, the underlying analysis.

Happy New Year

January 2nd, 2008 31 comments

A bit belatedly, Happy New Year to everyone. Some optimistic wishes for 2008

* The end of the Bush era will prove to be the end of political power for the Republican party in its current (religious right/militarist/pro-rich class warfare) form, and will be followed by a return to reality-based politics

* The crisis in Pakistan will provoke the world’s leaders into serious action on nuclear disarmament. Pretty clearly, unless this happens, nuclear weapons will sooner or later fall into the hands of someone who wants to use them. There was quite a good article in Prospect unfortunately paywalled, making the point that Gordon Brown could take a lead on this if the UK (one of the prime examples of a country maintaining nuclear weapons for no better reason than national pride) was willing to offer disarmament as a bargaining chip.

* The Rudd government will deliver the goods on education, industrial relations and global warming. Despite some silly mis-steps, I’ve been favourably surprised so far at how well things have turned out.

* The slow-motion financial crisis will stay slow-motion producing a gradual reversal of the explosion of dubious debt derivatives seen over the past decade, and a relatively smooth rebalancing of household and national balance sheets.