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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.

Categories: Politics (general), World Events Tags:

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Disciplines and deterrence

November 20th, 2007 21 comments

The NY Times has an interesting piece on statistical studies of the deterrent effect (if any) of the death penalty. For those who want to get straight into fact-free debate, the bottom line is that the evidence is too weak to allow a firm conclusion one way or the other. What’s interesting to me, though is the way in which debates within different disciplines proceed, and the lags in transmission between them. Here I think the NYT story, while excellent in many respects, is quite misleading, presenting a story of deterrence-hypothesis economists facing off against legal critics.

That was pretty much the way things stood in the 1970s, after the publication of Isaac Ehrlich’s study in the American Economic Review claiming that one execution deterred 7 or 8 homicides. Ehrlich used multiple regression analysis (quite difficult and computationally demanding in those days, and correspondingly highly regarded) in an attempt to control for other factors affecting homicide rates and isolate the effect of the death penalty.

Over the next decade, economists learned a lot about the limitations of regression analysis. With limited amounts of data, it’s impossible to avoid mining the data for patterns which are then used to fit the model. And if you try enough specifications on weak data, you can get just about any result you want. A classic exposition of this point was Ed Leamer’s 1983 article “Let’s take the con out of econometrics” which pointed out the fragility of regression analysis on time-series data and picked, as an example, the deterrent effect of the death penalty.
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Last chance to enrol

October 15th, 2007 Comments off

After setting everything up to close the rolls the moment an election is called, the government has waited until Wednesday to dissolve Parliament (I suspect because they can run tax-funded ads until then), which means that it’s not too late for anyone who hasn’t enrolled.

Details here

For readers of this blog, a more likely problem is out-of-date details. You can check on this here

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In case you missed it

August 26th, 2007 17 comments

A website run by the neocon thinktank the Center for Security Policy (members include Frank Gaffney, Richard Perle and Doug Feith) has published (then removed) a piece calling for Bush to use his military powers to “the first permanent president of America” and “ruler of the world”. Along the way he suggests that the population of Iraq should have been wiped out. The website Family Security Matters also runs pieces by Newt Gingrich, Judy Miller and other luminaries.

The full piece is preserved here at Watching the Watchers. I found it via Wikipedia.

As someone would say (though maybe not in this case) “read the whole thing”. It’s impossible to tell if this is satire by someone who has cleverly infiltrated FSM over a lengthy period (quite a few other pieces by the same author, Philip Atkinson were also removed), a sudden outbreak of insanity, or the actual views of CSP/CFM, accidentally revealed and clumsily concealed.

As things stand, there’s a presumption in favor of the last of these views. The piece was published by CSP/FSM and constitutes, at present, their last word on the subject. If they repudiate Atkinson’s views they should say so openly, and live with the embarrassment of having published him.

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G8 and APEC

June 8th, 2007 4 comments

The deal on climate change announced at the G8 conference is, in practical terms, a face-saving compromise rather than a substantive agreement. But it does have some real implications.

First, barring some last-minute pullout by China or India, it locks everyone who matters into the UN’s post-Kyoto process ending in 2009. As far as I can tell, no-one at G8 noted Australia’s world-leading initiatives or suggested that it would be a good idea to wait until September when the issue could be discussed at APEC in Sydney. Maybe there’s some wiggle room to reopen the topic, but as far as I can see the idea of a Sydney declaration is dead on arrival. Bush’s initial proposal, similar to Howard’s idea, got no support from anyone and was dropped.

Second, although Bush’s promise to “consider” a 50 per cent cut by 2050 is worthless, the deal makes it clear that this will be the focal point for future discussions, at least as far as developed countries are concerned. The idea that Australia might be able to announce its own lower target is just silly. The remaining sticking point is the starting date from which the cut is to be calculated. The EU wants 1990. The government would obviously prefer to calculate from 2012, but as I’ve observed previously, our failure to ratify Kyoto leaves us without a leg to stand on here.

Finally, while Bush didn’t give a lot of ground, he certainly didn’t gain any. Canada and Japan sided with the EU, and they all committed to the 50 per cent cut. Bush’s concessions may have been mainly rhetorical but they will provide political cover for his successor to follow through with some real action.

Categories: Environment, Politics (general) Tags:

Elsevier buckles

June 7th, 2007 1 comment

Over at the RSMG blog, Nanni points out that Reed Elsevier will no longer host arms fairs. This has followed a long campaign by academics and others. The case raised a bunch of questions about boycotts. My general feeling was that moral suasion should be tried first, but that if that failed, boycotts should follow. It’s not clear whether the outcome was purely the product of suasion or whether increasingly loud noises about possible boycotts prompted Elsevier to move.

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In praise of libertarianism

March 17th, 2007 10 comments

I got a great response from libertarian readers to the Great Shave Appeal, and so the final instalment in my ‘In Praise of ..’ series is addressed to them.

Although they are often at loggerheads, libertarians and social democrats share plenty of ideas, derived in large measure from common sources. Both draw heavily on the 19th century liberalism of John Stuart Mill, who managed to write effectively in support of both classical free-market economics and, later in life, a rather abstract form of socialism.

It’s not surprising then, that I broadly agree with libertarians on the classic civil liberties issues – freedom of speech, freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, opposition to government intervention in private decisions such as sexual activity and drug use and so on.

The attacks on civil liberties since the Iraq war have made many of these issues more vitally relevant and led me and others to stress our areas of agreement with libertarian defenders of freedom such as blogger Jim Henley. They have helped to distinguish genuine libertarians from otherwise orthodox authoritarians (typically US Republicans), who happen to take a relaxed view on sex and drugs.

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What can’t be cured must be endured

March 3rd, 2007 42 comments

Responding to Peter Beinart’s apology for supporting the war (unimpressive by comparison with the Bjorn Staerk piece I linked recently, but at least expressing some willingness to look at the reasons he got it so wrong) Hilzoy makes an important point

I admire Peter Beinart’s willingness to think about what he got wrong, and why. But while I think that he’s right to say that we can’t be the country the Iraqis and South Africans wanted us to be — a country wise enough to liberate other countries by force — there’s another mistake lurking in the train of thought he describes. Namely:

It’s not just that we aren’t the country Beinart wanted to think we were; it’s that war is not the instrument he thought it was …

Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination. If you use it, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to.

There’s something even more fundamental to the appeal of violence. People are often faced with an unjust situation, where there is no apparent way to put things right. The injustice can be political or economic, as with a dictatorship or an unfair allocation of wealth, or it can be something like an incurable disease striking a loved one.

In these circumstances, where rational thinking produces a counsel of despair, it’s natural to take the view that “you have to do something”. In the case of incurable illness, the response may be a search for “miracle cures”. In other contexts, it’s more likely to be a resort to violence. This response is evident, not only in overtly political contexts, but in a whole genre of Hollywood movies where the protagonist (usually, but not always, male) is “mad as hell, and not going to take it any more”, and in real-life events that inspire, or are inspired by, such movies.

Sometimes, violence or the threat of violence is indeed the only effective way to resist injustice, but mostly it’s a way of making a bad situation worse.

To sum up, Violence is not a way of getting what you can’t have

(Via Surfdom)

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Warning the Czar (cross-posted from Crooked Timber)

February 13th, 2007 44 comments

Australian news rarely makes it out of the sporting pages internationally (and we’re not looking too good there just now) so it’s pretty exciting for us to make into New York Times coverage of the presidential election campaign. The occasion is a statement by our prime minister, John Howard, to the effect that a vote for the Democrats, and in particular for Barack Obama, would be a vote for Al Qaeda*.

This is not the first time an Australian political leader has commented on the choices available to US electors. A few years ago, then Opposition leader Mark Latham described Bush as ‘incompetent and dangerous’, but this accurate observation did not seem to have much effect in the 2004 US election campaign and probably contributed to Latham’s defeat in the Australian election the same year.

Latham was well known as a loose cannon, and this kind of remark was in character, but Howard has generally been seen as the embodiment of cautious solidity. As far as US politics go, he’s generally been seen as an advocate of unconditional support for US policy, regardless of the political colour of the Administration. He’s been very happy to cash in on his close relationship with Bush, but he was quite keen enough for photo-ops with Clinton. So what possessed him to take a high-risk, low return line like this ?
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Connecting the dots

January 20th, 2007 40 comments

Jonathan Chait connects the dots between dishonest conservative (fn1) claims about income inequality (coming in this case from Alan Reynolds) to similar arguments made about evolution and global warming. As he says, to construct an alternate reality in which income inequality is not increasing, global warming is not happening and the world is near the end of its 6000 years anyway, there’s no need to prove a case – just cast enough doubt on the facts and ideology or faith will do the rest. The Republican War on Science is so broad-based that here is now no academic discipline whose conclusions can be considered acceptable to orthodox Republicans.

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Pro-war bias (crossposted at CT)

January 11th, 2007 113 comments

The fact that people are so willing to support war is a puzzle that requires an explanation. After all, war is a negative-sum activity, so war between rational parties doesn’t make sense – there’s always a potential settlement that would leave both sides better off*. And empirically, it’s usually the case that both sides end up worse off relative to both the status quo ante or to a possible peace settlement they could have secured at a point well before the end of the war. Even the observation that rulers start wars and ordinary people bear the costs doesn’t help much – leaders who start losing wars usually lose their jobs and sometimes more, while winning a war is by no means a guarantee of continued political success (ask Bush I) All of this suggests that looking for rational explanations of war, as in the ‘realist’ tradition (scare quotes indicate that this self-ascribed title has little to with a reality-based focus on the real world) is not a good starting point.

So it makes sense to look at irrational sources of support for war. In this pice in Foreign Policy Daniel Kahneman (winner of the economics Nobel a couple of years back) and Jonathan Renshon start looking at some well-known cognitive biases and find that they tend systematically to favor hawkish rather than dovish behavior. The most important, in the context of today’s news is “double or nothing” bias, which is well-known in studies of choice under uncertainty as risk-seeking in the domain of losses (something first observed by Kahneman and Amos Tversky in their classic paper on prospect theory).

The basic point is that people tend to cast problems like whether to continue a war that is going badly in win-lose terms and to be prepared to accept a high probability of greater losses in return for a small probability of winning or breaking even. So we get the Big Push, the Surge, the last throw of the dice and so on.

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Friedman and Hayek

November 23rd, 2006 26 comments

Brad DeLong gets the distinction between Friedman and Hayek pretty much right in my view.

I think that there is an important difference between Friedman and Hayek. Hayek is an economic (classical) liberal but a social conservative: a believer in respect for throne and altar. Social conservative Hayek can see Pinochet as a good thing: far better to have an authoritarian state that maintains the conservative moral order, if it can be persuaded to adopt laissez-faire economics, than it is to have a democracy that regulates the economy. Friedman, by contrast, hates and fears a government that prohibits use of recreational drugs in your home almost as much as he hates and fears a government that won’t let you undersell your politically-powerful competitors. For Friedman, Pinochet is a bad–an aggressive, powerful military dictator–whose evil the Chicago Boys can curb by persuading him to adopt laissez-faire policies.

Roughly speaking, Friedman’s position was that even a dictatorship (such as Chile or China) would be better off with free-market economic policies. Hayek’s was to prefer a liberal dictator to a democratic government lacking liberalism.

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October surprise in Austria

October 4th, 2006 9 comments

The Socialists won a surprise victory (or at least a plurality) in the recent Austrian elections. The outcome appears to promise a departure from power for Jorg Haider, although the combined vote of the far-right parties was still 15 per cent, which is disappointing.

For CT election-followers, the outcome is of interest in another respect. According to the reports I’ve read, all the polls and all the pundits got this one wrong. So, if betting markets got it right, that would be pretty strong support for claims about the wisdom of crowds. But my (admittedly desultory) scan hasn’t produced any info. Can anyone point to market odds for this outcome?
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Books and bombs, again

August 14th, 2006 4 comments

Reader Tom Stafford writes to publicise a protest against Elsevier:

Reed Elsevier is a publishing company with an arms trade problem. While the bulk of their business is in scientific, medical and educational publishing, they also organise arms fairs around the world. The aim of this website is to mobilise the academic community that writes and reads Reed Elsevier’s journals to persuade them to stop organising arms fairs. More details and petition here

I’ve been thinking about this on and off for a while, trying to work out what course of action is most effective in cases like this. Suggestions are welcome.

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