Change of religion

I’ve been planning a move to Brisbane, and the University of Queensland, for some time, and it will take place next year. Apart from the need to relocate my Web Site, this won’t make much difference to my Internet readers and interlocutors, except in one crucial respect. As a symbol of commitment to my new home, I’m ending my 40 years of (mostly thankless, I must admit) support for Geelong and switching it to Brisbane.

Go Lions!

5:30 Update: VICTORY!!

Vaclav Klaus admits defeat

Vaclav Klaus is the living embodiment of the idea that the collapse of Communism entails the final victory of capitalism over socialism. A close friend of the more famous Czech democrat Vaclav Havel, he became Finance Minister, and then Prime Minister in the first post-Communist government in the then Czechoslovakia. Unlike many dissidents in the former Soviet Empire, he rejected any idea of a ‘Third Way’ arguing for a free-market society modelled on the United States, but without the historical compromises of the New Deal.
in 1991 he visited Australia and gave a talk to the Centre for Independent Studies entitled ‘Dismantling Socialism: A Preliminary Report”, in which he set out the progress that was being made in the move towards free-market capitalism.
Ten years later, Klaus has accumulated much of the standard baggage of a political career, including accusations of financial improprietyand some distasteful compromises with the anti-immigration right. His friendship with Havel is very much a thing of the past. Having seen an expected election victory slip out of his hands earlier this year, he is currently the leading opponent of the social-democratic government of the Czech republic.
More interesting than his political career are his thoughts a decade on, given to the CIS in 2001 under the title Dismantling Socialism: An Interim Report. To summarise drastically, he concludes that, while Communism is dead, socialism (or more precisely, social democracy) has actually gained ground over the past decade. The Czech Republic and other East European countries are on the verge of joining the European Union. As Klaus observes, the commitments involved in the EU ‘acquis communitaire’ amount, for all practical purposes, to a constitutional guarantee of social democracy. (Both Ken Parish
and Josef Imrich link to another Klaus piecetaking much the same line.)

This is a good time for me to insert my long-promised discussion of the definition of social democracy and of socialism, and to explain why I now call myself a social democrat rather than a socialist. Social democracy is a fairly well-defined social order. Although it has no perfect exemplar, it has been realised, more or less, in most European countries, to a lesser extent, in Britain and its former colonies and, in to a much lesser degree in the United States. It is a social and economic system which includes a mixed economy with both public and private enterprises and an acceptance that society has a whole has a responsibility for protecting its members against the standard risks of the modern lifecourse (illness, unemployment, old age and so on) and for providing everyone with equal opportunities to develop their potential to the maximum extent possible. An immediate implication is that, while absolute equality of incomes is not necessary, inequality should not be permitted to reach the point where some citizens have massively more power than others, and where their children have a big headstart over other children.

While social democracy was advancing steadily (that is, from about 1945 to 1970), socialism could be seen simply as social democracy without the compromises – no big private enterprises, no inequality and so on. And, if you were prepared to put on the appropriate blinkers, the Soviet Union and its satellites could be seen as an embodiment of socialist economics, marred by undemocratic and therefore anti-socialist, politics.

Social democracy has been on the defensive from 1970 until very recently, and the Soviet empire has collapsed entirely. In these circumstances, the definitions of socialism that were prevalent a few decades ago are no longer relevant. What is left is a much older, 19th century aspiration (modified in the light of feminism), the ideal of a society based on the premise “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. This is still an inspiring ideal, but not, at present, the basis for a political program.

The current political struggle, therefore, is between social democracy and neoliberal capitalism. From the crisis of Keynesian social democracy in the early 1970s until the financial crises of the late 1990s, neoliberalism was gaining ground fairly steadily. But the neoliberal program has failed in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Eastern Europe and, most recently, in its heartland, the United States. Vaclav Klaus is right to despair.


I’ll be on Terry Lane’s National Interest program tomorrow (Sunday), talking about the IMF report on Australia. Also, I’ll be talking about microeconomic reform at the Economists’ conference in Adelaide next Tuesday. The peripatetic Jason Soon will apparently be paying a flying visit to the same conference.

More metablogging

Neither Jason Soon nor Scott Wickstein likes the definition of “Fisking” by Volokh, which was suggested by Bargarz in response to my earlier remarks. I assume they feel the same about my own definition “a sharp putdown in which vigorous abuse is essential and logical reasoning is optional”
Scott, in email, points me to this definition from the Libertarian Samizdata glossary
verb. To deconstruct an article on a point by point basis in a highly critical manner. Derived from the name of journalist Robert Fisk, a frequent target of such critical articles in the blogosphere (qv).
Usage: “Orrin Judd did a severe fisking of an idiotic article in the New York Times today…”
Comparing this to the Volokh definition, it’s focused mainly on formal structure. That is, just as a sonnet must have 14 lines, a Fisking, in this sense, must include a substantial reposting of the original article, interspersed with critical comments.
The other point about the example is the absence of any direct element of personal attack. The example refers to “an idiotic article” whereas the Volokh definition, and my personal observation, suggests that Fisking is typically directed at an individual, based on hostility to their total position, rather than the ideas expressed in an individual article. As I said in my last post, the same word is used in different ways by different people, and any quest for the “right” definition is doomed to failure.
I also had an interesting email exchange with John Ray, who makes the point that some right-brain or rightwing blogs are, more or less explicitly, “preaching to the converted” and shouldn’t be expected to respond to criticism from the (political or neurological) left. I agree that this is right in some cases, and certainly it applies to his own blog, explicitly titled “Dissecting Leftism”. But I think the political blog norm is one of open debate, and any exceptions should be announced openly. I’ll put the entire exchange in my files when I get time.

Also, don’t miss the comment thread below, where Tim Dunlop suggests “Steynwalling” as a term for a failure to respond to criticism.

A final point is that everyone has assumed I’m condemning Fisking. I was about to say that I enjoy a good Fisking as much as anybody, but given that I think there is too much Fisking in the blogosphere, while others can’t get enough of it, this is obviously not true. Still, I get plenty of enjoyment out of what I regard as a good Fisking, namely a sharp putdown backed by a good logical critique.

Update 30/9 My full exchange with John Ray is here.

Fisking the fiskers

My brief aside about Fisking has raised plenty of attention. It began with a post in which I pointed out the failure of “right-brain” Australian fans of Mark Steyn (such as Professor Bunyip, James Morrow and Tim Blair to respond to repeated demonstrations by “left-brain” bloggers that Steyn’s columns are routinely based on plagiarism (usually with misquotation), urban myths and historical errors.
In the ensuing comment thread, I wrote
The blogs I think of as left-brain are analytical, rational and linguistically complex. Right-brain blogs are mostly emotive, irrational or anti-rational, and based on sharp putdowns (Fisking) rather than logical critiques.
Both Bargarz and Scott Wickstein think I’ve been unfair to Fisking. As a relative newcomer to blogging, I wasn’t around when the term was coined and I’ve never looked seriously into it. All I’ve done is follow links advertised as “Fiskings” and form my own judgements about what I’ve found. As far as I can tell, the sharp putdown is the critical component in a good (that is, widely linked) Fisking, and logical critique is at best an optional extra.
Before going on, I’ll concede one point raised by Scott, namely that Fiskings typically include a link to the piece being attacked, and therefore let the reader make up their own mind. Otherwise, Scott seems to accept my view that Fiskings are short, sharp and not very logical, but points out that “it’s a very time friendly way to write”
Bargarz disagrees, saying “Fiskings can involve putdowns but they should always use logic and facts to debunk the words or scribblings of the fiskee”, though he notes “a good Fisking is like a good wine, it’s often advertised as such but is somewhat harder to find.” Checking on the definition by Volokh, linked by Bargarz, I found this:

“FISKING: Three people asked what “group-Fisking” means in this post, which borrows the term from an InstaPundit post.
     The term refers to Robert Fisk, a journalist who wrote some rather foolish anti-war stuff, and who in particular wrote a story in which he (1) recounted how he was beaten by some anti-American Afghan refugees, and (2) thought they were morally right for doing so. Hence many pro-war blogs — most famously, InstaPundit — often use the term “Fisking” figuratively to mean a thorough and forceful verbal beating of an anti-war, possibly anti-American, commentator who has richly earned this figurative beating through his words. Good Fisking tends to be (or at least aim to be) quite logical, and often quotes the other article in detail, interspersing criticisms with the original article’s text.”

This definition has something for everyone, including as it does both “forceful verbal beating” and “logical criticism”, so I thought I’d try and track back to the original attacks on Fisk’s Afghan story.

And this brings us back to the beginning of the circle. The most cited attack on Fisk I could find was by the egregious Mark Steyn. As you might expect, logical criticism was not a central point of Steyn’s piece.
Words are used in different ways by different people. But I’d say that, both etymologically and in most current usage, a “Fisking” is “a sharp putdown in which vigorous abuse is essential and logical reasoning is optional”

By the way, Bargarz joins the dreaded ABC in misspelling my name as “Quiggan”. This plays merry hell with the search engines. Also, I realise that, as usual, I haven’t got around to welcoming Bargarz before copping a critique from him (I won’t call it a Fisking). Anyway, he’s welcome!

Checks and balances

My colleague Alex Robson attacks the Fairfax press, and Ken Davidson in particular, for referring to a balance of payments deficit, saying that we have a “current account deficit” and that “the balance of payments always balances” since the current account deficit is matched by capital account surplus, that is by borrowing from overseas (if’s odd to think of borrowing as creating a surplus, but that’s the way the accounts work).

If you’re going to throw stones on this sort of thing, you need to be on firm ground yourself, and Alex’s ground is rather shaky. Official statistics don’t refer to a “current account deficit” but to the “balance of payments on current account”, which is routinely shortened to “balance of payments”, since as we know, the “balance of payments on capital account” is just the same number with the opposite sign. So it’s a bit rich to call someone “illiterate” for referring to a “balance of payments deficit”.

Alex offers a lot of other quibbles, but doesn’t address the crucial issue. Is a continuing deficit in the “balance of payments on current account” benign or dangerous. Economists have debated this vigorously over the past decade. I lean, with Ken Davidson, to the view that it’s dangeorus.

Outdated assumptions

Policy debates are often based on outdated assumptions, and this is certainly true of the US. For example, most Americans believe that the US is a big donor of foreign aid and would be better off attending to problems at home. Fifty years ago, the US was a big donor. The Marshall Plan consumed between 2 and 3 per cent of the national income of the United States in the years immediately after World War II. But today, he United States is by far the least generous donor in the developed world, allocating 0.1 per cent of national income to official development aid, about one-third of the proportion for the EU
As the US Agency for International Development notes, a strong majority of Americans say that the United States is spending too much on foreign aid. But this attitude is based on the assumption that the U.S. is spending vastly more than it is, in fact. Asked what an ‘appropriate’ amount would be, the median level proposed is 5 times present spending levels. …Asked to estimate how much of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, the median estimate was 15 percent, 15 times the actual amount of 1 percent. The average was even higher — 18 percent. When informed about the actual amount of spending on foreign aid, a strong majority favors either maintaining it or increasing it.

Much the same is true of the belief that US military might protects those freeloading Europeans. A typical statement comes from Janet Albrechtsen , citing US analyst Robert Kagan, who says:

“Europe is a military mouse. Kagan points out that Europeans spend their money on socially progressive welfare and indulge in their transnational pursuit of collective security in the comforting shadow of the US’s enormous military muscle”

This was a defensible claim when the NATO and the Warsaw Pact were facing off along the East German border. But today it’s just stilly

There is still a large US military presence in Europe. But it’s there for the convenience of forward basing near the Middle East, not to protect the Europeans.
Moreover, the idea that Europe is a ‘military mouse’ is nonsense. Four of the top ten military spenders are EU members, and there is no potential adversary who comes anywhere near the collective spending of the Europeans (China and Russia together spend less).

It’s true that the Europeans still have a force structure that’s basically oriented to fighting the Red Army on the North German plain, so they can’t match the US capacity to deliver large armed forces anywhere in the world. But even in such activities as protection against terrorism, it’s far from a one-way street. The day after Albrechtsen’s story, the French (until last Sunday the prime targets of American derision) rescued a bunch of American schoolchildren from rebels in the Ivory Coast.