Un-Australian activities

One of the great dangers of political struggles is that of ‘fighting fire with fire’ and thereby becoming the same as your enemy. Nowhere is this more evident than among critics of ‘political correctness’. The standard critique of political correctness is that its practitioners believe that hurtful speech is oppressive and therefore seek to curtail freedom of speech. In the caricature version of PC, a reference to a 150 cm, 200 kg person as ‘fat’ is un-PC and must be replaced by a euphemism such as ‘gravitationally challenged’.
Opponents of political correctness are similarly quick to claim oppression whenever they are subject to verbal criticism. ‘Racist’ is the absolute taboo term for these reverse-PC types, followed by ‘McCarthyist’, but even something as neutral as ‘right-wing’ reliably calls forth howls of protest.
All of this confusion is exhibited by Janet Albrechtsen complaining about left-wing attempts to censor free speech on campus. Although she says this is a problem in Australia, the sole example she gives is that of Robert Manne criticising his off-campus opponents as supporters of a ‘new racism’.
Most of her examples are American. A typical instance is a letter written by some academics to an Oklahoma newspaper criticising a Web Site called Campus Watch. Janet was so upset about this that I initially supposed that the University of Oklahoma must be hosting the site and that the letter could be seen as an attempt to have it taken down. But no, in Janet’s world, a letter to your local paper counts as attempted censorship.
Intrigued by this, I went to the site and clicked on the first page an article entitled Harvard’s Un-American Activities. I assumed that this headline would refer to some committee established by Harvard, on the model of the famous House Un-American Activities Committee, to suppress non-PC comments on various issues. But, as it turns out, Campus Watch wants to suppress Harvard. The article refers in general terms to opponents of a war with Iraq as treasonous, and specifically stated that

The unconscionable decision to allow the commencement speech called “My American Jihad” – which whitewashed the real meaning of the term in favor of a mild vision of personal struggle – has now been followed by a faculty-signed petition against war on Iraq.

In other words, despite its frontpage claim to ‘fully respect the freedom of speech of those it debates’, Campus Watch is specifically engaged in attempts to suppress campus speech, and to label dissent as treason.
A few of final observations. First the term ‘politically correct’, like its Australian cousin ‘ideologically sound’, was almost never used seriously. It originated within the left as a term of relatively gentle mockery for those obsessively concerned with superficialities like the use of appropriate terminology and the avoidance of unsound choices in consumer goods.
Second, political correctness is, under the name of ‘civility’, widely praised by many who would shrink in horror from anything ‘PC’. The basic point of civility or ‘manners’ is to act in a way that is socially appropriate rather than acting in accordance with your own feelings. As such it is an organised system of hypocrisy. Considered as ‘the tribute that vice pays to virtue’, a certain amount of hypocrisy is socially useful. But ultimately, correct choices of words are no substitute for genuine sympathy with other members of the community, something that is distinctly lacking among many right-wing advocates of ‘civility’ and quite a few ‘politically correct’ leftwingers.
Finally, a week or so ago, the Oz was honest, or brazen, enough to reprint the entire controversy between Janet and Media Watch. Reading it at one sitting it was obvious that Janet was guilty as charged, of printing distorted and plagiarised quotes, then failing to retract properly despite complaints from the person being quoted. Her only defence was that MW was engaged in selective prosecution, a valid enough point, but not one that does anything to restore her own credibility.

I told them so

Forbes.com reports that online sales have fallen (relative to the same quarter last year) for the first time. The report includes this gem:

Along with economic weakness, and the inevitable slowdown in growth that comes from a maturing industry, this year’s online sales figures reflect more sophisticated strategies about what can and cannot be sold online.

In March 1999, I wrote

A more promising way of making money on the Net is by selling goods and services. Superficially, the scope for growth here looks limitless. So far, however, sales on the Internet have been strong only where a lot of business was previously done by phone or mail-order. Examples include computer hardware and software, books and CDs (particularly hard-to-get items), florists and travel services. Once the bugs are ironed out, the Net will offer a better service than a call-centre or paper catalog. So, business on the Internet should grow to a level comparable to that of the present mail-order and phone-order sectors.

The Harvard and Stanford MBAs who ran and financed the dotcom bubble companies spent around $100 billion to work out that home-delivering Internet-ordered dog food is not a viable business plan, and this is called ‘more sophisticated strategies’.

This is a short sentence

Ross Gittins has an interesting piece on the Western Australian decision to abolish all jail sentences shorter than six months. (Link via Professor Bunyip who includes an interesting personal anecdote, which gives clues to the continuing puzzle of his true identity, and pretty conclusive refutes my own hypothesis on this topic).
I endorse this decision. I hope it works satisfactorily and I think it should be taken further. As I pointed out here, once you accept that prison sentences don’t have much effect in either deterring crime or rehabilitating criminals, there’s no point in short sentences. On the one hand, there’s a strong case for locking hardened criminals up until they’re too old for crime. On the other hand, given that most juvenile institutions appear to be training grounds for adult criminals, there’s a strong case for second chances and slaps on the wrist for young offenders, based on the observation that a lot of them grow out of it naturally.

Let me throw another idea into the mix. One reason we resort to imprisonment so readily is that there’s no alternative punishment that’s really serious. Fines typically max out at a couple of thousand dollars, which is trivial for an employed criminal. I’d suggest making fines proportional to income and collecting them over a period of years using the same mechanisms that are used for child support. We could then impose much heavier fines as an alternative to short stretches of prison or pointless ‘community service’.

Update As always, there’s lots of good stuff in the comments thread. In response to Ken Parish, I want to clarify one point. My argument doesn’t rely on the assumption that criminal penalties have no deterrent effect, only that there is no significant deterrent effect from marginal increases in the severity of penalties e.g. short prison terms vs fines. I agree that greater probability of detection does have a deterrent effect.

Steyn does it (yet) again

Responding to my post on Philip Adams, Bernard Slattery mentions my personal jihad/crusade (the two words are exact synonyms) against Mark Steyn, and encourages me further by linking approvingly to Steyn’s latest. Can I, as promised previously, find a glaring factual error or misappropriated quote? Well let’s see.
Steyn denounces the press for mentioning John Muhammad’s Gulf War record and military training rather than focusing exclusively on his conversion to Islam. Then he goes on to attack Frank Rich for suggesting that Christian as well as Muslim fundamentalists should be subject to anti-terrorism policies. Here’s Steyn:

You get the picture: sure, Muslim fundamentalists can be pretty extreme, but what about all our Christian fundamentalists? Unfortunately, for the old moral equivalence to hold up, the Christians really need to get off their fundamentalist butts and start killing more people. At the moment, the brilliantly versatile Muslim fundamentalists are gunning down Maryland schoolkids and bus drivers, hijacking Moscow theatres, self-detonating in Israeli pizza parlours, blowing up French oil tankers in Yemen, and slaughtering nightclubbers in Bali, while Christian fundamentalists are, er, sounding extremely strident in their calls for the return of prayer in school.

Apparently, the words “Oklahoma City”* and “Operation Rescue” have disappeared down the Steyn memory hole, even though he mentions, and sneeringly dismisses, Rich’s allusion to terrorist attacks on abortion clinics.

Just to make Steyn’s day, another Gulf war veteran, disappointed with his grades, went out to the University of Arizona yesterday and shot three lecturers before killing himself. While Steyn couldn’t have known this when he wrote the article, it suggests that this aspect of Muhammad’s background is not as irrelevant as Steyn vociferously asserted.

Steyn is a shameless liar, as well as being a bigot and a hatemonger. As long as Australian newspapers keep running his pieces, and Australian bloggers keep citing him with approval, I’m going to keep pointing this fact out.

* There is some dispute about McVeigh’s personal religious views. But there is no doubt that his terrorist acts were motivated by the extremist views associated with fundamentalist Christian militias.

Animus against Adams

One of the striking things about the right wing of Australian politics is the depth of hatred for Phillip Adams. This is evident reading almost any right-wing blogger and is reflected in the frequent claim that what the ABC needs is a ‘right-wing Phillip Adams’.

The indictment against Adams, as I read it, is that he’s a fat, pompous old windbag who assumes that anyone with an opposing viewpoint is a fool or a knave. If there is one thing this country is not short of, it’s pundits satisfying all of these criteria, particularly right-wingers. I could name half a dozen off the top of my head, and I’m sure there are plenty more.
In fact most of these characteristics are occupational hazards of punditry, or of life. From personal experience, I know that it’s hard for an opinion columnist to avoid pontificating and even harder to accept that most of your political opponents are intelligent people who sincerely believe in the policies they are advocating. On the other counts, old age comes to us all and, in a sedentary job, so does weight gain, or a never-ending struggle against it. Perhaps Adams is more prone to these faults than some other pundits, but he’s certainly far from the worst on any of the counts listed against him
So why the particular animus against Adams? His ABC show seems to arouse particular resentment, but would any of the top half-dozen rightwing windbags give up their existing gigs for a late-night show on Radio National? And, given the ubiquity of this kind of thing, what possible purpose would be served by putting on ABC show starring a second-string rightwing windbag In fact, I believe they tried for a while with Imre Saluszinsky but the experiment was not a success for some reason (A Google search reveals nothing to support my memory of an Imre show, so perhaps readers can set me straight on this point).
Adams also has a pretty big slab in the Weekend Oz, but this is mostly devoted to building up the Adams persona (on which more below). And only the most bigoted rightwinger could suggest that the Murdoch press has a leftwing bias.
I think the real reason for the hatred of Adams is that he has succeeded in creating a character. The much-publicized feud with God, the joke books, the rural retreat and simple longevity (has he been in the Oz since it started publication or just since the dawn of living memory?) have gone to create a complete persona – Adams’ political views are just a part of this. As a result, he has not just readers and listeners, but fans. A lot of people have tried this, for example bringing their spouses and children (usually with fey pet names) into their columns. But it’s not as easy as it looks, particularly when you add political comment to the mix, and few have succeeded.
The only pundit who’s been more successful than Adams in this way is John Laws, the truckies’ mate, homespun poet, battlers’ friend and so on. But Laws has exploited every aspect of his self-created character for commercial gain, to the point where even his listeners can hardly take him seriously. As the continuing attacks on him show, the Adams character is a long-running success story.

Ethics for Libertarians and other minorities

In the course of some research (into minimum wages of all things) I happened to run across an interesting journal called Social Philosophy and Policy with a number of articles devoted to libertarianism and specifically to its failure to gain significant popular support. This was of interest to me both because so many of my fellow-bloggers are libertarians and because many of the points raised were equally applicable to other minority viewpoints such as socialism.
Loren Lomasky focused specifically on the position of libertarians in a society where large-scale state intervention takes place with the support of 99 per cent of the population. He argues that libertarians must resist the temptation to view all those who disagree with them as fools or knaves, pointing out that libertarians themselves disagree about many of the points that lead others to be skeptical (e.g. the relationship between a hypothetical ‘initial position’ and opposition to redistribution of existing wealth). In my experience, the correlation between political views and personal character, while non-zero, is so low that judging a person’s character by their general political stance is almost always a mistake (IMHO, users of terms like ‘idiotarian’ are revealing more about their own intellectual capacity than that of the people they are attacking).
Lomasky also raises some interesting questions about moral conduct for libertarians. For example: Is a libertarian academic justified in taking the best available job, even if it’s in a state university (His answer “Yes”). Is a libertarian whose neighbour is causing him grief justified in tipping off the police about the neighbour’s drug stash (No). I can say from personal experience that very similar issues arise for socialists and even for consistently liberal social democrats (for my current self-classification, click here).
The other point raised by all the papers is one I noted myself a while ago. The debate among the inheritors of the classical liberal tradition has been fundamentally changed by the success of the social-democratic welfare state in providing a previously unimaginable level of security against economic hardship. Libertarians must either concede a lot of ground (Lomasky’s view, I think) or come up with more convincing market substitutes than they have produced so far (the line taken by Richard Epstein).

US to repudiate foreign debt?

Although there’s little in it that hasn’t previously been published by warbloggers like Steven den Beste, I found this piece by William Safire pretty startling. After all you can find just about anything on the web, whereas Safire clearly represents an influential strand of thinking within the US Administration and is writing in the New York Times.
Safire explores the warbloggers’ preferred scenario, in which the UNSC fails to accept a US resolution incorporating the term ‘material breach’ * and the US goes to war unilaterally. Safire envisages an old-style war of conquest in which a puppet government is set up (he doesn’t use the term, but he assumes the government will pursue predetermined policies that harm Iraq and help the US) and used to reward putative allies (Turkey, for example, is supposed to get royalties from the Kirkuk oil fields) and punish non-allies (the ‘corrupt’ debt to Russia is to be repudiated). Meanwhile the US and Britain get Iraq’s oil and pump like crazy, reducing world oil prices by a third.
I want to focus on just one element of this plan – the repudiation of debt on political grounds. Although Safire describes this debt as ‘corrupt’, it’s clear that, in his model, the debt would be repaid if the Russians backed a US invasion. So his proposal amounts to selective repudiation of the debts of a US-controlled government.
In writing about the relative merits of US and European government bonds a day or two ago, I mentioned the possibility of repudiation for the sake of logical completeness, but only to dismiss it as unthinkable. As of today, that is no longer the case. The occurrence of a chain of events leading the US to default on its own debt remains highly improbable, but it is no longer unthinkable.
One possible chain would run as follows. After an Iraqi repudiation dictated by occupying US forces, the Russians retaliate by selectively repudiating debts to the US or by seizing US assets. European financial institutions continue lending to Russia, so the Americans try to recover their losses from them. At some point in the process, wholesale panic breaks out and the US decides either to repudiate or to inflate its way out of trouble by printing unlimited numbers of US dollars.
In thinking about all this, it’s important to remember that the US is by far the world’s biggest debtor and borrower, whether we focus on the US government or the US economy as a whole. In 2003, the US will need to borrow around $500 billion from foreigners (mainly Europeans and Japanese) to balance its current account deficit. The Federal government budget deficit will account for about half of this, and with US household savings near zero, much of it will have to be financed directly by overseas borrowings. In these circumstances, even a slowdown in lending to the US could prove disastrous.
I regard the repudiation scenario as highly unlikely, in part because I don’t think it will get past the first hurdle. It appears unlikely that the proposed US resolution will even get enough support to require a veto from what Safire calls ‘the Paris-Moscow-Beijing axis of greed’. In these circumstances, while the US may be willing to go to war to defend the words ‘material breach’ it’s doubtful that crucial allies including Turkey, Qatar and the UK will go along. The US needs at least two of these, and probably all three, for a successful war. As regards Australia, it seems very probable that Labor would oppose participation in an invasion under circumstances of this kind. The government has been making noises of support for the US, but I suspect that they would try to sit on the fence if at all possible, rather than take part in an exercise like this.
So the prospect of debt repudiation remains a distant one. Still, if I were in the market for US government bonds, I’d want at least another percentage point on the interest rate after reading Safire.
* ‘material breach’ is supposed to provide an automatic trigger for a US invasion. The US resolution is highly ambiguous, however. It’s not clear whether the trigger requires Iraqi noncompliance with weapons inspections and, if so, whether the inspectors have to certify such noncompliance or whether the US can make a unilateral determination.

Crime and its causes

As a postscript to the recent gun debabe, Salon runs this wire story of an FBI report saying that US crime is up first time in decade. The coincidence of this rise with the increase in unemployment over the last two years is consistent with the (recently much-derided) view that its necessary to focus on the ‘root causes’ of crime, as well as on locking up criminals.


I tend to be slow in responding to events like those in Moscow, or previously in Monash and Bali. Initially at least, I just find the loss of life overwhelming. Rob Corr has some excellent coverage of this tragedy.