Some more war links

While we wait for the next critical date on Iraq (Powell’s peek at the evidence on Saddam’s weapons), I find myself without much new to say, except for the obvious point that the odds on war have shortened considerably, going against my predictions on the subject. So I’m going to keep linking to people with whose arguments I broadly sympathise. Gene Healy says:

I understand people who argue for war with Iraq because they want to (1) liberate Iraqis; and/or (2) help Israel; and/or (3) spread democracy. I think those are illegitimate reasons in a constitutional republic whose governing document speaks of the “common defence” of the United States, and not the general good of the world at large. More important, I think they’re damned frivolous reasons for killing American soldiers, innocent Iraqi civilians, and, for that matter, Iraqi conscripts. But I understand the arguments: if these Wilsonian goals are worthwhile to you, invading Iraq is something you might want to do.
But I’m having an increasingly hard time understanding why any rational person would argue that invading Iraq is something we need to do in order to protect the lives, liberty, and property of Americans (you know, the legitimate goals of American foreign policy)

Risking getting things badly wrong again, I’ll classify Gene as an antiwar libertarian similar to Jim Henley who makes the excellent point (which I’ve previously touched on) that pro-war parallels with pre-1939 appeasement can be matched with an anti-war comparison of current US policy with the 1914 ultimatum to Serbia.

I part company with Gene in that I am prepared to take a Wilsonian view that the world community should be willing to act to overthrow dictators. My problem is that breaking with the doctrine of absolute national sovereignty is full of perils and should not be undertaken lightly. The idea that any country should have the right to overthrow another country’s government if it judges it to be dictatorial, threatening etc is a recipe for disaster. The idea that the US alone should have this right is less dangerous in the short run, but will come to the same thing in the end. That’s why I (and I suspect many others) are so concerned about getting a UNSC resolution clearer than 1441.


Thanks to Mark Chambers for alerting me to this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education, headlined “Taking On ‘Rational Man'”. It’s about the various challenges to the dominance of ‘neoclassical’ economics (the quotes are there because in this context, a very broad definition of ‘neoclassical’, encompassing most Keynesians and many behavioral economists, is being used).

I reviewed the book by Keen mentioned here and will try to post a link soon.

Centre forward

Everyone loves to argue about classifications. In his new (but perhaps temporary) blog, Ken Parish divides Ozploggers (political bloggers) into three roughly equal groups: “Left-ish, Right-ish, and Centre-ish”. There’s not too much doubt about the first two groups. Most of the “left-ish” ploggers, including me, write from the kind of position that used to be called ‘Left Labor’. Most of the “right-ish” ones, of whom Tim Blair is the most prominent, are part of the US-centred “warblogger” circle. Since I have little to say this group and vice versa, only a few of them are listed on my blogroll.

Inevitably, the centre group is the most problematic. Most of those in those group are either moderate and sensible right-of-centre ploggers like Gareth Parker and Scott Wickstein, or what I’ve called ‘cultural and satirical’ bloggers like Bright Cold Day. The fact that the centre of Ozplogistani politics is still a bit to the right of Oz politics in general is not surprising – a year or so ago the bias was much more marked.

But the classification has raised some issues for “Centre-ish” Jason Soon who, it has been suggested, is moving steadily to the left. Both comments by Ron Mead, and the rather grumpy departure of Mark Harrison from Catallaxy have raised this point.

In response, Jason has put forward a “Purpose statement” or Short lexicon of beliefs , which can be broadly summarised as strongly libertarian in terms of civil liberties, strongly market-oriented but nevertheless basically social-democratic in economic policy, and cautious in terms of foreign policy.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Jason has shifted position much in the time I’ve been debating issues with him. Rather, some aspects of his position have become apparent that were previously obscured. First, like a lot of people (including me) who supported the war in Afghanistan and the war on terror more generally, Jason is chary about the rush to war with Saddam Hussein. Second, in debates with me and others, Jason has made it clear that his support for social welfare policies is genuine, rather than being a rhetorical fig-leaf as it is for many advocates of free-market policies.

Will I follow Jason’s example? Not for the moment. Apart from the occasional bit of rhetorical abuse, I don’t seem to have much of a problem with people misperceiving my political standpoint, even when my opinions on particular issues aren’t quite what they might expect. So I’ll think I’ll blog my views one post at a time for now.

Lost comments

After working pretty reliably for several months, Haloscan seems to have lost most of today’s comments. With luck, they’ll reappear soon. For the moment, though, if people have comments they think are worth recording for posterity, save them in a text or word processor as well as posting them here.

Short sentences

This research, reported in the SMH confirms what I’ve said before about the uselessness of short prison sentences

The lead researcher, Dr Eileen Baldry, of the school of social work at the University of NSW, said jailing people for less than six months was counterproductive. Their situation months after release was worse than before they went to jail.

I’ve been meaning to make a general comment about the ‘law and order’ debate. The left has clearly lost the debate as it’s been posed for a long time, and deservedly so. To oversimplify, the standard debate sets a kneejerk ‘lock ’em up’ position (right) against a kneejerk ‘let ’em go’ response (left).

While neither is at all satisfactory, locking ’em up at least achieves incapacitation (that is, those behind bars are not breaking into houses). The shift of the more sensible left to ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ is a step forward, but doesn’t resolve the problem of what a sensible ‘tough on crime’ policy might actually mean (there are also plenty of problems with the various causes of crime such as unemployment, but more on that another time). In my view, it means being willing to use lengthy prison sentences to incapacitate habitual and career criminals, but not giving people schooling in crime with a string of short sentences. This means some very hard thinking about what to do about those who commit crimes but are not yet hardened crims.


I was going to work on a post on Bush’s SOTU speech, but it turns out all I need is a couple of links. My blogtwin says it all for me. In particular,

The biggest thing to come out of Bush’s SOTU speech last night was the promise that Colin Powell would deliver the goods on Iraq, the compelling evidence, in a speech to the United Nations on February 5.

Tim links in his turn to Jeff Cooper who says, in part

The president and others in his administration have repeatedly asked for our trust when it comes to Iraq: they have strong evidence of Hussein’s complicity in terror, they have strong evidence of his possession of weapons of mass destruction and his progress toward nuclear weapons, but that evidence is too sensitive to be released to the public; we have to trust them. But it’s difficult to grant that trust to an administration whose domestic policy positions are so plainly founded on fundamental dishonesty. Quite simply, the Bush administration hasn’t earned our trust.

I don’t share Jeff’s personal dislike of Bush, but I distrust and fear the administration as a whole. As Andrew Sullivan has correctly noted, a lot of the opposition to a war with Iraq is based on this kind of dislike/distrust, which, of course, he does not share. For me, the validity of any particular case for this war, put forward by this administration, is undermined by its transparent eagerness to make a case of some kind for war with Saddam, whether or not it is part of a coherent policy of any kind.

Thought for Thursday

My opinion piece in today’s Fin (subscription required), amplifies some themes that have been discussed earlier in blogs, notably mine and Kim Weatherall’s. Given the push towards effectively infinite copyrights and other forms of monopoly privilege for owners of “Intellectual Property” the traditional arguments for (and against) free trade aren’t particularly relevant in the debate over a Free Trade agreement with the US. The Americans don’t want us to remove trade barriers, they want us to adopt the policies dictated by their lobby groups in areas like IP, GM labelling, privatisation etc.

Short take

If the official negotiating stance of the US government contains some unappealing items, the demands that US lobby groups would like to push in subsequent rounds are even worse. The pharmaceutical industry wants to kill the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. The Recording Industry Association of America would like to ban parallel importing.

These groups have promoted their interests, with much vigour and few scruples, through their Australian hired guns, but have so far had limited success. Under the kind of agreement that is being contemplated at present, the US lobby groups would have as many second chances as they need. Far from promoting free trade, they want to turn Australia into a monopolists’ playground.

Update Jason Soon responds, quoting Henry Ergas on the benefits of regulatory harmonization. I will first observe that my piece opposed ‘ the kind of agreement that is being contemplated at present’ , rather than any agreement. I agree that, done right, a bilateral trade agreement could produce benefits.

But Ergas’ argument raises more concerns for me. The US is currently negotiating a string of these agreements on a bilateral basis. If they include regulatory harmonization, this can only mean that the other party adopts the US model, since otherwise the agreements would be inconsistent. Since I’m distinctly underwhelmed by US models of regulation, corporate governance and so on, this enhances my concerns rather than allaying them.

And I think the experience of NCP suggests the dangers of using an agreement negotiated in secret to ‘jumpstart the micro-reform process’. The bitter hostility to NCP that people like Pauline Hanson tapped into was as much due to the process by which it was presented as a fait accompli as to the actual content of micro-reform.

Word for Wednesday

This is planned to be the first instalment of yet another weekly feature. Each Wednesday, I plan to have a short piece with my definition of, and observations about a word that is used in current social and political debates. Your comments on this idea, as well as on the particular definition, will be most welcome.

Progressive Definition 1: In its political sense, progressive means ‘on the side of progress’. This incorporates a factual assumption that history is moving in some definite direction, and a political program aimed at accelerating that motion and overcoming obstacles to it. Antonyms are ‘conservative’ and ‘reactionary’.

Until about 1975, the facts seemed to be consistent with the idea of steady movement towards some form of democratic socialism. After this, economic and social policies moved substantially in the opposite direction for the rest of the 20th century, with large-scale privatisation and deregulation in many countries. This movement in turn seems to have ceased and even to have partially reversed in countries such as the UK and NZ.

In the 1990s, a new version of progressive rhetoric came into use, focusing on the notion of globalisation as an irresistible force for progress in the direction of free-market liberal democracy. Fukuyama’s End of History was the big text, while Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree was a successful popularisation. Many proponents of this account were unaware of the basic historical fact that world markets were more liberal and globalised in 1900 than in 1970. When this was pointed out, the notion of globalisation as inevitable progress went into decline, although it still has its proponents. The wave of financial crises from the late 1990s reminded people of the fact that unregulated capital markets are the result of policy decisions that may have been mistaken, not the product of inexorable technological forces.

If no clear direction can be discerned in history, or if reversals lasting for decades are possible, the whole idea of ‘progressive’ politics becomes incoherent. Unfortunately, the idea is deeply embedded in political rhetoric and is therefore hard to get rid of. As long as the term ‘progress’ is taken to imply ‘progress towards something better’, people will try to attach its positive connotations to their political programs. Even the connotation of ‘something not necessarily good, but irresistible’, has a lot of rhetorical power, as in ‘you can’t stop progress’ – Marxist historicism is the extreme example of this. Former social democrats like Paul Keating justified adopting the political program of their opponents by appeals to progressive rhetoric, treating current trends as both irresistible and desirable simply by virtue of their currency. At this level, though, ‘progressive’ politics is little more than adherence to prevailing fashion.

It may be possible to salvage some use for the term ‘progressive’ by defining ‘conservative’ as ‘opposed to rapid programmatic policy change’, without reference to specific policy programs, then defining ‘progressive’ as an antonym. I plan to explore this next week.

Progressive Definition 2: In tax policy, a progressive tax system is one in which the proportion of income paid in tax is higher for those on higher taxes. The antonym is ‘regressive’. As I noted in an earlier post, most actual tax systems are based on a mixture of progressive taxes like income taxes and regressive taxes such as payroll and consumption taxes, with the total effect being roughly proportional.

The term ‘progressive’ here, is basically derived from the mathematical fact that the rate of tax increases (progresses) with income, but also gains some support from the fact that progressive taxes are pro-poor and therefore progressive in the sense of Definition 1. This creates problems when we try to assess the distribution of benefits of public expenditure. Mathematically, an expenditure program would be progressive if the benefits flowed disproportionately to those on high incomes – this would mean that progressive taxes and progressive expenditure worked in opposite directions.

In practice, a messy compromise has prevailed. Expenditure patterns are typically compared to a starting point where the benefit is the same for everyone (this is fairly close to the actual situation in most countries). If programs that favor the poor (such as means-tested benefits) predominate, the system is described as progressive. If programs that favor the rich, such as protection of property, predominate, the system is described as regressive.

A bit extra Working out the final incidence of tax and expenditure programs is very complex. But here’s a rough illustration of what happens when you have proportional income taxes and equal expenditure per person – this, and the numbers used, are not too far from the actual situation.

Suppose we divide the population into quartiles by income, and suppose that the bottom quartile gets 10 per cent of all market income, the next quartile gets 20 per cent, then 30 per cent and the top quartile gets 40 per cent. Now suppose there is a proportional tax that collects 40 per cent of national income, and the proceeds are spent in such a way that everyone gets an equal benefit. So the bottom quartile pays taxes equal to 4 per cent of total income, and gets benefits equal to 10 per cent, ending up with 16 per cent. Similarly, the other quartiles end up with 22 per cent, 28 per cent and 34 per cent respectively. So a 4:1 ratio in market income ends up as a roughly 2:1 disparity in final income (including publicly provided goods and services).

Update I’ve added quite a bit of new stuff in response to comments, mainly those of Ken Parish. That way, the comments will help to improve the post. To help readers make sense of the comments thread, I’ll note that paras 3 and 5 were added, and para 4 amended after the first 10 comments were posted. I’m still experimenting with this process, so meta-comments as well as comments on the specific post are most welcome.

I’ll add here that a big source of inspiration has been Raymond Williams’ excellent little book Keywords. I don’t plan to acknowledge specific points I’ve taken from him and at this stage I don’t plan to give etymology as he does, but most things I write in this vein will reflect his influence.