SOTU

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.

Blix and Bush

Blix’s critical report to the UN has certainly strengthened the case for war with Iraq. Unlike those of us commenting from afar, he is, after all, dealing with the Iraqis on a daily basis, and is obviously running into difficulties. At this point, Bush could clinch things if, as some have suggested, his State of the Union address is the occasion for producing the evidence of Iraq’s weapons that he has long claimed to possess.

If this doesn’t happen, Bush will still have a stronger bargaining position with the UNSC than seemed likely a few days ago. Assuming the alternative to war is a redefinition of ‘active co-operation’, it’s clear that this must include everything on Blix’s wishlist – unchaperoned interviews, surveillance flights, and more documentation of ‘missing’ weapons.

The incentive for Bush to take this route is strong. Despite the tough rhetoric of the past few days, a decision to bypass the UNSC poses immense risks of all kinds. If it went even moderately badly, both Blair and Howard would be finished, and Bush himself would suffer grave damage. And as I’ve noted, Blix’s report increases the likelihood that Bush will be able to get the UNSC on board with sufficient patience.

At the bottom of all this is the question, still unresolved as far as I am concerned, of whether the Iraqis actually have a weapons program. If so, I think the evidence of past successful inspections, cited in Blix’s report suggests that, if the inspectors have a sufficiently free hand, they will be found in the end. This in turn means that Saddam will probably defy any UNSC resolution that is sufficiently tightly worded. If not, then, however humiliating the demands may be, he will have no rational alternative but to comply.

Ignorance is strength

In my discussion of the Canberra bushfires, I observed that Paddy McGuinness had made some ‘typically nasty and ill-informed’ comments, before going on to note that the blogworld does this kind of thing much better (or rather, much worse). In the Comments thread Me No No wrote

the real purpose of a column like that is to generate letters to the editor, so reminding SMH carpet strollers of why they pay an exhorbitant amount for columns that don’t really say much.

When tomorrow’s letters page is chockers with outrage, Paddy will feel useful again.

Looking at today’s SMH it becomes clear that the timing of this particular piece was also intended to provoke a flood of outrage from the chattering classes when Paddy’s AO was announced, to which he could respond with devastating wit. Instead, Lleyton Hewitt got the brickbats and the only response to Paddy was a letter from frequent commentator on this blog, Ron Mead, praising the award.

As a result, Paddy’s piece today was a bit sad. No-one even remembered that he was once a republican opponent of all kinds of honours, so he had to remind us of his own hypocrisy before defending himself. And his subtle self-comparison to Orwell, fighting against the “smelly little orthodoxies” of the left, came adrift when the sub-editor gave his piece the title, When no means yes, principle’s the same. This is Orwellian, but not in the good sense.

The person who should really be nailed on all this is John Howard. While he was saying all the right things about his concern for the people of Canberra, McGuinness, with the AO award already in the bag, was giving vent to the government’s real feelings on the subject.

Update Always vigorous in defence of his intellectual heroes, Jason Soon argues that

Paddy’s output of late has not necessarily been of sterling quality but that placed in the context of his past work his AO was well-deserved.

While I’m less of an admirer than Jason, I agree that McGuinness was a serious and credible commentator in the 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately, looking at the rest of the Oz Day Honours list, I find it implausible that Paddy got his gong, even in part, for pieces like the one Jason mentioned where he argued that “Keating was a better pro-market reformer than Thatcher”.The AO is a reward for the partisan vitriol of the past seven years rather than for his earlier work.

Jason also didn’t like my suggestion that Paddy’s comments on Canberra reflected the government’s real feelings on the subject. Having lived in Canberra for a good part of my life, I think I’m pretty well attuned to these things, and stand by what I said.

Last word on Windschuttle

My final say on the Windschuttle controversy has been posted on the Evatt Foundation website. It’s here. The final para:

I am always puzzled by the ease with which some people can repudiate their own past views while maintaining a dogmatic conviction of the infallible correctness of their current beliefs. Keith Windschuttle is, regrettably, an extreme instance of this phenomenon.

Before closing on this topic, I’ll mention that Saturday’s Courier-Mail included lengthy extracts from the diary of a senior Queensland police officer detailing numerous massacres and “dispersals” (I’ll add a link if possible). These academic controversies are absorbing, but get tiring in the end. I may post a bit more on the general question of historical truth, but I’ll leave Windschuttle himself (and also John Lott) to history from now on.

Lott's of fun for everyone

As the world turns, the Lott soap opera goes on producing new plot twists on a more or less daily basis. The emergence of a witness, David Gross, supporting Lott’s story of a survey lost in 1997, and his acceptance by respected expert James Lindgren as a credible source, convinced many, including me, that the case of fabrication against Lott could not be sustained on the available evidence. The fact that Gross was a member of a pro-gun lobby group, which was known to Lindgren, wasn’t in itself a reason to doubt him. The NRA has 3.6 million members, so a survey of 2000 Americans ought to pick up twenty or thirty of them, and these are the people most likely to hear about the controversy and contact Lott.

Next came the news that Lott was posting all over the Internet in his own defence (including personal testimonials and book reviews) under the false name Mary Rosh. This was enough to convince me he was dishonest.

Now it appears Gross is not merely an opponent of gun control He’s Founding Director and Past Pres. of one of the most extreme pro-gun groups,. He condemns the NRA because it supports the enforcement of existing gun laws. Moreover, it’s been claimed (lost this link, sorry!) that , in a piece of sharp practice, he took over the registrations of a number of gun-control organizations when they were accidentally allowed to lapse, an impressive instance of either dishonesty or sharp practice, depending on your viewpoint.

The odds of Lott’s survey picking up a member of a pro-gun organisation are pretty favorable, but the odds of picking up someone as prominent and extreme as Gross are not. And the alternative hypothesis, that Gross is willing to engage in dishonesty for the cause and sharp enough to present himself as a credible witness, is looking better all the time.

Finally, Tim Lambert notes a piece in the Washington Times defending Lott. Tim is critical, but there’s a positive side to this. The Washington Times has a circulation of 100 000, making it about even money that at least one reader was involved in the putative survey. If the issue makes it into the mainstream press in a substantial way, we ought to get dozens of witnesses. Or not, as the case may be.

Update A mildly interesting fact I discovered is that the very first review of Lott’s book on Amazon (5 stars!) was by Glenn Reynolds, in the days before InstaPundit. You can read it. here – use the ‘oldest first’ option.

Update 1 Feb 02Thanks to Mark A. R. Kleiman, here’s the missing link on Gross dirty tricks from Atrios.