More research on speeding

One of the nice things about the US, from a research point of view is that, with 50 states, often going in different policy directions, it’s possible to do reasonably good statistical evaluations of policy, taking account of a lot of potentially confounding factors. (It’s also possible to do this badly and dishonestly, as the career of John Lott has shown, but that’s true of any research technique).

Here’s an NYT report of a study, using this approach, which estimates that increases in speed limits in the US led to nearly 1900 extra deaths over 3 years.

Update 27/11 Here’s another NYT story recognising, for the first time AFAIK, that the US trails other countries including Australia in road safety. As commenters on this blog have pointed out, the causes include not only speeding, but also more drink-driving and less effective seat-belt laws. There may also be an effect from the number of SUVs in the fleet, though this is controversial – heavy cars promote safety in some circumstances, and reduce it in others.

On the positive side, not noted here, the US moved earlier to make airbags standard equipment and has much better roads than Australia.

A final point is that the accident measure used here is fatalities per million vehicle miles. This is biased in favor of the US, since it effectively ignores passengers and pedestrians when calculating risks.

Bankruptcy and divorce

In his summary of the debates between candidates for the Democratic nomination in the US, William Saletan lists as “Second-fishiest statement” this by John Edwards

If you’re a child in a middle-class family this decade, it is more likely your parents will go into bankruptcy than that your parents will divorce.”

But unless the middle class is atypical, Edwards is right on the money. As I point out here, in the year ending March 2003, more Americans went bankrupt than got divorced.

The six o'clock swill

Monday’s Fin (subscription required) ran a highly aerated piece by Denis Dutton of the University of Canterbury about the horrors of life in New Zealand in the early 1980s, before the reforms of Roger Douglas. Phrases like “Stalinist Anglo-utopia,” and claims that “Objectively, apart from the fact that we spoke English, our inward-looking command economy’s closest counterparts could only be found in the Eastern Bloc” will come as no surprise to followers of the absurdly hyperbolic rhetoric that characterizes the advocates of reform in New Zealand. Even today, they routinely refer to Wellington as ‘Helengrad’, and talk as though the moderate government of Helen Clark has NZ well along on the road to serfdom.

But what struck me in the article was this claim about life in New Zealand “in the early 1980s”

The most notable example was the six o’clock swill, where the average punter got off work at 5pm and was required to down as much locally-produced grog as possible before the bars had to shut at 6pm. This got citizens, however drunk, home in time to the news on the government television service.

I visited New Zealand a couple of times before the reforms, and did not notice anything of the kind. On the other hand, I am just old enough to remember the abolition of the six o’clock swill in South Australia, by the reforming government of Don Dunstan. Six o’clock closing had been introduced during World War I as an emergency measure, then kept in place for fear of offending the wowser vote. On checking, I found that the history in NZ was almost exactly the same, introduced in 1918 and abolished in 1967, nearly 20 years earlier than Dutton claims.

In thinking about why Dutton would make such an obviously false claim, it struck me that he was reflecting an idea that I’ve encountered quite often in discussions with supporters of neoliberalism in New Zealand but which (with one important exception) was never seriously put forward in Australia,

This is the idea that free-market reform is naturally associated with cultural liberalisation and sophistication. It’s true that, while the New Zealand I visited in the 1970s did not have six o’clock closing, it seemed distinctly old-fashioned, much like Australia before the cultural opening up associated with figures like Dunstan, Whitlam and even Don Chipp.

The result was that the era of free-market reform in NZ coincided with the kind of cultural opening up and increasing sophisticatiion that Australia had seen a decade or more earlier. At least in the minds of supporters of the reform the two are seen as going together. There is no such association in Australia, and free-market reform is more generally seen as being associated with a narrowing of intellectual and cultural horizons.

The one attempt at linking economic and cultural liberalisation in Australia was in the rhetoric of Paul Keating. Keating routinely labelled his opponents as creatures of the 1950s (ignoring the two decades that had passed between the end of the 50s and the beginnings of reform). In his post-1993 reinvention, he suddenly emerged as a patron of culture and attracted some supporters from within the ‘arts community’. However, with the exception of this tiny group, few people on either side of the debate bought Keating’s rhetoric. Most of those who had supported Dunstan and Whitlam detested Keating. Conversely, most advocates of free-market reform remained violently hostile to art and culture, at least when its practitioners received any kind of government support or ventured to express opinions on political and social issues.

800 words

Matt Yglesias doesn’t like the 800 word length that’s standard for Op-ed pieces at the NYT and elsewhere

I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that the Gray Lady’s 800 words, twice a week columnist format is not exactly healthy for the quality of the writing they publish. It’s not so much that 1,600 words a week is too much for a person to write — I do more than that — but that the 800 word format is very hard to pull off. It’s notably that on the web, where you don’t have the typographical issues that make the 800 worder appealing to layout people (it’s roughly a full broadsheet column or a single magazine page, so you see it a lot), virtually nothing is ever published at this length. Cutting the fat out of an argument so that you can say something substantive and original in such a small length is tough, especially because convention dictates that you must have a proper lede and so forth taking up some of the space (link via Calpundit).

At least for me, nothing could be further from the truth. I love the 800 word format (actually, at the Fin, I only get 750). I find that it usually takes between 500 and 1000 words to develop a single point nicely in a first draft. If it comes out at the upper end, I usually find I’ve put in a para or two I don’t really need (often as a result of the academic instinct to qualify everything you say, which is the antithesis of opinion writing). After that, it’s just a matter of cutting out redundant words, rhetorical flourishes and so on. If it comes out at 500, there’s an opportunity for an extra half-point. This is an idea you can flag as being not fully developed, but which may be brought out in a later column. You can read my collected columns here.

Of course, I only have a fortnightly column, but I’d really love a weekly slot (BTW, have I mentioned my admiration for Fred Hilmer lately? :-).

I’m not so sure about the wisdom of the NYT policy of twice-weekly columns. That’s hard to do, and also limits the variety of the page.


It was one year ago today that we arrived in Brisbane. Like everyone, I’ve had my ups and downs, but this has definitely been one of the best years I’ve had. I’ve liked just about everything about Brisbane, but especially the friendliness of the people here.

Among the jobs associated with moving, we finally got around to transferring the registration of our trailer, today, which entailed a trip in to the Queensland Transport office. In my experience this is a job which ranges from stressful and frustrating (most places in Australia) to the day from hell (my one experience in the US). But everyone was friendly and helpful, and the girl behind the counter was positively bubbly. We find this all the time.

In addition to the general pleasantness of life, there have been some big positive life-events, including some career successes and the marriage of my son. All in all, a very good year.

What I'm reading, and more

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian. I’ve had good recommendations to read the series of historical novels of which this is the first instalment and the impending release of Peter Weir’s film (of which I’ve read mixed reviews) gave me the prod I needed. If I’m going to read a book, I prefer to do so before seeing a film of it. I enjoyed Master and Commander, but will need to read a couple more to see if I really get hooked.

I’ve also started the long task of converting my vinyl records to digital formats, going through AIFF to MP3. This is actually more work than converting to cassette, a task I once began, but never carried through. The process I’m using takes about six error-prone stages before the music ends up on my iPod. After the triviality of converting CD’s – stick it in the slot, download the info from CDBB and Bob’s your uncle – this all seems very slow. I estimate that, at one side a day, an discarding old stuff I’ll never listen to, the whole thing should take me about a year. And I’m clearly going to run out of disk space if I try to keep the lot in AIFF.

Against all that, there’s the amazing flexibility of digital music, at every level. I can do any kind of editing I want (for example, skipping over cracks in my old records and stripping out white noise) and rearrange the songs in any way I like.