Please explain?

So I expect I’ll be watching the RWC Final like everybody else, but there’s still a basic point about the game I don’t understand, especially after the France-England game (I’m from the AFL half of the country, but I’ve watched a reasonable amount of rugby league). It seems as if it’s a lot easier to kick three goals than to score and convert a try. (This is certainly true in rugby league which is why you only get one point for a field goal.) So the obvious strategy seems to be to go for goals.(On standard game-theoretic grounds, you should make the occasional attempt at a try, just to force the other side to defend against it).

But most teams seem to have only one player who’s any good at kicking. If a team had three or four players who could regularly kick goals from 40 metres, the task of the defence would be just about impossible. As soon as the attacking side got to within, say, 30 metres, they could pass it back to a randomly chosen kicker for a set shot at goal. Even with 50 per cent accuracy, this ought to bring in 30+ points a game, which is usually enough.

Chicago-style reasoning (Isn’t that a $50 bill on the pavement? No, if it was, someone would have picked it up) says there’s something wrong with this analysis. Can someone set me straight before Saturday?

David Smith defends the GG

Although being an opinion columnist gives me a great opportunity to air my views, one of the minor annoyances is that it’s customary not to respond to letters, no matter how obviously wrong they are.

But there is no such custom or constraint when it comes to blogs. David Smith (I assume the same one who announced the dismissal of the Whitlam government) has criticised my column on the constitution, which I mentioned here. Smith writes:

In their haste to continue with an open season on John Howard-appointed governors-general, some commentators, having made up their minds, do not want to be confused by the facts.

Michael Costello, former secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, criticised Governor-General Michael Jeffery for the way in which he gives the royal assent to bills passed by parliament, when they come before the Federal Executive Council (The Australian, October 24).

Costello gave details of alleged conversations between the Governor-General and ministers to illustrate the extent of the Governor-General’s interference.

But the Federal Executive Council does not deal with the royal assent, and ministers are not present when the Governor-General gives it.

Now John Quiggin, in “Our model constitution”(AFR, November 6), has followed suit. Quiggin has accused the Governor-General of politicising his position by “endorsing a policy of pre-emptive military action”. I have searched Major-General Jeffery’s speeches, and all I have found is a call for “co-operative interventionist action by the UN with a view to pre-empting bloodbaths”. That is the very opposite of what Quiggin has alleged.

Quiggin calls for a directly elected governor-general or president. Direct election of the head of state has been so roundly condemned by intelligent republicans such as a former governor-general, a former prime minister, a former chief justice of the High Court, and several legal and political academics of distinction, among many others, that it requires no further comment from me.

I can’t quite figure out Smith’s point in the second-last paragraph. Presumably he’s saying that because Jeffery called for the UN to be involved, his position was different from that of the government, though it’s still a stretch to say that the two are opposites. But I wasn’t concerned to criticise Jeffery’s position, merely to make the obvious point that it was a political one.

His final paragraph is a classic argument from authority. A former PM, a former GG and a former CJ disagree with me, therefore I must be wrong. This ancient fallacy is common, but I’ve rarely seen it in such a pure form.

An observation on evolutionary psychology

I’m generally sceptical about sociobiology/evolutionary psychology, on the grounds that, since we know almost nothing about the conditions under which we evolved (hunter-gatherer societies that survived into the 20th century are necessarily exceptional, and therefore unrepresentative), it’s very hard to see how we can make any useful inferences.

But the simple fact that our ancestors were hunters enables us to make one kind of inference with high reliability. Encounters with other*, armed, humans must have been a frequent occurrence

Two things follow, both of which have been remarked on, but typically by different people.

First, if even a modest proportion of such encounters led to armed combat, our ancestors would have wiped each other out

Second, if even a tiny proportion of such encounters led to armed combat, the death rate from violence would far exceed that associated with modern warfare.

(Do an example, and you can substitute your own values for “modest” and “tiny”)

From the first point, it follows that there must have existed some combination of cultural and genetic constraints that ensured that the vast majority of encounters between armed humans passed off peacefully. From the second, it follows that any cultural or genetic characteristic that increased an individual’s probability of surviving such encounters would yield substantial survival benefits.

If you emphasise either one of these in isolation, you can derive strong, and seemingly compelling hypotheses about genetic constraints on human behavior. But taking the two together, the picture is a lot more complex.

*The most frequent encounters would have been with close kin, but on any plausible assumption about the organisation of hunting there must have been plenty of encounters with distantly related or unrelated individuals (or social constructs such as territorial boundaries that acted to reduce the frequency of such encounters).

Some pleasant surprises

For some reason, my career seems to have gone exceptionally well since I started blogging. I had two pleasant surprises last week. First, I was told that I’d been elected as a Distinguished Fellow of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society. This is a big honour for me, as agricultural and resource economics is where I started out, and still a core focus of my research (particularly on the Murray-Darling Basin). Admittedly, once academics reach a certain age, we like nothing better than to give each other awards, but that doesn’t detract from the pleasure in getting one.

Much more unexpected was receiving an email from Kenneth Arrow. There are a lot of very smart and insightful people in the economics profession, but in most cases I tell myself that, if only I work hard and think clearly I have a shot at matching them (this may not be true, but it keeps me motivated). Then there are a handful of people like Arrow, Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman. Reading their stuff, I get the feeling I could work for a hundred years without matching them.

Anyway, the email had a fairly generic title and I expected I was just on an address list. But when I opened it, it was an invitation to me to give a series of lectures on the economics of risk, in Jerusalem next year. Of course, I plan to accept.

Guest post (the real thing)

I mucked up the first guest posting, putting up what was intended as a comment-length version. So here’s the full version of Brian Bahnisch’s thoughts.

The steel decision and the WTO

While the WTO steel decision poses a significant domestic dilemma for Bush, the implications for international trade relations are interesting. Pascal Lamy of the EU was very quick to remind the Americans about their taunts by saying that the cheese eating surrender monkeys are now biting back. You’d have to think they will hit hard with retaliatory tariffs.

Australia usually follows the correct pure free trade line, even against the US. On this one we did special deals, so can afford to sit back.

Japan, though, is considering sending a shot across the bows with a few hundred million dollars worth of sanctions against the US. It’s symbolic, but very significant.

The WTO has been a joint project of the US, the EU and Japan. With Canada, they make up the famous “Quad”, which calls the shots in the WTO. Dangerous cracks have opened up in Quad solidarity prior to Cancun and were unsuccessfully papered over. It was Japanese and South Korean intransigence above all that sunk Cancun.

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What I'm reading

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett. Dennett’s main concern is to ram home the point that, much as we might like the idea of some sort of special exemption from processes of undirected natural selection (a skyhook) we’re not going to find one.

Dennett naturally lines up with Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, but I find him much more satisfactory than either of these. While he’s remorseless in his basic argument, he’s careful to avoid slides into what he calls ‘greedy reductionism’. To caricature, the typical ‘greedy reductionist’ slide goes from “The existence of (say) the High Court” is the result of evolutionary events on the African savanna many thousands of years ago” (trivial true, except perhaps for some details about location) to “The best way to explain the decisions of the High Court is with reference to evolutionary events on the African savanna many thousands of years ago”. (silly).

As I observe in this review of Pinker, this kind of slide from trivially true to indefensibly strong arguments runs all the way through The Blank Slate. Dawkins is prone to the same fault, though not as much so.

An observation on monarchy

A widely-noted feature of the debate over the monarchy, both in Australia and the UK, is that the Queen is considerably more popular than the Monarchy. Although there are a lot of factors of work here, one is a curious accident.

In a system where the monarchy is inherited by male primogeniture, the par outcome is that the monarch should be an old or middle-aged man who has spent most of his adult life waiting for the job. This was the case for most of the 18th century, for example. By some odd chances, however, more than half of the last 200 years of the British monarchy havs been occupied by two long reigns by women. As at the end of the 19th century, only a minority of people can now recall a time when the current Queen was not reigning. The only reign of the last 150 years that really fits the model I’ve described was that of Edward VII, and was not a great success.

In the past, when most positions of authority were held by men whose main qualification was to have lived a long time, the operations of primogeniture helped the monarchy, although even then the really successful kings were mostly those who started young. But I doubt that a modern monarchy could survive if the par outcome occurred regularly. Assuming the British monarchy sticks to the existing rules and Prince Charles doesn’t die prematurely, this is the likely pattern for the foreseeable future.