State of Ozplogistan

Looking around Ozplogistan, I have two contradictory impressions. On the one hand, the place is so busy and exciting that it’s impossible to keep up with everything that’s going on, let alone to keep the blogroll up to date. For example, I only just realised that I’d left out Tim Lambert and Chris Sheil.

On the other hand, I look around and wonder “where is everybody?”. In the last year or so, most of those I regarded at the time as constituting “my corner of the blogosphere” have moved on. Don Arthur was the first to give the game away, and despite some incisive comments here and there, he hasn’t been lured back. Jason Soon and Ken Parish have both taken a back seat in the collective blogs they founded – I still read both regularly, but with less occasion for cross-linking and debate. More recently, Gareth Parker and Scott Wickstein have taken indefinite breaks. Of my old inner circle, only Rob Corr and Tim Dunlop are still going strong (Rob Schaap continues his tradition of erratic, but often brilliant, blogging).

I guess this says something about the time and energy required for blogging. When big life events come along, or when you just get tired, blogging is an obvious candidate for cutbacks. It looks as though the average lifespan for a blog may turn out to be something like eighteen months (coincidentally or not, almost exactly the combined age of this blog and its predecessor).

However, I’m still having fun, and plan to keep on blogging. I’m still thinking about changes in the setup, maybe including a change of name, and I may make more contributions to group blogs, but the basic pattern isn’t going to change any time soon.

I realise I haven’t mentioned commenters yet, but you are a vital part of blogging for me, especially as the blogosphere becomes more diverse and diffuse. So thanks everyone for another great year of comments

Happy New Year (a day or two early) to everybody!


Kevin Drum sees the deal with Qaddafi as a victory for the ‘Bush doctrine’, saying

there are downsides to the Bush Doctrine, lots of them, and that’s why I don’t support it. But there are also upsides, and Libya’s transformation appears to be one of them. Acknowledging that doesn’t make you soft on Bush, it just means you’re willing to acknowledge the obvious.

As I hinted a few days ago, I don’t see this at all.

The Qaddafi deal is a win for what might be called the Blair 2002 doctrine, namely that governments that hold WMDs and threaten the world should be forced to disarm, with the threat of invasion, and to submit to unrestricted inspection. As applied to Iraq, this produced UN resolution 1441 and Saddam’s capitulation, admitting the UN inspectors and declaring (truthfully as we now know) that he had destroyed all his weapons. According to the Blair 2002 doctrine, Saddam should then have received the same treatment as Qaddafi is getting now. The war, according to the Blair 2002 doctrine, was at best, an honest mistake.

The Bush doctrine, usually referred to in terms of pre-emptive action, is that governments hostile to the US should be overthrown. According to this doctrine, a deal that left Saddam in power, but contained, was never acceptable. (This point has been pushed harder since the failure to find WMDs.) But of course, this is precisely the deal that Qaddafi has been given.

It’s true that Bush briefly embraced the Blair 2002 doctrine. But this was a purely tactical move, based on the incorrect expectation that Saddam would supply a satisfactory pretext to secure UN support and cover Blair and the correct calculation that even a patently bogus pretext would be enough to drag Blair along in the end.

Other-regarding preferences

(A repost from my visit to Crooked Timber).

In a couple of recent posts, Matt Yglesias has raised the question of how consequentialists should handle “other-regarding” preferences. He gives two examples. The first is about the possible execution of Saddam Hussein

My own take on the punishment issue leads to a somewhat paradoxical result. … If Iraqis would feel better with him executed, then go for it…
I like to think of this as a wise and sophisticated point of view, but the trouble is that my preferences depend on other people’s preferences. As long as not very many people agree with me, that’s fine, but if some huge portion of the world were to decide I was right, then you’d wind up with an unfortunate self-reference paradox. Sadly, consequentialist attitudes tend to have these kind of results and I think that if I were smarter I would dedicate my life to resolving the problems.

The second is about the preferences of people who are repulsed by overtly gay behavior. Matt concludes that their preferencesmust be counted, although they should be argued against.

This is an issue of considerable practical interest to resource and environmental economists, because of the popularity of stated preference methods for evaluating public goods such as environmental preservation. I find these methods problematic and one big problem is the treatment of other-regarding preferences.

This is why I have an article on the topic in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, (PDF and algebra alert). Not, I imagine the kind of journal that philosophers like Matt read with any regularity
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Christy on global warming

Via David Appell, this statement from the American Geophysical Union confirming the reality of global warming. The statement says

that human activities — most notably the greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other industries — are warming Earth’s climate at a faster rate than ever.

A particularly noteworthy signatory is John Christy. director of the University of Alabama’s Earth Systems Science Center. While noting that he is

“still a strong critic of scientists who make catastrophic predictions of huge increases in global temperatures and tremendous rises in sea levels.

Christy says

It is scientifically inconceivable that after changing forests into cities, turning millions of acres into farmland, putting massive quantities of soot and dust into the atmosphere and sending quantities of greenhouse gases into the air, that the natural course of climate change hasn’t been increased in the past century.

Christy’s statement, the strongest I’ve seen from him, is significant because he’s been one of the handful of reputable scientists whose work (on satellite measurements of temperatures in the upper atmosphere) and public statements have tended to support the denialist position that is propagated by the legion of “junk science” sites in the blogosphere. Over time, corrections to interpretation of the satellite data have produced a rising trend, similar to that found in measurements of temperature on the ground, rather than the declining trend reported in Christy’s early work.

That leaves Richard Lindzen as, to the best of my knowledge, the only reputable climate scientist still willing to say that the reality of human-caused global warming hasn’t been proved beyond reasonable doubt, and even Lindzen has been pretty quiet lately.

Of course, that’s not a problem for the global warming denialists. They don’t need reputable climate scientists to create the appearance of disagreement; they’re happy to accept the claims of anyone with a PhD after their name, or even without, as long as it supports their position. Currently their leading authorities on the recent history of the global climate are two astrophysicists (Baliunas and Soon), an economist (McKitrick) and a retired mining executive (McIntyre), but they’re happy to rely on astrologers if they give the right answer.

Hegemony or Empire

This is a piece I’m working on for the Fin. Comments much appreciated

It has long been commonplace for critics of American foreign policy to describe the United States as an ‘imperialist’ power. In the last couple of years, however, the term has come to be used more favorably, notably by the British historian Niall Ferguson. The positive view, that America needs to act more like an imperial power has been accompanied by a positive reappraisal of earlier imperial powers like Britain and Rome.

Despite the increasing attention given to imperialist views like those of Ferguson the United States is more accurately described as a hegemonic rather than an imperial power. The United States does not seek to expand its territory, or even, in general, to exercise direct control over the governments of other countries.

On the other hand, particularly under the Bush Administration, the United States has sought to be more than ‘first among equals’. The Administration’s view is that, on any important global issue, the United States is entitled to determine the outcome, with the support of allies if possible, but unilaterally if necessary. This is the viewpoint of a hegemonic, rather than an imperial power.
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The ghost of Christmas past

CP Snow once said that most ancient British traditions dated back to the second half of the 19th century. The same idea recently popped up in the London Review of Books, with Stefan Collini referring to the

second half of the 19th century, the palaeolithic age of so many British cultural institutions

. Christmas provides an ideal illustration of this.

All the central features of Xmas date back, more or less exactly, to this period, including Christmas pudding, mince pies and cake, Christmas cards and Santa Claus. Although Dickens’ 1843 Christmas Carol, tiresomely readapted every couple of years since, presents a ‘traditional’ Christmas, it is much more accurate to see him as The Man who invented Christmas and his book as a work of invention.

If Christmas was pretty much fixed by 1900, its become immovably solidifed since then. Even the complaints about Christmas (commercialisation, losing the true meaning, secularisation, the loneliness of people with no family, the misery of people forced to endure family gatherings and so on) haven’t changed in decades.

The Australian Christmas is, of course, a bit different, but it’s equally stable as one merges into another and no-one can recall if it was 104 in the shade in 1966 or 106 in the shade in 1964 (I’m quoting from memory from The Complete Book of Australian Verse

The only new(ish) complaint has been about multiculturalism, with the inclusion of the Jewish Hanukkah in a generalized ‘holiday season’, particularly in the US, and the downplaying of explicitly Christian aspects in various public celebrations. But even this is old stuff by now.

Its arguable that Christmas is the rule rather than the exception. Despite the claims of postmodernism and the breathlessness of books like Future Shock, increasingly large areas of opur culture seem to characterized by stability amounting to stasis rather than change. Trends in popular music, for example, used to have a half-life measured in weeks; now, it’s more like decades. Men’s clothes have changed only in subtle details in the past century (take a look at a picture from 1900 and the men are wearing a slightly more formal version of what they would wear today. Go back to 1800 and the change is dramatic).

I’ll have more to say on this general topic in the New Year. But having celebrated the Solstice in a seasonally appropriate way with seafood and cold beer, I’ll be tucking in to the Christmas pudding and brandy sauce tomorrow, so don’t expect anything more from me until at least Boxing Day.

Rules of evidence

The NYT has an Op-ed piece by Ruth Wedgwood supporting the detention of Jose Padilla as an enemy combatant and criticising an Appeals Court decision that he should either be charged or released. Wedgwood doesn’t mention many of the more disturbing aspects of the Padilla case such as the fact that he is being held incommunicado and that the government disclaims any obligation to announce the arrest/disappearance of enemy combatants, even US citizens on US soil.

But what struck me was the central claim that such processes are necessary because

Federal rules of evidence do not permit the consideration of intelligence reports as proof for criminal convictions, no matter how reliable the informant

. Wedgwood doesn’t spell this out, and it seems surprising to me that there exists such a general principle. I’d be interested to hear from anyone better informed regarding the US legal system on this topic.

Supposing this is correct, my immediate reaction is that it would be better to relax the rules of evidence in terrorism cases than to accept indefinite detention without trial. However, I’d be interested to hear the views of others on this.