Some trivial impressions from Israel

I’ve spent the last five days in Israel, at a summer school on the Economics of Risk. Judging by the wrtings of visitors who’ve spent a similar amount of time in Australia, I ought by now to have formulated both an incisive analysis of Israeli society and a comprehensive plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I haven’t done either, but I do have a few rather trivial observations to make.
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Terra Nullius

I’ve read a number of recent articles the burden of which is that the doctrine of terra nullius was a straw man invented by Henry Reynolds (sorry no links, but Christopher Pearson in the Oz states the point and lists others).

My own memory is that this doctrine was enunciated, both in name and in substance, by Justice Blackburn in a major case about 1971, which wasabout the beginning of Reynolds academic career. I’m prepared to believe that I’m wrong about the name, but I can’t see how the substance of Blackburn’s decision could have a basis significantly different from what we now call the doctrine of terra nullius . Maybe Ken Parish or some other well-informed person can set me straight.

Update: Commenter Dan has all the relevant info, so read the comments thread. Blackburn actually used the phrase “desert and uncultivated” which is taken in all the subsequent discussion to be synonymous with terra nullius.

My conclusion: Pearson and others are talking nonsense. The Blackburn decision made the validity or otherwise of the terra nullius doctrine a vital concern. Reynold’s research showed that this doctrine was not asserted as part of the British claim to sovereignty over Australia. Of course, the evidence can be read in ways more favorable to a terra nullius view, but there’s no sense in which this view was a straw man invented by Reynolds for the purpose of demolition.

Saving the Murray

From my current distance, I can only make a preliminary assessment of the “historic” agreement on the National Water Initiative. But, from what I’ve seen, there’s no good news here. The issue of what costs would be borne by irrigators when allocations were reduced was not clarified in the initial announcement. The new announcement makes it clear that virtually all costs will be borne by governments. That would be fine, if the announcement included new money to pay for this. But as far as I can see, the $500 million that has been announced is the same money that was announced a year or so ago.

This means that the environmental allocation will be no more than the 500GL previously announced which is clearly inadequate. So the agreement may be historic, but not, as far as I can see, in a good way.

I’ll post more on this when I return from my travels and have time to examine the outcome in detail.

A snippet on the Charter of Budget Honesty

At a tactical political level one important issue arises from the provisions of Clause 29 of the “Charter of Budget Honesty”, under which either party may request costings of their election programs from the Departments of Finance and Treasury. Obviously Labor will come under pressure to seek such a costing, pressure to which Kim Beazley succumbed last time around.

Although it’s hard to predict the politics in advance, Labor would probably be better advised to get an independent costing from a consultancy like Access Economics[1] before issuing its policies. Government pressure to submit policies to Treasury and Finance could be the occasion for an attack on the politicisation of the Public Service.

fn1. Just after I wrote this, I read an interesting story in the Fin, regarding large-scale illegal downloading of information from the computers at Access, much of it allegedly ending up in the hands of rival consulting outfit ACIL. An apparent target of the exercise was to determine whether Access was costing Labor’s promises, and, if so, to get hold of the costings. (Thanks to reader John Warburton for alerting me to this).

Down to Gehenna

I can remember discovering, with something of a shock, that Armageddon was a real place (modern Megiddo). So, I shouldn’t have been too surprised to find out today that Gehenna is the name of a valley near Jerusalem, bearing no obvious marks of being on the road to eternal damnation. I also got to see Golgotha and Mount Zion – I don’t think my reading of Biblical allusions will be quite the same after this.

Do bloggers make a difference?


In the light of pieces like Trevor Cook’s in the Fin recently, I was beginning to think blogs were making a difference for the better in the mainstream media. But the fact that the Oz can run an op-ed piece on gun control by discredited ex-academic John Lott suggest that a lot more remains to be done.

Lott has been exposed in every possible way by bloggers (of all political persuasions and none) as a liar, a fabricator, and even as an Internet cross-dresser[1] (for the gory details visit the indefatigable Tim Lambert). Yet not only is he still sitting in a cosy billet at the American Enterprise Institute, but newspapers are apparently still willing to publish him. Clearly bloggers have a lot more work to do. Ken Parish takes on the job of demolishing Lott’s latest piece of nonsense, as does Tim Lambert.

fn1. Having said all this, it’s necessary to confront the ad hominem issue. A logical argument doesn’t become invalid because it is put forward by a liar. But an Op-ed piece about an issue like gun control can’t consist exclusively of abstract logical argument. The arguments have to be given some factual basis. And any piece written by Lott should come with a warning, “Do not accept any factual assertion in this article”.

Where will the next bin Laden come from ?

The latest atrocious murders committed by Al Qaeda raise a number of thoughts for me, as does the swift killing/capture of those apparently responsible for the murder of Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia.

First, however bad the crimes that have been committed in our name, nothing that has yet been revealed comes close to the gratuitous evil of Al Qaeda. That shouldn’t be taken as an excuse, or a reason for playing down such crimes; in the presence of such an enemy its more necessary than ever to keep our own hands clean and to be seen to do so. But nothing should be taken to mitigate the guilt of the Al Qaeda terrorists or to suggest that there is any possible compromise that can be made with them.
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On the road

I’m off today on my long-planned trip to Jerusalem and Paris. Posting will be intermittent (not, I hope, nonexistent),so feel free to use this post to start up any new discussion you like.

For those who want something to chew on, Ken Parish has returned to the fray with a series of excellent and thought-provoking posts. This one manages to move effortlessly from Gen X to economic growth in China and there’s also a discussion of Latham’s values.

Update My connections are working OK so far, but then, I’ve only got as far as Brisbane airport

Poverty and income gaps

A couple of readers have written to me suggesting it would be a good time to post about poverty and income inequality. First, I’ve been alerted to this story by Miranda Devine saying that the tragic house fire in Sydney a couple of days happened because the family couldn’t afford blankets. It’s often been asserted that poverty is an out-of-date concept, but there is still plenty of absolute deprivation in modern societies. There’s some evidence onhunger in the US here. Although I don’t have the data handy, the proportion of the population living below the US poverty line (based on a PPP conversion) is actually slightly higher in Australia than in the US – much higher in both countries than in most developed countries. Of course the biggest problems are those of indigenous Australians (from Devine’s report, this includes the family in the Sydney tragedy) but there’s nothing to be complacent about more generally. And there’s no justification for looking only within Australia. We can ignore poverty in the world as a whole if we choose, but that doesn’t mean the world will choose to ignore us.
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