Deep pockets

I was checking my MT Activity logs, and was stunned to see how much comment spam I’m blocking with MT Blacklist. This got me thinking about spam in general, and led me to this article in the Kansas City Star which details the activity of a spammer selling various kinds of insurance. The money quote (literally) is

Completed forms, in turn, are sold to agents of legitimate companies, such as IndyMac Bank, ADT Security and MEGA Life and Health Insurance. The agents say they pay $3 to $7 for each referral. (emphasis added)

I can’t see anything legitimate about a company that employs criminal methods in its business, while pretending to be at arms length from the whole thing. It seems pretty clear that the way to make this kind of spam uneconomical is to make the employers of spammers liable for civil action. While I think estimates of $2000/employee, mentioned in the story, are over the top, the economic damage done by spammers is immense – more than enough to put firms like those mentioned[1] out of business if they were forced to bear their share of the bill.

Of course, this wouldn’t work so well against the purveyors of generic viagra, penis enlargement and so on, where the businesses are just as fly-by-night as the spammers. But every little helps.

UpdateCoincidentally, the NYT reports that dozens of spammers have been charged with a variety of offences

fn1. I’ve emailed one of them (IndyMac Bank) to see if they have a response to the KC Star story. If I get one, I’ll report it.

Bail for asylum-seekers

In response to previous posts on asylum seekers, various commenters have suggested that there is no alternative to our current brutal policies, including the detention of children. A striking feature of these comments is that they treat the problem as if it is utterly new and unprecedented. In fact, we have lots of experience in dealing with people subject to judicial processes (such as criminal trials) and also with unauthorised residents such as visa overstayers.

Looking first at what should be done when someone arrives in Australia without authorisation, and claims political asylum, I’d suggest the obvious model is that of bail for people accused of criminal trials. That is, asylum seekers should be allowed to remain at liberty unless it can be shown, on the balance of probabilities, that they are likely to abscond or that they represent a danger to the community/

The comments seem to take the view that this is unacceptable because, inevitably, some people will abscond. But they don’t, I assume, take the same view in relation to criminal offences. At this moment, there are thousands of people at large in Australia who have outstanding warrants for offences ranging from speeding to crimes of violence. These people represent a much greater threat to the community than do illegal immigrants. But no-one suggests that everyone charged with an offence should be locked up until they have been tried.

And even within the category of illegal immigrants, there are tens of thousands who have jumped the queue the easy way, by overstaying a tourist or student visa. Most, though not all, of these turn up in the end, but quite a few manage to squeeze into one of the legal categories, for example by marriage.

If you read the discussion of this issue from supporters of the government, the general impression is that even the slightest breach in our immigration policy would be a national catastrophe, and that to avoid such a catastrophe we are justified in the kind of extreme measures we have seen, things that would normally be rejected outright in a democratic society. This is simply untrue, as should be obvious when you consider comparable issues like bail or proceeding by summons for (alleged) criminals.

This is only part of the issue, the other part being our general policy on refugees, which I will discuss in a later post.

Karate in Brisbane

As the blog seems to have some new readers, I thought it a good time to point out yet again that if you’re in Brisbane or the Gold Coast, and want to study karate in a rigorous traditional style, you can’t do better than Seiyushin. Kancho Nagayama was the winner in the 1988 All Japan National OpenWeight Tournament, and is a great teacher. The group is friendly, and open to a wide range of ages and skill levels (roughly 5 to 50 at present), and welcoming to both men and women. Dojos are in St Lucia, Toowong and Southport.

One cheer for Costello

Peter Costello has obliquely answered the question I asked last week, in relation to the government’s brutal mistreatment of refugees in general and children in particular. He now looks forward to the end of child detention, which obviously presupposes the end of Howard’s Prime Ministership and the repudiation of his signature policy. As Tim Dunlop points out, this is a major (though unacknowledged) shift in Costello’s position. Whatever the motivation, it is welcome.

While I’m on the topic I’d like to express, yet again, my disgust at those who have endlessly parsed government lies about “children overboard” seeking to make them true by arguing that actions “morally equivalent” to throwing children overboard took place on occasions other than the one to which the lies refer. These people should never be allowed to forget that the policy these lies were used to defend is one of locking innocent children behind razor wire, in desert camps and remote islands, under inhuman conditions deliberately designed to discourage others. I can think of plenty of things to which this is morally equivalent, and they are all shameful.


I got an article accepted in a journal today and, if my count is correct[1], it is number 150 for me. Since my first article was published in 1979, that’s an average rate of six a year, with a slowly increasing trend. It’s not a startling rate of output, given that I’ve held research-only jobs for most of those 25 years. Still, by the time you take acccount of rejections, resubmissions and so on, there’s a fair bit of work involved, and not that many people keep up the pace indefinitely.

Because I’ve been active for quite a while, and because my work doesn’t exactly fit the mainstream mould in either policy content or analytical style[2], I’ve accumulated a lot of rejection letters, more than anyone else I know of, in fact. My records aren’t good enough for a complete tally, but I’ve certainly had several hundred rejections – I once got three on one day. Some papers have been rejected half a dozen times or more before finding a home. This isn’t quite as bad as it sounds. Most high-grade journals in economics have rejection rates of 90 per cent or more, which implies the average paper must be rejected pretty often.

On a happier note, I’ve covered a lot of different topics and used a range of different approaches to economics, more than most of my colleagues. For example, I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who’s published in both the Journal of Mathematical Economics and the (institutionalist) Journal of Economic Issues

fn1. I publish a fair bit of policy stuff, and there’s sometimes a bit of doubt as to whether the resulting paper counts as “refereed”. I usually err on the side of caution, but there are always marginal cases.

fn2. A lot of the time, it’s not so much that I’m challenging mainstream orthodoxy in a broad sense as that I don’t like the established way of doing this in some particular subfield, such as principal-agent theory.

Politics and sport

You might have hoped, with the end of the Cold War and all, that we could have an Olympic games free of global politics[1] Not as far as the Oz is concerned, running this turgid piece of triumphalism from Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal. I doubt that many of the athletes he attempts to exploit would go along with him.

The Iraqis in particular have made vigorous protests over attempts by George Bush to score political points from their presence. Here’s what their coach has had to say

My problem is not with the American people. They are with what America has done – destroyed everything … The American army has killed so many people in Iraq. What is freedom when I go to the stadium and there are shootings on the road?

It’s not clear whether Henninger is arrogantly disregarding their protests or whether he wrote the piece earlier and the Oz has failed to keep up with the news.

fn1. Of course, as the troubles of several Australian teams have shown, there’s no way of getting away from the internal politics of sport.

What should retired public servants do?

Rafe Champion alerted me to this piece by John Stone on the politicisation of the public service, and the role of retired public servants. Stone makes some valid points, but since he refers to his own dealings with government, I think it’s reasonable to point out that Stone himself is responsible for the first big breach in one of the most important conventions that used to prevail in Australia; namely that retired public servants and politicians should retire fully, or at least not take jobs that involve a potential conflict of interest with their previous positions. Stone had barely retired as Secretary of the Treasury when he started attacking the government vigorously in newspaper columns, and not long after that he was elected to the Senate for the National Party (as I recall, double-dipping his public service pension in the process). Since then, we’ve seen a steady erosion of the notion of the public service as a lifetime career, and of political office as the final stage in a career, preferably one marked by achievements outside politics.

A stint in politics or the public service is now seen as a routine stepping-stone to a more lucrative career in business, particularly highly-regulated businesses or lobbying and PR firms, where the contacts and inside knowledge acquired in the public sector represent a valuable asset. Given that people are starting with that expectation, it’s bound to affect their dealings with the business sector. Everyone they meet there is a potential future employer. And, of course, as the transition approaches, the temptation to do some more explicit mutual backscratching becomes stronger. The disgraceful behavior of former Health Minister Michael Wooldridge[1] before his departure for the private sector is one of the more egregious examples.

fn1. As noted here, Wooldridge approved a $5 million grant to the Royal College of GPs for a building to help co-locate several doctors’ groups. That same organisation subsequently employed him as a consultant.

Interruption of service

Service was interrrupted for a few hours just now, but for a fairly pleasing reason. My bandwidth limit of 2GB/month, which was ample when the blog started, has been exceeded, as a result of higher readership, so the server automatically cut me off. I now have a 10GB limit which should last a fair while.

Monday Message Board

It’s Monday again, and time for the Monday Message Board. Post your comments on any topic (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). I’d be interested in general reactions to the Olympics – too much sport or not enough?