What I’m reading

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

This is a great first novel, set in England during the Napoleonic wars, but with an alternate history in which magic was practiced until the relatively recent past, and is, as the book opens, a respectable topic of theoretical study for the upper-middle classes. This cosy arrangement is upset by the arrival of first one, and then a second, real practical magician. The result is a mixture of fairy story, historical novel and academic tome (the footnotes alone are well worth the admission price) with a total effect that is entirely new. The main action, involving the eponymous magicians, is great fun, and the subplots, which have the sinister edge of all good fairy stories, are even better.

After looking at the reviews on Amazon, I think one thing is clear. If you loved the Harry Potter books, you probably won’t like Jonathan Strange. If like me, you found Harry a pleasant read, but want something more than a readable mass-market kids book then this might be the book for you. Where Harry is Billy Bunter + magic, this is something more like Jane Austen+magic.

You can get it from your local bookshop in both black-on-white and white-on-black versions. For those who like ordering from Amazon, here’s a link or click on the picture above. This is part of Amazon’s associate program, under which I get a miniscule cut, marking my first tentative venture into blog commercialisation. I believe some people have made enough out of this to afford to buy a book for themselves.

More generational garbage

Talking in terms of generations (Baby Boomers, X, Y and so forth) is so intellectually lazy that it seems to give practitioners a license to turn their brains off, and speak almost entirely at random. Still, even at its worst, there has normally been some sort of attempt to keep the dates straight. But how about this piece from Bernard Salt of KPMG? Focusing on Generation Y, born over the 15 years to 1991, Salt says Generation Y is too hip for the Boomer humor of “Hey Hey, it’s Saturday” and goes on to observe “Generation Y humour is best encapsulated in Seinfeld.”

So Generation Y is “encapsulated” by a show about neurotic, self-absorbed boomers[1] that started its run when they were still being born (1989), and showed its last episode at at time (1998) when lots of them were more interested in collecting Pokemon cards than in watching sitcoms.

I don’t know why Salt is bothering with poor old Ozzie Ostrich. On this dating system, he could identify the boomers with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, or for that matter with Lily Langtry and Lola Montez. Will no-one ever call a halt to this nonsense?

fn1.Seinfeld was born in 1954, three years after Daryl Somers

A revelation about the EU (crossposted at CT)

When I first read the eschatological works of Hal Lindsey and others, one of the favorite themes was numerological analysis of the Book of Revelation, in which the EU figured prominently.

And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.

At the time, the then EEC had six members, so an expansion to seven or ten (which seemed likely) would fulfil the prophecy and signal the impending arrival of the end times. The Whore of Babylon also fitted in, but I can’t remember how. The EU did have ten members between 1981 and 1986, and I remember speculating that Reagan might be the Antichrist – surviving an assassination attempt was supposed to be a crucial sign (Revelation 13:1-2). But the world did not end after all.

Now, thanks to the Economist, I discover that Lindsey was right, except for a reversal of alignment. Arsene Heitz, the designer of the EU Flag advises that it was inspired by Revelation 12:1

A great sign was seen in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.

normally taken to refer to the Virgin Mary. I’d be fascinated to see an apocalyptic Protestant response to this revelation.

Someone forgot the irony alerts

As I’ve observed before, irony is always dangerous. In my recent post about good and bad news from Iraq, I referred to impossibly cute kitten stories. This is Belle Waring’s ironic description of the kind of good news story that relies on the fact that even in the midst of war, and even under oppressive dictatorships, life goes on. Farmers plant their crops, children (and kittens) are born and play, and so on. It’s worth remembering this when we get too gloomy about the bad things that are happening but, since it’s true always and everywhere, it isn’t news. So, anyone who makes a big play out of this kind of ‘good news’ is liable to appear dishonest, or at least misleading. A good example is the scene in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 with Iraqi children flying kites and having fun, just before the US invasion. Moore was severely crticised for this and rightly so – the fact that children played games like children everywhere did not tell us anything about Saddam’s regime. The good news stories listed by Arthur Chrenkoff provided another example, with a story[1] which referred to “farmers tilling fields and women walking on roads. Freight trains and major highways.”

I thought that the analogy was obvious enough, and went on to the main point, which was that the election rules presented as good news by Chrenkoff seemed designed to put obstacles in the path of independents and non-government parties. But Tim Blair picked it up and solemnly advised his readers that having searched Chrenkoff’s site carefully, he’d found no mention of kittens at all – I’d made them up!. Even when I spelt out the point in detail in the comments thread, he persisted in observing that the Sweeney story was about farmers tilling fields, and had nothing to do with kittens.

But irony is a double-edged sword. Just as I wrote this the thought struck me that, rather than obtusely missing the point, Blair is ironically playing dumb to provoke controversy. If so, he has obviously managed to fool most of the residents of his comments thread, but that wouldn’t be hard.

fn1. The full story by Annie Sweeney cached here is less absurdly upbeat than Chrenkoff’s extract makes it sound.

What about the workers ?: unfair dismissals

If there’s one area where the Howard government’s Senate majority (or near-majority) seems likely to make a big difference, it’s in relation to our working lives. While the government’s commitment to free-market policies has waxed and waned, it has been absolutely consistent in representing the views of employers, whether they have demanded labour market deregulation (as in the stripping back of awards) or tighter regulation (as in anti-strike laws). The government and its supporters would, of course, claim that what is good for employers is good for employees, and there is clearly a good deal of truth in this claim. Still, there are plenty of occasions when employers and employees come into conflict (in such cases, it is more natural to refer to workers and bosses). I plan a series of posts looking at aspects of the government’s reform program, and the state of employment relationships more generally.

Of all the items on its agenda, the removal of unfair dismissal laws, at least for small businesses, is probably closest to the government’s heart. A contested dismissal is something like a contested divorce in the feelings it arouses on both sides, and the government hears all the time from the employer side of the dispute.
Read More »

That was the good news (crossposted at CT)

Amid all the dreadful news from Iraq, Australian blogger Arthur Chrenkoff has made it his mission to report the good news. A lot of the time this consists of impossibly cute kitten stories, and those repainted schools we’re always hearing about. But there is some real good news.

And, then, there’s this report on conditions for participation in the Iraqi election, linked by Chrenkoff from Iraq the model
Read More »

A backward look at productivity growth

I’ve been arguing with the Productivity Commission about microeconomic reform and productivity growth for nearly a decade. Our first round concerned prospective estimates of the benefits of National Competition Policy, aka the Hilmer Reforms. At the time these reforms were being debated, the PC (then called the Industry Commission) put out a study estimating that the reforms would permanently raise GDP by 5.5 per cent. I looked at their analysis and found lots of problems, which i discussed in this 1997 paper and also in my book, Great Expectations, and proposed an alternative estimate of 0.7 per cent.

The PC has just released a discussion draft, of a Review of National Competition Policy Reforms and it pretty much splits the difference, suggesting a net benefit equal to 2.5 per cent of GDP. It seems to me that some of the errors I criticised have been fixed either by changes to the modelling, or by the replacement of optimistic assumptions with observed outcomes. Some others remain, though. For example, all the reductions in prices for telecommunications appear to be treated as a benefit from reform even though there’s been a long-term technologically driven trend reduction of 5 per cent per year, going for many decades. In the last few years, the rate of price decline has slowed, and even been reversed.

More on this soon, if I get time.

Could Sharon save us?

The Israeli Parliament has voted to support Sharon’s plan for the removal of Israeli settlements from the Gaza strip, and also four of the least defensible settlements in the West Bank. It’s clear enough that Sharon does not intend this as the beginning of either a land-for-peace deal or a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. Rather, the idea is to freeze the peace process and remove the obstacles to the annexation of large slabs of the West Bank.

But events have a dynamic of their own. Sharon has broken, probably decisively, with the settlers and may well be forced to break with the rejectionists among his own supporters, such as Netanyahu. He’s going to need support for the fight against them, which will be bitter and possibly bloody. He won’t get that support for a plan based on permanent occupation of large parts of the West Bank, with a wall/barrier/fence cutting a “Palestinian entity” into a series of separate Bantustans. But he probably could get it for something close to Clinton/Barak, with two contiguous states, and border adjustments that brought most of the big “suburban” settlements into Israel in return for a trade of unoccupied land elsewhere, with or without the agreement of Arafat. This kind of policy would drive a wedge into the settler bloc, separating the ideological supporters of Greater Israel from those who just want somewhere to live in peace.

Given the long and miserable history of this dispute, a bad outcome is more likely in the short run. But, as I pointed out a while back, this is a problem with only one solution, and everyone knows what it is (to within a few square kilometres and parenthetical clauses). Sooner or later, that’s where things will end up. Since every day that this goes on adds more recruits to the ranks of Al Qaeda, I hope it’s sooner rather than later. Withdrawal from Gaza is a step in the right direction.

Faith and ideas

Don Arthur has had an interesting series of posts on religion and politics, including reference to Rocco Buttiglione, a candidate for the EU commission who has come under fire for his anti-gay views, which reflect his Catholic religious faith.

As I’ve said previously, I have no problem with people taking political stands based on their religious views. As far as I can see, almost no-one consistently objects to this. Most people who complain about mixing religion and politics do so only when they don’t like the religious views being expressed. Here for example is Gerard Henderson on Archbishop Peter Carnley, saying

on-elected religious leaders appear all too anxious to get involved with that which pertains to Caesar. It’s a pity, really. For the evidence suggests that clerical types perform at their best in the sacristy.

A couple of years later, he’s busy defending Pell and Jensen, and saying criticism of them is “a new form of sectarianism”. Henderson complains that there are leftwingers who welcome Carnley’s comments but expect conservative Christians to remain silent – this is about as fine a case of the pot calling the kettle black as I’ve ever seen.

But my main point in this post is a simple one. If you can’t take the heat, keep out of the kitchen. In modern pluralist societies, we have a general agreement that everyone has a right to their own religious views. Discrimination on grounds of religious faith is unlawful and even vigorous criticism of religious beliefs is generally considered distasteful. But a lot of religious people seem to expect the same convention to be extended into the political sphere, and to have their views treated with deference because they are religiously based. Consider this,

The Avvenire newspaper of the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference complained that the decision of the European Rights Commission to rule Buttiglione unfit for public office ‘because of what he thinks’ is ‘a sad sign for civilisation – not for religion.’

‘They have discriminated against a person on the basis of his faith and his ideas,’ the paper said.

This would be funny, if it weren’t put forward seriously. If we’re not supposed to discriminate between candidates for public office on the basis of their ideas, what should we do – choose them by lot?