A real life ticking bomb problem

A while ago, I looked at the ticking bomb problem and concluded that, whatever the morality of using torture to extract life-saving information in emergencies, anyone who did this was morally obliged to turn themselves in and accept the resulting legal punishment. Reader Karl Heinz Ranitzsch has pointed me to a real-life case, reported by Mrs Tilton at Fistful of Euros. The case involved a threat of torture, rather than actual torture, and the deputy police commissioner involved was convicted and fined. Without detailed knowledge of the circumstances, I tend to agree with Mrs T that this was about the right outcome.

My article in The Economists’ Voice

My article The Unsustainability of U.S. Trade Deficits has just been published in The Economists’ Voice along with a piece on government deficits by Ronald McKinnon. Although relatively new and oriented to a general audience, EV looks like being a high-powered journal, having already published Stiglitz, Posner and Akerlof among others, so I’m pretty pleased to have made it into volume 1. Thanks to everyone here and on Crooked Timber who helped me to sharpen my arguments on this topic.

Blog Problems

OK, this is kind of silly, but bear with me. A couple of people have mentioned that they haven’t been able to reach the blog since the comment spam crisis (thanks again to Textdrive for resolving this!). I’d like to hear from anyone in this position, but obviously this isn’t a great way to reach them. I thought about skywriting, popular here in Brisbane, but it doesn’t seem practical. So if you can read this from one location, but not from others, please email me with info on your setup, browser and so on.

This seems like a good reason to move to WordPress

Howard’s record

So, John Howard has beaten Bob Hawke and is now Australia’s second-longest-serving PM, after Menzies. Sometimes it seems longer. On the other hand, when I look at the whole eight or nine years, the thing that strikes me most immediately is how little difference this government has made. In terms of domestic policy, it’s biggest single initiative has been the GST, a third-order reform if ever there was one. The abolition of the CES in favor of the Jobs Network schemozzle is probably the next. And Telstra has been half-privatised. No doubt there will be more now that the Senate isn’t an obstacle, but the government has done nothing to build up a popular demand for radical reform in most areas.

On foreign policy, it’s hard to think of a specific issue (except maybe Kyoto and the FTA, which aren’t strictly foreign policy) where Labor under Hawke, Keating or Beazley would have acted much differently. There’s been a substantial rhetorical difference, more pro-American and less focused on Asia, but in practical terms this doesn’t seem to have made much difference: Asian countries don’t seem to have treated us much worse and the US certainly hasn’t treated us any better.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing for a government not to do very much, but it means, I think, that Howard’s historical position will depend very much on the performance of the economy in this (presumably) final term in office. If the economy remains strong, the Howard government will have strong claims to have based its success on more than luck. Lots of economists, including me, have argued that prosperity based, in large measure, on favorable terms of trade and unrestrained housing speculation can’t be sustained indefinitely. By contrast, the government and its supporters have argued that the whole thing works because of low interest rates and that they are responsible for this. Another three years of growth would be strong evidence in support of this claim.

added 22/12 The one thing for which I will never forgive Howard, or anyone else involved, is Tampa/children overboard/the Pacific solution. Labor under Beazley was very weak on this, and a Labor government might well have done something similar (they started mandatory detention, after all), but Howard did it. It was wrong in itself, marked by dishonesty and cruelty from beginning to end, and brought out the worst in Australia (notably among bloggers). I don’t believe that there were significant practical benefits, but even if there were, they wouldn’t have justified these actions. In the absence of any big achievements or catastrophes in his remaining time in office, I think this episode will play a major role in historical assessments of Howard.

added 23/12 Some more thoughts on specific points over the page
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Conservationists and conservatives

Don Arthur had an interesting response to my pieces on the precautionary principle and wars of choice[1]. Don correctly observes that this kind of argument can be used in opposition to reform, and is therefore inherently conservative. He mentions, as an instance, the possibility of making this kind of argument against gay marriage.

Don goes on to argue

The welfare state is another area conservatives might want to apply the precautionary principle. Just as environmentalists argue that we should withdraw genetically modified crops from sale until they are proved safe, conservatives could argue that welfare benefits to never-married single mothers should be withdrawn until they are proved non-hazardous to social functioning. After all, the widespread use of income support for alleviating poverty in families where a woman has had a child out of wedlock is relatively recent.

While there’s always room for dispute over what is meant by “relatively recent” here, I don’t think this argument works. The main institutions of the welfare state developed in the first half of last century, before most of us were born, and its extension to single mothers dates back to the 1960s. In this debate, the self-described advocates of welfare reform are those who want to do away with social institutions most of us have grown up with and try something radically new. The fact that reform may be sold as a return to an idealised and largely imaginary past, rather than a leap into the future, doesn’t change this. In fact, reformers of all stripes have used this characterisation of reform, sometimes validly and sometimes not, most obviously in the case of the Reformation[2].

More generally, the set of ideas associated with terms like progressive and conservative are based on the assumption, clearly falsified over the last thirty years or so, that the movement of history is uniformly to the political left. The corollaries (also false, in my view) are that leftists and socialists should favor the removal of obstacles to rapid political change – bicameralism, federalism, separation of powers and so on – and that the the precautionary principle should be viewed with suspicion.

My reading of the 20th century as a whole is that, both in the democracies and elsewhere, it is the right who have made the most effective use of concentrated power. Given the power of the opposed interest, progress in the direction of social democracy can only be made on the basis of broadly-based popular support, sufficient to overcome constitutional obstacles. By contrast, a determined rightwing government like Thatcher’s can ram through its policies on the basis of 40 per cent support, given a plurality-based system of majority government.

Coming back to gay marriage, I think it’s true that a precautionary principle argument would lead one to favor a gradual, one-step-at-a-time shift in the rules, rather than a radical reform based on purely abstract arguments about equality[3]. In the current context where a wide range of legal disabilities for gays have been removed without obviously disastrous consequences, this would suggest that civil unions ought to be the next step.

fn1. I missed this at the time, and picked it up while visiting The View from Benambra where Don’s arguments are amplified, and the Burkean nature of the principle elaborated.

fn2. Raymond Williams in “Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society” (Raymond Williams) is excellent on this, as on most things.

fn3. And, if I were to advocate a reform along these lines, it would be the removal of legal recognition for religious marriages and their replacement by civil unions for all, as is, I think the case in France, though only for heterosexual unions.

What I’m reading, and more

I’ve been reading a lot of different things lately, and might write a few reviews over the Christmas break. I just finished
“Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

a sort of historical fantasy set amid the great scientific discoveries and political turmoil of the late 17th century.

It’s great fun, with a great evocation of the period and plenty of sly digs at the modern reader (I liked the Duke of Monmouth as the Dan Quayle of the 1685 campaign). At the same time, I can’t help feeling I’ve completely missed the point here. As I said, the style is that of fantasy, but the novel seems to be entirely historically accurate apart from the fact that the members of the Cabal have been replaced by new characters with the same acronym, some of whom play a minor role in the story, and that one of the key characters comes from the island of Qwghlm[1], apparently a British possession[2].

I don’t know exactly what gives here: maybe a reader can point me in the right direction. A lot of readers had much the same reaction to “Jonathan Strange which I loved.

There’s a whole Metaweb (a type of wiki apparently) about all this, which may be worth exploring.

In a completely different department, I’ve been watching the Slim Dusty memorial concert which my wife taped. Although he’s normally pigeonholed as country, a lot of his songs (particularly the early ones) appeal to folkies like me. In the free assocation department, I notice that another crossover performer, Ted Egan, is now Administrator of the Northern Territory Well done!

Moving on to sporting news, karate training has finished for the year, with the traditional 1000-punch workout. Very cathartic! If you’re in Brisbane, and want to study karate in traditional style, with a genuine master of the art, Seiyushin is for you. Also, we went last night to see the Bullets go down by one point against the Sydney Kings. It’s a great night out, taking the ferry down the river to Southbank for dinner, going on to the game and home again by ferry, but it would have been perfect if only one more shot had rolled in instead of rimming out.

fn1. Given my Manx heritage, the idea that Qwghlm is the Isle of Man seems appealing. Certainly the name has a certain resonance, though its disemvowellment makes it hard to interpret.

fn2. I don’t claim to be an expert on 17th century history, so there may be some other things I’ve missed.

A good few weeks for Europe

The last few weeks have been good ones for Europe, and for the EU, with the success of the democratic campaign for fresh elections in Ukraine, the court decision in Britain prohibiting indefinite detention without trial and now the decision of the EU to begin accession talks with Turkey (missed the obvious pun there). Negotiations with Iran were also a qualified success, certainly by comparison with the futile sabre-rattling coming out of Washington.

I predicted in February that the start of the EU admission process for Turkey would be the biggest geopolitical event of the year. Things dind’t go precisely to plan, but in the end it didn’t matter. Tobias Schwarz at a Fistful of Euros has more
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Weekend reflections

A bit late, again, but weekend reflections is back.

It’s your chance to make comments on any topic of your choosing, to be written and read at the leisurely pace of the weekend. I welcome pieces a little longer than the usual comments, but not full-length essays. If you want to draw attention to something longer, try an extract or summary with a link. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Pugnacious professors

Via Henry Farrell, and Michael Froomkin comes the news thatIf you want a chair, you should throw away your razor:

A correlation between having a beard and being a professor has been uncovered by scientists, suggesting a reason for discrimination against women in academia….A study of 1,800 male academics has revealed professors are twice as likely as lecturers to have bristles….One theory is that being unshorn makes men more likely to be appointed to professorships, as facial hair is linked with high testosterone and aggression.

I don’t suppose I can point to my peaceloving nature as evidence against this claim.