Christmas as usual

Since Christmas never changes (and a good thing too!) I’m reposting my Christmas Eve post from last year. I did plan more work on it, but haven’t done any. Posting will be erratic at best from now until mid-January. There may be nothing at all. On the other hand, I may get sick of my summer torpor and write ten posts in one day. No promises either way. In anticipation of at least a short break, let me wish a merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and a happy New Year to everyone (at least everyone who uses the Gregorian calendar).

Read on for my unchanged Christmas message

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Social capital and end-oriented networks

I’m just about to knock off for Christmas, but I have to get ready for a conference at Queensland Uni of Technology early in the New Year where Larry Lessig will be the main speaker. I’m giving a very short presentation, and struggling to improve my understanding of all this, in particular the relationship between the technology of the Internet and notions of social capital. I haven’t come up with anything earthshattering, but I have had some thoughts on which I’d welcome comments.

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The bleeding edge

There’s a new version of the MT Blacklist program out, fixing a critical error in which deleting one weblog could cause you to lose another. Users of MT & Blacklist will be pleased to know that, in the process of fighting off comment spammers and abusive morons, your intrepid host discovered this critical error the hard way. Jason Hoffman at Textdrive not only saved my bacon with a near-perfect backup file, but reported the bug which Jay Allen has now fixed. I think the grip of the law is gradually tightening on comment spammers, but no doubt they’ll be with us for some time, and morons will be with us always.

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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