Weekend reflections

Weekend Reflections is on again. Please comment on any topic of interest (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Feel free to put in contributions more lengthy than for the Monday Message Board or standard comments.

The servant problem

The Howard government’s IR reforms (including, but not limited to, the most recent instalment) are a curious mixture of deregulation and compulsion. On the one hand, all sorts of conditions and requirements are stripped away, but in their place there has been created an array of new criminal and civil offences, prohibited terms in contracts, requirements to offer particular employment forms such as AWAs and so on.

To make sense of this seeming contradiction, we need only observe that the deregulation is all for employers, and the regulation is all imposed on workers and, particularly, unions. Lockouts are now almost unrestricted, but strikes are subject to strict regulation. Employers cannot be sued for unfair dismissal, but employees are prohibited from including protection against unfair dismissal in a proposed employment contract and so on.

An obvious interpretation is the Marxist one, that this is class-based legislation, designed to increase profits and reduce wages by driving down workers’ bargaining power. That’s part of the story but not, I think, the most important part.

The real issue, I think, relates to the personal power relationship between employers and employees. The complaints of employers (some of them can be read in comments here) about bad employees and the difficulty of sacking them echo very closely the complaints of a century ago that ‘you can’t get good servants any more’. The changes made in the IR laws make most sense if they are read as an attempt to remove constraints on the day-to-day power of bosses to be bosses, whether these constraints are imposed by law, by collective agreements or by individual contracts with workers.

This also helps to explain some of the class alignments we see in politics. While political alignments continue to be determined to a significant extent by income, there are groups with relatively high incomes, such as academics and other professionsals, who tend to support Labor. On the other side of the fence, managers tend to vote Liberal more strongly than their incomes alone would suggest. The obvious point is that managers are, by definition, bosses. Professionals, who mostly in hierarchical institutions, can identify either as bosses or workers, but with the rise of managerialism, most professionals find themselves on the workers side of the divide.


Due to ‘a series of unfortunate events’, and despite at least moderate effort on my part, I managed to see only one of the goals scored in Australia’s World Cup campaign as it happened, and this was of course, the Italian penalty that ended our chances. I don’t know enough about the rules to tell, and I don’t suppose Guus Hiddink is an unbiased authority, but this seemed to me to be a pretty soft foul (maybe others can give a better-informed view on this). Of course, all sorts of chance happenings, such as injuries, rain and so on affect the outcome of sporting events, so it’s silly to complain. Then again, if we didn’t get to complain, half the fun of sporting events would be lost.

Anyway, relative to either our past record or our population (divided as it is among four different football codes), this was an amazing achievement.

Weekend reflections

Weekend Reflections is on again. Please comment on any topic of interest (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Feel free to put in contributions more lengthy than for the Monday Message Board or standard comments.

Blog birthday

The 21st of June is the winter solstice and also this blog’s fourth birthday. More than 3000 posts and maybe 50 000 comments (I have more than 40 000 on record and thousands more were lost in the database disasters of 2002 and 2003) make this a pretty huge endeavour. No doubt, much of the content has been ephemeral or worse, but I think there are some substantial contributions. Thanks to everyone who’s helped to make this a success and encouraged me to keep going.

I’ll be marking the occasion by taking a bit of a break. Feel free to talk among yourselves (politely, please!)

Meanwhile, there’s loads of good stuff around the Australian blogosphere. Tim Dunlop and Tim Lambert are reliably readable, and there’s always Tim Blair if you fancy a change of pace.

My econoblogging colleagues, Joshua Gans and Andrew Leigh have hit the headlines with their study of births delayed to get the government’s baby bonus, but fame doesn’t seem to have swelled their heads. Then there’s the group blogs, Catallaxy, Larvatus Prodeo and Troppo. I’ve had some great interactions with all of them.

I got some interesting links from some recent posts, including this one on my review of Yochai Benkler, which leads to an interesting debate about Wikipedia, and Harry Clarke on whaling.

Finally, if you’re one of the handful of readers who’ve been around from the beginning might remember David Morgan, one of the pioneers of Australian plogging, and one of the first to quit, when he found fatherhood more exciting than typing. He was on the ABC quiz show The Einstein Factor last night and won (he previously made big money on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, I think). Interestingly, his blog is still live, though it hasn’t been updated for years.


The votes at the International Whaling Commission look to be going in favour of whales and against the advocates of whaling, an outcome that owes a lot to the efforts of the Australian and NZ governments. Given that the issue is going to be debated again and again, it’s worth considering how well Australia’s anti-whaling position stands up to criticism. A relevant point is that we have not, for example, responded favorably to international campaigns against the culling of kangaroos (a point made by the Japanese delegate I saw on TV last night).

To start with, there seems to be little disagreement about the principle that endangered/vulnerable whale species (and other cetacean species) should not be hunted at all, and in this respect, whales aren’t treated any differently from other animals.

Let’s suppose, though, that some whale species aren’t endangered, or maybe that they will cease to be endangered some time in the future. Then, in general terms, the dispute is between people who want to protect whales because they like them, or want to help the whalewatching industry, (and maybe object to the way in which they are killed, but this is an issue that could be dealt with separately) and people who want to kill whales either to be eaten as a delicacy item or to keep the whaling industry going.

I don’t see that there’s any way of resolving this disagreement on the basis of generally shared principles; so within any given community it seems appropriate to resolve it on the basis of majority vote. So this would imply that if most Japanese support whaling in Japanese coastal waters, the Australian government shouldn’t try to prevent this through the IWC, although of course environmental groups should be free to criticise and campaign against the practice (exactly the same position applies with Australia’s kangaroo policy).

As regards international waters, I reach the same conclusion; there’s no first-principles way of resolving the dispute, so it should be decided by voting. In the absence of any general system of resolving such international disputes, the IWC is the relevant forum, and its voting rules (unsatisfactory as they may be) are the rules to go by. Since most Australians like whales and want to protect them, the Australian government is right to push this point of view, and to seek as much international support as it can.

Darfur Comments Challenge

Over at Larvatus Prodeo, Tigtog, Kim and Mark are running a comments challenge to raise funds for Darfur similar to the tsunami fundraiser held here last year (I got the idea from Michele Agnew who got it from somewhere else in the blogosphere). So go over and leave a comment. Obviously, the best sort of comment is one announcing a donation of your own, or joining the LPers in cash for comments.

Among the many other worthy causes, there’s still time to help with the Yogyakarta earthquake.

And while I’m on the topic, let’s hear it for Bill Gates, who’s taking a backseat at Microsoft in order to devote more time to giving his money away. There’s something to be said for billionaires; taken as a group they seem a lot more attractive than the merely rich.