Progress in Iraq

Looking for information about the implications of the ‘surge’ in Iraq, I found this NY Times report, which seems to sum up a lot of relevant points, and ought to prompt some rethinking of firmly held views. The key points

  • The American-led military campaign in Iraq is making enough progress in fighting insurgents and training Iraqi security forces to allow the Pentagon to plan for significant troop reductions
  • Attacks on allied forces have dropped to 30 to 40 a day, down from an average daily peak of 140

  • Thirty-six American troops died in Iraq last month, the lowest monthly death toll in over a year

  • More Iraqi civilians are defying the insurgents’ intimidation to give Iraqi forces tips

  • Even some of the administration’s toughest critics now express cautious optimism

  • There has been a steady increase in the capabilities and numbers of Iraqi units

As they say, read the whole thing. Then check the publication date.

Hamlet without the Prince

In the February edition of Prospect, William Skidelsky has a piece on the decline of book reviewing. As is standard for any adverse trend in the early 21st century, blogs get a fair bit of the blame. The write-off (lede for US readers) says

the authority of critics is being undermined by a raucous blogging culture and an increasingly commercial publishing industry

and the conclusion is

blogging is best suited to instant reaction; it thus has an edge when it comes to disseminating gossip and news. Good criticism requires lengthy reflection and slow maturation. The blogosphere does not provide the optimal conditions for its flourishing.

As a slow, mature critic, I’m sure Skidelsky is well placed to make authoritative judgements of this kind, based on the kind of lengthy reflection unknown to gossipy bloggers. Still, it would help us instant-reaction types to follow him if he had, you know, cited some actual blogs, perhaps even some that run book reviews.

This one’s for you, Al

For quite some time now, regular commenter Al Loomis has been decrying representative democracy as no democracy at all, and extolling the Progressive alternative based on citizen’s initiative, referendum and recall. I don’t have a strong opinion on any of these, except that none would make enough of a difference for me to fight hard one way or the other.

The main reason I believe this is that all of these constitutional arrangements have been in place in California (along with some other US states) for many years, and my, admittedly casual, observation of that state suggests that it is no better governed than, say, Queensland. Moreover, to the extent that the special features of the Californian system have worked the results have been mixed at best.

As regards initiative and referendum, the most prominent instance is surely Proposition 13, which limited property taxes. While it’s no doubt an exaggeration to blame this measure for the decline of the California public school system, it’s pretty clear that this was a bad policy choice. That’s true even if you’re hostile to taxation, since the property tax loss has been made up in part by a range of other taxes and charges which yield less revenue but almost certainly more distortions.

The big example of recall was that of Gray Davis who was replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger. As far as I can see Davis was an adequate governor, as is Schwarzenegger, so my view that these provisions don’t make much of a difference is unshaken by this case, And even though these provisions date back to the early 20th century this was only the second time a governor had been recalled in US history.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to let Al have his say, at any length he wants, on why adopting these provisions would transform Australia into a truly democratic society. As always, keep the discussion civilised, but within that constraint, I’d be keen to see some vigorous debate.

Time to give the B team a turn?

The NSW Liberals are the perennial B team of Australian politics. Since the emergence of the current two-party system, they (and their UAP/Nationalist) predecessors have held office only when incumbent Labor governments have either split or been so long in office that the accumulated arrogance and corruption is too much to take*. On those criteria, the performance of the Iemma government suggests that the Libs may finally be due for a turn. But there are a couple of obvious problems: the next election is not due for a couple of years, and the Liberals have never looked capable of presenting a credible alternative than they do now (to be fair, they look marginally better for the change from Debnam to O’Farrell).

So, I’d prefer it if Labor had a go at internal renewal. John Sutton’s suggestion that Iemma be replaced by his deputy, John Watkins, looks like a start. There’s also the possibility of an old-style party-Parliamentary leadership split over electricity privatisation, with threats to force the resignation of Treasurer Michael Costa. Again, the sooner the better, as far as I’m concerned.

If Iemma and Costa lose their jobs before pushing their privatisation through, it will, no doubt harm their prospects of well-paid post-political sinecures. But the financial sector looks after its own, and I’m sure something will be found for these loyal allies.

* I can’t recall ever reading much about the 1965 election which brought the startlingly corrupt Askin government to power, and introduced the one sustained period of Liberal rule with (I think) four election wins in a row. Still, Labor had been in for 24 years and the rightwing machine that has produced so many of our current hacks was already in charge, so I don’t think this can be a big exception to the rule.

What I’m Reading: Stem Cell Century

Research on human stem cells has been at the centre of one the more ferocious science policy debates in the US, only partially cooled off by recent claims that the necessary cultures can be generated from samples taking from adults, rather than from human embryos destroyed in the process.

“Stem Cell Century: Law and Policy for a Breakthrough Technology”

by Russell Korobkin (with a joint chapter on patents by Stephen Munzer) is a useful guide to the way the debate evolved in the US. There doesn’t seem to have been anything like the same controversy in Oz, although there has been at least one notable example of what might be called common or garden scientific misconduct.

Perhaps because the US stem cell debate is a bit remote for me, I found more interest in the chapters showing how commercial interests in research collided with general scientific ideals of free communications and with donors’ anger when they found that their donated (or appropriated) body tissue had been used to make highly profitable products.Kieran Healy of CT

wrote the book on the latter topic


Much of the debate about the relationship between donors and researchers on these issues has been cast in the framework of “informed consent”, which I think is not very helpful here. Neither I think is a focus on property rights over body parts. The real issue is how to finance the provision of public goods like medical research, characterized by highly uncertain returns.

I’ve looked at how to pay for medical research before and generally reached the conclusion that patents are not the best way to go, a view that is strengthened by a reading of Stem Cell Century. Looking at the conflicts discussed here, it seems that they might be less severe if successful research were rewarded by prizes, including ex gratia payments to crucial participants such as tissue donors.

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