Another meltdown at the Oz

As I’ve mentioned a few times, the Oz is extremely sensitive to blogospheric criticism. In response, its typical MO has been an unsigned editorial, or a piece by a ‘staff writer’, in which unnamed and unlinked (but easily identifiable) bloggers are castigated for their sins. Typically, the piece ends with a flourish of bravado, in which the brave, though anonymous, editorialist, backed only by the multi-billion dollar resources of News Corporation, pledges to carry on in defiance of the powerful, but unnamed, bloggers arrayed against it.

The script has been reversed, however, in the case of Grog’s Gamut, a pseudonymous political blog which made some useful contributions during the election campaign. Apparently acting under the misconception that public servants aren’t allowed to engage in political activity, Oz journalist James Massola took on himself to out the blogger concerned. He works in the film section of what was the Department of Environment, Heritage, Water and the Arts, which suggests that the potential for political activity to compromise his public service role is, shall we say, limited.

There are still some decent journalists working for the Oz, but the paper itself is a sad joke. On the other hand, as Steve Hind observes, the downmarket spiral of the Age and SMH (at least in their online versions) means that there is not much competition.

Conference like its 1999

A long time ago, I read an article whose author had read through all the leading economics journals from the 1930s. The striking finding was that only a tiny proportion of the articles published in those years concerned the Depression and what to do about it. This struck me as a disastrous state of affairs, and has been one factor in pushing me to comment on the important issues of the day, rather than to a narrow specialisation.

But, having attended the Australian Conference of Economists for the last couple of days, I have to say that a future historian of economic thought will be able to rewrite much the same article about the current crisis. Only a handful of papers presented at the conference have dealt with the crisis, even indirectly, and most of those have concluded that we only need marginal adjustments to our current way of doing things.

The opening plenary session, for example, was on inflation targeting and the main message was that, all things considered, inflation targeting worked pretty well in the Global Financial Crisis. Some tweaks might be needed in the future, but then again they might not. This was the same conclusion as at the Reserve Bank 60th Anniversary meeting earlier this year, and I find it pretty hard to believe.

About the best I can say is that, against this background, my Zombie Economics book stands out.

Sandpit 25/9

A new sandpit, the place for off-topic rants and lengthy one-on-one debates no-one else can really follow, because they missed the crucial contradiction between comment #347 and comment #186. Seriously, that kind of extended comments-thread debate is part of blogging, and I wouldn’t like to lose it. But, so far, confining it to the sandpit seems to be working pretty well.

Weekend reflections

It’s time again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. In keeping with my attempts to open up the comments to new contributors , I’d like to redirect discussion, as opposed to substantive new contributions, to the sandpit. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language please.

The text and the book

I’ve been living with the text of Zombie Economics for a long time and the cover art came out a while back. But now I finally have my hands on a physical copy of the book, and it’s surprising what a difference the real object makes. My immediate reaction was to open it with dread, sure that some terrible error would jump out at me, but that didn’t happen (no doubt the reviewers will find them, but that’s their job).

With that out of the road, I’ve been filled with irrational confidence. “Surely”, I think, “even the most jaded traveller, passing this book on the airport bookstall, will feel impelled to buy it”. No doubt, this optimistic glow won’t survive the arrival of actual sales figures, but I’m enjoying it while it lasts.

Universities and stratification

One of the big themes in the debate over university education has been that we should have a more differentiated system, rather than a ‘one-size fits all’ solution. This view is shared by market-oriented reformers and by some traditionalists, who look back nostalgically to the days when each state had one university, catering to a small elite, while the rest went to tech, or teachers college or (for the majority) the school of hard knocks. In the idealised view, universities would compete with diverse offerings, and the informed market choices of consumers (18-year olds and their parents) would produce an ideal outcome.

In reality, the quasi-market policies that have been dominant for the last couple of decades have reduced diversity on all dimensions except one. Before the reforms that began in the 1980s, the tertiary sector included many different types of institutions (unis, CAES, institutes of technology and TAFE), and the 1970-vintage universities consciously sought to provide an innovative alternative to the long-established sandstones. Now, there are just universities and TAFE. Policies encouraging universities to nominate “flagship” programs produced the unsurprising (but apparently unexpected) result that everyone went for MBAs and no-one for pure mathematics. Responsiveness to consumer demand produced plenty of courses in cinema studies and very few in classics. And so on. There are still some attempts at doing things differently, such as the “Melbourne model”, but overall the pattern is one of identical responses to identical incentives.

On the other hand, the reforms have amplified long-standing inequalities in wealth and status between universities. Despite the rhetoric of competition, the relative rankings of Australian universities were determined more than 100 years ago, when the sandstone universities were established, followed by the precursors of the “Dawkins universities”. The reforms did not shake these rankings, but they widened the gap between the sandstones and the 1970-vintage unis – before the reforms, a university was a university, and status differences were much less important.

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Exercise again

I can’t bring myself to post about the latest manoeuvring for numbers in the Parliament, and nothing much is going to happen on policy until that’s all resolved. So, since exercise seems to be one of the topics in which nearly everyone is interested (and there are lots of other blogs devoted to the topic on which *everyone* is interested), I thought I would expand on my last post. That post made it seem as if I’m focused on running, but actually I try for a more diverse portfolio
* Group training, three or four times a week
* Running, 5k or so, twice a week, mostly on treadmill or soft surfaces. I was running further and on hard surfaces but cut back when I started getting knee pain
* Cycling, 20-30km, once or twice a week, plus riding into work intermittently
* Swimming, 500m-1K, two or three times a week
That seems to be enough to keep my muscles a bit sore most of the time, but to avoid obvious injury to my joints. Following some problems a few months ago, I’ve been getting some useful advice from my physiotherapist and a sports podiatrist on how to avoid knee injuries from running.

Evidence-based policy

As I mentioned a while back, I’ve been doing a bit of running and, unsurprisingly, had knee problems. One response has been to take drinks made of a foul-tasting powder containing glucosamine sulphate and chondritin, which has been widely held out as having promise in relieving symptoms of osteoarthritis. There were some promising case studies, enough to prompt both widespread use, including by me, and a full-scale trial and meta-analysis.

The tests results are now in, and I have mixed feelings in reporting that the both glucosamine sulphate and chondritin appear to be useless. (H/T Neurologica, but link isn’t loading). I was tempted to finish off what was left, on the theory that it might be doing some good anyway, but my commitment to evidence-based policy, along with the fact that the stuff tastes foul, has prevailed.

Out it goes. Now, if anyone can recommend a good broad-spectrum placebo, I’m in the market.