Bolt, again

The case against Bolt began with a series of clearly defamatory claims against individuals, shown in the court decision to be false[1]. That’s never been part of the concept of free speech in Australian law, so, as far as the facts in this particular case are concerned, there is no problem. The main issues are whether it would have been more appropriate for the complainants to rely on ordinary defamation laws, and whether this case sets a precedent that might be used against legitimate expressions of opinion, for example on the appropriate criteria for determining indigenous status.

On the first issue, Mark Bahnisch (at LP, no link because of an annoying bug that stops me reaching the site from here) makes the point that the complainants wanted to address the attack on indigenous people in general embodied in Bolt’s piece, rather than simply the attack on their individual reputations. This is a strong argument. However, for cases of this kind, it might be better to change defamation laws to make racial attacks an aggravating factor, and evidence of malice, so that someone defamed because of their race could secure a judgement that made this clear, both in the findings and in the determination of damages. In particular, in a case like this, there should be no need to prove particular damage: the defamation should be sufficient for a judgement and damages.

As regards defamatory statements about a racial or religious group, of the general form “All/most Group X members display Bad Characteristic Y”, it would be possible to extend existing laws to allow class actions. That hasn’t been allowed in the past, but there is no good reason for a distinction between defaming someone as an individual and as a member of a group.

That would leave the case of statements that might “offend, insult or humiliate” members of some group without being defamatory in the ordinary sense of the term. While it’s easy to imagine some very troublesome cases, there are a number of defenses in relation to academic discussions, public interest matters and fair personal comment, and so far there isn’t significant evidence that the provisions have in fact worked to constrain free speech in any meaningful way. Still, if there are changes needed, this is the place to look.

fn1. In this context, the defence that Bolt honestly believed the claims to be true would be irrelevant. In any case, he obviously took so little care in his research that a defence of this kind would fail to meet the test of reasonable belief.

The five stages of Gillard grief

The stages of grief when a political leader is doomed differ a little in sequence from the classic Kubler-Ross order, since bargaining is a real process rather than an adjustment mechanism. Altering the order to Denial, Anger, Depression, Acceptance and Bargaining, I’d say the Labor Caucus is now in the Depression stage. Acceptance must happen before too long – the evidence that Labor will be crushed under Gillard is overwhelming and no-one really wants to try a third leader in less than two years.So, after Acceptance, it will be time for Bargaining. The key is for Rudd to accept enough collegial control to prevent a repetition of the failure last time.

The poverty of rationality

Steve Williamson has written a much longer critique of Zombie Economics. It’s a lot more temperate in tone than the blog post I criticised here, and there are some valid points. Nevertheless, the new version exhibits the same fundamental confusion I pointed out last time, trying to claim that rationality assumptions are both important and unfalsifiable.

I’m criticising it again because, in making this mistake, Williamson is not exactly Robinson Crusoe[1]. The same confusion is evident among a great many economists, and even more among proponents of rational choice models in political science and other social sciences. This, despite the fact that the key error was skewered by William Hazlitt nearly two centuries ago, writing on self-love and benevolence.

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Living in the 70s* (repost from CT)

A bunch of standard measures of US economic wellbeing (median household income, real wages for workers with high school education, educational attainment by age 25 and so on) show strong improvement from 1945 to the early 1970s, followed by stagnation or very slow growth thereafter. A variety of arguments, have been put forward to suggest that the standard statistical measures understate improvements in wages, incomes and so on since the 1970s. Some of these arguments are valid (for example household size has fallen), some not (for example, the fact that we now have more of goods that have become relatively cheaper). Regardless of validity, the main reason people believe these arguments is that, for anyone who was around at the time, it seems implausible that our parents’ living standards in the 1970s were comparable to our own today (assuming roughly similar class positions)

This reasoning is invalid for a reason that should be familiar to those on the conservative side of debates over inequality. The measures mentioned above compare snapshots of incomes at different times. But (as conservatives regularly point out) standards of living are determined mainly by lifetime incomes, not by income in any particular year. Given the pattern described above, lifetime income for someone who worked, say, from 1940 to 1985 was well below that for someone in a similar class position who started work in 1970, just when the long increase in real wages was slowing for most and stopping for some. For every year of their working life, the 1970 starter gets a wage (adjusted for age, education and so on) that’s as high as the maximum attained by the 1940 starter after 30 years of steady growth. Unsurprisingly, that translates into a bigger house, and more of most items that require savings, whether or not their price has risen relative to the CPI.

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The Oz as a (dysfunctional) group blog

The latest round of controversy between Robert Manne and The Australian has followed a pattern that is now familiar. Manne presents the evidence that The Australian routinely distorts the news to fit its political agenda, and equally routinely denies that it has any such agenda. The Oz responds with a stream of opinion pieces, snarky items in Cut and Paste, objectionable cartoons and so on.

If we try to understand this in old media terms, it’s a bit hard to follow. Not only does the Oz violate basic rules like separation between news and opinions, but its reactions seem absurdly oversensitive. As I and others have demonstrated many times now, a single piece of criticism from a relatively obscure academic can drive the country’s only national newspaper (not counting the Fin with its special focus) into absurd paroxysms of rage.

On the other hand, if you think of the Australian as a rightwing group blog (readers can fill in their own examples), everything makes sense.

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