The laurel wreath

Some good news! I’ve just been awarded an Australian Laureate Fellowship to work on uncertainty and financial crises. That means five more years of funding. I’ve been stringing various ARC Fellowships, Federation Fellowships and so on together since the mid-1990s, and there’s always an anxious wait when one is about to run out, and the new ones have not been announced – there’s no guarantee, or even presumption, that winning one means you will get another, and there’s plenty of competition, so it’s a matter of starting from scratch every time. The really nice time, starting now, is the last few months of the old grant, when I get to wrap things up and contemplate the start of something new. I’m very grateful to the Australian government for supporting me in my research over all these years.

The revolving door

While working on a piece about a possible bailout for the Spanish government, I discovered a couple of things that were news to me

* The Economics Minister in the (pro-austerity) Spanish government is a former executive of Lehman Brothers

* Axel Weber, formerly the ultra-hawkish head of the Bundesbank went straight from that job to the chairmanship of UBS, of which the NYT recently wrote “The bank’s recidivism seems rivaled only by its ability to escape prosecution”

Comment seems superfluous to me, but I hope readers will prove me wrong on this.


Hicks case dropped

After nearly 10 years, military trials at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp have produced a total of six convictions. One of those was David Hicks, who agreed to a plea bargain under which he would be sent back to Australia to serve out his sentence. On his release, he wrote a book about his experiences. Under “proceeds of crime” laws, the earnings from books about a criminal career are liable to confiscation, and the Australian government accordingly froze the proceeds and took action to have them forfeited.

The news today is that the Director of Public Prosecutions has abandoned the actions and paid Hicks’ legal costs[1]. Although no rationale was given, the general presumption is that the US conviction would not stand up in an Australian court, either because (as Hicks alleged) Hicks’ guilty plea was extracted by torture, or because the whole system failed to meet basic standards of due process.

Most simple of all is the fact that, unlike the usual case of plea bargaining (which is problematic enough), the options aren’t pleading guilty or going to trial. Rather those who plead guilty get a definite (and usually relatively short) sentence on top of their detention, while those who do not are held indefinitely without trial. All of this is relevant now that the Obama Administration is trying to “normalise” the plea bargaining process, by getting those who have pleaded guilty to testify against others accused of more serious crimes. Evidence extracted under this kind of duress is obviously worthless.

None of this proves that Hicks was innocent, either morally or legally. But that’s an inherent problem in a corrupted legal process. Since the trials are rigged in such a way that they can never produce an acquittal (those who might be acquitted are simply kept in detention without charge), a conviction doesn’t prove anything[2]. Morally, Hicks’ eagerness to go to war in any cause that would take him (he applied to join the Australian Army after returning from Kosovo) is pretty repugnant, but those who gave us Gitmo and the Iraq War are in no position to throw stones.

fn1. The only other Australian detainee, Mamdouh Habib, was threatened with similar action, but this did not proceed. He eventually received a substantial (but secret) settlement in return for dropping claims against the Australian government for its alleged involvement in his torture.

fn2. This is a problem even in the standard plea-bargaining system and has given rise to something called the Alford plea, apparently used by Hicks. The accused pleads guilty for legal purposes, while maintaining their innocence of the alleged crime.

The Future of Economics: Research, Policy and Relevance

That was the somewhat grandiose theme of the Australian Conference of Economists held in Melbourne last week. I was invited to give a keynote presentation and got this as the default topic. It seemed like a challenge and I gave it a go – here’s my presentation (4.8Mb PDF). For those who would just like to cut to the chase, my penultimate slide gives the main story

* The global economic crisis should have produced a crisis in economic theory
* Instead, business as usual
* A path to inevitable irrelevance

I’m using the Dropbox public folder for this. I’d be interested to hear from readers if there are any problems, and also if it went smoothly.

Equality, freedom and wage labor

I haven’t been active in the debate between Crooked Timber members and various others (Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Matt Yglesias, Tyler Cowen) so far. Broadly speaking the claim on the BHL side has been that if only some minimal conditions (existence of a universal basic income, for example) were met, all employment contracts could be assumed mutually beneficial and there would be no need for governments to regulate their terms, for example to prevent sexual exploitation.

Most  at CT have been dismissive of these claims, but I’d like to explore the question a bit further. Is the objection that the necessary conditions aren’t likely to be met in practice, or that the employment relationship is inherently unbalanced, simply by virtue of the fact that one party gets to boss the other around.

Suppose that the following conditions were met

* Full employment, so that the cost to a worker of finding a new job is no greater than the cost to an employer of hiring a replacement

* A minimum wage adequate to allow a decent living standard without requiring acceptance of degrading working conditions

* A universal basic income sufficient to ensure that, even without working no-one need be poor

* A default employment contract, incorporating prohibitions on sexual harassment, rights to regular breaks and so on, unless these are explicitly contracted out

Would we then feel that legislative restrictions on employment contracts were needed, and, if so, which and why? Or, is the question badly posed in some way

Read More »

In the name of God, go!

Back around 1970, the Labor Party was unelectable because its biggest branches, in NSW and Victoria, were controlled by factional machines of the right and left respectively, who were still refighting the battles of the 1950s Split. The eventual response was Federal intervention to restructure both branches. The intervention was more successful in Victoria than in NSW, but overall the results were good enough to produce a revitalised Labor party. The election of the Whitlam government was one result, as was the strength of the early Hawke ministries, almost any member of which would outperform the great majority of both frontbenches today.

I doubt that an intervention would produce a similar result in NSW today, but the situation is now so dire that it could scarcely make matters worse. It’s hard to imagine a political party with less justification for its continued existence than NSW Labor. It sold out its stated principles with repeated attempts to privatise the electricity industry, then made a botch of the job anyway> It has made itself look stupid with repeated changes of leaders (the only one who tried any resistance to the machine was Nathan Rees, and he was promptly squashed). Its members are enmeshed in every kind of corruption, financial, ethical and sexual, above and beyond the routine corruption of political processes that turned the word “rort” from Sussex Street slang into an Australian byword for sharp practice. Electorally, it’s a disaster area, having gone down to the worst defeat in its modern history, under the sock-puppet leadership of Kristina Keneally. Even though the NSW Libs are, as they always have been, appallingly bad, the O’Farrell government is riding high.

And now, these geniuses have decided that it’s smart politics to make war on the party that’s keeping Federal Labor in office, and with which they will need to deal for the indefinite future if they ever want to pass legislation through the Parliament. Looking at this appalling crew, I can only quote Oliver Cromwell “You have been sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”

Update My friends at the Oz take a keen interest in all my thoughts, so I wasn’t too surprised to see this post linked in their “Cut and Paste” section. However, the headline All the Climate Change Authority member would like now is to get rid of the NSW Right seemed both unwieldy and obtuse, in a fish-meets-bicycle kind of way. Why should my (widely shared and longstanding) views on the NSW Labor Right machine be of any more interest by virtue of my membership of the Climate Change Authority? And why should my enthusiasm about the election of the Rudd government (also linked by Cut and Paste) be relevant to either?

The answer, I would imagine, is this post by Sinclair Davidson at Catallaxy who (in a quite strange misreading) took the imprecation “In the name of God, go” to be directed, not at the Sussex Street machine repeatedly criticised in the post, but at the Federal Labor government. Terje Peterson tried to set him straight in comments (thanks, Terje), but I had to spell the point out before he added a correction on Sunday evening, which made the entire post rather pointless. By that time, I imagine, the cutter and paster had already set the story up and gone home, leaving the unfortunate sub-editor to do a salvage job with the headline (not the first time!).