Demolition man

Fresh from announcing that Queensland is on the brink of bankruptcy, and sacking 14 000 (“non-frontline”) public servants Premier Campbell Newman has announced plans to demolish the Executive Building (where he and his Ministers have their headquarters) and Public Works Building, to replace them with spanking new ones. Apparently, the front line is in George Street.

The proposal is wrapped up in such a way as to make it impossible to determine true cost. It will be run as a PPP, a bunch of heritage assets will be sold, doubtless in a way that reduces their protection and increases their market value, and a casino license will be thrown into the mix. But, it’s blatantly obvious that if you tear down a building and put up a new one with exactly the same purpose, you are taking on additional debt, whatever the accounts can be made to say.

This kind of shonky deal is precisely what Commissions of Audit are supposed to investigate. And fortunately, we have one, due to report early next year. I’m confident that Peter Costello, Doug McTaggart and Sandra Harding, backed up by a strong secretariat will be able to unravel this deal and show how much harder it will make the task of reducing state debt.

And of course, if there’s anything really dodgy going on, we have the Crime and Misconduct Commission. At least, we do for now.

I did an interview on all this with the Queensland 730 program, which may go to air this evening.

The Golden Age

Since long before I started blogging, I’ve been planning a big article on the prospects for Utopia, starting off from Keynes’ essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. While I procrastinated, lots of others had the same idea, most recently Robert and Edward Skidelsky. But, with encouragement from Ed Lake at Aeon Magazine, I went ahead anyway and the article has just appeared.

This is also a good time to announce that our long-promised book event on Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias is going ahead, with a target publication date of March 2013.

47 per cent true (crosspost from CT)

As Chris Bertram says in comments here, Romney’s main hope of getting away with his claim that 47 per cent of the US population are non-taxpaying moochers is the expectation that very few people will actually regard themselves as part of that 47 per cent. The same calculation is made by those who have pushed this talking point for years such as well-known plagiarist Ben Domenech and general lowlife Erick Erickson. It’s unsurprising that they should think this. After all, they’ve been making this claim, in one form or another for years, going back to the WSJ’s attack on “lucky duckies” in 2002. The claim has been refuted time and again with the points that most of the 47 per cent are workers subject to payroll tax, or retired people, but this refutation hasn’t reached the Fox News audience, many of whom don’t realise they are the moochers being attacked here.

But I don’t think this will help Romney, and the reasons why reflect some important developments in relation to post-truth political discourse in the US.

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The white working class (crosspost from CT)

For quite a while now (pre-dating Obama, but more frequently since he was elected), I’ve been reading about the Democrats’ troubles with “the white working class”. In some ways, this is unsurprising. In every country with which I’m familiar, a substantial proportion of the working class votes for the more conservative/rightwing party. And, even compared to the most wishy-washy of social democratic and labor parties elsewhere, the Dems aren’t exactly fervent champions of the worker. Still, the Repubs are even worse, so it seemed surprising to read that they regard the white working class as their base. Other things I read (sorry can’t find links now) made things even more puzzling. On the one hand, in the US as elsewhere, higher incomes are correlated with voting for the conservative/rightwing party, which seems to cut against the thesis. On the other hand, I’ve read that the average income of the US working class is the same as that of the population as a whole, which goes against the whole idea of “working class” as I understand it.

All became clear(or, at least, clearer) when I discovered that US political discussion uses two very different (though correlated) concepts of “working class”. The first is the more or less standard one – people who depend on wage labor (normally in manual or low-status service occupations) for their income. The second, specific to the US, and standard in most political polling, is “people without a 4-year college degree”, a class which includes such horny-handed sons and daughters of toil as Bill Gates and Paris Hilton. More prosaically, it includes lots of small business owners, and (since college graduation rates were rising until relative recently), over-represents the old.

Data on US voting patterns is surprisingly scarce, but Andrew Gelman has a big data set confirming the point that Republican voting rises with income. Andrew kindly sent me the data, which classifies voters by education (5 levels), income (5 categories) and race/ethnicity(4), for a total of 100 categories, and gives, for each group the proportion voting Republican. I’ve used this to look at an income-based definition of working class, encompassing everyone with an income less than $40 000. I’m not sure of the exact definition of this variable, but it seems pretty clear that people with income at this level are unlikely to be living on income from capital or a high-status job. To focus on the claim about the white working class, I’ve divided the 100 categories into four roughly equal-sized groups: working class whites (income less than 40K), middle/high income whites with and without college degrees, and all non-whites. Then I’ve looked at how many votes the Republicans got from each group in 2008.

As the pie chart below illustrates, the biggest group in the Republican voting base, and the group with which they do best is that of middle/high income whites without college degrees (the percentage after the group name gives the Republican share of the vote for that group). There’s nothing surprising in this, since all three variables are correlated with Republican voting. It’s the practice of calling this group “working class” that causes the confusion.

Disaggregating, the extreme case is that of high-school educated whites with incomes over $150K, 81.7 per cent of whom supported the Republicans in 2008. They’re a small group of course, but not negligible at about 1 per cent of the sample (155 out of 19170).

The two remaining groups of white voters are split pretty evenly between Reps and Dems, while, as is well known, non-white voters strongly favor the Dems.

The Republican voting base
(percentages after each group give proportion of that group voting R).

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Bike helmet laws

This article by fellow-MAMIL Michael O’Reilly makes an argument I’d been meaning to post. Whatever the merits of bike helmet laws in general, the costs clearly outweigh them in relation to bike-share schemes like CityCycle in Brisbane.

We clearly need a category of exemptions that lets people hire a slow bike for touring around our cities. Having done that, I’d extend it to anyone willing to take the trouble to apply for exemption, while maintaining the helmet rule as the default. I certainly wouldn’t seek an exemption – I like my head the way it is – but I can imagine there are people who would make the choice, and it’s not so obvious that their judgement should be over-ridden.