There is a world market for maybe five computers …*

As has been true since 2010, our aspiring leaders seem to be determined to outdo each other in silliness this week. Since Julia Gillard will (with 90 per cent probability) be nothing more than a bad memory in a year’s time, while Tony Abbott will be an unavoidable reality, I’m going to ignore Gillard’s “Rob Peter to Pay Paul” aprroach to funding Gonski and talk about the National Broadband Network.

The Abbott-Turnbull proposal for a cutprice NBN has been an amazing success in clarifying issues that previously seemed too complex to be resolved. Until now, it’s been far from obvious how to assess the NBN – the complaint that we didn’t have a benefit cost analysis was obviously silly in the absence of any easy way of quantifying the benefits. But now that we’ve seen the alternative – a 25MBps network, dependent on Telstra’s failing copper network and non-existent goodwill, it’s obvious that the NBN is the only option that gives us any hope of keeping up with the steady growth in demand for information. The claim that individual subscribers can choose to upgrade to fibre-to-the-premises appears to have collapsed in the face of expert scrutiny. Instead, it seems, we’ll end up with lots of street-corner boxes, which will have to be ripped out and replaced wholesale when their inadequacy becomes apparent.

Given that he is going to win the coming election anyway, Abbott could greatly improve his chances of re-election in 2016 by admitting his mistake and going with the existing NBN plan, maybe with some cosmetic tweaks. As a bonus, from Abbott’s POV, Turnbull would have to eat a lot of humble pie.

The same is true for the other slogans on which he’s relied so far, like “Stop the Boats’ and “Axe the Tax”. Thanks to Labor’s implosion, he can afford to dump them now, and replace them with something more realistic – there’s no shame in changing policies before an election.

I don’t expect Abbott to take this unsolicited advice, but he could look at the cautionary lesson provided by Bligh, Gillard and NSW Labor among others, and consider carefully whether it’s better to take a few lumps now, or gain office on the basis of commitments that will prove a millstone, whether they are abandoned or adhered to.

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* I know, this quote attributed to Thomas J Watson is apocryphal, as is a similar one attributed to Bill Gates, but lots of similar statements have been made in reality, and they’ve all proved to be silly. For example, I can remember people saying in the early 80s that 8-bit address space of 64k (a double octet) were all we would ever need. Many more people said, well into the 1990s, that graphical interfaces were an unnecessary luxury and that personal computers would always start with a C:> prompt.

Counting to three

Responding to my observation that Andrew Bolt’s estimate of the impact of the carbon tax/price on global warming was out by a couple of orders of magnitude (he calculated the impact for one year, not that over the decades for which the policy is supposed to operate), Quadrant contributor John Dawson jumped into the fray and pronounced himself satisfied with Bolt’s arithmetic (H/T Terje Petersen). Dawson’s piece is too confused for a link but confusing enough that Terje couldn’t see where he ran into error. Rather than try to clean up this arithmetic mess, I’ll step back to something much simpler – the inability of Dawson, and his mentor Keith Windschuttle, to count to three.

Long-term readers will recall that, back in 2002, Windschuttle made quite a splash with The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land, 1803-1847, which attempted a revisionist account of the tragic history of the Tasmanian Aborigines. He didn’t achieve much except to point out some sloppy footnoting in a fairly obscure recent history[1]. The main interest in the book was as an appetiser for the succeeding volumes, on Queensland and Western Australia, promised to appear on an annual schedule. Here, Windschuttle promised to refute the work of Henry Reynolds and others, who painted the frontier as a scene of prolonged violent warfare between the indigenous inhabitants and the white settlers who sought, successfully in the end, to displace and subdue them.

Year followed year, and promise followed promise, but Volumes 2 and 3 didn’t appear. Finally, in 2009, Volume 3 was published. Not only was there no Volume 2, but the new Volume 3 bore no resemblance to the book originally promised for 2004. Instead, it was a critique of the Stolen Generations report and the film Rabbit Proof Fence. Windschuttle said that this volume had been published “out of order”, and that the missing volumes 2 and 4 would appear “later”.

Even by Windschuttle’s standards, this is bizarre. The Stolen Generations debate refers almost entirely to the 20th century, so this volume, on his reasoning ought to come after the others.

It’s truly bizarre to see self-satisfied climate “sceptics” who can’t even calculate a standard error, but have convinced themselves they are smarter than professional scientists. Stranger still to see someone like Bolt, who’s incapable of basic arithmetic, treated as an expert by his readers. But surely even the editor of a literary magazine ought to be able to count to three.

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1975 as the mirror image of 2013

There’s already plenty of commentary, here and elsewhere on Margaret Thatcher. Rather than add to it, I’d like to compare the situation when she assumed the leadership of the Conservative Party with the one we face now. As Corey Robin points out at Crooked Timber

In the early 1970s, Tory MP Edward Heath was facing high unemployment and massive trade union unrest. Despite having come into office on a vague promise to contest some elements of the postwar Keynesian consensus, he was forced to reverse course. Instead of austerity, he pumped money into the economy via increases in pensions and benefits and tax cuts. That shift in policy came to be called the “U-Turn.”

Crucially, Heath was defeated mainly as a result of strikes by the coal miners union.[1]

From the viewpoint of conservatives, the postwar Keynesian/social democratic consensus had failed, producing chronic stagflation, but the system could not be changed because of the entrenched power of the trade unions, and particularly the National Union of Miners. In addition, the established structures of the state such as the civil service and the BBC were saturated with social democratic thinking.[2]

Thatcher reversed all of these conditions, smashing the miners union and greatly weakening the movement in general, and promoting and implementing market liberal ideology as a response to the (actual and perceived) failures of social democracy. Her policies accelerated the decline of the manufacturing sector, and its replacement by an economy reliant mainly on the financial sector, exploiting the international role of the City of London.

Our current situation seems to me to be a mirror image of 1975. Once again the dominant ideology has led to economic crisis (now about 4 years old), but attempts to break away from it (such as the initial swing to Keynesian stimulus) have been rolled back in favour of even more vigorous pursuit of the policies that created the crisis. The financial sector now plays the role of the miners’ union (as seen in Thatcherite mythology) as the unelected and unaccountable power that prevents any positive change.

Is our own version of Thatcher waiting somewhere in the wings to take on the banks and mount an ideological counter-offensive against market liberalism? If so, it’s not obvious to me, but then, there wasn’t much in Thatcher’s pre-1975 career that would have led anyone to predict the character of her Prime Ministership.

fn1. I was too far from the scene to be able to assess the rights and wrongs of these strikes or the failed strike of the early 1980. It’s obvious that the final outcome was disastrous both for coal miners and for British workers in general, but not that there was a better alternative on offer at the time.

fn2. The popular series, Yes Minister, was essentially a full-length elaboration of this belief, informed by public choice theory

The joke titles write themselves …

… for the announcement that the Commonwealth government is spending $20 million to support the production in Australia of a Disney film of the Jules Verne novel 20000 Leagues Under the Sea. I was interviewed by Gary Maddox who wrote an opinion piece supporting the subsidy, but mentioning my opposition.

For dogmatic free-market advocates, there’s not much need to explain why the subsidy is a bad idea – it follows from the general claim that all subsidies are bad, and for the real dogmatists, that any kind of government expenditure is bad. But I’m happy to support subsidies to film production under some circumstances so I need to explain my position a bit further, and the Maddox piece provides a handy foil

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Off air

I’ve been on holidays over Easter, and am now going completely offgrid for the rest of the week. So, no posting. Commenters, please observe extra courtesy while I’m away.