Moral panic on bikies

I won’t say much about Queensland’s new anti-bikie laws since they are so obviously indefensible, and will surely be struck down by the High Court. Unless AG Jarrod Bleijie was deliberately seeking this outcome, it seems that he is as wet behind the ears as his public appearances suggest and as his legal experience (limited to conveyancing it is said) would suggest. A couple of observations

First, although bikies are involved in crime, it appears to be limited to things like taking rake-offs from drug dealing (who would be at least as common if they were independent operators not obliged to pay off gang leaders) and to rackets around tattoo parlours. The public brawling we’ve seen recently, and the various piece of inter-gang violence seem to be controllable by ordinary law enforcement

Second, I don’t think freedom of association should be absolute. If it can be proved, in open court, that an organization is engaged in facilitating crime, there ought to be legal remedies (US RICO legislation is a possible model, though it has its problems). But the Queensland Legislation simply declares a large number of bikie clubs to be illegal, without any chance to have their day in court. Such laws could be applied to political parties, trade unions, companies or even individual groups of friends. Menzies tried this with the Communist Party (which at least had aspirations to be dangerous to the existing order of society, unlike, say the Bandidos) and was rightly rejected both by the High Court and the Australian people

Why do we *still* have a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences?

Ingrid Robyens at Crooked Timber links to some fascinating discussion from Philip Mirowski of the role of Swedish domestic politics in the establishment of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, with emphasis on the way in which claims of “scientific” status for economics helped the claim of the Swedish central bank to independence from government.

In the broader context, it seems pretty clear that, if the idea had arisen even a few years later, it would have been rejected. In 1969, economics really did seem like a progressively developing science in which new discoveries built on old ones. There were some challenges to the dominant Keynesian-neoclassical synthesis but they were either marginalized (Marxists, institutionalists) or appeared to reflect disagreements about parameter values that could fit within the mainstream synthesis.

Only a few years later, all of this was in ruins. The rational expectations revolution sought, with considerable success, to discredit Keynesian macroeconomics, while promising to develop a New Classical model in which macroeconomic fluctuations were explained by Real Business Cycles. This project was a failure, but led to the award of a string of Nobels, before macroeconomists converged on the idea of Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium models, which failed miserably in the context of the global financial crisis. The big debate in macro can be phrased as “where did it all go wrong”. Robert Gordon says 1978, I’ve gone for 1958, while the New Classical position implies that the big mistake was Keynes’ General Theory in 1936

The failure in finance is even worse, as is illustrated by this year’s awards where Eugene Fama gets a prize for formulating the Efficient Markets Hypothesis and Robert Shiller for his leading role in demolishing it. Microeconomics is in a somewhat better state: the rise of behavioral economics has the promise of improved realism in the description of economic decisions.

Overall, economics is still at a pre-scientific stage, at least, as the idea of science is exemplified by Physics and Chemistry. Economists have made some important discoveries, and a knowledge of economics helps us to understand crucial issues, but there is no agreement on fundamental issues. The result is that prizes are awarded both for “discoveries” and for the refutation of those discoveries.

Can you run an ironman and run a country?

I’m not generally a fan of political scandals: at worst, they are spurious, at best, they involve random exposure and punishment of misdeeds that usually go unchecked. But there’s one big exception for me, and that’s when political scandals intersect my sporting interests.

Last year, the high-profile case was that of Republican VP nominee, Paul Ryan, who claimed to have run marathons in his younger days, with times in the 2:50s, an impressive achievement at any age. It turned out that he had run a single marathon, in 4:01:25. As all runners know, no one who has put the effort to run a marathon makes that kind of mistake. Ryan’s time is better than either of mine (4:37 and 4:24), but I’m aiming to break four hours in the next year or two, and I have a good few decades on him.

Now there’s Tony Abbott, who seems to have claimed expenses for everything from weddings to music festivals. But the only one that really interests me is the $2100 he claimed when he went in the 2011 Port Macquarie Ironman. I couldn’t find a time for 2011, but he did the 2010 event (3.8 km swim, 180 km cycle 42.2 k run) in 14 hours, whereas I took 8 hours to do half as much in the Cairns 70.3 in June.

What strikes me about this is not so only the expenses issue (although that obviously irks me) as the training time that must be involved, and the implications for the rest of Abbott’s commitments. Preparing for a marathon or a 70.3 while working full time, even in a flexible job like mine, requires putting most other things, like social engagements, on hold. If he’s training for a full ironman and managing the commitments inherent in being a politician, it’s hard to believe he can have any significant amount of time free to study policy issues and consider the best responses (as I know, you can’t think about these things while you’re running an endurance event – there’s not enough blood flow to the brain to think about much more than keeping your legs moving).

Looking at Abbott’s actual approach to policy, the three-word slogan approach is unsurprising. He can’t have had the spare time or energy for anything better. That worked fine in Opposition, but it hasn’t been great preparation for government.

A rocky start

The Abbott government has had the rockiest start of any newly-elected government I can recall[1]. Opinion polls are already showing the government trailing Labor, even before the election of a new opposition leader.
The failure has two main elements. The first is the consequence of gaining office on the basis of slogans and personality politics rather than any coherent set of policy proposals. ‘Stop the boats’ was a great vote-winner for the LNP in opposition, but in office it’s a hostage given to fortune. Maybe the boats will stop and maybe not, but bombastic rhetoric will have no effect one way or the other.
The implication for Labor is not to respond in kind with wrecking and cheap slogans. Rather, it’s to make the point that, however dysfunctional the previous government may have been terms of leadership, and whatever the problems of implementation, it was in the right (or at least better than the LNP) on all the major policy issues[2].
The implied political strategy is to defend and extend the key policies of the Rudd-Gillard government, with the exception of the mistakes driven by short-run political exigencies (the archetypal example being the withdrawal of benefits from single parents, and the associated failure to do anything to improve the treatment of unemployed people in general).
That means treating the Abbott government as a temporary interruption a program of reform that includes carbon pricing, the NBN, NDIS and Gonski reforms. The only big gap in Labor’s program is the absence of a credible plan to finance these policies in the long run, while allowing state governments sufficient revenue to do their work. Labor needs to use the time in opposition to break with the low-tax rhetoric of the past, and work out a coherent plan to increase revenue. In practice, there’s no real chance of increasing the rate or coverage of GST, so the options will have to come on the income tax side. More on this soon, I hope.
The second factor in Abbott’s poor start is the ‘born to rule’ mentality that we’ve already seen in Queensland. Newman and his ministers have been shameless in grabbing more and better perks, giving jobs to their mates and so on. Abbott has started in the same vein, with examples such as the sacking of Steve Bracks, and his rumored replacement with a mate such as Nick Minchin. The contrast with Rudd, who left Liberal appointees in place, and gave plum appointments to well qualified Libs, is striking. Although the travel expense scandals now coming to light date from the past, they fit into a pattern that is already evident.
Of course, Labor is hardly innocent in this. But the isolated examples that have come to light, and the near-total absence of ministerial scandals in the Rudd-Gillard government suggest that this is not a case of ‘everybody does it’. Labor should join the Greens in pushing reform of the entire system.

fn1. The arguable exception is the Labor minority government that emerged from the 2010 election. But this wasn’t a new government or a new PM: Labor had a couple of years on top after 2007 and Gillard had already had her honeymoon period in the immediate aftermath of the deposition of Rudd.

fn2. ‘Better than Abbott’ was a pretty low bar when it came to refugee policies. But Labor did at least increase the refugee intake, while Abbott has cut it.

The Mail on Sunday's own goal for delusionism

I’ve been struck by the fairly straight reporting of the IPCC Working Group 1 report on the physical science of climate change. Even Graham Lloyd at the Oz could find only one para for delusionist Benny Peiser[1] in his report, headlined “Science solid on global warming, IPCC declares“. What happened to the much anticipated delusionist counterattack?

I think we have the Daily Mail to thank for the no-show. As readers will recall, the Mail ran a story by David Rose under the headline “‘World’s top climate scientists confess: Global warming is just HALF what we said”. This was obviously absurd, and the Mail was forced to retract, but not before the story had been circulated throughout the denialosphere, notably including Bolt, the Oz, and the Torygraphs (both UK and Oz). The Oz eventually retracted, but Bolt didn’t bother. This misfire made it pretty much impossible to get much traction out of the modest adjustments that were actually contained in the report, such as reducing the lower bound estimate of climate sensitivity to 1.5 degrees (it was increased from 1.5 degrees to 2.0 degrees in the Fourth Assessment Report0

What’s interesting here is the fact that such obvious nonsense as Rose’s article got such a credulous reception. The idea that estimates of warming since 1950 could be out by a factor of two, or that a few years of additional data could change them substantial is entirely implausible, and a “confession of error” unsupported by a quote ought to raise alarm bells. Multiple levels of stupidity are needed to explain this. First, the majority of delusionists are simply innumerate, and ignorant of the most basic facts about data (we saw this with the claims about “no significant warming” since 1993). Second, the confirmation bias that affects everyone is magnified to a pathological extent in the parallel universe created by the right. Third, the tribal character of the movement means that there are no incentives to correct error. Presumably there are at least some delusionists who must have thought the “confession of error” story too good to be true. But no one would have thanked them for raising doubts. Whereas real climate scientists disagree vigorously among themselves (though all but a handful agree that the evidence for the basic fact of human-caused climate change is overwhelming), “sceptics” never criticise any claim on their own side, however absurd.

Most obviously, Judith Curry who was quoted in Rose’s article (not as a source for the bogus claims) must have realised it was nonsense. But she implicitly endorsed it, after its publication, but before its retraction. Note that, while saying the article quoted her accurately and would not be welcomed by the IPCC, Curry carefully avoids mentioning taking a position on its main claim, which she must have known to be false (she mentions the dispute briefly, at the bottom of here post, but offers no opinion). This is fairly typical of her, and her role-model Richard Lindzen.

But in this case, it was too clever by half. A smart delusionist if one existed would have jumped on Rose’s error and used it to build up some credibility for the future.

fn1. Peiser is, or was, a social anthropologist, and, according to Wikipedia, is currently a visiting fellow (not a real job, I suspect) at the University of Buckingham (definitely not a real university[2]). He’s therefore eminently qualified to represent the delusionist viewpoint on issues of physical science and the interpretation of statistical evidence.

fn2. To be boringly clear, I’m fully aware that Buckingham is an accredited institution with lecturers, degrees and so on, legally entitled to call itself a university. It’s still not a real university.

#MyDadHatedBritain …

… is trending on Twitter, thanks to the appalling UK Daily Mail, which ran a full length attack on the late Ralph Miliband, socialist academic and father of Opposition Leader Ed Miliband. On the strength of a scathing diary entry Miliband wrote as a 17-year old refugee, and his opposition to the Falklands War, the Mail claimed that Miliband “hated Britain”. Illustrating the proverb about glass houses, the attack only served to draw attention to the fact that whereas Miliband served in the Navy in World War II, the Mail backed Hitler and the Blackshirts throughout the 1930s, and has continued to push racist hatred ever since (unsurprisingly, it has seized on the spurious notion of “political correctness.” [1]

The Mail’s attack on Miliband has divided the UK right into three groups (google x+Mail+miliband)

* Those who have condemned this appalling and dishonest slur, including Michael Heseltine and Nick Clegg
* Those who have stuck to a weaselly line scripted by Tory minders that “of course Miliband should defend his father” such as David Cameron, William Hague and Boris Johnson
* Those who have backed the Mail all the way, notably including James Delingpole, Rod Liddle and Michael Gove[2]

It’s notable that all those I’ve listed in the third group are prominent climate delusionists. As we’ve seen again recently, the Mail is the source for many of the lies about climate change that are reproduced in the Murdoch press[3]. This is, as they say, no coincidence. Climate delusionism isn’t a mistaken belief about the world, it’s an expression of tribal hatred, all the more effective because most of those who push it know, at some level, that their arguments are false. Putting forth such arguments is an expression of tribal solidarity, like asserting that Obama was born in Kenya. Naturally, the tribal haters love the kind of stuff that the Mail dishes out.

Hopes are often disappointed, but it does seem as if the global party of stupid is starting to reap the whirlwind it has sown. The continued publication of delusional nonsense has produced a rightwing base that embraces delusional strategies like the US shutdown, or attacks on a man’s dead father, in the belief that everyone else will share their positive reaction.

fn1. It’s also being claimed that the father of Mail editor Paul Dacre didn’t serve, but this (sauce for the gander) claim hasn’t been verified AFAIK. Another tidbit is that the Mail was the target of Churchill’s Stanley Baldwin’s famous jibe that it sought “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.
fn2. Gove hasn’t stated this, but he has tried to stop schools teaching anything about climate change. He has the additional motive that his wife has a highly paid job with the Mail.
fn3. It’s a striking commentary on the weakness of people like Bolt and Oz “environment reporter” Graeme Lloyd that, as well as being incapable of telling the truth, they also seem to be unable to come up with original lies.