Third time lucky ?

So, it seems, we are signed up for our third Iraq war in 20-odd years. Obviously, this isn’t because the last two turned out brilliantly. So, what is the reasoning here? More precisely, given that Australia’s policy is just to follow the US without question, what is the reasoning of the world leaders, most importantly Obama, who are pushing this war? There seem to be two main points here

* ISIS/ISIL are barbaric terrorists who behead hostages. That’s a good reason for trying to capture and try those responsible, and perhaps for trying to kill them if that’s not possible. But there’s nothing special about this particular group. There are plenty of barbaric terrorists out there. And one of our leading allies in the fight, Saudi Arabia, routinely beheads people for such crimes as apostasy and “sorcery”. None of this justifies a war that is going to cost tens of billions of dollars (Australia alone looks to be up for several billion, assuming a long war) and an unknowable, but potentially large, number of lives.

* ISIS/ISIL threaten to take over large non-Sunni areas of Iraq and undertake ethnic/religious cleansing. That threat looked like a significant a month or two ago. But some limited air support for Kurdish and Shia militias appears to have turned the tide. As far as I can tell, ISIS/ISIL are now confined to Sunni areas where they have a fair degree of popular support. Changing that will be a costly and bloody business.

I expect most readers here will agree with me, and don’t plan to argue about with those who haven’t learned from the past. But I would like a pointer to any serious analysis making the case for a new war.

This is the model ? (updated and corrected)

The QS World University Rankings have just come out, and, as you might expect the top places (11 of the to 20 and 17 of the top 50) are dominated by US universities. By contrast Australia has five universities in the top 50 (ANU, Melbourne, Sydney, UQ and UNSW) So, you might think, this is a pretty good argument for following the US model. You get a different story, however, if you look at undergraduate enrolments (conveniently listed in Wikipedia)

I calculate that the 15 US universities in the top 50 have a total undergraduate enrolment of 210 000 (that’s dominated by a few public universities: Michigan, UC Berkeley, UCLA and Wisconsin-Madison, as well as Cornell which is partly public). By contrast, the five Australian unis enrol 148 000.

Adjusted for population, Australian students are about ten times as likely as Americans to attend a top 50 university.

Of course, the figures should be adjusted for fee-paying international students, who constitute a much larger share of the Australian student population than in the US. On the other hand, international enrolments at the top US universities are also increasing. And since many of them haven’t increased enrolments since the 1950s, the number of places for domestic American students is actually declining.

Note: I previously used the 2013 rankings. I’ve updated to the 2014 list, which includes UNSW and two more US universities. The ratios don’t change significantly as a result.

Further note In comments, reader Aldonius points to more accurate enrolment stats than I got from Wikipedia

109K domestic undergrads; 135K total (80% domestic) for ANU, Melbourne, Sydney, UQ and UNSW
723K domestic undergrads; 926K total (78% domestic) For all Oz universities

Here’s my US list

MIT 4528
Harvard 7200
Stanford 6980
Yale 5414
Chicago 5134
CalTech 978
Princeton 5336
Columbia 8365
Cornell 13935
JHU 6023
Michigan 27979
Duke 6495
Berkeley 25951
Northwestern 8459
UCLA 28674
NYU 19401
Wisconsin 29504
Total 210356

And for Australia

ANU 10231
Melbourne 38000
Sydney 32393
UQ 34228
UNSW 33000
Total 147852

Monochrome swans

I have a request[^1] for help from scientifically literate readers. A lot of my research work is focused on the problem of unforeseen contingencies, popularly, if ethnocentrically, described as “black swans”. In particular, I’m interested in the question of how you can prepare for such contingencies given that, by definition, you can’t foresee exactly what they will be. One example, with which I’m very pleased, is that of the precautionary principle. It seems reasonable to say that we can distinguish well-understood choices involving hazards from those that are poorly understood, and avoid the latter, precisely because the loss from hazard cannot be bounded in advance.

Anyway, I was thinking about this in relation to the actual case of black swans (or, from my own perspective, white swans). The question is: what principles would help you to avoid making, and acting on, the assumption “all swans are white (or, in my own case, black)”. It seems to me that the crucial fact here is that the shift from black to white, or vice versa, is, in evolutionary terms, a small one. So, if you used something like cladistics, you would avoid choosing feather color as a defining feature of swans, and birds in general. As I understand it, a phylogenetic approach starts with features that are very strongly conserved (body plans) and proceeds from there. But, rather than assume that my own understanding is correct, it seemed simpler to ask.

[^1]: There’s a blog-specific word for this, but I refuse to use it

Go8: The empire strikes back

Michael Gallagher of the Go8 has put out a press release in reaction to my piece in The Conversation on higher education reform, accusing me of “an attack on a straw man”. It’s a fine example of John Holbo’s two-step of terrific triviality. Gallagher backs away from his previous advocacy of deregulation as a positive benefit to the much weaker position I mentioned in the article that it is “unpalatable but necessary response to cuts in funding”, or, in Gallagher’s words that “the status quo is not an option”.
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From the 'paperless office' to renewable energy, change leaves its critics behind

That’s the headline for my piece in The Guardian. Unsurprisingly, given experience here, the comments section is a mountain of derp. Amusingly, it turns out that there are still paperless office sceptics about, despite ample evidence of that demand for office paper has been declining for years, and now seems set to plummet. The sceptics seem immune to the irony of posting comments in a digital-only newspaper asserting that paper will never die.

Given the extreme tightness of priors regarding energy issues, I expect our renewables sceptics to be even more diehard.

Rawls, Bentham and the Laffer curve (cross-post at Crooked Timber)

The 1970s saw two important and influential publications in the long debate over justice, equality and public policy. In 1971, there was Rawls Theory of Justice, commonly described in terms like “magisterial”. Then in 1974, at lunch with Jude Wanniski, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, Arthur Laffer drew his now-eponymous curve on a napkin. Of course there was nothing new about the curve: it’s pretty obvious that an income tax levied at rates of either zero or 100 per cent isn’t going to raise any money, and interpolation does the rest. What was new was the Laffer hypothesis, that the US at the time was on the descending side of the curve, where a reduction in tax rates would raise tax revenue.

I’ve always understood Rawls in terms of the Laffer curve, as arguing in essence that we should be at the very top of the curve, maximizing the resources available for transfer to the poor, but not (as, say, Jerry Cohen might have advocated) going further than this to promote equality.

A couple of interesting Facebook discussions have led me to think that I might be wrong in my understanding of Rawls and that the position I’ve imputed to him is actually far closer to that of classical utilitarianism in the tradition of Bentham (which is, broadly speaking, my own view).

Facebook has its merits, but promoting open public discussion isn’t one of them, so I thought I’d throw this out to the slightly larger world of blog readers.

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