Updates

A few updates on recent posts.

1. In my post on a better way of collecting fines, I linked to a paywalled article in the Australian Journal of Public Administration which I wrote with Bruce Chapman and others. Wiley (publishers of AJPA) got in touch and kindly arranged to make the article available free of charge. I had some trouble with the enhanced PDF version, but the basic one worked fine for me.

2. Hours after complaining about the conventional wisdom a Coalition win as a foregone conclusion I found a piece by Mark Kenny finally making the point that the evidence against this claim has been in plain view for weeks.

3. I was a bit disappointed by the discussion of my post on Labor and the Greens. Most of it consisted of arguments about the relative merits of the two parties, predominantly but not exclusively favoring the Greens (as I mostly do). The question for Greens supporters (and Labor supporters for that matter) is not whether their party is better but whether they regard the differences as being so great as to justify doing deals, implicit or otherwise, with the LNP. To my mind, at least, this would require identifying at least some major policy issues on which the LNP is preferable to the other left party.

Labor and the Greens

The election campaign has brought into focus the long-standing problem of how Labor and the Greens should deal with each other, which became critical after the 2010 election. Both parties have made a mess of things this time around. Rather than go over that ground, I’m going to give my view on how they should work in the future.

First, both parties need to realise that they are part of the same centre-left movement. For Labor that means giving up the idea that the Greens are a temporary irritant that will go the way of the DLP, if they are abused and/or ignored long enough. For the Greens, it means abandoning Third Way rhetoric suggesting that they represent an unaligned alternative to a two-party duopoly.

In electoral terms, the starting point for both parties should be an exchange of preferences in all seats, with the LNP last. That starting point doesn’t preclude changes in the case of particularly objectionable (or particularly good) candidates, but it does rule out the kinds of negotiations we’ve seen so many times with the LNP or with conservative minor parties. It also rules out the fake piety of Green “open tickets”.

Such a policy would be good for the centre-left as a whole, but it would also benefit each of the parties to adopt it unilaterally. The alleged hardheads who negotiate these deals have repeatedly bungled them, while creating division and attracting bad publicity.

Equally important is the question of how the parties should work in Parliament. The most important is the case that emerged in 2010, with Labor needing Greens support to form a government. My reading of that episode is that both parties were harmed by the conclusion of a formal deal, and that a coalition with Green ministers would make things even worse. Instead, the Greens should support Labor on confidence votes, and negotiate on all other legislation on the merits.

An approach like this would enable the Greens to influence policy in positive ways, while not tying them to Labor policies they regard as unacceptable. For Labor, the obvious benefit is that they could form a government while maintaining a formal position of “no deals”. For the centre-left as a whole, the policy outcome would be better than that from a Labor government with a tame majority.

Am I the only person …

… who’s totally dissatisfied with the coverage of the likely election outcome. Every article I’ve read seems to be along the lines of the following deduction

1. Labor can’t possibly win the 21 net seats it needs for an absolute majority
2. (implicit) Any outcome other than an absolute majority for one major party or the other is inconceivable.
3. Therefore, any outcome other than an LNP majority is impossible and inconceivable.

Obviously, the problem is with implicit step 2. As Inigo Montoya remarks to Vizzini, in the princess bride (a constant user of the term “inconceivable”) “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”.

As far as I can tell, it is entirely possible that the next Parliament will include 10-12 non-major party independents (two to four Greens, up to three Xenophon, three current independents and perhaps two more). Of these, three or four would hold seats taken from the LNP, meaning that the government can only afford to lose about 10 seats to Labor before we get to a deliberative Parliament. Of the non-majors, there’s only one (Bob Katter) who could be regarded as a reasonably safe vote for the government.

Maybe the pundits have taken all this into account. But, if so, I’ve seen no evidence in what they’ve published. It’s still two-party preferred and what I’ll call the “fallacy of the excluded middle” in everything I read.

A better way of collecting fines

Although I’ve been involved in economic policy debates for most of the last 40 years, it’s not often that I can point directly to a substantive outcome, in the sense that a policy proposal I’ve generated is implemented, or at least adopted by a major political party. There’s nothing surprising in that. There are lots of people involved in the policy process, and most successful policy proposals reflect the efforts of many people, combined in such a way that it’s hard to tell whether any one person mattered.

But I was happy to see this proposal from the Labor Party to allow state governments to collect criminal fines through the tax and welfare systems (as with HECS debts and child support), rather than jailing defaulters as at present. This was idea I put forward in a paper with Bruce Chapman, Arie Friedman and David Tait, back in 2004 (paywalled, unfortunately).

As is argued in Labor’s press release, there would be obvious improvements and cost savings, as well as the avoidance of unnecessary suffering for people who can’t afford to pay. But for me, the change in collection mechanism is of interest mainly because it makes possible more radical reforms.

Read More »

Halfway horse-race commentary

Four weeks in, and with the two parties neck and neck, this ought to be an exciting point in the election campaign. But thanks to Turnbull’s trickiness* of calling a double dissolution requiring eight weeks of campaigning, it’s anything but. Still, it seems like a good time for some horse race commentary, partly repeating what I’ve said before.

* First, taking the horse race analogy seriously, the behavior of betting markets is as if two horses had run neck and neck in a dozen minor races, but one was still the overwhelming favorite for the big done. To spell this out, the polls have been virtually level pegging for many weeks, but the betting markets have barely moved. On past history, the two will converge by election day. If, as I expect, that means the betting odds will move towards the poll, this campaign will count as a major piece of evidence against the idea that markets are good aggregators of knowledge. And, of course, the converse is true

* Second, the likelihood of a deliberative Parliament, with neither major party having a tame majority is increasing all the time. That’s a good thing in the abstract; how good depends on whose votes turn out to be critical

* Third, the one consistent trend has been the precipitous fall in Malcolm Turnbull’s standing across a wide range of measures. Whatever happens on election day (short of a surprise LNP landslide), I don’t expect Turnbull to be PM a year from now.

* To be sure, Julia Gillard’s attempt to hold on to her leadership by calling an election eight months in advance makes Turnbull look moderate. But that was an absurdity doomed to fail, as it did.

Look what they’ve done to my song, Ma

My discussion of intellectual property inevitably raised questions about my argument that property rights are not natural rights, but are socially constructed and, in the modern world, exist only as part of the legal structures created and enforced by states. The “moral rights” of artists over their creative works has been raised as a suggested counterexample. In fact, this example reinforces my original argument. Two cases arise, both of interest:

In the United States, the moral rights of artists were effectively unrecognised by law until accession to the Berne Convention 1989, and remain extremely limited. The result is that, once an artist has sold the rights to her work, she has no control over its subsequent use, unless she can make a case separate from moral rights, for example that use in an advertisement misrepresents the artist as endorsing the product. So, for example, it’s perfectly legal to use London Calling to advertise Jaguars, or to clip Fortunate Son to fit a jingoistic ad for jeans. Moral rights are widely recognised, and may generate social opprobrium for those who violate them (as with other misuses of property rights) but they have no legal standing.

In France and other European countries, artists have inalienable moral rights over their work, to prevent misuse of the work by the initial or later purchasers. This is not a property right, but a constraint on property rights. To the extent that moral rights are recognised after the fact, they constitute a taking from the purchaser of the property right. To the extent that they are recognised when artists sell rights to their work, they (like any restriction on alienation of property) represent a constraint on the property rights of the artist. Melanie Safka recognised this, in an ironic fashion, in her classic Look what they’ve done to my song, Mawhen she wrote

It’ll be all right ma, maybe it’ll be okay
Well, if the people are buying tears
I’ll be rich someday, ma

Coming back to the general issue, property rights and (perceived/socially accepted) natural rights have features that mean they tend to coincide in some ways and conflict in others. Most obviously, they are both associated with the general feeling of rightful possession, so that a system of property rights is more stable when it coincides with natural rights. On the other hand, natural rights are mostly perceived as inalienable and indivisible, while property in its ideal form is infinitely transferable and divisible. Moral rights for artists are a classical example of the clash between inalienability and unfettered property rights but the same clash arises at every point in the production process.