Unscrambling the Toll Road Egg

That’s the title of a presentation I’ll be giving to a seminar run by the Institute for Sensible Transport in Sydney. Registrations are open until tomorrow (Tuesday 1 August) for those with a professional interest. For my readers, in general, here’s a link to the presentation. Please advise if the link works, or doesn’t, as it’s a newish feature in Dropbox I haven’t used much

Tertiary education should be universal, non-profit and free

Last week, I spoke at the Australian Conference of Economists in a panel on Higher Education Policy. My talk was covered by John Ross of The Australian Higher Education Section which, unlike much of the Oz, seems still to be more interested in accurate reporting than political pointscoring. I talked to Steve Austin of ABC Radio Brisbane http://www.abc.net.au/radio/brisbane/programs/mornings/mornings/8733698

To sum up my main points

* As a society we should set a goal of providing appropriate tertiary education (that is, post-school through university or TAFE) for all young people. Instead, policy is still heavily influenced by nostalgia for the days when working class kids (actually, just males) could leave school at Year 10 and be apprenticed to a trade, middle class kids could leave school at Year 12 and get a nice safe job in a bank, and universities were the preserve of an elite, either smart enough to jump the hoops to get in or with parents rich enough to pay

* The provision of a universal publicly funded service like this should not be entrusted to for-profit firms, as has been shown by the VET FEE-HELP disaster

* We should abandon the market liberal rhetoric of choice, competition and incentives and instead focus on professionalism and a service ethos.

* Once we get close enough to the goal of universal tertiary education, we might as well finance it through the tax system as we do with schools, and develop some special policies for those who, for one reason or another, miss out. I’ll post more on this sometime.

Most Australians ineligible for Parliament?

A few weeks ago, I commented adversely on challenges by the ALP to the eligibility of government minister David Gillespie to sit in Parliament, on the basis that he owned a block of shops one of which was leased to an Australia Post branch. Since then, we’ve seen the resignations from Parliament of Greens Senators Ludlum and Waters, and from Cabinet of Senator Canavan. Eligiblity of others remains in question. This has led me to change my view. Instead of trying to make the best of this disastrous system, we should do away with it by constitutional amendment. The only way to make this happen is to enforce the existing provisions in their full absurdity.

According to the ABC, 49 per cent of Australians were born overseas or had a parent born overseas. Add to that everyone employed in the public sector “an office of profit under the Crown”, or who does business with the Commonwealth, and it’s conceivable that a majority of Australians are ineligible to run for election to Parliament. And, while Antony Green thinks it unlikely that pensioners are ineligible, the report he quotes says “However, the meaning of the phrase is not absolutely clear and there are divergent views about its effect.” Speaking personally, although I’ve never seriously considered running for election, I’d also never considered the possibility that, as an academic and ARC Fellow, I’d be ineligible. But it appears that I may be.

Of course, there are steps that can be taken to fix this problem for any individal, but we need a systemic solution.

Obviously, the authors of our Constitution never intended any of this. At the time, there was no separate Australian citizenship, so any British subjec was eligible, which would have solved the problems faced by Ludlum and Waters. And the public sector was much smaller, so the other constraints weren’t nearly as problematic. Age pensions hadn’t been introduced, so the provision against pensioners was meant to exclude personal pensions, granted by the monarch direclty

On the other hand, while the framers guarded against the sources of corruption evident to them, they never anticipated the problems we have now. It’s OK for political parties to be in hock to foreign donors, for someone who has renounced his Australian citizenship to control most of our media, and for careerist politicians to start out as hack staffers, give out favors in office, and cash them out afterwards. But if you don’t do the paperwork to cancel potential citizenship in a country you’ve never seen, you’re out on your ear.

At this point, the situation is so bad that “worse is better”. The best outcome would be for another dozen or two members of Parliament, from all parties, to be thrown out. Then we might get the unanimous support we would need to fix the absurdities of Section 44. Of course, that wouldn’t do anything about the real problems, but at least we would be free of this anti-democratic nonsense.

A trolley problem

I’ve generally been dubious about trolley problems and similar thought experiments in ethics. However, it’s just occurred to me that an idea I’ve tried to express in the economistic terms of opportunity cost, without convincing anybody, might be more persuasive as a trolley problem. So, let’s start with the standard problem where the train is about to kill ten people, but can be diverted onto a side track where it will kill only one.

In my version, however, there is a second train, loaded with vital medical supplies, which is about to crash. The loss of the supplies will lead to hundreds of deaths. You can prevent the crash, and save the supplies, by diverting the train to an alternative route (not killing anybody), but you don’t have time to deal with both trains. Do you divert the first train, the second train, or neither?

Hopefully, most respondents will choose the second train.

Now suppose that the first train has been hijacked by an evil gangster and his henchmen, who will be killed if you divert it, but will otherwise get away with the crime. As well as the gangsters, the single innocent person will die, but the ten people the gangster was going to kill will live.

The impending crash of the second train isn’t caused by anybody in particular. The region it serves is poor and no one paid for track maintenance. If the train doesn’t get through, hundreds of sick people will die, as sick poor people always have, and nobody much will notice.

Does that change your decision?

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