Don’t do useful research

That’s the message being given to Australian social science and humanities researchers from the systems of journal rankings adopted in many disciplines.

This point was made to the Senate recently by historians from opposite ends of the political spectrum, Greg Melleuish and Stuart McIntrye, who are more interested in researching and arguing about Australian history than in following Northern hemisphere fads

Here’s a submission I wrote in relation to Economic Analysis and Policy, the journal published by the Queensland branch of the Economic Society of Australia

Under the reward systems prevailing in most Australian universities, publications in a journal ranked B or lower has a negative rating. Despite (or perhaps because of) my success in publishing in Top 5 and other A* journals, I have been actively discouraged from publishing in B journals

As numerous senior academics have pointed out to the Senate recently, a ranking system which punishes work on Australian policy issues reduces the value of the university sector to Australia, and increases pressure for reductions in research funding or redirection to more relevant institutions.

I therefore urged ABDC to upgrade Economic Analysis and Policy to A ranking.

No true war is bad?

On Facebook, my frined Timothy Scriven pointed to an opinion piece by classics professor Ian Morris headlined In the long run, wars make us safer and richer It’s pushing a book with the clickbaity title War! What is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.”. Timothy correctly guessed that I wouldn’t like it.

Based on the headline, I was expecting a claim along the lines “wars stimulate technological progress” which I refuted (to my own satisfaction at any rate) in Economics in Two Lessons”. But the argument is much stranger than this. The claim is that war, despite its brutality created big states, like the Roman empire, which then delivered peace and prosperity.

For the classical world at 100 CE or so, the era on which Morris is an expert, that argument seemed pretty convincing. As the famous Life of Brian sketch suggests, Roman rule delivered a lot of benefits to its conquered provinces.

The next 1900 years or so present a bit of a problem, though. There have been countless wars in that time, and no trend towards bigger states. On the contrary two or three dozen states (depending on how you count them) now occupy the territory of the former Roman Empire.

You could cut the number down a bit by treating the European Union as a new empire, but then you have an even bigger problem. The EU was not formed through war, but through a determination to avoid it. Whatever you think about the EU in other respects, this goal has been achieved.

Morris avoids the problem by a “no true Scotsman” argument. He admits in passing that the 1000 years of war following the high point of Rome had the effect of breaking down larger, safer societies into smaller, more dangerous ones, but returns with relief to the era of true wars, in which big states always win. That story works, roughly, until 1914, when the empires he admires destroyed themselves, killing millions in the process.

After that, the argument descends into Pinker-style nonsense. While repeating the usual stats about the decline in violent deaths, Morris mentions in passing that a nuclear war could cause billions of deaths. He doesn’t consider the obvious anthropic fallacy problem – if such a war had happened, there would not be any op-eds in the Washington Post discussing the implications for life expectancy.

I haven’t read the book, and don’t intend to. If someone can’t present a 700 word summary of their argument without looking silly, they shouldn’t write opinion pieces. But, for what its worth, FB friends who have read it agree that it’s not very good.

Ban gambling advertising

Lately whenever I watch advertising-funded TV (including SBS), something like a third of the ads are for gambling, and all of these promote gambling in an irresponsible fashion.

In particular, the ads are now primarily for racing and sports betting rather than, as in the past, for lotteries. Decades ago, I did a lot of research into gambling and reached the conclusion that lottery gambling is mostly harmless fun, but that all the other forms (pokies, casinos and sports betting) are pernicious.

The majority of the revenue for these forms of betting comes from a small proportio of heavy gamblers (about 5 per cent of all gamblers, IIRC). These gamblers have lots of problems caused by gambling, ranging from marriage breakdowns to bankruptcy. Not all heavy gamblers appear as “problem gamblers”, but the observation I recall on this topic is “a problem gambler is a heavy gambler who’s run out of luck”.

It seems impossible to reverse the expansion of access to gambling that has taken . But we could, at least prohibit or strictly limit advertising, as has been done with tobacco and alcohol.

Talking about sustainable economy tonight: Kenmore

Live in the Kenmore area? Think we could use a more sustainable economy and want to take action locally?   Join us this Thursday Oct 10th, 6:30 for 7pm, at the Kenmore Library when Transition Town Kenmore hosts UQ’s John Quiggin. He’ll give us his big picture take on where things are heading with a  talk on “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren: Why Keynes was wrong in 1930, but might be right today.” Free and open to all.