Quick links

I’ve been too busy to post on a lot of things so I thought I’d just post some quick links with minimal comment. Some very important, and some not.

* One measure of the death toll in the wars launched by Saddam and then by Bush is the number of Iraqi widows, estimated at between one and two million. Widows are largely excluded from paid work and many are in a desperate position.

* A while ago I pointed out that the paperless office is finally on the way to reality. Today’s NY Times takes the story a bit further.

* What have the unions ever done for us

* Finally, some real progress in the struggle against malaria.

GM Canola

The recent announcement that the production of genetically modifed canola will be permitted suggests that the long controversy over the GM issue is drawing to a close, with a reasonable chance of an outcome that should be satisfactory to most.

GM foods can be produced and sold in Australia, but, in general, must be labelled as such. Producers and consumers can decide to avoid GM if they want to, but those who are willing to embrace GM will not be prevented from doing so. There’s a problem here in relation to canola, since it’s mostly processed into oil for use in margarine and other products and this isn’t covered by the current labelling requirements – this should be fixed.

The policy decision reflects a pretty clear scientific consensus that the products in question are safe to consume, and also a long period of experimental work with genetic modification. With a few exceptions (notably those driven by Monsanto in the US), this work has been carried out with admirable caution, beginning with the Asilomar conference in 1975, which may be seen as the first application of the precautionary principle. Given the experience of the past thirty years, and the scientific understanding that has developed over that time, it seems pretty clear that any risks associated with GM are modest and manageable, not the potential catastrophes that worried the participants at Asilomar.

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What should Rudd do first

Ratify Kyoto – it’s a stroke of a pen, needs no legislation, is a simple Yes-No decision and will have a big impact.[1]

Straight after that, though, something much harder. Rudd needs to reverse the decline in ethical standards that we’ve seen under Howard, and which began much earlier, going back at least to the 1970s. Arguably, Howard’s ultimate fate was sealed within a few days of taking office with the abandonment of what he later called ‘non-core promises’. That set the pattern for the many lies and improprieties that followed.

Unless the government acts now, before it has anything it wants to hide, the temptations of office will be too much. Some of the elements needed:

* An end to political advertising on the taxpayer’s dollar. After Howard’s disastrously counterproductive blitz on WorkChoices, this ought to be a forced move. But no doubt there are already plenty of self-rated smart operators in the backrooms thinking about how to use the resources of government in the interests of party

* A ministerial code of conduct. John Howard’s 1996 code would be a good starting point. His abandonment of this code to save Warwick Parer was a defining moment in his government’s decline and ultimate downfall. By contrast, Peter Beattie’s willingness to lose his own deputy premier and numerous other ministers has led to political success despite numerous scandals.

* A revival of the Westminster system. It’s too late to go back to the old idea of an apolitical public service, but a clear statement of the roles of ministers, departmental heads and public servants is needed. In my view, we should accept that the departmental head is the personal appointee of the minister, and they should share responsibility for the acts of the department. In particular, any information known to the department head should be presumed to be known to be minister. All public servants below that level should be permanent and apolitical

* Keeping promises. Rudd made some pretty bad promises to get in, such as matching tax cuts and keeping the private health insurance rebate. The standard approach of incoming governments in Australia has been to fabricate a crisis and dump the promises. While this has an obvious appeal, its long-run effect is corrosive, and is reflected in Howard’s downfall.

fn1. As pointed out in comments, it’s not as easy as that. But the fact that some exceptional measures need to be taken to get an immediate start on ratification will only increase the impact of the decision.

UpdateA more comprehensive guide from Miriam Lyons at the Centre for Policy Development

Half a metaphor

I’m writing a piece (in the form of a debate with Jason Potts) on the Internet and non-market innovation (open source, blogs, wikis and Web 2.0 more generally) and the editors asked us to say something about digital literacy. I’ve never paid much attention to this metaphor, maybe because of excessive exposure to its predecessor, computer literacy.

It strikes me though, that discussion of digital literacy focuses almost entirely on reading (how to navigate the Web, find reliable information and so on). The things I’m talking about are forms of writing.

Thinking about the rise of text literacy, the distinction tends to be blurred a bit, because most (not all) people who learn to read also learn to write. Still, there’s plenty of discussion of the importance of writing to groups (women, working people) traditionally excluded from written culture.

So, I’m surprised at the neglect of this point in relation to digital literacy, especially because the Internet has done so much to break down the asymmetry between a small group of writers and a large group of readers that characterises most communications media. Having said this, I’m sure this point has been made many times before, and I invite readers to write in with good references.

As an aside, “computer literacy” programs in the late 70s and early 80s had, if anything, the opposite problem. Lots of emphasis on how to code in BASIC and very little appreciation of the potential for computers as tools for general use.

The end of shmibertarianism (updated)

As Andrew Sullivan notes, Glenn Reynolds no longer even claims to be a libertarian[1], and his repudiation of this former position is shared by a number of leading shmibertarians, who are now happy enough to identify as orthodox Republicans. I haven’t yet seen anything similar from some others, such as the Volokhs, but the idea that a relaxed attitude to sex and drugs, and support for economic policies that favour your own social class, can trump the authoritarian implications of militarism, from Gitmo to collusion in government lies, is now pretty much dead. Insofar as an idea can be tested by experiment, prowar libertarianism has been tried and failed (a bit more on this from Jim Henley)

The implications go further I think. Given that the Republicans are now definitively the war party (not that the Democrats have yet become the peace party, but that’s another story), it’s hard to see how libertarian Republicans can survive, any more than Dixiecrats survived Nixon’s Southern strategy. The recent decision by RedState to ban Ron Paul supporters is a pretty clear indication of how real Republicans think about this. This has big implications for a thinktank like Cato, which has opposed the war (but very sotto voce – a visitor to their website would be hard pressed to tell that there even was a war) while remaining within the Republican tent.

Of course, it goes the other way. It’s hard to witness the catastrophic government failure that has characterized every aspect of this war without becoming more sympathetic to certain kinds of libertarian (and also classically conservative) arguments, particularly those focusing on the fallibility of planning.

fn1. Apparently my ignorance of the further reaches of US party politics may have led me to overstate Reynolds’ candor. What’s being announced is, apparently, a break with the Libertarian Party, leaving him free to label himself a (small-l) libertarian. Thanks to Kevin Drum for pointing this out. Jim Henley, linked above, also commented on this distinction, concluding “I doubt it matters. In a corrupt political discourse, no label is much use.” and that’s about where I stand.

Kelly on climate

While I’m on the Oz, this exceptionally confused piece from Paul Kelly gets just one thing right. Howard’s refusal to ratify Kyoto, despite accepting all the key terms, is evidence of paralysis. I can’t be bothered attempting a point-by-point rebuttal, so I’ll just state the facts about which Kelly seems to be confused
* The Kyoto Protocol constitutes the agreements to act under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change for the period up to 2012
* The basis of the agreement was that developed countries would cut emissions first, and that less developed countries would do so in later rounds (the post-2012 round is about to be negotiated)
* Suggestions to “amend the Kyoto Protocol” make no sense, since it’s only got four years to run anyway, and its successor is about to be negotiated
* The reason Howard is paralysed is not because he is dogmatically inflexible on symbolic issues (look at his backflip on reconciliation) but because ratifying Kyoto would put him into direct conflict with George Bush, and he is incapable of taking such a step

Tear down this paywall

The NYTimes experiment with putting premium content behind a paywall lasted a bit longer than I expected, but eventually the cost, in terms of separation from the Internet at large, has outweighed the benefits. The NYT columnists and archives will now be available to all readers. (Hat tip, Andrew Leigh).

As Jay Rosen says, this is good news for the conversation that is the blogosphere. Paywalls are an obstacle that we can’t get around individually, since, even if I have free access to a site, there is no point in linking it for readers who have to pay.

But there’s always a downside. The Times decision has been motivated not only by the increasing costs of a closed system but by the increasing returns to advertising, of which the lion’s share is driven through Google (and to a lesser extent, other search engines), which rely on links to place their ads.

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In my experience, growing returns to advertising are being manifested in more, and more obtrusive, ads. This may signal a renewed arms race with ad blockers. I’ve just installed Adblock Plus on Firefox, and am waiting to see if that gets me blocked from ad-dependent sites.

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