Identity crisis (repost from 2014)

When I posted the following piece two years ago, I didn’t suppose it would be enough to kill the absurd idea that “most Australians pay no net tax”. But, given its obvious kinship with Mitt Romney’s disastrous “47 per cent” catchphrase, I felt sure that hardheads on the political right would kill it off before it lined them up on the losing side of a class war.[1] Not for the first time, I was wrong. So, here’s a reprint.

In the latest issue of Gerard Henderson’s Sydney Institute Quarterly, Adam Creighton, economics correspondent at the Oz, “explains why most Australians pay no net tax”. That’s a striking conclusion, so I checked it out. Creighton has discovered that most Australians get about as much back in transfer payments and public services as they pay in taxation. The poor get a bit more, and the rich a bit less.

To save Creighton some work in future, can I suggest he consider the budget identity constraint “Expenditure = Income”. Since the government spends on services and transfer payments roughly the same amount as it raises in tax revenue[2], it’s obvious that, for the average Australian the same identity must hold, with income renamed as “tax paid” and expenditure as “transfer payments and public services”.

Next up: Why there is no net travel into the CBD

fn1. Romney wasn’t silly enough to push this line in public. He got caught using it at a donors meeting, when someone secretly filmed him.

fn2. Taking account of the seignorage from inflation, returns on assets, intertemporal transfers through debt etc, this rough equality becomes an identity. Please, no arguments about deficits, and especially about MMT. The point of this post is a really simple, and doesn’t need this kind of complication.

The Oz makes the case for higher taxes

A couple of days ago, I was one of fifty signatories to a letter opposing the proposed cut in company tax rate and rejecting the general idea that Australia needs lower taxes. We got excellent coverage from the ABC, Fairfax papers and so on. But by far the most extensive was from The Australian. I counted at least four stories all with a prominent run on the website

* A straight new story, though of course replete with phrases like “the left wing establishment”
* The IPA attacking the signatories as the “fatuous fifty”
* Shorten also attacking the company tax cut as a recipe for “mayhem”
* A front page piece saying a tax increase is a lazy way of solving our problems

Not so long ago, the Oz would have ignored a statement like this (or stuck it in a short story on the inside pages) with the plausible justification that it’s just a bunch of lefties saying what lefties usually say. The fact that they felt the need to reply over and over is revealing, in two ways.

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Researcher: a new term of art for #Newscorpfail ?

The Murdoch press has just about run out of scientists it can find to support its various anti-science jihads/crusades#. So, it seems to have come up with a new term of art. The word “researcher” is now the preferred Newscorp description of unqualified rightwingers doing bogus analyses that would never pass muster as peer-reviewed research. (Just to confuse things, the same term is used to describe genuine research.)

A couple of recent instances: Jennifer Marohasy*, a biology PhD who spent quite a few years heading the IPA Science Policy unit is cited as a “climate researcher” disputing the classification of Cyclone Marcia as a Category 5 (this is part of a general conspiracy-theoretic attack on the Bureau of Meteorology).

Steven Cooper, an acoustics engineer who conducted an anti-wind farm study with a sample size of six(!), is also described as a “scientific researcher”.

Are these isolated cases, or can readers point to more along the same line?

# The terms have the same meaning: pick whichever you prefer
* Her name is spelt Morohasy in some reports.

The Oz melts down in the contest of ideas

It’s been a while since the last time I was the target of an epic meltdown at the #Ozfail (or at least, the last one I noticed). I thought perhaps Chris Mitchell had developed a thicker skin. But, today’s Oz has a full-length editorial responding to a mere tweet about a piece of creationist silliness by one Eric Metaxas, reprinted from Murdoch stablemate, the Wall Street Journal.

We get the usual Oz editorial line about how they aren’t really climate deniers (they just give space to “a couple of contributors who dare to scrutinise the scientific consensus”), creationists (they just think science “can’t explain the universe”), or a rightwing propaganda outfit (they publish Labor lefties like Gary Johns and Graeme Richardson). It’s just that they “love a contest of ideas”.

Moreover, the collection of rightwing delusionists on the opinion pages don’t represent the views of the #Ozfail

Professor, if you ever want to know what the paper thinks or where it stands on any issue, there is only one place you’ll find out. Right here in these editorial columns.

That’s a relief. Having been slagged off in special-purpose opinion pieces, Cut-and-Paste snarks, and various passing comments, I had the feeling the Oz didn’t like me. But the real view, apparently, is that of the anonymous editorialist, who (faintly) praises me as “oft-erudite”.

I do have one small disappointment though. Given the headline “140 characters not the full story” and the protestations of commitment to the contest of ideas, I was expecting the editorial to prove me wrong by inviting me to provide a full-length response to Metaxas’ silliness. Sadly, no.

Three cheers for Stephen Parker

The last time I heard news of Stephen Parker, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra, he was standing up to the Oz and its editor Chris Mitchell who had threatened to sue journalist and UC academic Julie Posetti for accurately reporting remarks made by a former Oz journalist in a public conference. That episode is worth remembering any time anyone suggests that the Oz is a newspaper (in the traditional sense of the term), let alone an advocate for free speech. It is, as I’ve said many times, a dysfunctional blog that is, for some reason, printed on broadsheet paper.

In this instance, Parker was doing exactly what you would expect of a university leader: defending an academic doing her job from outside interference. Sadly, in Australia these days, that can’t be taken for granted. The rise of managerialism has thrown up a number of VCs (or now, in the US mode, Presidents) who would instinctively side with Chris Mitchell in such a dispute.

That kind of outright betrayal of university values is still not the norm. On the other hand, given the financial pressure under which all universities have been operating for years, it is unsurprising that most VCs have been keen to support proposals for “deregulation” of fees, even though, as is inevitable with this government, they are poorly thought out and certain to be inequitable in practice. The lead, as I mentioned, has been taken by Ian Young of ANU. Others have their doubts, I think, but have kept quiet.

I’m happy to say that Parker has been the first to break ranks on this issue, writing in The Age that

An earlier generation of vice-chancellors would have stood up for students. I say, reject the whole set of proposals, on their behalf, and then let’s talk.

I hope his bravery leads others to follow.

Fools rush in …

Most people misrepresented by the tabloid press have little recourse. Defamation actions are slow, risky and don’t in any case produce a proper retraction. The Press Council and similar bodies are self-defence clubs for the media. And letters to the editor are a waste of time, if they are printed at all.

But if you’re a major celebrity like George Clooney, your response is newsworthy. After the Mail Online published a false claim about his impending marriage, followed by a weaselly apology, Clooney called them out, making it clear that this website (and its associated print version [1]) have the same degree of credibility as the National Inquirer and similar rags.

Of course, anyone who was paying attention already knew that. The Daily Mail runs all kinds of nonsense, from baseless gossip about the famous, to anti-science on all kinds of topics, from antivaxerism to “Frankenfoods” nonsense about GM crops [2], to climate denialism.

My guess is that most readers are aware of this, much like followers of professional wrestling. They enjoy malicious/salacious gossip that panders to their prejudices. If some it is true, so much the better. If not, it’s still entertaining.

Only a fool would actually believe anything printed in this rag. But climate denialism makes fools out of its adherents, who have to believe a nonsense conspiracy theory to make any kind of sense of their position. So, it’s not so surprising that people who would correctly dismiss 90 per cent of what’s published in the Mail credulously reproduce what it prints on climate change.

The leading sucker in this respect is Andrew Bolt (unless he’s in on the joke, too in which case his readers are doubly suckered). But he’s followed by the usual suspects, notably including the Oz, Tim Blair and Miranda Devine.

fn1. Apparently the Mail tries to maintain a multiple branding model in which the print version is supposed to lie only occasionally while the online version lies all the time. I can’t see this working for long.

fn2. As previously discussed, there are plenty of serious issues around GM food. But the kind of nonsense implied by terms like “Frankenfoods” has been thoroughly debunked by now.