Bait and switch

There was quite a bit of buzz last week about a survey undertaken for the (propertarian) Centre for Independent Studies, the results of which were summarized (reasonably accurately) as Millennials and socialism: Australian youth are lurching to the left. The key finding

Nearly two-thirds of the group view socialism in a favorable light, with similar number believing that capitalism has failed and more government intervention is warranted. Furthermore, Millennials contend that the government has cut its spending on social services such as education and health – something our polling shows they strongly believe should be reversed.

The authors of the report, Tom Switzer and Charles Jacobs don’t present any arguments against government intervention in the economy or increased spending on health and education. Rather their case is “Stalin was a socialist, Stalin was bad, therefore socialism is bad”.

That’s not surprising coming from the CIS, but I was disappointed to see the normally sensible Bernard Keane pull the same trick in a Crikey piece The 10 truths the left can never admit. Like Switzer and Jacobs, Keane states that “Socialism has been tried and, no, it didn’t work”, defending this claim with reference to the Soviet Union and (another favorite punching bag in exercises of this kind) Venezuela*.

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We are all socialists now

Socialism is much more than public ownership of productive enterprises. Still, if there is one policy that clearly distinguishes socialists from their (or rather our) opponents, it is support for public enterprise as a way of organizing large-scale production, and, in particular, as the preferred model for industries characterized by natural monopoly or other major market failures. The opposite view, dominant since the 1970s, is the market liberal framework that favors comprehensive private ownership, with “light-handed” regulation as the response to market “imperfections”.

Now that I’ve explicitly adopted the term “socialist”, I’ve been struck by the fact that I seem to be pushing against an open door. Consistent anti-socialists are pretty hard to find these days. Most of the Australian right favors the compulsory acquisition of the Liddell power station, on the grounds that they don’t like the business decisions of its owner. On that basis, it’s hard to see why we shouldn’t nationalise the entire financial sector.

As regards public infrastructure, the Institute of Public Affairs, once our leading free-market thinktank, has become an advocate for publicly-funded dam projects in Northern Australia, the most notorious of all pork-barrel projects. Malcolm Turnbull is pushing Snowy Hydro 2.0.

These examples illustrate a problem. Having started by rejecting public ownership on principle, market conservatives have no theory to work on when they lose those principles. So, they naturally support the worst kinds of boondoggles, based on political expediency.

As a socialist, I support a mixed economy in which both public and private ownership play important roles. The evidence of the past century shows, in my view, that most large-scale infrastructure should be publicly owned, and operate on a statutory authority model, accountable to the public through governments, but with politicians kept at arms length from day-to-day decisions. On the other hand, small business should be left to private ownership. That leaves a large share of the economy to balance between large for-profit corporations and public enterprise. The design of a mixed economy involves getting that balance right.

The Generation Game is over (at least for me)

For more than a generation, I have been criticising the Generation Game, that is, the insistence on dividing society into groups based on birth year and imputing different characteristics to each group. Today, I’m following the classic advice for those involved in an endless war: declare victory and get out. The basis for my claim is that I’ve managed to publish my latest critique in the New York Times, under the headline ‘Millennial’ Means Nothing (paywalled*). I expect this will reach more people than anything I could do with the blog, so I will leave this topic and move on.

* It’s fairly easy to get around, I believe.

Free speech, unfair dismissal and unions (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

(Reposted from Crooked Timber, hence written for a mainly US audience, but referring to the Australian debate.)

I’m seeing a lot of comments from the political right and centre-right worrying about the possibility that workers may be fired for expressing conservative views. For example, here’s David Brooks (paywalled, I think) linking to Andrew Sullivan.

It strikes me that this would be a really good time for people like Brooks and Sullivan to campaign for an end to employment at will, and the introduction of the kind of unfair dismissal laws that protect workers in most democratic countries, but not, for the most part, in the US. Among other things, these laws prohibit firing employees on the basis of their political opinions. Better still, though, would be a resurgence of unionism. Union contracts generally require dismissal for cause, and unionised workers have some actual backup when it comes to a dispute with employers.

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Sense and senselessness in transport policy

I’ve been doing various pieces of work on transport. Here’s a quick update:

* I’ll be speaking at a one-day seminar organised by the Institute for Sensible Transport in Sydney on 8 August. It should be a good event for those with a professional interest in road pricing and related topics.

* For those with a general interest, I have a section over the fold from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. Comments and criticism much appreciated.

* While I was a Member of the Climate Change Authority, I put a lot of work into a report the Authority did on vehicle fuel efficiency standards. With the rejection of just about every other policy measure to reduce CO2 emissions in Australia, this was the government’s last chance to do something useful. Naturally, Turnbull and Frydenberg went to water the moment the denialists who dominate the LNP raised an objection. Perhaps, now that the laws of mathematics have been subordinated to Australian law, Turnbull can solve our problems by simply decreeing a change of sign, so that an increase in emissions becomes a decrease.

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