Are young Australians (mostly) Christians ?

Regular readers will know that I’m not a great fan of analysis based on generations (Boomers, X, Millennials and so on). Most of what passes for insight on this topic consists of the repetition of unchanged cliches about the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old, the laziness and irresponsibility of the young, and so on, applied to whichever cohort happens to be old or young at the time.

But there are some genuine differences between cohorts, typically determine by the time they have entered adulthood. One of these is religion.
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Dutton, cringeworthy and (literally) un-Australian

Peter Dutton’s attempts to promote an “uprising” in support of Christmas, and against “political correctness gone mad” are un-Australian in all sorts of ways, but most obviously in the stunning cultural cringe they reflect. He’s borrowed the catchphrase of a British tabloid in an attempt to import a US culture war campaign that has been going on so long it’s a Christmas tradition in itself (I observed that it was old stuff, back in 2004). This guy is the best the Trumpist faction of the LNP/ON can come up with?

What about the iceberg ?

The Trade Unions Royal Commission report, released in the dead news time between Christmas and New Year has had an extraordinarily soft reception from the media. After spending tens of millions of dollars of public money (not to mention the amount witnesses would have had to spend on legal representation) Dyson Heydon has come up with about a dozen allegations of criminal corruption. By far the largest is one involving his own former star witness, Kathy Jackson. Most of the others are for small amounts, some as minor as using the union credit card to get a tattoo.

Of course, it’s deplorable that the funds of union members should be misused for private purposes, and if the allegations turn out to be true, those involved should face the appropriate penalties. But compare these allegations to the routine behavior of members of Parliament. Under the “Minchin rule”, they can charge almost anything they like, with no penalty greater than being required to repay expenditures found to be unjustified. Even while Heydon’s inquiry was running, we saw revelations of misuse of public funds on both sides of politics, notably including senior figures in the government that launched this inquiry. And the situation in the business sector is no different.

Heydon’s other allegations are directed against union officials for the way they do their job. In this respect, the unions can’t win: the AWU gets hit for sweetheart deals, and the CFMEU for going too far in the opposite direction, with allegations of intimidation and blackmail. It’s important to remember these are only allegations. On past experience, most will fall over in court, if they make it that far.

Heydon claims that his findings represent “the tip of the iceberg”, but surely, after all this expenditure and long running hearings, we are entitled to expect the whole iceberg. The Auditor-General should be called upon to investigate this appalling waste of public money.

Turnbull and the Renewable Energy Target

At the minute of writing (1404 Sunday), it looks as if Malcolm Turnbull will replace Tony Abbott as PM tomorrow. Among his many challenges will be climate change policy, the issue that brought him undone last time around. The word appears to be that he will adhere to the platform from the 2013 election, which rules out a carbon price (tax or ETS) but gives him room to move in various directions.The assumption is that this compromise will buy both Turnbull and the climate deniers in the LNP enough time to work out some kind of solution.

What no one seems to have mentioned is that the Abbott government, in defiance of the 2013 platform, has been doing its best to make drastic cuts in the Renewable Energy Target. To the extent that the processes of government are going on during the current mess, negotations with Labor and the minor parties are still under way. Turnbull will have to decide, more or less immediately, whether to keep pushing for deep cuts.

There’s a further problem. Turnbull can’t simply drop the issue and leave things as they are. Abbott’s obvious intention to destroy the scheme has had a chilling effect on investment, particularly in the wind sector. Under the current rules, fossil fuel generators need to offset their generation with certificates from renewable generators. But it now seems unlikely that there will be enough certificates by 2020, which would result in the triggering of penalty clauses. So, the scheme needs some kind of change.

The Climate Change Authority, of which I’m a member put out a report just before Christmas last year, suggesting that the target date of 2020 be shifted out, and that the duration of the scheme be extended past 2030. That’s one possible solution, though not the only one.

The problem for Turnbull is that any realistic solution will instantly enrage the climate deniers, while continuing on the current path will put him in the position of owning Abbott’s broken promises.

Monochrome swans

I have a request[^1] for help from scientifically literate readers. A lot of my research work is focused on the problem of unforeseen contingencies, popularly, if ethnocentrically, described as “black swans”. In particular, I’m interested in the question of how you can prepare for such contingencies given that, by definition, you can’t foresee exactly what they will be. One example, with which I’m very pleased, is that of the precautionary principle. It seems reasonable to say that we can distinguish well-understood choices involving hazards from those that are poorly understood, and avoid the latter, precisely because the loss from hazard cannot be bounded in advance.

Anyway, I was thinking about this in relation to the actual case of black swans (or, from my own perspective, white swans). The question is: what principles would help you to avoid making, and acting on, the assumption “all swans are white (or, in my own case, black)”. It seems to me that the crucial fact here is that the shift from black to white, or vice versa, is, in evolutionary terms, a small one. So, if you used something like cladistics, you would avoid choosing feather color as a defining feature of swans, and birds in general. As I understand it, a phylogenetic approach starts with features that are very strongly conserved (body plans) and proceeds from there. But, rather than assume that my own understanding is correct, it seemed simpler to ask.

[^1]: There’s a blog-specific word for this, but I refuse to use it

The tooth fairy and the traditionality of modernity

Salon magazine reports another instance of CP Snow’s observation that all ancient traditions date from the second half of the 19th century. This time, it’s the Tooth Fairy. As you would expect, the Tooth Fairy turns out to be a codification and modification of a bunch of older local practices, many involving a mouse or rat.

This seemed like a good time to rerun one of my posts that stirred up plenty of trouble at the time, making the point that we are “now living in a society that’s far more tradition-bound than that of the 19th Century, and in some respects more so than at any time since at least the Middle Ages”.

I’ll just add that CP Snow was writing in the 1950s, pretty much equidistant between the late 19th century and the present day, strengthening my observation that the “invention of tradition” is now something of a traditional concept (though the phrase itself, due to Hobsbawm and Ranger, is a mere 30 years old).
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Hockey or Turnbull

The election that brought Abbott and the LNP to power is so three months ago, and the Christmas plotting season is nearly upon us, so it’s time for some good old-fashioned leadership speculation, with the Libs as the target this time around. According to Laura Tingle, most of the interest in the business community is in Turnbull. I think that would be a bridge too far for the Liberals, having dumped him once. So, my money would be on Hockey as the replacement if Abbott keeps messing things up as he has done almost continuously since taking office. While the accuracy of my political judgements is pretty variable, this one from a year ago is looking fairly good.

Hockey has indeed backed off the surplus, showing more good sense than Abbott. I’m nearly alone in this view, but I think he is under-rated. Not a towering intellect, but still among the stronger performers on the LNP front bench.

Saving the salary packaging industry

The Abbott government is faced with its first big economic policy decision, a bit sooner than I expected. Going into the election Abbott promised to reverse the Rudd government’s tightening of FBT rules for motor vehicles, at a cost of $1.2 billion over the forward estimates period of 4 years. This was to be funded in part by scrapping $500 million of assistance to the domestic car industry.

Since the great majority of cars in Australia are imported, and since much of the benefit of FBT rorts is dissipated through the inefficiency of the required structuring of salary packages, the reversal of the FBT decision yields only a minimal benefit to the domestic industry. It’s unsurprising therefore, that Holden has announced that, unless the government restores Labor’s assistance policy by Christmas, the company will close down. The general assumption is that the resulting contraction of the supply chain would force Toyota out of domestic production as well, so that the entire industry would shut down.

All of this would be comprehensible if the government was pursuing a consistent free-market line. But no one has tried to pretend that the FBT treatment of cars is anything other than a rort. LNP advertising during the election was all about the damage removing the rort would do to jobs in the salary packaging industry and to employers who depended on the rort to reduce their wage bills. Those employers notably include charities and NGOs which could be aided more efficiently with grants – of course, the LNP is going to cut those grants.

Assuming the government is unwilling to see the car industry close down within its first year of office, the sensible thing would be a double backflip, restoring Labor’s policy. That seems highly unlikely. I’ll also be surprised if the government holds its nerve and lets Holden close. So, I suspect we are going to see a half-baked partial solution which will increase the structural budget deficit relative to any consistent policy, and still only defer the end by a few years.

But, even if we don’t make cars any more, we will, at least, have a salary packaging industry that is the envy of the world.

Hockey sticks his neck out

I was at a Media Club lunch in Brisbane today where Joe Hockey was the speaker. Amid a bunch of fairly predictable talking points, he offered the view that, if we want to address problems of housing affordability, measures that increase demand, like the First Home Buyers Grant, are exactly the wrong way to go. He’s right of course, and just about every economist who has every looked at the issue has made the same point. Still, given the sacred-cow status of home ownership (both in itself and as a speculative investment) it’s the kind of statement that Sir Humphrey would call “courageous”.

Strikingly, not one of the assembled journalists took him up on it. Instead they bowled him up a series of questions on the kerfuffle du jour regarding the Christmas Island funerals all of which (to mix my cricketing metaphors) he padded away, let through to the keeper or dispatched to the boundary with ease. If I had been looking for a story instead of going through the motions, I would have asked something like “How much could the government save by abolishing FHBG, and where would the money be better spent”.

Given that Hockey has tackled one sacred cow, let me express the hope that some truly courageous politician will make the point that the biggest source of house price inflation is the set of subsidies to owner-occupied housing including exemption from land tax and capital gains tax and exclusion from most means tests. Michael Egan tried to tackle this in NSW, only for houses worth more than $1m IIRC, and got nowhere.

Declining Biblical knowledge

I was willing to believe a headline stating that Biblical knowledge is in decline, but after looking at the story, I think the decline must be located somewhere else. It starts off by observing that

Forty per cent did not know that the tradition of exchanging Christmas presents originated from the story of the Wise Men bringing gifts for the infant Jesus

I’ll confess to being among the 40 per cent before I read the story, and remaining among them afterwards. Let’s leave aside the observations that the custom of midwinter giftgiving almost certainly predates Christianity, and has nothing to do with Christianity in the religious sense of the term. Even in the fictional universe of what might be called folk Christianity I didn’t (and don’t) believe that this claim is canonical. There seem to be all sorts of stories to account for Chrissy presents – the one I would have offered unprompted relates to Saint Nicholas, a prototypical Father Christmas figure.

Then there’s the observation that only one in 20 can name all ten commandments. Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect if you popped this question up to a bench of bishops with no notice, and required the commandments to be given promptly and in order, you’d get a fair few failures, though maybe not as amusing as this one