Catallaxy Files

polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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  • Jason Soon
  • Heath Gibson
  • Jack Strocchi
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  • Sarah Strasser
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    Friday, June 14, 2002
    More on the Asian public intellectuals drought
    OK, so I thought some of the political presumptions underlying this article by Professor Frank Wu were rather silly and I dismissed them below. Nonetheless it raises some questions and thoughts worthy of deeper discussion so I'm returning to it.

    It asks 'why are there so few Asian American public intellectuals? (you could ask the equivalent questions in Australia - why are there so few Asian-Australian public intellectuals?). The article defines a public intellectual as follows:

    Public intellectuals lead an open life of the mind, commanding a broad audience with a deep understanding of their specialized fields of inquiry. They serve as translators of sorts: writing accessible prose without technical jargon but with a grasp of the latest peer-reviewed literature.

    This is a pretty good definition and it captures the essence of being a public intellectual. Alan Jones isn't a public intellectual even though his opinions sway the minds of many - he doesn't really have deep expertise in any particular area. But neither is the typical academic a public intellectual even though there are lots of wannabe public intellectuals out there who are academics who occasionally pop up as talking heads on ABC TV. What makes a public intellectual is a quite unique combination of traits - 'deep' knowledge and expertise, plus a willingness to engage in public debate about issues related to that area of expertise and sometimes completely unrelated areas plus being listened to and understood by substantial numbers of people who take you seriously. It's quite a juggling act. Not everyone can do it and one could argue less and less academics can do it nowadays.

    So what does this have to with Asian-Americans (or Asian-Australians as the case may be)?

    While we can probably all cite at least one or two respected Asian-American scholars, they are hardly household names. No Asian-American professors have intellectual influence that extends far beyond their campuses. No Asian-American television commentator regularly analyses the crises of the day. No Asian-American columnist's nationally syndicated views reach the heartland. No Asian-American activist of any prominence can be relied on to respond to anti-Asian-American bias -- or can count on being offered a forum for doing so.

    Most of these observations are plausible and probably correct but notice the unquestioned ideological overtones - the role of Asian American intellectuals should they exist is to 'respond to anti-Asian American bias'? Why can't an Asian-American version of Richard Dawkins just be perfectly happy popularising evolutionary theory or an Asian American Douglas Hofstadter be perfectly happy explaining the philosophical implications of artificial intelligence to the masses?

    Well, he argues:

    Public intellectuals have always been marked by notions of racial or ethnic identity, whether they sought to impose restrictions on others or escape from the limits set on them ...

    Consequently, Jewish writers -- from Israel Zangwill and Horace Kallen, in the early part of the 20th century, through Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Lionel Trilling, and others in that storied group that converged on New York City following World War II -- were compelled to struggle with anti-Semitism, cultural assimilation, or a combination of those forces. Yet they attracted a wide readership among the educated. The American canon needed the fiction of Jewish novelists and the interpretations of Jewish critics for a complete picture of the urban landscape; American newspapers depended on Walter Lippmann to explain political trends.

    Well, yes but one could argue there were particular unique historical conditions (pogroms throughout history, the Holocaust) that placed Jewish intellectuals of the era he referred to in a position where as public intellectuals one of their duties was to 'keep a vigilant eye out for persecution of their co-religionists as it were. How many Jewish intellectuals today are solely famous because their ideas are permeated by notions of ethnic or racial identity, now that Jews are becoming more secure in some Western societies? (remember, Joe Lieberman could have been the US Vice President)

    Additionally, the reason these writers attracted a wide readership in writing about their experiences in reacting to cultural assimilation and other such dilemmas was because they were writing in a period when notion of American citizenship, a citizenship based on membership in a community of ideas rather than a community based on blood was up in the air because of the waves of migration at that time. Now, I'm not saying that Asian public intellectuals shouldn't be writing about race or culture, etc - only that I think Professor Wu is taking things too far in suggesting that a public intellectual who happens to belong to an ethnic minority should have his role partly defined by being a sort of 'race man' or 'race woman' as it were. At times he comes close to saying this. For instance, as I point out below he dismisses Francis Fukyama and Dinesh D' Souza as candidates for Asian American intellectuals because:

    neither dissents from prevailing norms and, thus, fulfills the critical function of the public intellectual. To the contrary, Fukuyama celebrates the triumph of Western liberal democracy, and D'Souza is known for his attacks on academic culture and black culture.

    Well, I suppose it depends on which 'norm' you're talking about. It's not exactly fashionable in the academic community to be a conservative which D'Souza is. Why does being 'critical' of academic leftism disqualify you from being a critical thinker overall? Strange that he says all this but then also says:

    It would be wrong to impose any ideological test on who constitutes a public intellectual, for members of the species populate the liberal-conservative spectrum and defy the idea of such classification

    Yet Prof. Wu seems to accept the conservative Thomas Sowell as a black intellectual (which I suppose is to Prof Hu's credit) - is he being inadvertently politically correct and harsher on Asian-Americans because of his political correctness? On the other he also has this to say:
    Still, Fukuyama and D'Souza are unlike their African-American and Jewish counterparts. Even the formerly progressive and now reactionary African-American and Jewish theorists who have mass appeal, no different from those who remained radicals, articulate or at least allude occasionally to their status or others' stereotypes of them. In contrast, it is unclear whether either Fukuyama or D'Souza would consent to being called "Asian-American."

    More of this 'race man' crap! So it turns out you can be a conservative or even a reactionary Asian-American and still be an Asian Amesrican public intellectual so long as you are constantly reminding everyone that you're an Asian-American.

    However, to be fair Professor Wu does make many interesting observations in the rest of his article. For instance:

    ... about our proper place and our relative privilege. Asian-Americans are regarded as intelligent rather than intellectual. According to the model-minority myth, we are supposed to be engineers, scientists, and doctors, but we are reputed to be too polite for the role of advocate or protester.


    Today, American Jews are far less shadowed than they were before by the canard of "dual loyalty" with respect to Israel. They can have many points of view, not just one, on the Middle East. Their arguments with each other matter.

    We don't hear such arguments among Asian-Americans -- which may be as much a reason for our problem as a reflection of it. Indeed, we ourselves are also to blame for the dearth of Asian-American public intellectuals. Many of us have internalized Asian values of deference to elders, fidelity to tradition, and avoidance of conflict. We shun civic life as too contentious or not quite respectable. Yet we cannot contribute to meaningful discourse if we wish to avoid controversy.

    I think he may be on to something here even ignoring his clearly evident obsession with the idea that to be a public intellectual you have to be a 'protester'. Why are there so few Asian public intellectuals? In part because Asians are less inclined to be politically active or tend to shun away from that side of things. Why?

    I was a participant in politics at a reasonably young age, handing out how to vote cards for the Labor party (yes, yes, scoff at my youthful foolishness but I don't really regret it, it was a great experience) in the year I was supposed to be studying for my HSC (Higher School Certificate for non-Australian readers). I spent a number of years in the Labor party and it would be fair to say I was always one of the few Asians in any gathering - I did see more Asian political party members in university but it would be fair to say that Asians are less inclined to be actively involved in politics. Many years later I went over to the 'dark side' but even in conservative/libertarian social circles the same pattern reemerged.

    Why is this so? Well to be blunt about it, lots of Asian immigrants come from countries which have been stuffed up by politicians. China itself was a civilisation stuffed up by idiot emperors. Asians always do better in countries where politicians tend to leave people alone than in their ancestral lands (you could say Asian immigrants are a natural conservative voting constituency which conservative politicians are too stupid to tap properly). Politicians naturally don't rate very highly among the preferred career choices of Asian parents for their children.

    Like Jewish parents, Asian parents want all their children to be doctors or lawyers. Actually - let me correct that - Asian parents would rather prefer that their children be doctors than lawyers while Jewish parents might be indifferent between the two. But in addition there is probably an unspoken animus against being in politics among Asian parents which is not present in the Jewish family setting. Well this doesn't apply to my family but then I come from a weird sort of Asian family - my father was a journalist even in my country of birth, my father and uncles would talk politics every Chinese New Year and no one in our family was really good at business.

    Though both Asians and Jews are regarded as educational over-achievers there are also significant differences that probably account for the different levels of participation of Asians and Jews in public affairs/politics (an even greater disparity is displayed by the fact that the number of Jews who are public intellectuals is completely disproportionate to their numbers in the general population).

    Both Asians and Jews tend to be lumped with the science/math geek label in high schools. However in addition to this, Jews are just as likely to excel ot be interested in 'humanities' type subjects. This is less true of Asians.

    Personally I never fitted the science/math stereotype though I suppose I did fit the educational overachiever stereotype. In high school my maths wasn't bad but English (i.e. English literature) was always my best and favourite subject. I did well in both Maths and Humanities-types subjects (I've often wondered if this might have something to do with my left-handedness) but much better at humanities. I'd suspect the balance of my abilities are oriented more towards high verbal intelligence tasks rather than non-verbal intelligence tasks.

    Nonetheless based on my experience, at least, the stereotype was overall correct. I do recall from school that most Asians were very much into Maths/Science and tried to do as few English/humanities options as possible. As to why they do so, it might be in part because Asian students who are recent immigrants or children of recent immigrants are less likely to have English as their first language - something that is more likely to be a disadvantage in tackling humanities type subjects. Thus, much more sensible to invest one's skills and interests in the less language-dependent subjects in school. In addition the parental expectation about their children being doctors tends to instil greater emphasis on the math/science aspect. All other things being equal, what one tends to specialise in at school might tend to set the horizons for one's future intellectual interests, and all other things being equal, one is more likely to get into the 'public intellectual' groove if one has some established interest in some humanities types subjects (though this doesn't rule out being a scientist-public intellectual there are overall less opportunities to be a public intellectual if one is a boffin). I'd suspect from all this that one would tend to find less such disparities in future generations of Asian-Australians and Asian-Americans.

    Where then does this leave the 'Asian public intellectual drought for the time being? No worries, I'm only 27, I'll have time to step into the breach ...

    Public intellectual or race whinger?
    This guy complains that there are no Asian American public intellectuals, which empirically speaking, is probably true. However he dismisses Francis Fukuyama and Dinesh D' Souza not, in the case of Fukuyama', because Fukuyama's been writing stupid, intellectually dishonest stuff lately (though to be fair his book on Trust was quite good) but because

    ... neither dissents from prevailing norms and, thus, fulfills the critical function of the public intellectual. To the contrary, Fukuyama celebrates the triumph of Western liberal democracy, and D'Souza is known for his attacks on academic culture and black culture.

    In other words, by definition, a member of an 'ethnic minority' can't be a public intellectual unless he or she is a lefty or what I would call a 'race whinger'. Write a book along the lines of 'I'm Asian, I've been oppressed, Western civ is bad, bad, bad' and you have a better chance of being classified a public intellectual than if you write a book like Trust which was one of Fukuyama's better efforts.

    Thursday, June 13, 2002
    Whingers suing idiots...
    In a posting below Heath wonders whether the next censorship row will blow up when Judith Levine's book comes to Australia. Well there's already a candidate for next censorship row and it comes from a ridiculous law which has long been on the books and which all principled liberals, Left and Right, should oppose - namely racial vilification laws. As the SMH reports:

    Liberal Senator Ross Lightfoot will be tried for racial vilification in the Federal Court over comments he made about Aboriginal people being the most primitive race on earth.

    The comments were made in 1997 in an on-the-record interview which was published in two newspapers

    What an utter waste of taxpayers' money.

    Furthermore, bloggers should care. If these guys who run a blog discussing thought-provoking and controversial ideas, expressed in a thoughtful and civil manner were in Australia, they would be in big, big trouble. Perhaps the only reason some bloggers aren't in more trouble is because not enough whingers pay attention to them.

    Pray tell what is the purpose of a racial vilification law:
    1) the resulting court case almost always promotes the ideas found offensive to a much wider audience
    2) it raises tricky issues about when to call a spade a spade in certain areas of research like anthropology
    3) smart racists and provocateurs can always circumvent it by couching their ideas in euphemistic nudge-nudge wink-wink terms - I suppose if you think dumb people deserve to be prosecuted for being dumb, there's some point to it
    4) if you try to redraft such laws to catch the circumventers then the 'free speech suppression' issue becomes even more serious
    5) it's good to allow idiots to say what they want openly and transparently if they can find a forum for doing so, so that others can refute them and tear their logic to shreds

    Is free speech absolute? Strictly speaking I have to say no. Speech can go too far and actually incite a crowd to violence just as shouting 'fire' in a crowded theatre can cause property damage. There are already remedies for these problems which have 'filters' which minimise the potential suppression of open debate - it's called tort law.
    The US Libertarian Party: with associates like this, who needs enemies?
    On its website, the US Libertarian party advertises the fact that it has invited Larry Pratt to speak at its National Convention, among other notables. What a bunch of f****** idiots. Unless this is a namesake, this is the same Larry Pratt who was involved with Buchanan's campaign and was forced to resign over connections with racist militia nuts, and has various other dodgy connections, the same Larry Pratt who is a Christian Reconstructionist. What's happened here? Have the Lew Rockwellians captured the Libertarian party? Well, you can have it. I'm all for free speech and this guy has every right to go spewing off his views but that free speech doesn't mean giving every Tom, Dick and Harry a speaking platform at your own expense at a private event.

    Why do some people keep associating libertarians with the 'extreme Right'? This is why. The crazy Libertarians (with a capital L) are among the greatest enemies of libertarianism.
    The Next Censorship Row?

    It's going to be interesting to see if anyone even tries to publish in Australia, Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors: the Perils of Protecting Children From Sex (Minnesota University Press, 2002)

    According to an article by Laura Flanders, the book has caused quite a stir in the United States.

    "Fury rained down on Levine's [book] even before the book itself hit the shelves. Concerned Women for America and the Christian Right "Culture and Family Institute" went so far as to hold a forum in Washington to discuss whether the as-yet-unpublished book "encouraged pedophilia." It did, declared CFI's Robert Knight. It did, said Sandy Rios, president of the CWA. The Concerned Women sent out a press release claiming that Levine, a New York journalist with a long history of researching and writing about sexuality and gender, "advocates" molesting children. CWA's release called on the University of Minnesota's Regents to fire "those responsible" for the publication of this "evil tome."

    The Right's attack guaranteed the book attention, but mostly of the wrong sort. Dr. Laura railed on radio, Bill O'Reilly railed on TV. Too busy foaming at the mouth to pick up a copy of Harmful to Minors, O'Reilly said actual reading wasn't necessary, that you don't have to read all of Mein Kampf to get its gist."

    Seems censor- happy conservatives the world over are all the same. Condemn a book without even reading it. Just the same as several Australian politicians condemned and criticised Baise Moi and Lolita without even seeing them. I can't comment on Baise, but the claims that the (Jeremy Irons and Dominque Swain) version of Lolita encouraged pedophelia are absurd. If anything, the movie discourages and condemns it - showing Humbolts increasing paranoia and moral decline.

    But back to Levine's book. Unfortunately I haven't read it so I can't comment personally. (unless it generates some local controversy I probably won't read it since child/teenage sexuality is not a subject I have much interest in.) So I'll have to stick with the comments by Flanders. Apparently in the chapter on pedophelia , Levine argues that:

    " Levine looks at lots of data, among which is a Mayo Clinic study revealing that three-quarters of parents are afraid their children will be abducted by pedophiles. It's a more frequent worry than fretting over car accidents. This, despite the fact that a child's risk of dying in a car accident is 25 to 75 times greater than his or her chances of being abducted and murdered by non-family members. Ninety-five percent of allegedly abducted children turn out to be "runaways or throwaways" from home, she reports, or kids snatched by one of their own parents in divorce or custody disputes. "

    Nothing controversial there I would have thought, but apparently it is one of the chapters that has generated some heat. Flanders continues:

    " Levine was clear: abuse exists, such as when one party does not consent to sex or when an adult in a position of authority uses his or her status to abuse a victim's trust. Children can explore their sexuality from babyhood on, she said, but pre-pubescent children shouldn't be out there having intercourse.

    But beyond that... we as a society are way too quick to see aggression, molestation and outright deviance in healthy expressions of youthful sexuality — and way too quick to shame, criminalize and patholologize healthy children for making all sorts of sexual explorations that are just part of their natural development. Panicked by the dangers of "premature" or "perverse" or "unnatural" sex, our society almost entirely ignores the true risks of all that fear and shame. "

    Now here I can see why conservative groups are up in arms. Conservatives (particularly of the religious right) tend to get a bit antsy over the sexual freedom of adults. So not surprisingly they have an issue with the sexual freedom of adults, they are sure as heck going to be up in arms over the thought that children and teenagers could be sexual in any way, and might choose to explore their sexual freedom. IN an effort to cast hr as a pedophile, her critics taken to quoting the book out of context. They paint her as advocating child molestation, even though Levine is apparently quite explicit in stating her opposition to pedophelia and non-consensual sex.

    As I stated above, child/teenage sexuality is not a topic of interest to me. But attempts at censorship is, as are the tactics of those who would seek to censor. It will indeed be interesting to see if anyone dares bring this book to the public of Australia.

    Wednesday, June 12, 2002
    Its not always the Internet

    As Jason points out in his comments below on digital rights management, the RIAA loves to blame the Internet for declining music sales. Now it seems one of the RIAA's own associates has (perhaps unwittingly) come up with more evidence for why one can't blame all of the recordings industries sales slump on Internet based file swapping.

    The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), who is affiliated with the RIAA, has recently reported on the scale of conventional music piracy - the sale of copied CD's and audio cassettes. Apparently:

    "Two out of every five music recordings sold worldwide in 2001 were illegal copies, a global recording industry trade group said today. China, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico were leading the trend...Sales of pirate CDs alone rose to 950 million last year, from 640 million a year earlier, IFPI said. With CDs and cassettes combined, it said 1.9 million bogus recordings flooded global markets last year, resulting in the two out of five figure. ...

    It said music piracy accounted for some $US4.3 billion ($A7.6 billion) last year. That was only a slight increase in value from $US4.2 billion ($A7.42 billion) in 2000, because of "sharply falling prices of pirate CD-R discs," IFPI said. It said illegal music sales now outnumbered legal music sales in 25 countries - predominantly "developing markets". "

    Hmmm... The RIAA has been blaming Napster and the net for a 5% drop in sales worth about $1.5 billion . At the same time as the RIAA was pursuing Napster fairly aggressively, the number of conventional pirate CD's and cassettes rose by about a third!!! Yes - a third! Talk about not seeing the forst for the trees. I have no doubt that the Internet and Napster have contributed something to the decline in conventional music sales, but a one third increase in conventional piracy must surely stand out as a major root cause of the sales decline.

    Digital rights management: So predictable
    Yet another great article from the ex-bolshies at Spiked which begins with the following short history of information:

    2000 BC: Knowledge is transmitted by word of mouth.

    1200 AD: knowledge is too important to leave to word of mouth, here's the Church.

    1450 AD: knowledge is too important to leave to the Church, here's the printing press.

    1710 AD: knowledge is too important to leave to the printers, here's the Statute of Anne.

    1990 AD: knowledge is too important to leave to publishers, here's the internet.

    2002: knowledge is too important to leave in the hands of ordinary people, here's digital rights management

    As we've heard before the music industry has been blaming file sharing for reduced sales as an excuse for tightening restrictions on distribution of music. Now some researchers have tried to verify this claim:

    One of the arguments used to justify DRM is that CD sales are detrimentally affected by file sharing. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, worldwide music sales in 2001 dropped by five percent to $33.7billion (2). But research by Jupiter Media Metrix suggests that file sharing might not have been the cause. Analyst Aram Sinnreich says, 'I think it's a very convenient scapegoat, but in reality [it] is more complex'

    There are a number of factors that can account for the drop in CD sales. For example, a five percent decline is consistent with a cyclical fluctuation since a boom in the late 1990s. And there has been an overall drop in consumer spending, which could account for some of the five percent reduction. Moreover, there is increased competition from other products that means that consumers now decide whether to spend their surplus cash on a CD or DVD, for instance.

    Nonetheless the music industry is set to introduce digital rights management to stop this 'slide in sales' which is being blamed on Internet distribution. Well, they've done the research and maybe they think it's the best way to protect their investments, but there will be collateral damage - basically a lot of pissed off customers who have increasingly come to see ease of transferability as an important attribute of the 'product' they are buying (hint):

    The real power of the internet lies in its capacity to make life easier and better - making it easy to distribute intellectual property. DRM is designed to make life harder and more restrictive - making it harder to distribute intellectual property. If DRM gets established, the flexibility of transferring music between your CD player, computer, and digital player will soon be a thing of the past.

    John Howard - laissez faire pin up boy?
    Today's Australian has, I fear, a far too generous and optimistic assessment of John Howard's political legacy:

    THIS week John Howard picks up two rare honours: yesterday he assumed the chairmanship of the International Democratic Union and tonight he will address a joint session of the US Congress.

    The speech before the US Government may capture headlines, but the chairmanship of the IDU may shape history. The IDU was founded by Margaret Thatcher and today is home to more than 80 Centre-Right parties from across the Western world. It is the communist Internationale in reverse – and future historians may well conclude that it ultimately had even more impact.

    The article goes on to tie the ascendancy of the Right in Europe with John Howard's own achievements in Australia. Never thought I would ever read an article which mentions John Howard along with my intellectual hero, Friedrich Hayek, but there you go:

    Even that socialist fastness of Scandinavia is falling to the Centre-Right. Norway recently elected a Centre-Right Government with a clear majority, shocking onlookers. In Iceland, the ruling Centre-Right party enjoys strong support for its tax cuts. Or consider Denmark. Before coming to power Anders Fogh Rasmussen wrote a powerful free-market book in Danish – From Social State to Minimal State. Today the Danish Prime Minister, he privately assures visitors that his governing philosophy has not changed since he wrote it and espoused the views of such arch libertarians as Ludwig von Mises, Fredrich Hayek and Ayn Rand.

    The ideas of such thinkers are significant as their world view is economically conservative yet also socially liberal. Proposing radical privatisations, low taxes and free trade, libertarians typically believe that people are better off sorting out such matters as drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll for themselves. Better, that is, than governments and state bureaucracies getting involved with all the usual unintended and unfortunate consequences ...

    Howard's election as Prime Minister in 1996, 1998 and 2001 was no accident – but part of an emerging global trend. The Cold War shadow over world politics is finally fading. By fighting the good fights to cut income and company taxes and loosen the unions' crippling grip on matters of hiring and firing, Howard has consistently found himself riding high on the tide of a new generation.

    Fine libertarian sentiments indeed but a bit too hard to swallow the line that somehow John Howard is tapped into the zeitegeist of all this, though I don't know about the European leaders mentioned. I've read Friedrich Hayek, Mr Howard, and you ain't no Friedrich Hayek!

    This is a government that has been throwing taxpayers' money at failing businesses , a government that subsidises pulp mills, and chickens out on tariff cuts. The Howard government is quite happy to deploy socialist rhetoric to demonise and stir resentment towards people resourceful and motivated enough to get their children out of tyranny as 'queue jumpers', quite happy to ban Boise Moi and veto even the slightest move towards heroin trials (in complete contradiction of their stance on States' Rights). Gimme a break. Compared to that other champion of small government, George W Bush, he's marginally better, but that ain't saying much.
    A new case for university fees?
    At a recent conference in Canberra to discuss Education Minister Dr Brendan Nelson's higher education reform discussion paper Crossroads, a possible new argument for university tuition fees came from a surprising source, the President of that bastion of 1970s leftism, the National Tertiary Education Union, one Dr Carolyn Allport.

    Dr Allport said that the Real Estate Institute was against deregulating fees because graduates' education debt would keep them out of the housing market. Flip this argument over and we perhaps have another explanation for escalating property prices, particularly in the big cities, to add to financial deregulation, negative gearing, urban housing shortages, and low interest rates: by not making students pay the full cost of their education, graduates, and particularly households with two graduates, have had much more to spend on real estate than they would if government recouped all its higher education costs. This enabled graduates to bid up prices to their current absurd levels.

    The timelines roughly fit. There has been a big increase in the number of graduates over the last twenty years, entering the market with little or no debt in the 1980s (housing prices escalated 113% in the five years to 1989) and modest debt, relative to the cost of most courses in the 1990s (housing prices went up 56% in the five years to 2001). And the ABS income and expenditure surveys find that the top 20% of households have the highest proportion with mortgages and the highest number of workers in the household.

    So here is the new argument for university fees. What subsidised education is doing is taxing the general community to give the educated few (OK, it is a pretty big minority these days) extra capital, which they then use to keep everyone else out of the property market within 45 minutes of the city. Outrageous! Call A Current Affair, and then let universities charge their students more.

    Tuesday, June 11, 2002
    Mike Tyson and that lisp
    The New Statesman seriously poses and discusses that profound question on everyone's lips- Is Mike Tyson gay?

    While there is no evidence that Tyson is gay, he certainly acts like a repressed, self-loathing, misogynistic gay man. Despite his macho pretensions, he can be effeminate in his speech and mannerisms. His lisp fits the gay stereotype, and he would not look out of place in a gay bar. If I saw him in the street, I would assume he was gay. His favourite insults are violent, graphic threats to sodomise men, revealing a perverse preoccupation with anal sex ..

    Professor Henry E Adams of the University of Georgia has shown that 80 per cent of homophobic men have secret, suppressed homosexual desires.

    These findings concur with theories that hostility to gay people is a form of subconscious distorted homosexuality, indicating a fear and loathing of one's inner, suppressed homoerotic attractions. Homophobia can also be a ploy to deflect rumours and suspicions.

    Listen Mike, if you ever read this, I didn't write the article - I only linked to it. It's Peter Tatchell's ass that you'll want.

    Monday, June 10, 2002
    Tobacco and prohibition
    In a recent posting, Paul Wright starts off sensibly enough by arguing that tobacco addiction in a free society, like pot addiction or heroin addiction should in principle be nobody's business. However he then adds a caveat known as the 'taxpayer' caveat:

    Then I put my taxpayer hat on. I want to people smoking today to sign huge, frightening waivers that preclude them from having any call on my public health dollar. I want yet another special levy put on cigarettes to fund private health insurance for every smoker still extant.

    (ASIDE: try this for lively dinner party conversation. Resolved: that welfare recipients be prevented from purchasing and/or consuming tobacco products. Discuss. Hint: make sure the cutlery is out of reach)

    I suppose from his 'Aside' Paul thinks that this option, although sensible enough in theory, may not be practical. How else can we explain his ultimate recommendation of the following:

    So here's my idea: progressive prohibition. Every year, we raise the age at which it is legal to buy cigarettes. Flag the introduction for say, two years from now, and we take a thirty-year viewpoint. There must be sufficient Federal powers to make it legal. The benefits will come quickly. One of the selling points about tobacco addiction is that it can be conveniently satisfied. There are hundreds of outlets that will sell you cigarettes. Assuming you’re not somewhere in the boonies, then you can usually lay your hands on a smoke inside a half hour. But what if it wasn't that easy? What if you had to go to a retailer who was prepared to risk heavy fines and possible loss of license for the profit to be made from your pack? Now it’s not convenient.

    Well, actually, he also has this to say

    are we obligated to keep extremely harmful substances out of the hands of the public, when we KNOW the outcomes of consumption? When we know the net effect of smoking in terms of health costs, productivity and lost tax revenue do not make up for the tax revenue collected now. Does personal freedom include the right to knowingly harm yourself, and then expect the public purse to pay for your care?

    Now my question is this - how does he KNOW the outcomes of consumption are as he says they are? I must admit to being a bit lazy and not really wanting to spend lots of time doing extensive Google research on this issue but how does he know that tobacco addicts don't in fact pay in cigarette taxes on average an amount that is more than enough to make up for the 'externalities' they cause everyone else by drawing on public health funds? Furthermore *if* in fact it is the case that currently tobacco addicts don't pay extra in sufficient amounts to prevent other taxpayers from cross-subsidising their health-care needs then why shouldn't we look first of all at setting taxes in such a way that they do before we even consider anything like the 'phased in prohibition' that Paul advocates? I'll leave it to someone else to do updated empirical research on this issue but a study by ACIL in 1994 cited in this piece by Alan Moran actually concluded that:

    the level of taxation on tobacco products easily exceeds claimed health care costs by smokers

    I'd doubt that this has changed much over the years - ask any overtaxed smoker. Intuitively it doesn't seem likely either. The responsiveness of demand for tobacco to price is pretty low so people who continue smoking will fork out loads before they stop (and if they stop, mission accomplished, right?) and though it may be politically incorrect to say this, if tobacco smokers have shorter lives than average but are paying more than their fair share for health costs, then this means that they're also paying for those number of years when they won't be making any demands on the health care system, yes?

    Sunday, June 09, 2002
    Politicians Get a Clue on Net Censorship?

    New South Wales has had a pretty poor record when it comes to Internet censorship. In 1996, NSW was amongst the first Australian states to put forward net censorship laws, proposing a scheme that would have prohibited from the Internet the sort of content found in womens magazines such as Cleo and Cosmopolitan.

    The proposal never went to the legislature. The Commonwealth government soon thereafter stepped up and announced its intention to introduce regulation at the national level. In 1999 the Online Services Act (OSA) was introduced by the Commonwealth government, and came into effect on 1 January 2000. The OSA however only dealt with Internet Service Providers and Internet Content Hosts. The responsibility for regulating content providers was thrust back on the states.

    In November 2001, the NSW legislature got back on board the net censorship boat and became the second state to introduce the complementary "content provider" laws required by the OSA. But no sooner had the law been passed than it was referred to the NSW Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Issues at the request of the NSW Attorney General.

    Now to me, this seems somewhat arse-about. Surely if a law is so controversial and questionable that it needs to be reviewed by a parliamentary committee, then this should proceed the passing of the law. But no - in NSW they decided to do things in reverse.

    I have to admit, given the history of net censorship in Australia, and NSW in particular, I fully expected the committee to simply come out and affirm the NSW net censorship laws. I have also been quite vocal in calling Bob Carr a hypocrite for supporting net censorship, whilst getting a lot of high profile publicity for his anti-censorship statements in support of Baise Moi.

    So I'll have to admit to being pleasantly shocked by the decision by the NSW Committee that the NSW net censorship laws be repealed. The best coverage of this decision is of course on the EFA web site.

    In deciding that the law be repealed, the committee makes three key findings.

    Firstly, the law is too broad and is likely to have a detrimental impact on a wide range of legitimate Internet content and usage. Most significantly, finding one recognises something that I have been arguing in my research for years. Namely that the law is:

    " more likely to have an impact on non-commercial providers of Internet content than commercial providers. This may restrict the range of material that is available on the Internet. "

    At last some politicians have gotten a clue. Commercial content providers are well placed to comply with complex regulatory schemes as they already have teams of lawyers and regulatory experts to advise them and typically already have process in place to check the legality of everything they put online..

    On the other hand, your average net user (or blogger) can't afford to seek legal advice every time they update their site or want to publish something slightly controversial. When faced with jail time or large fines for publishing its likely that non-commercial content providers would either tame down their content or not publish it at all. Internet content would be reduced to a dozen different flavours of MSN or Yahoo, thereby reducing the overall diversity of the net.

    The second major finding was that the law could not achieve its objectives without an unrealistic allocation of resources to enforcement. Once again I was stunned. Could it really be that a group of politicians was admitting the absurdity of trying to pass broad and heavy handed censorship laws?

    The third finding again demonstrated an understanding of net regulation that has been sadly lacking in Australia up to this point. It recognises that the way to deal with genuinely problematic content such as child pornography is through existing criminal laws, and that 'protecting children' is best achieved through user education and individual adoption of content filters.

    This is quite a turn-around. Although we are yet to see if in fact the law gets repealed, it is a positive sign that at last a political committee in this country has 'got it' when it comes to net censorship. So here is to hoping the law gets repealed and it provides the momentum to overturn the equivalent law still standing South Australia.




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