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polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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    Saturday, March 01, 2003
     
    Another reason I don't have a permanent link to National Review
    So Stephen Moore doesn't think Gregory Mankiw is fit to be chairman of Council of Economic Advisers because he expressed scepticism about Reagan tax cuts in his textbook. Being made a tenured professor at Harvard at the age of 29 is apparently not good enough for hackdom. Thank god there are libertarians and conservatives with more intellectual integrity than Moore and who don't believe that not toeing a partisan line on every issue disqualifies you from being an adviser.

    Update: John Quiggin has more to say about Moore while Brad De Long pulls apart one of Moore's works - it's very damning. This is very disappointing. What is Cato doing handing out titles to obvious political hacks like Moore? It stains the reputation of the many genuine scholars there.
     
    Elections!
    Got my Sydney Morning Herald this morning and out popped the election liftout. I must be one of the few people who actually enjoy election campaigns and am looking forward to developments in this one though it seems fairly bland so far. I'm living in a safe Liberal seat (the member is Jillian Skinner) so it's not as if it'll make much of a difference but my perverse voting habits honed over the years (well, at least since Keating left politics) have usually led me to vote Liberal for Federal elections and Labor for State.

    So far there's nothing on the horizon that is likely to make me change my habits come election day.

    Why? Well, if the NSW Labor Premier was anyone but Bob Carr things would be different. But essentially I regard the Carr Government as a sensible, moderate right of centre government. So the choice is between an erudite, intellectual right of centre politician with a lot of experience and nous (and a fellow non-driver to boot) and a right of centre politician who's a rookie and whose party members are constantly stabbing each other in the back.

    Friday, February 28, 2003
     
    The Left should return to its roots
    Here is a spot-on article from, of all places, the Guardian, which reprimands elements of the British Left for allying itself with Muslim fundamentalists under an anti-war banner.


    In Marxist terms, the Trots have preferred feudal theocracy to bourgeois democracy which - in non-Marxist terms - is disgraceful and stupid, as a few members of the far Left are starting to realise.

    'I ask all you women haters why you protest against one form of violence [war] while supporting the violence against women in Islamic countries [and presumably the West too]?' says one reader of the uk.indymedia website. A gay reader announces: 'I give this warning to the next SWP paper seller I see on Gay Pride: keep the hell away from us.'


    Gone are the days when the Left would have agreed with Denis Diderot's rousing statement that 'man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest' as the ideologies of radical multiculturalism have infiltrated into what used to be clear thinking among the Left on the desirability of seeing away traditionalist and superstitious oppression (I'm making this point not in support of a liberationist war against Iraq which can be criticised on prudential grounds but as a general observations) - there are of course exceptions such as Peter Singer, Chris Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and the Spiked crew but they are few and far between. This manifests itself not just in willingness to cozy up to religious bigots as long as they are non-Western but also unwillingness to accept the implications of evolution, genetics and a fully naturalistic and materialistic mode of analysis but that's another story. Ironically part of this decay of the Left can I think be blamed on the decline of Marxism.

    Marx himself was very clear on where he stood on such matters, preferring industrial capitalism to feudalism and 'rural idiocy'. Furthermore it actually takes some intelligence and analytical ability to read Marx as opposed to, say, the latest tome by Hugh Mackay or Naomi Klein. So although there are of course many intelligent people among the Left (some of them can be found on my links list) we are seeing the ranks of the Left swelled by touchy-feely types who 'think' in terms of 'vibes' (note the glaring lack of offering of carefyully thought through alternatives to mandatory detention among opponents of current immigration policy).
     
    The Australia card
    John Stone has changed his mind about the ID card because of illegal immigration and terrorism. It's certainly an issue worth debating without kneejerk reactions. Frankly the argument that if we have a national ID card the government can better oppress us strikes me as a bit like the argument that if the population is disarmed the government can better oppress us. In either case, if such paranoid fantasies are within the realm of plausibility there's not much that anyone can do anyway. Of course I was born in Malaysia which does have a ID card system and though there is political oppression there, let me tell you, the national ID card has little to do with it.

    However his reaction now is a tad disingenuous, especially his anticipation that Labor will call such proposals 'fascist'. What were the rightist opponents of the Australia Card calling the proposals then? And notice how he throws in the line about illegal immigration 'taking jobs' from locals - what happened to his commitment to labour market deregulation and the virtues of flexibility?

    Caveat: Personally I've never had a problem with a national ID card regardless of whether it may or may not be needed now because of illegal immigration and terrorism concerns. It's just a matter of administrative convenience given the benefits the State dispenses (and I get pissed off at the number of times I have to take my passport along for e-ticket vertification of domestic flights just because I don't hold a driver's license for polluting the environment).

    Thursday, February 27, 2003
     
    Someone in the US Senate is watching too many B-grade sci fi movies
    This is one of the reasons why I don't link to National Review on my links list aside from the fact that I'm beginning to find most of their columnists smarmy and predictable - the best columnist they had was the lady who used to write the Misantrophist column, Florence King, but she's retired (every thinking libertarians' goddess, Virginia Postrel likes the NRO crew, so I won't make too much more derogatory remarks about them) . Charles Murtaugh takes it apart.

    Update: Oh, and check out Virginia's latest NYT column, which is on neuroeconomics.
     
    Mankiw to head Council of Economic Advisors
    Wow! Apparently Glenn Hubbard has resigned and Bush has hired Mankiw to head his Council of Economic Advisors (link via Alex Robson of Libertarians). I recall using Mankiw's Macro textbook in my uni days. It was pretty lively and interesting as textbooks go with lots of pertinent real world examples and case studies. At that time I had no inkling and didn't until recently that Mankiw was even a Republican as he was one of the pioneers of the New Keynesian school which made admirable attempts at extending the work of melding Keynes with neo-classical thought.

    Some more basic introduction to Mankiw's thinking can be found here, his Havard website is here and here is a link to his popular writings in the press.

    Wednesday, February 26, 2003
     
    Christians for Saddam?
    Lew Rockwell is a paleo-libertarian, neo-Confederate isolationist site which I've often criticised. What it sometimes puts out, particularly, on say, evolution vs creationism and the 'virtues' of alternative medicine should be read with more than a grain of salt. However I can't resist linking to this article which puts a different and interesting spin on the plight of Iraqi Christians (Assyrians), places that plight in regional and historical context and raises further questions about a US strategy that if not properly managed can lead to further civil war after occupying forces leave (assuming they leave the place in proper shape). Some highlights:


    Given their history with Saddam, and the relative freedom they are experiencing in Northern Iraq, you would probably assume that the Assyrians would like nothing better than to see Saddam’s murderous regime consigned to the dustbin of history.

    Unfortunately, you would be wrong.

    "Our greatest fear if there is a regime change in Iraq is if there will be a substitution of Saddam Hussein's tyranny for a new tyranny," says Ronald Michael, president of the Assyrian American League, an Illinois-based organization representing the estimated four-million-strong Assyrian community in the United States.

    Saddam Hussein and the Ba’th Regime have been, and still are, nasty and oppressive to all Iraqis. However, Saddam has not been particularly oppressive to the Assyrians, at least compared to what has been the norm elsewhere in the region. One must always keep in mind that the oldest members of Middle Eastern Christian communities remember outright slaughters of Christians by the millions. By the yardstick of his neighbors and Middle Eastern history, Saddam just doesn’t look that bad.

    The secular Saddam has neither encouraged nor permitted the type of anti-Christian riots seen in Egypt and Iran. Further, Saddam has never engaged in actual anti-Christian genocide of the type seen in Sudan, where 2 million Christian have lost their lives in the past decade. Unlike any other regime in the Middle East, Saddam has permitted Christians to occupy high public office. This includes the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Tariq Assiz, who is a Roman Catholic. In addition, Saddam’s regime has permitted a degree of free practice for Christians that is positively enviable compared to the situations experienced in such U.S. ‘allies’ as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Christmas and Easter decorations always abound, even in Baghdad, and attending church does not require an act of courage.

    Today, the Christians of Iraq seem to be split between those who support the status quo – de facto autonomy of a type in the North – and those who support Saddam Hussein’s continuation in power. Broad support, enthusiastic or otherwise, for the ouster of Saddam Hussein by the U.S. Army seems to be noticeably absent from the political landscape ...

    As noted earlier, the majority of Assyrians live in northern Iraq in the Kurdish enclave. So far, this situation has been reasonably tolerable for the Assyrians, as the Kurds have been conducting a fairly successful democratic experiment under the cover of U.S. and British combat patrols. Given the historical tendency of the Kurds to victimize and slaughter the Assyrians, the current situation seems quite impressive.

    However, Assyrians are quick to ask, have the Kurds really moderated their traditional attitudes and embraced Western notions of civil rights? Or, are they only moderating their tone in order to build a unified front against Saddam Hussein? This leads to a great fear among Assyrians in the north that when the unifying factor of a common enemy is removed, the traditional problems between the Kurds and the Assyrians will resurface with a vengeance.

    Among the future problems between the two groups are disputes over land, that for now have been put on hold. "There are outstanding issues of Assyrian villages and lands, which were vacated under Baghdad's forced repatriations during the 1970s and '80s," says Hania Mufti of Human Rights Watch.

    Recent events in the north fuel fears that the Assyrians may become victims of Kurdish aggression again. The Kurdish authorities have begun attempts to classify Iraq's Christians as "Kurdish Christians." This appellation is an outright fabrication, but it points to a future in which the Assyrians, who survived ‘Arabization’ in Saddam’s Iraq, may find themselves subjected to a harsh ‘Kurdization’ at the hands of an independent Kurdistan.

    Also, there has been a resurgence of traditional Kurdish attacks on Christians. The Kurdish authorities have resolutely ignored these attacks. As Ronald Michael explains, it is in the best interests of Kurdish politicians to not antagonize their Muslim constituents by being zealous in the defense of Christians.

    "The nationalist parties don't want to lose the support of the Kurdish people," says Michael. "The KDP [Kurdish Democratic Party] turns a blind eye to these attacks out of fear of an Islamic backlash."

    The Kurds have an estimated 70,000 anti-Saddam soldiers in the north. How extensively the U.S. plans to make use of them in its war effort remains to be seen. However, one thing is clear – these men aren’t going away after the fighting stops. If the blind eye turned by Kurdish authorities to violence against Christians becomes outright genocide, will our U.S. military forces intervene against our Kurdish ‘allies’ to protect defenseless Christians?

    Tuesday, February 25, 2003
     
    Annotated directory
    For those who are trying to decide which of the new blogs that have sprung up like topsy lately are worth perusing the blogger Talking Dog has a comprehensive annotated blogroll.
     
    One to watch
    Wow! The AEI-Brookings Joint Centre for Regulatory Studies has now got its own blog - well, sort of. It consists of updates that are linked back to their works. Recent entries on corporate governance enforcement and Bush's new health policy.
     
    Mahathir and the politics of race and religion
    Mahathir's been in the news again with his latest round of inflammatory comments so I thought I'd point out this profile of Dr M. It notes among other things, that the most outspoken Malay nationalist leader of modern times has a Tamil Muslim father, and his ex-protege Anwar Ibrahim (another firebrand Malay nationalist in his youth) is also of Tamil ancestry (and his wife is of part Chinese ancestry). This can account for a lot, including, perhaps the reason why Mahathir has to play the nationalist card from time to time to reaffirm his credentials - rumours about his 'Mamak' (Malaysian for Indian Muslim) ancestry have been floating around M'sia for a long time. The syncretism so entrenched in Malaysian culture also means that it will be a moderating influence on the rest of the Islamic world (notwithstanding Mahathir's need to play to the crowd by making stock anti-colonialist commentary at Non-Aligned Movement meetings).

    Link via Mixed Asian.
     
    Developments in the blogosphere
    It seems that I have inspired Ken Parish to turn his blog into a groupblog. I suspect what we're seeing is economic forces at work, in the broad sense of that term, not that you exactly need an economist to predict that there are benefits to be captured from moving to groupblogging (I think the most recent sole operator to sell out to a corporation has been Jacob Levy who has now gone over to the Goliath-like Volokh brothers). Ideally you want to update your page everyday or fairly regularly anyway to be able to maintain the number of visits that would really justify your going to all the trouble of setting up a blog. This would render unviable the blogs of some people who otherwise do feel like they have to something to say once in a while. For instance when Heath Gibson first got on board this was essentially what he told me - that he wouldn't mind blogging from time to time but didn't really think he had the time to maintain a proper operation that would churn out sufficiently to maintain traffic. Thus groupblogging adds more voices to the blogosphere but it also benefits the main blogger who has some excess capacity in times when he's busy.

    Another trend which I want to promote, is to get bloggers to show a little of their RL-selves - I have taken the first step with the picture of myself on the left. I admit it, I'm curious and like putting faces to names. Will Ken and the others take up the challenge? (John Quiggin is exempt as everyone knows what he looks like anyway given his resemblance to an Australian of iconic status).
     
    Hot buttered rage
    Is it just me or does anyone else get the feeling that James Russell has been perpetually on aggro mode lately? (see also his other posts).

    Monday, February 24, 2003
     
    Hallelujah!
    Jonathan Rauch has a good piece on the type that dare not speak its name.
     
    Downer's Oakeshottian conservatism
    Ken Parish seems to have developed a soft spot for Alexander Downer and thinks he would make a better Liberal PM than Costello. He also has some kind words to say about Kevin Rudd. I agree with Ken about Rudd. I heard Rudd speak at the Sydney Institute last year about how he thought free trade and globalism was perfectly compatible with social-democracy - he was very erudite and seemed to sincerely believe what he was saying. I think Rudd would make a great Labor PM now that Latham has decided to go manic. Furthermore I'd prefer Kevin Rudd, Labor PM to Alexander Downer, Liberal PM (not that either is very likely without an Eliza Doolittle-ish makeover - Rudd would seem too up himself to the man in the street while Downer has the private schoolboy image). Before I explain my preference, a caveat - I do believe Downer has grown into his job since his 'Things that batter' fiasco and he's a very competent foreign minister. Nothing against him, just don't like his politics.

    However I can understand why Downer would appeal to a centrist like Ken. Ken's post got me to dig through my old issues of Quadrant for the November 1994 issue which had a conversation/interview between the then editor, Robert Manne, and Downer. This was in the days before Manne went all the way with the bleeding hearts - but even then Manne was already pushing a protectionist-welfarist conservative line in Quadrant. Essentially Downer is not a Keating-Costello true believer in principled economic liberalism. Like Fraser whom he professed in that interview to admire, Downer is essentially a High Tory muddler. In that same interview, you can clearly see Manne and Downer getting along fine which is another warning sign to me. It's a very revealing interview as it goes a lot into many of Downer's fundamental beliefs. Here's the start of the interview:


    Robert Manne: What were the formative influences on your political worldview?

    Alexander Downer: ... My family has always been in what I like to describe as the progressive-conservative tradition, and I have been brought up to understand the world in that way, that is looking at society in terms of an evolving organism, with the political process assisting with that evolution. Sometimes when it works at its best the political process clearly anticipates change and therefore helps to organise society to accomodate that change.

    I have been brought up to be and I am essentially anti-ideological. I find the so-called rationalist tradition of thought unconvincing. I am not somebody who believes in grand and simplistic models of how society works, but somebody who believes in the evolution of society. Michael Oakeshott, Edmund Burke - you can articulate it in those terms today ...


    It's impressive that Downer knows who Oakeshott is. However, though there are a lot of commonalities between Hayek and Oakeshott in terms of their evolutionistic language and rhetoric, they use that rhetoric for quite divergent purposes. Oakeshottianism is essentially a recipe for political quietism i.e. generic conservatism rather than a Whiggish liberalism that tries to better utilise the forces of market self-organisation.

    Sunday, February 23, 2003
     
    Good fascists and bad fascists
    I'm currently reading All or nothing: The Axis and the Holocaust 1941-43 by Jonathan Sternberg - this is not a new work (it was first published in 1990) but it will be a pernially fascinating study of the complexity of human motivation. As documented in films such as Life is Beautiful and the works of Primo Levi, Italian Jews did perish in the Holocaust and well before that Italy became pressured to enact and ended up enacting racial laws as part of its alliance with Germany. However Italian Fascism did not fundamentally revolve around the same vicious undercurrent of anti-semitism and pseudo-scientific racial thinking as German Nazism.

    As this book documents, army officials and career diplomats of all ranks of the Italian Fascist government made great efforts to frustrate the consignment of both Italian and foreign Jews under their administration and care to what they knew would have been certain death in German-run concentration camps for as long as Italy remained an independent Axis ally (what happened under the pupper republic of Salo established by Nazi Germany is a less noble story). They pulled out every stop available including inventing bureaucratic delaying tactics (e.g. claiming that before foreign Jews could be deported from their occuptation their citizenship had to be verified, a process which given the slackness of Italian administration, could take years). That their German allies could have tolerated such brazen attempts at frustrating their master plans is doubly amazing given that Italian troops were not exactly the most successful allies in the military field.

    Admittedly the ability of Italian officials of conscience to do the right thing was helped by the relative tolerance of indiscipline and slackness in the Italian administration (as compared to the Germans of course). This meant that they had to sacrifice less in following their personal conscience than potential German resisters - but there was certainly more to it than that given the almost widespread tolerance and support of such efforts (this is not deny that Italy could also produce anti-semites of equal viciousness and when they were given the discretion as they were in the pupper republic of Salo they also did their worst). Perhaps the key to the complex motivations underlying this amazing period of history and a period that is to the credit of the otherwise brutal dictatorship of Mussolini can be found in this passage from p. 129 of the book:


    During the summer of 1943, the last summer of the fascist regime, the Italian army and police held 'for protective reasons' some 2000 Jews in Yugoslavia, five or six times that number in France and allowed many thousands of Greek Jews to live normal lives under red, white and green Italian tricolour. They protected them because they knew ... that their German allies had begun to exterminate the Jewish people. It had become a matter of national honour, perhaps the last shred of honour left, to give such people a treatment 'consciously felt to be Italian'. A long process which began with the spontaneous reaction of individual young officers in the spring of 1941 who could not stand by and watch Croatian butchers hack down Serbian and Jewish men, women and children ended in July 1943 with a kind of national conspiracy to frustrate the much greater and more systematic brutality of the Nazi state. It was a conspiracy which went from Mussolini to the lowest marasciallo of the carabineri. It rested on certain assumptions about what being Italian meant ...

     

     
       
       

     

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