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polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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    Saturday, August 09, 2003
    Fighting Terror & Preserving Democracy

    An intersting piece from Mathew Moore in todays SMH. The article is entitled "Terror of the Jihad". The article discusses the challenges confronting Indonesia's attempt to deal with terrorism. Moore raises some interesting issues, for instance:

    “While the Bali bombings clearly shocked the country, some analysts believe Indonesia's ruling elite has remained relatively complacent, dismissing that attack as a problem in a far-away Hindu holiday place that has little to do with Muslim Java. It's too early to say whether Tuesday's bomb in the ritzy heart of the country's capital will prompt a more determined response, but so far the signs are not good.”

    Only time will tell whether the Marriot bombing convince Indonesia of the need to clean up it’s backyard, But I think Moore most interesting observation is of the catch-22 involved in cracking down on terrorism in Indonesia.

    “Under Soeharto's authoritarian regime, members of any religious or political groupings considered a threat were immediately targeted, often jailed or executed without any fair trial. Muslim radicals like Abu Bakar Bashir fled this brutal but effective regime to the more friendly climes of Malaysia.
    But after the fall of Soeharto, Bashir returned to a freewheeling Indonesia to continue his campaign for an Islamic state.

    Now it's the authoritarian Malaysian and Singapore governments that have the intelligence networks that know what is going on in their mosques and Islamic schools. They've shown a capacity to find out and stop what terrorists are planning.

    It's a capacity that has long since gone in Indonesia. Regaining that capacity while preserving democracy appears a daunting task indeed.”

    Friday, August 08, 2003
    Death for Amrozi?

    The death sentence given to Amrozi yesterday has stirred some of the old debates about capital punishment. There seem to be at least five schools of thought, one in favour and four against. In favour, some of the relatives of victims were happy with the sentence as appropriate vengeance for the 202 lives lost, but some of them were against because they thought it was too soft. Eric de Haart of the Coogee Dolphins, which lost six members in the attack, said “We are split 50-50 about it," he said. "Half of the boys are happy to see him die and the other half want him thrown in a little dark hole somewhere and forgotten about."

    Adelaide Magistrate Brian Deegan, seemingly a professional griever since his son Joshua was killed in the blast, managed to fit three more arguments against into his media comments- that killing is ‘unconscionable’ in itself, that it does not deter, and that it could turn Amrozi into a martyr. About the only argument against the death penalty not heard was that he might be innocent.

    The difference of view between the Coogee Dolphins and Brian Deegan reflects the wide gulf between most lawyers and elite opinion generally and the more visceral reactions of most people to violent crime. It’s amazing how little public opinion has changed on this issue over time. In 1960, well before capital punishment was abolished, a Gallup Poll found 60.5% in favour of hanging for a ‘brutal murder’. In 2001, long after capital punishment was abolished, 56.5% supported reintroducing it for murder.

    On this one, my feelings are closer to those of the Coogee Dolphins than Brian Deegan. I’d prefer he be put in a ‘little dark hole’, but the world will be a better place when Amrozi does not exist.

    Wednesday, August 06, 2003
    Some perspective, people
    Right wing news polls a select group of bloggers/right wing death beasts on who they think are the worst figures in US history and they come up with this list:

    17) Franklin Delano Roosevelt (6)
    17) John Walker (6)
    17) Lee Harvey Oswald (6)
    17) Robert Byrd (6)
    16) Aldrich Ames (7)
    14) Richard Nixon (8)
    14) Aaron Burr (8)
    12) Al Sharpton (9)
    12) Charles Manson (9)
    8) Timothy McVeigh (10)
    8) Lyndon Johnson (10)
    8) Hillary Clinton (10)
    8) John Wilkes Booth (10)
    7) Alger Hiss (12)
    6) Noam Chomsky (13)
    4) Jesse Jackson (14)
    4) Jimmy Carter (14)
    3) Bill Clinton (15)
    2) Benedict Arnold (19)
    1) The Rosenbergs (15) & Julius Rosenberg (5) (20 total votes)

    I'm sorry but I find this list completely wacked. I suppose it's debatable that the Rosenbergs might deserve to top it, but Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Noam Chomsky, Jesse Jackson, Hillary Clinton and LBJ are worse than or equal to mass murderer and domestic terrorist Tim McVeigh? (I suppose a paleolibertarian might argue that LBJ is worse because he continued Vietnam but that's not where these right wing bloggers who also put old Noam on the list are coming from). Need we remind people that Dubya is probably a far more statist and socialistic US President than Clinton who along with Gore got the 'reinventing government' movement going, promoted free trade, and reformed welfare? Or that it was Jimmy Carter who started the move towards economic deregulation in the US starting with airlines under the stewardship of deregulation guru Alfred Kahn?

    (Link courtesy of Hot buttered death)

    Tuesday, August 05, 2003
    Gay marriage

    The PM’s views on gay marriage (against) were in the news this evening. Unfortunately they made even less sense than the arguments being made in the current debate about gay clergy. If you believe the Bible is an authoritative document then its anti-homosexual passages at least give opposition to gay clergy some internal logic. But the PM’s stance lacked this quality, limited as it is. After disavowing discrimination, these were his words ‘marriage … is one of the bedrock institutions of our society. It’s very much about the raising of children, the having of children, and the continuation of our species.’

    Well, yes, but that isn’t all that it is about. Many married couples can’t or won’t have kids, but we don’t think that is a reason for denying them marital rights. And some kids are growing up in gay households, without any law sanctioning the adult relationship.

    If I could be convinced that homosexual marriage would do anywhere near as much damage to the institution of marriage as heterosexuals have done to it over the last generation I’d be against it too. But I can’t see the logic in the argument, and can see how gay marriage might help some gay couples and any kids they are raising. With other countries now allowing gay marriage, it will be interesting to see how the social experiment works out.

    For Andrew Sullivan’s conservative case for gay marriage click here, and for David Boaz’s solution – privatise marriage - click here.
    Right wing crony capitalism watch
    The estimable classical liberal Economist magazine bravely calls Berlusconi's bluff on damning allegations of corruption. Let's see if he tries to do a Lee Kuan Yew. Deathly silence from the Berlusconi cheer squad.
    The Fracturing of the West?

    Melbourne readers have a chance to hear eminent military historian Victor Davis Hanson, along with Owen Harries and Paul Kelly, on the topic of the fracturing of the west. It is on next Monday 11 August at Federation Square. If you would like to attend, book online here.

    Sunday, August 03, 2003
    Brilliant Humphries

    A couple of weeks ago I went along to watch as one of my employers, the University of Melbourne, confer an honorary Doctor of Laws on Barry Humphries, the University’s most distinguished drop-out. His acceptance speech was hilarious, though nearly as funny was the moment of awkwardness in the audience when Humphries mentioned his mother’s view of the 1950s residents of Carlton, the ‘dagos’. Now it is doubtful that many of the University’s current students are even clear on who the ‘dagos’ were, but with the current taboos on race and ethnicity being stricter than any of the 1950s taboos this was a risqué thing to say (the ceremony had, of course, begun with acknowledgement of whatever Aboriginal tribe it was that used to occupy the U of M’s site). Humphries was one of the few people who could get away with it.

    Humphries was just as politically incorrect during his latest brilliant show, Back to My Roots. I was wondering how
    Kerryn Phelps and Jackie Stricker
    , who were seated a few rows in front of me, were enjoying the lesbian jokes during Dame Edna’s section. It wasn’t half as cruel as the jokes at the expense of middle-aged or ‘senior’ women she picked out of the front few rows, but they are a less protected species. For the first time in the several Humphries shows I have seen one of these hapless women, a ‘Gwen’, refused to play along. But what was she doing in the front rows if she was not prepared to go up on stage?

    While Dame Edna is the funniest of the Humphries’ characters, and Sir Les the most vulgar, the most poignant remains Sandy Stone. What started as a satire on a suburban non-entity is now a powerful nostalgia trip into a lost Australia. It wasn’t quite as good a Sandy monologue I saw Humphries do a decade ago in Sydney, a superb bit of theatre that had the audience in tears of both laughter and loss, but still a moving and funny description of Sandy’s wife Beryl on a senile walkabout from her nursing home.

    If you’ve only ever seen Humphries on TV you should get along to his stage show if you can. The stage is where he is at his best, and yesterday he had an audience diverse in class background and age laughing almost continuously for nearly 3 hours. Given Humphries is nearly seventy, this may be one of our last opportunities to see such a performance.
    The Greenhouse effect and the role of experts
    I have become unwittingly embroiled in the debate on the greenhouse effect after posting a comment on the Australian Libertarian site in response to this post by 24601 titled 'the inconsistency of Tim Blair'. Basically I got annoyed at someone who said without any caveats that 'the greenhouse effect has not been proven'. I responded as follows:

    "Sorry, I'm more sceptical of the greenhouse-sceptics than some people here. Greenhouse-scepticism as espoused by Tim Blair (who the last time I checked didn't have a science degree) verges on crankery when people are willing to ignore the fact that among environmental scientists/climatologists the majority opinion is that there is something going on. Now, I don't normally go for majority rule but my heuristic is I can't be an expert on everything. In those cases my plausible presumption is that if the majority of qualified experts say X I adopt X as my working hypothesis. It's a courtesy I extend to learned people in other areas just as I don't appreciate it when some graduate in mediavel theology talks nonsense about, say, game theory or expected utility theory."

    Now, most libertarians are rationalists who rightly lament the sort of nonsensical pomo attacks on science perpetrated by advocates of 'ethnic math' and 'feminist physics' (and I should add, those who descry the alleged 'neoliberal ideological cloak' that supposedly permeates neoclassical economics even though its framework was really laid by people who were progressives and social reformers in their day such as Bentham and Marshall). Yet because of the almost visceral contempt some of them have for green taxes and international agreements and the like, they give ideological fuel to the cranks by framing their discourse regarding the greenhouse effect around basically similarly cranky lines.

    Creationists will also claim that 'evolution hasn't been proven' by which they usually mean some naive form of proof which involves pointing to some protuberance somewhere and saying 'there it is'. This is exactly what many anti-greenhouse activists do. Then when you tell them that in the relevant scientific community there is a near consensus that the greenhouse theory makes sense, they'll mumble something about scientists conspiring in their self interest to protect their cushy jobs. Well, yes, scientists are as prone to abusing their self interest as anyone else but the difference is that the very set-up of science tends to undermine those theories based solely on self-interest which do not have some truth value. Then they'll also say ,' Well you know, X doesn't support the greenhouse theory'. The X in this case being Bjorn Lomborg. Of course creationists would say the same thing about evolution - they'd point out, for instance that the mathematician Michael Berlinski is a supporter of Intelligent Design theory. Yes, but does Berlinski know as much about the area of knowledge as the people he critiques? Remember, Hayekians - tacit knowledge is as important as 'blueprinted' knowledge - and people who've worked in the area their whole lives have more tacit knowledge than newcomers. This isn't an argument in putting one's faith in incumbent scientists. That would be as foolish as reinventing the wheel each time. However it is an argument about where to place your bets (in this case, your presumption about which is the 'null hypothesis' ) if you're a non-expert looking in - it's just a matter of rationally economising on information costs.

    As another commentator on the Libertarians blog, ChrisV pointed out about Lomborg's book:

    The fact that the book was greeted with a certain amount of contempt by Nature, Science and Scientific American among others carries more weight for me than the quiet approval The Economist gave it. The discourse on it is quite involved and frankly I have neither the time nor the knowledge to try to come to definite conclusions for myself.

    You can't be an expert on everything in the world and at some point it is necessary to trust the consensus of those who are experts. If some people want to see the response from science heavyweights as indicative of a "Vast Left Wing Conspiracy" dedicated to talking up environmental problems, so be it.

    I agree with this, and I'm an economist. I agree with this because I'm an economist and I believe that the virtues of division of labour apply as much as to intellectual fields as other areas of endeavour. As ChrisV points out, no one can be an expert on everything. Einstein was a socialist and in the area of social sciences probably believed a lot of wooly nonsense. If Scientific American came out praising some crank work on economics by a Nobel prize winning physicist which happened to arrive at policy prescriptions I liked but in intellectually dubious ways (like, say, some of the sillier 'Bionomics' inspired literature that's been floating around) and Joseph Stiglitz wrote an oped article pointing out that it was shit, I'd take Stiglitz over Scientific American.




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