Catallaxy Files

polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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  • Jason Soon
  • Heath Gibson
  • Jack Strocchi
  • Andrew Norton
  • Sarah Strasser
  • Teresa Fels


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    Saturday, November 08, 2003
    Are we getting unhappier?

    The soft left happiness lobby was at it again in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, this time Jackie Bailey, apparently a fellow at Tim Watts' Ozprospect.

    The article claims that there was a 'sharp decline' in happiness over the 1990s, using data from the bearded UNSW Peter Saunders' Coping with Economic and Social Change Survey. The argument turns not on average happiness, but on numbers saying they are 'very happy'. The relevant table in Saunders' book has the proportion saying they are very happy going down from 43% in 1995 to 14.8% in 1999.

    Experienced survey watchers will smell a rat here. Normally, happiness surveys are quite stable, rarely varying by large amounts even over extended periods of time. The table I included in my Hamilton critique showed hardly any variation over nearly 50 years. The happiness question in the Australian Unity survey continues with this stability with 7.86 and 7.91 in two 2001 surveys and 8.04 in a 2003 survey. Combining the two sources, in percentage terms, the difference is 6.5% between the highest (2003) and lowest (1975/1984) surveys. So how could the proportion saying they are very happy go down 28.2% in an era when most objective factors known to affect happiness were stable or positive?

    We can't rule out some objective factors at play, but the main explanation almost certainly is the survey instrument itself. In the 1995 survey the happy options were 'very happy' (43%) and 'quite happy' (51.6%). In the 1999 survey the happy options were 'very happy' (14.8%) and 'happy' (72.8%). The 'quite' in 'quite happy' clearly has negative connotations; to say that you are 'quite happy' is to say that there is plenty of room for improvement. Not liking that option, people chose 'very happy' instead. With the more sensible simply 'happy' option in 1999, more people picked that, reducing the artificially high 'very happy' recorded in 1995.

    Another possibility is that though Saunders' 1999 survey had the better question, it was also a survey designed to elicit dissatisfaction with Australian life. The unbearded CIS Peter Saunders wrote a review of his namesake's book which clearly brings this out. Question order effects can distort poll results. If you ask questions on negative topics before you ask the happiness question you'll get a more negative result (this 1993 survey managed to get a nearly 5% drop in the 'delighted' and 'very pleased" group from two life satisfaction questions in the same poll, with intervening questions about crime, louts in the street, and job security perhaps making some respondents less keen on their lives). Without having seen bearded Peter Saunders' original survey, however, I can't say for sure that this is a likely factor.

    Bailey uses the supposed decline in happiness to justify keeping down health and education costs, which she claims would help people work fewer hours and spend time with their families and in non-work activities. But the main way - aside from cutting services - of decreasing health and education costs to the consumer is increasing them to taxpayers. And then people would work more hours to maintain the same post-tax income... . Potentially this research into happiness is important, but unfortunately its use so far has been very dodgy.

    Materialism update: This morning's Herald-Sun has yet another piece on its opinion page telling us that materialism makes us unhappy. Somebody should tell Andrew Devery, who gets a page 7 story in the Herald-Sun, a pointer on page 1, and the Voteline question over his demand that Tatts give him an $11 million Keno 'win', even though it was clearly the result of a computer error.

    Friday, November 07, 2003
    Sydney blogger bash
    Readers, don't forget the Sydney blogger bash is on this Saturday from 6:30 pm onwards at the Three Wise Monkeys hotel. I am told that a whole host of luminaries will be there ranging from James Russell and Gianna to Ken Parish, Scott Wickstein, Sasha Castel and Tex (incidentally I had the opportunity to meet Sasha, Tex, libertarian activist John Humphreys, and Stephen Dawson when I was conscripted to Canberra last weekend on work-related business). Of the Catallaxy team, I will be attending, and so will Jack Strocchi. Unfortunately Heath Gibson can't make it, Andrew Norton is in Melbourne and Sarah Strasser is somewhere overseas.

    Thursday, November 06, 2003
    Quote of the day

    Eagleton clearly avows what's been long apparent: socialism is conservative philosophy for retirees. Socialism has always hidden within its breast a longing for stasis. What happens after the revolution? Nothing, really. It's not a new thought, but its worth revisting the observation that socialism, in its extreme and adamant forms, is a vulgarly secularized Christianity. Socialist salvation is no less boring than Christian salvation ... In the Red version, we're loosed from the chains of want, and free to amuse ourselves with dilettante pursuits, now painting landscapes, now sharpening our backhand, etc., not unlike residents of a money-drenched assisted living facility in Boca Raton. The problem with capitalism is that it's... tiring.

    The always excellent Will Wilkinson commenting on old left duffer Terry Eagleton's latest book.

    Tuesday, November 04, 2003
    The inegalitarian left

    A few years ago, in her Barton lecture, feminist academic Belinda Probert lamented:

    In a recent comparison of the degree of income inequality across 21 wealthy countries, the United States came out top (or worst), Britain was not far behind, and Australia was sixth . I think most Australians are shocked by facts such as these.

    Australians may yet prove more determined to protect the key values of fairness and decency expressed by all parties one hundred years ago than our Anglophone relatives. I hope so. I didn't take out Australian citizenship in order to protect my place in the sunshine. I took it out because I like those things that are now under threat.

    Whatever Probert's reasons for taking out Australian citizenship, it looks like she's quite happy to take a $255,000 a year job in RMIT's administration (Crikey's links won't work, check out in the Whistleblowers section). That's a mere 150% higher than the average income of the top 20% of households. Just how much do overpaid lefty academics contribute to income inequality?

    The same Crikey article that tells us Probert's salary also informs us that Julie Wells, a former researcher for the lefitst National Tertiary Education Union, occupies the post of Principal Policy Adviser to the Vice-Chancellor on $112,000 a year. Just up Swanston St I can assure readers that the University of Melbourne - which unlike RMIT is not at risk of needing a taxpayer bail-out - gets a policy adviser for much less. I am no egalitarian in principle, but in practice I am contributing less to income inequality than the comrades down at RMIT.
    Wobbly Greens

    I am a little sceptical that the two-party preferred vote could shift five points in a fortnight, as reported in today's Australian, so I want to wait for other polls and a repeat Newspoll before drawing too many conclusions from this survey. It does, however, suggest that international events, or at least international visits, retain their power to change domestic voting patterns, which is good news for a government still struggling on domestic service delivery issues.

    Also of potential interest - awaiting confirmation in other polls -is the two point drop from 8% to 6% in the Green vote. In proportional terms, that's equivalent to the ALP dropping 9% on its primary vote. In a double dissolution election, it is the difference between getting a quota without preferences (7.69%) and not getting one, depending on how the votes are distributed between states. If Newspoll's figures are right, it will create tactical dilemmas for the Greens. The protest sub-culture they have emerged from expects stunts like disrupting Bush's speech, but it seems they may not go down so well with potential Green supporters in the electorate.

    Sunday, November 02, 2003
    Death Sentence

    A lot of bad things are blamed on economists, and now we can add the decay of public language to the list. Don Watson's suggestion that bad writing might be linked to the rise of Chicago School economics is an intellectual low point in his usually sensible and enjoyable new book Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language.

    Watson's contention, backed up with numerous examples, is that public language, from politicians, bureaucrats, managers, and public relations departments is impoverished - lifeless, cliche ridden, truth concealing, boring, time wasting and sometimes incomprehensible.

    The point is hardly a new one, of course. George Orwell's essay 'Politics and the English Language' said much of what needed saying about political language back in 1946 (which Watson acknowledges ), and Sir Ernest Gowers wasn't far behind in correcting the bureaucrats with his The Complete Plain Words in 1948.

    Despite similar problems over the years - too few verbs, too many other words, the passive voice, jargon, euphemism - bad writing mutates, justifying regular new books mocking recently over-used words and phrases. Watson's glossary should be photocopied and given to every bureaucrat in the hope that they will ease off on 'in terms of', 'committed to', 'enhancement', 'empower', 'impact', and many others. Synonyms are helpfully provided.

    Watson is short on practical suggestions for long-term improvement, so I will offer one of my own, which is that Australian universities conduct writing and composition courses for all undergraduates. This is already done in many American colleges and universities, and it shows in well-written books and magazines. Excellent books like Richard Lanham's Revising Prose and Joseph Williams' Style: Toward Clarity and Grace can show students how to write clear, concise English. It usually isn't hard to teach, which makes it all the more frustrating that it is so rarely done.

    In the meantime, I hope Watson's book will shame a few bureaucrats, public and private, into changing their ways. Or as they would say, enhance their commitment to key writing outcomes to prioritise the reading issues of their customers.
    Quote of the day: Safer with Marx?

    Joseph Stiglitz, awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001, wrote, "But information economics does not agree with Hayek's assertion that markets act efficiently. The fact that markets with imperfect information do not work perfectly provides a rationale for potential government actions."

    Hayek would have the government tolerate messy competition. His point is that with the optimal outcome unknown, government resolution of issues shuts off the learning process that market competition provides.

    Stiglitz sees the messiness in real-world economies, and he claims to have the right solution in every case... Stiglitz's outlook is that markets are imperfect, but he is not. Where Marx offered dictatorship of the proletariat, Stiglitz would give us dictatorship of the Nobel Laureate. Between the two, we might be safer with Marx.

    ~ Arnold Kling
    Finished People

    Australia lacks a Theodore Dalrymple to chronicle the lives of our underclass, but the next best thing is director Khoa Do's The Finished People, currently showing at Dendy cinemas in Sydney and Melbourne (SMH review here). Shot in Cabramatta last year, it uses real street kids to tell a story we are assured is fiction, but only, I suspect, in the sense that the names and exact sequences of events have been changed. The problems in production - including working around one actor's morning trip to the methadone clinic and another's afternoon reporting to a police station as a condition of his parole - testify to how close this is to reality.

    Unlike the British underclass Dalrymple describes, however, none of them blame the 'system' (though one does say he hates John Howard), though at least two plausibly blame a parent. The two mothers who actually appear in the film seem to be the real victims, losing their sons to drugs in one case and crime in another. Their sons aren't yet dead, but they are probably 'finished people'. This film isn't light entertainment or great art, but gives us a valuable look at the kind of people behind some of Sydney's awful social statistics.




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