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polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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    Saturday, January 03, 2004
    Why are lesbians fat?

    In a decade Tasmania has moved from the most ridiculous to the most sensible laws on gay relationships, with yesterday being the first day gay and lesbian couples could register their relationships and solve various problems that can arise with medical procedures, property transfers and superannuation.

    I don't want to trivialise this development by commenting on personal appearances, but I could not help noticing the photo accompanying The Age's report. Maybe I am imagining things, but it does seem that lesbians have been much more enthusiastic embracers of the trend to obesity than heterosexual women. Indeed, I suspect that only among homosexuals would the average woman weigh more than the average man.

    If you think I am wrong, would you invest your savings in a TV program called Lesbian Eye for the Straight Girl?

    I'm sure that there is an evolutionary psychology theory that would explain this (especially since after-the-event at least evolutionary psychologists find that everything justifies their theories). Is it because straight women presume they must conform to male stereotypes of physical attractiveness, but lesbians are liberated from this pressure? Does the absence of reproduction mean that the instinctual cues to look for a healthy mate are dulled?

    Alternative theories are welcome in the comments box.

    (Sorry, even blogs have silly seasons.)

    Friday, January 02, 2004
    A 'gorgeous fraud'

    Writing for Generation X in yesterday's Age, Annabel Crabb remarked of Gough Whitlam that 'somewhere in our hearts we suspect him of being a gorgeous fraud'. That nice turn of phrase was still in my mind last night when I saw Gough, at the National Archives for the release of the 1973 Cabinet papers, pronounce (Gough never just says) that the abolition of university fees was his greatest achievement for that year.

    Which perhaps shows just how slight his achievements were.

    Despite the fond memories many baby boomers have of that decision, it wasn't nearly as big as hindsight has made it. Thanks to the various scholarships that were available at the time, only about a quarter of students were paying for their education. So the decision had an immediate effect on only about 30,000 people.

    The more important higher education decision made in 1973 was to increase the number of commencing places at universities and the old colleges of advanced education. Throughout the last few decades places have been more important than prices to higher education access.

    At least in the medium term, though, neither decision radically changed the higher education prospects of working class people. The reason was pretty simple: low school retention rates. In 1974 only 27% of students in government schools finished Year 12. It was only the big increases in school retention rates from the late 1980s that made a serious difference to the likelihood that working class people would attend university.

    'Free' university education was, for the middle-class boomers, a 'gorgeous fraud', enhancing their wealth in the name of opportunities for the poor.

    Thursday, January 01, 2004
    A future bias?

    Happy New Year to Catallaxy readers. If you are like most people you will think that 2004 will be better than 2003. In fact Australians are more optimistic about 2004 than they have been about any year since Roy Morgan Research started asking

    As far as you're concerned, do you think [coming year] will be better or worse than [current year]?

    There is a marked contrast between optimistic surveys like this and the pessimistic "things are getting worse" polls cited by opponents of economic reform. I have a go at explaining the differences in the latest issue of Policy (in newsagents, but not yet on-line).

    One clear reason is that if you ask about the respondent and/or his family you get more positive responses than if you ask about other people. I've done more work on the issue since that article was written, and have now identified 53 surveys (including some from overseas) which ask the respondent to compare his or her current situation with another point in time. A majority always say that things now are/will the same or better (though there are more positive answers for vague questions like the Morgan poll above than for precise questions about, for example, personal finances).

    If you ask about other people, by contrast, answers are less sanguine. A couple of mid-1990s polls about quality of life in Australia found majorities thinking things were getting worse. Over 20 years from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s the American General Social Survey found a mean 60% agreement with the proposition that things were getting worse for the 'average man'.

    There is also, I think, a bias in favour of the future. So far I have examined 48 Australian polls which asked respondents about the future. Ten of these are about other people, but none of them find that even for others will things be worse - though one 1990 poll was tied (also the year in which the most pessimistic ever personal prospects were recorded). So while some surveys find that the present is worse than the past for others, they don't think the future will be worse than the present. That the present is judged worse than the past does not constitute a trend, because optimism asserts itself.

    I go into some of the reasons for these results in my article, but an important factor is the 'positive cognitive bias' that life satisfaction researchers argue exists to maintain individual well-being.

    I think intertemporal polls are weak measures of reality at some other point in time, but they do have some use in gauging current mood. That Australians have high levels of optimism about 2004 says more about 2003 than it does about 2004.

    Wednesday, December 31, 2003
    Chattering class capital?

    Melbourne's Carlton (where I live) has long had a claim to being the home of latte leftism, a bastion of chattering class causes. The left has deep roots here, from Trades Hall down the city end of Lygon St, to the Melbourne University Left across Swanston St. Gentrification since the 1970s has cost the area much of (but not all) its working class character, but the leftism has become more fashionable, rather than less prevalent. The federal seat of Melbourne, which covers Carlton, scored the highest vote in the country for the republic in 1999, and in 2002 the state seat nearly fell to the Greens.

    It came as something as a suprise, then, to see in the latest issue of Australian Book Review the best selling local books for 2003 at the local Readings bookstore, compared to its Sydney equivalent, Gleebooks. On my count, six of the top ten Australian books at Gleebooks would primarily have had a chattering class audience, while at Readings the number is only two. These are the lists, with chattering class books identified with an *:


    *1. David Marr and Marian Wilkinson: Dark Victory
    2. Anonymous (i.e. Nikki Gemmell): The Bride Stripped Bare
    3. Anne Deveson: Resilience
    *4. Clive Hamilton: Growth Fetish
    5. Peter Carey: My Life as a Fake
    *6. Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark: The History Wars
    *7.Michael Pusey: The Experience of Middle Australia
    *8.Ghassan Hage: Against Paranoid Nationalism
    * 9. Robert Manne: Whitewash
    10. Michael Leunig: Poems


    1. Anonymous (i.e. Nikki Gemmell): The Bride Stripped Bare
    *2. David Marr and Marian Wilkinson: Dark Victory
    3. David Gregory Roberts: Shantaram
    *4. Germaine Greer: Whitefalla Jump Up
    5. Tim Flannery: Beautiful Lies
    6. Don Watson: Death Sentence
    7. Sarah Turnbull: Almost French
    8. Anne Deveson: Resilience
    9. Peter Carey: My Life as a Fake
    10. Tim Winton: Dirt Music

    On this measure, Sydney (or at least Glebe) becomes the chattering class capital. Interesting, too, that while there is agreement on the top two books, there are only two overlapping titles in the next eight. I have no theories to explain these differences. With Borders opening directly opposite Readings about a year ago, if anything I would have expected Readings to lose some of its more mainstream sales to its American competitor. Suggested explanations are welcome in the comments box.

    Tuesday, December 30, 2003
    Childish innocence?

    The latest issue of Arena Magazine reviews Michael Pusey's The Experience of Middle Australia and Clive Hamilton's Growth Fetish (review not online). As you would expect of the leftist crowd at Arena, the reviews are considerably less critical than those I published in Policy (Pusey here, Hamilton here).

    I addition to comment on Pusey and Hamilton, John Hinkson, the reviewer, offers some musings on my review of Pusey. Or, to be more precise, offers some musings on what he thinks I said in my review of Pusey. Toward the end of my review, I criticised Pusey for insisting that economic rationalists believe things that they clearly do not. In his book Pusey repeats his claim that

    Our own economic rationalist prescription proceeds from the extreme assumption that economies, markets, money and prices can always, at least in principle, deliver better outcomes than states, governments, and the law.

    In response, I pointed out that nobody, aside from a few anarchists with no influence, believes this. Though I was responding directly to a statement by Pusey, Hinkson thinks this represents a 'major misunderstanding' of Pusey's argument, which Hinkson says relates to

    its [the market's] practice as a structure, not to the intentions or beliefs, practical or otherwise, of this or that actor. Maybe Norton is wilful in this regard but it is more likely he cannot grasp this.

    Huh? Of course 'practice' matters, and matters more than intentions. I devoted about a third of quite a long review to comparing claims about 'practice' made in Pusey's book with what the evidence suggests really happened. I discuss intentions because Pusey discusses them. That's what book reviewers do - they (ideally, at least) discuss the book the author has written, and do not head off on some tangent of their own.

    Hinkson goes on to say that

    Norton who, aided by a childish innocence, views the market as a neutral distributive mechanism and as a neutral facilitator of productivity.

    But I make no such claims about the market in this review or, so far as I can recall, anywhere else. Since one of the market's great strengths is its responsiveness to subjective individual preferences, 'neutral' is not a term I'd use to describe it. In a market society the state may be a 'neutral' player in economic transactions (providing a framework of property rights, contract law etc., but not specifying what is made or how it is distributed) but the market itself certainly isn't a 'neutral distributive mechanism'.

    Perhaps the market is a 'neutral facilitator of productivity', encouraging productivity without specifying how to achieve it, but this isn't a point I am making. Like much of what Pusey says, these claims by Hinkson are concocted, based on what he believes to be the case, not any evidence. Perhaps Hinkson has a 'childish innocence' in thinking, like a child, that nobody will notice when he makes things up.

    Sunday, December 28, 2003
    "Beer Wenches" Are Back
    I'm surprised this hasn't made it to "Yobbo's View", but the 'beer wenches' will be back at the SCG for the 4th test match.

    beer wench picture

    All I can say is thank god Warney isn't playing, or the Aussie team would be down to 10 every time they sent him to field in front of 'the hill'.

    How likely are poor people to go to uni?

    Governments become good at the misleading but not untrue statement, designed to present themselves favourably. Oddly, every year, just before Christmas, the Commonwealth Education Department releases its annual Higher Education Report, with a table on access that contains misleading but not untrue information that presents the government in an unfavourable light.

    And every year journalists do get it wrong. Erica Cervini in The Sunday Age is the first of them with this comment:

    The report also shows that students from poor families remain as unlikely to attend university as in the early 1990s.

    No it doesn't. What it shows is that low SES students as a proportion of the total student population are about what they were in the early 1990s. To work out how likely low SES students are to attend university we need to know low SES students as proportion of their own population.

    The best published information we have on this, the various youth surveys of the Australian Council for Educational Research, suggests that during the 1990s students from poor backgrounds became more likely to go to university. Their proportion of the total student population did not change because other socio-economic groups were increasing university attendance rates as well, keeping the relativities stable.

    For some reason, nobody has ever checked the census data on this issue, which would be much better than either existing source for calculating actual numbers. I hope the current review into access statistics recommends this improvement.




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