Catallaxy Files

polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

email: jasonsoon AT



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


Intellectual heroes



  • Centrist
  • Leftish
  • Statist quo/flaming pink
  • Sui generis
    Saturday, January 17, 2004
    Melbourne - capital of non-belief

    Continuing my occasional series on Melbourne-Sydney differences, the ABS's regional analysis released yesterday reports on the top five urban areas for ticking 'no religion' on the census form. Three of these were in the greater Melbourne metropolitan area (including, I am glad to say, my own inner Melbourne area), while none of them were in Sydney.

    My first hypothesis was that perhaps Melbourne was historically more Protestant. The differences between being Protestant and having no religion have long been narrower than the differences between being Catholic and having no religion. But this doesn't seem to be the case. Sydney's education system is more secular than Melbourne's, with its greater concentration of mostly religious private schools, so it isn't this form of socialisation (unless religious education is aversion therapy, which is a possibility). I'm at a loss to explain Melburnians's relative lack of belief. Any suggestions?

    Friday, January 16, 2004
    Not another stupid Internet quiz!
    My critics will love this result:

    the United Nations!

    Most people think you're ineffective, but you are trying to
    completely save the world from itself, so there's always going to be a long
    way to go.  You're always the one trying to get friends to talk to each
    other, enemies to talk to each other, anyone who can to just talk instead of
    beating each other about the head and torso.  Sometimes it works and sometimes
    it doesn't, and you get very schizophrenic as a result.  But your heart
    is in the right place, and sometimes also in New York.

    face="Times New Roman">Take the Country
    at the Blue Pyramid

    Ties off?

    Leftist academic Sharon Beder has now turned her attention to the suit and tie, condemning them as 'obsolete'. I certainly wasn't keen on wearing them when I started office work, and on very hot days I sometimes wish I could wear something cooler, but after a decade of wearing suits and ties I am a convert.

    One reason is that suits and ties reduce uncertainty; especially first thing in the morning when getting dressed, before I want to make any decisions (I have the same breakfast every day as well). Once you've worked out which suits go with which shirts and ties you can stay on autopilot while getting dressed. Another is that a suit and tie create positive aesthetic externalities, since even cheap versions usually look better than the stuff some guys turn up in on casual dress days (arguably they would improve their casual wardrobe if they had to wear it to work every day, though the example of academics suggests otherwise). Even the normally rather scruffy looking Ms Beder looked presentable enough when she went to her book launch in the female equivalent of the men's suit. There is also some debate about whether work clothes improve productivity. I think this depends a bit on the type of job and workplace, but I think casual days in offices which normally require suits are likely to trigger changed behaviour.

    I'm not normally one for fashion history, but Anne Hollander is very good on the subject. Her book on suits was published about a decade ago.

    Thursday, January 15, 2004
    Crime and punishment
    One cannot help but have sympathy for the friends and relatives of Constable Paul Quinn who was killed by paranoid schizophrenic Patrick Horan in 1986. If I was in their position, I would probably be feeling just as bitter and dissatisfied by the decision to release Patrick Horan into parole after 17 years. However this doesn't in any way make the parole decision wrong, nor does it even make the original decision to send Horan to jail right. Assuming that Horan was suffering from a serious mental illness when he shot Constable Quinn, what was he even doing in jail in the first place?.

    In a society based on rationalistic and humanist principles, the only aim of the criminal law should be deterrence, and where that is inapplicable, rehabilitation. Atavistic emotions such as the need for vengeance should have no place in criminal law or public policy in such a society (because if they do, then why not other atavistic emotions like xenophobia or distaste for homosexuals?) Note that, as I have argued in a previous post, the question of whether or not humans really have any free will or are no different from Pavlov's dogs make not one iota of difference to the effectiveness of deterrence - in any environment, the rule that 'if you do X, Y happens' is one that any automatons of sufficient information processing capability can understand and accordingly adjust their behaviour to - and because humans operate in a social environment as well as a natural one (assuming there is any real difference between the two), the existence of criminal laws prescribing penalties for particular behaviours is as much a conditioner of behaviour as the existence of gravity - in econospeak they are all 'price signals'.

    What does make an iota of difference is whether or not the person who faces the penalty set by the social environment belongs to a group of people who are capable of the information processing sufficiently to 'get the message' like the obviously insane. If they can't, then there is no rationale for subjecting them to the same deterrence procedures (of course one could argue that there is a deterrence benefit in increasing the effectiveness of deterring sane potential law-breakers by subjecting insane law-breakers to the rule anyway perhaps because otherwise the existence of a loophole can be exploited - say by pretending to be insane but this sounds a priori like a pretty dodgy argument - for instance, it ignores the additional resource costs of incarcerating the insane with the sane and the fact that better returns on investment in the human capital of society can be made by rehabilitating the insane).

    In short, it is neither a rational use of resources nor humane to send a madman to jail. While the friends and relatives of Constable Quinn should have our sympathy, their plea to lock up Horan for the rest of his life makes no sense.

    Andrew Norton and Alex Robson raise a few objections to my argument which I'll try to address here.

    1) Re the point that I've ignored the benefits of keeping dangerous people out of the community. A jail is not a mental hospital. Perhaps he should have been imprisoned in a mental hospital in the first place. And who is to say that in a mental hospital and with proper treatment the killer might not have qualified for release earlier rather than later? Also in extreme cases where people aren't capable of being released into the community because their mental illness is too severe - this situation would go under the 'rehabilitation' policy which I have acknowledged as a legitimate policy where deterrence is inapplicable (the point being that people would undergo special treatment until they could be rehabilitated or indefinitely remain under institutional care otherwise).

    2) Alex argues that the fact that paranoid schizophrenics are not as deterrable does not mean they cannot be deterred. But does his argument imply that no matter what the degree of mental illness, prison is still the best solution? I'm sure this isn't the conclusion he is heading towards - and if so, then his position is indistinguishable from mine and its application depends on the facts of the case. Note that I never said 'anyone who can prove the existence of some mental illness shouldn't go to jail'. That would create perverse incentives, it wouldn't be a very efficient way to set up a criminal justice system and in any case it isn't how the plea of diminished responsibility actually works. What I said was :
    "What does make an iota of difference is whether or not the person who faces the penalty set by the social environment belongs to a group of people who are capable of the information processing sufficiently to 'get the message' like the obviously insane." I then proceeded to implicitly use the working assumption that on the facts of the case, this guy Horan was probably in the grips of a severe psychotic episode when he shot the policeman.

    The utility of jail time depends on the magnitude of damage to the faculties from the illness (similarly in the case of IQ - there probably is no point to putting someone with an IQ of 40 in jail, as opposed to someone with an IQ of 80 though 80 IQ is still pretty dull). It also depends on the resource costs of keeping them in jail untreated and using jails as asylums (exposing saner criminals to danger and therefore the State to lawsuits) versus a shorter stint in a more appropriate institution.

    3) All this is actually beside the point because on the facts of the case the decision was made that the killer could be released because his condition no longer posed a danger while people opposed to his release seem to be doing so on two grounds -
    i) the understandable but nonetheless still illegitimate reason of pure revenge;
    ii) the fact that he killed a cop and 'people who kill cops should go to jail for life' (see my link to the story) which I won't comment except it sounds like a rather silly reason to me.
    IQ: Necessary but not sufficient condition for intellect
    Steve Sailer, who is mightily pissed off at Bush's immigration policy, reopens the debate on Dubya's IQ:

    Linda Gottfredson, co-director of the University of Delaware-Johns Hopkins Project for the Study of Intelligence and Society, told United Press International: "I recently converted Bush's SAT score to an IQ using the high school norms available for his age cohort. Educational Testing Service happened to have done a study of representative high school students within a year or so of when he took the test. I derived an IQ of 125, which is the 95th percentile." In other words, only one out of 20 people would score higher ...

    By way of comparison, Bush's 2000 opponent Al Gore scored 134 and 133 the two times he took an IQ test in high school, putting him just under the top 1 percent of the public. Not surprisingly, the former vice president's' SAT scores were also strong but not stratospheric: Verbal 625, Math 730, for a total of 1,355 out of a perfect score of 1,600.

    According to historian Thomas C. Reeves, author of "A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy," in prep school JFK scored a 119 on an IQ test. Reeves told UPI, "Kennedy was at no time outstanding in school; spelling was always a problem for him." ...

    University of California-Davis psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton has written numerous books using quantitative techniques to assess historical figures, including his 1987 work "Why Presidents Succeed: A Political Psychology of Leadership."

    Simonton told UPI, "In raw intellect, Bush is about average" for a president.

    On the other hand, Simonton didn't see much evidence that Bush tries hard to use the brains he's got. "He has very little intellectual energy or curiosity, relatively few interests, and a dearth of bona fide aesthetic or cultural tastes." Simonton speculated that this could suggest a low level of "openness to experience."

    Indeed, despite being the scion of an elite family with worldwide connections, Bush's hobbies appear limited to not much more than running, fishing and baseball. His biographers state, however, that he has paid relentless attention to structuring organizations and assessing the people who could fill them.

    Simonton also suggested, "Bush scores extremely low on integrative complexity. ... This is the capacity to look at issues from multiple perspectives and to integrate that diverse outlook into a single coherent viewpoint. ... Bush finds it hard to view the world in other way than his own. That's why he's so hard to engage in a genuine debate. He can say 'I hear you,' but he really can't."

    Wednesday, January 14, 2004
    Central planning strikes again

    A story in this morning's Age reports that some courses at Victorian universities are in much higher demand this year. It notes toward the end speculation that entry scores will also be pushed up by reduced supply, as universities cutback on 'places in which they over-enrol' in an attempt to avoid government financial penalties.

    This is a rather confused reference (universities 'over-enrol' in courses, not places) to the government's confused policy on student numbers. As I have regularly complained, the government allocates HECS places to universities through a quota system. At present, it is a loose quota system, with about 25% funding for student places provided above the quota. These are the so-called 'over-enrolments', which should more accurately be described as 'over-quota enrolments', since the government has no data on real capacity.

    Under Dr Nelson's new system, to start in 2005, if universities exceed their quota by 5% or more they will pay the government for these places. It is because of this absurd policy that some universities are cutting back on first year enrolments now, since anyone they take now who completes their course will take at least three years to do so, and many will take longer. Universities don't want to be stuck with students for which they will have to subsidise the Commonwealth later on. Even before the new, more intrusive, central planning system starts it is distorting resource allocation and denying capable students from taking places that universities would like to offer them.

    Tuesday, January 13, 2004
    Free trade turnaround?

    A poll reported in the Australian Financial Review this morning (can't find a link, sorry) puts support for a US-Australia free trade agreement at 53%, with only 24% opposed outright. This result contradicts all previous polling on the free trade issue. In most surveys, support for protection runs at two-thirds or more of the population. So we can we believe this poll?

    If we examine earlier polls on protection versus free trade we find that there is some, albeit limited, popular understanding of the case for free trade. For example, in 1987 the National Social Science Survey found that more people (though still not a majority) agreed than disagreed with the proposition that most Australians would benefit if tariffs were reduced (which is certainly true in financial terms). In 1997 Morgan found that 52% of its respondents agreed that lowering tariffs would encourage industry to become more competitive. Yet when it comes to actual policy questions, until now all polls have come to negative conclusions. The main reason is that people believe that reduced protection costs jobs, and they place preserving jobs above other considerations. A week before the 1997 Morgan poll just mentioned, for example, another Morgan poll found 62% support for the Howard government's recent decision to slow the rate of tariff cuts.

    This may explain why public opinion would be less opposed to free trade with the US than free trade generally. The US is not perceived as a low cost competitor that will undercut Australian manufacturers, the industry sector that has led opposition to previous moves to reduce protection. The most vocal group against the US agreement, as discussed before on this blog, has been the arts lobby. Perhaps we don't care as much about their jobs as about blue collar employment? Or maybe the public has learnt from past experience that the luvvies' political opinions are as worth listening to as the average Australian film is worth seeing?

    Another possibility is that publicity surrounding access of Australian farm exports to the US market means that people perceive that we will get something out of this deal, while earlier tariff reductions have been seen (however confused this thinking seems to economists) as Australia giving something away and getting nothing in return.

    Whatever the explanation, if this poll has picked up on real opinion it adds a political dimension to the debates about unilateral versus multilateral trade deals. While unilateral deals are regarded as inferior by virtually all economists, they may be easier to sell to a sceptical electorate.

    Monday, January 12, 2004
    The dynamics of group blogs
    The Catallaxy Crew has been a moveable feast over the years - the longest people here have been me and Heath followed very closely by Andrew Norton. Other people have posted sporadically, only never to be heard of again; some have posted more regularly and then left because of ideological schism (though Catallaxy aims to represent a very, very broad church of liberal thought, it is sometimes too broad for some); others have been vainly added to the list only to not post at all. Now a new development - Catallaxy is happy to announce the return of Teresa Fels, who, because of impending changes in employment arrangements will soon be rejoining us in the latter half of January, hopefully for the very long term. Gender balance restored!
    (Incidentally the one thing that I, Andrew, Heath and Teresa have in common is a connection to the Centre for Independent Studies.)

    Sunday, January 11, 2004
    Krugman on Ricardo and intellectual fashions
    Marginal Revolution links to this long and worthy piece by Paul Krugman on the economics of free trade titled 'Ricardo's difficult idea' (a play on 'Darwin's dangerous idea', a book by Daniel Dennett). This is Krugman at his best. Though he can still produce quality stuff for non-economists, I hanker for the days when he wrote actual economics essays - his excessive forays into the ugly polemics of US politics has not resulted in yields as good as those attained in the past, the price of ignoring Smith's great idea (specialisation and the division of labour).

    Along with an exposition of Ricardian trade theory, Krugman, who is extremely well read in neo-Darwinian theory, has some pretty pertinent things to say about intellectual fashions [1]:

    Old ideas are viewed as boring, even if few people have heard of them; new ideas, even if they are probably wrong and not terribly important, are far more attractive. And books that say (or seem to say) that the experts have all been wrong are far more likely to attract a wide audience than books that explain why the experts are probably right. Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life (Gould 1989) which to many readers seemed to say that recent discoveries refute Darwinian orthodoxy, attracted far more attention than Richard Dawkins' equally well-written The Blind Watchmaker (Dawkins 1986), which explained the astonishing implications of that orthodoxy. (See Dennett for an eye-opening discussion of Gould). Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind, which rejects the possibility of explaining intelligence in terms of computational processes, attracted far more attention than any of the exciting discoveries of cognitive scientists who are actually trying to understand the nature of intelligence.

    The same principle applies to international economics. Comparative advantage is an old idea; intellectuals who want to read about international trade want to hear radical new ideas, not boring old doctrines, even if they are quite blurry about what those doctrines actually say. Robert Reich, now Secretary of Labor, understood this point perfectly when he wrote an essay for Foreign Affairs entitled "Beyond free trade". (Reich 1983). The article received wide attention, even though it was fairly unclear exactly how Reich proposed to go beyond free trade (there is a certain similarity between Reich and Gould in this respect: they make a great show of offering new ideas, but it is quite hard to pin down just what those new ideas really are). ...

    It might be worth pointing out one exception to the general intellectual aversion to mathematical models. Intellectuals do reserve, both in evolution and economics, a small pedestal for mathematical modelers -- as long as their models are confusing and seem to refute orthodoxy. Call it the "Santa Fe syndrome". At one point in Dennett's book he reports a list of the top ten objections raised to Steven Pinker's theories about the evolution of language; one of them is "Natural selection is irrelevant, because now we have chaos theory". At about the same time I read this passage I had received a barrage of protests over an article that tried, without explicit mathematics, to walk through some simple models of international trade (Krugman 1994); several of the letters insisted that because of nonlinear dynamics it was impossible to reach any meaningful conclusions from simple models. ("Have you ever thought about the implications of increasing returns? You should read the work of Brian Arthur and Paul Romer.")

    There are two odd things about the popularity of certain kinds of mathematical modeling among intellectuals who are generally hostile to such models. One is that the preferred models are typically far more difficult and obscure than the standard models in the field. The other is that the supposedly heterodox conclusions of these models are often not heterodox at all. To take a theme common to both evolution and economics: the idea that small random events can under certain conditions set in motion a cumulative process of change is the theme both of "peacock's tail" accounts of sexual selection and of external economy accounts of international specialization, both familiar stories that lie well inside the boundaries of academic orthodoxy, stories that can be and are illustrated with simple models in advanced undergraduate textbooks like Maynard Smith (1989) and Krugman and Obstfeld (1994). Yet many intellectuals believe that this idea was discovered at Santa Fe and challenges the foundations of both fields.

    [1] Krugman's reference to 'Santa Fe' is an obvious allusion to the Santa Fe Institute, home of complexity research.
    Tex points to this posting on the Silemt Running blog which reproduces a true story related on a mailing list. It's worth reading in full:

    I wanted to let you all know of something that I experienced on Monday 5th January in the Co-Op Bookstore at Broadway - Bay Street.

    I asked the sales consultant for a book called "The Holocaust in History" by M Marrus, its a University text that I am required to purchase for my final year of Holocaust study.

    The consultant asked me why I wanted that book. Then he told me that I should ask for a book on the Cambodian Holocaust or the African Holocaust. He then asserted that he was "sick of Jews and their complaining about what happened to them in WWII".

    He told me that "more Gypsies died during WWII but if anyone mentions this truth, Jews scream anti-Semitism".

    Then, he told me that "Jews are perpetrating genocide against the Palestinians" but no one can do anything about it because the "Jews control the world". His last statements were "I don't know if you're a Jew or not, but I have friends who Hate Israel".

    The point of me telling you all this, is because he refused to sell me the book.

    So I left the Co-Op without the book.

    This sort of thing disgusts and distresses me on so many levels. It's what you'd expect the .safari suit-wearing dictator of a third world country to cynically say without actually believing in a bid to deflect attention from the deficiencies of his rule. It's not what you expect a presumably left-leaning university educated employee of an academic bookshop to go around spouting and seriously believing. Lots of left-wing types seem to be using Ariel Sharon as an excuse to be anti-semitic.




    < Home  |  Archives