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polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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    Saturday, January 31, 2004
     
    Opera House justice

    Whether or not they are soft on crime generally, the courts have often been soft on politically-motivated crime. I don't think anyone was convicted over the violent protests in Melbourne during anti-globalisation's pre-September 11 2001 heyday. The people who trashed my office space and that of my colleagues in April 2001 also got away with a ticking off from the bench.

    It was pleasing, then, to see that the two guys who defaced the Opera House in protest against the Gulf War have received nine months periodic detention and are having to pay for the damage they caused. They should have been put away for the whole nine months, but periodic detention is a start.

    Outside the court they displayed the usual intellectual rigour of the contemporary left. One of the defendants, Will Saunders, complained about the size of the clean-up bill and claimed that the war itself was a bigger crime than his own. Even it was, it hardly justifies an action that no person with their full set of marbles could have thought would affect the war either way. Saunders should have stuck to the unhappy childhood excuse trotted out as the standard defence in criminal cases.

    If The Age's take on the case is right, the defence lawyer wants to appeal, on the grounds it seems that the trial judge would not let them plead self-defence. January's not even over, and already we have a frontrunner for the most ludicrous legal argument of the year.

     
    Off course?

    John Cain and a co-author, John Hewitt, this morning continue The Age's complaint that the University of Melbourne isn't like it was in the past. Since I work for the U of M - and do not comment on its policies in public - I will restrict my comments to other matters.

    Most of the article is assertion without evidence, but where Cain mentions 'facts' he gets them wrong. He muddles full-fee local undergraduates with HECS students who pay up-front. The latter get a discount, the former do not. He falsely claims that overseas students affect the number of local students. They do not - the number of local students is the product of quotas set by the Commonwealth government, the price prospective Australian students pay for the 'public' intervention Cain thinks should be increased.

    Yesterday I read the book on which the article is based, Off Course. It's more coherent than the op-ed, but nevertheless
    just a unoriginal rehash of objections to 1980s and beyond higher education policy and 1990s and beyond University of Melbourne strategies. Anyone who has been following these issues won't find anything they haven't heard plenty of times before.

    One of the nice little ironies of this debate is that those who claim to be defending universities as 'communities of scholars' are so often rather weak on scholarship themselves. Leaving aside the basic philosophical differences I have with someone like Cain, the book is full of errors that a little fact checking would have cleared up.

    Don Aitken was never VC of ANU (he was VC of the University of Canberra). The University of Melbourne does not have 3,000 central administration staff. The University Council size was reduced in 1998, not 1995 (important, because one of the key decisions to which Cain objects, the founding of Melbourne Uni Private, was made under the old 'representative' style Council). The years 1950 to 1985 were not distinguished by striving for 'greater equality of access'; at least for low-income groups the best times occurred after 1985.

    In some cases, even talking to the co-author might have helped. Several times it is said that not indexing university grants to pay salary increases was a decision of the Howard government. It wasn't - it was a Labor decision, as is said (by an interviewee) on p.168.

    On one occasion, the author(s) contradict themselves within 13 lines, first saying that when the Dawkins reforms were introduced David Caro was VC, then saying that David Penington took over a year before the Dawkins changes were introduced (the changes were under Penington). Were the editors asleep as well?

    Verdict: Will quickly join John Cain's autobiography in boosktore remainder bins.



    Thursday, January 29, 2004
     
    Too much choice?

    Marginal Revolution reports on research that too much choice is bad, that it actually erodes our psychological well-being. I certainly know people who are paralysed by choice. I wouldn't take them to a restaurant with a long menu. We'd be there all night just choosing what to eat. (Perhaps to cater to this group, a restaurant in Carlton has a very restricted, though regularly changing menu. It always seems busy.)

    The trouble with these people is that they are 'maximisers' rather than 'satisficers', trying to make the optimal choice rather than merely a satisfactory choice. When I see something on a menu that I like I'll often choose that straight away. If it isn't good, or somebody else ends up with something I think I'd like more, I'll put it down to trial and error. It is not worth worrying about.

    While choice creates problems or the maximisers, I doubt I will agree with Barry Schwartz's book against it, The Paradox of Choice, when I read it.

    Choice allows for niche markets to be catered for (e.g. restaurants for maximisers), fosters innovation (same e.g.) and its competitive element helps maintain quality.

    Maximisers may create positive externalities for satisficers, at least when satisficers don't have to wait for them to make a decision, by taking more care with their decisions and directing business to the best goods and services. Maximisers work to improve choice, even if choice does not work for them.

    Wednesday, January 28, 2004
     
    The dead hand of the bureaucracy

    Ross Gittins is in the Fairfax press again this morning arguing that taxes must rise. That's easy for someone earning several times average weekly earnings to say. While I am fully aware of the budgetary pressures Gittins describes, there is still plenty of scope for curbing expenditure.

    We could start with sacking education bureaucrats. Also reported this morning is the NSW proposal to bury private schools in bureaucracy. It seems rather odd that NSW education bureaucrats, who are doing such a wonderful job that they are having trouble even giving their own educational product away, think that there is something wrong with the private schools, which they must intervene to fix.

    As the story says, at least some of the private schools are fighting the requirement that all teachers receive formal educational qualifications. I can remember when this became an issue in Victoria. Former teachers of mine at the small private school I attended, after years of experience in the classroom, had to go back and pick up 'qualifications' before they could continue. From my perspective as a student they had all at least been ok, and at least one of them outstanding. Additional study merely took away time they could have spent on their job, or disrupted the 'work-life' balance that is more fashionable now than it was then.

    None of the proposed NSW regulations seem necessary. Parents will always have a far greater interest in their children's well-being than some faraway bureaucrat, looking at numbers but unable to see the day-to-day impact the school is having on the child. I think it is good for schools to publish their results, as NSW would require, but I don't think it should be mandatory. Parents can draw the appropriate conclusions if schools do not publish.

    Private schools are in a competitive market, competing with each other and with the state system. Market regulation like this is both powerful and flexible, allowing the diverse requirement of parents and children to be met. The NSW Education bureaucrats suggesting increased regulation are worse than redundant. Sacking them all and returning the money to taxpayers would be the better option.

    Monday, January 26, 2004
     
    Spam, Spam Everywhere ? and not a bite to eat.

    Last week I incredibly received (in the one day) spam inviting me to ?meet single women like myself? and to also ?stay hard all night? with a natural alternative to viagra. This, in my view, is the final sign that spam is out of control. After all, how many single hermaphrodites with impotence problems are there in Australia? This absurd incident motivated me to do a bit more detailed analysis of the spam I am receiving.

    In the last 24 hours I received 122 email messages at my Hunterlink (personal use) email address, 121 of which were spam. In retrospect, today was probably not the best day for analysing the share of my email that is spam. Weekends and holidays tend to be quiet days for the mailing lists I?m on and few of my friends email on weekends. However, analysing the type of spam should still be reasonably valid ? unless certain types of spammers don?t like working weekends. This analysis was quite fascinating.

    Despite the hype about out of control p0rn spam, the largest single category (39% of my spam) was advertisements for viagra, viagra substitutes and assorted devices, tools and techniques for penis enlargement. Whilst these might be considered offensive by some people, and certainly are sexual in nature ? the advertisements themselves weren?t pornographic.

    The next largest category was advertisements from online pharmacies (26%). There was some overlap here with the viagra category, so my rule of thumb was that if the advertisement was offering more than sexual enhancement, then it went in the online pharmacy category. Almost all the online pharmacy spams also offered viagra!

    So what was the remaining 35% made up of?

    Finance related spam (cheap loans, credit cards, insurance) made up about 8% of my spam. Next in line was the opportunity to participate in assorted money making scams including offers to make money on E-bay, get paid for my opinions or participate in the latest variant on the Nigerian scam. (7%).

    P0rn spam was actually a meagre 5% of my spam.

    And the spam especially for Andrew ? offers to sign up online and receive my Diploma or PhD ?in days?. I?d like to see an Australian university beat that!

    Fellow bloggers ? share your spam analysis now via the comments section.

    Edit:

    Interestingly ? the first comment I got from Observa was ?why not use mailwasher?? As a matter of fact I have been using the free version of Mailwasher 2.0 for about four or five months now, including adding addresses to both my whitelist and ban list ? supposedly helping it to get smarter.

    With Mailwasher on the ?Careful? setting, it picked just 34% of the messages as spam, whilst switching to ?Strong? yielded a slight improvement to 56%.

    I?m still in two minds as to whether to persevere with Mailwasher. On the one hand, I like the idea of being able to ?bounce? an error message back to a spammers address. On the other hand ? Mailwasher is incredibly weak at times. I?ll have multiple copies of the one message in my inbox, yet only one will get marked as spam.

    I?m seriously considering going back to Spameater Pro or even one of the hosted style solutions that work on a ?challenge and reply? basis.

    Fellow bloggers ? share your spam analysis now via the comments section.
     
    We are all liberals now
    2blowhards has an enlightening series of interviews with traditionalist conservative blogger and writer Jim Kalb here, here and here. Jim Kalb is probably the most eloquent, erudite and thoughtful defender of a political ideology that I personally find abhorrent and a glorified form of obscurantism, and I say this with all due respect to Mr Kalb so the interviews are well worth reading. These interviews are enlightening because they put the petty bickerings between the mainstream Left and Right very much in perspective as the bickering of siblings. For instance:


    2B: In one of your online papers, you distinguish between liberalism, libertarianism, and conservatism. Jeremy Shearmur once talked about how, in his view, there are three main political traditions: conservatism, liberalism (subdivided into market liberalism, ie. Republicans, and welfare liberals, ie., Democrats), and socialism. Is that a taxonomy you can live with? Does it conflict with yours?

    Kalb: I don't object to Shearmur's taxonomy. It's a little different from mine but not really at odds with it. There are different ways of sorting things out. I mostly sort out politics by looking at ultimate standards of what's good and bad. So when I say "liberal" I mean a tendency that makes equality and satisfaction of individual preferences the standards for what's good. On that line of thought welfare state liberalism and ideological libertarianism are variations of the same thing. Both are basically concerned with satisfying individual preferences and both take all preferences as equal in worth. They contrast with conservatism because conservatism says the human good is more complicated than everyone getting what he wants.

    In the paper you mention (here) the emphasis is on methods more than goals. I say there that a "leftist" is someone who favors bureaucracy, a "libertarian" is someone who favors markets, and a "conservative" is someone favors tradition -- that is, who favors accepting institutions that have grown up more or less on their own terms. Leftists and libertarians in their different ways want to make everything completely rational and systematic, and conservatives reject that idea ..

    2B: Is liberalism the opposite of conservatism? Or is radicalism the opposite of conservatism?

    Kalb: I'd say that modernism is the opposite of conservatism. Liberalism and radicalism are both forms of modernism -- liberalism is an individualistic form and radicalism an aggressive form.


    By conservatism, what Kalb means is the real thing - European conservatism a la Joseph de Maistre, and it's clear from what he says that his conservatism is very much a minority position today in most of the developed world. There are elements of genuine 'Kalbean' conservatism that can be found in members of the mainstream right who are also socially conservative but by and large, arguably this is nowadays confined to diminishing ranks of small assorted groups such as fundamentalist Christians who want to introduce their religion into politics, nativists and subscribers to Santamaria's News Weekly. Kalb is also spot on when he implies that most of the mainstream left and right nowadays is united by a form of utilitarianism, with most bickerings really about the means of implementing this utilitarianism (varying mixtures of markets and government intervention) rather than fundamental ends. Since this is identified with 'liberalism' under Shearmur's taxonomy, it's fair to say we are all liberals now.

    A few other miscellaneous points I'd like to make in response to Kalb's formulations:
    1) While Kalb refers to the possibility of an American conservatism, I'd argue that conservatism is very much opposed to the founding principles of his country which are even more explicitly based on modernist Enlightenment principles than even Australia (which had as its founding theme the impeccably conservatives themes of nationalism and a White Australia) or the UK. Thus his project seems doomed to fail.
    2) Ironically the biggest market for the sort of traditionalist conservatism promoted by Kalb is in the less modern, and err, let's face it, less civilised and enlightened societies of the world. The catch is people are fundamentally the same and though it takes one or two generations, when people from those parts of the world come to live in Western countries they stop being traditionalist conservatives and become utilitarian liberals like the rest of us. I'd argue in contradiction to Kalb who also has a 'human nature' argument for his ideology (we could both be wrong) that humans have an innate need for novelty, challenge, variety and complexity once fundamental needs like food, drink and shelter are met and this is best served by te zeitegeist in dynamic liberal capitalist polities and would be suppressed by traditionalist conservative societies.

     

     
       
       

     

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