Catallaxy Files

polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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  • Jason Soon
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    Friday, February 06, 2004
    NSW - Clumsy State

    Many people have told me to get a life, but it is also interesting to find out how people lose a life. The Australian Bureau of Statistics' Deaths from External Causes: 1998 to 2002, released today, contains some answers.

    One of the things that struck me, fortunately figuratively, after I moved to Sydney a decade ago was that pedestrians there seemed more suicidal than anywhere else in Australia. It was infectious too; within months of arriving there another fellow ex-Melburnian took up the local habit of walking in front of moving cars. Unfortunately for my theory, NSW pedestrians are only marginally more likely than the average Australian pedestrian to kill themselves, with a death rate of 1.9 per 100,000, compared to the national average of 1.8 per 100,000. Victoria was on the national average.

    Some of the differences in deaths are quite predictable. People in NSW and Queensland are more likely to drown than people in Victoria, the price they pay for better weather. Other differences are harder to explain. People in NSW seem rather clumsy, with a death rate of 3.4 per 100,000 from falls, compared to only 1.9 per 100,000 in Victoria. On the other hand, Victorians need to read their labels more carefully, with a death rate from accidental poisoning of 4.9 per 100,000 compared to 3.7 per 100,000 in NSW.

    I'm not sure what an 'exposure to inanimate mechanical forces' is, but try to avoid it next time you are in Tasmania. It wipes Tasmanians out at a rate that is twice the national average.
    Free the knowledge worker!
    My first and hopefully last experience with the corporate world was immediately after graduating from university when I joined the Transfer Pricing division of a major accounting firm as an economist. I lasted nine months in that job before getting bored and being lured over to NECG. Now, I don't want to sound ungrateful. The people who recruited me to my first job were great people to work with and obviously of exceedingly sound judgement, and my colleagues were great. And I am the sort of person who enjoys going through learning curves and is more likely to quit out of boredom rather than money. After all, if you're going to be spending at least 8 hours a day doing something, it should be something that can hold your interest even in your spare time - well, that's my philosophy anyway.

    However something about the irrationality and the regimentation of the corporate environment put me off immediately, and my first full-time employer is not at all the only firm guilty of exuding such an environment. The concept of wearing a suit in the heat of summer or indeed any other time of the year (unlike Andrew I am not at all sympathetic to the idea that there is some sense in making men wear suits), the idea that one has to be seen coming into the office and leaving the office at specific times, the very idea that one had to work at specific times, the idea that all or most briefings had to be done face to face, the various administrivia that workers in corporate environments have to contend with, even the filling in of timesheets I found irritating or galling to various degrees.

    Of course, even in my current job I cannot avoid having to fill in timesheets - they are the bane of existence of every 'information worker' or, in the terminology of Robert Reich, symbolic analyst. Our time is what the bosses charge out to clients and the true 'capital' in consulting companies, not computers or factories or other machinery. The rest of the practices, the dos and don't that I have listed arguably can be dispensed with, not only with no great harm to anyone but likely with substantial boosts in morale, motivation, a sense of 'fun' at work, and increased productivity and profits.

    Suits: In the consulting firm where I currently work, some of my colleagues dress even more informally than me, and I am not exactly a connoisseur of the latest Italian suits. This being summer, three are in shorts, one goes around in sandals, one goes around barefoot. Even my boss i.e. the Managing Director of NECG rarely wears a suit unless he is meeting with a client who is still unfortunate enough to be working in the Suited Era. Of the Sydney Principals, only one wears a suit. Contrary to the assertion that being in formal clothing enhances productivity and conscientiousness (the banking sector being a prime example - NOT) I have yet to meet a harder working, more motivated and conscientious group of workers than my slippered colleagues, who when the going gets tough, can work 12 or more hour days. As for the aesthetic externalities of suits, I can only draw on my subjective perceptions here. Apologies to readers who fall into this category but whenever I see an unfortunate soul bedecked in a suit in a hot summer's day, the words 'pretentious wanker' cannot help but fall into my head subconsciously even though I know that unfortunate soul more often than not would rather not be wearing one. Note that to the extent that externalities are being imposed nowadays, they are negative ones, like the one imposed on my boss (or at times me) when we have to venture out to see a besuited client and have to conform to their dress code. Let's call off the arms race, people! Who are we showing off to?

    Office hours, being in the office, etc: As noted, when the project demands it, 12 hour days may not be unusual. And at other times, especially if we have had a period of working long hours and workflow is slack, 'time in lieu' is allowed to be taken off in compensation. Many knowledge worker/symbolic analyst jobs are project-based rather than jobs which require one to be around in a physical location at a particular time (e.g. air traffic controller) so the whole culture about having to be seen in the office at a certain time, to do one's work at certain times, or to be in the office is just redundant. Some or all these things may be required according to the demands of the project one is involved in but there is no reason to adopt these trappings of office culture for their own sake. Of course one may want to put in regular hours in the office anyway because one desires the company/interaction of one's colleagues to bounce ideas off, etc. Well, horses for courses. That is indeed one of the reasons why I go into the office a few days a week. The social element. The other element though is quite different from traditional conceptions of 9 to 6 culture - the office as a 'change of environment' i.e. not wanting to be cooped up in my apartment all the time; the office as 'infrastructure' - going in to get hold of articles, for photocopying, to use the meeting rooms as required for brainstorming sessions on projects, etc. Missing is the element of seeing the office as the exclusive place to which work is restricted. As a result my comings and goings are less regular and predictable than 9 to 6 culture dictates. Some colleagues prefer to go into the office for 80 or 90% of their working time, others want to maintain a strict separation, others work from home almost all the time. Office managers are going to have to adopt to these new trends as they have in my firm - for instance there are so-called 'hot rooms' available for the last category - people who work from home almost all of the time and therefore only infrequently use the office. These people don't get storage space, only a docking station for their laptops, Internet cable connection and a phone and share with other 'hot room' occupants.

    The other aspect to organising work on a project-based footing is that even with the standard 'minimum of 40 hours a week, 80% billable' target which we have in our firm, there is no explicit specification that these be done on particular days or in a particular pattern. Again, it's all project-based and depends on who you're working with and what their expectations are about the collaboration. I have for certain periods, worked 3 11 hour days and one 8 hour day and taken the 5th day off without anyone noticing - if it has no impact on the progress of the project, it shouldn't be anyone's concern. Other weeks when I've slackened off I've made up for it on the weekend. Of course the key to this sort of flexibility working is self-control. People who feel they are lacking in self-control may think they're better off committing to being in the office and working around certain routines. This freedom I think enhances the worker's sense of autonomy and 'flow'. It also works out well for people who want to work reduced hours (for instance we have one currently on a 3 day a week contract) and do so on a pro-rata basis or based on a fraction of the full-time salary.

    Why am I writing about this? I suppose in part so my fellow knowledge workers can be aware that there are firms out there which engage in practices which essentially give one the best of both worlds - the flexibility and autonomy of the free agent but with the income and workflow 'insurance' provided by working for a firm. 'Organisation man', the business suit and the bureaucratic hierarchical corporate organisation deserve to go the way of the dodo.

    Wednesday, February 04, 2004
    Right wing arationalism?
    Maverick paleo-conservative thinker Steve Sailer has caught on to the same zeitgeist as social-democrat John Quiggin:

    The politicians' problem is an example of the growing arationalism on the Right: the feeling that strong belief is far more important than mere facts.

    Partly, this stems from the President's personal history: God helped him stop drinking and thus set him on the road to the White House. So, who is he to to question too deeply the wonder-working power of the occasional idea that pops into his head? Maybe it's God telling him to invade Iraq or open the borders. How can you prove it's not God telling him to do these things? (Keep in mind that if you had ideas as rarely as George W. Bush does, you might also be inclined to view each one as some kind of miracle.)

    Moreover, there's the infection of the Right by the postmodernism & multiculturalism rampant in our society: "Truth" doesn't exist, it is just what the power structure (whether the heterosexist white male patriarchy or the liberal media establishment) says it is, yada yada. Creationism is a wound through which leftist postmodern disparagement of science enters the conservative mind.
    Immigration, cultural capital and globalism
    Tyler Cowen, writing from an American context and putting the Bush immigration plan in perspective, neatly summarises the dilemma faced by 'one world' libertarians like myself:

    Here are some basic options:

    1. Let everyone in.
    2. Let everyone in but terrorists and the infectious.
    3. Let many people in but try to control their behavior ex post.
    4. Try to keep as many people out as possible.
    5. Try to influence who gets in.
    6. Create new and differential legal categories, as the Bush plan would do, or as the Germans have done.

    Start with #1 and #2, which to my mind won't work in today's world. I do favor increased levels of immigration, but not laissez-faire. What are the problems?

    a. American cities and suburbs would become ringed with shantytowns
    b. American hospitals and medical facilities would become overburdened
    c. Some immigrants would pose threats to public order
    d. Assimilation might become more difficult, as the numbers of immigrants from each region increase
    e. The political backlash would be enormous

    The net result would be bad for the immigrants as well as bad for the United States. Even if you count an immigrant's welfare as equal to the welfare of an American citizen, free immigration would not prove sustainable. Keep in mind that one percent of the Chinese population is about thirteen million people.

    Note that none of these are economic problems in the narrow sense, although they have economic aspects. Most are cultural problems.

    Tuesday, February 03, 2004
    Rupert Murdoch's politics

    There is an article in the latest issue of Australian Book Review on Rupert Murdoch's political beliefs. The author, leftist David McKnight, sees more unity in Murdoch's beliefs than someone with a more nuanced understanding of right-of-centre politics would see. He sees Murdoch's position on Cato's board as at one with his financial backing of The Weekly Standard. Yet the two are ideologically quite different, in domestic politics one is libertarian, the other is conservative; in foreign policy one is isolationalist, the other is interventionist.

    Issue could also be taken with McKnight's characterisation of The Australian as a mouthpiece for Murdoch's right-of-centre views. Certainly it has, over the years, given more favourable coverage to economic reform than the Fairfax press, and is in general much less captive of the Whitlam generation than the SMH or especially The Age. Yet this could also be characterised as filling a niche in the Australian newspaper publishing market. In any case, The Australian's liberalism/conservatism has been less monolothic than for example The Age's leftism. Though their pages are not closed to non-leftists, they don't have any regular right-of-centre columnists of their own except, perhaps, their recent addition Greg Hywood. The Australian, by contrast, has several left-of-centre regulars, including (groan) Phillip Adams, Peter Botsman and Ross Fitzgerald.

    That said, McKnight's article is better than most of the genre. He has at least done some real research, citing actual articles rather than general impressions. This should not be noteworthy, but it is.
    Religion and politics #2

    When former Archbishop Peter Hollingworth become Governor-General it was widely criticised as if not violating a distinction between church and state, then at least getting too close to violating it for comfort.

    Even before the child abuse scandals consumed Hollingworth, there were good reasons for not appointing him as G-G. As Gerard Henderson argued people with church backgrounds preside over institutions which have histories of which they may or may not be aware. More open or publicly accountable institutions are less likely to have these unexpected problems.

    However I have much less in-principle concern about religion in politics than I think Jason has, in his post below. The separation of church and state was not a secular innovation; it was precisely because religion was regarded as so important that ways had to be found to make religious differences non zero-sum, and therefore avoid violent religious conflict. It was not intended that people keep their religious views completely out of politics, just that they not impose their religion on others.

    Since there was no scope for Hollingworth to impose his religion on others I was unconcerned by the fact that he was so religious. The Henderson objection would apply to any senior figure from an organisation with similar characteristics.

    While I personally prefer Australia's secular culture to the US's more religious culture, I think the 'fundamentalist' nature of US religious belief is often exaggerated. This article by Alan Wolfe, an eminent mildly left sociologist, gives a more nuanced account.

    Monday, February 02, 2004
    Religion and politics
    Perhaps nothing illustrates the differences between US and Australian political culture more than this lament by Cathy Young at the Reason website:

    The other day, I was reading an interview with Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean in Newsweek when I had to stop and check that it was indeed Newsweek and not, say, Christianity Today. Yes, it was indeed Newsweek. And, after a series of questions about a variety of public policy issues, Dean was asked, out of the clear blue, the following question: "Do you see Jesus Christ as the son of God and believe in him as the route to salvation and eternal life?" For the record, Dean's somewhat cagey answer probably did little to assuage doubts about his religious faith: "I certainly see him as the son of God. I think whether I'm saved or not is not gonna be up to me." The real issue, though, is why this question even came up in a political magazine. Do we now have a religious test for public office—something that was explicitly rejected by the Founders of the United States of America? ...

    In late December, The New Republic published a cover story by Franklin Foer on "Howard Dean's religion problem." Foer explained that, no matter what his actual policy positions, Dean would have trouble presenting himself as a moderate or a centrist because he is "one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history." He has said that he doesn't go to church very often and that religion does not inform his views on public policy, and "when he discusses spirituality, it is generally divorced from any mention of God or church."

    Say what you want about the dominant thread of earthy utilitarianism in most Australian political discourse (versus the at times messianic idealism in US political discourse) but at least it means that emotionally touchy issues like abortion are left to compromise and defused and Australian conservatives for the most part aren't Bible-bashers; and even someone as socially conservative as John Howard had no problems with stem cell research. Let's hope that stays the same despite Howard's recent allusion to the need for 'values' in schools (frankly I'd rather ensure that all schoolchildren were properly educated in Logic, Probability and Statistics) and Jensen's recent calls for school prayer.

    Sunday, February 01, 2004
    Copyright debate roundup
    Tech-oriented blogger Shanness (whose site is well worth a regular visit) points to a NY Times piece entitled The tyranny of copyright? which discusses the so-called 'Copy Left' movement. The term 'Copy Left' used in the mag is really a bit of a hyped up term as all it connotes is a movement that rejects absolutist conceptions of intellectual property, a position that pretty much lines up with sensible neoclassical economics:

    Thinkers like Lessig and Zittrain promote a vision of a world in which copyright law gives individual creators the exclusive right to profit from their intellectual property for a brief, limited period -- thus providing an incentive to create while still allowing successive generations of creators to draw freely on earlier ideas. They stress that borrowing and collaboration are essential components of all creation and caution against being seduced by the romantic myth of ''the author'': the lone garret-dwelling poet, creating masterpieces out of thin air.

    Meanwhile, one of the 'Copyleft' movement's activists, law professor Larry Lessig debates the Cato Institute's Adam Thierer on the so-called 'cyber commons' idea (see Thierer's original article here. It's a pity that Lessig has to resort to smearing Cato as advocating an 'anti- cyber-commons' position because of funding. Thierer is one guy in Cato and there are others in that estimable think-tank who have advocated far more radical watering down or abolition of copyright than even Lessig himself so to accuse Cato of selling out because of one piece by Thierer is rather clutching at straws. Is it that hard to believe that on an esoteric issue of great complexity like copyright, reasonable people can sincerely disagree? As Julian Sanchez argues:

    As Lessig himself notes, Cato folk have been on the other side of copyright questions before, and I'm pretty sure opposing the Iraq war was a bigger net risk to funding than supporting spectrum commons would be. Attacking people's motives is the desperate tactic of those who don't have the arguments on their side; here it serves as a toxic sprig of parsley on an otherwise well-crafted meal.

    It's also worth noting that Cato only recently put out an anthology on intellectual property co-edited by Thierer which contained a range of different views - you can read my brief review of the anthology here.

    Finally, Liebowitz and Margolis argue the pro-copyright extension case in this recent piece for the AEI-Brookings Joint Centre for Regulatory Studies They summarise their argument as follows:

    First, private ownership of creative works may internalize potentially important externalities with respect to the use of existing works and the creation of derivative works. Second, the Eldred economists neglect the elasticity of the supply of creative works in their analysis, focusing instead solely on the benefits received by authors. Consequently, they may underestimate the potential for additional creativity, which confers benefits immediately. Third, the Eldred economists neglect certain features of copyright law, such as fair use, the distinction between idea and expression, and the parody exemption, which mitigate the costs of copyright. Finally, we present data that counters a common claim that copyright extension so far out in the future can have little effect on creativity. The small fraction of books that have the majority of commercial value when they are new appear to remain valuable for periods of time that are consistent with the expanded term of copyright under CTEA.




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