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


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  • Centrist
  • Leftish
  • Statist quo/flaming pink
  • Sui generis
    Friday, August 15, 2003
    Howard's UnHoly Trinity
    Despite cynical electoral methods and dodgy political ministers, Howard will win the next election because he delivers on the three issues that count the most

    There has been a spate of criticism of John Howard's rule in the blogosphere recently, with the learned legal scholar Ken Parish, giving the thumbs down to "the Howard government as possibly the worst Australia has ever seen", the erudite Professor John Quiggin lamenting on the decline in ministerial ethics and America-frequenter Tim Dunlop's auto-repeat blog still stuck in it's anti-Howard/Bush groove.
    This C-filer would have to agree that Howard's methods have been brutal, ministers have been deceitful and policies have been illiberal.

    There is much to rue over Howard's domestic policy in regard to the white-anting of Medicare, the gutting of science and technology research and the polarisation of income distribution.

    And foreign policy has not been all wine and roses, with a pre-emptive war waged on a dubious pretext, worthy folk fleeing despotic states being hurled into cages and threats to attack neighbouring states issued with casual disregard to diplomatic niceties.

    Despite all that, Howard will win the next election because he delivers the primary goods to the good folk who count where it costs. Since I am partial to triplets, let this platform be called the "Howard's UnHoly Trinity":
    Howard has more or less indicated that he is going to stand on his record in these matters for the next election. The Age reports the PM flagging this triad of goals as the core of his electoral strategy:
    Prime Minister John Howard has signalled he will take his Government to a full three-year term and
    will fight an election campaign based on national security, social stability and economic strength

    Some may deride Howard's needling of our nameless fears of aliens, others may be repulsed by his government's grasping petty-bourgeois mercenary mentality and still others may scoff at his white-bread white-picket fence cultural values.
    But the fact is that he has shifted Australia's ideological spectrum to the Right on politics and culture because that is what the situation called for.
    The Left has only itself to blame for this, since it has wilfully toyed with foolish post-modernist Identity Politics thereby courting a reaction from Middle Australia.
    It is for these reasons, with certain misgivings about threats, bubbles and values, that the Catallaxian hereby commits himself to giving Howard's government one of his higher voting preferences.

    LSE days
    Alright I just dumped on London for the lack of air conditioning so I should say some nice things about it now. I'm a culture vulture so despite the terribly uncomfortable conditions I found lots of great things to do in London - the British Museum, the National Gallery with its great collection of Impressionists (my favourite), the Tate Modern with its extremely quirky collection, plays at the Globe (I saw an all female cast playing Richard III and an all male cast playing Edward II), and the Museum of National History were highlights, as was the visit to Cambridge.

    The LSE Summer School experience was on the whole enjoyable though I enjoyed the second course (Advanced Micro) a lot more. It's been a long time since I've done any serious math problems and I certainly got a lot of that in this course and it's inspired my desire to pick up more math/game theory related stuff. The first half of this course was a very intensive revision and in some cases new exploration for me of game theory (Robert Gibbons' primer was a very good resource for me) while the second half covered imperfect information (Kreps' book was the most useful here though Kreps is a bit long winded).
    Whinging about the Old World
    Some of you would have heard of the heatwave striking Europe. You may wonder why these backward Continentals and Brits don't want to use airconditioning. I wonder the same thing. The common excuse is that it's not always this hot so it's not economical. I don't buy this. Hot is hot, and personally anything over 30 is too hot for me[1]. Friends who have been in London for some years tell me it always is fairly hot in summer and every year, year after year Londoners run into the same problems - trials are cancelled, people are sent home from work, train services are disrupted - all because airconditioning can't cope or railway tracks can't cope. Yet why don't the Brits do something about this? Is this some Old World thing - that they'd rather muddle through stoically using 'traditional ways'? If so, give me US rah-rah over technology and manifest destiny any day.

    Seriously, I am quite annoyed as a visitor. The Tube is a personal hell for me without air conditioning but it's too hot to walk under the hot sun either, as it is to get into a crowded bus. Thus one simply has no desire to go anywhere because the heat saps all your energy. If, say, one in 4 establishments were airconditioned then it could be bearable because one could stop at an air conditioned oasis to replenish one's endurance for the next struggle, but no such luck. This is not to mention the almost complete lack of refrigeration. One would think a pub of all places would be the place to get an iced drink, but no, one gets warm 'ice tea' in a pub with no ice cubes. Just about the only place where one can reliably get an ice drink is Starbucks (again, thank God for Americans!) In general there is a lack of comfortable indoor places to sit even when waiting for a performance. It is assumed that one wants to bake to death under the sun.

    I make this serious pledge - I am *never*, *never* ever going anywhere near Europe during the summer months again.

    [1] In case anyone points out I'm Malaysian born, I should note that every middle class Malaysian home has a large ceiling fan, and almost every Malaysian eating place has a fan or airconditioning indoors. Furthermore it is not unusual to see Malaysians carrying *umbrellas* in hot weather when walking outdoors. This is in stark contrast to the English and generally Western penchant for sunbathing. When I was a child growing up in Malaysia, my mother would not go anywhere with us without carrying an umbrella. As a consequence I was sometimes nicknamed the 'albino' in school. Ironically my skin got darker only when we migrated to Australia and I discovered that these crazy Aussies actually played cricket and stuff like that in the noonday sun.

    Also being of Chinese descent, and Northern Chinese on my father's side I think I am probably more adapted for cold weather, than, say, the average Mediterranean.

    Wednesday, August 13, 2003
    Hayek as puppetmaster
    The Sydney Morning Herald has yet another silly article on think-tanks. Some really annoying excerpts here:

    They are unelected, privately funded and their meetings are by invitation only. Operating behind the scenes, they influence elected officials, bureaucrats and rising politicians from both sides of politics and they populate the opinion pages of newspapers. Australia's neo-conservative think tanks wield extraordinary influence over government policy.

    Huh? The last time I checked you did not have to be elected to express your opinion or publish an article in the press. This reads like something out of 'the International Jew' by Henry Ford.

    And the dope can't even get his terminology right. He constantly uses neo-conservative and neo-liberal interchangeably. While the CIS for instance, has invited neo-cons like Fukuyama to speak at events, about half of its membership is libertarian and a significant percentage of that would be quite opposed to the neo-con foreign policy agenda. Of course this journalist also doesn't seem to be aware that neo-con now has foreign policy connotations. Some 'extensive research' he did.
    Vice in Iraq is News in Sydney

    You’ve got to get up early in order to beat Tim Blair to a good fisking. (of sorts). Tim takes Paul McGeough to task over his coverage of the rise of beer, hookers and p0rn on the streets of Baghdad. As Tim points out

    “In Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald uses value-free terms like sex industry to describe prostitution. In Iraq, prostitution -- along with alcohol and everything else -- becomes “vice”.

    Read the original story here, then check out Tim’s response.

    Monday, August 11, 2003
    CIS Independence

    Heath raises the issue of what the 'independent' means in the CIS's title. On the CIS website it is given as both non-partisan and not having financial supporters direct its research. In my experience, which is now nearly 8 years on staff in two separate stints, that is exactly what it has been. I've never had a financial supporter put any pressure on me at all, and donations have increased even as the CIS's main research concerns have shifted further away from issues that affect the corporate bottom line.

    Of all the CIS staff, so far as I know I am the only one with direct party political involvement (the Liberals). When I was editor of Policy, we took on as my assistant Jason, then a member of the ALP. Views on policy issues matter much more than party affiliation. When the Liberals have bad policy ideas, I have said so.

    While it is wise to be aware of where any organisation's money is coming from (which is as true of state-sponsored universities as it is of privately funded think-tanks), any argument, even an argument that conveniently coincides with self-interest, needs to be taken on its merits. I don't dismiss arguments for more public funding of universities just because many of the people who make such arguments stand to benefit financially if money is transferred from taxpayers to themselves. Funding sources are warning flags, but it is just lazy to use them as knock-down arguments (as the cruder public choice theories do of public sector agencies, as much as the Sharon Beders of the left).

    Addendum from Jason
    If being funded by private parties compromises your analysis then there would be no markets for economic consultancies, it's as simple as that. However that isn't how it works. The firm I work for knows that if it comes up with easily refutable and obviously partisan arguments then its clients would not be getting value for money and if so, it would not be getting any money from clients. Thus although we get money from X for a project, we attempt to tailor the most rigorous arguments that can withstand scrutiny. Thus the conflict of interest issue is reconciled by profit maximisation. A same argument applies to think tanks although in this case what they maximise isn't profit but 'spread of idea X'. In this case, if they have crap arguments then the spread of idea X will not be maximised. Furthermore in the case of think tanks, the donors' money is only instrumental to the maximisation of the spread of idea X which reduces even further any conflict of interest problem. CIS would never take any money from BHP advocating the reintroduction of tariffs, for example. Thus I've never understood the claim that only research funded by taxpayers is genuinely independent. It just seems a weakly disguised form of ad hominem.

    PS: As Andrew noted I was indeed a long standing and active member of the ALP and Young Labor when the CIS hired me. Indeed the ALP is so far the only *registered* federal political party I've ever been a member of.
    Predicting Terror via Markets

    Unfortunately didn’t have time to comment on the issue at the time, but thought I would make a quick post now to say that I was quite disappointed by the knee-jerk decision to scrap the Policy Analysis Market (PAM). If you haven’t heard of PAM, you’re probably more familiar with the phrases used to describe it, like “federal betting parlor on atrocities and terrorism “ and “a futures market in death”

    In simple terms, the idea was to create a future market in geopolitical events (especially Middle East events) in order to provide the intelligence community with new insights into future events. As one specialist in these types of market mechanisms points out, these exchanges

    "tend to predict events really well when no one person knows the answer -- when information is distributed among many people with different knowledge bases, … Markets have been shown to be really good at aggregating that information."

    But explaining this to the person on the street is a difficult task, especially when your opponents are politicians with such great sound bites. One anti-PAM argument I did believe had merit was the idea that it might encourage terrorism, since terrorists would be able to bet on themselves. But this criticism too, has been countered. A market-analysis expert, David Pennock, responded to this criticism in an interview with Wired.Com

    "The very fact of the terrorist doing that (investing money in an attack) would reveal his hand," he said. Prices would rise as the terrorist invested his cash, and that would tip leaders off to the potential for a strike. The market would know something is going to happen that people never would have known otherwise,"

    Pennock also adds that terrorists could also be discouraged by setting up

    audit trails, like in the real stock markets, in order to catch terrorists who might be foolish enough to speculate on their own exploits.

    In the end, the sound-bites of politicians have, I believe, deprived the intelligence community of an extremely innovative and imaginative policy analysis tool.
    CIS In The News

    The Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) gets an article all to itself in today’s SMH. It’s not unusual for CIS research or discussion papers to make the major newspapers, but today’s article is about the CIS itself and the influence it has on public policy.

    With the introduction to the article being what it was, I wasn’t expecting a particularly balanced balanced article.

    “Voters don't get a say in who runs them - but some of Australia's 20 think tanks wield enormous influence. Brad Norington looks inside Australia's most powerful as part of a wider investigation.”

    To be fair, the article doesn’t end up being quite as bad as I suspected it would be, and there is really only two things I would take issue with. Firstly, the attack on the CIS claim to be independent.

    “Critics of the CIS challenge the notion that it can credibly call itself independent. In an article for Arena magazine called "the intellectual sorcery of think tanks", academic Sharon Beder wrote: "Although it claims to be independent the centre is funded by businesses, and its work is shaped by its libertarian/laissez faire philosophy."

    The logic here seems to be that if you are receiving funding from someone, and you publish analysis that doesn’t bite the hand that feeds you – then you can’t be considered independent. This is the kind of logic that says that ABC journalists and university academics who spend their whole careers criticising the government of the day, are the highest example of ‘independence’.

    My take on the ‘Independence’ in the CIS title is that it is meant to indicate that the CIS independent of government funding and that the Centre itself is not affiliated with any particular political party. As Greg Lindsay points out in the article

    “besides Howard ministers Costello, Alexander Downer and Tony Abbott, this year's Consilium was addressed by Labor frontbenchers Kevin Rudd and Lindsay Tanner. Until a recent falling out, Mark Latham was linked with the CIS, too.”

    The only other thing I would really take issue with in the Norington article is that it gives the impression that the CIS is exclusively Howard style right-wing conservativew. It’s easy to understand why a casual observer might think this to be the case, especially given the increased profile lately of CIS social policy work.

    In fact, the membership of the CIS is quite diverse. The diversity of opinions expressed by Jason, Andrew and I (all published by the CIS – Jason and Andrew far more than I), should give some indication of the diversity that actually exists within the CIS. A browse through Policy also shows the wide range of views within the CIS. If Noringtons view is how the public perceive the CIS, then perhaps it is time for the libertarians amongst the CIS to start challenging the conservatives again, particularly in the area of social policy.

    Sunday, August 10, 2003
    The moralising middle class?

    Judith Brett’s new book, Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class, is in many ways a fine piece of work. Unlike most histories of the Liberals, which focus on the flow of political events (like Gerard Henderson’s Menzies’ Child), or on organisational matters (like Ian Hancock’s National and Permanent?), this volume is about ideas, about how the Liberals see themselves, see Labor, and see Australia. For the most part, Brett resists judging Liberals against her own leftist principles, and instead lets them speak for themselves, elaborating with context, not condemnation.

    The early chapters are especially good, emphasising the Protestant nature of the Liberals, and the deep influence of Protestant individualism on the way the Liberals saw themselves and their opponents. Labor’s pledge, the commitment to always vote with the party, was inconsistent with that individualism, and kept many people otherwise sympathetic to the Labor cause in the Liberal camp. Indeed, right up until the 1980s there were prominent Liberal MPs whose opposition to Labor seemed more based on its organisation than its policies. She challenges the idea that the Catholic vote for Labor was so strong because they were more working class than the Protestants, instead explaining it as the result of anti-Catholicism.

    The argument that will prove most contentious is about the ‘moral middle class’. She notes how the middle class has defined itself in moral terms, as displaying certain values that distinguish it from the working class. In the earlier years, this came from a sense of duty, and Brett persuasively shows how this was displayed in the middle class response to various national crises. This ethos, though never extinguished, has greatly weakened since the 1950s, for many reasons – peace and affluence reducing the need for it, the decline of the churches, and the rise of a new form of individualism based on self-expression rather than self-reliance.

    Brett identifies the new moral middle class in the Whitlam generation, people with low levels of support for the Liberals. I think the moralising middle class is a better description of the Whitlam generation. Moral terms and judgments pervade their language in a way that perhaps it does not for the remaining middle class base of the Liberals, but on the whole they do not display personal morality in the way of the old moral middle class. The Whitlam generation think that that the government is the major agent of morality, while the old moral middle class believed that morality was displayed in their own actions. While their language is often prosaic or sentimental, I think the Liberal middle classes still display a moral code in their attitudes to family, work, community and nation. Howard is an effective politician partly because he manages to tap into this morality (Brett is good on how Howard has reworked old Australian symbols).

    I certainly wouldn’t endorse every argument Brett makes. Yet even where I think she’s wrong, she deserves to be taken seriously – this book displays much research, thought, and rarest of all, an imaginative leap into the minds of people she does not agree with. Unlike most work coming out of university social science departments, it is also well written. No library of books on Australian politics will be complete without it.




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