Catallaxy Files

polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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    Thursday, December 11, 2003
    Personal crisis and left-wing politics

    Regular readers of this blog will know that I am interested in the link between mid-life crises and woolly-minded leftism. Perhaps 'mid-life' is too specific; perhaps it is any major crisis. On this wider view, Greg Barns' revelations this week about his mental decline fit with his decision to join the Democrats. I now wish I had kept the Good Weekend profile of Andrew Wilkie from earlier this year. As I recall it, the article said that his marriage had broken down relatively recently, obviously a traumatic experience for him, and of course he self-destructed in his job as an intelligence analyst, and being without a job is normally psychologically harmful. Today it is reported that Wilkie has joined the Greens, fitting with the usual pattern of post-trauma political shifts. These shifts also fit with the research I blogged on a couple of months ago showing that, on average, right-wing people are happier than left-wing people. In this research the direction of causality was unclear. Hamilton, Barns, Wilkie et al. provide some evidence that unhappiness can cause leftism, as well as the perhaps more obvious explanation that leftism causes unhappiness, by continual focus on negative interpretations of society.
    Native title vs private property
    Peter Botsman of the Whitlam Institute is quoting Hernando de Soto. What is going on here?

    Commercial land title and the legal representation of commodities that allow an economic value to be accepted for that entity and that are enforceable by law, De Soto argues, are what the under-developed world most needs to achieve economic development.

    If we follow this argument, then the last thing Australia's indigenous communities need is native title, which is a "social and cultural artefact" outside the mainstream sphere of economic calculation. In Peru, de Soto was responsible for a program granting land title to 150,000 squatters and traditional owners in Lima.

    On this, he says: "The land is the only thing you cannot forge. Once you have that, you can build mortgages and secondary mortgages, and then securities based on mortgages, and then you can create chattel mortgage systems and relate them like ships relate to the coast ... And then you forget the land. But the land is the crucial information system ..

    So long as Australian indigenous communities cannot use their land as collateral and so long as the assets that are built upon lands cannot be traded, we are condemned to work on piecemeal solutions rather than a long-term, mainstream economic road to economic prosperity for indigenous Australians.

    The economic dimension of land tenure and the question of leases and land partnerships have to be given centre-stage prominence
    Why conservatives just don't get it
    The Weakly Standard has taken a potshot at John Lennon's Imagine. Now I have to agree that Imagine is too self-consciously political to be a great work of art and certainly isn't one of Lennon's best songs. Plus those lines about 'no possessions' are the silliest in musical history, topping even Bob Dylan's protectionist rant, Union Sundown in the economic illiteracy stakes. Nonetheless we don't expect musicians to be public policy analysts (though we would expect the AEI not to employ clowns like John Lott, but that's another story). However, quite aside from the anti-private property rant I find Imagine to be a sweet and harmless song, and one that expresses many sentiments that are totally admirable from a libertarian and secularist perspective. By contrast, the Weakly Standard critique is not only standard conservative boilerplate bumfluff, it makes it own silly arguments.

    Take this piercing critique:

    Imagine there's no heaven . . . No hell below us . . . Imagine all the people living for today. Okay, let's imagine that; let's imagine six billion people who believe that flesh and blood is all there is; that once you shuffle off this mortal coil, poof, you're history; that Hitler and Mother Teresa, for example, both met the same ultimate fate. Common sense suggests that such a world would produce a lot more Hitlers and a lot fewer Teresas, for the same reason that you get a lot more speeders / murderers / rapists / embezzlers when you eliminate laws, police, and punishment.

    Standard conservative furphy no. 1 expressed in its most robust form. If everyone were atheists, we'd all be rooting little children, unlike, say, the Catholic Church. We'd all be killing innocent people, unlike, say, the devoutly religious Al Qaeda network. And note how he equates the absence of belief in heaven and hell with elimiating all 'laws, police and punishment'.

    Mr Weakly Standard writer also sez:

    Imagine there's no countries . . . Nothing to kill or die for / No religion too / Imagine all the people / living life in peace. Hmmm. A single, borderless entity. No passports or customs inspectors rifling through your luggage. So far, so good. But wait a second. By what laws, rules, cultures, customs, and mores would we all be living? America's? Saudi Arabia's? Iceland's? Cuba's? Obviously, organizing billions of people from different traditions around a common mindset would require some serious coercion that progressives (many of whom will be out in force tonight with lighted candles) keep reminding us is not our prerogative--not even in countries with brutal dictators. And if there's nothing to kill or die for, then there's really nothing to live for, either--not equality, not liberty, not justice. It bears remembering that those young Englishmen who declared, in the 1930s, that they wouldn't fight for king and country did nothing for the cause of peace; quite the opposite.

    Standard conservative furphy no. 2 - equating nationalism with patriotism. Patriotism is about a very concrete love for a way of life, not worship of the nation state. Note how internationalists and anti-nationalists are lumped in with isolationists in his critique. Note how he forgets that those 'young Englishmen' who ended up fighting for king and country were fighting against a mindset with quite the opposite sentiments from those expressed by John Lennon - the 'blood and fatherland/motherland' nationalism of the Nazis. They nation state has bloody borders and a bloody history. The chauvinism of the group finds its strongest expression in race and nation-state identifications and the chauvinism of the group has been the bloodiest meme of human history. The end of the nation state and the free movement of labour, goods and capital should be every classical liberal's beautiful dream, our light on the hill, even though it is not foreseeable in the near future nor even practical under current conditions.

    And note that he argues 'if there's nothing to kill or die for, then there's really nothing to live for, either' - this guy has more in common with Al Qaeda than he'd probably care to acknowledge.
    Comment disguised as news

    Sydney Morning Herald journalist Aban Contractor continually blurs news and commentary, and she is at it again this morning. Contractor says that an extra 4,000 people have applied to study at university in 2004 to "avoid fee increases of up to 25% or paying up to $150,000 for a full-fee spot in courses such as medicine or veterinary science". Now it is possible that prudent people with discretion as to when they apply are acting strategically, since prices will go up before many benefits flow, and therefore it makes sense to lock in a lower price. But there is no evidence that this is occuring. A 4,000 increase is in fact much lower than increases in previous years, and well within the normal bouncing around we see in application figures. On the surface, there is nothing unusual going on in these statistics, so Contractor needs something else, like an opinion poll of applicants, to sustain her assertion. As for the $150,000 courses, applying now rather than later won't help applicants. As the number of subsidised medical places is increasing (while most other disciplines will be stable or contracting) it may be prudent to wait. And if you have to take a full-fee place, it certainly makes sense to wait, as there will be government loans for part of the cost in 2005. But Aban doesn't like full-fee places, and will twist any story to make them look bad.

    Wednesday, December 10, 2003
    Just who is the price fixer?

    In the new Higher Education Support Act 2003, passed last week, the federal government:

    * requires full-fee students to be charged more than Commonwealth-supported students;
    * forbids Commonwealth-supported equity students from being charged a lower student contribution amount;
    * forbids discounting of full-fee places by requiring all full-fee students to be charged the same amount;
    * creates a rigid quota system that will enable many universities to increase charges with impunity, because prospective students will have no alternatives.

    And then the Minister suggests that it is the universities that the ACCC needs to watch for price fixing. I think he needs to look for the price fixers a little closer to home.

    Tuesday, December 09, 2003
    Only in America

    While Australia's student activists will spend the next few days of their annual conference competing with each other to think up the looniest possible policies (to be funded by the taxpayer, of course), students at the College of William and Mary, the second oldest college in the US, have voted to increase their student activity charge to pay higher salaries to several professors to stop them leaving for better paying universities. The sum involved is small, but the cultural difference between here and there huge. Australia's National Union of Students would never dream of conceding the principle that students should pay anything at all at university (except when it funds their salaries, of course), and so far as I can tell has never done anything practical to improve the education of a single student.
    Poisonous Parliament House?

    The Age this morning runs a frank account of mental decline from Greg Barns, which he blames at least in part on the 'brutal and unrelenting work environment' of Parliament House in Canberra. I understand that the sitting hours are not quite as long as when Barns and I both worked there, but though some people clearly thrive on it (the Prime Minister, for example) for most the lifestyle isn't good. On many sitting days the only times you weren't either in Parliament House or asleep in bed were the trips between the two locations. So much for work-life balance. Sometimes I was so busy with my own little issue that I hardly knew what else was happening in Parliament House itself, much less the wider world. With Parliament House's excellent heating and cooling system often it was hard to work out what the weather was like outside. I knew it was hot when, on my way to the cafeteria, I would see visitors wearing short sleeves.

    In the months after I left people began commenting on how healthy I looked, which was a nice way of saying how terrible I had looked before. Admittedly I had experienced serious (physical) health problems unrelated to the work environment while there, but escaping Parliament House was, I think, crucial to my recovery.

    I don't regret working there - I learnt a lot - but the conditions mean that only a small number of people can do so over the long term.

    Monday, December 08, 2003
    ADSL Goes Wireless

    Not normally one for self-promotion, but this week I’m making an exception with two major initiatives being delivered by BigPond. Firstly, some good news for the Catallaxy reader who posted previously about the 3Gb cap on Cable. As of today, BigPond has launched its new Unlimited* plans. There's an Unlimited* Cable Plan ( *Speed may be slowed to 64kbps after 10Gb ) at a price of just $69.95 per month, with no excess usage charges. There’s also corresponding ADSL plans at $69.95 (256/64kbps) and $99.95 (512/128kbps). Full details on

    But what I’m most excited about is the launch of the BigPond Broadband ADSL ‘Home Wireless’ Self Install Kit. Whilst Wi-Fi home networking isn’t new, until now it’s tended to be the domain of (sometimes elitist) tech-savy geeks and some very early adopters. A fairly high level of comfort with networking and playing with software has been necessary, especially if you want to make sure your Wi-Fi setup has the appropriate level of security.

    This new kit should help bring Wi-Fi to the masses. The kit contains a Thomson SpeedTouch 570 wireless DSL router and a NetGear wireless USB adapter. But the real star of the show is the install CD, produced by Hyperdyne/Emotum. This CD not only provides step by step setup of your DSL modem (which has been done before) but also takes care of setup of the wireless connection, including security. It’s a great product and if you are thinking of making the switch to broadband (or switching to BigPond to take up the new Unlimited* plans) then you might want to think about going Wi-Fi and picking up BigPond's ADSL Home Wireless Kit..

    (this blog entry was written on a Wi-Fi connected laptop from the comfort of my lounge.)
    Exploding Socks

    “"We had information about potentially somebody using a sock, we don't know what specifically it would be used for, however, it was prudent for us to put that information out to the security professionals," - Brian Roehrkasse, US Department of Homeland Security.

    According to reports in the SMH,

    British authorities were examining a pair of blue socks, which reportedly contained the "components" of an explosive device that could be used to strike an airliner”.

    ‘Holy Exploding Socks Batman!’ . First we had explosives hidden in shoes, now explosive socks. What next?
    Democrat Disgrace

    In other political news, the disintegration of the Australian Democrats continues. Dumping Natasha Stot-Despoja really seems to have been the beginning of the end for the Dems, with Andrew Barlett’s personal disgrace and poor form symbolic of the whole Democrat party at the moment.
    The Latham Factor

    It’s nearly a week since Mark Latham took control of the ALP, and according to the SMH, he is already making an impact. Unlike Jason however, I won’t be rushing off to join the Labor party just yet.

    Firstly, It’s one thing to give speeches promoting the benefits of free markets, but another thing to actually convince enough of the rest of the party to support the sorts of policies that go with it. The Liberal party, the party supposedly associated with free market policy in Australia, has actually done very little during it’s time in power to promote the benefits of the free-market. Most of its time seems to have been spent imposing it’s moral conservatism on the Australian public and retreating from true free-market policies in a number of areas. If enough support for free market (and individual freedom) can’t be found within the Liberal party, you’ll have to excuse me for being just a little skeptical about Latham’s ability to turn the ALP in to some form of free-market reform party.

    Secondly, I have my concerns about Latham killing the goose that lays the golden egg. In 1996, Mark Latham was the speaker at a dinner I was attending. My impression (which may vary from Jason and Andrews recollection) was that Lathams enthusiasm for a free market economy was founded on the belief that a free economy would be the strongest economy for funding the governments social and economic policies. I took this (and still take it to mean in the light of his recent Medicare and University education comments), to mean that his commitment to setting the economy free was so that he could then tax and redistribute that wealth. Some people might not see this as a particular problem. I see it as risking killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

    I am willing to perhaps give Mark Latham the benefit of the doubt on this second point, if he can actually deliver on the first. This is especially so if the ALP is prepared to go against the Howard conservatism in public on true social issues.
    Quote of the day

    We should not have gone in, but now that we are there, we must make the best of it, and should not retreat

    ~ Well-known Chomskyite and Baathist Milton Friedman on the Iraq Attaq

    Sunday, December 07, 2003
    Writing project
    As of this Monday until January 31 I'll be working a 3 day week in order to spend time on a private writing project with some collaborators. I don't want to say too much about it at this stage until something gets written (don't count your chickens before they hatch and all that) but there is a publisher lined up for this. One of my tasks involve writing a comprehensive literature review that covers institutional and evolutionary economics theories of the firm and market. Thus I'd welcome suggestions from readers (whether in the comments box or via my email) on any reading suggestions, including suggestions on working papers and articles available on the web (including their own, of course). Suffice to say, any references used/quoted will be properly acknowledged, attributed and cited. Particular topics I'm interested in are recent work, or good reviews of:

    game theoretic approaches to modelling the evolution of law, social norms and social cooperation;

    evolutionary economics perspectives on the theory of the firm;

    the economics of corporate law and its impact on the evolution of the firm;

    recent theoretical work on the economics of legislative action whether from a public choice or other perspectives;

    economics of common law vs civil law.
    Good blogs
    Knowledge problem aka Lynne Kiesling and Back Pages aka fellow Dylanophile Chris Sheil are two excellent blogs which have recently blogrolled me. I haven't got around to reciprocation yet but I will in the fullness of time as they say (I think I'm going to have to do a major overhaul).




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