Friday, January 10, 2003

New Name

I've decided that a name that describes my core ethos might be better for this blog. And while I'm not sure I really do ascribe to the theory that "Anything Goes" (and I'm sure Paul K. Feyerarbend didn't) I am sick of the people who want to ascribe some priviledged position for their kind of knowledge. I know of no theories that are perfect in their explanatory power - every theory has some Popperian falsification.

Yes some theories are "better" than others, but they are not inherently better - they are merely better in use. It is a nonsense to describe Newtonian mechanics as better than Einstein's relativity (or vice versa), but equally it would be silly to use relativity to describe the motion of billiard balls on a table or Newtownian mechanics to describe the cosmos.

What frustrates me is the fact that economists all acknowledge that their favourite theories have "failings", but still want to debate their relative merits rather than describe their utility. (and yes, as d-squared and blogorrhea have slugged it out some of the competing theories have harder maths to use).

Anyway - as anything goes - so will I. I know I only started five days ago but I'm taking a two week break.

(Note: When I get back I'll figure out how to make one of those comments fields work)

Thursday, January 09, 2003

The AFR today (now yesterday) reprinted A DOOR THAT WILL NOT CLOSE from Foreign Affairs A neat little piece that suggests that the issue of migration needs to be thought of differently - in terms of not how you attempt to stop it or control it but on how you make the flows work for all concerned. I particularly like the idea of returning tax revenues from a host country back to a citizens country of origin so that everyone wins. Linked to the other kinds of developments that you might want to see occur in other countries (rule of law, property rights, etc) this could be quite a pro-development move.

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Is it just me or has anyone else noted how the escalating hysteria about (a) the "black armband theory of history" and (b) "border protection" just continues to highlight the inconsistency between the two positions. And it is a particularly fun debate because you get to put it in the context of that most favoured of economic concepts - property rights. How come if it is so important that "we chose who should come here" should we assume previous generations' decision to invade was okay?

And does the absence of a concept of individual property in that early period justify the position? Not really, because the justification of the current position is about communal property - the overall thing called Australia (including those islands currently proscribed by regulation). So previous inhabitants had just as much right to chose who should come.

Perhaps it just reveals the simple corollary of the institutional underpinning of capitalist economies, that posession is nine-tenths of the law. But more importantly it reveals the uselessness of trying to decide these questions on the basis of absolutes. These are both relative questions and need to be discussed within a context. And as that context changes - either with time or frame of reference - the conclusions may be different. How firmly I should believe in my conclusions can be tested by some simple "sensitivity" analysis - how much do my conclusions vary if I change the context.

Our internal debate about our relationship with indigenes and our debate about people whose home lands are such that they will risk much to seek to relocate both draw us to current questions of economic development. And to discuss that we go to the really big questions of defining progress. That's for another conversation - but I'll declare my bias - I'm happy that I and my children live in 2003 and would prefer to live in this year now than in any preceeding year. And I think that the institutional (and associated cultural) developments that have accompanied this have been generally good. So these changes are clearly worth imposing on others - it is the altruistic thing to do - far more than "preserving cultures".

But just as the development of capitalism varied depending on the fine detail of the fuedalism it replaced in different parts of Europe, there is no one "model" of liberal democracy. And certainly the success of developing liberal democracies will need to be sensitive to the initial conditions experienced.

But equally our own institutions must essentially be continually questioned. Constitutional debate in general is therefore of far greater significance than usually recognised. And it is not merely about republics versus monarchies, or federalism versus centralism. It includes the relationships between the much vaunted three wings of government. It includes the way the citizens select their representatives and their relationships with them. "Judicial activism" is of itself not wrong - without judicial activism in eras past there would be no contract law.

This is so self-evident (to me at least) I wonder why more of the national discourse is not engaged in these debates I suspect it is because of the false distinction between the absolutists and the relativists - and one camp is so certain in truth that it must at all times defend what we have, and the other so entranced by a misunderstood extrapolation of "anything goes" that debate is not properly joined. The right is conservative not by dint of reason, but as justification, the left dispersed, disorganised and confused or - at its worst - merely oppositional, defining itself merely as what it is not rather than what it is.

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

It is remarkable how the idea of a longer political term keeps popping up and being advocated by many. Usually its being advocated by politicians - who of course have great self-interest in avoiding elections. But it is surprising that the governed also get in on the act.

The president of the Business Council of Australia even included it in a friendly homily for the New Year Being smart at business as drums of war sound AFR 6 January. In a piece reminding us that good businesses equip themselves for all conditions and stay alert we are offered "The Australian government should also set up a process and timetable to gain the necessary consensus to move to four-year terms of government. The problems inherent in government planning cycles of three years, and shorter, are well understood. It is time to bring the terms of parliament and executive government into line with Australia's best interests. "

No one has ever expounded exactly what these problems of planning for three years are that get improved by four. Certainly businesses plan for more than 5 years in some circumstances - but elect at least some directors annually. And I've never understood what the need for "continuity" of government is here - can't the people be trusted to vote? Or why magically there will only be four year time horizon projects every four years.

Surely Australia's best interests is the elimination of the political cycle - not its mere elongation. That can happen in one of two ways. Either eliminate all elections - or have them so frequently that government has no alternative but to take the public into its confidence and explain to them the plan. Its a simple choice - pick one.
So let's get stuck into the oligarchs. Want an Australian republic? Let's get rid of the oligarchs first. from The Age 19 December.

The failings of our "Washminster" system with a strong executive embedded in the legislature have been getting a bit of a run lately. (see below). Moore here is having a crack at the appointment to government Boards and proposing some direct elections as occurs for some US officials.

While he is right to identify the rejection of the oligarchy - inflicting us with multiple NRMAs might not be quite the way to go.

The US Republic has a lot of features we might consider. Not least is an enduring and robust federalism. But more important is the full separation of the executive from the legislature - a separation that empowers rather than diminishes the legislature. This same
separation is used to scrutinise the far wider collection of official posts that are filled by the executive than are filled by election.

In the US they do not elect the judges to their highest court, nor do they acquiese behind a second stage of appointing a panel - but they do make scrutiny by the parliament (congress) of appointments part of the process.

Those of us still interested in matters constitutional might need to re-evaluate the benefits of an Executive Presidency. Only 6% of respondants to an ARM survey favoured Executive Presidency. More recent US experience shows some of the same excess of executive power - so we need to improve on not copy the model. We have to remember that democracy is a precious flower - not many of them have been kept alive for long.

Note - some references to recent similar items in the AFR.

Ian Marsh has suggested that ministers cease to be drawn from the Senate as a partial attempt to revitalise the operation of at least one chamber of our legislature ("Debate inhibited by structure of politics" AFR 1o Dec). It is possible to go further and suggest that ministers cease to be drawn from either House.

The AFR editorial "High risk in Williams way" (AFR 12 Dec) described the current Australian arrangements as "Washminster" democracy. This term summarises our current malaise in many ways. Three specific issues are the inadequacy of the arrangements for appointments to quite powerful offices, the underutilisation of the legislature as a forum for policy debate and the inadequate supervision for semi-autonomous administrative agencies.

Monday, January 06, 2003

The Smith Family has conclded that having access to a computer and the internet "is a key educational resource that influences educational outcomes". ("Home computers key to school success" SMH Tues 31 Dec).

The fact that personal possession of some learning resource is an advantage is not new, however, and similar studies conducted a decade ago showed a high correlation between educational attainment and ownership of an encyclopaedia (and I believe home delivery of newspapers).

The efficient response to the fact that access to resources is educationally advantageous is not to try to get every household to own the resource - but to make sure that the resources are available in common usage spaces for access by all students.

These common usage spaces go by the name of libraries - and house both computers with internet access and encyclopaedias. What remains bemusing is the limited hours of operation of school and Council libraries, and why we try to maintain two distinct geographically dispersed networks of them.
It is an unfortunate fact that the use of statistics sometimes makes it very easy to reach broad conclusions supposedly based in fact.

Paul Sheehan Top marks so far to this cultural effect (SMH 30 December) has used some statistics on the place of birth of HSC candidates or their parents and the merit lists of those scoring over 90 to attempt to reach some conclusions about certain ethnic groupings.

Suffice to say the high proportion of Asian lineage leads Sheehan to conclude that these students and their families are somehow different and "neglect a comprehensive education". He also tries to compare this generation of migrants with those in the sixties, which he characterises as from Mediterranean (and Catholic?) tribes.

There are three relevant additional pieces of information. The first is that many of the migrants of earlier waves showed just as much
determination to "over achieve" as have many more recent arrivals - the case of the children of middle Eurpoean migrants of the sixties should not be forgotten.

Secondly, the criteria placed on intended migrants now is vastly different from the sixties. Now we expect education and economic
security. then we sought unskilled labourers. That their children might place a different emphasis on education would not be surpriseful.

And finally, the image of these new migrants as a group of swots who only study (or are coached) is easily overplayed. Go visit any of the schools mentioned - they are still the ones with the most vibrant array of extra-curricular activities and students engaged in sporting and cultural pursuits.

To suggest "you would have to be obtuse not to see the impact that the Chinese diaspora is going to have on this country" is a generalisation entirely unsupported by anything in the article. Even his own "statistics" include many non-Chinese nationalities. The only conclusion one can reach is that Australia is going to continue to benefit from the great cultural diversity that it, along with the US, has historically benefitted from - European, Chinese, Indian and African - Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist.
So another valiant soul valiantly joins the world of bloggers. Hopefully the collection of thoughts that I keep having can be managed here - and allthe letters to editors both published and unpublished can get an airing.

Like everyone who has ever written I'mconvinced my thoughts are unique and insightful. To the few who will come and read this site they are probably mundane and dreary. Either way it will be nice to see if I can at least generate some responses.

I wonder how many of the middle-aged bloggers were Gestetner pamphleteers in their student days.