Thursday, April 27, 2006

Anzac Day and the "culture wars"

If only it was that easy to win a war!

Gerard Henderson in the Sydney Morning Herald on Anzac Day claimed a victory of sorts in what he calls the "culture wars". He based this on the interest expressed by young Australians in the "facts" of World War I, and argues this means they reject the view that those who died did so in vain fighting someone else's war.

This is simply wrong on so many levels it is not funny. At the most basic, the interest in the young in memory and war graves is about understanding the agony. The baby boomers among us can tell you a different story - we grew up with a generation of parents who took the process of remembering war seriously, but never talked about it. It was really quite hard to associate oneself with these very internal and unstated memories.

This feature that returned servicemen didn't share their stories is something people are only beginning to realise - I think everyone thought it was only their father, or their grandfather, who didn't talk about the war.

It has taken having a half a century between the last war that had mass involvement and today for that sense of wonderment to return.

But the interest in the experience cannot be used to conclude anything about the interpretation that should be placed on the involvement. As I'm fond of doing myself, people arguing against something create for themselves a "strawman" argument to critique. The strawman that Henderson attacks is this;

From the 1950s to the 1980s, the public commemoration of Australia's involvement in World War I was usually associated with the theme that those who had fallen at the Dardanelles or on the Western Front had died in vain fighting other people's wars. This was the predominant view in history texts (Bill Gammage's The Broken Years), plays (Alan Seymour's The One Day of the Year) and films (Peter Weir's Gallipoli) as well as in much journalism.

But let's break this down into its component bits. Firstly, did the Australian (and New Zealand) volunteers understand what they were volunteering for? Certainly not, the view being universally that this would be a short lark - after all war like this had never been seen before (except in New Zealand, strangely, where trench warfare was invented).

Secondly, was there a great purpose to the war? Almost certainly not. There was no great crash of idealogies involved - heck the protagonists were cousins. There had been in defence of empires an escalating arms race that ultimately spilt into war.

Thirdly, was it important to Australia that Britain won? This is probably a most useful debating point. Yes, Germany had ambitions on parts of the British empire. Yes it could have been possible that Australia would have become part of a German Empire. But what would have been different? It was a protestant, capitalist state with developing democratic institutions and effective rule of law. It was economically more advanced than Britain, with Germany joining the US in leading in fields like electrical goods and chemicals - the so called second Industrial Revolution.

Did the young men suffer, bleed and die? Yes. Did they think it was for a good cause? Yes.

The real tragedy of WWI, however, was not that war itself. It was that the settlement of that war led to the preconditions for the war that had to be fought, and had to be won. The war that was against an ideology first and foremost, but also a maniac.

In his suggestion that the values of the diggers are admired Henderson briefly includes a discussion on the story of Simpson and his donkey. He notes the criticisms that have been made, that Simpson was really English who had jumped ship in Australia, that he was a left-winger and refused to fire a shot. But says Henderson;

The fact is that, whatever his background and whatever his views, the values which Simpson demonstrated at Gallipoli are much admired - from the bottom up.

He might be interested to hear a story I've been told. At a dinner at the War Memorial in Canberra to mark the 75th anniversary of Gallipoli one of the diggers was asked what he thought of Simpson. "We shot him" was the brief reply. His version of the story was that Simpson wandering around kept identifying Australian troop positions to the Turks, and since he wouldn't stop they shot him. According to my source at the dinner War Memorial staff said they had researched this and there is evidence that Simpson was shot by Australian troops, but who wants to destroy a hero?

The real message is that history is different to an interest in facts. And as for this being a "culture war" - it seems to me that everyone else gets it that culture, like language, evolves, and hence there never has been, nor can be, a single "unifying" culture.

By the way - my grandfather Henry Leopold Spratt (who added the Havyatt when he migrated to Australia in 1928) fought at Gallipoli and was part of the New Zealand force that took Chunuk Bair.

Thanks for watching

The wonder of a blog is that you start getting involved in this other world of online communities. What was a fairly inhospitable domain three years ago when I first started my blog (see the frustration I had on not being able to include a comments field) is now both incredibly easy to use and monitor.

Blogger allows me to receive an e-mail when I post something or someone posts a comment. And I was about to see if I could figure out a way to create an e-mail list that would "push" a copy of my blog posts to subscribers.

But today I discovered there is a wonderful thing called RSS - and so you can monitor the site for new posts. I'm going to learn more about it - but the Site Feed that you would point your RSS to is the "Site Feed" now included in my links list (at least that's how I think it works).

That means irregular posters like me can still draw an audience. Very nice.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The New Paternalism

The Economist has an item on what they call "The New Paternalism". It is a commentary on a number of approaches that put a more friendly face to government interference. The paper (as it calls itself) is, of course, still dismissive - being as they are bastions of a a highly principled liberal tradition.

However some of the suggestions are worthy of greater consideration. The ability for a citizen to volunarily restrain themselves from undertaking certain acts in such a way that cannot be broken is a very good idea for people who have a problem addiction (though possibly not as good as some forms of therapy) and especially for people who might have a psychological problem (how to limit a bipolar personality from accessing their credit card). But it does seem open to abuse if it is a substitute where an individual could be reasonably expected to exercise control.

Of far more interest is the recognition that the way choices are presented to individuals will change outcomes. The example given being that if the individual has to opt out of a pension scheme rather than opt in, then participation rates increase. This is one case where the lessons of behavioural economics interestingly intersect with the concepts of institutional economics - the latter being the proposition that the institutions within which markets (the making of choices) operate matter.

The discussion opens up a whole world of realisations that we should be debating a lot more how Governments act than if they should act. In one area close to my heart, business regulation, it is an area way too infrequently considered - so we get lots of advocates aligned for more or less regulation but blessed few discussing how any regulation should be done.

The Work Plan

When I renamed my blog "Anything Goes" before my sudden abandonment of it I wrote a short piece explaining why I chose the title. I did it because too many people in discussion argue from a position of the correctness of their own theoretical position, which is OK so long as both parties adopt the same theory. But increasingly in the area of public discourse this isn't so. There are different theories and they are often "incommensurable" - the same word does not have the same meaning in different theories.

So the adoption of the "Anything Goes" title was meant to mean that there would be blogs about theories rather than just the application of theories. I'm also concious of the fact that "Anything Goes" was the title of a book by the late David Stove that was attacking the "irrationalist" approach to science. I've had the book for a while but have only nibbled at it. I have decided it needs a far more robust response - but not today.

One of the things Stove does in that book is construct his own "strawman" of the general thesis being propounded by his rivals - and this strawman he then attacks. This is a technique that really is the only way of engaging in discussion about theories, but it is not always valid. For example, Stove starts by criticising the irrationalists because they. he claims. do not accept that there is a growth of knowledge, and he attempts to suggest this must be absurd because anyone looking at the last 400 years of science would see more knowledge now than before. I think perhaps Stove has missed a major point here that the "irrationalists" do not dispute this point but do say that the curve of Amount of Knowledge as a function of time is not monotonically increasing everywhere and there are times where it can go down.

But enough of that for now. The purpose of this post is to say I have three projects that I wish to explore here over coming weeks. The first is an assault on what I call "economic libertarianism" - a thesis that the collective action of self-interest cannot be improved upon. The second is a short contribution to what has become known as the History Wars - in which I will try to discuss "What is History" and in the process will rely heavily on a book by that name by E.H.Carr. And finally I wish to launch an assault on what I will call the Quadrant Realist Tradition - a troika of belifs that embraces realism, a correspondence theory of truth and a designation theory of meaning; this belief set is the core of a set of derisory criticisms of a notional left consisting of postmodernists who are painted as describing truth as relative and operating through a collective of manipulative "elites".

So hold on for the ride.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Now We Are Talking

No one ever comes here because I am such an unreliable poster - so no one will notice if I say that I have some sympathy for Telstra.

Their public affairs chief Dr Phil Burgess has observed that there is a lack of "third party platforms" for decent policy discussion in Australia. While the point is perhaps debatable (as the Centre for Independent Studies, the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia, the Institute of Public Affairs, the Sydney Institute and the Australin Institute might) and the cause almost a more interesting point for discussion - at least Dr Burgess has tried to do something different. He created their "Now We Are Talking" website - I have it in my links.

But so far the effort is failing. He's tried promoting it through Crikey and speeches, but apart from Telstra's "publicity" it is getting very few comments and very little debate. There are a couple of serial pests of whom I am one - but the rest are mostly in a Telstra adulation society. And the site's format isn't really condusive to debate.

Great effort though and I'll keep supporting it - despite the near abuse I'm attracting.

On a related point I note that Laurel Papworth in her blog "Online Communities" (which I've also added to the links to the right) picked up some comments I made when Telstra started the site. Laurel Papworth and Now We Are Talking

Market Analysts

An article by Stephen Bartholomeusz in this morning's The Age inspired me to respond. I don't intend to share it all here - except a short note on market analysts.

Market analysts trade in "self-fulfilling prophecies". They are paid to predict whether stocks will go up or down, but as a group have more direct influence over that than anyone else. Quite weird.

Market analysts have extremely restricted access to data, but once they make comments about how a firm should behave the sharemarket will punish the firm - so often CEOs do what the market wants rather than what their own analysis says is right. A sample case is mobiles. Hutchison makes a big 15 year investment in 3G. The analysts start saying they need to acquire customers faster - so Hutch invents the capped plan. So the analysts say that Hutch will take share and everyone else is ruined - so the others follow suit to retain share. So the analysts tell everyone the mobile industry is trashed....

I'm still thinking through why firms give so little information. One is a misguided sense that it helps competitors. But I think the other is that the lack of information actually promotes the over-pricing of assets - it sets the "market premium" generally higher - which artificially inflates the cost of capital thus increasing the returns to shareholders from investment in equities. So a thesis is that the reason equity markets have been growing so fast is the decrease in "proprietor" type companies (where at least a cornerstone investor runs the company and has real knowledge of the firms economics) and the greater prevalence of "funds" all of whom are served by an uninformed market.