Wednesday, May 17, 2006


My post below got left hanging with an obvious conclusion ... what happens when politicians "follow the mob". History has a very interesting lesson there. When modern democracy was a new creation during the French Revolution there was a period of time when the Jacobins "came to power" in the General Assembly. The leader of this group was one Robespierre, and during this time was when the terror occurred in the French Revolution.

One interpretation that can be placed on the terror was that Robespierre was a believer in "direct democracy", that is, doing what the people want. In reality he had no institutional structure to accurately ascertain the wishes of the people, and certainly no structures to ensure the people wre informed and making a full set of choices.

The consequence was mob rule where the Government responded to the calls of the Paris mob. And thus the guillotine commenced its work. This was not because the Government had no control and was appeasing - it was at their time the Government's belief that this is what constituted democracy.

We are seeing our own modern version of this in our justice system. New South Wales Chief Justice Jim Spigelman has recently seen fit to criticise the populism with which politicians of both sides have taken to criticising the courts. He said "Long experience has established that such tasks are best done by independent, impartial and experienced persons, who are not subject to the transient rages and enthusiasms that attend the so frequently ill-informed, or partly informed, public debate on such matters."

This general critique is closely related to our understanding of the meaning of justice and the purpose of the justice system. The modern idea is that justice is about the victims and "closure" - for which we can read retribution. The older idea is that justice was about deterrence and remediation - and that the social response should be to forgive. As a society we are moving from the New Testament values of forgiveness to the Old Testament values of "an eye for an eye".

See also.

About Objectives

The subject of the ALP leadership just doesn't seem to go away. Despite the Bomber's supposedly very good Budget Reply speech (can anyone truly tell me what a "pact with middle Australia" is) the fact that everyone's current "not in Parliament but next leader" Bill Shorten obtained such extensive coverage in Canberra has tongues wagging again. (But, of course, we have seen Bob Carr and Peter Beattie in this cart before, and they at least have the credit of having been elected to something.)

It appears to me that the ALP's crisis is not one of leadership, but one of purpose. We have had the unedifying site of the so-called roosters (usually named as Crean, Conroy, Smith and Albanese) trying to organise the leadership, for a purpose that in the Crean leadership looked like it was about warming the seat for one of them, or at the very least dividing the meagre spolis of Opposition. We then had the Latham whirlwind and then the Latham post election Cabinet that saw front bench positions allocated to "fractions" of five, and the single most bizarre allocation of portfolios in history. Following the (and I mean this) truly unfortunate health issues Latham faced, the Bomber gets reselected and does ... nothing.

Meanwhile the roosters seem to have checked out. The only faction big enough to deserve the name remains the NSW right, but they don't really have a unified representation in the FPLP. And they certainly have no candidate.

The ALP of today has learnt many lessons from the NSW right. They think that the only thing that matters is power, and what you get to do when you have it. Unfortunately, Federal power isn't as self propelling as NSW power.

In the "olden days" - before the late eighties - the purpose of political parties was clear. It was to get "the program" implemented. Certainly people have trimmed what that might be in the post Whitlam era, and certainly been prepared to talk about the affordability of the program, but the program mattered.

Without "the program" there is nothing to do once elected. And power becomes meaningless - except for its power of patronage - if there is no promise of what you will do with it.

There are three primary reasons given against running a party on a program in the modern era. These are; the Whitlam factor, the Howard small target success, and the issue of Government co-option.

The first is greatly over-rated. It is incedibly easy to develop the program against a backdrop of fiscal responsibility. In fact, it is easier than the modern alternative of spending promises dropping from the tree like a collection of Costello budgets.

The second is a complete misreading of how Howard won in 1996. He was already operating the wedge then. He managed to isolate the Keating "big picture" from the concerns of the majority of Australians. In fact, he managed to make Keating look like what he stood for was the "big picture" stuff - rather than the real on the ground substantive things Keating had delivered. A small target will not win against Howard or Costello.

The third is the stupidest. If you define the objective as the success of the program - does it really matter which Government introduces it. In many ways the ALP Menzies faced was more successful than the ALP of Beazley - Menzies could not stray too far from the middle.

Finally, if you define the objective as being only about winning then you start believing that "disunity is death". But if you become like the modern ALP united behind a non-existant platform all that happens is that the primary vote shrinks - and the potential partisans depart to other parties or single issue causes. The Greens shouldn't be a party - they should be the thinking Left of the ALP. Many of the Democrats should be the economic Right of the ALP. Voters can be attracted by ideas and the sense that the party they vote for can be seen to be genuinely balancing issues - not merely trying to read the polls.

Ego Is Not a Dirty Word

Laurel P has provided a story about EgoSurf. This is a tool that supposedly shows you all the places that refer to one's blog - but when I ran it for me it didn't return Laurel's own blog. Yet I know she's referred to me and added me to her blogroll.

If it did what it said it would be a useful tool for the kind of net analysis I referred to below. By the way if you are interested in that sort of thing there is a very useful website for the International Network for Social Network Analysis.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Blog Links

In a virtual kind of way the links we put at the side of our blogs is the first part of creating the "multi-authored" paper though with multiple sites (see post below). The list is called a Blogroll I gather.

I thought of this as I was honoured to be added to Laurel Papworth's Blogroll. You'll note she is included in mine. And today I've added Veritas Pravda's valiant Golf,Not Tennis. From the site it appears this is intended to be multi-authored but isn't yet. I will watch with interest.

I made reference below in discussing the relevance of individuals to group outcomes one of a general category of software that performs social network analysis. This analysis could be very easily made of blogrolls from various sites, to identify "extended communities". (A similar analysis could be made of sites referred to by links in posts). Some possibly very informative research available there.

It becomes quite difficult with some blogs that have voluminous blogrolls. Hypothetically there may be interesting studies in both the roles of certain sites (some are at the periphery, others almost act as indexes), and the evolution of blogs.

Mind, this is very similar to some work that is done on academic publishing, and identifying cross-citations to determine/identify "schools of thought" (and for that matter "vanity circles" that cross reference each other to grow their citation records).

What is mainstream media?

Australia's leading alternative delivery media source, Crikey, has again been excluded from the budget lock up.

As Crikey says, this decision seems to be at odds with the whole thrust of Senator Coonan's media reforms. To remind you this is the suggestion that greater concentration is OK because new media entrants are creating competition (but only if they are able to report).

In yesterday's subscriber edition (not available on line), Crikey correspondant Guy Rundle commented on the world of blogs. He compared their early popularity and subsequent decline to CB radios - which is certainly an OK analogy as far as the rise and fall goes, but perhaps less so comparing what was primarily listened in to person-to-person versus the one-to-many model of media/blogs.

He claims that what staled the CB experience is what is staling the blog experience "its networked capacity, which makes everyone producer and consumer, and hence collapses the notion of an audience (since time does not expand, while blog numbers do).

However it is not all doom and gloom. He goes on;

"Those blogs that survive will and are evolv(ing) into multi-person sites, some with collective and decentred ways of uploading, others with hierarchies essentially identical to paper editing. This repeats the birth of newspapers out of the "pamphlet wars" of the 17th century – the latter a product of the creation of a cheap, single operator platen press. This may be the necessary stage of development required to create a media sphere which genuinely overturns the mass media model – one in which a range of well-edited moderate circulation outlets can charge and get subscriptions. Whether they could turn into full newsgathering organisations remains to be seen."

If he is right, it would be nice to be part of one of those evolving blogs. But this opens a whole new discussion about the distinction between reporting news and providing opinion - most blogs are about opinion. It also seems to miss in the evolution of newspapers the big role played by classified, rather than display, advertising. It is not really that long ago that the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Times was shipping news.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Potted (or Potty) Ayn Rand

I discovered on another person's blog profile that she listed "Ayn Rand" amongst favourite books (OK it was Laurel at Online Communities - see links).

Rand is an interesting character, best known today for two novels - Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. However, she was primarily a philosopher and polemicist. My own Rand "journey" goes back to the late 1970s when Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister. Being a young lefty (a reader of Marx, but never a Marxist; always a socialist, but never a Communist) I reviled Fraser, especially so when my favourite rag - The Nation Review - explained to us all he was a follower of Ayn Rand, who professed a particularly virulent form of "selfish" liberalism. That was enough for me, but in a habit now long left behind, I read no further.

That was until the early 1990s when I was doing some work with some US consultants. They noted my still leftish tinge (what they would call "liberal") and one of them urged me to read The Fountainhead. Now this novel by Ayn Rand is quite powerful, but make no mistake this is a novel designed to sell a philosophy. The novel's hero is an architect (Howard Roark) who is highly individualistic, and the novel relates his "genius" to this individualism. As one position describes it Rand's books revolve around heroes who have all her "objectivist" traits.

One of the other characters is an art critic Toohey. The memorable exchange on P 389 goes;
Toohey presses the issue: "Mr. Roark, we're alone here. Why don't you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us." Roark replies, "But I don't think of you"
This exchange alone made a big impact on me, because I'm a bit eccentric at times, and definitely over the top and uncaring in many other circumstances. I took faith from this that what I was doing was okay - I sort of liked the idea that that's how I would like to answer.

But what I started to become quite horrified me. Being "uncompromising" alone is not a positive value.

While The Fountainhead is entertaining, Atlas Shrugged is simply horrid. It is ultimately a book that posits that the trickle down effects of the efforts of a few great men is what makes wealth for everyone else, and asks where would the world be if they "went on strike". This is the really political book, whereas The Fountainhead is philosophical.

Now I'm not going to try to lay out here the whole basis of "objectivism" - or "enlightened self-interest" - but it is in its simplest a highly refined version of utilitarianism (or classical liberalism). That is individuals acting alone to maximise their own happiness is the best way to maximise outcomes for all. It actually goes a stage further, and suggests that one person attempting to have concern for another is wrong, because you can't know that person's interests better than that person.

This view is held up as an alternative to "collectivism". "Collectivism" itself is a word I think driven by the early 20th century development of the thoughts, when the Soviet Union was still young. But "concern for others" is a long way from "collectivism".

This "libertarianism" (a word Rand disliked) has an economic counterpart in extreme promoters of the operation of markets - that any intervention, other than laws for security, protection of property rights, and enforcement of contracts is wrong. But it is this very view that shows the flaw in the libertarian tradition - because in a society motivated by Randian values no one ever cares enough to organise the "institutions" to create property rights.

In a historical perspective, capitalism could only emerge in a society that had first accepted the ethos to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". All the early liberal and utilitarian theorists had this as an assumption - Rand not only doesn't accept the assumption, she argues it is wrong.

The Fountainhead is a rollicking good read. Unfortunately, I'm not capable of writing the book that needs to be written to sell the philosophy, not of collectivism, but mutuality.

For anyone interested Googling "Ayn Rand" finds you heaps. Here are some of the more major sites:

The Ayn Rand Institute
All About Ayn Rand
What is Objectivism
Wikipedia entry on Ayn Rand

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Sport and Democracy

It is easy to confuse the coexistence with causation.

In his SMH column last Saturday Michael Duffy advanced the view that investing in sports and sports infrastucture might help develop democratic institutions in the nation states now struggling - notably in the Pacific.

Duffy points to the high correlation between participation in team sports and thriving democracies. He considers for a moment that both might have a common cause in the British Empire, but then identifies European democracies with the same feature.

There is a sense in which Duffy is right. In most team sports people volunarily "play by the rules", which is ultimately what you need to make democracy work. You need the (up to) 49% of people who didn't win to respect the decision, largely get on with life, protest occassionally and plan for the next occassion (or at least some of them). You don't need them rioting.

But it is my contention that both behaviours are ultimately driven by a value, one that is sometimes called the Golden Rule (also known as the principle of reciprocity) that says treat others as you would like to be treated. This rule is actually essential to get economies/societies to develop the "rule of law" seen as a precondition to the operation of capitalism. Yet your average "economic libertarian" will sign up to the "objectivist" ethos espoused by Ayn Rand that an individual should only act in the individual's own interest.

To make these states thrive they need to first be able to consistently meet the economic needs of their people. The creation of individual rather than collective rights in land may be an essential, though unpalatable, solution.

But also let us not forget that the trigger point in the Solomons was an accusation of corruption. As Wolfgang Kasper discusses in his January paper for CIS corruption is at the core of much misery in the developing world. One of the greatest outrages in the whole sorry tale of AWB has been the near universal "nod and wink" in Australia that paying bribes is OK to make exports happen. They never are, they should be outlawed.

The fight against corruption is far more important than developing sports - and we can begin at home.

Individuals, Society and History

Gerard Henderson provides another lead.

In today's SMH Gerard Henderson relays a Lateline inteview between Tony Jones and Robert Fisk. I haven't seen the interview, and am relying only on Henderson's report.

In the article it is claimed that Fisk's essential thesis is that the individuals at the head of the various terrorist organisations are now irrelevant. What is important is recognising that these movements are the creation of "the West". In counter, Henderson uses the line that;
One of the lessons of history is that revolutionaries should be taken seriously, since they usually do, or attempt to do, what they say they intend to do. This is true of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and more besides.

This is one of the delightful, but largely irrelevant, battles being debated in the studying both contemporary and past societies.

There are a number of social network mapping tools that can be used to determine the importance of an individual to a "society", including one called NetMap that was developed in Australia. These tools are applied by organised crime investigators to deterine how significant each individual is to the survival of the organisation. That is, the question of whether the individual is important or not is an empirical question, not an a priori one.

Similarly, as a counterpoint to Henderson, can he imagine a world order in which any or all attributes of "the West" were varied in such a way as the terrorist organisations would not have arisen. I can think of at least one, it goes something like this - the Archduke didn't get shot so the escalating armaments didn't trigger World War I, so there was no treaty of Versailles, there was therefore no World War II and thus no holocaust, and so the West wasn't wearing collective guilt over the treatment of the Jews. Or, in more recent times, the West did not practise a policy of "appeasement" of oil rich states and the propping up of various regimes merely to secure oil resources, but had instead pursued human values before economic values.

In each of these cases terrorism as we know it is far less likely to exist. That doesn't mean, however, that there is something that the West can now simply magically change and terrorism would simply cease to exist. It's one of those unfortunate features of causation, that once the cause has triggered the effect removing the cause doesn't remove the effect. Once the match has lit the fire, extinguishing the match does not extinguish the fire.

History is made up of individuals working within a social construct, each is created by the other. Historical explanation requires the interpretation of both, though it is far easier to relay as a narrative of the lives of influentialmen and women.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Simply the Best

Sydney Morning Herald has posted a list of what they've rated as the ten best blogs. To save you time and effort, here are the URLs with no fanfare.

They may make slightly less interesting viewing without the SMH intros. But that's up to you. Personally only numbers 1 and 6 did it for me. An interesting link from neweconomist site was this

Welcome "Golf, Not Tennis"

A new blog has been created to promote discussion on matters of competition policy. As you can gather from my work plan this is of some interest to me. It goes by the somewhat odd name of
Golf, Not Tennis.

J K Galbraith

The report on ABC Radio's AM program of the death of
John Kenneth Galbraith is perhaps as good as any to lead into my own "obituary."

This is not an obituary in any meaningful sense. I can claim no special understanding of the life of Galbraith, and have only skimmed his readings. But as a major critic of what he labelled in 1958 "Conventional Wisdom" - which four years later Thomas Kuhn would have labelled a "paradigm", I share some of his criticisms of what some would call the "orthodox" view.

That said, I also diverge from his views, especially the way those views have been fed through what in the 1970s we called "political economy" to what is now called "heterodox" economics.

The History of Economic Thought website says Galbraith was considered by many as the last American Institutionalist. This description fits with the ABC segment assertion that where traditional economisrs saw individuals and markets, Galbraith saw politics and power. The latter version, however, overemphasises the political dimension. The critique Galbraith made was more that it is wrong to merely focus on the individual and markets and that the structure of markets and production were significant. More specifically that applying tools of analysis designed for studying the question of allocation of scarcity were not appropriate in a world of productive abundance.

From this came the view that rather than the consumer being "king", in reality business is creating demand, and that the consumer rather than being king, or even an equal participant, is merely the end of a production process. In this view Galbraith is largely reiterating the views of Thorstein Veblen, the person usually referred to as the first Institutionalist.

I find myself caught, because I absolutely agree with Galbraith's questioning of the institutional assumptions underpinning "conventional wisdom". However, I reject the conclusions reached and the effective jettisoning of the role of the market, the discipline of competition and the view of the disempowered and helpless consumer.

The History of Economic Thought website describes the difference between the American Institutionalists and the New Institutionalists as that the former took institutions as given and critiqued the market view, whereas the latter used the market to explain the latter. I think the reality is that it is a conjoint relationship - markets and institutions evolve together, but that the more concentrated industry becomes and the less like the "competitive ideal" of many small competing firms the real world becomes, the weaker the effective discipline of the market.

In the final analysis it is hard to disagree with the view expressed in the NY Times review (reprinted in the AFR) that "his sweeping ideas, which might have gained even greater traction had he developed disciples willing and able to prove them with mathematical models." It is not too late for this task.

Other obituaries
New York Times (free registration required, reprinted in AFR)