Showing posts from 2012

The wrongest right of all

Again and again and again. There are many things that make me wonder and despair about America. But hardly any of them run deeper, or are more utterly incomprehensible to anyone outside the country, than gun violence. The American approach to guns is bewildering. Now twenty-six more people are dead.

Bewilderment, though, isn't a very good response. Because even now in the shadow of an appalling tragedy, the madmen are winning. Not the ones who fire the shots, but the ones who let them - the ones who fight for the continued protection of a right which creates harm on a horrific scale. All of the first reaction articles I saw to this shooting were  about whether or not liberals should use it to push for gun control, whether they should "politicise the tragedy". They were arguments, that is, not about the issue, but about whether we should be talking about the issue at all. That means sanity is losing. Ezra Klein:
Let’s be clear: That is a form of politicization. When politic…

Fixing the debt, in principle

It's important to have principles in politics. That claim is not that controversial. There are, sadly, some people who take their own intelligence and insight far too seriously, and think that they're operating on some higher plane by professing cynicism for principles and ideology and declaring their love of pragmatic and hard-nosed realpolitik. Those people are not really saying anything coherent.

That's a digression, though, because this post isn't about people who don't appreciate principles enough. It's about people who weigh them 'too much', or at least in the wrong way, in particular by putting too much stock in a wrong interpretation sub-claim that it's important to stick to your principles. I call this a sub-claim because it's not really any advance on the original, in that they're not really principles if you don't stick to them reasonably closely.

And it's true! You should stick to your principles. If you don't then it&#…


Will Wilkinson:

AT THE national level, the result of yesterday's election could hardly be less interesting. Barack Obama remains president. The size of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives remains for all practical purposes unchanged. The Democrats did extend their majority in the Senate by two seats, but that still falls short of the number needed to overcome a GOP filibuster. If Americans truly desired an end to gridlock, you wouldn't know it from last Tuesday's results. All of that is total nonsense, and buys into the intensely frustrating myth of the uniform popular will. There isn't one. I would be willing to bet that most people did want to end gridlock. And they expressed it by voting for the party they wanted to be in un-gridlocked power. Of course, it so happens that the two parties are pretty close, and representative democracy is subject to a lot of distortions (read: gerrymanders), and so there's no clear message that people wanted to…

Judging Mitt Romney

The Economist endorsed Barack Obama this week, to the delight of a lot of left-ish people who have taken great glee in brandishing it at an increasingly conservative, far-from-the-centre Republican Party. Some people who don't agree with the endorsement have tried to fight back, with varying degrees of care. I'm going to ignore the laughable ones that put The Economist in a "liberal establishment" that is inherently biased to the left and to Obama. But Ramesh Ponnuru's response is a bit more nuanced and poses some interesting questions.

As a caveat, I say a bit more nuanced. He completely assumes his position on abortion, and wishes away the substance of Obama's deficit-reduction position, one which came out in debt-ceiling negotiations, by sneaking "in public" into a sentence. It's a bit unsavoury.


I haven't watched Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention. I might or might not get around to it. But I have watched my Twitter feed and it's been awash with people who loved Clinton's speech and couldn't praise it enough. A subset of this group was the bunch of Australians, especially journalists, who saw it as a masterclass which Australian politicians would do well to learn from.

Which may well be true, but I think people got pretty carried away, particularly at the point where a good speech starts to be read as some sort of evidence about the political process. One message, I think from Latika Bourke, said words to the effect of "Julia and Tony take note - a good old-fashioned speech like Bill's beats a scare campaign any time".

But... does it? The actual politicians in the US don't seem to think so, because there's plenty of scare-campaigning - about Medicare, about debt, about Mitt Romney's background - going on. …


One of the interesting points about Australian politics, as somebody who also observes a fair bit of the US variety, is that our major parties are all pretty similar. I don't even really mean that as a criticism. Labor, the Liberals and the Greens all agree on public provision of healthcare, quite significant welfare benefits and firm regulation in the context of a mostly free market.

This is almost always true of the parliamentary parties, except for when Joe Hockey or Doug Cameron go momentarily rogue. It's less universally but still mostly true of the parties more broadly, though the youth movements (particularly the Young Liberals) are sometimes more radical. I guess if you're a full-on libertarian that might annoy you, but for most people the political spectrum's broadly settled social-democratic nature is good and reassuring.

The effect of it is that there's not much reason to be a rusted-on voter for either side, outside of perceived inherent incompetence - …

Sales v Abbott, II

I might as well write down what I thought substantively about the Abbott interview. I've read Andrew Bolt doing a bit of digging this morning regarding the refugees/illegal entry point, and he actually convinced me. He convinced me in such a way that it's basically irrelevant: some UN documents he found described refugees as illegal arrivals. They then proceeded to say that receiving nations should basically ignore that 'illegal' status, so it's ultimately meaningless, but I guess you could say Abbott is technically correct when he describes refugees as illegal.

The bigger disaster was about BHP. Abbott says today that of course he had read BHP's documents and he thought Leigh Sales was referring to something else. You can look at the transcript and decide for yourself how plausible that is; the clincher for me is sentences like "you're not seriously telling me", which suggest that he basically thinks the carbon/mining tax is to blame because he th…

Hostile media

Your precise opinion on this probably depends on what you already think of Tony Abbott, but no matter how you slice it he had a tough time on 7.30 last night. It's worth watching the interview, or at least reading the transcript (which is what I did).

I don't get The Australian and of course it's all behind a paywall now so I can't check online, but I strongly suspect that today or in the next few days we'll get a new round of commentary on the ABC's groupthink and left-wing bias. The predictability of this does not make it wrong, only amusing.

In my opinion this interview and the response to it speak to a problem with the way we think about independence, balance and bias in the media.

I'm not very interested in slicing and dicing with definitions to determine whether Leigh Sales was showing bias in that interview. The real question should be slightly different. We can probably all agree that Sales was quite aggressive and unrelenting in the course of inter…


Made on the basis of observing media commentary in outlets and on Twitter: the public discourse about media regulation will never get off the ground if journalists get instantly defensive and snipe back at politicians whenever any criticism of the press is made. Sadly, because the discussion is worth having.


Couple of brief things.

This is true. There is a system, and you live within it. There is way too much dithering about motivation and perceived hypocrisy and so on; almost none of it is relevant to anything. It's not important whether such-and-such an idea was only electorally possible because of some kind of unholy alliance; it's important whether that idea is any good. That's not to say it isn't interesting to read an article about the alliances and the arrangements that make certain policies happen. But it's not relevant content for a political campaign or an argument against those policies; the content should be actual facts about the way an idea works and whether it is just.

A tangentially related issue is the annoying trope, particularly seen in US politics, of the right-wing "deceiving working-class people into voting against their own interests." As above, this is not really relevant except to the extent that it suggests that the opposition on the …

Freedom to offend

One person writes a series of statements about Aboriginal people. They are factually untrue. The statements themselves are offensive to some people. They are used in support of an argument which is also offensive to those people.

A few people write a series of statements about Aboriginal people. They're not really either true or false.  The statements are offensive to some people. They are not used in support of any argument or political position.

Imagine you are a lawmaker. Weigh those two scenarios. How do you treat them? Differently? The same?

But I deceive you. Because I have withheld the critical factor - not the subject of the statements, nor their truth, nor their offensiveness, nor their political value, but, uh, their authorship.


Twitter was all abuzz yesterday about the July edition of Melbourne Uni's Farrago because it contains an anonymous article complaining about the culture of the Herald Sun, as experienced by a intern there. There was a fair bit of back-and-forth about how we should judge people in media organisations, whether the intern's complaints were justified and whether she should have written anonymously. I'll get to my view on those questions a little further down.

The first observation I want to make, though, is that Farrago is really, really bad.

Australia and the US

I don't know how to feel about this.

On the one hand, I'm no massive fan of America and it's not very consistent with having a proper, sovereign national identity to just let another country use us as a staging ground for its imperial ambitions. On the other, America has bases in Germany and in lots of places which aren't obviously just cravenly giving in to US wishes.

And there are reasons to support the US alliance and help it achieve its goals in the Asia-Pacific. It's a good idea to have a situation in the region which prevents war from breaking out. US forces as a kind of containment might achieve that, though they might also just be antagonistic. More narrowly, it'd be nice to have US forces to hand if Australia faced a defence threat.

Update: Australians are huge outliers on surpluses

From Moneybox:

Recall that in the United States, the emergence of a modest fiscal surplus in 1999-2000 prompted immediate political pressure for massive tax cuts. George W. Bush argued that the surplus was evidence that the government was overtaxing the public. Alan Greenspan argued that if the surpluses were left in place, they would lead to socialism. A non-indebted government, after all, is a government that's buying up the means of production. Compare that, which is really the typical and expected public response to surpluses as I mentioned in my post the other day, to the Australian attitude. Have a look at the Howard government's budget papers and their most significant boast is the surplus and how many they've successfully delivered.

There's not really a preferable position. The weird Australian view was really helpful in the boom years because it enabled the delivery of a needed surplus; it's less so in the downturn because it's made the deficits …

Not all macroeconomic tools can be independent

As a follow-up to my long-winded post on fiscal policy, it's worth doing a comparison with monetary policy, the other major macroeconomic lever.

Monetary policy, in the form of interest rates and money-printing, is obviously controlled by an independent authority, the central bank. The effect of this is broadly good - interest rates largely get moved with respect to the state of the money supply, aggregate demand and so on, and not because of loud electoral voices demanding lower mortgage payments. Imagine if the federal government controlled the RBA cash rate, given how much political attention gets paid to mortgage stress and bank-bashing. Would rates ever rise? Instead, the RBA has done a pretty good job of managing rates to maximise demand and output.

So given that fiscal policy is also a tool which can be used to achieve similar things, would it be better managed by an independent body? From a strict economic perspective, the answer is almost definitely yes. A body that could…


Did you read my post about libertarianism? Don't bother. Read this instead.Ezra Klein with a great post about safety nets, risk and return, as regarding Mitt Romney. A seriously great post. I might write more about it soon.You think you're being a US-politics-loser, and up pops a piece praising Australia's electoral politics. It is actually pretty good reading to blow away a bit of cynicism - we do much better than America!This is cool. (Ha!)This is amazingly well done: Kim Kierkegaardashian, combining the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard with the tweets of Kim Kardashian. Yep.

The law of the imagined middle

I guess this is just the good old pundit's fallacy rearing its head again, but why does Tom Switzer think that "middle Australia" is as dyed-in-the-wool conservative as he is? The context is a strange and apparently unprompted attack on Malcolm Turnbull.

The gist of the article is this: everyone's always going on about how Turnbull should lead the Liberal Party - but hold up there! It's not dissimilar, in concept, to the excoriations of Kevin Rudd which came out around the February leadership challenge. This kind of thing can be quite valuable: it's important, in understanding a government, to know why it made personnel changes and what internal problems it has had; deciding who is the best person to lead a parliamentary government is something that is much better handled when we know how they do at the tasks of parliamentary government as well as the tasks of public leadership.

This article, though, goes astray because it doesn't tell us why Turnbull di…

Twitter is not that big a deal

More briefly, there's something else which annoys me about Michael Pascoe's piece which I think is emblematic of the annoying tendency of columnists to want to explain everything in the context of some big narrative. If you clicked that link, you will have seen that my opinion on the 'big narrative', at least as far as journalism goes, is pretty low.

The overarching narrative in this piece is that social media and our own short attention spans have ruined political leadership and decision-making. It leans pretty heavily on Thomas Friedman's op-ed which has been pretty comprehensively trashed in plenty of other places on the internet. So I don't have all that much to add, except that if you thought Pascoe's piece was largely a series of disjointed and meaningless quotes from somebody else's article, you were wrong - it's a series of quotes, from somebody else's disjointed and meaningless article.

Laying the foundations

Michael Pascoe reckons, somewhat circuitously, that governments these days are not getting obviously good and simple policy changes done as well as they might. This is attributable, in his view, to the rise of "popularism" and political cowardice which encourages governments to stick exactly to what their constituents already think, thus avoiding electoral danger but also failing to lead.

I've written(/spoken) before about why the phenomenon of parties moulding to existing views is bad for politics, even if it seems to be democratic. It's not quite the leadership point Pascoe makes, but the upshot is the same - you shouldn't just base your policy on what the polls say people want at the moment. But whereas my prescription was to stand on values and policy, and let the people decide if they agree, his is just to ram through the policy that is "bleeding obvious" and ignore the polls in the name of leadership.

This is of course a technocrat's dream. It…

Malcolm Turnbull on marriage equality

Malcolm Turnbull used the Michael Kirby Lecture to make a supremely compelling case for marriage equality. It's a really good speech, and it's hard to disagree with anything he says. But of course people have found a way, and not just anti-equality campaigners but people in favour. This is bizarre.

The apparent problem is that towards the end of the speech Turnbull suggested that "the numbers are not there for gay marriage in this parliament". That's pretty widely accepted as being the case given the Coalition isn't opting for a conscience vote. Turnbull thinks it would probably still be the case even with a conscience vote - fine, he's relatively well-placed to make that kind of judgement and it seems like a reasonable proposition. The response given in the speech is that the numbers are present for civil unions and we should legislate for the rather than "letting the perfect be the enemy of the good".

Amanda Lohrey in The Monthly

I just picked up July's The Monthly and read the first article. It is fantastic. You should read it.
It begins:
Our political culture has never been more cynical; it is fraying at the edges, mired in ignorance and negativity. There are too many good things in this article to comprehensively quote, and since I just found it online you should just go and read it, but I'll pick out a few bits.

As Faulkner observed, "the politics of distrust are easy" and, he might have added, based on a number of facile assumptions.  The first of these is that politics is a uniquely dirty pursuit largely confined to political parties run by ruthless scoundrels. People who routinely cheat on their tax returns think nothing of asserting that politicians are only in it for what they can get. This is the Australian way. ... And I wonder about those people who routinely disparage politics and politicians. Have they never sat on a company board, or the committee of a sporting club, or a schoo…

Dr No

I never really bought into the 'relentless negativity' narrative when it was truly in vogue last year. Certainly Coalition policy was thin on the ground and there were a lot of attacks on the government being launched. In the year after an election, though, that's essentially par for the Opposition course. My objection to Tony Abbott's conduct last year was not that it was negative but that it was just dumb. "The carbon tax will create perverse incentives for companies, be regressive and largely ineffective" is not really less negative than "great big new tax"; the former is clearly a much more helpful contribution to policy discourse.

Recently, though, Abbott and several of his front-benchers have moved into a zone that really is pointlessly destructive and ridiculous. It's one thing to criticise, even in a stupid and irritating way, a policy which you actually oppose (well, currently oppose, at least.) It's a different thing altogether t…


I figure it's a dream of most people involved in public policy and/or political philosophy to have their own, brand-new country which could be shaped according to their principled and pragmatic whims. There are an extraordinary number of books about utopias and ideal societies and what they might look like, both in fiction and philosophy.  But there are basically no opportunities to actually take a clean slate and put any of these ideas in place.

Enough of all those utopian concepts though - if I had a new state, one of the first things I'd look at would be tax.

Dull? Well, yes, and admittedly I'm constraining myself to a new country in the world-as-we-know-it inhabited by people-as-we-know them, so some of the more imaginative utopias are out from the beginning. Within those constraints I assume there will be tax. And if there is going to be tax, surely we can make it better than the horrific systems we have at the moment!

Two more thoughts on Fairfax

At The Conversation:
The Fairfax Charter of Editorial Independence.
The Board at Fairfax has always hired and fired its editors. Nothing will change once Gina Rinehart takes effective control. And once appointed, as the Charter states, “full editorial control of the newspapers is vested with the editors”.

The appointment procedure is the only one that matters. Let’s say, a Gina-dominated Board wants Andrew Bolt. He would be interviewed and appointed by the Board and then given “full editorial control” as specified in the Charter. The editorial staff would have to abide by the Charter and take his instructions. There would be no reason for Gina to intervene. The Charter would be upheld. And that’s why signing (or not) would not make any difference.

Conrad Black signed up to the Charter and soon after appointed his own editors. Similarly when Rupert Murdoch took over The Times and Sunday Times in the UK in 1981 he too signed up to demands for editorial independence and appo…

And what about the AFR?

Briefly, in relation to my last post about Gina's Fairfax takeover, it occurs to me that all the talk is about The Age and the SMH, and very little is about the Financial Review. This is presumably because the Fin is a much less widely-read and circulated paper and so the immediate implications for public discourse are not as striking.

Bear in mind, though, that The Age sells about 50 000 copies a day more than The Australian; the SMH about 70 000 more. Circulation is not the be-all-and-end-all of media influence, particularly when it comes to shaping the political debate (as distinct from the more general, public one). Robert Manne:

[The Australian is] the only newspaper that is read by virtually all members of the group of insiders I call the political class, a group that includes politicians, leading public servants, business people and the most politically engaged citizens. Even those members of the political class who loathe the paper understand that they cannot afford to…

The Age is not 'independent', nor should it be

I would probably not qualify as a real blogger in Australia if I didn't have some kind of opinion on Gina Rinehart and Fairfax, so here goes. This is not new. Rinehart has been stalking Fairfax for months, and if there was ever any doubt that it was political then this minor bombshell did away with it. But the spin this week is about her refusal to sign the Charter of Independence, as the other Fairfax board members have. So suddenly the trope is not 'balanced media' as previously, but 'independent media'. That's a bit of a shame, because it's a seriously easy position to attack, largely for the reason that it's absurd.

Did News International do anything wrong?

Trick question. Of course they did. Using political clout to gain unfair competitive advantage, as seems to have been the case with interactions between News and Jeremy Hunt's office, is rent-seeking, illegal and wrong. Systematically hacking the phones of dozens of people, public figures or otherwise, for no reason but sensationalism, is even worse.

But this I'm not so sure about. John Major told the Leveson Inquiry about Murdoch (and by extension his newspapers) asserting their wish for policy changes, and threatening to withdraw editorial support if such changes weren't put in place.

It is not very often someone sits in front of a prime minister and says 'I would like you to change your policy and if you don't change your policy my organisation cannot support you.'

Green Wedges

I'm in the process of writing a quite long post which will hopefully be up later this week, but in the meantime I'll complain about something I heard on the radio this morning. I wasn't taking notes and my memory is not exact, but I'm fairly confident that the speaker was Mary West from the Green Wedges Coalition.

To briefly recap, the "green wedges" are the areas locked down by Rupert Hamer in the plan formulated for the growth of Melbourne during his time as Premier. They are supposed to unavailable for developers to access, so as to preserve rural and environmental features. Ms West talked a lot about the concreting over of farmland and forest. She, and her Coalition, are opposed to this and are objecting to the current state government's decision to make some of those original green wedge areas available for development.

Political media, revisited

Remember when I complained about how Australian press doesn't do much policy analysis? Michelle Grattan today not only doesn't do it, but writes in a way that suggests there isn't any meaningful analysis to be done, or debate to be had.

This is a seriously bad article. It largely consists of repeating the arguments of a Grattan Institute paper, bracketed with variants of the phrase "the paper argues". After we've gone through that rigmarole, we get some uninsightful commentary about how reform is not always popular, politicians have to be brave to attempt it and it often takes a great deal of time.

All true (albeit trivially true), but what about the actual reforms? If I had to nail down the place where Grattan loses the plot here, it's with that word - reform - and its use in a phrase like "big economic reforms".

In the context of this article, it's effectively taken for granted that a "big economic reform" is a good thing. That i…


The polarisation of politics, particularly in the US but to lesser degrees elsewhere as well, has chewed up a lot of column space in the last few years. That's been prompted largely by the meteoric rise of the Tea Party, and the subsequent refusal of many Republican representatives to make any compromises in Washington.

I don't know about the cultural and social phenomena that might have originally seeded all this, although I was struck recently in reading a 2008 New Yorker article by this observation from conservative David Frum:
The thing I worry about most is if the Republicans lose this election—and if you’re a betting man you have to believe they will—there will be a fundamentalist reaction. Not religious—but the beaten party believes it just has to say it louder.
So whatever the reasons might be, they evidently weren't as latent and impossible-to-predict as some commentary might have us believe. In any case, I want to offer not a fundamental cause but something mo…

Local Members

I read an excellent book by Guy Rundle in 2009 about the previous year's presidential elections in the US. Since then, he seems to have gone marginally insane, perhaps as part of Crikey's apparent editorial belief that exaggeration and extremism is the only way to survive as a small media organisation.

This article initially seemed to be part of this new tendency for the wild and half-baked. It looks back over 60 years of representative democracy in Australia and laments the historical existence of governments that held a majority in the House of Representatives but had been defeated in the popular vote.

Media & Policy

A friend of mine showed my last post to someone who works at The Age whose response was that "it's the consumer, not the newspaper" that drives the lack of policy analysis. Obviously this is a second-hand paraphrasing of a not-fleshed-out line of argument, but I still have so many things to say about it!
First the snark - if Fairfax is pursuing a consumer-oriented model so that they stay profitable and viable, they're not doing a very good job. (Also, I referenced in my post two people off the top of my head who do this kind of writing in the US. Is the Australian market really dumber than the American one?)
This speaks to a more serious point, though, which is that newspapers do unprofitable things quite a lot and cross-subsidise, either within a publication or within a company (the News Limited tabloids subisidise the Australian, but almost all newspapers likely have lifestyle sections and human-interest stories which pay for foreign reporting). The reason they do th…

What is a political correspondent?

I'm going to study politics when I start at university, either late this year or at the start of 2013. When I mention that politics is a part of the course I want to do, people tend to screw up their face and ask why I'd be interested in the dirty game. The answer, in truth, is that I'm not that much.
Leaving aside international relations (which is really a different thing), I'm interested in two areas which have (or should have...) significant overlap with 'politics' but aren't quite it exactly, and certainly aren't it in common perception. I have some interest firstly in political structures, and secondly in policy.
I've written a little bit about political structures (on conscience votes, and judicial review) and I'm intending to write a bit more, particularly about democratic mandates and what exactly they might mean. This is a fairly academic interest, but it does interact with policymaking in ways that make it worth considering in a fair bit…

Judicial Review

Earlier this week I did a debate about the election of justices to the US Supreme Court. Whilst I don't actually think that's a particularly good idea, the case we made in favour of election contained a lot of elements that I agreed with. Essentially I am broadly suspicious of judicial review, particularly as applied to striking down legislation that has been passed. This kind of review generally involves considering a law against a constitution or some higher law. I have a couple of problems with this.
Firstly, it's not clear why the democratic wish of an electorate for a certain policy should be overruled by the caveats decided upon some lengthy period of time earlier. If Australians want plain packaging for cigarettes, or Americans want healthcare that involves compelling people to buy insurance, the fact that constitution-writers didn't think those were good ideas doesn't seem a particularly legitimate reason to prevent modern citizens from implementing them.

Climate Scepticism & Public Policy

A preface – I am no scientist.  I intend to write here about a social phenomenon, not a scientific one, though there is an obvious scientific assumption underlying it.  I’m not going to try to justify that position because I don’t have the time, will or most importantly the knowledge.  Even if you don’t accept it, I think my observations are interesting enough to be worth running with my assumptions for a little while.
It should be clear that there is a scientific consensus on global warming.  Consensus, of course, doesn’t mean that every scientist agrees on the subject.  It certainly doesn’t mean that belief is absolutely or indisputably true.  But it carries some weight nevertheless.
That weight is carried because scientific consensus is about as close to truth as we can possibly get on a whole range of issues, and is the only truth-offering mechanism that has any value for the purposes of policy-making, given the severe limitations of that sphere.  Scientific consensus has been enoug…

Not-Romney 2.0

It’s official.  The all-important New Hampshire primary has been followed by what Stephen Colbert called “the all-important-er South Carolina primary” and Newt Gingrich has blown away any hope that the front-runner might actually get out in front and leave us alone until election-time-proper.
The received wisdom for most the pre-pre-election-race-race was that Mitt Romney, establishment candidate and (reviled) moderate, would ultimately shrug off a series of Not-Romney candidates and come through the primaries a clear winner of the candidacy.  That remained the received wisdom for a good two weeks into the actual pre-election-race-race until two things happened – a rich casino owner chipped in a lot of money to fund attacks on Romney’s erm, wealth, and a moderator chose to open a debate with the story of the day about Gingrich’s infidelity.  The ads seem to have been successful, Gingrich hammered John King for even thinking about the question, and the rest is history.  So after Rick Pe…