Archive for August, 2008

Divorce politics #2

A postscript to last year’s post on divorce statistics.

A common argument of left-familists is that WorkChoices is/was bad for families. I argued last year that this was not showing in the divorce statsitics; that these were continuing a downwards trend.

The divorce statistics for 2007, released today, confirm that this trend continued through WorkChoices’ first – and only – full year of operation.

It is only possible to calculate high-quality statistics in census years, ie divorces as a percentage of marriages, but in 2007 the crude divorce rate dropped from 2.5 per 1,000 persons to 2.3, with a nearly 7% decline in the absolute number of divorces.

Arguably only next year will we get a true marriage test of WorkChoices, because of the need for a year of separation before a divorce, but I doubt this trend will stop. It’s likely to be at least in part a prosperity dividend, and therefore the good economic conditions in 2007 will help produce another low divorce rate for 2008.

More promising signs on vouchers

A few weeks ago my hopes were raised that we might be headed for a voucher system in higher education.

Yesterday my hopes were raised again. The Victorian government confirmed that it was introducing a voucher scheme into vocational education, and Julia Gillard confirmed that income-contingent loans would be available to finance the partially deregulated fees accompanying the voucher scheme.

This makes it more difficult for her to reject a voucher scheme for higher education.

There have been the predictable voices against the Victorian innovation, though focused on the cost angle:

Australian Education Union TAFE president Mary Bluett accused the Government of cost-shifting and warned that higher fees, together with the new HECS-style loan scheme, would deter people from taking on training courses.

Sadly, the Victorian Opposition is also taking the populist line on costs (what’s the point of a Liberal Party that does not believe in markets?).
Read the rest of this entry »

Does liberty lead to decadence?

As I may have to do some of the judging on this year’s Ross Parish Essay Prize question ‘does liberty lead to decadence?’ I am not going to volunteer a view, but the options seem to be:

1. No
2. Yes
3. I hope so.

I wasn’t sure that this was the right question for an under-30 essay competition. In the contemporary lexicon ‘decadence’ tends to mean a minor self-indulgence like chocolate rather than the moral decline that the question is getting at.

First prize is $1,500, enough to finance a bit of decadence meaning one.

It will go to the best essay, regardless of whether the judges agree with it. Judging is so impartial that the joint winners one year were members of the Greens and Opus Dei respectively.

How novel are Per Capita’s ideas?

In The Australian this morning, Dennis Glover puts the case for the Per Capita think-tank because

The alternative to the CIS-Institute of Public Affairs view, therefore, has to come from elsewhere [ie, not from the Old Left]….

In the absence of a strong contest, the intellectual ideas of the Australian Right are now in danger of hardening into an ideological dogma, dominated by prefabricated and increasingly predictable soundbites.

Now the CIS is all for competition. But it is not clear to me that it is promoting ‘ideological dogma’ against the fresh thinking that might come out of a ‘new progressive agenda’ set by Per Capita.

Per Capita, for example, thinks that a huge increase in public and private investment in education will reduce poverty and increase per capita income. The ‘private’ part is perhaps controversial on the left, but the basic argument about the importance of education is orthodoxy. Every survey finds that the public wants more money spent on education.

Fresh (or at least fresher, since studying intellectual and political history suggests that genuinely new ideas are very rare indeed) thinking would be to question this orthodoxy. Perhaps for example Andrew Leigh’s research showing that we are spending more on schools but getting worse results. Or Peter Saunders’ argument that raising the school leaving age is a bad idea. Or my point that many graduates are working in jobs that don’t need university qualifications.

Perhaps we do, overall, need more spending on education. But in education policy, this is the dogma that needs testing in debate.
Read the rest of this entry »

Do men have ‘moral standing’ in the abortion debate?

I expect the right-wing blogosphere will be all over this op-ed by feminist Leslie Cannold.

The problem – at least for me – isn’t the fact that she supports a bill currently before the Victorian Parliament to formally decriminalise abortions that occur in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Rather, the problem is that Cannold argues that

Men lack moral standing in the abortion debate — indeed are guilty of moral arrogance — when they push for control over a procedure they’ll never have to have because they can’t get pregnant.

Except that she’s serious, Cannold’s op-ed reads like a parody of self-centred feminism, with its characteristic refusal to accept that any of women’s interests can be put up for negotiation (if they complete the pregnancy, the rest of us must pay for their maternity leave, childcare, cover for their absences at work, and then pay and promote them as if nothing had happened).

Nowhere in her article does Cannold even contemplate the idea that killing an unborn child is morally problematic, even if (and here I agree with her) a convincing case can be made that, all things considered, this can be the better overall option in the earlier part of pregnancy. You don’t need to be a potential murder victim to stand up for the people others are proposing to kill.

The evidence of women in the abortion debate will usually be stronger than that of men, because as Cannold says they have a range of experiences that men don’t. But the moral standing of women to participate in the debate is the same as men’s.

The return of compulsory, unbundled, student amenities charges?

A report in this morning’s SMH says that the Rudd government will next month announce the return of student amenities charges. It’s a bad sign for the broader Bradley review of higher education policy, because it suggests that the government is making the same mistake as its predecessor: creating messy and bureaucratic ad hoc schemes to deal with ostensibly isolated issues, rather than tackling the price control and quota issues that are at the main causes of dysfunction in the higher education sector.

According to today’s report, the new model will be:

“opt-out” system in which students will be able to choose which services their fees are spent on and whether they belong to the student union.

So it sounds like students will have to pay some money, but get some choice in what that money is spent on.

This is an unsatisfactory solution for all parties. It prevents universities offering just the degree and nothing but the degree, a sensible option for those without the time or inclination to participate in campus life. It prevents universities from charging everyone for the same bundle of services, so that as part of their marketing they can promise free access to X, Y or Z facility or service.

The solution, as I have argued for years, is to just let a market operate. Some universities will offer a high level of services, some low, and students can choose between them. Most are likely to offer optional extras. None needs bureaucrats in Canberra second-guessing how they should run their universities.

Update: Government Ministers cast doubt on the compulsory element of this story.

How bad is my quality of life?

According to this Bankwest quality of life ranking, the Melbourne local government area, which includes Carlton, has the lowest quality of life in Victoria, and one of the lowest rankings in the whole country.

But I don’ t want to live anywhere else. Am I mad, or is this research bad?

To be sure, city living is not perfect. It can be a bit noisy. In Carlton, the presence of public housing, charities, and hospitals serving the mentally ill means that observance of the social niceties is not as high as it might be in Ku-ring-gai, the top ranked local government area in the country. And of course deeply unsound political views prevail (though it is not as bad as the city of Yarra across the road).

But inner Melbourne has a huge amount going for it too. The mix of cafes, bars and restuarants is the best in the country. There is a an excellent selection of shops. I’m not a sports fan, but for those who are there is an unmatched concentration of sporting venues around the CBD. There are beautiful 19th century gardens (including one just down the street from me). There are plenty of cinemas and theatres. There are two good universities in or near the CBD.
Read the rest of this entry »

Should universities certify knowledge?

In his usual provocative way, last week Charles Murray – promoting a new bookargued that

Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree.

As Murray notes, certification already exists for some professions, but he wants it extended to more occupations. On Murray’s account, reliance on degrees instead of certification is inefficient, because the necessary knowledge to pass a certification test could be acquired in less time and at lower cost than years at university, and works against equal opportunity, because the absence of any common metric for measuring knowledge relevant to many occupations means that employers fall back on high-prestige university brands as proxies for certification. According to Murray

Read the rest of this entry »

Should universities self-accredit?

It’s a pity the terms of reference for the Senate’s academic freedom inquiry were confused and implicitly threatening interference in academic affairs, because this has brought out the reflexive defensiveness of academics, rather than encouraging them to reflect critically on university practices.

An op-ed in this morning’s Age by University of Sydney academic Ben Saul is a case in point. While he correctly, in my view, argues that students with views contrary to those of academics are rarely treated unprofessionally, his argument on existing mechanisms for controlling bias or prejudice among academics will not reassure sceptics.

For research, he argues that peer review ‘maintains rigorous academic standards’. But peer review is a far from failsafe mechanism. The editors and others who send manuscripts out for peer review may not know the best people to contact, or may not be able to persuade them to act as referees. So expertise may be lacking. Partly because it is anonymous, academics (and others) put very varying levels of effort into it. I’ve come across plenty of refereed publications with multiple factual errors, particularly when I was working on ‘economic rationalism’. Unfortunately, very few academic students of economic rationalism knew very much about economics. With authors and referees as ignorant as each other, errors went undetected.

But at least peer review for research is better than what happens with course materials. Saul tells us that:
Read the rest of this entry »

Does staff turnover cost 10% of GDP?

According to reports in today’s Fairfax papers

STAFF turnover is costing Australian businesses $100 billion a year in lost productivity, training and recruitment costs – and generation Y is copping much of the blame. …

A new study shows staff turnover for workers in their 20s is running at 40 per cent a year. The rate for all workers is 18 per cent.

$100 billion is about 10% of GDP, and more than double all of education’s contribution to GDP. It doesn’t seem very likely that staff turnover has such a negative effect on the economy, particularly as there is also a balancing positive effect in achieving a better match between jobs and workers.

And if 18% of all workers are replaced each year at a cost of $100 billion it means that every job change costs about $52,000. Maybe some high-level job turnover has costs at that level, but in the industries where staff churn is greatest, accommodation, restuarants, cafes and retail, I’m sure it is a very small fraction of that, given the relatively low levels of skill typically required and the fact that employees will bring skills from previous jobs to new jobs.

Gen Y is being unfairly blamed too. Read the rest of this entry »