Archive for September, 2009

A leaking student pool

Skills Australia chair Phil Bullock wasn’t happy, in a friendly sort of way, when I suggested that his organisation was a central planning agency (this was at a seminar to discuss the papers that ended up in this publication).

In their recent paper on ‘market design’, they deny that they favour central planning:

It is important to emphasise that Skills Australia does not advocate a ‘central planning agency’ approach based on detailed forecasting of skills.

It’s true that they don’t advocate the kind of micro-level central student place allocations we’ve sometimes seen in higher education. But Skills Australia does want what they call a ‘managed market’, in which governments purchase student places to align them with ‘community and industry needs’.

But I’m not sure that they have really thought enough about how this works in practice. With the central planner’s mindset, they want to shape student behaviour largely by restricting options: Read the rest of this entry »

William Safire, RIP

It’s turning into a bad month for conservative pundits -with first Irving Kristol and now William Safire moving from the opinion page to the obituary page.

In Safire’s case, however, he will be remembered more for his interest in other people’s words than his own words of political commentary. As the NYT obituary says

from 1979 until earlier this month, he wrote “On Language,” a New York Times Magazine column that explored written and oral trends, plumbed the origins and meanings of words and phrases, and drew a devoted following, including a stable of correspondents he called his Lexicographic Irregulars.

One of my (rather too many) nerdish interests is in the origins of phrases and sayings, and his Safire’s Political Dictionary is invaluable for the history of political terminology. Read the rest of this entry »

The right on the left

Quadrant Online is running a forum on The Australian‘s ‘What’s left?’ series.

From the classical liberal side there is Jason Soon on social justice and me re-working my left sensibility material from last week.

Angela Shanahan and Bill Muehlenberg represent family-values conservatism.

John Dawson argues with Dennis Glover about equality.

And Mervyn Bendle provides the Quadrant grumpy old man perspective: ‘the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia is a shallow, condescending narcissist.. a labored, cliché-ridden, self-serving piece of propaganda, without even a hint of an interesting idea or original vision … the Left is about are simplistic ideas and slogans, jealousy, resentment, opportunism, and a lust for power and personal advancement. ‘

Is the market the ‘greatest dissolver of the bonds of family’?

Unhappily, the democratic Left also now embraced the other dimension of the 60s revolution, the abandonment of social responsibility and the pursuit of self-interest at whatever cost. This eventually provided the opportunity for the neo-liberals, in association with another force on the Right, the neo-conservatives, to make further great headway among the Western working class by supporting the values of social conservatism. By doing this, the neo-liberals managed to disguise from both others and themselves an obvious truth, namely that the untrammelled market was the greatest dissolver of the bonds of family and community.

Robert Manne yesterday, in another of The Australian‘s What’s Left series.

But how obvious is Professor Manne’s truth about the market and families? There is certainly no direct relationship in our current society – those with most market experience, people with jobs and money to spend, are more likely to be in couple or family housesholds. And the period of ‘neoliberal’ policy has coincided with a fall in the divorce rate. In 2008, it was at its lowest point since the liberalisation of divorce law in 1975.

It is nevertheless true that the unmarried or separated proportion of the adult population is high by historical standards. There are a number of proximate causes for this, which are interconnected in a complex web of cause and effect. Read the rest of this entry »

Public opinion on economic history wars

Pollytics blog reports on an Essential Research survey question on the economic history wars triggered by Kevin Rudd.

The question was:

Do you think that Labor or Coalition Governments have been responsible for the most important economic reforms in Australia over the last 25 years?

I’d give it to Labor on microeconomic reform but the Coalition on macroeconomic reform, while agreeing with John Howard’s argument that favourable judgment on Labor should be qualified by noting that the Liberals co-operated with reform while in opposition while Labor largely obstructed. Labor gets high marks 1983-95, but low marks since.

However it’s not a question most voters could easily answer, and so they will rely on party stereotypes. Along with a very large (and honest) ‘don’t know’ response the small advantage for the Liberals suggests that the strong economy under the previous government still gets some public opinion credit.

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Why no great social democratic thinkers?

One interesting point that Tim Soutphommasane made in his Weekend Australian article is that social democracy has

never had a political philosopher who has succeeded in offering a comprehensive articulation of [its] principles.

There is nobody with the status of Marx in socialism, Burke in conservatism, or a range of thinkers in the liberal tradition: Locke, Smith, Mill, Hayek. In my political identity survey, more than half of the classical liberal respondents said they had read each of the major liberal thinkers (though I did not ask about Locke).

Tim ends up suggesting John Rawls as the closest social democrats get, but notes that he was an American left-liberal rather than an identifying social democrat. And while Rawls may achieve great thinker status within academia, he is not widely read outside academia by social democrats or anyone else. I found his The Theory of Justice heavygoing; much less accessible than the other liberal books. Read the rest of this entry »

The left sensibility

The Australian is running a series of articles on left-wing politics, called ‘What’s left?’. The answer so far is that more than a set of specific beliefs the left is a particular sensibility.

This idea is most explicitly argued for in Dennis Glover’s contribution this morning:

social democracy springs from an enduring but mysterious human desire to create a better society, the challenge for social democrats today isn’t just to produce a newer and smarter program but to appeal to this moral and political impulse on an emotional as well as rational basis. It has to show passion and character, not just logic.

Glover argues that this desire goes back to the start of Western civilization in ancient Greece. The form it takes varies a lot. What was needed to improve the lives of, say, the 19th century working class is very different to the concerns social democrats have today. But the moral impulses are similar.

For Julia Gillard, the left-wing impulse is emotional:

Even when I was at school, … I had a sense of what I thought was right and wrong in a values sense. Instinctively at home, Labor was our team. Even more importantly than the events, we’d talk about the values behind what was happening in the news. A sense of indignation has always burned in me about what happened to my father [who missed out on higher education]. (emphasis added)

Read the rest of this entry »

Why aren’t political beneficiaries declared?

Over the last few days, the SMH has run a good series of stories on the dodgy deals that have enriched taxi licence holders like Reg Kermode.

The taxi industry is based on an anti-competitive licence system that restricts the number of cabs on the road, and delivers windfall profits to people who bought licences in the past. This is all well-known (I have complained about it before, as have several people associated with the CIS and many others.) The SMH scoop – or at least I never knew about it before – is that Kermode was given about $20 million worth of licence plates for free. It also reports that:

[The Rees government] has continued to keep secret the list of taxi plate owners who trade their licences on a market worth as much as $2.2 billion.

The SMH quite appropriately points out that Kermode is a generous donor to the NSW ALP.

But the secret licence system shows the real hole in the political disclosure system. The problem is not that $1,000 donors pose a threat to the integrity of the policymaking system, as the federal government believes. It is that information about who benefits from special government deals is often very hard to get. Unlike political donors, there is no central registry of political beneficiaries. Though their identities can – with exceptions like the taxi licence holders – generally be discovered, it often takes a lot of digging around, and in this case investigative journalism. Read the rest of this entry »

Do gays want to get married?

One suprising aspect of the 2005 Private Lives report, to date the biggest survey of gay Australians, was the limited expressed interest in a ‘commitment ceremony’. Just over half of gay men and 40% of lesbians in a relationship said they had no intention of having such a ceremony.

It’s never been clear whether this meant that there was little gay interest in gay marriage, a reluctance to commit to their particular current partner, or whether it was the nature of a ‘commitment ceremony’ with no legal or accepted community status that meant support was low.

Another survey of gay Australians carried out this year finds that there is strong gay support for gay marriage. Only 1% favour no legal recognition, and more than three-quarters support gay marriage.

However, in response to the question

“If you are or were to become involved in a long-term committed same-sex relationship, in what way would you prefer Australian law to recognise your relationship?

Read the rest of this entry »

Irving Kristol, RIP

I first came across the work of Irving Kristol, who died yesterday, in a Carlton second-hand bookshop in 1983 or 1984. His book Two Cheers for Capitalism offered fewer cheers than I thought warranted in my youthful Friedmanite enthusiasm. But it was two more cheers than most books in Carlton second-hand bookstores offered capitalism, so I bought it.

It was the start of a long intellectual interest in neoconservatism, peaking in 1989 when it became the subject of my honours thesis. Though I remained a classical liberal, I was interested in the cultural questions raised by neoconservatives and those on fringes of neoconservatism (perhaps summed up in the title of a book by Kristol’s friend Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism). I was also interested in the neoconservative as intellectuals.

Most of the neocons were product of the amazingly fertile intellectual world of mid-20th century New York Jews. Indeed, Kristol was one of an extraordinary number of them who went to City College in the 1930s, the Ivy League universities not yet being ready for very bright working and lower-middle class Jews. These include Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer, Philip Selznik, David Landes and Kenneth Arrow.
Read the rest of this entry »