Archive for the 'Language' Category

The plural apostrophe plague

For reasons I do not understand, a large proportion of the under-30 population believes that plurals are created by adding ‘s. An error that was once restricted to Italian and Greek greengrocers (banana’s $1 a kilo etc) is now common. It is still relatively rare in professionally produced publications, but appears in an ABS release today.
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Is ‘neoliberalism’ a Latin American export?

In 2001 I wrote an article for Quadrant tracking the changing terminology used to describe the Australian Right, in which I noted that ‘neoliberalism’ was starting to replace ‘economic rationalism’ as the favourite term of the left for the free-market right (with ‘economic rationalism’ having itself largely displaced ‘New Right’.)

I’d tracked down uses of ‘neoliberalism’ to 1989 and 1990 in Australia, but beyond noting its global academic use not worked out where it started internationally. I now think that this incarnation of ‘neoliberalism’ (there are other earlier ‘neoliberalisms’ that I doubt are connected) probably started in Latin America, and came to Australia via US academia.
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Non-existent ‘neoliberals’ and ‘neoconservatives’?

1,201 people answered the Australian political identity survey question on which political philosophy they identified with. Of these, the single largest group (a third) regarded themselves as social democrats. Just over 20% called themselves classical liberals, 15% described themselves as libertarians, 8% saw themselves as greens, and conservatives made up 14% of the sample, 8% describing themselves as social conservatives and economic liberals and 6% simply as conservatives.

Another 9%, 106 respondents, did not find their own beliefs in the political labels I chose. The single most popular response among these was ‘socialist’ or some variant on that, with 16 socialist respondents and 1 Marxist. ‘Social liberal’ or some variant on that was the next most popular from 14 people, with a couple of small-l liberal responses as well. We also had people who wanted to be simply a liberal, a liberal conservative, and a liberal democrat.

Though academics and commentators routinely discuss ‘neoliberals’ and ‘neoconservatives’, not a single person used those labels to describe themselves. In my question on which political intellectuals respondents had read, the ‘neoconservative’ thinkers – Irving Kristol and Leo Strauss – were the least read. Even among self-described conservatives and social conservatives, only 14% had read anything by Kristol and just 8% had read anything by Strauss.

It raises again the question of whether labels like ‘neoliberal’ and ‘neoconservative’ have descriptive or analytical value. My own reading of work by local academics (eg here or here) suggests that the main effect of the labels is to lead them down the wrong path, importing global academic concepts (neoliberalism) or distinctively American political ideologies (neoconservatism) rather than trying to understand the local variants of liberalism and conservatism.

In the next post, I will look at what classical liberalism and libertarianism mean in the Australian context.

More voucher confusion

The word ‘voucher’ sure has journalists confused. Last week the SMH took Gillard’s spin at face value. And in today’s Australian we are told this:

The system isn’t a voucher system. Students aren’t being issued with a portable amount of money they can just cash in where they like. For all the talk of empowering students with greater choice, it is the universities, and ultimately their vice-chancellors, that will frame that choice, since it is they that will decide what is on offer.

And while universities can be expected to tailor offerings to attract students, not all universities will seek to expand. Offerings will be influenced not just by what students want, but also by the relative cost of delivery.

There are two confusions here. One is the point I made last week about the technology of delivering the subsidy. This is irrelevant to the concept of a voucher, which is that a consumer’s decision, rather than a bureaucrat’s decision, triggers the payment (under the current system, no payment is made unless a student occupies a place first authorised by the bureaucracy).

The second confusion is about the role of suppliers and prices. In this respect, ‘voucher’ system is preferable to Bradley’s language of a ‘demand-driven’ system, since what is delivered in a market or quasi-market system is not whatever consumers want, but the intersection of supply and demand, mediated by prices. So the actions of suppliers and the role of prices are integral to voucher systems, not features that make a voucher system not a voucher system.

When a voucher isn’t a voucher

More later on the first instalment of Julia Gillard’s response to the Bradley report, which includes accepting the recommendation to ceate an uncapped demand-driven scheme, but her speech to the Universities Australia conference contains this gem:

Let me be clear about one important point: this is not a voucher.

Students will not be receiving a set dollar entitlement to be redeemed at an institution of their choice. Rather, there will be a Commonwealth payment to universities – with the amount varying depending on the course – on the basis of student numbers.

The core idea behind ‘vouchers’ is that public subsidies be allocated on a market basis.

The actual choice of technology – distributing bits of paper called ‘vouchers’ or cards (like Medicare) or a report-and-audit system with suppliers (as with private schools) – is a management decision, and not fundamental to the underlying idea. Where the eligible persons are easily identified, such as any Australian citizen or permanent resident in the case of schools and Gillard’s proposed higher education system, report-and-audit is likely to be the cheapest and therefore the best option. Nobody wants pointless distribution of bits of paper from Canberra (except maybe DEEWR, experts in bureaucratic make-work).

Nor is the idea of a flat amount intrinsic to the idea of a voucher, though if it is to be a subsidised though otherwise undistorted market like cases should be treated alike. For example, in Medicare there is a higher rebate for specialists than GPs, but no government steering between specialists or between GPs. The private school system is an impure voucher scheme, because public schools receive much higher per student subsidies than private schools for teaching the same things. It looks like Gillard is proposing a pure voucher scheme for higher education, with subsidy depending on course of study rather than institution.
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How useful is ideology in political analysis?

In his much discussed, though little praised, essay in The Monthly Kevin Rudd attributes the global financial crisis to what he calls ‘neo-liberalism’, aka ‘free-market fundamentalism’, ‘extreme capitalism’, ‘economic liberalism’, ‘economic fundamentalism’, ‘Thatcherism’, and the ‘Washington Consensus’ (the PM’s political thesaurus was getting a good workout).

But how useful are ideologies in anlaysing politics? There are certainly rival explanatory theories. In journalism, as commenter Alan C complains, the focus tends to be on personalities and personal ambitions, downplaying other forces that are not so easily reduced to an easy-to-understand story. Yet if the media overplays personality as a force, it surely cannot be discounted entirely. Particular individuals do make things turn out differently, holding all other factors constant.

On both right and left, we see theories that put interests at the core of politics. Public choice theory on the right models political actors as self-interested; on this account (for example) public school teachers are not defenders of better education, but are instead just an interest group seeking higher salaries and easier working conditions.

On the left, the the substance of and differences between right-wing beliefs are deemed entirely or largely irrelevant, because these groups are seen just as defenders of corporate or other private interests. This is why Naomi Klein, for instance, can blur together neoliberalism, neoconservatism and corporatism. Norman Abjorensen is aware that liberals and conservatives differ, but on his account only on the means to their common end of the ‘protection of property interests’. Ideology is just empty rhetoric designed to make interest politics respectable.
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Political styles

Ideologies and political movements don’t just have substantive beliefs, they have styles as well.

Conservatism and the cultural left both engage in identity politics. When a dispute is about not just what we should do, but who we are, things – and language – get heated. Conservatives and the cultural left often use stories to make their case. Stories have dramas and excitement not so easily found in a logical argument. It is not coincidence that many conservative intellectuals are historians.

Classical liberals and social democrats tend to be far more cool and analytical in the way they present themselves. They are better at detaching themselves from issues. They will often use statistics rather than stories to make their case. They are more likely to be economists or philosophers than historians.

Left-wing academics have their own style in a particular form of bad writing. Take this passage from the Smith and Marden article on think-tanks:
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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.

Who did dog whistling deceive?

I must have been busy late November last year, and missed this Australia Institute paper, Under the Radar: Dog Whistle Politics (pdf), by the appropriately named Josh Fear. It did get a little media coverage, eg here.

It defines dog-whistle politics as

the art of sending coded or implicit messages to a select group of voters while keeping others in the dark.

Fear clearly thinks that dog whistle politics is bad, but the reader is left a little unsure as to exactly why. The conclusion summarises his reasons

* dog whistling undermines democracy by working against clarity and directness
* dog whistlers have sought to ‘create and inflame paranoia about minority groups and outsiders, and to taint the politics of immigration and Aboriginal affairs with parochialism and suspicion’

But these two criticisms seem to at least be in tension, if not contradiction. If messages so subtle they need decoding inflame paranoia (which they certainly have in Fear’s case), how much paranoia would they create if they were stated with clarity and directness?
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Department of Definitions

“It was smoke, not a fire. There’s a big difference,”

– NSW Railcorp spokesperson CieJai Leggett after an electrical fault in a train air conditioning unit caused 1500 people to be evacuated and one taken to hospital.

“What [CityRail] class as a fire and what we class as a fire seem to be two different things. You don’t have smoke without a fire.”

– NSW Fire Brigades spokesman, Craig Brierley.

SMH, 2 July 2008.

“… he was a good boy, he was a good man, everyone he knew loved him,”

– Rose Boulos, sister of murder victim Charlie Boulos, on her deceased brother.

Police said they had established Mr Boulos had been selling and using the drug ‘ice’.

The Age, 1 July 2008.

“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

– Humpty Dumpty