Milton Friedman, RIP

It’s turning into a bad few weeks for icons of the free-market cause. First Ralph Harris dies and now Milton Friedman, at the age of 94. I was lucky enough to meet Harris once, but though I never came face-to-face with Friedman he had an enormous influence on my life.

This influence started by the lucky misfortune of the hardback version of his book Free to Choose not selling as well as his publishers may have hoped. And so it ended up in a remainders bookstore in Swanston St, where I found it in the months before I was about to start studying economics at school. I’d never heard of him, but it said on the cover (I have it next to me as I write) ‘Nobel Prize Winner for Economics 1976’. My teenage brain leapt to the conclusion that this man would help me do better in my economics subject.

That assessment was wrong. Free-market economics hadn’t made it to the Victorian school system in 1982. But I found its clear explanation of how markets worked fascinating and enlightening. I had to know more about this subject, and tracked down other books by Friedman, then Hayek, then (I admit it, briefly) Rand and others. The following year I saw a newspaper article about a book with a title very similar to Friedman’s, Free to Shop. In my enthusiasm for free markets, shop trading hours had become a bit of a cause. The Victorian government was persecuting Caulfield hardware store owner Frank Penhalluriack for the appalling crime of opening his shop on Sundays. He eventually went to jail for it. Free to Shop , which set out the case for deregulating trading hours, was published by an organisation I wasn’t yet aware of, The Centre for Independent Studies, but I sent off for it – and so my long association with the CIS began.

In American libertarian circles, Friedman was sometimes affectionately referred to as ‘Uncle Milton’. While few people would classify themselves as ‘Friedmanites’, for many people he played the role he had in my life – a wise, avuncular figure guiding us into a much bigger set of ideas and influences. He could do this because his prose and his explanations were so clear. Like many good writers, he can be read on two levels. Re-reading him later in life I could see implicit references to and debates with other thinkers in what he was saying. But these don’t clutter the text and so he made perfect sense to a sixteen year old. As recent interviews suggest, he was still lucid into his nineties. I’ve no doubt that his clarity will survive him and influence people born long after he died.

Milton Friedman, RIP.

Footnote folly

One disadvantage of being an editor is the habit of reading pedantically. When most people come across misused words, grammatical mistakes or erratic punctuation they use their natural ability to infer meaning from the jumble (try reading the transcript of a conversation you understood perfectly well to see how good you are at finding order amidst chaos). But when editors come across the same problems they tend to fixate on the errors instead of what the author is actually saying.

This happened to me on Tuesday when I was reading the High Court’s industrial relations judgment. I was continually distracted by the wrong placement of footnotes. Take these two not untypical sentences:

The constitutional underpinning of the legislation was noted, but not questioned[8]. McHugh J said[9] that “[t]he corporations power provides a broader basis upon which s 170LI may operate”.

Which should have been written:

The constitutional underpinning of the legislation was noted, but not questioned.[8] McHugh J said that “[t]he corporations power provides a broader basis upon which s 170LI may operate”.[9]

With rare exceptions, such as with dashes or where ambiguity might otherwise be created, footnotes go after punctuation. Putting them in the wrong place is surprisingly common. Academics seem nearly as likely to think that footnotes go before punctuation as teenagers are to think that apostrophes are needed to create a plural (or apostrophe’s, for victims of the school system over the last decade or so). Most mistakes are made by people whose disciplines use the Harvard author-date system of referencing. In that system the author’s name and the date of publication go inside the punctuation (like this). But clearly even where footnoting is still widely used, such as in legal publications, some people still have the wrong idea.
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Character and argument

Strictly speaking, an argument’s force ought to be independent of the person making it. If the evidence and reasoning is strong, what does it matter if the person making it is an expert or an amateur, a crook or a saint? Yet it seems natural and normal to use an assessement of the person making an argument as a proxy for an assessment of their actual arguments.

Over at Catallaxy, Jason Soon discusses an interesting example of this, what he calls ‘statist quoism’, the claim that because a person arguing against some form of government funding received it themselves in the past (family benefits, free education, etc) they should not argue against future generations receiving it.

As Jason points out, this could lead to bad policies never being corrected. But it’s hard to purge this way of thinking because it requires us to put aside norms that are usually worth enforcing, such as against hypocrisy and for reciprocity. Should I retrospectively pay more than I did for my university education, because I am saying that others should pay more than I did? Since my argument is primarily about the microeconomics of higher education and not distributional issues, the answer is no. We cannot undo the decisions or change the incentives of the past. But I suspect some people would find my position more convincing if had paid my own way through university, and not received years of the free education I dismiss as an intellectually disreputable policy.

Is higher education next?

The Prime Minister says that today’s High Court decision won’t be used as a “mandate to massively extend the powers of the Commonwealth”. But perhaps merely a “large” rather than a “massive” extension?

After all, Education Minister Julie Bishop has in recent months been showing some constitutional impatience. The main head of power in the Constitution the Commonwealth uses for universities is the “benefits to students” provision in section 51. This lets the Commonwealth provide conditional grants to universities, but doesn’t let them control universities’ governing legislation. This does not please Ms Bishop. In October she was complaining about various alleged deficiencies in university governance arrangements. University governance is a responsibility of the states. This displeasure seemed, however, to go beyond just governance. In another October speech she said:

Universities are creatures of our states, set up under state legislation, they are accredited, registered, audited, governed by the states. The states even nominate their representative for Councils and Senates. So where is their financial contribution? Just 2%? And that figure is debatable.

In a speech in early November at the Melbourne Institute conference, which doesn’t seem to be online, she went to so far as to say that the Whitlam government had made a mistake in 1973 in not getting a referral of powers from the states when the Commonwealth took over principal financial responsibility for higher education.
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The regular student prostitute story

A reader called me today to say that I had missed a media story I have long tracked, that of students turning to prostitution. And so I had. It’s rarely genuinely news – rather, it’s a story sold to the media to advance a political agenda. I wrote about the research reported in this story in June last year. But Rose Jackson, President of the National Union of Students, does manage to put a new twist on it:

I’m well aware of international students who have moved into sex work to support themselves while they’re studying here in Australia and I think that’s a pretty poor indictment [sic] on us as a country supporting students who have come here to study.

You know what she means. But why is it an indictment on Australia? Surely if there is anything wrong going on here it is a reflection on the people who arrived in Australia to study without adequate money to cover their costs, and not on the country? After all, they knew the rules and there are plenty of other places they could have chosen for their studies. But in Ms Jackson’s world, people are never responsible for their actions, the rest of us are.

Interestingly, the sex workers reported in these stories are generally far more level-headed than the people trying to exploit them politically. As reported on ABC radio last Friday:

Sex worker Rebecca says that as well as the lucrative financial returns, sex work gives students the flexibility that they need to study.

REBECCA: In terms of students, I think that

The War on ‘Democracy’

Crikey reported during the week that Gerard Henderson was threatening to sue UWA Press over their triple-titled The War on Democracy/Conservative Opinion in the Australian Press/A Savage Journey to the Heart of the Conservative Dream. But it’s in the bookshops, and that’s where it should stay, so that it can sink under the weight of its own silliness.

The authors, Niall Lucy, author of A Derrida Dictionary, and Steve Mickler, begin with a Humpty-Dumptyish definition of ‘democracy’:

As an idea and an ideal, then democracy acknowledges that between the many different interests in a society there are unequal relations of power, and so it acts to give power to those interests which on their own are less equal than others.

That’s hardly how most people would define democracy, which is about giving people political power, not equalising power more generally (in practice a broader equalisation of power has been a consequence of democracy, but it is not ‘democracy’ in itself). What Lucy and Mickler mean is closer to social democracy, or social justice. I can’t see any intellectual value in conflating separate concepts; the authors are confused, or perhaps they are trying to use the term as a polemical device to disassociate conservatives from something everyone believes to be A Good Thing.

‘Democracy’ is not the only eccentric definition. The first ‘conservative’ to be attacked is Luke Slattery, who I think would probably put himself somewhere on the left, and certainly would not be seen by anyone on the right as a ‘conservative’. But he gets labelled a ‘conservative’ because he is against postmodernism.

Ironically, this is because Lucy and Mickler seem to follow the logic of their own criticism of how conservatives construct the left:
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Do personal political attacks work?

In the Victorian state election campaign, Labor has been running some grubby ads attacking Liberal leader Ted Baillieu because a real estate firm he was involved with, Baillieu Knight Frank, sold schools closed during the Kennett era (Baillieu’s response is here). Baillieu wasn’t even in Parliament at the time, and the issue is so far as I can see completely irrelevant to how he would operate as Premier.

Perhaps one reason the parties are resorting to personal attacks (the Liberals are focusing on Steve Bracks’ broken promises, thought at least this refers to his record as Labor leader) is that their actual policies are hard to tell apart, if you delete the partisan references. Take these announcements in the last couple of days:

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How the Greens are turning me into a tree-hugger

It’s enough to turn me into a tree-hugger. Melbourne City Council – having already killed the gums along the middle of my street in an unnecessary and bungled road repavement – is now planning to get rid of Melbourne’s beautiful European trees, on the grounds that they use too much water. Personally, I’d be quite happy to pay higher rates to set up a water recycling scheme if there is genuinely a problem here. And who is leading the charge on this crazy policy? It’s the Green councillor Fraser Brindley. The irony! What finally turns me into a politicised nature-lover is a Green plan for environmental destruction. For my fellow residents of inner Melbourne, remember that on November 25 the Greens have a chance of winning the seats of Melbourne and Richmond. Put them last!

A better way of rating universities

One of the slightly embarrassing things about working for a university, at least for those of us brought up to believe that big-noting yourself is bad form, is the academic obsession with status. The Jiao Tong rankings and the Times Higher Education Supplement rankings are the most anxiously awaited, though any vaguely credible assessment will grab the attention of academics and university administrators (here is a list of various rankings of Australian universities). At the micro level, all the indicators that help make up these rankings – research grants, publications in journals of varying prestige, awards received by staff etc – are the subject of much personal academic angst.

Universities regularly tell us how well they have done. ‘ANU ranks first among Australian universities’, its marketing and communications department tells us. ‘Melbourne moves up key world ranking’ says Melbourne University’s UniNews. La Trobe University’s trumpeting of its performance was pure spin. According to its press release:

La Trobe University has been ranked among Victoria

Are news-blogs like newspapers or talkback radio?

Tim Dunlop, of the leftish blog Road to Surfdom, is a few days into his News Ltd Blogocracy gig. Generally, newspaper attempts to run blogs haven’t been that successful. Maybe that’s why they have brought in a successful blogger, rather than trying to repackage journalists as bloggers.

But perhaps blogs haven’t worked on newspapers because the differences between them are too great. The most successful news-driven blogs – like Lavartus Prodeo on the left or Tim Blair on the right – are to me much closer to talkback radio than to newspapers or magazines. Both news-blogs and talkback are heavily reliant on print media for their stories, but add opinion – often of a strongly held and predictable kind from the blogger/presenter – and the opportunity for the general public to have their usually only slightly mediated say.

Personally, neither talkback nor the news-blogs do much for me. I want to learn new things, not read things I know already or could easily guess. I think Lavartus Prodeo isn’t nearly as good as it was when it was Mark Bahnisch’s thoughtful solo blog. Though there is still the occasional reflective and informative post, most of it is just the day’s soft-left talking points. Yet clearly this is a winning formula, as the site visit and page view statistics Mark sends around show.

The issue the newspapers are working on is whether the two forms of media can be combined. Though most newspapers have political leanings, all the main daily papers in Australia try to provide some balance and quality control (within the constraints of limited expertise and short deadlines). By contrast, the successful blogs, like successful talkback shows, thrive on being opinionated, with the quality control mostly after rather than before publication, via critical comments and calls.

Are newspapers taking risks with their reputations in adopting the blog format? I think there is some danger that the newspapers’ already fragile credibility could be undermined further by blogs which lack fact-checking or balance. But perhaps the more likely outcome is that the newspaper blogs won’t generate enough traffic to justify their existence, as they don’t provide the kind of content people who go to newspaper websites are trying to find.