The winners and losers from tax and spend

Yesterday the ABS released the latest of its surveys of the winner and losers of Australia’s taxing and spending, covering the 2003-04 period.

And the winners are…unemployed single parents with children under 5, taking in on average $878 more a week in income transfers and welfare services than they pay in tax, most of which is indirect tax (it has a statistical caution on the number, but despite low overall tax this group scores the highest payment on ‘tobacco products’, consistent with previous research showing the poor pay a disproportionate share of ‘sin’ taxes).

And the losers are…the top 20% of households by income, who pay on average $571 a week more in tax than they receive back in benefits and services.

As with previous surveys, this one finds that the bottom 60% of households are net beneficiaries of the tax and welfare system, ie they receive more in income transfers and welfare services than they pay in tax. The Australian gave this aspect its lead story, with the heading ‘Tax take helping Howard battlers’. The poorest 20% get more than 40% of all social assistance, and the richest 20% only 9%.

But the redistributive aspect of policy is driven by income transfers rather than government services. Continue reading “The winners and losers from tax and spend”

The university protectionists

A week after the Group of Eight launched its higher education reform package, we start to get a backlash, as the anxieties of other universities appear in the media.

From University of Sunshine Coast VC Paul Thomas came a variation on that old favourite of protectionists, the infant industry argument, except his infant institutions would be approaching middle age before they could face competition:

younger universities needed to be given the same opportunity as their Go8 counterparts to build up over decades.

So a generation of students should miss out on choice in the (unlikely) hope that the University of Sunshine Coast can become like the University of Queensland. But why should USC be like UQ? It is one of the mysteries of Australian higher education that universities would rather open themselves to ridicule as implausible would-be research institutions than be good teaching and regional institutions.

From (somewhat surprisingly) Greg Craven of Curtin University comes the same preoccupation with university hierarchy: Continue reading “The university protectionists”

Equal respect versus tolerance

One of the central ideas of modern leftism is that all human beings are entitled to equal concern and respect. This is why most leftists oppose racism, sexism, ethnocentrism and homophobia.

…leftists don’t automatically see difference as a matter of status. Some groups of people recognise one set of virtues while others recognise another. Leftists want to see a society where everyone can pursue their own ideals of excellence without being judged or looked down on. This is a vision they share with many libertarians.(emphasis added)

– Don Arthur at Club Troppo.

The sentence I bolded is not, in my view, 100% right. It is an area in which leftists and libertarians will often have shared social practices, but important if sometimes subtle differences in their underlying philosophy.

Libertarianism (or classical liberalism) does not require equal respect, or even any respect, of other people’s ‘ideals of excellence’. What it requires is tolerance, the virtue of putting up with the things that you don’t like. It isn’t so much equal respect as equal indifference.

For a liberal, equal respect demands too much and more than is necessary. For passionate religious believers (and liberal ideas of toleration began with the problems they cause) it is very hard to hold other faiths in ‘equal respect’ without calling into question their own beliefs. But all it requires to tolerate them is to hold off from intimidation and violence.

Indeed, the shift from liberal tolerance to leftist acceptance, the logical result of equal concern and respect, takes us back to where we started before the idea of tolerance took hold. Tolerance challenged the idea that everyone must fit in with a common set of norms, and replaced it with the idea that everyone must abstain from certain behaviours.

The practical differences between these two views came out in the reaction to the decision to allow The Peel hotel to exclude women and straight men. Continue reading “Equal respect versus tolerance”

Do workers have more careers now than in the past?

It’s commonly said that we can now expect to have several careers in a lifetime, as opposed to the more stable patterns of the past. Commenter Russell made this claim a few days ago, but he is hardly alone. In selling the University of Queensland’s courses and careers day, Associate Professor John Mainstone said:

Once it was the case that people pursued one career over a lifetime,’ he said. ‘Now people may undergo several career changes, so it is important to seek specialist advice to allow the widest range of future career options.

Monash University’s Graduate School of Business offers similar advice:

Gone are the days when employees would join a company and climb the ladder through vertical career paths. The biggest change is the shift from thinking about a single lifetime career to multiple careers.

Victoria University bids up the number of careers even further:

Today the 21st century demands much more from us. Did you know that current data suggests that we will have between 6 to 8 careers in our lifetime, and not just the one?

And careers councillor (sic) Heather McInnes goes further still:

We could reasonably expect to change our career throughout a lifetime, possibly up to 10 times.

Ten careers! The escalating number of careers we are supposed to experience sounds like a story that is improving with every telling. Continue reading “Do workers have more careers now than in the past?”

Are ‘left’ and ‘right’ useful political labels?

As long-time readers would know, I think the labels left and right are not very useful nor descriptive as each covers such a huge range of ideas that it’s hardly useful.

That’s blogger Sacha Blumen in his comment on my post on left and right attitudes to status.

Sacha’s quite correct that the political labels ‘left’ and ‘right’ can cover a lot of territory.

According to Wikipedia, ‘left’ can cover:

social (as opposed to classical) liberalism, populism, social democracy, socialism, communism, syndicalism, communalism, communitarianism, some forms of green politics, some forms of progressivism, and some forms of anarchism.

While ‘right’ can cover:

conservatism, monarchism, fascism, libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism, reactionism, some forms of populism, the religious right, nationalism, militarism, producerism, Nativism, realism or simply the opposite of left-wing politics.

Adding further to the complexity, political parties thought to be of the ‘left’ or ‘right’ don’t always act according to stereotypes. As Paul Keating has been reminding us this week, Labor led the way with market reforms of the Australian economy, while the ‘right-wing’ Howard government has increased spending on welfare more quickly than Keating did.

Though more precise ideological descriptions are often useful, that doesn’t mean that the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ have no value. Continue reading “Are ‘left’ and ‘right’ useful political labels?”

Status, left and right

Though leftism is diverse, a common thread is a concern with equality. This makes it in part an ideology of status, with political programmes that seek to eliminate status differences or moderate their impact. This is one reason leftists remain concerned with income inequality long after absolute poverty has been eliminated, try to obstruct institutions that reproduce status differences (eg private schools), and favour anti-discrimination and affirmative action laws for groups that have historically had low status.

Almost everyone is status-conscious to some extent, but levels of concern with it vary a lot. Politically, I suspect that people with relatively high levels of status concerns are disproportionately attracted to leftism and to hierarchical conservatism (in Australia, conservatism tends to be populist, but in countries with more aristocratic traditions status-oriented individuals could go left or right). On this theory, those with relatively low levels of status concern would be disproportionately on the liberal/libertarian right, in which individual freedom is prized – who cares what other people think, I am going to do what I want, either alone or with like-minded people.
Continue reading “Status, left and right”

The folly of higher education price control, part #3

The Group of Eight’s higher education reform proposal (pdf) proposes a relaxation, but not abolition, of price control.

Instead of the current more-or-less picked out of the air maximum student charges, they propose a Productivity Commission study of the ‘actual and relative teaching costs by broad field of education’. Based on the ‘indicative cost’ determined by the Productivity Commission, universities could set fees up to a maximum of 25% more than that number. The only rationale given is to ‘avoid exploitative pricing’.

This is a rather curious admission. In Australia, the only universities for whom an even remotely plausible argument could be made that they have the power to price in an ‘exploitative’ way are, er, the members of the Group of Eight. Are they saying that they cannot be trusted not to exploit students, and must be constrained by regulation? There aren’t many interest groups that will own up to that.

I would have thought that with the portable scholarship (aka voucher) proposal in the Group of Eight package they already had two systems of price control, ie a market to keep sticker prices down and subsidies to further reduce the effective cost to students – though arguably the subsidies will push up fees as students will know they won’t have to pay the full amount.
Continue reading “The folly of higher education price control, part #3”

What is the difference between a voucher and a scholarship?

In an article published in this morning’s Australian about the university reform proposal (pdf) launched today by the Group of Eight, journalist Dorothy Illing wrote:

AUSTRALIA’S most powerful block of universities has thrown down the gauntlet to the major parties to introduce a radical new model for higher education underpinned by student vouchers and price deregulation. ….The centrepiece of the Group of Eight plan … is a system of portable government-funded scholarships that would shift control of demand for university places away from the commonwealth. (emphasis added)

Is there a difference between ‘vouchers’ and ‘scholarships’? Politically, they have different connotations. Vouchers have long been associated with plans to end central control of public education, and the very word triggers knee-jerk negative reactions from some leftists. Scholarships, by contrast, are generally associated with reducing the cost of education to people judged academically able or financially needy. Most people intuitively think that is a good thing. It is no surprise that the Group of Eight chose the term ‘scholarships’ over ‘vouchers’.

Conceptually, however, what the Group of Eight is proposing is closer to vouchers. Both vouchers and scholarships are subsidies aimed at individuals, as opposed to the block grants used to finance Australian universities before 2005. Scholarships are usually awarded to individuals to attend a particular school or university. The key idea behind vouchers, by contrast, is that the beneficiary of the subsidy also gets to choose where it is spent. The ‘scholarships’ suggested by the Group of Eight could be redeemed for any accredited higher education course in Australia. Just like vouchers, they are aimed at creating a publicly-subsidised market.
Continue reading “What is the difference between a voucher and a scholarship?”

Has public debate been corrupted?

If book buyers have a limit on how many ‘Howard’s suppressing free speech’ books they’ll add to their shelves, it’s a pity Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison’s Silencing Dissent reached the bookshops before David Marr’s His Master’s Voice: The Corruption of Public Debate Under Howard.

They cover similar ground (indeed, some of the same ground, with Marr citing the earlier book) and ultimately have similar problems, but Marr’s book is much the better of the two: whatever his faults, he writes well; and he retains a sense of perspective lacking in Hamilton and Maddison.

According to its editors, Silencing Dissent:

paint[s] a picture of Australian democracy in serious jeopardy….The longer term picture is even more worrying: authoritarianism can only flourish where democracy has been eroded.

But according to Marr:

For a decade now, public debate has been bullied and starved as if this was an ordinary function of government. It’s important not to exaggerate the result. Suppression is not systematic. … There are limits.

But, as with Silencing Dissent, it’s not clear that all the examples really tell us much about the state of public debate in Australia. Continue reading “Has public debate been corrupted?”

Carlton’s best classical liberal blogger

Some of my Liberal friends may feel envious that I can win a vote with just 13% support, to claim the title of ‘best solo libertarian blog in Australia’. As I do not use the label ‘libertarian’ I did not vote for myself. And as I only read a couple of the other fourteen contestants regularly enough to form an opinion on their relative merits, I did not vote for anyone else either.

But 161 readers of the Australian Libertarian Society blog did back me – though I do not know whether this is because they like my blog, or because at one point Graeme Bird was in front, and I was the most realistic chance of preventing him from winning (Graeme is the only person on moderation at this blog, but even if he wasn’t most of his comments would still be rejected for containing obscenities).

Whether I am Australia’s best solo libertarian blogger or not, I am confident that I am Carlton’s best classical liberal blogger….