Quadrant’s vacancy filled

As The Australian reports this morning, the Quadrant editorial vacancy has been filled – by controversial historian Keith Windschuttle.

Windschuttle’s first target will be the arts:

Windschuttle is not feeling charitable towards luvvies. “I’ve become concerned in recent years about the cynicism and decadence that you get in the opera, in the theatre, in other parts of high culture – even the dance companies,” he said.

Consider Wagner’s Tannhauser, that myth of the sacred and profane now on show at the Sydney Opera House. “There’s a guy painted in gold (who) stands there with a giant erection – symbolises lust or something,” Windschuttle said yesterday. “That kind of gratuitous offensiveness is almost everywhere.”

Those who have the print version of The Australian will see a photograph of Windschuttle next to one of the ‘Look Right’ warnings painted on Sydney streets, to try to reduce the number of tourists run over after forgetting which side of the road cars drive on here. That perhaps doesn’t bode well for the ‘sceptical and non-ideological’ spirit Paddy says he has tried to revive during his editorship.

The end of the Cold War made Quadrant a less necessary place for the anti-totalilatarian left (as opposed to the merely non-totalitarian left), so it was always bound to narrow ideologically in the 1990s. But it would be good to have a magazine in which genuine diversity and debate was a constant feature, even if only within the broad centre-right and right.

Is there an implicit subsidy in the HECS debt?

Over at his blog, Andrew Leigh asks whether the OECD was right not to count an implicit subsidy in HECS-HELP in its figures on how much the federal government spends on higher education. The federal goverrnment argues that because the OECD only counts direct subsidy paid to higher education institutions, it understates total spending on higher education. This is a complex issue; I would welcome feedback on my analysis.

There are two possible subsidies in the income contingent loans scheme. There is the writing off of bad debt, about which I have written extensively (pdf). Lending to students that won’t be repaid should be classified as a higher education expense. And there is an interest rate subsidy, because HECS-HELP debts are indexed to inflation, but otherwise no interest rates are charged. There are direct and/or opportunity costs to the federal government in not charging interest on HECS-HELP debt.

Andrew L is questioning the implicit interest rate subsidy point. These are not his words that follow, but the reasoning goes like this:
Continue reading “Is there an implicit subsidy in the HECS debt?”

A tale of two Oppositions

A Galaxy Poll in November last year found that only 33% of NSW voters thought that, based on its recent performance, the ALP deserved to win the forthcoming NSW election, but that nevertheless on a two-party preferred basis 52% of them planned to vote for it (which turned out to be the final result as well).

A Galaxy Poll reported in last Saturday’s Herald Sun asked the same question about the Howard government. It found 44% of those surveyed believed that the Coalition deserved, on performance, to win the election. Despite a significantly higher performance rating than that of the Iemma government, Galaxy found the Coalition behind on the two-party preferred, with 47% support.

What explains why Iemma can win despite poor performance and Howard is likely to lose despite much better performance?
Continue reading “A tale of two Oppositions”

Do people feel worse off?

I only lasted about half an hour with last night’s debate, but early on Kevin Rudd repeated his claim that people are feeling worse off due to rising costs, and the worm climbed to the top of the screen as he did so.

Is this a case of the objective statistics not capturing the subjective experience of the Australian electorate? There is nothing unusual about public perceptions being inconsistent with the facts. But this seems to be a case in which public perceptions are not matching what the same public tells pollsters when asked questions about their finances and standard of living.

For example, the Roy Morgan consumer confidence survey asks its respondents:

Would you say you and your family are better-off financially or worse off than you were at this time last year?

In the most recent survey, 40% said that they were better off and 21% said that they were worse off. The numbers have bounced around a little over the year (it’s a monthly survey), with an average of 36% saying they are better off and 25% worse off. The comparable numbers last year were 33% and 28.5%. This suggests that, compared to last year, more people perceive an improvement over the preceding 12 months and fewer perceive a decrease.

And nor do they seem to think that price increases are going to keep whacking them, with an average of 42% saying that they expect to be financially better off in twelve months time, and 12% expecting to be worse off.

Over a longer time period, a Galaxy poll reported in Saturday’s Herald Sun asked:
Continue reading “Do people feel worse off?”

Is the education rebate the FTB of the future?

Labor’s education rebate, under which recipients of Family Tax Benefit A can receive

* A 50 per cent refund every year for up to $750 of education expenses for each child attending primary school (maximum $375 per child, per year)
* A 50 per cent refund every year for up to $1,500 of education expenses for each child attending secondary school (maximum $750 per child, per year)

will no doubt go down well in the electorate. I’m much less keen. It is another example of the government taxing us more than necessary and then giving the money back with strings attached, in this case a requirement that money be first spent on ‘laptops, home computers, printers, home internet connection, education software and school text books.’

Most families will spend this much and more on items on the list anyway, so the distorting effect is likely to be small in this case – it’s effectively just another cash handout for families in exchange for yet more government paperwork (Labor says it will reduce the ‘digital divide’, but this seems unlikely since families still have to find the cash to cover the full cost since they only get the rebate with their tax return, more than twelve months later if they purchase at the beginning of a financial year).

But how long before more of the FTB-linked money starts coming with strings attached, so parents spend the money as approved by Nanny – no fattening foods, no cigarettes or alcohol, no plasma TVs, no clothes made in sweatshops, no coal-generated electricity etc etc.? The current government is bad enough on these things, but Labor is full of busybodies who think they know how the rest of us should live.

Good times for ‘working families’

During the week, the relentlessly on-message Kevin Rudd repeated his lines about ‘working families’:

The other big challenge is offering help to working families under financial pressure. Mr Howard just said he understood that, well that’s the same Mr Howard who said that working families had never been better off.

And the ACNielsen poll at the end of the week suggests that the public believes him, with 59% agreeing with the proposition that ‘John Howard has lost touch with working families’.

It’s not often that I agree with Clive Hamilton, or he with John Howard, but the Australia Institute has published some interesting ABS and HILDA-based research on just how well ‘working families’ are doing (as usual with Hamilton’s work, it gets a good report in Fairfax papers).

On average, the real disposable income of couples with kids went up 40% in real terms between 1994-95 and 2005-06, considerably more than the 28% increase recorded across the whole population. There were above-average increases across all the income quintiles for couples with kids, with the lowest gain of 35% in the second-highest quintile. General prosperity and very generous family benefits from the ‘out of touch’ Howard mean that, financially at least, families never have had it so good.

The working families doing-it-tough message is, I think, the key mistake of the Labor campaign. Not that it will harm the ALP’s immediate electoral prospects – to the contrary, it will probably add seats to their likely victory – but it is creating expectations that cannot be met, not even with the me-too tax cuts. Though ‘working families’ will almost certainly on average be even more affluent in three years than they are now, Rudd is fanning such an inflated sense of entitlement that ‘working families’ will be disappointed with their gains.

What does the public want done with the surplus?

Though there are signs that tax cuts are coming back into public favour, two polls published this morning suggest that this is more due to the politics of massive surpluses, which allow tax cuts and more spending, than to a shift back to preferring tax cuts over more public services.

The more interesting poll, for my purposes, was a Galaxy poll published in the News Ltd tabloids. It asked:

On balance, which one of the following would you prefer the Government to do with $34 billion?

And the answers were:

Give tax cuts 12%
Spend it on schools and hospitals 71%
Give more money to states 3%
Invest in some major infrastructure projects 13%
Uncommitted 1%

Continue reading “What does the public want done with the surplus?”

Have the WorkChoices ads made a difference?

For weeks now we’ve been hearing complaints about the level of government advertising, much of it on the changes to WorkChoices. It isn’t having any obvious effect on the two-party preferred. But today’s Newspoll issues survey (pdf) suggests that it is perhaps having some impact.

On the question of which party would better handle industrial relations, the Coalition on 34% is now 7 percentage points above its low point of February this year. As The Australian pointed out, that’s taken them back to where they were before WorkChoices.

So why isn’t it showing in the two-party preferred? Partly, perhaps, because industrial relations is ranked the least important of the nine issues Newspoll has asked about in recent surveys. But the main answer, I think, is that the extra 7% are mostly Liberal voters now less worried about WorkChoices than they were before. Labor has kept the 7-8% WorkChoices advantage it acquired from WorkChoices, with the recent Liberal gains coming from the ‘uncommitted’, ‘none’ and other party columns.

With the Coalition primary vote looking so sorry, the ad campaign may have had a useful political impact for the government (the same can’t be said for the environment ads; the government’s numbers have been flat all year). But it is not a vote changing impact, just firming up Liberal-leaning voters who might be tempted to stray.

Election blogging

I didn’t realise until late last night that The Age had listed this blog among their ‘Essential election websites’, along with Lavartus Prodeo, Club Troppo, and Road to Surfdom. I wonder if I am there serving what seems to be one of my main media functions, to provide ‘balance’ – with the list otherwise containing two left-wing blogs and one centre-left blog (Liberty and Democracy Party candidate Jacques Chester is an obvious exception to that, but most of his recent posts have been on technical blogging issues).

Though I was glad that the Coalition wasted no time following my advice to offer tax cuts, I don’t plan on adding much to the general overload of election reporting already provided by the mainstream media. My main area of policy expertise, higher education, isn’t likely to generate much discussion in the campaign. Indeed, despite Rudd announcing an ‘education revolution’ in January, he has entered the official election campaign in mid-October without even having a higher education policy and with a near-invisible Shadow Education Minister (Stephen Smith, for all those who have forgotten). And that’s about as close as I am going to get to the partisan point-scoring that will bore the Australian electorate for the next six weeks.

Laissez Faire Books, RIP

It’s not yet mentioned on their website, but an e-mail over the weekend announced that libertarian bookseller Laissez Faire Books is closing down. As they explain it:

The book market has changed tremendously over the past 30+ years, and it has gotten harder and harder for a small niche bookseller to cover expenses. I suppose the market has spoken.

And those who advocate the market must accept its verdict. But I am sorry to see Laissez Faire books go. In my twenties (and maybe earlier, I can’t remember now) I was an enthusiastic Laissez Faire customer. I wasn’t ideologically (or perhaps nearly as importantly, temperamentally) inclined to sign up to all their enthusiasms, especially for Ayn Rand, but better Friedman, Hayek, Sowell et al. than the swooning over the state of much of the Australian intelligentsia.

Though I am sorry to see Laissez Faire close, I am one of the reasons they are going. Even when a Laissez Faire email alerted me to a new book I wanted, I would usually end up buying it from Amazon. Once, Laissez Faire was the only place I could locate many libertarian books, but Amazon caters to just about every niche market. After taking into account the cheaper postage when buying several books at once, Amazon was usually the less expensive option too.

So Laissez Faire have been caught up in the creative destruction of their ideology. Amazon does a great job of making libertarian books accessible, but it is has helped wipe out a specialist libertarian bookseller in the process.