The real greenhouse denialists

Greenpeace says that its Newspoll on greenhouse issues shows Kevin Rudd would make himself popular by taking radical steps to reduce Australia’s greenhouse emissions:

[Greenpeace head of campaigns Steve] Campbell said that this week Mr Rudd had the opportunity to show leadership at the Bali climate talks and help gain consensus on the 25-40% range of reductions.

“This poll shows that such a move would be extremely popular with the people of Australia, who delivered Mr Rudd a firm mandate at the last election, and want him to take even stronger action by reducing Australia’s emissions within his first term,” he said.

Actually, the poll (which to Greenpeace’s credit they make available in full) again shows how tricky this issue is for any governmment.

There is the usual overwhelming endorsement of action to reduce greenhouse emissions. It’s when we get to how this is to be done that, also as usual, things start to get complicated.

One question asks:

Do you agree or disagree that government should begin phasing out existing coal-fired power stations and replacing them with renewable energy generation within the next three years?

Continue reading “The real greenhouse denialists”

Australia’s surprisingly secure workers, part 4

Another Roy Morgan job security survey is out today, and yet again they fail to find the job insecurity the unions would have us believe WorkChoices is causing.

According to the ACTU in March 2007:

Job security for Australian workers has been eroded – with 3,761,000 Australian workers employed in businesses with less than 100 staff having lost any protection from being unfairly dismissed.

That’s about 35% of all workers at increased risk of being ‘unfairly dismissed’. Yet by how much has the proportion of people feeling their jobs are safe gone down? One percentage point over the last year, and three percentage points since WorkChoices was introduced, to 80% of all workers believing that their present job is safe. Perhaps there is a very small WorkChoices effect there, but that 80% is higher than it was between 1999 and 2004.

Another question asks whether, if the respondent became unemployed, he or she could find another job fairly quickly. 72% of respondents thought they could find another job fairly quickly – the highest figure since Morgan started asking the question in 1975, when 57% of respondents thought that they could find a job fairly quickly. The lowest ever result was 38% in 1992.

The two questions highlight a difference between job security and employment security. All other things being equal, a highly-regulated labour market makes it less likely that someone will be dismissed from the particular job they have now. So it increases job security. But all other things being equal, a highly-regulated labour market will also make it less likely that employers will take on new staff. So this lessens employment security, the confidence workers have that they will have a job, even if not necessarily the job they have now.

But the job security statistics suggest that employment laws are not the major influence on either job or employment security. Commercial considerations are the biggest factor, and relationships within the workplace probably the next most important.

A bloggish debate briefly continues – against Peter Whiteford

At the risk of adding day 7 to the bloggish debate, I want to respond to Peter Whiteford’s comments at Andrew L’s blog. Whiteford says:

My reaction to Andrew N’s first post may seem casual, but it is where is the evidence that Australian public schooling is the sort of disaster that you seem to imply that it is. Are Australian intellectual elites all drawn from private school backgrounds? Does everyone who went to a public school get an inferior education? Does everyone who went to a private school get a superior education? What is the variation in educational achievement by type of school attended, and what other factors apart from type of school have influenced these outcomes? Evidence please.

Actually, I barely mentioned these conventional public-private debates – and not at all in the first post. As a classical liberal, I think there are inherent political and social problems with monopoly education, regardless of how well public schools teach the 3Rs. I was trying to bring out the philosophical differences between Andrew L and myself, which in fact did happen.

He’s happy with state indoctrination (though eventually conceding that public education doesn’t make much if any difference to civics); I’m not. A preference for live-and-let-live in a pluralistic society, rather than trying to get everyone to believe the same things, is one of the oldest ideas in liberalism, and still one worth arguing for in my view.

Consistent with this, surveys of why parents prefer private schools show that values-type issues are high on the list. This is not to say that government schools don’t incuclate values of some sort, but these aren’t necessarily the values parents want taught. We could hardly expect a single system to reflect the diversity of Australia, and it doesn’t.
Continue reading “A bloggish debate briefly continues – against Peter Whiteford”

Bloggish debate concludes, comments open

Andrew Leigh and I weren’t sure how our ‘bloggish debate’ on whether public schools should be privatised would go. Can you transport an old-media leisurely exchange of views to an instant feedback forum?

The posts, with comments off, did seem to lie dead on the page. They did not give me my blogging fix, or I suspect the fix of the regular commenters who didn’t want a week off from arguing among themselves – I had to write other things during the week (Andrew L restrained himself, but he has more of a life than I do).

But the idea of a bloggish debate seemed novel enough that we received far more links from other blogs than was otherwise likely, if we had we each written what we wrote separately. We even hit one of the big American blogs, Marginal Revolution, which for the first time knocked off Google to become the largest single source of referrals to my blog. My daily traffic this week has been about 40% higher than my long-term average, despite the closed comments, so overall the experiment has to be classed a success.

I’m not sure that I would make a habit of it though. I found writing it harder than writing a normal blog post, because it is more difficult to make the structure work: the challenge was to make a coherent case of my own while still responding to what Andrew was saying. It was easier in this case than my gay bar door policy debate, where the exchange went off on a tangent immediately and I had to simply ignore what Alan Soble was saying to get it back to what I wanted to argue. But the two Andrews debate still required more thinking about structure than normal for a short piece of work. It would have been impossible with comments open and many more threads to deal with.

If it worked for readers, it was perhaps because he and I were capable of having a discussion. With Soble, I was on such a different intellectual wavelength that there was little common ground on which to engage. What do you do with someone who thinks that he, sitting in Philadelphia, is better able to judge how lesbians in The Peel behave than The Peel’s owner? With Andrew, I have some ideological disagreements, but we have common views about what counts as evidence.

Anyway, I’m interested in people’s thoughts on both the format and the substantive issues. Comments are open on all the ‘bloggish debate’ posts.

Should public schools be privatised? Day 6

Day 6

[Introduction] [Day 1] [Day 2] [Day 3] [Day 4] [Day 5]

Andrew Leigh:

Dear A.N.,

What a brutal final paragraph! So if I don’t support your plan, I guess that makes me a conservative who doesn’t care about teacher quality. Few arrows could have better found their target.

I’m pleased that you and I have found common ground on civics, at least. I began by claiming that public schools provided a common crucible. You said that public school civics was in crisis. But since neither of us could provide empirical evidence, we weren’t willing to stand fiercely by our claims (incidentally, I think this is why people like John Quiggin and I enjoy arguing with you so much more than we enjoy arguing with many people on the right of the political spectrum). Perhaps one day, policymakers will have some believable causal estimates of the impact of school type on some set of ‘good’ civic indicators. In the absence of that, only the firebrands will be able to stay passionate about that one.

So now we’re left with the more traditional economic arguments. You take the view that privatised public schools will be more efficient and more equitable. I think the opposite is true on both counts. Whether it’s for political or economic reasons, companies like Edison Schools that have set up to run large numbers of schools have done very badly. According to their Wikipedia entry, their costs are higher than the public system, and they have still failed to make a profit in all except one quarter of their existence. A result like this makes me concerned about the viability of such a model in Australia. If private schools have one-third of the market when they get 55% of the government funding, can we really be confident that they could make a viable go of it in the rest of the market with 100% of the government funding? Shocking as it may sound coming from an economist, I think there may be some things that governments do better than markets, and one of them is running schools.
Continue reading “Should public schools be privatised? Day 6”

Should public schools be privatised? Day 5

Day 5

[Introduction] [Day 1] [Day 2] [Day 3] [Day 4]

Dear A.L,

As you suggest, former private school students might show more civic attitudes and behaviour than former government school students, but that doesn’t show that the school is the cause. Identifying causes requires much more research than I have done. I mentioned this finding not as an argument for private schools (it may or may not be that), but because you suggested that public schools provide a shared ‘basic understanding of democratic values’. I say, consistent with the evidence I think, that we will get that either way. Civics is a neutral factor in this debate.

If you are overstating the importance of civics in choosing a school system, I think you are understating how radical my proposal is. I don’t want to fund private schools on the same basis as public schools; quite the reverse I want to fund what are currently public schools on the same in-principle basis as private schools are now, according to their students’ socio-economic background.

I’m open to argument on the best measure of socioeconomic background. The current system uses proxies based on where the student lives, you favour more accurate ATO income statistics to create—if I read you correctly—personalised, income-tested vouchers.

The ATO may be the best original data source, but I prefer funding schools on an average basis, rather than via vouchers. I have the usual concerns about the work disincentives linked to means testing, but from an educational perspective individualised funding would encourage parents who must pay high fees anyway to send their kids to a high-fee school in an affluent area. That would replicate the lost peer effect problem that you mention.

Unlike the public school lobby, I don’t think kids should be conscripted into providing peer effects for their classmates. But if they voluntarily attend a school with a lower average SES rating their own family’s, everyone may end up better off. Each group takes advantage of the other group’s socioeconomic status.
Continue reading “Should public schools be privatised? Day 5”

Should the Liberals adopt ‘progressive liberalism’?

A recurrent critique of the Liberal Party is that it is more a conservative party than a liberal party, and that it should become more liberal. This critique has a libertarian version (for example my article on ‘big government conservatism’), and also a ‘progressive’ version, which has found its way into book form twice since the early 1990s: Christopher Puplick’s Is the Party Over?: The Future of the Liberals (1994) and Greg Barns’ What’s Wrong with the Liberal Party? (2003), which I rather unkindly reviewed for Quadrant.

After the 24 November defeat, it was the ‘progressives’ who moved first to fill the ideological vacuum left by Howard’s departure. In The Age at the weekend, Victorian Liberal Senator Judith Troeth told us that:

the party has an opportunity to reinvent itself and recapture the inclusive and progressive liberalism that once made it electorally strong. (emphasis added)

While some aspects of ‘progressive liberalism’ are in my view worthy, as John Roskam rightly points out it is not an election-winning strategy for the Liberal Party. Can anyone name an election the Liberals won because they were more ‘progressive’ than Labor?
Continue reading “Should the Liberals adopt ‘progressive liberalism’?”

Should public schools be privatised? Day 4

Day 4

[Introduction] [Day 1] [Day 2] [Day 3]

From Andrew Leigh:

Dear A.N.,

Let’s be careful about what we claim for private schools. The fact that private school attendance is positively correlated with civic activity doesn’t tell us anything about the causal impact. It could be that private school kids have rich parents, don’t move house as often, or any of a dozen unobservables. Just as the positive correlation between AWAs and wages doesn’t provide any useful causal evidence, so too correlation doesn’t mean causation in the case of public and private schools. My guess is that if we take a given child, she would be no more civically active if she attended a private school than if she attended a public school.

While I don’t think private schools have a special gift for turning kids into what Robert Putnam would call “social capitalists”, neither do I think that the typical private schools does a worse job of teaching tolerance than the typical public school. That’s basically why I support private schools getting government dollars: the per-child government funding to private schools is only about 55% of the per-child funding to a public school, so the taxpayer saves 45%. It may be the case that private schools have some positive externality (Caroline Hoxby argues that competition from private schools has the potential to ‘lift all boats’), or negative externality (if private schools skim the cream, the peer effects in public schools may go down), but I basically think that the best thing about private schools is that every kid who goes there saves you and me about $5000 ($11,000-$6000).

As I understand it, you’d now like to fund private schools on the same basis as public schools. Continue reading “Should public schools be privatised? Day 4”

Should public schools be privatised? Day 3

Day 3

[Introduction] [Day 1] [Day 2]

Dear A.L.,

Periodically, our politicians rediscover civics in schools. In 1994, the Keating-appointed Civics Expert Group released a report supporting civics and citizenship education. One of their reasons was that a survey, which they had commissioned, revealed widespread ignorance of our political institutions.

Two things are important about the report’s date. The first is that it was published about 120 years after education became free and compulsory, yet neither attribute had yielded much political knowledge. The second is that was published about 140 years after democratic institutions were established in Australia, and 90 years after universal suffrage. Australia is a long-term successful democracy despite the absence or failure of civics education in our public schools.

While understanding political institutions can do no harm and would probably do some good, you don’t need it to acquire democratic values. The citizens of stable democracies like the US and the UK show similar levels of ignorance to our own. Democracy is so deep in the culture as to not need teaching or defending in principle, even while we argue endlessly over the detail. Children much too young to participate in elections intuitively understand that voting is a fair way of deciding things.

There is no reason to believe that private schools would challenge this democratic ethos. Surveys show that current ex-private school students are more active in political affairs and more strongly in favour of democratic rights than those who went to government schools. (Though generally there are only minor opinion differences regardless of school background.) In my view, preserving public education to teach civics is a non-solution to a non-problem.
Continue reading “Should public schools be privatised? Day 3”

Will we get a new opposition party?

There is a now familiar aftermath to significant Liberal defeats. People say that the Liberal Party is finished, and needs replacing as the opposition party. BA Santamaria took this view in the mid-1980s (see his essay in Australia at the Crossroads). Norman Abjorensen is the most frequent advocate of this position today, in his rather feverish Crikey contributions and elsewhere. John Quiggin has joined in the funeral rites, and Steve Biddulph argued in the SMH last week that the Greens would replace the Liberals as the main opposition party to Labor.

While I can see the theoretical argument as to why existing political alignments don’t neatly match the Australian population or contemporary issues, in practice the major parties are deeply entrenched. In the last 60 years, only three minor parties have had a lasting parliamentary presence outside of a Coalition with the Liberals, and of these only the Greens have a secure future.

While the Green sociological base is large enough to give them a base vote larger than the Democrats, it is not yet clear that the Greens can genuinely make the transition from an issue movement to a mass political party, with all the compromises and deals that would inevitably require. The consternation caused by the very idea of a preference deal with the Liberals in the 2006 Victorian state election, even though the Greens are unlikely to win lower-house seats without Liberal preferences, highlights the problem. Identity politics and democratic politics sit uneasily together.

The 7.5% Green House of Representatives vote in 2007 over-states their reliable support. Continue reading “Will we get a new opposition party?”