The ‘megalothymic’ right

In a Culture Wars chapter called ‘Us and them: national identity and the question of belonging’, ANU academic Kim Huynh organises his argument around the ideas of ‘megalothymia’, which he says ‘denotes a desire to be recognised as superior and separate’, and ‘isothymia’, which lends itself to ‘multiculturalism and multilateralism’.

Huynh argues that the Howard government shifted us ‘decisively to the megalothymic right’ (I predict this label will not catch on). The dog whistlers in the Howard government ‘seek to split society along ethnic lines between the white “us” and the coloured “them”.’ The groups he specifically notes as being targeted by the Howard government are Muslims, people from the Middle East, and the Sudanese.

As we might expect, there is plenty in this chapter about refugees. Certainly, the Howard government treated unauthorised arrivals harshly, signalling a clear intention to maintain control over who enters Australia. So there can be no disputing that immigration policy assumes that there are some individuals who should be denied entry. But can we read into it an assumption that some groups should not be admitted or singled out for especially tough treatment?
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Am I a ‘moral conservative’?

In the Culture Wars book, Norman Abjorensen describes me as a ‘moral conservative thinker’. Yet again the left’s labels for the right seem chosen according to mood rather than meaning. The footnote at the end of the sentence is to this 2002 Quadrant article on the right’s labels for the left, which apart from its place of publication provides no hint as to my views on moral issues.

So what is a ‘moral conservative’? According to the book’s introduction, the terminology is ‘imprecise’ (an understatement). But

…the conservative side [liberal progressives being the other] tends strongly to an Augustinian pessimism at the base of their thinking about human society, and the necessity therefore for traditional modes of authority, for simple moral codes to maintain order and provide direction for the masses and for a unified, patriotic approach to national identity.

I have hundreds of thousands of words on the public record; these do not strike me as major themes of my writing. Indeed, I have hardly mentioned them. Across the issues that are discussed in the context of conservative politics in this book I am for the most part either not very interested (eg history wars) or opposed to the conservative view (eg euthanasia, family payments, gay marriage, censorship). (Migration is a partial exception to this, but the confused account of this issue in the book, not written by Abjorensen, needs a separate post.)

This lack of support for conservative views is hardly surprising. I am, as my blog says, a classical liberal. I support classical liberal causes. I work for a classical liberal organisation. So why can’t Norman just call me a classical liberal?
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A fantasy think-tank history

Norman Abjorensen must have a masochistic streak, because he emailed me with the news that he is a contributor to The Culture Wars: Australian and American Politics in the 21st Century, which was published late last year.

As I expected, some of Norman’s intellectual eccentricities on display in his book on conservatism are also evident in his contribution to Culture Wars. For example, he claims that the emergence of think-tanks like the CIS was ‘signalled a new offensive against liberal democracy and its perceived progressivist excesses’. In making this claim, he reveals part of the CIS’s history that I was not aware of, and indeed a part of the CIS’s history that its founder, Greg Lindsay, was also not aware of.

Apparently, a 1975 report of the Trilateral Commission (in Norman’s words an ‘extremely influential’ but ‘little known’ body) called The Crisis of Democracy popularised the work of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, and its ‘immediate influence in Australia was evident in a host of new free market think-tanks, such as the Centre for Independent Studies and the Sydney Institute.’

Just how a ‘little known’ body popularised anything is not made clear, and particularly now how it popularised thinkers who were already famous long before 1975. Hayek became a public figure with The Road to Serfdom in the mid-1940s, and won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1974.
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Kate Ellis’s red tape machine

For some reason, Julia Gillard let junior minister Kate Ellis run with student amenities policy, cutting across Gillard’s own broader policy review under Denise Bradley.

Last week Ellis introduced complex legislation to regulate and finance student amenities, when for much of Australia prior to 2006 it had operated without any government regulation at all. Now she has released guidelines that provide more detail on how the legislation would operate.

Student unions are unhappy that the guidelines don’t force universities to give them money. But that they are not forced to do so is perhaps the only thing that can be said in favour of the guidelines.

The guidelines do require higher education institutions receiving tuition subsidies to provide democratic opportunities for students to participate in decision-making, and to provide ‘adequate and reasonable support resources and infrastructure’ for elected students to carry out their functions. They also require students to be given access to independent advocacy services for academic matters, for higher education providers to make available information on and access to health services, accommodation services, legal matters, and employment services.
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Crook analysis of think-tanks, #2

According to Crikey hack Andrew Crook

Another Thornley backed outfit, PerCapita, conceived as a direct competitor to free market think tanks like the IPA and the CIS, has been more active in recent months with ex-Latham staffer Michael Cooney regularly hitting the airwaves to take on its scorched earth rivals.

But as I reported on this blog, Cooney has left Per Capita, and has been working in Canberra for someone else since early December last year – over the few months in which Crook thinks he has been regularly hitting the airwaves.

Don’t believe anything you read about think-tanks in Crikey. They are just making it up.

Cyclical and structural school enrolment shifts

Catholic students lead exodus to public high schools

– headline in The Australian, 19 February 2009

Sydney Catholic schools, the biggest diocese after Melbourne with 147 schools, reported their biggest rise in enrolments since 1991 with 500 more students, with about 26 per cent starting Year 7 coming from a government school, as did 20 per cent of Year 11 students.

– later in the same Australian story.

Melbourne’s Catholic Education Office director Stephen Elder [said] that, in Victoria, Catholic enrolments had increased by 2400, or 1.3 per cent, this year

– report in The Age, 19 February 2009.

The trigger for both stories was a survey of public school principals suggesting that some are taking additional enrolments of students who formerly attended non-government schools. Both the survey and the Catholic response could be correct, because as I argued last month, a recession is likely to cause a cyclical shift back to cheaper government schools among some parents, without disrupting the structural shift towards private schools triggered by greater affluence, more diversity, and increased importance of education in lifetime outcomes.

With the global recession only slightly affecting employment in Australia so far, I would predict a lower increase in private school market share for term 1 2009 than is usual, but not a gain in market share for public schools.
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The Bradley enrolment target

The Bradley report’s target of 40% of 25-34 year olds having degrees by 2020 is leading to some big projections of what it would take to reach that proportion of graduates. Bob Birrell thinks it might need a 71% increase in the number of graduates compared to 2006, coming from a combination of demographic factors (there will be more 25-34 year olds) and a higher qualification share among them. This would be nearly 600,000 people. In The Australian this morning, Vin Massaro puts the number at 544,000.

Birrell is saying we need to build lots of new campuses, Massaro is worried about how much it would cost and how far academic standards would need to be lowered to take all these extra students.

I have to confess that the maths on this has made my head hurt. But it’s not clear to me that the numbers involved are going to be quite as high as Birrell and Massaro think. For a start, they are assuming a base of 29% in 2006. That was the number in the Bradley report. But being in the grip of the OECD cringe, under which Australian data is not real until it has been republished in Paris, the Bradley committee used out of date statistics. By 2008, the figure was already up to 32%. I suspect this is partly due to migration, since migration criteria favours graduates.
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The long-term politics of budget deficits

As a childless person on an above-average income – ie, the principal victim class of the tax-welfare system – I am pleased with the Coalition’s stance on massive budget deficits. I’ll be paying for it in the long run (and consistent with the permanent income hypothesis, I am increasing my savings to maintain stable long-term living standards).

But personal interests aside, I am interested in the long-term politics of this. The most detailed polling on this to date (pdf), though based on an online panel, finds majority public support for the government: 51% supporting Rudd’s approach, 33% Turnbull’s, and 16% undecided.

However, the latest package of handouts hasn’t changed confidence in Australia’s capacity to withstand the GFC, which has been hovering around 60% since October last year. Nor has it changed approval of the government’s performance since November last year. (The Opposition’s disapproval has substantively increased, from 35% to 44%).

The Pollytics blog is convinced that this is a disaster for the Coalition. Maybe. But less that twelve months ago the public was also buying the then media-macroeconomic wisdom that we needed a contractionary fiscal policy, of which the Coalition was sensibly (even more so in retrospect) sceptical.

The medium term politics depend on how Australia’s performance in the GFC is judged, and what effect is attributed to the handouts. The longer-term politics depend on attitudes to public debt and tax. If my theories are right, the underlying tax and spend public opinion dynamic should be turning back towards lower taxes. The Coalition’s current stance, along with their historic advantages as the more-favoured party on tax, could help them take advantage of any swing back towards preferring lower tax.

What do higher education subsidies achieve?

This year, the federal goverment has budgeted to spend around $4 billion subsidising higher education tuition. Strangely, though most people in higher education politics think we should spend more than this, nobody seems quite sure what this expenditure is supposed to achieve. The Bradley report confessed that ‘there is no easy basis on which to determine the “right” mix of public and private contributions’. This was not just an empirical problem; it was a conceptual problem too.

The most defensible theory of higher education subsidies is that by fiddling with prices via subsidies demand for education is increased to socially desirable levels and/or supply is increased by making it more attractive for higher education providers to offer disciplines that might otherwise be under-supplied.

Behind this theory is an argument about externalities. In comments over the weekend, commenter Rajat Sood suggested that the widely varying share that Commonwealth subsidies make of per student funding, from as little as 16% for law to more than 80% for science, may reflect (at least approximately) the ‘social externalities’ involved. The idea here is that because not all the benefits of higher education are captured by the student, in a pure market they won’t pay the prices set and higher education will be ‘under-produced’.

But this theory does not fit with current system design. Under the quota system, suppliers do not receive price signals, so they cannot respond to extra demand or provide extra supply. Under a voucher scheme, they would receive price signals. But as my Issue Analysis paper argued the effect of the combined subsidy-price cap system recommended by Bradley would mean that suppliers would receive price signals that would encourage them to reduce supply below what a pure market would provide. So the effect of Commonwealth fiddling with prices would be the opposite of what the externalities theory says it should be.
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A defence of political partisanship

Light posting due to a do-nothing weekend, but I liked this defence of political partisanship by Nancy Rosenblum at Cato Unbound.

Though the book on which it is based on sitting in my daunting pile of unread books, Rosenblum has more than any other political theorist I am aware of been a defender of voluntary assocations, finding what good they do (if only for their members), rather than finding them wanting against an abstract standard, as tends to be the case in the work of others. In a much less comprehensive way, I try to do something similar in my criticisms of anti-discrimination law and arguments against political expenditure laws.

Australia’s party identification figures (largish pdf) are fairly resilient, and this is broadly healthy for our political system which relies on there being an alternative government. The problem is that partisanship rarely converts to party membership, which means both major parties are suffering from shrinking and ageing memberships, narrowing the pool of candidates and affecting campaigning capacity.

The Victorian Liberal Party is experimenting with pre-selection primaries, an idea I converted to last year. I’m not sure how successful it will be in attracting Liberal partisans into the party, but given the dismal alternative of slow but steady decline it is worth a try.