The Rudd conservative social democrats

Over at Catallaxy, Jason Soon is highlighting the conservative nature of the Rudd government.

In this post, he picks up on the campaign being run in recent days by The Australian on the government’s IR legislation, which will have very negative effects on restaurants and cafes. Modern left-familists and 1950s conservatives are united in trying to make life difficult for those operating outside 9 to 5 Monday to Friday (except of course the Rudd government itself, with its absurdly over-worked staff).

In this post, he has another go at the government’s internet censorship regime. I think the outrage in question may rely on older laws, but even 20 years ago Labor would not have been on the side of the censors like this government is.

He could have added the activities of Nicola Roxon, a 21st century version of the 19th century temperance activist.

And let’s not forget that Rudd is outdoing Howard on family handouts.

On the theory that all Australian governments are some mix of conservatism, liberalism and social democracy, I thought this one might be predominantly liberal and social democrat, but at this stage it looks like it is predominantly conservative and social democrat. My two least-favourite parts of the modern Western tradition.

Government and private sectors both closing schools

The 2008 ABS schools data out today illustrates my point that the party in power doesn’t seem to greatly affect the market share of private schools.

In the first full year of Labor in power federally, private schools had an unusually large market share gain of .45%, above the .39% average during the Howard years. Government school enrolments fell in absolute numbers rather than the more usual pattern of recent years of simply growing more slowly than private schools. This was entirely due to government primary schools; government secondary schools recorded an increase in enrolments.

If the number of private schools drops it will actually be continuing a trend in the independent sector, which had a net loss of 1 school in 2008. The state-level data shows clearly that these are net effects. Victoria and NSW gained independent schools, while Queensland and Western Australia lost independent schools.

The government sector lost 18 schools, with NSW, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and the ACT all recording losses.

Could the number of private schools fall?

Citing anonymous sources, The Sunday Age led yesterday with the story that the GFC may cause some private schools to close.

Reference to a company offering fee insurance to parents and schools raises suspicions that, like regular ‘news’ from the Australian Scholarships Group about total school costs (running again in a parallel story yesterday), this story has more to do with clever manipulation of the media by commercial interests and (yet another) slow news Sunday than reporting on real information.

Neverthless, the possibility is real. While the experience of the last recession would suggest that total private school enrolment growth will slow rather than go into reverse, that is across the whole sector, and consistent with individual schools suffering enrolment declines.

Because schools are non-profits often operating on a quasi-charitable basis, many are likely to start the recession under-capitalised and lacking strong trading surpluses. This leaves them vulnerable to a downturn. In the the last recession the number of non-government schools did in fact decrease, from 2,517 in 1990 to 2,499 in 1993.

However, as with enrolments this was a cyclical rather than a structural change. Private school numbers recovered to 2,520 in 1994, and there were 2,728 private schools in 2007. If this is as severe a recession as forecast, I expect we will see a similar dip in numbers and subsequent increase as the economy improves.

Update: After months of stories on the claimed shift to public education, the SMH grudgingly concedes it is not true:

INDEPENDENT schools in NSW have reported an overall increase in enrolments this year, despite having bled some students to the public school system.

Is there any point in double banning capital punishment?

The SMH reported yesterday that

LAWS prohibiting states and territories from reintroducing the death penalty are being seriously considered by the Rudd Government and could be introduced this parliamentary term.

Even for a government as hyperactive as the Rudd government this proposal seems excessive. After all, nobody has actually received capital punishment since 1967, and according to the SMH article the last state formally removed it from the statute books in 1985. The 2007 Australian Election Survey suggests that, for the first time, capital punishment has minority support. Neither regular appalling murders, nor the introduction of tough anti-terrorist measures, has seen any serious attempt to get the death penalty reintroduced. The issue is as dead as Ronald Ryan, the last man to go the gallows. For good reason, the Australian political class has lost the will to kill.

So why this proposal? According to an accompanying article

The move is intended in part to reinforce with Asia Australia’s opposition to the death penalty – given concern at the fate of three Bali Nine members on Indonesia’s death row.

But this proposal relies for its significance on a distinction between state and federal law that is barely understood within Australia, much less within Asia. I fail to see how an obscure constitutional point adds anything to our international advocacy, much less to the substantive debates within Asia about the advantages and disadvantages of the death penalty.

Double banning capital punishment seems to me to be soft left symbolic politics at its most ridiculous.

Your taxes at play

Yesterday The Australian added anecdotal evidence to the statistical evidence that Youth Allowance is middle-class welfare.

STA Travel has also released sales to entice students to splash their stimulus cash offshore.

The company’s product and marketing director, Basil Hyman, said anecdotal evidence suggested inquiries for travel to short-haul destinations such as Bali, Fiji and Vietnam had shot up since the handouts had begun reaching bank accounts. “I think it has helped to stimulate overseas travel,” he said.

We are still waiting to see if Gillard will, as the Bradley report suggested, make YA a less rortable scheme.

Evidence and economic reform

An article in the latest issue of federal Treasury’s Economic Roundup publication argues for the importance of evidence in ‘creating a broad base of community support for reform’. The authors, Joann Wilkie and Angelia Grant, use the economic reforms since 1983 as their case study.

I’ve no doubt that evidence and analysis was important in shaping elite views on economic reform. I’m not sure, however, that they make a convincing case on public support for the reform process. The main reason for saying this is that the polling we have suggests that the public opposed most of the specific economic reforms, with mixed survey results on their attitudes towards the whole reform process.

The problem is evident in contradictions within the article. The authors say that influential experts and commentators were important in ‘convincing the public to support tariff reform’. But their own data a couple of pages on clearly shows that most people continue to support tariffs. Wilkie and Grant note, as I did in a 2004 article, that polling does show understanding of the argument that free trade benefits consumers. However, on my analysis concern about jobs is the over-riding consideration.

Similarly, privatisation almost always polls poorly, and while there were some mixed results in early industrial relations polling, opinion was strongly against WorkChoices.
Continue reading “Evidence and economic reform”

Liberty and Society, 1-3 May 2009

For university students and recent graduates, applications are open for the next CIS Liberty and Society seminar. It starts with a dinner on Friday 1 May, with sessions over the next two days on liberal political philosophy, liberal economics, liberal law and a final policy-oriented session. If you are interested in classical liberal ideas, you’ll get lot from this weekend.

You don’t have to be a classical liberal to attend; we always select a few conservatives and social democrats to keep the debate lively. But everyone has to express their disagreements in a reasoned and polite way, so all who attend can participate in the discussion without being intimidated.

If you are selected, the CIS will cover all the costs of the weekend itself, and there are also air fare subsidies available for those who need help getting to Sydney.

Applications close on 3 April.

More voucher confusion

The word ‘voucher’ sure has journalists confused. Last week the SMH took Gillard’s spin at face value. And in today’s Australian we are told this:

The system isn’t a voucher system. Students aren’t being issued with a portable amount of money they can just cash in where they like. For all the talk of empowering students with greater choice, it is the universities, and ultimately their vice-chancellors, that will frame that choice, since it is they that will decide what is on offer.

And while universities can be expected to tailor offerings to attract students, not all universities will seek to expand. Offerings will be influenced not just by what students want, but also by the relative cost of delivery.

There are two confusions here. One is the point I made last week about the technology of delivering the subsidy. This is irrelevant to the concept of a voucher, which is that a consumer’s decision, rather than a bureaucrat’s decision, triggers the payment (under the current system, no payment is made unless a student occupies a place first authorised by the bureaucracy).

The second confusion is about the role of suppliers and prices. In this respect, ‘voucher’ system is preferable to Bradley’s language of a ‘demand-driven’ system, since what is delivered in a market or quasi-market system is not whatever consumers want, but the intersection of supply and demand, mediated by prices. So the actions of suppliers and the role of prices are integral to voucher systems, not features that make a voucher system not a voucher system.

From one Soviet-style policy to another

In a particularly bad day for long-suffering university administrators, Julia Gillard yesterday joined Kim Carr in piling on the bureaucracy. Though she did not say so directly in her speech to the AFR higher education conference, she clearly intends to follow the Bradley report recommendation to impose institutional enrolment targets for low SES students, which will cumulatively meet a national target.

By 2020, 20% of university undergraduate enrolments are to be of low SES students. She says the current figure is ‘around 16%’. Though it sounds about right, I can’t verify this because this number is not currently reported (it is for all students, but not for undergraduates only).

This is, however, the least of the statistical problems with this target. As I argued in December, even if targets are adopted the denominator should not be total university enrolments. This is a shifting target, in which the most important factor is not low SES enrolments but enrolments of other SES groups. In order for low SES to increase their share of total enrolments their enrolments need to grow more quickly than that of other groups. Substantial improvements in low SES enrolments are not in themselves enough.

Short of engaging in class discrimination against applicants from middle and high SES groups, substantially increasing low SES as a share of total enrolments is going to be very difficult to achieve. Gillard herself notes that the school completion rate for high SES students has room to increase, but to the extent that it does reaching the low SES target would become more difficult.
Continue reading “From one Soviet-style policy to another”

Kim Carr suppresses cognitive dissonance

In a speech to the AFR‘s higher education conference today, Science and Research Minister Kim Carr, showing Nelsonesque levels of capacity to suppress cognitive dissonance, said that:

the Government will expect universities to provide better, more meaningful data on research costs through activity-based reporting, and to meet specific performance targets to be developed in consultation with the sector. …

The Government will use any additional funding as a lever to:

* drive structural reform within institutions and across the sector,
* increase transparency and accountability,
* ensure that resources are allocated rationally and used efficiently,
* make universities responsible for their decisions, and
* improve the way universities manage their estate.
These are precisely the same ends we will expect to achieve through mission-based funding compacts.

but at the same time…

Compacts will increase institutional autonomy …

So unprecedented interference in how universities run their business increases their autonomy?

I know Orwell is overused, but how can I resist?:

War is Peace.
Freedom is Slavery.
Ignorance is Strength.