Religion in politics

The Fairfax broadsheets this morning report on research by Anna Crabb (published in the Australian Journal of Political Science) showing that over the years 2000 to 2006 Australian politicians increasingly made reference to Christian themes, as measured by use of the terms Christ, church, faith, pray, Jesus, Bible, spiritual, God, and religion. In 2000, 9% of speeches by prominent federal politicians mentioned one of these terms, rising steadily to a peak of 24% in 2005, before dropping back down to 22% in 2006.

The empirical work is interesting, though it is difficult to sort out to what extent this represents shifting norms in political speech (as against a claimed norm of keeping religion and politics separate), and to what extent the issues of this time period gave greater cause to mention religion.

Clearly, the rise of any terrorist movement intent on mass murder would have been mentioned regularly by politicians, and that Islamist movements killed in the name of a religion gave religion in general a salience it would not otherwise have had. Indeed, were it not for terrorism-related mentions there would have been no clear trend in religious mentions over 2000-2003.
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On Liberty at 150

The 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, along with the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, has been getting plenty of attention. But there was another still-famous book published in 1859 that doesn’t seem to be getting anniversary celebrations – John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

I try to rectify this in the current issue of Policy. At the end of my article, I try to explain why Mill, despite probably being the most read and cited liberal philosopher, has an uneasy place in the classical liberal canon, but still deserves to be there:
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Economic liberalism and the opportunities for political favours

Today John Quiggin published a post on ‘probity and economic liberalism’, arguments from which have also been appearing in the thread to this post of mine.

In response to the argument that economic liberalism reduces the scope for wrong-doing, Quiggin offers evidence which I think is in itself pretty much irrelevant: that various governments that introduced some liberal policies also had scandals. But as social scientists often point out, correlation is not causation. All governments eventually have scandals of some sort, and by Quiggin’s standard every ideology stands condemned.

The Latham argument I agreed with was that to the extent government either withdraws from activities or sets neutral rules of the game the scope for political favours is reduced. Because classical/neo-liberalism provides no ideological justification for industry policy and advocates cutting taxes over most forms of government spending it seems to me that it must, to the extent it is successful, have a prophylactic effect on political favours.
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Is opinion turning back against tax and spend?

Regular readers will know that I have a distinctive explanation of why public opinion has shifted since the mid-1990s to favour more taxing and spending. Most researchers in this field think it is an ideological shift towards government services, while I argue that it is linked to household finances. Under my theory, when economic times are good people tend towards spending more on everything, including those services they pay for via taxation. When economic times are not so good, people want to protect their household budgets, and opinion tends towards preferring lower taxation.*

According to my theory, in a mild recession we should be starting to see a shift in opinion back towards lower tax. One indicator of perceptions of household finances I used in my original research, Roy Morgan’s consumer confidence poll, shows that while confidence is rising again it is still well below its 2007 levels, when pro-tax opinion was high.

An Essential Research poll published on Pollytics blog earlier this week on whether tax increases to fund more spending have support appears consistent with that theory. Continue reading “Is opinion turning back against tax and spend?”

What constitutes successful working of a policy integrity system?

I’m one of the few people who thinks that regulation of political donations already goes too far, at least for NGOs. But I think there is some common ground that nobody – whether donors or not – should get special treatment that would not be given to other persons or organisations with the same relevant characteristics.

However, differences arise on this issue because I, like Mark Latham, see the central problem as inappropriate levels of political discretion. If discretion exists, we can hardly blame constituents for trying to take advantage, or politicians hoping to win support from offering advantage. We cannot be surprised when people follow the incentives a system creates. To the extent that constituents attempt to win special favours by donations this is a symptom of a deficient system rather than the cause of a deficient system.

This is why I think that Joo-Cheong Tham, writing in The Age this morning, is mistaken in arguing that the fact that John Grant did not get special treatment does not make a significant difference to how we should assess the case. When Treasury can repeatedly raise a particular case (indeed, cases) with a company seeking financial guarantees from the Commonwealth and get nowhere it suggests that the policy integrity system is working. Continue reading “What constitutes successful working of a policy integrity system?”

The easiest way to avoid conflicts of interest

Amidst the hyperbole and counter-hyperbole of Ute-gate, some words of sense (yes, really) from Mark Latham:

Neoliberalism is not without its shortcomings as an economic philosophy, but one thing its favour is the avoidance of conflicts of interest. As it does not support interventionist industry programs and government hand-outs to the corporate sector, MPs cannot be compromised in their dealings with businesspeople.

AFR opinion page, 22 June 2009

Why pay more at Borders?

This week if you download a coupon you can get 30% off a full-priced book at Borders. They regularly offer similar kinds of specials.

So far as I know, this is a novel strategy for booksellers in Australia: not discounts on a particular book, and not discounts across-the-board, but one discount on a book the customer chooses (is there a unique barcode for each coupon which protects against fraud?). If the strategy is to get people into the store it is a clever one. It allows all books to attract customers rather than just the specials, but unlike across-the-board discounting it increases the yield on additional purchases.

What Borders don’t tell you is that sometimes you need a coupon for shopping at Borders to make sense. My weekly notice from Borders, which I received yesterday, advertises Colm Toibin’s new novel Brooklyn for $36.50. A Toibin novel is likely to be worth $36.50, but there is no need to pay this much. Other bookstores are selling it for the publisher-recommended price of $32.99.
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