What a difference a word makes

A CBS poll on gays in the US military finds that the American public is much happier with the idea of ‘gay men and lesbians’ serving in the military than ‘homosexuals’ serving in the military. For the ‘strongly favour’, ‘gay men and lesbians’ adds 17 percentage points to the total.

‘Gay’ is a word with more positive connotations than ‘homosexual’ – a legacy of its old meaning and not prompting respondents to think about sex acts that they don’t want to think about, even while liking some gay people and enjoying aspects of gay culture.

But this theory of connotations is better at explaining why people go from ‘somewhat’ to ‘strongly’ than to explaining the shift from oppose to favour (homosexual – 59%, gay – 70%). It’s surprising that near-synonyms can lead to a non-trivial minority offering different views on the substantive issue.

HT: Marginal Revolution.

Is there complete social mobility over time?

Over two generations, socioeconomic class tends to be ‘sticky’. Statistically speaking, the occupation of a parent influences the occupation of a child. But what about the very long term?

Robert Wiblin has drawn my attention to this very interesting paper by the economic historian Gregory Clark, which argues that over multiple generations there is a class ‘regression to the mean’, with the inequalities of one generation washing out over time.

Clark’s method is to use English records of surnames, which can be used to roughly trace the class progress of people with different family names. Some surnames reveal class backgrounds because they are taken from medieval occupations (eg Smith, Clerk/Clark, Shepherd, Cooper, Carter). Clark furthers his study by examining the names in records of wills, tax payments, and court appearances. Over time, the share of names appearing in lists of those with large estates or criminal defendants can roughly track class progress.

What Clark finds is that England over the 800 years from 1200 was without persistent social classes. The handful of aristocratic families who can trace their family trees back centuries are outliers. Continue reading “Is there complete social mobility over time?”

Our incoherent HELP loan scheme

The government today introduced its legislation to increase the undergraduate FEE-HELP debt surcharge from 20% to 25%. For example, under the current system an undergraduate who borrowed $10,000 under FEE-HELP would incur a debt of $12,000. From 1 July 2010, if this legislation passes, they would incur a debt of $12,500.

I think we need to look at the cost and coherence of the HELP student loan system. There is possibly a case for increasing the surcharge. However, in the absence of a broader review I believe the Coalition should vote against this ad hoc and arbitrary measure.

As I pointed out when this idea was first raised, this targets most of the higher education providers offering students a second chance – the TAFEs and private feeder colleges (given the migration reforms announced on Monday, the non-public university education sector could be forgiven for thinking that this government is trying to put them out of business). Continue reading “Our incoherent HELP loan scheme”

Does My School change parental opinion on schools?

Much of the fuss over the My School website and league tables is based on a fear that parents will over-react to information that is only a very partial account of a school’s activities. As Pollytics blog reports today, Essential Research has started to explore parental reaction, though with only 242 people in the sample some caution is required.


Question: After seeing the information on your school or your children’s school, do you now have a higher or lower opinion of the school?

For clear majorities of both government (68%) and private (58%) parents, My School made no difference to their opinion. Almost identical proportions (16%/17%) said that they had a lower opinion as a result. However more private school parents (22%) than government school parents (15%) said that they had a higher opinion as a result of My School.

Of course a lower opinion doesn’t necessarily mean that parents will move their kids, but this survey suggests that My School will put some pressure on a modestly-sized minority of schools.

Justice, need, and choice: arguments for private school funding since the 1960s

Associate Professor Craig Campbell has form for dubious use of ‘neoliberalism‘ as an explainer. Twelve months ago I took Campbell and his co-authors of School Choice to task for making a similar claim about the influence of ‘neoliberalism’ on schools policy.

My argument that private school policy has deep roots in Australian political and educational history, long predating ‘neoliberalism’, is supported by a new history of the state aid debate, Graeme Starr’s Variety and Choice: Good Schools for All Australians, published by the Menzies Research Centre.

Despite Starr’s title, his book suggests that neither variety nor choice were very important arguments in the revival of state aid to non-government schools in the 1960s. Rather two other arguments dominated the state aid debate, justice and need. Continue reading “Justice, need, and choice: arguments for private school funding since the 1960s”

‘Neoliberalism’ as an all-purpose trend explainer

Professor Campbell said he agreed with commentators such as the academic Michael Pusey who have argued that the rise of neo-liberalism has contributed to undermining confidence in public institutions.

The middle classes now felt a need to insure themselves against failing government health and education systems.

From a SMH article on the My School website.

Within academia – with occasional spillovers into the Lodge – ‘neoliberalism’ has become an all-purpose trend explainer, some generally accepted broad change that is used to explain other changes. The evidence for all-purpose trend explainers is rarely better than circumstantial. Whenever I see an all-purpose trend explainer I turn my bull**** detector up several notches.

In this case, which is more likely: that people make greater use of private services because they have been influenced by an academic philosophy most people had never heard of until Kevin Rudd’s Monthly essay controversy, or that they make greater use of private services because government services are less appropriate or of lower quality than affluent people want? It takes ideological blindness to think that the former possibility is more likely than the latter.

‘High-minded’ excuses for partisan self-interest

From the Sunday Age this morning:

A Labor source said the reforms to boost the taxpayer-funded contribution were needed because political parties around the country ”are broke”.

”It’s being put in high-minded terms, but Labor federally is $8 million in debt, and Rudd refuses to fund-raise. State branches are also in a parlous state.”

Indeed. I fear that academic supporters of electoral law reform are being taken for a ride, providing ‘high-minded’ justifications for electoral law reforms that are, as they almost always are, grubby exercises in partisan self-interest.
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Also in the Sunday Age, Chris Berg emphasises that big government is the root cause of the political donations issue.

An unfair university equity policy?

Julia Gillard wants to to increase the number of low SES students, and to improve their pass and retention rates. The government has now proposed a number of ‘equity’ policies to achieve these goals.

In this week’s Campus Review I argue (try here if the CR link does not work) that we could be headed for an unfair equity policy.

Part of the problem is that though the government is seeking to replace the current postcode-based measure of SES, probably with individual measures such as parental education, it is still talking about classifying the lowest 25% as ‘low SES’. What I show in the CR article, principally using NAPLAN results, is that lowest 25% is a highly arbitrary cut-off point. People above and below it have very similar (and not especially good) levels of academic performance.

This wouldn’t necessarily matter much, except for the fact that under the government’s policies individual benefits will attach to a low SES classification. Continue reading “An unfair university equity policy?”

A rare defeat for the political cartel

Yesterday almost everyone was condemning the South Australian government for requiring blog commenters to use their real names when offering their views on the South Australian election. Now the South Australian Attorney-General has backed down and says he will repeal the laws retrospectively.

I’m not convinced that the courts would have upheld any attempted blogger prosecutions as within the law. In what appears to be the relevant provision of the SA electoral legislation (s.116), the case would turn on the defintion of an internet ‘journal’. In the legislation, “journal means a newspaper, magazine or other periodical.” Is a blog a journal in that sense?

As with the similar kerfuffle over Stephen Conroy’s proposed internet filter, much of the criticism does not go far enough. In each case, the relevant ministers are trying to extend to the internet regulation that has long applied to other media. Is there something special about the internet that means different rules should apply? Continue reading “A rare defeat for the political cartel”

Being made ‘accountable’ under political expenditure laws

This morning the major papers have their annual round-up of how much was donated to political parties and who the major donors were in 2008-09.

In my particular concern of political expenditure laws, as in previous years the papers were struggling to find any news other than how much money the unions spent, and this year so far as I can see only the SMH even bothered with that.

Of the $6.5 million in political expenditure declared in 2008-09 (down dramatically from the 2007-08 election year spending of $50.6 million) 94.6% was spent by unions, 3.6% by GetUp!, 1.5% by environmental groups, and the remaining $11,170 by the Aged Care Association (SA). Continue reading “Being made ‘accountable’ under political expenditure laws”