‘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.

All-purpose trend explainers

Scenario: Journalist rings an academic with a striking sounding statistic – say a 43% increase in the number of Victorians contacting the Department of Justice to complain about the behaviour of other adults – looking for an explanation.

The academic doesn’t actually know why there is a trend up or down, but not wanting to disappoint a journalist who needs copy, offers an all-purpose trend explainer. These are general changes that can, due to their broad nature, be used to explain all sorts of other changes. Hugh Mackay filled dozens of columns with all-purpose trend explainers.

But are we really left much the wiser when we get theorising like this?: Continue reading “All-purpose trend explainers”

Off the happy planet

Yesterday the SMH gave some publicity to the latest version of the so-called Happy Planet Index, another of those dubious indexes that combines incommensurable things – in this case a nation’s life expectancy, life satisfaction, and ‘ecological footprint’ – into a single number.

According to the SMH article,

The results turn our idea of progress on its head,” the report said.

“It shows that a good life is possible without costing the earth.”

Alas, not only is the methodology dubious but the results don’t support the conclusion reached. They show how hard it is to achieve life satisfaction on low levels of consumption (as measured by the ‘ecological footprint’). Only a dozen of the top 50 ranked countries achieve ‘normal’ 7+ (out of 10) life satisfaction ratings. And all but three of these twelve are in Latin America, which repeatedly scores much better on life satisfaction and happiness scores than other places with comparable economic, political and social development. You can be poor and happy, but only in one part of the world.

Several countries in the top 50, including Bangladesh, Nepal, Armenia and Yemen, score below 5.5, suggesting that much of the population in these countries is very unhappy. That the ‘planet’ might be happy at the low levels of consumption in these places is not likely to be much consolation.

Will Wilkinson isn’t impressed either.

Do governments assume citizen rationality and self-control?

The latest Per Capita paper summarises the research on various cognitive biases (loss aversion, endowment effect, etc) and makes suggestions for policymakers about ‘choice architecture’ that helps people make better, less irrational, decisions. For example, default options of sensible choices where people have to opt out to avoid them preserves freedom to choose while encouraging decisions that will benefit most people.

It’s the kind of argument Cass Sunstein has been making for years, and on which he co-wrote with Richard Thaler a widely-cited 2008 book called Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness (which is strangely not cited in Jack Fuller’s Per Capita paper; if Sunstein did not coin ‘choice architecture’ he’s certainly its main populariser).

I don’t doubt that these cognitive biases exist, or that their negative effects can be reduced by ‘choice architecture’. But I do want to take issue with another example of the annoying rhetorical strategy of setting up straw man opponents:
Continue reading “Do governments assume citizen rationality and self-control?”

When a conclusion appears as an assumption (or more dubious arguments for university funding)

Funded by Universities Australia, KPMG have produced a report modelling the economic effects of increased investment in higher education. As an exercise in persuading Treasury, it is almost certain to fail.

Perhaps because of the way Universities Australia specified the project, the report assumes that this increased investment comes from the government. But this is not an assumption that can simply be built into an economic model. It is a highly contentious conclusion that never receives the arguments it needs.

The obvious alternative assumption is that students pay some or all of the increased investment. Under current HELP loan scheme arrangements this would still cost taxpayers, because of bad debts and interest subsidies, but not as much as direct subsidies.

Indeed, even setting aside the interests of taxpayers, it is highly likely that there would be more efficient investment and higher return if investment is determined privately rather than publicly.
Continue reading “When a conclusion appears as an assumption (or more dubious arguments for university funding)”

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?
Continue reading “The ‘megalothymic’ right”

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?
Continue reading “Am I a ‘moral conservative’?”

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.
Continue reading “A fantasy think-tank history”

The Bradley report’s OECD cringe

The Bradley report’s authors display the OECD cringe, an attitude that OECD statistics set the benchmarks Australia should follow, regardless of whether those statistics are meaningful or whether other countries get better outcomes. It is the modern-day version of the old cultural cringe, that whatever was English set the standard Australia should follow.

Some examples:

* concern about a drop in Australia’s tertiary attainment levels relative to other countries (at pages 9, 18), ‘notwithstanding classification issues’. In fact, those classification issues are serious. And as I have pointed out, the same OECD publication that reports these attainment levels also shows that high levels of attainment correlate with high levels of graduates in low-skill jobs (though the extent of these correlations will be lower than reported, due to the data issues).

* increases in public funding to be in the ‘top group of the OECD’ (6). Yet there is no evidence that public funding is better than private funding, and the OECD does not claim that there is.
Continue reading “The Bradley report’s OECD cringe”

Do think tanks follow God or mammon?

The latest issue of the Australian Journal of Political Science contains an article called ‘Conservative Think Tanks and Public Politics’, by Marcus Smith and Peter Marden. They are against the former and claim to be in favour of the latter.

Smith and Marden don’t seem to able to decide whether think tanks are driven by God or mammon (the possibility that people who work in think-tanks might be sincerely interested in good public policy is not even considered).

The first part of the article is a conventional (left-wing) narrative of how business interests created think-tanks to serve their financial interests. But then it switches to God, arguing that the Christian Right is increasingly influential in the ‘networks of interests associated with conservative think thanks’. According to Smith and Marden, the Christian Right argues that ‘Australia has fallen victim to a culture of permissiveness, rampant materialism, and instant gratification.’ Why commercial interests would want to support opponents of these excellent business opportunities is never made clear.
Continue reading “Do think tanks follow God or mammon?”