Miscellaneous links

Tony Abbott’s obituary for Melbourne intellectual Ronald Conway. I was impressed with Conway’s books The Great Australian Stupor and The Land of the Long Weekend when I read them in the mid-1980s. Looking at them again last night, I am still impressed with the range of reference and the synthesis of psychology, sociology, history and politics. But the psychological framework, especially drawing on Freud, seems dated. Still, the books had great titles, which should help preserve Conway’s place in our intellectual history.

The Productivity Commission has released its draft report on parallel importation of books. I have not read it all. Main point I had not previously thought of: that many of the benefits from the existing rules flow overseas, because foreign authors can extract higher prices from the Australian market than otherwise. Main recommendation: that publishers still be protected from parallel importation, but only for 12 months. As most of the profits from a new release will be made in the first 12 months, this looks to be largely a win for the publishers.

Still at the Productivity Commission, an inquiry into the contribution of the not-for-profit sector. It sounds reasonably benign, but I am suspicious. The trend is for civil society is to co-opted or coerced into serving the state.

Sinclair Davidson uses
the latest tax statistics to continue his series of analyses showing that during the Howard years the Australian state was increasingly funded by the top 25% of income earners.

Is trust in goverment declining?

After the troublesome nature of the last few Howard years and systemic problems in several ALP state governments, these days public trust in government is a rare commodity.

In his quest to restore such trust, this year Faulkner not only intends to rewrite the Freedom of Information Act to free up government information, he has indicated that he also wants to change key elements of Australia’s electoral system. [emphasis added]

Ross Fitzgerald in this morning’s Australian.

Like Jamie Briggs, Fitzgerald is inferring public attitudes from his own perceptions. And like Jamie Briggs, he gets public opinion wrong. As with questions on satisfaction with democracy and the role of big interests, a series of questions on trust shows that it is improving rather than declining.

A question in the Australian Election Survey asks,

In general, do you feel that the people in government are too often interested in looking after themselves, or do you feel that they can be trusted to do the right thing nearly all the time?

From its low point of 9% in 1993, 15% of people in 2007 said that people in government can usually be trusted (equal with 1996 and 2004). ‘Sometimes be trusted’ is on 28%, the second highest result (after 1996) since this question started being asked in 1993. While in absolute terms these numbers show the usual cynicism about politicians in general, there is no evidence of decline. (And some of this seems to be just empty stereotyping, since individual politicians – even those relentlessly portrayed as untrustworthy like John Howard – do better in surveys on trustworthiness than politicians in general).
Continue reading “Is trust in goverment declining?”

Atomistic progressives

Communitarians sometimes criticise liberals for supporting ‘atomistic individualism’. In a Cato paper, Tom Palmer gave examples:

[Classical liberals] “ignore robust social scientific evidence about the ill effects of isolation,” … I am quoting from the 1995 presidential address of Professor Amitai Etzioni to the American Sociological Association …

More politely, Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) [has] excoriated libertarians for allegedly ignoring the value of community. Defending his proposal for more federal programs to “rebuild” community, Coats wrote that his bill is “self-consciously conservative, not purely libertarian. It recognizes, not only individual rights, but the contribution of groups rebuilding the social and moral infrastructure of their neighborhoods.”

Yet in current politics, it is ‘progressives’ who put individual rights above the contribution of groups – especially if those groups are not politically approved by the left of politics. Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls this week gave the strongest signal yet that single-sex private clubs would become illegal, unless they received a specific exemption from the Victorian human rights commission:

“Ideally, all private clubs should demonstrate they are set up in a manner which is consistent with the equal opportunity … (so) clubs like the Athenaeum should have to demonstrate that they are set up in a manner which promotes equality.”

On this view, it is not enough that there are significant opportunities in society. Every formal institution within that society has to ‘promote equality’. And any organisation of people based on some characteristic the flipside of which makes people with any of wide variety of characterstics ineligible for membership is not permitted unless approved by the state. It is in effect a draconian attack on freedom of association and civil society.
Continue reading “Atomistic progressives”

Are Australians losing faith in the integrity of our political system?

Jamie Briggs is cloaking his attempt to nobble GetUp! with electoral law in concern about how Australians feel about their political system. He told The Age that

“We are heading into dangerous territory where Australians are losing faith in the integrity of our political system because of the large amounts of money being spent on access and donations.”

Alas Jamie, a subject on which there is empirical evidence!

As this publication on trends in Australian public opinion (largish pdf) records, satisfaction with Australian democracy in 2007 was, at 86%, the highest it has been in a series of questions going back to 1969. It has been trending up since 1998. No sign of losing faith in the system there.

A question which more directly targets the issue of ‘access and donations’ is this:

Would you say the government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?

Here people are more cynical, with 65% saying ‘big interests’. But contrary to the losing faith theory, this is trending down from a peak of 82% in 1998. On a slightly different question, 71% gave the ‘big interests’ response in 1969. There is no long-term rise in cynicism, despite the vast increase in the cost of election campaigns and consequent need for more donations.

Voters are wisely sceptical of what politicians tell them. But there is no crisis of integrity in government or public perceptions of that integrity.

Social capital confusion

Commenter Jarryd saw Postmodern Conservatism in Australia authors Geoff Boucher and Matthew Sharpe give a presentation based on their book, and came away unimpressed:

From memory the section we read was exploring the damaging affect of post modern conservatism and the actions of “neoliberals” through a list of fairly irrelevant facts like decline in church attendance etc. Everyone in the room was fairly confused about just what the intention of the piece was.

Boucher and Sharpe’s argument is confused, but the intention is clear: to find any fact or argument that can be used to discredit ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘postmodern’ conservatism.

The point of mentioning declining church attendance, along with declining political party membership, lower levels of institutional trust, and rising divorce is to argue that there has been a decline in social capital, which Boucher and Sharpe hope to pin on ‘neoliberalism’.

In their discussion of social capital, they draw on Robert Putnam, and his book Bowling Alone. On p.169 our authors tell us that:

For Putnam, this [decline in social capital] cannot be solely attributed to the rise of neoliberalism since since 1973. [italics added]

Actually, Putnam thinks that hardly any of social capital’s decline is due to market economics. He dismisses its role in two pages of Bowling Alone (pp.282-83), conceding only a loss of civic leadership as small town businesses are replaced with giant corporations. His main objection is that America has been a market society for centuries, during which social capital has gone up and down. ‘A constant can’t explain a variable’, he says.
Continue reading “Social capital confusion”

The community corps and student debt, #2

I expanded on my arguments against reducing HECS-HELP debt in exchange for community service for the Higher Education Supplement on Wednesday, but I am yet to convince everyone I have spoken to about the idea.

My main objection is to the link between community service and student debt, since I disputed the synergies between the two. If taxapayers are going to support community service, they should try to recruit the best candidates for the available work, whether or not they have student debt.

Against this view, I was pointed to Andrew Leigh’s comments in his AFR column:

Each year, approximately 75,000 young Americans participate in AmeriCorps, and many continue to work with the community after their service year ends. Implemented here, a similar program might have practical benefits for underprivileged communities. But its ‘eye-opening’ benefits could be greater still – giving affluent suburban youth a chance to spend a year facing disadvantage in all its complexity. Continue reading “The community corps and student debt, #2”

Social cohesion survives Howard, multiculturalism etc etc

The Age tried hard to find negatives in the Mapping Social Cohesion report released today, but

…while [co-author] Professor Andrew Markus said the study had “highlighted some issues which can be taken up”, he said the overall picture was a “very positive one”.

Despite all the fuss about ‘dog whistles’ and ‘divisiveness’ during the Howard years, and from the other side about the supposedly dire consequences of ‘multiculturalism’ during the Hawke and Keating years, attitudinal research suggests that ‘social cohesion’ remains high. Australians overwhelmingly have a ‘sense of belonging’, whether born here (96.9%) or overseas (94.4%). Pride in the Australian way of life is high whether the respondent was born here (94.4%) or overseas (90.4%). Migrants are slightly more likely (81.4%) than those born here (79.6%) to think that Australia is a land of economic opportunity and that their life will be improved in three or four years (55.6%/46%).

This isn’t to say, of course, that things go smoothly all the time. A quarter of respondents had experienced discrimination at some time in their lives because of their ethnic or national background, and 8% on the basis of their religion. 6% say they experience discrimination on a regular basis of once a month or more. This is broadly consistent with previous research.
Continue reading “Social cohesion survives Howard, multiculturalism etc etc”

Have politicians become more ethical and honest?

According to the latest Morgan Poll on the ethics and honesty of various professions, more people now rate federal MPs highly on those measures than at any time since they started asking the question in 1979. Admittedly, only 23% rate federal MPs highly for ethics and honesty, but that is up 7% on the previous year.

Looking back at the history of this question, there are upward spikes after governments change, and downward spikes when election promises are broken (Keating’s L-A-W tax cuts in the 1994 and 1995 surveys, and the ‘non-core’ promises in the 1997 and 1998 surveys). With Ruddmania, the spike this year was bigger than the 4% after the 1983 and 1996 changes of government. It is unlikely that the average ethics and honesty levels of politicians have changed much, but with the passing of Howard and arrival of Rudd some Australians are prepared to upgrade their ratings.

Though there is evidence that the numbers respond to real-world changes, this series is a very poor predictor of how voters will feel about individual politicians. Continue reading “Have politicians become more ethical and honest?”

Do public schools create ‘melting pots’?

Over Friday and Saturday, The Age (as commenter Brendan pointed out) ran its own version of the SMH‘s ‘white flight’ from government schools story, adding in refugees in Victoria to the Lebanese and Aboriginal students in NSW allegedly causing an Anglo-Asian flight to private schools. The news hook was statements by Laurie Ferguson, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services, that refugees needed to be spread more widely rather than concentrating them in particular areas.

As with the SMH story, no statistical evidence was provided of the scale (or indeed, beyond principal’s unverified reports, reality) of this white flight. But let’s assume it’s true to some extent. If as we know parental background is an important predictor of school success, then the children of parents with poor English language skills, and who in the case of African refugees particularly may not be literate in any language, are not going to be ideal classmates, whatever exotic opportunities they may provide for cross-cultural experiences.

In a government school system still based primarily on people attending their closest school, the concentration of refugees in public housing that is also geographically concentrated means that refugee kids will form a large percentage of students in some schools.
Continue reading “Do public schools create ‘melting pots’?”

Have Catholic schools made Catholics an ‘isolated sub-group’?

These people often form a narrowly focused school that is aimed at cementing the faith it’s based on … If we continue as we are, I think we’ll just become more and more isolated sub-groups in our community,”

Barry McGaw

McGaw is quoted in the context of an article about the proliferation of new ‘faith-based’ independent schools. Of course nobody can know for sure what the long-term consequences of these schools might be. But history provides an interesting case study, the role of Catholics in a majority Protestant society, Australia. For centuries, Catholics and Protestants viewed each other with suspicion, and though very rarely violent this was true in Australia as well. Catholics have always maintained separate schools. According to the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (AuSSA), more than half of all current Catholics attended Catholic schools, government-funded since the 1960s. Only one of the Protestant groups (the Baptists) even gets to 20% ‘other non-government school’ attendance. And being very numerous, Catholics could if they wanted to create a society of their own within Australian society. But do they?

I’m sure most readers could reflect a moment on their own social circles and realise that Catholics are an integrated, and integral, part of Australian society. The AuSSA finds Catholics are more likely to join unions than Australians in general, and have average rates of participation in sports groups and voluntary associations (though perhaps Catholic, I can’t tell from the data). They are more likely than the general population to agree that being a good citizen requires understanding other people’s opinions. Despite the Pope’s views, they are more likely than the general population to support gay marriage. Half of them even agree that public schools don’t receive their fair share of the budget. In 1996, a third of them were married to Protestants. I doubt the public school lobby can find any evidence that heading on to fifty years of state aid has made Catholics more isolated or more a ‘sub-group’. But of course why bother with data when prejudice can get the conclusion you want with no effort?

One of the frustrating things about the public school lobby is how rarely they seriously argue their case. Ironically enough, their belief in public schooling seems to be based on faith.