Sunday, December 21, 2014

Institutionalism as a political credo

I have mentioned here and there about my personal philosophical standpoint. It was here that I started putting it into words for the first time, but it's long past time I should have laid it down in this blog so that readers can understand where I'm coming from. I will try to keep this as short and punchy as possible, since philosophy is by nature overly wordy and introspective. I expect this won't be the last post I make on this subject, of course, but as a first attempt it will by necessity be broad-brush.

I am an institutionalist. The little-used word "institutionalism" has most currency in sociology to refer to a conversation about individuals and their interactions with institutions, but in my mind institutionalism can be, and is, a political credo, thus I am using it to describe what I believe. 


To me, institutionalism is a way of thinking about and acting through and for collective interests. To be an institutionalist is to want society to strengthen and improve its institutions, not tear them down. An institutionalist will not defend an institution for the sake of it - some are not worth saving, as they have not changed with the times - but other institutions are timeless, and most are there for a good reason and should be protected from the vicissitudes of short-term political machinations.

Institutions are groups of people who have either been tasked by the state or have taken it upon themselves to act according to a set of principles for the betterment of society. Institutions help society recover from shocks, and work towards the amelioration, minimisation and (if possible) solution of longstanding problems. These are public goods, and should be maximised where prudent.

Institutionalism is a credo whereby the health and wellbeing of a society and its citizens can be defined as only being as good as the institutions which support it, such that rigorous adherence to the principles behind the institutions is paramount to the welfare of society. To the extent that institutions can be criticised or reformed, it should only be critiqued in reference to those basic principles. Where an institution has failed in its duties, it must be brought to account for abrogating its responsibilities to uphold those principles.

Political systems are only one subset of the bodies which can be defined as societal institutions. The current system sees political institutions as having primacy over all others - albeit that courts retain a seldom-used veto power in this respect - which is derived from its ultimate accountability to the people through democratic elections. This has proven to be less than perfect in practice, and institutionalism is a credo which would have this structure modified.

The reason that bodies with democratic accountability have been placed at the apex of the institutional pyramid is that institutions can tend over time to accrete power and influence (and corruption) beyond that intended by the principles of their founding, and every institution should ultimately be accountable to the general populace. Any dilution of accountability will tend to weaken institutions and thus society in the long run.

Unfortunately, due to the stability of many types of institutions and the nature of the Peter Principle of management, some of their inhabitants almost inevitably evolve into "elites". Where the elites are professional and competent this does not matter, and in fact is a good thing. The ideal institution has the most capable people running it according to the principles of its founding, and any deviation from proper operation is deprecated and removed. However, in some institutions the fundamentals of meritocracy are cast aside in favour of nepotism, empire-building and other managerial sins.

However, the current system has failed as well, because it is politics that has succumbed most deeply to elitism. Perhaps due to its inherent nature, politics attracts the kind of elite who acts not on principle or for the benefit of society, but on behalf of the elites themselves. This is anathema to the proper operation of institutions, and thus is the opposite of institutionalism. In fact, the recent rise of elitism as a political credo with an express policy of destroying institutions is the raison d'etre of institutionalism.


In the 1960s, the German intellectual Rudi Dutschke advocated a "long march through the institutions of power" to create a new society which had democracy at its core. (I should stress at this point that when I googled that phrase just before writing this section, that was the first time I had seen or heard his name.) Dutschke's catchphrase is repeated these days most often by the right to describe a supposed process that has happened since the 1960s whereby the left has effectively "captured" institutions to adhere to leftist principles. Of course, by making that assumption they see Dutschke's vision as now being something to roll back, even if very few in the left ever would have heard of Dutschke or knowingly followed his teachings, in the same way that the right talks a lot more about Saul Alinsky nowadays than the left ever did.

I am upfront about my formulation being a reaction to the right's modern agenda to destroy institutions. There is no use denying it; in fact, I embrace it because it illustrates how radical the modern right has become. By now it is cliched to make the point that the traditional role of the left as radicals seeking change and the right as conservatives defending the status quo has been switched about. The so-called "culture wars" were lost a generation ago by the right, as societal values shifted towards liberalism.

Institutionalism can be thought of as a conservative philosophy, therefore, if what passes for "conservative" thought these days is instead seen as radical. The things conserved in institutionalism if it is implemented today may be different to those that would have been a generation or three ago, but that is because institutionalism should be responsive to shifts in public values.


Despite above allusions, institutionalism does not equate to collectivism, as it can be used to further what would traditionally be called anti-collectivist interests. Some institutions are built to oppose collectivism - albeit they are a collective of people sworn to do so - and there is nothing wrong with that.

Institutionalism is also not populism. Populism describes any number of wildly differing policies which share the common element of support from 50%+1 of the voting public. Just because something is popular does not mean it is good for society. Institutionalism as properly implemented should fit within the Venn diagram circle of populism, but it is not equivalent.

Any credo devised since at least 1980 has to deal with the dominant -ism of the age, which is liberalism. Institutionalism is not post-liberalism, about which I have written recently. Similarly, though, institutionalism seeks to fix the problems wrought by liberalism, and hope not to introduce new problems of its own. One of the main tenets of liberalism, particularly in economics, is to treat a large swathe of institutions as obstacles to maximum freedom so as to provide a pretext for dismantling them. Of course, institutionalism stands in direct opposition to this - provided that the principles behind those institutions are worth defending on behalf of the people.

Apart from the ongoing battle between liberalism and everything else, which liberalism has been winning since at least the Reagan era, the other war of -isms which is most cogent in 2014 is elitism versus populism. Indeed, most if not all -isms can be boiled down to defining one group of people as an elite who are supposed to be benevolent protectors of the people, in the vain hope that they will never abandon accountability. In this sense, institutionalism is a more "meta" credo than others, since it describes the same sort of effect as most other creeds. Hopefully it can become more than just a collection of motherhood statements, nevertheless, and in future posts I will make recommendations for change rather than mere affirmations.


This will no doubt be fodder for many more blog posts, but the signature example I can think of is the high professionalism of the Australian Electoral Commission (its executive management team from 2012 is pictured at the top of this post) in comparison with the American system of "democracy" which had its nadir in 2000. The AEC is an exemplar of best practice in institutions. First, it is supported by a legal framework which enables them to remain perfectly non-partisan, as it does not rely on political parties to provide its staff. Second, its charter is to remain responsive to the needs of the people by setting electoral boundaries according to strict population quotas and adhering to an open process. In contrast, there is no federal body in the US with power over the setting of electoral boundaries or the operation of elections, which has resulted in state-based elected officials implementing massive gerrymanders for the benefit of lazy local politicians.

Those familiar with the AEC's recent stuff up which claimed the heads of several of the pictured public servants might already be chortling about me holding up the Commission as a paragon of anything, but I would argue that the commission's reaction to this scandal is perfectly instructive, and compares infinitely more favourably to the 2000 US federal election result leading to the national disgrace of Bush v Gore. The AEC's processes were exemplary; management resigned, the organisation was humbled, and those remaining will work harder next time to make sure everything goes perfectly. Since Bush v Gore, meanwhile, the US Supreme Court has become monstrously partisan and has slashed voter rights in a string of decisions, weakening American democracy for party political motives. The AEC and the superstructure supporting it are institutionally sound, while the American system is a farce. I could (and will) go into far more detail on this and other examples.


The picture at the top of this post represents all that is good about institutionalism. It is a group of people chosen by merit to apply themselves to the production of a public good - in this case, democracy - and for the most part they carry out their solemn duties without fuss or incident. This group happen to be public servants, but this work happens a lot in the bureaucracy of business too, with all the fine people employed in corporate governance who ensure that the private sector adheres to best practice as well. When they get things wrong, though, they take their responsibilities seriously enough that they will resign to uphold the principles that they failed. They recognise the importance of the role they play, and they retain enough shame to acknowledge when they fail and to wear the consequences. If only all institutions could work so well and with so much humility.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Labor and labour, Democrats and demography

If we are indeed in an era where identity politics wins elections, and the right is the natural winner of such contests because it's well versed in operating sans policy, what is to become of the left? This is the focus of a lot of navel gazing in America right now post the disastrous midterm elections. For example, this NYT piece lays out a battle between the populism of Elizabeth Warren and the elitism of Hillary Clinton. I've written before about elitism versus populism, which I think is the most important political dialectic of our age, so I'm very much on board with that characterisation of the situation.

The first possible solution is to do nothing. And yes, there are valid arguments for waiting for the cycle to turn by itself. Especially in America, the current trend of old white people having a disproportionate say in politics is an artefact of the Baby Boomer generation growing haggard and conservative. The boomers have dominated politics and general society since the 1960s, and this is their last struggle before their bulge finally disappears from the other end of the Python Stomach Of Demography. The Tea Party is filled with boomers who enjoyed the fruits of the welfare state, including free education in some cases, but they don't want to share the wealth any more and can't see the point of planning for beyond their own mortality. In the face of harsh electoral reality of voting patterns, it's a perfectly legitimate tactic by Generation X to shrug our shoulders, sigh and bide our time until we can wave the most selfish generation in history goodbye as they roll past in their pine boxes. We've waited this long, a few more years won't be so bad.

If you read a lot of American leftist bloggers - and I have been doing so lately - the clamour is now to embrace Warrenite populism, otherwise known as class warfare.
The Democrats will still keep the presidency most of the time and the Senate at least some of the time, but our country will remain stuck, our government will remain dysfunctional, and the people will suffer. The Democrats have to address middle class economic and social anxiety, and that means they have to focus on class more than race. This isn't a recommendation that the Democrats make winning over the elusive white male voter their top priority, at least not in the ways this has been attempted in the past. It's a recommendation that the Democrats begin focusing heavily on the issues that are making middle class folks from all backgrounds so anxious. I'm talking about the fact that people can't afford college, that their kids can't afford to move out of their homes, that formerly "good" neighborhoods are being decimated by opioid addiction, and that our infrastructure is crumbling.
Government action can't be seen as a wealth transfer from the middle-class to the poor or from whites to minorities, but as investment in our communities that used to be made as a matter of course.
The Democrats have to wage what the Republicans derisively call "class warfare" or this country is going to remain hopelessly polarized with no way in sight to stop the rise in income inequality.
There has been a lot of angst in the US left about the loss of the white male voter, as the Democrats have failed to offer the middle class worker much in the way of a helping hand even as the economy recovers from the 2007 crash. Wages remain stagnant, the recovery has produced a lot less jobs than previous such periods, and the guilty parties in the banks have not been punished while the middle class continues to suffer. Some of these things are not the fault of Obama, I know - I'm no supporter of the Green Lantern theory. Many Democrats are nonetheless just another part of the Washington village elite these days - albeit less of them since the Blue Dog Democrats were obliterated in the midterms - and the lack of a groundswell of support from elected officials behind Obama's jobs programs which are stuck in the GOP-blocked Congress speaks to their priorities. Warren isn't going to run for president, though, and the Clintons aren't known for being particularly leftist. I have a sneaking suspicion that Hillary will jump significantly to the left in the peaceful coronation that will be the Democratic nomination process for 2016 before stepping to the right during the campaign. She remains in control of the destiny of the party, so the conversation the left is having is mostly about where she will take it.

One other, related solution has been raised by various leftist bloggers: resuscitating unions. Newsflash: that's a dead parrot. Now, it's true that the right and the left used to be champions of capital and workers respectively, and that it is a big problem that the left's politicians in Western countries have moved away from unions and towards business, and this has caused a disconnect between the middle class and the left. Nevertheless, a reversion to the old Marxist dialectic is not going to work. Unions don't have solutions for the dilemmas of the future. As an example, witness this argument by Erik Loomis against the mechanisation of work. His postulation is that a Star Trek post-scarcity society is far less likely than a Player Piano scenario where automation removes human dignity.
Sure, such a technological utopian near future could free us all from work and allow us to live the creative lives of leisure we all think we deserve. Hey, that’d be great! It’s also totally ridiculous to think that is the outcome here. Far more likely is the exacerbation of what we are already seeing: a new Gilded Age of extreme income inequality as the global 1% completely controls everything and the global 99% is a threat that is put down with police power. I have to say that anyone who says this is not the likely outcome is probably ignoring how power operates and the insatiable desire of the rich to horde resources.
Erik has spent too much time living in the moment of the Great Interregnum, and has not lifted his head and remembered that it is possible to disrupt power. I lived through the 1990s as I believe Erik did, so he should recall that the wheel of history may grind slowly, but it does turn in the long run. Eternal corporate zaibatsus are not inevitable. He and other leftist bloggers make dark jokes about tumbrels dragging the 1% of the New Gilded Age to the guillotine, and for good reason because the French Revolution is another salient example of how elite overreach will always fail.

Erik's piece could have been written by some reactionary old racist in the 1850s playing up fears of the Yellow Peril. The White Australia policy was largely driven by unions reacting against Asian immigration, just as the Tea Party is reacting against Latino immigration in the present day. Substituting machines for non-white humans does not improve the underlying argument. The union reactionaries were wrong then, and the anti-robot nativists are wrong now. The correct conclusion is that Asians, Latinos and androids all add to the sum total of wealth in a society, and fighting against their advent is the wrong war to wage. Better to focus on the distribution of wealth than prevent the accumulation of it.

He's right, though, that the future doesn't hold much in the way of power among workers. When there are no workers left to unionise, what use are unions? The left has to move on past the old bearded German, not to abandon the principles of protecting the middle class from the depredations of capitalism but to seek other ways of accomplishing the same outcome in less combative fashion.

Thus we come to perhaps the most tantalising prospect: the left as technocrats. In this scenario, the government does not stick rigidly to a single ideology, but acts like a market research firm. If leftist ideology doesn't work under the microscope of A/B testing to maximise whatever outcome the public wants (and/or is good for it according to a more amorphous definition of leftism), try another one until something does work. The Piping Shrike has long thought that Labor's technocrat moment has passed since a brief era from 2007 to 2009 under Kevin Rudd, but I'm not sure that is quite true. His position on this required him to pooh-pooh the Gillard government's achievements almost in entirety, which seems to me to be rather uncharitable, and constantly praise Rudd for his anti-politics posturing (which produced short term electoral results) when it became clear that his technocracy skills were severely lacking. Rudd disrupted Labor's old way, but he didn't have a Third Way worthy of the name to replace it.

My vision of the solution takes some elements from all of these approaches. This post is already too long, though, and it will have to wait for my next post, which will be this blog's 100th.

UPDATE: Apologies to Erik, who reacted on Twitter my above comments rather strongly. I did not mean to imply that he was racist in any way. I will not amend the text, but I will explain here that I was using rhetoric to try to make a point. Evidently I made the point badly, and I should have been more sensitive to the implications of using such an argument. Sorry, mate.

No policy for you! Seinfeld identity politics

There are a lot of parallels between Australian and American politics at the moment. Last year, Tony Abbott won government by running an almost entirely negative campaign, such that he has no meaningful mandate to accomplish any policy goals of his own once in power. This year, the Republican Party gained control of the Senate in a wave election fueled by a similarly Seinfeldian campaign about nothing, dominated by short-term non-policy issues.

Last year, Abbott's main policy was that he wasn't Julia Gillard; more cogently, he represented an older, whiter, more traditional set of values than the progressive feminists and watermelon greens. This year, the GOP's main policy was that none of its politicians were Barack Obama; specifically, very few of them were non-white or were younger than baby boomer age.

Last year, Abbott swept into government despite the electorate largely preferring the left's policy platform. This year, Republicans now enjoy control of both houses of Congress despite America as a whole (as opposed to the minority who vote in mid-terms) consistently polling favourably towards the Democrats' policies.

So we come to the rise of what is called "identity politics". Policy doesn't mean much in this framework. Who you are is much more important than what you say or do. Tribalism has been used in politics to further policy ends, but this is tribalism as an ideology in itself. There is an argument to be made that this is just tribalism being used as a pretext for running far-right ideology, and there's something to be said for that since I'm sure there are operatives who think that way. Just as Seinfeld was a show ostensibly about nothing but really about the self-centred obsessions of borderline autistic arseholes, identity politics is now being used as a front for the Koches of the world to further their ideological goals. The effect is the same in any case: old white guys running the show and doing what they like.

It's a cliche of Australian politics by now that since the Hawke/Keating era, the big policy reforms have all been accomplished and there are no "low-hanging fruit" left, thus policy-based politics is bloody hard yakka. Most posts by the Piping Shrike riff off this meme, along with the related one about unions ceasing to be relevant and thus rendering Labor without a mission. The right never really had a mission either except to oppose the left, so they should be vastly more experienced at governing without policy.

However, it's much easier to run identity politics in America with its sharply delineated white, black, Latino and Asian communities, which despite generations of effort still remain segregated to a significant degree. Here in Australia, Abbott is reduced to the rather feeble formulation of "Team Australia" to push his version of identity. Pauline Hanson literally wrapped herself in an Australian flag, and Abbott's attempts to figuratively do the same just make him look rather lame. At least John Howard's green and gold tracksuits came from a genuine place in his heart, and didn't try to exclude anyone. It's just another example of Abbott's tin ear.

During this Great Interregnum, as the world (apart from China) deleverages together, we are in a global Green Room, waiting for the show to start. What's the next act? Is it China imploding? Is it Hillary Clinton turning the tide against austerity? Is it Germany losing its fear of Weimar-era inflation and removing their economic jackboots from the earholes of Europe? Is it a massive El Nino to finally remove all doubt as to the effects of climate change? Cue the bass guitar and synth riffs, and we'll find out after the break.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Wave comes in, wave goes out

The quantum entanglement of the quants over the 2014 midterm elections in America has collapsed, in the form of a wave for the Republicans. Sam Wang and Nate Silver were locked in a polarised battle of spin over which side had momentum. Wang's position was that the polls all showed that Democrats might hold the Senate. Silver pointed to the correlation of the "fundamentals" of midterms which all favoured low turnout which would lead to a particular result favouring the GOP.

Silver tries desperately not to run up the score, Bill Belichick style, in his declaration of victory, but the numbers he quotes (graphed above) do not lie: the poll of polls was off by four points. Only one US federal election in the last twenty years has been skewed to the Democrats at anything like that level.

The post-mortems are coming thick and fast with all sorts of post-justifications. This one from Lawyers, Guns and Money is representative, if only for this sarcasm-laden retort from the comments section:
The objectively smartest political strategy for the Democrats to pursue is to push for a platform that just happens to line up with the preferences of the author. I don't believe I've ever read a piece like this before on the internet.
Yes, there is a lot of talking one's own book in these post-mortems, which makes finding worthwhile analysis more difficult. There have been the Captain Obvious pronouncements about the adverse map in mostly red states, the Boomer-heavy demographics of the turnout, and the lack of motivation to vote for hope and/or change. In fact, it may be that not much at all can be concluded for the long term, unless a Supreme Court justice dies in the next two years. Waves come and go, as Markos Moulitsas explains with palpable disgust. There have been some weaksauce attempts to pin the losses on Hillary Clinton, but the map is much more favourable in 2016, and the tide will inevitably turn.

I think digby digs a little closer to the reason for that four point discrepancy.
Nobody seems to be talking about it today but ISIS and ebola and the Border and Ferguson were all huge stories in this campaign and I have to think these stories may have inspired the GOP turnout more than they're being given credit for. They are classic fear motivators for the conservatives and the timing was very good. I would not be surprised if they played a part in making the GOP victory as substantial as it was. And this could be a factor in 2016, so stay tuned.
My suspicion is that the polls aren't skewed as such, they just don't capture very late shifts in mood. Just as the wingnuts complained about Hurricane Sandy being a late boost to the Democrats in 2012, the left could have a justifiable whinge that the Ebola outbreak, building on the aforementioned scare stories, led to a more scared and conservative electorate, and/or scared off people who self-identified to polling outlets as "likely voters" into discouraged non-voters. Why didn't it show up in the polls before election day? How can I prove this conjecture? I can't, I suppose, unless I had control over some expensive polling infrastructure. That Schrodinger's cat will have to stay in its box.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

One foot in the nursing home, the other in his gob

I am still reading a lot of poliblogs in between childrearing, just not posting much. I really should learn how to do shorter posts.

In that vein, I can't help but note how comprehensively stupid this piece is. Steve Kates, the most foolish man in Australia, not only posts complete faff from Ohanion and Cole attacking FDR's role in saving America from the Great Depression, he treats the linked press release as if it is new when it was written more than ten years ago, and the poliblogosphere's absolute smashing of the thing to pieces occurred three years ago when the authors got some undeserved WSJ publicity.

And if you don't like that repudiation, try this much similar C&O article mere days after Obama's inauguration, no doubt intended to scare him off any FDR-like heroics in the face of another Republican-created economic disaster, and compare it to actual reality since its publication in 2009. Wherever austerity has been tried, it has only exacerbated the pain. Wherever stimulus has been applied, it has worked (until, as in Japan recently, sabotaged by further austerity). Austrian economics teaches us nothing about how to solve today's problems. While no one is trying anything like the New Deal these days - more's the pity, because that's a lot of what we need right now - Keynesianism is still the best way to understand and address the situation in which we find ourselves.

It's as if Kates is not actually a professor of economics at RMIT at all, but some emaciated hermit who lives in a deep, dank hole, is fed via a bucket on a rope by Sinclair Davidson and for education is only allowed access to dot matrix printouts of Powerline and Drudge links. He's a cross between a victim of Buffalo Bill and a Japanese holdout. It's the only lucid explanation for his ongoing display of economic Aspberger's syndrome. Nobody can be that clueless.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Hawks enjoy back-to-back flagwaving

Not much posting lately, for which I apologise. Three month old firstborn child, you understand. Not that much of long term interest has been happening in Australian politics lately. It's been all terrorism this, war that. YAWN! It is all entirely predictable, and plays perfectly into Tony Abbott's obvious desire to pick up right where John Howard left off. In keeping with the Abbott era's complete lack of originality, the war is even in the same place.

The war hawks have been dominating the media just like the Hawthorn Hawks dominated the AFL grand final, mainly because in both cases the opposition just didn't show up. Bill Shorten did not have any wiggle room, because the polls were always going to favour the PM at the start of a war. Shorten has to bide his time and rely on the inexorable turning of public opinion once the grim realities of war become apparent, as they always do eventually to shame the chickenhawk granny bloc into changing their minds. At the moment, Shorten is playing Ryan Schoenmakers to Abbott's Tom Hawkins, and ISIS keep bombing the ball long to the square for the Speedo-clad Tomahawk to grab easily and bang through for goal after goal. Would Anthony Albanese have been the Brian Lake equivalent, a more capable operator who can take on the gorillas and nullify the threat? The supply from midfield is too great at the moment. (I think I've waterboarded that analogy enough now.)

As with the Schoenmakers situation at my beloved Hawthorn, the only emotion I have in watching Abbott strut about the national stage saying stupid things and not being punished for them is exasperation at how easy it all is for him. The beheadings are horrible, yes, but it's just way too simplistic to use them as an excuse for jingoistic nationalism as a pretext for war. Bill Clinton was never seriously punished electorally for his Kosovo bombing campaign under somewhat similar circumstances, because the troop losses were minimal and the war only lasted a handful of months; can the current coalition get as lucky? The facts are different in this case, as this one won't be over quickly, the world is paying much more attention, and it's a different era where YouTube is as much an instrument of militarism as RPGs. Even if there aren't a heap of body bags containing Western soldiers, a My Lai situation is more likely in this theatre.

The timing is wrong for Abbott on this one. By the time the next Australian federal election rolls around, the Iraqi quagmire will have had a good two years to drag him into it. Interestingly, it will probably coincide with the 2016 presidential election in America, with the looming Hillary Clinton era promising a war hawk wonderland. Will Obama be able to wrap up the ISIS bombings before the voters in the Western coalition get disenchanted, like Bill Clinton did for Kosovo? I doubt it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Caliph shot the sheriff

John Quiggin has a thread on the ISIS/ISIL/IS/Iznogoud mess in Iraq, which produced a cracking comment from someone called Rabee.
The question for Obama must have been if it is in America’s interest for a civil war to start in Saudi Arabia. I’m not sure about the possible outcomes of such a civil war, but I don’t think any good can come from it. So Obama decides that it is in the national interest that the US tries to defeat IS in Iraq before things get bad in Saudi Arabia.I don’t have a firm opinion on this new war, but I’m not hopeful that anything good will come from it. I do think that this almost exclusively a Saudi problem and the Saudi’s must find their own longterm solution to it. To my mind this should trying to resuscitate parliamentary democracy in Egypt.
I have nowhere near the impressive insight of Rabee, but a few things seem clear.

IS is is not a modern guerilla force, just plain old-fashioned infantry, thus air (and I guess sea?) attack is pretty pain-free in terms of soldier lives (albeit costly in dollar terms). Rows of longbowmen would be effective against these throwback chuckleheads, that's how antediluvian they are.

And yes, IS are a product of the Saudis, right down to the vorpal methods. The fact that the Saudis are scared of them doesn't mean they aren't ultimately responsible. The Kingdom could do with some Guy Fawkeses, given they are as suspiciously vicious to their non-chosen citizens as IS. If getting rid of Saddam was a Good Thing Regardless, how much utilitarian worth is there in ridding ourselves of the original cancer, the creators of Al Qaida and ISIS plus whatever comes next? How many more wars is the West supposed to fight to prop up these pretenders? How much worse could the next Caliph-instead-of-the-Caliph be?

Of course, the answer to that last question is probably what he's talking about when he says no good would come of a Saudi civil war. The fear of an actual Caliphate is the new 1950s communist domino theory; reds-under-the-bed replaced by caliph-shot-the-sheriff, and it's fuelled three Iraq wars in twenty years and cost millions of lives. Iz no goud.

I don't see how shipping more ordnance will fix the situation, that will only make it worse. Disarmament is the ultimate answer, as it was in the Cold War to the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction. Unfortunately this isn't as simple as John Howard's gun amnesty. It's monstrously difficult to stop the flow of weapons into the Middle East.

Speaking of the Cold War, does anyone else suspect that the West is being beaten economically like Russia was in the 1980s when they were tricked into pouring billions they didn't have into useless military spending? Or at least, that was the trajectory that George W. Bush had America on, as part of his undeniable legacy as the worst president that country has ever had.

All of this has me looking at Tony Abbott spending $250 million per year to send a token force to support the reluctant Americans and wonder what good it will do. How many lives will it save, and how many will it cost? And what about the budget emerhahahaHAHAHAHAAA... sorry, couldn't finish that thought.

No, if you're wondering, I wouldn't send troops to Iraq, even if they were just flying air support. It's the Saud family's problem, they have enough money and troops, they should deal with it. I'm sick of my countrymen dying for Abdullah ibn Abdilaziz. Put up the dukes and stick up for yourself, old cock.

UPDATE: Thomas Friedman, of all people, says it better than I did.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Roof caves in on Gillard reno troofers

If this was the sort of poliblog that was in the live cattle business - carving up fresh meat for a ready audience of like-minded noddie merchants who want to have their prejudices confirmed in tasty fashion on a daily basis - I would probably spend a lot of time making fun of Michael Smith, whose career has gone seriously downhill in the last two years since being sacked from Fairfax for smearing Julia Gillard. His post yesterday about Gillard's appearance at the Trade Union Royal Commission had it all: emotion-based reportage, incredulity in the face of stark facts, conspiracy theorising, empty posturing, flailing aggro, and a comment thread full of hilariously butt-hurt insanity.

While a dispassionate observer might wonder what all the fuss is about, the truthers can not be swayed from their conviction that Gillard is guilty of the most heinous crimes. Witnesses have been leaned on, lawyers are protecting one of their own, the commish has been nobbled... it's all straight out of a Jon Grisham movie. The ultimate theory put forward by Smith, and taken up with desperation in the comments, is that the Royal Commission is merely a sideshow, a fishing expedition, to fuel the ongoing investigation into the AWU WRA by the Victorian Fraud Squad.

I would remind the court of public opinion that the AWU scandal is over the sum of $400,000 (admittedly in mid-1990s dollars, so that's about $680,000 in 2013 money according to the RBA inflation calculator). The TURC is budgeted at $53.5 million. Add that to the cost of all those detectives from the Fraud Squad swarming all over this cold case for years with precisely zero to show for it after all this time. At this point, the person most likely to face charges is Kathy Jackson, the right's favourite "whistleblower" and friend of the H.R. Nicholls Society.

Today is also the 40th anniversary of the resignation of Richard Nixon, which lead one US blogger to reminisce that it was the last time that the system worked. This is not technically true. Since Nixon (and in Australia, since the Dismissal), time and again the right has subsumed its guilty conscience and used the system against the left despite no crimes having been committed - Bill Clinton's faults were a private matter, and Gillard has evidently done nothing to warrant charges. It "works" to the extent that it provides a taxpayer-funded platform for the right to smear the left for years on end, with no accountability. The system continues to fail when it comes to right-wing leaders: witness the lack of a need for a pardon for any LNP politician involved in the AWB wheat-for-oil scandal, which involved over $220 million in kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime.

One mustn't get too cynical about these things, nonetheless. That's what being a truther is ultimately about: feeling like you and your mates are the only ones possessing the True Vision of reality, and the rest are sheep who don't accept your blinding insight. False consciousness is a powerful but ultimately futile distraction.

Hate to the left of me, haters to the right

Reading this WaPo piece on exactly how Americans hate the Republican Party, it put me in mind of similar polls on Obamacare, which also enjoys poor ratings. In both cases, while the headline number is rather low, when you break it down to opposition from the left and opposition from the right, a more interesting picture emerges.
"Not all of the opposition to the health care law comes from the right," said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "Thirty-eight percent say they oppose the law because it's too liberal, but 17% say they oppose it because it's not liberal enough. That means more than half the public either favors Obamacare, or opposes it because it doesn't go far enough."
The WaPo points out that the same effect for right-wing politics implies that the GOP still has a comfortable set of "fundamentals" for the 2014 mid-term elections in America, since those who hate the Republicans from the right are presumably still going to vote for them. This is the reason why every poll analyst who includes fundamentals in their poll model, which is pretty much everyone except Sam Wang, still forecasts control of the US Senate shifting to the GOP despite the raw polls saying otherwise.

This sort of granularity in polling is sadly rare in Australian polling, with the likes of Essential and Newspoll not doing enough in this area - but at least they're still going, unlike Nielsen which Fairfax just cut. I suspect that Bill Shorten's low popularity has a significant hate-from-the-left component: Essential puts his dissatisfaction rating at 16% of Labor voters, compared to 9% disapproval of Abbott by LNP voters. How would the election of Anthony Albanese as Labor leader have changed this dynamic? The left would have been much happier with him, and I don't think he would have done much different in policy terms than Shorten is doing now. Albo might even have raised some objections to the folly of war.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Post-liberalism in Australia?

As a poliblogosphere, Australians probably pay less attention than is warranted to British politics and too much to American politics when it comes to detecting long term trends that will affect our politics. While there are links between the Democrats and Labour and the Republicans and the Liberals which are useful perhaps more for practical matters - e.g. Obama's start of the art campaign management and GOTV machines, and the Tea Party's ability to suck money out of billionaires - it is the Old Dart where our federal politicians most often look for ideological inspiration.

In this vein, former Bill Shorten staffer Nick Dyrenfurth had a screed published in the Fairfax press on the weekend extolling the virtues of something called post-liberalism (the Chifley Research Centre published a non-edited full version). The premise of it as an ideology is hard to define, which is why articles on it tend to call it a "disposition" rather than a coherent creed. Its very elusiveness is part of its construction at this point. The final paragraph of a Financial Times article from May 2012 from one of its architects from the Demos think tank perhaps summed it up best:
The story of British politics since Margaret Thatcher has been described as the right winning the economic argument and the left winning the cultural one. Starting from where we are today the reverse would make better post-liberal sense and, if the current fiscal orthodoxy fails, it may be the only way to unstick British politics.
The following are the core tenets of post-liberalism, that I can figure out. Thatcher and Reagan, with Francis Fukuyama as their John the Baptist, were supposed to have heralded the end of history by establishing economic and cultural liberalism as the omega point for civilisation, after which no improvement could be made. This has led to the left and right sides of two-party systems in western democracies losing their competitive edge, as they both adhere to this liberal orthodoxy with only minor disagreement as to the details of its execution. The GFC has shot this orthodoxy to pieces by proving that a system based almost exclusively on personal freedom, individual rights and open markets can still fail disastrously and cause the global depression we now know as secular stagnation. The GFC culminated in the bail-outs, which went against everything that liberalism stood for and, to make matters worse... they worked. Nevertheless, the status quo's hold on political elites is so strong that nothing new has been able to get any sunlight to grow past these withered old vines, and the crisis that started in 2008 shows no signs of abating for most of the 99%.

So far, so good. I'm with the post-liberals on this critique, all the way. It's a tough situation to solve with just one ideology. I'm glad someone is stepping up to the crease to swing for the fences.

So, what is this solution we're all waiting for? Post-liberalism sets up some oppositions.

  • Instead of liberalism's tendency towards centralised government, post-liberalism seeks to devolve decision making on policy for public institutions away from bureaucracies and towards professional guilds, community groups and other smaller local bodies;
  • Instead of liberalism's ambivalence towards capitalism's historical predilection for accreting national oligopolies, post-liberalism foresees the establishment of regional banks and various measures to encourage easier money at a local level; mandated appointment of employees to corporate boards to break up the old boys club; and something called the "mutualisation of markets", which is rather nebulous but indirectly suggests a carbon price;
  • Instead of liberalism's reification of the openness of markets as a secular end in itself, post-liberalism seeks to reapply a moral framework over discussion of economic issues, with - undeniably - a strong Christian element, specifically Catholic;
  • Instead of liberalism's emphasis on open borders to encourage free movement of labour, post-liberalism would cut immigration but also focus on building "social housing" for those immigrants they do let through;
  • Instead of liberalism's attacks on entitlements to social security and unemployment benefits, post-liberalism emphasises the "contributory element of the welfare system", which means a higher pension or dole for those who have paid into the system previously, but denying benefits to recent immigrants or the young;
  • Instead of liberalism's attacks on the minimum wage, post-liberalism encourages companies to set their own "living wage" at much higher than the official minimum wage, as KPMG does with its staff in London with apparently net-positive results.

There is much for either side of the political divide to like and plenty to hate, which is no doubt why the ideology remains fodder for meaningless seminars at the fringes of both the Conservative and Labour movements in Britain. Dyrenfurth claims Tony Blair's Third Way as an antecedent, but it also shares a communitarian focus with the Big Society concept which fuelled David Cameron's landslide Tory victory in 2010, and has since been accused of being a cloak for mindlessly slashing the state, especially since Cameron has since cut even Big Society programs deeply as part of his liberal commitment to economic austerity.

Dyrenfurth commits a drive-by criticism of focus group politics, which is no doubt a dig at Zombie Bruce Hawker and Rudd-era obsessions. Post-liberalism as described by disaffected Poms feels a bit like the sort of bubble-and-squeak ideology a British focus group would come up with, though. Take Blair's Third Way and combine it with Cameron's Big Society, add in a few reactionary anti-immigrant elements to please the UKIP-voting recalcitrants, chuck in some sops for the grey power vote about how those lazy young people don't deserve the dole, throw the poor a bone by saying you'll have a non-binding word to multinational corporations about their pay packets... and just a pinch of Catholic brimstone. Lovely jubbly!

It is no wonder that Dyrenfurth references the Accord in his article, since to pull off such a radical transformation of society as is detailed in post-liberalism would necessitate the construction of a consensus as strong as Bob Hawke worked so hard to achieve in 1983, so a campaign like this really is in Labor's DNA as he says. The only problem is that the Accord was actually the mechanism to implement the Thatcher/Reagan liberal hegemony in Australia, so we're a bit once-bitten-twice-shy around here about that sort of thing.

Even with an Accord 2.0 to bring in the full post-liberalism platform driven by as talented a politician as Hawke, could it ever work? Can you imagine the AMA and/or nurses union having final say on policy in a privatised health system? How would the vice-chancellors committee and/or teachers union maintain control over a decentralised education industry? Can we trust the banks to police themselves? (Hint on that last one: no.)

Post-liberalism correctly identifies a disconnect between the populace and political elites, which is why modern politics is a war between populists and elitists. Its solution is to wave hands in magical fashion to imagine an agreement between the populace and the elites, whereby the elites promise to be good and the populace have to accept their word. Post-liberalism requires the removal of the coercive power of the state to fix public institutions. This is a very English construction: expecting the peerage, OBEs and GCMGs to act on behalf of the people, without any direct accountability apart from public shaming. I would have thought this line of thinking was laughable ever since Yes Minister, because political elites have lost pretty much all of the shame they once had. That might not quite be true in Britain even at this late stage as their elites still maintain some vestige of knightly commitment to service, but the trends are not good and one should not base a political philosophy on it.

A lot of what post-liberalism has to say is about the failings of economic liberalism, and fair enough, but it skates over the implications of rolling back social liberalism. There are mentions of re-capturing nationalism, presumably from the likes of UKIP. While they don't come out and say it in the open, post-liberals would put a price on carbon as a part of applying a moral aspect to markets. What does post-liberalism have to say about abortion, or free speech, or affirmative action, or multiculturalism? These issues are finessed, when they are mentioned at all.

There are too many spinning plates in post-liberalism for me, and not enough responsiveness to democratic will. A resurgence in Catholic control over government is precisely not what is needed, or wanted given societal trends. The proponents of this Aristotelian utopia seem to me to want to be the chosen few in the old Greek's characterisation of authority residing in "the one, the few or the many", making their credo just another anti-democratic repudiation of the Magna Carta which conveniently forgets to include democracy as a key component. This article makes that explicit, by also invoking Edmund Burke to raise the prospect of "virtuous elites" acting as mediaries between institutions and the populace. A crusading coalition of Catholic Cromwells! Saints preserve us.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The doctrine of the Stupid Shit Funnel

Lest I be accused of running a hate site against Club Troppo after my previous article criticising aspects of their wonkery, today's Troppo joint on the West's reaction to ISIS is excellent.
Whose going to win if the West gets entangled in this maelstrom? Well for a while it will be our fearless leaders as their chest thumping arrests their slide in the polls and simplistic News Corp pundits who love a good war, but in the end the West will once again waste blood and treasure.
And the winners? Well I bet Vladimir Putin reckons he’ll be a winner as the West gets distracted and weakened in the Middle East – but no we’ll feel the need to have a go at Putin after this one.  Our last hurrah quite possibly
No I think It’s pretty clear that when all is said and done the winner will be the nation who best absorbs a lesson from  Sun Tzu’s Art Of War.  “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”  That nation, appropriately will be China.
This Rex Ringschott piece is of a piece with this other piece in the Atlantic detailing the always-wrong perma-hawks who dominate US media, and when you piece them together it forms a jigsaw of G.W. Bush era recidivism, where no lessons from the failed Iraq and Afghanistan forays have been learned at all.

Having said all that, I am not going to connect the dots and narrow down the focus to Halliburton, Blackwater and crony capitalism in the military industrial complex. I acknowledge that there is a genuine philosophical underpinning to the neo-con thought process on this one. It is, as Ringschott mentions, the "simplistic moral argument" of the sanctity of human life. The slaughtering of Western journalists is a terrible thing (albeit that Muslim journalists were slaughtered in exactly the same way weeks before and the West ignored it). It reminds us that ISIS is committing atrocities on innocents, as Saddam Hussein did, the Taliban did and Al Qaida did. Opposing these people seems like a "good" thing to do, even if you don't want to touch the concept of them being "evil". Lives can be saved; not just Christian lives but Muslims and those of many other faiths and races.

I am on record as having some sympathy with that viewpoint, as in the asylum seeker debate. One should always pay respect to a credo which has as its foundation the primacy of human existence. In the case of asylum seekers, the figures are in and the deterrent, while individually abhorrent, has been shown to work to prevent the rush of asylum seekers by boat, and remove the prospect of hundreds of horrific deaths at sea. It seems rather mercenary to balance one poor bastard getting septicemia or shot in a prison riot with hundreds of corpses in the Arafura Sea, but that's the equation we're faced with and I'm prepared to accept the utilitarian argument from the right on this issue.

In the case of war in the Middle East - and in most other regions where rival superpowers funnel weapons to opposing sides and let them fight it out as proxies for their imperial ambitions - the figures are also in, and the effect of starting the Iraq war was to destabilise the region and cause more deaths than it would have saved. Specifically, the rise of ISIS is everything to do with George W. Bush's decision to remove Iraq's power structure, ship tonnes of ordnance to the Iraqi theatre and then leave all that firepower in the hands of underprepared locals who have mostly abandoned their posts or been mown down.

The lives that Australia and other Western nations have saved directly through combat boots on the ground were then forfeited when they left. Ah, the right might say, so it's Obama's fault for withdrawing troops? First off, that was a withdrawal signed off by Bush before Obama came to office, as part of setting up an independent Iraq. Second, how long is the West supposed to occupy Iraq for? Are we actually there to "liberate", or is the right's paternal instinct too strong to let the kids leave home?

Funnelling arms to Iraq has only caused more bloodshed, not less. It's as if the right wants to go against Obama's "don't do stupid shit" doctrine by doing all the stupid shit it can, but funnelling that shit into foreign war zones where their ideological beliefs can be tested in experiments using other people's lives. The Stupid Shit Funnel has been poised over Iraq and Afghanistan for a long time, raining down a steady stream of weaponry and armoured vehicles, and now it's also making detours to Ukraine.

Ringschott's conclusion - that the winners would be those who don't play, China in particular - dovetails nicely into my conclusion from my discussion with Noah Smith. Winners don't do war.

PS: I am seeing that "blood and treasure" phrase around a hell of a lot lately. It's 2014's version of "known unknowns" in trendy military jargon that pundits use to make them seem like insiders. Also, the word "wus" is not spelled correctly; it's either "woos" or "wuss". This concludes today's instalment of Slang Nitpickery!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Whoa! Reality Based Community on Facebook

I have had the idea to start one of those Facebook pages to bring together some disparate blog sources, since a group blog structure might not work for everybody. All are welcome to apply to become mods if you have suitable blog posts of your own to contribute and disseminate. The theme is not leftism, as in the recently departed Larvatus Prodeo, or centrism as in Club Troppo, or any flavour of rightism. It will not be a collection of "hate sites", as Homer Paxton references. It is called Reality Based Community, referencing a quote from an unnamed aide to George W. Bush (allegedly Karl Rove).
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Bush's reign coincided with the Matrix films, bringing the theories of Jean Baudrillard to CGI life. Baudrillard rejected the Matrix's treatment of his concept of the desert of the real, where the crude map crafted by humans becomes the new reality, regardless of the actual arrangement of rocks and plants that the map is supposed to describe: that the map as composed then becomes imposed. The Matrix's interpretation was that the system would incorporate the efforts of anyone who tried to change or break it; Baudrillard's rejoinder is that the Matrix films are a "symptom" of the system, invoking Agent Smith's monologue about humanity as a virus.
The pseudo-Freud who speaks at the film’s conclusion puts it well: at a certain moment, we reprogrammed the matrix in order to integrate anomalies into the equation. And you, the resistors, comprise a part of it. Thus we are, it seems, within a total virtual circuit without an exterior. Here again I am in theoretical disagreement (laughter). The Matrix paints the picture of a monopolistic superpower, like we see today, and then collaborates in its refraction. Basically, its dissemination on a world scale is complicit with the film itself. On this point it is worth recalling Marshall McLuhan: the medium is the message. The message of The Matrix is its own diffusion by an uncontrollable and proliferating contamination.
Baudrillard's contention is that the more the system evolves towards perfection, the closer it is to destruction. He would no doubt get along famously with Thomas Piketty, whose theory of r > g (the rate of return on capital is greater than the rate of economic growth) suggests that the endpoint of capitalism is also inevitable (or at least subject to periodic collapse). And of course, a dinner party with these two would also welcome Karl Marx, another whose theory is that capitalism already carries within itself the seeds of own mortality.

The 21st century has been a live Baudrillardian experiment. Is it possible that Rove was correct, and neocons rewriting the map with their post facto justifications caused a quantum smooshing to produce a post-fact cosmos? Are we all Schrodinger's cat in a box, and is Karl the observer who collapses the waveform to decide reality?

Perhaps it is unfair to single out neoliberal capitalism for criticism in this way. From the perspective of environmentalism, any kind of economic creed which does not put sustainability at its core dooms humanity, because sooner or later the earth is going to run out of free lunches. The command economy in China is currently doing a slap up job of polluting its way to disaster. Thus there is room in the RBC for critiques from both left and right of politics, or from the supposedly dispassionate eye of plain old science.

Is it going to be inequality that is the revenant reality that bursts the Dubbya-era bubble universe, or will it be climate change that washes away this egghead post-modern decadence... or another world war between 0.01%er elites fighting over lebensraum that isn't covered in oil slicks? Hopefully, we'll learn a bit about it through the Reality Based Community.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Axis & Allies II: Electric Boogaloo

One of the great things about Twitter is that sometimes you have random conversations you never thought possible. One such this evening happened in between wrangling my seven-week-old boy, discussing Russia and China with Noah Smith of the Noahpinion economics blog, who had a thought that those two resembled the Axis powers of Germany and Japan in World War II. I enjoyed the back-and-forth immensely, and thank Noah for his engagement with the hoi polloi.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The abject failure of the Institute of Public Affairs

Following on from Alan Moran's sacking from the Institute of Public Affairs for anti-Islam tweets, John Quiggin sticks the knife in by comparing the IPA to their American counterparts, the Heartland Institute.
Finally, there’s the question of how long the IPA can avoid the fate of Heartland, which has lost most of its corporate sponsors (except for a few diehards from the fossil fuel sector) and is a shell of its former self. the IPA has already gone a fair way down the same track, and is now, in large measure, a private plaything of Gina Rinehart. In return for her bounty, she has demanded the most humiliating obeisances, most notably support for Northern dam projects like the Ord River scheme. Until recently the IPA was a reliable critic of such boondoggles.
Similarly, Andrew Elder details the flimsiness of Dick Warburton's review into the Renewable Energy Target, and how the agenda from the right is to abandon economic rationalism in favour of killing off entrepreneurialism and disruptive innovation of companies like Silex and ARENA, and handing money over to established monopolists.
The government's anti-RET position means that current electricity provider(s) will be able to buy the intellectual and other property rights for the proposed solar facility at a fraction of the cost that it would have been worth as a going concern. This means that the incumbency of existing providers will be maintained without them having to do the hard work and take the risk that Silex/ARENA took, while reaping the rewards properly due to Silex/ARENA. 
Are we starting to see a pattern yet? How about the cost-benefit analysis of the National Broadband Network, yet another rubbish report prepared by expensive external consultants to produce exactly what the government wants to hear: specifically, that the Internet doesn't have exponentially expanding bandwidth demand and Australians aren't going to want any more bandwidth in ten years than they already do now. This is patently stupid, but nothing more than can be expected from the Minister for Ill Communication, Malcolm Turnbull.

David Walker at Club Troppo runs interference for Turnbull, which is understandable because Turnbull pushes all the buttons of a high-level wonk. The Minister sounds like he's well briefed and in command of all the facts; a cursory glance at the Delimiter story stream on Turnbull - culminating in an apology by Renai Lemay for ever thinking Turnbull was on the level - shows that his position is a Potemkin village that only impresses those who don't know the hollowness of the Liberal policy platform. Just as Henry Ergas believes his economics credentials qualify him to blog about politics without justification, David Walker thinks that as a journalist, consultant and policy wonk that he can grok broadband technology just like that, and wave through Turnbull's cunningly constructed consultancy conclusions.

Now, allow me to set out my credentials in this one: I was originally a technology journalist, starting in 1997 on weekly newspapers and then moving to bi-monthlies including Internet World Australia where I covered a lot of ISP and Internet industry stories during the dot com boom. Additionally, I spent a year or two in the mid 2000s doing sales for Neighborhood Cable, so I have some direct knowledge of what regular customers want out of their broadband connections.

Walker's justification for agreeing with Turnbull is that we don't need broadband for anything other than pirating video content.
Trouble is, most of the innovations we have come up with recently don’t use all that much bandwidth. Facebook and LinkedIn and Instagram are only medium-bandwidth even at their most intensive. Twitter and smart electricity grids are low-bandwidth. Networked games like Halo 3 use surprisingly little bandwidth too, with local hardware doing most of the work. And beyond a certain point, the speed with which you see Web pages has little to do with bandwidth; it’s mostly about server responsiveness and network latency.
Most projected e-health applications, including your latest x-rays, won’t use that much bandwidth either. Even fairly decent video-conferencing for education and medical consultations and business meetings uses perhaps 2 megabits per second, according to the demand document. To the extent that something is limiting growth in the use of such technologies, that something is generally not bandwidth.
The real policy problem with the NBN is that high-speed broadband just isn’t that much of a revolution. And to justify the cost of universal provision, it needs to be.
There are all sorts of things wrong with this mode of thinking. Correlation does not imply causation; perhaps the applications recently developed are low-bandwidth because they have to deal with crappy networks that don't enable innovation of more bandwidth-heavy content?

The assumptions in the demand document are slanted towards broadcast media. For instance, the 2Mbps quoted for videoconferencing is just for one-on-one calls, yet videoconferencing is made for more than two callers at a time, for collaboration in business and family or party calls in private usage. The one-on-one model is a relic of the broadcast media era, and that's the revolution that the NBN promises: the disruption of the one-to-one or one-to-many modes of communication, and the enabling of many-to-many modes.

With these things, it's always instructive to follow the money. Who stands to lose the most from the rise of the Internet and its disruption of existing businesses? If you look at the bandwidth usage, it's video content that eats up a lot of it. Foxtel is the major provider of paid video content in Australia. News Corp is the entity most at risk if the Internet is used to bypass its paywall to access content-that-wants-to-be-free. (In previous years I would have included Telstra in this part of the rant, though they don't really care as much as they used to about this stuff, since they have started to give up on owning content and focus on getting paid to operate the networks no matter what runs over it.)

I got questioned recently on why I don't join much of the rest of the left in bemoaning the supposed dominance of the IPA, its ubiquity on ABC platforms, its frequent appearances at The Conversation, its infection of Liberal Party processes, etc etc. My contention is that the original aims of the IPA - to be the intellectual arm of the Liberal Party and guide its policy development along ideological lines - have comprehensively failed. These days, as Quiggin rightly notes, the IPA is a cheerleading outfit for Gina Rinehart, Rupert Murdoch and the tobacco lobby, at the expense of any policy credibility they might once have enjoyed. As Elder goes through, the IPA is no longer a defender of entrepreneurialism, but a paid shill of crony capitalists. They actively lobby against Schumpeterian creative destruction, because they are paid by the people whose businesses' destruction would be caused by healthy capitalist competition. They have almost completely abandoned Menzies' founding principles, as evidenced by their recent dabbling with anti-Islam bigotry.

The reason I am ambivalent about this situation - the IPA's continued success of getting their message out to the public, combined with the poisonous nature of that message - is summed up by Harry Clarke in a comment on the Quiggin piece:
The IPA has been spectacularly successful at getting its extremist message across. I congratulate them. The difficulty is that people don’t like their message. I think the great Australian descriptor “ratbag” describes them well. Fundamentalist economics that perverts what economic theory instructs. I agree with you – the CIS relies more on reason.
In the words of John Williamson, Australians revel in our ability to "tell our leaders to go jump in the lake (but we'll never knock Australia, you make no mistake)". Yeah, we're fair dinkum in this country about recognising galahs when we see them. I believe in democracy, and the capability of the Australian public to work out who is on their side. The more the IPA's message is disseminated, the more Australians jeer and laugh at it. I know enough about the IPA to conclude that it is a failure, a folly, a flailing flinger of falderol, a figure of fun... the rest of the nation is just catching up on the news.

By the by, it should be pointed out that Moran's "sacking" from the IPA hasn't stopped him from posting on Catallaxy Files. This suggests a schism developing between John Roskam, still lurking about in the race for preselection for the Victorian seat of Hawthorn being vacated by Ted Baillieu, and Sinclair Davidson, who runs Catallaxy Files and has done nothing to stop its strong shift to becoming a secular freak show of anti-Islamic hatred, to the extent where Davidson ran a guest post this week tying a possible Australian conspiracy by public servants around a Rotherham-style Muslim child sex ring to the abandonment of the repeal push for s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. The cognitive dissonance of holding the belief that the appalling Rotherham case presages a global epidemic of Muslim-on-white-teen rape after having defended the Catholic Church against allegations of a global epidemic of organised Catholic-priest-on-white-teen rape does not seem to bother anyone there. It is at the point right now where many Cat commenters would be welcome to speak at a Catch The Fire Ministries event, since their ideologies are functionally identical. With the abandonment of ideological principle, the IPA and its blog Catallaxy Files don't have much left to talk about, so they are in danger of descent into contagious conservative fear.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Paying politicians not to be corrupt

A very silly piece today by Sinclair Davidson - during day 2 of the apparent ban at Catallaxy Files on talking about the sacking of Alan Moran from the Institute of Public Affairs - about campaign finance. His contention is that public funding of politicians is a "great threat to democracy" because regulation to "protect" voters from political corruption ends up maintaining privileges of the elites.

Let us apply this same thinking to Professor Davidson's own employment, since politicians and economists are merely two similar aspects of public service. Why should the public fund his position at RMIT, or that of Steve Kates, subtly indoctrinating economics students into their worldview of classical economics? The "lurks and perks of office" - in this case being the inculcation of a generation of economists to applying neo-liberal ideology which eventually results in lower taxes for supporters of libertarianism and right-wing thought in general - should be enough to fund Davidson and Kates through private means. If Sinclair believes in this so much, he should donate his wages from his professorship back to the state as a matter of principle, and draw his wage from Bond University or some other private educational institution where he is not compromised by hypocrisy.

No, of course I am being equally silly. Prof Davidson provides a valuable service to his students and to the community at large (not sure about Kates; evidence of the quality of his written rhetoric suggests he would be a poor lecturer). Sinclair's work for RMIT University does not actually constitute straight indoctrination to the ideology of Mises or Rothbard, since students can presumably follow Keynesianism in his subjects and still pass if they show enough skill and knowledge. There would be checks and balances put in place by public-funded institutions to curb such subversion of his role.

Equally, politicians who are funded by the public are also bound by conventions and regulations from not being corrupt, or corrupting others, in the course of fulfilling their elected obligations. Adherence to those societal norms is the main thing separating humans from animals. The public pay politicians to be subservient to them. Davidson's wish is that the pollies would dance to the tunes of those private citizens who paid them - or, as is often the case in America, restrict entry to the ranks of elected politicians to those who can afford to tip in millions of their own dollars.

I am open to hearing arguments against the current actions by the Greens, Labor and the Liberals to shut out other minor parties. Abolition of public campaign finance, though, is yet another one of those completely unworkable and untenable IPA wishes which never survive any sort of scrutiny. The uselessness of their platform is why they will never gain much in the way of real power in this country, no matter which politician is in office. The more a politician tries to fly their thought balloons, the more air is let out of the wingnut zeppelin.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Alan Moran sacked from IPA over anti-Islam tweets

Wow, what a bombshell for the right. The Australian reports that Alan Moran has been sacked as fellow of the Institute of Public Affairs:
Dr Moran recently engaged with left-wing activists on the issue of Islam and the sexual assault investigation into Labor leader Bill Shorten, which was dropped because of a lack of evidence. On August 17, Dr Moran accused federal Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek of backing the investigation into Mr Shorten for reasons of ambition. “Tanya Plibersek backs rape probe into unnamed senior Labor figure. Can only be ‘cus he is a rival for leadership?’’ Dr Moran tweeted. He sparked outrage when he tweeted this month: “Is there ever anything but evil coming from Islam?’’
IPA chief John Roskam confirmed that Dr Moran had left the IPA. Dr Moran told The Australian there had been concerns about his social media activity.
Catallaxy Files, the unofficial blog of the IPA, has been full of anti-Islamic fervour recently, as in this thread on the James Foley beheading. The usual suspects in the comments at the Cat routinely ascribe all sorts of hellish agency on every single member of the Islamic religion, without any guidance towards sanity by the lurking IPA reps. Yet, if the Oz is to be believed, the red meat that Steve Kates et al have been throwing to the Cats is actually against the IPA's financial interests:
It is understood there was particular concern about Dr Moran’s position on Islam, given the IPA receives donations from some ­Islamic individuals and seeks to engage with moderate elements of the Muslim community.
This is an explosive claim. This is exactly what Sinclair Davidson has been thrashing the Liberal Party about over their backdown on s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act: influence from the Islamic lobby undercutting right wing principles. Just as with s18C, it appears moderate Australian Muslims are having a direct effect on the right if they really are the reason why Moran has been boned.

The right have some questions to answer. Is this democratic centrism in action, as I said about the s18C backdown, or is the IPA really so cravenly mercenary that they will don burkas and recite the Quran if they get paid for it? How do the remaining IPA employees reconcile continued opposition to s18C with their newfound love for Muslim mullah moolah? Is this a new power coupling between Christian religious fundamentalist conservatism and Islamic religious fundamentalist conservatism in Australia, or is it just a case of filthy lucre? And do the Muslim donors also run tobacco companies?

Dr Moran has spent too much time among the reprobates and racists at Catallaxy Files. It is not the done thing to speak like them in public. This is what happens when you act like a Cat poster in polite society: the flecks of spittle tend to set the hoi polloi offside. The IPA's strategy has been to operate the Cat as a zoo, where the denizens are fed chunks of raw flesh to fight over while standing on dirt and grass roots, while the IPA employees wear nice suits to stroll carpets and represent their antediluvian interests on the ABC and in government with more acceptable language. Moran forgot that zookeepers shouldn't get in the cage and engage their primal screams.

UPDATE: I missed this on the weekend but this isn't the first IPA bod to be sacked over social media shenanigans recently. Aaron Lane was sacked from running as a Liberal candidate for the upper house in western Victoria for, you guessed it, offensive tweets. And for those of you out there who like to connect dots, IPA boss John Roskam is considering running for the Libs to replace Ted Baillieu in his safe Victorian seat. Is it any wonder that the IPA is now acting just like the Liberal Party in appeasing appealing to Muslim lobbyists? Still no mention of this shameful shift to centrism on the Cat.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Short Kicks: The People's Hamstring

- ASADA have convinced Cronulla Sharks players to take a plea deal to admit guilt over the Stephen Dank drug saga, which means they only miss the remaining few weeks of the current NRL season. The amount of games they will miss is equivalent to that if they all injured a hamstring. On one hand, ASADA gets to claim a victory and focus on the club giving them most resistance, in Essendon. On the other hand, the "win" is about as hollow as the head of an average Sharks player. Unfortunately for Essendon fans, the EFC hierarchy are unlikely to be offered such a deal because of their intransigence. Even if such a deal was put forward, they most likely wouldn't accept it because it would mean the sainted James Hird would have to be rubbed out for life, and captain Jobe Watson would have to lose his Brownlow Medal. The sideshow of the current Essendon court battle is only a distraction before we get to the third act in that tragedy.

- Bill Shorten has addressed all the rumours about being the Senior Labour Figure at the centre of rape allegations, which have now been confirmed as never going to go anywhere. While the media are asking questions of every Labor politician who bobs his or her head up today, the only real remaining question is whether the media is going to pursue the story well beyond its nominal shelf life, in particular by airing the allegations directly from the woman herself. Who am I kidding? After the Gillard era, nothing is too grubby for the "mainstream" media to run with.

- Liberal Party failure John Hewson is now advocating for a Tax Commission, to remove powers to set fiscal policy just as the RBA was created to stop the National Party dictating monetary policy from Cabinet. This would be a complete abrogation of responsibility by the Australian political class, an admission of incompetence on a grand scale. Just because Hewson can't explain GST on a birthday cake doesn't mean we should abandon the ongoing search for a politician who can build consensus for reform. It is all too easy to look at the gradual degradation of the skill level of our politicians at a federal level and conclude that economics should be left to the wonks. Even if the Tax Commission was a paragon of Keynesian orthodoxy, that ideology must be leavened with healthy doses of democracy lest it become just another tool of unaccountable elites.

Atlas Stevens while Abbott shrugs?

Stephen Koukoulas is on his hobby horse again about Glenn Stevens and the RBA not being loose enough with monetary policy. In his unofficial role as Australia's (partial) answer to Paul Krugman, he's bashing Stevens about refusing to lower interest rates in the face of a complete lack of interest from the fiscal side in doing the heavy lifting to rescue certain parts of the economy from the depredations of a globalised market.
In these circumstances with below trend growth, a high and rising unemployment rate, a currency that is hurting the traded goods sector and risk still a dirty word, why not cut interest rates?
The obvious answer is that there's not all that many basis points to go before we hit the zero lower bound of 0% interest rates, and as can be seen from the current US and European live experiments, that's not a position that you want to be in. The Kouk wants 50 points to take the official cash rate from its already historic low of 2.5% down to 2%, but it's rare for that to be the extent of a shift in policy. Once the RBA starts moving in one direction, it's difficult to reverse momentum.

No, just because other Western countries have made the mistake of locking in procyclical fiscal austerity and relying on the steaming new theory of market monetarism, doesn't mean we should follow suit. This is about as low as we want interest rates. As Greg Jericho says:
Perhaps we are asking too much of monetary policy.
Jericho goes through the arguments for and against macroprudential tools, as a way to lower interest rates without encouraging a bubbly investment in housing instead of support for solid, growth-producing business. He ends up cautiously endorsing the use of those tools, presumably in conjunction with further easing.

My thoughts go back to one of the key reasons for the housing boom in America that led to the GFC: government intervening in the housing market to incentivise financial institutions to provide "sub-prime" home loans to people who often couldn't afford to pay them off. Now, I know the situation here is a lot different. The thread I see running though is the law of unintended consequences. We just don't know how those macroprudential tools would work in practice.

Perhaps more importantly, we DO know how well fiscal stimulus works, as we have decades of empirical data of successes to show for it, most recently in 2008/09. Expecting Glenn Stevens to be Atlas while Tony Abbott shrugs is too much to ask. The pressure should be on the government, not the wonks. We know what to do, the elites have to be told.