Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Harry gets two gongs & a deafening silence

I was pleased to get a nomination for best blog post of 2007 (run by Online Opinion and Troppo) with a widely-criticised piece on Australia’s treatment of Md. Haneef. Methinks the leftist loonie critics do protest too much. This post is my first serious chance to win a logie. I thank my family, God and all the other less interesting blog posts out there for giving me this chance.

I was also pleased to get the award of best Australian economics blog from the prolific US-based Bayesian Heresy blog. Now there’s a sensitive appreciation of the finer things. How can I mention this in the About Me description to the right of the posts without appearing, well, conceited? Does this award justify a Wikipedia entry?

But there is a deafening silence and lack of appreciation from that Robin Hood in Tights at Larvatus Prodeo, Mark Bahnisch, who in a recent post, lists the ‘distinguished crew of blogging economists in Australia’ but misses me entirely. It is worse than having a paper rejected by the Economic Record or coming second last in English 1A at the Forest High School.

I am going home to mother – despite my new found celebrity status I just can’t take this treatment anymore. Even from cliche-mongering, boring lefties.

It might well turn out to be a case of 'cream buns at 50 paces' or 'pillow cases at 25 yards' as my newly-achieved celebrity status stalls, and perhaps even crash lands.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Road pricing that reduces welfare

This piece from Parapundit discusses an empirical study by Peter Swan and Michael Belzer which suggests that privatising roads can lead to traffic diversions which worsen external costs.

The general argument is one I have commented on before. Pricing on some roads - for example on major highways alone - can lead to traffic diversion onto smaller roads where congestion costs and quality of life costs impact on local residents and where road maintenance costs are greater. Traffic accident costs are also greater.

The diversions itself are socially costly also because drivers are not taking the route that would be efficient.

The authors demonstrate these conclusions for a privatised road which sets monopoly prices. The result is thus to be expected. These roads should be priced at something less than the direct social marginal cost of congestion were there no substitution possibilities. This will almost always be much less than the monopoly price.

What does cholesterol have to do with it?

Gary Taubes disputes the connection between saturated fats and heart disease and the connection between lowering LDL cholesterol and reducing heart disease.
Because medical authorities have always approached the cholesterol hypothesis as a public health issue, rather than as a scientific one, we’re repeatedly reminded that it shouldn’t be questioned. Heart attacks kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, statin therapy can save lives, and skepticism might be perceived as a reason to delay action. So let’s just trust our assumptions, get people to change their diets and put high-risk people on statins and other cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Science, however, suggests a different approach: test the hypothesis rigorously and see if it survives. If the evidence continues to challenge the role of cholesterol, then rethink it, without preconceptions, and consider what these other pathways in cardiovascular disease are implying about cause and prevention. A different hypothesis may turn out to fit the facts better, and one day help prevent considerably more deaths.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Classical music blogs & sites

Courtesy of Saturday’s AFR (the gist is here) I learned of Alex Ross’s classical music blog ‘The Rest is Noise’ – the title is also that of his first book, which provides a guide to classical music of the twentieth century. He claims there has been a revival of interest in classical music has been driven by internet browsing. The classical music business he claims is also experiencing a bit of a boom.

I am not sure of either of these claims – the costs of operating a symphony orchestra are huge - but Ross has accumulated a lot of information on the role of the web and that is of interest. His blog is certainly something I’ll watch. He provides a great list of links in this area also. Here is a sample:

· ArkivMusic – a site selling classical music. To test I searched for conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler and got 216 recordings. It really is very useful and comprehensive even if you don’t buy from this site.

· Arts & Letters Daily – a great general site provided by the Chronicle of Higher Education. It has links to all sorts of secondary newspaper sites. As an example, this is an interesting article on Arnold Schoenberg.

· ArtsJournal – an interesting miscellany of excerpts from the press on music and the arts. As an example, on Brahms: ‘I greet his appearance as you would the entrance of a person at a party whom you're not all that eager to talk to, even though you may have had intense and intermittently rewarding conversations over the years’.

· Classical Domain New York City’s classical music website. Great voyeurism – it is a rich scene.

· Critics and Music Sites – a page from Ross’s site given an amazing range of critical views on a wide range of music. Includes serious academic sites such as the Library of Congress music archives. The latter an amazing resource.

· Music Blogs – a page from Ross’s site given an amazing range of classical music blogs.

· New Music Links – a page from Ross’s website listing sites devoted to modern classical composers and performers.

· Opus 1 Classical – a directory of concerts in most major world classical music centres. Includes Sydney but not the cultural and sporting capital of Australia, Melbourne!

· PlaybillArts – information plus sales of an amazing ranger of merchandise. For example 120 operas on DVD.

· The Gramophone – stingy taste of material from the world’s leading source of information on classical music. You can get the lot by subscribing but, yes. It is expensive.

By the way ignoring issues of sound quality you can subscribe to the NAXOS library of 5000 classical CDs online with 50 new recordings per month from less than $20US annually. It is an good real. Or listen for free to any one of 144 classical radio stations around the world here.

Health & the power of suggestion

We know that the placebo effect is of importance in helping to cure people of diseases and illnesses - eating that worthless little pill that you believe can resolve your problems might do so. For that matter being married or going to church promotes your health also.

A related issue is whether joining a 'support group' or 'thinking positive' help cure ailments.

A partial answer I have described in previous posts – at least in relation to cancer - is negative. If you are married and have lots of friends then you will be more resilient but providing ‘friends’ or 'thinking positive' once you are diagnosed with this illness probably won’t help.

Of course it might work with respect to other illnesses.

This Salon article by a medical historian, Anne Harrington, who looks at the reasons people hold the contrary view that 'support groups' and 'positive thinking' can help*. One background idea is that of the exorcism of evil spirits or its secular equivalent, hypnotism. This is the basis for believing in the power of suggestion and is, of course, the basis of placebo effects. In addition, the Bible itself teaches that you can be cured of a disease by faith alone. Furthermore there is the idea that certain emotions can make you sick - this can be traced to Freud.

There are also, of course, temptations to believe in mind-body connections for intractable illnesses and chronic conditions that conventional medicine cannot deal with. It might be a matter of 'what do you have to lose?'

This puts issues of 'positive thinking' and 'support groups' in a wholly negative light. If, however, the power of suggestion works with respect to placebos there is no reason to rule it out with respect to other approaches such as 'positive thinking' and having 'support groups'. In addition quality of life might be improved even with a persisting illness up to the time of death. This view is inconsistent with earlier arguments I have made against using optimism as a palliative and instead promoting the ideal of a rational death.

Incidentally Harrington’s observation that the language of ‘stress’ only developed after World War 2 is interesting. Before that time people simply went to bed exhausted when they were, what we would describe, as 'stressed out' – it was called neurasthenia. It might be that we deal with unhappy events in our life in ‘socially-approved’ ways. In the past these were physical ways but these days it is seen as psychological. This is a further basis on which we build the belief that illness can be dealt with by dispelling negative thoughts and being positive.

*This link is temperamental - the unedited article follows:

Minding our health.

If chemo fails, there's always positive thinking, or so we'd like to believe. Medical historian Anne Harrington looks at our persistent faith in curing ourselves by Katharine Mieszkowski

If you have ever observed a workaholic boss barking orders at an underling and thought, "That dunderhead is headed for a heart attack," you've dabbled in mind-body medicine. If you've ever told a sick friend to "think positive," implying that she'll feel better if she just stays focused on the bright side, you've ventured there, too.

Mind-body medicine is the belief that thoughts and feelings have the power to both sicken the body and heal it. In "The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine," Harvard professor Anne Harrington traces the migration of this idea from the alternative-health margins into the mainstream. The chairwoman of the history of science department at Harvard University, Harrington is less concerned with debunking dubious theories about magically thinking yourself well than she is with understanding where these beliefs come from, how they shape our experience of illness and why they persist.

Her captivating survey ranges from 19th century hypnosis to 1950s self-help books about the power of positive thinking to contemporary efforts to understand what happens to the brain during meditation by hooking Buddhist monks up to MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines. New theories about the mind's impact on the body emerge and old ones are reconceived -- even stress turns out to be a recent invention -- as each era grapples to make sense of illness, and sick patients, let down by the medical establishment, seek out alternatives.
Salon spoke with Harrington by phone from her office at Harvard in Cambridge, Mass.

What is mind-body medicine?

It's a lot of different things, and that's what makes it both interesting and controversial and why people fight so much about it. Mind-body medicine is a patchwork of ideas about the way in which we think that our minds make us sick, and might make us well. The big ideas influence how we think about disease, how we seek out different care for ourselves, even how we experience our bodies in health and illness.

Let's take one of those ideas -- the power of suggestion. When was its heyday?

The power of suggestion emerged in its modern form in the late 19th century around efforts to make sense of hypnosis, in which certain kinds of people, in response to the instructions of a powerful authority figure, like a doctor, would experience changes in their bodies -- they might sweat, they might become paralyzed, they might do ridiculous things. The interpretation was that they were responding to the instructions of this authority figure, that this was an interpersonal drama.

But the interesting thing about the power of suggestion in hypnosis is that it's an emergent product of a much, much older interpersonal drama that actually goes back to medieval times, the drama of the exorcist who exorcises demons from the bodies of possessed people and exerts control over the demon. It was felt that demons had to do what the exorcist said, just as we believe we have to do what the hypnotist says.

So the hypnotist is a secular version of the exorcist?

Yes. Maybe that helps to explain why there is still this frisson of anxiety and mystery around this kind of interpersonal drama. There's a deep historical memory of the more mystical or supernatural authority that these kinds of people used to hold over patients.

How does the power of suggestion exhibit itself today?

In our fears around placebos and the effects of placebos.

The placebo effect was initially understood to be powered by the power of suggestion. They're inert pills or tonics or powders -- why do they work? Well, they don't really work, but patients think they work, and they think they work because their doctors tell them they're going to work, and it's really just suggestion.

Since the early 1980s, our thinking about the placebo effect has undergone a sea change. We now think if you take a placebo, and you believe it's going to work, your brain is going to change, and that might in turn lead to a cascade of effects that will cause your body to heal faster.

Our thinking about the placebo has shifted from the power of the authority figure to the power of our own positive thinking?

That's how I see the history. There was a self-help book about the placebo effect that said the placebo effect is the good news of our time. You can be cured by nothing but yourself. So now we attribute the effects of placebos to ourselves and how our own brains change. We see it as an empowering thing, as opposed to maybe 60 or 70 years ago, when we saw it as evidence of our susceptibility, our vulnerability to the influences of others.

Where did this notion of the power of positive thinking come from?

Well, the deep roots lie way back in biblical promises that if you have faith, you can be healed through faith.

People said: "Look, if the Bible tells us we can be healed through faith, then why not really take it at its word, and cultivate faith?" Chant mantras. Visualize. Do all the things that we now think of as New Age tricks. These go back to the middle-to-late 19th century.

How is the power of positive thinking still alive today?

It's still very much alive around our belief that we can use placebos to heal ourselves. Yet the power of positive thinking actually, just a couple of months ago, received a setback. In December there was an article published in the medical journal Cancer that claimed [the researchers] had attempted to see whether or not emotional well-being and a particularly positive attitude had any influence on the course of cancer. There was no effect.

I think people hold onto this belief in the power of positive thinking because there is a kind of moral -- not only a scientific, but a moral -- persuasiveness to this idea that if you believe, and refuse to admit defeat, you'll be rewarded for that. The power of positive thinking has really taken hold in areas where there are no quick fixes in modern medicine. So cancer has been a very important area.

You write about how it was once thought that being in a support group could extend the life of a terminal cancer patient. Even though that notion has since been debunked by numerous studies, it still exists. Why do you think it's such a persistent idea?

Love heals. This is yet another story about how friends are the best medicine. Community heals us not just of that which ails our souls, but maybe of that which ails our body. And, to be fair, there is a fair amount of epidemiological data that suggests [community isn't just about] wistfulness or nostalgia over some vision about what life used to be like before we all became disconnected and lonely.

Epidemiological data suggests that people who are more embedded, who are married, who go to church, who claim to have more friends tend, on average, to be more resistant to the slings and arrows. They live, on average, longer. What has experienced a blow is the idea that you could operationalize this idea by turning it into a therapy for people who are already very sick. In other words, you could take heart patients or take people in an advanced stage of cancer and put them in support groups and give them the community that they should have had all their lives.
That you could institutionalize community.

Yeah, you turn it into a kind of medicine, and a 90-minute dose a week might extend a person's life. Originally, there was a clinical trial by David Spiegel at Stanford that suggested it was possible to do this. An initial study seemed to indicate that women with metastasized advanced-stage cancer who participated in a support group for 90 minutes a week lived on average twice as long as those who didn't. But he hasn't been able to replicate, and others have not been able to replicate.

How did the idea come about that certain personality types get particular diseases?

We all know about these ideas. You tell me -- the guy who blows his top constantly, is constantly screaming at his employees, what's he going to die of?

A heart attack.

And the woman who constantly lets herself be a doormat, and lets her husband abuse her, and says, "Don't mind me, I'm just going to sit in the dark, and not bother anyone." What disease is she likely to get?


The idea that repressing certain emotions can make you sick in very specific ways comes from the Freudian legacy. Psychoanalysts thought there was a relationship between the kind of personality you have and the kind of neurosis you would develop -- certain personalities become obsessive or become anxious or become depressive. Some within the Freudian tradition extended this way of thinking to physical diseases. A woman named Flanders Dunbar became particularly influential in developing this idea that there were personality types more prone to developing certain kinds of physical disorders.

Everyone has heard of accident proneness. She coined this idea that there was a certain personality type that was more prone to falling down stairs or to crashing a car. This was taken very seriously in its time. Articles in the popular press said that we need to know about these things, because the number of accidents on the highways is rising sharply and we don't understand what kind of unconscious, repressed rage might be responsible for a great many of them.

How has this held up? I mean, obviously, these ideas have continued in the popular imagination, but what about in the medical world?

There are still some people who believe a type of personality -- depressive and emotionally repressed -- might be associated with a greater susceptibility to a poor outcome of cancer. But people are not so likely to talk about cancer-prone personalities [as] they were even a decade or two ago. And when they did talk about it then, they made a great point of insisting, "We're not blaming you. This is empowering, because if you know the kinds of personality or behavioral style that might cause you to have a bad outcome, you can change them."

There's that great Susan Sontag quote: "Patients who are instructed that they have, unwittingly, caused their disease are also being made to feel that they have deserved it."

That's right, and this is what is said over and over again by critics. You know about the idea of the Type A personality?


When I talk to my students here at Harvard, everyone has heard of Type A. The interesting thing is that none of my students know that it was supposed to make them vulnerable to heart attack. They're all Type A. They're Type A because they're workaholics, and they're really stressed and they drive themselves. For them, it's a badge of honor. But back in the late '50s, when this idea was originally developing, the argument was that this personality type was at greater risk of succumbing to heart disease. By the '80s, the data didn't really hold up. This personality type tended to include people who were kind of angry, hostile and cynical in addition to being workaholics. And it was claimed that it was cynicism and anger that actually induce the heart disease, not the workaholism.

I was fascinated to read that stress is really a modern invention. Where did it come from, and what did people think they were suffering from before?

People suffered from exhaustion, they didn't suffer from stress. And becoming exhausted, what was widely called neurasthenia, was not the same as suffering from a disease of stress. Instead of becoming all wound up and at risk of cracking, people would take to their beds. They wouldn't be able to bear any bright lights or surprises. They suffered from various kinds of stomach ailments and skin rashes, but it didn't look like our stress.

The language of stress and the whole understanding of how you're supposed to feel when you're stressed emerge only after the Second World War, out of new ideas coming out of the laboratory of what happens to animals' bodies when they're faced with a threat -- the "fight-or-flight response," which was a product of the '20s and '30s. It gets married in the context of the Second World War with concerns about the intense challenges that were being faced by the soldiers, particularly bomber pilots. Out of military anxieties and laboratory data and a general sense in the postwar era that the world was becoming very fast-paced and that American men, in particular, were suffering from the capitalist grind, stress was born.

It's not just that people didn't have the word "stress" for what they were experiencing -- they were actually experiencing something different from what we would call "stress" today?
It's possible. It's possible for our bodies to have a history, for the way that we experience the distresses of our life to change in accordance with what our culture tells us are the rules. I wasn't alive in the late 19th century. I can't emphatically say, "Absolutely, and here's why." But I think there is good reason to at least take that possibility seriously, that the inner experience of distress shifts according to the story that we live in.

Don't patients often turn to mind-body medicine when they feel let down by conventional medicine, as in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, or the holistic response to cancer in the '80s?

Exactly. Mind-body medicine is always living alongside and in the cracks of the dominant approach to disease and healing that we have in our culture. Mainstream medicine says leave your mind out of it, you've got a bodily disorder, and we're going to cure it with some kind of physical intervention. And mainstream medicine is often pretty good at this. So as long as it's doing its job very well, a lot of us are very happy to embrace it.

When do we find ourselves being tempted by or drawn to the other understandings of mind-body medicine? It's often when mainstream medicine lets us down or can't provide therapies.

Often around chronic disorders, it doesn't seem to do justice to all the complex ways in which our diseases are more than just diseases, [in that] they're part of who we are. And we need to make sense of them as part of who we are.

There is a sensibility of discontent that runs through mind-body medicine, a sensibility of being a rebellious alternative, and therefore it attracts patients who are discontented and inclined, perhaps, to feeling rebellious.

Where is mind-body medicine influential today?

There is a lot of interest right now in meditation and the ways in which advanced practice of meditation might be able to sculpt the brain. It links to new ideas about neuroplasticity, about how a meditation practice might be able to rewire the brain in ways that might make people happier and healthier.
Some of the best science may be happening in slightly quieter, less sensational ways than some of this meditation stuff. Neuroimmune interactions might prove to be very important for pushing thinking forward, but certainly where the attention is now is around monks using MRI machines and what they might teach the rest of us about our human potential.

Do you think there will always be a give-and-take between mainstream and mind-body medicine?

I think part of it will always remain by design and by desire outside of the mainstream because large parts of it want to be the face of medicine that defies what the mainstream says is possible. It wants to resist and rebel and offer alternatives. I think there would be huge disappointment if it were ever really embraced by the mainstream, because it would have ceased to be that rebellious other that people perhaps need.

Being an alternative is part of the attraction?

Yes. There is a version of this that wants to talk about more spiritual factors and quantum factors and things that I don't even particularly understand. It pushes beyond even a naturalistic frame of reference and begins to make what I would consider paranormal claims.
Some aspects of this might get mainstream, and then there will be people who would push it back out again, challenging a view of ourselves that places limits on ourselves.

A view of ourselves that sees us just as bodies or physical things?

I think so. There is a version of mind-body medicine that sees healings that may or may not be possible as evidence that we're capable of far, far more than those narrow-minded medical doctors or scientists are prepared to see.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Tuna sushi, tinned tuna & fish oils

I like sushi and am a particular fan of bluefin tuna.

An admittedly non-random sample in New York suggests that 25% of this stuff is contaminated with dangerous levels of the extremely toxic liquid metal, mercury. Apparently the red tuna sushi I enjoy most should not be consumed more than once every 3 weeks.

While I don't enjoy it I also eat canned tuna a few times a week on the grounds that I have long-believed the oily cold water fish (like fish and salmon) were particularly good for your heart. Now these products are seen as bad for you too.

I wonder how the Japanese live so long given their affinity for sushi and their high rates of cigarette smoking.

I consume fish oil on a daily basis but have long been told that the health benefits of consumoing this exceed any possible contamination risks. It seems that is correct. Whew!

Where are the meat pies and the beer?

Saturday, January 26, 2008

US & Australian economies

This is a simple story about current US events. Lulled by continuing, uninterrupted prosperity US citizens spent too much – the last 10 years have been a credit-driven spending frenzy. Now it is payback time and because many asset prices (housing and stocks) remain high the potential for a severe prolonged contraction is there.

If there is a recession it might be much more severe than those in 1990/91 and 2001. Joseph Stiglitz is one of the economists on the left of politics who commands my upmost respect. He agrees that the downturn might be long and deep and favours a fiscal response with strong short-term as well as longer-term impacts. Strengthening unemployment insurance, supporting State budgets and limiting foreclosures on mortgages should have decent sort of short-run effects in strengthening the US economy as overspent consumers cut back.

While most of us have been focusing on the inflation bogy and making public expenditure cuts, Fred Argy has been thinking about a fiscal expansion program for Australia if we move into a recession because of US developments. He wants short-term stimuli but also, like the good old leftie Laborite that he is, Fred wants to upgrade ‘public infrastructure’. He might even be right in this – it is certainly sensible to think of contingency plans. These fiscal plans will be important if the real risk of an inexperienced Labor Party damaging the economy with policy bravado actions in the short-run are realised and a monetary overreaction drives a highly leveraged Australian economy into a downward spiral.

But the shocker inflation number of 3.6% announced a few days ago – the highest annual inflation rate for 16 years - poses real dilemmas for the Labor Party and the RBA. Should the RBA raise interest rates further to constrain demand or should it pay most attention to the effects of a possible US recession on the Australian economy which might in fact eventually call for a rates easing? Dealing with inflation offers few short-term benefits and costly impacts on security markets but significant longer term benefits in terms of avoiding the need for a major monetary contraction that will tip the economy into recession.

I think it is important to diagnose the source of the current inflationary impulse and to make sure that wage increases do not feedback by turning once-and-for-all-price increases into ongoing inflation. That is going to be difficult to do in a government most of whose front bench are economic illiterates and ex-trade union officials.

Are these right wing fantasies? What does the new ACTU Secretary Lawrence say? According to The Australian today ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence insisted that an increase in living costs had to be considered in wage claims. Mr Lawrence said ....there was no evidence that wage increases were causing inflation and in a decentralised enterprise bargaining system and negotiations will take place and all the parties will look at the various factors, and increases in the cost of living is clearly one of them. Inflationary pressures are the ‘result of international pressures and the failure of the previous government. Clearly, workers and unions are entitled to take that into account’.

The situation is ominous. Wage demands may not have caused the recent price increases but they can initiate ongoing inflation. The objective of interest rate increases is to dampen demand. There is no case for compensating workers for fuel and food price increases since these increases represent real additional costs to nthe economy.

Seeking wage catch-up in this situation was the reason for the last period of Labor Party-induced stagflation and there is the potential for a repeat particularly if the Labor Party drones pick away at the decentralised wage system to ensure the survival of their major funders, the unions.

The Kiterunner

I watched The Kiterunner movie last night with mixed emotions. It was a film that provided an intriguing account of children caught up in Afghanistan’s conflicts. But it is essentially American sentimentality and an overdone account of good-versus-evil.

Spoiler: The next para outlines the plot.

The Kiterunner is the story of a sooky, intellectual Afghan boy, with a brave and wealthy father. The boy is nasty and dishonest to his loyal, though poor, friend who is a member of an Afghan racial minority. The boys fly fighting kites together but this fun ends when the Russians arrive and the sooky boy and his dad skedaddle to the US. The friend grows up but is eventually killed by the Taliban but his son survives. The grown-up sook of course discovers courage in America and returns to Pakistan where he finds out about his friend's son and heads off to Kabul to rescue him from a bunch of sadistic, homosexual Taliban members. The boy gets rescued, heads off to America with the ex-sook and lives happily ever after with the ex-sook in middle class bliss (‘do you like your room’).

Americans are very much concerned with the issue of perfectibility and redemption. It is certainly here. They are also concerned with evil and that is here also – racism and some truly hideous Taliban creeps. The homosexual rape issue occurs twice in the film and it is confronting. Young boys carry out one of the rapes and religious hypocrites carry out the other. Creepy homosexuals add an element of disgust to the tale but are essentially irrelevant - they are an overdone attempt to add drama to a story which generally lacks it.

The film has had some glowing reviews but in my view it is overdone melodrama.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Death of the Bully

I am saddened by the death of The Bulletin. The current issue will be its last.

The Bulletin has been published in Australia since 1880 but its circulation now of 57,030 is well down on from over 100,000 in the 1990s and it is apparently no longer financially viable.

It originally published works by Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson.

I have been a consistent reader of the magazine since the early 1970s – the early writers that stick in my head were Peter Samuel and the outrageously reactionary David McNicol – in my radical student days I think I often bought the magazine just to be outraged afresh by McNicol. I always enjoyed The Bulletin’s smart-arsed slightly hard-edged right-wing politics even when I was firmly an opponent of these views.

I have been a follower of The Speculator column for most of that time – making the occasional odd five hundred bucks (and also sometimes losing) while an impoverished university student by following the tips offered.

Peter Coleman’s consistent good-humoured conservatism in the face of gutter attacks from the left during the Vietnam War period was one of the factors that changed my politics.

Trevor Sykes – well he was just an outstanding editor and, of course, one of Australia’s best journalists.

On a very minor issue for a decade I followed a backgammon column that was axed (I think) around 1980.

An informed, affectionate though realistic obituary is by former Bulletin journalist Tony Abbott:

Once, news that The Bulletin was closing would have journalists gathering at pubs like the Castlereagh (known to Bully staff as the "scunge") to drown their sorrows. But most of the old city pubs have gone too and even journos don't drink like they used to. Is Sydney any the worse for that? Not really.

Similarly, Australian journalism will survive The Bulletin's demise. Of course, it's sad that a magazine that published Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson is gone. The bunyip nationalists will wax nostalgic about its early anti-establishment crusades (despite the noxious masthead, "Australia for the white man"). It's always a pity to see another voice in the national debate stifled. Still, it's some time since The Bully set an intellectual agenda or even filled a distinct niche in Australian publishing.

The Bulletin's most recent heyday was in the 70s and 80s under the editorships of Trevor Kennedy and Trevor Sykes. It was less intellectual than under Donald Horne and Peter Coleman but broke more stories. A Bulletin story sparked the Painters and Dockers Royal Commission, which helped bring down the Fraser Government. It became a "must read" item for senior people in public life or in business. But newspapers were evolving too. As people increasingly took their news from radio and TV, the papers trespassed onto The Bully's turf of opinion and in-depth analysis. By the late 80s, the magazine often seemed like daily journalism in a glossy format.

Too often, it analysed on Wednesday what had already been done to death in the weekend papers. To a much more senior colleague, I once suggested that The Bulletin should be modelled on The Spectator only to be admonished: "But the Speccie sells 50,000 copies in England while we sell 120,000 in Australia".

The situation eventually reversed itself because The Spectator is unique in a way that The Bulletin no longer was. "Lunch with Maxine McKew" sometimes provided new insights. Laurie Oakes' column was essential for politics tragics. People who took David Haselhurst's stock market tips mostly made money. Patrick Cook was usually good for a laugh and much insight into the way we live now. But The Bulletin no longer offered the lions of journalism much that wasn't available in the best newspapers. There may not be much sentiment in journalism but there must be some among media proprietors (before private equity), otherwise The Bully would have folded long ago.

The Bulletin has been home to more than its share of high achievers. Horne was one of Australia's foremost public intellectuals. Coleman was that and a state Liberal leader too. Sykes is a humourist as well as Australia's finest business writer. Former Premier Bob Carr graduated in spin from its newsroom. For some years, Malcolm Turnbull was the legal columnist. It was a very eclectic place even by media standards including, at different times, such luminaries as Sam Lipski, Peter Samuel, Robert Drewe, David Armstrong, John Edwards and Greg Sheridan. Only a classy magazine could have attracted and honed such talent.It was a great place to work. I once wrote a piece about the development of the Indian navy. Whenever I was nearby, Dudley Burgoyne would gaze fixedly towards the sea. When eventually queried, he said that he didn't want the Indians to get him. Another colleague would always leave a tie on his desk to mask the fact that he wasn't normally there. That was journalism in the era of the three-schooner lunch. The Bulletin nurtured fine minds and published great writing. We can't afford to lose deep thinkers and compelling communicators. That's what matters, not the publication in which they appear.

Obesity & carbohydrates - Atkins was right

Gary Taubes has an article in NewScientist discrediting current theories of obesity (eat less, exercise more) and (again) endorsing the ideas of Robert Atkins. These ideas I have strongly supported in the face of opposition for many years.

There is considerable evidence that the obesity epidemic is caused by a hormonal phenomenon, specifically by the consumption of refined carbohydrates, starches and sugars, all of which prompt (sooner or later) excessive insulin secretion. Insulin is the primary regulator of fat storage. When insulin levels are elevated, fat accumulates in our body tissue; when they fall, fat is released and we use it for fuel. By stimulating insulin secretion, carbohydrates make us fat; by driving us to accumulate fat, they increase hunger and decrease the energy we expend in metabolism and physical activity. In short, obesity is caused not by overeating or sedentary behaviour, but by hormonal malfunctioning triggered by the consumption of particular types of carbohydrate-containing foods.

Obesity researchers, nutritionists and health authorities have refused to contemplate this scenario, partly because it would imply that diet-book doctors advocating carbohydrate-restricted diets - Robert Atkins et al - were right all along. Instead, these alleged experts and guardians of our health have wasted a good part of a century on research based on a high-school misconception, watching their compatriots grow ever fatter while blaming everyone but themselves. In the process, they have created a field of clinical medicine that functions more like a religion than a science. It is time to put science back in charge. (my bold).

The rise in the consumption of high GI carbohydrates globally while people have continued to carefully watch their fat intakes suggests that the obesity-diabetes epidemics the world has experienced is in the main due primarily to excess sugar consumption not to the fact that we are getting lazier and/or eating too much. Moreover, replacing bread and pasta will likely reduce your blood pressure.

Atkins favours a diet with meat, fish, nuts, olives, lots of the bright-coloured vegetables but getting rid of the cakes, bread, potatoes, biscuits, doughnuts, pizzas, pasta, soft-drinks and fruit juices. He also recommends cutting back on high-sugar fruits.

It’s hard to avoid high sugar, starchy foods when you are travelling or when you are buying a quick pre-prepared meal. At a pinch you can buy a MacDonald’s hamburger and dice the bun or get some grilled fish without the batter or a pre-prepared salad minus the sugar-laden dressing. But it is hard. I notice that mainstream food for most university students these days is often pizza, pasta or fried chips.

It is also difficult to stick to the sort of nutritional program Atkins suggests when the food pyramid mafia tells you that your diet should be dominated by simple carbohydrates.

For all the ridicule Atkins has received even the new CSIRO diet (vigorously attacked by the pro-carbohydrates nutritional mafia) broadly endorses his approach although it is high protein-low fat-complex carbohydrate orientation rather than being aggressively anti-simple carbohydrates as with the Atkins approach. But in practise the approaches are similar.

We need to re-educate the community away from the stupid notion that fats alone are bad and that nutritionally-barren, simple carbohydrates are good. This wrong notion is causing a global obesity epidemic – now spreading to developing countries as they endorse western diets – and causing related epidemics of heart disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Share market jitters

As global share markets moved sharply lower yesterday (a fall of 7.1% in the all ods), Australia’s Treasurer Wayne Swan moved to reassure investors. After hearing Wayne I slept easier last night. Moreover the market obviously responded well to the sage words of the Labor Party’s economics guru – it bounced backed 4.3% today.

Swan’s helpful suggestions for reducing the cost of living fortified me during the last election campaign so I know he is on top of things!

It was a large market correction yesterday and something of the typical Australian market overreaction – we are better placed to weather shocks than the US. Our credit markets are in better shape and we will retain strongly growing export markets in raw materials and food.

I didn’t want to trade yesterday but I did want to look at the market. Too bad for other ComSec users since their webside went caput – it was still not functioning properly late last night. The same thing happened the last time there was a market slide – hardly comforting for ComSec’s customers!

I was intrigued by comments in The Australian and elsewhere about the terrible day share brokers had because of the price falls – they were ‘shell shocked, exhausted and depressed’. This seems doubtful though they were probably busy – the brokers do well on any day with high turnover which yesterday certainly was. The Age also described events as a ‘market failure’ – the ignorance of these journalists and sub-editors knows no bound.

Yesterday's events are probably the first phase of a bear market but I think the sell-off was very overdone. The US economy is still quite strong despite the bad press. Of course with enough pessimism a recession can become a self-fulfilling forecast. It is a worry.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Stereo advice from FXH

Partly in response to my earlier stereo system bleg, Francis Xavier Holden has put his shoulder to the wheel and delivered the first of a series of advice posts on how to buy a stereo system at modest cost. Worth a look, here.

Quite independently FXH offers a hilarious 'concept song' that will ring inner angry-comic bells with most Australian parents. I showed it to my own kids - two laughed and one walked out of the room in disgust. I laughed too but the laughter had a hard edge - I recalled the frustration of 'extracting teeth'-style conversations with youth. What do you think?

Monday, January 21, 2008


Overfishing comes and goes in the press as a global catastrophe. We should make sure it sticks around since this global problem steadily worsens. This NYT editorial points out that illegal fishing is irreversibly destroying many of the world’s fisheries.

The Europeans have wiped out their local fisheries and are now destroying those of Africa. In fact the industry is geared up to evade regulation – enforcing stringent regulations in certain areas encourages pressure on fish populations elsewhere.

It is an old argument – you cannot partially impose property rights on an open access resource. In addition efforts to promote sustainable aquaculture using costly fish cultivation technologies are undercut by the existence of fish stocks which can be harvested at close to zero cost.

By the way most of Australia's fisheries are overfished or have an uncertain conservation status.

The case for strengthening laws on illicit drugs

An oldie but definitely a goodie. This argument by Theodore Dalrymple* provides a cogent philosophical and legal case against legalising illicit drugs.

A newie but also a goodie. Despite the psychological (psychosis, addiction) and physical damage (lungs and lung cancer) cannabis is known to cause a rearguard group of drug industry leeches are setting to prevent its upgrading to a Class B drug in Britain. They will lose as they should.

Australia should strengthen not weaken its laws against cannabis use by continuing to prosecute users in the courts as well as suppliers.

* Dalrymple has appealling views on the myth that individuals cannot overcome the difficulties of addiction. I also appreciate his objectively accurate views of heroin users - these are not an 'alienated' group of sad individuals unable to adjust to an unfair society. In the main they are low IQ, dishonest losers who deserve no adulation. I like Dalrymple's attempts to de-mythologise.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Caricaturing Australia Day

The Age is pre-celebrating next Saturday, 26th January - Australia Day - in its usual asinine, hateful way with two entirely negative commentaries on the occasion.

According to these commenters there is nothing much to celebrate – we Aussies are a rotten lot and those who do celebrate are jingoistic, racist and drunken slobs who have wandered off-stage from a Barry McKenzie script.

Waleed Aly identifies the great ‘Australian tradition of patriotic awkwardness’ by emphasising Australia’s interest in sport, by describing Australia Day as a celebration of invasion, by claiming that pride in the Australian flag is ‘assertive patriotism’ that is ‘quintessentially the stuff of neo-conservative politicians’. He makes snide remarks about ANZAC Day, the (exclusively non-immigrant) ‘Cronulla rioters’ and some banal references to Ricky Ponting’s ‘aggressive’ behaviour during the recent cricket test with India which, to Ali, suggests a deeper national malaise. He has absolutely nothing positive to say about Australia. Nothing. I can only conclude he has elected to live in the wrong country.

But thanks for the social commentary, Ali.
Now I know.
Now I know, what you think.

Even worse are the comments by Rachel Hills the ‘wanker Diet Coke’ lefty associated with ‘’ – I cannot find a link. She associates Australia Day with a drunk pissing on a bus seat and ‘shit-head’ opportunists at footy matches and racial riots. This is of course a ridiculous misrepresentation and exaggeration of what happens on Australia Day. Indeed the anecdote she describes sounds false and contrived.

Hills does not seem much of a journalist. She claims to be a supporter of that ‘leftie’ Australian-ism which respects Cate Blanchett, the Aussie-hating Germaine Greer and our new ‘nerdy’ Prime Minister. To Hills the conventional Australia Day celebrations are ‘myth’ – the lefties she identifies are the people who ‘best’ reflect ‘Australia’s ‘reality’.

I assume Hills is happy enough living in Australia acting out a leftist-drone-life of complaint and misery. It is the standard psychopathology of the left.

Rachel should return to writing articles for GirlFriend.

These articles are low-interest, low-effort journalism by miserable, troubled people but it is surprising that a major newspaper sees these commentaries as an appropriate antecedent for Australia Day. I cannot see any justification for seeing this day of national celebration purely as an occasion for self-hatred.

You might conceivably want to ignore the occasion and play golf or watch the cricket but why unequivocally put it down.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

1001 albums to listen to before you die

I am reading 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die edited by Robert Dimery. It attempts the impossible task of selecting the best popular - mainly rock - albums since the mid-1950s – there is an equivalent effort for classical music. It has been criticised as a pointless attempt to ‘list’ modern musical culture but I must admit I found it interesting.

Much of the music I enjoyed in the late 1960s early 1970s is featured here (Cream, Donovan, Dylan, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Animals, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Santana, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, Velvet Underground, Nico, Lou Reed, David Bowie, United States of America, Fairport Convention, Frank Zappa & the Mothers, Phoebe Snow*).

The very restricted character of my pop music tastes is revealed by my lack of experience of almost all popular music since then. In fact I have listened to little new contemporary music since 1975 – or more accurately I have heard it and then moved away from it or turned it off. My tastes became set in the earlier period and didn’t budge – partly because, after 1975, I mainly listened to classical music.

I suppose this is generally true – people develop tastes for a particular period and largely stick to that. Then they complain about the contemporary music of the next generation and praise the older music.

While I have not progressed forward it is easy for me to go backwards to the classic earlier music of the 1950s. As a result of this book I did a terribly bourgeois thing and bought a couple of Frank Sinatra performances recorded in the mid-1950s and now on CD – ‘In the Wee Small Hours’ (a pensive conceptual effort that followed the collapse of Sinatra’s marriage with Ava Gardner) and the gauchely-labelled but superb ‘Songs for Swinging Lovers’. Ah wonderful music – my brain might be turning to soup but these classic performances are sensationally easy listening as I continue the not-so-long march toward boot hill. Let's hear it for nostalgia!

*Dimery’s contributors forgot the extraordinarily talented (and still performing) guitarist Stanley Jordan!

Friday, January 18, 2008

International tax competition

This silly video clip by Daniel Mitchell argues the case for unregulated tax competition between nations. The idea is that the lowest rates of company and personal income tax are best so globalisation which forces high tax countries to cut their taxes to levels of low tax countries to avoid job and investment losses must necessarily be a good thing.

It might be but it also might not be. Countries with higher taxes might wish to address the provision of public goods adequately and may wish to pursue redistributive goals implicit in social welfare programs. It is simple arrogance to assert that all such programs are flawed.

It seems to be US intellectual imperialism at work again. Indeed Mitchell describes all European politicians as being to the left of US liberal democrats. Even if this was true - so what?

On the other hand it is not clear how countries can effectively combat tax competition through bans and through policies promoting tax harmonisation. The OECD have tried but been relatively unsuccessful. Thus one argument for tax competition is that it is difficult to do much about it. I still thing the video clip is silly however since it argues the case for international tax competition as an ethical mideal without considering possible implied policy costs.

Mitchell is a member of the Cato Institute and a strong supporter of not only tax competition but also flat taxes.

Economists with three hands

I missed this NYT article by Tyler Cowen when it first appeared - it is a gem.

Economists often know much less than they pretend to know. On the one hand, but on the other hand and, alternatively......
  • Recent data from china suggests average real incomes there have been greatly exaggerated. Moreover, 300 million earn less than $1 per day. Maybe the yuan is not so undervalued!
  • While we hear a lot about predatory lending in the sub-prime crisis as much as 70% of recent defaulting borrowers committed fraud in their loan applications. Many of the people now losing homes committed serious fraud.
  • More people die in cold periods in the US than during heatwaves. Also deaths during cold periods exceed total homicides. As I noted recently life expectancy increases significantly when people move to warmer US states.
  • We don’t really know what is generating substantially greater income inequality in the US.
  • We don’t know (despite the unbounded pessimism of Allan Greenspan and Paul Krugman*) if the US is about to move into recession or continue growing steadily. A key flaw in macroeconomics – economists are lousy at predicting the trade cycle.
Sober reflection not nihilism.

* Krugman in fact seems to have softened his position but still sees the probability of a recession as very high - as evidence he cites Intrade prices for a bet that a recession will occur in 2009.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Performance pay for teachers

Iain Hall has a post on the case for merit pay among teachers. Its seems 2/3 of teachers Australia-wide believe schools are having problems retaining staff and, of those, 70% believe that paying extra to those with additional qualifications and those who are most competent would stem the tide. The sample included about 1/3 of all teachers in Australia.

The Australian Education Union refuses to support merit pay – the Victorian Branch just wants a 30% unconditional salary increase over 3 years with a maximum class size of 20 students.
Teachers must reject the trade unionist ethics that dominate their profession and it seems they do. Why then do teachers end up with trade union representatives who are such deadheads? Bring on performance pay with a vengeance and give at least 100% bonuses to teachers who really excel in their profession.

Adverse incentive effects (selecting only initially bright students, cheating on performance testing) can be overcome with ingenuity. The key objective should be to increase student thinking abilities and enthusiasm for education particularly basic education.

We should provide teachers with incentives to improve their performance and give ambitious, hardworking teachers the opportunity to earn a really good salary that rewards the socially-worthwhile task they carry out.

Compensating the unemployed?

The NYT has a stern neoclassical defence of free trade (by Stephen Landsberg) with outsourcing. Landsberg is clearly discussing US-Chinese trade from the US viewpoint. The gist is that just as we should not feel morally obliged to compensate a restaurant owner when we shop for food at a cheaper McDonalds store so too the US should feel no obligation to compensate a worker when his job disappears because of outsourcing of work to China.

A couple of weeks ago I outlined the non-new thesis by Paul Krugman that significantly higher levels of US trade with low labour cost countries promotes inequality. I argued that education and compensatory tax transfer policies could address these issues while leaving the benefits from free trade intact.

Landsberg’s argument seems to confuse efficiency and equity issues. Both he (and Krugman & myself) believe price reductions from trade liberalisation do provide ‘gains-from-trade’ to the community as a whole but there is still an issue of inequality that most of us are concerned with addressing. As far as I can see there is no substantial intellectual case against free trade. But there is recognition that inequality will worsen as most manufactured goods in developed countries are produced in low wage countries and this needs to be addressed. Indeed it wouldn’t make much difference how the inequality was generated it would need to be addressed.

By the way twice in my life I have been in situations where job layoffs occurred. I saw the psychic misery and anxiety that was generated. I have also had friends and colleagues who unsuccessfully sought paid work for long-periods – one did charity work for a time because he felt so useless and despondent.

Since these events I have always been fairly hostile towards well-paid economists whose attitude to people losing their jobs is, ‘oh well, that’s life’. Landsberg’s ‘ho-hum’ attitude does not impress.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Comments policy

I have changed my philosophy towards comments on this blog. I hope that readers will continue to feel free to comment but I want to take greater care with respect to comments which contain insulting and even conceivably defamatory language.

Simply put I will not tolerate personal, abusive language at all. I do have a persistent problem with troll(s) and I am dealing with them.

All comments will now be moderated although comment submission itself will be simplified because I have switched off the word-recognition requirement.

If you do wish to post under a pseudonym that is fine but you must use the same pseudonym every time you comment. You cannot post as 'anonymous' or change your identity with different posts.

If I detect people trolling under different pseudonyms, perhaps with different IP addresses, I will ban the person permanently and inform other blogs.

I welcome discussion of this policy.

Resource constraints & vegetarianism

Yesterday's AFR contained a fascinating article by Chris Haskins, 'Was Malthus right, after all' reprinted from the UK magazine Prospect. I cannot find a complete online version but it is the original article is worth chasing up if you are interrested in world food supply issues and climate change. (Update: Reader 'whyisitso' found this link to the article. Thanks).

Haskins' argument is that amazing events are occurring in world grain markets because of accelerated economic development in countries like China. Prices of grains are soaring even though world population is growing only moderately because millions in the developing world can now afford to eat meat - the average Chinese eats 30% more than 5 years ago and grain-feed cattle eat huge amounts of grain. In addition there have been poor grain harvests around the world and Western countries are subsidising farmers to switch from food to renewable energy crops. (Update: Colleague Jim Bugden found this interesting data. Thanks).

With global populations increasing through to at least 2050 some of these trends can be expected to continue. Land supplies are close to fully utilised and climate change will make vlife more difficult for farmers. Major technological advances - for example, improving the resiliance of crops to temperature extremes - to improve the productivity of existing land need to be achieved to offset these trends. The Malthusian spectre of increasing misery can be offset but these technological advances are called for. In addition the case for growing crops as renewable sources of energy needs to be reviewed.

Haskins suggests a provocative program of reform:

'The most virtuous and responsible step of all would be to become vegetarian. About three quarters of the world's wheat, maize and soya is fed to animals who then convert this, very inefficiently, into meat for us to eat. Something else to bear in mind is that our consumption of milk products maintains demand for millions of cows, each of which, through its burping and farting, does more environmental damage than the average family car'.

Economic factors will tend to drive these sorts of trends anyway as people adapt their consumption to increased relative prices for animal protein. This switch would be accentuated by fart taxes on flatulent livestock.

I made much the same points last week on energy use trends in developing countries. These will adversely impact on the global environment even though they realise important development objectives. Again relative price trends will tend to offset some of these effects.

Note that in a globalised economy increased energy and food prices will impact on the poor globally. The implications of being poor in China will be much the same as being poor in the US. My bet - and Haskins agrees - is that this will lead to a surge in demands for protectionism that will hurt us all.

Finally note that food supply issues are impacting on climate change policies both directly - agriculture will take a direct negative hit in areas such as the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia as rainfall diminishes and becomes more erratic and because, with economic development, people will demand more crops simply to provide increased animal protein and renewable fuels.

The Haskins article is an excellent read - I'll probably set it for my environmental economics students!

Update: This excellent piece from NYT (19/1/08) develops similar themes.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Tim Blair

I was shocked to read on his blog that Tim Blair has cancer. He is having major surgery so let us hope he stages a full and rapid recovery.

Here is an apt comment from Mark Steyn.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Economists sought in North Queensland?

Olivier Deschenes & Enrico Moretti in an NBER Working Paper estimate that 8-15% of the improved life expectancy in the US over the last 30 years is due to people moving to live in warmer states. Moreover, those who make the move are more likely to be those who gain benefits from the move.

Here is the abstract of the Deschenes-Moretti paper:

We estimate the effect of extreme weather on life expectancy in the US. Using high frequency mortality data, we find that both extreme heat and extreme cold result in immediate increases in mortality. However, the increase in mortality following extreme heat appears entirely driven by temporal displacement, while the increase in mortality following extreme cold is long lasting. The aggregate effect of cold on mortality is quantitatively large. We estimate that the number of annual deaths attributable to cold temperature is 27,940 or 1.3% of total deaths in the US. This effect is even larger in low income areas. Because the US population has been moving from cold Northeastern states to the warmer Southwestern states, our findings have implications for understanding the causes of long-term increases in life expectancy. We calculate that every year, 5,400 deaths are delayed by changes in exposure to cold temperature induced by mobility. These longevity gains associated with long term trends in geographical mobility account for 8%-15% of the total gains in life expectancy experienced by the US population over the past 30 years. Thus mobility is an important but previously overlooked determinant of increased longevity in the US. We also find that the probability of moving to a state that has fewer days of extreme cold is higher for the age groups that are predicted to benefit more in terms of lower mortality compared to the age groups that are predicted to benefit less.

Incidentally, a modest Melbourne economist of my acquaintance is seeking relief in the face of the forthcoming 2008 Melbourne winter. Townsville or Cairns would be nice! Offers can be posted here.

Hat tip: Greg Mankiw

Supply & demand for terrorism

Gary Becker argues that terrorism should decline with improved economic development because the supply of terrorist foot-soldiers falls with the implied demographic transition and the opportunity cost of such things as suicide missions rises when you have a good job and good prospects. Becker argues that those who are well-educated and earning high incomes will only participate in ‘special event’, ‘high-profile’ terrorism such as September 11 and that the bulk of terrorists are male, single and poor – sexually-frustrated nobodies whose lives are going nowhere.

I have posted on this idea before.

Richard Posner is not so sure about the role of demographics and economic development. He argues that the demand for terrorism is grievance-driven by fantasy, as well as such things as foreign occupations, and that educated people are likely to be particularly sensitive to such grievances. Extremist Islamic beliefs may be the primary creator of terrorists with economic and demographic factors being secondary. Posner does concede however that demographic transition will increase average age which is a positive factor reducing supply.

Both of these types of arguments have validity. Certainly economic development turns the minds of young Muslims to other things as the Dubai experience indicates. Religious fanatics at high socio-economic levels will be attracted to terrorist pursuits but the cannon-fodder foot-soldiers will probably choose terrorism because of a lack of other worthwhile options. And terrorist fanatics anywhere depend on community support for survival. Foot-soldiers and the community-at-large will be less inclined to support terrorism and suicide missions if they have strong economic opportunities.

I agree with Posner that extreme Islamic beliefs are important independent causes of terrorism – this is impossible to deny. But I am not persuaded that ‘good Islam’ – here defined as the mainstream beliefs of many Muslims - is not also partly to blame. In fact the perennial claims of Muslims that terrorists are only those who have distorted the peaceful message of Islam seems something of an overworn excuse and an exaggeration.

While international support among Muslims for terrorism is on the wane, significant proportions of the population in Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon continue to support terrorist attacks in the US. In Pakistan and Jordan support for bin Laden has actually increased and this growth has been grass roots.

Mainstream beliefs based on a well-established religion cannot be solely viewed as fanaticism.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

War deaths in Iraq

The Lancet study asserting 650,000 war-caused deaths in Iraq from the US invasion to mid-2006 is now strongly suspected to be fiction – the correct figure is closer to 151,000 according to a study that relies on more than 1,000 clusters rather than 47 as in the Lancet study. It is also interesting to note that the Lancet study was financed by George Soros with at least one of its authors now claimed to be a Saddam apologist and with claims the study was released to influence election outcomes. The figure of 650,000 would have made the Iraq conflict one of the bloodiest in recent military history – it remains a nasty conflict but the actual death toll is apparently one quarter that reported on in Lancet.

On the local scene those promoting the value of the Lancet figures (here*, here) have either not responded or responded by discussing the new results but not admitting error. Perhaps fair enough – the issues involve complexities and already there have been denials of ulterior motives and bias.

I reported the results here and stated that the sampling methodology seemed sound – it obviously was not. In a sense the dispute is a grim insult to the dead – 151,000 is still a lot of human misery. But strong views were expressed stridently criticising those who disbelieved the Lancet figures.

Perhaps there is a lesson for us all here.

*Update: John Quiggin has now responded to the claims made here both in the comments below and on his blog site.

Saturday golf miscellany

This came from a commercial source but they are rather neat clips of Jason Zuback, who claims to be the world’s longest golf ball hitter, as he clocks a golf ball. This is a shorter clip of the same guy. I have been watching it repeatedly this afternoon in the hope something will rub off.

4 golf balls swallowed by a myopic carpet python have been sold for $1401 on Ebay.

Meanwhile, the way for young golfers to defeat Tiger Woods is to ‘lynch him in a back alley’ according to network announcer Kelly Tilghman. Poor choice of words there Kelly - she has issued a public apology and was stood down for a fortnight.

On a happier note some inspiring video clips of Tiger Woods exercising his own brand of poetry. I also enjoyed the background views of some of the US’s best golf courses.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Affordable cars for 1.1 billion

1.1 million Indians potentially gain access to a $2500 car - ignoring those that might be exported. One can take, as I do, the elitist view that this is environmentally damaging in terms of its contribution to global warming – it is difficult to see it as a positive - and it will certainly add to congestion problems in India even if it does make automotive transport more readily available to the Indian masses. Others will argue that environmental criticisms of the car are misplaced – Indians have the same right to destroy the earth’s climate as rich westerners.
Two facts:

Apart from Asia, South America, much of the former Soviet and the Arab countries are developing rapidly. Even the African basket case is looking promising despite genocidal conflicts related to barbarous tribalism. But, with current technologies and current populations, environmental constraints related to energy and food supplies mean the whole world cannot live like mass consumption Westerners. Hence development of poor countries will be thwarted, living standards of affluent countries will fall or concomitant with economic development must go technological changes or sustained population reductions.

Every silver lining is potentially just the interior of a dark cloud. Maybe its the Melbourne heat today (40 degrees C) but the usually half-full glass seems half-empty today.

Update: there is a long-meandering discussion of this post at Catallaxy.

European economics & the hatred of capitalism

French and German school students are being educated on the horrors of capitalism. This stems from state-mandated school curricula that fixate on the role of the nanny state and the imperfections and adverse consequences of markets. Economic progress is the cause of society’s ills, the class struggle determines social outcomes and the way to deal with unemployment is to improve the dole. Markets are intrinsically evil.

‘Students learn that private companies destroy jobs while government policy creates them. Employers exploit while the state protects. Free markets offer chaos while government regulation brings order. Globalization is destructive, if not catastrophic. Business is a zero-sum game, the source of a litany of modern social problems’.
These bizarre cultural beliefs drive social and economic outcomes - low levels of innovation, low entrepreneurship and high unemployment. It is frightening and an abyss social democrats can fall into unless they maintain a sense of perspective. One does not need to be a rabid supporter of Chicago School free enterprise economics to see the virtues of markets and entrepreneurship.

A 'slippery slope' argument often advanced by libertarians is that any intervention in free markets provides a precedent for unlimited public intervention in an economy and ultimately loss of both freedom and economic prosperity. I strongly disagree. One can respect the efficacy of private markets and the overwhelming value of personal freedom while recognising a limited case for public intervention based on market failures and fairness in the distribution of income. Indeed its what I was taught in Economics 101 and which I still believe.

The key issue is not whether markets fail or the distribution of income produced by markets is unjust but whether or not public interventions can improve things. Often they cannot and we need to live with capitalism's hiccups.

See also the discussion by Henry over at Crooked Timber.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Indian cricket - what a sad bunch of losers

Peter Roebuck’s call for Ricky Ponting to be sacked as captain of the Australian cricket team should be treated with contempt. He provides no sound reasons for this call. The Australians played tough, uncompromising cricket and won. The inferior Indian team has lost the second test partly due to some poor umpiring decisions but partly because they lack requisite skills.

The Indians have threatened to abandon the current test series unless (i) umpire Bucknor is dismissed from further service in the series and (ii) a proven charge of racial abuse (specifically the label ‘monkey’ directed at Andrew Symonds by Harbhajan Singh*) is withdrawn on appeal. The latter charge was proven not by the Australians but by the International Cricket Council which has also already rejected the attempt to remove umpire Steve Bucknor. Moreover, the umpires concerned are not Australian nor is the ICC.

The reaction of the Indians to the loss of this test match is the cry of a nation of long-term losers. Obviously a competing team cannot be involved in the selection of cricket umpires. Moreover, calling the dark-skinned Symonds a ‘monkey’ is racially offensive and against the current laws of cricket. Making an appeal against this decision and then threatening to abandon the series unless the appeal goes their way is adolescent behaviour by these losers. The bleating of the visiting Indian side amounts to condemning the Australians for their cricketing skill and success.

I enjoyed the response to this fiasco by Tim Blair. He documents the stupidity of Roebuck’s complaint and the hypocrisy of the Indian team.

Update: Umpire Steve Bucknor has been replaced to the evident satisfaction of India's cricket board (BCCI). Irrespective of his judgement this is a poor decision because it means the losing side in a Test match has got rid of the umpire. Moreover, the BCCI is still threatening to end the series unless the 'racist slur' against Harbhajan Singh is reversed by appeal. He might have won the appeal anyway but applying this pressure leaves India in a no-win situation and damages the future of cricket. It might be assumed that any reversal was a response to the pressure applied by BCCI rather than the truth - it undermines the appeal process. The Indian team and the BCCI are still acting like a miserable bunch of losers.

*In fact I would be prepared to let the ‘monkey’ charge go as an ill-advised, spur of the moment racist remark but Indian captain’s claim that Australia is ‘a team that cheats and lies quite blatantly’ suggests that issues of deficient emotional maturity run deep in the Indian squad.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Growling frogs & barking owls

I head back to work today after nearly 4 weeks off. I finished my holidays with a week of golf and bird-watching- yesterday playing at the magnificent, links-style, Growling Frog Golf Course (it is named after this). Then in the evening I went with zoologist Dr. Bob Anderson and his friend Jan to Puckapunyal in search of a Barking owl – finally getting one in the Graytown military base area at about 11pm – my first ever sighting of this bird and success after numerous previous failed attempts. For 20 minutes we ‘woofed’ at the owl and it ‘woofed’ back. An amazing experience that I won’t forget.
By the way, the Growing Frog Golf Course is working hard to conserve both the frog and a legless lizard. Puckapunyal is a military base also seeking to conserve a sustainable environment. There are environmental compromises with reality which can work.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Obama the first African-American President?

Barack Obama’s stunning victory against Hilary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses last Thursday night is the talk of the international press. That a black man defeated the establishment candidate in a primarily (95%) white state and the fact of a record turnout of Democrat voters suggests that Americans are seeing the need for fundamental change.

Interestingly, former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee gained support from religious conservatives to stage a victory over Mitt Romney in the Republican race. Huckabee was, like Obama, an anti-establishment outcome. Insurgencies are occurring on both sides of US politics.

Obama’s victory shows that the boundaries of race in US politics have dissolved – an amazing outcome given that slavery was abolished in the US only 148 years ago. Ignoring the partisan issues associated with Obama’s candidature (I think his policy on Iraq amounts to abandoning a people who have turned on the terrorists and who desperately need support) the outcome here is, in itself, cause for celebration. It is noteworthy that Obama is addressing issues facing mainstream America not civil rights concerns. His speeches do not contain much content - most US political speeches do not - but he is a passionate performer who will go over well in the US. He is charismatic, carries an aura of authenticity and carries none of the baggage of disappointment that characterises recent US presidential politics. Clinton in comparison, is a boring hack who represents establishment politics.

In the overall scheme of things the events in a small state like Iowa might not seem important but they do set the tone for the remainder of the US presidential campaign.

Now on to Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary where early polls favoured Clinton and McCain. But those polls were taken well before the Iowa vote. The would-be Clinton dynasty is on the line in New Hampshire and support is turning against her. Yes, it couldn’t happen to a less pleasant person.

Barack Obama has a good chance of becoming the next US President. I think he will because I don’t believe Huckabee is electable and I cannot see who will stand up to oppose the calls for renewal by Obama? It is clear that Americans are disappointed with establishment politics and the current presidency. Obama is seen as a solution.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

A strengthened citizenship test deserves strong support

I am a strong supporter of English language testing for migrants and of the principle of a citizenship test. An earlier post I made showed 85% of Australians support an English language test while in Germany, Britain and the US at least 80% of citizens support language plus citizenship tests. I am surprised the figures are in fact so low!

All Australians should speak English. Of course migrants may wish to retain and use their mother tongue – there are potential gains to Australia from them doing so - but English is and should be a single unifying national language. The advantages of having a universal means of communication based on our Anglo-Celtic origins are obvious. English is our national language and it is co-incidentally the international language of science and business.

Testing potential citizens can help ensure that migrants who seek citizenship understand that Australia has a history and a culture. It is also a surrogate for a very low-level general intelligence test if, as is the case with current Australian tests, all the answers to the test are pre-supplied in a short booklet.

Some migrants – and regrettably some resident Australians as well as those in the fashionable left - are openly derisive about the issues of Australian identity and culture. For example some migrants are openly dismissive of aboriginal culture. We cannot do much about post-school age residents in this regard but can certainly try to address ignorance among newcomers.

In addition people from dirt poor xenophobic societies, from totalitarian societies, from theocracies with zero tolerance for other religions (or for democracy) and from racist East Asian societies that have no immigration programs of their own, and who openly dismiss people of dark skin colour, need to appreciate that Australia rejects their primitive values. We have a better society than they had and don’t need a primitivist cultural injection. We cannot change the attitudes of migrants but can at least make them aware of some of the virtues Australia has through education.

Similar comments could be made about some migrant attitudes to women, to the natural environment and to recognising the possibility of a plurality of religious commitments. Questions on such issues might plausibly be included in an expanded and strengthened citizenship test.

The implicit assumption of extreme multiculturalists is that Australian culture is an empty slate into which migrants of any background, inject colour and content. This is a misleading paradigm. In terms of standards of living, respect for the environment, adherence to democratic values and tolerance Australia outperforms all our major migrant source countries – even countries like New Zealand and the UK. It certainly outperforms Asia, Eastern Europe or the Middle East.

Migrants coming to Australia here gain access to a range of tangible and intangible community assets – law and order, democracy, pre-paid infrastructure and social security entitlements – that deliver huge unpaid-for benefits to them. This is one of the reasons they come to live here.

There are economic gains to a recipient country from immigration but these gains are dwarfed by the economic and social gains migrants enjoy.

Australia should give away citizenship for nothing only if it sees citizenship as worth nothing. The early Fitzgerald Report into migration noted this and emphasised the case for assigning specific benefits to citizens that went beyond the right to vote.

It is eminently reasonable that Australia adheres to minimum standards for accepting migrants and for accepting the conversion of migrants into citizens. The minimum now is simply that migrants shall speak English and score 60% in a test based on a 46 page booklet on Australia’s history and culture. Australia offers too much in benefits to need to be, in any sense, a dumping ground, for the unintelligent and uninformed. The refugee and humanitarian program is an important possible exception to this view but the core of the migration program must emphasise the acceptance of skilled, intelligent people who understand what Australia is and what it has to offer.

But in fact more than 20% of those attempting the test cannot pass it or demonstrate reasonable English. The response suggested by some this week is to consider abolishing or modifying the test! My suggestion instead would be to review the migration entry guidelines and find out how such dim-witted test failures were ever granted entry. They must have lived in Australia for at least 4 years to be eligible to seek citizenship so it is not unreasonable that they have acquired something more than basic English language skills so that they are at the point where they can answer very simple questions from a 46 page book. These failures indicate a defect in the initial migrant selection process.

The citizenship and English language tests should be retained and, if anything, strengthened. It might for example include questions on environmental protection and the respect Australians have for the natural environment. We should not abolish the test simply because, in the past, we have made wrong immigrant entry decisions that has provided as with a cohort of migrants who are so stupid they cannot pass it. Hopefully too Mr Rudd will honour his pre-election promise to retain the test – this seems to be the case at present.

My concern is that mooting proposals of this sort is the first step by the left-dominated ethnic lobby to promote a return to the Hawke-Keating approach to migration policy. This involved almost all migrants being part of the so-called Family Program – based on the ‘family reunion’ idea*. These policies were used by that silver-haired blubberer and hypocrite Hawke to buy the ethnic vote in our large cities. This involved selling out the interests of Australia for the most modest political gains and was a total scandal. Labor showed, in the Hawke-Keating years, that it could not be trusted with immigration – it undermined confidence in the migration program, produced the Pauline Hansons of this world and generally reduced community acceptance of migrants.

Let us now stick with the far superior migration policies of the Coalition which emphasised skilled migration and which substantially increased the total migration intake. It was one of the better Coalition policy moves. It is essential to retain strong entry requirements for migrants coming to Australia and retain strong citizenship and English language requirements before granting citizenship.

Update: The Ethnic Communities Council has directly asked the Government to abolish the test. Minister Evans has apparently refused to do this. Good.

* The best way migrant families can prevent being disunited is for members to avoid emigration. Of course Australia has no obligation to re-unite those who voluntarily choose to split-up with those who originally did not emigrate.