Friday, February 29, 2008

Australian money & credit growth facts

The year-to-year growth rates in broad monetary aggregates and in credit from November 2007 through January 2008 were the highest they have been for three years according to the RBA. Broad money over this three-month period grew at from 18.5-18.8% while credit grew from 16-16.4% again on an annual basis. Annual growth rates in borrowing for housing have dropped off by a few points over the last few years from, around 15 to around 11.5%, while growth rates in business borrowing have surged strongly over the past three years from around 12% to 24% annually.

Loans to house buyers were valued at $924 billion at end 2007 while loans to business were valued at $715 billion. The first derivative of business borrowings is the variable of interest. Of course offsetting concerns about the scale of business borrowings is the realisation that a major broad-based investment boom is occurring in Australia that will increase the productive capacity of the Australian economy. It is the biggest boom in 20 years - the Australian economy is 'growing at speed'.

Credit growth in 2007 in Australia was the highest it had been for 18 years despite two interest rate increases and a shortage of credit internationally. Interest rates will almost certainly be adjusted upwards next week. Stephen Kirchner believes the adjustment should have been made a month ago.

Comments sought on these, what to me, are troubling facts.

Water resource problems - more politics than economics?

The Rudd Government’s decision to purchase by tender $50 million worth of water rights from irrigators in the Murray Darling Basin is sensible policy. The Howard government agreed only to purchase water that resulted from technology-induced water savings, a policy that was never going to get far. According to much of the press the current government’s initial purchases should secure at least 20 GL - my rough calculations suggest that, at realistic water prices, they should be able to do much better than that.

Buying back over-allocated permanent water rights from owners of these rights at the minimum cost to the purchaser is the most cost-efficient and fairest way of eliminating the problems of excess water allocations in the MDB. It provides compensation to the owners at a price that leaves them better-off than retaining and possibly using the water and, subject to this fairness constraint, minimises the cost of achieving an important environmental objective.

John Quiggin (AFR, 28th February, subscription required) estimates that in the absence of drought the long-term price of a permanent water allocation is likely to be around $1000/ML so for $500 million one could buy back 500 GL thus reaching the target for environmental flows in the National Water Initiative of 2004. Quiggin argues however that, even before the current drought, expert evidence suggested that a cut of 1500 GL would be needed to restore the heath of the MDB.

Indeed the CSIRO’s Sustainable Yields Project suggests that, with severe enough climate change, average runoff in certain parts of the MDB could decline by as much as 50%. If this is the case then buybacks might not be sufficient to address the problem.

I’d be interested in checking out the validity of these figures with those who have more expertise in water resource management than I do. Even if prices of water rose substantially in response to high levels of buyback it would seem these cutback objectives could be realised at the cost of the Howard Government’s $10 billion water plan. All but $3 billion dollars of money in this plan was to be spent on ill-advised technology handouts to farmers that might not be particularly effective. Thus there might be gains in reallocating the money intended for technological fixes towards buybacks. On the face of it solving this major resource problems in the MDB looks like a political problem not one involving economic feasibility.

Maybe my arithmetic is wrong here or I am overlooking something fundamental - I’d appreciate advice to that effect.

By the way the relevant act driving these policies is the Water Act 2007 which relates specifically to the management of the MDB from the viewpoint of economic, social and environmental perspectives is discussed here.

The Federal Opposition spokesperson on the environment, Dr. Sharmon Stone, expressed opposition to the plan on the grounds that it will increase water prices and that farmers in the MDB will be disadvantaged. I was dismayed by these comments as with those of various farming lobby groups. In relation to the Rudd Government’s Plan, according to the Age:

‘But Victorian Farmers Federation president Simon Ramsay attacked the plan, saying government involvement threatened to distort the market.

"Farmers are already stressed; the temptation to sell water, which has been allocated for agricultural use, will prove too great for some to the detriment of farming properties and Australian food production," Mr Ramsay said.

Victorian Opposition spokesman for Country Water Peter Walsh said the policy was to the detriment of agriculture along the river and could prompt water prices to rise.

This foolishness suggests that farmers in stressful economic situations will be somehow made worse off by being given the option to sell their water. Given that water resources have been over-allocated, an increase in prices will help to shift water consumption into higher-valued uses which is exactly what is called for. It is true that those farmers who seek to purchase water in a market with increased demands will have to pay higher prices but that is just a consequence of the shortage in sustainable supplies.

Moreover, resolution of these water supply issues is in the long-term interests of farmers who, because of climate change, will face increasing water shortages and increased variability of water supplies.

A colleague suggested to me yesterday that a Coalition Government in Australia is unlikely to regain power federally for at least two terms of office. One thought is for the Liberal Party to split from the Nationals now in an attempt to build a party that can be more rational than one which is plagued with National Party stupidity.

The Nationals overall have very low electoral appeal and have policy attitudes that seem parochial and self-interested but which, in fact, also disadvantage both the nation as a whole and farmers - the constituency the Nationals are supposed to represent. A split now would get rid of a corrosive force and give the Liberals a chance to re-group. This is something I will think about.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Iraq war caused the global credit crisis?

This article on claims by Joseph Stiglitz regarding the economic implications of the Iraq war is worth reading. It repeats Stiglitz's claims that the war will cost the US $3 trillion and that it has raised oil prices by at least $5-$10 (but more plausibly by $35) per barrel.

It also claims that to fund the war the US central bank flooded its economy with cheap credit leading to a housing bubble and a consumption boom.

Finally, Stiglitz notes that the war leaves the next US president with the largest budget deficit in history. Of course the significant deficit will also in part be generated by US tax cuts. Interesting 'big picture' claims. Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have written a book expanding on these themes - The Three Trillion Dollar War. I pre-ordered a copy today.

Linking the issue of war financing to global macroeconomic conditions has been a recurring theme in the economics literature given the inflationary consequences of the Vietnam War. This time around the flood of money creation has driven down interest rates and created an asset price boom rather than cost-push inflation. Wage and other costs I assume have been pegged by the expanding role of cheap Chinese labour.

I have made several posts on the cost of the Iraq war (here, here, here) and January 2007 had a discussion concerning the Stiglitz estimates with JS himself.

The Stiglitz-Bilmes estimated costs have increased steadily over time from early estimates of about $1 trillion. They are at the upper end of the range of estimates I have seen and ignore possible benefits from the war and the costs saved by not pursuing the earlier containment approach using sanctions.

The source of the high costs in the Stiglitz-Bilmes study is partly due to the high incidence of costly injuries to US service people from the war. These should not put immediate pressure on US budgets - the main implications of injury costs will be drawn out over the coming decades.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Youth drinking & alcopops

This report on alcopops by Choice magazine is interesting. Basically youth consume such drinks without experiencing the taste of alcohilc beverages. The taste of alcoholic beverages is rather unpleasant to neophyte drinkers so vendors of alcoholic products market sweet-tasting, alcopops with a soft-drink or milk base and often laced with a tasteless alcohol product such as vodka, to encourage alcohol use among youth. Later these same youth will graduate to mainstream alcohol products.

This is an important marketing innovation since booze sales Australia-wide have stabilised in recent decades so that promoting a steady stream of new drinkers is the only way to expand booze markets. Although aggregate sales are stable problem drinking continues to increase – it is the second-largest cause of hospital admissions related to drug use (after smoking). I think this move is unambiguously a social bad and that the sale and marketing of alcohol products to youth should be much more strenuously regulated than it is at present. Industry self-regulation is a total joke.

Neuroscience suggests that it is best to postpone the consumption of alcohol until after age 25 when the forebrain has developed completely. Alcohol is a neurotoxin which kills brain cells and the incidence of alcoholism is strongly related to the age at which drinking is initiated – the earlier the greater the problem. We do not wish to have a community of dopey kids.

I reprint sections of the Choice report below. For accuracy it is worth pointing out that pure alcohol is tasteless although I know what Choice means here – alcopos do not have the strong flavours of adult alcoholic drinks. In addition it is worth stressing that many teenagers choose alcopops because they want to experience the effects of alcohol without the taste – so there need not be a deception here.

In addition to the usual charge that I am a hypocrite for seeking curbs on alcohol while being a drinker myself I plead partially guilty. I am a hypocrite but have the excuse of ignorance and being a product of my upbringing. In addition, of course, my hypocrisy has nothing to do with the case against alcohol abuse I frequently espouse. My hypocrisy is a little diminished of late – I have been entirely alcohol abstinent for a couple of months and - along with taking some regular exercise - I feel much better for it.

CHOICE test reveals 25% couldn’t taste the alcohol in alcopops

Teenagers find it hard to tell the difference between soft drinks and so-called alcopops, which are part spirit and part soft drink or milk, according to a CHOICE taste test.

Almost half of the teenage male taste test participants could not tell that Vodka Mudshake Original Chocolate, which is 4% alcohol by volume, contained alcohol.

Overall, one quarter of the participants, who for legal reasons were over 18, couldn’t taste the alcohol in alcopops, also known as ready-to-drink or RTD beverages.

In the test 78 teenagers aged between 18 and 19 were given four different alcopops, four soft drinks and a sample each of beer and wine, all in unmarked glasses. They also completed a survey about their drinking habits and some took part in focus groups to discuss alcohol and alcopops.

Referring to alcopops, one of the participants remarked: “I used to drink all of these when I was a bit younger… like when I was at school.”

The trendy packaging, colours and flavours were deemed attractive by teens, and the sweet flavours, which in the test included chocolate, raspberry, lemon and passionfruit, can mask the taste of alcohol. CHOICE thinks the regulation of alcopops marketing, and of alcohol more generally, doesn’t effectively protect teenagers.

“It’s clear from CHOICE’s test that the use of sweet flavours reduces the resistance many teenagers have to the strong and, to many of them, unpleasant taste of alcohol,” said CHOICE media spokesperson Christopher Zinn.

While there are codes of practice for the companies that produce alcopops and the advertising industry that promotes them, CHOICE says there are some gaps, notably the internet.

CHOICE found one vodka-based RTD promoted on a website aimed at girls, despite the policy of its maker only to target its brands at the 18-plus age group. The promo was removed after CHOICE pointed out to the manufacturer that its placement was inappropriate and conflicted with its policy.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Aboriginal deaths in the Kimberley

The deplorable situation of aboriginal people in the Kimberley region of Western Australia was described by that state's coroner yesterday. He was reporting on the deaths of 22 men and women - including the suicide of an 11 year old boy. Billions of dollars are being spent by Commonwealth and State governments but the situation for aboriginals is deteriorating.

21 aboriginals in the Kimberley committed suicide in 2006 a 100% jump over the previous year. Half the deaths occurred after drinking at a pub supposed established for the benefit of aboriginal people. Many of the suicides followed earlier childhood sexual abuse.

Suicide deaths are the ultimate indicator of desparation and hopelessness in any community. There can be no debate here.

The coroner recommends alcohol bans, enhanced child protection, teaching basic home-making skills and limits on spending social security benefits on alcohol and pornography by introducing a 'stamps' program. He also wants a more coordinated policy response.

This sounds to me very much like the package introduced federally by Mal Brough. I hope the Labor Party are listening though, with Jenny Macklin in charge of aboriginal affairs, I suspect that at the federal level we will continue with failed policies that emphasise symbolic gestures and victimhood rather than practical measures.

Time for a policy rethink that emphasises dealing with the issues that are destroying lives not for symbolic gestures that give white people a warm inner glow but don't help abused children or bashed wives.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Barry Humphries on Madge Allsop RIP

Emily Perry, the sidekick of Dame Edna has died aged 101.

Humphries once cheerfully described her (in a performance) as 'a human maggot held together by bacteria — and I mean that in a caring sort of way'. She certainly enhanced his act and he obviously knew that. In fact Humphries was fond of Emily and helped her out in her later years.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Conservative academics

Why are there comparatively few academic conservatives? The Chronicle of Higher Education provides some answers based on a paper by Matthew Woessner & April Kelly-Wessner.

Conservatives are not as interested in the issues that might go into a doctorate, feel discriminated against by professors - ‘liberal enclaves provide a chilly environment’ - and have more interest in raising a family than liberal students. On the latter point one way of broadening the range of views in academic departments would be to provide better childcare facilities.

Conservatives are also less interested in doing original work and more interested in financial success than are liberals.

In my limited experience economics departments provide a mix of ideological approaches with many right-wing academics supporting free market policies but plenty of old-fashioned lefties working in areas such as industrial relations and labour economics. This often translates into support for a diverse range of political positions. Many arts-based departments (especially politics) however are overwhelmingly left-wing with a crushingly tedious orthodoxy of left-wing babblers and social romantics. I cannot imagine conservative students feeling at home in such departments.

I think it is very important to reconstitute political science departments so that they do teach about politics and not just left-wing ideology. The central role they attach to Marxist theory is totally ridiculous. Most would be better-off learning about markets and modern economics.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bobby Fischer - a belated RIP 1943-2008

I have never been a good chess player - don't have the persistance - but the achievements of Bobby Fischer always interested me. His death earlier this year left me saddened though I didn’t post on it – instead I spent time working through some of Bobby’s great games that Nicholas Gruen linked to. The queen sacrifice he makes in his ‘Game of the Century’ suggests maniacally exquisite foresight.

Bobby got a lot of bad publicity after his great chess achievements - his anti-Semitism and so on. Not that he probably didn’t deserve it but there must be a positive side to the guy. Indeed, there is.

This empathetic account of Bobby Fisher by Dick Cavett is enjoyable. Bobby didn’t have talons but equally was no angel. He was obviously super- intelligent and self-aware. In his own words his talent in chess was partly that of a prodigy and partly due to an ability to sustain a focus with much hard work.

The remarkable Youtube of the Fisher-Cavett interview in 1971 is here. Worth watching.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Garnaut & Labor politics

During the Federal election campaign last year I criticised the Labor Party as a collection of me-tooers who would say anything to get into power and would then do what they like. Peter Garrett explicitly said that the me-tooism didn’t matter since once they got into power they would, in fact, do what they liked. It is for this reason that Garrett has been reduced to the role of making cups of tea – the Labor bosses know he spoke the truth but think he was a bit of a fool, anyway, and a specific twit for not engaging in more strategic deceptions.

Nothing left me less impressed in the Labor Party’s policy than their platform on climate change. Given the current irrelevance of Kyoto their policy was indistinguishable from that of the Coalition.

Greenhouse gas cuts would only be made in Australia if developing countries agreed to make cuts, no interim targets were specified and no details on a carbon trading scheme provided – recall this was the policy that John Howard espoused and which was subject to so much criticism from the Green left.

The Labor Party did agree to 60% cuts by 2050 but, let us be honest, undertakings to deliver outcomes in more than 40 years time count for nothing in Australian politics. They are vacuous.

Ratifying Kyoto was a largely symbolic event since the force of this agreement runs out in 2012. The post-Kyoto environment is what matters. Paul Kelly was one of the few to sense the gap between Labor Party rhetoric and practical policy-making at the time of the Kyoto ratification.

When the Labor Party declined to spell out interim targets for 2020 and were criticised the standard response of their supporter running dogs was to say – ‘the Labor Party is entitled to wait for the results of the Garnaut Review’. ‘Give them time!’.

I never bought this response – how can you firmly adhere to 2050 targets without having intermediate targets at 2020? It makes no sense. What could Garnaut offer that was not already well known?

Well now Garnaut has made his interim report, called for 2020 targets and for steeper 2050 targets. It is an excellent report. He rubbished the Labor Party’s renewable target but, most of all, suggested the need to get real on climate change.

It seems however that the Labor Party is already distancing itself from his views. They have the right to do this because Garnaut is not an elected official but one hopes this is not just a sign of further inaction.

I quote from The Age:

The federal government has tried to play down its chief climate change adviser's call for even deeper cuts to dangerous greenhouse gases.

Economist Ross Garnaut in his interim report on climate change policy says the government should set a 2020 greenhouse target this year and consider setting a tougher 2050 target.

"Australia should be ready to go beyond its stated 60% reduction target by 2050 in an effective global agreement that includes developing nations," Prof Garnaut said in a statement.

The report says such an approach would see the nation play a positive role in global talks for a post-Kyoto regime.

"Australia should formulate a position on the contribution that it would be prepared to make to an effective global agreement, and offer to implement that stronger position if an appropriately structured international agreement were reached," it says.

It calls on the government to set an interim 2020 target later this year similar to those accepted by other developed nations.....

Climate Change Minister Penny Wong said Prof Garnaut's report would be an "important input" to government policy.

"We welcome Professor Garnaut's input ... of course we will also be looking at other inputs, such as modelling from the Australian Treasury," she told reporters.....

Senator Wong called the interim report - the final document is due in September - "early thinking" on the policy response to climate change.

The Australian Greens say the federal government is back-pedalling fast on its climate change promises. Greens leader Bob Brown claims the government is trying to minimise the importance of Prof Garnaut because he has followed the science.

"Penny Wong has reduced Ross Garnaut to input," Senator Brown told reporters in Canberra.

"That sounds to me like the Rudd government is subject to coal capture.....

....The Australian Coal Association welcomed Prof Garnaut's acceptance of clean coal.’ (my bold).

I think the Liberal Party policy on climate change was excessively cautious and believe Labor Party policy as yet offers no substantive improvement. It is easy to promise decisive action on climate change but, when making these promises, it is necessary to consider the costs of actually implementing policy. John Howard understood this and moved with (excessive) caution. The Labor Party deceived voters because of the apparent political difficulties.

It easy to promise but tough to deliver in a world where powerful economic interests play a role. I prefer excessive caution to being fed lies.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Climate change & macroeconomics

The RBA published today the best brief assessment of recent trends in Australia's agricultural sector I have seen in a while. It is interesting how climate change issues are impacting on macroeconomic assessments of how well the Australian economy is going. They don't actually mention climate change explicitly but the implications of it run throughout this brief report including implications for inflation. I found it a most interesting read.
The 2000s have been an especially challenging period for the farm sector. In the decade to date the agricultural regions of Australia have experienced historically dry conditions, while average temperatures have been the highest on record. Flows into the Murray-Darling Basin have been historically low, and, despite continued improvements in farm management, farm output remains below the level seen in 1999. More recently, however, the development of a La NiƱa weather system, and flooding rains in New South Wales and Queensland, have seen the outlook for the year ahead improve significantly – although a strong rebound in farm output will most likely require further significant follow-up rains over the winter months.

While the farm sector in Australia has had a particularly difficult period, poor harvests have also occurred in several other large food-producing countries over recent years. Together with strong underlying demand, this has seen global food prices increase significantly. With demand likely to continue to be underpinned by rapid economic growth in developing economies and the trend toward biofuel production, real food prices may remain higher than seen over recent decades for some time.

Controlling gun ownership using economics

Gary Becker pursues a consistent market-driven approach to gun control in the US in the face of recent massacres – increase taxes on guns sold legally and increase penalties on black market purchases of guns and on criminal activities involving gun use. This would mean that most guns would tend to be sold via legal markets and reduced quantities demanded would have feedback effects of further reducing demands because of reduced ‘arms race’ pressures.

John Lott comments on the proposal arguing that it assumes a negative externality to owning weapons. He claims there is a positive externality since gun ownership limits crime. This claim will be controversial but it reflects the 'arms race' idea - ordinary citizens buy guns to protect themselves from criminals with guns.

Richard Posner argues politely - though I think in opposition to Becker’s message - that gun ownership in the US is primarily a cultural not an economically-driven phenomenon best dealt with by means of public information campaigns.

My own view is that both information and tax policies need to address the issue of gun use just as they are appropriate for managing licit drugs such as alcohol which have harmful external effects in terms of domestic violence and innocent car accident deaths. One suggestion, made in relation to alcohol policies, is to penalise strongly the activities that occur because of the use of alcohol rather than taxing alcohol itself heavily. In terms of the gun debate this suggests supporting Becker’s idea for hefty penalties on crimes involving use of firearms.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Bring back Mal Brough or at least ditch Macklin

Probably the least competent of the entire Ruddite Ministry - if you ignore the northern NAIRU peanut - is Jenny Macklin - remember her? She was that Deputy Leader of the Opposition who was seldom either seen or heard. As Miranda Devine points out, Macklin's role in the aboriginal affairs portfolio already looks feeble. Macklin is an old-fashioned lefty with no creativity, limited intelligence and not much zest. She is advancing an old-fashioned 'victimhood' agenda for Australia's aboriginal people that won't improve their welfare.

I regret to say Macklin is also my local member. I first came across her when she was a poorly informed Canberra health bureaucrat who was unable to connect overservicing issues among GPs with the fact of universal free health care.

On aboriginal issues, according to Devine:
After 75 days in office, Macklin has not visited a single remote Aboriginal community. Her spokeswoman stressed on Friday that, as Opposition spokeswoman, she travelled to 15 communities last year and gained "a lot of corporate knowledge" to inform her decisions.

But for a Government big on symbolism, the message is that the minister is listening only to the usual suspects from the old rights-based Aboriginal power establishment, who have vested interests in the rotten status quo that has been so disastrous for so many Aboriginal children. So disastrous that researchers in the latest Medical Journal Of Australia seriously advocate a mass antibiotic program in remote communities because of the soaring rate of sexually transmitted diseases among children.

So dysfunctional that the former indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough tells of one community in which eight six-year-olds were raped by older children, aged eight to 10. In another, recent health checks identified 300 rat bites on children.

Yet when Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson began listing the unpalatable, well-documented facts of Aboriginal misery during his apology speech on Wednesday, he was attacked.

The fact that people, including, famously, two Kevin Rudd staffers, slow-clapped and turned their backs on Nelson at precisely the moment he spoke of child sexual abuse shows how the deaf ear has been turned to the suffering of the most vulnerable. Instead we have a craven revival of the Keating-era victimhood agenda.

"They do not want to hear the truth because it's so offensive and insulting," says Brough, the former army officer whose passion to actually fix problems in dysfunctional Aboriginal communities drove the Northern Territory emergency intervention. The aim was to re-establish social norms the rest of Australia takes for granted, by inserting police, preventing alcohol and drug abuse, performing medical checks and instituting income management.

Brough abolished the permit system which had long protected the potentates and predators of the communities from prying eyes. He also began dismantling the Community Development Employment Projects' work-for-the-dole schemes which had degenerated into fiefdoms with local standover men controlling all wages.

Academic views paid for by big tobacco

It is nothing new to reveal that the cigarette companies lied their heads off about the dangers of cigarettes for 50 years. They knew 50 years ago that smoking cigarettes definitely caused lung cancer and while they debunked a range of animal-based experiments they were carrying out their own animal experiments which confirmed the conclusions they publicly rejected. But in recent years the companies have gone a bit quiet on the lies front.

Their lies are now out in the open because of some famous whistle-blowing activities by former industry insiders.

There are profound moral issues here. It is unethical to sell a product you know kills people even if people chose voluntarily to purchase it. Attempts to expand cigarette sales by encouraging women, children and citizens in developing countries to smoke are instances of this immorality.

This article in New Scientist discusses the way big name scientists were paid to play down the dangers of smoking from the 1970s through to the late 1990s. Front groups funded by tobacco companies were created to suggest that smoking provided health benefits by relieving people of stress. As late as 1998 the philosopher Roger Scruton was involved in work that suggested low social damages from smoking:

‘in a 1998 piece for The Times newspaper in London, Scruton attacked arguments over smoking and health costs by noting, for example, that smokers impose less of a health burden than others because they die early. It was revealed in 2002 that he had been paid annually by Japan Tobacco International’.

Another major sponsored tobacco supporter was the very prominent psychologist Hans Eysenck.

The article is based on a paper by Anne Landman, Daniel K. Cortese and Stanton Glantz which unfortunately is subscription only. The abstract is available:

‘The multinational tobacco companies responded to arguments about the social costs of smoking and hazards of secondhand smoke by quietly implementing the Social Costs/Social Values project (1979–1989), which relied upon the knowledge and authoritative power of social scientists to construct an alternate cultural repertoire of smoking. Social scientists created and disseminated non-health based, pro-tobacco arguments without fully acknowledging their relationship with the industry. After the US Surgeon General concluded that nicotine was addictive in 1988, the industry responded by forming “Associates for Research in the Science of Enjoyment” (c.1988–1999), whose members toured the world promoting the health benefits of the use of legal substances, including tobacco, for stress relief and relaxation, without acknowledging the industry's role. In this paper we draw on previously secret tobacco industry documents, now available on the Internet to show how both of these programs utilized academic sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers and economists, and allowed the industry to develop and widely disseminate friendly research through credible channels. Strategies included creating favorable surveys and opinions, infusing them into the lay press and media through press releases, articles and conferences, publishing, promoting and disseminating books, commissioning and placing favorable book reviews, providing media training for book authors and organizing media tours. These programs allowed the tobacco industry to affect public and academic discourse on the social acceptability of smoking’.

The study is based on the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library at the University of California, San Francisco which contains over 8 million industry documents. I’ll scout around for an electronic version and if I find one I will post it.

I am not suggesting Scruton, Eysenck and others lied – indeed nicotine is a tranquilising chemical that may have a limited role in treating schizophrenia. That the tars in cigarettes can also kill you is also relevant information and surely the fact that such people received funding from a group whose views they supported is relevant to the evaluation of their views.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Howard’s defeat

Four Corners tonight began by describing election evening at Kirribilli House in 2007. After 11.5 years as PM a stoic John Howard on election night: ‘I am dead meat’ he said as watched the disastrous electoral returns on TV. Then off to the Wentworth Hotel to give a gracious speech that accepted defeat. Since then Howard has maintained a dignified - and appropriate - silence.

Was Howard’s leadership responsible for this defeat? Should Costello have replaced him? This is not a complex issue since Costello never had the numbers. The ‘1.5 terms’ issue and the Ian McLachlin affair - with the promised written transfer of power to Costello originating in 1994 - was irrelevant regardless of the unofficial agreement.

Yes Howard had immense power and status in the Liberal Party. It is difficult to discard a successful politician in favour of one who is less likely to win power. This is true at both the Party and electoral level. Costello did not have the numbers and hence, early on, could not challenge.

Once there was agreement to get rid of Howard within the Party – after the APEC Meeting - it was too late even were a change to be seen as more effective. Change at this stage was doubly impossible. Howard would therefore have to stay for the 2007 election.

Now the Liberals have publicly expressed their regrets without bitterness - even from Costello. There was none of the angst forecast by Miss Kim at Larvatus Prodeo. The Liberal Party has more class than this bunch would ever come close to appreciating.

For the Liberal Party it is now important to be an effective opposition and to offer an alternative to Labor’s populist rabble. Of immediate concern: The Liberals should not be bullied into supporting foolish changes to the WorkChoices legislation that will reduce the flexibility of labour markets. Longer term they should offer the possibility of careful leadership free from puerile ideology and symbolic gestures.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

More on sexual frustration & the supply of religious fanatics

I posted some time back about sexual frustration under Islam as a source of inspiration for terrorism. Gary Becker has argued that sexually-frustrated nobodies whose lives are going nowhere are a primary source of terrorist supply.

In poor Islamic societies – this NYT report documents the situation in Egypt - youth are turning to religious devotion as their possibilities for a decent career and marriage disappear. A youthful bulge in the population pyramid is causing an amplified religious bulge as frustrated youth drag their parents and governments with them toward fanaticism as a response to their hopeless economic situations and consequent low marriage prospects.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

My criminal past

I have just received a copy of part of the transcript of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey 1674-1834 which contains the earliest record I have of a member of my family on my mother’s side, a Richard Vickers. My great, great, grandfather Richard (I'll call him Richard1) was convicted, at age 18, for theft at the Old Bailey on 28th November 1833 and transported to Australia for 7 years.

Richard 1 was convicted of stealing, from a ‘beer-house’, a table cloth, 3 pillow cases, 3 towels, 4 aprons and 1 pinafore with total value 11 shillings.

After his nefarious crime he was apparently spotted by the 'beer house' owner as he ran off apparently dropping the goods. He was then captured by a 'baker' and arrested by a Constable Burton. His defence? He claimed he was innocent of the crime and had gone to the public house with a colleague to play skittles. While he went to have a pee his companion had stolen the goods and told him to run off lest he too be arrested. As they ran off his colleague dumped the goods and poor Richard was, he claimed, wrongly arrested. On the basis of this plausible story an obviously unjust conviction!

Richard1 was transported to Australia in a square rigged ship, The Surrey, in 1834. In Australia he was ‘assigned’ to a George Rankin in Bathurst NSW. He married another convict woman Mary W. in 1846 who was guilty of ‘man robbery’ (pick pocketing?). Mary received her 'ticket-of-leave' in 1842. They had 5 children (Catherine, Thomas, Sarah, Richard2 and John). The children eventually scattered around the eastern states of Australia with a concentration in northern NSW.

Richard2, who was born in 1847, married Elizabeth in 1880 (who died in childbirth) and then Jane (‘Nan’) in 1891.

During his life Richard 2 became a stock and station agent, a racehorse-owner (his horses won three events at the Uralla Jockey Club in 1877!) and most of all a wealthy grazier in Uralla NSW establishing a large property in 1879 and building a beautiful homestead there, Goldsworth, in 1908. Richard2 died in 1911. He had 8 children (Richard3, Reginald, Rupert, Leslie, Myee, Sylvia, Victor and Adrian) of whom his Richard3 married Verlie C in 1917.

The union beween Richard3 and Verlie produced 6 children (Shirley, Joyce, Alison, Richard, Stuart and Brian). Alison was my mother – I remember Richard3, Rupert, Leslie, Myee, Victor and Adrian all of whom are now decreased.

Myee, my great aunt, married Archie Baker in 1922 and honeymooned in the United States. They had three children (George, Robert and Jane) and established one of the great properties on the Gwydir River area, Laura. I stayed at Laura as a kid and liked Myee a lot.

My mother is alive (aged 90) and I have one uncle alive on my mother’s side Brian, aged 83 who I see quite a bit. I occasionally see Jane Baker.

I have an intermittent interest in genealogy and have done some work tracking my father’s side of the family. These were a much more dour Irish lot and there were no convicts on that side!

The current documents fill in some interesting gaps on my mother’s side of the family. Unfortunately the records in this respect seem to stop at the date of Richard1’s birth in 1814. I am happy to fill in a few gaps and will now look harder at those that remain.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Iraq: No time to cut & run

The allies are beginning to turn the tide in Iraq – Al Qaeda is being defeated - and the time to accelerate the withdrawal of allied troops has not come. Writing of the US commitment The Wall Street Journal notes:

The Army and Marines in Iraq have adapted from their earlier troubles to a counterinsurgency strategy that is working. General Petraeus should be given as long as he needs.

What is certain is that next January U.S. forces will still be deployed in Iraq in large numbers. Securing the conditions by which they can drive out al Qaeda and tame the Shiite militias, deter Syria and Iran, and guarantee Iraq's integrity and freedom would be a worthy legacy for this Administration, and a useful inheritance for the next.
The cut-and-run policy of the Australian Labor Party in Iraq – combat troops will be withdrawn by mid-2008 – damages the long-term prospects of an allied policy to defeat terrorism in Iraq and involves turning our back on the welfare of the Iraqi people. The numerical impact of the withdrawal is small but the propaganda impact is significant.

Of course the ALP bears partial responsibility for any terrorist carnage in Iraq that is consequent of an excessively hasty withdrawal.

Australia cannot easily influence the foolish policies of Obama and Clinton in the US to withdraw troops, just as the surge is beginning to work, but the Australian promise to withdraw troops by mid-2008 is one Kevin Rudd should not keep.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Apology again

My post yesterday made two types of non-new claims about the apology to ‘all aboriginals’. My basic claim was that the only positive effect of the apology was to increase the likelihood of compensations. The negative effects of the apology are to provide white Australians with the false belief that something has been achieved and to reinforce a view of aboriginal society as a group of ‘victims’.

I cited Noel Pearson’s remarks in the comments thread following the post but one section deserves to be quoted in full – indeed the whole of the Pearson article is excellent:

'But who will be able to move on after tomorrow's apology? Most white Australians will be able to move on (with the warm inner glow that will come from having said sorry), but I doubt indigenous Australians will. Those people stolen from their families who feel entitled to compensation will never be able to move on.

Too many will be condemned to harbour a sense of injustice for the rest of their lives. Far from moving on, these people - whose lives have been much consumed by this issue - will die with a sense of unresolved justice.

One of my misgivings about the apology has been my belief that nothing good will come from viewing ourselves, and making our case on the basis of our status, as victims.

We have been - and the people who lost their families certainly were - victimised in history, but we must stop the politics of victimhood. We lose power when we adopt this psychology. Whatever moral power we might gain over white Australia from presenting ourselves as victims, we lose in ourselves.

My worry is this apology will sanction a view of history that cements a detrimental psychology of victimhood, rather than a stronger one of defiance, survival and agency.

Then there is the historical angle on the apology. The 1997 report by Ronald Wilson and Mick Dodson is not a rigorous history of the removal of Aboriginal children and the breaking up of families. It is a report advocating justice. But it does not represent a defensible history. And, given its shortcomings as a work of history, the report was open to the conservative critique that followed. Indigenous activists' decision to adopt historian Peter Read's nomenclature, the Stolen Generations, inspired Quadrant magazine's riposte: the rescued generations.

The truth is the removal of Aboriginal children and the breaking up of Aboriginal families is a history of complexity and great variety. People were stolen, people were rescued; people were brought in chains, people were brought by their parents; mixed-blood children were in danger from their tribal stepfathers, while others were loved and treated as their own; people were in danger from whites, and people were protected by whites. The motivations and actions of those whites involved in this history - governments and missions - ranged from cruel to caring, malign to loving, well-intentioned to evil.

The 19-year-old Bavarian missionary who came to the year-old Lutheran mission at Cape Bedford in Cape York Peninsula in 1887, and who would spend more than 50 years of his life underwriting the future of the Guugu Yimithirr people, cannot but be a hero to me and to my people. We owe an unrepayable debt to Georg Heinrich Schwartz and the white people who supported my grandparents and others to rebuild their lives after they arrived at the mission as young children in 1910. My grandfather Ngulunhthul came in from the local bush to the Aboriginal reserve that was created to facilitate the mission. My great-grandfather, Arrimi, would remain in the bush in the Cooktown district, constantly evading police attempts to incarcerate him at Palm Island but remaining in contact with his son and later his grandson, my father. My grandmother was torn away from her family near Chillagoe, to the west of Cairns, and she would lose her language and culture in favour of the local Guugu Yimithirr language and culture of her new home. Indeed it was the creation of reserves and the establishment of missions that enabled Aboriginal cultures and languages to survive throughout Cape York Peninsula’.

This cautious, balanced response is a different picture from the exaggeration and hypocrisy pushed by the those promoting the apology. The reality of aboriginal affairs is complex and not analyzable using simple guilt-based slogans.

Brendon Nelson made a more realistic speech than did Kevin Rudd and was booed around the country (though not apparently in Parliament) by the Labor Party rabble and the aboriginal denialists. In many respects Nelson’s statement, while imperfect reflects much the same view as Pearson.

It recognises the complexity of our tough historical roots as a nation. The brutality and the achievements and the specific costs to aboriginals that were associated with the emergence of Australia as a modern nation. It recognised that aboriginal children were removed from their parents for various reasons – often bad. It recognises the sadnesses to children and parents. It makes the obvious point that we are not responsible for these injustices at all and that aboriginal problems have complex causes.

‘Alcohol, welfare without responsibilities, isolation from the economic mainstream, corrupt management of resources, nepotism, political buck-passing between governments with divided responsibilities, lack of home ownership, under-policing and tolerance by authorities of neglect and abuse of children that violates all we stand for, all combine to still see too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living lives of existential aimlessness’.
Kevin Rudd’s win for the Labor Party at the 2007 election marks a return to glibness and hypocrisy in Australian politics. Australia is the worse for that.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Thai vignette

Twenty years ago when I was on the faculty of Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand I often played 9 holes of golf late in the afternoon at the Institute’s golf course. My caddy was either a very attractive young Thai woman or her lucky husband. I always felt a twinge of disappointment when I got the husband although he did have a great sense of humour and a very deadpan way of summarising my golfing prowess. When my aspirations exceeded my ability, so I might try to hit over a distant water hazard, he would scornfully suggest ‘Tok naam’ – ‘It will fall in the water’. He was generally – though not always - right.

Sadly, a decade or so after leaving AIT, a friend of mine in Bangkok told me that the husband had been shot dead in a dispute near the AIT campus. I didn’t hear what had happened to his caddy wife.

As I left the AIT hotel last Sunday an attractive, middle-aged woman met me at the elevator and, with a beautiful smile, said ‘Dr Harry jum dai mai ka?’ - ‘do you remember me?’ I had to look twice but, yes, it was the caddy. I hadn’t seen her for 20 years so you might say she left an indelible impression. I said to her ‘Khun yang suay yuu’ – ‘you are still beautiful’ – this was truth not flattery and she accepted the compliment with unembarrassed thanks and a still broader smile.

She told me – without any apparent hint of regret or sadness - that her husband’s death had left her with two young children to raise but that the AIT President had secured her a job working in the AIT convention centre after the campus golf course had stopped operating.

I gave her the money I had that exceeded my needed taxi fare to the airport and she helped me with bags to the hotel checkout amiably chatting about her work as a caddy, her good luck in securing a job, my visit to Thailand and the probability I might return. Her cheerfulness and smiles – and perhaps a certain amount of vanity that she remembered me - made my day.

Yes, the beautiful people of Thailand. It is true, they are.


Tomorrow Rudd will apologise on behalf of all past governments of Australia to all aboriginals for what were by-in-large well-intentioned interventions carried out by people who are now all dead. This is justified by arguing that current citizens are not being blamed. But it is just not clear to me how anyone can offer an apology for the actions of past actors without illogically, but implicitly, accepting some complicity in the actions that gave rise to the regret. This is particularly evident from the fact that those promoting this cause seek compensations from currently living people.

Not that I necessarily oppose significant wealth transfers but I would prefer them to occur to all disadvantaged Australians.

The problems of child and spousal abuse that are so prevalent today are long-standing issues in aboriginal societies – they were not only issues forced on aboriginals by so-called ‘white racism’. This latter view is leftwing romanticism based on a culture that values guilt over the unvarnished truth.

Aboriginal problems are partly due to a historical racism but they also stem from black neglect and foolish social practises and from the paternalistic view - perpetuated by the apology action - that aboriginals are ‘victims’ whose problems stem entirely from white racism. Australia has done good and bad things to its aboriginal populations but intent was seldom malicious and to require an apology lacks sense other than as a means to prise monetary rewards from non-aboriginal Australia.

I agree with Andrew Bolt the apology will resolve nothing other than to create the potential for a compensation claim. It is purely symbolic action that will not help aboriginal Australians other than by transferring weath. If it fosters the illusion that it has achieved something other than this it will cause harm by deflecting attention from substantive programs. If it further fosters the ‘victims’ view of aboriginal people it will cause further harm.

Aboriginals need to become a part of Australian society with the duties and responsibilities of other citizens. We need aboriginal lawyers, politicians, professors, investors and engineers. We do not need inaccurate and condescending apologies.

I was told today that the university I work for 'fully supports' this apology and was urged to watch the telecast of Rudd’s speech. I can’t recall being asked whether I gave my assent to this unanimous verdict or even whether universities should have official attitudes on such issues. Of course I won’t be watching TV tomorrow.

In the local blogosphere James Farrell attempts to force support for this suspect apology by labelling those who opposes it as rednecks and Hansonites. Larvatus Prodeo has two of the worst posts I have ever seen from this infantile cheer squad for glib romanticism – Robin Hood in Tights hasn’t read Windschuttle – but he is satisfied from what ‘he has heard’ that he is wrong and is happy to dismiss the work as ‘crap’ and an ‘absolute disgrace’. Whatever happened to truth? This is blogging at its most irresponsible worst.

But wearily I expect the apology charade will be used as a litmus test for moral decency and as an index of respect for aboriginal people. Anyone who opposes it will be portrayed as a moral degenerate and seen as a wicked oppressor of aborigines. Watch the nonsense unfold.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Smoking a major global killer

Most people have an approximate understanding of the dimensions of health problems associated with cigarette smoking. But mortality statistics make the issue clearly. It is a major killer generally and by far the major preventable cause of death in the world today with 100 million killed in the twentieth century and perhaps 1 billion to die over the next 100 years. Most of the deaths to occur will do so in China and India. In these numerical terms smoking is a much more significant cause of death than war.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control meetings occur next week and I will monitor this event. A new report on global tobacco policies has already been released which shows the overall incidence of tough anti-smoking policies globally. The MPOWER policy package proposed includes:
  • Monitor tobacco use and prevention policies
  • Protect people from tobacco smoke
  • Offer help to quit tobacco use
  • Warn about the dangers of tobacco
  • Enforce bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship
  • Raise taxes on tobacco.
Key findings in the report include:
  • Only 5% of the global population is protected by comprehensive national smoke-free legislation and 40% of countries still allow smoking in hospitals and schools.
  • Only 5% of the world’s population lives in countries with comprehensive national bans on tobacco advertising and promotion.
  • Just 15 countries, representing 6% of the global population, mandate pictorial warnings on tobacco packaging.
  • Services to treat tobacco dependence are fully available in only nine countries, covering 5% of the world’s people.
  • Tobacco tax revenues are more than 4000X greater than spending on tobacco control in middle-income countries and more than 9000X greater in lower-income countries.
  • High- income countries collect about 340X more money in tobacco taxes than they spend on tobacco control.

My own view is that the most interesting aspects of the smoking catastrophe are about to unfold in developing countries and that this is where effort for control has the biggest potential payoffs.

BTW this is an interesting article from 2007 that I omitted to cite on industry concentration in global tobacco markets. The tobacco industry is under sustained global regulatory attack but that makes entry into the industry difficult and means that opportunities exist for market concentration to create good profits. The big prize for such global firms is, again, the Chinese tobacco market is opened up to international competition a market of 350 million is delivered.
Update: This NYT editorial sets out the policy issues confronting LDC's in clear terms.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Development with environmental destruction

One of the interesting things about revisiting a place you did know very well is that the developmental changes stand out clearly. I have not visited my former home in Thailand for just over 10 years and the changes are massive throughout the Bangkok area. Evidence of strong economic growth is everywhere. Rice paddies and forests have become shopping centres, shop-houses, homes and restaurants. The flow of traffic is now jamming roads 50 kilometres from the ‘centre’ of Bangkok.

The dark side of economic development in Thailand is the massive associated environmental destruction. Every residual fragment of nature in the country seems to be under attack both from rapacious developers and from poor people just trying to get by encroaching onto every inch of non-private land. I cannot help thinking that future generations of Thais will regret what is currently happening to their country. The political leaderships seem myopic and demagogic.

It is not all bad – there is evidence of enhanced environmental consciousness – but there just isn’t much of the natural environment left. The few remaining fragments of nature are subject to constant encroachment and to perverse treatment which turns native vegetation into garden with many introduced species.

I wandered around a wetland at Asian Institute of Technology today and did see the following 40 identified bird species: Little grebe; Chinese pond heron; Javan pond heron; Little egret; Great egret; Little cormorant; Great egret; Asian openbill; White breasted waterhen; Red wattled lapwing; Common kingfisher; White-throated kingfisher; Rock pigeon; Red turtle dove; Spotted dove; Ashy wood-swallow; Zebra dove; Lesser coucal; Greater coucal; Indian roller; Green bee-eater; Hoopoe; Common flameback; Barn swallow; Small mininvet; Brown-throated sunbird; Lineated barbet; Asian palm swift; Red-throated pipit; White wagtail; Black drongo; Oriental magpie robin; Artic warbler; Great reed warbler; Plain prinya; Zitting cisticola; Common tailorbird; Pied fantail; White-vented myna; Common myna plus at least another thirty or so that I could not identify.

Not a bad haul. But half the wetland has been wiped out in 10 years via encroachment and conversion of pristine wetland into rubbish dumps. It is my former environmental playground disappearing. Am I being selfish to say I feel regret?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Sending the right carbon signals

Earlier this year I listened to a teleconferenced talk on climate change by Professor David Suzuki. David has been a regular visitor to Australia over the years so I wondered why he teleconferenced. He explained that he was concerned about the carbon emissions associated with his travel. I applauded his lack of hypocrisy and thought vaguely about my own repeated sins in this regard.

After flying Qantas to attend the Urban Energy and Carbon Modeling Workshop in Bangkok (organized by the Global Carbon Project).I was pleased to see that the Workshop organizers had calculated the carbon budget of the meetings (104.14 tons of CO2) and had paid $1831-50US towards an offset via the firm Climate Friendly who would invest the proceeds in a Chinese wind energy project.

This is more than a symbolic act although it does have important symbolic effects. It may not provide a total offset – it is an investment of the value of our carbon emissions (valued at $20.17US per ton) and this should provide a comparable offset to our carbon emissions provided that the wind energy project is approximately efficient and the price on carbon emissions is about right.

By the way 98% of our carbon emissions were associated with our plane journeys. The other 2% were associated with our 4 day stay in an air conditioned hotel.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Urban carbon management in LDC cities

I am spending a few days at my former home at the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand. From 1979-1987 I taught microeconomics and even econometrics to engineering students there in a position funded by the then ADAB (now AUSAID). AIT is a postgraduate, engineering institution about 42 km north of Bangkok.

AIT was an idyllic place to work for the 8 years I lived in Thailand. It is a beautiful tropical-looking campus which used to have a golf course and still has excellent wetlands in its hinterland. It taught standard civil engineering students as well as water resource, human settlement and environmental engineering at postgraduate level.

I am attending a symposium and workshop urban energy and carbon management and modelling. With increasing urbanisation it makes sense to treat the city as a unit for studying certain climate change issues. It is a new perspective for me so I’ll try to keep an open mind. There is some scope for more active policy in concentrated urban areas, including megacities, than is possible in rural areas. I guess that the reality is though that large developing country cities have been notable for their failures to address externalities.

Of course I’ll try to get a game of golf in, eat some great Thai food and look around the AIT wetlands. Blog posting will probably be quiet for a few days on the basis of opportunity cost considerations.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Bird-watching history made in Australia

For the last decade or so I have been a pretty keen recreational bird watcher. I have a pretty good list of pelagic species but a mediocre list of non-pelagic, terrestrial species which, in fact, make up most of the bird species of Australia.

Most people see it as a nerdy activity but I think it is interesting from the viewpoint of learning about the physical environment and it is a lot of fun. I am a member of Birds Australia and the Bird Observers Club of Australia. BOCA, in particular, is an excellent pathway to learning about birds and their identification. They run outings, hold talks and are a very pleasant bunch of people.

In the main the objective of bird watching is to use your powers of observation, knowledge of habitats, bird habits and bird calls to spot as diverse a range of birds as possible. It is very much an activity involving patient, careful observation so that good eyesight and attention to detail is important. Almost all bird watchers keep a ‘life list’ of the species they have ever seen in a particular area or perhaps in the whole country or even the world.

There is a hierarchy among bird watchers concerning the length of this list – obviously the more the better.

Up to 20 years ago the greatest achievement a bird-watcher could aim for in Australia was to see 700 different bird species in their lifetime – a list of all who have done so is here. Until recently only a handful had achieved this target and then it was always after a lifetime of effort.
But the technology of bird observation has improved – the use of ocean-going vessels to track pelagic and remote island species is now common, the bird-watching definition of ‘Australia’ has become enlarged to include offshore islands (such as Ashmore Reef) that are legally part of Australia and the knowledge of Australian bird species and their taxonomy ( see Les Christidis & Walter Boles of, Systematics and Taxonomy of Australian Birds) has increased species numbers.

Information about species whereabouts has improved with several guide books now in print for Australia as a whole and numerous books available for particular areas. In addition, sighting of a rare vagrant species is now quickly spread on the web and via networks of contacts so that hundreds of bird watchers will turn up to see an unusual arrival*.

Some really dedicated bird-watchers or ‘twitchers’ have now pushed well beyond the 700 figure. Indeed, Victoria’s Mike Carter has now seen 801 or 802 ‘main’ and ‘supplementary list’ Australian bird species out of about 852 ‘main’ list bird species that are currently extant**and 34 supplementary list bird species in the new Christidis & Boles taxonomy***. It is a stunning achievement in the bird-watching community. He still has 59 or 60 possible ’main list’ birds to spot.

Congratulations Mike!

Mike seems to be one of the most knowledgeable people generally about Australian birds. I say ‘seems to be’ because he is well out of my league and I am not really in a position to make such judgements – he is a recognised authority on identification issues. He is a bird-watching fanatic but a very knowledgeable one.

Mike is clearly the winner of this ‘numbers’ event though the winner of the ‘speed’ event is undoubtedly Melbourne comic (and nice guy) who a few years ago saw over 700 species not over a lifetime but in a single year. He wrote an entertaining book – The Big Twitch - on this achievement which is fun even for non-birdos.

Myself? I’d half enjoy trying to mimic these guys but have other competing demands on my time and, quite frankly, probably don’t have the requisite skills. I still bird-watch in the local area and take binoculars everywhere I travel – I am going for a one week trip to Thailand tomorrow and they will accompany me for sure - but I certainly don’t seek to break records.

Saddam's WMD

I tire of hearing that the allies 'lied' about Saddam Hussein's WMD. Everyone believed he had them - including the UN. At the time of the US invasion I talked to ex-Foreign Affairs officials in Australia who were certain he had them.

We now know that Saddam lied about having weapons to keep Iran at Bay. We also now know he intended to reconstitute an entire WMD program as soon as he could - 'chemical, biological even nuclear'.

It was essential to get rid of this very dangerous man. The claim that sanctions were working is a deceit - Saddam was thwarting them. A military invasion was required. The counterfactual of leaving Saddam in power is horrible to contemplate.

The left, those supporting a 'cut-and-run' policy and sections of the media are 'white-anting' the US effort based on an irresponsible falsification of history and by implicitly exercising ex post wisdom in relation to fighting what is obviously a difficult, costly conflict.

The implications of a hasty US withdrawal from Iraq in terms of assigning victory to terrorist forces there and destroying US military credibility globally are serious. And despite the skepticism the US 'surge' does seem to be reducing the scale of the civil conflict inside that country.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Keating on McGuinness

Ex-Prime Minister, Paul Keating, labels Paddy McGuinness a ‘fraud and a liar’ on the eve of Paddy’s funeral. Keating has always (quote) ‘made it a rule never to speak ill of the dead; to not criticise someone who can no longer respond to the criticism’ but on this occasion has made an exception because Paddy failed to recognise all that Keating had done for Australia.

Indeed, to Keating, McGuinness had an ‘intellectually corrupt mind that was all over the shop depending on what suited his miserable purposes at the time’.

Keating’s own way with the truth in relation to McGuinness are pointed out by Kate McClymont.

There are some stinker ex-Liberal PMs – Malcolm Fraser probably the worst – but Keating takes some beating in the Labor stakes. Would he have made these sorts of remarks while McGuinness was alive? If not then why wait until now? These statements say more about Keating than McGuinness.

This is a decent obituary. Paddy's funeral is today.