catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Archive for August 2004

Help get a blogger into the Senate!

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As regular readers may be aware, my blog host c8to aka Tom Vogelgesang is planning to run for the Senate in NSW in the coming federal elections as a Libertarian Independent. To do so, he needs to collect 50 signatures in two weeks.

Here’s a chance for you to pitch in and have a meal, a chat, a drink or some combination thereof with a bunch of regular participants in the libertarian-leaning end of the blogosphere. Just drop by the North Indian Flavour Indian diner at 129 Oxford St, Darlinghurst, which will be the site of c8to’s campaign launch dinner and inaugural campaign deliberations from around 7:30 pm and after this Saturday. If you start from No 1 Oxford St (the city end) and keep walking straight down, you won’t miss it – it’s between another Indian diner and Oxford Travel and the closest intersection is the one between Oxford and Crown.
Anyone’s welcome. even those with no wish to sign c8to’s nomination (though I hope you will consider launching this idealistic young lad’s political career). Of course this means all bloggers and blog readers are invited.

While this place may not have the palatial atmosphere of, say, Malcolm Turnbull’s campaign launch, we’ve chosen it because the food is unpretentious and tasty and it’ll be easy for any late-comer to just drop in off the street and join in. John Humphreys, Tom and myself should be there for an hour or more for a meal and talk and ready to collect signatures of any visitor. After that we’ll probably be moving on to my place (just a few minutes’ walk away) for drinks – again it’s an open invitation for anyone willing to brave an inebriated late-night bull session.

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Written by Admin

August 31, 2004 at 12:29 pm

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In defence of utilitarianism

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Over at John Quiggin’s blog, Brian Bahnisch has written a guest post that essentially blames John Howard’s handling of the Tampa issue and the refugee detention policy on utilitarianism. In fact he seems to go further than that, proposing what I think is a false dichotomy between utilitarianism and what he regards as one’s obligations towards ‘strangers in trouble’ i.e. refugees. As I’ve argued in the comments box, I think he’s barking up the wrong tree. Here I reproduce the response I wrote in the comments box and supplement these comments a little.

Firstly, assuming the question is whether the handling of the Tampa and detention centres was needlessly cruel, not whether Australia should have open borders, then one could still come to the conclusion that essentially yes it was, even on a national welfare basis using a utilitarian approach. I don’t think utilitarianism dictates that governments be given the right to be needlessly cruel to achieve ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ or however you might want to formulate utilitarianism simply because we have a rational self-interest in constraining the powers of the government to do needlessly cruel things because of the risk that these powers can be overreached and turned against us. Thus I think the fevered imaginations of philosophy students formulating horrid paradoxes of moral choice can be laid to rest.

More importantly once one becomes a utilitarian in thinking then most decisions don’t fall into some Manichean either-or set – there is a whole continuum of different approaches one can take to various social problems and thinking within a utilitarian framework makes one more aware of them. For instance, take John Quiggin’s alternative of bail as a replacement for the current detention system. I don’t want to use this particular post as a forum for reviving debate on how our refugee system should be designed but am offering this as just an example of how a utilitarian approach doesn’t necessarily lead to some pre-determined ‘needlessly cruel’ outcome like Brian Bahnisch seems to suggest.
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Written by Admin

August 30, 2004 at 10:07 pm

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Do private school students do worse at university?

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It is often said that private school students, mollycoddled and spoon-fed through Year 12, struggle at university, while students from government schools, used at they perhaps are to poor teaching and weak support, do better. Unfortunately only a handful of studies look into this, but they tell a story that is consistent in its conclusions, though varying in the detail.

A study of Monash economics students (pdf) in the late 1990s found that at least at the Clayton campus average first year marks of government school students were 2-8 points higher than private school students with the same Year 12 scores, depending on subject.

A study of University of Western Australia first-year students also found government school students did better, for the same Year 12 result. This study has an interesting graph showing that while the average first-year mark of government-school educated students is better at all levels of Year 12 achievement, the gap is very small for the top-achieving students (95+) and widens as Year 12 performance declines.

This would seem to have some implications for enrolment policy. Private school students with Year 12 ranks below the mid-80s on average fail first year, while for graduates of government schools that occurs below the high-70s. Of course we would want to replicate this result over a few years and check for faculty differences etc, but for universities trying to allocate scarce places efficiently the pass-fail divide is significant.

One final point. These results don’t mean that private school students do worse overall, only for a given Year 12 result. In the UWA study private school students received nearly 6 more points than government school students in Year 12. So it is possible that while their Year 12 results overstate their relative capacity to achieve at university, private schools nevertheless leave them with some value-added for university study.

Written by Admin

August 30, 2004 at 5:35 pm

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Dead sons

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Speaking at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival this morning about her fine book, Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief, and the Law, Helen Garner remarked that she didn’t like hearing Joe’s parents, Nino and Maria, interviewed. It wasn’t that she did not like the Cinques, quite the contrary, what she did not like was the way that their grief and rage at Joe’s murder by his girlfriend Anu Singh, and the law’s subsequent failure to adequately punish those directly and indirectly involved, brought out the worst in them, gave audiences the wrong idea of what kind of people they were.

In the book itself, Garner, while relating an incident in which Maria says she hates Indians now though she knows that’s wrong, says:

What she was expressing was not coarse racial hatred. She was telling two strangers, with a blistering candour, that her suffering had … estranged her from her own beliefs, her intelligence, her generosity, her decency – from her own best self.

For similar reasons, I doubt Brian Deegan’s Remembering Josh: Bali, A Father’s Story brings out the best in him. The book is less remembering Josh, killed in the Sari Club on 12 October 2002 aged 22, than a rant against Howard, Bush, Downer etc. Not that Deegan wasn’t a Howard hater before Josh was murdered:

Time and time again we [Brian, Josh, and brother Nick] had talked of my disenchantment with the leadership of this country and my fears as to the direction we were heading.
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Written by Admin

August 29, 2004 at 10:12 pm

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Experts and intellectual trespassing

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Richard Posner has some typically sensible thoughts on the recent Copenhagen conference and the role of expertise:

My posting on the Copenhagen conference, and its downgrading of global warming, provoked a neat hostile comment: you (Posner) criticize these economists for opining outside their fields, but isn’t that what you do all the time? Well, yes, but here’s my defense: you don’t have to be an expert in a field to criticize the experts, provided you know enough about the field to understand what the experts are saying and writing, to be able to spot internal contradictions and other logical lapses, sources of bias, arguments obviously not based on knowledge, carelessness in the use of evidence, lack of common sense, and mistaken predictions. These are the analytical tools that judges, who in our system are generalists rather than specialists, bring to the task of adjudicating cases in specialized fields of law.

I don’t have to be a climate scientist to realize that assembling a group of economists none of whom is a specialist in the science, politics, or economics of global warming, and asking them to reach a consensus on where to rank global warming among the world’s worst ills without conducting any research of their own, but instead by discussing a position paper commissioned from another economist by the organizer of the conference, is not a rational procedure.

Written by Admin

August 29, 2004 at 6:57 pm

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The end of the GOP?

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Interesting quote from this NY Times article:

Should Bush lose, it will be like a pack of wolves that suddenly turns on itself. The civil war over the future of the party will be ruthless and bloody. The foreign-policy realists will battle the democracy-promoting Reaganites. The immigrant-bashing nativists will battle the free marketeers. The tax-cutting growth wing will battle the fiscally prudent deficit hawks. The social conservatives will war with the social moderates, the biotech skeptics with the biotech enthusiasts, the K Street corporatists with the tariff-loving populists, the civil libertarians with the security-minded Ashcroftians. In short, the Republican Party is unstable.

Any chance this might lead to the emergence of an electorally viable moderate libertarian party that isn’t dominated by the tin foil hat and black helicopter brigade?

Written by Admin

August 29, 2004 at 6:52 pm

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Do experts influence public opinion?

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My post on whether writers’ opinions on Gulf Wars 1 & 2 were worth reading got me into trouble over at Tim Dunlop’s blog. This led to a bit of discussion about the role of experts in public debate. We tend to assume that experts influence public opinion, but how much evidence is there that this is the case?

It is the case that university lecturers, a common source of expert opinion, rate quite highly in polls on ethics and honesty – certainly a lot higher than other possible influences on opinion such as politicians and journalists. Some American research reported in Page and Shapiro’s The Rational Public found that an expert appearing on TV could shift opinion by 3 percentage points.

Yet it is not hard to find examples in which despite expert consenus or near-consensus a recalcitrant public still thinks otherwise:

* the overwhelming majority of constitutional experts and the lead republicans oppose direct election of a head of state, but the public still want one;
* 92% of economists according to one 1992 Australian survey thought tariffs reduced welfare, but the public remains protectionist – though they were more inclined to support the US-Australia FTA, which many trade experts opposed;
* the death penalty retains majority public support, despite decades of opposition to it from criminologists, lawyers, and the political and intellectual elites;
* academic welfare experts oppose mutual obligation for welfare recipients, while the public backs it;
* virtually all refugee experts are refugee advocates, yet the public strongly supported the Howard government’s stance.
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Written by Admin

August 27, 2004 at 7:24 pm

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