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catallaxy in technical exile

Archive for March 2005

Is book reading in decline?

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According to Rafe:

Serious reading was always a minority practice and it is declining. Even before the onset of decline, there was a remarkable dearth of books apart from airport novels and coffee table books (and books connected with HSC and current uni courses) in even the most affluent households.

A Gallup Poll carried out in 1956 found that 33% of Australians were reading a book at the time of the survey. By the time of the 1997 How Australians Use Their Time the “participation rate” for book reading over a two-week period was just 11%, an apparent drop of two-thirds in 40 or so years. Perhaps the figures aren’t directly comparable – I’d still class myself as ‘reading’ a book if I intended to finish it, even if I had not touched it for a fortnight – but they nevertheless strongly suggest a major decline in reading books among pastimes.

However the Australian Social Monitor reported last March that older respondents (born before 1940) in the International Social Science Survey reported growing up with fewer books in the house than younger respondents – an average of 93 compared to an average of 143. The number of seriously bookish households, with 500 books or more, went from 14% to 25%.

All this would suggest that books have become more available but less read. But has there been, as Rafe suggests, a decline in ‘serious’ reading? The massive increase in educational levels would have created a much larger pool of people with the intellectual capacity to read a ‘serious’ book (though what qualifies as ‘serious’ could be rather controversial). Books are also more affordable, and thanks to the rise of Amazon and large bookstores ‘serious’ books are easier to find. The fact that publishers keep putting out so many ‘serious’ books suggest that there is a market for them
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March 31, 2005 at 11:29 pm

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The benefit of low tax and small government

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Comparison of Ireland and Belguim after 1985.

In 1985, the Irish economy was in a shambles. It was facing excessive budgets deficits and minimal growth. Its GNP p.c. amounted to only 65% of the Belgian level. In addition, Irish unemployment stood at 17% against 10% for Belgium. Until 1985 both countries followed similar Keynesian policies of deficit spending. In 1983 Belgian public spending even exceed­ed 50% of GNP.

Excessive spending triggered a vicious circle of continuing rises of the tax burden and public debt. The graphs above show that until 1980 Irish public spending followed the same path as that of Belgium, with similar growth performance. However, in 1985 Ireland made a u-turn. It drastically lowered the tax burden. All wasteful government spending was eliminated. In three years time public spending was reduced by no less then 20%. The result was that Ireland entered a period of explosive GNP growth, averaging 5.6% from 1985 to 2002. This is rough­ly three times the Belgian growth rate. The boom went hand in hand with the creation of new jobs, which was far in excess of that in Belgium.

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March 31, 2005 at 8:05 pm

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Not an old fogey

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The Pope has been getting a lot of ‘deadman’ jokes around the Internet lately, I notice. In today’s Herald there is a piece by George Wiegel arguing that the Pope’s staying in public view through his illness is all about sending a message to the world that one should embrace suffering just like Christ allegedly did:

Contemporary Western culture doesn’t have much truck with suffering. We avoid it if possible. We sequester it when it becomes unavoidable: how many of us will die at home?

Embracing suffering is a concept alien to us. And yet suffering embraced in obedience to God’s will is at the centre of Christianity.

The Christ, whose passion more than 1.5 billion Christians commemorate over Easter, is not portrayed in the Gospels as someone to whom suffering just happened – a prophet with the typical prophet’s run of bad luck.

The Christ of the Gospels reaches out and embraces suffering as His destiny, His vocation – and is vindicated in that self-sacrifice at Easter.

That is what John Paul II has been doing this past month: bearing witness to the truth that suffering embraced in obedience and love can be redemptive.

Now, Currency Lad may want to pinch himself to ensure he’s awake here because while I don’t necessarily agree with Weigel’s interpretation and find it a touch morbid and masochistic, I do actually find jokes about the Pope being deader than a corpse rather tasteless and furthermore, I admire the guts of the tough old bastard. None of this is to say I’ve changed my mind about the general slant of the philosophy he preaches, which, despite having its good points, is still anti-progressive in other respects. Nonetheless, this is one guy I won’t be calling an ‘old fogey’.

Here is my secular humanist interpretation of the Pope’s public battle with illness. He’s a man with a mission, his brain is still functioning as far as we all know and he thinks he hasn’t finished his work and so he’s soldiering on because no one is going to tell him to retire until he’s satisfied he’s given it his best shot. And so he should. As long as my brain is still working pretty well and I didn’t feel I’d finished my work, I’d want to go out with a bang and not a whimper. And stuff anyone who tells me I should retire just because they don’t like the way I look. Nietzsche, whose most famous quote was ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ would, I humbly speculate, also have admired this Pope, at least as a person, if not for the baggage of ideas he represents.

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March 30, 2005 at 11:00 pm

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Collins Borders on bankruptcy

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I have been a customer of Hill of Content books, up the top of Bourke St in Melbourne, since my mid-teens. It is one of the last bookstores where you can still hope to find someone behind the counter who knows about books, rather than just how to operate the cash register. So I was surprised and disappointed on an Easter visit to find its shelves very light on, and neither of the two new releases I had planned to buy in stock.

This morning in The Australian all was revealed. Somewhere in its 80 year history, Hill of Content was acquired by Collins Booksellers, though it always maintained its separate identity, probably because its new owners realised the value of brand loyalty among its big-spending customers. But now Collins is nearly broke, and the publishers won’t give it any more stock.

I can’t say I am surprised that one of the chains is in trouble. According to the ABS there is very little money to be made in bookselling, but this hasn’t stopped a considerable expansion in retail capacity. There are now two Borders stores within walking distance of where I live. I don’t buy all that much from them, but with their discounting of best-selling titles (along with similar practices from general discount stores) they must be making life very difficult for other book retailers.

I hope Hill of Content can be sold off separately and avoid being taken down with Collins. But the industry needs rationalising, and investors would be mad to prop Collins up.

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March 30, 2005 at 8:29 pm

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On anarchy and reinventing the wheel

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I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of what should be blogging time commenting on other blogs so I guess I should stitch together a post based on comments I’ve made on Sophie Masson’s post on Troppo on anarchism. Essentially my main critique of that post is that Sophie doesn’t properly differentiate between people who just want to overthrow the existing order for whatever reason (and sometimes that reason is to replace it with something far more tyrannical as is the case with Al Qaeda and retrospectively, the Afghan mujahideen) and people who think some form of ‘polyarchy’ is feasible. That’s how anarchy should be interpreted – governance without compulsion, people free to leave and form their own orders. Left anarchists believe that the only thing sustaining a regime of property rights and competition is the Capitalist State and that somehow with its withering away, peoples’ instinct to truck and barter and accumulate and dominate (and there are various ways of dominating – arguably economic domination is a lot more benign than military) will be eliminated and that somehow people will naturally want to live in the equivalent of kibbutzes, pooling resources, sharing duties and so on. Right anarchists (or anarcho-capitalists) who I believe are more consistent (though I don’t endorse their ideas) believe that absent government, property rights and trade would spontaneously evolve anyway. In economic lingo you could say anarchy is about maximising ‘exit’ options for disgruntled citizens. Under certain conditions with a competitive enough market for governments (that is, with enough choices for self-selection), people may end up coagulating on areas of governance that best represent their particular preferences. The right-anarchist vision represents this more general picture whereas the left-anarchist vision foolishly (I believe) assumes that under such conditions, people would all flock to a giant kibbutz voluntarily (if it’s not voluntary, it’s not anarchy properly defined, is it?)

Of the two right-anarchists’ or anarcho-capitalists’ visions are the more feasible but the problem I have with anarchism in general is this – there are transition costs involved in starting from scratch, whatever the flaws of our existing polity, whereas markets don’t always stay competitive – especially markets for governments like the ones that anarcho-capitalists want to promote. If they stay fragmented we may end up with a worst case scenario like the feudalism of the Middle Ages and if they consolidate we may end up with unaccountable monopoly. At best this unaccountable monopoly may gradually evolve towards something more accountable – like the liberal democratic polity we currently have. So why all the strife and resulting transition costs to at best, get back to where we currently are?

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March 30, 2005 at 3:57 pm

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AFL Roundup

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Some people may recall that I rashly threatened to do a roundup of AFL games this year to enhance the cultural depth and bredth of Catallaxy, however with the medium-term aim of recruiting some people to write about other sports I have set up a blog of my own .
With the usual teething problems, ignorance of html, etc it has not reached the point of commentary and analysis, and in view of the rather large agenda of academic issues that I want to pursue this year it may never get there.
Still, the first step…

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March 30, 2005 at 9:34 am

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Taxes and incentives

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In the SMH this morning, Peter Martin has a go at Tax Reform to Make Work Pay by Peter Saunders and Barry Maley (available on the CIS website) for claiming that tax cuts would increase the incentive to work.

As Martin points out, the effects of tax cuts depend on the worker or potential worker’s motivation. If the worker is just after a set income, tax cuts reduce the incentive to work, because the income target is reached with less effort. If the worker wants to maximise his or her income, but still values leisure time, tax cuts will increase the incentive to work, because their effective hourly rate would be higher, making the leisure alternative less attractive. But it is likely that many people aren’t clearly in either category – they may have a set income target, but are so far below is that the effective hourly rate for an extra hour of work will make a difference to their work-leisure decision.

The revealed preference studies that Martin cites find that tax cuts don’t greatly change work levels. However research on income satisfaction suggest that many people ‘s actual income is well below what they want. For example, the Australia Institute’s study of ‘over-consumption’ found that 62% of respondents agreed with the statement that ‘you cannot afford to buy everything you really need’ (presumably the figure would have been higher if the statement was ‘you cannot afford to buy everything you really want). Only in the $60,000 plus income group did less than half (46%) agree with the statement.

Most of Tax Reform to Make Work Pay is about Australians on welfare. Presumably they are below their desired income – they would not be claiming welfare if they were not. But increasing their market income often means losing some of their government income, so people end up paying EMTR (effective marginal tax rates) of 60% or more. Since the jobs people on welfare are likely to be eligible for often aren’t that interesting and don’t pay particularly well, EMTRs like that keep them out of the workforce. Why do a crap job for effectively only $6 or $7 an hour? It is hard to disentangle the causes of low paid employment rates among these groups, but high EMTRs must be an important part of the story.

Personally, I don’t think the incentives argument is that strong for the upper income groups – partly for the reasons Martin gives, partly because this is, on average, already a hard-working group. There is no particular reason to encourage them to further disrupt their ‘work-life balance’. But I still support lower taxes, because I don’t think big government is a good thing.

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March 30, 2005 at 9:27 am

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