catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Archive for July 2005

Ageing gracefully

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“At last the loyalty of his former manager gets him back in the ring, and he quasi-miraculously moves ahead as a heavyweight contender who deserves a fight with the champion, Max Baer, in 1935. I remember reading about it at the time…” (emphasis added)

This is The New Republic‘s film reviewer Stanley Kauffman on the film Cinderella Man in the 27 June issue. He must be in his nineties somewhere, and he is still week after week writing lucid reviews, sometimes with an unmatchable historical perspective. After Anthony Lane at The New Yorker he is my favourite film critic – less stylish than Lane, but with the wisdom of age.

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July 31, 2005 at 4:34 pm

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Some stirring stuff from Tech Central

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The Director of Timbro, the Swedish free enterprise think tank, talks about Corporate Social Responsibility.

It seems that Greenpeace has called for a boycott of the US edition of the latest Harry Potter book in favour of the Canadian version because the latter is printed on recycled paper. However it is essential to work out if there are genuine savings on resources. Read the rest of this entry »

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July 31, 2005 at 9:24 am

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Has the Howard government caused an anti-gay backlash?

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In an Age/SMH article about the Australia Institute’s survey on homosexuality, Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby co-convener David Scamell says that:

The Howard Government’s “family values” push has caused an anti-gay backlash. “There used to be a much more receptive attitude in the mid 1990s towards gay and lesbian rights and gay and lesbian people. We know from history that when governments are proactive on a particular social platform . . . the public seems to follow that position.”

I’m not sure that history does show that – there is a more complex relationship between law and public opinion. Governments tend to have least influence on subjects which people can easily form opinions on themselves, and there is a history of policy changes not influencing opinion (eg capital punishment, tariffs, privatisation). If anything, on homosexuality governments have followed the public. Polls in the mid-1970s (which can be found by searching the Australian Social Science Data Archive) showed clear majority support for decriminalising homosexuality, but governments did not actually decriminalise until the 1980s (or later, in Tasmania’s case). But once decriminalised, perhaps this further undermined support for using the law against homosexuals – though it is hard to tell one way or the other. The last time this question was asked, 1994 so far as I can find, only 11% of people thought that the law should be concerned with the private, consensual sexual practices of homosexual men.

This low figure highlights, as I argued earlier in the week, the need to watch the nuances in poll questions on this subject. More than half of people as of a few years ago still did not like the idea of gay sex, but fewer thought it was ‘immoral’, and fewer still think it should be ‘illegal’. Asking what people think about gay sex or the morality of being gay does not tell you what you need to know about tolerance; only questions about the actual treatment of gays can do that.

The Howard government seems to be in the political mainstream on this issue – prepared to consider removing petty irritations, but not ready to move on issues like gay marriage, which lack majority support. There is no evidence in the polls of a backlash, though there are too few questions to give a definitive answer. The Australia Institute survey came up with an ‘immoral’ view of 35%, one percentage point less than the same pollster found in 2001. Between 1993 and 1999-2000, the percentage of people thinking homosexual sex was wrong went down by 2.5%. Arguably, pushing too far ahead of public opinion would cause a backlash, rather than staying within it.

My take: The big driver in opinion on gay issues is that younger people are more positive about them than older people. The Howard government (or any government, for that matter) will make very little difference to opinion either way.

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July 30, 2005 at 4:02 pm

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Australia's most embarrassing legal academics

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If it were not for Drew Fraser’s stellar efforts, the contest for Australia’s most embarrassing legal academic would be conducted entirely within the Deakin University Law School. Its torture and tax Dean, Mirko Bagaric, has received the most publicity to date, but junior academic James McConvill has turned himself into a regular on the nation’s opinion pages.

His latest, endorsing Gareth Evans for the High Court, appeared on The Australian‘s website yesterday (it was not in the print version I bought). While not quite as bad as his previous shockers (see Mark Bahnisch for more critique), it is bad enough.

These are the key sentences leading to the idea that Gareth Evans should be appointed to the Court:

In the 1980s up to the mid-1990s, the High Court was an incredibly strong and internationally renowned institution, with a clear majority of its justices demonstrating a mix of intellectual rigour, sound judgment and compassion.

But then the foundation of our democracy changed in 1996 with the election of the Howard Government, and slowly the vitality, respectability and pure excitement of the High Court have dwindled. Since 1996, we have seen four retirements from the court, each replaced by a Howard government appointment.

The only true talent left on the court, in my view, are both Hawke-Keating government appointments — Michael McHugh and Michael Kirby (who will go down in history as the brightest mind and warmest individual to have graced the High Court bench).

With a majority of conservative appointments, our High Court faces its greatest challenge. While the High Court is unlikely to have to deal with such contentious issues as the death penalty and abortion soon, it will most certainly be asked to determine the constitutionality of a growing number of Howard government initiatives designed to centralise power in Canberra. If Howard’s power grab is endorsed by the High Court, the very core of Australia’s federal system, which has guaranteed us stable government for over a century, will be in jeopardy. That the High Court faces our nation’s cultural war comprised of a majority of conservatives should concern us all.

To defend our nation from a centralisation of conservative, self-interested might, what is needed is a real talent to join the bench in November, joining hands with Justice Kirby to restore balance and depth to the Court.

Amazingly for someone who works in a law school, McConvill seems to think that judges are like MPs, always taking the party line. The High Court has had many critics over the years, but few of them believe this. Indeed Chief Justice Mason, who presided over the Court in the time McConvill praises, was appointed by a Liberal government. At worst, High Court judges could be accused of pursuing personal political beliefs, though always constrained – albeit to varying degrees – by the text of the Constitution, the principles of legal reasoning, and which cases come before them.

McConvill assumes that if appointed Gareth Evans would vote acording to partisan politics and against the Howard IR laws. This cannot be assumed. Judicial progressives, unconstrained by the intentions of the Founding Fathers or as much constrained as followers of legalism by the text of the Constitution, have not been kind to federalism (though federalism has been on an only occasionally interrupted losing streak in the Court since the Engineers case in 1920). Indeed, Evans acquired his ‘Biggles’ nickname for his involvement, while a Minister, in a previous major anti-federalist cause, the successful bid to stop the Tasmanian government damming the Franklin river.

Ironically for McConvill’s argument, if you were betting on who might vote against further centralisation a bench of conservatives would probably be a better option than a bench of progressives. Federalism is both politically favoured by conservatives more than progressives (until Howard, anyway), and it is clearly there in the Constitution.

This guy really is a hopeless op-ed writer. Apart from his central assumption being wrong, the article has an overly long and only slightly relevant discussion of the US Supreme Court at the start, and a completely irrelevant and unprovable piece of personal flattery for Kirby – how many High Court judges of the last century and a bit can a young man have known well enough to assess their personal qualities? But as this piece on Paul Keating showed, McConvill has taste for the polish on the boots of Labor heroes.

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July 30, 2005 at 11:32 am

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Ernst Gombrich, art historian

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Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001) is probably one of the lesser known figures who joined the great exodus of talent from Europe prior to World War 2. However, in his field, he is regarded as a great student and writer on a wide range of topics connected with the making and perception of artworks.
Here are some extracts from an obituary .

Ernst Gombrich was the most famous art historian in the world. His reputation was based less on a particular approach to the subject, or the mastery of a single period, than on the breadth of his interests and his skill at making the history of art interesting to a non-specialist public.
His first major book, The Story of Art (1950), written primarily for teenagers, is still in print almost half a century after it appeared. Translated into at least 19 languages and selling over a million copies, even today it remains the most accessible, intelligent and stimulating introduction to the subject. It has also created a vast demand for Gombrich’s other work of a more specialised kind, so that his books now have pride of place in the art history section of virtually every bookshop… Read the rest of this entry »

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July 29, 2005 at 10:22 pm

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Christianity in America

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Razib at GNXP points to the results of this interesting survey of Americans’ knowledge of Christianity which are quite surprising given the religosity of the country:

Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation’s educational decline, but it probably doesn’t matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture.

This factoid evokes some personal resonances and amusements from me.

Firstly even I could name more than four of the Ten Commandments, but then I did have them drummed into me when I attended various Catholic primary and high schools in Malaysia (my parents sent me there because of their high quality – I attended La Salle primary school and St Michaels’ high school).

Secondly it’s interesting to see how far this quasi-Protestant “God helps those who help themselves” meme has travelled around the globe since I remember having this saying spouted at me by my (agnostic!) father numerous times through my childhood and developmental years. It’s probably where I derive my internalised residue of individualist secularised Protestant values . Not sure where he picked it up from since he would have attended Catholic schools too during the years of British colonialism and I’ve always wondered abouts its provenance.

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July 29, 2005 at 6:44 pm

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IR opinion #3 – Government ad campaign fails

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Superficially, the Morgan Poll on IR reform might look like good news for the government. Back in early July, ACNielsen found that 60% of voters were against the proposed changes to IR law. In late July, after the controversial taxpayer-funded propaganda campaign in favour, Morgan found 47% against. It looks like a significant improvement. However, on closer examination opinion is probably much the same over the month, and the differences are the product of the varying options given to respondents to record their views.

The options in ACNielsen were support, oppose, neither, and don’t know. In the Morgan poll, they were agree, disagree, can’t say, and haven’t heard of reforms. Because ACNielsen seems to have asked the totally ignorant (amazingly, about a fifth in each poll) to give an answer, while Morgan only asked those who had heard of the proposals for an opinion, ACNielsen’s know-nothings did what know-nothings tend to do if something is not self-evidently good, which is prudently opt for no change. At the end of the survey, when they had heard some of the issues, Morgan asked their know-nothings whether they were for or against. This added another 5%. So carried out on an equivalent basis, support at the start of the month (ACNielsen) was 21% and at the end of the month (Morgan) it was 22%. The government should ask its advertising agency for a refund.

Morgan is helping us to clarify what people do and don’t like about the package. Interestingly, cashing in annual leave is a winner: 55% agree, 39% disagree. However, unfair dismissal is a negative, with 70% against and 24% in favour (though that’s higher than support for the package as a whole). In a Galaxy Poll taken over 8-9 July, 63% of people were worried that employers would use the new laws to force workers into accepting lower pay and conditions, so this looks like a major negative too (it would be interesting to see how many think that their employer would reduce wages and conditions).

Clearly the government is going to struggle to convince people of the merits of IR reform before the event. However, I stand by my original comments on this subject – the verdict that counts on these reforms will be in hindsight, not foresight, and on results, not principles. If sackings stay low, if jobs are created, and if wages keep increasing (for whatever reason) these reforms won’t be serious negatives on election day. If things turn out the other way, it will make re-election more difficult.

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July 29, 2005 at 4:30 pm

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