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catallaxy in technical exile

Archive for October 2005

Any buyers?

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Via John Quiggin I found this applet which calculates the value of your blog using the same methodology employed by AOL in its purchase of Weblogs Inc.


My blog is worth $60,970.32.
How much is your blog worth?

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October 31, 2005 at 8:21 pm

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Where were you on November 11, 1975?

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I was in Grade 4 at school in Melbourne. This puts me rather further from the action in Canberra than some of the contributors to The Dismissal: Where were you on November 11, 1975?. But as it turns out, there was a common reaction around the country and on both sides of politics: surprise and disbelief. I knew what had happened by the time classes finished for the day; I can’t remember if our teacher, Mrs Warble, told the whole class or just me. She knew I was interested in politics. Mum worked at the school back then, and after we were let out for the day I went and told her the big news. She thought I must have it wrong; I’d started reading The Age each day when I was eight, and she’d probably heard many naive and innacurate reports of news events, of which this would have been the latest and largest. But of course I was right.

Except for my former boss David Kemp, then on Malcolm Fraser’s staff, his chief of staff Dale Budd, and former private secretary to Sir John Kerr, David Smith, most contributors to this book, like my Mum, had trouble believing what had happened. Most of them – unlike me – were appalled. It wasn’t until much later, probably not before I went to university and studied Australian politics and constitutional law, that I entertained doubts about the constitutional propriety of what had happened. As a schoolboy, I was nearly as ignorant of politics as most Australians are normally, and my reasoning like theirs on the December 13 election that followed was quite simple – Gough Whitlam was a terrible Prime Minister, and anything that got rid of him was a good thing.

I’ve warmed to Gough since. While he was a bad Prime Minister, he has been an excellent ex-Prime Minister. I’ve enjoyed his witticisms and almost endearing vanity without worrying about the economy crumbling while he polishes his bon mots. On the 10th anniversary of, to Labor partisans, the unfairest unfair dismissal of all time, I managed to persuade a Fabian friend to get me a ticket to a dinner at the National Gallery in Melbourne, to be addressed by the great man himself. Some of the other guests, like my Mum a decade before, thought I must have been confused. But no, I had it right in 1975 and 1985 – no to Gough as PM, yes to Gough as after dinner speaker.

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October 31, 2005 at 7:31 pm

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Labor and political hacks

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One thing you notice working in Parliament House, rather than just watching politics via the media, is that our elected representatives are more ‘representative’ of the general population than you’d think from just looking at and listening to the most prominent politicians, who are generally drawn from the professional and managerial classes. Once you start working with the backbench you hear the accents, language and attitudes of ‘ordinary Australians’.

Or at least you do if you work for the Coalition, as I did. The Sunday Age reports this morning on the occupational backgrounds of members of the 41st parliament. It forcefully demonstrates one of Mark Latham’s major themes, that the ALP has been taken over by political hacks. 52 of the 88 members of the Labor caucus had political occupations before becoming MPs, compared to just 15 of the 126 Coalition parliamentarians. That’s 59% compared to 12%.

It’s tempting to conclude that this helps explain why the Coalition’s political antennae seem better than Labor’s, that Coalition MPs more naturally think like voters think, and act accordingly. But unless this occupational shift has happened very recently (and I doubt that – in Latham’s diaries he is complaining about the rise of the ‘machine men’ in 1994) an article ($16, sorry) by Katharine Betts in People and Place last year has statistics that undermine this hypothesis. Using questions on a range of social and economic issues in the Australian Election Survey she does indeed show that there are much wider gaps between the views of Labor politicians and the general public than between Coalition politicians and the general public. But this was true of every election she analyses between 1987 and 2001, of which Labor won three and the Coalition two (there was no candidate survey with the 1998 election, so the actual tally is likely to be three each). A truly professional political class should be able to use market research to package itself in ways that appeal to the general population, in the same way that corporate elites whose lives barely overlap with those of their customers nevertheless are able to successfully devise products and services ‘ordinary Australians’ want to buy.

The real problem, which Latham’s book highlights, is that rather than being a truly professional political operation modern Labor operates on a patronage system. An appendix to Latham’s book lists a bewildering array of factions and sub-factions, identifying ten sub-factions within the Right alone. Some of these are union linked, letting mediocre union hacks find their way into Parliament. There is endless squabbling and dealing over front bench positions, with talent no guarantee of a spot. In government, the authority of the leader can impose some discipline, and public service policy advice reduces the party’s role in policy formation, but in Opposition things go all over the place. It’s fanciful to think (as some Labor pessimists and Liberal optimists do) that they can’t win despite all this. But pre-selections based on connections rather than skills certainly don’t make things any easier.

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October 30, 2005 at 8:52 am

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The personal and the political

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The Latham Diaries are much better than I thought they would be. It’s true that he’s guilty of most of the things he accuses, sometimes in a tone of outrage, other people of doing – of invading privacy, of betraying trust, of sabotaging the Labor cause. Hypocrites, however, can be wrong in their actions but right in their analysis, and Latham makes a case that is convincing in its direction if not some of its detail that the ALP is seriously dysfunctional. He is also funny, and much can be forgiven people who make us laugh.

One good thing about political memoirs – or at least memoirs that aren’t just about the public life – is that we can see more clearly how personal experiences shape and inform political views. When the book first came out I, on the basis of the introduction alone, took a swipe at the Clive Hamiltonesque themes that were emerging. Here’s more:

The treadmill of work and the endless accumulation of material goods have not necessarily made people happier. In many cases, they have denied them the time and pleasures of family life, replacing strong and loving relationships with feelings of stress and alienation.

Reading the dairies in full, it is clear where this was coming from. Especially after the ‘magnificent, effervescent’ Oliver Latham was born in 2000, separation from family becomes a major theme, as emotionally painful as the later pancreatitis was physically painful. Personal as much as political factors were clearly behind his decision to quit politics in early 2005. He really did leave to spend more time with his family, the usual euphemism used when failed or disgraced politicians are forced to retire.

As veteran Catallaxy readers may remember, I have an interest in how the personal affects the political. A 2003 Good Weekend profile of Clive Hamilton reveals how a psychological crisis in the late 1980s led him down the Australia Institute path. Another Good Weekend profile, this time of Iraq war whistleblower Andrew Wilkie, revealed a marriage breakdown before the events that led him from being a spook to being a Green.

The trouble with these powerful personal experiences, from a policy perspective, is that those who experience them tend to over-extrapolate from their own situation, and reach conclusions that aren’t necessarily sustained by the evidence. While some people – and probably most politicians – work hours that are very family unfriendly, in general it is not the ‘treadmill of work’ that threatens people’s relationships. It is the absence of work.

Of all places, the evidence for this is clearest in an Australia Institute publication from earlier this year, Michael Flood’s Mapping Loneliness in Australia (pdf, summary only). There is an inverse relationship between the theoretical time for connection with others and actual perceived social support (an index including having lots of friends, people to confide in and get help from, not feeling lonely, and various other factors). The unemployed have the least social support, and those who work long hours have the most. And as this study (pdf) demonstrates there is not much difference in satisfaction with family relationships and mental health between those who work long hours and those who do not. As Bob Birrell has shown, it is low-skilled men who are our big social problem, missing out on both jobs and relationships, the two crucial elements of male well-being. Latham is at his policy best when he is talking about these people, rather than about the frustrations of middle-class parenting.

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October 29, 2005 at 8:43 pm

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Pericles funeral oration

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With the death of the 2000th US soldier in Iraq, it may be of interest to revisit the great funeral speech of Pericles in ancient Greece, celebrating the heroes who fell in defence of the city.

Possibly the most relevant parts for the moment are his words to the relatives of the bereaved but you will have to look into the link to find them because these extracts are my favorite parts of the oration.

Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition.

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October 29, 2005 at 9:58 am

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Vanity book buying

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While I am not convinced that Penguin Books is a vanity publisher, I have no doubt that they cater to the vanity book buying market. Some years ago I visited the shared apartment of a work colleague where, as I always do, I conducted a book collection analysis. Though small (‘most of them are at my parents’ place’, the standard excuse of the twenty-something renter) this looked to be tasteful collection of Penguin classics, and she was on her way to good marks. But there was a problem. All of them had the light green binding that Penguin had only recently started using, and their spines were suspiciously uncreased. Yes, as she admitted, this was a case of vanity book buying, novels bought not for the pleasure or interest of reading them, but to make her look good.

According to an article in The Grauniad this is surprisingly common.

Driven partly by pressure from incessant literary prize shortlists, more than one in three consumers in London and the south-east admit having bought a book “solely to look intelligent”, the YouGov survey says.

It finds one in every eight young people confessing to choosing a book “simply to be seen with the latest shortlisted title”. This herd instinct dwindles to affect only one in 20 over-50 year-olds.

I think one in three consumers in London and the south-east, an affluent and educated part of the UK, is important. This kind of snobbery depends on people actually knowing which books might signal intelligence. A couple of my relatives appear to have no books apart from the phone books. Are they going to be impressed by my collection of Hayek’s works? I think not.

It’s easy to make fun of book-driven status seeking, but I think it is a positive thing. It helps keep good books in print, so that they are available for the people who do genuinely want to read them. It gives good writers enough money that they can afford to concentrate on their next book. And, who knows, perhaps some of these books might actually get read one day.

(Thanks to Marginal Revolution for the link lead.)

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October 29, 2005 at 7:32 am

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Drake's drummer!

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More tributes to Arthur Seldon (1916-2005), this one in Tech Central with links to a several other contributions and to a Seldon website .

According to legend, when England is in danger Drake’s drum is supposed to sound a warning. In the 1950s it was Arthur Seldon and his colleague Ralph Harris who did the job.

Remember, when he and Harris started out in the ’50s, both the Conservatives and Labour thought that the Health Service should be exclusively provided by the State, with what private provision was left a mere hangover from an earlier time. The school system was just beginning to be made comprehensive, with parental choice being removed. The “commanding heights” of the economy were nationalized or about to be (steel, coal, shipbuilding, car manufacturing and so on) and it was thought by all that this should continue to be so. Government should micro-manage the economy, to the extent of deciding how much money each individual could take out of the country when on holiday. In everything, the bureaucrat in his office knew better than the individual knew themselves about themselves and their family.

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October 27, 2005 at 7:05 pm

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