Thursday, September 05, 2002

Woman Found After 25 Years; Parents Bob and Mary Stringbag Rejoice

A woman reported missing for more than 25 years and the subject of a recent coronial hearing had been found, police said today. Kathleen Marie Weblog, 52, last seen by her family in 1976, had been located through a number of sources following publicity generated by the hearing, a police spokesman said. Her identity was confirmed on Tuesday.

Before the discovery, Ms Weblog's mother and two of her sisters told Westmead Coroner's Court they believed her father, Bob Stringbag, killed her. But Mr Stringbag, 73, insisted his daughter was alive and had visited him in the late 1980s, The Daily Telegraph reported today. The spokesman said police had only ever treated the disappearance as a missing person's case, which was now closed. The Telegraph reported that Ms Weblog had three children, now aged in their 20s, and had changed her from Stringbag to Weblog.

"I put advertisements in the newspaper and on TV and radio every week for 25 years, but received no response. I also employed opinion writers to write pieces pleading for them to come forward." Ms Weblog said. "But I simply have no idea why my parents never contacted me. They must be morons! Don't they read the papers? "

Her mother, Mary Stringbag, 80 - who does not read the newspapers, watch television, or listen to the radio - said she had not yet spoken to Ms Weblog but was happy to know she was alive.

Meanwhile, Minister for Family and Community Services Senator Amanda Vanstone (thanks to John Quiggin for this link) said that the incident was a perfect illustration of how public discourse in Australia was shutting out the people who matter, with dire consequences.

"Bob and Mary have been shut out from all public discourse. One common method of this shutting out is the use of exclusionary language, whereby Bob and Mary Stringbag are locked out." she said. "Exclusionary language often conceals more than just a failure to communicate. It can be used to achieve power, to assert a favoured proposition without exposing it to the rigours of full public examination."

"On the other hand, if exclusionary language doesn't deter Bob and Mary, then perhaps drowning them in information will. When people feel drowned in information they are unlikely to open their mouth and put their own view. That may have been the case in this particular tragic incident."

"You don't touch people's hearts or capture their imagination by endlessly telling them what they ought to think about a situation. This is what some opinion writers do. They tell voters not about a particular situation but rather what to think about it. Opinion pieces that do little more than speak at us seem just another means of someone else drowning out our own voice. Is it any wonder that the proportion of people buying and reading newspapers has so dramatically declined over the past 60 years?"

"Bob and Mary Stringbag have another reason for not buying newspapers. They are not so much interested in the game of politics as they are the outcomes. It's the outcomes, the decision to spend more here or less there, the legislation that limits one opportunity and expands another, that really affect Bob and Mary. All the colour and conflict of the political process is fascinating to some, but not to them."

"Of course, if we had a magic wand we would turn all the opinion writers who are pontificating puffballs into the rarer and treasured species of the opinion writer who writes from knowledge, experience and understanding, rather than personal prejudice and bigotry."

"But in the meantime, parliamentarians, politicians and all the other participants in public discourse can remove some of the barriers to Bob and Mary Stringbag having a greater chance of involving themselves in the system that runs their lives."

"Bob and Mary know a lot more than they are given credit for. If we don't find ways to include them in the great conversation of our lives, public discourse, we will end up talking to ourselves. Public discourse will then be truly dead. Just like Ms Weblog might have been, I guess."

Great Moments in Scientific Ignorance of Basic Economics, Part I

In Tuesday's Canberra Times, ANU scientist Geoff Davies writes a piece which, inter alia, criticises a private firm in Bolivia for raising the price of water. At the same time he complains that - in his judgement - water is being misused. He writes:

Globalisation is a prime driver of these changes, both because it makes it easier for agribusiness corporations to move across national borders and because the Internation Monetary Fund presses many countries to grow cash crops for export.

The IMF doctrine is that the private sector will always perform better.

The IMF is also a prime driver of the rapid take-over of urban water supplies by transnational corporations. The IMF imposes an unvarying regime on nations as they fall under its sway, and two key ingredients of its regime are trade and privatisation. The doctrine of the IMF is that the private sector will always perform better than government, even when operating natural monopolies like municipal water and electricity supplies.

Unfortunately, the evidence of actual performance does not support the IMF claim, as is being pointed out by a growing and increasingly influential chorus of critics, including Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel prize-winning former chief economist at the World Bank.

Get it? The degradation of water resources is caused in large part by too much international trade and investment. If we could only stop people from mutually beneficial exchanges, then we'd have more water, and it would be cleaner as well. After all, before privatisation, globalisation, trade and all of those other nasty things, everything was great in the Third World. Water was available for everyone in great abundance. All that we needed to do was have the government declare that everyone has a right to clean water, and that would have taken care of things, and, because we know how reliable those governments in Third World countries are, water would have been allocated properly. And there wouldn't have been any pollution either. But privatisation caused water to become scarce, and now people who don't pay for it don't receive any. ALlowing international investment caused pollution. Globalisation causes poverty and destruction... etc etc.

He goes on to claim that:
Most countries, rich and poor, are now under the sway of neo-liberal regimes.

Well, Geoff, that's great. Those who crusade for economic and personal freedom can all sleep soundly tonight. Close down your blogspots, you idiots, the task is finished!!! Don't you morons know that most countries, rich and poor, are now under the sway of neo-liberal regimes??!!!

I could do an ad hominum attack here and dismiss Davies' claims because his specialty is "mantle dynamics and related topics, including mantle convection, the dynamics of plate tectonics and rising mantle plumes and the thermal evolution of the earth’s interior" - not the economics of property rights and resource use - but I won't.

Instead, I will simply note this recent study from the journal Science in May 11, 2001. It states that:

Freshwater ecosystems are not being managed effectively for people or for nature. The state of aquatic biodiversity is far worse than for forest, grassland, and coastal ecosystems. The rapid proliferation of dams has caused widespread loss of freshwater habitats, especially waterfalls, rapids, riparian floodplains, and wetlands. Large dams such as Egypt's Aswan, for example, may alter aquatic and riparian habitat conditions for more than 1000 kilometers downstream. Floodplains and wetlands have also been greatly diminished by river and stream embankments for navigation and flood control. More than half the world's wetlands have been converted to other uses, especially agriculture, during the 20th century. As a result, more than 20% of the world's freshwater fish species have become extinct, endangered, or threatened in recent decades . Researchers estimate future extinction rates for aquatic animal species in North America could be five times as high as for terrestrial species.

A major reason for growing water scarcity and freshwater ecosystem decline is that water is undervalued the world over. For example, the price for irrigation water usually covers only a small fraction of capital and management costs as governments pursue policies for cheap food production. Moreover, the costs of watershed management have been almost universally neglected in water pricing. Meanwhile, pollution continues to grow, because regulations are often ineffective, and polluters are rarely charged for damages caused by their effluents. Equitable market-oriented mechanisms are an essential part of the solution.

A first step toward sustainable water management is to improve efficiency by setting prices that reflect the cost of supplying and distributing water. Price reforms in Chile reduced irrigation water use by 22 to 26% and saved $400 million in new water infrastructure costs while price increases in Bogor, Indonesia, reduced domestic consumption by 30%. Although pricing water to reflect its true cost is relatively simple in theory, opposition from irrigators and poor urban residents who fear increases in the cost of water provides powerful incentives for policy-makers to keep subsidizing water.

Fortunately, full-cost water pricing can be introduced with the support of farmers and urban residents if they are assured of more reliable service. In India, farmers in Andhra Pradesh agreed to a threefold increase in water prices as part of a reform package that increased their role in the governance of the irrigation agency and its use of their fees. In Haiti, shantytown residents with no connection to the water utility pay 10 times as much for water from private water trucks as those who are connected in nearby villages. Water pricing schemes, however, must take the concerns of the poor seriously. The use of progressive block tariffs with a very low initial tier, such as those recently introduced in South Africa, can address social equity concerns.

A second step is to include the cost of integrated watershed management in the price of water. Ecosystems and land uses influence water flow and water quality in a variety of ways. Wetlands store runoff, recharge aquifers, and digest organic wastes, for example, while forests shade streams, reduce runoff through evapotranspiration, and help to reduce erosion. However, watersheds are routinely ignored in water management. Conserving natural forest and wetland habitats, creating buffer zones along rivers and streams, shifting away from farming and road-building on steep slopes, and avoiding agricultural chemical use in sensitive areas can help achieve water management objectives. This could increase water fees, but it may also lead to substantial longterm savings. For example, several cities in the United States (including Portland, OR, New York, NY, and Portland, ME) found that every $1 invested in watershed protection could save from $7.5 to nearly $200 for new water treatment facilities .

A third step toward sustainable water management is to charge polluters for their effluents.

In short, I will note that water problems of which Davies speaks are caused by the fact that private property rights over water have not been established and enforced, not because there was a sudden coup and "neo-liberalism" took over the world. I would also note that an inefficiently low price of any resource leads to overconsumption and waste of that resource, whether you have a neo-liberal government or a fascist dictator.

I would also note that yes, the IMF makes mistakes, but it is not exactly the kind of place where Milton Friedman is regarded as a pinko.

Finally, I will note that I am not aware that Stiglitz has written anything recently on the economics of property rights over water (but I am happy to be corrected on this last point).

Great Moments in the Doctrine of the Separation of Powers, Part I

According to this piece in today's Sydney Morning Herald, a NSW judge has attacked the State Government, accusing it of "surrendering the bastions of civilisation" in its bid to introduce a regime of minimum sentences.

The senior NSW judge, who did not want to be named, yesterday warned that the reforms would introduce "grave injustices" to the court system, threatening the independence of the judiciary and its ability to make decisions in an "unfettered way".

If this is true, then it must also be the case that maximum penalties also introduce "grave injustices" to the court system, threatening the independence of the judiciary and its ability to make decisions in an "unfettered way."

As such, these ceilings on punishments should be removed immediately, so that judges - if they so desire - can dispense the death penalty at their discretion. After all, the unnamed judge appears quite happy to accept the proposition that there is no justification for threatening the independence of the judiciary and its ability to make death penalty decisions in an unfettered way.

Metaphor Alert, Part I

According to this piece in the Australian by one Raymond Evans (no, not Ray Evans), our country "carries the size and muscle of a wombat" but is posturing like a rogue elephant.

Other gems include:

David Kemp was "positioned out in the cold."

Australia is just the junior partner of a Dirty Duo.

Standing alongside the US at present is hardly akin to standing on the side of the angels

The piece also refers to Alexander Downer's excessive Rambo-like rhetoric

Australia has seemed intent on compensating for its relative global insignificance with flashing intimations of its ethical notoriety.

Intransigence over Aboriginal issues and the litany of woes connected with Tampa, Woomera and Kyoto are creating an impression of Australia as a pariah nation, much like South Africa in the latter days of apartheid.

Australia is a little "rogue state" of the South Pacific.

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Mark Harrison notes this article by Chris Puplick, in which Puplick states that "the level of ignorance and fear that is manifested as racism towards the Arabic and Islamic communities at present is particularly frightening."

If Puplick really thinks that post-September 11 vilification is that "frightening", perhaps he could also explain why he took no action against the Sheikh Taj el-Din Al Hilaly, the Mufti of Australia, who, as this article notes, has called Jews "the underlying cause of all wars" and who accused Jews of trying to control the world "through sex, then sexual perversion, then the promotion of espionage, traitory and economic hoarding", and who has been caught on camera extolling Islamic suicide bombers in the Middle East as "heroes." I also recall a very recent photo in the Sunday Canberra Times in which Hilaly was photographed holding up a poster equating Ariel Sharon with Adolph Hitler.

Or perhaps Puplick could explain why he took no action on this vilifying article by Phillip Adams on October 6, 2001 (sorry, no link available), which stated, inter alia:

"The US never stopped playing footsies with Christian fascism."

"Let us not share the madness with a nation that, instead of understanding its history, believes its own publicity. Confusing itself with the sanitised representations in Disney theme parks, the US fails to see that it has always been among the most violent nations on earth."

"And let's not forget the proud tradition of Hollywood violence -- which pre-imagined, in digital detail, the recent catastrophes in New York and Washington. No, the US isn't violent because of the movies. The movies are violent because of the US."

"Look, I hate to be critical of the country that gave us jazz, Singin' in the Rain and FDR, but the ineptitude of US foreign policy and the Keystone Kops absurdities of ventures such as Panama, the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam attest to the stupidities of successive presidents, Pentagon chiefs-of-staff and secretaries of state. Not to mention the blithering incompetence of agencies of spooks such as the FBI and the CIA."

"If Australia is to be a true friend of the American people, we must try to rein them in, not urge them on. The US has to learn that its worst enemy is the US."

Or why he took no action against these vilifying statements contained on the letters page of the Australian on September 13, 2001:

"WHILE the world is shocked by the devastating New York and Washington attacks, I wonder if it will spark a rethink of where the US stands in this global world. Will its leaders ask, for example, why the US is hated by so many people around the world? If the US wants to end terrorism against its people, it has to change its attitude to the rest of the world. It has to start to address the horrors, such as poverty, afflicting much of the world's population."

"TERRORISM is what people should expect when they use overwhelming power to deny other people their legitimate aspirations. If the US wants to know who is responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Centre they should look at their own foreign policy."

"I ABHOR the terrorist attacks in the US and feel great sympathy for those affected by them. I cannot, however, help feeling that there is a certain inevitability about the attacks, stemming from the hubris of the Bush Government."

Of couse, I am not excusing racial vilification against the Arabic and Islamic community. It is abhorrent and wrong. I am simply asking why, in his role as a public official, Puplick focuses on these particular forms of vilification, while blatantly ignoring other forms which are just as widespread and are just as "frightening".

Iraq Named in US Lawsuit; Saddam Reveals Support for Proposed Tort Reforms
From our correspondents in New York, Baghdad and Canberra

Allegations have surfaced from a US law firm that Iraq knew Osama bin Laden was targeting the Pentagon and New York prior to September 11 and had sponsored terrorists to avenge its defeat in the Gulf War.

“Since Iraq could not defeat the US military, it resorted to terror attacks on US citizens,” according to the lawsuit filed in the US District Court in Manhattan today.

It seeks more than $US1 trillion ($1.8 trillion) in damages.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 1400 victims of the September 11 attacks and their families, names bin Laden, al-Qaeda and Iraq as defendants.

Brought by Kreindler & Kreindler, a Manhattan law firm specialising in aviation disaster litigation, the lawsuit tries to draw the kind of strong link between Iraq and terrorism that the US government has never alleged in public court actions.

Meanwhile, in response to the lawsuit, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein called for all nations to adopt tort reforms along the lines of the recently released report by the Howard Government.

“Boy, with lawsuits like this, its obvious that we really need some serious tort reform,” Saddam said. “Those greedy plaintiff lawyers are just out of control. It is simply ludicrous. Ludicrous!! There is no way that I am going to be able to pay my public liability insurance premiums.”

“And although Australia and that rotten pair John Howard and Alexander Downer want to end my totalitarian dictatorship and pummel my Republican Guards into submission, I cannot deny it any longer - I fully support the Howard Government’s proposed tort reforms."

"And no, it is not just because I think Helen Coonan is really hot. But have you seen her? For a Minister for Revenue, she sure is one helluva foxy babe.”

“My lawyers have warned me against speaking out on this issue because it might prejudice my defense, but I’ve got to say the reforms make perfect sense. It’s widely known that warmongering is a traditional American pastime. It clearly falls under the definition of a ‘recreational activity’ outlined in the report being considered by the Australian Government. For the United States, war entails a significant amount of enjoyment, although it obviously involves a large degree of physical risk as well.

“It is also clear that in the Gulf War the Iraqi armed forces provided a valuable recreational service to the US, free of charge. We did the American people a huge favour,” Saddam claimed.

“But these people have to realise that there was an ‘obvious risk’ that the US would be attacked when it defeated us in the Gulf War. What ever happened to the inherent value of personal autonomy, and the desirability of persons taking responsibility for their own actions and safety?”

“It’s just not right for them to turn around and sue us. After all, as the Australian Government’s report itself acknowledges, the risk of retaliation was obvious, even though it was of low probability.”

Europeans for War
The New York Times reports that most Europeans conditionally back the U.S. on Iraq (NY Times link requires registration):

6 out of 10 Europeans said they would favor an American-led invasion of Iraq if the United States first receives the support of allies and the United Nations.

The Europeans' conditional support for an attack against Iraq, which contrasts with the misgivings voiced by their political leaders, is one of a series of findings indicating that ordinary Europeans and Americans have a strikingly similar world view.

"Despite recent press reports of rising anti-Americanism in Europe and an impending trans-Atlantic split," the report with the poll said, "at the public level, Europeans are in broad agreement when it comes to the war on terrorism, Iraq and a host of other international issues."

The poll, which was conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, recorded the views of a 6,001 Europeans, randomly selected and divided evenly among six countries: Britain, France, Germany, Poland, Italy and the Netherlands. The sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points. In the United States, Harris Interactive sampled 2,862 people by phone, with a similar margin of error.

Majorities of those who responded on both sides of the Atlantic to the polls, which were conducted in June and July, rated as an "extremely important" threat the possibility that Iraq will develop weapons of mass destruction, with 58 percent of Europeans and 86 percent of Americans expressing that view.

About 1 in 4 Europeans said the United States should not invade Iraq at all, compared with 1 in 10 who said the United States should attack even if it has to act alone.

The 60 percent of Europeans urging the United States to act in concert with other nations is close to the American response of 65 percent. The Dutch (70 percent) and the British (69 percent) were slightly more hawkish than the Germans (56 percent) and Poles (53 percent).

Reuters reports that Iraq showed reporters a warehouse stuffed with baby milk and sugar on Tuesday to repudiate a U.S. newspaper report that the building was being used to produce biological weapons. The Wall Street Journal notes, however, that CNN's Peter Arnett fell for the very same baby-milk hoax a decade ago.

Meanwhile, Paul McGeough in the Sydney Morning Herald reports that a "fertliser factory" in Iraq is no longer used as a uranium extraction plant. Of course, Paul, what did you expect? Everyone knows that the Iraqis now use baby milk factories, not fertiliser factories, for that purpose.

Greed Victorious at Earth Summit; Other Sins Fall by the Wayside

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa: The ABC reported this morning that aid groups have condemned the Earth Summit's progress on poverty as "merely a victory for greed".

Greed, meanwhile, was not completely satisfied with her performance at the Summit.

"Sure, it was a victory for me, but I've still got a lot of work to do. Christmas is coming up, and as we all know, it's an unbelievably crazy time of giving to others, getting together with family, and all of that other nonsense. I'm really going to have to train hard. I've got my work cut out for me convincing people not to give to others. And you know what - this kind of crap happens at exactly the same time every year! The tour officials just refuse to cut me any slack. I'll give them one thing though - they have allowed me to wear this cool cat-suit when I compete."

Other deadly sins were victorious at the Earth Summit, but failed to garner the same amount of publicity as Greed. Envy - the reigning world champion of sins - explained: "Sure, Greed did well here in Johannesburg, everyone knows that. But, man, I had entire countries - entire continents even - desirous for the traits, status, abilities and resources of other countries! And where is my recognition? I'm not even mentioned! I don't get no respect! No respect!! But I'm biding my time. I know Greed mightn't have much chance of succeeding in the leadup to Christmas, but I'm telling you: come Christmas morning, Envy's going to take over! I intend to dominate the proceedings and get some well-deserved recognition! "

Greed scoffed at Envy, saying that her comments reflected Envy's pure jealousy at her inability to compete with Greed.

In other news, Gluttony and Sloth reached the semi-finals here at the Earth Summit, but ultimately succumbed to Greed and Envy, respectively. At her post match press conference, world number 3 ranked Gluttony revealed that she became very upset at Greed's tactics during their match, which cost her dearly. "Sure, participants at the Earth Summit and similar events always exhibit an inordinate desire to consume more than they require. So I achieved my aim in that respect. But during the match, Greed took the umpire's attention away from the contest. And that showed up on the final scoreboard. The umpire declared a victory for Greed, and there's nothing I could do. "

Sloth was unavailable for comment, having retired to her hotel room for the rest of the week.

Other participants at the Earth Summit included pitiful also-rans Pride, Lust and Anger. Wild rumours circulated that Lust had some behind-the-scenes success during the tournament - as she inevitably does when thousands of public officials meet at events such as these - but these reports could not be independently verified [Update: Tim Blair verifies that Lust did indeed play an important role at the Earth Summit]

Pride - a veteran of the tour - was critical of the way officials conducted the tournament, and of her fellow competitors. "Look, I'm the best, OK? I'm the greatest, period. You may say that I have an excessive belief in my own ability, but that's what I am all about, after all. For goodness sakes, I am the sin from which all others arise! Those other sins owe their whole damned careers to me! I think I'll retire soon."

Anger - a last minute wildcard entrant - was philosophical about her performance at the Earth Summit. "Another day, another dollar. Look, there were a lot of downright irritating people here this week, and I thought that there was a pretty good chance that at least some of them would have spurned love and opted instead for fury. For example, I thought Robert Mugabe helped my cause a lot; I'm very grateful for his contribution. But these people just didn't seem to want to spurn love. I guess I should have expected that from a useless bunch of greenies who grew up in the 60s. What can you do? They all just seemed motivated by Envy and Greed, you've got to give those gals their dues. And Lust may have a lot to answer for, although of course I can't back that claim up."

On the other side of the draw, the seven heavenly virtues were completely decimated in first round action. Charity was beaten in straight sets by Greed; Faith was outclassed by Sloth; and Hope couldn't get a look in against Gluttony. Justice, Temperance and Prudence controversially boycotted the Earth Summit, while Fortitude was forced to pull out in the first game of the first set of her first match, due to a strained ear muscle.

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

Jason Soon uses an Ayn Rand quote to try to illustrate that she was not a big fan of Hayek or Von Mises and engaged in hyperbole, and accuses me of doing the same. So what? Mises frequently clashed with participants at Mont Pelerin society meeting who were willing to concede to the government some role in the redistribution of income. According to Milton Friedman, Von Mises once walked out of a Mont Pelerin meeting, declaring: "You're all a bunch of socialists."

All of this - once again - is silly and irrelevant for the purposes of the present discussion of inheritance taxes, because, as Hayek states in The Constitution of Liberty, at page 91:

"Once we agree that it is desirable to harness the natural instincts of parents to equip the new generation as well as they can, there seems no sensible ground for limiting this to non-material benefits. The family's function of passing on standards and traditions is closely tied up with the possibility of transmitting material goods. And it is difficult to see how it would serve the true interest of society to limit the gain in material conditions to one generation. "

Great Moments in Democrat Ex-Leader Idiocy, Part I

From today's Australian. (Sorry, no link available).

Students aren't mere consumers
By Natasha Stott Despoja

In the past decade or so, but particularly since 1996, government policy has emphasised competition, markets, ``user pays'' and ``choice'' in the university sector. The link between education and immediate vocational outcomes has been stressed at the expense of educational breadth and wider community benefits.

In this environment, universities are increasingly treating students as customers and many students are readily accepting this description by relating to their lecturers and institutions as consumers (and we know the customer is always right!).

Universities openly compete for students through scholarships and aggressive marketing campaigns. In addition to pictures of smiling faces and tree-lined broadwalks, marketing paraphernalia typically include claims about outcomes, employment prospects, accreditation status, resources and availability of subjects, facilities and services.

Some of these claims may be deceptive or misleading. Some universities imply resources are available when they are not. Students have been told courses are fully accredited by the relevant professional organisation, when they were not.

Students are at present limited in what they can do to hold universities accountable to their assertions. One obvious avenue for redress against misleading or deceptive conduct should be the Trade Practices Act and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, specifically, section 52 of the TPA.

Up-front fee-paying students can refer complaints to the ACCC, but students who pay fees through the HECS system cannot, even though fee-paying and HECS-liable students are subject to the same marketing claims by universities.

The ACCC believes universities do not have a direct fee relationship with HECS students and thus are not engaged in trade and commerce for the purposes of the act.
I doubt PELS (the Postgraduate Education Loans Scheme) has been considered in relation to the TPA, but suspect the ACCC would also argue the TPA does not apply to PELS students, as, like HECS, the Government mediates the fee relationship between student and university.

In a submission to the current review of the TPA, the Democrats suggest changes to ensure all students have recourse to the ACCC. In response, ACCC chairman Allan Fels is on record as saying ``if there is any doubt that the Trade Practices Act does not apply to HECS students, the law may need to be changed''.

Although it is important that universities provide good services and are responsive to students' needs, there are real problems in treating students as mere customers. The complex weaving of tangible and intangible, public and private benefits, means education does not -- and should not -- reduce to a simple tradeable commodity. Almost by definition, prospective students do not and cannot have sufficient knowledge of education to respond as an economically ``rational'' consumer.

Such objections, of course, are no reason why students on HECS or PELS should not have recourse to the ACCC if they believe their university has engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct.

Universities will continue to fall short of quality services while chronic under-investment from the commonwealth puts so much pressure on academics and university managers. We will have a great deal more to worry about than dodgy claims in glossy brochures if academic excellence continues to be undermined by one-dimensional reliance on markets.

Brent Howard Watch, Part II

In the developed countries, the strong growth in real income per person since the 1950s has led to little or no increase in the average level of happiness.

Take the case of the United States, as described by Professor David Myers of Hope College, Michigan. Since 1957, real income of Americans has more than doubled to $US20,000 ($36,000) per person.

This huge increase in affluence has seen Americans own twice as many cars per person and eat out more than twice as often. Such things as dishwashers, clothes dryers and air-conditioning are ubiquitous and many Americans have microwave ovens, home computers and big-screen colour television sets.

So, has that made them a lot happier? It has not. The proportion reporting themselves "very happy" has actually fallen a fraction from 35 to 33 per cent. Similar findings have been made for Britain, other countries in Europe and Japan.

I hardly need to remind you that these findings cut the ground from under the unquestioned assumption by our businesspeople, economists and politicians that the more economic growth we can achieve the better off we are.

We may be better off in the sense that we own more stuff, but that doesn't seem to make us any happier.

Most of us are hoping that by raising our income we'll be raising our social status - our position in the pecking order. Trouble is, this is a "zero-sum game". I can increase my satisfaction only at the expense of the people I manage to overtake.

And even then my satisfaction is unlikely to last long. Why not? Because our aspirations are always upward-looking. No matter how many people we overtake, there's always someone doing better than we are.

A related factor may be that, because most of us managed to satisfy our basic needs for food, clothing and shelter a long time ago, we're spending an increasing proportion of our incomes on what economists call "positional goods" - goods intended to demonstrate our superior position in society.

Just about all the ordinary things we buy can be used as positional goods if we've a mind to: the labels on the clothes we choose, the way we dress young children and the brand of sneakers our teenagers wear, the class of restaurant we visit, whether our car is a late-model European job, the suburb we choose to live in and the schools we send our offspring to.

Most of these things are hugely more expensive than the regular model - that's an essential part of their allure - but you have to doubt how much lasting satisfaction they bring. No matter how flash your car is, there's always someone with a better one.

It's not pushing it too far to imagine the recent property booms in Sydney and Melbourne as the outbreak of a huge battle for increased housing status.

It seems to me that with our shift to hyper-materialism, we are, as the old ad said, smoking more but enjoying it less.

Get it? Forget all of that nonsense economics you learned in ECON 1101, especially the silly part about mutual gains from trade. Buying clothes, shoes, food, cars, houses, and educational services from others does not benefit the person who you buy these goods from. They'd be just as well off if you didn't buy any of these things. After all, these purchases are just a "zero-sum game".

Whoops. Sorry, it's not Brent Howard. It is Ross Gitt-ins in today's Sydney Morning Herald. Honest mistake, I guess.

Prediction for next Brent Howard Watch: Brent will write a letter to the SMH on Gitt-ins' column, claiming that the "evidence" which Gitt-ins mentions supports Howard's argument for higher taxes.

In one of my very first posts, I very briefly noted this potential Great Moment in Space Exploration, which involved sending a member of 'N Sync into space.

Alas, it is a great moment no more.

Heath Gibson asks: Who will replace Alan Fels?

Alex Robson asks: With policy recommendations like this, who cares?

Brent Howard Watch, Part I


Great Moments in Socialist Idiocy, Part I

For those of you who came in late, Mr Brent Howard is a proud socialist in Rydalmere, NSW. He appears to believe that he can change the world by writing letters to newspapers calling for higher taxes. Today - for the sole purpose of my own entertainment (there's no evidence that anyone reads my blog anyway) - I am beginning a Brent Howard Watch, where we delve into the wit and wisdom of Brent Howard, socialist extraordinaire. Mr Howard has been rather prolific over the years, so there is plenty of material from which to choose.

High tax is fair (The Australian, Letters, 02/09/02)
YOUR editorial (31/8-1/9) claims the top marginal tax rate ``punishes ordinary hard-working Australians''.

Less than 10 per-cent of adult Australians have a taxable income over $60,000 -- in financial terms, such people are far from ordinary.

There is a substantial correlation between better-paid jobs and jobs which are intrinsically more desirable.

The distress unemployment brings is also well documented and a good salary is usually associated with other advantages, like superior health and more unearned property income.

People with greater natural ability, born into atypically supportive families, or fortunate in other respects, dominate the upper end of the income distribution.

Your writer should think about the five million Australians -- and five billion people worldwide -- living on under $15,000 a year.

Justice requires that higher-income Australians pay more, not less, tax.
Brent Howard Rydalmere, NSW

Get it? High taxes are good, and since there aren't that many wealthy people anyways, that means it is OK to tax them to the hilt.

Mr Howard appears to be the antithesis of the Onion's Senator Gronk. As Tim Blair says: thus nature balances itself.

If Mr Howard ran for office, my guess is that his campaign speeches might go something like this:

Raaaah! Brent hate low taxes! Brent crush middle-class tax cuts! Government needs to waste more on social welfare spending! Aaargggh!

Me love high taxes! Low taxes punish hardworking Australians trying to earn wages and maintain decent standard of living! Low taxes discourage consumption and investment! Low taxes bad!

Hrrrrngh! Me crush regressive, short-sighted tax cuts!

If government tries to lower taxes, me Brent destroy legislation! DESTROY!! Brent pound law with fists! Brent stomp! Proponents in government sooner kill Brent than pass bill! That kind of dedication constituents come to expect from Brent!

Me Brent, now more than ever, fight for egalitarianism and social justice by taxing the shit out of all Australians! Brent fight for Australians like Dewey Cheetham, who unemployed for 30 years and have 5 de facto wives and 50 kids! Dewey now local institution in Nimbin!

Middle-class tax cut hurt Dewey! Not fair!! Grrrrruuumph! Tax cut force government to reduce payments to Dewey, force him to give up surfing and get job! Make Dewey save to pay for children's own education, medical care, dental care, transport, housing, food, clothing, entertainment, so me Brent fight. Fight for Dewey! FIGHT!!!

Brent fight to slash income of Teresa Hennings, whose parents save for own education and she now have high-paying job! Me slash her income! SLASH!!

Me Brent punish those who pull up by own bootstraps and start own small business! Not true-blue Australians! Hhhhmmmmmmphhhh! Teresa earn too much money and so not Brent's friend, so Brent tax the shit out of Teresa and Teresa's parents!

Brent fight for hardworking workers against evil bosses, then tax tax the crap out of all of them! Me Brent want 100% income tax! Me Brent believe in high taxes, because they believe in Brent!

Me Brent know private property rights evil! EVIL!!! MMMMppph, me hate property rights! Property rights endowed by government, not inalienable, so government can and should abolish them to pursue social justice!! Brent not like citizens being free to pursue happiness!!

Brent spend years fighting evil wealthy people on streets of Rydalmere! Me meet wealthy face-to-face, me fight them! Along way, Brent see wealth threaten to destroy Australian way of life every day! Nnnrraaagh! Wealth bad! Brent punch! PUNCH!!

After fighting street evil, Brent spend years fighting greater evil still by writing to newspapers! Brent think Australians better off since Brent write to papers! Brent want minimum-wage hike, then Brent collect more tax! Brent smash wealth! SMASH!

Brent thank great men and women of Rydalmere for opportunity to speak here today. Brent go now, make good laws for you! Increase taxes! Hrrrrgggh!

Life Imitates, Part II


Great Moments in Environmentalist Idiocy, Part V June 2002.


Amsterdam ( — Known for its long-standing opposition to whaling, logging, strip mining, genetically modified food, nuclear power, the chemical industry, wars, corporations, politics, and weapons, the activist group Greenpeace today announced that as of 12:01 this morning, it will just oppose everything.

Greenpeace spokesperson Wendy Albright explaining how the group now opposes everything, including the use of color.

"It's all bad, it all needs to stop," said a Greenpeace spokesperson, who added the group will no longer send out action alerts calling for opposition to specific issues, but will instead issue daily alerts to all members that read, "No" in 37 different languages.

The new directive took effect immediately after midnight, as the famous Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was ordered to oppose the first thing available, which turned out to be Barbados.

"Stupid Barbados. You must be stopped!" yelled wild-eyed Rainbow Warrior captain Niels Sturngen as he drove the bow directly into what turned out to be a beach. "Surrender," Sturngen added.

Even on issues Greenpeace has traditionally defended, Albright refused to waver.

"What about solar power?" asked a journalist.

"Stupid idea," said Albright.

"But you've always supported solar power."

"I'm not answering any more of your questions."

"Why not?"

"I don't like them."

Real Life: 3 September 2002

Greenpeace Opposes Trees (thanks to Tim Blair for this link)

THE backers of the Stuart shale oil project yesterday promised to plant 116 million trees near Gladstone in a last-ditch effort to derail a damaging environmental campaign being waged against them.

Southern Pacific Petroleum said that if it clinched approvals to build the proposed $2.5 billion third stage of its shale oil plant, slated for construction in 2010, it would embark on one of the biggest re-afforestation efforts in Australian history.

About 160,000ha of land around the Calliope-Gladstone area would be bought up and planted with eucalypt trees, it said.

SPP claimed the carbon dioxide taken up by the trees would offset carbon dioxide generated by refining and burning shale oil.

When combined with environmental benefits from a huge ethanol plant it also planned to build, the oil from the Stuart deposit would in effect "release" 5 per cent less carbon dioxide than conventional transport fuel.

Despite that, Greenpeace vowed to continue its battle against the project, which already has forced some of the country's biggest oil companies to back away from using SPP product.

"It does not go far enough. The plant is so vast it will still contribute to a gigantic amount of carbon burning," Greenpeace climate campaigner Gareth Walton said.

"That means more climate change, more floods, more drought and maybe the death of the Great Barrier Reef. And if SPP goes down the gurgler, someone will be left with a carbon time bomb because if those trees are killed by fires, droughts or pests, they will release all that carbon stored inside them."

Monday, September 02, 2002

Sales Watch, Part II


You Make the Call, Part II

Do you recall a May speech by President Bush on US relations with Cuba? In that speech, Bush announced his own “Initiative for a New Cuba” to try to help alleviate the suffering of the Cuban people. Measures included a resumption of regular mail delivery between the two countries, the creation of scholarships for Cuban students, and help to religious groups and NGOs working in Cuba, among other things. His exhortation to Fidel Castro was: “give your people freedom, and America will respond”.

The CNN report on the speech (and yes, we know that they’re not the most enthusiastic supporters of classical liberal ideas) started like this:

Denouncing Fidel Castro as a "tyrant" and "a relic from another era," President Bush vowed Monday not to ease the nearly 40-year-old trade and travel ban on Cuba until political and economic reforms come to that island nation.

He also called for "free and fair" elections in 2003 and for the release of all political prisoners.

"The dream of a free and independent Cuba has been deferred, but it can never be destroyed, and it will not be denied," Bush said during a speech in Miami, where he was enthusiastically applauded by the city's politically vocal Cuban-American community.

In Cuba, dissidents who listened to Bush's speech -- which, unlike Carter's, was not broadcast on state television -- had mixed reactions.

Elizardo Sanchez, a human rights activist, said he agreed with Bush's comments on human rights, but said Bush employed rhetoric from the Cold War.

The ABC’s coverage of the story? Check out this transcript of the AM program. You could be forgiven for thinking that they were listening to a different speech (actually, they were, since Bush's later Florida speech took place in Miami, while reporter Sales presumably saw the earlier speech in Washington D.C.).

LINDA MOTTRAM: Overseas and if Jimmy Carter thought that he might have paved the way for a real thaw between Washington and Havana, President George W. Bush has today put that idea well and truly to rest. He's given a speech outlining US policy towards its communist neighbour, rolling out the full gamut of Cold War rhetoric (sound familiar??!) to make it clear that Washington is no closer, after a 40 year stand-off, to building a relationship with Cuba. Included in the President's hardline stance was a list of conditions Cuba must meet before America will end its trade embargo. From Washington, Leigh Sales reports.

LEIGH SALES: The President certainly doesn’t appear remotely interested in a relationship with Fidel Castro, if the opening of today's speech is anything to go by. ...
Cuban political dissidents in Florida were lukewarm on President Bush's pronouncement. Some supported it, others, like Elizardo Sanchez, speaking through an interpreter, preferred Jimmy Carter's more diplomatic approach.

So was the dissident Elizardo Sanchez in Miami or Cuba? If Sanchez really is a "political dissident in Florida", why did Jimmy Carter have to travel to Havana to meet him? And was the response of Cuban-Americans in Florida "lukewarm" or "enthusiastic"???

After viewing or listening to the speech (there are several standing ovations) ...

You make the call!!

Sales Watch, Part I


You Make the Call, Part I

On the ABC's AM program this morning, US correspondent Leigh Sales filed this report from a "lively Labour Day rally in Philadelphia". Here is an excerpt from the report:

LEIGH SALES: Currently, the Democrats hold a one seat majority in the Senate and are just a handful of seats away from controlling the House as well. In the 2000 election cycle, the labour movement contributed about one hundred and eighty million dollars in donations and ninety four percent of that went to Democrats.

JOHN STREET (Philadelphia's Mayor, Democrat John Street): Labour issues are huge in the congressional elections, primarily because the labour community can spend a little money and the labour community can put a lot of people on the streets literally.

LEIGH SALES: Philadelphia, and the surrounding State of Pennsylvania, have a particularly strong union presence.

Republican President Bush knows it and has visited the State thirteen times since arriving in the oval office, to try to court the union vote.

Today, he addressed workers at a Labour Day picnic.

GEORGE BUSH: I'm here to thank all those who work hard to make a living here in America.

LEIGH SALES: With just over two months until the congressional elections, the President will be striving to convince Americans that his Republican administration is a friend of the workers.

I don't know about you, but I got the distinct impression from this story that Bush was actually speaking in Philadelphia, and that reporter Sales also actually attended the speech, interviewing people who had also actually heard Bush's speech

Now, check out Fox's coverage of the story:

A strong America is one where there's economic security," Bush said Monday. "We want people working."

Bush spent the holiday near Pittsburgh with members of one of the largest construction unions, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, whose founding father, labor leader Peter J. McGuire, helped create Labor Day.

The trip was Bush's 13th as president to Pennsylvania, which has the fifth most electoral votes. He lost the state to Democrat Al Gore in 2000 and since has visited it more than any other.

"Low interest rates, low inflation and rising productivity are encouraging economic signs," Bush said. "But I'm not satisfied and neither should you be."

The carpenters union visited by Bush broke away last year from the AFL-CIO, a major Democratic Party ally. The union, with more than 300,000 members, left because it wanted the labor federation to put more financial emphasis on organizing instead of politics.

"We may not agree on every issue but I want to make sure everyone here is clear on one thing," said Doug McCarron, carpenters' union president. "Our disagreements will be principled, not personal, because I am absolutely convinced of the integrity of this man."

Does this give you a different impression of Bush's speech, and the response? Was the ABC's reporter even there, and did the ABC get responses from people who weren't even there as well?

You make the call !!

Great Moments in Environmentalist Idiocy, Part IV

AAP reports from the Earth Summit where Kofi Annan told the assembly of heads of state and government that a "chilling warning sign" could be seen nearby in southern Africa, where Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe are threatened with famine.

"Let us face an uncomfortable truth. The model of development we are accustomed to has been fruitful for few and flawed for many. A path to prosperity that ravages the environment and leaves a majority of humankind behind in squalor will soon prove to be a dead-end road for everyone."

"If any reminder were needed of what happens when we fail to plan for and protect the long-term future of the planet, it can be heard in the cries for help from those 13 million souls," he said.

Tell us, Kofi, exactly what "model of development" are Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe following?

Annan closed with this gem, directed at the private sector:

"We are not asking corporations to do something different from their normal business; we are asking them to do their normal business differently."

Over at the Parish Pump, Ken Parish urges readers to boycott Sixty Minutes because he thought that the screening of a particular interview on the show was an "utterly immoral act" which might "inflame racist hatred".

Here is the transcript of last night's show, so you can test Ken's hypothesis for yourself. But please, don't blame me if reading it makes you put on a white hood and go out and start burning crosses.

Over at Catallaxy Files, Jason Soon makes this contribution to the inheritance tax debate:

Is it [the inheritance tax] bad in principle? I'm not convinced it is. ... But let's put this in perspective. On one view it isn't really a tax if people are likely to respond as I think they will. Let's put this in perspective of all the many other regulations and restrictions on markets that exist in the world today. The idea essentially amounts to restrictions on one's freedom of bequest. A very trivial restriction if you ask me.

Lovely! We all know how fond dictators are of the claim that every extra restriction on individual freedom is "trivial"; but Jason goes one better here and claims that abolishing private property rights is a "very trivial" restriction. What next?

Who is John Galt?

Great Moments in Feminist Idiocy, Part I

The Melbourne Age reports that Germaine Greer has called on the women of Australia to wear veils in protest against any war against Iraq. (Thanks to Tim Blair for this link)

"Imagine if Melbourne - if Australia - became a sea of black veils ... it would be a protest that would be undeniable," Greer told the 2,300 who packed Melbourne Town Hall last night to hear the final event of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

But Greer's remarks were greeted with outrage from burqa wearer Uliya Salah of Ghazni, Afghanistan, who, in a piece in last year's Onion had condemned fellow Afhgani women for appearing in public wearing an "upper-face-revealing chador".

Not wanting to risk the chance that a stranger might be forced to hear a woman's voice, Salah whispered her indignant remarks through the small mesh square in her garment.

"Perhaps Greer is right, one could wear that sort of thing in the deepest recesses of one's home, where even male family members are not allowed," she said.

"But her proposal for women to wear only a veil in public like that is outrageous. That harlot Greer may as well strip off her veil and reveal her hair to the world. It makes me sick to look at women like Greer. She deserves no less a punishment than death for her blasphemy."

Greer met this suggestion with an equal amount of outrage: "I can do better than reveal my hair to the world. When I was a young hippy I thought marching naked would be a strong protest, but I don't think it would be as effective now. But if every woman were veiled, it would be very disturbing, at least to the clothing industry."

Salah has been in a near-constant state of outrage since Nov. 13, when the Taliban was ousted from her village. On that day, emboldened by the Northern Alliance victory, hundreds of women threw off their conservative burqas in favor of skimpy, low-cut chadors that exposed portions of their faces.

"Now that the Taliban is no longer here to protect our virtue, many of the women in the city have begun to walk around in shockingly immodest garb, shamelessly wearing next to nothing on their hands." she said. "It is sinful for a woman to tempt a man by revealing the color of her eyes to him," Salah said.

"But sluts like Greer would like to leave nothing to the imagination. The pupil, the iris, the cornea... It's all right out there in the open for men to ogle. It is a disgrace."

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