Thursday, October 03, 2002

Democrats Watch, Part III

The editorial page of today's Wall Street Journal notes:

New Jersey law clearly states that changes can be made to a ballot "not later than the 48th day preceding the date of the general election." We are now 33 days from this year's Election Day of November 5, military ballots have already gone out and some absentee ballots are already on their way in. But Democrats want voters and the courts to ignore all of this so they can substitute a candidate for Bob Torricelli who actually has a chance to win.

This certainly qualifies as a democratic innovation. Perhaps every state should make primary elections irrelevant. Or maybe we should all adopt a new 13% rule (the margin Mr. Torricelli was trailing by when he "dropped out"): If a candidate is losing in the polls by that much or more on October 1, the party can toss him off the ballot and find somebody else, anybody else.

Right on. It's Sore-Loserman deja vu all over again.

No Factor of Ten Here Please, We're British

In an earlier post, I noted the ANU's "Factor of Ten" event. You can check out the brand new, taxpayer-funded website here.

I am also happy to report that evidence is slowly emerging from various sources that people actually read this blogspot. The Neo-Liberal plot to take over the world marches on.

One reader (thanks George!) sent in these suggestions for my trip to England in relation to the Factor of Ten:

1. Ask the airline to provide me with standing room only for the 24 hour flight (as this is roughly a tenth of the service a seat provides).

2. Refuse any airline food and insist on only one packet of peanuts for the whole flight (It’s a shame VirginBlue does not fly to London, as this would have been easier to achieve).

3. When travelling on the Tube from Heathrow to Piccadilly, stipulate that I need to get out at Boston Manor and walk the rest of the way.

4. If attending any football matches, pay for the full price but leave after 9 minutes (If you go to an Arsenal match this should not be a problem, they’ve usually got it won in the first 5).

5. While sightseeing control the erg of taking photos of everything only take photos of every tenth sight. This really ruins the chances of a Kodak moment.

Could Life Imitate Again?, 2 October 2002:

Shane Diaczuk, a spokesman for Defense Minister John McCallum, said that no decision has been made on whether Canada would take part in any military action against Saddam Hussein. But McCallum has said the armed forces would contribute if ordered to do so.

"Should the government decide to exercise a military option, the Canadian forces would be able to make a meaningful contribution," Diaczuk quoted McCallum as saying.

Canada provided 800 army soldiers, an undisclosed number of special force fighters, navy support ships and air force transport and reconnaissance planes to the Afghanistan campaign., February 2002:

Canadian television reported Friday that a Canadian warship in the Arabian Sea had seized a tanker suspected of smuggling oil from Iraq, leading many to suspect that the report was a hoax.

"You're kidding, right? Canada has a warship?" asked U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "Like for war?

"Does Canada know?" he added.

"Nobody was more stunned than we were," said Kali Omari, first mate of the seized vessel. "We saw this frigate steaming toward us, and we were worried, but then we saw the maple leaf on the flag, and we thought, 'Oh, Canadians. What the hell do they want?'"

When an officer of the HMCS Vancouver announced that the tanker was about to be boarded, the crew of the detained ship was confused, said Omari, but their confusion quickly turned to anger when they saw what the Canadians sailors were carrying.

"They were armed. With guns," said Omari. "Canadians. With guns. And a warship. What is this world coming to?"

Wednesday, October 02, 2002

True Blue Libertarian reports that Montana's Libertarian candidate for the US Senate has turned blue from drinking a silver solution that he believed would protect him from disease:

Stan Jones,a 63-year-old business consultant and part-time college instructor, said he started taking colloidal silver in 1999 for fear that Y2K disruptions might lead to a shortage of antibiotics.

He made his own concoction by electrically charging a couple of silver wires in a glass of water.

His skin began turning blue-gray a year ago.

"People ask me if it's permanent and if I'm dead," he said. "I tell them I'm practicing for Halloween."

He does not take the supplement any longer, but the skin condition, called argyria, is permanent. The condition is generally not serious.

Colloidal silver dietary supplements are marketed widely as an anti-bacterial agent or immune-system booster, but some consider it quackery.

Jones is one of three candidates seeking to unseat Democratic Sen. Max Baucus in November. The others are Republican state Sen. Mike Taylor and Green Party candidate Bob Kelleher.

I wonder if he's related to ANU economist Chris Jones ?

Great News, But It's Still Probably Just a Neo-Liberal Plot to Take Over the World

The Christian Science Monitor reports on new studies which "suggest that the world has made extraordinary progress in slashing poverty in recent decades."

One new study, published Thursday by the Institute for International Economics in Washington, finds that the proportion of the 6.1 billion people in the world who live on $1 a day or less shrank from 63 percent in 1950 to 35 percent in 1980 and 12 percent in 1999 (adjusted for inflation).


A Columbia University professor, Xavier Sala-i-Martin, published two working papers last spring tending to support the rapid-progress thesis. Looking at data from 125 nations, he finds that the number of extremely poor people declined by 235 million between 1976 and 1998, even though population grew hugely. The $1-a-day poverty rate (in 1985 value dollars; $532 a year in today's dollars) fell from 20 percent to 5 percent.

How to Back Down on Iraq

Bush and House Democrats may have agreed on an Iraq resolution, but it's not too late for the Bush administration to back down. Here's some tips from Christopher Buckley in today's Wall Street Journal:

Iraq: The Real Story


In the event that the administration decides not to proceed with war against Iraq, the challenge will be to save face while executing an about-face.

Some possible back-down strategies:

• The CIA reveals that the Al-Hussein missile launch site at Um-kbir is being readied not to strike offensively with weapons of mass destruction, but to carry 'N Sync's Lance Bass into outer space in wake of his rejection by the Russian space agency for defaulting on the promised $20 million fee.

• U.S. linguistic specialists decode Baghdad's frequent use of the term "Zionist plot" to be an ancient Mesopotamian term of endearment for "very special friend."

• Politely contradict British Prime Minister Tony Blair's assertion that Iraq has been trying to purchase uranium from Africa. Blame overworked and possibly drunk MI-6 analyst for misrepresenting Saddam's efforts to purchase barium for the al-Khatab Gastrointestinal X-Ray Facility.

• U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte announces to the Security Council that maintaining healthy relations with our good friends Syria, Mauritius and Guinea-Bissau is way more important than removing the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

• National Security Agency analysts now reveal that on closer examination, those satellite spy photos of the Al-Ratah/Shahiyat Liquid Propellant Engine Static Test Stand turn out to be the Al-Ratah Skate Park and Pitch 'N' Putt.

• NSC Director Condoleezza Rice reveals that U.S. intelligence has learned that Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay harbor crushes on Paris and Nicky Hilton and are secretly planning for a free, democratic, pluralistic, post-Saddam Iraq in hopes of luring the fashion industry to Baghdad.

• Presidential political adviser Karl Rove reveals in interview that preventing Saddam from acquiring nuclear weapons is "just not worth it" if it means alienating key Senate Democrats and complicating President Bush's campaign to privatize Social Security.

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

"We’ll All be Rooned," says Hamilton
This drivel from today's Australian by Clive Hamilton (sorry, no link available):

We need do no more than consult a first-year text to appreciate why the market cannot produce an efficient outcome for educational services.

Oh boy, this ought to be good.

The callow 18-year-old consumers of higher education are unique among consumers for their ignorance of the value of what they choose, which explains why they are so often urged to take some time off between high school and university. They frequently have no good idea of what is in their own interests let alone how their education can contribute to society's interests.

Translation: People are morons. They are so dumb they don't even know what is in their own interests. Clive Hamilton, on the other hand, does know what is in society's interests, as well as the interests of each individual, and he's about to tell us just what those interests are.

While this has always been the case, the difference today is that the information that young people use to make choices about higher education is not so much drawn from the wisdom of their elders but has been conditioned by historical changes wrought by the neo-liberal revolution.

Translation: "Neo-liberalism" is taking over the world, and that's bad. Why, I hear you ask? Clive gives us the reason:

They are influenced more strongly by notions of immediate employability, by rapidly disseminated fads about which industries are booming and pay the most, and by a social environment in which expectations about financial rewards have outstripped the ability of the economy to provide.

Translation: "Neo-liberalism" is bad because it makes people want to earn more money to raise their own living standards. And that's bad.

In addition, for markets to work effectively, consumers must have good information about the quality of the goods being offered by each firm. Firms that provide inferior goods or services compared to the competition will fail.

Yes, Clive, the education system we have now, where firms that provide inferior goods or services get rewarded by the taxpayer, is soooo much better.

But in the case of universities there are substantial spillover effects. Reports of falling standards -- including allegations of declining pass marks, soft-marking for full fee-paying students, failure to penalise plagiarism and so on -- damage not just the departments and universities that may be guilty, but all Australian universities.

Oh really? So when the University of Newcastle marks students too softly, that reflects badly on all Australian Universities, and so Aussie kids decide to go to Harvard instead? Give me a break.

If universities are enterprises then they must compete with one another.

Is there a point here?

When many firms offer similar products they pursue market share through product differentiation and spend increasing amounts on the marketing and branding of their products.

Still waiting for a point....

Ventures such as Melbourne University Private and the commercial arms of universities are sustained by the brand power of the public university accumulated after decades of public investment.

Totally irrelevant, since "brand power" won't last a New York minute if universities don't continue to produce a decent product.

We can expect to see universities begin to offer discounts and specials to attract students.

The point being?

Finally, and crucially, markets operate efficiently only when there are no significant external effects or public goods. Education is perhaps the most important public good.

What, more important than say, national defence?

Everyone benefits from living in a better educated society, and the enjoyment of each does not diminish the enjoyment of others. Nor is it possible to force people to pay for the privilege.

Umm, gee, Clive, if it isn't "possible to force people to pay for the privilege", then what the hell am I doing paying off a $10,000 HECS debt?

The privatisation of education is a process in which more and more of the benefits of education accrue solely to the person being educated, and the spillover benefits to others are diminished.

Now Clive's simply contradicting himself. In the previous two sentences, he's trying to say that education is non-rivalrous in consumption and non-excludable. But now he's saying that exclusion and rivalry are happening more and more. Which is it, Clive?

Commercialisation is therefore changing the nature of university education.

Ah, yes Clive, how profound. Now we see the argument: the public good properties of a particular commodity aren't determined by technology etc. They are determined by the degree of "commercialisation" of that good. What was it you started out saying about consulting a first-year economics text?

It is also changing the nature of students. When degrees become commodities, students are absolved from the responsibility to think. They are intolerant of material extraneous to the requirements of the course. They want the required information, and only the required information, delivered to them on demand. It is easier to reproduce ideas than to struggle with them.

Yes, before "commercialisation", all students got HDs. All of this commercialisation is frightfully distasteful isn't it? After all, look at what private schools have done to secondary education!

As universities behave more and more as enterprises rather than academies, the relationship between management and employees is transformed. Academic staff are seen as a resource to be allocated rather than a community of scholars, and the value of each is measured by the identifiable contribution to the profit centres of the university.

Well, Clive, if you knew anything about economics you would know that the net economic value of any economic activity is determined by the difference between its value and its opportunity cost i.e. the economic profit of the activity.

Market theory does not work for education, and the avatars of the enterprise university are guilty of ``market utopianism''.

Get it? Reforms such as HECS, up front fees etc. are all just "utopianism". I'm not sure what the point is here. Is Clive saying that he thinks we're becoming more like Texas?

The choice is not between support for the enterprise university and a futile pining for a golden age. The liberal university must retain the values and principles that distinguish a university from a place of instruction and do so in an increasingly predatory commercial environment.

Hang on, I though liberalism was bad. Make up your mind!

This desire is not confined to a few superannuated Australian scholars. In the mid 1990s, the Boyer Commission, sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation, reaffirmed the importance of linking teaching and research in the US's 130 ``research universities''.

Ah yes, the Carnegie Foundation, a private organization set up by that filthy capitalist pig, and richest man in the world Andrew Carnegie, who donated his massive fortune (earned from "commercial" activities) to, among other things, education. So Carnegie might be the worst possible example to use in pushing the case against mixing commercial activity with education services. And, by the way, Carnegie never went to university!

The Boyer Commission observed that investment in research does double duty, contributing to the education of the next generation as well as enhancing teaching now, quite apart from the benefits of the research itself: ``The ideal embodied in this report would turn the prevailing undergraduate culture of receivers into a culture of inquirers.'' The ideal of the Boyer Commission is not so far from the practice in Australian universities in the 1970s and '80s.

Still waiting for a point...

If we are to rescue the idea of a university, we must place the university in a realm outside of the market, although not wholly insulated from it.

Finally a point emerges; but alas: it is an asinine one.

In practice, it means building a series of protections into the higher education system. These protections should include measures to protect academic freedom, that is, the spirit and practice of independent inquiry unconstrained by fear of retribution from powerful forces.

And which "powerful forces" would those be, Clive? The greenhouse effect, maybe?

We need university structures that support academics in their decisions to teach what it is important for students to learn.

Translation: banality.

We need systems that require course standards to be compared across the university sector.

And of course, we all know that in markets, prices don't reflect differences in quality at all.

And if academics are to serve as intellectual mentors rather than industrial drones, they need returned to them the power to make decisions about courses, course content, degree structures, assessment standards and admission requirements.

And this all disappears with "commercialisation" does it? How many businesses do you known who don't have the power to make decisions about the products that they sell?

When they reach their teenage years, school children are wont to ask their teachers: ``Why are we studying this stuff? It will be of no use to me.''

Translation: banality, once again.

We try to explain that knowledge is valuable in itself because its acquisition trains us how to think and gives us a better understanding of the world around us. We tell them that when we better understand the world around us we are more comfortable with it and with our fellow citizens.

And in private schools teachers don't do any of this. Private school kids have no understanding of the world around them. Just like the privately educated Gough Whitlam, I guess.

In the past, most children grew out of their adolescent functionalism. But the commercialisation of universities -- with the inexorable shift to vocational education, the focus on the customer, the dilution of standards and the warping of research priorities -- represents a reversion to the adolescent approach to learning -- and perhaps a regression of civilisation itself.

To summarize: we're heading for a national crisis, because things aren't going Clive's way. Research priorities are not what he thinks they should be; they are "warped". On the one hand, commercialisation is going to make students worse off because they won't "understand the world around them" and won't be "comfortable with it and with their fellow citizens". But on the other hand there is "too much focus on the customer."

Yes, I understand it all perfectly now.

Democrats Watch, Part II
Robert "The Torch" Torricelli dumped himself yesterday. Meanwhile, high powered Democrat advisers frantically searched around for a replacement, before naming former Senator Frank Lautenberg as his replacement.

Notably, Lautenberg voted against the 1991 Gulf War Resolution. The other potential choice, Congressman Frank Pallone voted in favour.


The News that Wasn't

AFP reports as "news" the fact that the White House would welcome the assassination of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein by one of his own people or his banishment from Iraq.

Of course, this isn't news because it has, in fact, been US law since 1998. The 1998 Iraq Liberation Act provides that:

It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.

Mediprayer vs Medicare

It looks like our troubles with ballooning medical costs and public liability insurance are over, as you would know if you had watched this program hosted by David Suzuki on SBS television last night.

The program explained the treatment of AIDS sufferers by what is known as "distant healing", which involves a whole bunch of people praying that you will get better, and apparently "works" even if the "recipient" of the prayers is completely ignorant of the "healing" that they are "receiving".

So that settles it. The days of socialized medicine are finally behind us. Call Kerryn Phelps and tell her that the AMA is history. We now have Mediprayer, not Medicare.

The Perils of (Not) Publishing
On Monday I wrote that being a professional economist is an unforgiving business. For another example, consider this story:

At the beginning of the year, Dr A submitted a paper to Journal B. The paper was basically an extended comment on a paper in Journal C (a better journal), and therefore the editors at Journal B, having read the paper and being very wise, suggested that Dr A send the paper to Journal C instead. So Dr A does this.

Yesterday Dr A receives a referee report from Journal C, saying that they liked the paper very much, but that it was more suitable for....Journal B!

Dr A is considering starting his own academic journal.

It would be funny if it hadn't happened to me....

Monday, September 30, 2002

The View from Mont Pelerin, Part I
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm off to London later this week to attend the Mont Pelerin Society Meetings.

Although there is very little evidence that anyone reads my blog, I plan on blogging from these meetings - mostly for my own benefit so I can keep a record of the trip. I'll be attending a reception with a Great Lady, along with other events.

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