Monday, October 30, 2006

Return of the base not

Conservative spin is now that the Republicans are recovering, as 'the base' flocks home terrified by the prospect of Nancy Pelosi being speaker, I place more value in this poll in Newsweek:
On the issues, Republicans have staunched their own political bloodletting, pulling even with Democrats on signature GOP issues: for instance, 40 percent of Americans trust Republicans more on handling terrorism; 39 percent trust Democrats more—a statistical tie. And when it comes to which party voters trust more on moral values, Americans are evenly split at 38 percent. The GOP has slightly narrowed the trust gap on other issues, but the Democrats still lead—on Iraq (45 to 33); the economy (47 to 34); health care (53 to 26); immigration (40 to 32); federal spending and the deficit (47 to 31); and stem-cell research (48 to 26). They even tie, statistically, on what used to be bedrock Republican issues: 39 to 37, in favor of the Democrats, on guns; and 38 to 36 in favor of the Democrats on crime. On abortion, Democrats win 42 to 33 and on same-sex marriage, 41 to 33.
Consider the popular view that 'values' issues such as abortion and gay marriage are Republican pluses; it doesn't seem to be supported by this poll (although the argument will be made that they motivate key groups), I agree that on gay marriage and abortion the Democrats are all over the shop but their confusion and ambivalence mirrors that of the electorate.

Water wars and electoral reform

Controversy 1) about the decommissioning of a dam in northern Victoria so that Lake Mokkan (pic from here) will be returned to natural wetland; 2) and water customers having to pay for infrastructure maintenance even when there is no water, later are not happy with government's offer of a rebate. We see that the introduction of proportional representation for the Victorian Legislative Council has forced Labor to be more responsive to these concerns. In the past Murray valley irrigators could have been ignored as they live in ultra-safe conservatives electorates but no longer, as now they live in the Northern Victoria province where Labor’s second seat is most at risk. Historically when large-scale irrigation works were introduced governments fairly quickly gave up incorporating infrastructure costs in water prices, these were written off as part of national development and farmers were only expected to pay for the costs of water supply, Bruce Davidson explains in Australia Wet or Dry?. Public infrastructure reform meant full charging but it remains unpopular it seems.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Minimum wage increase: a triumph of public choice theory?

How are we to explain the decision of the Fair Pay Commission? The fact that its decision is close to the ACTU's claim is taken by the government as evidence we don't need the ACTU effectively, but it is probably similar to what the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) would have handed down (graph shows how its post-1996 decisions came closer to those of the ACTU over time, from Age, 7.7.05). Historically the AIRC and its predecessors were often guided by self-preservation. To retain role in wage-fixation it had to roll with market forces or employers and unions would collectively bargain outside the AIRC for higher wages. This didn't stop Treasury as Greg Whitwell shows often assuming that the AIRC had power to set wages of its own accord. Braham Dabscheck argued that the AIRC made a major error in its early 1990s opposition to enterprise which encouraged the Labor government to legislate to reduce its role, a policy which the Howard government carried further. In the early 1990s the labour market trends actually favoured the policy direction of the AIRC but not that of the government and it is the government which legislates. The Fair Pay Commission knows it will be legislated out of existence if Labor wins the next election, self-preservation dictates a Coalition victory, and this decision is favourable to that objective. Perhaps as public choice theorists would argue this is the only explanation we need. As the fate of ATSIC shows statutory authorities can not be too critical of governments. It is obvious Ian Harper and Judith Sloan the brains of the Commission, Sloan is the more partisan figure and my guess would be she calls the shots. When Harper was appointed many mulled over his work in search of guidance as to Commission policy, nobody commented on Economics and Ethics but it is very vague. The Australian can’t make up its mind and floats a negative income tax, I don’t doubt that some proponents of such a measure, such as the Five Economists, are sincere, but the Howard government is committed to many expenditure (vote-buying programs) programs and has no incentive to accept the advice of its friends on this issue.. Remember all of those sermons from Paul Kelly etc., who had obviously never read an AIRC minimum wage case, on how outrageous it was that the AIRC was not taking into account government payments, it all seems rather silly now that the Fair Pay Commission has been similar? Still the statutory independence of the FPC like the Reserve Bank could as Stephen Bell has argued for the Bank be convenient for governments.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Friends and enemies

For some unknown reason I get the emails of Peoplepower, the new Victorian political party, basically rather like the Democrats including Stephen Mayne of Crikey fame and Vern Hughes (he used to be in Socialist Forum (for whose newsletter I wrote this) but now writes for the Institute of Public Affairs). An email today suggested that Victorian Labor was seeking a deal with the Liberals, that in exchange for Liberal preferences in the inner-city seats (which would dash any hope of Greens winning) Labor would preference to the Liberals in safe National seats. This would place many Nationals at serious risk especially Hugh Delahunty in Lowan. It is a plausible scenario, especially as Labor's Northcote candidate is unlikely to inspire local ALP branch members to campaign for her. Mary Delahunty (sister of Hugh) attracted votes that would have otherwise have gone to the Greens, as shown by her polling about 5% points better than Labor Legislative Council candidate in 2002. Alexandra Bhathal is a strong candidate for the Greens. Labor and the Greens are like Liberals and Nationals their ideological closeness encourages competition between them. Can the Greens stand up to Labor on this, their preferences give them some power over Labor but where can they go?

Friday, October 20, 2006

The strange case of David Burchell

The Australian has a strange group of commentators and I noticed today David Burchell discounting Iraqi death counts. Along the way Burchell muses that the Lancet is 'not one known for its expertise in social statistics analysis’. neither is Burchell, he began his days as a Communist, by the time he joined the Communist Party it had long ago ditched the Soviet Union as far as it could, but it couldn't entirely do so and maintain a separate existence from the ALP. Burchell's political trajectory was towards the ALP like many Communists and the CPA's Australian Left Review of which he was the last editor was very pro-ALP. These shows on Burchell's part a certain intellectual comfort with the idea of exercising power or playing at being a court intellectual. Along the way he became a Foucauldian of sorts, like Peter Botsman, and thus was preoccupied with the 'how' of government ('governmentality') rather than the 'why' or outcomes. Like Botsman Burchell was a Lathamite. It’s an interesting career but when it comes to policy advice on Iraq Burchell can offer only:
Whether Western forces should stay or go - and this is a decision that hangs in the balance - may determine the fate of tens of thousands of lives.
I would have more respect for someone who argued a case one way or the other.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Bush, Howard and conservatism

Among a few Australian economic liberals criticism of the big-spending propensities of the Howard government is a constant theme. Andrew Norton calls Howard a 'conservative social democrat'. This approach identifies state expenditure with social democracy; Howard might better be classified with the Catholic Christian Democratic tradition. But if Howard loses next year most of the Liberal factions will agree on criticising his taxation and expenditure policies, this will enable them to escape arguing about industrial relations or the Iraq war. Pressure will also come from the Australian supply-siders with their faith-based approach to finance (peter Reith has a trial run here). In practice this will play out strangely, the initial will be that tax receipts will rise as a result of tax cuts, then it will deficets don't matter, and then any constraints on public expenditire will be dropped. In the US criticism of Bush's alleged 'big government conservatism' have become a torrent among many conservative intellectuals. An interesting article in the neo-conservative Weekly Standard notes that all of Bush's conservative critics can agree on criticising his expenditure policy, but correctly argues that:
No doubt there is conservative disaffection today. But it failed to manifest itself during Bush's first five years in office, when he was no less of a spender than he is now. If conservative voters have turned against their president, it's because of his perceived incompetence--over Iraq and Katrina--and his support for immigration reform, not No Child Left Behind or the prescription drug entitlement. Indeed, if there's any lesson to take from Bush's sky-high popularity among conservatives for most of his presidency, it's that the movement's rank and file cares far less about government-cutting than its activists do...Or perhaps the rank and file just have longer memories. After all, Ronald Reagan, the man whose legacy Bush has supposedly betrayed, presided over a federal government that consumed 23.5 percent of GDP in 1984. Granted, this was at the height of the Cold War defense build-up, yet the figure far surpasses spending under President Clinton, which reached a low of 18 percent of GDP in 2001.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

New material

I have put the final version of my APSA conference paper; Herbert Spencer in the suburbs: class, ideology and the Australian petty-bourgeoise in the Howard years on my web page and also a presentation to a Faculty of Education conference on the history of south-western Victoria, 'A south-western history of the world' (title sampled from Kurlansky's A Basque History of the World) since the breakup of Gondwanaland in a global context. 45M years in 30 minutes, but some people liked it. Both are here.

Agrarian capitalism vs. John Howard

Howard's statement that:
it is part of the psyche of this country, it is part of the essence of Australia to have a rural community...Not only would we lose massively from an economic point of view [but] we would lose something of our character. We would lose something of our identification as Australians if we ever allowed the number of farms in our nation to fall below a critical mass.
This is one in a long line of agrarian rhetoric from Australian politicians. But in the long run there seems no alternative. Increasing farm productivity means that fewer farmers are required to produce the same amount of output and demand for farm products does not increase along with income. In the long-run the drought is just a hiccup in this process. Western Victoria, and in particular the Mallee-Wimmera is now the heartland of commercial agriculture in Victoria with good land and land prices are kept down by the absence of alternative uses so farms can expand. But it is the wheat belt which is declining fastest in population and will continue to do so. When farmers can't sell (although blue-gum plantations provide a market) they might as well stay on the land but their children won't follow them and they end up as my students. On Victoria see the work of Neil Barr, in particular The Changing Social Landscape of Rural Victoria. Family farms are non-capitalist (score one to the poststructuralists), but in the long-run if they cannot provide a comparable standard of living to the capitalist non-farm economy, then people will leave them. People left non-capitalist East Germany for the capitalist West Germany. Capitalist innovation drives increasing living standards. The attached graph from the Productivity Commission on broad acre farm returns tells the story. Lenin and Kautsky in two of the great works of classical Marxism were right about capitalist concentration in agriculture.

Monday, October 16, 2006

More Comintern lessons

Recently finished William Chase, Enemies within the Gates; the Comintern and the Stalinist Repression 1934-39, a collection of documents on the impact of the purges on the Comintern. The meetings transcribed are horrifying in which Communists turn on themselves in an orgy of self-blame and accusation. There must have been people in these meetings baffled by the insanity unfolding before them and the departure of their comrades to the execution cellars. Maybe not. Like the current insanities it all began with a single terrorist action, the 1934 Kirov assassination, and from then the documents shows how this spiralled out of control, even out of Stalin's control. It is an example of the limitless capacity of humans for self-delusion and for magical thinking where setbacks are not attributed to mistakes or even objective circumstances but conspiracies. No doubt soon we will be told that the Iraq war failed because of its critics who were objectively complicit with the terorists. Within the madness there are also hints of score settling, the apparatus figures who were purged were Popular Front opponents like Bela Kun and Osip Piatinsky. It does confirm E H Carr's historical skill in Twilight of Comintern, written long before the archives were opened, in teasing out the lines of Comintern division in the early 1930s.

North and South, East and West

Inclined to agree with Ross Terrill that debate on North Korea has ignored the human rights implications of the continued existence of the appalling North Korean regime. Historically I am reminded of the debate about Stalin's 1952 offer to withdraw Soviet troops from East Germany in exchange for the formation of a united neutral Germany. The west rejected this proposal with little attention, maybe Stalin's offer was not genuine (Gerhard Wittig argues this in the 1994 Historical Journal), but if it was serious the Stasi and the Berlin Wall would have never happened. Millions would have been freed from Communism long before 1989. Even this small chance was worth pursuing. The subsequent history of East Germany doesn't seem to offer hope for Korean reunification however. The ostpolitik of West German governments was not successful in encouraging liberalization in the regime and it only collapsed once travel across the border was possible.

The strange case of William Lines

The weekend Australian had an extract from William Line's new book in which he complains about environmentalists support for indigenous land claims accusing them of racial thinking. It seems The Australian will use any argument against indigenous people today, but it is curious they use Lines whose first book Taming the Great South Land blamed environmental decline in Australia on evil white males inspired by the Enlightenment and Adam Smith etc. etc. even the CIA rates a mention in this green armband tome. Is it such a preachy and dogmatic book that I don't use it as an academic resource.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Cardinal Moran and the culture wars

Read Patrick Ford's Cardinal Moran and the ALP. I think it was the only book Ford, a Catholic priest ever wrote, published in 1966 it has hints of being an intervention in contemporary Labor politics and stresses Moran's role in steering Labor from the course of 'continental socialism'. Ford attributes Labor's poor electoral performance in the late 1890s to a reaction by Catholic voters against its socialism. I would see a more general reaction against the party, but my analysis of early Labor electoral support at the 2003 Labour History conference would have benefited by a consideration of Ford's work. Ford fails to see that Moran's political room to manoeuvre was closed off after 1901 by the rise of political Protestantism, he had to reconcile himself to Labor's moderate socialism to an extent he refused to do so in the 1890s because there was nowhere else for Catholics to go. From a contemporary view I think of current religious panics. Ford describes how in 1868 Australia’s first royal visor Alfred Duke of Edinburgh was shot at and slightly wounded by Henry O'Farrell. Premier Henry Parkes alleged a Fenian (to simplify they were the 19th century version of the IRA) conspiracy. O'Farrell claimed to be a Fenian but then retracted this and it is clear that he was deranged and acted alone. Parkes however claimed there was a conspiracy and someone had been murdered to cover up the conspiracy. This seems to have been a pure invention or hysterical imagining. Ford also brings out how the Free Traders under Reid played the sectarian card. Worth remembering when there is much silliness today from 'classical liberals' and others (such as the apparently defunct Reid group) about how enlightened the Free Traders were unlike those nasty racist protectionists. Protestant campaigners also argued that the practice of confession enabled Catholics to lie in defence of their faith and that Catholics were taking over the public service. Today exactly the same claims are made about Muslims by the inheritors of the old protestant right such as John Stone. However the contemporary revolutionary left should consider how Moran campaigned against socialism, and note that on the O'Haran case (where Moran's private secretary was cited in a divorce case) there was more evidence for the case against O'Haran than Moran or Ford admits, although this ABC account disagrees and takes a simplistic pro-O'Haran position.

Friday, October 13, 2006

US elections

US congressional elections are finally getting some coverage in Australia. The Australian left has to share in the delight of its US counterpart over the Foley affair. Katha Pollitt is worthwhile on this as on most other matters:
Unlike White House press secretary Tony Snow ("naughty e-mails"), I don't minimize Foley's behavior. It's wrong for middle-aged men to come on to teenagers, even if they're of legal age and even if, as some of the IM exchanges suggest, the young person seems willing to play ("with a towel you can just wipe off and go"). Let the kids fool around with each other. But there's something unseemly about the festival of ritual humiliation: You'd think he was raping 5-year-olds, not exchanging dirty IMs with high school seniors who could, after all, just log off or not reply. The blasts of indignation sweeping the blogosphere seem awfully opportunistic: "deranged pedophile," "sicko," "children at risk." As the Republicans are eager to remind us, Dems are no angels: Gerry Studds slept with a page in 1973, ignored the censure of his colleagues and kept his seat until he retired in 1997; Mel Reynolds had sex with an underage female campaign worker, went to prison and was pardoned by President Clinton; Barney Frank--and we love Barney Frank--unknowingly housed his boyfriend's prostitution service in his apartment and was re-elected all the same. And don't forget former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevy, the proud gay American, now promoting his tell-all as part of his healing process. Men with power: It's not a pretty sight… The Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum thinks Foley will sweep the Dems back into power: Financial corruption like the Abramoff affair is complicated and boring, but everyone understands sexual shenanigans. Perhaps, but are the voters really so brain-dead? Is there no point trying to whip them up into a frenzy about some outrage that actually matters? Like, oh, Bush's refusal to declassify the full National Intelligence Estimate documenting how the Iraq War has created more terrorists. Or Afghanistan, where the Taliban is resurgent--so much so that Senator Frist said he wants to put them in the government. Have we given up on habeas corpus, just voted away with the help of twelve Democratic Senators and twelve House Dems, including Sherrod Brown, often praised in this magazine? It would be interesting if someone mentioned the record Foley compiled on the rare occasions when he zipped up his pants and went to work--like his support for that stupid 700-mile fence along the Mexican border, and for denying public education to illegal immigrant children. Now that's what I call child molestation. It shows you how hapless and shallow the Democrats are that they find so little electoral joy in a principled coherent challenge to Republican rule. Instead, we get tactical theatrics over whatever comes down the pike: last month gas prices, this week Foley. I see why the Democrats feel they have to do it: They're too compromised, the contests are too close and the discourse has been dumbed down for so long, it takes something simple and splashy to get people's attention. But it doesn't say much for the party--or for the rest of us, either.
Some of us feel this way in Australia too...but back to the battle at hand. David Corn is cautious:
A storm is heading toward Congress on Election Day. And were the United States a European-style democracy—where voters tend to pick party representatives rather than individual candidates—the Republicans would expect to lose scores of House seats. But congressional districts have been so thoroughly gerrymandered to protect incumbents that only 40 to 50 House seats are considered to be in play. That means that the current political tides will likely affect merely 10 percent of the entire body.
But even in Britain large seat turnovers result from large vote shifts. In the US there have not been huge vote shifts in Congress. The extent of gerrymandering: 'stack and pack' can be debated. But it can't prevent all electoral tides, especially when seats are fairly equal in enrolment, indeed because gerrymandering involves spreading your vote thinly over a large number of districts, it seems to me that once your vote falls below a certain level it becomes counterproductive as it reduces your number of safe seats. It is possible that the Republicans are moving into this terrain. When the swing is on seats fall, it is possible to hold a majority on 48% of the vote, but almost impossible to do so on 46%

Equivalance again

Another thought on Howard's speech, and a common error displayed in it. Howard identifies as philio-communists worthy of condemnation:
All those who did not simply oppose Australia’s commitment in Vietnam, but who actively supported the other side and fed the delusion that Ho Chi Minh was some sort of Jeffersonian Democrat intent on spreading liberty in Asia.
Let's not dispute that point, although you could, but there is the suggestion that thinking things which are naive, morally wrong etc. is the moral equivalent of actions which result in death and destruction on a vast scale. But they are not. Consider: John fantasises about killing his neighbour. Bill is a nice bloke who recklessly lights a fire in his backyard to burn off rubbish; the fire spreads next door and kills his neighbour. Who of Bill and John should be criminally prosecuted, who is more morally reprehensible? When the fire that has spread from Bill's place is raging do we attempt to extinguish it, or do we walk past and go and tell John that he is an evil man. Howard's atitude is not uncommon, much public debate on both sides in Australia is not a debate about what we should do, but what we should think about what other people are thinking about what other people are thinking or doing.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Striking a balance?

Didn't think much of Howard's address to Quadrant, but it has raised that old question of 'the left' and communism, the 'black armband' view of Australian intellectual history. Who is this 'left': Bob Brown, Doc Evatt, Lance Sharkey? I agree you can't on one level be too critical of people who apologised for and denied the crimes of communism, even if at the same time you have to understand why communism gained support. But let's think about authoritarian regimes overall, there were the communist states but there were many on the right: South Africa, Suharto's Indonesia, Pincohet's Chile etc., and there is also the question of human rights violations in Australia. My guess would be that if you compared Quadrant and Arena from 1960 to 1990 you would find the following:
1. criticism of the human rights records of Communist regimes disproportionately in Quadrant
2. Criticism of the human rights record of authoritarian right-wing regimes disproportionately in Arena
So a pattern of both sides attacking the other, and perhaps a draw on points, but I would predict that:
3. Quadrant would contain many defences and apologias for authoritarian right-wing regimes
4. Arena would largely ignore Communist regimes altogether, perhaps there were some Maoist apologias worthy of condemnation, although its Communist Party antecedents probably largely insulated it against Maoism
5. Arena would have far more coverage of human rights violations in Australia.
If we added all these up I suspect Arena would come out a long way ahead in the moral scales.
A moment's Google search brings up this in Quadrant:
More was done in the quarter-century of Indonesian rule to improve the health and education of the Timorese than ever had been done in the years of Portuguese rule. Much of this was destroyed in the name of independence…by aliens presumably