Friday, October 04, 2002

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SHOOTINGS DAY 2 - UPDATE 2

There is a possibility that another murder, this one in Virginia (the other state DC borders), is related to the Maryland killings. That would make seven. If the police speculation is accurate, this is sounding better organised by the minute: “YOU’VE GOT a driver; you’ve got a shooter,” Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose said. Police said the description of men in a white van came from a witness to one of the murders. And yes, I'd feel a whole lot better if the guy's name wasn't Moose. BTW: did I say gun culture? Check out The Washington Post website which now includes this helpful guide to the possible weapons being used, all helpfully linked to a nice sketch of each weapon. If this is actually newsworthy or even helpful to investigations, then why not links to possible van types? Instead we get a photo of a single van in the general mould of the one they're looking for. Not nearly as sexy.

CORRECTION: The Virginia victim has not died as I stated here. The story I link to actually gives "condition unknown" status, but I was going by a brief newsbreak I heard this evening. My mistake. The link with the Maryland murders is, to reiterate, only a possibility.
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SHOOTINGS DAY 2 - UPDATE

It looks like the number of deaths might now be six, after a shooting in Washington DC itself. Great. Another single shot.

So now the blogs and others are speculating on the identity and motives of, and responses to, the shootings.

Glenn Reynolds thinks we are missing the obvious link with terrorism. Well, that's helpful. Then again, his blog is called Instapundit, not Sitbackandthinkaboutitcalmlyapundit, so I guess this is just part of the blogorrhoeaic house style.

Jonah Goldberg at the National Review blog agrees and seems almost keen to find a terrorist link:

But isn't it possible that the Montgomery County sniper is a "terrorist" or terrorist-without-quotation-marks? I make the distinction because he wouldn't have to be a member of al-Quaeda or any other group. But the fact that these killings are random, in the DC suburbs and that they seem to be committed by a skilled shooter possibly with an accomplice makes it seem unlikely that it's a typical spree killer. They usually don't work in teams. There are precedents: This sort of thing is very common in the West Bank, not unheard of in Europe and there was the CIA shooter and the LAX guy (who was a freelancer). If it's an al-Quaeda type operation it may be evidence that bombing and large scale operations aren't possible in the current climate. Other than catching them, the surest way to tell if this more than a "normal" spree-killing is if there's another similar spree in a completely different area.

It could be terrorism, I suppose, but they/he seems a particularly restrained and shy sort of terrorist. If words are to have any meaning, I think we'd better stick to "murderer" at this stage.

Meanwhile, a whole bunch of people are suggesting--some reluctantly, some vigorously--that a man walking around killing people with a gun is the perfect argument for everyone in America to have a gun.

Now you'll have to excuse me a little here as this is the first time I've been neighbours with a homicidal maniac who decides to use the neighbours as target practice. I'm not sure of the etiquette. But when it comes to having an opinion on who should and shouldn't own a gun, Americans in general should shut the hell up. They don't know what they are talking about. They have nothing useful to contribute to any wider debate on the topic.

This is because Americans in general have not lived in a country where there isn't an (arguable) constitutional right to bear arms. Where there isn't an incredibly well-funded lobby group who makes it there business to help elect people who want the ownership of guns as uncontrolled as possible. Where there isn't a gun manufacturing and retailing industry who are similarly motivated. Where there isn't a gun culture.

In short, Americans have no experience of what the world can be like without the centrality guns, and all their thinking on the subject is therefore tainted. Thus we can get a reasonable person like William Burton writing this:

If random shootings and attacks were ever to become a normal part of American life (not that we're anywhere close to that yet), I don't see any solution which doesn't involve a lot of armed civilians prepared to shoot back at a moments' notice.

I hate to tell William and others this, but by first world standards, you are close to that. I know it doesn't seem like it to Americans, but that's my point. Until you've lived in a society where you have absolutely no expectation of being shot at some stage by some rights-asserting individualist armed to the teeth, then you simply have no standard against which to judge what is or isn't possible in regard to gun control. That's why you can't "see any solution which doesn't involve a lot of armed civilians". Not even the most obvious one of seriously trying to restrict ownership. It almost can't be thought, let alone enacted.

But this is the frightening thing: given the circumstances that exist here, the call for more people to carry guns takes on a surreally rational aspect. In a land of gun-toters, it makes a sort of sense to join them given you can't beat them. But this shouldn't obscure the fact that it only makes sense in the context of a land where the point of no return has already been reached. To have let yourself get to this stage, well, more fool you. I know I will be told that a majority of Americans do actually favour stricter gun control--which is great--but it sort of make its worse. How come this majority has been beaten into submission so completely?

Meanwhile, I'm keeping an ear on the radio, following the latest developments in this most recent episode of second amendment home theatre. I'm contemplating the peculiarly American logic of how the only possible response is to armed serial killers is to arm more, not less, people. Of course, in the Maryland case, even if the victims had been well-armed and of equal skill to their assailants, it would have done them no good. They were picked off from a distance with no warning.

What's that slogan?: guns don't kill people; people with guns kill people. Something like that.
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NO SUCH THING AS BALANCED

I guess the topic of "media bias" will always be a hot topic, but I think it is one that risks distracting us from more important questions. This is sort of what Avendon Carol is getting at in this post:

If you assume that any criticism of a party's actions or policies is "partisan", you are pretty much saying that issues are not meaningful matters for debate; the only thing that matters is which colors your gang wears.

The topic brings up once again Martha Gellhorn's famous quote: "Write what you see. I never believed in this objectivity shit." Here bloody here. The right uses the charge of "left wing bias" as a way of shifting the centre in their direction. It introduces an element of self-censorship into how journalists approach a story and you end up, in Australia for instance, where someone like Robert Manne is considered the "voice of the left" or in the United States where The New York Times and The Washington Post are considered "radically liberal" (in the American sense of the word "liberal"). I heard Rush Limbaugh the other day refer to the WaPo as the "leftwing bible."

Anyway, I've only extracted the smallest quote from a lengthy post by Avendon Carol. Worth a read.
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VERBAL HYGIENE

Bargarz gets awfully upset about people who use "an" before the word "horrific". He offers this explanation of the "proper" way to deploy the indefinite article:

So, here is the proper use of A or An: Use an in place of a when it precedes a vowel sound, not just a vowel. That means it's "an honor" (the h is silent), but "a URL" (because it's pronounced yoo arr ell). This confuses people most often with acronyms and other abbreviations: some people think it's wrong to use "an" in front of an abbreviation (like "MRI") because "an" can only go before vowels. Poppycock: the sound is what matters. It's "an MRI," assuming you pronounce it "em ar eye." Example an apple ; an hour.

Proper? Proper? Sez who? Quo warranto? This implies that there are some rules written somewhere and some body that has the authority to enforce them. Directions please. English, thank God, is singularly lacking in such regulatory apparatus (unlike French, for instance). Although verbal hygienists like Bargarz would like to insist that there are right and wrong ways of speaking English, there are in fact no such rules. There are only conventions--usage--and although some are so well-established that they tend to status of "rule", it is misleading to think of them in this way. In fact, in venting on the topic, Bargraz inadvertently stumbles across one of the great beauties of the English language:

My particular hatred is reserved for the particular use of "an" before "horrific".
For example:"There was an horrific accident on the freeway".
(sigh)
It's not as if I tawk goodly all the time myself. I guess I'm just anally retentive about the fact that it's their job and they can't even manage the public speaking side of things. The instances of this abberation are quite common due to the sensationalist nature of many newscasts. Even the ABC newsreaders, long held up TV's peerless enunciators, are now dropping this clanger into their sentences. Either they are learning this or a herd mentality is taking over.


His observation that "even the ABC" is using it and that there is a "herd mentality" about this particular usage is simply a pejorative way of noting that, for inexplicable but unstoppable reasons, the an horrific form is gaining the ascendancy. It is not doing this because someone said it should, but simply through use. That's how people are speaking, and to argue against (it's wrong! it's wrong!) is to assume the King Canute position. Bargarz has thus spotted through his language telescope, the birth of a star. The convention is changing (has changed) through the natural processes of language change and, as linguists are wont to note, if you've noticed the change, it's already too late to stop it.

Of course, Bargarz can go on hating it, as is his right, but don't pretend that there is some rule being offended. Repeat: there are no formal rules in English, only conventions.

I am much more offended by those like the dude he quotes--the self-styled language dictator from the aptly named Curmudgeon's Stylebook-- who says:

And "an historic." It's a pretentious affectation. The few who even begin to understand the concept enough to try to justify it will claim they leave the "h" sound off the beginnings of the words, but that's a crock. Ask 'em to read the words in isolation, without the articles, and you'll hear the "h."
-- Bill


The only one indulging in "pretentious affectation" here is Bill himself, who again, while entitled to his opinion about how to deploy an, is in no position to tell others how to do it. Look at it this way: English is the greatest free trade language on the planet, unregulated and uniquely successful. If there was a world language IMF, Bill would be the one out the front arguing for tariffs. He even displays the mandatory anti-Americanism:

Actually, now that you mention it, Americans would attribute that kind of thing to the Brits. "Erbal" for "herbal" is an anomaly (and the undisputedly correct American English pronunciation), but certain British dialects do seem to say "istoric" and "orrific" and the like. Or at least our bad American impersonations of them do.
-- Bill


Incidentally, for such a pedantic twit, Bill might want to consider the word "undisputedly". Then again, I guess this sort archaic form is the very stuff of pedant-speak.

So Bargarz, forget the so-called rules and learn to love English as she is spoke in maddening variety across the planet. It is a great big slut of a language, sleeping with whomever happens to be at hand and spawning many wonderful bastard off-spring. Don't try and put a chastity belt on it.

----------------------
NOTE: To protect myself against a barrage of complaints, in saying that there are no formal rules, let me make clear I am distinguishing between the inherent "deep structure" rules that exist in any language and the sort of imposed formalisations recorded in grammar books.

NOTE 2: The expression "verbal hygiene" I stole from linguist Deborah Cameron's book of the same name. It's an interesting study.
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SHOOTINGS - DAY 2

They still haven't caught the people/person responsible for the five killings in the area around my home. No-one has seen anything, except a vague description of a white van perhaps present at two of the crime scenes. This loon has been rational enough to take the lives of five people with five shots and to remain unseen and uncaught. Loon is definitely the wrong word - there is an air of great calculation about these random killings. But on the surface, they are random: five people apparently not related in any respect. I have kept Noah home from school today, though the decision eats at me. My rational side says he will be safer at school, with police patrols, security guards and behind locked doors. But my fatherly side won't let him out of my sight. Fortunately, this week, it is no problem for me to be available. So we'll make it as normal a day as possible, including blogging on other topics. I just read this article which describes the five deaths.

Thursday, October 03, 2002

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A HORSE GOES INTO A BAR, BARTENDER SAYS, "WHY THE LONG FACE?"

John Quiggin links to purportedly the world's funniest joke, chosen by two million respondents worldwide:

Wiseman, who teaches at the University of Hertfordshire in southern England, said the research revealed that different countries preferred different types of jokes. Respondents were asked to rate jokes on a five-point scale from "not very funny" to "very funny."

Germans were the most likely to find all types of jokes funny, while Canadians were the least amused of the 10 top responding nations.

The British, Irish, Australians and New Zealanders favored jokes involving wordplay, while continental Europeans liked jokes with a surreal bent. Americans and Canadians preferred jokes invoking a strong sense of superiority -- either because a character looks stupid or is made to look stupid by someone else.


I'd almost bet no Australian voted for the joke that won. I preferred another one the survey quoted:

"Texan: 'Where are you from?'

"Harvard graduate: 'I come from a place where we do not end our sentences with prepositions.'

"Texan: 'OK, where are you from, jackass?"'


My favourite Australian/American gag is this:

Texan goes into an Australian country pub, buys a drink and says, "Back home, I can can get on my horse at sunrise, ride non-stop for the next three days and still be on my own land." An Australian at the bar says, "Yeah, I used to have a horse like that."
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SHOOTINGS 3

Nothing much has changed--no developments--but I feel much better having brought Noah home from school. He was blissfully unaware of the day's dramas and hopefully will remain so. I can hear the news and police helicopters circling outside and can only trust that the threat will pass. Will move onto other things, cause what else are you going to do?
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SHOOTINGS 2

Can't get through to the school, as predicted. Will sit it out, as per instructions (and because I think that's best) for maybe 15 more minutes and will take the 5 minute drive to school. Expect the traffic jam out the front to be worse the usual. The news is recycling at this stage, with no developments to report: that is, no further deaths (thank heavens) but no capture of those responsible. Strangely, they keep interviewing officals from Virginia about the school situation and not those closer to the event like the ones in Maryland and DC. Also, there is a lot of emphasis on the fact that the shooter is very skilled, each victim dying from a single shot. They almost say it with admiration. Probably just me over-reacting. The streets outside are noticeably quieter than usual. Still the odd the person running anxiously along. I'll be one of them shortly. Hope this doesn't get coverage back in Australia; my mum will freak out. Here's a link.
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SHOOTINGS

This is the cliche come to life. The local news is currently providing blanket coverage of the fact that two men are driving around the area where I live (within a 3-mile radius) shooting people. Five people are dead. People have been advised not to drive and to stay in doors. The schools have been locked down. I just spoke to the office at my son's school and was told that children would not be let out for the time being and that all the schools doors were bolted shut. They said to ring back at 2pm (one hour) for more info, but what are the chances of getting through when every parent rings at the same time?

Looking out the window I can see woman with prams rushing home, having obviously just heard the news. My natural reaction is to go to the school and get Noah, but I guess he'll be safer where he is.
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TIPS for TRAVELLERS - CONTINUING TALES of an AUSTRALIAN in the UNITED STATES (second one today)

(This follows on from the post immediately below.)

The American art of tipping is as difficult for the outsider to master as is the Japanese practice of bowing or even the Tibetan art of throat singing (or the Australian use of the word bastard). We rarely tip in Australia (maybe only at restaurants) and so you have to, in the first instance, overcome the urge not feel that you are simply be ripped off: paying someone more than the advertised price for doing pretty much what you wanted them to do, like cut your hair.

Blogger Peter Martin has an economist's take on tipping:

Pure economic theory would suggest that we should not. We try to get the best possible price for things. So why pay more, and why do it after the service has been rendered? Especially if you are not likely to ever go to that town or restaurant again?

He then points at some research done at Cornell University (here and here) which he summarises thusly:

The Research at Cornell University suggests that we do it in large measure to ensure good service. Tipping is a sort of shadow market which fulfils a role legal contracts cannot. These days there is such a contract for employment. I will work more than the strict number of hours required, and in return you will pay me more than you are legally required to, and keep me on in a downturn.

We also do it for status. Ray Williams of HIH did it a lot. Men do it much more than women.

We are more likely to tip when other people are watching (say, in a big group).

And women are significantly more likely to do it when their waiter is a man, especially a man of eligible age.

For men, apparently, there is no such effect.


The studies also suggest that we leave larger tips when it is sunny and when we are given a small gift, like a chocolate, as part of the service.

Although they make interesting reading, both Cornell Studies cited are seriously flawed, IMHO. They purport to be based to some extent on comparative data, but they are written by people who have grown up in culture where tipping is the norm and I think this colours their interpretations. By making this presumption, they also over-estimate the extent to which tipping is voluntary, writing in one of the abstracts:

Every year consumers voluntarily give away billions of dollars to service workers in
the form of tips. The voluntary nature of tipping raises interesting questions about why
people tip and what factors influence their tipping decisions.


In fairness, and somewhat confusingly, they later acknowledge that, "Academics and consumers alike have expressed the belief that people tip because it is
expected and because violating those expectations risks social disapproval," but this doesn't seem to have shifted them from their basic starting point of tipping as voluntary.

To my way of thinking, then, this means the study is based on a false premise. It is very clear that there is an expectation that you will tip (though perhaps the expectations is felt more strongly by the uninitiated foreigner?). For instance, you will find in almost any travel guide to the US, a section similar to this, which sets out in some detail (and consistent with other guides) the expected tipping regime:

Waiters or waitresses get at least 15%. If you are served at a counter or bar tip 10% but at least 50 cents. Remember, in American restaurants, service is almost never included in the final bill. If an amount is added on, it is usually the amount of sales tax you owe on the bill.

Delivery people--for take out food or groceries--should be tipped a dollar or two.

Taxi drivers get 15%. Auto rental agency employees do not expect tips. At a car wash put a dollar or so into the tip cup for the employees. Tip valet parking attendants at least a dollar or two. Gasoline pump attendants do not expect tips, but if they give you good service or wash your windshields, they will appreciate 50 cents or so.

Porters, skycaps and bellhops get $1.00 for the first bag or two, 50 cents each additional bag.

Hairdressers and barbers are tipped at least 15%. If a separate person washes your hair, tip a dollar or two. Shoe shine people should get 50 cents to a dollar.

Coat check. If you check your coat tip $1.00 if you are not charged for the service.

At hotels, you may tip the maid a dollar or so a day if you stay more than one night. Tip room service waiters 15%. If the hotel concierge goes out of his or her way to help you, you may tip from $10 to $20.

Valet parking attendants expect a dollar or two.


Even the way this advice is phrased (Taxi drivers get 15%; barbers are tipped at least...) gives you an idea of the extent to which tipping is expected rather than voluntary (I mean, I know its voluntary in the sense that there is no law to make you tip, but I am saying that the expectation of tipping is so strong that it can't really be considered voluntary in a practical sense). This is important because, take the voluntary aspect out of tipping and you immediately undermine any notions that tipping is done for quality of service or many of the other affective reasons (to feel good, for social solidarity etc) the Cornell studies give. People do it because they are expected to. To subsume this under the heading of "social approval" and use it as a measure of social solidarity as the studies do is, I think, misleading.

Additionally, the Cornell studies tend to play down another factor that the guide books make central:

It is important to realize that for many professions, particularly waiters and waitresses, taxi drivers, porters and bellhops, tip income is half or more of the worker's total income. These people are paid very low salaries and depend on tip income. If in doubt, tip a little more than usual, especially if service was good or the person was friendly. It will always be appreciated.

Not that the Cornell studies are unaware of this factor, but they do relegate it somewhat, making it just one factor amongst many.

To my way of thinking, however, this is central. I'd suggest the reason we don't tip in Australia is because we have traditionally understood that we don't need to: people have been paid a "living wage" and we have had a reasonably generous welfare system. If you like, responsibility for a person's wage is taken out of our hands and put into the hands of the employer and to a lesser extent, the government. It actually becomes a classic case of how certain social policies (laws governing wages and conditions) enhance individual freedom and a sense of belonging and equality.

Although the tendency is to presume that by allowing the individual customer to choose whether and how much to tip we are somehow strengthening individuality, I think we can just easily argue that by taking the decision about tipping out of the hands of the individuals involved in the transaction we are in fact increasing the employees sense of individuality by not forcing them into ingratiating behaviour in order to secure the money they need to live on.

The employee is not dependant upon the whims and personal preferences of any given customer but merely upon a system of laws that say you will be paid a fair wage with reasonable conditions. Thus customer and worker are much better able to confront each other as equals than in a relationship, encouraged by tipping, where perhaps a large portion or in fact, their entire wage, is dependent upon satisfying some random persons individual desires.

In this regard, it is worth noting that some business, in Britain and the US, purposely decrease wages in the expectation that tips will make up the difference. In fact, as this interesting article reports, some businesses (particularly big hotels) actually charge people to work in them. That is, you would pay a hotel to work as a bellboy in the expectation that you can make a living out of tips. I know you can look at this as all very entrepreneurial, encouraging individuals to work hard and give good service in return for money, but to my mind it is the opposite. It puts back into the customer/worker relationship, not just increased uncertainty and all the miserable things that go with that, but an almost master-slave relationship where my livelihood is directly dependent upon the patronage and whims of those I have to deal with. If this isn't a recipe for arse-licking of a high order, I don't know what is. And I can't see at all how this enhances either freedom or individuality.

In fact, one of the Cornell studies looks at the notion of individualism and defines it as "the independence of individuals from organisations." They conclude that "the number of tipped professions decreased with individualism." But if my comparison between Australia and the US has any merit, the reverse could well be true. On this definition of individuality, Australia, with a more comprehensive welfare system and more strictly enforced minimum wage and conditions regime, is less individualistic than the United States. However, Australia has far fewer "tipped professions" than the US, thus contradicting the assertions of the Cornell study.

It's an interesting point because it tends to also contradict the easy equation the right makes between "small government" and individual freedom. Actually, on this example, the interventionist a government (through wage regulation) provides an environment that enhances individual freedom. Which reinforces some of the stuff I was saying in this post under the heading of left libertarianism.

Somebody once wrote that you could measure how civilised a country was by looking at how much security there was around the works of art in its major galleries; how safe you felt in hitchhiking its streets; and how much glass there was between you and a bank teller. To this list I would add the level of tipping: the more civilised the country, the less likely you are to be expected to tip. As Australia continues down the path of "flexible workplaces" and "labour market deregulation" (and other euphemisms for shifting power from workers to employers) I wonder if the expectation of tipping will increase? I'd suggest there is already evidence of it.

Maybe it should become a new economic indicator.
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TIPS for TRAVELLERS - CONTINUING TALES of an AUSTRALIAN in the UNITED STATES

1. God, after eight months of driving around here I've just discovered they drive on the other side of the road. Can you believe it? Who's bright idea was that!? Still, it explains a lot. And I might just quietly withdraw the post I had planned entitled, "They sure blast their horns a lot in Washington D.C.".

2. Here's one for the men: the real men who still go to barbers rather than hairdressers. When you sit in the chair, they make you face the back of the shop. That is, rather than having you look into the mirror on the wall closest to you, they turn the chair around so you are facing away from it. This is unheard of in Australia and is about as disorienting as it would be to be told you have to wear your underwear on the outside of your pants--or even that you have to drive on the other side of the road (who knew?).

Nonetheless, I have discovered the reason for this odd habit: it is to hide from you, until it is too late, the fact that they cannot cut hair. I have had nine haircuts from eight different barbers (my son has too) and they have all been appalling. Understand, I am not terribly fussy about such things. But the standard is atrocious. No wonder so many people simply opt for the number one blade headshave. No barber I have been to since arriving has been capable of the most basic comb-up-and-cut technique and they follow no logical pattern, like starting on one side and working their way around to the other as EVERY BARBER I HAVE EVER BEEN TO ANYWHERE IN WORLD HAS DONE. I just want your basic paint-by-numbers haircut and instead I keep getting Jackson Pollack.

Incredibly--which brings me to my next culturally sensitive topic--you are expected to tip your barber/hairdresser.

Wednesday, October 02, 2002

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SHADOW BOXING

History has shown Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, to be a dogged little fighter, a disposition that has become a habit and a source of personal pride, even when....

I clip this small section from a speech the PM gave to the Australian Chamber of Commerce:

And when I had the privilege of addressing a joint sitting of the United States Congress in June of this year, I said that there were many things that our societies shared in common. We shared a common belief in individual liberty. We shared a belief that a person's worth was determined not according to class, or race, religion, or social background, but rather the strength of character of the individual and the contribution that he or she was willing to make to society. I also said that we shared in common two other very important values and one of those was a belief that competitive capitalism was the true foundation of a generation of national wealth. And that is certainly a credo by which my own party, the Liberal Party of Australia, exists and is certainly something that I have endeavoured to defend in the time that I've been Prime Minister.

Did you get that last bit? Between 1996 and now, John Howard has been defending "competitive capitalism". At which point the peanut gallery arises as one and asks, against what?
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RATHER be POPULAR than RIGHT

I'm a big fan of Australia's Parliamentary Library, particularly the research they regularly make available via their website and, as the Australian Politics (APO) website reminds us, their bill digests.

APO this week also carries a link to a Library paper on the topic of populism and if I was that dreaded-but-far-from-rare thing, a paranoid rightwing fisker, I'd be inclined to suggest that yet another citadel of higher learning had been infiltrated by the leftist disease.

In one sense the paper gives a reasonable, if brief, overview of what "populism" means, dividing the concept into three sub-categories, leadership style, social critique and alienation. But you don't have to read between too many lines to detect yer basic anti-populist bias.

The presumption throughout the piece is that populism is bad, that it is only of appeal to the disaffected, the fringe, the--frankly--looney. This is evidenced by the preponderance of examples that take One Nation as their touchstone and the failure to allow at all for the fact that perhaps some of the causes it identifies as pejoratively populist actually might have some merit.

To detect this sort of bias, you have to pay attention to the phrasing and the contextualisation. Thus we get this take on the idea of citizen-initiated referenda (CIR):

Support is often given to radical proposals for change to a nation's financial system—the currency expansion ideas of the US Greenback Party or the beliefs of Douglas Credit pushed by the Australian League of Rights, for example. One Nation's Easytax proposal in 1998 spoke of replacing all federal taxes with a flat two per cent tax on incomes and transactions.

Mechanisms of direct democracy such as citizen initiated referenda are seen as the means for citizens to regain power. This view is held by the Citizens Electoral Council, and was the policy of the Country City Alliance in the 2001 Queensland election.


So CIR is put in the context of "radical proposals for change to a nation's financial system" and then it is followed by this telling observation: "Interestingly the Australian Democrats also support citizen initiated referenda, which they describe as 'one way of giving people at the grassroots access to real political power'.(7) This is a reminder that the populist critique can also be pitched to the left of politics." The word "interestingly" is key here, implying as it does that even a more mainstream party like the Democrats can support something "populist": it is a kind of exception-that-proves-the-rule sort of argument.

Or note this easy leap from what seems to me to be reasonable complaint in democracy, the disenfranchisement of ordinary people, to the charge of conspiracy theory:

Many populist views appeal to those who feel alienated from the political mainstream. This attitude can be a consequence of the major parties choosing not to refer to a particular issue—such as Asian immigration. It can also be a response to the major parties both taking the same public view on an issue—such as tariff reduction. This can produce a frustration with democratic institutions. For Pauline Hanson, parliaments and parties have betrayed the people: 'democracy really means mob rule'.(9)

Some populists take their grievances further, to the point where they explain society's ills in conspiratorial terms. One Nation's populism, for example, has been described as 'an ideology of grievance, blame and protest'.(10) The problems people face may be attributed to 'financial rings', to 'Jewish financiers', to distant and uncaring governments or to forces of globalisation. US populist Tom Watson's description of Catholics as 'the deadliest menace to our liberties and our civilization', are similar to the warnings by the Pauline Hanson Support Movement of a 'class of raceless, placeless cosmopolitan elites who are exercising almost absolute power over us'.(11) In all cases, the solution is simple: if these alien forces can be destroyed, then society can return to its earlier virtues.


Again, the juxtaposition of ideas implies a general discrediting of anything associated with "populism".

Now I'm not arguing that populism is all good all of the time. Clearly it does have its mindless, even dangerous, aspects. However, I get a bit concerned when educated critics, such as the writer of this paper, involve their criticism in this sort of dismissal:

The central populist theme is the belief that the will of ordinary people should prevail as opposed to politicians : One Nation, for example, describes itself as 'the people's voice'.(4) Populists of this type argue that the centralisation of power in national governments and large corporations is at the core of society's ills, due to a failure to heed what ordinary people want and need. They warn of 'distant, unaccountable and devious Government'.(5)

Such a critique appeals to many people who feel disadvantaged by, and excluded from, society's political, social and economic institutions. A current Australian example would be gun owners who maintain that ownership of weapons is a 'right' of all citizens.


Again, notice the juxtapositions and the transitions. We start with the will of the people and end with the example of gun owners who assert rights that do not exist in Australian law.

More importantly, notice what is being nonchalantly discarded along with the false claim of rights, the idea that "the will of ordinary people should prevail as opposed to politicians." What is this guy on about? Certainly that is a feature of populism, but it is also a feature of, um, you know, democracy. I know there are learned arguments to be had about parliamentary versus popular sovereignty in a Westminster system (precisely why we should have a republic IMHO), but the notion that to argue for the sovereignty of the people somehow puts you in the discredited category of extremist populist is crazy and the worst sort of elitism.

In fact, I am against citizen initiated referenda (preferring deliberative polls) and any other reductionist approaches that seek to make the inheritantly complex simple, but in many key respects, I would count myself a populist. In fact, just to further confuse Scott Wickstein in regard to our discussions in the post below, I would be willing to add populist to the label left libertarian if I was to put a sticker on myself.

We need to guard against majoritarianism (republican government does) but at the end of the day there has to be a fair bit of "populist" in any form of actual democracy.

Anyway, read the whole paper, and maybe also have a look at the companion pieces on liberalism, socialism and conservatism.
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POLITICISE THIS

Lisa at Ruminate This offers another perler in her ongoing series of equotes, this one from the man of the hour, the head honcho of all that is holy in the hknown huniverse, George W. Bush: "We need an energy bill that encourages consumption..." equoth George.

Following Lisa's link, I came across this other small example of how Republican claims that the Dems are "politicising" the "war on terror" ring hollow. George W. said: "An energy bill will be good for jobs. An energy bill will be good for national security."
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THE CHAIN GROWS LONGER

Over the last few weeks I've been adding some new permanent links. I've still got a few more to do when time permits, but in the meantime, may I bring to your attention the following sites:

Bargarz

Peter Martin

d-squared

My DD

uggabugga

Silflay Hraka

Lefty Libertarian
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STRIKE the POSE

A lot has already been said Christopher Hitchen's decision to leave The Nation magazine. I finally went and read Hitchens's parting shot, the pertinent paragraph of which is this last:

This is something more than a disagreement of emphasis or tactics. When I began work for The Nation over two decades ago, Victor Navasky described the magazine as a debating ground between liberals and radicals, which was, I thought, well judged. In the past few weeks, though, I have come to realize that the magazine itself takes a side in this argument, and is becoming the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden. (I too am resolutely opposed to secret imprisonment and terror-hysteria, but not in the same way as I am opposed to those who initiated the aggression, and who are planning future ones.) In these circumstances it seems to me false to continue the association, which is why I have decided to make this "Minority Report" my last one.

As a parting shot, they don't come much cheaper. Perhaps the decline in the quality of the "debating ground" is precisely because of this sort of ad hominen attack to which he here contributes? One piece of credible evidence of someone who thinks Ashcroft is a greater threat than bin Laden might have been nice.

Not that I really want to take sides in this having both misgivings about The Nation and a deal of admiration for Hitchens (and vice versa, of course).

It seems to me not too far fetched to suggest that Hitchens is in some way trying to emulate Orwell, asserting his independence of everyone and establishing his creditials in the sensible centre. But what Orwell achieved effortlessly, Hitchens seems to be grafting out with far too much effort, and the sweat on his intellectual brow looks unearned and more like a quick squirt from a spritzer bottle.

In particular I wonder how someone willing to take the moral highground against The Nation, finding it lacking in seriousness, can continue to regularly contribute to the fashion magazine, Harper's Bazaar.

CORRECTION: The fashion magazine he writes for is, of course, Vanity Fair. Apologies.
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I'M WITH STUPID

Let's deal with this "left libertarian" thing. Scott Wickstein picks up on the theme and informs us that reading this post from the Lefty Libertarian blog "scared the crap out of him." Not only that, he considers the left libertarian label "stupid" and as he closely associates it with me, I guess he is also calling me stupid. But this is okay, because Scott describes himself as a conservative and according to his interpretation of that position, everybody is stupid:

All people are stupid, even enormously paid academics and Nobel Prize winning scholars. By stupid, I mean, actually, not in command of all the information available. Its not humanly possible to know everything out there. Of course, you don't need to know everything out there to have a great life, and a great career. But it helps if you specialise in something, economics, engineering, journalism, whatever. And while you are busy specialising in your chosen field, your missing out knowing things in other important fields. You get more stupid. This is unavoidable, and the more so as there's an idea going around that the sum total of human knowledge is doubling every ten years, like a crazy-patch version of Moore's Law.

There's actually something in this, but stupid is the wrong the word. (I'd also like to hear the working definition of an "enormously paid academic", but that's as may be.) Yes, no-one can know everything. Yes, a specialisation in one field will mean you probably can't specialise in other areas. But to call this "stupid" is, well, stupid, in the more conventional sense of the word. To further say, as he does, that the opportunity cost of specialising in one field means "you get more stupid" is even stupider. So while I would say that there are risks with people becoming so inured in their own specialisation that they can't see the world except through that particular discipline (hands up the economists), there is nothing useful to be gained from defining this as stupid. In fact, the misuse of the word is, as language misuse always is, a positive harm.

Further, an inordinate number of the academics I know, all experts in their fields, are also incredibly well-read, well-informed and vitally interested in a range of topics outside their specialisation. Just read the blogs by people like John Quiggin, Rob Schaap, Jason Soon, Ken Parish, Jeff Cooper, Max Sawicky etc etc etc etc etc and stupid isn't the word that springs to mind.

The risk in a democracy is that those with specialist knowledge will, through that knowledge, gain a disproportionate level of influence and will come to beleive that their expertise gives them priority in making political decisions, to the exclusion of non-experts. But this has nothing to do with stupidity and everything to do with the exercise of power. If Scott really wants to get to the bottom of this problem, there's plenty of literature on the topic and I'm sure plenty of bloggers would be willing to offer their own favourite reading list.

Scott also thinks that everyone is greedy and horny and that these two attribute, combined with everyone being stupid, explains everything we need to know about people and justifies him being a conservative:

My political philosophy, so far as I have one, is that people are stupid, selfish and horny, and the best thing that you can do with them is to leave them alone. Conservatives that respect individual dignity, and practice what they preach, are the closest match I can find.

This is just nonsense. Not only is it an inadequate view of human beings (can't they also be selfless, smart, loving, generous, funny, kind to small furry animals etc etc etc?) but it is a weird view of conservatism. But this is Scott's post and as he has redefined "stupid" to mean just what he wants it to mean, I guess he can do the same with "conservative".

He then offers some thoughts on the Lefty Libertarian post, which he is entitled to do. I didn't exactly follow what point he was making, but maybe that was because I was using certain words with their conventional meaning. I really didn't understand why some of the post "scared the crap out" of him, nor why "leftist libertarianism seems no closer to me to squaring the circle that keeps socialism way too close to the gulag." Still, it's a serious charge and probably worth getting to the bottom of.

What Scott is not entitled to do is presume (even slightly) that because I have also used the expression "left libertarian" and out of genuine interest linked to the post he criticises, that I agree with everything in that post. But this is what he comes very close to doing: "But gee, if this is any indication of what Tim Dunlop, who strikes me as a good bloke, just a bit misguided, feels, I think I'd better sign up for Liberal Party membership right away."

Frankly, Scott, having tried to make sense of your post, I don't think you're in any position to be judging whether people are "misguided" or not.

Anyway, I know he means no offence so I'll just make a few things clear: I think there is something in the label left libertarian, but it is only a label. I used it because it raises some interesting questions that are worth discussing, not because I wish to have the phrase tattooed on my forehead. Most labels are inadequate to the complexity of human interaction (including stupid, horny and selfish) but they can at least offer a way into a discussion.

Central to what I am trying to get at in using the label is the relationship between the individual and the group.

Rather than see the individual as being in opposition to something called "society" or "community" or even "the state", perhaps we can suggest that it is precisely the way we organise ourselves collectively--as communities, societies or states--that allows us to enjoy the sort of individual freedom we want. I think this opens up possibilities for political and economic organisation that are swamped in the usual liberal, rationalist emphasis on "the individual" and its concommitant denigration of nearly all forms of collective organisation.

Individual freedom is inseparable from a secure society in which to be an individual. Thus, the rightist prescriptions of unfettered "free markets", deregulated industries, and businesses whose only interest is "shareholder value" is not only wrong, it is impractical and self-contradictory. Individuality and individual freedom are arguably the products of social relations, not something separate from them. So the hard-right policies are problematic because such practices undermine the conditions--a coherent society--in which our individuality is able to flourish.

This means that governments have a role, not just in facilitating a healthy business environment, but in providing institutions that allow our individuality to flourish outside the purely economic. This means letting market forces reign when they will do some good, but reining them in when they won't. Governments can get out of airlines, say, but it is important that they retain social control over vital infrastructure such as power and perhaps even telecommunications. They will have a role in regulating market practices. And they need to be able to provide universal health cover and education and other services that tend to equalise both opportunity and outcome, without which the concept of "individuality" or "individual freedom" is meaningless.

These are the sorts of issues that arise, to my way of thinking, and they are arguable but certainly not stupid. If Scott's conservatism blinds him to other ways of looking at things then it risks becoming self-servingly moribund and, in less congenial hands than Scott's, such a philosophy would scare the crap out of me.

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

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MY ENEMY'S ENEMY is my FRIEND?

Could describe American foreign policy right up to today.

Anyway, here's a little extract from a current affairs program I caught last night. You'll probably be able to guess who said it. But then again....

In my view, a conservative is one who believes when America is attacked, it fights its wars and wins and the troops come home. I believe that this tradition is being violated right now and that neoconservatism represents an interventionist foreign policy which is not conservative, a neo-imperial foreign policy. It is much more Wilsonian, Woodrow Wilson, F.D.R. in character, and that it want to reshape and remake the world and we conservatives have always believed that was utopian and foolish and anti-conservative...

What we have now is an interventionist foreign policy being pushed upon this country by ex-Democrats who are refugees from the Democratic party, driven out by the McGovernites, who have come into the conservative movement and have redefined conservatism as meaning we should march up to Baghdad first, take that over and then we’re going to democratize Iraq and then we’re going to attack Iran and then we’re going after Saudi Arabia, as “National Review” recommends, and this is an idiotic foreign policy of interventionism and near madness which is being driven by a number of neoconservatives in the administration, among them Mr...

Mr. Frum is one. I would say Mr. Perle is another, Mr. Wolfowitz, a brilliant man, but you look at the Wolfowitz doctrine of 1996...He’s a very brilliant fellow, very brilliant, but he also put together something called the Wolfowitz doctrine, Pentagon doctrine of 1992 which was ridiculed and laughed at but it has been revived in this security doctrine...

9/11 was a direct consequence of the United States meddling in an area of the world where we do not belong and where we are not wanted. We were attacked because we were on Saudi sacred soil and we are so called repressing the Iraqis and we’re supporting Israel and all the rest of it. That does not justify mass murder.

We ought to take down al Qaeda, anyone that gives them sanctuary. But we’ve got to realize that we were bitten because we were out there putting pins in rattlesnakes, and as long as the United States intervenes all over the world, we’re going to have terrorism is the price of empire. Terrorism is the price of interventionism. If America will come home from this part of the world and adopt a foreign policy of don’t tread on me, the coiled rattlesnake, stay out of us, nobody in the world wants to fight. No country wants to fight the United States of America.


In case you didn't guess or know, all of this was said by Pat Buchanan.
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ALL THINGS BEING UNEQUAL

One of the great fudges of recent years is the self-serving suggestion that equality of outcome can be separated from equality of opportunity. The argument gets a slight working out in this pair of posts from John Quiggin and Ken Parish. In fact, equality of opportunity cannot be so neatly hived off from equality of outcome as some on the right and the centre-right would have us believe.

The issue is examined in a new book, Inequality at the Starting Gate, published by the Economic Policy Institute.

You can read the fairly informative press release here.

You can listen to a press conference about it here.

And you can read an excerpt of the book here.

You can buy the book here.

(Via MaxSpeak.)
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NOT FADE AWAY

Alan Ramsey runs a curious line in today's Sydney Morning Herald, a column I was alerted to by John Crockett.

He makes the good point that the White House and the Pentagon lied to Congress about the threat posed by North Vietnam in a (successful) attempt to get Congressional support for that awful war, and that the Australian government lied to its parliament for the same reason.

He then notes that former US Secretry of Defence, Robert McNamara, "a key figure in two US administrations responsible for the lies and the appalling carnage in Vietnam, has since acknowledged how wrong they'd been." True enough, though the nature of the recant leaves something to be desired.

Additionally Ramsay notes that former Australian prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, was amongst a number of former PMs who recently publicly urged the current government not to go to war against Iraq. All too much for Ramsay, who says:

I remember Fraser in particular as an enthusiastic young minister for the army for two full years (1966-67) at a time when the body bags with their Australian dead were escalating in number and popular support for the war was at its peak, before turning later to the most profound dissent. Yet last week there was Fraser lining up with a few other political geriatrics to denounce military action against Iraq without a UN mandate.

But this is odd. Is Ramsay, therefore allowing that McNamara can change his mind but Fraser can't? It seems that way. Ramsay says: "I [am unaware of whether] Malcolm Fraser or any of his Coalition colleagues ever acknowledged their lies or their culpability, with the possible exception of John Gorton." But in fact, Fraser has publicly acknowledged that Vietnam was an error, though, as with McNamara, we can argue as to whether the mea culpa is mea enough or goes far enough.

Speaking in the ABC program, 100 Years, The Australian Story, Fraser says:

"How I see it now is second-guessing how I saw it then. I thought it was necessary. I thought what we did was defensible. It ended up not being successful. Judging it all by today and judging some of the things that I now know about the US conduct of the war, I guess I wish we weren't part of it...Of course I've got regrets, yes. It, in the end, was a failed venture. We should have known what fighting in Vietnam would be like. We probably misjudged the extent of the commitment on the part of the Viet Cong, of North Vietnam, the extent of support that was provided by the Soviet Union rather than China, and the lack of capacity of the South (Vietnamese) to maintain a government seen to be acting in the interests of the people of South Vietnam . . . So there were many miscalculations."

A little hand-wringingy, I admit, but beyond what Ramsay allows. More interesting are these further comments made in the same program. Speaking of the "White House plan to get rid of South Vietnam's president Ngo Dinh Diem in the early 1960s," Fraser says: 'If America believes it has the right to engineer the destruction of the head of state of a country with whom it is allies at war, that alone makes me very cautious about the circumstances in which I'd want to have a partnership with the US.'"

He concludes: "I wouldn't want to be part of any military operation with the US and would not be unless I had an Australian, a very senior Australian, right in the innermost war councils of the US . . ."

Given that these comments were made a long time before a war with Iraq seemed likely, it certainly suggests that Fraser has been mulling on the issue for a while and is not merely being opportunistic or hypocritical ("humbug") in the way Ramsay suggests.

This to me sounds like the voice of regret and bitter experience. Maybe Howard should listen to it.

Monday, September 30, 2002

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DEATH AND TAXES

Economist Alex Robson has this odd little post about speculation on a "Iraq levy":

Misleading Headline Alert, Part III

AAP has this story with the headline "Govt Considers Iraq War Tax".
So who exactly in the government is "considering" this? John Howard? Peter Costello? Robert Hill?
No, no and no, according to the story. In fact, it is not being considered at all, since we are not, in fact, at war with Iraq.


Not being considered at all? Well, it sounds a little like it is being considered, even by Robert Hill, whom Alex categorically rules out.

The question is, why not consider a tax? Opposition leader, Simon Crean, has already said he doesn't support the idea of a tax and actually, makes a number of good points:

Mr Crean has told Channel Nine a levy is not needed.

"There is no case for a war tax," he said. "Let's face it, our troops were sent to the Gulf War in 1991, no special tax was needed.

"We went to Timor and, despite a special tax being touted, it wasn't needed, and we've gone to Afghanistan without a special tax.

"The difference is that over the last 24 hours we've seen the real reason the Government is talking war tax. It's got nothing to do with paying for the war, it's paying for its deficit."


Nice points, as I say, but somewhat self-contradicting: if, as Simon suggests, a tax is being mooted because we have gone into deficit, then how exactly does he plan on paying for the war if not by raising taxes? He can't really have it both ways.

I'm sure he can rest easy on one point: no doubt all the pro-war bloggers are already writing their cheques to contribute to this just and necessary war. I don't expect any objections from them.

Ultimately, though, the money has to come from somewhere, as somebody called Quiggan has pointed out.

Still, one way to avoid the expense (and not just the financial expense) is to not attend Gulf War II: this time it's personal.

But I'm not holding my breath. Death and taxes are far more certain.
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BEND SINISTER

Having described myself, and having come out on a quiz as "left libertarian", I have been meaning to devote some more space to examining the category. Time has been short over the weekend, however, thanks to the house full of six year olds we had round for my son's birthday party. I'm pretty sure they were all left libertarians, in that they all took a lot of liberties with our house and then left.

Anyway, in the meantime, if you are interested in some other thoughts on the subject (and a worthwhile new blog in general) take a click over to the Lefty Libertarian, and this post in particular.
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TANTAMOUNT TO NOTHING

Stumbled across this little exchange between a journalist and Australia's Minister for Family and Community Services, Amanda Vanstone, that occurred on a Sunday Morning news program on 26 May this year:

Chris Bath: Your cabinet colleague, Nick Minchin, this week suggested a merger between the Liberal and National parties was inevitable. What's your view?

Amanda Vanstone: Oh, look, that's far too serious a political issue for me to get into on a Sunday morning. Let's just concentrate on the things I'm responsible for.

Um, that'd be unserious things then?

Sunday, September 29, 2002

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MASS DEMONSTRATIONS and GREAT DEBATE

Nice line from Max Sawicky. Speaking of the dully predictable rightwing response to this weekend's WB/IMF demonstrations in Washington DC he writes:

If you want serious analysis of the issues, check out the web site of the primary agitational group -- Mobilization for Global Justice. There is my list of left periodicals as well. Compare their contents to the mud-pies purported to be left arguments by the Right.

If you want even more academic treatments of the critique of globalization, just try sampling the research organizations linked to on the right, especially the Economic Policy Institute, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the Political Economy Research Institute, the Center for Economic Policy Analysis, and the Institute for Policy Studies.

You could also Google the name Joseph Stiglitz, former head of the Clinton Council of Economic Advisers, former chief economist of the World Bank, and Nobel Laureate. Imagine a debate between Glenn Reynolds, who thinks the demonstrators are "clueless," and Stiglitz. The mind boggles.


The entire post is worth a look.
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DEAD RINGER

I happened to be standing in an electonics shop today and they were using the DVD of Lord of the Rings to demonstarte a $US12,000 plasma television. I've seen the movie of LOTR and have also watched it on DVD and I really enjoy it. However, it occured to me that, apart from having the right budget, the technical crew and writing staff to be able to do the book justice, the producers were also incredibly lucky to find Elijah Wood, an actual Hobbit, to play Frodo.