Yes Minister: hilarious, truthful, too good to be true.

Here at Troppo we have referred to the ‘Yes Minister series’ many times because of its brilliant commentary on the timeless issues of government, exemplified in the skit above. I have gone through three phases with the series: when it first aired in the 1980s, I was a teenager and thought it was a brilliant and humorous satire, depicting a grossly exaggerated view of how naive politicians were and how powerful the bureaucrats. I was laughing because I thought things were not that bad.

In my early 30s and after a few years in Canberra, I reached a different view. I thought the series depicted a world that was roughly true, with more or less amateur politicians controlled by civil servants who were a bit up themselves and elitist but at least had a joint mission and kept the lobbyists at bay.

In the last 5 years I have reached yet another take on the series: if only things were this good! If only we had such a united group at the heart of the state system that was looking out for a shared notion of the public good! I now look at sir Humphrey and think of how we can create more of him and put them in charge, rather than how to stop them. In my estimation, he has gone from evil villain to utopian hero!

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Economics and public policy, Ethics, Geeky Musings, Humour, Journalism, Libertarian Musings, Life, Philosophy, Political theory, Review, Society | 7 Comments

A meaningless sentence

The following is a guest post by David Morris, Principal Lawyer of the Environmental Defenders Office (NT).

The Northern Territory already carries a 1 billion dollar burden for legacy mines. These are mine sites where the company has walked away and left ongoing environmental degradation for the taxpayer to repair. We’d like to think that this is a thing of the past, but recent events show that this not the case. The recent demise of Western Desert Resources (WDR) is a good example. WDR illegally cleared 175km of native vegetation, the company went into administration and, with no likely buyers of the mine, the taxpayer is left to manage the erosion issues and to remove illegal waterway crossings. The fine for the director of the company? $7500! (See ABC article when the decision was handed down in April).

Continue reading

Posted in Environment, Law | 9 Comments

Rescuing empathy

Economics is famous for its idea – it’s better to call it a methodological assumption of some economics – that self-interest is what drives people. But something just as evident about people – and much more unique to our species – is people’s tendencies to form stable patterns of collaboration – or shared intentionality

I’m after illustrations of the way empathy matters to the way human systems operate. This is useful when the financial gatekeepers immediately think they’re dealing with a hippy when they hear words like “empathy”, as opposed to serious managerial words like “cost effectiveness” etc etc.

Anyway, here’s a good example of the phenomenon. There’s a series of articles in the medical literature showing that radiologists are better at diagnosis and detecting errors on scans that carry a photo of patient.

If you have any other examples – preferably supported with references – I’d love to hear them.

Posted in Blegs, Economics and public policy | 6 Comments

Power, understanding and knowledge

I’m wondering why the facts and ideas generated in the abstract below aren’t higher up the order of proceedings in such things as teaching the economics of industrial organisation, the economics of information. What Hayekian has focused on this? Pathetic that I’ve not seen this material before – which is something for which I’m mostly responsible of course. But you’ll be hearing more from me on this vein of literature.

Four experiments and a correlational study explored the relationship between power and perspective taking. In Experiment 1, participants primed with high power were more likely than those primed with low power to draw an E on their forehead in a self-oriented direction, demonstrating less of an inclination to spontaneously adopt another person’s visual perspective. In Experiments 2a and 2b, high-power participants were less likely than low-power participants to take into account that other people did not possess their privileged knowledge, a result suggesting that power leads individuals to anchor too heavily on their own vantage point, insufficiently adjusting to others’ perspectives. In Experiment 3, high-power participants were less accurate than control participants
in determining other people’s emotion expressions; these results suggest a power-induced impediment to experiencing empathy. An additional study found a negative relationship between individual difference measures of power and perspective taking. Across these studies, power was associated with a reduced tendency to comprehend how other people see, think, and feel.

From the Abstract of “Power and Perspectives Not Taken”, by Adam D. Galinsky, Joe C. Magee, M. Ena Inesi, and Deborah H Gruenfeld, 2006, which you can read here (pdf).

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Economics and public policy, Information, Philosophy, Political theory | 2 Comments

Elite tribalism and the new ruling class

Via this great column of Ross Douthat, I came upon this really fine essay on The New Ruling Class. On Googling the author it turned out she is an American who lives in Sydney and works for the CIS.

The interview of the articles:

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Political theory | 25 Comments

Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf minority government?

wolf1Will the Coalition get to 76 seats? The ABC’s Barry Cassidy ‘can’t see that happening’. But is the prospect of minority government really as horrific as much of the media is portraying?

The only real problem (for both Malcolm Turnbull and Australia) with a Coalition minority government is the prospect that the Liberal Party’s  Right will depose him as PM and replace him with an Abbottista.

With that exception there’s no logical reason to think that minority government will be particularly problematic either for the Coalition or Australians generally.  It presently looks likely that the Coalition will end up with 74 seats or so in the House of Representatives.  It is likely that two or three of the more conservative cross-benchers in the Reps could fairly readily be persuaded at least to agree to pass Supply and not back a “no confidence” motion. That would be enough for Turnbull to go to the Governor-General and get a commission.

In large parts of the democratic world minority governments are the norm and don’t necessarily lead to either legislative paralysis or chaos. The supposed need for “strong” majority government is a peculiarly Australian obsession that many other stable and prosperous countries don’t share. The fact that disparate elected representatives are forced to deliberate, collaborate and compromise to achieve effective government is rightly regarded in many places as a desirable feature rather than a “bug”.

In that context there is a powerful argument that either Turnbull or another moderate like Julie Bishop is likely to exhibit better communication and negotiation skills to thrive in a minority government environment than a hard-line Right Wing warrior like Morrison, Dutton or Abbott.

In a governance sense the challenge of assembling a momentary alliance to enact particular legislation isn’t really a problem for Turnbull. His legislative agenda isn’t very ambitious. Moreover, Labor has pledged to support the first tranche of company tax cuts to small business. And most economists agree that the wider and longer-term cuts for big business are fiscally irresponsible and minimally stimulatory anyway. You could argue that this is a classic example of the benefits of minority government: the necessity for deliberation and compromise will actually deliver a better outcome for Australia than if Turnbull had presided over an elected dictatorship aka “strong” majority government.

Australian politicians and voters alike need to start getting used to the fact that minority government is the new normal, not a mark of political failure or a harbinger of chaos. Many of us are no longer rusted-on fans of just two political tribes.It signifies increasing political maturity.

Posted in Politics - national | 17 Comments

Vox pop democracy and the division of cognitive labour

In the last post,Paul Frijters dismissed my proposal that deliberative democracy mechanisms should have had some role in the Brexit decision.

I don’t think sortition makes any sense in the case of something like Brexit. The notion that a jury of randomly chosen citizens would decide for the whole population whether or not to quit a union would simply not fly, nor should it: there have been impassioned debates on Brexit for months now all up and down the UK, so its very hard to argue that the population was not informed or not engaged. They have not been this engaged for a generation.

The argument is not that the issue wasn’t discussed – obviously it was. It’s not even that it’s nigh on impossible to be properly informed by the mainstream media – though obviously it was. It’s that this is a category mistake.

As Schumpeter argues “Collectives act almost exclusively by accepting leadership — this is the dominant mechanism of practically any collective action which is more than a reflex”. Schumpeter uses the word ‘leadership’ here because he’s heading into his next point- that rather than representing  ‘the will of the people’ – which Schumpeter regards as inchoate in any event representatives’ function is to lead the citizens – subject to competition amongst factions of the governing class for the consent of the governed.

It’s an impressive and compelling argument. But as I read Schumpeter’s argument one can reduce his initial claim to a more parsimonious one – that any social organisation requires a division of cognitive labour. And representatives perform that function as well. They invest the time necessary to understand issues that would not hold the interest of the electorate and/or that require knowledge, thought, and deliberation to make good decisions about. So I take his argument to be that if decisions are to be made well by a ‘collective’ of people there must be a division of cognitive labour.

Now representative democracy used to be quite good at the function that Schumpeter described for it – representatives played their role in the cognitive division of labour. It didn’t represent the people’s raw views on all things, but where it differed it often did so from the perspective of leadership – delivered by class leadership. (Of course it wasn’t always necessarily leadership as in good leadership – it came with its share of class interest and vested interest. So that was the downside). But along with its delivery of the interests of the governing classes it also played its role in the cognitive division of labour.  Continue reading

Posted in Democracy, Political theory, Politics - international, Politics - national | 3 Comments