Unveiling of a portrait

Just a note to let people know of the unveiling of a magnificent portrait of my father, discovered some years after he died. It’s in Canberra on Tuesday afternoon.

Here’s the invitation. Perhaps I’ll see you there.

Professor Rabee Tourky
Professor Bruce Chapman
Emeritus Professor Bob Gregory

request the pleasure of your company on behalf of the
Research School of Economics and Crawford School of Public Policy

at the portrait unveiling ceremony of the late
Professor Fred H Gruen

to celebrate and recognise his significant contribution to
Economics and Australian Public Policy at The Australian National University

Launch talk by Dr Martin Parkinson, Secretary to the Treasury

5.30pm – 7.30pm Tuesday 6 May 2014


Ground Floor Foyer
ANU College of Business and Economics Building 26C
Kingsley Street, Acton


Refreshments will be provided


Windows, workplaces, job quality and productivity

Life is miserable: run, run, run

I’ve always been struck by how we debate flexibility in the labour market without paying attention to the other problem in the labour market which is that it’s extremely difficult to find out whether you’re really going to like a job until you take it, and then, if you don’t well it’s too late – lots of costs and general angst getting out and moving onto something better. (Will it be better, or just the same old, same old – I’d better stick it out where I am).

So I took the problem down to Troppo labs which came up with Windows on Workplaces which starred (not) at the 20:20 Summit. Hey why pay attention to something new when you can go with the same old same old same old same old Golden Gurus. (See the same article I just linked to.) The basic idea of Windows on Workplaces – quoted from the linked post is as follows:

Say you particularly value some aspect of a job you’re applying for – for instance a good career path, intrinsically rewarding work or flexible family friendly hours. If youre applying from outside the firm youre generally in the dark. . . .

Now firms regularly survey their employees regarding their satisfaction with these things. So it would be good if you could get a peek at their answers. [But] firstly, firms that did badly wouldn’t want to release their information. The second problem is trickier still. Even if you somehow compelled firms to release this data, their survey results cant be readily or reliably compared because they’re not reported against some common standard. I propose . . . not that governments mandate some standard, but rather that they organise and campaign to encourage a standard to emerge. . . . The best firms have an interest in such a standard emerging as it would advantage them in competing to attract employees. And governments are also major employers, so they could establish standards for their own agencies to report against, which, if deftly done might form the kernel around which more widely used standards might emerge.

I’ve never tried to do any empirical work on the extent to which this could improve productivity – though I think it would be large. Now, in the process of completing a major project on estimating the value of open data to the Australian economy, a colleague referenced this paper.

“Match Quality, Worker Productivity, and Worker Mobility: Direct Evidence From Teachers”
by C. Kirabo Jackson. Here’s the abstract. Extremely promising I reckon! Continue reading

Nietzschean evolutionary psychology

I have a strange habit of looking for bargain books. Why is this a strange habit. Because it looks awfully like a false economy. After all, even if you don’t read a book through, just reading a few chapters might take you an afternoon, the full book a few days. So it’s looking pretty silly to economise on the buying price of the book – and save, say $20 when the constraint that matters is one’s endowment of time not money. Ben Franklin rightly said that time was money, but it doesn’t work the other way round.

In any event, the thing is, it’s not working out too badly. Normal bookshops peddle the latest thing at high prices for a few months, then it disappears. And in the remainders bookshops like the Book Grocer – where everything is $10 or a tad over $8 if you buy five at a time – while there are quite a lot of duds (lots of the biographies are dreadful) there are some real gems, often about a decade old but which are no longer cool and recent enough to make it into the higher margin bookshops.

Recent highlights from this style of buying include, Non-Zero, Building Jerusalem, Paul and Jesus, Roads to Modernity. All really interesting reads. But right now I’m reading a great book written in around 2000 called The Mating Mind.  It’s thesis is adequately summed up in this review:

Evolutionary psychology has been called the “new black” of science fashion, though at its most controversial, it more resembles the emperor’s new clothes. Geoffrey Miller is one of the Young Turks trying to give the phenomenon a better spin. In The Mating Mind, he takes Darwin’s “other” evolutionary theory – of sexual rather than natural selection – and uses it to build a theory about how the human mind has developed the sophistication of a peacock’s tail to encourage sexual choice and the refining of art, morality, music, and literature.

Where many evolutionary psychologists see the mind as a Swiss army knife, and cognitive science sees it as a computer, Miller compares it to an entertainment system, evolved to stimulate [attract] other brains.

As I was reading the first chapter outlining his approach - which I find very persuasive, and more to the point pregnant with insight into all manner of things, not least how impoverished much contemporary social science is, I found myself thinking of Nietzsche. the word Nietzsche is typically associated with mad ‘superman’ theories of history. But what I’m thinking of is Nietzsche’s conviction of the ponderousness and self-importance of much enlightenment thinking. The lack of irony and self-insight with which people imagine they are on a search for truth. Of course the idea that human intelligence and its cultural accoutrements are not adaptations to the wild, an increasingly clever Swiss Army Knife, but rather the startling and thoroughly arbitrary outcome of a runaway process of positive feedback – peahens picked fancy tails and women picked humour, musical and story-telling smarts as markers for fitness? Well that’s a bit of a comedown.

As Nietzsche puts it in the brilliant opening of Beyond Good and Evil:

Supposing truth to be a woman – what? is the suspicion not well founded that all philosophers, when they have been dogmatists, have had little understanding of women? that the gruesome earnestness, the clumsy importunity with which they have hitherto been in the habit of approaching truth have been inept and improper means for winning a wench?

Or as he put it in less allusive terms early in his career:  Continue reading

Artists Resale Royalties: a piece of pie…

The ARR scheme so far has cost taxpayers just over $2.2 million and as of December 2013 has delivered a total of 7,800 royalty payments, to 800 artists (or estates) with a median value of about $105 per payment. The scheme has, in three and a half years, only generated a total of less than $200,000 in management fees. It is unlikely that the scheme will be self-funding any time soon, if ever. And what has this costly public art project delivered? A make-work scheme for arts administrators, a restraint of trade and what is essentially an anti-progressive tax: the more you have, the more you receive. Below is a pie chart of resale royalty distributions by value. Note: the construction of the pie chart needed a few ‘extrapolations’ where information from previous years is used to categorise the latest data. These extrapolations might not be perfect.(see footnote below)

The pie chart makes it clear that royalties on resales of individual artworks for more than $10,000 each, account for 59% of all the money collected, yet these top rank payments – about 550 in total -  only account for just 7% of the total number of individual payments of the scheme. (BTW many thanks to Paul Fritjers for the tasty pie chart.)sales by price

On the other hand the bottom 44% (2,946) of individual payments have only accounted for just 9% of all the money collected. The median value of this bottom bracket of payments is about $55; the average individual transaction cost to CAL, alone, is $30.The only point of these thousands of very small, costly payments is to conceal the real, anti-progressive nature of ARR. Continue reading

One for Your Amazon Wish-List

French economist Thomas Piketty has been picking up a lot of attention in the rest of the English speaking world – well mainly the US – thanks to the publication of an English translation of his recent book Capital in the 21st Century. Never heard of him? Don’t fret about it – neither had I until I quite serendipitously came across this article in the Guardian a couple of days ago.

The subject of Piketty’s book is obvious from the title. More specifically, it deals with the growing inequality in wealth – and income – distribution which is becoming entrenched in the global economy. At 650+ pages it’s obviously going to be a substantial read when (or perhaps if) I finally get my grubbies on a copy but from what I’ve seen so far probably worth the effort. Continue reading

A postcard from 1968

I remember a long long time ago – in fact it was nearly fifty years ago I went with my family on a three week trip to Alice Springs and the Northern Territory. Dad didn’t spend much time with us as he was working while Mum, David and I tried to enjoy ourselves. Mum located a riding school and we went riding quite a few days. We went to the rock, where Mum, famous ever after in family culture, took one look at the climbing face of the rock and decided that if we stumbled and fell and lost hold of the single chain going up the rock, we might easily die. So we were forbidden from climbing the rock.

We were scandalised. In any event I still remember the trip quite well. Dad’s work meant nothing to me then but it was quite historic. It was work with two other academics – I think Colin Tatz and Sol Encel – on the likely consequences of giving aborigines equal pay.  The next year they got it of course, though it was never about their interests. They were not heard in the case and remained unrepresented. The white unions didn’t like competing against cut price labour.

In his part of the report focusing on economics, Dad concluded firstly that aborigines should be given equal pay, but also that demand for aboriginal labour would fall and so recommend support for aboriginal stockmen (I don’t know what kind, presumably the original documents can be located, but I don’t know where they’d be and I’ve not looked.) In the upshot Dad was (I expect) quite shocked to be attacked quite stridently as a racist. His saying that some aboriginal stockmen would lose their jobs was racist apparently.

Anyway, racist or not, he was right.

Continue reading

Artists Resale Royalties: on bullshit, part three

Australia’s Artists Resale Royalty (ARR ) scheme has so far cost taxpayers $2.2 million in direct support. And over many years the publicly funded lobbyists for this scheme, headed up by the National Association for the Visual Arts  Ltd, have additionally spent a lot of public money on lobbying for their scheme. ARR is a very political project. It is imposed by law on a lot of small ‘sole trader’ businesses; it imposes quasi-compulsory collective management on artists and also imposes a restraint of trade on an art market where profit margins are generally quite thin. ARR is not an ‘art project’.  

The fact that these publicly funded arts organisations have, for years, been free to use public money, intended for art projects, to conduct a very partisan political campaign really rankles.

The lobbyists for compulsory ARR are involved in a ‘last ditch’ lobbying campaign for their compulsory ARR scheme to “continue”.  As always there is a lot of fudge and misleading by omission to their advocacy. In particular they continue to claim that the majority of royalty payments, to date, have gone to indigenous artists: in this case to date is a very very large lump of fudge.

In the first years of the scheme’s operation, most of the royalty payments raised were on resales of indigenous art. However because resales of indigenous art make up only about 10-15% of total art resales by value, it is inevitable that in time more and more of the royalty payments will come from the resales of non-indigenous art. And it is also inevitable that the distribution of royalty payments by value must, eventually, map to the universal truth that when it comes to the resale of art: artworks by the top 20 artists most favoured by the market get most of the money and the next 80 or so of bestselling artists get most of the remainder.

The agency charged with administering the scheme, the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL), recently released some updated figures and information about the operations of the ARR. I also note that this detailed information was not made available at the time of the ARR review process. The following analysis is based on the figures provided within that report.

Generally speaking, analysis of the top 21 payments confirms that this scheme is already starting to follow the usual market pattern: a handful of sales of a handful of top 20 artists  constitute most of the total value of art resales and therefore most of the total value of collected Art Resale Royalties.  This is despite the fact that the scheme apparently only currently affects about 10% of resales (according to CAL’s report). Obviously as the scheme starts to affect more and more of the majority of  art resales, the skewing of the distribution to a handful of artists such as Whitely, Nolan, Williams etc will inevitably become more pronounced. It would only take the scheme to collect another 10 to 20 high-end sales in the next year, for it to push the distribution to the handful of artists most favored by the market towards 30% or more.

The breakup of the top 21 resale royalty payments is :

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Operation 2770: TACSI’s Family by Family expands to Mt Druitt

Family by Family about which Troppodillians have heard before is spreading its wings. We’ve started in Mt Druitt where we’ve scoped the program which means investigating how it should be changed to optimise it to the local community. Here’s the Scoping Report which I think makes interesting reading.

Anyway we launched the scoping report with the Minister who’d commissioned us to establish the program – Pru Goward. And here’s my speech at the function. One thing that got my attention was the fact that, according to the scoping report, quite a few people from the area have tattoos of the postcode. And the supporters of Greater Western Sydney take signs of their postcodes to fixtures against Sydney Football Club – which is now more explicitly the team from the leafy suburbs.

Here also is the audio of a recent interview on this by Alex Sloan.

Notes for a Speech by Nicholas Gruen, Chairman of the Australian Centre for Social Innovation at the launch of the Family by Family Scoping Report for Mt Druitt, 12th March, 2014


Welcome to our modest function at Postcode 2770

Still, I’m reliably informed that from little things big things grow.

These are the words of Mystic (pronounced Mystique). She’s 21 now but was in out of home care since she was 3.

It happened so quickly. Once I turned 18, they sort of kicked me on my arse. They said ‘here’s $750, see you later, thank you’. And I’m just like ‘what the hell?’. A book and $750. That’s for being in care all your life.

Actually it makes you feel like an outsider. It makes you feel non existent on this earth. Like you are an alien. It does. It affects when you go to school too. You’re so used to being called ‘client’ and stuff that you start looking at yourself different to everyone else.

This example is not from NSW, but it’s not such an extreme example for those who know the system. And this is after what must be a decade, perhaps two of talking about “citizen centric services”!


Family by Family is different.

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