“This hand is not the color of yours. But if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man.”
In the last 5 years, I have made a point of giving clear predictions on complex socio-economic issues. I give predictions partially to improve my own understanding of humanity: nothing sharpens the thoughts as much as having to actually predict something. Another reason is as a means of helping my countries (Australia/the Netherlands) understand the world: predicting socio-economic events is what social scientists should do, even if they will often be wrong.
Time to have a look at my predictive successes and failures over the last few years, as well as the outstanding predictions yet to be decided. Let us start with what I consider my main failure.
The main area I feel I haven’t read quite right is the conflict in Syria, as part of the general change in the whole Middle East. I am still happy with my long-run predictions for that region, where I have predicted that urbanisation, more education, reduced fertility rates, and a running out of fossil fuels will lead to a normalisation of politics in a few decades time. But at the end of 2012 I was too quick in thinking the Syria conflict was done and dusted. To be fair, I was mainly following the ‘intrade political betting markets’ which was 90% certain Assad would no longer be president by the end of this year, but the prophesised take-over of the country by the Sunni majority has not quite happened. The place has become another Lebanon, with lots of armed groups defending their own turf and making war on the turf of others. The regime no longer controls the whole country, but is still the biggest militia around.
What did I fail to see? I mainly over-estimated the degree to which the West would become involved. Continue reading
Do countries that are already rich become even happier when they become yet richer? This was the essential question on which I entered a gentleman’s bet in 2004 with Andrew Leigh and which just recently got settled.
The reason for the bet was a famous hypothesis in happiness research called the Easterlin hypothesis which held that happiness did not increase when rich countries became even richer. In my ‘Fred Gruen’ presentation on this matter in 2004 I used the following graph to illustrate the happiness income relation across countries:
This graph shows you the relation between average income (GDP in purchasing power terms) and average happiness on a 0-10 scales for many countries. As one can see, the relation between income and happiness is upward sloping for low levels of income, but becomes somewhat flat after 15,000 dollars per person. I championed the idea that this was not just true if you looked across countries, but that this would also hold true over time.
In his introduction to his translation of the Analects of Confucius, Pierre Ryckmans likened that ‘literary classic’ to a coat hook that has over the centuries acquired so many layers of coats that it can no longer be seen-has become so big that it completely obscures the corridor it was hung in. And that is not a bad metaphor for ‘copyright’ itself. Something that started, in 1709 as a fairly simple statute “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors .. for “.. the Term of One and twenty Years” has by now become such a huge multilayer, intertwined, spaghetti cake that it is virtually impossible to sanely approach it as a totality. Not going to try. Continue reading
Yes folks, I’m not joking.
Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are the rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried than before – more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.
I went to see Mr Pip last night. I checked out several reviews before I went and they were not encouraging. But I liked the sound of the story and wanted to go to a movie and so there I was. I recommend it – though readers are warned that I am prone to strong views when seeing movies – particularly when I see them on my own which I did with this one.
It’s a film made in New Zealand and I have to say that based on a number of New Zealand films I’ve seen – most particularly Once were Warriors and In my Father’s Den these New Zealanders seem to be much better than us at making serious movies lately. Ours are so timid by comparison – so often focused on fairly cute comedies of manners – like Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding and usually bathed in the treacle of our national preoccupation with asking “what does it mean to be Australian?” – sorry I nearly lost consciousness just contemplating that last question. Such an interesting one. Note: Henry Lawson and cousin Banjo were no doubt good guys, but can we please move on?
Schumpeter’s two chapters on democracy in his great book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy provide the best framework I know of articulating the things that trouble me about the current state of democracy.
The chapters assert the following propositions:
- Rousseau’s idea of the will of the people is an illusion for the simple reason that that will is distilled from a chaos of conflicting interests.
- Democracy arrives at decisions by way of a process by which factions of the political class vye for the consent of the governed.
- When considering politics, people are in a highly abstract world that’s usually far from their own concrete experience. They also know that their own singular vote amongst millions gives them an infinitesimal chance of influencing political outcomes. So their practical knowledge and their incentive to exercise care are both gravely diminished compared to situations where they are making decisions about their own welfare. This invites voting which is at least as much expressive as it is deliberative. In Schumpeter’s words, “In politics the typical citizen . . . argues and analyses in a way which he would readily recognise as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective”. Schumpeter draws attention to the similarities between this and the process by which advertising is addressed to manipulating the unconscious.
- In all things organisational, whether from the Federal Government to the local tennis club, a division of labour is necessary for the organisation to function effectively. Schumpeter puts it this way. ”Collectives act almost exclusively by accepting leadership — this is the dominant mechanism of practically any collective action which is more than a reflex.”. Schumpeter thus grafts the idea of leadership onto this division of labour and perhaps he is right that one needs leadership, but one doesn’t even need anything as strong as that to make the point. We need a division of labour. And that calls for delegation. Right now I am reliably informed that the polity is in the lengthy process of investigating how to deal with Food Derived from Reduced Lignin Lucerne Line. I’m thinking we need delegation here. Getting us all to come up with an opinion on Alan Jones show just won’t cut the mustard. Thus we have any number of agencies in our society that do this kind of stuff, or advise governments and all the rest of it. But the people remaining sovereign have the power to overrule their delegates. That’s as it should be. But if the thing is going to function tolerably the people need to give due regard to the fact that they don’t know the details – the people we delegated the issues to know the details.
Alas as time has passed since Joseph Schumpeter shared his dyspeptic but insightful thoughts with us, two things have been exacerbating the tensions in this system. Continue reading
I learnt something interesting today, while I was writing up notes on legal history: Australia didn’t formally achieve complete judicial and legislative independence from Old Blighty until 5.00am, Greenwich Mean Time on March
31st 3rd 1986. That’s the precise time that the Australia Acts, passed by the British Parliament and our Federal Parliament came into effect.
I recall about twenty years ago now, I was taking a law tute in Legal Theory. The lecturer was pretty awful and spent huge amounts of time in his lectures explaining why his side of a particular debate – with H.L.A Hart the opponent as I recall – was the right side of the debate. I happened to agree with him about his criticism, but it wasn’t a particularly edifying way to teach. And he went on and on flogging a horse which, if he hadn’t nailed it to the racetrack would have been pushing up the daisies.
Conversation on whatever the topic was was skittish and it gradually drifted to what a terrible course this was. I didn’t resist this drift with any great strength, and so we ended up in this tute with pretty much every student united in the view that this was an awful course. I was having a mild out of body experience – which is to say that I was just observing all this, thinking that it wasn’t particularly my job either to defend the lecturer, or to insist that we study the tute question. Had any of the students wanted to do this I guess I might have done so.
So we had a problem. And there was a kind of silence – because all this stuff had come out. Now what? I didn’t say anything. Eventually through the small talk or whatever was going on someone said “So what can we do?”. Then, in a dangerous moment of insight I said “Well you could blow up the building”. Continue reading