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.

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The other Berlin Wall that came down: The collapse of communism and the spread of ideas

Book Translations as Idea Flows: The Effects of the Collapse of Communism on the Diffusion of Knowledge
by Ran Abramitzky, Isabelle Sin

Abstract:

We use book translations as a new measure of international idea flows and study the effects of Communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe on these flows. Using novel data on 800,000 translations and difference-in-differences approaches, we show that while translations between Communist languages decreased by two thirds with the collapse, Western-to-Communist translations increased by a factor of four and quickly converged to Western levels. Convergence was more pronounced in the fields of applied and social sciences, and was more complete in Satellite and Baltic than in Soviet countries. We discuss how these patterns help us understand how repressive institutions and preferences towards Western European ideas shaped the international diffusion of knowledge.

1954: The no-spin zone

This doco is worth watching for its own sake. (Why are media organisations so dumb and unprepared to allow embedding of their videos – given that the vids themselves come with ads that are hard to avoid – but I digress …) What struck me is how different it would be today.

The film is for the Board of Works, which would have paid for its production and it functions as an ad for an elaborate process of city planning they’d been going through. In fact I think we do the actual planning a lot better today, with the involvement of the community handled much better. I could be wrong about this, but the impression created by the doco is that it was a very technocratic and top down process with people’s input being had via surveys etc. Today we hold lots more meetings, and get lots more people involved and so lots more energy in the process.

So, if that’s all good, what’s all bad is that today the corresponding bit of PR would be a product of the PR profession, which would ensure that the whole thing sounded like a smarmy pack of lies. It would be full of PR speak, hollowman speak. It would be obsessed with a feelgood factor and with staying “on message”. There’s none of that, rather lots of information, much of it just by the way, and then a strong call to action at the end – get involved and (please) get behind our plan. With a genuine call for civic mindedness and intergenerational generosity.

Postscript: graph supplied by John Walker below. 

Predictions versus outcomes in 2013?

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.

                 Failed predictions

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

Rich countries and happiness: the story of a bet.

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:

gruen 2004 image

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.

Andrew Leigh’s thinking was influenced by other data, particularly a paper by Stevenson and Wolfers which – he thinks debunks the Easterlin hypothesis. Here’s one of their graphs: Continue reading

Copyright and Fair Use.

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

Mr Pip: and some things and people who give me the pip

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?

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