[T]he great thing in all education is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. . .  A ‘character,’ as J.S. Mill says, “is a completely fashioned will”.

William James, The Laws of Habit

“Taste” is a word and an idea that comes from another time. But I think it’s loss is a big deal. First there’s some good news about its demise. The idea of taste was freighted with class superiority. Good taste is typically taken to be associated with the upper and upper-middle classes. There’s also the idea of taste as setting some bounds on public discussion – which doesn’t have much going for it. So in some ways we’re good to be rid of it. But the upside of taste – the thing we’ve lost – is the idea of a desire that’s not a simple ‘preference’ but somehow an enlightened preference – and one that’s typically acquired. It’s an ability to see a little beyond simple appearances, to allow experience to speak of something deeper than appearances. An object in bad taste typically appeals to the untutored. Before megalomania overcame her, before she became a mega-star, Edna Everage’s schtick involved satirising bad taste by referring to the art-work she liked to have around. Ducks flying across the wall, a picture of Chinese girl with a beautiful green face. She would demonstrate her sense of taste by advising her audience “You can always tell an original. The eyes follow you all around the room”.


A Google n-graph of the use of the expression “good taste” at its height in 1930 and leading up to 1960 as you can see.

And here’s the thing. The death of taste as a cultural resource is killing us. Fast food tastes yummy. It’s scientifically optimised to allow you to mainline unmediated yumminess. When I was a kid and first encountered Kentucky Fried Chicken and then saw McDonalds restaurants I remember thinking that McDonalds would never beat Kentucky because Kentucky was so, so yummy – so rich as all that salt, sugar and oil and those secret herbs and spices made the chicken taste unbelievably good. My fish and chip shop just wasn’t close. Anyway, I was wrong. McDonalds, slightly less in-your-face yummy to my juvenile palate seems to have won that battle. Perhaps Maccas were optimising for my adult palate. Today I find the oiliness of KFC off-putting but I do wolf down a very occasional Maccas hamburger when travelling. I enjoy the utter accessibility of Macca’s scientifically optimised yumminess. It’s not hard to see how I could crave them – well I do crave them actually – but only very rarely.  Continue reading

Opening our doors to more refugees

Henry Ergas offers let’s say a bracing perspective on our increased refugee intake which is to say that we should profile refugees to try to screen out those with odious views – many of whom will be Muslims. It’s quite compelling. Then again doing so opens a Pandora’s box of concerns. I’d feel it was a more compelling issue if we were proposing a much higher intake – as Germany is.

What do others think? If you’re locked out by the Oz’s paywall, for a limited time, I’ve made Henry’s article available on this link.



Hayek – left right and centre

My friend Martin Stewart-Weeks points me to this piece by Simon Griffiths which argues that “an engagement with Hayek does not mean a capitulation to the market”. Quite. Indeed it’s always struck me that it’s a pity that Hayek pursued his ideas in such a tendentious way. He had a great critique of the necessary foibles of central planning and he won that debate, even if it took until the fall of the Berlin Wall to really drive the victory home.

I wonder how much this is actually typical of many political philosophers. They start with some ideological intuition they want to support and then produce a set of considerations that tend in that direction. Still I think Hayek’s ideas and sensibilities have plenty of implications that don’t point particularly clearly to the right, implications that Hayek, and sadly, so many of his followers show virtually no interest in. Continue reading

Magna Carta and ‘vox pop’ democracy

Intriguingly there are two substantial permanent monuments to Magna Carta at Runnymede. Both are American. This one was erected by the US Bar Association in 1957.

I was recently asked to participate in a panel discussion on Magna Carta and our democracy by the Australian Archives. The discussion will be replayed on Big Ideas on Radio National this coming Monday 20th July (now here), but you can watch the proceedings here if you’re especially keen. In the meantime, mostly over the fold below here’s a blog post I did in preparation for the event. It’s on the NAA website here. I have also drafted an additional one with some specific suggestions above and beyond a People’s Chamber, which I’ll post in the not to distant future.

It was an enjoyable process (though I was half inside a cupboard so lavishly spaced are the hotels of leafy London.) The panel was dominated by lawyers, the most eloquent of which I thought was Gillian Triggs, but over the course of the discussion, it dawned on me how much they were gravitating towards solutions that would be imposed by lawyers – all very well paid for their time I hasten to add, though that’s not the main point which is that they are an elite – indeed an elite elite. I think we need to do better than that. You can hear two different approaches to doing a bit better than that. More participatory approaches – championed by Pia Waugh particularly, and more deliberative ones championed by me.

(Apropos of nothing much, Magna Carta had standards in it – weights and measures for wine and other things – just as Hammurabi’s code did. You just can’t keep those emergent public goods from emerging and then attaching themselves to governments to improve their situation.)

If we compare our own system of government to King John’s government – either before or after Magna Carta – there is no comparison. We have a robust democracy rather than a tyranny at the very beginning of a centuries long process by which the West came to impose the rule of law on its rulers. In contrast to the barons of thirteenth century England, if we’re unhappy with our government, we vote them out.

Yet all is not well in our democracy. Continue reading

Syriza: the latest disaster for the left

I don’t have much time to offer anything very considered but want to just say how bemused I am at the carryings on of Syriza. The whole sorry business has been horrible to watch with creditors showing no interest in their own self-interest let alone a little enlightenment in their self-interest. But the Syriza Government? I was and remain a huge fan of how coherent and compelling Varoufakis was in articulating his case – of Syriza’s arrival as some kind of circuit breaker that might rescue Europe from itself as it rescued Greece from Europe.

But to negotiate properly, to negotiate as a broke borrower, you have to be able to show how you’re going to make your loan the creditor’s problem – not just your own. That requires a Plan A – in which the creditors and the borrower negotiate some mutually satisfactory settlement and this needs to be done with a Plan B clearly in view in which the creditors lose their shirts – and the borrower recovers.

I’ve always been kind of surprised at Syriza’s commitment to the Euro. Not that it wouldn’t be saying that it would strongly prefer an outcome in which the Euro remains its sole currency, but that that is all contingent on satisfactory negotiation. And to negotiate credibly in that situation one needs a clear Plan B. Perhaps it might make sense to conceal the plan for a while. But here we are at the end game and there’s no Plan B.

The referendum is a bizarre plebiscite on . . . well no-one really knows what it’s about. The Greek people get to vote on whether they will agree to the Troika’s terms. Those terms are not current. They’ve been withdrawn. Now they’ll probably be back on the table if they Greek’s vote ‘Yes’. But if they vote that way – presumably Syriza’s days are numbered – if it doesn’t resign immediately. And if they vote “No”. Well it’s completely unclear what that means other than that the Greek populace are where they were when they elected Syriza which is to say that they don’t want to pay their government’s debts. Well so what? The German populace want them to pay those debts. So where does that get us?

If BHP Billiton owes NAB a billion dollars, it’s not a very compelling result if a plebiscite of its shareholders say they’d rather not repay the loan. So we have Plan A which is that the Europeans offer Greece a deal that they won’t offer them, and Plan A with a tantrum, which is to say that the Greeks come back to the negotiating table saying “you know how we said we really don’t want to repay the loans. Well we really really don’t want to repay the loans. What do you say now?”

And the thing is that this seems of a piece with the left in so many instances – utterly lacking in the courage of what they claim are their convictions.

The generative commons of generalised social capital

Paul Krugman has an interesting blog post on the extent to which there might be contagion from one area of social capital (or lack thereof) to another. He’s responding to the claim CEOs made to him that they only started arcing up their pay demands when they saw sportspeople doing it. And we can all understand the micro-foundations for rises in superstar sportspeople – local sub-urban live audiences morphing into TV audiences at the city, national or global level.

One of the things that’s gradually been happening over the same period is a kind of leeching away of general social solidarity. The most striking aspect of this is a stat I heard on Radio National’s All in the Mind. Asked of the importance of “being very well off financially”

The latest data from 2013 for entering university students here in the US, 82% say that that is an important life goal. And back in the late ’60s and early ’70s only about 45% said that was an important life goal.

Continue reading

Politics in the Courtroom: Political Ideology and Jury Decision Making

by Shamena Anwar, Patrick Bayer, Randi Hjalmarsson. Publication is available here.

This paper uses data from the Gothenburg District Court in Sweden and a research design that exploits the random assignment of politically appointed jurors (termed naemndemaen) to make three contributions to the literature on jury decision-making: (i) an assessment of whether systematic biases exist in the Swedish naemndemaen system, (ii) causal evidence on the impact of juror political party on verdicts, and (iii) an empirical examination of the role of peer effects in jury decision-making. The results reveal a number of systematic biases: convictions for young defendants and those with distinctly Arabic sounding names increase substantially when they are randomly assigned jurors from the far-right (nationalist) Swedish Democrat party, while convictions in cases with a female victim increase markedly when they are assigned jurors from the far-left (feminist) Vaenster party. The results also indicate the presence of peer effects, with jurors from both the far-left and far-right parties drawing the votes of their more centrist peers towards their positions. Peer effects take the form of both sway effects, where jurors influence the opinions of their closest peers in a way that can impact trial outcomes, and dissent aversion, where jurors switch non-pivotal votes so that the decision is unanimous.

Overton Window – Overton Juggernaut: Part Two


Well folks, when I put “Overton Window – Overton Juggernaut” into Google and looked for an image, this came up naturally enough. If the cap fits . . .

Continued from Part One yesterday.

Over the last few years, there been a sense in which we didn’t like cutting cash rates to bring them too close to zero. Thus amidst fiscal contraction – initially quite strong as the one off aspects of the fiscal stimulus ceased – though tailing off in severity, and then mining investment boom came off, the RBA showed it’s penchant for very gradual easing (never cutting rates by more than 0.25% and then usually stopping for some time before the next rate cut). For the last few years, we’ve witnessed a situation where the government has been committed to gradual fiscal contraction – however successful it’s been at getting it through the parliament – and the Official Family have forecast slack in the economy to remain for a considerable time. In its February 2012 Statement on Monetary Policy the RBA suggested this:

Employment growth is expected to remain fairly subdued in the first half of this year . . . and the unemployment rate is expected to increase modestly. Employment growth is expected to begin to strengthen later in the year [with] the unemployment rate . . . expected to decline modestly over the later part of the forecast period.

By May 2012 output was forecast to average a sub-par 3% through 2012 and then grow to a sub-par 3–3½% in calendar 2013 which would be consistent with unemployment either remaining high or drifting higher. By Feb 2013 this was the RBA story:

Employment growth has remained subdued in recent months, with the unemployment rate drifting gradually higher. . . . Employment is expected to grow only modestly in the near term, broadly in line with the outlook implied by a range of leading indicators. Employment growth is then expected to pick up gradually, but to remain below the pace of population growth over most of the forecast horizon. Accordingly, unemployment is expected to drift gradually higher. Continue reading

Overton Window – Overton Juggernaut: Part One

Overton Window diagram.svgThe Overton Window is a quite well known expression describing the demarcation between political/policy discussion that is and is not acceptable in mainstream discussion. Sometimes what removes your idea from the window is that, whatever policy merit it might have, it would arouse the politically powerful and so ensure that it could only be implemented by democratic politicians with a death wish. This ‘rational’ interpretation of what’s in and outside the window is the one illustrated in most of the illustrations from which I took the one above. But a lot of the demarcation is much more arbitrary than that. It’s often just about what’s getting talked about. <MixedMetaphorAlert>So I have at least one policy horse in the race that’s outside the Overton Window for the classical reason that half a trillion dollars of market capitalisation of banking oligarchs would be seriously inconvenienced by it.</MixedMetaphorAlert> But other policy proposals of mine aren’t like that. They’re typically moderate, low or very low risk with high to very high potential payoffs.

So why aren’t they talked about? Well no reason really. They’re not talked about because they’re not talked about. Well they’re talked about by me. And when I give a presentation on them, people often respond as if they’re positively elevated to hear them. They complement me on how ‘lateral’ they are. Just hearing such ‘out of the box’ thinking makes them feel more innovative. They sometimes say I really should come and give a talk to their whole management group or some subset of it. They sometimes, though much more rarely, make that happen. And then they get back to their in-tray.

When I was working for the Business Council of Australia I once tried to sell independent fiscal policy to Australian Democrat Treasury spokesperson Andrew Murray. After my presentation he was very complimentary and asked if I couldn’t perhaps get anyone really important to publicly endorse the idea. It’s a reasonable question from him, as a person with limited expertise and resources at his command he needed to protect himself against crank proposals or proposals that earned him the ire of the powerful. I suggested he ask Ross Garnaut what he thought of the idea, but in the end Senator Murray just got back to his in-tray. And somehow most of the gatekeepers to the Overton Window don’t see it as their role to widen it in helpful ways.

They all get greater kudos for entertaining more mainstream thoughts, like “how soon should we balance the budget?”, “do we need more workplace flexibility?” or “will the RBA cut cash rates at it’s next meeting?” or that perennial “what’s the outlook for the Hawks next week the economy and how does [insert important person/institution] think it will go?”. Another fave is “how can we get back to the glory days of productivity growth?” (so long as it’s a well understood answer – like “more micro-economic reform” – which will be just like what we already know from the glory days of reform).

Those ‘out of the box’ the ideas I’ve sketched out often arise from a little reframing of an issue. So they’re not answers to well known questions – which very often come in the form of “should we spend more or less money on” or “should we tax this or that activity more?” complete with a quick cross to the interest groups who can be relied upon to slip into the trenches lobbing soundbites back and forth across the terrain of interests and ideologies. Continue reading