Offences again good government: a Troppo list challenge

So the Senate will conduct an enquiry into the Queensland government – on the pretext that, to quote Senator Glen Lazarus, it has made “many questionable decisions”. Never mind that state governments are elected by the same people who elect senators, or that senators are elected to conduct national business. A bunch of senators is going to go poking around state affairs, because the Queensland government did things with which some of those senators disagree.

This silliness comes courtesy of a deal between the Palmer United Party, Labor and the Greens. The Greens’ Senator Larissa Waters was on Radio National this morning doing a great job of not answering questions about her party’s trampling of good governance while gabbling about Newman’s “brutal agenda” – but to her credit, she at least put her head up above the parapet. Labor initially seemed mightily embarrassed, as they should be.

The excuse they’re all using for this departure from convention is that Queensland has no upper house. (Back in the day, much of the left was dedicated to eliminating upper houses as unrepresentative, but apparently this is now Not Canon, as they say in the comic-book business.) In real life, a more important factor appears to be that Clive Palmer hates Campbell Newman’s guts.

The senators’ decision is a procedural obscenity not just because it is transparently payback but because it builds a path to a future where parliaments inquire endlessly into each other simply because they are run by different parties. I disagree with a bunch of the Newman government’s decisions, but the medicine for that illness is an election, which is actually not that far away.

This sort of convention-busting idiocy traditionally gets debated for a few days, decried by commentators from one side or the other, and then buried. There’s no real constituency for maintaining decent conventions and processes of government, compared to the constituency for, say, cutting taxes.

But it’s worth an occasional attempt to remind everyone that our existing system of government has its good points and that slowly degrading it does the country no favours. Especially since we seem to be getting more of these breaches of convention over time.

So here’s the challenge to Troppodillians: Name one or more actions of governments over recent years which have junked useful conventions and eroded the capacity of governments to simply govern prudently and well.

Nominations in the comments, please. Continue reading

Why ‘how to’ guides on innovation are of limited use: An ‘untheory’ of innovation

Looking for a graphic for this blogpost, it was amazing how many of the pictures were of besuited men looking anything but innovative. Not a woman or unbesuited person for miles around. But I digress …

Thinking about how to write a fairly substantial review of knowledge and innovation in the urban water industry, I listed all the things that need to go well for innovation to thrive. What began as a kind of memo to self turned into a kind of unmanifesto, which is to say an explanation for why theorising about innovation can’t be taken very far (or, to be more circumspect, perhaps it can, but I’ve never found it very useful.) In fact there’s lots of writing about innovation – far too much – but most of it – including the best of it – is incredibly light on theory and is in fact storytelling. This is a complement to it, not a criticism. If there’s not much point to theory, The thing is, so many things have to work well together that that is the secret of innovation. And this challenge of ‘alignment’ – of purposes, of people of populations (I meant systems, but it didn’t start with ‘P’ and I’m going for memorability here!) – will be particular to particular projects. There’s little of a general nature that can be said about them. Anyway, what began as a memo to self is now an important part of the way I think about this stuff. A theory of the non-theorisable. The things that must be finessed for innovation – doing things in new and better ways – to thrive in an industry or wider system are many and varied. Just listing them gives an indication of the difficulty of the task owing to its complexity and many faceted nature.

From creation to implementation
  • Innovation must be initiated either by those with a problem to solve or an opportunity to seize or elsewhere within the system. Where this is not spontaneous, it may require careful cultivation and the application of financial and other resources.
  • Once innovations are generated, they must become known to those who can use them beneficially including in some situations, those who are unaware of any specific problems, but who nevertheless can use such innovations to advantage.
  • Those who become aware of new knowledge must understand how to implement it to advantage.
Governance of innovation
  • A specific innovation may solve problems for some levels of a system but it may involve new routines, higher costs, inconvenience or disruption elsewhere. There will often (generally?) be no well-accepted means of determining priorities between the various considerations arising. Continue reading

Scottish independence: a good idea or a bad idea?

Today the people residing in Scotland can decide whether they want to see an independent Scotland or to have Scotland remain in the UK. The betting markets concur with the opinion polls and favour the status quo: the markets give roughly 20% chance that the ‘yes’ vote will win and that Scotland will become independent.

The majority of economists talking about the referendum have focused on whether or not the Scots would be financially better off with their own country, debating things like North Sea oil revenues and currency unions. I think that is a distraction: looking at small and large countries in Europe, you would have to say there is no noticeable advantage or disadvantage to being a small country and that the Scots are hence unlikely to be materially affected in the long run by independence.
Independence is more about self-image and identity than it is about money. Even though the push for independence might well come from politicians and bureaucracies that gain prestige and income if they ruled an independent country, the population deciding on the vote will probably vote on emotional grounds, not economic. Young male Scots appear overwhelmingly in favour of independence; females and old people prefer to keep things the way they are. The latter groups are bigger and are expected to sway the day.

Personally, I have two related reasons to oppose the breaking up of larger countries in Europe into smaller ethnically defined states, not just Scotland, but also Catalonia, the Basque region, the Frisian province, Bavaria, and all the other regions of Europe:

  1. These independence movements are ethnic and hence by definition exclusionary. This is a big concern: large nation states have slowly moved away from the story that they exist for people of the ‘right’ bloodlines and with ancestors who lived in the ‘right’ place. The UK, the US, France, Australia, and even Germany and Spain have moved towards an identity based on stories about what it means to be British, American, French, Australian, etc., rather than a ‘blood and earth’ ethnic nation state story. Speaking tongue-in-cheek, the Brits have an upper lip story, the Americans have an exceptionalism story, the French have been convinced they like reading Proust, the new Australians are told in their citizenship exams that they believe in a fair go, etc. These stories contain treasured national stereotypes, complete with imagined histories. The key thing is that are inclusive, ie any newcomer from another place can participate in such stories. The Australian national anthem is a beautiful example of this super-inclusive attitude as it, almost uniquely, mentions neither ethnicity nor religion as a basis for being Australian. The ethnic stories of the independence movements are, in contrast, exclusionary and hence harmful to the self-image of any migrant. It is a move to a past that we have little reason to be proud of, as it marginalises current and future migrants. The story surrounding Scottish independence is thus not that the Scots are people who like to wear kilts and enjoy haggis, but that they make up the people who have suffered 700 years of oppression by the English. What is a recent newcomer from, say, Poland to do with such a self-image but conclude that they do not really belong there? Continue reading

The Prophet on Polygamy

My brothers, did I not tell you that “None of you becomes a true believer until he likes for his brother what he likes for himself” and that “Being a true Muslim is achieved by loving for people what you love for yourself”?

And what can you want more fervently for your brothers than that they have wives of their own? What is more despicable, more lecherous, and more an affront to god than to deny your brothers a wife by taking all the desirable young women for yourselves?

I weep when I see rich Muslims take 2, 3, 4, sometimes even 7 young wives for themselves whilst their impoverished brothers have none and are thus forced into extreme behaviour for their chance to be happy. This is not Islam, this is greed.

I weep when I hear rumours of the rich Gulf States offering deals to Muslim governments of poorer countries to have 14 to 21 year old Muslimas come and clean their houses on temporary visas without the accompaniment and protection of their families. Why not give the job to old widowed women? Have you not had your fill of Phillipinos by now? This is not Islam.

I weep as the mullahs, imams, ayatollahs, and the other powerful use my example as an excuse for their behaviour. I married widows and divorcees, in a situation where many men had died in war and were scarce. Now there are more than enough men. Is it not Sharia Law that polygamy should be the exception? As a wise judge recently said to a man who misguidedly claimed refuge in Sharia Law for his lecherous behaviour: polygamy should be the exception, such as when the first wife is infertile or “as a part of social duty and charitable motives or when it seeks to prevent destitution”. Hoarding women for status and sexual pleasure is not Islam.

So shame on you, King Abdullah-of-11-wives! Shame on you, Bin-Laden-of-4-wives! And shame on you, all those princes and wealthy men that have followed their examples and denied wives to others by having so many yourselves!

My fatwa is that all those who have married additional wives desirable to others that you should seek out new husbands for those wives and in each instance that you meet a suitable match, you should divide your wealth in as many parts as you have wives and offer the biggest share in dowry.

Your Prophet Continue reading

Attack of the Stupids

Oh aren’t they so tough our current leaders? Beating their hairy chests over the ISIS threat to Western civilization. Here’s Cigar chompin’ Joe Hockey Wenesday morning

We will not be intimidated by the threats of murderers; we will never be intimidated as a nation or a people by the threats of murderers.

And here’s Tony Abbott, reaching for a line from his copy of George W. Bush’s classic Presidential Decision Making for Dummies.

This is a hideous movement that not only does evil. It revels in evil. It exults in evil

Have these people learned nothing from the last decade of disastrous engagement in the Middle East? It’s exactly this kind of  simplistic sloganeering that got America and its cocksure little deputy, caught up in this folly last time.

Continue reading

Viewing the broadband future

The latest cost-benefit analysis of various Australian broadband proposals is out. It’s part of a report from an inquiry chaired by former Victorian Treasury head Mike Vertigan.

And it says in essence that Australia’s expected growth in demand for bandwidth is big enough to make the NBN viable, but small enough to make the government’s alternative look better.

I would have expected to hear the report’s authors out there defending it, but Mike Vertigan has never been keen to put himself forward in the public debate. So today much of the media I saw has been dominated by critics, and they’ve mostly been saying that a useful cost-benefit analysis is impossible, so we should just build the NBN. Paul Budde was making the claim this morning on ABC Radio, and lesser-known experts such as Sydney Uni’s Kai Riemer have been saying the same thing.

This claim – that we can’t usefully analyse the NBN’s costs and benefits – is hooey.

We can’t do a precise cost-benefit analysis, given how much Internet use is likely to change over the next decade or two. And whatever analysis we do should be up-front about how much guesswork is involved. But cost-benefit analyses are not just helpful; they’re also inevitable. Indeed, everyone who says “we should just build it” actually is doing a cost-benefit analysis. Typically they’re just doing a really sloppy cost-benefit analysis in their head, and setting their median estimate of the benefits at, approximately, Unimaginably Huge.

And Unimaginably Huge is almost certainly an overstatement.

“We can’t begin to imagine what people could do with upload speeds on an industrial scale,” Riemer told News Limited.

But of course we can begin to imagine that. Here’s how. Continue reading

The Dunera: kicking off an exciting life

An excerpt from the Dunera News. (for those who don’t know, the Dunera was the prison ship on which my father was deported to Australia in 1940 with the Battle of Britain raging around them). The exerpt is an autobiographical sketch by Richard Sonnenfeldt (1923–2009)

I was brought up as a German boy but, being Jewish, was lucky enough to be sent to boarding school in England in 1938. I was deported on the Dunera, sent to Hay, but again lucky to be released along with six others, taken back to Sydney and on to the Dunera. The ship developed trouble, we were taken off at Bombay and freed – being left in the hands of the Jewish Relief Committee.
It took six months for the US Consul to verify my credentials and issue me with a US visa. I arrived in New York in April 1941 and joined my family who had caught one of the last boats out of Lisbon. I wanted to enlist but was not accepted due to being of German origin. But a further 18 months on in 1943, I was given US citizenship, drafted and served in the Infantry in Italy and France. Then with the third and seventh armies in Germany and Austria. I saw battle at the Bulge and was there at the liberation of Dachau concentration camp, something I never forgot. Continue reading

Libertarians and the privatisation of income management

Employers are prevented by law from subjecting workers to income management. What if they weren’t?

Libertarians favour freedom of contract. They believe the government’s role is to enforce contracts not tell people what should be in them. One way governments have interfered with freedom of contract is by insisting that employers pay workers in cash. Laws like the nineteenth century truck acts were designed to prevent employers from paying workers in goods or forcing them to spend their wages in company stores. This restriction on freedom of contract continues today through the Australian Fair Work Act 2009.

Recently Andrew Forrest has suggested that a Healthy Welfare Card could help welfare reliant families by preventing spending on alcohol, drugs and gambling. According to Forrest, the card could offer stability and "help the most vulnerable families manage the routines required to hold down a job."

Many people who make this argument seem to assume that once someone moves into paid work, their drinking, gambling and substance abuse problems disappear. Or alternatively, they believe that until a person manages to overcome these problems, no employer will offer them a job. But in reality there are plenty of people with full time jobs who abuse alcohol, take drugs and have gambling problems.

What if someone proposed a scheme that allowed employers to offer jobs to people on income managed welfare payments and pay them using something like Forrest’s Healthy Welfare Card? They could argue that employers would be more likely to take on someone with long standing alcohol or drug problem if they knew their wages would be spent paying off a car that they could use to drive to work rather than on beer. The card could allow more people to get jobs, stabilise their lives and become self sufficient.

Continue reading