Shorewalker’s flotsam, April 2014

An experiment in occasional linkage to insights that might outlast the daily news cycle. If you find any of it interesting, let us know in the comments.

  • Prepare for the knowledge automation transition to take decades (ABC Radio National Future Tense) – How long might it take for developed economies to make the transition to knowledge automation in the 21st century? One answer, from Tyler Cowen: About 60 years, the same as it took to transition to muscle automation from 1780. Cowen adds: “In the very long run it will be splendid, but along the way it’s not always going to feel splendid.” The program quotes Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author of The Second Machine Age, noting once again that in the US around the mid-1990s productivity and wealth became decoupled from employment and median income, which stagnated. The concentration of reward in a knowledge economy was neatly predicted by the late Sherwin Rosen in 1981′s The Economics of Superstars, but more and more people are coming to understand it.
  • flakeJust say “no” to flake (Australian Marine Conservation Society) – Never mind the WA shark saga. Misguided as the WA government’s actions may be, they are insignificant next to the issue of commercial shark fishing. Try something else with your chips.
  • Teach your kids to keep trying (Farnam Street blog) – How does a US public school chess program keeps winning national competitions? By teaching grit: “I really believe that’s why we seem to win girls’ nationals sections pretty easily every year: most people won’t tell teenage girls (especially the together, articulate ones) that they are lazy and the quality of their work is unacceptable. And sometimes kids need to hear that, or they have no reason to step up.”
  • Ask yourself whether you want happiness or meaning (Roy F Baumeister) – Psychology professor Roy Baumeister on creating a meaningful life: “Time spent imagining the future was linked especially strongly to higher meaningfulness and lower happiness … If you want to maximise your happiness, it looks like good advice to focus on the present, especially if your needs are being satisfied. Meaning, on the other hand, seems to come from assembling past, present and future into some kind of coherent story.” Baumeister suggests four “needs for meaning”: purposes that guide your actions, justifications for your actions, actually making a difference (efficacy) and feeling you’re a good person. What is the meaning of life? There are thousands of different ones, but they respond to these four needs. A shrewd commenter asks: is it tautological to say that the meaning of life is to find meaning, without deciding what the good meanings are?
  • Opternative wants to bring the eye exam online (Digital Trends) – The range of services challenged by online services grows by the day. The US-based Opernative startup offers online and app based eye tests on your desktop and tablet computer. They are targeting a cost of $20 for an exam. (Optometry offers an interesting pointer to how the market can deliver lower-cost health solutions, since it does not have the same regulation as other medical fields.)
  • Australia is a global payments system leader  (Public Accountant) –Beverley Head on an unexpected success, driven in part by the RBA’s desire for more payments innovation. We lead the world in contactless payments, and new payments mechanisms are proliferating here. “The RBA’s 2012 strategic review of innovation in the payments system made a series of recommendations … [It] spurred the creation of a collaborative payments hub, allowing near real-time settlement. There are also now plans to establish a central addressing hub that could let people transfer funds knowing only the payee’s mobile phone number … The major banks are racing to mobile payments.”
  • Productivity has had its best two years since 2001-02 (AAP) – Remember how the Gillard Government was a disaster for labour productivity? No, it wasn’t. Labour productivity has just recorded its fastest two years of growth since 2001-2002. It’s a productivity boom! So a triumph for Labour then? No, not really that, either. The real answer to the puzzle is the one Bob Gregory put forward some time ago. The worst labour productivity performances are in mining and utilities, and that’s mostly because of all the investment they’re doing which hasn’t yet paid off. Business-people mostly keep going on about labour productivity as a problem because they want to convince us of the need for further labour market deregulation. But as the Grattan Institute’s John Daley has pointed out, there’s no evidence this will provide much of a transformation.
  • Don’t start environmental measures by assuming stupidity (Eric Crampton) – Why carbon pricing works better than fuel standards: “Imagine that you set a fuel economy standard instead of a carbon/petrol tax in a world where customers are forward-looking and not idiots. Well, once they’ve bought the more efficient car, the value they derive from burning another litre of petrol increases substantially: they can drive farther, and they’re not charged any more for that litre of petrol. And so a lot of the reductions in carbon emission you might have expected get whittled away by that people drive more. If you’d done it instead with a petrol tax, the marginal cost of another litre of petrol is higher. People still flip to the more efficient vehicle, but petrol usage doesn’t rebound as much as a consequence because the marginal cost of a litre is higher.” Greg Hunt almost certainly knows this, but the same story applies to direct action efficiency measures promised at some industrial facility.
  • carparkProtecting historic buildings costs nothing, right? Wrong (The Urbanist, Alan Davies) – Uses the debate over Melbourne’s Total Car Park to tell some preservation truths. First, not all ageing buildings will end up loved. Second, “historical significance” is not worth endless money. “Most of the claims to historical significance are arcane [and] aren’t compelling either; in fact they verge on the inconsequential when compared to the cost of protection  … Compared to how most history is recorded – in books, on film, on a plaque, or in a museum – protecting buildings is an extraordinarily expensive exercise.” Maybe it’s time for Edward Glaeser’s idea of a a fixed annual “preservation budget”. (I’d pay good money to preserve Dr Davies intact forever, though.)
  • We can graph stories (Kurt Vonnegut on Youtube) – Kurt Vonnegut explores the shape of stories – an idea which started off as his rejected masters thesis – and explains why Cinderella is like The Bible. “Anyone can graph a simple story if he or she will crucify it, so to speak, on the intersecting axes I here depict.”

  • Most Australians don’t see God as essential to morality (Pew Research Center) – In Australia, just 23 per cent of people say you must believe in God in order to be moral. Only five of 40 countries recorded a lower percentage. And there’s a gulf between the attitudes of high-income and low-income nations. Even the US, an outlier amongst rich countries, recorded a lower percentage than any country poorer than Russia. With one exception – China. But in China the concept of “God” has long carried a different cultural package.
  • The Australian military should not take over the war on asylum seekers (John Menadue) – John Menadue gets it right: the Australian military has made a grievous misjudgment in allowing itself to become central to asylum-seeker policy implementation. “For political purposes the government has deliberately embarked on a policy and a language to militarise the asylum seeker issue in the same way the Howard Government did in the ‘war on terror’. It is designed to highlight the government’s resolve, to play to our fears about a threat and to lessen our rights to be informed … But the ‘war on terror’ and the so-called ‘war on asylum seekers’ would in fact be much better conducted by police, customs and our intelligence services … Senator Conroy has been criticised for saying that General Angus Campbell, the head of Operation Sovereign Borders, has participated in a ‘political cover-up’. In my view that is precisely what the government and General Campbell have done.”
  • Read the greatest opening in journalistic history (The Atlantic) – This essay, titled The Dark Power of Fraternities, loses its way quickly and fails to answer, um, fundamental questions. But the first four long paragraphs have a dementedly poetic dissonance between writing style and subject matter that elevate them to greatness. “It takes a certain kind of personal-injury lawyer to look at the facts of this glittering night and wrest from them a plausible plaintiff and defendant, unless it were possible for Travis Hughes to be sued by his own anus.”
  • Rent Much Ado About Nothing – Filming the original screwball rom-com in noirish modernity, Joss Whedon delivers the most watchable Shakespeare adaptation in decades. The cast, stuffed with Whedon regulars, clearly had the time of their lives filming on a tiny budget, in a 12-day gap before their director went back to editing the tedious Avengers movie. There have been versions with better line readings, but rarely a more convincing spirit. Ought-to-be-huge-star Amy Acker’s smart, vulnerable, wonderful Beatrice commands centre stage, like Whedon heroines before (or is that after?) her. BuffyFirefly and Dollhouse fans already know this, but Whedon takes a Shakespearean delight in wordplay and pace-changing, and it pays off hugely here. Watch with your significant other.

Are RDA race hatred law amendments needed?

bolt-still-a-dickhead1Troppo author and frequent commenter John Walker asks:

Ken

The Bolt case was just one case-  is there much information about how 18C has been applied, on a wider scale.

Its pretty hard to judge whether there is a problem needing changes to the law , or not, on the basis of just one case. Do you have any info re other cases and judgements?

Fortunately, the answer is yes.  Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 was introduced by the former Keating Labor government in 1994.  In 2004 Deakin University legal academic Dan Meagher wrote a reasonably comprehensive review of its first decade of operation in an article titled “So Far So Good?: A Critical Evaluation of Racial Vilification Laws in Australia“.  I almost completely agree with his analysis and opinion, and so rather than reinvent the wheel I will simply reproduce edited extracts from his article with some relatively brief comments of my own at the end (although the whole of Meagher’s article is worth reading if you have time).

In essence, Meagher argues (and I agree) that racial vilification laws are needed, but that the current proscription of words which would be “offensive”, insulting” or humiliating” to reasonable members of a targeted race is much too vague, and consequently potentially has an unacceptably chilling effect on democratically essential free speech.  Similar conclusions have been expressed by a range of commentators well before the Bolt case.  This is not just a confected controversy beaten up by Abbotistas and Murdoch minions.

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What’s wrong with TED talks – hint: quite a lot

I have almost certainly fulminated in various asides against TED talks on this blog, and even one full on cri de coeur against retail profundification. (I promised one on business class profundification but I haven’t managed to do it yet.

Anyway, a friend sent me this TEDx talk which is about what’s wrong with TED Talks. It’s terrific. Indeed, if you want to watch it you can, but you can also see the text of the speech reproduced on the speaker’s website and in the Guardian. It’s always annoyed me that transcripts aren’t provided as a matter of course. They save a lot of time.

My favourite quote on economics:

Our options for change range from basically what we have plus a little more Hayek, to what we have plus a little more Keynes. Why?

Enjoy.

Could the press gallery please score Bronwyn Bishop?

Much of the time, the public can make up its own mind on public events once it get a decent helping of facts; the theatre commentary from the parliamentary press gallery – a little of which I used to write – is more entertainment than vital input.

But on the running of the parliament, the press gallery really does have something to offer. The gallery watches parliament day after day. If the speaker is doing a bad job, the gallery is uniquely placed to say so.

So it’s surprising that there’s been so little judgment of Bronwyn Bishop’s performance in the speaker’s role. I would really like to know more about how she’s going. I was somewhat surprised to turn on the TV late one night and see her telling Tanya Plibersek to withdraw the remark “if the number is zero, just say it”. But maybe that was an aberration. I’m not watching all the time. The gallery is. And yet most of the media is avoiding judgment just at the time when judgment is needed. It’s not just me; Barrie Cassidy remarked on Insiders this week (at the 25:47 mark) on the gallery’s unusual coyness.

Slight diversion: I like Bronwyn. She’s charming and razor-sharp, and I always enjoyed talking with her when I was in the parliamentary building. She also occasionally read my stories when I was a gallery member, a tactic which like many journalists I found endearing. It was a story I wrote about then ATO chief Trevor Boucher that she pursued in a somewhat infamous committee hearing flare-up in 1992. (The story wasn’t prompted by any discussion with her; she simply picked up on it.)

But I always thought Bronwyn’s speakership was going to go one of two ways. She would accept that this was her last gig and try to make it her best gig, extending the examples of the three most recent speakers and being a fairly neutral arbiter, but with the trademark Bishop steeliness that would make her an absolute legend. Or she would remain fiercely partisan and fail, as Labor’s “Leaping” Leo McLeay had done before her. (Contrary to Tony Burke’s claims, the Opposition of the day moved a motion of no confidence in Leo, too, back in 1992; it also failed.)

With Bronwyn, it’s usually black or white.

At time of writing, only two senior journalists have committed their judgments of Bronwyn to print. Both think she’s botched the job.

  • Michelle Grattan, The Conversation: “Bishop doesn’t even give the impression of trying to be fair. She hasn’t been able to establish authority in the job – an elusive quality that is bound up not just with fairness but with an ability to know when to be tough and when to be lenient – and when to bring a touch of humour … Bishop is very obvious in favouring the government side and it comes through in her tone – she is often dismissive, sometimes bordering on rude, to Labor MPs, sounding like the cross school mistress.” She would have done better with a ministry.
  • Dennis Atkins, Courier-Mail: “She is the most biased occupant of the chair I’ve seen in 33 years of coming to and living in Canberra …” Atkins specifically rates her as worse than Leaping Leo.

Let me know in the comments if I have missed any other judgments from Gallery members. On this one, it’s worth keeping score.

Update 1: Two other gallery commentaries:

  • Gabrielle Chan, Guardian: “To the most untrained eye, Bishop is clearly batting for the government, often refusing to hear Labor’s points of order, joining in on government jokes at Labor’s expense and taking the mickey out of the opposition herself. Labor, without the numbers, can do nothing but sit on its hands.” (Hat tip to Zacster - interesting blog there)
  • Peter van Onselen, Sunday Mail (Adelaide): The most brutal of them all, and back in November to boot. “Bronwyn Bishop is going to be a hopeless Speaker. Not, of course, if you are a partisan who happens to enjoy the Coalition winning the day in Question Time, for Bishop ensures that happens on an all-too-regular basis. She is hopeless for anyone who thinks a Speaker operating with even just a modicum of independence is good for our parliamentary process … The overtly partisan style she has adopted is unlikely to change. In fact, it will probably harden … I didn’t have much time for the performances of her predecessors Harry Jenkins or Anna Burke during Labor’s time in power but at least they tried to develop non-partisan approaches to rulings … Bishop can’t even keep her snide remarks out of her partisan interventions … a hack who might as well be sitting on the benches behind the Prime Minister.”

Update 2: That link to the motion of no confidence in Leaping Leo back in 1992 has some interesting commentary by then Deputy Opposition Leader Tim Fischer:

McLeay has named eight members who have been suspended.

Let me ask those present in the gallery how fair they might think this is: seven of them were in fact from the coalition and just one was from the Government. That is not a bad ratio. This year we have had another two from our side of the House, so the ratio is nine on this side sent to the sin bin and further and just one on the Government side.

I think there would be an absolute riot at the SCG or the Sydney football ground if there were rulings from a referee in that ratio.

No prediction, sadly, of what would happen at the SCG if there were a 98 to zero record on suspensions.

Update 3:

  • Jack Waterford, Canberra Times: The Canberra veteran argues that fairness is not a speaker’s only virtue. “Bishop is in a class of her own for making no pretence of hiding her bias, and for making herself an active participant, and interjector, in debates. Sometimes, however, it is a little unfair that the referee, already playing for one side, makes so free with her power to throw players on the other side out.” But the core of the job is “ensuring the efficient management of the legislative and talking-shop agenda of parliament through the sausage machine. Bronwyn performs admirably … Her sheer feistiness in prosecuting it makes parliament a far more entertaining institution than it has been when someone boring but scrupulously fair-minded has been in charge of proceedings … I cannot think of a debate this semester which was the worse, or less well-informed, simply because Bishop had remorselessly shot every Opposition soldier who had put their head above the parapet.” (Hat tip: Spanky McPhee)

German Film Festival

Here are the top picks from the German Film Festival in Melbourne, with the full schedule below.

After the partner of a policeman is killed he is drawn into a mysterious plot of conspiracy and terrorists.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
When two brothers meet in their family’s isolated house on the coast, previously unresolved issues and tensions are revealed. Marten wants to pick up their jailed mother when she is released after killing their abusive father a few years ago, while Volker cannot forgive the way he was treated by his father and only wants to sell the house and forget the past.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
An elderly couple, married for 62 years, subtly interviewed by their son, reflecting on their marriage leading to surprises how these two got married in the first place.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
Florian is an overweight teenage boy, adored by his mother and abhorred by his macho father. He loves disco music and dressing up in the appropriate clothing. Yet his life undergoes a transformation when his mother has a stroke. How will he and his father get on?
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
The darker side of human interaction is revealed in this drama about a group of people that seem to be pursued by bad luck. As the individual storyline develop, a decidedly dark humor pervades the film, revealing a warped view of human existence.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
With her husband leaving, Silvi finally realizes that her rather dull marriage has failed. The 47-year-old woman, now lost and lonely, but also driven by the desire to not be alone, she decides to start over again.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
The documentary explores the role athletes played in the GDR, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s when East Germany was a major competitor at the Olympic Games. The film focuses on the intensive sports program with which the athletes, who were treated like heroes, were involved.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
Justus Neumann revisits Karl Kraus’ satire The Last Days of Mankind (1918) in an inspiring lecture about the absurdity of war and the mistakes that mankind seems to be repeating throughout history.
☆☆☆☆ Good Reads

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The Pell Principle: Mission will trump morality

The current inquiry into institutional child abuse holds some interesting lessons about the nature of religion, which I’ll stay clear of here. But it also holds a larger lesson about the ability of organisations to act morally and to act properly in the absence of external regulation. This will not be news to a lot of people, but I see many others misunderstanding it over and over again.

It’s this: For most organisations, most of the time, mission trumps morality.

Any substantial organisation is run by people who spend a lot of time upholding its virtues and the value of its activities and people. They buy into its mission. They internalise its mission. And so they should. That’s how leaders get things done.

This leaves them terribly placed to decide how moral issues between the organisation and other parties should be resolved. Their first, second and third instinct is to protect the organisation.

That is why self-regulation is a bad idea when the stakes are high.

And for proof, you need look no further than Cardinal George Pell’s evidence to the child abuse inquiry. A man who runs an organisation (the Sydney archdiocese of the Catholic Church) devoted to moral questions, who has engaged intellectually on moral questions for most of his life – and yet when the chips were down, Pell admitted that his concern for the financial health of his church trumped any desire to provide recompense to child abuse victim John Ellis and others like him.

From the Sky News report of Pell’s evidence, which seems reasonably reliable:

[Pell] admitted the church didn’t deal fairly with Mr Ellis “from a Christian point of view”, but in a legal sense it did nothing improper.

Dr Pell said he was consoled by a legal ruling protecting the church’s property trustees from being sued.

The commission has heard the archdiocese of Sydney has property and cash worth $1.2 billion.

Mr Ellis sued the church over the abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest between the ages of 13 to 17 in the 1970s, but lost the case in 2007 when a court ruled the trustees weren’t liable.

Lawyers disputed in court that the abuse had occurred, cross-examining Mr Ellis over a number of days, despite the church having previously accepted that it had happened.

Dr Pell said he regretted the action.

“I regret that. I was told that it was a legally proper tactic,” he said.

The church subsequently pursued Mr Ellis for $550,000 in costs, despite a psychiatrist assessing Mr Ellis as being in a fragile mental state.

What was going through Pell’s mind, you might ask. The answer is: his institutional mission, to ensure the success to the church. His moral mission was put aside.

You might think money is the point of it – that to adapt Upton Sinclair, leaders will not put morality first because their salaries depend on their not putting it first. And you may be right. I have my doubts. If you’re any sort of leader, salary is less important than success.

And if George Pell will put the mission first, most organisational leaders will do it.

A strong moral code within the organisation will guarantee nothing. After all, what group has a stronger moral code than the major monotheistic religions?

Self-regulation? Corporate social responsibility? Good corporate citizenship? In the clinches, most organisations will abandon or constrain them in order to preserve the organisation. Leaders will convince themselves that the wrong course is the right one, because the wrong course is the one that meets the organisational objectives. Sitting around the boardroom table, leadership groups will come to agree that weak arguments are strong ones, that bad behaviour is required behaviour, that wrong is right. That they are good people with strong moral codes in their personal life will mostly not matter.

Mission will trump morality.

Call it the Pell Principle.

Think tanks – Influence isn’t always about offering practical solutions

Many people say the best way to influence government is to give policymakers practical solutions to problems they care about. According to this perspective, academics and think tanks scholars can get it wrong by spending too much time analysing problems and their causes. Policymakers don’t care about theory, they just want policies and programs that work.

Applied to think tanks, this pragmatic approach means identifying the most important problems policymakers are dealing with and producing products that explain how best to solve them within the constraints of electoral politics, institutional structure and government budgets. In Australia, the Grattan Institute seems to embody this approach. It promotes itself as a source of "Independent, rigorous and practical solutions to Australia’s most pressing problems."

The trouble with this view is that think tank scholars have sometimes succeeded by doing exactly the opposite. For example, Charles Murray is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential think tank scholars in the United States. His accent to influence began in the early 1980s with Losing Ground, a book that rejected the conventional understanding that poverty was the problem and welfare was the solution. According to Murray, welfare dependency was the problem, entrenched poverty was one of its symptoms and the solution was to abolish government welfare programs.

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