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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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. 

Evening up rights: the rough with the smooth …

Suicide and Property Rights in India by Siwan Anderson, Garance Genicot  -  #19978 (DEV)

This paper studies the impact of female property rights on male and female suicide rates in India. Using state level variation in legal changes to women’s property rights, we show that better property rights for women are associated with a decrease in the difference between female and male suicide rates, but an increase in both male and female suicides.  We conjecture that increasing female property rights increased conflict within household and this increased conflict resulted in more suicides among both men and women in India. Using individual level data on domestic violence we find evidence that increased property rights for women did increase the incidence of wife beating in India.

The singularity: which jobs will go?

 

Pretty interesting paper (pdf).

The abstract:

We examine how susceptible jobs are to computerisation. To assess this, we begin by implementing a novel methodology to estimate the probability of computerisation for 702 detailed occupations, using a Gaussian process classifier. Based on these estimates, we examine expected impacts of future computerisation on US labour market outcomes, with the primary objective of analysing the number of jobs at risk and the relationship between an occupation’s probability of computerisation, wages and educational attainment. According to our estimates, about 47 percent of total US employment is at risk. We further provide evidence that wages and educational attainment exhibit a strong negative relationship with an occupation’s probability of computerisation.

The last paragraph of the conclusion.

Finally, we provide evidence that wages and educational attainment exhibit a strong negative relationship with the probability of computerisation. We note that this finding implies a discontinuity between the nineteenth, twentieth and the twenty-first century, in the impact of capital deepening on the relative demand for skilled labour. While nineteenth century manufacturing technologies largely substituted for skilled labour through the simplification of tasks (Braverman, 1974; Hounshell, 1985; James and Skinner, 1985; Goldin and Katz, 1998), the Computer Revolution of the twentieth century caused a hollowing-out of middle-income jobs (Goos, et al., 2009; Autor and Dorn, 2013). Our model predicts a truncation in the current trend towards labour market polarisation, with computerisation being principally confined to low-skill and low-wage occupations. Our findings thus imply that as technology races ahead, low-skill workers will reallocate to tasks that are non-susceptible to computerisation – i.e., tasks requiring creative and social intelligence. For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.

Is the world better off with a Bigger Australia, or with more Australians?

Michael Fullilove, of the Lowy Institute, last week gave a speech espousing the established (non-radical) centrist view that more immigration to Australia is highly desirable – that migration is an essential step to A Bigger Australia.

I like immigration. In fact, my gut supports something a flea’s dick away from open borders, and my head constantly feels its not being fair dinkum when trying to justify policy much more restrictive than that.

Yet I am utterly unconvinced by the Bigger Australia arguments, of which Fullilove is but one proponent.

I like immigration because of the (modest) benefits to existing Australians, and the (immense) benefits to new Australians.

It is probably the single best way Australian policy can help the welfare of humanity (whether measured in in crude economic metrics like GWP or otherwise), but entails costs that are so modest we’ve had to create a vigourous passtime imagining them on talkback radio and odious comment threads[1].

In short, my gut tells me that the freedom and productivity of people can be immensely increased by a free choice to move country, at no net cost to others, then restricting that choice is not just irrational, it is deeply immoral, whatever the practical politics are.

But it does not seem to be welfare of Australians old and new that motivates a Bigger Australia advocate, and least not primarily. Their concerns do not seem to lie with Australians, but an entity called Australia.

Fullilove automatically links a more populous Australia with bigger defence budgets. Big Militaries are something Big Nations Do. He invokes the weight a Bigger Australia can have at international summits, and that a bigger force of DFAT bureacrats is needed for the Bigger Australia to throw its bigger bulk around.

We seem to be coming to the similar policies in radically different ways. Continue reading

Lord Salisbury’s Lessons for Great Powers

The noise and drama surrounding Putin, Russia and the Ukraine obscure crucial foreign policy principles. In “Lord Salisbury’s Lessons for Great Powers”, Robert Merry takes a closer look at what they might be.

First, avoid promiscuous jingoism of the kind that Salisbury despised—and that suffuses so much American commentary and political discourse today. This kind of talk, particularly coming from national leaders, ultimately undermines any nation’s global authority.

Once embarked upon, this pernicious habit is hard to turn off. Combative political and media constituencies thrive on such melodrama and prudent voices find it ever more difficult to be heard, much less listened to.

Second, avoid geopolitical controversies and crises that don’t affect directly the nation’s true strategic interests. A corollary principle is to avoid moralistic posturing, which only breeds national hypocrisy and leads inevitably to geopolitical overextension.

As Merry points out, “any hegemonic power inevitably will encounter multiple challenges at any given time, and hence it must assess carefully, in terms of its fundamental interests, the clashes it wishes to pursue.” To do otherwise is to court eventual exhaustion and ridicule. Continue reading

Edicts from on high II: ethics committee edition

I was bemoaning ethics committees to someone the other day and they told me of this case in which Australian Hospitals refused a patient – a nurse who had done her homework – aggressive chemotherapy for her MS. The ethics committee knew better. So she had to toddle off to Russia and pay $100,000 odd for the trip and the treatment – which at least so far as stopped the progression of the MS dead and does so in most cases.

Makes your blood boil. But there should be criminal sanctions against the behaviour of whomever was responsible for bundling Lauren Kish out of Canberra Hospital, mid course in the chemo because the ‘ethics committee’ had got cold feet about it. Some committee. Some ethics. What more dramatic illustration of whose interests are really served on such bodies, or as I said in an earlier post on ‘Red Tape, Political Correctness and Edicts from On-high‘ concerning the vast list of things one was not permitted to talk about when interviewing students for places:

One might write this off as just a pity, a small silly excess to which we have gone, but it is an example of a larger phenomenon that is becoming more and more evident and unfortunate – the domination of daily life with edicts from on high. In this case, an issue arises. Those at the top of the hierarchical system then get into ‘something must be done’ mode. It is time to issue instructions. So instructions are issued. The problem is that the issue may be one of considerable subtlety. . . .[T]the real energy in the system is not really deployed trying to engage with the issue and minimise the kinds of [evil identified].  The energy is directed towards minimising the organisation’s exposure to risk. And once this is the frame, the actual issue pretty much disappears, indeed the edict is precisely to make it disappear in all the organisation’s official conduct. So much for engaging with the issue and trying to do something about it. We’re just covering our arses here.

 What better and more grandly immoral example than the one above? 60 Minutes fired the questions below at the Canberra Hospital. It is like shooting fish in a barrell. But like Orwellians from central casting, the response was blanded-out pusillanimity by press release here and then another one here. Annihilation by platitude.

Here are 60 Minutes’ questions.

1. You say this treatment (stem cell transplant) is “not widely accepted for this use, with limited data on the efficacy and outcomes of this treatment from studies undertaken to date.” Are you aware of multiple peer-reviewed studies by Dr Richard Burt, Dr Nikolai Pfender, Dr Riccardo Saccardi and others, published in journals such as the Lancet, JAMA and Current Treatment Options in Neurology, confirming the treatment “is able to completely halt disease activity in the majority of patients”? Continue reading

Sakura Tsukamasa-Green: 2013-2013

Phone 20130518 017One year ago our daughter died and was born.

We called her Sakura, for the cherry blossom. Sakura is a thing of beauty that does not, and cannot last, longer than a short time. But we meet its brief time in this world with joy and not sorrow.

Not surprisingly, I guess, thinking about her this way doesn’t make it hurt any less.

This is no epic tragedy. There are no scoundrels or blackguards here. No might-have-beens or woeful choices. No one to blame – not even ourselves as much as we have tried. It was just an indifferent shuffling of chromosomes that determined that she should never live.

So why am I writing this? To prove that she existed? We have the papers to prove that, and a tiny urn in the bedroom holding that part of her ashes I could not bear to give to the sea. To let others know that they are not alone? Why? I cannot offer them any comfort, or pretend it is there to be had.

Maybe we just want to know why we miss so much someone we never knew.

All we know is she was beautiful.