Malcolm’s Big Idea – VFT Infrastructure PM?


Last week’s adventure in federalism by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in which he proposed fleetingly that the states be given back their own income taxing power including (after a transitional period) the ability to either raise or lower the tax rates, has attracted various descriptions from media pundits. They include “dithering” and “crazy/brave”. Peter “Mumble” Brent hypothesises that “he totally subjugated any public political considerations to the demands of the deal-making”.

Mumble also concludes:

Still, if we accept that last week’s clanger produced this week’s Newspoll, then this means that, if not for that error, the government would now be comfortably ahead in the polls. And because Turnbull has unloaded this policy, the long-term damage should be minimal and the Coalition remains almost as likely to win the next election as it did this time last week.

I think that’s probably correct, and we’ll soon know. However, Brent conditions his opinion on the necessity (as he sees it) for the Coalition to avoid proposing any new tax policies that Labor would inevitably demonise. I largely but not entirely agree with that proposition. I had a truncated Twitter conversation with him about it yesterday:

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Posted in Politics - national | 28 Comments

Thoughts on the Panama Papers

The leak of 11.5 million confidential papers from the Mossack Fonseca consulting firm in Panama promises to be a major source of information on the tax avoiding shenanigans of the elites. Already, 800 Australians are reportedly under investigation, and dozens of heads of state around the world are having serious questions raised about their willingness to pay their fair share of taxes. At the minimum, the papers show how normal it has become for the elites of many countries to minimize their personal tax contributions to their own country. At worst, it shows the widespread betrayal of the elites of the ideals of patriotism and social conscience.

The last leak of this kind was the Falciani list, where Herve Falciani was an IT guy who disclosed the files of up to 130,000 tax evaders from Europe using the Swiss branch of HSBC. He tried to sell the data he stole from his employer around 2007, but in the end the French authorities simply raided his house and distributed the files amongst various governments in Europe.The Panama Papers too have now been shared with the authorities.

The lack of fallout from the Falciani list is instructive, despite coming during a financial crisis: to this day, Greek authorities have apparently done nothing with their portion of the list, except to try and persecute the Greek journalist who published the list (known as the Lagarde list given to Greek authorities in 2010, which one can find online).

We basically don’t know what most other governments did with their portion of the Falciani list, except for the UK, which openly decided not to prosecute anyone but to use the files to force 500 out of the 6000 people named to pay the taxes owed, presumably with a fine.

Based on this, we can give a reasonable guess as to what one can expect to happen next with the Panama Papers:

1. The list will be used by vigilant authorities to get more tax, but is unlikely to lead to many prosecution. If the same strike rate (1 out of 10) holds for this list as with the UK portion of the Falciani list, then this would mean around 80 rich Australians having to cough up some additional taxes. A good outcome, but less than what many commentators will be hoping for. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Resurrection of the History Wars

Cevpq8WW4AARSdmAs you can see from the above image,  the Daily Telegraph revived John Howard’s History Wars the other day. Indeed they even disinterred Howard’s favourite undead RWNJ historian Keith Windschuttle to lend an air of faux integrity to the whole unedifying clickbait exercise:


Windschuttle’s characterisation of the historical international law position is in a sense accurate but also misleading and deceptive.  Although Justice Brennan’s reasons in Mabo v Queensland (No 2) (1992) 175 CLR 1 are the ones most commonly cited, the decision of Deane and Gaudron JJ succinctly reveals the cynical duplicity inherent in Windschuttle’s statement:

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Posted in History, Law, Politics - national | 25 Comments

The hidden story of urban refugees

The post below is a guest post from a fine person who is a friend of mine. Sonia Ben Ali,, Co-founder and Executive Director of the international NGO, Urban Refugees. It’s a pretty fledgeling organisation with a remarkably important mission. Lateral Economics is a sponsor and I’m kicking myself for not having tried to ‘leverage’ that sponsorship as we say these days by saying that I’d match Troppodillian’s contributions dollar for dollar. 

So I’m taking it on the chin. I’ll match any donation Troppodillians make up to an additional US$1,000. Just let me know in comments below how much you’ve given (this has proven spillover benefits making you feel good and leaving others powerless not to emulate your generosity.)  Just go to this website, click “contribute now” and Bob’s your uncle. We both get a little bit poorer and, by the alchemy of gains through trade between the luxuriating and the desperate, our welfare goes down by a lot less than some urban refugees welfare will rise. Indeed, there are those who think that your contribution might have you ending the day with higher welfare than otherwise. #WTNTL?

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Posted in Best From Elsewhere, Economics and public policy, Inequality | 3 Comments

No-pain-no-gain: High-road-low-road

NoPainNoGainThis post began as a comment on Paul’s last comment on my “Mainstream Radical Centrists: Where are they?” column. Paul boiled down his response to this:

If you want to have a serious debate about reforms, go to countries that are hurting and that see the need for it. Like the UK. Though even there, I think that the City of London is far too powerful to let a mere 8-year lull in growth upset the banking apple-cart.

I kind of agree with what he’s said – that is I can see the sense in it – yet I think it’s one dimensional. I also think it’s part of the problem I was trying to address.

First, what’s true. Where rent-seeking is the main driver of some problem and where community suffering leads it to greater intolerance of this rent seeking and where there’s sufficient leadership in the governing class (which includes the media), then the suffering might turn up worthwhile reform, or at least, remove roadblocks to it. Occasionally nations rise to extraordinarily worthwhile departures from the norm when faced with sufficient difficulties.


But, but, but … Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Education, Inequality, Innovation, Philosophy, Political theory | 5 Comments

Now is the time for complacency: Where are the mainstream radical centrists?

Radical Centrist

Australia’s ‘economic miracle’ off the back of what might be called the ‘reform period’ which can be dated fairly neatly from late 1983 and the floating of the dollar to mid 2001 (which, IIRC was the date the ANTS tax reform package was introduced). It came about because people in the opinionosphere – initially led by academics with the torch being taken up by bureaucratic entrepreneurs like Alf Rattigan from the late 60s, broadening to most senior bureaucrats by the early 1980s. This growing movement forged a consensus about what was wrong with our economic policies and, by implication, what to do about it. As it grew into orthodoxy, ‘reform’ took on a sadly reductionist turn – with the big ideological slogan being deregulation – letting the market work.

Not only is the idea that you can reduce reform to a slogan, or even use the slogan to get your bearings is a misfortune. To get the slogan wrong looks like carelessness. All social activity of any sophistication involves a rich ecology of the public and the private. The disastrousness of this turn was concealed for some time by the fact that there was quite a lot of detritus hanging round after around a century of ad hoc protectionism and in such circumstances deregulation works with the stroke of a pen – at least for a while.

The thing is, the public sector has immense resources. It’s tragic that it’s not a hotbed of ideas. Politicians are busy people and can’t figure this stuff out for themselves. Of course line departments still need to deliver services, but I would argue that those aspiring to high office in the public service should have achieved and demonstrated some degree of sustained thoughfulness – as they might do for instance with ‘sabbaticals’ during which they did, or participated with others in, worthwhile research and/or ‘think tank’ work. And that’s quite apart from the many hundreds of funded research and ‘think tank’ positions in government in research agencies within various portfolios. Pretty much every major department has a research agency – some of them are considerable. And there are government funded ‘think tanks’ like the PC.

Sadly these possibilities are barely realised. The enthusiasm and broad-mindedness with which many public servants begin their careers stands barely a chance amid the pervasive careerism of the public service, the fetters of groupthink.

Yet we’ve actually granted some of these agencies high degrees of independence – one would have thought precisely to enable such independence of mind. The Reserve Bank probably has more independence than any other government agency and it has a substantial research department. I’m no expert on its output and I know there’s lots of good work done there. But I doubt it would be a career enhancing move to offer a fairly thoroughgoing critique of the structure of banking from the Reserve’s research department or anywhere else in the bank.

But elsewhere such independence has been used inject far more edge into the public debate. In an unsympathetic review on Oct 28th 2010 entitled “King plays God” the Economist reported:

In a speech on October 25th … in New York, Mervyn King [then Governor of the bank of England] savaged big banks and criticised the new Basel 3 rules as too soft. Then he said what he really thought, arguing that “of all the many ways of organising banking, the worst is the one we have today.” Possible remedies included not just breaking up banks, but also “eliminating fractional reserve banking”— the centuries-old practice of banks taking in deposits and lending most of them out in riskier and longer-term loans. Having ignored finance for a decade the Bank of England now seems to want to reinvent it. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Innovation | 20 Comments

What I’m reading: Things about the Parthenon YOU WON’T BELIEVE!!

What is the meaning of the relief sculpture above?

I recall when I was last on the Athenian Acropolis just over a year ago marvelling at the Parthenon, not just its emphatic and sublime beauty but also its strangeness. It’s so big and so magnificent. What the hell did this city with fewer citizens than Albury-Woodonga think it was doing? It’s easy to understand the economics of cathedrals of Europe as expressions of the power of feudal lords (of the spiritual, rather than the temporal realm) and the power of such systems to alienate ‘the people’ from their own material interests. But Athens was a democracy. The Ecclesia had to regularly authorise the massive funds necessary to keep going. Tons and tons of silver hoarded from Athens’ post Persian invasion empire were expended year after year. Sometimes Perekles had to do some persuading, but on each occasion he suceeded in securing ghe funds.

Which always brings me back to the strangeness – which we should expect to be barely fathomable – of the Ancient Athenians. What was their relationship to their Gods? Hard to say. Plato writes about the Gods in a way that’s proto-Christian and easily absorbed into mono-theism. (It’s a long time since I read him, but I think he even refers to ‘God’ quite often though that might be the work of the translator). Anyway, this temple is dedicated to Athena. Who the hell is Athena to the Athenians? Do they take her story and the story of her founding Athens with the planting of a spear from an olive branch seriously? As metaphor? And her enemy Poseidon in matters Athenian? And all the others? Our own experience is so far removed from the Athenians, and the myth of Athens and its remaining artefacts are so entrancing to our imagination that it’s almost impossible not to read our world back on them – there they were just trying to give birth to our modern world – Thomas Jefferson, Coca-Cola, holiday packages, a secure retirement income package – that kind of thing.

So coming across Joan Connelly’s very substantial book for academics and interested lay readers alike – The Parthenon Enigma – was a great thing. That sculpture you see above is a key part of the Parthenon Frieze, sitting immediately over the Eastern Entrance. (At the other end from the grand entrance to the Acropolis – the Propylaea group of buildings. The traditional interpretation is that the girl on the right is receiving the peplos – a cloth honouring Athena in a contemporary festival of thanks for Athena. There are problems with this interpretation – most particularly that other Greek temple friezes depict age-old mythic, not contemporary events. Anyway Joan Connelly has an alternative proposal. The sculpture celebrates Athens’ founding human sacrifice. Yes, you read correctly – human sacrifice.

While she was researching the role of women in the Ancient Greek world, she came across some newly discovered lines of Euripides lost play Erechtheus. Erechteheus is Athens’ first king and, having consulted the oracle at Delphi, is told that he can save Athens from defeat in battle at the hands of its enemies by sacrificing his daughter. Erechtheus’s wife and his daughter think it’s a great idea. Indeed the Erechtheus’s other two daughters think it’s such a great idea that they swear to kill themseles once their sister is sacrificed. (They seem to be in the sculpture as the left two figures, each older than the sacrificial daughter and each carrying on their head cushions that contain their funeral shroud.) The new Euripides fragment, deciphered in 1967 from the wrappings of an ancient Egyptian mummy contains a powerful speech by Erechtheus’s wife Praxithea. (That’s one of the things about the ethos of Athens – they’re really big on sacrifice for the common good – they think of that as the very foundation of democracy – the only way in which it can hope to fend off oligarchy. Just read the magnificent Athenian Oath to see what I mean.)

Anyway, that is the kind of interpretation that captures the strangeness of Ancient Athens. And, particularly in the midst of lots of reviews saying that Connolly’s interpretation seems quite compelling (though there’s been no lay down misère within the academy which is not a surprise), it seems more compelling to my very inexpert brain than the alternative.

Anyway it’s a thick book, much preoccupied with its thesis – and I’ll probably skim much of the second half – as it reinterprets the entire frieze around the Pathenon according to this new key. But at $10 at your local book grocer, I’m loving its embrace of the strangeness of Ancient Athens.

And I like someone whose energies radiate out from their central preoccupations. Continue reading

Posted in Art and Architecture, Cultural Critique, History, Philosophy, Political theory, Religion | 6 Comments