The Dog’s Bollocks

Truth is like a dog’s bollocks – pretty obvious if you care to look.

Looks like the Greens were right all along

It’s breathtaking how rapidly the Australian media have taken up the cause of climate change. Andrew Bolt is about the last total denier left and seems to be arguing that Rupert Murdoch has been sucked in by the Climate Change Conspirators. Even the Howard government is starting to talk the talk, and even promising to walk the walk – maybe, if everyone else does first.

Environmentalists have been saying all this stuff for decades and now it appears they were right all along. Enter Al Gore and the Stern report and it’s become a serious economic issue that everyone’s talking about. Global Warming (to give the problem its proper pre-spun name) is an environmental issue that requires a global economic response. And that’s going to take cooperative regulation and leadership from developed nations such as Australia, especially given that we are among the world’s worst offenders on a per capita basis.

Maybe the Greens (and the Democrats) are owed an apology by the Australian people, government and business leaders, journalists and the media. Sure they have some radical notions which scare conservative-minded folk, but it goes to show that the evaluation of ideas requires thoughtful input from a diversity of perspectives. And I guess we’ll be seeing a lot less of that as well.

When Howard came to power, Australian businesses were among the leading innovators in all kinds of carbon-neutral power generation, particularly solar energy. Thanks to Howard’s short-sighted policies of withdrawing research and development incentives, they now fallen way behind. Had this investment remained, Australian business would be poised to not only be a leader in this next economic global transition, but profit handsomely from it as well. At best, we’ll now be playing catch-up.

Maybe the Australian people will express their regret by voting in larger numbers for the Greens and Democrats. Don’t think we’ll be hearing any kind of apology any time soon.

Filed under: Environment, Politics

Invest in education not measurement

Blogging about performance-based vs standards-based pay for teachers, Andrew Leigh leans toward favouring performance-based pay.

“In short, teacher certification is a hoop, while kids’ test scores are an output. It would make more sense to pay for outputs, not hoop-jumping.”

Kid’s test scores are an output, but by no means the only or most important one, other than a convenient one for politicians, bureaucrats and economists because they are the easiest thing to measure. Just what they are measuring, and how valid these measurements are in evaluating the effectiveness of a student, teacher, or school is far from clear.

Standards-based pay doesn’t refer to someone with a Masters degree. It is a system of bench-marking professional standards supported by ongoing professional development and evaluation processes.

Teaching is a profession underpinned by cooperation and collaboration. Schools in difficulty will usually be deficient in these qualities. It is a reasonable concern that competitive ‘performance’ bonuses will discourage individual teachers from sharing their trade secrets.

And how do you even begin to make an equitable performance bonus scale based on kids’ test scores? Education is not a mechanised production line with easily measured and distinct raw ingredients transformed into a uniform can of PAL at the end of the line. Surely it is the aim of all educators to help their students achieve the best they can, and for some students, test scores may not figure so highly.

Socioeconomic factors, unemployment, drug abuse, emotional neglect/abuse, family stability, non-english speaking backgrounds, how much a family reads and discusses as opposed to passively soaking up television, among others, all have a profound influence on a child’s ability to learn and achieve a ‘desirable’ test score, even among children with the same innate abilities.

The most wonderfully effective teacher in a disadvantaged school has no chance of achieving the test score bonus payment. So then you have to start creating indices and scales and complex formula in order to approach some kind of effective evaluation of how good a teacher is based on relative and comparative test scores. Another government department in the making, I’m sure. Money better spent by investing in education, not endlessly measuring it.

Filed under: Education

Who the heck is Hayek?

Shortly after Margaret Thatcher became Leader of the Conservative Party, she “reached into her briefcase and took out a book. It was Friedrich von Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. Interrupting [the speaker], she held the book up for all to see. ‘This’, she said sternly, ‘is what we believe’, and banged Hayek down on the table.” Friedrich August von Hayek, (May 8, 1899 – March 23, 1992) was an Austrian-born British economist and political philosopher. He won the Noble Prize for Economics in 1974.

The efficient exchange and use of resources, Hayek claimed, can be maintained only through the price mechanism in free markets. He argued that the price mechanism serves to share and synchronize local and personal knowledge, allowing society’s members to achieve diverse, complicated ends through a principle of spontaneous self-organization. He coined the term catallaxy to describe a “self-organizing system of voluntary co-operation.”

Hayek has again been in the blogosphere this last week when Labor’s Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, Kevin Rudd mentioned him in passing in his latest essay, “Howard’s Brutopia” in The Monthly. Rudd précised the essay in The Australian (and I selectively quote – don’t we all?).

“JOHN Howard’s culture wars are essentially a mask for the real battle of ideas in Australian politics today: the battle between free-market fundamentalism and the social-democratic belief that individual reward can be balanced with social responsibility.

As concise a contention as I’ve seen – and my personal prejudices oblige me to agree.

“The contradiction within the political Right is as old as liberalism and conservatism: the ruthless logic of the market rubbing up against a tradition that holds that those with economic power have a moral obligation to protect those without it.

“For these reasons, it is critical that social democrats recognise that the culture war is not just a diversion. It is a fraud. There are no more corrosive agents at work today, on the so-called conservative institutions of family, community, church and country than the unforgiving forces of neo-liberalism, materialism and consumerism, which lay waste to anything in their way.

Seems an appropriate critique of 10 years of Howardism.

“By contrast, modern Liberals, influenced by Hayek, argue that human beings are almost exclusively self-regarding. They distort Smith, adopting The Wealth of Nations while ignoring the philosophical framework outlined in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Rudd has attracted much disparaging comment from various libertarian commentators, but interestingly it has focussed on asserting that Rudd is an intellectual lightweight who has misunderstood Hayek, for characterising his followers as being ‘almost exclusively self-regarding’.

I consider this to be a relative minor point in Rudd’s thesis that Howard’s culture wars are “the battle between free-market fundamentalism and the social-democratic belief that individual reward can be balanced with social responsibility” – a political conundrum as old as Adam I would have thought.

Much of the libertarian criticism seems to be along the lines of my ‘economic philosopher is better than yours, and I can prove it, so therefore your concerns are bullshit and you don’t know what you are talking about’.

After reading up on Hayek’s ideas, and viewing the cartoon version of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom I appreciate the sentiment and would even like to believe it. His ideas are analytically attractive.

My misgivings lie with how the issues of global equity, solidarity and sustainability are provided for by a libertarian Hayekian free market system, other than by the reassurance that the free market will automatically produce these things through catallaxy and altruism – which I concede are an excellent model for localised community economics. However we live a society in which a single individual may have has much personal capital as an entire nation, and corporations have more economic power than many nations. We see exploitation, social, cultural and environmental degradation in their wake. On our road to serfdom we see a corporate free-market global economy that is essentially fascist, not liberal democratic. I think we need some kind of plan or we might see the world going to hell in a handbasket. I for one don’t want to see that happen – I wouldn’t want the apocalyptic cults to think their wildest fantasy had come true!

Rudd states:

“Neo-liberals speak of the self-regarding values of security, liberty and property. To these, social democrats would add the other-regarding values of equity, solidarity and sustainability. For social democrats, these additional values are seen as mutually reinforcing because the allocation of resources in pursuit of equity (particularly through education), solidarity and sustainability assist in creating the human, social and environmental capital necessary to make a market economy function effectively.”

A reasonable, centrist view I would think.

What prevents the accumulation of power by individuals and corporations being exercised in ways which are oppressive, unjust, inequitable and environmentally destructive? What is history other than evidence that this is how human beings conduct their political and economic affairs?

The Libertarian would suggest that these things can be facilitated by rule of law, or even international law. But we know that powerful individuals and corporations will sooner or later act to circumvent the rule of law if they deem it against their interest. Indeed this is the libertarian creed underscoring The American War of Independence.

We’ve had more than 30 years of Hayekian inspired economics and it hasn’t exactly improved the lot of the third world, the working poor or the environment. Yeah, yeah, I know – it hasn’t been done properly. But isn’t that always going to be the situation? There will always be powerful vested interests who will support/exploit/subvert any ideology for their own ends.

I suspect libertarianism is as much a utopian philosophy as social justice is to the Left. Given all the necessary conditions inherent in the theory can be met to the requisite degree, then it should work – trust us, we have evidence from some studies!

Hayek’s ideas are clearly worthy of serious consideration, but so are the ideas of many others, so I am skeptical about holding them to be some kind of self-evident immutable universal truth originating from the Big Bang or your chosen theology.

With his appointment to the University of Chicago in 1950, Hayek’s emphasis shifted towards political philosophy and psychology. As a philosopher, after years of thinking about economics, did he consider these fields more, or at least equally important in his quest to understand the human condition?

I’ll let the man himself finish from his speech at the 1974 Nobel Prize banquet, where he makes salutary observations about being awarded a Nobel Prize for economics.

“Now that the Nobel Memorial Prize for economic science has been created, one can only be profoundly grateful for having been selected as one of its joint recipients, and the economists certainly have every reason for being grateful to the Swedish Riksbank for regarding their subject as worthy of this high honour.

Yet I must confess that if I had been consulted whether to establish a Nobel Prize in economics, I should have decidedly advised against it. One reason was that I feared that such a prize, as I believe is true of the activities of some of the great scientific foundations, would tend to accentuate the swings of scientific fashion.

This apprehension the selection committee has brilliantly refuted by awarding the prize to one whose views are as unfashionable as mine are. I do not yet feel equally reassured concerning my second cause of apprehension.

It is that the Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess. This does not matter in the natural sciences. Here the influence exercised by an individual is chiefly an influence on his fellow experts; and they will soon cut him down to size if he exceeds his competence.

But the influence of the economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally. There is no reason why a man who has made a distinctive contribution to economic science should be omnicompetent on all problems of society – as the press tends to treat him till in the end he may himself be persuaded to believe.

One is even made to feel it a public duty to pronounce on problems to which one may not have devoted special attention. I am not sure that it is desirable to strengthen the influence of a few individual economists by such a ceremonial and eye-catching recognition of achievements, perhaps of the distant past.

I am therefore almost inclined to suggest that you require from your laureates an oath of humility, a sort of Hippocratic oath, never to exceed in public pronouncements the limits of their competence. Or you ought at least, on conferring the prize, remind the recipient of the sage counsel of one of the great men in our subject, Alfred Marshall, who wrote: “Students of social science, must fear popular approval: Evil is with them when all men speak well of them”.

From Les Prix Nobel en 1974, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, Nobel Foundation, Stockholm, 1975.

Wise words indeed…

Filed under: Economics, Politics

History will condemn us

From The Age today.

Mr Howard said the coalition countries wanted to leave, but they could not until they were satisfied the Iraqis could look after the situation.

“If we go and condemn the country to civil war and greater bloodshed, history will rightly condemn us,” he said.

A bit late now I would have thought. Reports I’ve been following suggest that Iraq is in a state of civil war causing greater bloodshed. The Coalition of the Willing will no doubt be condemned by history.

The best that can hoped for now is a tripartite federation (that won’t necessarily avoid civil war) or a US supported coup.

Lots of commentators forget to mention these days that keeping Iraqi and Middle Eastern oil supplies in the hands of US friendly regimes has always been a major part of US policy in the Iraq adventure and the whole War on Terror. If the Bush Administration believe that objective would best be served by a coup then it will happen – elected government or not.

Filed under: Politics

The Dog’s Bollocks

What they say

The Dog's Bollocks: "Bollocks" is one of my favourite words, and this is now one of my favourite blogs and I've only been reading it for five minutes. – John Surname

This is the person who tried to analyse Hayek. This is actually a person who needs a shrink. – JC

Shut up slim. You’re an idiot.
Just you stay honest and keep that thinking cap on. – GMB

Insightful perspectives on politics and discussion of matters epistemological? I’m sold! - Bruce

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