Saturday, 31 December 2011

A different perspective on the ethics of a vegetarian diet vs eating meat

Professor Mike Archer looks at the environmental and ethical cost, especially in terms of animal deaths, of a vegetarian diet in Ordering the vegetarian meal? There’s more animal blood on your hands.

Monday, 26 December 2011

A couple of interesting posts on refugee policy

Sec Ozdowski has written an opinion piece in The Australian titled Real solution is Asia-Pacific pact. In it he looks at the longer term measures he thinks are needed to "deliver much better protection of refugee rights and remove key initiatives for jumping on a leaky boat to Australia". I thing much of what he advocates is interesting, but I don't support his suggestion of introducing Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs). Although, to be fair, he does suggest that they be introduced for people who bypass the "queue" after a regional solution is implemented:
Following the creation of a regional framework for refugees, there should be consequences for people who choose not to join the queue in Indonesia. Any asylum-seekers who arrive by boat without proper travel documents should not be given a right to permanent residency but instead be offered temporary protection visas if they are found to be genuine refugees.
Malcolm Farnsworth in Confusion, timidity and capitulation on asylum seekers argues that the Gillard Government is showing poor leadership on the issue:
If ever there was an issue that required leadership, this is it. The Gillard Government has not provided it. In the lead-up to Christmas, it merely begged the Opposition to rescue it.
Personally I think the above post focuses too much on the politics of the issue and not enough on the issue itself, or the policies proposed by the different parties.

In The problem with Nauru: a Christmas reflection Julian Burnside asks some interesting questions:
The first is: What is the problem we are trying to solve? Is it that boat people might come to harm on the way here, or is it just that they get here?
He advocates offshore processing, that is processing before people get on a boat for Australia.
One possibility is to process protection claims while people are in Indonesia. Those who are assessed as refugees would be resettled, in Australia or elsewhere, in the order in which they have been accepted as refugees. If Australia increased its annual refugee intake, with a guarantee of at least 10,000 places for those processed in Indonesia, the incentive to get on a boat would disappear overnight. At present, people assessed by the UNHCR in Indonesia face a wait of 10 or 20 years before they have a prospect of being resettled. During that time, they are not allowed to work, and can't send their kids to school. No wonder they chance their luck by getting on a boat. This proposal would reduce the waiting time to one or two years, and Australian officials would have an ample chance to warn people of the dangers of a trip with people smugglers.

Genuine offshore processing, with a guarantee of swift resettlement, was the means by which the Fraser government managed to bring about 80,000 Vietnamese boat people to Australia in the late 1970s. It worked, but it was crucially different from the manner of offshore processing being proposed by both major parties.

Unless offshore processing is done fairly and is coupled with swift resettlement, it is nothing but a sham to mask a desire to keep refugees out.
Jack the Insider has written an interesting summary of the issue in No deals, no hope, no policies worth a damn:
You can bet the house that an Abbott Government would not tow back boat one. It is a policy it holds in the abstract in opposition but if it found itself in government, wiser heads would conclude that the political perils would be too great. The Howard government ditched tow backs for very good reasons.

But let’s assume that all other policies are put in place in a spirit of bipartisanship.

Remember, the anticipated arrivals over the next six months are 7,000.

The government could heed Scott Morrison’s urging and reintroduce TPVs. The experts say that TPVs are not effective deterrents but let’s assume for the sake of argument that it cuts the anticipated arrivals by say, twenty five per cent during this period.

800 asylum seekers would go to Malaysia. Nauru would fill to capacity and beyond within months and Manus Island (let’s put to one side the intrinsic difficulties of the Commonwealth coming to an agreement with PNG locked in constitutional stasis, as it is) would soon fill to overflowing, too.

And then what do we do?

Be it the government, the opposition or the Greens, there is no effective policy response available to deter asylum-seekers from putting their lives at risk. After more than ten years, we have to come to the conclusion that no such policy exists within our parliament and that a little more imagination than the creation of vague deterrents of unknown or questionable value is required.
That's really the great risk: short of ripping up our treaty and moral obligations, there's probably nothing we can do that's guaranteed to "fix" the issue. For one thing, we can't agree on what the issue is. For another, none of the solutions would really scale if there was a large increase in asylum seekers. Even a regional solution, in my opinion the best of the options put forward, would run into trouble if there was a significant increase (think of the scale we're currently seeing with Somalia) and the "queues" blew out. Lastly, a regional solution would likely see more recent asylum seekers given preference over those in other regions. Effectively asylum seekers in a regional queue would be fast tracked compared to those in places like Africa.

Unfortunately, as with all wicked problems, there's no perfect solution.

Edit 31/12: The Conversation gives several academics the opportunity to put their view across in Five ways to prevent more asylum seeker tragedies.

George Megalogenis on Paul Keating and leadership

George Megalogenis is one of my favourite writers on Australian politics and the economy. I think he stands heads and shoulders above anyone else at News Limited. In the November issue of The Monthly he's written a great essay titled The Book of Paul: Lessons in Leadership and Paul Keating. In it he compares the leadership of Paul Keating to that of John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.

The essay quotes Paul Keating as saying that there are "four basic divisions, which cut across traditional party lines:
The first group – the Hansonites at the extreme end – want to isolate both the economy and the society from the outside world […]

The second group – the anti-globalisation demonstrators and elements of the Democrats and the Greens – want to internationalise social issues but nationalise the economy […]

A third group believes the reverse … They are all in favour of internationalising the economy, giving free rein to the free market, but they are damned if they think foreigners and international bodies like the UN should have anything to say about social policies here in Australia.

A fourth group – and it’s obviously the one to which I belong – believes that for a country like Australia, with a small population tucked away in a corner of the Asia–Pacific, economic openness, social inclusiveness and engagement with the outside world is the only way in which we can hope to prosper.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Is the Murray Darling plan a solution to a wicked problem?

There has been a lot written about the latest Murray Darling plan. Unfortunately, most of it isn't very informative. I have come across an exception though. Brian Davidson and Hector Malano writing in Wicked problems demand adaptive responses: how does the Murray Darling plan stack up? discuss how Murray Darling Basin Authority has recognised that water resource management is a wicked problem. They write that the MDBA is taking an adaptive approach to managing water resources.
Those who call for certainty and a one-off solution (usually couched in terms of the need to invest and/or that the river’s health is in such a dire state that it will expire and/or that the science is settled), have misread the nature of the problem. They have ignored its underlying variability. The most important thing the Authority has done is to take a more adaptive approach to the problems in the Basin within the constraints imposed by the legislation and the political environment.
Looking at the sector and its problems in their entirety, learning more about them and having the flexibility to respond to them is the key to dealing with these complex problems. With this draft plan, the Authority is on the right track.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Comparing American and Australian political leaders

In PMs and presidents: in another leader's shoes the always interesting Greg Jericho looks at how various USA presidents might fare in Australian politics and how our Prime Ministers might have gone in the US system.
In his "Plácido Domingo speech" in 1990, Paul Keating argued that Australia had never had a great leader of the stature of an Abraham Lincoln, a Franklin Roosevelt or a Winston Churchill. Whether this is accurate is one for historians to debate, but of those three only Churchill comes out of the Westminster system. When observing the current candidates and the past US presidents and past Australian prime ministers, I wonder which nation and which democratic process ends up with the better leaders, and perhaps more interestingly, which leaders from one country would rise to the top in the other country's democratic system?

Ross Gittins on getting the most happiness out of our purchases

In For it's in giving that you receive happiness Ross Gittins notes that there are ways to "get more bang from our bucks". These include giving to others or charity, paying before you buy (it increases the anticipation), avoid comparison shopping, follow the herd (if everyone else is enjoying it you probably will as well), buy many small things instead of one big one (we don't get used to them as quickly) and "buy experiences instead of things". For an explanation of all these please read the article.

Fit people feel safer

Courtney Trenwith reports in Don't feel safe walking at night? Exercise more that people who exercise tend to feel safer when walking at night.
New Australian Bureau of Statistics research shows those who participate in sport and recreational activities have significantly greater levels of trust in the community and are far more likely to feel safe walking the streets after dark.

Only 15 per cent of active people never walked alone after sunset, half the rate (33 per cent) of those who didn't exercise.
More than half (53 per cent) of people who exercised felt very safe or safe walking alone in their local area after dark, compared to 33 per cent of inactive people.

General levels of trust also were much higher in people who exercised, according to the ABS.
I'm not sure if this is because they're more confident or better socialised, or both.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Australia has made its own luck

In If we're lucky, it's the luck of good management Ross Gittins writes that much of Australia's recent success can be put down to good economic management rather than luck. Ross highlights the fact that Australia, unlike the USA and many countries in Europe has had a commitment to "maintain budget balance, on average, over the course of the economic cycle".

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Jonathon Holmes on tabloid TV

In 'Breaking the law': a strange tale of tabloid TV Jonathon Holmes compares Australian tabloid media to that in the UK and argues that the real excesses in Australian journalism are not amongst Australian tabloids, but in the weekly magazines and the commercial current affairs shows.

This is a reflection of where the competition is. Most Australian tabloids face no competition, at least from other tabloids, so they can maintain some minimum standards (although there might be argument as to whether the minimum standards are adequate). Where we see competition is in talk back radio, weekly magazines and in commercial current affairs. And, that's where we see the worst excesses. It's unfortunate (as I'm a big believer in competition improving markets), but when it comes to the media it seems that competition delivers a worse result.

But, then I guess that says more about us the consumer. After all, competition is only forcing the media to produce what we want to consume.

Malcolm Turnbull on the future of newspapers

The ABC has a transcript of The future of newspapers, the end of journalism, a speech Malcolm Turnbull gave to the Advanced Centre of Journalism in Melbourne earlier this month. It's interesting, informed and balanced. Recommended reading.

Bill Gates pushing new nuclear reactor technology

The Register has reported that Bill Gates is in discussions with the Chinese Government about a new breed of nuclear reactor. Apparently these reactors would be fuelled by depleted uranium, something normally thought of as radioactive waste. To quote from the article:
Papers published by the company claim that the system is 40 times as efficient as current light water reactors and that there is enough available fuel to provide 10 billion people with US per-capita energy usage levels for million-year timescales. As an additional bonus, depleted uranium is plentiful, cheap, and is of limited use in atomic weaponry.
Bill Gates is a shareholder in the company developing the technology.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Some interesting articles on the Eurozone and Keynesian economics

Kevin O'Rourke writes in A Summit to the Death
One lesson that the world has learned since the financial crisis of 2008 is that a contractionary fiscal policy means what it says: contraction. Since 2010, a Europe-wide experiment has conclusively falsified the idea that fiscal contractions are expansionary.
He's also critical of the recent European summit and the agreement reached:
What is needed to save the eurozone in the medium term is a central bank mandated to target more than just inflation – for example, unemployment, financial stability, and the survival of the single currency. A common framework for regulating the financial system is also required, as is a common banking-resolution framework that serves the interests of taxpayers and government bondholders, rather than those of banks and their creditors. This will require a minimal fiscal union; a full-scale fiscal union would be better still. Yet none of this was on the summit’s agenda.
John Cassidy asks in the New Yorker article The Demand Doctor "What would John Maynard Keynes tell us to do now—and should we listen?". This is an interesting article on Keynesian economics.

A lot people seem to think that Keynesian economics is all about budget deficits. They're only partly right. Governments may need to run deficits when economies are in recession so as to stimulate demand. However, and this is something Keynes well understood, when economies are going well Governments should be saving -that is running budget surpluses. As the old cliché goes, make hay while the sun shines.

Police sniffer dogs waste of time?

It seems that drug sniffer dogs have an 80% false positive rate in NSW although the Police still asy that they're highly accurate.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Graeme Orr and industrial action

Associate Professor Graeme Orr has written Whatever you might have heard, industrial action is in decline. Here's an excerpt:
Industrial action in Australia is rare, by both historical and developed world standards. Take the last financial year. 166,000 working days were lost to industrial action, whether strikes by employees or lockouts by employers.

Is that a lot or a little? Let's picture it in absolute terms. Imagine sitting outside a factory gate for a whole year. In an employed workforce of over 9.5 million, last year’s level of action equates to seeing just one employee in every 57 emerge, for just one day of the year, to miss work. Industrial action in Australia remains near record lows. To picture it in historically relative terms, consider the graph below, which I compiled from Australian Bureau of Statistics figures.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The better side of politicians

Paul Daley reported politicians sometimes soar with the angels:
Amid all the rancour of that final sitting week, Labor's Michael Danby introduced to the House of Representatives a motion that highlighted the best in public debate.

He called on Parliament to recognise each July 11 as Srebrenica Remembrance Day, as a reminder of the evil that led to the genocide of more than 8000 Muslim men and boys at the hands of the rebel Serb forces of Ratko Mladic in Bosnia in 1995.

It was, Danby said, ''what the Russians would call an act of pamyat - memory''.

''It is very important to never forget the legacy of these horrors; not from the point of view of torturing ourselves but to educate future generations that, if people are to act out of racial prejudice and kill masses of others, this will happen again and again.'' Danby recounted a description by a Muslim woman, Zumra Shekhomerovic. It is too long to detail here but I urge you to track it down on the internet because rarely will you find more moving - or deeply disturbing - words spoken in our Parliament.

The Serb soldiers separated her from her husband.

She said: ''I never saw him again and I don't know what happened to him. I regret so much that I did not say 'Don't take him', that I didn't scream or shout for help. Maybe it would be easier to live now. I just left silently … while my tears were flowing like a river.''
The motion was seconded by the Liberal MP for Casey, Tony Smith.
A host of other MPs - including Slipper and the NSW Labor MP Ed Husic - gave similarly thoughtful speeches.

The "Bali drug boy" and the missing media deal

While the 14 year old from Lake Macquarie was on trial for drug possession in Bali media reports in Australia were claiming that his family had signed a six figure exclusive deal with Channel 9 to tell their story. Both the family and Channel 9 denied this. Well the boy is back in Australia and it seems that there isn't a deal after all. So who invented this story? What does this say about our media that a story like this could be fabricated and reported, even though it might well have detrimental to the boy's case? Perhaps the ethics of our media aren't that different to what's been on display in the UK.

Measuring wellbeing rather than just GDP

Ross Gittins in There's so much more to wealth than money discusses the limitations of using GDP as a measure of a nation's bottom line. He then discusses a measure developed for Fairfax by Dr Nicholas Gruen.

Edit 12/12: Jessica Irvine compares some of the measures of national wellbeing in How to measure the national wellbeing. She then goes on to discuss the findings of the Herald/Lateral Economics Index of Australia's Wellbeing in Nation richer, older and a little bit wiser. She also discusses why the media tend to focus on interest rates (despite only one in three households having a mortgage) and GDP rather than other measures of economic wellbeing in Fixation on rates just obscures big picture.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Our hardworking MPs

In The everyday politics of perpetual electioneering James Panichi looks at the huge amount of work that Australian politicians carry out in support of their electorate.

Australian Exceptionalism

In Australian Exceptionalism Possum Comitatus has analysed Australia's economic performance over the last 25 years and it's astounding:
So this is our economic reality – we are the wealthiest nation in the world with 75.5% of our adult population making it into the global top 10%, our economy has grown faster than nearly all others (certainly faster than all other developed countries), our household income growth has been one of the fastest in the world (including our poor having income growth larger than everyone else’s rich!), we have the highest minimum wages in the world, the third lowest debt and the 6th lowest taxes in the OECD and are ranked 2nd on the United Nations Human Development Index.

And this didn’t happen by accident.

This happened by design.
I thoroughly recommend this article.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Sally Sara says goodbye to Afghanistan

Sally Sara has been the ABC's correspondent in Afghanistan. I've found her articles from this war torn country interesting and informative. She's written an article on ABC's The Drum about her thoughts on leaving. They do seem mixed.

Crikey's quality journalism project and Ross Gittins

Crikey have been running a series where they profile one of Australia's quality journalists. Their latest subject is Ross Gittins. I have a great deal of respect for his work (I've probably linked to more of his articles than to anyone else). So it's interesting reading what he considers quality journalism and where he gets his news from. Have a read.

I guess Gen Y isn't as selfish as some say

It seems that one of the constants in history is of the older generation bemoaning the faults of the newer. This seems especially so with Generation Y. So it's good to read stories that contradict some of the myths.

Ross Gittins on the importance of relationships

In Ruthless pursuit of profit at all cost is an excess that can't last Ross Gittins writes about the work of Dr Michael Schluter.
I get to meet a lot of famous and interesting people in my job, but few have had more influence on me than Dr Michael Schluter, the social thinker, social entrepreneur and founder of Britain's Relationships Foundation.
Dr Schluter is advocating a relational approach by company management. That is, promoting relationships between all the stakeholders in a company: shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers and the community. It's an interesting approach that would probably make for a better society. Recommended reading.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Iran and street diplomacy

Mark Corcoran has written an interesting article on pro-government protesters in Iran and politics within the country. It's worth a read.

Monday, 5 December 2011

David Marr's new book "Panic"

David Marr has written "Panic", a book that explores how so much of Australia's politics is driven by fear and panic. There's an edited extract available online.

David Marr defines panic, at least in the context of his book as "reasonable fears twisted out of recognition". He goes on:
A decent face has to be put on the passions aroused. Appearances count. Language matters. Skilled panic merchants find ways of suggesting, however vaguely, that the survival of the nation is at stake. The argument always is that desperate times require tough laws and strong leadership. Panic is a rallying cry for power.
It recounts some of the more infamous instances of panic in Australia's history (e.g. fear of non-existent German saboteurs in WW1, fears of communists, more recently fear of boat people, fear of terrorists, fear of Aboriginal land rights). He also discusses the politicians, Labor and Liberal, past and present, who whip up or exploit these panics for their own political ends.

The extract includes a couple of interesting points on tabloids:
There is a cynical old saying that the purpose of tabloid journalism is to maintain a perpetual state of false alarm.
There is another adage about the tabloids: that their purpose is to persuade the working class to vote Tory. I once put this to Bob Carr. He replied: ''I think it is incontrovertible.''
It sounds like an interesting read.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Ross Gittins on Business Economics vs Political Economics

Joe Hockey has a great political one liner - "This government never has delivered a surplus Budget and it never will deliver a surplus Budget". Politically it's devastating. However, there are two things wrong with it:
  1. Given the GFC and the fall in Government revenue it's highly unlikely that any Government would have been able to deliver a surplus during Labor's current time in office.
  2. It's also bad for the country because it potentially forces the Government into adopting an economic position (a surplus for 2012/13) for political reasons even it might not make sense economically.
Joe Hockey's line is probably one of the main reasons why the Government has invested so much effort and political capital in bringing the budget back to surplus as quickly as possible. The danger for the Government is that Europe's economic woes might very well make the goal of a surplus next financial year both undesirable and unachievable.

Lately we've been hearing various business economists say that there's really no difference between a tiny surplus and a tiny deficit and if the Government only achieves the latter it's no big deal (and a small amount of stimulus might actually help). However, as Ross Gittins explains in Days that require a line in the sand these economists are missing the political importance of the Government achieving a surplus. He also makes the point that it's probably no bad thing that Governments make commitments that require self discipline for them to be achieved.

Interestingly, virtually the same article by Ross Gittins is published at Economists are playing politics over surplus. However the latter article has a much more political focus.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Jessica Irvine looks at the value of gifts

In Just what you need: a Christmas audit Jessica Irvine writes about the value of Christmas gifts and the concept of a "deadweight loss".
When you shell out $50 to buy me that handmade macrame handbag, but I value it at only, say, $25, there is what economists call a $25 ''deadweight loss''. This deadweight loss is the difference between how much you are out of pocket and the benefit I derive out of receiving that gift.