On Parkinson’s “vague notions of fairness”

It was good to see Opposition Leader Bill Shorten not allow Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson’s “swipe” to go unanswered. Disappointingly, though, he responded in the empty way that he has been employing far too often lately.

Mr Parkinson had complained that Labor’s use of “vague notions of fairness” as a reason to block key measures of the Budget risked consigning Australia to poorer living standards as structural economic reforms would not be put in place. Mr Shorten’s response: “It is not vague if you are under 30 and have no income for six months, that’s real. It is not vague if you are working class parents weighing up whether to send your kid to university and all of a sudden the cost of a science degree triples.”

Untrue? Well, no. Those most disadvantaged in society have much to lose from this Budget. But Mr Shorten’s response does nothing to actually undermine Mr Parkinson’s complaint. It responds to an accusation of using “vague notions of fairness” by using more examples of notions of fairness.

The actual problem with what Mr Parkinson said is that he assumes, as do many in the economic establishment, that better economic living standards always means a better overall quality of life. According to them, the measure of whether a government is successful or not boils down to whether they increase the nation’s overall wealth.

But the role of government is much broader than that. There’s not much point in a nation being wealthy if most people can’t ever hope in their lives to share in it, or if the environmental conditions around them are so awful that they can’t appreciate the world around them. What we really should expect from the government is to provide satisfactory lives to the greatest number of people that it possibly can.

So for any such reform that might improve the efficiency of our economy, it isn’t worth it if the increased efficiency is outweighed by an accompanying decrease in equity. To use an extreme example: Abolishing income tax and replacing it with consumption taxes is probably more efficient at getting revenue for the government. But the loss of our biggest method of progressive taxation would increase inequity so much that we should be happy to wear the consequences of revenue collection being slightly less efficient.

Of course, Mr Shorten could never give such a complicated response. But it shouldn’t have been too hard to go down the right track by reinforcing that we do actually care whether our governments are collecting and spending our money with “notions of fairness” in mind.

The good thing is that Mr Shorten still has time to learn to speak with real conviction rather than clever lines.


Edward Snowden, “whistleblower”

The latest “scandal” of the Obama Administration in the United States is an insult. An insult to “scandals”, that is.

A real scandal, unlike a “disagreement over government policy”, is like when that married guy was in a prostitution ring (Governor Eliot Spitzer) or when that other guy kind of ordered the wiretapping of people he didn’t like (President Richard Nixon). Here, no-one acted like our favourite crook (who famously refused to admit he was one), and certainly no-one got naked. But never mind, Snowden is a heroic “whistleblower” who uncovered some really sinister stuff and now faces punishment for his feats.

We’re setting ourselves some really low standards when the bar for “heroics” is when you tell everyone else what the U.S. government was authorised by legislation to do, and for which there are no specific cases where there was real abuse. And in the process, reveals that, sure, going back on your word and not honouring sworn commitments is always an option.

Again, whether the United States government should or needs to gather data is another matter. But Snowden’s self-righteousness in his explanations of what he did and why he did it really don’t match up with the scale of the revelations.

And it’s not just the hyperboles and self-importance. Hypocrisy is everywhere. Sure, your partisan “conservatives” who were all up for it when President Bush pushed for the very act that enabled this program suddenly turned around and pronounced that they had fallen wildly in love with the idea of civil liberties. No problem, they’ve done crap like that a thousand times. But for others to say that we have to take the practical harms from guns and restrictive abortion access seriously but at the same time talk about privacy as though it is utterly inviolable is an unexpected and really disappointing double standard.

What’s more shameful here than the “scandal” is the misplaced obsession from everyone over celebrity and heroics.

And that people who one day laugh at rednecks calling President Obama a tyrant can just as easily toss around “hero” the next.

Honesty too much to ask from Andrew Bolt

It’s really hard to believe that this guy is so widely read in our country. His latest attempt at contributing to public debate — drivel, I tell you — doesn’t even try to be intellectually honest. In support of his argument associated race and religion with increased fear and crime, virtually all that Bolt does is attack the Attorney General for not living in his electorate (relevance unclear) and present very specific cases where the perpetrators of violence were religious.

Yes, because specific cases magically prove the rule!

But Bolt does make a  half-hearted attempt at dumping some statistics, hoping he can dupe readers into thinking he’s actually doing his homework. His point comes out like this:

  • Dandenong has crime statistics 40% greater than the Victorian average.
  • Dandenong has lots of Muslims and other minorities.
  • Therefore, it’s their culture that’s responsible for the crime statistic.

You can see just how flimsy that is. All you have to do to throw it into real question is actually do research, maybe lift some 2011 Census statistics from the ABS. Let’s take the Greater Dandenong local government area and compare it to, say, the City of Frankston.

Dandenong has lots of Muslims, Africans — whoever Bolt is targeting. 13,610 people identified as Muslim in 2011. Frankston? Hardly any.

Frankston has twice the number of Australian-born residents as Dandenong.

Frankston has just over nine tenths the population of Dandenong.

But Frankston still has nearly nine tenths the number of crimes, and over eight tenths the number of violent crimes.

In other words, Dandenong only has slightly more crimes per resident. Given Bolt’s scaremongering about everpresent ethnic strife, you would expect the vast gulf in numbers of Muslims and Australian-born residents to correspond with a vast difference in crime. Instead, an ethnic correlation is on pretty weak foundations.

Without proving anything, other explanations, such as higher crime being linked to a lower socioeconomic status, seem much more plausible at first glance. Incomes in Dandenong are only 84% of those in Frankston. And incomes in Frankston are quite a bit lower than in inner eastern local government areas, where crime is also quite a bit lower.

Not that looking at the whole picture would stop Bolt’s racially tinged “analyses”.

I hope to do more than rant about this excuse for a columnist in future, I really do. But it’s simply frustrating to know that this is mainstream stuff in a mainstream publication.

Andrew Bolt as victim of prejudice

Yeah, Andrew Bolt is a pretty soft target. But it was amusing to see him complain that white males like him were being called names without harsh punishment. And invoke “Afghan female lawyer[s]” to elevate the double standard to the status of Real Social Problem.

I don’t suggest that the people he quoted weren’t being rude. (For that matter, as we know, there’s been far worse hurled at minorities.) But Bolt’s belief that he and people like him are actually the victims of Multicultural Australia is just so much more devastating. It acts a distraction, an excuse to not act on the prejudices that actually harms real people — prejudices that affect whether they hold down good, secure work and move up the ladder.

Look at it this way. Nothing that Bolt quoted substantially affects opportunities for people of his demographic. They’re overrepresented in Australia’s elite and will be for years. But the lack of urgency against discrimination that Bolt creates — and frankly, encourages — actively ensures that opportunities for disadvantaged demographics remain far more limited. The pay gap between men and women has stopped shrinking. It’s accepted wisdom that non-Anglo names are seriously disadvantaged when employers go through CVs.

In other words, Bolt’s regular drivel makes solving Real Social Problems (as opposed to the slights that drives him to such outrage) that much harder.

Of course, people of his political persuasion will remain influential for a long time. Until then, we should get used to foreign comedians joking about how “comfortably racist” Australia is.

The cultural elite, they’re so powerful!

The Age today published an article by one Nicolle Flint, who claims that Australia is ruled by progressive softies who’ve never seen hard times and who make a living from, of all things, thinking about the world. They “tell us what to think and when, who to like and how” when they’re not agonising about how animals aren’t food. We’re “beholden to their power”, lemmings poised to be led off the cliff.

Yes, because polls showing a historic defeat for the ALP really means the evil left has taken over for good.

Laying aside the low-hanging fruit, it really is news to me that Australia has become a culture dominated by some cultural elite. For better or for worse, anti-intellectualism is a pervasive part of our psyche. If anything, the lack of respect we have for people who have actually studied the subject matters we pass ignorant judgements on is the real eye-opener.

Then I read the author info and found out that she was, wait for it, a PhD candidate at Flinders. An academic wannabe talking about how the smart people are ruining the country.

Credibility: none.