Monday, October 31, 2011

Australian cowboy & indian outfit 1951

James, David Xmas 1951

I was going to write something serious today on left versus right. My heart wasn't in it. Instead, a very short nostalgia piece.

This photo is from Christmas 1951. Brother David and I had been at Mum because we wanted a cowboy and Indian outfit. So she made us one for Christmas.

Cowboys and Indians were big things then, although this influence was not always welcomed.

During the 1930s the New England politician Sir Michael Bruxner, then NSW Deputy Premier and leader of the NSW Country Party, had complained about the American influence, about the way cowboy was replacing stockman in urban parlance, about the introduction of the term rodeo.

Perhaps under the influence of his cousin, noted Australian film maker Charles Chauvel, Bruxner attempted to introduce quotas for Australian films in cinemas, probably the first ever Government attempt to encourage Australian film production. The move failed.

Our outfit was very much an Australian variant made from local materials easily available to Mum including hessian bags. Still, it had holsters and feathers!

Growing up, westerns were a popular genre at the local cinema and one of the staples at the local news agency. Then they vanished.   

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Problems with left and right

My main post today is on the New England History blog, Aboriginal New England in the Pleistocene Period. Here just a brief note.

On Club Troppo, Nicholas Gruen posted The intellectual collapse of the right. I commented:

From a purely personal perspective, Nicholas, I struggle to understand what is meant by left or right today or even how I fit in within the spectrum as defined. According to those sometimes popular quizes, I am now left of centre, yet my instinctive reactions to some of the left of centre blogging clearly places me on the right or at least the centre right.

I would argue, I think, that the problem with both the “left” (John Q, Club Troppo, Larvatus Prodeo) and the “right” (Catallaxy)is that they combine responses on values or particular issues with certain analytical models to make judgements as to whether something is left or right. They are also both selective.

To my mind, there is a risk of circular argument. Surely the question of the intellectual poverty of the right, or of the left for that matter, depends on how you define the terms?

I am not sure that the comment is totally fair, but it does capture my own mixed feelings.

Like all of us, my judgements about things reflect my own experiences and attitudes. I don't have time this morning to try to tease the arguments out. Perhaps another time.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Train reading - the mystery of Fu Manchu

This week my train reading has been Sax Rohmer's The Mystery of Fu Manchu. As with much of my train reading, this is an older book plucked from the shelf almost at random.

First published in 1913, the book introduced the character of Dr Fu Manchu who became the archetypal oriental villain. I loved the book as a kid because it was a good yarn. Now reading it again so many years later, I find myself responding differently.

One feature of the book that stands out to me now is attitude towards race. Dr Fu Manchu is both apparent evil incarnate and a representative of the yellow peril. The heroes represent the white race. British simplicity is contrasted with oriental duplicity.  The replication of then stereotypes now stands between me and the story. And yet, things are not quite what they seem.

Charles Darwin has a lot to answer for. His ideas of natural selection combined with the concept of competition to find expression in what became known as Social Darwinism. Just as species in general survived, changed and died through competition, so with humanity in general and the various races within humanity. At its extreme, tooth and claw winnowed the weak, leaving the strong. 

Dominant groups always believe that they are right, that they form the natural order. At the time Social Darwinism emerged, it was natural for the dominant European powers and especially those of British ancestry in the Empire and the emerging Unites States, to believe that they were exemplars of natural selection.

Despite the presence of pseudo scientific theories and analysis, the idea of "race" as such and its place in natural selection was always muddy. Terms such as race, peoples, nationalities and nations were used almost interchangeably in discussions on Darwinian processes applied to human societies.

As Edwardian society danced its way towards the First World War a deep sense of unease had emerged as Darwinism spread its tentacles throughout life. After all, on-one could take survival for granted.

In Europe, competition among nations and empires led to concepts such as new economic efficiency. Education and especially technical education was seen as a state tool in the competition between countries and empires. In Britain, Gemany, Italy and even the distant Australian states, technical education was restructured in an attempt to increase its contribution to economic performance. Competition had become central.

Outside Europe, European dominance was being challenged by the rise of the Japanese Empire, while in China the ancient Chinese Empire had fallen the year before the first Fu Manchu book was published. In the Indian Empire, too, independence movements were challenging the established order.

Beneath the stereotypes, The Mystery of Fu Manchu is a deeply ambivalent book. In the Darwinian competition, it is far from clear that the white race can win. Further, Rohmer plays to stereotypes that were themselves potentially inconsistent.

One stereotype was the fascination with the orient. 

In 1978, the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said in his book, Orientalism, wrote of a "pervasive Western tradition, both academic and artistic, of prejudiced outsider interpretations of the East, shaped by the attitudes of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries." Said was writing from a present perspective, whereas Rohmer was capturing the popular view at the time.

The term orient simply means the east. In the 19th century, the east began at the Balkans. To continental Europe and especially the French, the orient focused especially on what we now call the middle east. To the British with their far flung empire, the term included the far east and especially China and Japan. A Frenchman might think of the orient as Egypt, an Englishman China.

Regardless of the precise geographical coverage, the orient with its ancient civilisations was a place of fascination and mysticism, of sometimes arcane knowledge, that exercised a profound influence on western thought. Rohmer plays to that fascination, but was also influenced by it.

In that first book, Rohmer contrasts Fu Manchu with Young China, the new republic. A brilliant scientist with great powers of organisation, Fu Manchu draws from an older tradition, although it is not really clear just who he represents. He stands for power and the mysticism of the orient.

The almost bumbling efforts of Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie in thwarting the evil machinations of Fu Manchu (they don't defeat him in any permanent sense) play to another stereotype, that of the honest and straightforward Englishman who somehow muddles through. Fu Manchu represents evil, Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie good. This is superiority based on morality, not power.

Rohmer himself seems aware of the tensions and inconsistencies, of the mixed views within his audience. At a personal level, he seems to have had a tendency to mysticism, a leaning towards orientalism. In Kâramanèh, the main love interest who ultimately becomes Petrie's wife, we have one type of classical oriental figure. Rohmer is aware of prejudices attached to such a multi-racial mix and feels obliged to defend her.

The year following that first book's publication saw the start of the First World War, a conflict that delivered an irreparable blow to the European order. Attitudes towards competition and Social Darwinism continued to be an important and often malign influence, but a deep pessimism about the results of competition were becoming apparent.

By the time Social Darwinist and travel writer R H Curle published The Face of the Earth in 1937 (Train Reading - J H Curle’s The Face of the Earth, Sunday Essay - Race, Eugenics and the views of J H Curle) he had become deeply pessimistic about the results of the competition between peoples. In the hierarchy of races or peoples  within a Social Darwinist world, the future lay with the Chinese.

One symptom of the gathering clouds was an increased interest in the rise and fall of empires and civilisations. This had always been something of a British interest.The first volume of Gibbon's study of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in 1776. However, now there were a series of books including Toynbee's monumental study.

I am not sure how much has actually changed in all this, although the wrapping, the form of expression, has.

The rise of China has become a dominant reality, while the end of American empire is a popular topic. We have largely rejected Social Darwinism as it applied to peoples or races, but continue to apply it to nations and other aspects of human activities. Michael Porter's writing including the Competitive Advantage of Nations is an example. The arguments about national efficiency in general and about vocational education in particular are almost identical to those used in the period up to the First World War, although we talk about productivity rather than national efficiency.

As with Rohmer, we continue to believe in superiority based on morality, a morality play now enacting itself at CHOGM where certain views held by the dominant elites in previously dominant elite countries are opposed, or at least not fully supported, by other countries.

Don't get me wrong. I do believe that liberal secular democracy is generally the best form of political expression. However, I am also conscious that the CHOGM morality play is in many ways a very old and stylised script.

I make no assumption that presently dominant views in countries like Australia will remain dominant. Despite the dismissive attitude of some of the Australian commentariat toward CHOGM, CHOGM is important because it really is a representative body that displays certain fissures in an especially clear way.

The countries on one side - the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - were once the elites of Empire. The countries on the other side including India and the African countries represent the future. Power continues to shift and who can know the outcomes?   

Friday, October 28, 2011

Respectful discourse

This photo from Occupy Wall Street made me laugh. It came from Chris Bowers via Lynne Sanders-Braithwaite.  discourse

I also laughed at a comment from Tony: "and the meek shall inherit the earth . . . if that's alright with you."

I couldn't find the story - I heard it in passing via car radio - but apparently a new organisation has been formed to try to bring a degree of real discourse to Australian politics. The argument is that this would improve policy making, as indeed it would. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thursday ramble - Ramana, Barratt, CPI & paywalls

Another wander today.

A story for Ramana

Until I found Ramana's blog, my knowledge of the Indian city of Pune was limited to bare name recognition. Since I became sensitised, I keep coming across the name.

The most recent example was the Sydney Morning Herald obituary of Nana Apte by Jyotsna Apte Field and Laurie Field. 

Vishwanath Ramchandra Apte was born in Pune on  June 12, 1923, the son of Ramchandra and Tara Apte. After local education, he graduated from the Sydenham College of Commerce in Mumbai with a bachelor of commerce. In 1958 he settled permanently in Australia with his family to establish a local branch of an Indian business.

I thought that Ramana might find the obituary interesting.

Further problems with measurement and mechanistic management

In yesterday's post On storage sheds, the past and a need for change I said in part:

I would no longer claim to be an expert in some areas such as telecommunications, although I still have a good working knowledge. However, one of the things that I find interesting looking at the material lies in the way I have come to reject things that I once argued with some passion.

Part of the reason for this lies in my return to history and writing, changing my perspective. A more important reason is that some of the areas I have been most passionate about in areas such as management or public policy clearly don’t work. I see this in my writing over time.

As it happened, this morning a tweet from Paul Barratt (@phbarratt) drew my attention to this story from The Age in Melbourne, State fails again on child abuse. Paul tweeted: "Distorting effects of KPIs in the public sector. Child protection is not a "business"".

I had been going to write a post on the use and abuse of competencies in education and training to illustrate the way my views have shifted over time. However, Paul's led me to respond: "Paul, I have written a fair bit on this one linked to what I call mechanistic management. I will try to do a consolidation post"

The misuse of competencies is actually linked to Paul's example because both are symptoms of a broader malaise that I have tried to explore in length. I spent some time looking as past posts. A consolidation post is needed, but its quite a big job!

Australia's low CPI conceals economic pain

The Australian CPI figures released today by the ABS suggest that Australian inflation is under control. A reduction in official interest rates looks increasingly likely. Yet the figures also show something that I have been talking about for some time, the way the dispersion of increases affects people differently.

A key feature of the CPI increases on both a quarterly and annual basis can be summarised this way: those items linked to basic living have generally increased faster then the CPI. Food, for example, is up 6.4 per cent on a year on year basis, housing up 4.2 per cent, as compared to a CPI increase of 3.5 per cent. On a quarterly basis, electricity was up no less than 7.8 per cent!

As a family, we are very conscious of this. In May, we moved into a smaller house but experienced a 5 per cent increase in rents. Our last quarterly electricity bill was over $1,000. Just because certain prices have fallen and have affected the CPI total has little meaning if you don't buy those things.

  This links to a point I made on the carbon tax. If you use averages and base compensation on averages, then it follows that some people will actually benefit more than expected, while others may be much worse off then expected. You cannot actually make any form of sensible judgement as to results and reactions unless you look at distributional issues.

The Australian's new web site

I wondered what people thought of the Australian's new web site and subscription model?

My focus has been on the impact on blogging. Now here I can already make a preliminary judgement. Not much, so long the paper continues to give two lines for each story. From there, you can go to equivalent stories in other outlets or the other source material.

Looking at the issue from a different perspective, my own interests independent of blogging, the change has helped me identify those things that I really value in the paper. Those are the better researched pieces that actually say something original.

I accept that this is a personal view. I know that some people, for example, follow Greg Sheridan. They may pay to keep reading. I used to read some of his columns, but they really only told me his opinions, did not add much to my thinking. So I wouldn't subscribe. But there is material in the paper that I want to read,- some of the higher education material is an example, so I may buy from time to time.

People who live in grass houses should not throw stones. I am in Greg's position, if on a micro scale.

My Express columns are not online because my editor considers that they actually encourage people to buy the paper on a Wednesday. Not all, just a very particular demographic.

I have now written 144 columns. While a small total compared to those who publish daily, it's still quite a lot. I enjoy it for it keeps me in touch with home. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On storage sheds, the past and a need for change

I spent all yesterday shifting boxes, moving things into a smaller storage shed. It took me a week in all to complete the move. It had to be done to reduce costs, but it is a sign of age that I can no longer lift heavy book boxes with the ease that I once could.

Inevitably I had to throw things out, so part of the time was spent loading the car with boxes to take home to sort. Lift to trolley, lift from trolley to car, lift and carry from car into the house, sort and put out for later disposal. I did establish one thing: there is a lot more that I can throw out, but the move had to be completed within a specified time.

I complained in a previous post about the loss of things that I should have retained. Clearly, I retained a lot of things that I should have lost!

My knowledge of English is pretty good. Still, every so often I come across a word that I have been misusing.

I had wanted to use the word desiderata to describe the storage shed as holding the traces of previous lives, fragmentary remains, random things. I have always used the word in this sense, but it appears that the word actually means desired things.

Life is a passage. We all go through phases, stages, in different locations doing different things. Inevitably, a sort of this type reminds of those stages.

I was just turning twenty two when I left home to work in Canberra. I had kept letters to me over the previous few years. After I left, Mum put them in a folder. There they were, now frozen in time. They sit on my desk as I write.

It's a mixed bag, but one that brings out elements of a past life: letters from girlfriends, school friends, family members; formal letters accepting invitations or dealing with career plans; telegrams. Telegrams! I hadn't seen one of those for years. Today, of course, we use email or Facebook when organising social functions or other activities. Then we used letters or telegrams.

In throwing out, I kept boxes with some of the consulting and research reports that I or my people had completed in the past. During my very active consulting phase, we completed over three hundred assignments for more than one hundred clients, mainly large corporates in the electronics, aerospace and information industries or bodies concerned with the sector.

We aimed to be industry specialists. Our other main industry focuses included education and training, professional services and defence. We also invested a lot of time in research.

There is actually quite a modern feel to the older reports because of the topics.

Even in 1987, data privacy in the electronic world was a concern, as was the use of stored data for commercial purposes. One report for Westpac examined the very different approaches to data privacy in Europe and the US. The Australian Information Industry Association was concerned about the slow take-up of computers in school. Our report on this was launched by a then Federal minister. TAFE NSW was concerned about the implications of industry and technology change on the demand for TAFE courses across NSW. We provided longer term analysis looking both in aggregate and in distributional terms across the state.

Inevitably, our work reflected changing needs and fashions. From 1988 we were writing about rapid change in the education sector. We examined the new approaches to competency based assessment in various countries and discussed the likely rise in Australian education exports. Quality, just in time, process re-engineering, downsizing, market redefinition, merger mania and the rise and partial fall of business planning all flow through.

We were early spread sheet adopters for quantitative modelling especially in telecommunications. However, the qualitative element in our work was pronounced. Today's obsession with models and modelling was not then possible. Our core focus was not so much on the numbers, but on the variables affecting the numbers. What were they? How might they interact?

I would no longer claim to be an expert in some areas such as telecommunications, although I still have a good working knowledge. However, one of the things that I find interesting looking at the material lies in the way I have come to reject things that I once argued with some passion.

Part of the reason for this lies in my return to history and writing, changing my perspective. A more important reason is that some of the areas I have been most passionate about in areas such as management or public policy clearly don’t work. I see this in my writing over time.

In 1988-1989, for example, I was a strong supporter of competency based education and training. By 1990, I was having my doubts as the policy machinery locked in approaches that breached fundamental aspects of competency based analysis. Today, I regard many aspects of current competency based approaches as unthinking, anathema to real improvement.

I should, by all accounts, have got more conservative as I grew older. Just looking at my professional work, I find that the conservatives are those who defend a now status quo that I once advocated as a reformer.

A conservative wishes to conserve what's good. I find it an odd and uncomfortable feeling that I should wish to tear down entire structures since modification has become so difficult.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A complicated day

For reasons that I won't bore you with, the day just finished proved to be a complicated day. I really don't feel like writing anything today, However, just for a teaser that had nothing to do with the day's events, I include the following.

The Thunderbolt Mystery Movie Trailer from Evolution Studios on Vimeo. More on that later.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Australians' growing appetite for US housing

Australians have been obsessed by the prospects of capital gain since the first European settlement,.

During the first period of pastoral expansion, this came from stock. Outside the barriers to settlement, the boundaries beyond which people were not meant to stray, land was free. You could occupy it, but not own it. The really big returns could not come from increases in the value of the land, nor did they come primarily from the annual wool cheque. Rather, they came from the natural increase in stock numbers that then had an increasing value as more people wishing to occupy land bid for available animals.

Naturally enough, new financing mechanisms emerged to channel surplus domestic and especially British savings into the growing pastoral industry. Conversations in the pubs and clubs of Sydney and Melbourne were dominated by the price of sheep and horses, of fortunes made and lost. There were inevitable boom bust cycles.

Naturally enough, the squatters fought for property rights over the occupied land. There progressive grant created value in land. The growing towns also created value in land. Mining accelerated the process by attracting people and adding to surplus local funds.The focus of conversation shifted from stock to real estate.

Naturally enough, new financing mechanisms emerged to channel surplus funds into real estate. A long property boom began that ended in depression as the real estate bubbles in Sydney and especially Melbourne collapsed.

I mention all this because I have been fascinated by the latest manifestation of the Australian love for real estate, US housing.

A week or so back, I can't give the link because the story is not online, the Armidale Express carried a front page story on US real estate investment. Then at a group dinner on Friday night here in Sydney, the opportunities offered by US real estate was a significant topic of conversation.

You might find all this a little strange. The US economy is not doing well, while the US housing market is quite sick. Why, then, the Australian fascination with US real estate? Is it just that house prices are so low? Well, no. It's more than that. it's really the story of two markets.

Australian house prices are very high by world standards. Rents are high too, but the gross yield from rents is actually quite low. This means that returns have come more from capital appreciation, less from rental streams although those increase with time. Now house prices in many places have fallen, not catastrophically, but enough to make capital gains quite uncertain. Australian banks have plenty of money and are willing to lend on housing, but people are reluctant to borrow.

The problem then becomes just what do people do with the increasing pool of domestic savings. Interest rates, while high by world standards, don't offer a very good return, while the stock market is uncertain.

In the US, by contrast, banks are reluctant to lend on housing. US laws that limit bank recourse to the value of the house make real estate an unattractive investment. House prices have fallen.

The US is a large and complicated real estate market. In some cases like Detroit, houses cannot be given away, nor are there people to rent. In other areas with active rental markets, low house prices have created very high rental yields, staggeringly high to Australian eyes, yet US investors are both reluctant to invest and find difficulty to get funding. Australians are moving in.

One dinner party conversation went this way.

I am getting a rental yield as high as 25 per cent, said one Australian investor. The areas I am buying in have reasonably good long term prospects, so I'm unlikely to lose money, more likely to make capital gains.

As has happened before, channels are opening to facilitate this investment. As has happened before, there is going to be pain as well as gain. Still, I find the way in which the flow is being driven by the combination of imperfections in two very different real estate markets interesting.      

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Saturday Morning Musings - premium, freemium & the dreaded app

In Thursday meander through the blogging world, I mentioned News Ltd's plans to introduce pay for view to the Australian. The links I gave in that post will provide further information to those interested. Since then, the Australian has launched its new web site, with digital subscription launching 24 October.

As I noted in my post, my immediate interest lay in its likely impact on blogging and on my blogging in particular.

On first impression, I don't like the new web site. I am a fast reader and indeed rely on that speed. I used to be able to quick scan the site, whereas the new site slows me down. In fairness, once you dig inside it gets better, but I still don't think that it's brilliant.

Something of the same issue comes up with the new mobile and magazine formats within blogging. I don't like them because they slow me down. 

However, my big problem is the expected one: what content will be free in circumstances where the "premium" content line can shift? I try to be punctilious in not copying in full and in providing links, but there is not much point in all that if readers cannot then access the material.

I use the Australian a fair bit because its reporting is strong in certain areas. The other main metropolitan daily I read on a regular basis is the Sydney Morning Herald. This, too, is going into a subscription mode, with an iPad app already under trial. 

In a comment on Belshaw's World - caught between a tweet and a print place, the Armidale Express's Janene Carey wondered if some bundling of SMH and Express might not meet my needs for certain types of content. That comment raised a new issue in my mind.

I read a lot of media online and for different reasons. I scan media from other countries to try to get a broader perspective. I scan the major Australian media outlets for national or state material. I also scan newspapers across New England to try to provide a broader New England perspective. I use the media as a source of leads, often following through to get the original source material. I am interested in reporting as reporting.

While my writing reflects my own idiosyncratic interests, while I do not pretend to be a reporter as such, I do try to add a measure of value through my analysis, consolidations and commentary. Access to a diversity or reporting is central to that. This becomes more difficult in a world of pay. I could not afford, for example, to take out a subscription to every newspaper in New England, let alone all the other outlets I look at.

The world will not end tomorrow, but the trend and consequent problems are clear.

  Still musing, another problem from my perspective is the proliferation of delivery mechanisms and outlets and the way they affect writing and reading. I mentioned that I didn't like the new mobile and magazine formats within blogging because they slowed my reading down.

The hardware plus delivery systems that can be used to access material continue to proliferate. Take a train trip in Sydney during peak hour and just watch. You will see half a dozen different pieces of hardware in use, each with its particular characteristics. At a personal level I am quite out of touch. I have chosen consciously not to attempt to understand them all, nor to tailor my writing to suit them. It's just too hard!

This is starting to take me in new directions and I have other things to do today. Time to stop.   

Friday, October 21, 2011

Kate Bolick on the decline of marriage - and men

One of the most depressing pieces I have read recently was Kate Bolick's All the Single Ladies in The Atlantic. The synopsis reads this way:

Recent years have seen an explosion of male joblessness and a steep decline in men’s life prospects that have disrupted the “romantic market” in ways that narrow a marriage-minded woman’s options: increasingly, her choice is between deadbeats (whose numbers are rising) and playboys (whose power is growing). But this strange state of affairs also presents an opportunity: as the economy evolves, it’s time to embrace new ideas about romance and family—and to acknowledge the end of “traditional” marriage as society’s highest ideal.

I don't know if it was more depressing for me as a male (and it was depressing) or as the father of two girls.

One part of Ms Bolik's message can be summarised this way: as women storm the last career bastions and men in general become increasingly marginalised, the ability of women to find a suitable male is reduced. The reducing number of younger alpha males, those in top positions, can get all the sex they want and aren't interested in marriage. The rest of the male population with their diminishing career prospects aren't worth considering. The solution for ambitious career minded women is to do away with men and focus on female relationships. The last paragraph of the article reads:

When an American woman gives you a tour of her house, she leads you through all the rooms. Instead, this expat showed me her favorite window views: from her desk, from her (single) bed, from her reading chair. As I perched for a moment in each spot, trying her life on for size, I thought about the years I’d spent struggling against the four walls of my apartment, and I wondered what my mother’s life would have been like had she lived and divorced my father. A room of one’s own, for each of us. A place where single women can live and thrive as themselves.

I have written a little on this blog about changing gender roles and the problems created for men. The highest unemployment rates in Australia are among younger and older men. As Kate Bolick notes, the economic structural changes that have taken place in the US (and in Australia) have greatly disadvantaged men as compared to women. 

I have also written about the problems faced by those men who, like me, choose to take on the primary child care role, an important precondition if ambitious women are to both have children and pursue their career objectives. My advice has been by all means do this, but if you do then be aware of the costs. I was not.

As I read Ms Bolick's piece, I wondered where the concept of family fitted in. I accept that families can take many forms. I accept that the type of female relationship she talked about towards the end of her piece can be classified as a form of family. But to my mind the concept of generations is central to family.

Human beings have always had a need to see themselves in an intergenerational context. This holds regardless of married state or the presence of children. Penny Wong and partner Sophie Allouache

The decision of the Australian Finance Minster and her partner Sophie Allouache for that partner to successfully seek pregnancy through IVF is a practical illustration of the power of the concept of the intergenerational family.

The type of issues that Ms Bolick opines about seem to be topical in a US context.

In another piece in The Atlantic from last year, Hanna Rosin writes on The End of Men:

Earlier this year, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same. For years, women’s progress has been cast as a struggle for equality. But what if equality isn’t the end point? What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women? A report on the unprecedented role reversal now under way— and its vast cultural consequences.

The message in Sandra Tsing Loh's article is summarised in the heading and subtitle: Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off: The author is ending her marriage. Isn’t it time you did the same?

A significant long term social change, and the shifts in education and roles between men and women is one such change, often involves painful adjustments. Futurologists and that sub-group science fiction writers can take the trends, extrapolate and create new worlds. One such world involved a protected world dominated by women defending itself from feral men roaming the streets. In another, men have disappeared.

I have no especially profound wisdom on all this. At a personal level, I struggle a little with the nature of the changes that have taken place.

When I look at the younger age group that I know best, my daughters and their friends, they do not seem to have the same views as Ms Bolick and some of the other writers on The Atlantic.

This is a middle class group, better educated than the majority of the Australian population and largely drawn from one area within a major city. I make this point because their views may not be representative

They are more individualistic, less gender oriented than in the past with a span of views about marriage and relationships. Yet there is still the same desire for long term relationships, for children, for family.

Looking at the various articles that triggered this post, one common subtext appears to be growing apart. This makes sense in a world of two careers and varying interests. A second is disappointment in a world of choices. The writers I read were educated middle class women with options.

Concluding, one of the difficulties I have in considering some of these questions lies in my inability to properly distinguish the issues involved.

I wonder, for example, whether the continued obsession with gender roles is not blinding us to other important factors.

One is simply the nature of choices in long term relationships. This hold equally for same sex couples as it does for others. A second is the impact of uncertainty on relationships, including economic uncertainty as well as the question of survivability of the relationship itself. This affects men as well as women and can become increasingly important with age. 

Both laws and ways of thought are still conditioned by a now past world in which the male was the major income earner. Many of the legal changes that have taken place over the last one hundred years were designed to protect women and children in relationships where at least economic power was asymmetrical. Increasingly, relative economic power is becoming gender neutral and may vary with time. The number of dependent males is rising and we haven't worked out how to manage this.

These are just examples for further thought.    


On 28 October 2011, Ruth Rosen had a piece on TPM Cafe, Are Male Baby Boomers Doomed To Become Lonely Seniors? Here she is talking about the difference between men and women in social terms. Because men are not so good at maintaining relationships in a proactive way, they risk greater loneliness and isolation once work is withdrawn.

I think that's true. It has implications for some of the discussion in this post.

Postscript 2

On 6 November 2011, Sarah Whyte's Mothers, divorce and the HSC itch (Sydney Morning Herald) began

IT IS called the ''post-HSC'' divorce. Women in their 40s and 50s keep the family together for the youngest child's exams, then start hatching their own plans for freedom.

The phenomenon, observed by relationship experts, is one reason why divorce rates for Australian women in this age group are climbing faster than any other.....

Marriage exit strategies or ''five-year plans'' were increasingly common for older women who were not satisfied and had delayed separation for the sake of their children's upbringing or education, said the director of clinical services at Relationships Australia, Pam Lewis.

This phenomenon is actually similar in some ways to that Ms Bolick writes about.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thursday meander through the blogging world

I decided this morning to spend the time that I would normally spend writing a post to reading my fellow bloggers, while also doing some tidying up to my blog list. As before, I will give you some links so that you can follow up if you are interested.

Just to start, a photo from Mark's Clarence Valley Today. As Mark notes, Bangalow is a pretty village located between Byron Bay and Lismore in the Richmond Valley. It was once the centre of a thriving dairy industry. As dairying declined and coastal tourism boomed the main street has transformed from the usual collection of small family owned shops into very pricy boutiques and cafes; organic or locally sourced is the de rigueur signage.

As I noted elsewhere, Northern Rivers (NSW) Geology is a new blog dealing with the geology of the area that Mark covers in his photos. Very useful from my perspective.

Lorenzo has had another guest post on skepticslawyers, Why did the Middle East select for monotheism? – Guest post by Lorenzo. Its an interesting post, but one I had problems with. Among other things, I am not convinced that pastoral societies have a natural tendency to monotheism.

In the The Lives of Children, Will Owen reviews Growing Up in Central Australia: new anthropological studies of Aboriginal childhood and adolescence (edited by Ute Eickelkamp, Berghahn Books, 2011). It's an interesting review. I tend not to write much on Aboriginal history or policy outside New England or NSW more broadly because I lack knowledge. However, I am interested.

EthnoSense is another anthropology blog, this one written by a group of young ethnographers. Browsing, I was struck by Generation (Hard) Y(akka).

When I applied for the overseas volunteering opportunity, I was struggling to find employment as a recent double-degree graduate. I completed my studies at the end of 2008. Just after the GFC unleashed itself on the world.

It’s tough being a Gen Y graduate. There are more university graduates in the jobmarket than ever before. Competition is fierce

I felt for the writer.

There is quite a bit around in the bloggosphere at the moment on issues associated with income and wealth distribution. Matt Cowgill's Inequality and the top 1% in Australia is a well written example. Hat tip to Kim on Larvatus Prodeo for the original link.

One point that I have tried to make in my own writing is the need to drop below the statistics to look at the question of job security. Even if average incomes increase in particular population cohorts, the effects of this may well be more than counterbalanced if, as has happened, job security declines.

There is a link between these discussions and yesterday's post, Economics, Say's Law & the paradox of thrift. You see, as job insecurity rises, people need a bigger liquid asset pool to protect themselves in the event of job loss. Of itself, this tends to increase savings rates.   

In A peek behind the News paywall, Craig Wilson looks at News' plans to introduce pay for view. Craig also points to a new News Ltd site, The Future Of Journalism, that deals with some of the issues. I have written on some of these questions, most recently in Belshaw's World - caught between a tweet and a print place.

The issue now at the front of my mind is the implications of all this for we active bloggers. There is presently a symbiotic relationship between bloggers and the main stream media. This will have to change. But how might it change? What are the implications for both blogging and the main stream media? 

Ramana is slowly returning to blogging following his operation. I could not resist stealing this photo; it made me laugh.

The steel city of Wollongong lies south of Sydney. Since Neil Whitfield (Ninglun) moved there from Sydney's inner city, both his main blog and photo blog have had a Gong focus.

Julia wows The Gong reports on a visit by the Australian Prime Minister to the city with particular reference to the National Broadband Network.

Much of the discussion on the NBN, Australia's largest public works project,  has centered on two themes. The first are the economic issues - competition policy, the economics of the network itself, costs and benefits. The second are the perceived benefits. Discussion here is often couched in generalities, partly because no one actually knows.

As I often do, I have tried to localise these issues. This partly reflects my own geographic focus, but I also find it easier to understand broader results through specific examples.

It is still too early to make judgements, but I am following the position in my old home town of Armidale quite closely as an early release site with attributes (an existing relatively sophisticated user base so far as online is concerned) that should favour take-up. My feeling is that the next two years will give us a pretty good feel as to the dynamics.

Well, that's the end of my meander for the moment.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Economics, Say's Law & the paradox of thrift

Interesting report by David Uren in the Australian. I quote in part:

THE International Monetary Fund has warned that the forces that caused the Great Depression in the 1930s are again at work, as households, businesses and governments all cut back their spending.

In a briefing provided to finance ministers and central bank governors at last weekend's G20 meeting, the fund said the Australian government should stand ready to abandon its pledge to return the budget to surplus if the world economy took a turn for the worse......

In issuing its Great Depression warning, the IMF referred to the work of economist John Maynard Keynes, who showed that when everyone tried to lift their savings simultaneously, the total savings in the economy fell because there was not enough demand for goods and services.

"The overarching risk is of a global paradox of thrift as households, firms and governments around the world reduce demand," the IMF said.

"Downside risks have increased and are severe."

The Wikipedia article is not a bad introduction to the paradox of thrift.

All this got me thinking, in fact carrying me back into my economics studies in a now distant past. 

My studies in those dim and distant days threw up two things that puzzled me.

The first was simply the apparent failure in linkages between fields within economics. In formal terms, the discipline we studied then was broken into a number of main fields:

  • macoeconomics, the study of movements in the broader economy. International trade theory could be classified as part of this or as an area in its own right.
  • microeconomics, essentially value (what was produced and why) and distribution (how production and wealth was distributed). This included things like pricing, supply and demand and the theory of the firm.
  • economic development, the study of movements in the economy over the longer term.

A number of fields were then linked to these including public finance, economic history and agricultural economics. There was also study of specific techniques

The difficulty was that those fields did not really link together into a coherent universal discipline. Discussions, for example, on the microeconomic foundations of macro constantly foundered.

It took me a while to work out that economics was an analytical process that examined variables and the relationships between them. To my mind, it was not possible to create a single unified discipline because the various fields were concerned with different issues in different time horizons and therefore looked at different questions and variables. Macroeconomic's concern with aggregate movements in the shorter term might give rise to different answers and indeed conflict with answers generated from longer term studies.

The second thing that puzzled me was the conflict between various schools of economics in general and individual competing concepts in particular. The conflict in ideas real enough. However, it seemed to me that the variations between schools linked to differing assumptions and models, while much of the conflict between concepts was more apparent than real. Two apparently competing concepts might both be right depending upon varying circumstances.

I no longer claim to be an economist. I am too out of touch with current thinking. That said, both of the features that once puzzled me are very present in today's discussion, along with a third that is relatively new.

I will deal with the relatively new element first.

Economic policy and indeed a fair bit of economics itself is based on the concept of national economies. In the past, much of the analysis took national economies as a given. To a degree, international trade and investment flows were exogenous factors. Trade theory dealt with flows between countries. We are, I think, still getting our minds around the idea of a global economy with its own dynamics.

Turning now to variations between fields, the global economy is going through a period of fundamental long term change, of tectonic shifts in the main economic plates. By contrast, much economic policy discussion in fora such as the G20 is concerned with macroeconomics and with short term stabilisation. The relationships between that and the longer term trends is not well articulated. Further, the discussion is centred on the first element I mentioned, the nation state and national economies. That's understandable, we are dealing with Governments, but it also acts to conceal broader forces.

Now if we turn to the concept level, we can also see the problem with concepts. To illustrate.

Says Law used to be summarised as supply creates its own demand. If there is surplus supply, prices will fall. As they do, demand will increase until finally the surplus supply disappears. As a general statement, that's pretty true. However, Say's Law cannot explain why there should be economic cycles, nor can it explain the catastrophic failure of the Great Depression.

Keynes addressed a different question, attempting to show how an economy could go into down turn.

By definition, savings and investment are always equal. If people decided to save more this feeds into reduced consumption. As a consequence, inventories rise. Savings and investment are still equal, but investment now includes increased stocks. As inventories rise, firms reduce production, reducing economic activity. Incomes fall, leading to a fall in savings. Savings and investment remain equal.

Now according to Say's Law, an increase in savings means an increase in loanable funds that in turn will reduce interest rates. A fall in interest rates leads to increased investment adding to demand. This increased investment balances the increase in savings. Both savings and investment are higher, with final demand shifting from consumption to production goods. Keynes defined circumstances, the liquidity trap, under which this might not occur. In these circumstance, Government spending whether on consumption or investment could act as a circuit breaker, bringing planned savings and investment back into balance.

I accept that this is a fairly simplistic explanation. However, it draws me to my puzzle in considering competing concepts. You see, both Say's Law and the Keynsian concepts are based on mechanical relationships. Both may be true and equally false depending upon the circumstances.

I don't have time this morning to discuss the implications of the points I am trying to make in this post. Further, aspects of my thinking are still cloudy. Still, my feeling is that a fair bit of the economic policy discussion that's around at the moment actually misses key points. Further, where the points are there, they are not properly integrated in a way that this dummy at least can understand.

I may be wrong, of course. I said that I no longer claim to be an economist! However, I will try to amplify my arguments a little later.


I hadn't seen Nicholas Gruen's What’s wrong with ‘Freshwater economics’? (Hint: it is absurd). at the time I wrote this post. It deals with similar underlying issues. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sarah Thorneycroft on universities and innovation

I am just recording this one for later reference. Sarah Thorneycroft (@sthcrft) tweeted requesting comments on her draft thesis mini-proposal linked to a study of ways of improving innovation in higher education. Sarah is a lecturer in Academic Development in the University of New England's Teaching and Learning Centre. She has a particular interest in the application of new technology and is actively involved in UNE's moodle system. Her blog is Mind the Gap.

I have been following Sarah for a little while. However, I had a problem in responding sensibly to her request because my mindset, the mental frameworks that I have developed, are different from hers. There is a risk that my comments might be either destructive or irrelevant! This is not a criticism of Sarah, merely an observation on me. 

I will deal with this later in a hopefully objective fashion. However, in the meantime the issues that Sarah is trying to address are important and I wondered if others might have comments. 

Last days on Rhodes

Greek Trip, Day 16, Sunday 3 October 2010, Rhodes continued

Continuing the story of our Greek trip from Lindos & its acropolis, we drove out of Lindos in the late afternoon to return to Rhodes. As I said at the end of my last post, I am annoyed that I did not visit the acropolis myself. Looking at Clare's photos reminded me of just what I missed in terms of overlapping history.

This shot shows the classical influence:


This shot shows the much heavier Frankish remains. I don't know whether or not its prejudice, but I think that the gradation in fineness from the more delicate Greek or Hellenic through the Roman to the Franks (the generic name given to those from the west) reflects character!


The run back to Rhodes took us through country we had already see.n I was againP1020014 struck by the barren nature of the countryside, as well as the hints of historical remains. 

Back in Rhodes, we dropped the car off and walked back though the walls into the old city. After cleaning up and a drink, we walked down to a local restaurant for dinner.

I haven't spoken a lot about food on this trip, largely because I am not really enamoured of Greek food.

That night we had decided to go to a place that we had seen before and had got chatting to the owner. I was the one who pushed us into it, for the owner had been quite helpful. Talk about a disappointment! The food was poor and overpriced.

Greek Trip, Day 17, Monday 4 October 2010, Rhodes

The next morning dawned bright and hot. After breakfast, we walked downtown. The girls decided to get a drink, while I went off to try to find an internet cafe.

One of the things that you notice about old Rhodes as compared to the other Greek Island towns is that it's bigger and just so much more spread out. P1110243You don't have quite the same concentration of shops or cafes or indeed sometimes people. You need to know where you are going and have to walk longer distances.

I chose this photo to illustrate the point simply because it shows somewhat lost and confused tourists!

I walked and walked in search of my internet cafe. It was bright sunlight, very hot. Finally I found a cafe that advertised internet connections. When I asked the price, they said that it was free if I ordered something. It was hot, I was going to be there for a while, so I asked for a large beer. Silly me!

The beer arrived in due course in a very large glass boot. As best I could work out, it contained at least three full bottles of beer. Talking to the girl beside me who was drinking from a very large glass, I asked her what she had ordered. A medium beer she said!

My new friend was not a happy chappie! Apart from the beer, she had also asked about printer connections to be told that they had them. They did, but no one thought to mention that the printer was out of paper!

I drank some beer, checked Facebook and emails, then wrote a short post. By then I had drunk half the beer, but could not manage more without getting far to tipsy for a hot Monday in the middle of the day. I asked for the bill, eighteen euros!! This was a bit of a disaster for someone whose already tight budget was badly  overstretched.

I walked outside feeling very silly. It really was a con, but my own fault for not doing the proper checks first. Outside I paused to take a photo, creating some concern among the proprietors. Don't visit!  P1020028 

After this experience I walked back to the hotel and had a rest. After writing up some notes rejoined the group for dinner. We had been going to go to a French restaurantP1020032 for a food break, but found that it had closed two years earlier following the death of the owner. Instead we chose to go to Taverna Mama Sofia's for our last evening meal on Rhodes.

Mama Sofia's was just up  the road from our hotel. We sat in the roof garden overlooking the street and had a very pleasant meal.

I was still cranky about the morning's internet experience. However, under the influence of food, wine and conversation I gradually relaxed and ended up thoroughly enjoying the evening.

Tomorrow Athens and a new phase in my exploration of Greece's past and present, the classical world, the Peloponnesian Wars and current economic troubles.        

Monday, October 17, 2011

Broome Council elections return majority Aboriginal council

My thanks to Lynne for this one.

As I have often remarked, it is quite hard keeping in touch across this vast land. Here I just wanted to record that the latest council elections at Broome saw the election of a majority of Aboriginal councillors for the first time.

For the benefit of international readers who won't understand the significance of this result, Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population represents a tiny (from memory, about 2.6%) and declining proportion of the Australian population. However, the relative distribution of that population is skewed so that the indigenous proportion is higher in particular places.

To my knowledge, this is the first time that those of indigenous ancestry have formed the majority of councillors in any major Australian centre. I think that that's of historical significance. 

Enjoying the Rugby

Last night my wife kindly shouted me dinner at the Newmarket, the pub where eldest works.

Helen was on duty, but we were there to watch Australia and New Zealand play in the Rugby semi finals. It was fun!

I am never quite sure which side I am going to cheer for. Mainly, I cheer for Australia in the union, New Zealand in league, because that reflects the relative underdog status.

Last night Australia lost 20-6 and deserved to do so. The All Blacks were awesome.

I really didn't mind who won or lost. I was there to enjoy myself and to soak in the atmosphere. There was quite a big Kiwi contingent in the crowd, while the Australian supporters were somewhat depressed. My wife is a soccer supporter, but has been forced to watch enough Rugby to become both reasonably knowledgeable and quite vocal. Some of her comments on the Australian players do not bear repeating.

I just thought that if New Zealand lost the damage to the New Zealand national psyche would have been close to irreparable!

I wonder which genius decided to put on an Australian-New Zealand rugby league test on the same day as the union? The league was simply swamped.      

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sunday snippets - Lorenzo on radio, Wright on the Tao, Maximos62 on languages

Earlier in the week I wrote a companion post to a post by Lorenzo on skepticslawyer - A misbegotten Union – Guest post by Lorenzo. Lorenzo's post dealt with the problems faced by the EU. Now skepticslawyer's skepticlawyer advises that the ABC's ‘Counterpoint'  picked up the post and has interviewed Lorenzo.

The interview will air on Monday October 17. The show itself starts at 16:05; Lorenzo’s segment will air at about 16:20.

I really was pleased for Lorenzo and indeed for the independent bloggosphere. The post was a good one, presenting something of an alternative view, so its nice to see the recognition.

Back in August I mentioned that Denis Wright's Learning from the Sufis provides a well written introduction to Sufi beliefs that makes aspects of Sufi thought easily accessible. Now Denis has followed this up with a series of well written and easily understandable posts on the Tao. If you are interested, go to the first post Living Simply by the Tao 1 and then follow the series through. I mentioned Denis' series Friday in Round the New England blogging traps 25 - a few writers, but am repeating the link here to give the posts wider exposure.

In a post last week, Threads for later use, I mentioned a post by maximos62 What do we do about the decline of Bahasa #Indonesia in #Australia?. There I said in part that as Australia had become more multicultural with more native language speakers, the general study of foreign languages had declined. I thought that the two were connected.

maximos62's post is worth reading. I was reminded of it Friday when I went to a Sydney University graduation where my wife was delivering the occasional address.

There was a large contingent of overseas students in the group, and the presenter was seeking advice on pronunciation of names. My wife asked eldest daughter whether a particular name was Indonesian. She wasn't sure. It turned out that it was Chinese, but could be pronounced in no less than four ways depending on the country the student came from!

I had several things in mind when I suggested earlier that the fall in foreign language study was connected with the increase in the multicultural nature of Australian society.

People study other languages for multiple reasons. In a lot of cases, they want to acquire an understanding in advance of a trip. What we might call the hobby market is quite large. In a growing number of cases, children from particular backgrounds study their traditional tongue for family and cultural reasons. In other cases, languages may be selected for vocational reasons. Then, too, some are interested for purely academic reasons.

Nothing profound here, but I think it important to recognise the varying groups with their different motivations.

Australia's increased ethnic diversity means that there are more native language speakers from major language groups available who also speak English. They dominate the market. The vocational incentive to study foreign languages has, I think, actually declined among the majority community.

Further, at school, many language classes are now dominated by native speakers, with courses bifurcated into advanced dominated by native speakers and introductory - the rest. In a competitive environment, students select the courses that will give them the best exam results. This works against language study for the monolingual majority.

So we get a chain effect that works from school through both vocational and university education. I don't see an easy answer to this in a world of electives and market choice. It may be in Australia's interests for more students to study Indonesian, but its not necessarily in the interests of individual students.  

Finishing today's post, in a post on my history blog (A note on philosophy & methodology in history) I returned to my long standing preoccupation with the writing of history. I note it now because the whole topic is niggling away at my mind. I guess that you can expect more here.


Interesting story by Rachel Olding in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald, All Greek to them: classics back in vogue as schools embrace languishing languages, on the rise in interest in Latin and, to a lesser extent, classical Greek. I quote: 

In schools, the classics are steadily increasing their enrolment numbers.

This year, Gosford High School and St Catherine's of Waverley joined the 43 schools teaching classical languages, resulting in 342 enrolments from a typically small number that do languages.

Chinese background speakers is the most popular language with 963 enrolments and Dutch is the least popular with two.

The number of students sitting the NSW Higher School Certificate this year is 72,391. Compare this with the 963 enrolled in the most popular language course and you get a feel for just how low the interest in languages really is. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Saturday Morning musings - reporting, analysis & Australian public policy

Here in Australia, Paul Kelly fulminates in the Australian:

JULIA Gillard's tactical triumph in winning a carbon price scheme from minority government with less than 30 per cent of the primary vote testifies to the schism in Australia's public life: the conflict between the parliament and the people.

To my mind, there is a continuing and odd disconnect between reality, current political games and reporting in Australia that that I find somewhat discomfiting. Quite a bit of the commentary such as that proffered by Mr Kelly displays an apparent ignorance of Australia's constitutional structures. I also somewhat resent being told what I should think.

As you might expect, Australian reporting is dominated by the Government's apparent victory on the carbon tax, apparent loss on border processing. The focus is on the words victory and loss. The reality as I see it is that we have two sets of decisions that will now work their way through the system.

The carbon legislation will take time to come into effect. The practical results depend not just on the details, but on the interaction between local and international conditions over the coming period. While I have attempted to at least specify some of the variables and relationships, I don't know what will happen. I don't have a crystal ball. We will just have to wait and see.

In a way, the decisions on border processing are more interesting. The conflicts within the Labor Party on the issue mirror those in the broader community. Beneath the cardboard cut-out presentations by the Party leaders on both sides, there has been a genuine debate. Beneath the questions of tactics and strategy that dominate reporting, there has been a genuine decision. It may not be the desired decision of the party leaderships on either side, but it is still a decision.

As with the carbon legislation, in considering impacts we can specify variables and relationships, but cannot say how these will work themselves out in practice. Politics and policy are interconnected, but not the same.

One of the fascinating things about border protection lies in the way that political interactions delivered a policy result that would have seemed inconceivable a month or so back, a victory for what was a minority view in political terms, on-shore processing. Nobody knows how this might work out in practice. What we can say, I think, is that it's changed the game.

The last Federal election was held on 21 August 2010. Barring a Government implosion or deaths, the next election is still eighteen months away. That gives plenty of time for all sorts of unexpected things to happen.

The Labor Government may or may not be re-elected. While this is a subject of much focus in this country, it's a second order question so far as public policy is concerned. As we have seen with the carbon tax and border protection, policy decisions are being made. To my mind, I accept that this is a minority view, the interesting thing is the nature of future policy decisions.

In the days when I was a professional Government relations practitioner, we maintained a rolling register of prospective policy decisions across portfolios. This proved powerful because it gave us an analytical framework to monitor likely decisions and the relations between them. Often, the really interesting stuff lay in the minutiae, the detail, because of the way it affected things that we were interested in.

Sadly, I no longer have the resources to maintain this type of monitoring. After all, it took two people full time just maintain, let alone those involved in subsequent analysis and action! Still, it goes to the heart of my point, the fact that decisions are being and will be made. We need more analysis that is prospective, not retrospective.

We also need more analysis that is integrative, capable of looking outside outside the often narrow boxes that often dominates political and public policy analysis in this country. I would argue that there is a present vacuum in public policy debate in this country that actually leaves the field to an increasing range of special interests. 


Dear me, I do wonder sometimes.

According to Stephanie Peatling in the Sydney Morning Herald, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott ''pledge in blood'' to repeal the Carbon Tax laws if he becomes prime minister, he describes them as ''socialism dressed up as environmentalism'', could cost the taxpayer up to a billion dollars. Mr Abbott has also made it clear that he would never agree to Government proposals on border protection unless they exactly mirrored his desires.

I am not saying that there is a disconnect between Mr Abbott and community views. I just think that this is silly stuff, very silly stuff.

Leave aside all the in-principle arguments. Perhaps I am out of touch, but I would have thought that Mr Abbott's approach is quite dangerous from a strategic perspective because of the way that he is adding future problems and risks to his own cause.

In the meantime in the real world, the latest Dohar round is in trouble requiring a real response. More on that later.

Postscript 2

According to constitutional lawyer Professor George Williams, Mr Abbott's proposed repeal could cost billions. I quote: 

"Parliament has created carbon units. They are described as property, and no doubt there could be a High Court test case whereby people could argue that if the legislation is repealed they must be given full compensation in return," Professor Williams told Alison Carabine on Radio National.

He said legislation described the carbon units as being "a unit of personal property", making it harder for any future parliament to repeal the laws without compensation.

For the benefit of those not familiar with the Australian constitution, under the constitution the Commonwealth Government is required to pay compensation for the acquisition of property.  

Friday, October 14, 2011

Unravelling the secret history of the plague

The Black Death, bubonic plague, reportedly reached the trading city of Caffa in the Crimea in 1347 from its original base in China. There as part of a protected siege the Mongol army under Jani Beg, itself suffering from the disease, catapulted the infected corpses over the city walls to infect the inhabitants. From there as well as other places, the disease spread throughout Europe.

This was not the first outbreak of bubonic plague.

The Plague of Justinian in the 6th and 7th centuries was the first known attack on record. From historical descriptions, as much as 40 percent of the population of Constantinople died from the plague. According to Wikipedia, modern estimates suggest half of Europe's population was wiped out before the plague disappeared in the 700s. The damage done to the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire was profound and long lasting. Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411)

The second major outbreak that began in the late 1340s was just as devastating. The Black Death is estimated to have killed 30–60 percent of Europe's population, reducing the world's population from an estimated 450 million to between 350 and 375 million in 1400.

This illustration of the Black Death is from the Toggenburg Bible (1411).

The effects of the Black Death were profound, etching itself into the culture and psyche of Europe. You get something of a feeling for the fear from the panicked reaction in Sydney to the 1900 outbreak of plague. These photos from NSW State Records provide a visual picture of the response.  

The disease itself is enzootic (commonly present) in populations of fleas carried by ground rodents, including marmots, in various areas including Central Asia, Kurdistan, Western Asia, Northern India and Uganda. yet despite this, and despite later epidemics including the 1890 Chinese pandemic, the virulence of the plague seemed to decline compared to the devastation of the Black Death.

Now, in a remarkable piece of scientific investigation, a scientific team has been able to reconstruct the DNA of the actual plague that devastated Europe and other places in the fourteenth century. You will find the McMaster University press release here, the Nature article reporting the results here, a Nature video here, and the transcript of an interview with one of the team here.

Now the striking thing about the results is that they suggest that the Black Death was actually very similar, perhaps identical, to the current variant of the disease. How, then, do we explain its previous virulence?

Pandemics are generally multi-factorial, drawing their virulence from a combination of causes.

The long period between the Black Death and the plague of Justinian means that there was probably very little natural immunity to the disease. The combination of population increase with climate change, what has been called the little ice age, meant reduced food supplies, higher malnutrition, making people more vulnerable to disease. Poor hygiene and crowded conditions created an environment that allowed the disease to spread.

The third plague pandemic that began in China in 1855 and then spread around the world (the Sydney outbreak was part of this pandemic) affected India especially badly, with an estimated 12.5 million deaths. Again, you have concentrated population. According to the Wikipedia article, the strenuous efforts by the British authorities to control the Indian plague created strong local opposition and became a feature in growing Indian nationalism.

On 22 June 1897, the Chapekar brothers, young Pune brahmins, shot and killed W. C. Rand, an Indian Civil Services officer acting as Pune Special Plague Committee chairman, and his military escort, Lt. Ayerst. The government also found the nationalist press guilty of incitement. Independence activist Bal Gangadhar Tilak was charged with sedition for his writings as editor of the Kesari newspaper and was sentenced to eighteen months rigorous imprisonment. He became a living martyr to the struggle for Indian independence.

  Can the plague come back? Perhaps not, but it does illustrate the way in which disease can play havoc with human endeavour.    

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Current politics and, better, Springwood remembered

Well, the carbon tax legislation passed the House of Representatives and will pass the Senate. I think that we can really put this one aside for the moment. I have a sense of relief; I am really sick of talking about the same issue.

Now that WA National MP Tony Crook has said that he won't support the border protection legislation, the Government has no chance of getting it through the Reps. They knew they could not get it through the Senate, but there were tactical reasons for wanting it to pass the Reps.

On Twitter, Paul Barratt wondered: So onshore processing it is. Can't help thinking asylum seekers will be punished for this somehow. I am not sure what else Paul could have expected. Between the Greens, Labor and Liberal with their entrenched positions, there was little scope for a sensible outcome.

Frustrated with politics, I have been spending some time down nostalgia lane with cousin Jamie's photo collection. Talk about memories. I have been trying to work out how best to use some of the photos to tell stories. And then I get sidetracked.

This photo is taken at Springwood in the Blue Mountains in September 1952. From left to right Cecily (we had been staying with Cecily and her Mum), brother David, Mum and I. We are due to catch the train to Sydney to then catch the train to Armidale. I am carrying my gum boots. Mum wanted to throw them out, they were too small really, but I wouldn't agree. Then to my eternal mortification, I left them on the train when we got off in Armidale. Sigh.     Cecily, David, mum, jim

For those outside Australia, the Blue Mountains lie to the west of Sydney and are quite cold as is my home town of Armidale. You can see this in the clothes. You can also see that the clothes are more formal than today. David is wearing a tie, as in fact am I.

I really loved this particular holiday. Looking at Jamie's photos, I think that I can probably tell the story in a way that might bring it alive.  It's actually more fun than worrying too much about current policy! This is another shot. From left to right Cecily, David, me, Mary.

Sprinwood Sept 52 Cecily, David, James, Mary

I really was keen on Mary, a friend of Cecily's. Still, more details will have to wait for another post.  

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Myth of the mobile Australian

I first became aware of the myth of the mobile Australian back in 1980. Then, like most Australians, I accepted the view that Australians and especially young Australians were happy to move for work or adventure. After all, I worked in Canberra where everybody came from somewhere else!

There was a mining boom at the time, with problems in getting people to move to take jobs. Someone pointed to data suggesting that job mobility in Australia had declined quite sharply. I was surprised and asked why. The primary reason given was the rise of the two income household. 

Track forward.

A few years ago friends visited Australia from the US: Sally is US, Dave Australian. We were talking about universities and university choices.

In choosing universities, our daughters had opted for the local: any hope that I might have had that one or other might continue the UNE tradition was long gone;  even Canberra and the ANU were too far away from Sydney to be considered. Sally compared the Australian position to the US where it was normal to move to get the university of your choice. 

This local Australian stickiness was not in fact new.

During the very rapid growth in the Canberra based Commonwealth Public Service in the 1960s, the Service struggled to recruit graduates from Sydney or Melbourne: there were sufficient local job opportunities, so people stayed at home. I found exactly the same thing when I was involved in graduate recruitment a decade later.  Our recruits came from universities where local job opportunities were less. That's one of the reasons why, for example, the Armidale based University of New England came to have such a disproportionate share of senior people in Government relative to its size. There were no jobs in Armidale.

Australia has always been an urbanised country. Arguably, we were the world's first such country outside the city states. However, the current population dominance of the metro centres is both old and new.

Population was relatively centralised in the first period of European settlement. However, the population then spread with pastoral and later mining and agricultural expansion. In NSW, for example, Sydney's share of the state population fell to around a third. The growth in the capital cities relative to other parts of the country from the 1880s attracted attention because it was seen as unusual. The rise of the capital cities is one constant theme in the early official Australian year books.

The Australian population was clearly very mobile in the earlier periods of European settlement. People moved for work and in search of wealth. By the 1880s, the population was becoming less mobile with the rise of urban centres - the rise of the town is one theme in the history of colonial Australia. From then, mobility was primarily one way, to the capital cities.

Today the Governor-General Quentin Bryce and former cricket champion Glenn McGrath are combining to launch the Australian Year of the Farmer. Had you heard of it? I hadn't.

Population mobility in the nineteenth century and then the drift to the cities in the first part of the twentieth century meant that there were close family interconnections between country and city. Australia may have been urbanised, but people still had connections with the country.

These connections have attenuated with time. A survey released in conjunction with the Australian Year of the Farmer found that 22 per cent of city dwellers never visited a rural area, 69 per cent did so only once a year. The Year of the Farmer aims to reintroduce Australians to the country. The need for such a program would have seemed incomprehensible even fifty years ago.

As with so many things, mobility is not clear cut. We clearly have a mobility issue within Australia as evidenced simply by the rise of FIFO, the fly in, fly out worker. The rise and fall of the mining towns that once were a feature of Australian life have been replaced by an urbanised workforce that simply visits. Now politicians worry about ways to get people to move.

There are some complicated issues here that extend well beyond the simple question of mobility. For example, the shortage of experienced engineers in Australia means that mining developments bring in overseas engineers. In writing specifications, those engineers use terms and specs that they are familiar with; this favours overseas product. Arguably, we are getting neither the local benefits from development nor some of the down stream benefits that we once expected.

While some areas struggle to get workers, while overall mobility is down, the Australian population still moves. However, the pattern of mobility is different.

One element is the increased importance of life style considerations.

The flight to the sea that saw large increases in population in certain parts of the coastal strip was driven by life style considerations rather than jobs. Indeed, the jobs weren't there when the population started moving and those jobs that have come have been lower level service jobs. The end result in places has been social dislocation.

A second element in the changing pattern of mobility has been the changing patterns of migration to this country. The new settlers are mobile, but in different ways.

During the first period of mass migration after the Second World War, the new settlers actually spread quite widely, if with concentrations in particular areas. The Greek families that came to Armidale, for example, formed links with each other. Their children and grandchildren left to pursue new opportunities, but links remained. The Greek families may no longer live in Armidale, but they still hold regular gatherings.

I have the strong impression that this type of cross-geographic linking within Australia no longer occurs. I know Sydney best. The Chinese and Indian young, for example, are mobile but between Sydney and their home countries or, sometimes, other parts of Asia. They are much less likely to move within Australia. This reflects changing economic conditions, as well as cultural factors.

I first became really aware of the locational impacts of culture a few years ago when looking at problems associated with attracting professionals to regional NSW. The Asian emphasis on education meant that many professional courses, those with the highest entry scores, were increasingly dominated by Asian students including both overseas and local born. Those students were highly unlikely to leave Sydney upon graduation; they had no links with and limited knowledge of the rest of NSW.

I haven't attempted to spell out all elements in this muse, simply point to what I see as some features. Mobility is important because it affects economic activity. It is also important because it affects attitudes and cultures. The common assumption that the Australian population is relatively mobile acts to conceal quite significant demographic changes.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Olympic Dam up, CopperString down

The proposed expansion of BHP's Olympic Dam project has now received environmental approvals. The sheer size of the project beggars imagination. I just wanted to record the link for later reference and discussion.

While Olympic Dam is up, CopperString is down. Ever heard of it?  I actually hadn't.

In the period immediately after the Australian Federal elections when independent MP Bob Katter was spruking the idea of a North Queensland energy corridor, I took the whole thing with a grain of salt. Turns out I was wrong, there was a little more to it than that.

On 3 September this year on Crikey, Bernard Keane and Wendy Bacon in Bob Katter, energy corridors and conflicts of interest got their knickers into a real twist over the whole project. It turns out that the energy corridor, map below, had more substance than I realised.

Well, Bernard and Wendy need not have worried. The project's viability heavily depended on a decision by Mt Isa Mines as to electricity sourcing.

Xstrata had been mulling three strategies to ensure future energy supply for its Mt Isa mining operations: the extension of the current sole supplier, the gas-fired Mica power station (an idea it dumped a while ago); go for another gas-fired station; or participate in the CopperString project that would link Mt Isa with the grid at Townsville via a 1000km transmission line, and unlock a series of renewable energy projects, including wind, solar, biomass and geothermal found in between.

Now hopes of building one of Australia’s largest renewable energy hubs in north Queensland appear to have been dashed after Xstrata signed a deal with AGL Energy to build a gas-fired power station in Mt Isa.

There was something very Queensland about the whole thing, remember the Cape York Space Port?, but that doesn't make the idea wrong.

One of the really big problems now starting to emerge in Australia is the growing gap between structures and capital assets based on previous economics and those likely to hold in the future. But that's a matter for another post.