Sentimentality is no basis for foreign policy

It was tragic when the plane was shot from the sky over the Ukraine, but it was, as everyone understood, unintended. A war zone is a danger zone, even undeclared wars. But it did worry me that more was being made of it than was warranted. We have much bigger issues, and that particular problem came to an end the very moment it occurred. There was no reason to strain our relations with Russia to such an extent over any of it.

I feel the same about yesterday’s executions in Indonesia. The people I feel most sorry for are their parents who will forever feel that tremendous sense of loss for their children. But we cannot run our foreign policy on such cheap sentimentality. Indonesia executes drug runners. Other countries execute people for other kinds of things, such as conversion to Christianity.

I have found myself dwelling on the deaths in Nepal which are on a very different scale, and these are tragedies that have invaded people’s lives through no actions of their own. I don’t wish execution on anyone, but that is the law of their land. For us, other issues matter more.

Accommodating disruption

Craig Emerson has a column on Ideas needed for next economic growth phase. Here are, according to Emerson, “five ideas that could make a material difference to Australia’s future living standards”. He is certainly right about that, but you would think he would want to see our living standards rise rather than fall. The five:

1. A very fast train.
2. Lift the asylum seeker intake.
3. Double teachers’ salaries.
4. Increase land tax.
5. Accommodate disruptive technologies.

The support for “disruptive” technologies I find revealing. Why doesn’t he just say support the market and encourage entrepreneurial change? It’s not ideas that cause change but commercialisation of the ones that will work by the private sector. Everything else is almost inevitably waste. See the NBN and the series of Desal plants scattered around the country for recent examples.

W attacks O – enough is finally enough

George W. Bush is a man of principle, and one of his principles was to leave his successor to get on with governing. None of his predecessors had been as fastidious, but finally, after the unprecedented series of horrors perpetrated by Obama, George W. Bush Bashes Obama on Middle East. From the article:

Bush said that Obama’s plan to lift sanctions on Iran with a promise that they could snap back in place at any time was not plausible. He also said the deal would be bad for American national security in the long term: “You think the Middle East is chaotic now? Imagine what it looks like for our grandchildren. That’s how Americans should view the deal.”

Bush then went into a detailed criticism of Obama’s policies in fighting the Islamic State and dealing with the chaos in Iraq. On Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops in Iraq at the end of 2011, he quoted Senator Lindsey Graham calling it a “strategic blunder.” Bush signed an agreement with the Iraqi government to withdraw those troops, but the idea had been to negotiate a new status of forces agreement to keep U.S. forces there past 2011. The Obama administration tried and failed to negotiate such an agreement.

Bush said he views the rise of the Islamic State as al-Qaeda’s “second act” and that they may have changed the name but that murdering innocents is still the favored tactic. He defended his own administration’s handling of terrorism, noting that the terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who confessed to killing Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was captured on his watch: “Just remember the guy who slit Danny Pearl’s throat is in Gitmo, and now they’re doing it on TV.”

Did you cringe at the jingoism, the unthinking patriotism and crass commercialism? – Actually, no I didn’t

Do people really believe this? This is a quote, now taken down, it seems, from Martin Hirst, who is a journalism lecturer at Deakin University which I picked up at Andrew Bolt discussing more Leftists protest in relation to ANZAC Day.

Did you cringe at the jingoism, the unthinking patriotism and crass commercialism that now defines ANZAC day? Or did you, like the free speech fundamentalists and Abbott apologists, take time from your orgy of bloody celebration of war, to call for a young journalist to be sacked for daring to question the ANZAC myth?… The myth is that both world wars were fought to protect “our” freedoms and that without them “we” would not enjoy the lifestyle we have today. That is utter tosh and ahistorical nonsense and it also conveniently lets the warmongers off the hook. War is never about principles and morals, it is about money… War benefits the capitalists who stay behind. There are profits to be made in the killing and in the rebuilding, which brings us to imperialism… It is a sad day for freedom of speech when telling the unpalatable truth to a nation that collectively sticks its fingers in its ears and sings the anthem to drown out critical voices causes someone to lose their job. [My bolding]

It’s not even that he is a stray, an outlier, but is as mainstream amongst the media/intellectual class as you could find. I am astonished that SBS actually sacked their sports reporter for discussing an issue in such an offensive way, over which he could not possibly have had the slightest expertise. We now indulge opinion journalism, but the carriers of these views merely have opinions. Research and detailed knowledge of any kind seems irrelevant. They read each other’s ignorant rants and then reword and repeat.

Economic Council of Tribal Elders

This is a self-explanatory letter I have written to Professor Richard Lipsey. It was a Saturday afternoon, my most whimsical moment of the week. I have re-read it now on Monday morning, my least whimsical moment, and it still works for me. While my proposal for encouraging change was not intended to be taken literally, something really does need to be done.

Dear Professor Lipsey

I hope you won’t mind my invading your email account but following your posting on the SHOE website, I wanted to continue that conversation because I think this is an issue of no small importance. I have posted the correspondence up on my blog so you can look at my more considered thoughts here.

About myself, I will mention only four things: (1) Canadian born and educated though living in Australia for the past forty years, I have learned and taught from your Positive Economics; (2) I have been trying in my own way to save the history of economic thought from oblivion an outcome it seems destined to achieve [see my Defending the History of Economic Thought (Elgar 2013)]; (3) I am in the smallest of all current heterodox groups – the John Stuart Mill Classical School of Economic Theory for which I have written the textbook: Free Market Economics: an Introduction for the General Reader (Elgar 2nd ed 2014); and (4) virtually all of my career was spent in politics as the Chief Economist for Australia’s national organisation of employers which has warped my approach to issues, both economic and academic (see below).

I think there is a crisis in economics at the moment that no one is facing up to. The Queen supposedly put her finger on it by asking why no one had forecast the GFC. I think the crisis comes from no one being able to guide us out of the recession. You will have seen that I think that is because of the Keynesian models we have embedded, on which I may be right or wrong. But what troubles me is that no one has made a serious effort to revisit economic theory and worry over where the problem is. If I were to be classified using any of the modern schools, I would probably find myself, like you, within the Evolutionary Economics camp (my close associate at RMIT is Jason Potts who I understand is well known in this area). But whatever fuss has been made seems very muted, so muted I have been unable to detect anything at all.

In fact, until I read your post, I had no idea that you had these views. There may be many others who hold views similar to your own, who are, like yourself, individuals with genuine stature who are concerned about the way things are going. The minute I saw your post, I knew whatever thoughts others may have had to take potshots at me – and there may well have been none – they would be instantly suppressed. I am also very conscious of how narrow economic theory is, but as presently designed, it is both seductive and empty. The MC=MR diagram drives me crazy, and I won’t teach it, and in fact, instruct anyone who has ever come across it, to do all they can to forget it. Yet everyone who has learned it, cannot be lured away from its seductive grasp. I make the notion of equilibrium something that should be shunned and a concept devoid of serious economic content but on it goes even though economies are absolutely open ended and with so many cross-currents, the very notion is pointless. I think the stimulus was as deranged as anything I have ever seen inflicted on a peacetime population in my life but seriously, aside from myself, no one seems to be taking up arms against the underlying theory that has led to these policy outcomes. But my point is that although everyone can understand what is in my text, their careers would be cut dead if any of them ventured into this kind of territory, enemy territory to the mainstream (although a couple of them have, brave souls).

The nature of what we teach and the way we restrict what is in and what is not in, so far as a mainstream department goes, is astonishing. For whatever reason, the latitude given is near zero. You could drop your first edition into any course today and it would hardly make a difference compared with the latest, most up-to-date text just off the press. I came back to teaching after 35 years away and I didn’t have to learn a single new thing.

I don’t know whether there is something that can be done. But an Economic Council of Tribal Elders made up of people like yourself seems to me to be the only answer. A student uprising, as at Manchester and discussed by Hugh Goodacre, can only go so far but must stop. No one will pay attention, and I’m afraid, no one should either. But persons such as yourself in league with others of a similar stature, people who are no longer worried about contract renewals and finding their next job, can make the difference that I think needs to be made.

You must know others like yourself who are dissatisfied with the mainstream plod. Perhaps it is too hard, but perhaps it is also not too late.

With kindest best wishes.