Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Month: March, 2009

The Modern Indulgences

Running a church is an expensive business. And in the time before marketing consultants and TV call in programs made it lucrative, one practice the Christian Church used to engage in was the selling of Indulgences. Essentially, for a reasonable sum of money one could absolve oneself of any past sins. The worse the sin, the higher the cost.

It’s hard not to think this is the modern, atheist equivalent:

More than 100,000 Britons have recently downloaded “certificates of de-baptism” from the Internet to renounce their Christian faith.

The initiative launched by a group called the National Secular Society (NSS) follows atheist campaigns here and elsewhere, including a London bus poster which triggered protests by proclaiming “There’s probably no God.”

“We now produce a certificate on parchment and we have sold 1,500 units at three pounds (4.35 US dollars, 3.20 euros) a pop,” said NSS president Terry Sanderson, 58.

John Hunt, a 58-year-old from London and one of the first to try to be “de-baptised,” held that he was too young to make any decision when he was christened at five months old.

The male nurse said he approached the Church of England to ask it to remove his name. “They said they had sought legal advice and that I should place an announcement in the London Gazette,” said Hunt, referring to one of the official journals of record of the British government.

But here’s the rub. If you don’t believe in god, then baptism was nothing more than the splashing of some water on your newborn head. The church can’t claim you as a member under the law, or demand of you any involvement. If you choose to stay away you are not associated with the church. But by ‘de-baptising’ you’re essentially granting the legitimacy of the original practice, of which buying an online certificate would hardly disqualify the bound between you and god.

Indulgences were eventually discouraged, and formed the base of Martin Luthers 95 Theses. It was a scam then, and a scam now. Whether you are coming or going in church life, no amount of money can shift your final resting place.

Mapping the Australian political psyche

Andrew Norton is running a short survey on Australian political philosophies and identity. It shouldn’t take you long(<10 mins), and is better designed than most pol. surveys (though is focused around his own classical liberal attitude). Go help him out if you have the time.

The Economics of Peace

There’s some interesting new research out on an idea which is as old as the idea of free trade economics: More Trade = Less chance of War

In a recent paper (Lee and Pyun 2008), we assess the impact of trade integration on military conflict based on a large panel data set of 290,040 country-pair observations from 1950 to 2000. Results show that an increase in bilateral trade interdependence reduces the probability of inter-state military conflict between the two partners. If bilateral trade volume increases 10% from the world mean value, the probability of military conflict between the two trading partners decreases by about 0.1% from its predicted mean probability, other variables remaining constant. The peace-promotion effect of bilateral trade integration is significantly higher for contiguous countries that are likely to experience more conflicts. For example, an increase of 10% in bilateral trade volume lowers the probability of military conflict between two contiguous states by about 1.9%.

More importantly, our study finds that global trade openness also significantly promotes peace. An increase in global trade openness would reduce the probability of military conflict as it leads to an increase in bilateral trade interdependence. However, when the level of bilateral trade interdependence is held constant, the effect of increased multilateral trade openness on the probability of bilateral conflict is not clear. Countries more open to global trade may have a higher probability of dyadic conflict if multilateral trade openness reduces bilateral dependence on any given country, thus lowering the opportunity-cost of military conflict. In a recent paper, Martin, Mayer, and Thoenig (2008) find that an increase in multilateral trade raises the chance of conflict between states (see their Vox column). In contrast to their findings, however, our study finds that multilateral trade openness in fact lowers the probability of dyadic conflict with the bilateral trade partner, and by a larger magnitude than bilateral trade does alone. An increase in global trade openness by 10% from the world mean value decreases the probability of the dyad’s military conflict by about 2.6% from its predicted mean.

The most interesting point here is that multilateral trade reduces the chance of war far more than bilateral trade. Which seems slightly-counter initiative if we look at this as a pure economic consideration, as going to war with a bilateral only partner risks the entire trade relationship, whilst if they are just one within many in a multilateral deal, their importance to you is significantly reduced.

Yet here Constructivism offers an important insight. Relations between countries are not governed by the market value of the wealth/materials traded, but by the value placed on that trade and relationship by both participants. Take the case of China and Australia. Our export of Iron Ore is worth 2.4 billion, a sizable amount, and critical for China’s development. Yet, whilst worth much less, Australia also exports 300 tonnes of Uranium to China, and has 23% of the worlds supply under our soil. Australia could harm China’s nuclear power supply, and perhaps its nuclear weapon capability one day in the future (we only export for power purposes currently). As such, China has a great interest in increasing its relationship with Australia, and maintaining peaceful conditions with us. (Of course the ANZUS alliance & EU condemnation are the main determinants against China invading Australia). So it is less the dollars or numbers, than the value placed on that trade

But this goes much further when several countries are brought in to interact: Not only is there the material value of the multilateral trade, but countries are careful to be seen by their fellow nations as acting in an appropriate spirit and character. Just as you may observe your friends offering to buy the next round at the pub, or being nice to someones new girlfriend -who no one can stand- countries interact in a social fashion and shape rules or “norms” about those interactions. Gradually those ties can bind countries together, such that the mere realist thought of pure power domination for material advantage is never even considered (Australia could for instance invade New Zealand, but i doubt it has ever seriously come up in a Cabinet discussion in this country, despite the potential advantages and the ease of such a victory).

Thus, even if countries were confident that other nations would continue to trade with them despite going to war with one of the mutilateral trade partners, they would still be dissuaded due to the socialisation that had built up between all of the countries, and brought them to think of themselves as part of a common group, with common ways of interacting. (Of help here is also the fact that most multilateral trade deals are regionally based)

As I’ve said, this is one of the oldest ideas in classical economics and seemingly a common sense one, whether we take an economic or a constructivist view. Yet surprisingly, this was also an idea that met with significant student resistance when I was lecturing a unit on International Relations last year. Whilst the classes were largely young and left wing, there was a fair amount of diversity in their midst, and realist and conservative arguments could be regularly expected to be raised and debated. Yet, in spite of even my own publicly professed support for the idea, it met with strong disagreement, through both tutorials and written assignments.

It was only when I came to look again at who the public faces for this claim were that, I began to see perhaps why such a seemingly common sense idea is rejected out of hand; and just how trashed the free trade brand has become. Whilst the student body hasn’t suddenly gone socialist let alone communist (there literally are no alternatives!), the marketing of these ideas is in an incredibly bad state. The idea’s are strong, the evidence around, but people have become very skeptical that this is anything more than the big end of town favouring its own. Despite the billion plus brought out of poverty by Globalisation (though now at risk thanks to the GFC) and the general prosperity of the last 30 years) the public tend to see such ideas purely within an individual gain/loss prism. They see it as an incentive to increase their income, participate in the stock market, or begin a business, but almost never connect these to the wider social idea. The workchoices reforms suffered a similar issue. Both the advertising for the policy, and the union response against concentrated on what these changes meant for YOU. You’ll have more flexibility/You’ll get less rights or higher/lower pay. Almost no where was there a discussion about the benefits to the economy, the increased employment, flexibility in tougher times. I’m a skeptic of the workchoices reforms, so I don’t think the wholescale benefits overcame the individual negatives, but to see the government accept such a framing amazed me. This is also something that I think many Libertarians simply do not get in their support for such ideas and bewilderment that the wider public look on them so negatively.

The evidence may be there that increased trade reduces poverty and reduces the chance of war. Yet the Baby Boomer generation has abjectly failed to sell the idea, and I dont see the Gen X’ers doing any better (if anything they are more arrogant and less capable). Instead I think it will come through members of Gen-Y who have grown up within the free trade bubble (ie Born after 1982 when such ideas were in the ascendency) and who have experienced the benefits (prosperity and peace being the mainstays). We have in short been socialised to these ideas, and thus more able to see them for the potential they are, rather than the fictions of a ‘perfect market’ vs a ‘bastardy & Greed’ meme’s that dominated past generations of ideologues thought.

Of Boredom

A quirky little speech in defence of boredom, for your Sunday reading pleasure:

Basically, there is nothing wrong with turning life into the constant quest for
alternatives, into leapfrogging jobs, spouses, and surroundings, provided that
you can afford the alimony and jumbled memories. This predicament, after all,
has been sufficiently glamorized onscreen and in Romantic poetry. The rub,
however, is that before long this quest turns into a full-time occupation, with
your need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict’s daily fix.

There is yet another way out of boredom, however. Not a better one, perhaps,
from your point of view, and not necessarily secure, but straight and
inexpensive. When hit by boredom , let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit
bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit
bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the
worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure,
undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.

Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to
the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s
infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw
it wide open. For boredom speaks the language of time, and it teaches you the
most valuable lesson of your life: the lesson of your utter insignificance

The whole thing is worth a read. If nothing else than to give you something to do 😛
h/t Andrew Sullivan

Meanwhile I’m off to plow through Bird & Sherwin’s excellent biography of Robert J. Oppenheimer : American Prometheus. A deserving winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize, it must rank as one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. As an introduction to the debate on nuclear weapons, their potential good (ending WW2, preventing the Cold War from going Hot), and their horrendus (the victims of those already dropped, the victims to come should more ever fly) it’s hard to beat.

The Gong Show

A fortnight ago I posted on the greatest of all political dangers: being laughed at. Stephen Conroy, your time is up:

The Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, has admitted that Bill Henson images were added to the communications regulator’s list of prohibited websites in error, while blaming the addition of a dentist’s site to the blacklist on the “Russian mob”.

Meanwhile, the website of the Federal Government’s censorship body, the Classification Board, was hacked last night and defaced with an anti-censorship screed.

The admission by Senator Conroy on ABC television’s Q&A program last night casts significant doubt on the Government’s ability to filter the internet without inadvertently blocking legitimate websites.

Q&A was inundated with 2000 questions from the public about the Government’s hugely unpopular policy, and the audience last night ridiculed Senator Conroy by laughing at a number of his responses.

Senator Conroy, under siege after this website’s report yesterday afternoon that an innocuous link containing Henson’s artistic photographs of young boys had been added to the blacklist, said “the classification board looked at this website and actually said it’s PG”.

“A technical error inside ACMA I’m advised included it … but it was actually cleared by the Classification Board so it shouldn’t be on the list,” Senator Conroy said.

“I’ve asked ACMA in the last few hours to go through their entire list again to see if there are any other examples of this.”

What’s surprising in all this, is that Conroy always struck me as one of the sharpest and most IT savy politicians Labor has. I remember watching him in estimates committee hearings using his laptop to help question public servants and witless ministers. Whilst they squirmed or quibbled, he (and his office staff via email) were quickly google & hansard searching for contradictory statements or alternate evidence. It was effective, and back in 2003 & 2004 an original step.

Conroy will last until the next reshuffle, but expect Rudd (likely 6 months before the election) to move him somewhere new. I hear defence might soon be open?

Quality Control

Some people denigrate our local politicians. I however admire them, for clearly they provide plenty of work in their offices for the special needs:

Steve Doszpot MLA
Media Release

It has now been revealed the non-for-profit group Deakin Swimming Limited (DSL) has gone into administration and has been subsequently closed, Shadow Minister for Sport and Recreation, Steve Doszpot said today

Mr Barr effectiveness on this issue has been non-existent. On the morning DSL appointed Administrators RSM Bird Cameron and the pool ceased operation, Mr Barr writes a letter to the owner of the pool requesting DSL not be charged for rent.

“Mr Barr; you can’t be charged rent if you not open.

“Mr Barr had four years to make sure the pool would continue to be viable, and only on the day it doesn’t open does he takes any action.

“As I have said in the Assembly today, the Standing Committee on Planning and Environment made the recommendation that prior to development of the Deakin site, a performance bond would be entered into to ensure the upgrade of the swimming pool.

“This never happened and the Minister will now say he can throw the book at the owner for breaching the lease and territory plan.

“Well it seems it is too little too late for the 1,100 students and their parents who used the pool, and too late for the two major swimming clubs that used the facility.

“The Deakin-Weston Creek community need this facility and this Government have just sat on their hands,” Mr Doszpot said.

27 March 2009

Clearly that’s the only explanation for such an illiterate and badly written piece. Now I sit in the mightiest of glass houses here as a blogger with spelling skills par awfulness. But Steve himself claims a resume that implies at least some skill with nouns, prepositions and conjunctions.

Steve has held a number of very high level roles in the Information, Communications and Technology sector in the ACT. His work has required him to have very senior leadership and management skills, high level communication skills, extensive market knowledge and contacts, and the ability to operate with a wide variety of government, industry and community groups.

As ACT General Manager for Canon Australia, Steve has led and managed a team of 33 staff, liaised and negotiated business contracts with many diverse organisations – both private and government, and most recently he has operated strategically to enhance Canon’s market share in the ACT and regions. Steve also has extensive marketing and business development skills and he successfully ran his own company both nationally and internationally for many years. He has been overseas on several trade delegations, and was head of the ACT division of the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG).

Steve is very active within the Canberra Community and is heavily involved with business groups, associations and sporting groups. He is an Honorary Ambassador for Canberra and the Deputy Chair of the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) ACT Branch. He was an Executive of the Tuggeranong Community Council, a past President of Soccer Canberra and the ACT Olympic Council. He was also a former member of the Boards of CanTrade and the Canberra Institute of Technology. He is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (FAICD).

That last one is particularly worrying. Then again, CIT counts among its alumni this very blogger. So perhaps Steve and I are both victims of the same effect: Laziness.

The political marketplace

By now most of you have seen this hard-hitting speech by Member of the European Parliament Backbencher & Conservative Daniel Hannan.

As speeches go, it’s a nice effort, clear and concise, and whilst relying a little too heavily on common instead of economics sense it makes a few good points. It’s interesting therefore to see Hannan’s own reaction to the video going viral:

When I woke up this morning, my phone was clogged with texts, my email inbox with messages. Overnight, the YouTube clip of my remarks had attracted over 36,000 hits. By today, it was the most watched video in Britain…..Breaking the press monopoly is one thing. But the internet has also broken the political monopoly. Ten or even five years ago, when the Minister for Widgets put out a press release, the mere fact of his position guaranteed a measure of coverage. Nowadays, a politician must compel attention by virtue of what he is saying, not his position.

It’s all a bit unsettling for professional journalists and politicians. But it’s good news for libertarians of every stripe. Lefties have always relied on control, as much of information as of physical resources. Such control is no longer technically feasible.

I want to raise two contradictory points here, so as to really assess what is going on. First, politicians have always known that bold or controversial claims always attract far more attention, and this is what compels journalists to listen to them, and secondly, this is not necessarily a good thing.

To the first: Ever since there have been politicians, the need to say something that captures the ear and quickens the pulse of your listener has been the politicians basic requirement. Whilst legislators may themselves appoint Solon’s to fix problems, and wise elder statesmen for Head of State roles, to get into the legislature itself you need to be bold. Some like Winston Churchill just seemed to attract controversy wherever they went in life, and combined this with actual administrative and parliamentary ability. Some, develop it over time, and through sheer determination force the media to pay them attention such as former PM John Howard. And some are fools who say the first thing that pops into their head, or deliberately make outrageous claims so as to gain attention. Such as Pauline Hanson.
In short, this is not a new phenomena. I’ve been reading David Day’s biography of Andrew Fisher recently (5th Prime Minister of Australia), and time and again the mild mannered, careful and cautious Fisher had to either get a running mate who could attract attention, effectively run his own left wing paper so as to be heard, or spend most of his waking hours visiting communities so as to be head. He proved a very capable parliamentarian, and all who met him were impressed by his talents, yet as a politician he struggled in large part due to his own cautious temperament. Something that proved of great virtue when Prime Minister. A further example. Whilst probably not cut out for the Parliamentary life, and certainly not adverse to saying controversial things(letting women vote for instance), John Stuart Mill, Englands greatest ever philosopher, barely won one term. Mill’s difficulty in public stemmed in part because he did not deign to be controversial on the stump, and preferred to discuss rather than rant, and sometimes even grant the point of his opponents, so as to make his own position clearer. Voters didn’t much like this and soon kicked him out. In short, the need for politicians to say something noticeable over something sensible is as old as the profession. And whilst the argument can be made that the standard of debate and political literacy (ie references to philosophy or literature) has surely dropped, it never was that high in the first place.

So when Hannan says that finally a politician must “compel by virtue of what he is saying”, he’s not saying anything particularly new. And whilst he uses the word “virtue”, controversy, outrageousness, and deliberate hyperbole all seem a better fit. Hannan is not the first, nor the wisest to criticise Browns many economic failings, but because he was concise and willing to dip a bit into hyperbole it got attention.

Now, to the second point: is this a good thing or not? Well yes and no. The internet is clearly a wonderfully democratising tool, of which this blog is evidence. Yet as we’ve seen -and again I want to stress how over the top politics and its coverage has always been- and by adding a million new voices, both online, and now elected officials around the globe (I’m an Australian, talking about a British Member of a European Parliament, who I was first linked to by a man living in America), then the overall level at which you have to speak has to keep rising and rising. In short, I fear we are slowly drowning out the more sober and softly spoken voices, in favour of the brash and the bold. Cable TV is the all too easy example of this, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh do more to influence the political thought of Americans today than all the University Professors in the country combined. In large part, that is their own fault, and our own fault. There are no excuses for an inability to communicate. But whilst democratising, this does run the risk of debasing just as much.

For this reason, as strong as my democratic spirits are, I dont see a justification for having a popularly elected president for Australia’s republic, over someone chosen by 2/3rds of the House of Representatives. Afterall, who would the public pick, but someone who has made their name entirely outside the field of politics. Anyone who has spent their lives learning & talking about political issues necessary for a head of state role, is either too unknown (from Uni Professors to elder Community figures like Major Michael General Jeffery or Quentin Bryce) or too controversial (Hawke, Keating, Howard). Instead it would be former sports stars, or perhaps a TV news reader or former actor. In other words, the greater the number of voices involved in the decision, the more likely someone entirely unqualified will take attention and hence the position.

So Hannan is right to welcome in the challenge to the stuffy control that the political media still exercises over the political process. I can’t count how many times I’ve ranted to journalist friends at the herd like nature of the press gallery for following the same story and refusing to let new voices in. As a liberal who pushes issues outside the mainstream approval such as legalising Marijuana, Homosexual Marriage, and severely cutting down on our middle class welfare state, I know all too well the impossibility of getting such views heard.

But there isn’t always a correlation between ability to say something that will get noticed, and ability to actually govern. Winning elections is a very different skill from governing well, as George W. Bush proved eloquently. So whilst I think it’s great that Hannan’s speech got noticed, lets neither convince ourselves this is a new era of politics, nor that it is a change without its own associated problems and risks.

(I was going to put in the self-pittying point that such a conclusion is neither bold nor controversial so wont be heard, but what’s the point as no one will read that either :P)

Some of us are just cannon fodder

This is just plain unlucky:

A 93-year-old Japanese man has become the first person certified as a survivor of both U.S. atomic bombings at the end of World War II, officials said on Tuesday.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi had already been a certified “hibakusha”, or radiation survivor, of the August 9, 1945, atomic bombing in Nagasaki, but has now been confirmed as surviving the attack on Hiroshima three days earlier as well, city officials said.

Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on a business trip on August 6, 1945, when a US B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on the city. He suffered serious burns to his upper body and spent the night in the city. He then returned to his hometown of Nagasaki just in time for the second attack, city officials said.

For some reason Yamaguchi’s story reminded me of a relative by the name of William Moffett who fought in WW1 for Australia. He enlisted, was shot, recovered, went back to the front lines and promptly got shot again. His view on the whole affair “Some of us are just cannon fodder”. Politics is in my view the greatest intellectual, moral and civil pursuit one could engage their lives in. It gives meaning and it offers the chance to improve human lives and well being. Occasionally however it can also cause great harm and damage. Damage that is generally rained down, not on those who ordered or advocated, but on the Yamaguchi & Moffett’s of the world. The cannon fodder. It’s people like this who help remind me at times when the partisan urge strikes, that politics is not a game. The outcome, measured in the improvement in popular well being is the aim, not individual pride or winning this or that ideological struggle.

Still, how bloody unlucky can you be…

Where does the left path lead?

I’d long wondered why the ALP was pushing the idea of internet censorship. It seemed a badly organised and designed political ploy to bring over the social conservative vote. After all, the Howard Government was equally concerned about the internet, and yet due to its luddite ways seemed unsure of what to do. But had they won another term in office, it’s pretty reasonable to expect they would have pushed a similar nation wide internet filter policy. Yet whilst Rudd attracts some social conservatives through his own image, the move seemed evidence of a a poor understanding of the voters to assume this issue would change what are normally locked in Liberal party supporters. Guy Rundle of Crikey however helps complete the circuit for me:

Throughout that series of struggles[from the 1960’s-70’s], the ALP was — more often than not — on the side of a freer and more open society. It was, in that sense, Australia’s liberal party. For everyone up to and including Keating, the modernisation of Australia manifested in making it a fairer, better society was equally expressed in the idea that ideas, debate and media should be as free as possible, and that each was a condition of the other.

Like New Labour in the UK, the ALP has now abandoned that, for a number of reasons. Once it committed itself to neoliberal economics (“social capitalism”) Labo(u)r became freaked about the social dissolution and rupture, the desocialisation created by turning the polis into a giant market of winners and losers. The tough answer to this is genuine social democracy, in which people have a social being not entirely defined by whether they’re a “winner” or a “loser”. The easy answer is to let the market rip, allow it to change the culture, and then seek to control and reshape people’s behaviour, selling it to them as “protecting the many against the few”.

Politically, this also serves as a way of outflanking the Right on the law and order issue, with a distinctive centre-left twist. The Right can talk about “throwing away the key”, “three strikes”, etc, sounding increasingly olde-worlde, while Labour can offer filters, ASBOs, CCTVs and so on, portraying themselves as both cutting-edge, high-tech, and hardline. And any objection concerning an open society from within its own ranks can be dealt with by reference back to the way in which “rights stopped Labour achieving real change” — high courts striking down tax laws etc etc.

Rundle highlights the critical point that with the left’s economic surrender, it also lost it’s connection to what the good society could look like. Whilst it came naturally to left wing leaders such as Ben Chifley, and Gough Whitlam to talk of great objectives and the struggle towards the light on the hill, modern Labor has almost no idea about what that city of shining gold would look like. It still has it’s values and principles, albeit reduced to child-like slogans “the fair go”, and plenty of smart people to churn over policy ideas and pass them up the chain. So, to be clear it can still govern competently.

But, and this is critical, without an idea of where you are going, you can’t justify any social disruption that may occur along the way. It is for this reason that Rudd and Labor always seem so poll driven. They cant bring themselves to justify upsetting people, or telling them to accept the consequences, because they don’t actually know if the costs are worth it. Any policy therfore gets reduced to questions of how many will it hurt, and if that number passes a certain threshold it is abandoned. This number however doesn’t even have to have any relation to the number who benefit. Hence the prospect that some small % of people will get angry over pornography on the internet, or use it for malicious purposes means the great liberalisation taking place in our society, of people (and businesses) everywhere interacting like never before has to be given safety rails and smoothed out.

As such, whilst little attention or fanfare is made (certainly nothing like the actual moral police on the right would have us do) Labor slowly introduces more and more laws to restrict and “protect”, all assessed and sold on immediate merits and without comparison to how such measures fit into their ideal of what society ought to look like. Take this latest move from the UK:

London cops have been given the power to “disperse” anyone under 16, gathered in groups of two or more, from almost all of central London, after 9PM. The police don’t have to see the kids doing anything wrong, they only have to believe “the presence or behaviour of a group of two or more persons in any public place in the relevant locality has resulted, or is likely to result, in any members of the public being intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed”. If you’re observant, in central London, you may have seen this notice [See Right] casually cable-tied to a lamppost. From afar, it looks like a council planning application, or parking bay suspension. It’s actually notifying you that you’re now subject to an anti-social behaviour order, and the Police (and the not-really-Police Community Support Officers) have special powers to remove you from this area if they feel like it. These dispersal areas cover large swathes of London, and other cities in England. There are now over 1000 such areas.

Ideology is often damned in our politics. It is seen as causing us to be reckless or wasteful. But it serves a very important duty of letting us give perspective to the changes advocated. It shows how each piece fits into the larger picture, and if the inevitable harm any change occurs (though change is the only constant) is justified for some greater social, political or economic goal. These days most of the duties of governance are questions of administration, maintenance and compromise between competing options. In this Labor is still highly skilled, and perhaps at the State level where questions of ideology are largley absent, it has made itself the de facto party of government).

But nationally, this represents a real concern. The lack of coherence that results from such pragmatic approaches to governance creates distortions in society (such as the vast differences in our tax code for various favored groups) that inevitably give rise to anger. The lack of restraint in pragmatic approaches to governance means creeping changes that would be rejected outright on principle are slowly put together. And the lack of an endpoint in pragmatic approaches to governance means that society begins to slowly drift along, without much sense of enthusiasm or energy. This is a gap that can be filled with Nationalism (as Howard occasionally flirted with) or by investing faith in a single person to inspire a new beginning (Such as Obama in the US), but neither path suits the goals and ideals of the left.

This is a big part of the reason why i consider myself a liberal (small l) rather than of the left. Liberalism seems to offer an offset for the costs (individual freedom), buyt with the left there is no end to the list of those to be helped in some way. This is also why there are several good books showing the shortcomings of the left (largely for moral ambivalence & political weakness such as in Nick Cohen’s What’s Left) and yet no real change in left wing political thought is apparent since Anthony Giddens began pushing the ‘Third Way’ back in the early 1990’s. And even that was more a re-branding so as to avoid admitting actual abandonment of now unworkable ideas like socialism.

Political victories in Australia and the US -especially here in Australia won due to the failure of their opponents- will of course distract the left, convince it that it’s in the ascendancy and dampen any desire for fleshing out the ‘vision thing’. But if these are to be truely progressive governments then they will need a place to which to push the boulder of society. Otherwise it will simply become a Sysiphisian task, pushing the boulder of society in one direction to enable social reform, and then back the other way to in some way mitigate the costs or appease the complainers. And on and on and on. Now I’m not seeking utopian end points, and the task of government should largely be one of sensible re-adjustment to the current circumstances and needs of the community. But, without a direction, those corrections end up taking on the bearing of pure drift. And perhaps take us into places we would not like to find ourselves.

The task before the left’s clear: What should the ideal society look like? What is the shining city on a hill to be today ? What ‘crazy’ long term dreams for change are to be had? What ‘never going to happen’ ideas are in need of a revisiting? What ideas that the political will has never existed for could now begin to be built up toward, perhaps over a generations fight. Figure out that, and many of the problems of the left will also be solved. That was what Reagan and Thatcher offered people in their conservative revolution, now it is time for ours. Perhaps then I’d be proud to call myself a left winger again.

Media Myths

I posted about this a few weeks ago, but as it seems the lead media story again it is still worth pointing out: Anna Bligh’s victory is not a milestone in Gender politics in this country.

The Labor leader claimed a fifth consecutive term for the party in Saturday’s state poll, becoming the first woman in Australian history to be elected premier in her own right.

Anna Bligh has become the first female to be voted in as a state premier by the people in Australian history after Labor was returned to government after polling suggesting a swing towards the Liberal National Party. Ms Bligh said her victory had yet to sink in.

“I think there are many people who would never have thought that Queensland would be the state that delivered our first elected woman premier and I’m thrilled and proud of them that they proved everyone wrong,” she said on ABC radio on Sunday.

To repeat: Women have been elected before as Chief minister. In fact all three Rosemary Follett & Kate Carnell of the ACT and in the Norther Territory Clare Martin not only won their first election, but each was also re-elected for a second term.

All politicians and media like to play up the significance of the mundane as a way of giving impact to the moment. But unless you think there is something freakishly different about politics in the territories compared to the states, then it’s just misleading to make this the story.

Either way: Congratulations to Anna Bligh. Whilst I think most of the state governments in this country have run their turn and ought to be switched over to inject fresh blood, (NSW is proving a very good example against 4 year terms!) the LNP and Springborg were anything but new talent. As such it’s pleasing to see Bligh immediately pledge to bring in new talent.

Also it denies the media much of the inevitable (and predictably wrong) pieces about “what this means for Kevin Rudd”. Unless a party is really on the nose, then voters typically differentiate their state and federal preferences. Yet another media myth that ought to be booted. Real analysts can get useful data from the polling results. Just saying who won and therefore it hurts the opposing party, isn’t worth the name analysis.

p.s Happy Days – As I (and everyone else) predicted Pauline Hanson lost, finishing a dismal third. Out of 23’000 (at 75% counted) she garned just 5’000. Not too surprisingly her support came equally at the expense of the ALP and Coalition. Her voters are more likely to be drawn from conservative ranks, but Labor can usually draw heavily on them when led by the right people (such as Hawke, Rudd* or Beattie). In fact there seems much more a cult of personality in the way the annoyed working class vote, promoting & then punishing parties, than you see in the more stable and hence ideological middle class. It is the personality & authenticity of it that seems to work, and in this Bligh has proven her deserved status as Premier.

What you cant say online

There’s been much lighter posting recently as I’ve been busy helping organise the Digital Liberty Coalitions protest against the Rudd Governments Online Internet Filtering scheme. Whilst I’ve already posted here about the Howard Governments 2004 legislation (supported by the Labor Party) to make it illegal to discuss suicide techniques online, it turns out there’s already a whole raft of online censorship occurring, well before Rudd’s filter is implemented: (H/T Catallaxyfiles) : The Australian communications regulator says it will fine people who hyperlink to sites on its blacklist, which has been further expanded to include several pages on the anonymous whistleblower site Wikileaks.

Wikileaks was added to the blacklist for publishing a leaked document containing Denmark’s list of banned websites.

The move by the Australian Communications and Media Authority comes after it threatened the host of online broadband discussion forum Whirlpool last week with a $11,000-a-day fine over a link published in its forum to another page blacklisted by ACMA – an anti-abortion website.

ACMA’s blacklist does not have a significant impact on web browsing by Australians today but sites contained on it will be blocked for everyone if the Federal Government implements its mandatory internet filtering censorship scheme.

But even without the mandatory censorship scheme, as is evident in the Whirlpool case, ACMA can force sites hosted in Australia to remove “prohibited” pages and even links to prohibited pages.
… Already, a significant portion of the 1370-site Australian blacklist – 506 sites – would be classified R18+ and X18+, which are legal to view but would be blocked for everyone under the proposal. The Government has said it was considering expanding the blacklist to 10,000 sites and beyond.

Electronic Frontiers Australia said the leak of the Danish blacklist and ACMA’s subsequent attempts to block people from viewing it showed how easy it would be for ACMA’s own blacklist – which is secret – to be leaked onto the web once it is handed to ISPs for filtering.

1370 sites. No debate, no notice, no chance for the media or other politicians to question the wisdom of any of the selection of any of these web sites. This site, for instance, a fairly graphic but politically orientated Anti-Abortion site is on the list:

In a test of Senator Conroy’s claims that the ACMA blacklist contains only illegal content, whirlpool community user xFoadx sent a random page from to the ACMA complaints department. This was the response he received:

Date: Wed, 21 Jan 2009 15:45:00 +1100
I refer to the complaint that you lodged with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) on 5th January 2009 about certain content made available at:
Following investigation of your complaint, ACMA is satisfied that the internet content is hosted outside Australia, and that the content is prohibited or potential prohibited content.

This is why the campaign against the internet filter is so important. Not only does our Government already censor such material, but with a filter in place it will make it impossible for anyone to access such sites & let anyone but the bureaucrats judge what is suitable and unsuitable content. And whilst most of the debate has been about pornography (especially featuring children), it’s only a short step to start banning political content as well.

We wouldn’t tolerate this offline, why should it be ok online.

So if you are in Canberra or the surrounding region come let your voice be heard in opposition to the filter:
Saturday 21st March
Federation Mall Canberra (the Grass right in front of Parliament House)
With music (Super Best Friends are playing) and other entertainment for the crowd.

Of Politics and Mockery

Just over a month ago Michael Steele was elected Chairman of the GOP. In most western democracies party officials are largely ignored in the public debates, but in the USA due to the convoluted (or lack of) leadership roles in American Political Parties (other than the President & for 4-5 months every 4 years his nominated opponent) it remains a major position. Yet already calls for his resignation are coming through. Ross Douthat makes the obvious point that the RNC-erred in assuming Steeles charisma was the ship that would restore their balance.

Both Steele and Palin are extremely charismatic, as American politicians go, which is a big reason why Republicans of different stripes – moderates for the Marylander, conservatives for the Alaskan – have been so excited about them. But they’ve both attempted (or been asked) to chart a new direction for the Right on style alone, and they’ve floundered as soon as they’ve been pressed for substance. Steele has responded by telling his interlocutors whatever they want to hear, Palin responded by telling her interlocutors next to nothing at all – and the results, in both cases, are and were unfortunate

But whilst right, this doesn’t fully explain why Steele is under attack. Plenty of politicians, especially in the media driven atmosphere of US politics lack the substance required for their job, but fill it with charisma and certainty (See Bush, George.W). Steele’s problems relate in part from the mistake that led to his election, and from what he has attempted to fill that intellectual gap with.

First, though most are reluctant to ever say it, the African-American Michael Steele was in large part elected because the Republican party has a race issue and they assumed skin colour would override ideology and lead black americans back to the party. Just as McCain had a gender issue and tried to fill it with Palin, such identity politics however doesn’t work:

Women strongly preferred Obama to Senator John McCain (56 percent for Obama, 43 percent for McCain), unlike men, who split their votes about evenly for the two presidential candidates (49 percent for Obama, 48 percent for McCain). Defined as the difference in the proportions of women and men voting for the winning candidate, the gender gap was 7 percentage points in 2008, with 56 percent of women versus 49 percent of men voting for Obama. The gender gap this year is consistent with other presidential elections, where gender gaps have ranged from a high of 11 percentage points in 1996 to a low of 4 percentage points in 1992. There
was a similar 7-point gender gap in the final vote in 2004.

Republicans made the mistake of assuming that they could counter the first african american president with one of their own, but this was a mistake and the RNC is only now starting to realise this. Steele is not responsible for this mistake, (though he certainly benefited from it) but he will be hung for it.

Friedrich Nietzsche

- Friedrich Nietzsche 1885

The second error however is one of Steele’s making, and in it lies the heart of his true problems. Steele has made himself a target for mockery, and nothing in politics kills you faster than being laughed at. Politicians can be disagreed with, despised, denounced and degraded. But make them a joke and the veneer of authority disappears. Modern democratic society is built upon the presumption that the people willingly accept the authority of people who lead political parties, or merely participate in the debate. These are not people who can in any way coerce us to accept their authority (unlike the President who has the military & law enforcement to sustain his rule), and yet we accept that because someone is a “Chairman” of a political party they have some authority. Become a punch line and that acceptance of authority instantly vanishes. (There remains an opportunity for a great book to be written on politics and humor. The two go so naturally together)

From his call for republicans to have a “hip-hop makeover” to his insult & then next day public apology to Rush Limbaugh, Steele has been a boon to comedians and wanna be wits everywhere. Democrats could attack him on any issue from abortion (though there he contradicts himself) to economics to torture with as much vehemence as they could muster and it wouldn’t have half the impact of your neighbours joking aside about Steele turning the GOP into the Gangsta’ Only Party.

Unless Steele can find a way to return his image to one of seriousness and solid common sense (which Bush somewhat achieved over his last two years, after the left had got bored of its jokes) then he is not long for the position, and will drag the GOP -further?- down with him. Yet like many politicians in a similar position the expectation is that as he flounders he will keep retreating to what worked before, his natural charisma, and ignore the substantive issue which is killing his reputation. Insisting on party dogma more and more feverently so as to keep the base happy wont help either. The media know all the old reasons why GOP’ers are against abortion and for lower taxes, Steele needs as Douthat notes to have “something intelligent and fresh-sounding to say”.

(As an aside, I wonder how many people are suddenly linking to and reading Douthat now that he has been named the next big thing, via his selection to the New York Times Opinion Pages. I’m not sure if my own actions are from a blogger like pile on, or the old Australian habit of going after the tall poppies, or just resentment that he got such a position at 29, and at 25 I’m yet to be offered anything like it :P. As I forgot to do so last post, I should congratulate Douthat on his new position. A very strong choice by the NYT over that old hack William Kristol who, appropriately for our theme of the day, made an embarassment of himself with his repeated corrections for wrong information and utterly predictable columns.)

The future of the Australian Economy

There was much promise when the Rudd government came to power, especially with its slogans such as a ‘Education Revolution’ and efforts to attack the Howard governments lack of spending on education was crimping our economic prowess. With this in mind a fellow aussie blogger Colin Docherty makes a good point about its recent disappointing turn to populism

its interesting that Labor were elected fronting the idea that Australia’s greatest asset was its knowledge, and our potential to put that to use, economically. After criticising the Liberal government over many years about the lack of technical development, its interesting that Labor seemed to have abandoned their plan for a ‘Knowledge Nation‘ (which former leader Kim Beasley ran a failed campaign on), beyond meaningless rhetoric. And now Labor leader Kevin Rudd has taken the cliche political path of sniping at companies partaking in this intellectual revolution. He’s hardly been partisan about this either, with Malcom Turnbull and just about every politician with a microphone near their mouth doing exactly the same.

If a knowledge nation and intellectual revolution was coined as the country’s future path many years ago, why are we selling ourselves short by reverting back to political populism? Instead of wasting time bickering about whether what Pacific Brands did was right, why not instead spend time working on re-training programs,

This reminds me of a quote which I tend to attribute to Paul Keating though can’t re-find my reference: That Australia must become the “brain to Asia’s brawn”. Whilst Australia rode in on the sheep’s back, or manufactured its way to prosperity in the post-war period, it is through the service economy, and designing, marketing and selling products that we are going to be successful in the future. This in many ways was the great failing of the Howard-Costello government. Whilst it could manage the day to day economy, it didn’t have an idea for how Australia would earn a dollar in the future. I had put it down to the general luddite nature of the older members of the government, Howard/Alston and the like which held it back from embracing a digital economy, but reading Peter Costello’s memoirs reveals the malaise was much more wide spread:

‘A particular line of attack on my economic management was that we had failed to encourage dot-com companies, had missed the technology boom and had therefore presided over the collapse in currency. Many critics recommended that Australia quickly establish microchip manufacturing…. The Labor party at this point lacerated the government for the weak exchange rate and its so called reliance on mining. When, some years later, mining became immensely profitable and the high-tech bubble burst, it said we were riding the boom. If Labor had its way we would have got out of mining just when it was about to take off and invested in technology just when it was about to collapse’
– The Costello Memoirs 2008: p 155

In short, Costello seems to argue that it is impossible for the Australian economy to both walk and chew gum. Either mining or IT, not both, and whilst the giddying heights of the IT boom have proven illusionary, to publish an account in 2008 suggesting Australia didn’t need to get on the IT bandwagon (or more accurately get back the bandwagon, as we used to have a world-class industry). Such a tunnel vision government could never summon the interest to push potential new industries, and consequently left Australia out of the great innovative turn of the 21st century*. These captains of capitalism in short managed to prove their own rhetoric about the inability of government to keep up. Shame the opposition had no trouble making the link

Rudd came to power promising a new approach, but thus far it has translated to a few nice rhetorical lines and otherwise cheap economic populism. Rudd would do well to spend less time worrying about the decisions he cant change (like Pacific Brands) and instead helping build for those modernisation steps he can bring about.

* This however is far from the worst luddite sin of the Howard Government. A highlight for me was witnessing Browyn Bishop during a House of Representatives Committee tell a group of public servants that those who had created the MP3 standard were acting as a cartel. I doubt Steve Jobs or anyone who has ever bought an Mp3 player(such as an Ipod) or ripped a CD would agree….

Trusting the Market

Capitalism as an economic system is quite dependent upon one factor more than any other: Trust

What separates the buying and selling of goods ancient farmers practiced and capitalism as a system is that we have come to trust that money can be lent, that businesses can obtain capital beyond their actual assets and turn it into something worthwhile, and that there is a flow of accurate information between participants in the market that allows price signals to work and resources to be efficiently distributed. Indeed much of the current crisis is built upon less the inability of banks to lend again, but their lack of trust that they should do so. It is no surprise therefore that having written of the end of history success of democratic capitalism that Francis Fukuyama’s very next book was on the importance of trust for this whole enterprise to work.

Yet somewhere in around early 2001 that trust was broken (building on a pattern of amazing growth from 1950 onwards), that invisible ratio between the economic wealth of the economy (assets, resources, labour etc) and the credit flows that were accumulating. The money traded began to bear less and less relation to anything that existed beyond the mere numbers on the screen. And yet, because these numbers kept going up, and at least some sectors got wealthier everyone went along assuming that bond still held.

But there was no actual wealth behind these numbers as Paul Krugman notes:

Last week [Early February] the Federal Reserve released the results of the latest Survey of Consumer Finances, a triennial report on the assets and liabilities of American households. The bottom line is that there has been basically no wealth creation at all since the turn of the millennium: the net worth of the average American household, adjusted for inflation, is lower now than it was in 2001.

As we are seeing the reckoning now, then whilst all of us are partly to blame, special attention must be paid to those boosters who claimed not only to be able to read the entrails of the market, but came to see the numbers of the market as the only thing we needed to think about. Take Gabriel Winant’s piece on watching being subjected to 12 straight hours of the Market News Cable Channel CNBC:

On Monday, at 8:30 a.m., I turned on CNBC and started watching the business channel for the first time in my life. Twelve hours later, a long stare through the peacock-colored looking glass had shaken me. I was huddled in the corner of my living room couch, arms hugging my knees, wondering why the angry faces on-screen were yelling at me.
What I found was a paradox at the channel’s core — one that seemed, late on the afternoon of Monday, March 9, to make Jim Cramer want to claw his own skin off. The station’s business model rests on its claim to insider wisdom and market smarts….

At the same time, however, the network depends on a particular industry, and thrives on good economic news, which is in short supply. Nobody wants to tune in to cable day after day to hear yet another dirge for yet another one of their stocks. There is a financial imperative for the pundits to keep their core audience of investors coming back, and therefore an obligation for the pundits to distort empirical reality to make a grim future seem manageable
CNBC’s audience is not a demographic cross section of America. If it was a cross section, the network wouldn’t make any money; CNBC attracts advertisers not with the size of its audience but with its maleness and its affluence. The network gets about a quarter million viewers a day, a tiny fraction of the U.S. population, but those viewers have a median household net worth of more than $1.2 million. Still, the financial pundits flatter viewers into thinking, as Rick Santelli put it during his famous trading floor rant, that they are “a pretty good statistical cross-section of America.” For these guys, investors are America. Jim Cramer asked at one point, of the Obama administration, “Who do they think owns stocks?” As if the obvious answer is, “Everybody!” Obama, Cramer complained, “seemed proud that he ignored the [market] averages, as if they’re some sort of distraction, and not a precursor of the economy.”

In some ways, this is what makes the economic down turn even scarier. For whilst many are still shocked at the drops, we are yet to do anything to really address this issue of ensuring the trust returns to the system. We seem to still act and treat those who got it so badly wrong, (and here CNBC is an easy target, but hardly unique). People still have a largely pre-recession mindset, that this is a drop that can be fixed, that a few bits of plaster here and there & governmental pats on the back and we will be ok. But the longer the return takes, the more people will be unwilling to invest funds back into the market, and there the real break in trust will occur. For the moment people still respect there is a link between market wealth and actual wealth. But they wont always, and those who make their money claiming to read the markets, but also as boosters for it, are doing it’s credibility real damage.

Of Liberals and Stem Cells

The debate over stem cells is one that ought of course be left to the scientific community. There great public can no more know the exact nature of what the research is (should they want to stop it) than their open support can ensure its success as a field of research (should they want to encourage it). We wont know what we turn up, until we do, that’s why it’s called research, and why so much of the ethical debate related to stem cell’s is so misguided.

But whilst the conservative position is clear and has its own moral logic (that life must not be consciously tampered with), there’s a certain amount of confusion about the Liberal position. As such you get -fair minded- criticism’s of the Liberal approach such as this occurring regularly in the press:

the comments I’ve received from readers about Obama’s stem-cell decision worry me. Many people on both sides seem ill-informed or self-deluded about basic scientific questions. Liberals are denying the simple fact that human embryos are the beginnings of people. Conservatives are pretending that adult stem cells are more powerful than embryonic ones. If ordinary people want to govern science policy, they need to educate themselves so they can govern well.
Third, Levin describes the moral question this way:
If (as modern biology informs us) conception initiates a human life, and if (as the Declaration of Independence asserts) every human life is equally deserving of some minimal protections, government support for the destruction of human embryos for research raises profound moral problems.
I cringe at this interpretation of the Declaration. Levin believes that equality means a five-day-old embryo has the same right to life as a 5-year-old girl. I just can’t buy that. I’m a gradualist. I value the five-day-old embryo because it’s on its way to becoming the 5-year-old girl. But it’s not there yet. It hasn’t acquired the sentience and cognition that characterize a full-fledged human being.

If we don’t draw moral lines against the exploitation of embryos, we may end up obliterating respect for human life generally. But if we’re so afraid of that prospect that we refuse to draw lines permitting the use of any embryos under any conditions, we may end up obliterating the moral difference between embryos and full-grown people. Liberals should think seriously about the first scenario. Conservatives should think just as seriously about the second.

Yet despite the author ‘cringing’ at such an interpretation, he still returns to it in adopting wishy-washy words to describe the Liberal position. Liberals are accused of “denying the simple fact that human embryos are the beginnings of people” without any discussion of just what “the beginnings of people” means morally. Billions of women have had miscarriages which have dumped similar stem cells, many before the mother was even aware of the pregnancy. This is a simple fact of life.
Likewise other key cells sperm cells are in their way the beginnings of people, just as are ovarian eggs. Yet these are naturally and regularly are dumped by the human body, and even the churches have largely given up the fight to stop it. But this is still claimed to be a “simple fact” that Liberals somehow deny in their view of stem cells as just that: Cells.

Likewise as we come to the end of the piece, Liberals are warned that this encouragement for research on certain cells (as opposed I guess to studying how heart valves are repaired, or skin cancer cells removed or foot fungus manages to affect the skins cells growth) risks the apochalyptic sounding risk of “obliterating respect for human life”, as if the Nazi’s eugenics program came before and led to the rhetorical demonisation of entire peoples, instead of the other way around.

In both cases whilst the consequences of the conservative effort are clear: No research that may benefit the well being of the living, efforts to legislate against practices which occur daily in human beings and are discarded naturally, the consequence of the Liberals position is unknown. So we get treated to such claims as it will cause the human race to stop caring about the human race, or bromides about “simple facts” of the moral universe that are anything but.

So here is roughly the Liberal thinking on Stem Cells
1) The relieving of pain and suffering is our supreme moral agenda.
2) The well being of conscious humans is far superior to that of cells which neither feel, think, or act.
3) Nothing alive should be disrespected, even though it bears less authority than that of the life of a Human Being (It’s no surprise Animal Welfare groups sprung from Liberal thinkers)
4) We don’t know the potential benefits or risks of each decision until we come to actually encounter it. The allowance of stem cell research doesn’t automatically mean we will later be faced with issues of human cloning or human eugenics. Such steps may never be possible, just as potential benefits (greatly extended life, cure for cancer, AIDS or something else wondrous) are also unknown. The moral weight of our decision is only known then, when potential outcomes come into focus, not now when they are entirely shadowed and impossible to see.
5) Following on from that, we are no more likely to justify moral abuse tomorrow than we are today, simply because we have made one decision now on the facts to encourage research or action in a certain direction. The briefest study of politics, especially within democratic societies will show the self-correcting and pendulum nature of human debates. Debates that are usually only ended when such a great mass of evidence occurs as to make it near nonsensical to object. (Ie that Communism is an immoral practice) There is no slippery slope. We can climb off at any point in time, and regularly do.
6) There is little way the general public can understand the complexity of such issues and whilst society certainly ought to make it’s general moral principles clear, it is not something we can asses that directly and certainly one’s we cant assess whilst still hypothetical’s.

But here’s the kicker: Stem Cells arn’t a matter of Liberal ideology, or moral theory. They were unknown until recently, and once we know more about them (or discover ways to replicate the results with artificial cells) may never be a point of contention in the future. They are simply a scientific opportunity that offers the potential to relieve and overcome significant human suffering, and we are dealing with material that is not, and never could be a human being, despite being alive. Just as the fly buzzing around your room is, or the 80’000 bacteria that cover your skin right now are, or those floating in through your window.

Liberals no more want human cloning or depraved eugenics than conservatives do. But they are at least willing to make a decision based on the actual facts before us (is anyone hurt by using stem cells:no, can research stem cells help: yes) than on hypotheticals far down the road (could human cloning result from mad scientists). That is the difference between Liberals and Conservatives on the issue. One is dealing with the current facts, respecting that future generations can also make informed moral choices if they do not like the path taken, the other claiming a moral foresight and knowledge that both is far greater than that of any future generation is capable, and one which knows before the research is done what path and outcome will result.

Ross Douthat (who is due to become the NYT’s next conservative columnist) take a new twist in response to similar arguments instead arguing that the Conservative position here against Stem Cells despite the loss of similar entities naturally and regularly in nature/fertility clinics/ is a democratically driven compromise position:

pro-lifers have done what you’re supposed to do in a democracy, which is to meet the general public where they are. This doesn’t make them insincere; it makes them sensible. (By Kinsley’s screwy logic, a supporter of universal health care in a country where half the country’s uninsured and there’s no chance of passing single-payer would be “morally unserious” if he concentrated his energy on, say, mandating health care for newborns; after all, what about the millions of people who aren’t newborns?)

But here Douthats comparison here doesn’t work, running on the simplistic logic that half a defense is still better than nothing. Yet unlike the clear benefit that would be benefited from mandating healthcare for newborns despite the millions who arnt newborns in his coutner example, there simply is no benefit in stopping the legislation against stem cells, either practically or morally. They arn’t half or a comprromise between respecting life and being willing to use it callously, they dont even qualify as a object of definite recognition. Which is why all the moral outrage has to be directed at hypothetical and potential moral problems such as cloning. As Michael Kingsly writes “There is NO “medical ethical quandary” involved in the decade-long dispute over stem cells”. The debate is over the potential for future research, rather than anything currently engaged. But apparently defending something that isn’t worth defending, on the basis of hypothetical potentials, all the whilst your intention is effectively to legislate against something that occurs naturally anyway by the millions.
That is, the anti-stem cell position is one that since it cant defend it on the current circumstances is explicitly based on a deliberate leap to future possibilities in a universe where consent for immoral practices is already presumed), and a position that is effectively legislating against something that occurs naturally and regularly in the world. If none of this impresses you as sensible, then it’s claimed to be valid in its own right simply as a compromise position held within a democracy (which is a pragmatic not a moral argument, which by invoking allows in a whole host of other pragmatic arguments (such as the benefits the research could have to alleviate pain and suffering amongst the sick) that conservatives have desperately tried to avoid talking about by claiming this is a moral issue to be decided on moral grounds alone. And all this filed under a post Douthat actually labels “Stem Cells and Moral Seriousness”.