Chasing the Norm

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

Month: March, 2010

Is there a doctor in the country?

Fewer Aussies are undertaking PhD’s, leaving the spots to international students

AUSTRALIA has become heavily dependent on overseas students to tackle PhDs in the hard sciences as locals choose well-paid industry jobs over insecure careers in research, according to a new analysis.
Working with customised official data for 2002-08, Dr Birrell showed 142 per cent growth in PhD starts by onshore international students in the natural and physical sciences (357 more students in 2008 than in 2002), compared with 7 per cent for locals (80 more students).

In engineering and related technologies, locals were down by 19 per cent (116 fewer students) and overseas students up by 161 per cent (350 more). The strongest growth for locals was in creative arts, up 39 per cent, although the absolute numbers remain small (91 more). Dr Birrell said the weakness of local PhD starts during the past few years represented a sharp reversal after healthy growth from the late 1980s through to late 90s, when economic growth and job opportunities were patchy.
But in recent times, at least until the global financial crisis, students emerging with a bachelor’s degree in some sciences and engineering could choose between decent starting salaries in industry or poorly paid entry to an insecure career as a researcher.

The report focuses on the ‘hard’ sciences, but in my own department of Business & Government, again there seems a 70/30 split of International Post-grad students over Domestic. That’s a problem when their knowledge, skills and training will leave the country upon completion, with Australia receiving only a very indirect benefit (since they pay their way and hopefully will retain & encourage good will in the region towards Australia)

It’s no surprise really, given that even if you are lucky enough to win an Australian Post-Graduate Award Scholarship, your income is effectively on the poverty line .

This is not a woe is me post, you undertake a PhD because you love the field, the lifestyle, and after graduation significantly better salaries are on offer, and I couldn’t ask for a better occupation right now. To its credit, the Rudd Government has raised the award slightly for 2010, with promised rises beyond that. But as much as money, the lack of interest by domestic students is also significantly cultural too. We no longer have a government which prefers people do hairdressing instead of PhD’s, but the current prime minister doesn’t seem too keen on them either (Rudd denied the accusations when asked some weeks back on the ABC’s insiders program, though made no effort to argue for PhD’s either). Australia likes to think of itself as the clever country, and vigorously supports university education for all and sundry. Yet when it comes to the highest level of education, there seems a sense people are bludging from life and wasting tax payer money.

Options such as giving residency to successful international postgrad students may help temporarily. However, the number one problem across Australian education is the lack of respect it has in the community. We see less people wanting to be teachers, vast cultural groups simply ignoring education as anything more than a mandatory duty till aged 18, and many talented and bright future researchers and university lecturers leaving for the quick money and respect of industry/overseas jobs. For once, the Australian government can make a big social and future economic prosperity change without spending a cent. It just needs the courage to return the role of education to its rightful place in society’s respect. That’s a goal fundamental to both conservative and liberal ideologies, it just needs a spokesman. That truly would be an education revolution.

The roof (price) is on fire

A ripper of an article by Tim Colebatch on the distortions in our housing sector:

In one swoop, it [Government] should remove the two big tax distortions of the market. End the exemption of the family home from capital gains tax. End the tax break for negative gearing – or limit it to new homes built by the investor. And, at the very least, require temporary residents to report their property purchases, so we can know whether we have a problem or not.

Over time, those changes will bring down housing prices relative to income. Tax breaks for housing have inflated house prices. Phase them out, and prices will fall back into a range that ordinary people can afford.Last week, the Tax Office reported that at least 1.2 million Australians – one in every 10 taxpayers – are now negatively geared landlords…since negative gearing was restored in 1987, this tax break and the decision to halve the tax rate on capital gains have seen investors’ share of finance to buy existing homes jump from 8 per cent to 40 per cent. Those squeezed out were first home buyers.

Importantly, Colebatch also dispatches three common arguments you hear from investors to justify their attachment to the government teat – That changes would reduce the number of rental properties available (it’ll also reduce the number of renters), that it was a bad idea in 1985 (everything was with 17% rates) and that it would just push investors into other sectors (good). But read the piece for the details.

Having rising house prices is a very good way for governments to ensure that (most) people feel financially better off than three years ago. Yet this has lead to a fundamental distortion of the market. Even after one of the worst financial crises in history, of which this country barely escaped, house prices still rose an average of 13.6% across our capital cities.

As a result of this policy, whilst an aging population are sitting on slowly growing wealth (which is largely locked up and hence wasted capital) we are paying higher taxes, higher rent, see significantly tougher conditions for students/the poor/migrants, and experience a lack of investment in other sectors of the economy which is needed for future prosperity (in part to help pay the pensions/nursing home subsidies of this same aging population).

If you can invest now instead of renting, you’d be a fool not to, but the housing market needs a fundamental re-alignment. While most libertarians saw the potential price crash as the silver lining of the GFC, most governments couldn’t face the idea (or accept the hardships) of such a drop. But some reduction in altitude is needed, Rudd won’t this election year, but maybe in 2011 with 3 years to explain it. It’s a hard choice, but thats what governing is all about.

The physicality of leadership

I’m currently reading the autobiography of Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. If Roosevelt is known for anything these days, and it’s inescapable in his book, it was his enthusiasm for the active life. He was a solider, hunter, naturalist and mountaineer, constantly pushing himself to keep going throughout life. In 1913, 5 years after leaving the White House, and aged 53 he went on a 1000km exploration charting rivers through the jungles of South America. He died some years later in part due to ill health caused by the trip, but no better marker of his identity in the publics mind can be found than the comment by the US vice president at the time that “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.” Roosevelt’s political and philosophical legacy isn’t that relevant anymore (though an early conservationist and he supported Health Care reform in his ‘Bull Moose’ run for the White House), but he still excites the imagination of many because, he offers a link to that original tribal idea of the leader as owed to the toughest, biggest man in the village. Yet how relevant is this idea of leadership today?
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The Big Man game: Obama, Healthcare and his Foreign Policy

One of the most long running debates in International Relations is known as the Agent/Structure Problem. It is perhaps best summed up by a famous Marx quote that “People make History, but not in conditions of their own choosing“. Which of these was more important inquiring minds wanted to know. Could great individuals through sheer strength of will and character change the globe, or do conditions need to be right not only to birth & shape the history makers, but to give them space in which to act. In short, what is more important, the agents or the structure in which they operate? This isn’t just a debate about theory, how you answer this question and your assumptions, will drive both both what, and how you study history and International Relations. In the wake of Obama’s health care victory we have to very good examples of authors disagreeing over this fundamental point:

First up Andrew Sullivan, batting for the Agent side (if that sounds a little Matrix-like to you, fear not, individuals or groups are known as ‘Agents’ in International Relations jargon)

“In Barack Obama’s agonising, year-long effort to pass universal health insurance, the latest bump in the road may seem trivial, and the president must surely hope the Indonesians don’t take it personally. At the last minute, he cancelled his trip to the place he grew up in. The visit was actually of great personal importance to him and a critical part of his message that America and a moderate Islam can and will get along.

But he also knows that his clout abroad depends on his success at home. The linkage matters. There is a connection between healthcare reform and the war on terror, and between relations with China and the entire Obama narrative…… A presidency failing at home only undermines Obama abroad. Dmitry Medvedev knows this as he negotiates with Washington over Iran; Binyamin Netanyahu knows this as he stays on the phone with Washington’s neoconservatives, who are promising that if he holds on they can destroy Obama for him; Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad know this as they assess whether they can outlast this frustrating leader of the Great Satan; the Saudis know this; China knows this”

Batting for the Structuralists is the IR specialist Stephen M. Walt

“Will yesterday’s passage of health-care reform give a positive jolt to U.S. foreign policy? Is Obama the new “comeback kid,” with new clout at home and a more formidable hand to play abroad? Will he now pivot from domestic affairs to foreign policy and achieve a dazzling set of diplomatic victories? My answers: no, no, and no….
There isn’t a lot of low-hanging fruit in foreign policy. He might get an arms-control agreement with Russia, but there aren’t a lot of votes in that and there’s no way he’ll get a comprehensive test-ban treaty through the post-2010 Senate. Passing health care at home won’t make Iran more cooperative, make sanctions more effective, or make preventive war more appealing, so that issue will continue to fester. Yesterday’s vote doesn’t change anything in Iraq; it is their domestic politics that matters, not ours. I’d say much the same thing about Afghanistan, though Obama will face another hard choice when the 18-month deadline for his “surge” is up in the summer of 2011. Passing a health-care bill isn’t going to affect America’s increasingly fractious relationship with China, cause Osama bin Laden to surrender, or lead North Korea to embrace market reforms, hold elections, and give up its nuclear weapons.”

Though Walt is correct that passing health care wont in itself solve any of these factors, I side with Sullivan. As a constructivist afterall I really should. Constructivism is an approach to International Relations which identifies how agents socially construct much of the structures they find themselves in(and in turn their own identity as agents). To take the most well known of examples (and papers) the ‘anarchy’ of the world between nation-states today is as Alexander Wendt claims what states make of it (pdf). That is, how the world is seen determines what is seen. How Obama is seen, especially by the other Big Men of the world is important to what influence and credibility he is likely to have with them. The more Obama is seen as a successful domestic leader, the better he will be as a foreign policy leader.

To cite from a local example, here is Michael Wesley in one of my favourite books ‘The Howard Paradox':

“Over time, [John]Howard has come to enjoy the international aspect of his job. Domestically, those with whom he regularly comes in contact either owe him, resent him or want his job; internationally, he is able to mix with equals who are familiar with the challenges of national leadership, and who can offer observations and advice untainted by designs on his job. In recent years, according to one journalist, Howard has enjoyed the status of being the respected elder statesman in a region that respects seniority’
Michael Wesley, (2009) The Howard Paradox, ABC books

Wesley makes many arguments for why Howard was able to do much better than his critics alleged he would, but that last sentence is perhaps the wisest. By 2002, when his record started to shift in his favour, Howard had been in power 6 years with three highly successful election victories under his belt. To those in the region he was clearly a very capable political operator and not going anywhere soon. As other regional elders like Malaysia’s Mahathir retired, Howard came to assume one of the roles as regional elder statesman.

Obama doesn’t have the same luxury of time that Howard did. The US probably does a disservice by its Presidents by forcing an 8 year maximum, but they do start from a significantly higher platform than anyone else does. Obama, especially as a younger (and lets be honest black) president needs to stamp his international authority and quickly. Being dominant at home doesn’t change the structures that confront him internationally, but a clear legislative victory (and especially one of this magnitude) is likely to send a signal that he is a statesman to be respected and not just a lucky winner of the White House. His party will lose seats in November, but you’d have to be firming on betting that Obama will win in 2012. The message of all this to the Big Men and Women in governments around the world? This man is not weak, impatient or going anywhere. Deal with this man now, as he is only going to get better at this.

Politics is built on many things, ideas, history, geography, economics, and demographics, but it often ends with two big men in a room negotiating how all these factors go together. As Marx said, people make history.

Understanding the world through the media

One of the thing that has amazed me over the last few years is how badly the Australian press understands America. I had thought this was a symptom of George W.Bush being in the white house, a character so unusual to the Australian mindset that we never got a bearing on him. But it continued through the2008 election campaign and through to today. This isn’t just a function of remoteness either, take todays effort by Brad Norrington, The Australian’s US based reporter:

If any proof were needed that US foreign policy, especially in the Pacific, is far down the list of priorities for Obama and his team then here it is.
George W. Bush ignored the region, say his detractors. What about Obama? The President’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, stumbled through a prepared script yesterday. But he put the situation aptly: “The passage of health reform is of paramount importance and the President is determined to see this battle through.”
In other words, Obama’s domestic push to pass a watered-down version of health reform in the US congress so he can chalk up a legislative victory after a year of bumbling comes first. The message to Indonesia and Australia could not be clearer.

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10 Books that influenced me most

Whenever I’m at someones house, I always like to sneak a peak at their book shelf. Which books take pride of place, which lost on a bottom shelf with a book mark 1/5th of the way in, and which do they seemed to have read again and again till the bindings have fallen away. So I’ve enjoyed the posts by Yglesias and Cowen on the 10 books that have influenced their thinking the most. Given that our politicians have started to reveal their reading lists, here are my 10, and hopefully other Australian bloggers will give this a whirl: (Update: Andrew Norton and Ben Jones have posted their lists. Let me know if you post yours/know of other Australian bloggers doing so.)

1. John Stuart Mill – On Liberty : The first time I read Mill’s harm principle, via a dog-eared 2nd hand copy on a bus home was a lightning strike moment. Where I had trended social-democrat, my thinking suddenly coalesced to liberalism. The clarity, the reasoning, the humanity, both in a call for freedom & the responsibility to use that were breathtaking. One of my most treasured possessions is a large, 8 volume collected works of Mill, and while his autobiography is a gem (esp on the development & change of ideas one *should* have over a lifetime) the 130 or so pages of On Liberty are unbeatable.

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Affirming or affirmative?

Big changes planned for Sydney University’s entry system:

THE importance of HSC results will be downgraded at one of Australia’s most prestigious universities under plans to recruit undergraduates for their leadership qualities and general academic aptitude.

The University of Sydney wants to introduce US-style quota systems with set targets to increase the number of disadvantaged and regional students, and make greater use of aptitude tests, references and general interviews when admitting students.
The university’s vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, said the existing admissions system meant the university was missing out on talented students.

He said a ”disproportionate” number of its enrolments came from the affluent eastern suburbs and north shore, with 65 per cent of new undergraduates from these areas. ”We know where the vast majority of our current students come from and we know that relatively very few come from disadvantaged schools,” Dr Spence said.

As a whole the Australian university system is very good at ensuring those from disadvantaged backgrounds are able to make it to attend uni, and if there are problems, they tend more to be due to cultural or related cost of living/accommodation factors, rather than straight entry & fees. As a student at Australia’s most socio-economically elite university (the non-group of eight University of Canberra), it’s also true that these stats can be misleading as students tend to attend nearby universities (in part due to the above mentioned costs of living problems).

However while I think there’s some scope for improving the access of those from rural and disadvantaged backgrounds make it to the best uni’s, I’d also like to see a public discussion on the merit of the HSC system in getting the right people into university. I make no claim to intellect, but as I’ve made it to a PhD I’m obviously rather suited to uni life. Yet I didn’t get into Uni when I first tried, (in fact UC turned me down once and nearby ANU has turned me down twice, though still let me tutor there in 2008, go figure) and I had to go through a Tafe degree in order to get into university. That initial failure on my part was probably the best thing that happened to me, as it made me knuckle down and start fighting to get where I wanted, but many times the smartest people I know (obviously the author is excluded here) did not make it into university due to their HSC marks. Meanwhile as a tutor & lecturer, I’ve seen many students who get in with 80’s or even low 90s in their HSC marks that just aren’t cut out for or even interested in university.

It’s an amazingly difficult task to try and rank young growing minds and sort them towards the best avenues for improving their career & life prospects, but while the HSC does a pretty good job, we should always be considering how to improve it. If Sydney Uni is interested in more than just changing their socio-economic make up in a bland affirmative action program, and actually want to re-think how we sort and identify university ready students to give them an affirming opportunity, this could be the start of an important change.

The openly cynical conviction politician

One thing to like about Tony Abbott is that he has a clear set of beliefs and is in politics because he wants to be the engine that implements these views. His numerous “gaffes” (in the eyes of the media) are generally just cases of him saying what he believes when it’s impolitic rather than actual mistakes. Therefore, with his advisors surely very keen to play up this image of a straight shooting man, it was odd to see two significant counter-examples on Four Corners last night
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Looking North with Open Eyes

While everyone knows that Kevin Rudd speaks Mandarin, those watching the speeches accompanying the visit of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono over the last week would have noticed something else: Rudd also knows a little Indonesian too. While welcoming phrases in a guests own language are a standard part of pre-meeting briefings, the impetus was more likely from Rudd himself, for one of his major early career focuses was on making Australian’s more Asia-literate.

In 1994 Rudd delivered a report to the Federal Government on ways to make Australia a more Asia-Literate country. Though part of the wider Engagement project it was played down by the government because of populist fears that “engagement” was some sort of code word for selling the countries soul to the foreigners up north. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but the concern was there. Rudd’s report, Asian Languages and Australia’s Economic Future, (Of which Deborah Henderson’s paper(pdf) provides a good overview & analysis) sought to create an export culture in australia via significant investment in the teaching of asian languages and building long term links to the region in education, media and business.
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The amorality of faith

Stanley Fish, reviewing Steven Smiths “The disenchantment of secular discourse” in the New York Times:

the “truncated discursive resources available within the downsized domain of ‘public reason’ are insufficient to yield any definite answer to a difficult issue — abortion, say, or same sex marriage, or the permissibility of torture . . . .” If public reason has “deprived” the natural world of “its normative dimension” by conceiving of it as free-standing and tethered to nothing higher than or prior to itself, how, Smith asks, “could one squeeze moral values or judgments about justice . . . out of brute empirical facts?” No way that is not a sleight of hand.

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The return of the DLP

In 1954, the ALP split for the third time in its history, with communism, or rather anti-communism being the issue. Herbert ‘doc’ Evatt was not capable of leading the Labor members at that time and he had lost the support of ALP voters after their third straight election loss. Post-war re-configurations of Australian society and a range of distorted personalities (Evatt & B.A Santamaria) combined to split the ALP and keep the party out of power for another 18 years. The Democratic Labor Party while publicly influential never amounted to much electorally or in policy terms, but in a way they represented a strong strain of Australian political thought, one that in some (less divisive) ways is making its comeback today. No chance of a split exists, but it is not hard to see similar philosophical strains within both major political parties, between their conservative wings (for the ALP the workers/union base, for the Liberals a religious upper middle class) and their liberal wings (the ALP’s inner city aspirations and the Liberals business class). Both Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are firmly members of their own party’s conservative classes, and indeed a longer running sub-stream of Australian Conservatism which found its clearest form in the DLP. They represent in many ways the return of the DLP.
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Foiled Logic from Costello

We’ve been subjected to much hyperbole and outrageous overstatements regarding the federal governments home insulation scheme. The press have piled on, enjoying the chance to give Rudd a kicking they’ve been denied over 2 carefully media managed years. The opposition’s (normally sensible) Senator Simon Birmingham on the morning of the release of the Counter-Terrorism White paper declared that instead of terrorism “The greatest threat to the safety of many Australian families over the last 12 months has been the home insulation program”. But this claim by Peter Costello, (though one echoed already around the press/blogs) takes the cake for ludicrousness:

But let us draw an additional lesson from this sorry episode. Both sides of politics are now flirting with the idea that the Commonwealth should take over and run public hospitals.
Bear this in mind. The Federal Government could not run a home insulation program. Do you think it can run every hospital and hospital department in the country?

The logic behind this argument is akin to saying if you have spent your entire life walking around and just once trip and skin your knee, you can no longer claim to be able to walk, let alone run. It’s one thing for libertarians to make such a claim (and Gittin’s is right they’ve attacked the spending but utterly ignored the failure of the private home insulation sector to do a safe/competent job when unregulated) but for a former Treasurer whose government oversaw mis-administration after mis-administration to claim this means all current & future governments should shy from service delivery is utterly laughable.

Did the many failures from 1996-2007 of program implementation and administration mean the Howard Government should have run no programs? Of course not. Costello did not resign when he lost $5 billion in foreign currency swaps, he learnt the specific lessons from it and the RBA shifted policy. I’m all for specific skepticism about governments ability, but there is no logic to claim that one failed scheme (financial incentives for private service deliver) in one specific policy area (environment) means an inability to run a completely different scheme (federal funding/public service delivery) in a completely different area(health). Conservatives and small government advocates do themselves no favours by making such child like use of inductive reasoning (ie that government failed here therefore government will always fail everywhere).

This is especially when we remember that the primary error, the specific cause that lead to the deaths, that lead to the fires, and that lead to people being swindled, were caused by individuals who either were untrained or unscrupulous. The Government’s error was to trust them too much. That didn’t happen in the ACT where higher standards were demanded and hence no foil insulation installed. This was a case of too little regulation*, not too much, but small government advocates (of which Costello was all talk no action) don’t mind twisting evidence to suit their ideology. Shame the media (save Crikey) are so willing to let such fallacies go unchallenged.

*I would be making the same error as I pin on Costello if I were to claim this case is evidence we always need more regulation everywhere, as some surely are taking out of this case. Rather I think it’s real meaning is simply that Garrett wasn’t as across the detail as he should have been, that the environment dept needs an elevation in skills and oversight, and that the fed’s shouldn’t have trusted the States as much as they did. Minor stuff for what was a minor issue.