Bad taste

Is it exaggerating to say that the European classical music canon is now an almost entirely low-brow enthusiasm? At any rate I’ve always suspected people for whom it is the only real music of Philistinism. Now their organic intellectual, Roger Scruton, confirms. He’s been listening to ‘popular music’ and has found a modern group with some redeeming features:

I have actually been listening to quite a bit of heavy metal lately, and Metallica, I think, is genuinely talented. ‘Master of Puppets’ I think has got something genuinely both poetic – violently poetic – and musical. Every now and then something like that stands out and you can see that people have got no other repertoire and have a very narrow range of expression, but they’ve hit on something where they are saying something which is not just about themselves.

PS. What’s the deal with Adorno and music by the way?

Published in: on 24 April, 2009 at 2:41 pm  Comments (3)  


Ever since Freakonomics, economists have been boring spouses and dinner party guests everywhere, under the misconception that everybody is delighted and astounded by the counterintuitive wonders of the economist’s view of the world. Unfortunately most of them do not study things like why today’s bikie gangsters have crazy names like Ismail, Maher and Mahmoud, and no bikes; or why university graduates tend to live with their parents. Instead, they study things like the efficiency of the tax system or game theoretic approaches to optimal auction design.

Treasury Secretary Ken Henry fancies himself a bit of an accidental undercover economist too, and lightened up an Australian Council of Social Service conference with some wacky economic conundrums and paradoxes. “How much inequity should we allow?” was the speech’s title, which the cheeky rogue admitted was “mildly provocative” on purpose, designed to “help pique your interest”. Now an audience of luminaries from the ‘community services and welfare sector’ might think they know all about inequality. But had they ever thought about it like an economist?

On the other hand, take company tax, which at first glance would be of most interest to wealthier Australians. Reducing it would seem to be inequitable. But there are strong arguments to the contrary. In the face of competition from countries with low company tax regimes, higher company tax rates could work to reduce overseas investment in Australia, which could reduce the number of jobs available, lower the demand for Australian workers and, in this way, lower wages. This is the reason why many economists argue that, in the long run, company tax affecting mobile capital is paid by labour — predominantly geographically immobile unskilled labour.

The genre convention is to use each of these lighthearted OMG! flashes of enlightenment to illustrate a serious economic principle. In this case, the tenets of welfare economics. You see, society chooses the level of inequality, presumably by delegating one of its members to review the tax and transfer system. (“…and because it now appears to bear my name, I have even more incentive to get it right!”) But not in circumstances of its own choosing, because a fully equal society, which the Treasury secretary is as committed to as anyone (“a deep respect for the writings of Amartya Sen”!), dulls incentives. The point is to find exactly that optimal point where inequality is just motivating enough but not so motivating that it engenders “capability deprivation”, because once you’ve come down with capability deprivation, all the motivation in the world is liable to just make you sit around smoking ice all day then knife your bunkmate at the Salvation Army.

Granted, the sweet spot is hard to find, and ultimately it’s a trade-off which society weighs up carefully in the mind of its designated reviewer of the tax and transfer system. And it seems that this mind is concluding that as society we are altogether too equal and not motivating enough, given the immense labour shortage Treasury sees right round the corner. Again, the exactly correct mix might be a wildly utopian ideal, but Henry has put together a potentially achievable minimum platform:

  • the Newstart allowance (i.e. the dole), at around $225 a week, is not motivating enough and should be made more motivating so that the recipient feels more like getting a job or training.
  • The Disability Pension, at around $300 a week, is great at motivating people on the Newstart allowance to fake a disability or concoct a depression, but not so great at motivating the partially disabled to return to work or training, which is crazy because work “could make them happier and healthier and our society more equitable”.
  • Public housing rents set to 25 per cent of income are discouraging workforce participation because were the unemployed recipient to get a job their rent would rise; there may be more health and happiness to be found in the incentivising arms of private landlords. Of course, the welfare system should still assist by providing some funds for the renter to pass on to said landlords, so long “of course” as the level of rental assistance recognised “that compromise would be needed to balance incentives to work with some stability of tenure for tenants.”

Those irreverent economists!

Published in: on 5 April, 2009 at 1:05 pm  Comments (1)  

Waiting for a message of some sort


What would a serious radical left reaction to the economic crisis look like? It’s a serious question, I don’t really know, and from here it doesn’t look like there is one yet. Maybe it’s the warped perspective from Australia, where the crisis remains to most people a reality only on paper: newspaper, retirement fund statements and stimulus cheques. As chief Business Spectator Alan Kohler put it on April Fool’s Day, there’s an “air of complacent unreality in Australia at present, as if this country can somehow escape the Great Recession.”

But elsewhere in the Anglosphere, where crisis has well and truly come, there are endless pronouncements and diagnoses but not much resembling a mass movement. The G20 protests in London are exciting as spectacle but I can’t help but think things look like more of the same old ‘activistism’, as Henwood et al put it. The far left comes together as a (particularly fractious) identity group, making shows of ‘resistance’ that reinforce self-identities as radicals. Police co-operate in the psychodrama by cracking down hard, giving the impression of a real battle with something at stake. But the recurring ritual ends up a sublimation of political energy, amounting to little more in the broader political culture than a colourful few seconds on the news.

Now, this view has a fair amount of currency among the people in the crowd themselves, and I don’t mean it as a moral critique of activist failings. After all, you could say something pretty similar about the lefty grad student blog international (represent!), the Communist Conference-going professoriat, the Trots and their theory of permanent paper subscription drive, soft-left NGOs and think tanks promoting ever-so-reasonable policy reforms without a show in Hell… All gears turning and turning and not catching on anything. We’re still ghettoised, the channels of communication with the public at large remain closed, and it’s not entirely certain what we would say if they opened.

It’s a time of political hope in some ways, with capitalist triumphalism taking a beating in the broader culture, but not capitalism itself, because in most people’s minds there’s either nowhere to go or no way to get there. Meanwhile the radical left is energised, ready to join up and do something, but whatever it is we join has yet to precipitate.

Am I wrong?

P.S. I started this post intending to link to the interesting post-protest discussion breaking out among the UK chapter of the lefty grad student blog international: Owen, Savanarola and see also the great pics at Infinite Thought, which despite the above make me wish I was there. Apparently k-punk’s also written something worth reading but my employer’s firewall blocks it as ‘adult/mature content’ so I’ll have to draw the curtains and have a look when I get home.

Published in: on 3 April, 2009 at 1:12 pm  Comments (7)