John Quiggin and the Overton Gradient

(Not to mention Overton’s Elephant and Overton’s Mouse)

With inflation stuck at 4%, what a terrible problem that it will probably take a deliberately engineered recession to get it back into target. If only the optimal rate of inflation were 4%. Oh wait … No-one can be sure what the optimal rate is, but from the flimsy knowledge we have, 4% is a better guess than 2-3%. Yet to even say so is to play the role of the ‘wet’, the soft-headed person who won’t make hard choices. Welcome to Overton’s gradient.

Named after the American free-market policy analyst Joseph Overton, the Overton Window defines what policy options can be seriously considered and what is regarded (without further thought) as beyond the pale. Thus when Cambridge Economics Professor Cecil Pigou suggested confiscating a portion of the wealth of the richest Britons to pay for WWI, the suggestion was not within the Overton Window, not worthy of serious consideration.

The Overton Window is policed by a committee known as the VSOWP — which, as we all learn in Public Policy 101 stands for Very Serious Overton Window People. The VSOWP are convinced for instance that we couldn’t have inheritance taxes in Australia. So no mainstream politician goes so far as to mention them. Why not? Well because, and did I mention that no politician mentions them? Anyway, look over there.

Of course other things being equal the VSOWP are correct. If you just get up in Parliament and say ‘what this place needs is death duties’ you will not be treated as a political mastermind. But the same can be said of raising any tax. But introduced as the least painful of available options next time there’s a crisis and a fiscal crunch — it could easily squeeze its way into the Overton Window. Except that it won’t because … well you have to put your application into the VSOWP.

In any event, I’ve previously expanded the use of the adjective Overton to allow for the Overton Juggernaut — that’s what every Very Serious Person knows, just knows whether it’s right or not. You know, like it certainly wouldn’t be good to change course and move interest rates sharply lower when forecasters are predicting rising unemployment. And this is itself an example of the Overton Gradient. The Overton Gradient tells you, that when you have a choice, there’s a soft option and a hard one. And soft-options are for weakly, ill-formed folk with no moral or even intellectual fibre.

And the nature of the Overton Gradient explains the more specific phenomena of Overton’s Elephant and Overton’s Mouse. The elephant is the fact that 4% is a good guess at the optimal inflation rate. So it looks like the best inflation target. And the mouse is all the other things the Reserve and the other Serious Folks are talking about instead — more productivity, investment, innovation and wellbeing. No problem with any of those, but they should be addressed on their merits. They’re not substitutes for better macro-economic policy.

Over to John Quiggin.

The release of recent data suggesting that inflation appears to be stuck at 4%, above the Reserve Bank of Australia’s target range of 2% to 3%, has raised plenty of concern among economic and political commentators.

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Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy | Leave a comment

Sleep promotion takes off globally

I recently published this musing in my Substack newsletter. And coming across a further free kick from the policy world — something that would have negative costs and do a lot of good — I thought I’d publish both. Think of this as continuing the series begun over a decade ago of the many policies that promote equity and growth all at the same time!

Reading the abstract below I had one of those silly thoughts I used to have about three decades ago. You know how we were getting into ‘evidence-based’ policy and how we should target more than just GDP. (They didn’t use all those buzzwords then, but the ideas were in the air.) And doing something as sensible as targeting more than GDP was also a policy favoured by the early pioneers of economics like Alfred Marshall and Cecil Pigou.

That leads to the obvious question. What are some of the least cost ways of raising wellbeing (in an evidence-based way of course — we’re not working it out on ouija boards anymore.) Well, if this study is anything to go by, the particular intervention they’re writing up here would have large negative costs because it doesn’t just improve wellbeing. It increases productivity. So unless all those wellbeing frameworks being put out by the Federal and State Governments are being released just because they sound good, you can expect these kinds of programs to being announced weekly for quite some time as they roll off the assembly line.

Sleep: Educational Impact and Habit Formation
Osea Giuntella, Silvia Saccardo, and Sally Sadoff #32550

There is growing evidence on the importance of sleep for productivity, but little is known about the impact of interventions targeting sleep. In a field experiment among U.S. university students, we show that incentives for sleep increase both sleep and academic performance. Motivated by theories of cue-based habit formation, our primary intervention couples personalized bedtime reminders with morning feedback and immediate rewards for sleeping at least seven hours on weeknights. The intervention increases the share of nights with at least seven hours of sleep by 26 percent and average weeknight sleep by an estimated 19 minutes during a four-week treatment period, with persistent effects of about eight minutes per night during a one to five-week post-treatment period. Comparisons to secondary treatments show that immediate incentives have larger impacts on sleep than delayed incentives or reminders and feedback alone during the treatment period, but do not have statisticall! y distinguishable impacts on longer-term sleep habits in the post-treatment period. We estimate that immediate incentives improve average semester course performance by 0.075–0.088 grade points, a 0.10–0.11 standard deviation increase. Our results demonstrate that incentives to sleep can be a cost-effective tool for improving educational outcomes.

Oh wait … Maybe all those frameworks aren’t serious after all.

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Alasdair MacIntyre on how ethically lost we are

A young Mondrian in 1908 channels an old Monet but is really thinking “I wonder if a bunch of rectangles on canvas would sell? If it did it could solve a lot of problems, perhaps not for everyone, but certainly for me.”

On Having Survived the Academic Moral Philosophy of the 20th Century

I loved this recent essay of MacIntyre. But then, to paraphrase my favourite comedian Stewart Lee, I agreed the fuck out of it. I wrote about MacIntyre’s great book After Virtue in a recent newsletter.

I remember reading its opening pages in ANU Co-op bookshop when it first surfaced in 1981. They present a story in which science is destroyed by revolution and culture war. As they recover from this cataclysm people wander among the rubble finding artefacts from the old world from which they piece together what they take to be the science of the ‘ancients’. But it’s a jumble of artefacts and techniques. Noone really knows the big picture of what they’re doing because the traditions and practices by which things were connected up and related to each other are all fractured.

It struck me as a fantastic analogy for neoclassical economics. MacIntyre’s story is an allegory of what has happened to the West in throwing off a unified ethical system and, in his view ending up with a jumble of ethical artefacts all papered over by analytical philosophy which encourages ‘emotivism’ — the idea that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference.

Emotivism, for MacIntyre, departs from the classical and medieval traditions that ground ethics in a shared conception of the good life and the virtues necessary for human flourishing.

Anyway, after reading the essay I’ve extracted below, I think I described MacIntyre’s ideas slightly wrongly. For me the essence of his whole essay is the insistence that we understand ethics as something that is emergent from practical life, not abstract propositions. Here’s the money quote for me which you’ll find below.

We need to begin again and to do so by returning to the social context in which we learned the use of good and its cognates. What we first had to learn was how to make the distinctions between what we desire and the choiceworthy, and between what pleases those others whom we desire to please and the choiceworthy. We characteristically and generally learn—or fail to learn—to make these distinctions, as we emerge through and from the family into the life of a variety of practices: such practices as those of housework and farmwork, of learning Latin and geometry, of building houses and making furniture, of playing soccer and playing in string quartets. What we can learn only in and through such practices is what the standards of excellence are in each type of activity and how our desires and feelings must be disciplined and transformed and our choices guided by the standards of excellence in each type of activity if we are to achieve such excellence and through it the goods internal to each type of practice.

As I read this I also thought of Michael Polanyi who noticed that in every realm of life the things that can be made explicit are built on a tacit layer which is culturally learned from infancy. It seems to me that other ethical traditions presume that the action is in what can be made explicit and I think that’s completely wrong. Anyway, what would I know?

The other killer quote is this one which follows his elaboration of the perceived contradictions between Kantianism and Utilitarianism:

And it is in negotiating their way between such moments, both in private and in public life, that the characteristic skills of those who are socially and politically successful are exhibited. What we have then is a morality whose oscillations and contradictions show it to be in a state of disorder, but a kind of disorder that enables it to function well as the ideology of our present social, political, and economic order.

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Escape from planet sensible: Stunning listening

Adolf never had much time for planet sensible. Here he is after the Reichstag fire with fellow traveller Sefton Delmer who was Berlin correspondent for the “Daily Express” from 1928 to 1933, To the left of Hitler: August Wilhelm of Prussia. In the middle of the picture, half hidden with a hat: Joseph Goebbels. Third from the right: Hermann Göring..Check out other fascinating pics and details here.

On planet sensible everyone is ‘rational’. (Quick, let’s not dwell on what ‘rational’ means or we could be here all day!) People seek to discover and pursue what’s in their own interests. Bertrand Russell I think during his time as a conscientious objector to WWI said to Maynard Keynes that he really couldn’t take economics seriously. As he watched people gleefully march off to the slaughter of the trenches in their millions, he couldn’t take seriously a discipline that was built on the axiom that people act in their own interest.

And on planet sensible, purveyors of information purvey it and consumers consume it according to their interests. And ideologists seek to persuade audiences that they’re right and that their opponents are wrong. And, where there’s disinformation, people call for ‘fact checking’. Everyone knows that fact checking has near negligible impact on disinformation, but on planet sensible when something tricky comes up, you just keep doing what you’re doing and maybe use expressions like “innovation” and “a complexity lens” a little more.

The first time I realised I might have reached escape velocity from planet sensible was during the ‘cash for comment’ scandal in which ‘shock jocks’ Alan Jones and John Laws were outed for changing their populist tune on banks and Telstra in exchange for cash. I recall someone saying to me that they were finished from this. As I wrote on Troppo many years ago (Why is John Clarke so funny and why now?):

I never thought it would hurt their ratings. It didn’t. When I was a kid in grade 5 I used to listen to Garner Ted Armstrong, an evangelist on the radio. I had been brought up by devout atheists and I didn’t really take in what I was being told as being true or false. I liked the cadence of speech, the simplicity and predicability of the positions taken, the compelling tone. People listen to talk-back radio or at least shock jocks like that. They don’t care if its true or not. They are being entertained. But I expect that paradoxically, if things get said as obvious truisms on those shows, it produces subtle shifts in people’s views, in what is thinkable and sayable and what’s not. It becomes possible. I guess Goebbels knew this.

Anyway, I’ve liked Peter Pomerantsev since I read his excellent This is not propaganda. But I found his latest bit of historical anthropology thoroughly gripping — or at least this podcast. It is about Sefton Delmer whose unique life experience made him a perfect cross-cultural English-German go-between during WWII. Before the war he had become an uber foreign correspondent who got himself onto Hitler’s planes as he toured his dominion. He then repaired to the UK during the war. And one thing you can say about the Poms during WWII. They might have a reputation for being stuck up and stuck in the mud, but when the chips were down they turned to full on geniuses in their field and gave them a vast amount of leeway to do what they had to do. Churchill, Keynes, Turing and this guy. Sefton Delmer did deep disinformation into Nazi Germany. And he left the orbit of planet sensible.

The biggest ‘aha’ moment for me was the way in which this mid-century cultural go-between understood that the key to understanding Hitler was not just that he was pretty morose and boring except when he was being the Fuhrer giving a speech. And he was play-acting. Delmer understood that the audiences he played to were play-acting too. Hitler cast them into a role. (Come to think of it I said something slightly similar about Churchill’s speeches in this piece.)

Then his whole disinformation operation (in which people impersonated Nazis to reveal the corruption in the Nazi system) penetrated the rationality barrier. He understood that persuasion would not work. Instead his broadcasts into Nazi Germany rehearsed knowing and cynical roles Nazis could take within their system. In other words, to effect a change in the German psyche one needed Nazis to give themselves permission to change the way they saw themselves. One needed to forge for them a new role. And to do that, all that was necessary was to role play those roles. From 1943 the broadcasts did not try to hide their essentially fictitious character — that they were British propaganda. They were presenting a funnier, more engaging, more realistic and more authentic representation of German life than was done by the Germans.

Addressing the question of why the allies got the atomic bomb before the Germans, Churchill said “our Germans were better than their Germans”. Ditto Delmers

Highly recommended.

Posted in History, Media, Philosophy, Political theory, Politics - international | 2 Comments

Bernard Keane on Adam Bandt, Israel and the double think solution

Right at the outset of this conflict, I worried that Israel was overestimating the strength of its hand. In the US, the Israel lobby’s lobbying has been as successful as the NRA’s lobbying. And it follows a similar strategy — zero tolerance. It holds a very tough line and then goes after those who break ranks. It’s been incredibly successful at this.

Just as Republican Congresspeople know that the NRA will target their preselection as the Republican nominee if they step out of line, even to the extent of saying background checks on gun purchases mightn‘t be a bad idea, the Israel lobby has successfully marginalised those who want to push back against Netanyahu’s excesses. goes after after those who deviate from their preferred position. I think they’ve been way too successful for their own good. As John Mearsheimer has argued, American politicians underwrite Israel’s security while being apparently unable to have much of a say on Israeli policy — in contrast, for instance, to Ronald Reagan’s influence a generation ago.

The Israel lobby defends its red lines and goes after the chant ‘from the river to the sea’ as genocidal. But when did you last hear a protest chant that was well considered? In any event it’s essentially the position of a good portion of the Israeli cabinet, including, as you’ll read below, Benjamin Netanyahu.

This is hypocritical of course, but that’s not my point. I think Israel has begun walking into the night. Moreover those who are leading the process are quite deliberately encouraging developments — like expansion of West Bank settlements — and so ramping up the difficulty of ever changing course. That’s how adversarial politics works.

Little Israel is not Big America. I remember my economic history teacher telling me that, America’s economic history wasn’t very interesting. “It’s just big and rich”. In other words with such a big, free market it could make many mistakes and still grow its living standards faster than other countries. Likewise America’s foreign policy can afford many hypocrisies. Little Israel has now got the youth of the world against it. It might take a decade or two, but that’s all it took for the condemnation of the world to liquidate those who occupied all the commanding heights of power in Apartheid South Africa and the Jim Crow South once they became international pariahs.

Already the mainstream support for Israel that remains in Western countries is a product of muscle memory and fear of the Israel lobby. But numbers make their weight felt pretty quickly in electoral politics and, there are many more muslims in the electorate than Zionists. So, the risk for Israel is that, at some stage in the next three decades things will collapse quite quickly. Those moving from pro-Israeli to anti-Israeli stances will deploy the traditional vehicle for effecting 180 degree reversals. The bandwagon.

Here’s Bernard Keane:

But while Bandt was caught out when pressed to give details of his claim that Australia is exporting weapons to Israel, his unwillingness to endorse a two-state solution represents a rare example of politicians refusing to engage in the standard double-think on Israel and having the guts to challenge what is a facile media assumption by editors and journalists.

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Australian male violence against women: what the statistics say (and media should report)

Amid Australia’s justified concern over male violence against women, it seems worth  keeping in mind our achievements. Femicide, in particular, has more than halved in the past three decades.

Prologue: Violence against women is a bad thing, and it’s still bad even when, as the article below points out, it used to be far worse. We should be trying hard to lower rates of violence, by finding good solutions and implementing them with urgency. As part of this, we should understand just what we’re dealing with – which is what this summary tries to do.

The issue of violence against women is in the news right now. Here’s a short summary of what we know about the issue in Australia.

  • Before we say anything else, we need to acknowledge this: a really accurate picture of violent crime is hard to draw. Of the several factors clouding our vision, one stands out: most police-gathered crime figures are very unreliable. That goes double for violence against women. We can’t just hang that on the police, either: many crimes never get reported, or the police don’t find enough evidence to charge anyone, or judges and juries don’t convict. And all of these things change over time, as society changes.
    • It’s hard to exaggerate what a problem this data unreliability poses when we try to find out about crime. My strong impression is that most of the public and many commentators expect official crime statistics will tell us everything we need to know. They never do.
    • How bad is the problem? One typical analysis claims that “about 70% of domestic violence is never reported to the police.” You can probably come up with plenty of reasons why this figure is so high.
    • Rates of reporting, charging and convicting thus affect the figures far more than do underlying changes in the actual level of violence in Australia.
  • The result of all that is that most experts don’t trust all the official statistics to give them an accurate read on what’s happening. Instead they look for the most reliable figures – which are, necessarily, the figures that will suffer least from under-reporting. That leads them to the figures for homicides. These suffer less from under-reporting, simply because it’s hard to avoid people noticing when someone dies.
  • And so to women. The homicide indicators suggest Australian femicide – homicide of women – has fallen over the past three decades at a speed that might surprise many people. Among the most reliable indicators is intimate partner homicide; female victims are down 60+% in the 33 years to 2023-23. See the graph below. (Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, based on figures from the Australian Institute of Criminology’s National Homicide Monitoring Program)

    Intimate partner homicide, 1989-90 to 2022-23
    Rate per 100,000 population aged 18 years and over

    Figure from AIC NHMP

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Posted in Gender, Interesting Graphs, Media, Social Policy | 21 Comments

The world of bullshit we’ve built: Reflections on a scene from Utopia

I recently took my son to the stage play of Yes, Prime Minister.  … The decades have made a huge difference in the sensibility of the new production … . The series ran through most of the 1980s, a period that contained its share of tumult.  … But somehow the dramas were genteel, reflecting battles between those privileged enough to be in the system. Waste in government continued, powerful people and time-servers were protected when they should have been exposed and dealt with. But one could be forgiven for thinking, at the end of an episode, ‘it was ever thus’. 1 on, as the moral dilemmas piled up in the stage-play, the governors conspired against the governed.

Me at Troppo, 2012

It’s hard to put one’s finger on it, but to speak loosely, I’d say that when I joined the workforce fifty-odd years ago, life inside that workforce was about 80% the lifeworld — just getting on with people, doing one’s job whatever it was. I was in Canberra and got a holiday ‘bridging’ job in the ACT over the summer hols. I was part of a small team administering rebates to people on their public housing rent for various reasons of need.  (Rosemary who I was assisting was a very nice person and had loved being a nurse. She didn’t love this, but it was OK and it paid better.) In any event, although it was administrative, it was still a concrete system, not unlike running public transport or a newsagent. At least inside the beast, you could tell whether anything too silly was being done.

The other 20% was, if you like ‘the system of the system’ which hierarchies are preoccupied with. Reports to superiors and so on, though given how concrete what one was doing was, this worked reasonably well. I guess it wouldn’t be hard to find stories of fairly comprehensive waste to protect some superior’s view of things. But there was little high farce of the kind so beautifully sent up in Utopia.

I’d never accuse this world of being ‘high performing’. It was quite mediocre, but it was human, it muddled through, one wasn’t encouraged to have tickets on yourself. There was a tea lady of some standing who came round every morning and afternoon. Nor do I want to suggest that such an office wouldn’t contain antagonisms — perhaps quite deep ones. But there was quite an ethic of getting on and helping out. And that contributed to a deep kind of egalitarianism. Seniority was respected but not fawned over. And commonsense was a strong anchor in life.

Fast forward to today and the degree of farce is just off the charts. Continue reading

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