Political imagination

For the public benefit, I shall elucidate some actual and hypothesized political systems in terms of (a) our ability to imagine them, and (b) their actual likelihood of existence.

First, the status quo — a sleazy and mildly corrupt but largely representative democracy. Nobody really believes that this is actually how things are, because we’re all too busy exaggerating very select parts of that picture, inventing convenient symmetries and ignoring inconvenient ones.

On a day-to-day basis, this is the extent of our political imagination:

  • The status quo with slightly higher or lower unemployment and interest rates.
  • The status quo with additional cake, alcohol and public holidays.

Asked to speculate about trends and prospects, we come up with the following:

  • Exact Replica of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, etc. Bad governments are always precisely modelled on these distinct, arbitrary examples. There’s statistical evidence you know — just look at nine out of every ten Nazi Germanies STOP LAUGHING YOU NAZI.
  • A theocracy enforcing whatever the most despised religion happens to be. You see, we’re all just going to suddenly agree to that, and — in a fit of flailing horror — only later realise our mistake.
  • Ayn Rand Libertarian Utopia. You see, through (a) rational persuasion or (b) subversive indoctrination (choose one), we will be suddenly, miraculously divorced from the instinct of egalitarianism that has accompanied the human species for hundreds of millennia.
  • Actual Communism. You see, through (a) rational persuasion or (b) subversive indoctrination (choose one), we will be suddenly, miraculously divorced from any sort of selfish ambition that has accompanied the human species for hundreds of millennia.
  • The United Federation of Planets. Economics? Pfft. Why didn’t we just dispense with that before?
  • Any other system of government premised on subtracting an in-built part of human nature (*cough* “Equilibrium” *cough*). Could the dystopian future be one devoid of human emotion? You know — the mechanism that underlies all decision making. Right, let’s decide to get rid of our decision-making ability.
  • Galactic Empire. Isn’t it obvious? Sure it’ll hang together in the 100 millennia it takes for a signal to travel from one side of the galaxy to the other…
  • The United States. I’m sorry, but there’s just no way that’s a real country.

The price of opinion

Gina Rinehart, for all that she inspires consternation, does not strike me as a particularly deep thinker.

The poetry is a giveaway. We laugh, but it does tell us something serious about the person who wrote it. For instance, consider this extract:

Is our future threatened with massive debts run up by political hacks
Who dig themselves out by unleashing rampant tax
The end result is sending Australian investment, growth and jobs offshore

It’s bad because it’s so shallow. The first line above is directly countered by the second, and the third is starkly at odds with another near the beginning that reads “And billions now are pleading to enjoy a better life”. (If concern for billions of poor people is paramount, maybe we should send Australian investment, growth and jobs offshore! Presumably, if one is poor, one needs investment, growth and jobs a lot more than one needs expensive minerals.) There’s more further on, but I dare not labour the point.

Being a poem, I feel it’s likely a genuine expression of Rinehart’s beliefs, and yet there’s clearly no real intellect behind it. It’s an inconsistent jumble of angriness, trying inanely to graft corporate libertarianism onto both nationalistic pride and compassion for the world’s poor. (It’s hard enough to put any two of those together in a sensible fashion, let alone all three.)

These are not the arguments of someone who cares about understanding the world; they are undisguised talking points generated by, well, political hacks — dumbed-down for public consumption and condensed so as to be interjected at every opportunity into political discourse. They are the sort of thing you expect to be regurgitated by the trolls that inhabit the comments sections of news websites (labouring under the illusion that they are the messengers rather merely the dupes).

So, let that set the stage for Rinehart’s seemingly imminent assimilation of Fairfax. Many are concerned that this will dramatically skew the ideological slant of news reporting in Australia. I rather suspect it will destroy Fairfax before it has the desired effect.

That you can buy media companies and hence editorial positions is a simple piece of logic, but perhaps too simplistic.

If you want to do it properly, you cannot simply issue edicts to staff that certain ideological arguments must be made and certain positions attacked or defended. Freedom of speech is the catch cry of journalists everywhere. You have to cultivate a team of people who, broadly speaking, believe as you do and will make your arguments for you without being asked.

Consider Rupert Murdoch and his News empire. Murdoch does not command his papers as a general commands an army. “Nothing so crude”, points out Jonathan Holmes. The Guardian’s Michael Wolff continues: “Murdoch has succeeded in this game as well as he has, and for as long as he has, because there is magic to it. Wielding power is his art.”

A large contingent of the current Fairfax staff probably wouldn’t want to be part of any Rinehart experiment in the art of power. So, she needs to find replacements from somewhere else. But where? You might get a few guest editorials from Andrew Bolt and like-minded people, but the successful Andrew Bolts already have jobs. News Ltd might have a broad ideological alliance with the like of Rinehart, but they’re still a commercial competitor, and they need to keep their own people.

Hence the cultivation. Unless you want to cannibalise the competition, you can only replace experienced journalists with less experienced ones, but that segues into the next problem.

While you’re implementing your ideological slant and training up your new staff, you also need to somehow maintain your current readership. You can’t abandon it, and you can’t just eat into News Ltd’s market share, because these would both defeat the purpose of the whole exercise. This is especially a problem because: (a) the reduction in experience is bound to impact the quality of your publications, at least initially, (b) at least some of your readership will rebel against changes in editorial policy, and (c) your readership is already on the point of reconsidering their news options in light of the Internet. In other words, a lot of your readers will be turned off and will instead go to the ABC, SBS, Crikey or international news outlets.

The changes already announced by Fairfax — the tabloidisation of the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald and the implementation of an online pay-wall — may only compound the problem for Rinehart. A format change is going to make readers notice that Something is Going On, and so they may be just a little more sceptical of their news even before any change in editorial policy.

The basic problem with (what we assume to be) Rinehart’s plan is that her opinions already have a voice in News Ltd papers. That market has already been taken, and expanding it is easier said than done. Andrew Bolt and Christopher Monckton, among others, see Fox News as the template to be emulated, in order to promote their brand of libertarianism, but if that was going to work in Australia it would probably have worked already. Melbourne Talk Radio (MTR), starring Mr Bolt, ran up $9 million in losses and closed just short of 2 years after starting. The Australian public evidentially has its own ideas about the sort of editorial positions it’s prepared to put up with. On issues that Rinehart cares about — the mining and carbon taxes, for instance — the public’s opinion has already hardened. What, then, is the business case for a Rinehart-ified Fairfax? What “value” would it offer, and why should it deserve to survive in the marketplace?

It would be nice to think that another independent news organisation might rise up from the ashes of Fairfax — one with a more sustainable business model.

It would be nice, while we’re on hypotheticals, to think that powerful interests might occasionally reflect on the factual basis of their own beliefs before buying news outlets to propagate them. I wonder, though, to what extent Rinehart’s own opinions have been shaped by what she reads and hears in the media. If we accept that opinions can be manipulated, why not the opinions of those ostensibly doing to manipulating?

Edit: I’ve just noticed that Nick Bryant, being an actual journalist, has written a much more comprehensive and enlightening article on Gina Rinehart than I ever could.

Help! Help! I’m being regulated

The Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation by Ray Finkelstein (which I shall henceforth refer to as RIIMMR, more enthusiastically had it come in holographic form) was released about 3 weeks ago1.

One of its more interesting recommendations appeared to be that blog sites having 15,000 hits per year or more would fall under the jurisdiction of the hypothetical News Media Council. This has a personal interest for me, because Dave’s Archives would be caught in this net (along with, I imagine, thousands of other small blogs). The NMC does not yet exist, but according to RIIMMR it would:

…set journalistic standards for the news media in consultation with the industry, and handle complaints made by the public when those standards are breached.

Now, the Internet, having largely been a bastion of libertarianism ever since its inception, tends to Really Hate this sort of thing. Libertarians tend to rally against any sort of regulation, no matter what context it may occur in.

To be fair to them, 15,000 hits is a very low threshold indeed, and doesn’t sound particularly workable. To be fair to RIIMMR, however, that’s not quite the whole story. The actual text says this (paragraph 11.67):

There are practical reasons for excluding from the definition of ‘news media’ publishers who do not have a sufficiently large audience. If a publisher distributes more than 3000 copies of print per issue or a news internet site has a minimum of 15 000 hits per annum it should be subject to the jurisdiction of the News Media Council, but not otherwise. These numbers are arbitrary, but a line must be drawn somewhere.

The implications of that last sentence (my emphasis) are rather missing from the analysis so far (as far as I can tell). Although clumsily-worded and with insufficient consideration, RIIMMR is clearly not proposing a threshold of 15,000 hits; that figure is merely an example. To compare, 3,000 copies per issue for a weekly print publication would come to 156,000 physical copies per year (and each of those is much more substantial unit of exposure than a mere “hit”). It is unlikely the authors intended these numbers to be taken seriously at all. They are are plainly leaving any deliberation on the actual criteria to whoever comes next.

I fancy I can hear the echoes of the aftermath of the Andrew Bolt racial discrimination case. Then, so much of the edifice of our democracy seemed to hinge, for reasons unknown, on Bolt’s inalienable right to launch vicious, unprincipled and unprovoked attacks in a major newspaper on a group of perfectly respectable individuals. All our freedoms were at risk, it seemed, when it turned out that Bolt had to pay the ultimate penalty: a public apology for being an arseclown.

So, without jumping to conclusions, let’s just sit back for a moment and work through the issue.

My first major criticism is that RIIMMR does not appear to establish any solid, explicit reason for extending the regulatory process to blogs. Perhaps the case could be made, but RIIMMR does not really make it; blogs seem somewhat incidental to the main focus. RIIMMR does point out (paragraphs 5.106-5.110) that “defamation is not an effective check on journalistic excesses” due to long delays, costs, and complexities, but this is an argument for overall media regulation in general. RIIMMR also points out (paragraph 4.17) that people don’t trust blogs nearly as much as news sites anyway. Presumably, then, issuing corrections on blogs is not quite as crucial as for professional news organisations. I also personally hold hopes that, in the long run, projects like Hypothes.is will succeed. If they do, they may prove more workable than any government-backed media regulator.

Nonetheless, let’s say for the sake of the argument that we do have a good reason to regulate blogs. What practical problems, if any, might there be with regulating blog sites in the manner proposed by RIIMMR?

To keep things in perspective, we’re not talking about punitive measures to silence dissent for political ends. The News Media Council would be government-funded, but otherwise independent2. Its powers would be as follows (paragraph 11.74):

  • To require publication of a correction.
  • To require withdrawal of a particular article from continued publication (via the internet or otherwise).
  • To require a media outlet to publish a reply by a complainant or other relevant person.
  • To require publication of the News Media Council’s decision or determination;
  • To direct when and where publications should appear.

And the NMC would not be able to fine you (paragraph 11.76).

There should be no power to impose fines or award compensation. Powers of this kind are likely to involve constitutional difficulties. In any event, inevitably they will make the complaints-handling process more complex and time-consuming. One of the main advantages of the proposed News Media Council will be lost. The incentive to resolve a complaint quickly will also be lost.

The proposed remedies do not strike me as inherently Orwellian in themselves. They are not punishments. It would not be especially difficult for anyone running a WordPress blog (like this one), for instance, to perform any of the actions mentioned.

That said, there are practical problems to overcome in administration. How would the NMC actually contact a blogger? Owners of small sites often do not list any contact details on the site itself suitable for official/legal correspondence. If the blogger holds a .au domain name, the details are there for the taking from the domain name registrar. Web hosting companies within Australia could also probably be compelled to divulge a blogger’s postal address. However, any blog with a non-.au domain and hosted outside Australia is potentially beyond reach, even if all the content is Australian (whatever you consider that to mean) and the blogger lives and works in Australia. This is the case for any blog hosted at wordpress.com or other such sites providing ready-to-go blogs, and anything posted on most social media sites.

RIIMMR declares (in paragraph 11.69) that:

…if an internet news publisher has more than a tenuous connection with Australia then carefully drawn legislation could enable the News Media Council to exercise jurisdiction over it.

This seems rather optimistic. In reality, bloggers would need much more than a “tenuous” Australian connection to be subject to regulation, no matter how the legislation is written. (We’ve had similar arguments before, such as back in 2001 over our ability or lack thereof to ban child pornography on the Internet.)

A related problem occurs in trying to determine whether a blog is “big enough” to fall within NMC jurisdiction. If one criterion is a threshold number of hits per year, then the NMC first needs to acquire that data. Australian hosting companies might be forced to report it, but any foreign hosting company won’t have to. Thus, NMC jurisdiction will be impossible to determine in many cases. Where contact details are available, could the NMC compel an Australian blogger to reveal their own traffic statistics? That opens a whole other can of worms. What if a blogger doesn’t collect those statistics, or doesn’t know how to find them, or simply makes them up? And in any case, what if a potential complainant realises that they can cause a blog to be subject to media regulation simply by reloading the page a few thousand times (with or without a script)?

Nonetheless, suppose the NMC can contact bloggers as needed, and suppose we can resolve jurisdiction issues. Most bloggers write for free in their spare time, and many probably do not have the time or energy to comply with formal regulatory and legal processes. Many more may find the regulatory process intimidating, and overcompensate for the complaint received by ceasing to blog altogether. Further, if the regulatory process imposes hard deadlines on responses to complaints (as it would probably have to), casual bloggers might find themselves in legal hot water simply by forgetting to check their mail for a few days.

You could perhaps devise a more sophisticated set of criteria to distinguish between high-volume blogs that ought to be equipped to deal with complaints and smaller blogs that aren’t. I don’t know what this would look like, and it would require a great deal of thought.

There are also countermeasures that a small blog can take if the blogger is inconvenienced by or philosophically opposed to regulation. The simplest option is to move the site to an off-shore hosting company, to hide traffic statistics and contact details. This would only work as a pre-emptive measure, prior to the blog itself being brought to the attention of the NMC, before the NMC can acquire the details it needs.

But there is another, more dangerous consequence that may apply if the NMC attempts to exercise its power to “require withdrawal of a particular article from continued publication”. Censorship is a hot button issue for the online community. The interest generated by anything perceived to be censorship can lead to much wider dissemination of the material in question, and possibly active retaliation. I don’t agree with this mentality in many cases (because there are good reasons to not publish certain information that have nothing to do with manipulating the public), but we can’t ignore its existence. If the material in question is indeed something that is not in the public interest, then trying to have it removed might perversely cause more harm than good. Opponents of regulation may look to actively facilitate precisely this sort of event, and so any small-time blogger may be capable of triggering a privacy/defamation nightmare.

This perhaps isn’t a problem where large organisations are concerned, because people are naturally less sympathetic towards them. We are used to the idea that they should be held to account. However, the NMC ought to be extremely cautious when wielding that particular power where bloggers are concerned. Its other powers (e.g. to “require publication of a correction”), while perhaps still not greatly appreciated by the blogger, might avoid the same level of discontent and retaliation.

You might think, if you agree with me so far, that I’ve raised enough problems to comprehensively damn the notion of regulating blogs. However, I’m reluctant to say it can’t be done, given enough forethought. I don’t think I would suffer for it, in principle.

Yet, the notion of regulating online articles may be overtaken by other events, described in my previous post. If Hypothes.is can produce a working prototype — a peer review system for the Internet — and if it can attract a critical mass of users, then the News Media Council may be obsolete.

  1. I’m a bit late to the party, but the wheels of government do turn rather slowly. []
  2. Cynicism and paranoia notwithstanding, there are various existing government-funded institutions in Australia that aptly and routinely demonstrate their independence from the political considerations of the government. []

The economics of insanity

I learnt a new phrase today – “lexicographic preference” – courtesy of economics professor J. Bradford DeLong. Before I tell you what it means, let me show you what kind of thinking it produces (not on DeLong’s part, but on those he ridicules).

Here are two quotes (don’t look at the links just yet). First:

I think there’s a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress’s powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective.

Second:

We believe that the decisions of how to deal with the massive asteroid are best left to the individual.

You’d be right to smell satire. However, only one of the above quotes is satirical. The other is quite serious. (This is a manifestation of Poe’s Law.)

The second quote comes from The Onion; the first comes from Sasha Volokh, who apparently didn’t get the joke. I shall defer to some other great commentary on this by J. Bradford DeLong:

So not only does Sasha Volokh claim that it is immoral to tax people to blow up an asteroid (or install lightning rods, or mandate lightning rods, or pay for a tree-trimming crew on the public roads), but it is immoral to tell people of an approaching asteroid so they can scramble to safety because it will cause violations of rights through looting.

And then John Quiggin:

The general point is that if some physical state of the world would require government action inconsistent with libertarian principles or conservative tribal taboos, then since libertarianism/conservatism is always right, logic dictates that the physical state in question must be impossible.

DeLong attributes Volokh’s thinking to “lexicographic preference”, which is economics jargon. Imagine you are selecting between alternatives, and you have several criteria to base your decision on. If I understand correctly, choosing lexicographically means applying each criterion in turn (as if you were comparing the letters in two words to place them in dictionary order; hence the name). You stop at the first criterion that distinguishes the alternatives.

For such absolutist libertarians as Sasha Volokh, the first criterion is upholding individual rights. If the available courses of action both uphold rights, or both fail to uphold rights, then we can move onto the second criterion (e.g. preservation of human civilisation). However, (a) libertarians in general tend to argue that taxation is theft, and (b) Volokh in particular argues that we do not, strictly speaking, have the right to survive a natural disaster. Thus, the first criterion does distinguish between the alternatives, and so we never need consider any other factors. Thus, government is morally obliged to do nothing to save humanity.

DeLong also highlights another phenomenon – the tendency in the face of extremism to declare a legitimate debate (specifically, in this case, by one Ilya Somin):

Somin’s insanity is… a second-order insanity — the insanity of taking first-order insane claims to be questions about which reasonable people can disagree.

In other words, Volokh’s position is demonstrably insane, and those who think that it can form part of a legitimate debate, as opposed to an object of ridicule, are themselves at least mildly insane.

Now, having understood the preceding arguments, most thinking people probably have pet topics to which they envisage an application.

In my case, lexicographic preference reminds me a lot of the political quagmire associated with unathorised boat arrivals. Politicians and commentators (especially of the Liberal persuasion), cast this as a crisis in which the only acceptable outcome is the total absence of any further “boat people”. There is no consideration for either (a) the humanitarian situation, (b) the diplomatic situation, or (c) the costs involved (or indeed anything else). In evaluating a given policy, the last three factors are irrelevant as long as there is some effect – no matter how small – on the number of boats. A policy that results in x boat arrivals is incontestably superior to one that results in x + 1 arrivals, no matter the cost, diplomatic or humanitarian implications.

Unfortunately, this is such a widely-held variety of insanity that any second-order insanity (i.e. that there is a legitimate argument that we should favour fewer boat arrivals no matter the consequences) is redundant.

A better demonstration of second-order insanity lies in the never-ending racism/multiculturalism debate. Here, Kevin Andrews was one the latest purveyors of this particular type of nonsense (after the British PM David Cameron had taken the lead of Angela Merkel in announcing the supposed failure of multiculturalism):

Mr Andrews described the British prime minister’s comments as “fairly sensible” and relevant to Australia.

“I think there is a risk [of ethnic enclaves] in Australia,” Mr Andrews said.

“What actually concerns me the most is that we can’t have a discussion about it,” he said, as he pushed for a public debate on the issue.

Of course, we can have a discussion about the merits of multiculturalism, in much the same way that we can have a discussion about the merits of using tax dollars to stop asteroids from annihilating civilisation. It really just depends on your preferred level of insanity.