Acknowledgments of Country

It has become commonplace in the last two decades for public meetings or gatherings in Australia or of Australians elsewhere in the world to open with an Acknowledgment of Country statement. This is a statement thanking the traditional indigenous community who inhabited the land on which the meeting is being held, and (usually) expressing respect to the traditional elders, past, present and emerging, of that community. Last night, for instance, a panel discussion held at King’s College London on the topic of the upcoming Voice Referendum began with such statements from several of the invited speakers acknowledging traditional custodians of parts of Australia where where they had grown up or studied. I have also witnessed such statements at private meetings and internal organizational meetings in Australia, even when these events were held online.
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The personality of Robert Mugabe

I have remarked before that Robert Mugabe was one of the best orators I have ever heard. I am not alone in having been impressed. Below is an assessment of Mugabe’s oratory and personality, by Zimbabwean journalist Jan Raath, published in The Times (London), 12 November 2017, under the headline, “Forty years ago, I too was beguiled by Robert Mugabe, the young guerrilla leader”.

I will treasure the events of yesterday afternoon for the rest of my life. I had driven to the Harare international conference centre to hear a rather dry debate on the impeachment of Robert Mugabe, the man I have been covering for this newspaper since 1975.
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Julia Gillard vs Tony Abbott 2012

I was reminded of this newspaper article by Charles Waterstreet on Julia Gillard’s powerful speech against misogyny in the Australian House of Representatives in October 2012. An excerpt:

Some men have been in too many scrums, too many boxing matches, have beaten their heads against too many walls. Of all the words in the whole wide world, Tony Abbott chose – deliberately, it would seem – to use the word ”shame” in his speech on the motion to sack Peter Slipper as speaker. Shame, with all the connotations Alan Jones wrapped around it clumsily weeks earlier, when referring to the Prime Minister’s dead father. Abbott’s use of ”shame” made Slipper’s description of women’s private parts look positively eloquent.

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Just do it, already, Mr Prez!

Norm Ornstein in The Atlantic on criticisms of Bam that he’s not as good at cajoling and arm-twisting as was LBJ, not as good at shooting-the-breeze as was Clinton, and not as good at hard-ball negotiation as was Reagan.   An excerpt:

But there was one downside: the reactivation of one of the most enduring memes and myths about the presidency, and especially the Obama presidency. Like Rasputin (or Whac-A-Mole,) it keeps coming back even after it has been bludgeoned and obliterated by facts and logic. I feel compelled to whack this mole once more.
The meme is what Matthew Yglesias, writing in 2006, referred to as “the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics,” and has been refined by Greg Sargent and Brendan Nyhan into the Green Lantern Theory of the presidency. In a nutshell, it attributes heroic powers to a president—if only he would use them. And the holders of this theory have turned it into the meme that if only Obama used his power of persuasion, he could have the kind of success that LBJ enjoyed with the Great Society, that Bill Clinton enjoyed in his alliance with Newt Gingrich that gave us welfare reform and fiscal success, that Ronald Reagan had with Dan Rostenkowski and Bill Bradley to get tax reform, and so on.
If only Obama had dealt with Congress the way LBJ did—persuading, cajoling, threatening, and sweet-talking members to attain his goals—his presidency would not be on the ropes and he would be a hero. If only Obama would schmooze with lawmakers the way Bill Clinton did, he would have much greater success. If only Obama would work with Republicans and not try to steamroll them, he could be a hero and have a fiscal deal that would solve the long-term debt problem.
If only the proponents of this theory would step back and look at the realities of all these presidencies (or would read or reread the Richard Neustadt classic, Presidential Power.)
I do understand the sentiment here and the frustration over the deep dysfunction that has taken over our politics. It is tempting to believe that a president could overcome the tribalism, polarization, and challenges of the permanent campaign, by doing what other presidents did to overcome their challenges. It is not as if passing legislation and making policy was easy in the old days.
But here is the reality, starting with the Johnson presidency. I do not want to denigrate LBJ or downplay his remarkable accomplishments and the courage he displayed in taking on his own base, Southern Democrats, to enact landmark civil-rights and voting-rights laws that have done more to transform America in a positive way than almost anything else in our lifetimes. And it is a fact that the 89th Congress, that of the Great Society, can make the case for having more sweeping accomplishments, from voting rights to Medicare to elementary and secondary education reform, than any other.

LBJ had a lot to do with the agenda, and the accomplishments. But his drive for civil rights was aided in 1964 by having the momentum following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the partnership of Republicans Everett Dirksen and Bill McCullough, detailed beautifully in new books by Clay Risen and Todd Purdum. And Johnson was aided substantially in 1965-66 by having swollen majorities of his own party in both chambers of Congress—68 of 100 senators, and 295 House members, more than 2-to-1 margins. While Johnson needed, and got, substantial Republican support on civil rights and voting rights to overcome Southern Democrats’ opposition, he did not get a lot of Republicans supporting the rest of his domestic agenda. He had enough Democrats supporting those policies to ensure passage, and he got enough GOP votes on final passage of key bills to ensure the legitimacy of the actions.
Johnson deserves credit for horse-trading (for example, finding concessions to give to Democrat Wilbur Mills, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, to get his support for Medicare), but it was the numbers that made the difference. Consider what happened in the next two years, after the 1966 midterm elections depleted Democratic ranks and enlarged Republican ones. LBJ was still the great master of Congress—but without the votes, the record was anything but robust. All the cajoling and persuading and horse-trading in the world did not matter.
Now briefly consider other presidents. Ronald Reagan was a master negotiator, and he has the distinction of having two major pieces of legislation, tax reform and immigration reform, enacted in his second term, without the overwhelming numbers that Johnson enjoyed in 1965-66. What Reagan did have, just like Johnson had on civil rights, was active and eager partners from the other party. The drive for tax reform did not start with Reagan, but with Democrats Bill Bradley and Dick Gephardt, whose reform bill became the template for the law that ultimately passed. They, and Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, were delighted to make their mark in history (and for Bradley and Gephardt, to advance their presidential ambitions) by working with the lame-duck Republican president. The same desire to craft transformative policy was there for both Alan Simpson and Ron Mazzoli, a Senate Republican and a House Democrat, who put together immigration legislation with limited involvement by the White House.
As for Bill Clinton, he was as politically adept as any president in modern times, and as charismatic and compelling as anyone. But the reality is that these great talents did not convince a single Republican to support his economic plan in 1993, nor enough Democrats to pass the plan for a crucial seven-plus months; did not stop the Republicans under Speaker Newt Gingrich from shutting down the government twice; and did not stop the House toward the end of his presidency from impeaching him on shaky grounds, with no chance of conviction in the Senate. The brief windows of close cooperation in 1996, after Gingrich’s humiliation following the second shutdown, were opened for pragmatic, tactical reasons by Republicans eager to win a second consecutive term in the majority, and ended shortly after they had accomplished that goal.
When Obama had the numbers, not as robust as LBJ’s but robust enough, he had a terrific record of legislative accomplishments. The 111th Congress ranks just below the 89th in terms of significant and far-reaching enactments, from the components of the economic stimulus plan to the health care bill to Dodd/Frank and credit-card reform. But all were done with either no or minimal Republican support. LBJ and Reagan had willing partners from the opposite party; Obama has had none. Nothing that he could have done would have changed the clear, deliberate policy of Republicans uniting to oppose and obstruct his agenda, that altered long-standing Senate norms to use the filibuster in ways it had never been employed before, including in the LBJ, Reagan, and Clinton eras, that drew sharp lines of total opposition on policies like health reform and raising taxes as part of a broad budget deal.
Could Obama have done more to bond with lawmakers? Sure, especially with members of his own party, which would help more now, when he is in the throes of second-term blues, than it would have when he achieved remarkable party unity in his first two years. But the brutal reality, in today’s politics, is that LBJ, if he were here now, could not be the LBJ of the Great Society years in this environment. Nobody can, and to demand otherwise is both futile and foolish.”

 
(HT: SP)

Economic models as fables

Different knowledge disciplines mean different things by the verb “to understand”.   For economists and physicists, a domain or a problem is not understood unless and until it is modeled, and often only by a particular type of model.    For most economists, for instance, agent-based models do not provide understanding, because they only show sufficient and not necessary conclusions.    For mechanical engineers, understanding usually only comes from a physical prototype.  For computer programmers, understanding happens through and with the writing of a software programme for the problem.  For legal scholars, it arises with and from the writing of a narrative text reflecting on the problem and its issues.
Here is economist and game theorist Ariel Rubinstein on models in economics:
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Political invective

I’ve long been a fan of good political vitriol.   Here was a catalog, compiled by journalist Mungo MacCallum,  of words used by Paul Keating in the Australian Commonwealth Parliament to describe his opponents.    With such a past, it is good to see that some folks are still hard at work keeping standards of vitriol high:
Here is Telegraph financial journalist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, skewering (and rightly so) that smug and arrogant architect of our common European Economic Disaster, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble:

I apologise personally to Mr Schäuble for calling him a dangerous mediocrity: arrogant, shallow, narrow-minded, provincial, and unscientific in equal degree. This was shockingly rude. It brings shame to Fleet Street.”

And here, on David Cameron, is Jake Davis, aka Topiary, who has not lost his way with words since being the tweet-face of Anonymous and LulzSec:

David Cameron is an absolute wet-lipped Eton-spawned fleshnugget with no actual perspective on global policy. I hate the Tories with a burning passion reserved for the Westboro Baptist Church. The fault of cyberbullying lies with the parents, like all fault for everything, especially the troubles in Syria.”
 

Oral culture

For about the last 300 years, and especially from the introduction of universal public education in the late 19th century, western culture has  been dominated by text and writing.  Elizabethan culture, by contrast, was primarily oral:  Shakespeare, for example, wrote his plays to be performed not to be read, and did not even bother to arrange definitive versions for printing.  

One instance of the culture-wide turn from speech to text was a switch from spoken to written mathematics tests in the west which occurred at Cambridge in the late 18th century, as I discuss here.  There is nothing intrinsically better about written examinations over spoken ones, especially when standardized and not tailored for each particular student.  This is true even for mathematics, as is shown by the fact that oral exams are still the norm in university mathematics courses in the Russian-speaking world; Russia continues to produce outstanding mathematicians.

Adventurer and writer Rory Stewart, now an MP,  has an interesting post about the oral culture of the British Houses of Parliament, perhaps the last strong-hold of argument-through-speech in public culture.  The only other places in modern life, a place which is not quite as public, where speech reigns supreme, are court rooms.

Honeywell International Inter-varsity Debating Festival 1978

On 17 July 1978, the ABC TV current affairs programme, Monday Conference, held a Parliamentary Debate at Sydney University with participants from the Honeywell International Inter-varsity Debating Festival, then being held in Sydney: universities represented included Auckland, Cambridge, Canterbury (NZ), Columbia, Glasgow, Harvard, Nairobi, Oregon, Oxford and eight Australian universities.  Particularly memorable performances were given by Nicholas O’Shaughnessy (age 26) from Oxford and David Pash (age 19) from Harvard.  Pash, speaking of O’Shaughnessy’s speeches, remarked:

They fall into three categories:  the witty, the stirring, and the vast majority.”

Pash also said:

Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Or, in Latin, Nil combustio sic profumo.

Pash is now an attorney in LA, and O’Shaughnessy Professor of Communication at Queen Mary, University of London. Ewan Sutherland, a participant from Glasgow and now a telecommunications consultant, has a short report of the Debating Festival here.
Following the Festival, the student newspaper of the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, Woroni, reported on a visit to ANU by the Oxford University Union Debating Team (issue of 1 August 1978).   This report (with obvious typing errors corrected, one ellipsis added, and one misplaced line – shown by [ ] – re-inserted appropriately) is here:

Complete with jokes generously supplied by the FitWilliam [sic] Museum of Antiquities in Cambridge, the  Oxford University Union Debating Team visited Canberra for four days at the beginning of second semester.  The team was in Australia along with teams from Cambridge, Glasgow, Harvard, Columbia, Oregon, Auckland, Canterbury and several Australian universities including ANU for the first Honeywell International Inter-varsity Debating Festival in Sydney.
Despite the fact that all four members of the team are part of Margaret Thatcher’s shock troops (she was described by one of them as Attila the Hen), they were almost human.  Nicholas O’Shaughnessy wants to be Viceroy of India and developed an accent to match.  John Harrison . . . found solace in the company of Greg Carman.  Marie-Louise Rossi replaced at 4 hours notice a past president of the Oxford Union, Vivienne Dinham.  Mark Sterling, in between drams, managed to defeat the cream sherry of ANU Law School mooting talent, Tom Faunce and Lee Aitken.
There were two debates in Canberra.  The first, on 19th July, was against ANU, ably represented by Andrew Byrnes, Steve Bartos and Vivienne Bath.  The subject was ‘That Only God can Save the Queen‘, which Oxford negated.  By any standards it was a good piece of comedy, though not perhaps describable as a debate.  Oxford were rather the worse for wear, having staggered off a plane from North Queensland just 1.5 hours before the debate began.
On 20th July there was a highly successful debate in the Albert Hall against a team from parliament.   It proved very difficult to get any MPs at all.  Most of the  ALP were overseas on their compulsory annual junkets.  Many Liberals were [  ] discreetly elsewhere on the date of the debate.  No member of the National Party could be found who could string more than about three words together before collapsing in in exhaustion.  In the end we found Michael Baume, Jim Carlton and Michael Hodgman, who turned on a very entertaining performance.  They admirably proved that talent is in inverse proportion to one’s chances of becoming a minister.
On July 21 the Law School staged a moot and lost.  Oxford left for Melbourne on July 22, having only managed [to see Canberra  in the wet.  Every time] that a trip was planned, the heavens opened.
On a marginally more serious  note, the success of the Oxford visit has prompted the Union to try and re-establish Union Night Debates on a regular weekly basis.  These debates are an established and popular feature of many English and Australian universities, and were common here until a few years ago.  If anyone wants to help on the Union Debates Committee, go and talk to someone in the Union Office.

The article was accompanied by a photo of the 19 July debate participants, showing seated (left-to-right) under a portrait of the Queen and a British and an Australian flag: John Harrison, Marie-Louise Rossi (1956-2014), Nicholas O’Shaughnessy, Greg Carman (MC), Vivienne Bath, Steven Bartos and Andrew Byrnes. I attended the debate on 19 July 1978.