Friday, August 30, 2013

Elections, representative democracy and popular opinion

As the Australian Federal election campaign enters its last week, both sides are attempting to appeal to what they perceive as popular topics with particular slices of the Australian population. Meantime, there appears to be a common view that this has been an uninspiring election.  Most people shrug and say that they are voting against or for the least disliked. Of course there are enthusiasts, true believers. Still, they appear to be a smaller group than usual.

Looking back over my writing on previous campaigns, I have railed against what I see as the supermarket approach to politics, the idea that parties put forward a series of specific offerings that voters then chose between; I have criticised the idea of mandate, that Governments must do just what they have promised to do at an election; and I have suggested that the idea that a popular vote at some point in time can somehow bind Parliament or Parliamentarians to either fixed agendas or specific leaders was a fundamental breach of representative parliamentary democracy.

Back in June 2012, Possum Comitatus had a rather interesting piece, What Australians Believe, that looks at certain sets of Australian views as measured by the polls. It may be over twelve years old, but it is still worth a read for the patterns and contradictions revealed actually frame aspects of the current election campaign rather well. For example, the conflict between the popular view that Government should do more and the equally popular view that Government is too large.

Now consider the following table. Even after all these years, the privatisation of icon Government enterprises is seen in negative terms. By contrast, the five following items including the GST are seen in positive terms. They each met with sometimes very strong opposition at the time, but are now seen in positive terms. Further comments follow the table.govdecisions

The things I criticised  in my second paragraph have the effect of locking Government into a straight jacket set by popular view at a particular time. The role of Government is to govern, taking changing circumstances into account. This includes taking unpopular decisions, not implementing blind promises made at a point in time regardless, With time, some of those decisions will prove to be right if still unpopular, others will gain net approval but in fact be questionable. 

That's all part of our system. In the end, we give Governments power and expect them to exercise that power if with restraint. We do so, knowing that we can kick them out.      

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Biographical wanderings - introducing Archibald Clunes Innes


This is Archibald Clunes Innes, then a Captain in the English 3rd Regiment or Buffs. Study him, for you will be hearing more about him.

I have been sadly remiss in my writing on my main history project. I don't want to give up writing on politics or MOOCs or any of the many things that interest me. Indeed, I have an economics column due that must be written before the Australian election but won't be published until some time after, but must be current. That's kind of a challenge in itself! But I must move forward on my main projects.

I have decided to try an experiment. While still writing on other things, over the next week or so and across my blogs, I am going to focus on one man. 

Archibald Innes was, to my mind, a rather nice man, kind and courteous. These are qualities I value. He went bankrupt in 1852. But before he did, he built a business empire. The world of Archibald Innes is a world that few Australians know. It is a world that I find appealing in, at one level, for the same reason that I find Jane Austin appealing. It is about manners and style.

I am not going to say more tonight. I wish to write my Armidale Express column on one element of the life that surrounded that man. You will see that column much later. Now I am just staking the ground. I will use this post as an entry post for all my posts.Think of them as an experiment in biography, the way that a man or women can illumine their world.      

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

In praise of Optus customer service

I have been of line because I have had no internet connection. First my phone went dead, and then my internet.

I like rewarding customer service and have the power to do so via this blog.

I know a lot about technology, but am hopeless on mechanical details. I rang Optus customer service and got Vanessa. She talked me through the problem and then said that she could get the technicians to check the line, but if the problem lay in my equipment there would be a $150 service charge. We talked about the issue and agreed the following:

  • I would buy or borrow a new handset to check the connection.
  • She would divert my home fixed line to my mobile and arrange for me to get a credit on the mobile to cover costs. That came through the next day.
  • I would buy a Telstra prepaid USB Wi-Fi, and Optus would credit the costs to my account. Why Telstra? Vanessa checked, and i live in an Optus wireless blackspot. Telstra customer service, by the way, were very good in helping me connect the device. Optus would reimburse me for the costs.
  • She would ring me back to review the situation when I had done these things.

Tonight I rang the Optus call number to report progress. Vanessa wasn't there, but as it turned out a friend answered the call. I reported that the new phone hadn't worked and that my internet had finally collapsed. I had also changed some of the connecting cables to check that. She checked technical support and found out that there was, in fact, now a broader outage problem in my immediate area that might be fixed tomorrow but might in fact take to Friday.

She took the receipt number for my purchase of the new Telstra USB Wi Fi and the price and said that she would arrange the credit to my bill. She said that she would let Vanessa know what had happened and pass on my thanks. They would SMS me when the broader problem was fixed, and I would ring back Friday if I still had problems.

I know that it is annoying when things go wrong. Certainly I was annoyed. But isn't it nice when you get someone who who can offer practical help?  Neither Vanessa  nor her friend had and idea that i could or would take their help to the world.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Saturday Morning Musings - elections, budgets & the patterns of political and demographic change in Australia

I have been off air, so to speak, since Monday because of the need to complete other things. Meantime, the election has ground on. This has been a very strange campaign, really two campaigns, The first is the official campaign, the second the surrounding analysis and commentary.  Of the two, the second is the more informed, interesting and indeed important for it is delineating the issues that either side will have to deal with following the election.

The official campaign is all about specific initiatives that may or may not be offset by spending cuts. Nobody is quite sure what might be cut, indeed, nobody is quite sure about anything. We may or may not buy some decrepit Indonesian fishing boats. We may or may not get the budget back into surplus. We may build this road or then again we may not. We may or may not develop the north. We definitely won't increase GST, but then again we may. I get confused, I must say, for I am not sure what any of it means. Neither side has really articulated a clear picture or clear principles that I can easily understand.  

At least with the second campaign, the surrounding analysis and commentary is drawing out key issues quite clearly.

It is clear, for example, that the Australian Government faces significant expenditure constraints that must be dealt with by tax increases or expenditure cuts or a combination of the two. The quantum may vary depending on your view about the size of government and the acceptable level of budget deficit, but the central principle remains true. I am not saying anything new, just stating an accepted fact.

We also face an uncertain economic outlook. Again, I am not saying anything new. Globally, there are signs of economic revival in the developing world, while the developing world is slowing. In a world awash with money, short term currency flows can have significant impacts as we have just seen, with flows from emerging markets to the US. Australian domestic activity on which tax revenues depend is sluggish. If we take the official estimates on which the Commonwealth budget is predicated, higher or lower results are equally likely. This increases budget uncertainty.

Of all the various issues raised during the election campaign, the one that has emerged as most important in a macro sense is productivity improvement. Without productivity improvement, the country's ability to fund things will be further constrained. Both sides agree on this, but neither has really articulated a coherent approach towards the issue. Grouping a series of sometimes ad hoc initiatives usually developed for other reasons under a productivity improvement mantra, Gonski or Mr Abbott's paid parental leave scheme come to mind, does not make for a coherent approach. 

I have come to think of this election as the pain election. With both sides trying to balance promises with cuts in the name of budget neutrality, each promise involves pain for someone else. In the case of Mr Abbott's paid parental leave scheme, as a simple example, shareholders will lose a degree of franking credit. Both sides are involved in a game of redistribution, redistributing a notionally fixed cake at the margin. That is why it is so important to have the detail of the Coalition promises and associated cuts elsewhere.

Since the final size of the cake is actually uncertain, we also need to make judgements about what might have to be done if the economy performs less well than expected. Given the promises and pledged expenditure cuts, just what flexibility will either side have in responding? What promises might have to be broken, what new cuts imposed, what taxes increased? I would feel a lot more comfortable if I could provide an indicative answer to those questions.

The latest public opinion polls (as always, the Poll Bludger provides a good entry point here) show Labor weakening. It is hard to see the Coalition losing; the only question in my mind is the size of the victory. However, the thing that now interests me is what the polls, as well as the qualitative analysis, might say about the future, the changing structure of Australia and Australian politics.

If we look at the detail of the latest poll, we find a very skewed voting structure based on age. To draw this out, I have selected some of the data and put it in the following table grouped by age.

Age Group 18-24 % 25-39 % 40-54 %
Labor 38 40 35
Coalition 32 40 49
Greens 21 12 9
Independent 3 3 3
Other 6 4 4
Prime Minister's Performance      
Approve 59 50 41
Disapprove 35 42 54
Uncommitted 6 8 5
Opposition Leader's Performance      
Approve 34 39 44
Disapprove 62 56 53
Uncommitted 4 5 3
Preferred Prime Minister      
Gillard/Rudd 62 56 44
Abbott 34 37 47
Uncommitted 4 6 9

The age skew in the figures is very interesting from a longer term perspective. The Coalition vote is strongly skewed towards the 40+, the Green vote is heavily skewed towards the young (21% in the 18-24 age group is very high indeed), while Labor is strongest in those up to 39. This is a generational election in which older Australians have swung towards Coalition. younger Australians away from the Coalition. If this election were held tomorrow with voting limited to those under forty, Labor would romp in with strong Green support.

This pattern fits with my perceptions of the views of younger Australians. They are less likely to support stop the boats, more likely to believe that climate change is a real problem, more likely to be left of centre on social issues including gay marriage. The distribution shows why, from a Labor perspective, it is so important to try to minimise losses in this election. The age distribution vote skew is so pronounced that, if the voting intentions were to stay the same, each year that passes improves Labor's vote as the presently younger age cohorts age, the older cohorts diminish.

The Greens will obviously be pleased too. While their overall vote has apparently weakened (10% in this poll vs 11.8% at the last election), the high youth support does provide a base for subsequent Senate elections.

   There are a number of other interesting features in the numbers. However, I am out of time this morning. I am going to be watching the detailed pattern of voting on 7 September with interest not because of the overall result, but for what it may tell us about the longer term changing pattern across Australia.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Mediterranean's 300 year drought

This piece by Kosta Pandos and Sunanda Creagh in The Conversation, Climate change hastened ancient civilisations' collapse: study, interested me. It reports on a new study that concluded that climate change sparked the political and economic turmoil that hastened the collapse of formerly prosperous civilisations in regions such as Greece and Syria towards the end of the 13th century BC. You can find the full study here.

The Conversation writers put it in the context of current discussions on global warming, although the study does no more than illustrate the importance of climatic shifts in a particular place and time in which I have an interest.

I commented once before that one of the things that I did not properly understand when I first did history and prehistory at University was the extent of climatic variation. If you look at just how dry the Greek Islands are today, you can see how a long drought might affect life. In similar vein, we now know that the troubles afflicting new settlement at Sydney were in part climate induced, while during the long Aboriginal occupation of this country there were multiple climatic variations.

The expansion in our knowledge of past variations in climate and their affects is really quite remarkable. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sunday snippets - the importance of PEFO in an economic policy free zone

This has been a most disrupted weekend.

Some of has been good. Eating eldest's pork belly plus salad (it's a nice combination) while watching first a film and the Rugby test between Australia and New Zealand with both daughters. Then today somewhat unexpectedly watching youngest play hockey; her season had ended, but she had a last game as a sub.

Some of it has been not so good. Really, oh Wallabies, with 55% of the possession, how did you let the All Blacks beat you so badly?! Eighteen points no less. Did you let the Haka put you off? The photo is from the Canberra Times. Then youngest let some goals in, although she played well and did stop a penalty shot. That's one on one and quite hard to do.  Haka 17 August 13 

Some of the weekend has been just plain bad. Waking in the early morning today to do some writing, I turned the air conditioner on to get some warmth. Half an hour later, it blew the fuses. Hours later, the electrician got things working again. Grrrr!

So what to write now? Well, just one thing.

For those who like acronyms, PEFO stands for the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Outlook. Prepared by the Commonwealth Departments of Treasury and Finance, its purpose is summarised in this way: 

The Charter of Budget Honesty Act 1998 (the Charter) provides for the Secretary to the Treasury and the Secretary of the Department of Finance and Deregulation (the Secretaries) to release publicly a Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook report (PEFO) within 10 days of the issue of the writ for a general election. Such a writ was issued on 5 August 2013.

The purpose of the PEFO is to provide updated information on the economic and fiscal outlook. The information in the report takes into account, to the fullest extent possible, all Government decisions made before the issue of the writ and all other circumstances that may have a material effect on the economic and fiscal outlook.

The objective is, to use a phrase popularised by former Australian politician Don Chipp, to keep the bastards honest. As an aside, where are the Australian Democrats when we really need them? They provided a middle of the road alternative to those who find themselves unable to vote for either of the major parties or, today, the Greens. 

I digress.

This year's PEFO has attracted varying views. Economic columnist Ross Gittins is supportive (The devil's in the detail of Treasury data), fellow economic columnist Alan Kohler is not (PEFO a work of pure fantasy). For those who want to read the original, you will find it here. Ross Gittin's piece provides the best summary.

In many ways, this election campaign has been an economic policy free zone. What PEFO does is to lay down some parameters that both Labor and Coalition will have to deal with. How those parameters are interpreted depends upon particular bias, yet ignore them at your peril. The capacity of either of the leading contenders to deliver on their other promises depends on those parameters.

I make this point because, to my mind, neither of the main sides has yet provided a clear explanation, a clear picture, of the way that they are going to manage economic uncertainty. The policy elements may be there, but I need a simple explanation that I can test.  

Saturday, August 17, 2013

MOOCs 1 - overview

I didn't get a lot of feedback on my post on massive open online courses (MOOCs) (Have you tried MOOCS? What did you think?), but I wanted to continue my discussion as a way of clarifying my own thoughts. It also makes a welcome break from the current Australian election campaign!

I suppose I should start by explaining further why I am interested in MOOCs.

To begin with, what is a MOOC? In simple terms, MOOC stands for:

  • Massive. The platforms used allow for almost any number of enrolments. In Autumn 2011, Stanford launched three courses each of which had over 100,000 enrolments. That's massive.
  • Open. The courses are open to anyone. There are no limitations on entry. Further, participation has been free, although that is changing.
  • Online. The entire course is delivered online. There is no campus.
  • Course. Students are enrolled in specific courses of varying lengths.

A free course from major institutions taken in your own home? What's the catch? Well, there are two. The first is that it requires a certain level of determination to get through. Completion rates are as low as 10%. The second is that, in the past, you got no recognition for your efforts. That's fine if you were doing something just for the sake of learning, not so good if you wanted something to put on your CV.

The costs involved in setting everything up are obviously tremendous, and then you give it away. Is that sustainable? No, its not. An institution might do certain things as an ad-on, but you can't do it in a core way for ever. There has to be money in it.

Now here we come to the basic product of a university or recognised training institution. It's not the course, but the qualification or tick at the end that counts. In measuring the economic value of education, for example, economists don't measure the value of the course, but of the qualification at the end.What extra income do people with degrees get?

Now once you have a mass audience, some at least may want to get the qualification. So what do you now do? You charge them for a test or exam and, if they pass, you give them the formal tick. As a former CEO of a specialist medical college, I know this system well. We charged our trainees a membership fee, that covered certain costs, but we also charged them an examination fee for the exams that they had to sit to test scientific knowledge.

Can you see why universities are worried?  I enrol in the course at no charge, then if I am doing well I pay for my test and get my qualification. Bingo, I am a graduate. It's actually not quite as simple as that. In my next post, I will look in more detail at the economics of MOOCs. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Refugees - Mr Morrison, Mr Abbott and a staggeringly stupid inhumanity

I do not know if the reports coming through on the Coalition's latest stance on refugee policy are true or not. I quote from Bianca Hall's story in the Age.

The Coalition will ramp up its hardline stance on refugees on Friday, announcing that almost 32,000 asylum seekers who have already arrived in Australia by boat will never get permanent settlement as well as stripping them of the right to appeal to the courts.

The Coalition would also introduce indefinite work-for-the-dole obligations for those found to be refugees.

A Coalition government would scrap the right of asylum seekers to appeal to the courts, which in the March quarter brought the number of asylum seekers who were granted refugee status from 65.3 per cent to more than 90 per cent.

To my mind, this is a bridge too far. It displays an inhumanity of staggering proportions. All objectivity has been lost in the continuing race to the bottom.

Let me start with a simple question. If the Coalition is prepared to do this to one group, what makes you think that they won't do it to you if politically expedient? Once the principle is established that Governments can simply overturn due process and the rule of law, where do you draw the line? Why are you different?

My second point. In playing on this issue in the way they have, Governments of both persuasions have created a festering sore that has begun to poison the country. Think I'm wrong? Just read some of the comment threads.

My third point. This is just bad policy in practical terms. Yes, it may stop the boats. But can it be enforced? Leave aside the legal challenges, leave aside the moral or value issues, this is punishment policy. I would have thought that the practical problems associated with, for example, indefinite work for the dole obligations for those found to be refugees would actually make the policy unenforceable.

I know that assimilation has acquired a bad odour.  It's not a politically correct word. However, the idea of assimilation provided a path acceptable to the broader community that allowed new groups to be fitted into Australian society. There is no path in these latest pronouncements. There is no room for assimilation.  There is just exclusion, regardless of case.

If these latest pronouncements prove to be correct, then I am forced to the conclusion that we cannot trust the Coalition to run this country. We cannot trust them to be objective or fair. We cannot expect them to observe the rule of law. We cannot trust them to look after us.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? To slightly mangle the Latin tag, who will  guard us from the guardians? 

I write with sadness, knowing that many will disagree with me. Looking at the polling data, I would think that I am in a minority.

But who would have thought that issues such as productivity improvement, the economy, decentralisation, the future we want to build together, would be so overshadowed by a single, arguably peripheral, issue? 

Shakespeare wrote: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves." I think that's pretty right. Neither Labor nor the Coalition would be running on the refugee issue in the way they have if they didn't think it appealed to the electorate, ie us.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Have you tried MOOCS? What did you think?

As I mentioned in passing a little while ago, I have been watching the emergence of Massive open online courses (MOOCs) with interest. They continue to be all the rage in the university sector. Now they are spreading into other parts of education and training. I can see why MOOCs may disrupt, change, existing teaching systems. However, I have been wondering about the economics of the whole thing, as well at the educational aspects.

MOOCs are, in fact the latest in a series of changes dating bask to at least the early eighties (I first wrote about the process around 1983) that mark the progressive commercialisation and industrialisation of the services sector. I may be wrong, but I suspect that my regular readers are unlikely to be interested in MOOCs as device for personal learning. Still, I wondered if I could find anyone who has had personal experience with MOOCs.

If so would you like to tell me about it? Did you start and then stop? What were the things that you most/least liked about the process? This information would help me cross-check my own views.


I am going to leave this post up until Saturday to see if I can get more. In the meantime, a colleague wrote in another forum:

Yes I have tried one. I did an online course with Steve Blank on How to Build a Lean Startup . He lectures at Stanford and I did the course through Udacity. It was excellent! 

In response to a question, Ian added:

It was well presented. it was nicely broken up into modules. There were some review questions in each section. And I felt I was getting as good as I would've got in a face to face lecture. The material was stimulating. There was extra reading to do from a set text book. So it was a very positive learning experience.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Messrs Abbott and Rudd fail their middle management interviews

Note to readers. I am treating this post as my Monday Forum post. I am told that the debate got better during the Q&As. Maybe I'm wrong in my initial reaction, but I found myself disappointed and quite angry. What was your reaction to the debate? What did you learn from it that was new in terms of policies, style of government? 

This will be tomorrow's post. I'm sorry, but I switched the debate off. This is what I wrote on Twitter:

What a boring lot of twaddle. I switched off the Rudd v Abbott debate. It's like listening to a narrow middle management job interview.

Seriously, and maybe it improved later with questions, but it was the most boring job interview I ever heard. I wanted to know what both thought were the key issues for our future, a bit of high level stuff backed up later in questions with additional details. What should we aim for over the next three years, how might we get there?

Surely that's not too much to ask? It doesn't have to be perfect, but it gives me a basis for choice. To the degree that each leads a team, I wouldn't vote for either.

How about something like this. "I will leave the detail to the questions. In the short time I have, I want to  tell you about the most pressing challenges Australia faces and what we will do to address them."

Sunday Essay - the real insignificance of Australia's chattering zone

This morning's Sunday Essay is triggered by offerings from my fellow bloggers.

Over on Club Troppo, Gummo Trotsky's George H W Bush & The Broccoli Wars reminded me of a footnote in recent US politics. It appears that President Bush Snr's dislike of broccoli, a dislike shared by many, actually has a physiological base. However, one commenter managed to put his own very particular slant on the matter:

Supertasting is a pretty good analogy for what researchers like Jonathan Haidt have observed: people with conservative views have a strong sensitivity to fear and disgust, while progressive types don’t.

That’s why, where the Right sees a community of grotesque abominations and a dire threat to western civilisation, the Left just sees gay people and isolated acts of terrorism.

Over at his place, Don Aitkin's How important is this election? seeks to correct the view that this is the most significant election ever and in so doing has a shot at The Conversation. This drew a comment from Peter Kemmis:

For a university-supported site, I think "The Conversation" is quite disappointing. It reflects a narrowness from many contributors and feeds what may in many cases be a narrow readership. There is an opinion piece by Nick Cater in "The Australian" today, where he discusses the media and current politics. He defines the Chatter Zone as comprising 13 Australian electorates, where 9 seats are held by the Coalition, and the balance by Labor and the Greens. Within 5 of these electorates live 2,000 of Australia's 20,000 journalists. In the 19 electorates:

  • 20% vote green (compared to 10% nationally)
  • 2.85% of couples are in same-sex relationships (0.57% nationally)
  • 20% of adults have a degree in arts or the humanities (6% nationally)
  • 33% state 'no religion' (20% nationally)
  • 40% of mixed couples are de facto (10% nationally).

Cater's telling point is: "The prejudices of the Chatter Zone set the agenda on ABC1's Q&A. Planetary warming? Check. Gay marriage? Check. The depravities of the Catholic Church? Check. Turnbull for Liberal leader? Check. It is an inner-city dinner where the only saving grace is the absence of couscous."

As it happens, I'm inclined to agree about the narrowness of The Conversation. It's on my reading list for I find some useful material there, but there does seem to be a perceptual bias among its writers. I would also agree that the inner city electorates that Cater is referring too lie on a particular edge of the Australian social and political spectrum. I, too, have complained about that, about the way that views from those areas are presented as a value norm.

However, it's not quite as clear cut as that. To begin with, journalists living in particular areas focusing on particular slices do tend to absorb the views of those that they write about. For example, and long may this continue, journalists writing on rural issues or living in country areas are far more likely to be interested in National Party or country political or life issues. No one accuses them of bias.

Now take the issues that Mr Cater lists.

It is true that climate change scepticism is greater in country areas, that certain sets of environmental views are most deeply entrenched in the electorates that Mr Cater talks about, However, the position is far more complicated than that. You only have to consider the environmental wars that have raged across New England, wars that have had a direct affect on NSW and national politics, to see that the changing coalitions of interests are far more complex, that the views of inner city Greens are largely peripheral to the New England debate. They just don't matter. Lock the Gates did not spring form Mr Cater's electorates.

Or consider the depravities of the Roman Catholic Church.

It is, I think, true that there are particular negative views about religious faith that are more common in the areas that Mr Cater talks about. But if you look at the real hot spot issues in this area, they are not in the inner city areas but in places like the Lower Hunter, in Armidale, or in regional Victoria. Further, the people they most affect are those who were devout, who trusted their institutions, and they are far removed from the sometimes brittle dinner party or restaurant chatter of a Marrickville or Balmain, to take Sydney examples. Broken Rites is hardly an inner city organisation, at least as I understand it.

Gay marriage and, more broadly gay rights, is a different case. Here, I think, we can say that certain inner city Sydney areas provided something of a haven for changes that spread across Australia. But that had little to do with the then chattering classes, more with the ability of people to organise.

Like Mr Cater, I get annoyed with the way that the chatter zone seems to dominate certain aspects of media coverage. But then, I remind myself that it doesn't actually matter. In the diversity that is Australia, it is the interaction between personal and area concerns that finally sets the agenda.                 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Saturday Morning Musings - using time recording to help you refine your personal goals

While I am still partially off posting, I thought that I should give you a report on the personal tests that I have been running since it bears upon the discussion on personal goal setting and may actually be helpful to some.

While I write a lot on problems associated with goal setting and the current obsession with measurement, this doesn't mean that I am opposed to either in a general sense. You do need numbers, metrics, to identify issues and analyse performance. My gripe lies in the way in which it is presently done and the adverse results that can follow. You need to be clear on the reasons why and what you hope to gain.

Some years ago I was in a very high pressure Commonwealth job. I became dissatisfied with my apparent failure to deliver, frustrated with the pressure. I decided to keep a detailed time log, just recording the start time, activity, end time. I wasn't sure that this was sensible, it was another thing I had to do, but I persevered for three weeks until I had some decent results.

The results were actually quite reassuring. The results showed clearly both the range of issues that I was dealing with and the high output levels I was achieving. They also showed that the average time between interruptions was just five minutes. Uncomfortably, they also suggested that my pattern of follow up on delegated work was impulsive and hence variable. I actually wasn't putting enough time into managing my people. At the time, I had thirty seven staff, five direct reports plus a very high level of Departmental and Ministerial visibility. I found that that was driving me into things that I didn't need to do, that I was becoming reactive.

With the evidence in front of me, I was able to make a number of simple changes that reduced load and improved performance. While I maintained my open door policy, I also introduced a rule that if my door was shut I could not be interrupted. When work came in, I asked myself should I be doing this, or should I give it to someone else? I started grouping items for later discussion, disciplining myself so that I did not simply rush out to follow up as the impulse hit me. This proved remarkably hard, for I am by nature a reactive and impulsive person.

As an aside before going on, I feel just so sorry for current managers in my previous position. I had a fairly rigid rule that I would stop work at six if not before. In these days of email, blackberries or equivalent and on-line access, the working day has extended and extended. Has real output gone up? I think that the answer has to be a firm no. Still, that's another story.

Recently, I became very dissatisfied once again. This time my focus was on my writing performance and what this was meant to achieve.

Step one was to define a rolling publishing program linked to my personal objectives. I had done this before, but not linked to time recording and results measurement.  The results were not encouraging. I more or less kept to the publishing pattern, but I found that my output was below my expectations, that I only had so much time. I am not saying that my output was bad in objective terms, although it was lower than I had achieved before. Still, I averaged over a thousand words a day, over seven thousand word a week,but I wasn't completing my major writing targets.

The next stage was to withdraw from blogging as much as I could, focusing on my main writing targets. This stage was helped by hard writing deadlines, including a book chapter that I must finish.  Now I found a new issue, I was missing the interactivity that came from my public writing. This proved to be absolutely critical, for it lay at the heart of the reason why I write. That's the greatest fun!!

So in the last stage of my current test. I have set up a spreadsheet to simply record the interactivity. I want to see the pattern in a general sense and in the context of particular media since I write across a number of platforms.

I will report on this at a later point. For the moment, I simply note to my fellow bloggers who wish to write in a professional patten, and indeed all those who are dissatisfied with their personal performance, that measuring your time input is not a bad way to go in at least scooping the problem.       

Friday, August 09, 2013

Limiting Australian presidential politics: vote tactical

While still bogged down on writing deadlines, I have taken the liberty tonight of returning to the blogging world just to talk about presidential candidates Abbott and Rudd.  Presidential Tony

My family was addicted to West Wing, a program that has introduced more non-US people, and probably quite a few US people, to the intricacies of US politics.  Quite addictive.

The spread of US style presidential campaigning to Australia and the adoption of West Wing influences is well captured in this story. Here we have the serious leader sitting along in a big piece of kit reflecting our futures, In fact, he is probably just recovering with blank mind or thinking of his next lines.

I have never voted for dear leader in my life, and I don't intend to start now. Maybe that's not quite right, Doug Anthony comes to mind, but then I was also voting for a leadership team plus a party I already supported. It wasn't just Doug, but also Peter, Ian and Ralph in particular. And it was also my local candidate. Can you name the top National leadership now? I really can't beyond the hidden Warren or the ever present Barnaby.

The problem with the presidential dear leader' focus is that it sucks the oxygen out of the political debate. Tony Abbott commented that he would never agree to compromise to form a minority government. A commentator pointed out that as leader of the Liberal Party, and bar a total landslide, that was exactly what would happen. Mr Abbott would be dependent on the Nationals, a different party. Maybe the compromises and agreements have been made up front, but the principle would seem to me to be the same.

This election is not a vote for Mr Abbott or Mr Rudd or, indeed, a vote against either. As both Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard found, as Mr Menzies found before them, the position of Prime Minister is first among equals. Success in the role depends in significant part on the strength of your team and your ability to manage them in a collegiate way.

This election is also not primarily a vote about detailed policies or programs, nor about giving mandates beyond the mandate to govern. The idea that mandate = shopping list = delivery on every point exactly as stated is just plain dumb. The vote is simply about who we think best to represent us at local level, who beyond that is best equipped to govern for the next term. Where we are uncomfortable with the main choices, I guess that the question becomes what is the outcome that will best control or limit those concerns that we have.

So what does all this mean as to how I might vote, accepting that this might change as the election proceeds? Here I come back to the choices I might have when nominations close.

I am not going to vote for either the Liberal or Labor candidates in my electorate, Kingsford Smith. I am unhappy with their parties, and I don't know either well enough at this point to say that i am prepared to vote for them despite their parties. I definitely don't want to vote Green, although I did vote Democrat on many occasions in the past. The Greens are not the Democrats. They are far too rigidly ideological on issues where i disagree with them.

Now already i have achieved a small victory, for with Australia's public funding of elections I am denying the Libs, Labor or Greens the few dollars that might come from my vote.  The public funding system entrenches existing interests, something that I am opposed too. 

Having ruled out the three main parties, I will  then study the other candidates to decide who I like best. Since they won't win, I will then think about my second and third preference, Here I will decide at the time about my best worst choice.

In voting in this way, I get three benefit: one is the denial of public funding; the second is support for a minority or independent interest; the third is knowing that my vote still counts, that I may have a tiny marginal influence.

The senate involves different issues. Here I rarely vote above the line, preferring to get my magnifying glass and work through the candidates in a tactical way. But that's another story.     

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Deadlines and a halt in posting

I am tied down trying to finish a book chapter. I'm overdue and have put other writing aside until I finish. That's a pity, for I had got a real run on certain threads. In this context, Winton Bates has carried a comment thread from an earlier post (Monday Forum - micro-management, the evils of performance measurement & whatever else you like!) across into a full post, Should people seek contentment or accomplishment?. I will come back to the goal setting issue, but while I'm unavoidably detained, feel free to chat with Winton!

In the meantime, this is shot from Saturday watching my old school TAS (white shorts) playing Shore. TAS vs Shore 2

And here is another one. Since they restructured the Sydney GPS rugby competition I have become quite addicted. TAS vs Shore 1

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Introducing induction vs deduction: the fall of economic history at MIT

I fear my foreshadowed posts on MOOCs will have to wait!

A post on Professor Greg Mankiw's blog led me this June 2013 paper by Peter Temin, The Rise and Fall of Economic History at MIT. I was attracted by the title because it seemed to bear upon issues that I was exploring in my own amateurish way in Sunday Essay - economists and the decline of economics. Browsing, my eye was caught by this quote:

A more widely repeated comment was made by Paul Samuelson to Walt Rostow over lunch one day. After Rostow made a claim that Samuelson disliked, Samuelson said, “Walt, you may be an economist among historians, but you are historian when you are among economists.”

That resonated! I wonder why?

I found Professor Termin's piece interesting but depressing. Interesting because of the history, depressing because it was a similar pattern at another place at a similar time. I leave it to you to read the full paper, but I wanted to make a few comments.

Termin suggests that economics at MIT came to rest on three legs: theoretical economics, econometrics and economic history. The theoretical and econometric legs combined, ultimately squeezing out economic history. Underneath this result was an intellectual conflict that I am only just becoming aware of.

On Wednesday, Belshaw’s World – Barratt’s story: can the academic present measure up to its past? looked at some aspects of changing academic life through a prism set by Professor Barratt's history of the Psychology Department at the University of New England. By its nature, the book is partially a history of the changing face of psychology as a discipline seen through the eyes of one man at one place.

Underlying the changes, is a shift from inductive to deductive study within Psychology. Inductive reasoning is bottom up, a kind of reasoning that constructs or evaluates general propositions that are derived from specific examples. By contrast, in deductive reasoning specific examples are derived from general propositions.

Putting this another way, theoretical economist built models based on certain assumptions and then refined and extended them. As deductive reasoning gained sway, the economic journals filled with articles that were ever more detailed explanations of ever narrowing points. These explanations became hypothesis that were then subject to scientific test. This explains the natural fit between the theoreticians and the quantitative economists. However, you could only test those things for which certain types of data were available.

Something of the same process happened in psychology. Professor Barratt was a deductionist, although he used the term hypothetico-deductionist to combine the idea of hypothesis drawn from models followed by tests. Mind you, he never went to the same extreme as some of the economists, always recognising that you had to move between the particular and the general, that observation of human behaviour had a place in the creation of ideas.

I do not want this to be a long post. I am just setting a scene. In the meantime, do read Professor Temin's paper.