Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Economists vs lawyers – and the death of the umpire

With appropriately lawyerly tardiness, I’m using the Fair Pay Commission decision from a couple of weeks ago to segue into something broader – just how de-lawyered, and so conversely, economisted, the West has become in recent decades.

The Fair Pay Commission is a convenient example of this: it replaced something familiar to almost any adult – an adversarial contest resolved by a (more or less) impartial and expert umpire – with something opaque and gimcrack. The neutral umpire is conspicuously absent in the new regime of course, but also important is the loss of adversarial oomph in the process. Thus, the ACTU had only asked for a minimum wage increase slightly above the inflation rate. Notoriously, they ended up getting almost all they asked for – and then cried “rigged” because of this. Which would be all very amusingly ironic, if the unions hadn’t so willingly embraced the mickey-mouse spirit of the whole thing from the beginning.

Admittedly, the Fair Pay Commission’s directly replacing lawyers with court jesters doesn’t (yet) seem to be part of a sweeping trend among institutions in the West. But indirectly there does seem to be a general retreat from the open and understood, towards special pleading behind closed doors. The “court” of George W Bush is an example here – the concept of separation of powers is redundant and quaint as a criticism of the overreach of executive power under the Bush presidency. The goalposts haven’t simply been moved; the oval’s been trashed and the grandstands boarded up – all while ostensibly operating as business-as-usual.

Favour-currying whores in broad brush, economists do at least have one positive attribute when looked at close-up – intellectual consistency in a vacuum, taken to heroic proportions, if necessary. Thus, take this snippet from an Economist book review:

Sadly, in the climate of [1950s England], which treated homosexuality as an abhorrent mixture of sickness and weakmindedness, rather as paedophilia is regarded now, it was not [exceptional].

Yep, just a casual plug for paedophilia there, folks – apropos of what, your guess is as good as mine. But that’s the difference between economists and lawyers: lawyers think in terms of absolutes, like consent, while for economists there’s only a continuum of pricing.

I imagine that economists’ defence of paedophilia presumes it as just another form of child labour – and what is wrong with that? Nothing, seems to be the orthodoxy at the Economist magazine, at least. In the same issue (6 July 2006) as the above book review snippet is a detailed country review of Pakistan, which notes (i) that the country’s only real export industry is textiles, and (ii) its high (50%) illiteracy rate. Now call me a crusading lawyer, but I would have thought that, juxtaposing these two facts, would mean noting that child-labour was endemic in Pakistan’s textile industry – but child-labour is nowhere even hinted at.

But hey, that’s the joy of globalisation. Slavery – sexual and otherwise – has never been so endemic and yet so silent and opaque.

I've ben thinking about this froma slightly different angle. I understand John Howard was legally trained before he left home at age 32 into the newly married home, but, much like Paul Keating, nursed into power as a Treasurer through some boomer chance at life.

If rights and torts have been swapped for prices and markets why is it that lawyers, those would-be-know-it-alls seemed to be the ones most likely to ease this axiological transfer of power?

Considering economics' status (with sociology) as a wanna-be science its easy to see that they are ripe for ideological framing according to one's own biases, thus by transfering to the use of economic metaphors one has a trojan horse for the spread of one's own values.

These lawyers must have relaised that that a pseudo-science offers better ideological results than a strict rule of law.

Murdoch said the Iraq war was good because the price of oil would drop. Pure economic judgement system. It didn't of course. But has that changed his valuing system?

The beauty of economics as a system is that you can accuse you value-others of scientific silliness while indulging your own with the same framework.

Thatcher believed all that economic guff, but at least she had a Chemistry degree and understood the impact of CFCs on the ozone layer, and what it did to UV rays.

A legally trained twit like John Howard has no understanding of science what-so-ever, and if his introduction to science is economics then his post-law education is severly hampered by economics' current use as a wheel-barrow for dumping one's conservative values on everything too slow to get out of the way.

As a conservative he is emotionally loathed to admit that his values and the behaviour based on his values will change anything, let alone create change that is bad.

Global warming? Sniff. Rising Sea levels? Sniff. Drought? cough, ahem, I hear the price of water is going up and that means more bludgers will not wash properly.

it also explains things like this

Arh! Insurance and children. The final cost of pricing mechanisms.

I think you might be overstating the importance of John Howard’s legal background. Once a politician decides to go with their own “court” (= circle of advisers, lackeys, spies etc), as opposed to working with independent umpires, one’s personal past is irrelevant. Also remember that the hidden tail of such “courts” often tends to wag the dog.

Howard’s systemic de-umpiring arguably has an even more dramatic example in the school chaplains proposal. Leaving aside the church-vs-state argument, these chaplains will be not only amateurs (as opposed to trained counsellors), they also appear set to bypass school and departmental bureaucracies/hierarchies. In other words, they will be reporting more-or-less directly to Howard’s “court” – in both senses and directions of “reporting”.
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