Sentences I liked in 2014

Stealing a good idea from my betters (how else is one supposed to write), I thought I’d gather together some of my Kindle highlights from books I read this year. The books weren’t necessarily books that were released this year, by the way: just the ones I ended up reading.

The Portuguese pack up their belongings and flee from Luanda in the leadup to Angolan independence and the start of the Angolan civil war:

“Everybody was busy building crates. Mountains of boards and plywood were brought in. The price of hammers and nails soared. Crates were the main topic of conversation—how to build them, what was the best thing to reinforce them with….Self-proclaimed experts, crate specialists, homegrown architects of cratery, masters of crate styles, crate schools, and crate fashions appeared.” (Ryszard Kapuściński, Another Day of Life)

The problem of a gerontocratic élite casually deciding for themselves that whole fields of modern science are fraudulent is not new:

“for England is full of old admirals and generals and squires who use their leisure in solving the problem of perpetual motion or foretelling the date of the next war from the measurements of pyramids” (Rebecca West, Ending in Earnest: A Literary Log)

The House of Lords during the Asquith government:

“In normal circumstances the upper chamber was an empty place; it was only in crises such as these that it was filled with a horde of hereditary nobodies, possessed with the gentlemanly desire to do the wrong thing.” (George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England)

From M. Şükrü Hanioğlu’s lively intellectual biography of the founder of the Turkish Republic: 

“Mustafa Kemal seems to have genuinely desired a multiparty democracy, but could not tolerate any criticism of his policies.” (M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, Ataturk)

The German Democratic Republic used to draw up annual Plans not just for the production of consumer goods and commodities, but also for literature:

“The authors of the Plan confessed that they had failed to produce an adequate supply of stories about factory workers and tractor drivers, but they would compensate for this shortcoming by publishing anthologies of older proletarian literature.” (Robert Darnton, Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature)

Fiscal consolidation has always been contentious:

“Socialists insisted that business should pay through a one-time levy on business assets, or “seizure of real values.” In the spring of 1921 the German Social Democratic economics minister Robert Schmidt proposed that the wealthy should be required to turn over 20 percent of their stocks and bonds and that a 5 percent tax should be paid on the value of landed property. Business and property owners were aghast. As an alternative they constructively suggested raising sales and excise taxes, which conveniently fell on workers.” (Barry Eichengreen, Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses and Misuses of History)

The gnostic preacher Cerdon was a remarkably modern man:

“Cerdon rejected the Old Testament and of the New Testament he accepted only the Gospel of Luke, from which he picked the bits that suited him.” (Leconte de Lisle, Histoire populaire du Christianisme)

Zweig quoting Talleyrand on his political twin Joseph Fouché:

“One understands why Monsieur Fouché despises his fellow men; he has made so close a study of himself.” Fouché, in turn, when Talleyrand is made Vice-Grand-Elector of the Empire, remarks mockingly: “That was the only vice he lacked.” (Stefan Zweig, Joseph Fouché: Portrait of a politician)

Newspapers when they are run by the leaderwriter:

To Archbishop Whately’s dictum that it matters greatly whether you put truth in the first place or the second, the candid expounder of modern journalism would reply that he put truth second to what he conceived to be the national interest. (Walter Lippmann, Liberty and the News)

Though from the city, Mitch McConnell campaigns as though he was born in a coalmine:

‘This miscalculation was understandable, to a degree—if Mitch McConnell had seemed ill-suited to campaigning among his fellow Louisvillians, he seemed even more so out in the state’s outlying areas. He did his best to develop what Joe Whittle, the Republican state chairman at the time, calls his “mountain presentation”…’ (Alex MacGillis, The Political Education of Mitch McConnell)

The weirdness of Gandhi’s belief system and its afterlife:

“Quite how strange a pot-pourri this was, will not be found in the industry of glozing commentary that has grown up around his ideas, adjusting them for contemporary usage in much the same way as the Pentateuch becomes a blue-print for universalism and the Quran all but a trailer for feminism…The composition of Gandhi’s faith…was born of a cross between a Jain-inflected Hindu orthodoxy and late Victorian psychomancy, the world of Madame Blavatsky, Theosophy, planchette and the Esoteric Christian Union.” (Perry Anderson, The Indian Ideology)

On the stupidity of British libel laws (now somewhat muted):

The Duke of Brunswick’s Rule of 1849 states that every republication of an offending statement is actionable. It says much about how the dead hand of the past weighs on my country that I need to explain that twenty-first-century law takes its lead from the case of a corpulent and despised German princeling, whom the good people of Brunswick had had the sense to throw out in the revolutions of 1830.” (Nick Cohen, You Can’t Read This Book)


Some rough first thoughts on how much students subsidise research at Australian universities

Say you’re a university student. How much of the marginal cost of providing you with this university education is being covered by (a) your own contribution, deferred through HECS and (b) government payments to universities? The short answer is, we don’t really know.

Universities get about $15 billion of government money a year. This comes in various forms. Some of it comes from direct government grants (about 44% of operating revenue, according to the Commission of Audit), and some of it from student fees that have been deferred and so are paid by the government initially.

A lot of this is set aside for research. But not enough. When universities get research funding, whether from government or private sources, it is often not enough to cover the whole cost of research. Universities have to make up the difference somehow. There are special government funding programs to pay for the ‘indirect’ costs of research—the overheads that aren’t covered by specific grants—but universities sometimes have to look elsewhere for funding.

In a report for the Bradley Review of higher education funding, Thomas Barlow made a rough-and-ready estimate of the amount of research funding that was being paid for by cross-subsidisation from other university income sources (not just student fees) and came up with the following approximation: around 12% of all university revenue in 2006 was spent on research that was financed by ‘general university funds’, of which fees make up a substantial proportion.

I had a rough go at updating this figure for 2012, the latest year for which the ABS have released figures on research in universities. This requires a bit of judgement, since university funding arrangements have changed a bit since Barlow’s estimates, with the Systemic Infrastructure Initiative and the Institutional Grants Scheme wound down and the Sustainable Research Excellence in Universities and the Joint Research Engagement Program replacing them. Adding up all the programs which aim to provide money for the ‘indirect’ costs of research (laboratories, administrative staff, electricity: all the things the universities have to provide on top of the things that are paid for by research grants) and subtracting it from general university funds spent on research, and we find that about universities spent about $3.8 billion on research from the general funds (that is, funds that are not from government, donations or private commissions for the purposes of funding either the direct or indirect costs of research). That represents about 15% of universities’ operating revenue in 2012, up from the 12% Barlow calculated in 2006.

A substantial fraction of this $3.8 billion likely comes from fees, especially international student fees, but possibly some from domestic student fees as well.

This cross-subsidisation could be the result of perverse incentives in the system. With the demand-driven system put in place by the previous government, universities can enrol however many students they like. If each additional student is cross-subsidising research, and research excellence is the measure on which vice-chancellors are usually assessed, then each additional student provides a benefit to the university, since some of their fees are used to pay for research, and the cost of a degree might be more than the marginal cost of providing it. (Assuming there is no benefit to students of university research. Universities often claim that they have ‘research-led’ teaching, but to be honest, I’m sceptical.) Of course, governments pay for some of the sticker price of a degree, so there’s a sort of ‘counter-subsidy’: students subsidise deficient government funding, and governments subsidise students.

But when you hear that plumbers are subsidising future doctors by funding their education, remember that it’s not quite as simple as that.


Cut and paste, #2

Editorial in the Australian:

“Even with the hopeless Wayne Swan as treasurer, we never accepted that there was a ‘budget emergency’, the unforunate term used by Mr Abbott and Mr Hockey to accentuate the sense of crisis around an erratic administration.

Headline of economics editor David Uren’s column in the Australian, 13 September 2013:

Yes, Mr Abbott, there is a budget emergency

Headline of contributing economics editor Judith Sloan’s column in the Australian, 18 December 2013:

Joe Hockey hits right note on budget emergency

So who writes the economics editorials in the Australian?