A modest proposal to fix Canberra


From the AFR this morning:

Labor leader Bill Shorten has warned there will be a “zero tolerance” approach towards disunity as he dug his heels in over support for a carbon price and unveiled a frontbench which included Tanya Plibersek as deputy, six new faces, and 11 women.

…But with Parliament to resume on November 12 for four weeks, the ­carbon tax is the dominant issue and, backed by his new leadership group, Mr Shorten hardened his resolve not to fold.

…Ultimately, Mr Abbott will have to wait until the new Senate sits after July 1 to repeal the carbon tax. Given he plans to abolish it on July 1, 2014, the repeal would have to be retrospective.

He will also need the support of Clive Palmer, who is demanding the $10 billion in carbon tax paid for this year, and the former financial year, be reimbursed.

Mr Palmer also has a vested interest because he is refusing to pay the $6.2 million in carbon tax he, so far, owes.

I am bereft of oxygen as the Kingslayer demands loyalty and a coal billionaire demands the trashing of the carbon tax with direct pecuniary benefit.

Which leads me to my modest proposal. Given the universe does not provide a fifth law of thermodynamics that causes immediate and irretrievable implosion of people guilty of cosmic levels of hypocrisy and conflicts of interest, we should install a system ourselves.

Implosion is perhaps too great a suggestion but strapped to every politician in Canberra could be a national interest taser array. Strategically placed electrodes wired to an “untoward sensor” and driven by a national interest algorythm  would be both effective and efficient. The punitive charge would have to be high voltage, though. Anything short of unbearable pain will create a Pavlovian loop of poor policy.

Houses and Holes
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  1. I don’t understand your beef with Clive Palmer. He was elected giving full disclosure of his intentions on revoking the carbon tax.

    The $6 million he owes is a drop in the bucket of the money he has.

    Your problem should be with career politicians who rely on the system for 100% of their income/wealth.

    I would rather have parliament full of people like Clive Palmer rather than the leeches who finish their Law or Arts degree and go straight into government.

    • Because MPs are meant to represent their constituents – it’s a democracy.

      And in a conflict of intersts, MPs are meant to put their personal interests aside in the greater interest of their constituents and the nation.

      • I agree, but when has this occurred with respect to property affordability (with many MPs holding investment properties)?

        Clive Palmer not better or worse in regards to benefiting from the policies he’s fighting for, just more of the same.

      • dumb_non_economistMEMBER


        I see your point, but I think you give pollies too much respect if you think they have deliberately driven property up because of their IP holdings, they’re the same as the guys out in La La RE land.

        CP is the same as other conflicts of interest, but just a lot more obvious.

      • But Arrow, if Palmer went to the election with a ‘get rid of the carbon tax policy’, then technically he would be representing his constituents if he voted to get rid of the carbon tax.

  2. When I saw the headline I was thinking ‘Neutered’ fixed!

    Eugenics targeting the elimination of psychopaths & congenital liars – carried out by……!

  3. Everyone seems to have had their say on this issue. So perhaps I might now post something a little longer.

    The idea of a “national interest algorithm” is not as silly as it sounds.

    Unfortunately, however, most people with an interest in such things recoil in horror when they see the form such an algorithm would take and immediately reject it. Given that people who read Macrobusiness are completely dispassionate(!), perhaps that won’t happen here.

    The difficulty, of course, lies in determining what constitutes “interest” and “nation”.

    Putting “nation” to one side for a moment, any proposition regarding “interest” will be a statement of individual preference. More precisely, each individual will have a set of rank order preferences.

    For any group of individuals, the problem reduces to one of somehow aggregating individual rank order preferences (using an “aggregation device”) into a single rank order preference for the group.

    There is some famous mathematics concerning such things (for example, Arrow’s Theorem) but that need not concern us for the moment. The more immediate problem is that alternative aggregation devices are themselves matters of preference. Some people, for example, might prefer a Westminster system. Some might prefer some form of separation of powers. Some might prefer absolute monarchy. Some might prefer a judicial oligarchy (i.e. “bill of rights”). Some might prefer Democracy. Some might prefer a one-party state. Some might prefer a theocracy. Some might prefer a lottery.

    Many will prefer some combination of these elements.

    There is no objective method of determining which of these devices or combinations is “correct”. The problem therefore reduces again to a recursive one of determining how to aggregate preferences concerning devices for aggregating preferences.

    This was long thought to be the end of the line as far as logical analysis was concerned. Even Nobel laureate James Buchanan – in the introduction to Calculus of Consent – declares it to be “a problem of infinite regression”.

    However, those familiar with the mathematics of recursion relationships might immediately imagine the possibility of an “eigensolution”.

    There are many problems giving rise to infinite recursion relations which lead to a “logical catastrophe”. For example, if one tries to solve Schrodinger’s equation in quantum mechanics, the solution comes in the form of an infinite power series (Legendre series) in which each term is a multiple of the preceding term according to a recursion relation (which is itself related to energy levels). And if that recursion is allow to go on to infinity it leads to a logical catastrophe: all the solutions diverge to infinite values.

    There is, however, a solution!! By carefully selecting the parameters of the series, it is possible to make one of the terms collapse to zero. The next term is therefore also zero. And the next. And so on. The infinite series become a finite polynomial (Legendre polynomial) which converges. Thus there is a solution, the “eigenfunction”. It’s magic!! (It is this process which – mathematically – puts the “quantum” into quantum mechanics since only certain energy levels – the eigenvalues – allow a solution.)

    The same approach can be applied to the selection of aggregation devices. The question is one of “privileging”. Any device may “privilege” the preferences of one or more individuals. That is to say (in lay terms) their preferences may be given “greater weight”. More precisely, a privileging device may be defined as a device in which the output is not invariant to an arbitrary exchange of identities amongst the individuals, and there exists at least one individual who – for the purpose of aggregation –prefers the identity of another individual.

    We now have a infinite recursion problem involving the identification of “privileged individuals”. For the purpose of deciding an aggregation device, which individuals should have their preferences privileged? Any answer to that question is a statement of preference (or a logical fallacy – but we won’t go into that), and those preferences must be aggregated using an aggregation device. For the purpose of deciding that aggregation device, which individuals should have their preferences privileged? Any answer to that question is a statement of preference, and so on ad infinitum.

    There is no way of identifying which individuals are to be privileged a priori, that is, without reference to an earlier aggregation of preferences.

    Some – like Buchanan – jump to the conclusion that this is an impossible problem of “infinite regress”. But we now know better. Having come this far, we now know that there may be an “eigensolution”.

    If at some point in the infinite series of recursions, we introduce a device which privileges NO individuals, then the problem of identifying privileged individuals falls away. Our infinite recursion becomes finite recursion. A non-privileging device is the eigensolution to the problem of preference aggregation in the absence of a priori privileging. It is the only solution which does not require the doing of something that is logically impossible to do (i.e. identifying a priori privileged individuals).

    What are the characteristics of such a device?

    They must include the following:

    a) in any binary expression of preference – for or against any option – the preferences of each voter for or against must be weighted equally, with approval determined by an excess of support over rejection (otherwise the result would not be invariant to an arbitrary exchange of identities amongst the voters);

    b) any option which could conceivably be supported must be able to be put to such a vote (to avoid privileging those who select which options may be voted upon);

    c) initially, the system must not be a lottery or de facto lottery, as this would privilege a priori supporters of lotteries over those who prefer deterministic systems. However, a non-privileging device might choose a lottery as the device to be used thereafter;

    d) the order in which options are eliminated must not be determinable by a privileged subset of individuals. This in turn requires an “indefinite pass” system: at the end of each “pass” of initiation and voting it must be possible to have another round of initiation and voting, possibly with different options. Otherwise, either i) it would be a de facto lottery or ii) a privileged subset could determine outcomes by choosing the order in which options were to be compared and eliminated, or by introducing irrelevant alternatives at a critical stage. This also neatly side-steps Arrow’s Theorem which is concerned only with definite-pass systems; and

    e) initially there must be sufficient compulsion to prevent a voting Prisoners’ Dilemma which would privilege groups of well-organised individuals over others.

    It may be observed that such conditions describe an indefinite-pass initiative-and-referendum system, initially with compulsory voting.

    What form of government might such a system choose? I don’t know. I don’t have a Monopoly on Wisdom in this matter. It would depend on the preferences of the individuals concerned.

    What we do know from the historical record is that:

    a) where people have been able to choose their form of government without the options being limited by self-serving politicians, they almost invariably choose to incorporate some form of (direct) Democracy; and

    b) where they have such democratic rights, they do not choose to repeal them even though it is a straightforward matter to initiate a referendum for that purpose.

    And therein lies the problem. If you let people decide their system of government, the chances are that they will go and choose Democracy.

    Many people – especially people in power or who fancy themselves as being able to influence those in power – would prefer almost any form of government – no matter ineffectual, no matter how corrupt, not matter how dysfunctional – rather than allow the prols, the plebs, the hoi polloi, the riff-raff, the commoners, the Mob, the Muck, the Stinking Scum, to have any say in determining the system of government they prefer for their country.

    And so they reject out-of-hand any such solution, preferring instead to argue (using logical fallacies) that their own preferences – or the preferences of some nominee(s) – ought to be privileged a priori.

    So far we have considered only the issue of how an arbitrary set of individuals may choose an aggregation device in a way which does not require the doing of something that is logically impossible to do.

    There remains the problem of determining the sets of individuals who are to make that decision. Should it, for example, be “Australia”? Should it be the individual states? Should it be something smaller like cantons? Should it be something bigger, “Indo-Papua-Oceania” perhaps?? Should it be the whole world?

    That problem may be solved using a polity market which has been discussed on various occasions. A polity market seeks to solve the problem by introducing a structural separation between:

    a) the process of government: aggregating the preferences of sets of individuals, and implementing the aggregate preferences; and

    b) the process of defining the sets of individuals to which (a) will apply.

    Process (b) itself involves an aggregation of preferences, in this case the preferences of the set of “all individuals” concerning the way in which subsets of individuals are to be defined.

    The aggregation device for this process may be determined as the eigensolution described above applied to “all individuals”.

    We may thus state the “national interest algorithm” as follows:

    The result of aggregating the preferences of individuals using an aggregation device which has itself been chosen directly or by a process of finite recursion from an initial non-privileging device, and where the set of individuals whose preferences are to be thus aggregated is defined according to rules determined by aggregating the preferences of all individuals using a device which has been chosen directly or by a process of finite recursion from an initial non-privileging device applied to the set of all individuals.”

    (There is a third leg of the problem which involves defining “individuals” – do dogs count?,babies? – but that becomes even more elaborate.)

  4. Said the Representative Skeleton, I object.

    I wouldn’t include preferences of individuals. Looking at history, recent, modern and ancient, we always end up bickering among ourselves or just aiming to get some short term advantage. And what happens when a demagogue shows up and everyone’s intentions really begin to lead to an accumulated chaos?

    I’m more of an outside in person. That is, still have a decision system of sorts, but base the decisions upon some sort of Utilitarian calculation using humanitarian/enlightenment principles. But that is only at the societal level. I know that it will only ever be some sort if idealised framework, but isn’t that what most of society is anyway? And if we are looking at it at a political level so many of the rent-seeker favouring decisions could not have been made by such a system.

    At the individual level I’m all about Virtue ethics. I’m reading a great book at the moment. ‘Utilitarianism: For and Against’ by J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams. You might have already read it, but if not I think that you’d enjoy it.

    p.s. Thanks for another thoughtful post Mr. Morris.

  5. p.p.s. If you were to go with your suggestion (if I’ve understood it correctly) and use the preferences of individuals, perhaps some sort of priming (as per ‘Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow) might be useful. Nothing too severe, just something to get us into a more selfless and thoughtful state of mind before pulling those levers.

    • The problem is that the virtues (or otherwise) of any sort of “priming” are themselves matters of individual preference. Others might oppose any form of priming.

      Thus this approach leads straight back to the problem of how to aggregate those preferences, etc, etc, etc . . . .

      It is really just a logical problem.

      Of course, there are those who argue that the desire to solve such problems logically is itself a preference.

      However, once a logical approach is abandoned, there are all sorts of non-logical consequences: how can there be any further discussion? The debate collapses into a shouting match with people hurling their opinions at one another but with no idea of how to aggregate them.

      • I don’t think that it can be resolved on a logical basis. I do approve of the use of logic wherever possible. And it is amazing what can be done with logic and maths. Yet the manners of people seem to deny them.

        So I do think that preferences would need to be applied at some point in the system. And I don’t think that a mean preference, no matter how sophisticated the algorithm, will be able to lead to the best outcome.

        On these types of issues I find the best work to historically be done by thinkers who can survey and then transcend the cultural norm of the day. Then they spit out a good idea and mugs like me give it a read and try to see what gets chucked out so that it can fit in.

        ‘However, once a logical approach is abandoned, there are all sorts of non-logical consequences: how can there be any further discussion? The debate collapses into a shouting match with people hurling their opinions at one another but with no idea of how to aggregate them.’

        Too true, but I would suggest that has just as much to do with our inability to be civil and open minded as much as logic being the best tool in the shed.

      • And I don’t think that a mean preference, no matter how sophisticated the algorithm, will be able to lead to the best outcome.

        There is no suggestion in the foregoing that it leads to the “best” outcome. It is not concerned with “best” outcomes.

        The notion of “best” is a matter of individual preference. One person’s idea of “best” will conflict with other people’s ideas of “best”. Any approach which tries to identify the “best” outcome will immediately collapse into a problem of how to aggregate one person’s preference concerning “best” with other people’s preferences concerning “best”.

        On these types of issues I find the best work to historically be done by thinkers. . .

        Again, it may be observed that this is a statement of preference (“best work”). As such it immediately collapses into a problem of how to aggregate one person’s preference concerning “best work” with other people’s preferences concerning “best work”.

        It should be apparent by now that any argument or statement put forward to support a particular system will be a statement of individual preference. As such it will immediately collapse into a problem of how to aggregate one person’s preference with other people’s preferences.

        Either that will lead to an “infinite regression” – with no solution – or the solution must be an eigensolution as described above.

        It is an inescapable logical problem.

      • You’re right about my use of ‘best’. I generally try to use the term ‘favorite’. I perhaps could have use the term ‘right’ but then we are back to preferences.

        I think that we are concerned with the same things but have different approaches. And I am obviously a far more casual dabbler in these matters.

        I do hope that one day someone manages to come up with something that might be able to save us from ourselves (or our incompetent overlords), whatever system it may be based upon.