Age of the Infovore

From Tyler Cowen's The Age of the Infovore, a book about autism, information and economics:
What's next? We could benefit in further ways by adopting a better and deeper understanding of human neurodiversity. We could have a more practical understanding of the limits of formal education. We could be more skeptical about story-based reasoning and superficially appealing narratives; we also could become more resistant to obnoxious advertising and less bent on senseless revenge. We could understand better how a different mind can be an entertaining mind and perhaps a heroic mind. We could treat minorities, including autistic people, better. We could appreciate new and different forms of music and art, or at least we could be more tolerant of diverging aesthetic tastes. We could become better citizens, more cosmopolitan, more objective about our culture and nation, and better able to appreciate the benefits of the rule of law.

Tyler is also the author of Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist, which I greatly enjoyed.
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Flood Appeal

Gai Brodtmann and I have called on Canberrans to assist flood victims.
Canberrans called to dig deep for flood victims

Member for Canberra, Gai Brodtmann and Member for Fraser, Andrew Leigh today called on Canberrans to stand by the victims of the horrific Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australian floods.

“Canberrans have the highest rate of volunteering in the country, and we are generous contributors to our community and the nation,” said Ms Brodtmann.

“We received overwhelming support from all around the country during the bushfires that raged through the ACT eight years ago.

“I urge Canberrans to volunteer or donate what they can to help the victims of the floods,” said Ms Brodtmann.

The Gillard Government is working closely with the Queensland Government to ensure that Australian Defence Force resources are on call to aid search and rescue efforts in the State.

“Concessional interest rate loans of up to $250,000 and freight subsidies of up to $5,000 have been extended to 23 shires and councils as well as a range of emergency payments available to people affected by the floods,” said Dr Leigh.

“Australians naturally rally together in times of need and adversity. The flood victims in Queensland need our support,” they said.

Secure donations to the Premier’s Flood Appeal can be made online at or by credit card on 1800 219 028. Donations can also be made to St Vincent De Paul, the RSPCA, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross.
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Mile-High Economists

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What I'm Reading

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Smart Giving

My AFR op-ed today looks at how we can use the Christmas season to help those in need.

Choose a Gift That Matters, Australian Financial Review, 21 December 2010

With four days to go before Christmas, Australians everywhere are renewing our annual love affair with perfumed bath salts, tie sets and reindeer earrings.

But this season, why not break the family mould, and turn up with something that’s really going to turn heads around the barbie? In the name of aunt Phyllis, you can buy a chicken that will provide eggs to a family in Papua New Guinea. In honour of cousin Susie, you could pay a school teacher in a Ugandan refugee camp.

For dad, how about a pack of thermal blankets to assist kids sleeping rough in Kalgoorlie? And surely nothing would please grandpa more than knowing that his gift helped cover travel costs for a volunteer to provide business skills to Indigenous people in Wadeye?

As the average household grows increasingly affluent, more families than ever before have the opportunity to use Christmas as a chance to focus on people who are less fortunate. Yet my own analysis of charitable giving statistics suggests that the share of Australians who donate to charity has stayed fairly constant since the late-1970s. Economic growth creates the potential for us to become a more munificent nation – but rising incomes do not automatically translate into greater generosity.

Thanks to the internet, giving wisely is easier than ever before. Donate to a street-corner charity worker, and a good chunk of your money may go into paying their salary. But contribute online, and your hard-earned is more likely to get to where it’s needed. For quirky donation-gifts, it’s hard to beat which claims to have the largest registry in the southern hemisphere.

Locally, many charities are still running appeals for money and gifts for needy Australians. In my electorate, Gordon Ramsay of Kippax UnitingCare told me the story last week of a single mother with 3 children under the age of 10, who had lost all her children’s presents when floodwaters lapped around the base of her Christmas tree. When told that the charity could provide some new gifts, tears of relief rolled down her face.

But if you don’t have personal experience with a charity, how can you ensure that your gift goes where it will do the most good? Unfortunately, there are large disparities in effectiveness across charities, from those that rigorously focus their efforts on the neediest to organisations that aim to enrich their founders.

As Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out in the New York Times, rating charities is no easy business. A charity with a low ratio of administrative costs to total spending may be efficient – or it could just be underpaying its staff. A more useful guide is the share of the budget spent on fundraising. For example, the American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP) suggests that charities should not spend more than $25 to raise $100 in public support. The Institute also considers charities’ willingness to operate transparently, and marks down philanthropic bodies that hold excessive assets. In the most egregious cases, the AIP gives charities a grade of ‘F’.

Another major player in the US,, looks at trends over time. Charities that are growing are marked up. Those that run a consistent deficit are rated down.  Like the AIP, CharityNavigator focuses primarily on a charity’s organisational effectiveness.

However, because charities can be streamlined but misguided, my favourite US charity-rating agency is, which looks for evidence of program effectiveness and regular evaluation. GiveWell’s top-rated international charities are Village Reach and Stop TB (both global health charities), while its preferred US charities are the Nurse Family Partnership (early childhood intervention) and KIPP (school education).

If I could have a Christmas wish for the Australian philanthropic sector, it would be to see the development of our own charity-rating bodies that matched the depth and rigour of their US counterparts. Looking at the existing guides and websites that compile information about the Australian charitable sector, I get the sense that our raters need to be willing to ruffle a few more feathers in their search for the golden egg.

Yet don’t let the search for the perfect put you off doing good this season. There’s an outdoor toilet in Pakistan just waiting to be built in the name of uncle Albert. Just wait until you see the look on his face when he learns you’ve bought it for him.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and the author of Disconnected (UNSW Press, 2010).
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New skate park in Belconnen

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Debating Simon Birmingham on ABC24 (13 Dec)

(And if you'd prefer the 'Simon Says' version, there's a transcript of his half of the interview on his website.)
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What I'm reading

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Kippax UnitingCare Appeal

Gordon Ramsey from Kippax UnitingCare tells me that community generosity is being outpaced by need. If you can assist with a gift or donation, you can drop them off at their office in Holt, on the corner of Luke Street and Hardwick Crescent.

Thank you again for your support for the community services at Kippax – particularly at this time the Christmas Hampers and Gifts we are providing to individuals, households and a broad range of other refuges and organisations in the ACT. This support of other organisations as well as our own clients is an important part of our ethos, and has become relied upon by women’s refuges and Refugee support groups over previous years.

More information from Gordon over the fold.

I thought you may appreciate hearing an update on where things are with this support this year.

Over the past 4 days we have worked with over 300 households who are struggling financially. With the bookings already made for next week, we anticipate that be will be distributing around 550 hampers this year, and that each of the households will be supported with Christmas Gifts as well. Last year we supported just under 400.

The recent floods and heavy rains have added to the strain of households – a story from one of our clients is included below.

Unfortunately, the 37% increase in requests for assistance this year has not been matched by an equal response by the broader community in its donations. We fear that the tightened financial situation (reflected in the anticipated reduced retail spending this year) is reflected in people’s responses to requests from charities such as ours. We believe that this is going to be a more difficult Christmas than even for a higher number of Canberran families.

Thank you again for our support. We greatly value it.

If you have any opportunity over the next few days to encourage the community to act generously (as they are able to afford it) to support any of the Canberran charities, we know that the impact for people in financial need will be a welcome relief.

Kind regards

Gordon Ramsay


A single mother (we will call her Betty) of 3 children under 10 years of age presented seeking assistance after her ACT house was flooded during the recent heavy rains. All of her Christmas presents that was under her tree were damaged and had to be discarded.

Betty was quite distressed as she had paid for all her gifts on a Lay By while only Parenting Allowance from Centrelink. Normally Betty manages but with the rain ruining her Christmas it all became too much for her.

Betty had never had to ask for assistance before, but she found out about UnitingCare Kippax and in particular the Emergency Relief Program and so made an appointment.

When Betty presented and we explained how we could help her situation tears of relief rolled down her face.

In the space of an hour we were able to assist her with a Christmas hamper (including a frozen chicken) and Christmas gifts for her children and we also pay her outstanding Telstra account.

Betty is one of over 300 families who we have assisted during this December and we are also expecting to assist a further 200 families before Christmas as well as delivering another 100 Christmas Hampers to refuges throughout the ACT.

This work goes on all year. Every week we assist hundreds of people who are in real need; the support we offer goes far beyond the practical assistance given: support with Advocacy, referrals to appropriate agencies that further assist, budget counseling are a standard part of what we do.

During the financial year 09-10 we assisted 5,555 individuals who sought our help throughout the ACT.
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Debating banking reform and climate change with Jamie Briggs (13 Dec)

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.