Archive for March, 2006

Weekend reflections

March 31st, 2006 44 comments

Weekend Reflections is on again. Please comment on any topic of interest (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Feel free to put in contributions more lengthy than for the Monday Message Board or standard comments.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

NZ Treasury on PPPs

March 31st, 2006 14 comments

The NZ Treasury has a paper looking at the advantages and disadvantages of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs)*. The conclusions are almost exactly what I would have written myself.

This paper argues that:

* there are other ways of obtaining private sector finance without having to enter into a PPP
* most of the advantages of private sector construction and management can also be obtained from conventional procurement methods (under which the project is financed by the government, and construction and operation are contracted out separately), and
* the advantages of PPPs must be weighed against the contractual complexities and rigidities they entail. These are avoided by the periodic competitive re-tendering that is possible under conventional procurement.
The paper concludes that PPPs are worthwhile only if all three of the following conditions are met:

1. The public agency is able to specify outcomes in service level terms, thereby leaving scope for the PPP consortium to innovate and optimize.
2. The public agency is able to specify outcomes in a way that performance can be measured objectively and rewards and sanctions applied.
3. The public agency’s desired outcomes are likely to be durable, given the length of the contract.

The only thing missing is a discussion of the cost of capital. I’ve discussed this issue with NZ Treasury in other contexts, but I’m not sure where they would come out in relation to PPPs

* Acronyms are tricky things. In the post below, PPP means Purchasing Power Parity. And once upon a time, it meant Point-to-Point Protocol, which was used by modems.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Diewert on Quiggin, Castles and Henderson

March 31st, 2006 24 comments

A while back, I had an interesting debate with Ian Castles about the significance or otherwise of the choice between market and purchashing-power parity (PPP) exchange rates in the IPCC projections of global warming. You can read a number of contributions from Castles and David Henderson at the Lavoisier Institute website and their main article is published in Energy & Environment”, vol. 14, nos. 2 & 3: 159-85. They argue that the use of market exchange rates understates the income of poor countries and therefore overstates the growth in income and energy use that will occur as they catch up with rich ones.

My criticism is directed at the second part of this claim. I say that if the demand for energy is modelled using market exchange rates, the choice of income aggregate doesn’t matter much. If the income estimate is biased downwards, so will be the estimate of the rate at which energy use grows with income. I make this point in my submission to the Stern Review in the UK.

These debates are inevitably complicated, but someone with the right skills can make them a lot clearer. I can think of no one better than Erwin Diewert, who has been the leading researcher* in the theory of index numbers for the last thirty years (and a big name in other fields). So I asked Erwin for comments and was both surprised and pleased to receive not just comments but a whole paper, not quite by return mail, but after only a few days.

I think it’s fair to summarise by saying that Diewert agrees with my main point, but also agrees with Castles and Henderson that the IPCC should change its modelling approach.

I agree with everything in the comment, but there a couple of points of emphasis I would place differently, as noted in my response . In particular, I stress the importance of consistency. Using PPP numbers for income, then plugging in income elasticities derived from studies using market exchange rates, is a recipe for disaster.

* I should also mention Sidney Afriat who is famous for being both brilliant and esoteric. Afriat has made fundamental contributions to the field.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Festival of Ideas

March 30th, 2006 7 comments

I’ll be at the Brisbane Festival of Ideas today, talking about Consumption as a Lifestyle Choice, 2pm Cremorne Theatre in the QPAC building at Southbank. There’s lots more, so go along, listen, enjoy and maybe have your own say.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Rock against WorkChoices

March 30th, 2006 143 comments

Some of our more impatient bosses have moved fast to take advantage of the additional power given to them by WorkChoices, and it’s encouraging to see lots of signs that workers are fighting back. Along with marches and job actions, music has always been part of such protests, and the ASU is putting on a Rock for Your RIghts at Work event at the Zoo in Ann St., Brisbane on 6 April

(via Mark Bahnisch

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

Seven propositions on water

March 29th, 2006 55 comments

A few weeks ago, I chaired a session at the Water ’06 Conference. Among the speakers there was the Chairman of the National Water Commission, Ken Matthews, who raised a number of claims often made about water issues that would require future community debate and discussion. These included:

1 that recycled water will never be acceptable in Australia for household use
2 that additional urban water supplies should not be sourced through market purchases from irrigators
3 that additional water for the environment should be sourced from the market only after all alternatives have been exhausted
4 that urban water use restrictions introduced during the drought should continue indefinitely into the future
5 that any water not abstracted for consumptive use is necessarily doing good to the environment
6 that uniform water quality and pricing should be maintained across all urban water users including industrial users, and
7 that water and sewerage are natural monopolies and should therefore be provided by governments.

There’s a bit more here (hat tip, David Adamson). Of these, I disagree with 1-4, and broadly agree with 7. Propositions 5 and 6 are too complex for a Yes-No answer.

Update I should add, if it’s not obvious that Matthews means to imply that all of these propositions are both widely accepted and overdue for sceptical scrutiny.

Categories: Environment Tags:

50 Today !

March 29th, 2006 44 comments

Today is my 50th birthday! Unless the Singularity arrives ahead of time, I’m past the halfway mark but at least I’m still enjoying myself!

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Creative Commons license upheld

March 28th, 2006 2 comments

Via TidBITS, this report that a Dutch Court has upheld the validity of a Creative Commons license which allowed only non-commercial use. The case involved well-known podcaster Adam Curry and a tabloid magazine that used photos from his Flickr site.

While not binding on other jurisdictions, the Dutch ruling, which enforces the plain meaning of the license, lengthens the odds against anyone trying to challenge CC licenses.

Categories: Intellectual 'property' Tags:

Brisbane Festival of Ideas

March 28th, 2006 5 comments

The Brisbane Festival of Ideas starts tomorrow. Bloggers are well represented, with Joanne Jacobs, Andrew Leigh and me among the Oz contingent and Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing among the many international stars. Most people do three or four gigs, so you should be able to hear all the speakers you want to, even if you miss out on some topics.

Thinking about this, the surprise is not that there are quite a few bloggers on the bill, but that there aren’t more. If you have ideas, it seems natural to want to express them, and there’s no easier way of reaching a potentially large audience than with a blog. I suspect the day will come quite soon when every intellectual or would-be intellectual will have one.

Categories: Life in General, Metablogging Tags:

The Republican War on Science: CT Seminar

March 28th, 2006 Comments off

One of the new ideas in blogging to come out of Crooked Timber, the academic blog of which I’m part, is that of holding seminars on recently released books. The general idea is that a group of CT members and some guests write reviews of or posts about the book, the author responds, and the readers of the blog are invited to comment. As a process, it works a lot better than the traditional print approach, where the reviews appear in a lot of different places, and the author can respond, if at all, only through a letter.

I’ve participated in several of these, and now I’ve run one for the first time, on Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science You can see it here

Categories: Books and culture, Science Tags:

Another bloody waste

March 27th, 2006 15 comments

The news that Basque separatist organisation ETA has announced an allegedly permanent ceasefire in its terrorist campaign doesn’t seem to have attracted much attention outside Spain. Still, it’s worth repeating points that seemingly need to be made again and again.
Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

Monday message board (special duplicate edition)

March 27th, 2006 21 comments

It’s time, once again for the Monday Message Board. As usual, civilised discussion and absolutely no coarse language, please.

Update As I managed to post this twice, there are two Monday threads this Monday. Pick whichever one suits you best.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday message board

March 27th, 2006 14 comments

It’s time, once again for the Monday Message Board. As usual, civilised discussion and absolutely no coarse language, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Chickens coming home to roost

March 26th, 2006 53 comments

The Howard government’s past misdeeds, most of which seemed at the time to be consequence-free, are catching up with it. The AWB scandal is an obvious example, with the important observation that the “Children Overboard” episode ensured that no-one (other than those wanting to be duped, unfortunately a large group) believed the government’s initial denials of knowing anything about the whole business.

Perhaps more serious, in terms of its consequences for Australia’s national interests is the dispute with Indonesia over the granting of temporary protection visas to 42 Papuan “illegals” (the term popularised by former Immigration Minister and current Attorney-General Phllip Ruddock.

Under the international law that prevailed in the past, these people would have been asylum seekers, with a wide range of legal rights.[1] If their cases had proved successful, the government could reasonably claim to be bound by treaty obligations. Now however, “we will decide who comes here and under what circumstances”. People fleeing Saddam Hussein and the war in Afghanistan have been pushed back to sea, to take their chances, or subjected to close and critical scrutiny, in a process with the presumptions all stacked against them.

So, assuming a consistent process is taking place, the decision to grant visas to the Papuans amounts to a judgement that the Indonesian government is far worse than Saddam or the Taliban, so much so that their illegal arrival can be disregarded. Not surprisingly, the Indonesians are not taking this at all well.

The best thing the government could do for Australia is to admit that its actions in 2001 were a desperate and cruel, but successful, political manoeuvre, aimed at winning votes from a panicked electorate, and that nothing it said or did at the time should be regarded as part of our true policy. Almost certainly, that is the message being conveyed privately to the Indonesians, but what’s needed is some sort of public apology, and this is not a government that’s good at saying “Sorry”.

fn1. The process of stripping back these rights was started by Labor, but extended massively by Ruddock and Howard.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The century of the beard?

March 26th, 2006 33 comments

Thanks to a tip from Tim Dunlop, I find that beards are coming back in. Perhaps the fashion for beardless men will prove to be one of the many aberrations of the 20th century. Also in the news, ponies for everyone.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Online donations now possible for Cyclone Larry

March 25th, 2006 3 comments

A number of international readers (I get wonderful readers here!) have asked about online donations to help those who have lost homes, jobs and businesses as a result of Cyclone Larry. This is now possible. Go here and follow the instructions.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Which Saddam ?

March 25th, 2006 228 comments

Currency Lad seems to be down on someone called Saddam Hussein. It’s not clear who’s being referred to here. Certainly not the Saddam Hussein who collected $300 million from the Oil-for-Food fund, courtesy of the Australian government statutory authority/official privatised monopoly AWB (formerly the Australian Wheat Board). That’s a beatup of no interest.

I’ve generally been an admirer of Currency Lad, but this is truly dreadful stuff. Either he should stop insulting his readers with moralising about Saddam* and present an honest realpolitik line, or he should condemn without reservation those who financed Saddam’s arms purchases, and those who either encouraged them or looked the other way.

To be clear in advance, this includes all those who colluded in evading sanctions, whether they were from France, Russia, the US or elsewhere. However, as we now know, AWB operated on a scale that dwarfed the petty operators about whom we heard so much from the pro-war lobby until recently.

* Or anything else. If you’re willing to swallow this, your opinions on ethics aren’t worth considering regardless of the topic.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Posts I don't need to write

March 25th, 2006 5 comments

Caz sums up my thoughts about walking, considered as a sporting event

You see, the “walk�, with all its stylized strangeness, has become more and more unnatural over the years. Sure, perhaps not as unnatural as the girl coming out of the well and through the television set in The Ring (the real version), but all the same, it was always a tad ungainly.

The walk, to my mind, is no longer just another silly walk, worthy, apparently of a medal; rather, it has morphed into a silly jog. I don’t care how they slice it, or how they rationalize it, the competitors are not walking – they are jogging, albeit in a very silly manner. They are no longer walking quickly; they are jogging slowly. It’s time for the walking events to leave the stadium on the grounds of being a fraud.

Her thoughts on wardar are also worth reading.

Categories: Sport Tags:

Bell Labs going to France ?

March 24th, 2006 8 comments

This NYT story reports that Alcatel is negotiating to buy Lucent, the communications equipment maker spun off by AT&T a few years back. It’s not mentioned until the end of the article, and then only in passing, that the deal includes “the research and development unit Bell Laboratories, an intellectual powerhouse”.

That’s putting it mildly, at least in historical terms. Eleven researchers have shared six Nobel Prizes for work done while they were at Bell Labs, among many other awards. As well as the transistor, the photovoltaic cell , the LED, CCD and much more, Bell Labs created both Unix and C. It even had its own economics journal (the Bell Journal, which later became the Rand Journal). It was truly a unique institution.

Of course, all this was cut back drastically with deregulation and the breakup of the old AT&T monopoly, and even more so after the Lucent spinoff. Still, the passing of Bell Labs out of US ownership is worth recording. It remains to be seen whether Alcatel will follow the logic of the market and kill Bell Labs altogether, or make a quixotic attempt at reviving some of the glories of the past.

Categories: Economics - General, Science Tags:

Weekend reflections

March 24th, 2006 14 comments

Weekend Reflections is on again. Please comment on any topic of interest (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Feel free to put in contributions more lengthy than for the Monday Message Board or standard comments.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Carbon: too much, not too little (crossposted at CT)

March 23rd, 2006 66 comments

Like Henry George’s theory of land taxation, Peak Oil seems to be one of those ideas, reasonable enough in itself, and modest in scope, that attracts a cult following in which it becomes the answer to all kinds of questions. This piece in Salon gives a tour of some of the wilder fringes (apparently serious people suggesting we are going back to the 13th century for example), and indicates the need for a correction.
Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

Category mistake

March 22nd, 2006 6 comments

According to my local suburban paper, Western Brisbane has won more gold medals at the Commonwealth Games than either Canada or New Zealand. I’m sure Doreen Root would have something to say about this.

Although I’ve contributed nothing to this outcome beyond some desultory cheering at the TV set, and have never previously considered Western Brisbane as a distinct entity, I am, of course, filled with patriotic pride at this glorious victory.

Categories: Sport Tags:

More to come

March 21st, 2006 16 comments

It appears the Cyclone Wati, which had followed the path of Larry won’t hit Australia after all (at least, that’s the best guess at present). But with the shift in the Southern Oscillation from El Nino to La Nina and the long-term effects of global warming starting to become apparent, we can expect more severe cyclones for at least the next few years, and a general increase in the severity of storms and similar events. It’s too late to prevent this happening (though we can mitigate the process over the long term) so we’ll have to adapt.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Cyclone Larry Appeal

March 21st, 2006 9 comments

Queensland premier Peter Beattie has launched a disaster relief fund to help Cyclone Larry victims, kicking off fundraising with a donation of $100,000.

To make a donation to the cyclone Disaster Relief Fund, you can ring 1800 150 411 with your credit card details, between 8am to 6pm, Monday to Friday.
Cheques can be made out to the “Premier’s Disaster Relief Appeal Fund” with the account number being 064-013-1000-6800.

Donations can also be made at any branch of the Commonwealth Bank and any gifts over $2 are tax deductible.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Malaria Action Day

March 20th, 2006 Comments off

Today is Malaria Action Day. Coturnix has a bunch of links.

Categories: Environment Tags:


March 20th, 2006 Comments off

Cyclone Larry has just passed over the Atherton Tablelands, where quite a few members of my family live, having earlier crossed the coast near Innisfail, with winds up to 290 km/h. Cyclones weaken as they go inland, so hopefully there won’t be too much damage and destruction on the Tablelands, but the speed with which this one has moved means its still very strong.

No real news from Innisfail yet, but it sounds as though there have been quite a few houses destroyed or damaged and that the the banana crop has probably been wiped out. Best wishes to any readers in the region, and to everyone else there as well.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Lowering the bar

March 20th, 2006 78 comments

Miranda Devine’s latest piece has a friend in Iraq reporting from his bunker inside the Green Zone that everything is going fine there, or at least that things are not nearly as bad as “the French Reign of Terror, or the Russian and Chinese revolutions, not to mention the disasters that were Vietnam and Cambodia.” I was going to do more, but, as usual, Tim Dunlop has beaten me to it

Categories: World Events Tags:

Monday message board

March 20th, 2006 11 comments

It’s time, once again for the Monday Message Board. As usual, civilised discussion and absolutely no coarse language, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Is Howard defensible ?

March 19th, 2006 35 comments

The few commentators who were suggesting that the Howard government did not (at the least) know the general facts about Australia’s collusion with Saddam Hussein in stealing $300 million from the Oil-For-Food fund, and encourage the AWB quango to do ‘whatever it takes’ to push the deal through, have gone quiet after the latest revelation that our intelligence agencies knew all about the racket.

Is there a coherent defence of the Howard government’s actions in helping Saddam fund his regime, including its military, while calling for, and eventually participating in, war against him? I think there is, though not one we’re likely to see avowed openly.
Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

What I've been reading

March 19th, 2006 21 comments

What’s Left? The Death of Social Democracy by Clive Hamilton. The latest Quarterly Essay is a restatement of arguments Clive’s presented a number of times before. The central argument is that, since widespread poverty is no longer a problem, social democracy is irrelevant and what is needed is a postmaterialist politics of wellbeing.

Not surprisingly, I have a lot of problems with this.
Read more…