Archive for June, 2006

Darfur appeal

June 6th, 2006 7 comments

Among the many terrible things happening in the world at the moment, the situation in Darfur remains among the grimmest. The various rebel groups, the government and the pro-government militias are all more interested in power than in helping their people, and the world’s governments aren’t doing much better. The latest news is that food rations for the World Food Program were cut in half in May, though they’ve been partially restored since then, with Australia among the donors. Medecins Sans Frontieres has details.

There doesn’t seem to be any way of contributing directly, but readers might email Alexander Downer [email protected] to urge a further expansion of emergency food aid. In the mean time, I’m appealing for donations to Medecins Sans Frontieres, who are doing important work in Darfur and other places. Usual deal: I’ll match all donations up to a total of $500. Readers can either report donations, or join me in matching others. I’ll run this until Saturday morning.

I’ll also remind people of the Yogyakarta earthquake appeal. THe ACICIS student appeal details are here. CARE Australia is also running an appeal.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Against the doomsayers

June 5th, 2006 325 comments

Today is World Environment Day, and it’s a good day to celebrate past achievements and point out the errors of the doomsayers who’ve long been over-represented in the environment debate. The central message of the doomsday school is simple:
we can’t protect the environment unless we are willing to accept a radical reduction in our standard of living.

Although they agree on this point, they disagree radically about its implications, dividing into two opposed groups[1]

* Deep Greens who say that we should radically reduce our standard of living and protect the environment
* Dark Browns who say that we should do nothing to protect the environment because to do so will wreck our standards of living

Experience since the first World Environment Day in 1972 suggests that neither of these positions is true.

Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

Monday message board

June 5th, 2006 27 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:

What I’ve been reading

June 3rd, 2006 5 comments

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi.

I’ve been reading the Hugo nominees for best novel, and this was the last one. The blurb states “

Though a lot of SF writers are more or less efficiently continuing the tradition of Robert A. Heinlein, Scalzi’s astonishingly proficient first novel reads like an original work by the late grand master

Since my taste runs more to Bill, the Galactic Hero, I’m not exactly the target market. On the other hand, having read Starman Jones to the point where I could recite the text when I was 14, I’m not totally ignorant of Heinlein either.

In terms of the standard features, Scalzi doesn’t do a bad job. We get the recruiting office, a pretty good drill sergeant from Hell, the usual battle scenes and the inculcation of a military ethos, along with a recognition that “War is Hell”. Heinlein fans will love all this. And there’s the twist in the title. The colonial defence forces only recruit 75-year olds, for reasons that are explained a few chapters into the book. {The later appearance of the Ghost Brigades (I’ll avoid a spoiler on this), seems to me to undermine the rationale, but maybe this will be explained in the subsequent eponymous book.}

Where the book fails, in my view, is as hard science fiction. As you’d expect from the genre the underlying view is what might be called interstellar realism; the galaxy is a tough place and there are a lot of species out there eager to seize our planets and eat us. But Scalzi gives no answer to the Fermi problem: how come the neighbours haven’t already dropped in for dinner, instead of waiting for us to go out to meet them. And even when the book is set, Earth is mysteriously immune from external attack, despite the absence of any of the defence forces that are needed everywhere else.

Then there’s Earth itself. The book is set at least a couple of hundred years after Earth has developed an interstellar space drive, but apart from that it could be set in 1990 (in fact, apart from a passing reference to an office computer, it could be set in the 1950s). The hero is a retired advertising agent, and his companions have similarly 20th century jobs. He produces a driving license as ID, signs up in a strip mall and takes a plane to the spaceport.

I know you’re supposed to suspend disbelief, but all this goes beyond my capacity, I’m afraid.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Weekend reflections

June 3rd, 2006 13 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:

This is getting to be a habit

June 2nd, 2006 74 comments

As with the Lib-Nat merger in Queensland, I was just working on my analysis of the Snowy Hydro privatisation when the news came through that the deal is off. A few observations:

First, this episode confirms that privatisation is political poison in Australia, as is shown both by opinion poll evidence (links to come on this) and by election results in NSW, Tasmania and elsewhere. The more experience people have with privatisation, the less they like it. When you have the National Party celebrating a victory for people power, the point is pretty obvious.

Second, while the promoters of privatisation have criticised opponents as emotive, the case in favor of privatisation was made up in equal parts of emotive appeals to ideology and economic illiteracy. Ideologically, privatisation was assumed by its advocates to be a Good Thing, with no attempt to identify, let alone quantify, any concrete benefits in the case of Snowy Hydro. Economically, this was (I hope) the last outing of the idea that selling income-generating assets “frees up” or “unlocks” cash that can then be spent on schools, hospitals and so on. If the asset is sold for an amount equal to the risk-adjusted present value of expected future earnings, there is no change in the government’s fiscal position. In practice, higher risk premiums in the public sector and the absurd restrictions on ownership that are usually part of deals like this means that the government ends up worse off, not better off.

Coming to the arguments against, the “iconic” argument is indeed emotive, but not necessarily the worse for that. If it’s paying its way, why shouldn’t we keep ownership of an asset like the Snowy in the hands of the public sector that created it?

In any case, there were substantive arguments against privatisation that weren’t effectively answered. We’re in the middle of trying to sort out what to do with the water in the Snowy-Murray system, and not making a really good job of it. The last thing we need is to have a private company (probably with foreign owners who can appeal to the protection of the US-Australia FTA) with large, but still poorly-specified, entitlements to use the water or receive compensation for changes in use.

Finally, there are some big losers from the cancellation of this deal, namely the banks and financial institutions that would have had a cut of it. To that group can be added the politicians involved, whose prospects of highly-paid post-political jobs in those same banks have just taken a nosedive.

Categories: Economics - General, Oz Politics Tags:

On the RSMG Blog

June 2nd, 2006 Comments off

The big news on the RSMG blog is the release of our annual report for 2005 available for download here (3.2 MB PDF).

Other recent posts include, a wrapup of the deabte on Dryland salinity and groundwater, Water trading between states – in the details. and To recycle or not to recycle?

Categories: General Tags:


June 1st, 2006 22 comments

I’ve been meaning to post on the merger between the National and Liberal parties in Queensland, pointing out that it makes no sense to have two separate parties in permanent coalition, and expressing a bit of surprise that the local parties got their act together so quickly. Now, however, it’s all off.

This is amazing good luck for the Beattie government, which has made more than its share of mis-steps lately, although I think the main thrust of policies, raising services to a level comparable with other states, and pushing the “Smart State” slogan as a counterweight to the notorious anti-intellectualism of the Joh era (and for that matter, the Nicklin and Gair eras before that – it was a Labor government that cut the number of school years in Queensland, a decision that has only just been reversed), has been sensible.

Whatever the government’s problems, it’s hard to see Queensland voters going for a National-led coalition again> I’ll repeat what I said in 2004

In the case of Queensland, Labor has an advantage that does not seem to have been remarked on. The only plausible alternative government is a Liberal-led coalition, but for historical reasons, this isn’t on offer. In fact there are only three Liberals in Parliament and of these only one is running for re-election. Instead the Opposition is in effect the National Party (there are also the remnants of One Nation and assorted independents). Even though the Nationals have held office for most of the past fifty years, I don’t think we’ll ever see another National Party premier.

Assuming no merger, I thought in 2004 that it would

take three more elections for Labor to lose. The Liberals need one to become a credible party rather than a trivial joke, a second to become the leading opposition party, and a third to beat Labor.

Having won a few more seats, and with Labor looking ragged, you could just about have said that the first of these stages had been passed, until the fiasco of the last few days.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags: