Archive for July, 2006

Monday message board

July 31st, 2006 26 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:

The dismal science of freedom

July 30th, 2006 49 comments

The topic for my BrisScience talk tomorrow night is Economics: The Hopeful Science. The name, obviously, is an allusion to Carlyle’s characterization of economics as ‘the dismal science’. In choosing though, I was under the common misapprehension that Carlyle was attacking Malthus, and his prediction of a stationary economy with a subsistence wage, that could be raised only through ‘moral restraint’.

It turns out, however, that the phrase actually occurs in Carlyle’s defence of slavery, charmingly entitled, Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question*, and that the primary target is John Stuart Mill and other economists who favored free labour over slavery.
Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

ABARE on the costs of climate change

July 29th, 2006 62 comments

I’ve been reading the latest ABARE report on climate change, kindly sent to me by my colleague Renuka Mahadevan . While there are some problems with the analysis and even more with the way it’s been reported, the central findings are strikingly consistent with estimates I’ve made about the costs of stabilsing global CO2 levels, most recently here

All the evidence, though, is that we can reduce emissions to levels consistent with stabilising global CO2 levels over the next few decades at a cost of around 5 per cent of GDP – a few years worth of economic growth at the most. Quite possibly, as in previous cases, this wll turn out to be an overestimate.

ABARE studies a number of scenarios in which global CO2 levels are stabilised at 575 parts per million in 2100 and reports the estimated reduction in global product at 2050, which ranges from 1.7 per cent to 4.3 per cent, or from a bit under 1 years per capita growth to a bit over 2 years. That is, in the worst-case scenario (which is somewhat problematic in modelling terms, I think), the living standards in 2150 will be those that would have been reached in 2048 under the base projection.

ABARE is not known for lowballing the estimated costs of mitigating climate change, but if you’re going to do a credible modelling exercise, it’s inevitable that numbers of this magnitude will emerge. This simply reflects the fact that carbon-based fuels make up only a modest proportion of the value of total output, and that the demand for carbon (or more precisely C02) emissions is bound to be at least moderately elastic in the long run.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Weekend reflections

July 29th, 2006 Comments off

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:

Vote Yes in Toowoomba

July 28th, 2006 60 comments

The struggle of science against stupidity (and, in some cases, selfish interest groups) is being fought out on a number of fronts – creationism, global warming and passive smoking to name but a few. Tomorrow the venue moves to Toowoomba where a proposal to deal with a drastic water shortage by recycling effluent is being opposed by a know-nothing scare campaign, whose proponents have neither credible arguments nor an alternative to offer. I’m happy to endorse people’s freedom not to drink recycled water if they don’t want to. Their local supermarket offers chemically identical spring water at around $1/litre, so if they don’t want to drink what comes out of the tap at $1/kilolitre, they don’t have to. But they shouldn’t make their fellow-citizens suffer for their irrational squeamishness.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Australian Astroturf

July 27th, 2006 14 comments

Trevor Cook is campaigning against astroturfing, along with Paul Young. They’ve set up a campaign page.

As is pointed out on the page, Astroturf groups have their Internet equivalent in the form of sock-puppets, one of the lowest forms of life on the Web.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

BrisScience, 31 July

July 27th, 2006 11 comments

I’ve been very much enjoying attending the BrisScience lecture series, and next week I’ll get to give one. I’m talking on Monday July 31 at the Ithaca Auditorium, City Hall, on the topic “Economics: The Hopeful Science” (6pm for 6:30). The theme of my talk, which should be familiar to readers of this blog is that we can (and must) have both economic growth and protection of the environment.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Doha failure

July 26th, 2006 3 comments

The breakdown of the Doha round of trade talks on agricultural trade is unsurprising, but still disappointing. Neither the US nor the EU is really willing to give substantial ground. In the case of the US, the option of negotiating one-sided bilateral deals like the US-Australia FTA seems much more appealing.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

A critique of Wood on global warming

July 26th, 2006 58 comments

I’ve been sent a critique of Alan Wood’s piece in the Oz claiming that global warming is a hoax. It’s written by a climate scientist who knows what he is talking about on this issue. Wood obviously doesn’t know or doesn’t care.

I was very disappointed in Wood’s piece. While his economic views are very different from mine, his columns on economic issues are usually rigorous, and if he makes a factual claim, it’s generally reliable. But his standards seem to desert him when he writes on this topic.

The response is in the (now relatively uncommon) form of a point-by-point fisking. Wood’s text is in plain type and the comment’s in italics.

One fairly trivial point is quite revealing. Wood claims, incorrectly, that the Mann “hockey stick” graph was “for a time, incorporated … into the IPCC’s logo.” As the analysis makes clear, the repetition of this bogus factoid indicates that Wood is sourcing his material from the denialist echo chamber, and not doing his own research. This is standard practice for our legion of rightwing hacks (and quite a few lefties as well), but it’s not the kind of thing I’d expect from Alan Wood.

Read more…

Categories: General Tags:

Civil war in Iraq

July 24th, 2006 105 comments

While world attention has been transfixed by the catastrophes in Lebanon and Gaza, Iraq has reached the point where sectarian bloodletting turns into civil war. Most of the country is already partitioned on ethnic and religious lines, and now the same thing is happening in Baghdad, with people abandoning mixed neighborhoods for the safety of homogeneous enclaves.

This development seems to finally mark the point beyond which slogans like “stay the course” make no sense any more. “Stay the course” presumed that the problem was an insurgency that could be defeated by the Iraqi government, given sufficient backing. Whether or not that was ever feasible, given the way in which the occupation acted as a recruiting agency for the insurgents, is now irrelevant. The forces driving the civil war are as much inside the government as outside. The occupying forces are doing nothing to stop it, and it’s not obvious that they can do anything.

Any suggestions on what to do next would be welcome. Given that the occupation has produced nothing but disaster, an early end to it seems like an obvious first step. But nothing now seems likely to stop the breakup of Iraq into warring statelets, at least some of which will be terrorist havens.

Update While the comment thread has been as acrimonious as you would expect, it’s been notably lacking in positive suggestions, particularly from those who supported the invasion. Stephen Bartos and a couple of others have some worthwhile discussion of the way a withdrawal could be managed, but the war’s supporters seem to think it sufficient to point out that Saddam was (and is) an evil man. Those of us who opposed the invasion knew that; what we were waiting for in 2002, and are still waiting for, was a coherent plan to deal with the consequences of an invasion.

Categories: World Events Tags:


July 24th, 2006 13 comments

My article in Thursday’s Fin (copy over the fold) was about the role of credit and bankruptcy in adaption to growing inequality and variability in income.
Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Monday message board

July 24th, 2006 9 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:

RSMG blog back on air

July 21st, 2006 1 comment

The Risk and Sustainable Management Group blog has been pretty quiet for the last few weeks, as most of us have been travelling, and pressure of work has been intense. But things are livening up again. Some recent posts

Howard on Water

Are institutions failing us?

The energy efficiency debate we have to have.

Read and enjoy!

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Weekend reflections

July 21st, 2006 66 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:

Romance of the gun

July 20th, 2006 71 comments

The various disasters in the Middle East keep on getting worse. About the best analysis of the whole situation that I’ve seen in some time was by Rami Khouri in Salon. The write-off sums up the case

Hamas and Hezbollah, Lebanon and Palestine, Syria and Iran, the U.S. and Israel: Unless these four pairs of actors turn away from their failed policies, the Middle East will sink further into violence and despair.

What is striking about the Middle East is that, more than anywhere else in the world, it is the place where belief in the effectiveness of violence to achieve political goals has reigned supreme, and the place where nothing of substance has changed, except for the worse, in generations. Whether it’s the gunman firing an AK-47 into the air, the suicide bomber’s macabre video clip, the Revolutionary Guard armed with Islamic fervour or the official military parading its power to deliver terror by air and armoured brigade, the romance of the gun seems to obscure the reality of murdered children and the dismal failure of all concerned to move even an inch towards any sort of solution.

The only new thing about the current crisis is that lots of Australians are directly in the line of fire. This raises the stakes dramatically for anyone who wants to endorse the actions of one side or another.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Not the News ?

July 20th, 2006 15 comments

Today’s NYT runs an Associated Press story headed Farmers Use Bull Semen to Inseminate Cows, which reports, as news, the fact that dairy farmers use artificial insemination on a large scale.

Next they’ll be telling us that milkmaids face unemployment due to the introduction of milking machines.

Since I’ve given the setup, feel free to lower the tone in comments.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Lords of Climate Change

July 19th, 2006 86 comments

I see in this piece by Alan Wood that the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs inquiry into “The Economics of Climate Change” (which strongly questioned the science of climate change) is still getting a run in denialist circles.

I haven’t bothered posting on this before, because the main outcome of the inquiry was the establishment of the Stern Review which issued its first discussion paper back in April, stating (from the Executive Summary)

Climate change is a serious and urgent issue… There is now an overwhelming body of scientific evidence that human activity is increasing the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and causing warming.

There’s more like this, giving an excellent summary of the mainstream scientific position.

So the House of Lords exercise was something of an own goal for the denialists. But how did a supposedly serious inquiry come up with with such nonsense in the first place?
Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

Room at the top

July 18th, 2006 18 comments

One of the beliefs that is (or at least used to be) influential in discussions about the War on Drugs is that, if only the Mr Big(s) at the top of the distribution chain could be caught, the problem of illegal drugs could be controlled. The Melbourne gangland wars provide an ideal test of this idea. The leading gangsters did a better job eliminating each other than any police force has ever managed and most of the survivors are in jail or on the run. So, at least for a while, drug crime ought to be under control if Mr Bigs count for anything.

According to this story in The Age, the opposite is true. The void created by the war is rapidly being filled. Takeaway quote

Police say the profits from drug trafficking mean little-known criminals can became major influences in months.

In most cases, gangsters like those involved in the gangland wars don’t facilitate the illegal drug trade, they tax it.

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

Monday message board

July 17th, 2006 39 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:

Adventures in social network analysis

July 15th, 2006 34 comments

The latest round in the Republican War on Science is a report prepared for US Representative Joe Barton aimed at discrediting the ‘hockey stick’ analysis of global temperatures first undertaken by Mann, Bradley, and Hughes, and subsequently supported by many other studies. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, this peripheral issue in the analysis of climate change has attracted disproportionate attention from denialists, most notably Ross McKitrick and Steve McIntyre. One result was that the US National Academy of Sciences recently reviewed the work, reaching conclusions broadly supportive of MBH.

The report for Barton was prepared by three statisticians, Edward Wegman, David Scott and Yasmin Said , and its only novel contribution is a social network analysis, which is meant to show that the various independent studies aren’t really independent and that peer review has broken down, since the same group of interlinked academics is reviewing each others’ papers.

Kieran Healy and Eszter Hargittai at Crooked Timber are experts on this stuff, and I’ll be interested to see what they have to say. But in the meantime, I have a couple of observations (feel free to correct errors in my interpretation).
Read more…

Categories: Environment, Science Tags:


July 15th, 2006 14 comments

In my dialect of English, shared living arrangements (normally non-familial) can be described by three terms.
A housemate (or flatmate) is someone who shares your house (normally not your room, but this is open)
A roommate is someone who shares your room (normally not your bed)
A bedmate is self-explanatory.

In US English, “roommate” seems to cover all three, but US English speakers seem able to infer which is intended from the context. Can anyone help me with a usage guide?
Read more…

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Weekend reflections

July 14th, 2006 3 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:

Mumbai terror attacks

July 13th, 2006 22 comments

Yet another terror attack, with 200 killed. All such crimes, whether committed by terrorist gangs or national governments, should be condemned without reservation. The idea that causes such as national independence, religion or political ideology justify the murder of ordinary people going about their daily business is utterly pernicious, as is the view that similar killings (whether directly intended or inevitable ‘collateral damage’) are justified in retaliation for such crimes.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Request for help

July 13th, 2006 16 comments

I know there’s a word for this, but I’m still holding out against it. I’m hoping someone will be able to help me with a computing problem.

My approach to security is to keep three copies of my Documents folder (about 20GB) synchronized twice daily (often about 500Mb of changed files). One copy is on the home computer, one at work, and the third is on my 40Gb iPod. My problem is that the iPod is filling up, and it doesn’t look as if Apple has any plans to bring out a substantially larger one with Firewire, as I had hoped. One possibility is to find one of the 60Gb models, but it struck me that if Apple can fit a Firewire drive into a lightweight package and make it play music as well, someone must have produced a FireWire equivalent of the ubiquitous USB memory stick. I don’t need something that big, but I’d like something that can be powered from the Firewire drive rather than external power and is small enough to fit into a shirt pocket, with capacity, say 80Gb. Oh, and a frickin’ laser beam attached to the front panel. Is that too much to ask?

Other suggestions gratefully received. My feeling is that synchronizing over USB or an Internet connection is going to be too slow, but maybe there are some clever strategies for increasing efficiency here.

Thanks in advance

Categories: Mac & other computers Tags:

PPPs in decline ?

July 12th, 2006 22 comments

There’s been quite a bit happening in relation to Public Private Partnerships, most of it suggesting a diminished role for this kind of financing. Queensland has issued new guidelines, partly in response to criticism of the fact that there has so far been only one major PPP project approved (and that only just scraped in). The criticism is understandable: a lot of people in the financial sector are missing out on really big money every time the government decides to go with simple low-cost bond financing. It’s striking though, that the only state with no reason to reduce measured debt levels (Queensland has positive net financial worth) is also the one that has found hardly any PPP offers meeting the value for money criterion. It seems pretty clear that at least some evaluation processes in NSW and elsewhere have been corrupted by the determination of the parties to do a deal regardless of the economics. The recent NSW Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee report on PPPs doesn’t say this, but it certainly raises plenty of concerns about opaque processes.

Meanwhile, in the UK, it seems to be two steps forward and one step back. The nonsensical idea of an all-in-one contract for schools, in which construction is bundled with provision of “soft services” like procurement and HR is mercifully being abandoned, but new forms of PFI/PPP, such as Building Schools for the Future are emerging. The pernicious features of these “innovations” will no doubt become apparent in time, but for the moment, the Blairites are still keen.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Back in the box

July 11th, 2006 19 comments

Unless Costello has another move planned, it looks like we can all turn back to the sports pages. Costello’s called Howard a liar, Howard has returned the compliment in spades (without actually repeating his earlier denials) and now it’s back to business as usual.

The only real interest in all this will be for the history books. Unlike the tangles of Children Overboard and AWB, where plausible deniability has reigned supreme, this is as straightforward a demonstration of the mendacity of Australian politics in the Howard Years as could be imagined.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The second time as farce

July 10th, 2006 45 comments

The Howard-Costello version of the Kirribilli pact is providing lots of innocent amusement, and insight into the postmodern nature of Australian politics.

Costello says there was a deal, Howard says there wasn’t, but, as the government’s supporters will no doubt hasten to point out, the whole idea of a ‘one size fits all’ truth, the same for everyone, smacks of socialism. In a modern market system of politics, everyone can pick their own truth, as desired, and have more than one available for different occasions.

The AWB fiasco illustrated this perfectly. On the one hand, Saddam Hussein was an evil tyrant and it was our obvious duty to support the US in overthrowing him, even if Australian lives were bound to be lost in the process (not to mention, of course, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, wounded or displaced). On the other hand, it was the government’s duty to promote the interests of Australian wheatgrowers, and if that meant slipping Saddam a few hundred million, creamed off the top of funds set aside to help the Iraqi people, then so be it. And, with Saddam gone, it was obviously necessary to cover the deal up so as to keep the incoming government sweet. With the surprising exception of Murdoch’s Australian no-one on the political right saw anything wrong with this.

As with AWB, I doubt that anything will come of this, unless Howard or Costello has decided to push the whole thing past the point of no return. Costello’s deliberate setup of a direct conflict with Howard suggests this. Still there’s plenty of time to patch things up.

More on this from Andrew Bartlett and Mark Bahnisch similarly cynical). Tim Dunlop retains some capacity for outrage and also thinks that Howard has to sack Costello now.

Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Monday message board

July 10th, 2006 14 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Morphic resonance on Doctor Who

July 9th, 2006 14 comments

The first episode of the new series of Doctor Who was screened in Australia last night, and the preview of coming episode showed our old friends the Cybermen. As my son observed, they’re the least satisfactory of the Doctor’s enemies because they are just second-rate Daleks. Today, I opened my copy of the London Review of Books, to find the exact same observation from Jenny Turner, reviewing Kim Newman who objects to the cliched, but apparently universally true, observation, that children watched the series from ‘behind the sofa‘. Support for Rupert Sheldrake, or just evidence that the series reliably produces the same responses in lots of viewers.

Also in my mailbox, after a return from travel was an issue of the Scientific American with the front page headling Do Stem Cells Cause Cancer ? (answer, apparently, yes). My immediate thought was to wonder how long this will take to turn up as a talking point in the Republican alternate universe.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Macquarie Marshes again

July 9th, 2006 14 comments

The debate over returning water to the Macquarie Marshes is reported here at the SMH. Jennifer Marohasy’s claims that “cattle are killing the Marshes”, discussed here, get an airing, but very little support. This kind of emotive anti-farmer rhetoric has mostly gone out of fashion among environmental groups, being regarded as counterproductive, particularly when it is based on almost no evidence. But apparently it’s OK for a lobbyist for one group of farmers to use it against other farmers.

More encouragingly, the article gives a good presentation of the idea of buying back excessive allocations of water. This is the only option that is going to achieve the reductions in water extractions on the scale needed to restore the Murray-Darling Basin to a sustainable balance.

Categories: Environment Tags: