Archive for October, 2007

The end of shmibertarianism (updated)

October 31st, 2007 20 comments

As Andrew Sullivan notes, Glenn Reynolds no longer even claims to be a libertarian[1], and his repudiation of this former position is shared by a number of leading shmibertarians, who are now happy enough to identify as orthodox Republicans. I haven’t yet seen anything similar from some others, such as the Volokhs, but the idea that a relaxed attitude to sex and drugs, and support for economic policies that favour your own social class, can trump the authoritarian implications of militarism, from Gitmo to collusion in government lies, is now pretty much dead. Insofar as an idea can be tested by experiment, prowar libertarianism has been tried and failed (a bit more on this from Jim Henley)

The implications go further I think. Given that the Republicans are now definitively the war party (not that the Democrats have yet become the peace party, but that’s another story), it’s hard to see how libertarian Republicans can survive, any more than Dixiecrats survived Nixon’s Southern strategy. The recent decision by RedState to ban Ron Paul supporters is a pretty clear indication of how real Republicans think about this. This has big implications for a thinktank like Cato, which has opposed the war (but very sotto voce – a visitor to their website would be hard pressed to tell that there even was a war) while remaining within the Republican tent.

Of course, it goes the other way. It’s hard to witness the catastrophic government failure that has characterized every aspect of this war without becoming more sympathetic to certain kinds of libertarian (and also classically conservative) arguments, particularly those focusing on the fallibility of planning.

fn1. Apparently my ignorance of the further reaches of US party politics may have led me to overstate Reynolds’ candor. What’s being announced is, apparently, a break with the Libertarian Party, leaving him free to label himself a (small-l) libertarian. Thanks to Kevin Drum for pointing this out. Jim Henley, linked above, also commented on this distinction, concluding “I doubt it matters. In a corrupt political discourse, no label is much use.” and that’s about where I stand.

Categories: General Tags:

On the bleeding edge

October 30th, 2007 108 comments

I’ve been trying out various new technologies lately, with mixed results

My first attempt to present a paper using videoconferencing from my desktop Mac came to grief as a result of software incompatibilities, so I’ll be using standard videoconference methods again, to present a paper on Urban Water Pricing to a seminar at LaTrobe Uni, Albury-Wodonga, on Thursday. I’ll get started earlier next time and see if I can’t get these problems overcome.

During my recent visit to Canberra, I hired a Prius, which was an interesting experience. A few random thoughts about implications.
* I was particularly struck by the way it sits silently at traffic lights, and more generally how much quieter it is, most of theh time. than a standard car. That alone would be a big plus in a move towards electric cars.
* As this piece in Salon points out, a hybrid is not necessarily more fuel-efficient than smaller conventional cars. Then again, you can save even more just by driving less. The more options there are the better. I expect the price differential noted in the article will decline over time as production volumes increase.
* Looking at how easy it would be to switch to hybrids, I’m more convinced than ever that a peak in oil production (which may already have been passed) will not been the end of industrial civilisation as we know it, or even a major change in our way of life.
* s regards the more serious problem of global warming, a hybrid still uses electricity, so the gains aren’t as great. Still, many small reductions add up to big reductions Reader canberra boy points out that the Prius is not a plug-in hybrid as I thought . Rather the battery is recharged entirely by regenerative braking or, when that falls short, by the engine. As usual, Wikipedia has the details

Finally, I upgraded my Mac OS to OS 10.5 (Leopard), and am a bit grumpy. It seems as if it went smoothly for everyone but me, and in fact I nearly always have trouble with system upgrades. But, in between I really love my Mac, and my experience running Windows XP under virtualisation has only confirmed me in this.

Categories: Environment, Mac & other computers Tags:

Beard or bare?

October 30th, 2007 25 comments

That’s the question I asked on Facebook, and so far the vote has been unanimous for beard. Responses I’ve had in person have mostly favoured bare. So you can have your say here or (assuming there are no access problems) on Facebook.
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Categories: Life in General Tags:

Prins and Rayner on Kyoto

October 29th, 2007 21 comments

Not surprisingly, this Nature article by Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner entitled Time to ditch Kyoto, has attracted plenty of attention. I’m responding quickly and therefore somewhat brusquely. I’ll try to write something more considered a bit later.

Before giving a detailed response, let me observe that a reader with limited time need only look at the following few sentences

In September, the United States convened the top 16 polluters. Such initiatives are summarily dismissed by Kyoto’s true believers, who see them as diversions rather than necessary first steps. However, these approaches begin to recognize the reality that fewer than 20 countries are responsible for about 80% of the world’s emissions.

This argument is premised on the assumption that the Bush Administration, representing the world’s largest source of emissions (though China is catching up fast), sincerely wants to do something about climate change and called the September meeting with this purpose in mind. If anyone believes this, I have just become aware of a business opportunity from Nigeria in which they may be interested.
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Categories: Environment Tags:

Monday message board

October 29th, 2007 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:

Academic scribblers

October 28th, 2007 22 comments

Having been active in Australian policy debate for around fifteen years, its sobering to realise that I can only identify one issue where I’m confident I’ve had a significant impact on the ultimate outcome. That topic was the subject of my first column in the Financial Review, called Fightback without the Food Tax (for those who weren’t around at the time, Fightback! was John Hewson’s manifesto for the 1993 election, centred on a GST). Not only did Hewson eventually incorporate an exemption for food in his GST proposal (too late to turn around the perception that he was a dogmatic ideologue) but the Democrats accepted the view and imposed it on Howard. This was something of a Pyhrric victory as far as I was concerned, though. While I thought, and still think, a GST with an exemption for food made good public policy, the New Tax System package as a whole was not a good deal and should have been rejected.

At a much more marginal level, I think one of my columns might have had an impact on the campaign this weekend. In this piece in mid-September, I argued that the Howard government had plenty to gain, and nothing to lose, from ratifying Kyoto. Now it turns out that, at about the same time, Malcolm Turnbull was making the same case in Cabinet, unsuccessfully of course. The leak of this revelation has given Howard another day or two of bad headlines. Of course, the argument is obvious, and Turnbull is quite sharp enough to work it out for himself. Still, it does make the effort of turning out a column every fortnight seem a little bit more worthwhile.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Straight to the poolroom

October 27th, 2007 13 comments

A little flap between Crooked Timber and Andrew Sullivan has led to the unearthing of this gem from 2004, which is going to the testimonials bar as soon as I get a round tuit.

What John Quiggin desires is Orwellian Newspeak, with Mr Quiggin and his friends at Crooked Timber being the Inner Party deciding the rules

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Weekend reflections

October 27th, 2007 8 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:

Leaning on the bank

October 26th, 2007 21 comments

Today’s Fin reports that Howard, Costello and Vaile are all leaning on the Reserve Bank not to raise interest rates at its Tuesday meeting. Howard and Costello are arguing that the Bank is obliged to focus on headline rather than underlying CPI movements, while Vaile is claiming that there is a convention of not increasing rates during a campaign. Costello’s warning of an economic tsunami heading for our shores can be seen as more of the same.

This seems both desperate and self-defeating. After the inflation figures, the government’s best hope was that the Bank would share the view that the uncertain global situation made a rate increase undesirable. Ideally, some hints to this effect from the Bank would promote the view that we should stick with the economic managers we know. But now, any such decision will be seen as buckling to government pressure. That makes it more likely that the Bank will raise rates, and ensures that, if they don’t, it will be a political negative for the government.

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

Kelly on climate

October 25th, 2007 20 comments

While I’m on the Oz, this exceptionally confused piece from Paul Kelly gets just one thing right. Howard’s refusal to ratify Kyoto, despite accepting all the key terms, is evidence of paralysis. I can’t be bothered attempting a point-by-point rebuttal, so I’ll just state the facts about which Kelly seems to be confused
* The Kyoto Protocol constitutes the agreements to act under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change for the period up to 2012
* The basis of the agreement was that developed countries would cut emissions first, and that less developed countries would do so in later rounds (the post-2012 round is about to be negotiated)
* Suggestions to “amend the Kyoto Protocol” make no sense, since it’s only got four years to run anyway, and its successor is about to be negotiated
* The reason Howard is paralysed is not because he is dogmatically inflexible on symbolic issues (look at his backflip on reconciliation) but because ratifying Kyoto would put him into direct conflict with George Bush, and he is incapable of taking such a step

Categories: General Tags:

Conceding defeat in the culture wars

October 25th, 2007 50 comments

Not long ago, Tom Switzer (opinion editor for the Oz) was claiming victory in the culture wars at a Quadrant dinner (hat-tip to reader Jason McDonald). Now, Greg Sheridan is conceding defeat, at least on the assumption (now nearly universal) that the Liberals are heading for defeat. Unsurprisingly, both of them focus a lot of attention on the ABC, though Sheridan’s list extends to the media in general (News Limited? PBL?) and (a kind recognition that we still exist) universities.

The most striking feature of both articles is that they seem stuck in the fights of the 1990s, over political correctness, multiculturalism and so on. There’s no mention at all of climate change, and hardly any of Iraq (Switzer notes in passing that he opposed it). Yet if you want to explain the failure of the right wing in the culture wars you can’t go past these two cases. In both cases, having chosen sides, the right treated facts as being either utterly irrelevant or as talking points to be trumpeted or denied according to political need. In both, they hung on, time after time, to positions that had long since ceased to be defensible. These are tactics that worked reasonably well in culture wars and history wars, since there’s rarely any final reckoning. But in the case of Iraq and climate change, reality has a way of obtruding.

Looking at the disagreement between the two, Sheridan is much more focused on the Liberal party, and on control of institutions. He recognises that the attempt to impose control from the top has failed, though he persists with the silly “elite” terminology in which a university lecturer is a member of an elite from which, say, the CEO of a major company is excluded.

The other big difference is in the implied view of Kevin Rudd and, implicitly, of other centrists like Clinton and Blair (or, more relevantly now, Gordon Brown). They are clearly not leftwingers, and in that sense, the culture warriors can declare victory and go home. On the other hand, although their commitment to the social democratic strand of liberalism is so thin as to be almost invisible at times, they are clearly in a different category from the US Republicans who carry the rightwing flag in the global culture wars.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Time to call this one

October 23rd, 2007 50 comments

I don’t have much of a reputation for accurate election predictions[1],[2], but I’m going to call this one for Labor. Short of something unexpected and uncontrollable by either side, I can’t see the Libs pulling this out of the fire. I think it’s just a matter of waiting out the remaining month.

[1] A week out from the 2004 election, I thought the position was in Labor’s favor, and even on the day I thought the odds close to 50-50, so I wouldn’t base large-scale betting-market investments on my judgement if I were you.

[2] By contrast, I think I’ve called the Iraq war pretty well, but that’s another story.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Books I’ve been reading

October 23rd, 2007 4 comments

As well as Dance to the Music of Time, there’s Bob Burton’s Inside Spin a well-researched look at the operations of PR in Australia. As well as standard PR and Astroturf operations, there’s plenty of interesting material on think tanks like CIS and IPA. And I’m also reading To Firmer Ground edited by John Langmore, which provides a lot of useful policy suggestions for a social-democratic government. Sadly, the decision to match Howard’s tax cuts has closed off much of the room for manoeuvre available to Labor over the next three years, assuming they get in.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Dead cats

October 22nd, 2007 52 comments

The government got its bounce last week, but it looks to have been of the dead cat variety, with the latest Newspoll (taken before the debate) showing Labor ahead 58-42 on 2PP. Of course, the usual warnings about margin of error apply to both this poll and the previous one. There’s nothing to suggest, with any certainty, that there has been any movement away from the average of 56-44 that’s prevailed all year.

The big problem is the perception that the government has fired off all its big guns and achieved nothing. We’re already seeing backdowns on a bunch of issues (Turnbull on nuclear power for example), but they’ll need more than this, or another bounce, to stave off the view that disaster is inevitable. it might not be too late for Howard to pull back a few points by ratifying Kyoto, but he needs to do something quickly.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Five more weeks (Groan!)

October 22nd, 2007 29 comments

Now the one and only debate is over, and both sides have launched the bulk of their policies (there are presumably some last-minute goodies, but the big money has been spent), what are we going to do for the next five weeks? The Policy Speeches could normally be relied on to inject at least some interest, but not when the policies get announced in the first week.

After the endless pre-campaign, five more weeks of pointless stumping about will have people turning off in droves, I imagine. If it weren’t for compulsory voting, I suspect we’d see a big drop in turnout. Normally, boredom is good for the incumbents, but I’m not sure how it will play out this time.
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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Life imitates art

October 22nd, 2007 10 comments

I thought, at first that he worked far harder than most of the men I knew. Later, I came to doubt this, finding that Quiggin’s work was something to be discussed rather than tackled and that what he really enjoyed was drinking cups of coffee at odd times of day

Anthony Powell, in A Dance to the Music of Time. Any of my co-authors will recognise this much of the picture, at least.

Categories: Books and culture, Life in General Tags:

Monday message board

October 22nd, 2007 8 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 distributional effects of the tax cuts

October 21st, 2007 6 comments

All the econobloggers have been waiting for someone else to dive into the analysis of the tax policies offered by the government and opposition. Finally, Andrew Leigh has got sick of waiting and produced a distributional analysis. Bottom line: as you would expect, only marginal differences, except at the top percentile of the income distribution. Labor’s education credit makes its policy very slightly more egalitarian.

I’ve been meaning to work through the MYEFO and talk about the fiscal soundness or otherwise of tax cuts on this scale, and I’ll try to get to this next week.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Coral Reef Futures Forum

October 20th, 2007 16 comments

I spent the last couple of days in Canberra at the Coral Reef Futures Forum, as part of my new Federation Fellowship is to look at economic approaches to management of the Great Barrier Reef. As one of the speakers said, a lot of the talks had people staring at their shoes in gloom, though the tone got a little more positive towards the end. I’m an optimist on ecological issues which is fortunate, because when you look at the threats facing coral reefs, you need a lot of optimism. Looking at historical data, even the GBR, which is much better managed than most reef systems is significantly degraded relative to 100 years ago, and a large proportion of reefs are at or near the point of no return, thanks to overfishing, destructive fishing methods and marine pollution. When you add regular bleaching due to climate change, and also acidification due to higher CO2 levels, the chances of saving much of the world’s coral reef systems do not look too good.

The most hopeful view is that, if we can fix the local threats like overfishing and poor water quality, the resulting increase in resilience (part of my project is to develop a more rigorous understanding of this popular buzzword) will offset moderate global warming, so that if we can stabilise the climate (an increase of no more than 2 degrees) we might save at least some reef systems.
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Categories: Environment Tags:


October 19th, 2007 17 comments

Following up my post on consumption and living standards in the US, there was a fair bit of discussion at CT of what’s been happening to leisure. Juliet Schor and others have argued that the long-term trend towards reduced hours of work and more leisure reversed some time in the 1970s, and people have been working harder since then. A study by Aguair and Hurst (the final QJE article is subscription-only, but I found a preliminary version here) has been widely quoted as proving the opposite (here, for example, by Tyler Cowen) and the abstract seems to support this interpretation, saying “We find that a dramatic increase in leisure time lies behind the relatively stable number of market hours worked between 1965 and 2003.”

However the data periods don’t exactly match up. It turns out that, using any of the definitions of leisure considered by Aguair and Hurst, the majority of the increase in leisure time took place between 1965 and 1975, and most measures show little change since 1985.

There’s an important gender/family dimension too. On Aguair and Hurst measures 1 and 2 (which exclude child care), leisure time for women peaked in 1985 and has declined since then, while leisure time for men has been pretty much stationary.

So that readers can make their own comparisons, I’ve extracted the relevant table, which is over the fold. I’d say it matches Schor’s story (increasing leisure until the late 70s followed by a decline) at least as well as that suggested by the authors (dramatic long-term increases in leisure)

There’s lots more data in the Aguiar and Hirst paper and one point worth noting is that the trend in the distribution of leisure time is the opposite of that in income. High income, high education people have experienced a significant decline in leisure relative to those with low income and low education. That somewhat offsets the growth in inequality I’ve been talking about. Also, combined with the gender pattern I already mentioned, it almost certainly means that educated women have, on average, less leisure than in the late 1970s.
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Disruptive marketing …

October 18th, 2007 55 comments

… is one of those buzzphrases that is in the air in business schools, and since I’m located right next to the business school here at UQ I tend to be exposed to them.

Economists have their own buzzphrases and are not usually inclined to adopt those of marketing, but I must say this term seems apposite to Howard’s approach to the campaign. Starting from behind (but with the notional advantage of incumbency) he’s making up new rules and then demanding that Rudd adhere to them.

On tax, for example, the standard occasion to release what will presumably be the biggest single policy initiative of the campaign would be the policy speech (hence the name). Howard released his on the first day, then demanded that Rudd follow suit. Similarly, Howard has proposed a totally new format for a debate, effectively killing off the debate as it’s been understood, and is now trying the “empty chair” ploy on Rudd, saying he’ll go ahead with or without him.

It makes a certain kind of sense, but the obvious thing for the market leader (there I go again!) to do is to ignore it.,

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Bad teeth

October 16th, 2007 19 comments

To consider the possible future of the Australian economy, particularly if the current government stays in office, we should look at the US. One of the striking features of US economic data is that, at least on its face, it shows that most measures of median income (wage rates, household incomes and so on) haven’t changed much in the past thirty years. Here’s a fairly typical example, reporting that American men in their 30s have, on average, lower wages than their fathers did at the same age. Median household income did a bit better in the decades after 1970, because of greater labour force participation by women, but hasn’t shown any any clear increase since about 2000. Average household size may have decreased a little bit. In summary, the general evidence is that the average (median) American depending on labour income hasn’t seen a significant improvement in real income for a long time.

That doesn’t seem to square with casual observation suggesting that consumption of most things by most people has gone up. Of course, savings have declined, but that can scarcely be the whole story. An obvious implication of declining incomes is that, if consumption of some things has gone up, consumption of others must have gone down. This is all the more so, given that there are new items of consumption (computers, for example) that didn’t even exist a few decades go, leaving less for expenditure on goods and services that were available then.

So, I’m always on the lookout for examples suggesting that consumption of some category of good or service has declined in real, quality adjusted terms.

Here’s one example I’ve found. According to the NYT, Americans have worse teeth now than a decade ago.

I’d be interested to know how fluoridation has affected this. My guess is that there was an expansion in the postwar years leading to a “free” (that is, no direct cost to households) improvement in dental health, but that there hasn’t been much change recently. Also guessing, I’d imagine that what’s true of dental health is true of lots of chronic, but not life-threatening health conditions. With declining coverage of private health insurance and tighter conditions for public provisions, a lot of these conditions must be going untreated. Then there’s the striking fact that Europeans are getting taller while Americans are not This seems to be true right up the class spectrum, so a simple explanation based on access to health care and dietary info is problematic. Still, it seems reasonable to put down non-critical health care as a likely example of declining real median consumption in the US.

This Boston Review piece by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi pointed out by Kjohnson in comments, has lots of interesting info, particularly with respect to housing, where median house size hasn’t increased nearly as much as popular discussion suggests. There’s also the huge growth in manufactured homes (aka trailers) to take into account.

Of course, that still leaves plenty of categories where median consumption is increasing. There’s enough here to keep us going for quite a while. Thanks to commenters who’ve already helped.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Betting on the bounce

October 16th, 2007 41 comments

As we dragged through the seemingly endless pre-campaign this year, two legendary beasts were much discussed. One was the Bounce, expected by the government in response to some good news story or other. The most important was the Budget Bounce which, had it materialised would have set the stage for a mid-year election. The other was the Narrowing, assumed to take place once voters realised that the Howard government was actually set to lose office and be replaced by Labor.

Neither of these happened. The Budget disappeared without trace into the background of whatever determines voter choices, and even after most people came to expect a Labor win, there was no significant narrowing in the lead. Looking at the averaged results, there might have been a shift of one or two percentage points.

But the opening of the real campaign revives both possibilities: a Narrowing as the phony war is replaced by a real one and a Bounce as the government runs a strong campaign, including lots of appealing goodies.

The announcement of the government’s biggest policy initiative on the first day of the campaign effectively rolls these two into one. Clearly, Howard and Costello are betting that the combined effect will produce an immediate shift in the polls, at least enough to bring them back into contention – I’d say 47-53 is the minimum needed. If they get it, they are in a competitive race. If they don’t, the effects on morale will be dire.

Of course, there’s a huge element of chance here. Sampling and non-sampling error could produce a set of rogue results either way. But no matter how much this is pointed out, the psychological impact of the first polls is going to be huge.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Fistful of Dollars II

October 15th, 2007 56 comments

Given how far behind the government is starting, it probably makes sense to lead off the campaign with what has to be its biggest promise, tax cuts costing $34 billion over three years. As I recall, the spending promises already announced total about $9 billion a year, so its hard to imagine that there can be much left in reserve.

Although there’s nothing wrong with announcing a program for an entire term of government, it’s unusual in relation to tax cuts, and I can recall (perhaps with error) at least two instances of such cuts being promised and then taken back. One was Paul Keating’s L-A-W tax cuts in 1993, which (as implied) were actually legislated in an attempt to increase their credibility. The other was the “Fistful of Dollars” tax cut of 1977 (so named for the ads which showed precisely that) promised by the Fraser-Lynch team going into the election and then (if my fading memory serves) taken back by Lynch’s newly-appointed replacement. Now what was his name again?
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Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

BrisScience on Water (reminder)

October 15th, 2007 Comments off

The BrisScience lecture series is on again (Monday 15th at City Hall, 6:30 pm), and both the topic and speaker are closer to home than usual. The topic is Water in South East Queensland. The speaker, Professor Paul Greenfield, is about to become Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland.

More details here and over the fold
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Categories: Environment, Science Tags:

Last chance to enrol

October 15th, 2007 Comments off

After setting everything up to close the rolls the moment an election is called, the government has waited until Wednesday to dissolve Parliament (I suspect because they can run tax-funded ads until then), which means that it’s not too late for anyone who hasn’t enrolled.

Details here

For readers of this blog, a more likely problem is out-of-date details. You can check on this here

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

Monday message board

October 15th, 2007 7 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:

And they’re off!

October 14th, 2007 24 comments

Well, the endless phoney war is finally over, and the election is on for 24 November. Feel free to contribute predictions, appeals for the party or candidate of your choice or general jaded commentary

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The case for fixed terms

October 13th, 2007 11 comments

An election may or may not be called this weekend. In my last column in the Fin (over the fold), I put a case for fixed three-year terms.
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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Weekend reflections

October 13th, 2007 7 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: