Archive for June, 2008


June 30th, 2008 9 comments

Working in a Faculty of Business and Economics, I get exposed to lots of business magazines I wouldn’t read otherwise. I saw one today with a cover which urged me to “empassion my sales!”.

Being a prosaic economist, I would have thought that, as long as a business can embiggen its sales and profit margins, empassionment is beside the point.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Farewell to the Bullets

June 30th, 2008 7 comments

For quite a few years now, I’ve been following both the fortunes of the Brisbane Bullets and those of an economic system centred on high levels of debt, validated by capital gains. These two interests have collided in an unfortunate fashion with the announcement that the Bullets license has been returned to the National Basketball League. This has been more-or-less inevitable since the owner, Eddy Groves, ran into financial difficulties arising from the impact of the credit crisis on his childcare group, ABC Learning.

I’ll doubtless have more to say on the credit crisis, and perhaps on whether private ownership of sporting teams is a sustainable model for Australia. But for now I’d just like to say thanks to the players and staff of the Bullets for providing me and my family with lots of fun and excitement over the years I’ve lived here in Brisbane, particularly in their last championship season 2006-07.

Categories: Economics - General, Sport Tags:

Monday Message Board

June 30th, 2008 9 comments

It’s time once again for the Monday Message Board. Please post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

The nuclear option

June 28th, 2008 74 comments

Unsurprisingly, evidence that the Rudd government is serious about emissions trading has produced a new round of calls for the development of nuclear power in Australia. There is certainly a case to be made that an expansion of nuclear power should be part of the global response to climate change. But the latest chatter isn’t part of a serious response to the problem of climate change; rather it’s an attempt to duck the issues raised by an emissions trading scheme.

The crucial points to bear in mind are these

* Nuclear power will never be viable in Australia without a high price on carbon and a clear commitment that the price is going to remain high. So, there is no point in raising the nuclear option as a cover for opposing emissions trading

* There is no way that Australia is going to lead the rest of the developed world (in particular the US, but the same points apply to most of Europe and Japan) on this. The US is attempting to restart its nuclear industry on existing brownfield sites. This process started with the passage of new legislation in 2002 and, if all goes well, construction on the first plants might begin in 2010 and (very optimistically) be completed by 2014. Given our lack of any regulatory capacity, construction and management expertise and so on, we won’t even be able to get started before the US industry shows the way on new greenfield sites and produces a significant number of operating plants, say by 2020. With a fast paced program, we might get plants on line by 2030

* It follows that whether or not the Rudd government (or whoever is in government for the next 5 to 10 years) changes its policy on nuclear power will make no difference to anything of substance

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Weekend reflections

June 28th, 2008 11 comments

It’s time once again for weekend reflections.Feel free to write at greater length than for a standard comment thread. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Back on air

June 28th, 2008 5 comments

My hosting service had a major hard drive failure which has kept me off air for several days. Of course that meant I couldn’t post an explanation, but I belatedly realised (thanks to a reader getting in contact there) that I could have put up an announcement on my Facebook page. Anyway I’m back on air and I’ll make up for some of the lost time with some quick points

* Joshua Gans is selling the first copy of his book Parentonomics here on eBay to raise money for a cure for MS. Go and bid – it should be a fun read

* Ken Henry is using his annual leave to help save the endangered hairy-nosed wombat, but I’m expected a new round of extinctions among the endangered species of Opposition leaders.

* After equivocating for months, the Rudd government seems finally to have bitten the bullet, saying, correctly “We’ll make petrol dearer“. Meanwhile, looking at the international news, I’ve been struck with the failure of demagogic attempts like the Liberals’ proposed cut in fuel excise. The McCain-Clinton gas tax holiday seems to have sunk without trace, the EU has held the line against protests, and lots of countries (Indonesia and China among others) are cutting existing subsidies as the futility of a cheap energy policy becomes evident

* The news from the credit crisis in the US has been more alarming than ever. The collapse of the (largely bogus) bond insurance business of firms like MBIA and Ambac has generated a new crisis in markets for associated credit default derivatives. And it turns out the the infusions of equity received by most banks late last year, which ended the first round of the credit crunch had conditions attached which make any further resort to this rescue method highly appealing (essentially, those who made the first injection have to get free shares to offset any subsequent dilution). All of this is mindnumbingly complex. But whereas the inference from complexity used to be “this is much too hard to understand, and the experts have it all under control” it’s now more like “who knows where the next time bomb is hidden>”.

Categories: Economics - General, Metablogging Tags:

More oddity at the Oz

June 25th, 2008 7 comments

The Oz today has quite a good piece from David Coats, arguing that unions and the Labor party need to focus on the quality of work, extending the focus on rights at work to the broader idea that “good jobs and quality work are an essential driver of both good economic outcomes and good social outcomes”. As he notes, New Labour in Britain signally failed to do this “there is a key lesson for Australian Labor from the British experience. Labour in government in Britain made twin mistakes: the party had no compelling answer to the new questions about work, and it offered lukewarm support to progressives in the trade union movement who did.”

So what’s the lead-in from the Oz? “THE ALP and the unions must learn from British Labour and move beyond class war.”

Categories: Media, Oz Politics Tags:

Meltdown continues at the Oz

June 24th, 2008 16 comments

Just about everyone has piled on to this silly piece by David Burchell attacking political bloggers (more precisely, it seems, settling personal scores with unnamed but easily recognisable enemies, as in previous Oz attacks on bloggers)

So, just a couple of asides from me. First, it’s amazing and depressing that the Oz seems determined to continue trashing its reputation, already in tatters from its embrace of global warming delusionism, and the thrashing it took from pseph-bloggers in the leadup to the 2007 election. Australia could use a good national newspaper but it doesn’t have one (the Fin doesn’t really count in this context), and only radical changes from the top down can bring the Oz anywhere near delivering on this aim.

Second, at this point, the idea of “bloggers” or even “political bloggers” as a category has largely ceased to have any meaning. Just about everyone who writes on politics has some sort of blog (even if it isn’t named as such, a regular column, published on the net and allowing comments is, for all practical purposes a blog). Burchell might as well attack “typers” for lacking the gravitas of those who still compose their articles with a quill pen.

Of course, what he means in this context is clear. Well-established commentators who have an established position in old media are OK. Upstarts who write with no authority from anyone are not, particularly if they attract an audience.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:


June 23rd, 2008 30 comments

Exams are just finishing up at the University of Queensland and the grim business of marking is well under way. I’m an observer of the process these days, since my research fellowship doesn’t involve running any courses (though I give a fair number of guest lectures in economics, political science and other subjects). Back in the 60s and 70s, when I was a student, the whole system of examinations and marks was one of the big targets of radical critique; even if relatively minor in the great scheme of things, exams loomed large in our lives, and seemed like a symbol of much that was wrong with society.

That kind of debate seems to have disappeared entirely. While a variety of alternatives to exams have been tried, the pressure to cut costs has driven most Australian universities back to near-total reliance on exams, and, within that, to heavy use of multiple choice and short-answer tests.

But I’m more interested in looking again at the fundamental question of why universities and schools spend so much time and effort on assessment. One possible explanation, is that they provide useful feedback to students on how they are doing, and to the university itself to guide things like admission to later courses. I don’t buy this at all. Feedback provided after you’ve finished a course isn’t much use, after all.

Is it to provide a service to employers? If so, couldn’t they run their own tests? Or is to give students a spur to effort? I guess the last of these is closest to the mark.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Monday Message Board

June 23rd, 2008 35 comments

It’s time once again for the Monday Message Board. Please post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Weekend reflections

June 21st, 2008 15 comments

It’s time once again for weekend reflections.Feel free to write at greater length than for a standard comment thread. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Photo mosaic for union rights in Zimbabwe

June 20th, 2008 10 comments

Among the many groups being persecuted by the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe are trade unionists. Here, via Eric Lee at Labourstart is one small way to help them in their struggle. From the UK TUC

Take action now to support Zimbabwean trade unionists on trial – We need your photo now!

On Monday 23 June, just days before the Presidential run-off election, Lovemore Matombo and Wellington Chibebe, President and General Secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) will be in court to face charges of ‘spreading falsehoods prejudicial to the state’ – or rather, telling the truth about violence in Zimbabwe. As part of their bail conditions they have been banned from addressing political or public gatherings for almost the whole election campaign. These charges and bail conditions are clear breaches of free speech and freedom to associate.

We are urging people everywhere to protest at attempts to silence these men, and at the state-sponsored violence and intimidation which has intensified since the first round of elections in March.

If Lovemore and Wellington aren’t able to address a public gathering themselves, you can help them to with this campaign action, but you’ll need to hurry.

We are making a giant photo mosaic of Lovemore and Wellington, using pictures of hundreds of their supporters from around the world – and we want to use your photo as one tiny part of it. We’ll get this printed on a large banner as a focus for the London demonstration on 23 June, and will make the image available to other international demonstrations and to the media.

This is a last minute campaign, so we need to get your photos in immediately.

Update The last minute has passed, unfortunately. I got an email in reply saying “Thanks for your email, however we’ve had now to stop accepting new photos in order for us to prepare the mosaic. There are still things you can do to help…

Contact the Minister of Justice in Zimbabwe, asking for the charges to be dropped. Visit for more information on how to do this.”

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

The power of persuasion

June 19th, 2008 27 comments

That’s the headline for my article in today’s Fin, which follows:

After a messy and unedifying process, the Iemma government has finally reached an agreement with the Opposition to proceed with the privatisation of the New South Wales electricity industry. The price of the deal has been acceptance of the Opposition demand for an inquiry by the Auditor-General, Peter Achterstraat.

In most cases, inquiries into policies on which the government is already determined are little more than rubber-stamps. Whatever the desired result, a suitably distinguished former judge or some other eminent person, with appropriately written terms of reference, can usually be relied on to deliver it.

But Auditors-General are a sturdy breed, among the few groups of public officials who have offered significant resistance to the politicisation of the public service over recent decades.

Read more…

Bad news on the Murray

June 18th, 2008 23 comments

Grim if unsurprising news from this Leaked report on the state of the Murray-Darling river system. The failure of the autumn rains (again) has wiped out the modest benefits from the (already fading) La Nina event. The problem has been generated by a long history of bad policy, but, at this point, even the best water policy in the world won’t help if it doesn’t rain.

The implications for places like the Coorong are dire. It seems likely, in view of problems like the buildup of acid sulphate soils, that the barrages separating the Lakes Alexandrina and Albert from the sea will have to be removed (this is being staved off by emergency measures for the moment). But the barrages were constructed as an early response to the expansion of irrigation upstream, which reduced flows and, as a result of sea water inflow, threatened to turn predominantly freshwater lakes into salt water (characteristically of such interventions, the barrages overcorrected, eliminating the occasional salt water phases, and changing the ecological balance in the lakes). So, the only sustainable response is to increase flows in the whole system which will require substantial reductions in extractive uses.

But, if the repeated failures of the autumn rains, and the higher frequency of drought represent a permanent climate change, it seems likely we will have to accept both substantial ecological damage and reduced agricultural output. My research group at UQ has been working on this for the Garnaut Review and we should have a report out fairly soon – some of the scenarios are indeed grim.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Good news on the research front

June 17th, 2008 27 comments

Fresh from the discovery that red wine is good for you, dedicated researchers have turned their attention to coffee, finding that “coffee drinking does not appear to increase a person’s risk of early death and may cut a person’s chances of dying from heart disease”. Isn’t science wonderful?

Categories: Science Tags:

Monday Message Board

June 16th, 2008 23 comments

It’s time once again for the Monday Message Board. Please post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Libertarians and global warming

June 15th, 2008 155 comments

I had a set-to with Jonathan Adler of Volokh about DDT recently, so I was pleased to note this piece on free-market environmentalism and climate change, which makes a number of points I’d been thinking about following debates over at the Australian Libertarian blog. Rather than recapitulate Adler’s post, I’ll make a number of points of my own regarding the response of (most, though not all) libertarians to climate change, which I think are in the same spirit:
Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

Weekend reflections

June 14th, 2008 14 comments

It’s time once again for weekend reflections.Feel free to write at greater length than for a standard comment thread. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Defending Rachel Carson: the last word

June 14th, 2008 7 comments

The Prospect article defending Rachel Carson I wrote with Tim Lambert kicked off a lengthy round of blast and counterblast in the blogosphere. Some of the response did little more than illustrate the continuing gullibility of the RWDB segment of the blogosphere, notably including Andrew Bolt and Glenn Reynolds (start here). The more serious discussion began with links from Andrew Leonard at Salon and Brad Plumer at TNR, and a reply from Roger Bate, claiming that we had greatly overstated his links with the tobacco industry (Tim Lambert responded here and Andrew Leonard here and here, with plenty more evidence on this point). A further piece makes the claim (which I have no reason to dispute) that British American Tobacco has now switched sides and is arguing against DDT use in Uganda.

Through all this sound and fury, some progress was made. No one even attempted to defend the claim that the use of DDT against malaria had been banned, or the outrageous lies of Steven Milloy (still employed by Fox News and CEI, despite his exposure as a tobacco industry shill) who blames Rachel Carson for every malaria death since 1972. It even turned out that the much-denounced decision of South Africa to abandon DDT use (reversed when malaria cases increased because of resistance to the pyrethroids used as alternatives) was not primarily due to environmentalist pressure. As Bate noted in his reply, the main factor behind the decision was the unpleasant look and small of DDT sprayed on hut walls, which often led to repainting or replastering. A minor, but still striking point, is that DDT continued to be used for public health purposes in the US (against plague-bearing fleas) even after the 1972 ban on general use of the chemical, and is still available for these purposes if needed.

Update:Absolutely the last word Via Ed Darrell a quiet victory for friends of Rachel Carson with the abandonment by Senator Tom Coburn of a block on the naming, in her honor, of the post office in her birthplace. It appears that the campaign of denigration against Carson (and, by implication, the environmental movement as a whole) has become untenable.
Read more…

Categories: Environment, Science Tags:

Bond insurance and regulatory arbitrage

June 13th, 2008 24 comments

Readers familiar with the Macquarie Group are likely to have several reactions to the news that Macquarie is considering entering the US municipal bond insurance market. First, if Macquarie is interested, there is almost certainly money to be made. Second, much of the gain is likely to be at the expense of the governments concerned, and will involve some combination of regulatory arbitrage and financial engineering. Finally, given its high-risk business model ( Babcock & Brown, the other leading exemplar of this model is trying to stave off the banks as you read this) isn’t it a bit odd for Macquarie to be guaranteeing the debt of low-risk entities like local governments?

[update: Pressure on ratings agencies to treat public and corporate bonds on the same basis is having an effect]

Read more…

Republican War on Science: Science Fights Back

June 12th, 2008 35 comments

Via discussions at Wikipedia, this editorial in the Chemical & Engineering News, weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society, The editorial notes

There really is a right-wing effort in the U.S. to discredit widely accepted science, technology, and medical information.

prominently represented by Fox News “junk science” correspondent Steven Milloy,

the tireless antiscience polemicist who started out as an apologist for the tobacco industry and spends most of his time these days claiming that all climate-change research is, of course, junk science. It’s a catchy little phrase that Milloy applies to, well, anything that doesn’t match his right-wing concept of reality

as well as those of Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (responsible for the original Oregon petition much beloved of our local delusionists) and the Journal of American Physicians & Surgeons (JAPS), the source of the most recent version of the petition.

What’s striking about this is that, as scientists go, chemists are not exactly renowned as radical extremists, and not many members of ACS would be involved in climate research. Recognition that the political right is at war with science is spreading beyond those most directly affected (such as researchers in climate change, biology, and epidemiology) to the broader community of scientists (and even, more recently engineers).

In the short run, the political costs of a war on science aren’t that great. There just aren’t enough scientists to make up a big voting bloc. But science, while fallible, is the most reliable source of truth we have, and most people know this. A party at war with science is, in the end, at war with truth, and truth will out.

Categories: Science Tags:

Voltaire, Mill and Steyn

June 10th, 2008 70 comments

Via Ken Parish at Troppo it appears that well-known bigot and war advocate Mark Steyn is being prosecuted under Canadian hate speech laws. At this point it’s customary to (mis)quote Voltaire about defending to the death his right to say things. It’s much better, in general, to point to John Stuart Mill whose works such as On Liberty provide an overwhelming case against restrictions on the freedom of speech, and particularly political speech.

In this case, there’s no need to go through Mill’s arguments in detail. A case like this is obviously going to turn out badly whether Steyn wins, and gets an undeserved triumph or loses and gets to paint himself as a martyr. It will certainly do nothing to refute his claims. Rather it’s better to point out his fraudulent bigotry, starting with this ludicrous 9/11 conspiracy theory. I had a few goes at this back in the day, when people other than RWDBs took Steyn seriously. At this point, refuting Steyn is scarcely necessary (or wasn’t until this silly prosecution gave him oxygen).

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

Monday Message Board (on Tuesday)

June 10th, 2008 43 comments

It’s time for the Monday Message Board, a day late due to the “Queens Birthday” public holiday. Please post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please. Suggested starter – a new public holiday to replace this anachronism?

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Coral Reef Futures

June 10th, 2008 1 comment

A talk I gave at the Canberra Coral Reef Futures Forum, is online here with a number of other interesting (if often depressing) presentations. I tried putting it up on YouTube (over the fold) but the picture quality was greatly reduced by file conversion.
Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

US Recession: Implications for Australia

June 9th, 2008 24 comments

The news that the unemployment rate in the United States has risen from 5.0 to 5.5 per cent makes it clear that the US economy is now in recession, even allowing for all the usual qualifications about one months’ data, possible revisions and so on. Unemployment tends to be a lagging indicator, and the housing downturn still has a long way to go before it turns around. The long-overdue downgrading of the main mortgage insurers, MBIA and Ambac, and of course the further depreciation of the US dollar and increase in the price of oil add to the picture. Not surprisingly, this produced a big drop on Wall Street last Friday. What are the implications for Australia.

The most direct, I think, is for the Reserve Bank. It’s now virtually impossible for the US Fed to raise interest rates, so the prospects for US inflation staying low depend on the assumption that high prices for food and oil, and increasingly for US imports, won’t be reflected in prices more generally or in wages. The Australian economy is sufficiently fragile that it seems sensible to take a similar view here and not increase interest rates further (of course, that still leaves Australia with much higher interest rates, and lower inflation, than the US).

The second is for the sustainability of the economic model pursued by the whole English-speaking world for the last couple of decades with large trade and current account deficits and low to zero rates of household savings in traditional terms, offset by capital gains on housing and equity investments. Australia has followed this model even more enthusiastically than the US in some respects, and so far has not suffered any serious consequences. But a sudden loss of confidence in the US could easily spread here. I’d be a lot happier if our current account deficit was declining as a result of the mining boom. Instead, it’s now at record levels.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

BrisScience tonight

June 8th, 2008 1 comment

BrisScience: Friend or Foe? The Ocean’s Response to Climate Change presented
by Dr Ben McNeil

Time: 6:30pm to 7:30pm (Doors open at 6pm)
Monday 8 December, 2008
Venue: Ithaca Auditorium, Brisbane City Hall
Refreshments: There will be complimentary drinks and nibblies following the
talk, and Ben will be available to answer any questions.
Questions? Contact Joel (0411 267 044 or [email protected]) or Nelle
([email protected]).

Categories: Science Tags:

Weekend reflections

June 7th, 2008 62 comments

It’s time once again for weekend reflections.Feel free to write at greater length than for a standard comment thread. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

The Great Library of Tlön

June 6th, 2008 21 comments

Via Tim Lambert and Matt Nisbet a study in the journal Environmental Politics (here, but unfortunately paywalled) shows that at least 90 per cent of the books that have been published disputing mainstream environmental science have been produced by rightwing thinktanks or authors affiliated with such thinktanks. Symmetrically, at least 90 per cent of the rightwing thinktanks in the study contributed to this literature.

This study is an important contribution to our understanding of the emerging parallel universe which has almost completely absorbed the formerly Earth-based Republican party[1] and its networking of supporting thinktanks, media outlets and blogs. It helps to explain the otherwise surprising fact that higher levels of education make Republicans more, not less, ignorant and deluded. With their beliefs on scientific, economic and political issues derived from the Great Library of Tlön, every book they read, talk show they listen to and blog they browse actively reduces their knowledge of the real world. [2].

fn1. Represented most notably on Earth by Abraham Lincoln, but on Tlön by Jefferson Davis.
fn2. If any Tlön based readers have access to this blog, please apply your polarity reverser. Educated Tlön Democrats are more likely to hold the deluded notions that their planet is roughly spherical, billions of years old and subject to significant climatic effects from human action. Tlön social democrats are even likely to believe that income inequality is increasing and that the market-based health system of Uqbar is less then perfect.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Fin article on food

June 5th, 2008 40 comments

My article in today’s Fin argues that while suggestions for cuts in petrol excise are silly, removing GST completely from food would relieve household budgets while improving economic efficiency.

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Videoconference at LaTrobe

June 5th, 2008 2 comments

I’ll be appearing (on the big screen) at LaTrobe University tomorrow Friday 12-1 talking on the topic “Discounting and Intergenerational equity: the case of climate change”. Contact the School of Business for details.

I’m going to check if I can get a recording to post on YouTube. I’m also looking into streaming video, but that’s some way off.

Categories: Environment, Life in General Tags: