Archive for April, 2009

Oz meltdown: Quiggin edition

April 29th, 2009 83 comments

Reading the latest delusionist nonsense at the Oz (from William Kininmonth) I was surprised, to put it mildly, to find myself quoted as an authority for the proposition that

mainstream science is on the verge of being overturned by the efforts of a group of dedicated amateurs

Readers may recall that what I actually wrote in the Fin last week was

While most media outlets give at least some space to these conspiracy theorists, the central role has been played by The Australian. Not only its opinion columnists (with a handful of honorable exceptions) and its editorials, but even its news reporting is dominated by the idea that mainstream science is on the verge of being overturned by the efforts of a group of dedicated amateurs, publishing their findings not in the peer-reviewed literature but through blogs, thinktanks and vanity presses

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Categories: Science Tags:

At the Senate Committee

April 28th, 2009 38 comments

The Senate Committee of Inquiry into the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme held hearings in Brisbane today, and I gave evidence, based on the submission I posted a while back. As always, an interesting experience. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the whole event, but the witness before me (operator of a meat processing plant) made the interesting point that, for grass-fed cattle, the methane emissions about which we have heard so much are offset by the carbon sequestration associated with eating grass, which then regrows.

The hearing went pretty well, though there was a minor blowup with Ron Boswell when I said something scathing about the fact that those who rejected the science were had been taken seriously in Australia far longer than in the UK or Europe. None of the other conservative party Senators bit on this one (not that it was meant as a provocation, just a factual observation).

The continuing influence of delusional thinking, when combined with the need to deny any such influence whenever pressed on it, was a big problem for Nelson, continues to be a big one for Turnbull. And given the strength of delusionist defence mechanisms (on view in the thread regarding the fraudulent Climate Coalition) it’s hard to see how it’s going to be resolved any time soon. Unfortunately, Labor is not 100 per cent free of these types, and their influence on policy outcomes, while greatly reduced, remains both real and damaging.

Update In comments, Barry Brook and others offer a pretty complete demolition of the grass sequestration argument. By the time we have eaten the cows there is no net sequestration to offset the methane emissions.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Ergas v Quiggin debate

April 27th, 2009 29 comments

A year or so ago, Henry Ergas and I had a bit of debate about this paper

on ‘The Risk Society: social democracy in an uncertain world’.

The world has got a bit more uncertain over the past year and Henry has agreed to another round, this time live at the Customs House in Brisbane for an event organised by the UQ Economics Alumni. It’s on Tuesday 5 May, 5:30 to 7:30.

Important update In posting the notice above, I forgot to say (or rather, didn’t realise) that it’s not free and registration is essential. Members of the Alumni association pay $32, Non Members $38 and Students $25 and there will be a group student discount available. There are drinks and canapes, so you can estimate the net cost of the debate yourself.

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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Monday Message Board

April 27th, 2009 19 comments

Its time once again for Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Crop circles and contrarians

April 26th, 2009 82 comments

Back in the 1990s, before the Internet created the self-sustaining parallel universe now inhabited by Republicans and their sympathisers, the task of casting doubt on climate science fell to a group of thinktanks and lobby groups. The most active was the Global Climate Coalition, funded by an array of industry groups, notably including motor and oil companies. Since climate delusions never die, a large number of the factoids now circulating among those who absurdly refer to themselves as “skeptics” can be traced back to the GCC and its FUD machine.

As reported by the New York Times, a recent court case allows us a peek behind the curtain at the (now-disbanded GCC). It turns out that even as the Global Climate Coalition was promoting delusional claims, its own scientists were advising that they would not stand up to scrutiny.

You might think that a chapter-and-verse demonstration of how the trick was performed might shock some self-styled “sceptics” into the realisation that they had displayed credulous gullibility. But at this point delusionists are like believers in alien-generated crop circles. It doesn’t matter if the tricksters who made the circles confess, and even show how it was done. As George Bush might have said of these guys “Fool them once, and they stay fooled”.

Categories: Environment Tags:

BrisScience on Monday 27th

April 25th, 2009 1 comment

Galileo’s invention of the astronomical telescope and his astounding discoveries: moons, stars, and a new planet
Presented by Professor David Jamieson from The School of Physics at the University of Melbourne.

* Time: 6:30pm to 7:30pm (Doors open at 6pm)
* Venue: Ithaca Auditorium, Brisbane City Hall
* Refreshments: There will be complimentary drinks and nibblies following the talk, and Professor Jamieson will be available to answer any questions.

Read more…

Categories: Science Tags:

Anzac Day thoughts

April 25th, 2009 23 comments

Anzac day was not a big one in our family. My father, who served in New Guinea, was never keen to talk about it. Both my grandfathers, who were in the Great War, were much the same as far as I can remember – one never fully recovered from being gassed. But it’s important to remember and honour all those who risked, and often gave, their lives in answer to calls made in all our names.

For as long as anyone who took part survived, their memories on Anzac Day and similar occasions served to remind us what a tragic disaster was the Gallipoli expedition, and indeed the whole Great War. Now that we have to rely on the words of those who have passed, Bert Facey’s wonderful book, A Fortunate Life is one of the best.

Now that the Anzacs, and most of the survivors of 1939-35, are gone, I hope that we can remember their sacrifice and do our best to end the wars that still cause so much grief and suffering around the world.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

The hole in the political landscape

April 25th, 2009 35 comments

One way to think about the political impact of the GFC is to look at the range of political positions it’s rendered untenable. This range is large, encompassing, in the US context, everyone from Bill Clinton to Newt Gingrich. More generally, it covers anyone who embraced the claim that a US-style economic system, as of, say, 1995-2005, was the best that could possibly be achieved, and could only be improved by making government smaller and/or more business-like.

Minus the US-specific triumphalism, this range includes the positions held by most major political leaders in the developed world at the time the crisis erupted, notably including both John Howard and Kevin Rudd, not to mention George Bush and Barack Obama. It covers anyone who saw the growth of the financial sector and the explosion of global financial transactions as beneficial and who regarded with equanimity phenomena like the growth of inequality and the decline of trade unions which both resulted from and reinforced these trends. Virtually everyone holding this view downplayed or disregarded the looming crisis until it exploded in late 2008.

A critical assumption underlying this views is that the system is stable enough to maintain equilibrium without substantial government intervention and without collapsing into crisis. As far as I can tell, no one seriously argues this in relation to the current financial crisis. There are those who argue that the kind of massive intervention we’ve seen shouldn’t be undertaken and/or will only make things worse. But, AFAIK, no one seriously suggests that, without intervention the system could right itself fairly fast and return to the situation prevailing in, say, 2006.

What are the implications of the collapse of such a large section of the political landscape, both for those who formerly occupied it, and for the rest of us?

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Categories: World Events Tags:

Do we need a surface navy (again)

April 25th, 2009 14 comments

The other day I got a call from 3JJJ who had Googled the blog and found this post, arguing that we don’t really need a surface navy

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Pygmalion . I had a brief debate with a former naval officer and now academic, who pointed to our operations in the Persian gulf region as evidence that we need traditional naval capabilities. To my mind, this is highly problematic, as the ships we have sent there have never had to deal with any significant military opposition. (The Iraqi Navy was wiped out by air and missile attack at the time of the First Gulf War).

The emergence of piracy in the waters off Somalia provides some more striking data. The biggest single argument for a surface navy is that it is needed to defend merchant shipping. But, despite a handful of successes, the navies of the world’s great powers have been largely ineffectual in dealing with the piracy problem.

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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Weekend reflections

April 24th, 2009 11 comments

It’s time once again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Doolittle and Delay

April 24th, 2009 51 comments

My column in yesterday’s Fin was a riff on these marvellously named Republican opponents of environmental protection, and the prevalence of delusional conspiracy theories on the political right.

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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Young Americans for Socialism

April 23rd, 2009 61 comments

American adults under 30 are almost evenly divided on the question

Which is a better system – capitalism or socialism?

37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided. For the US population as a whole, only a bare majority prefer capitalism (53% prefer capitalism, 20% socialism, and 27% are undecided.)

Granted that socialism can mean anything from “Policies adopted by Joe Stalin” to “Policies deplored by Joe the Plumber”, these are quite striking results, and certainly help to explain why the invocation of the socialist bogy by JTP and other Republican hacks has been so ineffective (to the point that JTP has recently taken to adding a “neo” prefix, which certainly made both “liberal” and “conservative” scarier).

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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Speaking (virtually) in Sydney tomorrow

April 21st, 2009 3 comments

I’ll be appearing, via videolink, at a conference at Sydney Trades Hall in Goulburn Street tomorrow (Wednesday 22 April). The conference title is “Crunch Time: Australia’s Policy Future”. Website here and conference program here.

Update: This was the first time I’d used Skype to do a video presentation, and it was something of a challenge. I’d anticipated that I would be able to hear other speakers and questioners, but not see them. In fact, it was the other way round. I could see the speakers, but the sound quality at my end was very poor. I think it was OK the other way. I’ll have to check that aspect of the setup more carefully next time.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The ideology that dare not speak its name

April 21st, 2009 86 comments

The set of ideas that has dominated public policy for the last thirty years has been given a variety of names – neoliberalism[1], economic rationalism, the Washington Consensus and Thatcherism being the most prominent. Broadly speaking, this set of ideas combines support for free market (or freer market) economic policies with agnosticism[2] about both political liberalism and the relative merits of democracy and autocracy. In response to some demands for definition, I’ll point to mine here.

A striking feature of all of these terms is that they are currently used almost exclusively by opponents of the viewpoint being described, to the point where any use of such terms invariably provokes protests about unfair labelling (this is true even of the most neutral term I can find, “economic liberalism”). Even more striking is the fact that these terms were originally used in a broadly positive sense by supporters of the ideas concerned. I’ve done the story on economic rationalism, Don Arthur covers neoliberalism and you can check Wikipedia for the others.

Why is it that neoliberalism seems to be subject to a political version of the euphemism treadmill? A look at the history will help a bit.

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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Monday Message Board

April 20th, 2009 10 comments

Its time once again for Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language.The Four Feathers movie downloadJack Brooks: Monster Slayer

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Good news from the EPA

April 19th, 2009 32 comments

The US Environmental Protection Authority has announced that emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are a threat to public health, which opens the way for them to be regulated under the Clean Air Act, a measure once promised by George Bush as a presidential candidate but ferociously resisted by his administration.

As Brad Plumer explains here, the regulations will transform the Congressional debate over bills to introduce a national cap-and-trade system. In the absence of EPA regulations, and assuming continuation of current practices regarding the filibuster, the Republicans in the Senate could block any action as long as they could muster 41 votes (and of course, ratification of a treaty like Kyoto requires 66 out of 100 votes). But now the effect of a filibuster will be to leave the EPA to deal with the issue by regulation, which might include establishment of emissions trading schemes, as well as technological mandates to adopt best practice technology. Almost certainly, some Senate Republicans will prefer a deal where they get to protect some favored interests to a system of regulation over which they have no say.

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Categories: Environment Tags:

Weekend Reflections

April 17th, 2009 36 comments

It’s time once again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Summer research fellowship in NY, and other IP news

April 16th, 2009 8 comments

If you’re interested in the relationship between ideas, interests and institutions, the development of intellectual property law provides a fascinating (somewhat self-referential) case study. The intellectual debate has been running hard against strong IP [1] for a long time, and changes in technology have not only made copying and reproducing all kinds of material much cheaper and easier, but have revealed, on a scale much larger than before, the benefits that can be realised from free access to ideas.

Meanwhile the extension of IP rights, and the expansion of powers to protect them has rolled on as if none of this was happening, at national (DMCA), bilateral (as a standard condition of US-driven free trade agreements) and global (TRIPS) level.

However, there are some positive countervailing developments, one of which has a summer fellowship attached (over the fold).

Read more…

Categories: Intellectual 'property' Tags:

Climate Policy Submission

April 15th, 2009 42 comments

Here’s my submission to the Senate Select Committee on Climate Policy. It was a bit of a rush job, given competing pressures like the Global Financial Crisis and the continuing (related) problems of the Murray-Darling. Comments appreciated.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Monday Message Board (Easter Tuesday)

April 14th, 2009 16 comments

After a longer than usual weekend, it’s time for another message Board. Long weekends always make me think this is something we should have more of, and maybe an economic downturn is the right time to start thinking about more holidays instead of higher wages. Your thoughts on this, or any topic, are welcome. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Brush with fame

April 14th, 2009 5 comments

I’ve spent a very enjoyable Easter Weekend at the National Folk Festival in Canberra . Lots of great music (longer post if there’s interest) but a very pleasant surprise was listening to Warren Fahey and the Larrikins, when Warren launched into one of my songs. It’s old, but the theme is, as it were, evergreen.

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Categories: Life in General Tags:

Long weekend reflections

April 9th, 2009 134 comments

I’m going to celebrate Easter by taking a break from the computer. Feel free to chat among themselves, or to post your own thoughts at any (reasonable length). Please remember to be particularly polite and friendly in my absence.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

All in the family

April 9th, 2009 22 comments

If you need to know why New South Wales is in urgent need of a change of government, and why the ALP there is in urgent need of intervention, go no further than this SMH story about how a change of policy to support prison privatisation was pushed through a party committee.

A victory for the Government was assured. The committee chairman is Richard Tripodi, the brother of the Minister for Finance, Joe Tripodi, and husband of the Drummoyne MP Angela D’Amore.

Another committee member is Anna Collins, the wife of Mr Robertson’s chief of staff, Chris Minns, while another member is Mark Hay, the son of the Wollongong MP Noreen Hay.

A member of the party’s powerful administrative committee told the Herald that “a fix [was] in” to prevent embarrassment to the Government and to advance Mr Robertson’s status as a future leader.

“It’s a complete stitch-up, sending it to a dodgy committee run by a minister’s brother, an MP’s son and a key apparatchik’s wife,” the member said.

This kind of nepotism is rife in Australian politics, but in the NSW Labor Party it’s beyond a joke, on both (all) sides of the factional fence. People like Belinda Neal and Martin Ferguson would never have made it into Parliament on their own merits, and would probably have been on the other side if not for their family ties, but Neal made it to the shadow ministry back in the 1990s, and Ferguson is now a senior minister.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

More bad news for the Murray-Darling

April 9th, 2009 5 comments

Thanks to a combination of continued drought and the long-term increase in temperatures, exacerbated by land-use changes such as increased use of farm dams, inflows to the Murray-Darling system have hit a new record low

It will take quite a few years of above-average rainfall to restore the system to anything like the pre-drought situation and there is, so far, no suggestion that we are going to see this. On the contrary, the reverse is more likely, both in the short run and the long run.

A lot of my work with the Risk and Sustainable Management Group deals with adaptation to climate change in the Basin. There’s quite a bit of scope for this, but if inflows fall as far as the most likely climate scenarios project over the next century, irrigated agriculture will cease to be feasible.

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Categories: Environment Tags:

The broadband revolution

April 8th, 2009 67 comments

Like most people, I was surprised by the announcement that the Rudd government proposes to build its own Fibre-To-The-Home network, covering 90 per cent of the population, at an estimated cost of $43 billion. I haven’t seen enough to make an informed judgement, but since this is a blog, I’ll offer some uninformed judgements instead

* Something had to be done about Telstra, and its continuous attempts to hold the country to ransom by virtue of its monopoly ownership of the copper wire network. The plan includes a breakup of Telstra and will, if successful, imply that the new network will largely supplant Telstra’s. The obvious alternative, canvassed here by Paul Kerin, would be to renationalise Telstra, keep what was needed and sell the rest. Politically, that’s probably an even harder sell than the current proposal, but it has some significant attractions

* On the assumption that the network needs a 10 per cent return to cover capital costs and depreciation, it needs revenue of around $4 billion a year, on top of operating costs, say $1 billion a year. That would require 5 million households and small businesses to pay $1000 a year (about $80/month) each. Not beyond the bounds of possibility, given the increasing centrality of the Internet, but unlikely if all that is on offer is a faster version of the existing product

* This implies the need for a “killer app”, and the obvious one, to my mind, is video-telephony/video-conferencing. It can be done, just, with existing technology, but the possibilities would be radically transformed by the advent of near-universal fast broadband.

* The idea of eventual privatisation reflects the government’s residual attachment to the ideas of the past 30 years. But, if this is a success, and if current interventions generate an economic recovery, I doubt that any government will be in a hurry to sell. Of course, if it’s a failure, they’ll be keen to sell, but won’t get much of a price.

* This is clearly a case of ‘picking winners’, but where technology is characterized by huge scale economies, that’s more or less inevitable. Certainly we haven’t done well with the notionally hands-off approach we’ve adopted for the last fifteen years or so.

* The chance of getting this through the current Senate is just about zero. If the government’s popularity holds up, the case for a double dissolution will become steadily stronger over the course of 2009

Categories: Economics - General, Oz Politics Tags:

Monday Message Board

April 6th, 2009 34 comments

Its time once again for Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

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Categories: Regular Features Tags:

An agenda for social democracy

April 6th, 2009 45 comments

That’s the title of a paper I’ve written for the Whitlam Institute, available (PDF) here Here’s the Whitlam Institute Press release. I won’t give a summary, urging you instead to Read The Whole Thing, but if you want a summary anyway, this piece by Mike Steketee in the Oz is pretty good.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Republican Courts

April 4th, 2009 19 comments

The US Supreme Court has just brought down a 5-4 ruling, written by Clarence Thomas, denying workers the right to sue over age discrimination if their union agreement calls for arbitration. As the New York Times says, it’s hard to believe that Congress intended this.

It seems likely that we will see a lot more of this kind of thing, since the Bush Administration has packed the courts with movement conservatives. Fortunately, there is a simple response available, at least in cases of statutory interpretation. Every time the Supreme Court comes out with a decision like this, Congress should pass a tightly worded act, repudiating the Court’s interpretation. Sooner or later, they will get the message.

We had this problem in Australia with a Chief Justice (Garfield Barwick) who continually undermined the tax laws on the basis of an extreme form of textualism. In this case, it wasn’t sufficient to fix the law after he broke it, since new tax dodges arose with great regularity. Eventually Parliament passed amendments to its meta-legislation, the Acts Interpretation Act, stating that the courts should take into account the intention of Parliament as stated in the second reading speech that normally introduces the law. Barwick resigned about the same time.

Of course, this won’t work if the Republican majority on the court relies on constitutional interpretation to strike down legislation. This ought to (but certainly won’t) provoke an outcry from conservative opponents of “judicial activism”. But, as Roosevelt showed, it’s a political struggle in which the courts are not as well-placed as they might seem. A determined legislature with popular backing can make it very hard for courts to defend strained interpretations of the constitution.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Summit anniversary

April 4th, 2009 11 comments

As this snarky Crikey/LP post by Jeff Sparrow reminds me, it’s now a year since the 2020 Summit, though the change in the global scene, both economic and political, makes it seem a lot longer.

Looking back at my post immediately after the event, my main point was that, on water and climate (the issues I worked on), “the real message was not so much the need for new ideas (though there were some good ones) but the need to act much more urgently on what we already know”.

As regards water, things have, in general, gone as I would have hoped. There has been more progress on such issues as buying back water for environmental flows in the last year than in the entire term of the Howard government. And while there are still plenty of problems, my general sense is that we are moving towards a much more coherent policy. Of course, a bit more rain in the Murray-Darling catchment (and Brisbane!) would help.

It’s a very different story on climate change. The government started pretty well, but caved in to the big emitters (and maybe to the spurious idea that it could get the backing of the Coalition) when it announced its policy in December. Still, given that it seems impossible that the current plan can secure the support of either the Coalition or the Greens, there’s still the chance of something better.

On openness to new ideas, the government has a mixed record. It’s done pretty well in relation to the financial crisis, making some big policy changes without panicking. And at least in rhetorical terms, Rudd has recognised that there is no going back to the status quo ante. Whether this is reflected in the Budget remains to be seen.

Finally, there’s the Republic, about which, as Sparrow points out, nothing has happened. As I said at the time, this is as I hoped and expected. If the Rudd government can get us through the financial crisis, and produce a sustainable response to climate change, I doubt that it will have much trouble securing support for a republic. But until that happens, let’s leave the Republic as it came out of the Summit – inevitable and desirable, but not at all urgent.Underworld film This Girl’s Life download

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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Weekend reflections

April 3rd, 2009 67 comments

It’s time once again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags: