Archive for March, 2010

No True Scotsman

March 31st, 2010 93 comments

It was not surprising that the group recently arrested and charged with plotting to kill police officers, then those mourning at their funeral using IEDs have nowhere in the mainstream media been referred to as “terrorists” or even “terror suspects”. After all, they aren’t Muslims. But, that’s not enough for the political right. Apparently, on the “No True Scotsman” principle, it’s also unfair to refer them as “Christians“.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Monday Message Board

March 30th, 2010 62 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Water, water everywhere

March 30th, 2010 50 comments

There’s been a lot happening in water policy lately, and for once, most of the news is good. Most importantly, it’s been raining, a lot. The total volume of the recent rains has been estimated at around 6000 Gigalitres. Even after diversions, evaporation, absorption by the soil, refilling of water tables and so on, there will be somewhere between 600 and 1000 GL to flow down the Murray and stave off the disaster threatening the Lower Lakes, as well as many upstream ecosystems.

Meanwhile, the Rudd government’s decision to bite the bullet and start buying water from irrigators willing to sell has been thoroughly vindicated. The money has been a huge benefit to farmers keen to move out of agriculture, or from irrigated agriculture to dryland, and has done a lot to soften the impact of the drought. Most recently, a couple of irrigation districts have voted to sell en masse with a resulting saving in the cost of irrigation channels and other infrastructure. In a situation where too much water had been allocated to irrigation, and where (despite the current rain) there is likely to be less in the future, this is a necessary part of the adjustment process.
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Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

The rising generation

March 28th, 2010 75 comments

We just returned from Sydney where we saw our first grandchild, James, now two weeks old. (I’ll skip all the doting grandparent stuff, but other grandfathers and grandmothers can fill it in for themselves). It’s striking to think that he could easily be around in 2100 and, given plausible advances in medical technology, well beyond that.

When we (that is, middle-aged and older people) talk about the effects (good and bad) of our actions on “future generations”, it’s worth remembering that young people now alive will experience those effects long after we are gone.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Weekend reflections

March 26th, 2010 160 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Abbott’s Bingle

March 23rd, 2010 77 comments

Having just watched the media tear down their former darling, Lara Bingle (I tried to avoid it, but omnipresence defeated me), it seems likely we’ll now see the same with Tony Abbott.

The most common comparison has been between Abbott and Mark Latham, but we’ve seen plenty of examples of the celebrity style of reporting applied to rising politicians – Bronwyn Bishop and John Elliott were prime examples.

Celebrity politics has a well-established story arc – the fresh face, not scared to say what they think, with off-the-wall new ideas is built up until everyone is on the bandwagon. At that point, the only new angle points down, to the feet of clay. The alpha wolf in the journalistic pack is the one who can pick this moment to turn. Then the rest follow and before you know it, yesterdays fresh face is today’s wet-behind-the ears, authentic becomes aggressive, create ideas become a sign of flakiness. (sorry for all the mixed metaphors – it’s impossible to write this stuff any other way).

My guess is that Tony Abbott’s performance at the Press Club marks the turning point in the celebrity narrative. His bungle on maternity leave and the attacks from Keating and Costello set him up for the make or break performance in the movie. The fading star (Piaf, or maybe Rocky) has to go on stage and win over a hostile crowd. Instead, he ended up with rotten tomatoes.

To break away from meta-narrative for a moment, the debate reminded us that Abbott was an undistinguished health minister whose policy agenda, to the extent that there was a consistent one, went nowhere. His only contributions of any note were attempts to turn his personal prejudices into law. Now, he has no policy, and it’s a safe bet that anything he comes up with won’t stand up to even momentary scrutiny, as with his alternative to the ETS.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:


March 23rd, 2010 14 comments

According to the Courier Mail

Anna Bligh has turned down an invitation to debate the opposition leader on her privatisation plans, arguing there would be no point outside an election year.

For chutzpah, this beats the classic illustration (the kid who murdered his parents then appealed for clemency on the grounds that he was an orphan). In case Premier Bligh has forgotten, 2009 was an election year, and she had ample opportunities to debate the proposal before the election.

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

The Party of No

March 23rd, 2010 176 comments

One of the most striking features of the health care reform was that it was passed over the unanimous opposition of the Republican Party. This has all sorts of implications, not yet fully understood by anyone (certainly not me). To start with, it’s now clear that talk of bipartisanship, distinctions between moderate and hardline Republicans and so on, has ceased to have any meaning. If their failure to stop the health bill works against them, we may see occasional Republican votes for popular legislation that is going to get through in any case. Obama’s Employment Bill got only 6 Rep votes in the House, but passed the Senate 68-29 (or maybe 70-28) in what the NYT correctly called a rare bipartisan vote. At least the reporter on this piece, Carl Hulse, has caught up with reality, unlike the general run of Beltway pundits who still think that Obama should be pursuing bipartisanship.

In many countries, a party-line vote like this (at least on one side) would be nothing surprising. In Australia, for example, crossing the floor even once earns automatic expulsion from the Labor party and guarantees political death on the other side. But the US has never had a really tight party system, largely because, until recently,the Democrats (and before them, the Whigs) were always split on racial issues.

One problem arising from this is that the US system is more vulnerable than most to the kinds of crises that arise when one party is determined to prevent the other from governing. Passing a budget requires a majority in both Houses of Congress, and the signature of the President. If the Republicans win a majority in either House in November, it’s hard to see this happening. A repetition of the 1995 shutdown seems highly likely, and, with the financial system still very fragile, the consequences could be disastrous. The 1995 shutdown didn’t turn out too well for Newt Gingrich, but it doesn’t seem to have pushed him in the direction of moderation, and the current crop of Republicans make Newt look like a RINO.

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Categories: World Events Tags:

Monday Message Board

March 23rd, 2010 95 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Egg, faces

March 20th, 2010 60 comments

As Mark Bahnisch observes, lots of members of the commentariat have egg on their faces after tonight’s state elections, particularly in SA where, at least by the ABC estimates, Labor’s parliamentary majority has barely been dented, despite a big swing. If it weren’t for the pre-election spin, these results would be pretty good for the Libs. But, as it was, Rudd’s decision to stick with the standard “we’re the underdogs” line, looks a lot smarter than the actions of those Liberal apparatchiks who were confidently predicting the end of Labor dominance at the state level.

The Tasmanian Libs, having received marginally more votes than Labor, will presumably get a chance to form a government. But that’s something of a Greek gift. The Greens are sure to demand a high price (starting presumably, with a swift heave overboard for Gunns’ current management and what’s left of their plans for a pulp mill). And in the two-party preferred terms relevant for a Federal election, the result looks awful, with Labor and the Greens getting a combined vote of nearly 60 per cent.

Given the extent to which Abbott’s bogus “authenticity” campaign relies on momentum, this could be a big problem for him. Or maybe not. Despite the Libs pre-election spin, tonights votes had very little to do with Federal politics, and rightly so

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Weekend reflections

March 20th, 2010 66 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

A bit more on solar PV

March 20th, 2010 34 comments

I wanted to develop a few more points on solar PV. Like quite a few commenters, I think subsidies for rooftop solar PV installations are not a first-best policy option, and probably not even second-best. But the fact remains that a relatively modest subsidy is enough to make this a reasonably attractive choice (in comments to the previous post, Uncle Milton describes it as ‘marginal’, which is about right – at the margin, there’s just enough to make it an appealing option for suitably located households).

It doesn’t look so good as public policy. Assuming 6 KWh/day, the energy saving is around 2MWh/year, which, if it displaced brown coal would save about 2.5 tonnes/year. If the public subsidy is $5000, and the real annual interest rate faced by the government is 4 per cent, that’s about $100/tonne.

There are certainly better options than trying to achieve a large proportion of our emissions reduction goals through an approach like this. But lets suppose that the kind of political noise being made by Tony Abbott and others forces us into a high-cost winner-picking approach. Now suppose we decide to reduce emissions by 500 million tonnes a year (about 90 per cent of existing emissions), using approaches that are, on average as efficient as residential rooftop PV, that is, at an average cost of $100/tonne. The cost would be $50 billion a year or about 4 per cent of GDP, that is, about 2 years worth of annual growth in income per person.

In other words, even using highly inefficient approaches, the cost of climate stabilization would be marginal in comparison to the ordinary fluctuations in GDP associated with the business cycle, let alone the variations in personal income (IIRC, the coefficient of variation is more than 20 per cent).

This is a point that seems to be resisted vigorously both by advocates of ‘business as usual’, and by lots of people who think that the existing order of things is doomed by virtue of necessary increases in the cost of energy. The arithmetic above shows that this can’t be true[1], but I doubt that I will convince to many people of that.
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Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Going solar

March 18th, 2010 63 comments

The Rudd government’s ventures in subsidising energy-saving measures such as home insulation haven’t exactly covered it in glory. It’s not alone in this respect. The Howard government had similar problems, and Spain had a huge boom and bust in solar photovoltaics. The common feature in all of these cases was that the schemes got into difficulty because take-up was much more enthusiastic than was expected. This in turn reflects the fact that the economics of these measures, particularly solar PV, are improving fast.

I recently got solar PV installed on my roof, and the deal (available from Origin here), though not the cheapest on the market, was very attractive. A modest upfront payment, and monthly payments that are substantially offset by the cost savings, especially when the system is exporting back to the grid and attracting the feed-in tariff. And it is just so cool to open the meter box and watch the wheel turning backwards and the numbers going down.

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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Monday Message Board

March 15th, 2010 225 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Deltoid vs The Thunderer

March 13th, 2010 35 comments

My recent scuffle with the Oz, is one of a long line in which a paper which was once (long ago, and only for a few years, but still) Australia’s best has had it out with bloggers, mostly coming off second-best. After being shredded in its fight with the psephbloggers in 2007, and having long since abandoned any claims to credibility, the Oz is not much of a scalp to hang on your belt these days.

A much more interesting match-up is between Tim Lambert’s Deltoid and the Times of London, as represented by their laughably mis-titled ‘Science’ reporter Jonathan Leake. With more than 200 years as the world’s best known newspaper of record, the Times ought to be a shoo-in. But Murdoch ownership erodes credibility at a startling rate, and Lambert has Leake dead to rights. I’m betting on a TKO for Deltoid.

Starting with Leakegate (Leake’s role in pushing the anti-science lies associated with ClimateAuditGate), Lambert has pointed out all manner of journalistic malfeasance on Leake’s part. The Times wisely stuck to dignified disregard for a while, but, like the Oz, they couldn’t keep it up. Leake had a fellow reporter call Lambert and claim to be doing a general story on science blogging. She didn’t manage to get much but ran a hatchet job anyway. Now, as Lambert is reporting, Leake is getting banned from all sorts of places for such malfeasance as breaking embargoes. You can read the whole story here.

Categories: Science Tags:

Science the victim of dishonest attacks

March 13th, 2010 230 comments

That’s the title of my Fin column for Thursday 11 March 2010, which naturally picked out The Australian newspaper as a prime vehicle for these attacks. The Oz replied next day, with characteristic mendacity, pointing out that, on the same day they

ran an opinion piece by climatologist James Hansen, the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies chief who also happens to be known rather snappily as the “father of global warming”.

Only problem was, they weren’t running Hansen to defend science against their attacks, but because his policy views (he opposes an ETS and supports nuclear power) could be used in their continuing wedge campaign. The piece (can’t find it to link ran under the headline “”Only carbon tax and nuclear power can save us”

Anyway, here’s my piece
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Categories: Environment, Media Tags:

A small win for economists

March 13th, 2010 13 comments

Late last year I was among more than 20 economists who published a statement rejecting the case for privatisation put forward by the Queensland government in its ‘The Myths vs the Facts’ booklet. Among the claims to which we objected was one which read

MYTH: The five commercial businesses the Government plans to sell generate a lot of income for the State

FACT: The total return from all five businesses in 2008-09 was approximately $320 million. This is less than 0.9% of the Government’s income. For every $100 of Government income that’s less than 90 cents. When the sale process is completed, it is anticipated the Government will save $1.8 billion every year in interest payments.

The economists’ statement observed

This is an invalid, apples-and-oranges comparison. The $320 million figure consists solely of dividend payouts, excluding retained earnings, tax-equivalent payments[1] and the interest paid by the government business enterprises to service their debts.
The $1.8 billion represent the interests that would be saved, at a rate of about 6 per cent, if the state realised $15 billion from the asset sale and avoided $12 billion in new investment.  Most of this interest would be serviced out of the revenues of the GBEs, and can therefore not be compared with dividends derived from earnings after the payment of interest and tax.

The booklet is now on the web, and I’ve just noticed that the $1.8 billion claim has been dropped. If anyone would care to look through the archive, it would be interesting to see when this change was made.

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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Weekend reflections

March 12th, 2010 99 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Climategate:The smoking gun

March 12th, 2010 137 comments

In writing my previous post on the “Climategate” break-in to the University of East Anglia computer system , I remained unclear about who was actually responsible for the break-in theft of the emails, which were then selectively quoted to promote a bogus allegation of scientific fraud. It seems unlikely at this point that the hacker/leaker wll be identified, so as far as criminal liability is concerned, we will probably never know.

Looking over the evidence that is now available, however, I think there is enough to point to Steven McIntyre as the person (apart of course from the actual hacker/leaker) who bears primary moral responsibility for the crime.
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Categories: Environment Tags:

Touring the Murray

March 10th, 2010 9 comments

A few weeks ago, following the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society conference in Adelaide I drove with my Risk and Sustainable Management Group colleagues David Adamson and Sarah Chambers to Melbourne, going by way of the Murray River. David and Sarah had been to the Coorong in a pre-conference tour and on our trip together we managed to visit all the remaining ‘icon’ sites – these are the sites that are supposed to best represent the environmental values of the Basin.

There was quite a striking pattern, though not so surprising given the way water allocation works in the Australian federal system. The South Australian (downstream) sites, the Coorong and Chowilla, were much drier than would be expected under normal conditions, even allowing for a long drought. Things were much better in the Victorian (upstream) sites (Hattah Lakes, Gunbower Forest and the Barmah-Millewa). The Murray channel itself, which is the sixth icon site, shows the same pattern. There’s a problem with the icon sites approach – they are supposed to be representative indicators, but the temptation is to throw a lot of resources at the icon sites, and ignore everything else.

There are some reasons for optimism though. Most obviously, it’s been raining an awful lot in Queensland since our return, and some of that water is bound to make its way down the Darling and on to South Australia (we’re now trying to estimate how much). There’s also a major project going on at Chowilla to ensure that at least some of the floodplain there can actually get flooded from time to time. And, with the drought at least partly broken, the Rudd government’s policy of buying back water rights from holders willing to sell looks as if it will pay off. Hopefully, this will mean an end to some of the sillier engineering projects on the table, which will save only small amounts of water at very high cost.

There’s a set of pictures from the trip at my Flicker site

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Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:


March 9th, 2010 55 comments

I’m kind of late to the party on this, but Tony Abbott still seems to be running with claims that various conservative politicians, most notably himself, are ‘authentic’. This label seems to bear approximately the same relationship to ‘honest’ as ‘truthiness’ does to ‘truth’.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Bookblogging: The final instalment

March 8th, 2010 12 comments

I’ve finally completed a near-final draft of my book, although some bits, such as the following ‘Reanimation’ section of the chapter on privatisation are still a bit rough.

I’m getting some good comments from readers here, and through more conventional academic channels, which should help me sand down the rough spots a bit. Anyway, thanks to all for the comments I’ve received. It’s made a huge difference to me, and made the production of this book a much less daunting undertaking than laboring alone.

Remember, before pointing out stuff that is missing, that an earlier draft is online here and may be worth reading to see where I’m coming from.

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Categories: Dead Ideas book Tags:

Monday Message Board

March 8th, 2010 160 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

What’s wrong with Austrian Economics

March 8th, 2010 115 comments

In my email today I got an invitation to a conference on Austrian Economics in the 21st century, to be held in Argentina. Details here for those interested. What struck me was the list of topics, namely

– Economics
– Epistemology
– Methodoly (sic)
– Political Philosophy
– Readings on the Austrian School of Economics

That is, 80 per cent of the conference is to be devoted to meta-economic issues of one kind or another, and only 20 per cent to the entire field of economics (much of which will probably also be taken up with meta-discussion). A focus on meta-issues is a characteristic problem for heterodox schools of all kinds, but Austrian economics takes it to an absurd extreme. At some point, surely, they need to stop worrying about methodology and history of thought and start actually doing some economics.

Leaving aside the obvious silliness of worrying about epistemology in the context of a massive financial crisis, there’s the irony of holding the conference in Argentina, something of a poster child for failed free-market policies (admittedly, before that it was a poster child for failed protectionist policies). Surely the conference could manage a theme on what went wrong in Argentina and how Austrians would do things better next time.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:


March 7th, 2010 10 comments

My namesake, Tom Quiggin has been in the news lately, debunking the idea that Al Qaeda cultivates sleeper agents and also tracing to its source the urban myth that Osama Bin Laden used a private fortune of $300 million to promote the group.

He’s sent me some reflections on the sloppy research that’s been used to promote some of these ideas, noting

. A disconnect between the statement in the body of the article and the sources in the footnotes which do not back up the statement being made,
2. Strong statements which are made, but which are built on weak foundations or on assumptions which cannot be shown to be valid,
3. Information from two different situations is overlapped or mixed together, leaving the reader with a false impression about the nature of a particular problem or situation,
4. In a limited number of cases, information provided in articles is simply false.

The faults he points out are, I think, found to some extent in every field (I’ve certainly found plenty of instances in economics, though the prevailing flaws are a bit different), but fields like the study of security issues have the added problem that replication and verification are particularly difficult. Processes such as peer review, replication and empirical testing aren’t panaceas, and errors will always slip through, but they work pretty well in the long run.

Categories: Science Tags:

List of the clueless

March 5th, 2010 69 comments

As I’ve mentioned, the “No significant warming since 1995” meme provides a convenient basis for identifying people who are too dishonest (if they deliberately confuse statistical insignificance with insignificance in the ordinary sense), too ignorant (if they don’t know the difference) or too gullible (if they simple recirculate the Daily Mail “no significant warming”) to be take seriously on climate change, or on any other issue that involves reasoning about data.

One to add to this list: Des Moore, formerly a senior Treasury official, and of course, Quadrant. Moore and Quadrant get extra bonus points for using the word ‘flawed’, which is usually an indicator of lazy thinking at best.

The good point about this is that Moore’s pronouncements on economic issues, which might have some credibility due to his former position can be safely disregarded – if you can’t get basic stats right, you can’t get economics right either

Some more predictable additions to the list, people you would expect to get this kind of thing wrong, but still taken seriously by many.

Glenn Beck
Sarah Palin
Alan Moran
Piers Akerman

More to come …

Also, my list of self-described sceptics who’ve got this one right. Additional entries welcome

{List ends}

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity Tags:

Bookblogging: the reanimation of trickle down

March 5th, 2010 34 comments

The deadline for the manuscript of Zombie Economics (last complete draft here) is only a few weeks away, and the zombies are popping up faster than I can knock them down. I’m adding a section on reanimated zombies to each chapter. Over the fold is the social mobility defense of trickle down economics, as animated by Thomas Sowell. There’s still time for me to benefit from your comments.

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Categories: Dead Ideas book Tags:

Weekend reflections

March 5th, 2010 39 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Birds of a feather

March 4th, 2010 32 comments

The similarity between creationist ‘scepticism’ about evolutionary science and rightwing ‘scepticism’ about climate science is obvious to nearly[1] everyone, whether pro-science or anti-science. So, it’s no surprise that creationists have sought to combine the two issues, and that, conversely, opponents of climate science have pushed ‘teach the controversy’ legislation modelled on those of the creationists. Here’s the NYTimes describing the US scene.

In Australia, Quadrant offers the whole package – anti-science climate delusionism, and historical revisionism as well as anti-Darwinism. This recent book review by DM Armstrong , echoing the ‘science is not settled’ line on climate change, says ‘let us not regard the case is closed’, gives a sympathetic reference to Behe, then rather bizarrely goes on to endorse sociobiology. In between he cites Ian Plimer against climate science.

Update An interesting feature of this process is the emergence of anti-vaccination as a cause embraced by the right, pushed by figures such as Glenn Beck and the unofficial leader of the US Republican Party Rush Limbaugh. As a commenter here pointed out, itseemingly started with vaccination of girls against HPV. The final trigger seems to have been the mass vaccination campaign against H1N1 flu, which hit even more hot buttons for these guys – big government, the WHO, preparation against something that might not happen and so on. Anti-vaccination used to be one area of anti-science thought where lefties predominated, and it still has some support on the fringes of the left, but not from anyone comparable in influence to Limbaugh. But it’s rapidly becoming part of rightwing orthodoxy.

In particular, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they will get vaccinated

fn1. Except in Australia, where lots of people who will accept just about any anti-science talking point on climate science get unaccountably riled when it is suggested, by consistent thinkers on both sides of the debate, that they ought to accept the parallel talking points on evolution (gaps in the data, alleged frauds by evolutionists, evolution as a religious belief etc etc).

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Science Tags:

Crikey Group Subscription

March 3rd, 2010 1 comment

As in past years, Nicholas Gruen is organising a group subscription to Crikey. Check it out here

Categories: Life in General Tags: