Archive for February, 2011

Monday Message Board

February 28th, 2011 54 comments

It’s time again for the Monday Message Board to resume. Post comments on any topic. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language. Lengthy side discussions to the sandpit, please.

How are people finding the site’s response time at present. It seems to me to have improved, but I’m still looking at options

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

After the Sauds

February 27th, 2011 19 comments

The downfall of the Gaddafi dictatorship now seems certain, despite brutal and bloody attempts at repression. The failure of these attempts kills off what was briefly the conventional wisdom, that dictatorships in the region can hold on if they “don’t blink“. At this point, Gaddafi and his remaining supporters will be lucky if they can make it to The Hague for their trials, rather than sharing the fate of the Ceaucescus.

Now a new conventional wisdom seems to be emerging, at least according to this article in the NY Times. The central idea is that while dictatorships (more accurately perhaps, tyrannies, in the classical sense of monarchs who have seized their thrones with no prior hereditary claim) are doomed, but that monarchies can survive with cosmetic concessions. In particular, on this analysis, the US relationship with the House of Saud can go on more or less as before.

There’s an element of truth here, but the central claim is wishful thinking

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

The Bureau fights back

February 27th, 2011 37 comments

The idea that the Bureau of Meteorology is part of a global conspiracy to destroy Australia’s economy impose communist world government (or in some more prosaic versions, to increase its funding[1]) sounds like the basis of a bad comedy sketch. But, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, this claim is put forward, in apparent seriousness, by numerous anti-science advocates in Australia (Andrew Bolt, Jennifer Marohasy, and Warwick Hughes are leading examples) and implicily accepted by many others.

Now, as Graham Readfearn (h/t Tim Lambert) points out, the Bureau is fighting back.

Back in October last year, the Senate’s Environment and Communications Legislation Committee agreed to table a letter from Cardinal Pell which quoted heavily from Heaven and Earth to claim there were “good reasons for doubting that carbon dioxide causes warmer temperatures”.

The Director of the Bureau of Meteorology Dr Greg Ayers has now responded at an estimates hearing, demolishing Plimer’s bogus claims and pointing to numerous scathing reviews of his trashy and dishonest book. Ayers is great value, but the real fun in reading the Hansard transcript comes from the frantic attempts of Senators MacDonald and Boswell to stop him talking.

Update This post was critical of the Australian Academy of Science for what I’ve seen as a “missing in action” response to the attacks on climate science in Australia. In response, Martin Callinan of the Academy points me to this ABC Radio Interview with AAS President Kurt Lambeck, in which he gives a very critical review of Plimer’s book. I’ll also link to the AAS pamphlet, which is very good. That said, I don’t retract my main point which is that the Academy needs to take a much more vigorous line against the attacks on science and individual scientists which have become a pervasive feature of Australian political commentary.
Read more…

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Science Tags:

Epic #NewsCorpFail

February 25th, 2011 8 comments

Ms. Regan had once been involved in an affair with Mr. Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner whose mentor and supporter, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, was in the nascent stages of a presidential campaign. The News Corporation executive, whom she did not name, wanted to protect Mr. Giuliani and conceal the affair, she said.

Now, court documents filed in a lawsuit make clear whom Ms. Regan was accusing of urging her to lie: Roger E. Ailes, the powerful chairman of Fox News and a longtime friend of Mr. Giuliani. What is more, the documents say that Ms. Regan taped the telephone call from Mr. Ailes in which Mr. Ailes discussed her relationship with Mr. Kerik.

It is unclear whether the existence of the tape played a role in News Corporation’s decision to move quickly to settle a wrongful termination suit filed by Ms. Regan, paying her $10.75 million in a confidential settlement reached two months after she filed it in 2007.

Depending on the specifics, the taped conversation could possibly rise to the level of conspiring to lie to federal officials, a federal crime, but prosecutors rarely pursue such cases, said Daniel C. Richman, a Columbia University law professor and a former federal prosecutor.

Of course, if it were to be released, the tape could be highly embarrassing to Mr. Ailes, a onetime adviser to Richard M. Nixon whom critics deride as a partisan who engineers Fox News coverage to advance Republicans and damage Democrats, something Fox has long denied. Mr. Ailes also had close ties with Mr. Giuliani, whom he advised in his first mayoral race. Mr. Giuliani officiated at Mr. Ailes’s wedding and intervened on his behalf when Fox News Channel was blocked from securing a cable station in the city.

In a statement released on Wednesday, a News Corporation spokeswoman did not deny that Mr. Ailes was the executive on the recording. But the spokeswoman, Teri Everett, said News Corporation had a letter from Ms. Regan “stating that Mr. Ailes did not intend to influence her with respect to a government investigation.” Ms. Everett added, “The matter is closed.”

Ms. Everett declined to release the letter, and Ms. Regan’s lawyer, Robert E. Brown, said the News Corporation’s description of the letter did not represent Ms. Regan’s complete statement.

The new documents emerged as part of a lawsuit filed in 2008 in which Ms. Regan’s former lawyers in the News Corporation case accused her of firing them on the eve of the settlement to avoid paying them a 25 percent contingency fee. The parties in that case signed an agreement to keep the records confidential, but it does not appear that an order sealing them was ever sent to the clerk at State Supreme Court in Manhattan, and the records were placed in the public case file.

Discussion of the recorded conversation with Mr. Ailes emerges in affidavits from Ms. Regan’s former lawyers who are seeking to document the work they did on her case and for which they argue they deserve the contingency fee. They describe consulting with a forensic audio expert about the tape.

No transcript of the conversation is in the court records.

But Brian C. Kerr, one of Ms. Regan’s former lawyers, describes in an affidavit the physical evidence he reviewed as “including a tape recording of a conversation between her and Roger Ailes, which is alluded to throughout the complaint” that Mr. Kerr and another lawyer, Seth Redniss, drafted for Ms. Regan. That complaint said News Corporation executives “were well aware that Regan had a personal relationship with Kerik.”

“In fact,” the complaint said, “a senior executive in the News Corporation organization told Regan that he believed she had information about Kerik that, if disclosed, would harm Giuliani’s presidential campaign. This executive advised Regan to lie to, and to withhold information from, investigators concerning Kerik.”

Mr. Redniss, in his affidavit, referred to “a recorded telephone call between Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News (a News Corp. company) and Regan, in which Mr. Ailes discussed with Regan her responses to questions regarding her personal relationship with Bernard Kerik.”

“The ‘Ailes’ matter became a focal point of our work,” Mr. Redniss continued.

The dispute involves a cast of well-known and outsize personalities; it also includes some New Yorkers who have had spectacular career meltdowns.

Mr. Kerik was sent to prison last year after pleading guilty to federal charges including tax fraud and lying to White House officials.

The law firm Ms. Regan hired to draft her complaint against News Corporation was headed by Marc S. Dreier, whose firm was cast into bankruptcy in 2008 when he was charged with a $100 million fraud scheme. The firm’s suit seeking the contingency fee from Ms. Regan is being led by the bankruptcy trustee handling the dissolution of the firm. Mr. Redniss was a co-counsel to the Dreier firm.

Ms. Regan’s own crash was remarkable in itself. While often controversial for her book choices, which ranged from literary novels to sex advice from a pornography star, her imprint at HarperCollins had become one of the more financially successful in the business.

The end came quickly in late 2006. Rupert Murdoch, the News Corporation chairman, was quoted saying it had been “ill advised” for her to pursue “If I Did It,” a hypothetical murder confession by O. J. Simpson. A novel that included imagined drunken escapades by Mickey Mantle drew another round of outrage.

Then News Corporation said Ms. Regan had been fired because she made an anti-Semitic remark to a Jewish HarperCollins lawyer, Mark H. Jackson, in describing the internal campaign to fire her as a “Jewish cabal.”

In her 2007 suit, Ms. Regan said the book controversies had been trumped up and the anti-Semitic remark invented to discredit her, should she ever speak out about Mr. Kerik in ways that would harm Mr. Giuliani’s image. The new court documents expand upon that charge and link it to Mr. Ailes. Mr. Redniss wrote in an affidavit that Ms. Regan told him that Mr. Ailes sought to brand her as promiscuous and crazy.

“Regan believed that Ailes and News Corp. subsidiary Fox News had an interest in protecting Giuliani’s bid for the U.S. presidency,” he wrote.

In addition to serving as chairman of Fox News, Mr. Ailes has taken a broader role at News Corporation, including oversight of Fox’s local television stations and Fox Business Network.

As part of the settlement in January 2008, News Corporation publicly retracted the allegation that Ms. Regan had made an anti-Semitic remark to Mr. Jackson.

The court records examined by The New York Times this week, which have subsequently been taken out of the public case file, also reveal another interesting footnote. After Ms. Regan fired her lawyers, a seemingly unlikely figure came forward to help settle the case: Susan Estrich, a law professor and a regular Fox commentator whose book Ms. Regan had published, according to Ms. Regan’s affidavit.

William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting.

Posted via email from John’s posterous

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

#Ozfail #6 and #7: Outsourced to Ken Parish and Irfan Yusuf

February 24th, 2011 10 comments

With a big staff of crack journalists, opinionators headline writers and sub-editors, led by the energetic Chris Mitchell, The Australian produces mistakes, misleading headlines and outright lies much faster than one blogger can possibly document them. So, I’m forced to do some outsourcing, and I’m happy to say, fellow bloggers are eager to help.

Ken Parish writes

I thought I’d draw JQ’s attention to another and equally egregious Oz misinformation campaign, namely to mischaracterise the report of the recent ALP review team of Wise Old Owls Carr, Bracks and Faulkner as recommending entrenching and enhancing trade union power. It’s a theme running through several recent Oz stories, including this one by Ben Packham and James Massola:

Ken focuses on the bizarre claim that recent changes to the internal structure of the ALP give unions power over preselections for the first time. As Ken points out, unions have played a central role in the ALP (including preselections) pretty much since the party was founded. I’m of the view that breaking this nexus would be good for unions, and probably also for Labor, but it had not occurred to me that even the Oz would deny its existence,

And here’s Irfan Yusuf on the paper’s advice to Muslim Australians

Writing editorials that sound like something authored by Glenn Beck doesn’t do much to improve your poor circulation.

Both Ken and Irfan point out that the Fairfax alternative is hardly flawless. In particular, the relentless tabloidisation produced by lists of the 5 most-read stories is highly damaging. Who’s going to read an informed analysis of carbon pricing when something like “AFL sex scandal ‘did not involve goats’” is clamouring for our attention at the bottom of the webpage. Even if you want to avert your eyes, you can’t.

Update #Ozfail #8 And they keep on coming! In comments, SJ points to this amazing beatup in which routine deletion of a tasteless blog comment is turned into “Crikey forced to remove fake Abbott story”. The story apparent started with some ego-Googling by Matthew Franklin (admit it, we all do it), but the task of writing the beatup was handed to Caroline Overington, who seems to be on permanent punishment duty at the Oz, presumably for having once been a real journalist.

Categories: #Ozfail Tags:


February 23rd, 2011 18 comments

It’s been a year full of disasters, but today’s news is worse than any so far with at least 75 killed in the Christchurch earthquake and who knows how many murdered by Gaddafi and his mercenary thugs. There’s not much to say about the earthquake except to hope that many of those listed as missing turn up unharmed. Gaddafi has passed the point of no return – it’s obvious from his threats of house-by-house retribution that the people have no option but to fight it out. The only question is what the rest of the world can do to bring the inevitable end as quickly as possible and with as little bloodshed. One option would be to withdraw recognition from the Gaddafi regime, which is clearly guilty of crimes against humanity. That would be a signal to waverers that the time to switch sides away from Gaddafi is sooner rather than later.

Categories: World Events Tags:

#OzFail #5

February 22nd, 2011 14 comments

In the wake of the revolt against the Gaddafi regime, various deals done with Gaddafi by Western governments, particularly those of the US and UK, have come under scrutiny. Among many dubious deals, the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset Megrahi stands out as a betrayal of the British justice system, one strongly opposed by the Obama Administration[1]. But last year, the Murdoch Sunday Times managed to find a way to blame Obama, accusing him, in its headline, of ‘double-talk‘. This was amplified even further by the amazing Oz subeditorial team, which managed a headline directly contradicted by its own report.

The Sunday Times piece is a bizarre spin on a letter written by the Obama administration opposing Megrahi’s release, and saying that, if he were released, it would be better to keep him in Scotland than to allow him to return to Libya. The British government ignored this and sent Megrahi back to a hero’s welcome (I wonder where he is now).

In the hands of beatup merchants Jason Allardyce and Tony Allen-Mills this becomes “THE US government secretly advised Scottish ministers it would be “far preferable” to free the Lockerbie bomber than jail him in Libya”

But what’s really starting is the Oz decision to run this piece of nonsense under the headline “White House backed release of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi” and this has naturally been picked up by the rightwing blogosphere, most of which is as fact-challenged as the Oz itself.. To quote directly from the letter in question

“The United States maintains its view that in light of the scope of Megrahi’s crime, its heinous nature, and its continuing and devastating impact on the victims and their families, it would be most appropriate for Megrahi to remain imprisoned for the entirety of his sentence,”

As can be expected with the Oz, the headline is the exact opposite of the truth. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that it often runs relatively accurate AP and Reuters material, and weather forecasts from the Bureau of Meteorology (while denouncing the Bureau in its opinion pages), the Oz would be a reliable paper – we could just assume the opposite of whatever it reports. #Ozfail #Ausfail (hat tip Gary Lord)

Categories: #Ozfail, Media Tags:

Monday Message Board

February 21st, 2011 22 comments

It’s time again for the Monday Message Board to resume. Post comments on any topic. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language. Lengthy side discussions to the sandpit, please.

BTW, apologies again for slow response time and 503 errors if you are getting them. I’m looking at shifting to an alternative hosting service.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Oz Fail #4

February 20th, 2011 16 comments

Oz chief political reporter Matthew Franklin tries for a bit of a beat-up with this story about some platitudinous speeches given by Swan and Gillard at the annual conference of the AWU, where, as is customary on such occasions, they said some nice things about their hosts, Bill Ludwig and Paul Howes. Franklin points out, rightly enough, that the AWU supported Gillard in the overthrow of Kevin Rudd. The real problem is with the sub-editor who ran this routine piece of snark with the striking headline “PM, Swan in praise of union ‘saboteurs’ “.

According to the standard, slightly arcane principles that apply here, the use of single quotes around the word “saboteurs” implies that Gillard and Swan actually used the word as a term of praise, with the rest of the headline being a paraphrase. This isn’t quite as crazy as it might sound – the original saboteurs were factory workers who threw their wooden shoes into the machinery as a crude but effective way of protesting against speedup. A historically minded radical might suggest that similar resistance to the work intensification push that began in the 1990s was to be applauded. But of course, Gillard and Swan are never likely to say anything like that, and they didn’t.

The error wouldn’t be so serious if the article quoted someone else calling Ludwig and Howes saboteurs, though it would be more correct to write “PM, Swan ‘in praise of union saboteurs’ “. But in fact there is nothing of the kind, and no hint that anything has been lost in editing. It’s simply that the sub (or maybe the editor) is incorporating his own opinion. If so, it would be more appropriate to run it as a factual description without any quotes. That would entail dropping any pretence of objectivity, but such pretences have worn pretty thin at the Oz.

There are still pockets of good journalism at the Oz. But when even the craft values of subediting are sacrificed to the paper’s political agenda, there isn’t much hope for the future.

Categories: #Ozfail, Oz Politics Tags:

Oz Fail#3

February 19th, 2011 6 comments

In a snark before a totally unrelated item, Oz Strewth columnist James Jeffrey writes

ACCORDING to the UN (there’s a statement that doesn’t exactly carry a a lot of weight, but let’s push on), the world’s human population should pass the 10 billion mark some time around 2040.

As you’d expect of any factual claim made in the Oz, he’s wrong. The UN medium projection is for a population around 9.2 billion in 2050. Even on the high projection, 10 billion isn’t reached until about 2045.

Categories: #Ozfail Tags:

The Onion meets Poe’s Law — Crooked Timber

February 18th, 2011 32 comments

A little while ago, my son pointed me to a news item in a periodical called The Onion, reporting Republican opposition to an Obama proposal to protect the earth against destruction by asteroid impact. The usual libertarian arguments were advanced, pointing out that everyone would be forced to pay for this protection, thereby undermining the incentive to act for themselves.

At the time, I was suspicious that this might be some sort of satirical gag[1]. But now I see the proposal being discussed, and rejected, at the very serious Volokh blog (H/T Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesias).

So, based on my extensive agnotological studies, let me make some predictions about some of the scientific claims we are likely to see advanced (by the same people, but at different times), once the debate over Obama’s socialist plan hots up.

  • Asteroids don’t exist
  • The law of gravity means that an impact between an asteroid and the earth is physically impossible
  • An asteroid would inevitably burn up in the atmosphere
  • In a quest for grant funding, NASA has fiddled the data on asteroid orbits to overstate the risk of a collision
  • Massive asteroids hit the earth all the time and nothing bad happens
  • Asteroid strikes are natural so environmentalists are hypocritical in opposing them
  • Al Gore is fat

The general point is that if some physical state of the world would require government action inconsistent with libertarian principles or conservative tribal taboos, then since libertarianism/conservatism is always right, logic dictates that the physical state in question must be impossible.

fn1. I’m susceptible enough that I believed DD when he said that Natalie Portman was starring in the movie version of Nassim Taleb’s book. I just went to see it, and, at the very least, the screenwriters took a lot of liberties with the text.

Posted via email from John’s posterous

Categories: Economics - General Tags:


February 18th, 2011 27 comments

A recent report on a poll finding that a majority of Republicans (that is, likely primary voters) are “birthers”, with only 28 per cent confident that Obama was born in the United States has raised, not for the first time, the question “how can they think that?” and “do they really believe that?”.

Such questions are the domain of agnotology, the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt. Agnotology is not, primarily, the study of ignorance in the ordinary sense of the term. So, for example, someone who shares the beliefs of their community, unaware that those beliefs might be subject to challenge, might be ignorant as a result of their cultural situation, but they are not subject to culturally-induced ignorance in the agnotological sense.

But this kind of ignorance is not at issue in the case of birtherism. Even in communities where birtherism is universal (or at least where any dissent is kept quiet), it must be obvious that not everyone in the US thinks that the elected president was born outside the US and therefore ineligible for office.

Rather, birtherism is a shibboleth, that is, an affirmation that marks the speaker as a member of their community or tribe. (The original shibboleth was a password chosen by the Gileadites because their Ephraimite enemies could not say “Sh”.) Asserting a belief that would be too absurd to countenance for anyone outside a given tribal/ideological group makes for a good political shibboleth.

It’s clear, as Dave Weigel points out, that beliefs of this kind are a marker for partisanship, as witness the high correlation between stated birtherist beliefs and approval of Palin. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the statement isn’t actually believed. Rather this is an open question and an important one for agnotological understanding of the emergence of comprehensive culturally induced ignorance as a marker for the Republican tribe.

In this context, it’s worth noting that birtherism is only a minor part of Obama-related Republican agnotology. The belief that Obama is a secret Muslim is similarly widely held, as is the view that he sympathises with those seeking to impose sharia law.

It’s also worth distinguishing such stated beliefs from statements like “Obama is a socialist”, in which what matters most is the interpretation of the term “socialist” (AFAIC, the most common US meaning is “Democrat with spine”). Compare “Bush is a war criminal”. In these cases, facts about what Obama (or Bush) has actually done are less relevant than judgements about the appropriateness of labels.

My feeling (derived largely from observations on climate change and creationism, which raise similar questions) is that we can distinguish numerous different belief states that go along with birtherist answers to opinion poll questions. There are lots of nuances, but most are combinations of the following

  • A conspiracy-theoretic view of the world in which liberal elites (a term encompassing Democrats, unions, schoolteachers, scientists, academics and many others) are plotting to undermine the American way of life and replace it with some unspecified, but awful alternative. In this case, answers to these questions reflect actual beliefs
  • Partisanship as suggested by Weigel in which Republicans choose to give the most negative answer possible about Obama as an affirmation of tribal identity.
  • Doublethink in which people are aware that in some mundane sense Obama was born in Hawaii, but also believe that Republican ideology is true and implies the birtherist answer
  • Conformism, in which people know the truth but give the culturally preferred answer, or choose some evasive form of words, as with John Boehner recently.

Does all this hurt or help the Republicans? In short-run electoral terms, I think it helps. A base of loyal supporters who, for one or other of the reasons mentioned above, are immune to factual evidence has to help win elections. There are, however, two big costs

  • First, people have noticed that Republicans have a problem with reality. That perception, which undermines the rationale for all sorts of thinking about policy, will take a while to sink in, but it will also be hard to erase once it is generally accepted. In the long run, this has to turn off a fair number of Republican-leaning independents and any remaining Republicans with a capacity for embarrassment.
  • Double-think is very difficult, and people will start to act on the basis of their beliefs. If those beliefs are ludicrously false, trouble is likely to follow.

Posted via email from John’s posterous

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Crikey group sub

February 17th, 2011 Comments off
Categories: Media Tags:

Hockey sticks his neck out

February 16th, 2011 49 comments

I was at a Media Club lunch in Brisbane today where Joe Hockey was the speaker. Amid a bunch of fairly predictable talking points, he offered the view that, if we want to address problems of housing affordability, measures that increase demand, like the First Home Buyers Grant, are exactly the wrong way to go. He’s right of course, and just about every economist who has every looked at the issue has made the same point. Still, given the sacred-cow status of home ownership (both in itself and as a speculative investment) it’s the kind of statement that Sir Humphrey would call “courageous”.

Strikingly, not one of the assembled journalists took him up on it. Instead they bowled him up a series of questions on the kerfuffle du jour regarding the Christmas Island funerals all of which (to mix my cricketing metaphors) he padded away, let through to the keeper or dispatched to the boundary with ease. If I had been looking for a story instead of going through the motions, I would have asked something like “How much could the government save by abolishing FHBG, and where would the money be better spent”.

Given that Hockey has tackled one sacred cow, let me express the hope that some truly courageous politician will make the point that the biggest source of house price inflation is the set of subsidies to owner-occupied housing including exemption from land tax and capital gains tax and exclusion from most means tests. Michael Egan tried to tackle this in NSW, only for houses worth more than $1m IIRC, and got nowhere.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

75 per cent

February 14th, 2011 17 comments

This post, written in the immediate aftermath of the floods (and the subject of some controversy) is looking pretty good in the light of the recent decision to release water from Wivenhoe Dam, with a target of 75 per cent.

Having had some time for reflection, the obvious modification to my initial position is that we shouldn’t have a fixed target, but rather should take account of the seasonal pattern of rainfall and, to the extent that this is possible, of the El Nino/La Nina/SO cycle. One way to do this would be to set targets for the beginning and end of the wet season, designed to be consistent with expected rainfall and usage for the wet and dry seasons. As I mentioned in my previous post, the flexibility associated with desal and recycling plants and the Water Grid would make this kind of management much easier than in the past.

Looking back at the controversy this post aroused, it’s clear that it was due in part to the involvement of The Australian and the anti-science lobby on climate change, which, for reasons that remain obscure to me, decided to run with the line that early release of water from Wivenhoe Dam would have greatly reduced the severity of the floods. It’s interesting to find that being in partial agreement with the Oz is even worse than being attacked by them. The Oz presentation of news on the dam management policy, as on all issues where it decides to push a line, was so selective and skewed that it even relatively simple issues, like the proportion of floodwater that came from the Bremer river, became hopelessly confused.

So, to clarify, both my original post and this one refer to policy options for the future, which might be adopted in the light of the floods, and of the likelihood of more extreme climate events in the future. With perfect hindsight, and discretion unfettered by a rulebook, managers would certainly have made different decisions in the days leading up to the flood. But what is really needed is a long-term change to the management procedures that set 100 per cent of water supply capacity as a fixed target. IIRC, the only calls for such a change in the leadup to this wet season were from those objecting to the release of water, and implicitly calling for a higher target.

Monday Message Board

February 14th, 2011 10 comments

It’s time again for the Monday Message Board to resume. Post comments on any topic. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language. Lengthy side discussions to the sandpit, please.

BTW, apologies for slow response time and 503 errors if you are getting them. I’m looking into this.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Adventures in agnotology

February 13th, 2011 46 comments

A fun list from Ranker, on the absurdities of Bill O’Reilly, some mockery of which is now going viral. And while we’re on the subject of lists, here’s Alternet with 10 historical facts only a rightwinger could believe.

Meanwhile, Brad Delong cites an attack on relativity theory by Tom Bethell of the American Spectator and Hoover Institution. Bethell’s source is the “Galilean electrodynamics of rightwing crank physicist Petr Beckman, commemorated in the Petr Beckman award, which has been accepted by a string of the scientific luminaries of the climate science denial movement such as Fred Singer, Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon. As DeLong observes with respect to the publication of the Bethell piece

from that moment on, my working hypothesis was that the conservative wing[1] of the Republican Party is composed exclusively of people who have completely disabled their bulls**t detectors. That working hypothesis has served me very well for seventeen years now.

Of course, this applies in spades to the Australian importers and distributors of this stuff – Bolt, Devine, Windschuttle and the entire Murdoch press.

The left has its faults and follies, to be sure. But it must be excruciatingly embarrassing to be, for example, a (genuine) scientist or historian of conservative inclinations, aware that your political allies are at best utterly indifferent, and at worst actively hostile, to scientific and historical truth.

Update There’s a response at Catallaxy, with a lengthy (and typically Catallaxian) comments thread, largely focusing on my offhand reference to Bolt and others as Australian advocates of anti-science views imported from the US. I didn’t intend to suggest that the people I mentioned are opposed to relativity theory or, more generally, that they are consistently anti-science like Bethell and Conservapedia. Rather, they take something of a “cafeteria contra-science” view, happy to endorse mainstream science whenever its implications support their political views, or provides the basis for cool new technology, but equally ready to discover a massive global conspiracy any time the science comes out the “wrong” way (on smoking, DDT, global warming, CFCs etc).

fn1. DeLong is presumably speaking in the terms applicable to the early 1990s, when the Republican Party included numerous centrists and even some remnants of the once influential “liberal Republicans” epitomized by Eisenhower.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Science Tags:

Weekend reflections

February 12th, 2011 13 comments

It’s time again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. In keeping with my attempts to open up the comments to new contributors , I’d like to redirect discussion, as opposed to substantive new contributions, to the sandpit(s). As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Can we feed the world? Will we?

February 10th, 2011 77 comments

I’m in Melbourne for the conference of the Australian Agricultural & Resource Economics Society (in fact, I’m currently President-elect of the Society[1]. There have been a couple of great papers on long-term food supply from Phil Pardey and Tom Hertel. So, this seems like a good idea to write down some thoughts about (what ought to be, at any rate) the central issue of agricultural economics – whether the global food system can produce enough food for the world and deliver it to those who need it. I’m hoping to refine this in response to comments – I’ll mark major changes but will otherwise adjust as I go.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Global warming takes a globe

February 9th, 2011 37 comments

As part of the publicity effort for the AARES conference, I was interviewed, along with some of our invited speakers, by the ABC Country Hour. I talked mainly about global warming and (along with Quentin Grafton and Alan Randall) water policy in the Murray Darling Basin, two of the main topics discussed at the conference (I also wrote an opinion piece, which was published here).

Given the audience, we were anticipating the arrival of hotly worded text messages denouncing the IPCC etc. However, the first one in was much more pleasantly amusing “We never had global warming when the world was flat. I blame Christopher Columbus”[1]

Read more…

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

Depressing …

February 8th, 2011 25 comments

… that with leadership as underwhelming as Gillard’s, the alternative should be so bad as to make it no contest for anyone who cares about policy.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Picking up the gauntlet

February 7th, 2011 59 comments

As I mentioned, my Fin article on Thursday was intended as an appeal to those on the “do-nothing” side of the climate debate to take the risk of climate change seriously and abandon silly culture wars, cheap pointscoring and so on. It didn’t take long to elicit a reply in the form of a snarky, anonymous and (of course) hopelessly wrong piece of “gotcha” journalism from the “Cut and Paste” column in the Oz. Tim Lambert does garbage pickup.

Being attacked by The Australian is not something to get upset about. But it does give me a little more incentive to disabuse of their illusions the declining of paper who still believe this worthless gutter press rag to have some value. So, I’m going to add a regular feature pointing out the lies and silly errors that fill the news and opinion pages of The Australian. I’ll try to avoid duplicating Tim’s “War on Science” posts (up to number 60 with the one mentioned above!). I’ll retrospective label the “Factor of Five” post from last week as item 1. Suggested contributions are welcome.

Categories: Media Tags:

Monday Message Board

February 7th, 2011 3 comments

It’s time again, at long last, for the Monday Message Board to resume. Post comments on any topic. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language. Lengthy side discussions to the sandpit, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Catallaxy doesn’t like bond markets

February 6th, 2011 17 comments

Over at Catallaxy, Sinclair Davidson suggests that reductions in carbon emissions should be financed by bonds maturing in 2050, so that the cost is borne by the future beneficiaries[1]. He ends with what is presumably intended as a snark

The real question is how these bonds should be priced? As an opening bid I reckon the ridiculously low discount rate proposed by the Stern Review should be used.

Looking up the latest data, 30-year US government bonds, the closest approximation to a 2050 maturity, are yielding 4.25 per cent. Assuming the Fed manages to hit the midpoint of its 2-3 per cent comfort zone for inflation, that’s a real interest rate of 1.75 per cent. That’s about typical in historical terms – the long run real bond rate has mostly been between 1 and 2 per cent.. Stern doesn’t propose an exact interest rate, but on standard parameters, his proposals imply a real rate of around 2.1 per cent. So, if Stern is ridiculously low, the market bond rate must be positively insane. Perhaps the Catallaxy crew can come up with some libertarian proposals to raise interest rates to a more sensible level.

Update The title was meant as a snark, but in an update, Davidson asserts that “we all know” that the rate of interest on US 30-year bonds is too low. He links to a piece on monetary policy in the mid 2000s, but, as I pointed out above, the current real interest rate is close to the average for the last 120 years. So, Catallaxy really doesn’t like bond markets.

To expand a bit on this point, there is a large literature suggesting that, because of capital market failures, the average rate of return to equity is too high, and the real bond rate is too low. Simon Grant and I have done a lot of work on this issue, and its implications, such as the fact that privatisation is often undesirable. However, correcting the market failure would only raise the bond rate to levels consistent with Stern’s estimates (there’s room to fiddle a bit with the parameters, but Stern’s default choices are pretty plausible).End update

fn1. He includes a suggestion that the bonds should be contingent on exact forecasts of economic environmental outcomes at that date, but I’ll pass over this in silence.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Trans-Atlantic plane wars (crosspost from CT)

February 5th, 2011 2 comments

My post on the end of US decline, suggesting that the US now has about the influence that would be expected, given its population, relative to other developed countries, attracted a fair bit of criticism from International Relations specialists. In particular, my suggestion that the EU and US typically bargain on relatively equal terms (as would be expected since they are about equal in size and income) was criticised by Kindred Winecoff with a reprise (see also Phil Arena). We could go on for a long while picking examples to suit one case or the other, but as it happens, I can take my best illustration directly from the news headlines appearing at the same time as my post. The World Trade Organization has completed its report on US subsidies to Boeing, following an earlier report on EU subsidies to Airbus. Although the report is not yet publicly available, both sides have received it, and are leaking/spinning like made, each claiming victory. Reading the competing claims, it seems that the WTO has found that that the US subsidies to Boeing have broken the rules (yay, Europe!), but not by nearly as much as EU subsidies to Airbus (yay, USA!).

In terms of the legal dispute, this looks like a win on points for the US side. But in geopolitical terms, it’s the other way around. Not only has Europe bent the rules more, it’s done so without suffering any real consequences, and to much greater effect than the US.

From a standing start in the 1960s, Airbus has taken the lead over Boeing in the commercial aviation market, while the rest of the once vigorous US commercial aviation industry has been wiped out. And, thanks in part to the launch subsidies against which the WTO has ruled, Airbus not only has the jumbo end of the market to itself with the A380, but has been able to counter Boeing’s successful (at least terms of orders) 787 with its own A350 (running only a couple of years behind the B787). Perhaps the WTO ruling will eventually force Airbus to give back some of the money, but as far as the global aviation market is concerned, the deed is done.

While this is only one example, it’s one that ought to give advocates of the US hyperpower theory a lot of pause. If spending more on the military than the rest of the world combined (the disproportion must surely be even larger in relation to military aviation) can’t preserve a position of dominance (or even leadership) in a closely related sector like commercial aviation, it’s hard to believe that it can be of any significant value in relation to other sectors of the economy.

It’s certainly possible to argue that the kind of industrial policy that produced Airbus is economically inefficient, and that the Europeans would have been better off leaving the field to the US. But this kind of argument applies in spades to anyone who wants to claim indirect benefits from military pre-eminence.

Similarly, it’s still possible that Boeing will win, or at least regain parity, in the marketplace. But if so, it will be due to a combination of good commercial judgement and good luck, not because Boeing has benefited from being part of the US military-industrial hyperpower rather than the supposedly outmatched EU.

Coming back to the general question, I’d say that the outcome of negotations where the EU and US appear with opposed agendas depend mainly on such things as the existence or absence of veto points, and the extent to which one side or the other cares about the outcome. Where there are lots of veto points (climate change negotiations or the Multilateral Agreement on Investment) the status quo has an obvious advantaage. Conversely, even a united EU can’t stop the US from going to war if it wants to, and the US couldn’t stop the International Criminal Court or the Law of the Sea convention. The US can often split the UK and sometimes others off to prevent the emergence of a common EU position, but the veto points within the US system often mean that the US itself can’t act one in any coherent fashion.

All of this is a long way from my original post, which was mainly concerned with convergence in economic performance. But it’s certainly been interesting to engage with the very different way IR specialists view the world. This is the kind of experience that you get from blogs, and much less from official academia.

Posted via email from John’s posterous

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

This time it’s personal

February 5th, 2011 30 comments

The personal experience of the floods and watching the effects of Cyclone Yasi haven’t altered my views on climate change, which are based on a large accumulation of scientific evidence, so that one or two additional data points should have only a marginal confirming effect. But they have changed my personal attitude to those who persist in obstructing action to mitigate climate change. My piece in Thursday’s Fin (over the fold) was a final appeal to any of them still accessible to reason, but I haven’t seen any evidence that it had any effect.
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Categories: Environment Tags:

First sandpit for 2011

February 5th, 2011 28 comments

The blog and author are recovering from the floods and other disasters, and getting back to normal. Here’s a new sandpit for lengthy side discussion, rants on idees fixes and so on.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Weekend reflections

February 5th, 2011 Comments off

It’s time again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. In keeping with my attempts to open up the comments to new contributors , I’d like to redirect discussion, as opposed to substantive new contributions, to the sandpit(s). As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Factor of five

February 4th, 2011 63 comments

The Oz reports Opposition spokesman Greg Hunt, saying that “FAMILIES face electricity price rises of up to $1100 a year” under a carbon price of $30/tonne. Oz reporter James Massola doesn’t check the arithmetic behind this scary claim, so I guess it’s a job for the blogosphere.

Using black coal as the fuel source, a tonne of CO2 is emitted for each MWh generated, so the tax comes out at 3c/kWh. Our hypothetical family would have to use nearly 40 000 kWh each year. The average NSW household uses 7300 Kwh/year, putting Hunt’s claim out by a factor of five. That “up to” is doing an awful lot of work, the kind that would get a commercial advertiser into a lot of trouble with Consumer Affairs.

Assuming Hunt isn’t deliberately lying (and to be fair, he’s one of the best on the Opposition side) how did he get such an absurd number? My guess is that he divided an estimate of total revenue ($16 billion, which looks about right for emissions of 500 million tonnes a year), then divided by the number of households. His mistake of course is to assume that 100 per cent of emissions arise from household use of electricity – the correct figure is about 20 per cent.

Coming back to the average household, the implied cost is around $200/year, which would, in a properly designed scheme, be returned one way or another, either in direct compensation or in offsetting tax cuts.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

Fukuyama, f*** yeah (crosspost from CT)

February 3rd, 2011 20 comments

Following up on the end of the Arab exception, I agree, pretty much with commenter Hidari, who says

For better or for worse the immediate future, politically speaking, (by which I mean, the next 30 or 40 years) belongs to the parliamentary democracies.

. Supposing that Tunisia and Egypt manage a transition to some kind of democracy, it seems inevitable that quasi-constitutional monarchies like Jordan and Morocco will respond with further liberalisation and democratisation, for fear of sharing the fate of Ben Ali and Mubarak. Add in Algeria, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, all of which have elections of some kind, and the dominant mode in the Middle East/North Africa will have been transformed from dictatorship to (admittedly highly imperfect) democracy. The remaining autocracies (Libya, Mauritania Sudan, Syria) and the feudal monarchies of the Arabian peninsula will be seen as the barbaric relics they are, with days that are clearly numbered. Even if things go wrong for one or both of the current revolutions, the idea that these autocratic/monarchical regimes have some kind of durable basis of support is gone for good.

So, how is Fukuyama’s view of the end of history looking?

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Categories: World Events Tags: