Truth gets in the way
That’s the title of my column in today’s Fin
Truth gets in the way
Confronted with the fact that not a single Australian economist could be found to support his policy of ‘direct action’ (a phrase redolent of the Trotskyists he fought in his days as a student politician), Tony Abbott came back with the retort “Maybe that’s a comment on the quality of our economists.’’
That remark might be interpreted as a suggestion that the problem is with the local profession, and that he would have more support overseas. Sadly, for Abbott, US and European economists are every bit as hostile as their Australian counterparts to his idea of a ‘command and control’ response to climate change.
The most obvious manifestation of this is the Pigou Club, established by Greg Mankiw, chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors, as “an elite group of economists and pundits with the good sense to have publicly advocated higher Pigovian taxes, such as carbon taxes.”
Mankiw’s club includes Nobel prize winners from across the political spectrum from Chicago’s Gary Becker to Princeton’s Paul Krugman, as well as luminaries likeWilliam Nordhaus, Kenneth Rogoff, and Larry Summers. A rival ‘No Pigou’ club, proposed by Terence Corcoran, editor of the Financial Post, was stillborn due to the absence of any serious economists willing to join it.
Until recently, Abbott could have found support among likeminded thinkers in the government of China, where central planning is still fashionable. But even the Communist Party of China is ahead of him now. The 12th Five Year Plan, covering the period from 2011 to 2015, includes the phasing in of market mechanisms to promote low carbon growth.
Of course, economists aren’t alone in being dismissed by Abbott and his supporters. Most of his supporters are believers in the absurd conspiracy theories of people like Lord Monckton. The enthusiastic reception of this charlatan is a sad reflection on the gullibility and credulity that now prevails on the political right.
Unlike the case with economists, the deniers can produce a handful of qualified scientists to back their case. Mostly older and male, and with obvious ideological axes to grind, these ‘sceptics’ display the classic symptoms of what is cruelly known within the academy as ‘emeritus disease’. With their days of research activity well in the past, they are now willing to make authoritative statements on topics of which they know nothing.
Ian Plimer’s error-riddled, Heaven and Earth, is a classic example of the genre. Kurt Lambeck, president of the Australian Academy of Science, correctly described it as “not a work of science, it is an opinion of an author who happens to be a scientist.” But even after having absurd errors pointed out to him, Plimer repeats them time and time again. Errors knowingly repeated are, quite simply, lies.
It’s not necessary to go to university level to find examples of know-nothingism in the anti-science right. Even basic arithmetic is too much for them. Take the claims, repeated most recently by Greg Sheridan in The Australian, that whatever Australia does will have no effect on the problem of climate change. His source appears to be radio commentator Alan Jones, who produced the precise sounding claim that Australia produces .000018 per.cent of the carbon dioxide.
Anyone with basic numeracy might observe that Australia is responsible for about 2 per cent of human emissions, and that those emissions have raised atmospheric CO2 concentrations by around 30 per cent, so Australia must be responsible for around 0.6 per cent of total CO2 (the correct figure is about 0.45 per cent).
But no one on the political right does care about such things. While the lies and errors of people like Jones, Plimer and Sheridan are egregious, even supposed experts produce obviously wrong numbers. Last year, economist Terry McCrann claimed that a carbon tax would double the retail price of electricity, on the basis of a calculation about the wholesale price. His numbers, out by a factor of two, were duly repeated by Tony Abbott. Even when the error was exposed, neither McCrann nor Abbott bothered to correct it (Abbott’s free pass on power claims, AFR 5/8/10). A few months later, Greg Hunt made similar claims, this time out by a factor of five.
There are some obvious short-term political benefits in being able to make patently absurd claims with a straight face. Perhaps this disregard for the truth will exact a price from Abbott and his political allies before the next election. If not, Australia will surely pay a price for electing a government based entirely on lies.
John Quiggin is an ARC Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.