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Archive for May, 2012

Murray-Darling plan: a disastrous process, a sliver of hope

May 31st, 2012 18 comments

That’s the headline on my Crikey article on the revised Proposed Basin Plan for the Murray Darling Basin. It’s over the fold.

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Categories: Environment Tags:

Converts, conversely

May 27th, 2012 76 comments

Back in 2005, I wrote about the common experience of dealing with “ people who’ve shifted, politically, from positions well to my left to positions well to my right” (taking as an example, Nick Cohen). Paul Norton, about the same time, wrote along similar lines.

At the time, I mentioned that there weren’t many examples of people going in the opposite direction[1].  But as a commenter points out following this Ryan Cooper link to my last post on the collapse of the rightwing parallel universe, there are now lots of prominent US examples: David Frum, David Stockman, Andrew Sullivan, Bruce Bartlett and just now Michael Fumento. I’m quite surprised by Fumento, who has always appeared to me as a stereotypical culture warrior.

Of course, there isn’t an exact symmetry here, essentially arising from the fact that, whereas most of the L-R conversions happened at a time when the left as a whole was conceding a lot of intellectual and political ground to the right, the current situation is one where the US conservative movement and their international offshoots have moved sharply to the right and remain politically potent. So, it’s much more plausible for those making the R-L shift to claim “I didn’t abandon the conservative movement, it abandoned me”.

Still, never having had such a conversion experience I find it fascinating to observe. Particularly striking is the fact that a sharp change in position doesn’t much change the confidence with which views are expressed. Someone who was cautious and sceptical before a change in view will remain so afterwards. More strikingly, converts who held their old views with absolute confidence, will be equally confident of their rightness in abandoning those views.

fn1. Some earlier examples that occur to me now (all US) are David Brock, Michael Lind and Kevin Phillips. No tendency of this kind is evident in Australia as yet – I’d be interested in views from other countries.

Posted via email from John’s posterous

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

The green fields of nuclear power (updated)

May 24th, 2012 187 comments

Despite Fukushima and the failure of the US “nuclear renaissance”, nuclear power still has plenty of fans in Australia. A question which opponents routinely ask is “where are the nuclear power plants going to go?”.

That’s obviously a difficult question, but there’s a subtly different, and even nastier, question behind it, namely “How should we decide where a nuclear power plant should go”. There are obviously all kinds of issues to be resolved. For example, should it be on the coast, and therefore potentially vulnerable to a tsunami? Should it be near or far from population centres?

If we in Australia made a decision to go for nuclear power, then decided to answer all these questions from scratch, it would take years, maybe a decade or more before we even picked a site (look how long we took over the much easier question of a site for the national capital). And, until we answered the siting question, any estimate of the costs of nuclear power would be a stab in the dark anyway. A plant located in the centre of the Nullarbor would be about as safe as you could get, but hopelessly uneconomic.

So, the obvious answer is; Look at what other developed countries have done when faced with the same problem. But it turns out there is a small difficulty. The answer, according to the US, Britain and every other developed country I’ve looked at, is “put your plant next to an existing one, so there won’t be any more trouble than you already have”.

Of course, it’s logically impossible that they always worked that way. But, as far as I can tell, the last time a new site was picked for a nuclear power plant in a developed country was in the 1970s, before Three Mile Island, let alone Chernobyl and Fukushima. Even supposing that experience were relevant, it’s lost in the mists of time – the decisionmakers involved are long since gone, and any records they left are probably buried in the archives.*

So, unless we can solve a problem that every other developed country in the world has chosen to duck for 30-odd years, we will never even get to the starting gate with nuclear power.

*Update It turns out to be fairly easy to retrieve material from the National Archives, for example, on the proposal, made in the late 60s and abandoned in the early 70s, to build a nuclear power station at Jervis Bay. Thanks to commenter Andrew for picking me up on this.

*Further update Contrary to the claim in the post, a Finnish company has announced a proposed site for a new reactor, though it is not clear that any proper approval process has been undertaken. I doubt that Finnish administrative processes will translate easily to Australia, but it looks like a counterexample to my claim.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Greece’s Uncertain Fate

May 23rd, 2012 45 comments

That’s the title of my latest piece in The National Interest.Teaser follows

Although much remains uncertain about future developments in Greece and beyond, one thing can be predicted with certainty: no Greek government will voluntarily abandon the euro. The only parties favoring such a move are the (old-style Stalinist) Communist Party of Greece and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, neither of which has any chance of being part of a government. It is almost equally certain that no Greek government will take any further steps to implement the austerity measures previously agreed with the “Troika” of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund.

New elections to be held on June 17 are most likely to produce substantial gains for the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) at the expense of both the traditional governing party of the Left, PASOK, and the rejectionists of the Communist Party. Syriza advocates rejection of the current austerity package but is equally opposed to withdrawal from the euro. Given large enough gains, Syriza could potentially put together a government with support, or at least tolerance, from PASOK and the conservative but anti-austerity Independent Greek Party.

But the election outcome may be indecisive, perhaps leading to a government of national unity. Such a government would have little power to do anything decisive one way or the other.

The least likely outcome is a swing back to the traditional parties, with PASOK and its conservative counterpart the New Democracy Party gaining enough seats to form a coalition government. Even such a coalition would be unlikely to have the political will to enforce further austerity measures. On the other hand, it would certainly not abandon the euro.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Parallel universe collapsing?

May 22nd, 2012 56 comments

Over the last few months, a string of seemingly solid pillars of the rightwing ideological establishment have crashed, or at least wobbled. The typical case has been one of over-reach followed by public exposure and then a rush of sponsors and other supporters for the exit. Examples include

* Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke and subsequent abandonment by sponsors

* The failed attempt by rightwing operatives at the Komen Foundation to blacklist Planned Parenthood

* The exposure of ALEC’s responsibility for the “stand your ground” laws that played a critical role in the Trayvon Martin case

* Most recently, the  Heartland Institute has seen sponsors bail and its entire Washington team (mostly focused on insurance issues) decamp, promising that their new operation will have nothing to do with climate “scepticism”

In addition to this, but arguably sui generis are

* the attempt (which looks like succeeding) by the Koch Brothers to take control of Cato, easily the most credible thinktank on the right of politics

* the denunciation of the Republican party by Norman Ornstein, long presented as the intellectually respectable face of the American Enterprise Institute

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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Utopia

May 22nd, 2012 Comments off

I had a fun interview with Sophie Roell of The Browser, talking about Five Books with the organizing theme of Utopia. It’s partly a plug for Zombie Economics, which just came out in a new paperback edition in the US, and also in an Australian edition published by Black Inc.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Productivity and the Productivity Commission (updated)

May 17th, 2012 72 comments

For well over a decade, I’ve been debating the claim made by the Productivity Commission that Australia experienced a productivity surge in the 1990s. My claim has been that the apparent high rate of productivity growth in the mid-1990s was the result of measurement error, most importantly the failure to take account of the increase in the pace and intensity of work that was apparent to everyone (except PC economists) at that time. This view led me to conclude that the supposed productivity gains would dissipate as more normal labor market conditions returned, which was exactly what happened.

In most of these debates, one of my chief antagonists was Dean Parham, who worked for the PC at the time, and is now a Guest Researcher there. Today I heard that Parham had written a new paper on the weak productivity growth of the 2000s. So, I was keen to see what response he would have to my latest work and to my arguments about work intensity. The answer, quite literally is “Nothing”. I have, it appears become an un-person at the PC. Parham doesn’t cite any of my work and, more importantly, fails to mention work intensity at all.

Update The original version of the post contained a somewhat snarky suggestion that Parham had been negligent in ignoring my work. He has written to me to say that this is incorrect. The reason he doesn’t mention it is because, in his view, nothing I have written on this topic, at least since 2004, merits a response.

Further update Dean Parham writes that

the reason I did not mention your work or the work intensity thesis in my paper is that I did not consider it central to the focus of the paper (industry contributions) or even to the contextual motivation of the paper.

Since the contextual motivation of the paper is (as the title suggests) the slump in productivity, I can’t see that this differs from my summary. If Parham thinks my work merits a response, he’s welcome to provide that response here or in any other venue that suits him.

I’ve got some urgent commitments over the next few days, so I won’t be able to return to this topic until later. But in the meantime, here are some of the things I’ve written about this in the last few years. Agree or disagree, I think I’ve put forward a serious case that deserves an answer.

http://www.freepatentsonline.com/article/Australian-Bulletin-Labour/147466277.html

http://johnquiggin.com/2011/08/20/no-hard-and-fast-rule-for-/

http://johnquiggin.com/2012/03/13/enough-of-these-zombie-ideas-lets-be-bold/

http://apo.org.au/commentary/surge-we-didnt-have

The Antipodean times

May 17th, 2012 16 comments

This comments thread raises a fun question. If a geomagnetic reversal somehow required the New York Times to be produced in Australia, who would fill the slots of the top reporters and commentators. I’ve started the ball rolling by claiming Krugman’s spot (natch!). But how about Tom Friedman, David Brooks and Maureen Dowd, to name just a few? And there’s no reason to confine yourself to current columnists – do we have a Will Rogers or a Tom Wicker? Feel free to suggest variants.

Just a reminder, this is an occasion for (perhaps mildly malicious) fun, not for defamatory attacks either on NY Times columnists or on their putative counterparts

Categories: Media Tags:

European Elections and the Debt Debacle

May 17th, 2012 61 comments

That;s the title of my latest piece in The National Interest. Here’s the three-para teaser

European Elections and the Debt Debacle

The victory of socialist François Hollande in the French presidential election has been interpreted, correctly, as a repudiation of the austerity policies imposed on the euro zone by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, in collaboration with German chancellor Angela Merkel, who endorsed Sarkozy in the election.

Hollande’s win was part of a backlash across Europe, with pro-austerity parties from Britain to Greece taking electoral drubbings. Even in Germany, Merkel’s coalition parties were crushed in a state election in Schleswig-Holstein.

It’s safe to predict that Hollande and Merkel will soon come into conflict over austerity. But Hollande’s real opponents in the struggle over European economic policy are not Merkel and the German government but the European Central Bank and its chairman Mario Draghi.

Categories: Economic policy, World Events Tags:

A moment that has passed?

May 13th, 2012 12 comments

As I wrote before, my immediate (over-)reaction to George Megalogenis The Australian Moment, was driven by the ageist generational clichés that started on page 1, and reappeared periodically thereafter. But I promised to write something about the serious content of the book and here it is.

My one-line summary is that this is probably the best exposition of Australia’s political history, over the period of market liberal reform, and from the viewpoint of the reformers, that we have seen, or are likely to. In particular, it’s better than the main rival, Paul Kelly’s End of Certainty.
Read more…

Categories: Books and culture, Oz Politics Tags:

Zombies reach Australia

May 9th, 2012 17 comments

The Australian edition of Zombie Economics, updated and with an additional chapter on Economic Rationalism, is about to go on sale. I’ll be appearing at a launch event at Gleebooks in Sydney on Wednesday (9 May) talking with Jessica Irvine of the SMH.

The launch coincides with the US publication of a paperback edition, with a new chapter on Austerity. The Italian translation also came out recently, and there are versions coming in French, Greek, Portuguese, Korean and Simplified Chinese. Collect them all!

Categories: Books and culture, Dead Ideas book Tags:

Overblown rhetoric on education (crosspost from Crikey)

May 9th, 2012 32 comments

On the whole, this Budget is free of smoke and mirrors trick. Most of the savings that have been announced are real cuts in the deficit rather than accounting gimmicks. There is, however, one big exception. It’s hard to square ‘Labor values’ with a budget that does virtually nothing for education. Rather than face the reality, the government has resorted to some disgraceful spin.

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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Is Australia prepared for a crisis?

May 9th, 2012 65 comments

I spent yesterday in the Budget lockup for Crikey. There’s little real need for a lockup these days. The original justification was to stop people taking advantage of inside information on things like higher tax on cigarettes, but these taxes are now indexed, and changes are mostly either backdated or applied from well after Budget night. Then, for a while, the Budget was the central statement of economic policy. But nowadays, policies are put out all through the year, and most of the Budget measures are leaked in advance. Still, it’s a traditional piece of theatre and no-one seems to mind.

The first piece I wrote, over the fold, was about the implications of the European crisis

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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Megalogenis and the generation game (updated)

May 4th, 2012 29 comments

Update On reflection, I went a bit over the top here. Generational stereotypes press my hot buttons, but that’s no excuse for the excess aggression in this post. I respect George Megalogenis as a journalist and, except on this point, I’ve found him to be insightful and thoughtful. So, apologises for losing my temper here. I will try to write a proper review of the book soon. End update

When I started reading George Megalogenis’ new book The Australian Moment I was stopped on page 1 by a piece of generation-game nonsense so silly I could scarcely believe someone as smart as GM would write it. Several people commented that it was unfair to judge a book by its first page[1], which is true, though I don’t see that there is anything wrong with commenting on the first page.

Anyway, after finishing a couple of other books that had jumped ahead in the queue (notably Red Plenty about the hopes for, and ultimate failure of, planning in the Soviet Union), I got back to The Australian Moment last night.

It started well. The discussion of the Whitlam government was excellent with some keen insights and use of declassified US State Department cables I hadn’t previously seen[2]. Then on p29, we get a quote from a young fogeyish Paul Keating in 1970, saying that “husbands have been forced to send their wives to work”. Graciously admitting that Keating is too old to be a baby boomer, Megalogenis nevertheless asserts that he “spoke for boomer men”.

Really? On the standard dating of the baby boom from 1946 to 1964, the youngest of them were six years old at the time, and even the oldest (at 24) were mostly unmarried. I doubt that many of them were worrying about household budgets. In any case, the terminology of “sending wives out to work” was crankily old-fashioned even in 1970. Keating was probably the last (in the sense of latest-born) person ever to use it in Australia. Boomer women joined the workforce as a matter of course when they finished school. The big problem for boomers entering the workforce in the 1970s wasn’t the need for two jobs but the lack of any.

At this point, I went to the index to check whether the generation-game stuff gets any better. It doesn’t. To take one of many examples, Megalogenis touts his own “generation W”[3] as responsible for punk rock, and, in particular the Sex Pistols (fronted by John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, born 1956), The Saints (Ed Kuepper, born 1955) and The Ramones, (formed in 1974, when most of Generation W was still unborn).

My point here isn’t that Megalogenis needs to redo his generation stuff with more accurate dating[4], though that would be better than nothing. It’s that any approach to political analysis that classifies people by birthdate is doomed to failure. As I pointed out more than a decade ago,

by the time the members of a given cohort reach their late twenties, their life courses have diverged so much that they cease to form a well-defined group with common experiences. The differences between men and women, rich and poor, workers and bosses, married and single, parents and nonparents count for much more than the commonality that comes from sharing a date on a birth certificate.

So what am I going to do here? If I could I would get Megalogenis to rewrite his book, deleting every reference to generations. Since that’s not possible, I will do the next best thing, and skip a couple of pages every time the word is mentioned. With that omission, the book promises to be a good read.

fn1. In reality, of course, given that it’s impossible to read more than a tiny fraction of the books that are printed every year, we all, quite literally, judge books by their covers most of the time.

fn2. No mention of the rumors, rife at the time, of CIA involvement in Whitlam’s dismissal.

fn3. An amalgam of Gens X and Y, consisting of those born between 1964 and the early 1990s. W stands for “Wogs and Women”.

fn4. If you are going to play this game at all sensibly, you need to split the Baby boom into the Vietnam generation, born before 1954 and therefore, if male, liable to conscription, and Generation Jones, born after 1954, who entered the workforce after the collapse of Bretton Woods. But the best thing to do is not to play the game at all.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Housework in Utopia

May 3rd, 2012 27 comments

The immediate reason for this post is the Crooked Timber discussion of my previous post on world meat supplies which morphed into a (mainly First World) arguments about cooking. But my bigger concern is the need for the left to offer a feasible utopian vision as an alternative to the irrationalist tribalism of the right.

My idea of feasible utopia is prosaic compared to some of the utopias that have grabbed attention in the past, but have led either nowhere or into disaster. On the other hand, it’s positively, well, utopian, compared to what’s on offer from Obama and Romney, or their counterparts in other  countries. In essence, it’s an extrapolation of the course we seemed to be on from the end of World War II to the early 1970s, a mixture of social democracy, feminism and environmental sustainability applied to ever broader spheres of activity.

The central element of my idea of utopia is that everyone should be able to live decently, without being forced to spend a lot of time doing crappy jobs. That brings us pretty directly to housework[1], something most of us spend quite a bit of time on, and which involves a fair amount of crappy work, literally and figuratively.

If my conditions for utopia are to be feasible we need two things to be true. First, the total amount of crappy work has to be small enough that the average amount per person is not too large. Second, the work has to be organized so that no one actually has to do a lot more than their share.

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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

I only read it for the pictures, honestly

May 2nd, 2012 81 comments

The Economist gets some well-deserved derision these days, but it still delivers lots of interesting data, illustrated by graphs that are usually well designed and informative. Via Kenny Easwaran I found this table (published by EconomistDailyChart, but I haven’t yet located the chart) of annual meat consumption per person by country. The data set has plenty of anomalous features, but looks accurate enough for my purposes.

I’ve previously argued that we can feed the world if we make the right choices. . More precisely, our current food system produces more per person than is needed for adequate nutrition, and can continue do so in future if the right policy choices are made. The key problem is distribution, not production.

But the meat consumption data leads me to a more surprising conclusion.  Using current technology and with no additional diversion of food grain, the world could produce enough meet to give everyone an intake comparable to that of the average person in the Netherlands[fn1].

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Categories: Economics - General Tags: