Archive for January, 2014

The anti-science right on wind farms

January 27th, 2014 130 comments

So, Tony Abbott is going to hold another inquiry into utterly spurious claims about adverse health effects from wind farms. Credulous belief in these effects, or silent acquiescence in claims about them, is now compulsory on the political right, particularly among those who, absurdly, describe themselves as “sceptics” on climate science and, more generally, on scientific evidence about actual health risks from genuine environmental hazards. The extreme example, chosen by the Oz to lay down the party line, is James Delingpole whose denial extends beyond climate change to include rejection of the health effects of passive smoking (based on the bogus and discredited research of tobacco-funded “researchers” Enstrom and Kabat). Despite claiming that there is no risk in inhaling a toxic mixture of dozens of carcinogens, Delingpole has no difficulty in believing that noise levels quieter than those of a public library will cause all manner of health risks, including “night sweats, headaches, palpitations, heart trouble”. [fn1]

It’s easy to multiply examples of this kind (Miranda Devine, Jennifer Marohasy, Christopher Booker). What’s more striking is the silence of those who know this stuff is nonsense, but don’t want to offend their allies and supporters

Andrew Bolt is particularly interesting here. He obviously knows that the claims about health risks are nonsensical, and is careful (AFAICT) to avoid mentioning them, while writing in a way that hints at support. So, we get a favorable link to the Delingpole piece, but the pull quote refers to economics not to health issues. Of course, if the politics were such as to demand support for wind, Bolt would make mincemeat of the nonsense Delingpole is putting forward.

A couple of takeaways from this

1. To the best of my knowledge, there is not a single climate denialist anywhere in the world who has the minimal consistency and honesty needed to reject nonsense arguments from their own side, even when they take a form (NIMBY claims about unproven health risks) that they routinely denounce when put forward by misguided environmentalists. That can be extended to the entire political right in Australia – I’m not aware of a single person on the right who has called Abbott out on this nonsense. Active liars like Delingpole, and enablers like Bolt are representative of the entire right, even those who would like to appear rational and reasonable.

2. It’s crucial for the left to reject this kind of argument whenever it appears, even when the proponent takes the correct stance on other issues.

[1] This article earned a rebuke from the Press Council, but that merely perpetuates the notion that Delingpole is a journalist and that the Oz is a newspaper. These 20th century categories have ceased to be applicable – the Oz is better understood as a lunar right blog that, for historical reasons, is printed out on broadsheet paper every day.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

Monday Message Board

January 27th, 2014 93 comments

Another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic, but Australia Day is an obvious discussion starter. Civil discussion and no coarse language please. Side discussions and idees fixes to the sandpits, please

Categories: Regular Features Tags:


January 25th, 2014 99 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Greenpeace splits on GM sabotage

January 23rd, 2014 75 comments

Andrew Revkin of the NY Times has an interesting interview [Youtube with no transcript :-( ] with Phil Radford, departing chief executive of the US branch of Greenpeace. The main focus is on the energy issues that have been debated at length in this blog, and on these issues I broadly agree with Radford’s take. Two points of interest

* While correctly arguing that new nuclear power is uneconomic, he concedes that a transition to 100 per cent renewable energy may involve some nuclear plants continuing to operate over future decades

* He gives an unequivocal condemnation of the Greenpeace Australia sabotage attack on CSIRO GM foods, which I discuss here.

Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

New Old Keynesianism (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

January 23rd, 2014 13 comments

The term “New Old Keynesian” was coined by Tyler Cowen a couple of years ago, to describe the revival of the view that the Keynesian analysis of recessions caused by lack of aggregate demand is relevant, not only in the short run (in this context, the time taken for wage contracts to reset, say 2-3 years) but in the long run (5 years or more) as well. When Cowen was writing, in September 2011, the New Depression could still, just about, be seen as a short run phenomenon[1]. In particular, the anti-Keynesian advocates of austerity in the US, UK and Europe were predicting rapid recovery.

As 2014 begins, it’s clear enough that any theory in which mass unemployment or (in the US case) withdrawal from the labour force can only occur in the short run is inconsistent with the evidence. Given that unions are weaker than they have been for a century or so, and that severe cuts to social welfare benefits have been imposed in most countries, the traditional rightwing explanation that labour market inflexibility [arising from minimum wage laws or unions], is the cause of unemployment, appeals only to ideologues (who are, unfortunately, plentiful).

So, on the face of it, Cowen’s “New Old Keynesianism” looks pretty appealing. But what are the alternatives? Leaving aside anti-Keynesian views for the moment, the terminology suggests four logical possibilities: Old Old Keynesianism, Old New Keynesianism, New Old Keynesianism and New New Keynesianism.

But do these logical possibilities correspond to actual viewpoints, and, if so, whose?

Read more…

Putting their worst foot forward

January 22nd, 2014 64 comments

I don’t usually watch much TV, which doubtless hampers me in keeping in touch with the mood of the Australian electorate, most of whom still get much of their political news from this source. But, over the summer break, I tend to take things easier which means watching more TV, and taking less interest in politics. So, I don’t think the following observations are way out of line with general public reactions

* When it limped into the end of its first session, the talk coming out of the Abbott government’s media cheer squad was that they would let us watch the cricket in the hope that we’d forget the fiascos of their first few months. Instead, they’ve generated more and worse political coverage than I can ever remember for this time of year, floating trial balloons, rerunning culture wars and so on

* As I remember them from Opposition a fair few of our new rulers are reasonably personable types. But the government’s media strategy has been to keep them all in the background, and to push the most appalling thugs and fools (Pyne, Morrison, Bernardi, Newman (Campbell and Maurice), Andrews) to the forefront. Or maybe there is no strategy, and they are just letting everyone do what comes naturally

But perhaps there is a brilliant plan here, and I’m missing it. Any thoughts?

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics Tags:

A few more observations on nuclear power

January 18th, 2014 300 comments

I thought I should respond to the latest suggestions from Department of Industry and others that nuclear power is an option worth considering for Australia. While I’m at it, I’ll add some updates on global developments.

* The most striking feature of recent Australian discussion, beginning with the Australian Energy Technology Assessment from 2011 is the claim that “small modular reactors” represent an appealing option for Australia. AETA listed these as being one of the cheapest options for 2020. with an estimated levelised cost of between $75 and $125/MWh. That’s both ambitious and remarkably precise for a technology that does not yet exist, even in prototype form. Leaving aside niche technologies like the Russian proposal to adapt nuclear sub reactors as floating platforms, the only serious contender in this field is the US, where the Department of Energy has provided grants for the development of two pilot plants. The target date (almost certainly over-optimistic) for these to begin operation is 2022. To get any idea of economic feasibility, it would be necessary both to undertake commercial deployment (in the US, obviously) and to to accumulate some years of operating experience. To get this done by 2030, or even 2035 would be an ambitious goal, to put it mildly. Again assuming everything goes well, Australia might be in a position to undertake deployment of SMRs by, say, 2040. But obviously, if we are going to reduce emissions on anything like the scale we need (80 per cent by 2050), we need to phase out most fossil fuel electricity well before that. Obviously, all these points apply in spades to proposals that exist only as designs, with no active proposals even for prototype development, such as the Integral Fusion Reactor. As I’ve argued before, to the extent that nuclear power makes any contribution to reducing CO2 emissions on a relevant time scale, it will have to be with current technology, most likely the AP1000.

* Talking of the AP1000, the builders four plants under construction at two sites in the US have just announced another 6 months delay, pushing the operations date out to 2017 or 2018 (release from FoE, but links to originals)

* Most interesting of all are projections released by the International Atomic Energy Agency last year for the period to 2050. Currently nuclear power accounts for around 11 per cent of global electricity. The IAEA “low’ projection has that falling to 10 per cent by 2030 and 5 per cent by 2050. The “high” projection, which includes steady growth in both North America and Western Europe as well as spectacular growth in Asia, has the share remaining roughly stable. So, even on the most optimistic projections of the world’s leading nuclear agency, nuclear power won’t play any significant role in decarbonising the electricity sector, let alone the economy as a whole.

I’ve come to the conclusion that nuclear power advocates, like climate delusionists (virtually all climate delusionists are nuclear fans, though not vice versa) are essentially immune to empirical evidence. So, I’d prefer no comments from our usual advocates (hermit, Will B etc) unless they have something genuinely new to say.

Categories: Environment Tags:

The Repubs won’t Douthat (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

January 15th, 2014 11 comments

Ross Douthat is something of a punchline at Crooked Timber . But, as I’ve argued here, he’s just about the last member of the once-numerous class of committed Republican intellectuals, all the rest having either defected to the left (Bartlett, Frum, Lind, Ornstein, Sullivan and many others) or descended into hackery (Reynolds, Brooks, the whole of the AEI/Heritage/CEI thinktank network[^1]). And, every now and then he writes something that raises important issues, at the cost of pointing up how hopeless his own program for Republican reform has become.

In this piece responding to the election of Bill De Blasio, Douthat tries to make a case that the Democratic Party won’t be able to take even the minimal steps needed to address the problem growing inequality (in both outcomes and opportunity). He starts with the obvious point that Obama came to office with a tax policy that could not possibly make a serious dent in the problem (repealing the Bush tax cuts for those with incomes over $250k) and proceeded to weaken it still further.

By itself this is pretty unimpressive. The fact that Obama is not a wild-eyed socialist, or even a traditional US liberal, but rather a moderate conservative may be a revelation in some Republican circles, but it is scarcely news to the rest of us.

Douthat’s more substantive claim is that the weakness of Obama’s tax policy is not a reflection of Obama’s own preferences but is dictated by the demands of the Democratic Party base. In Douthat’s telling, the base is dominated by socially liberal high-income earners who are absolutely resistant to any increase the taxes they pay.

This is a caricature, but most caricatures have some validity. As I’ve argued here, most people in the top 20 per cent of the income distribution, but outside the top 1 per cent, have done reasonably well in terms of income growth over the past thirty years, but have not, unlike the 1 per cent, been able to insulate themselves from the degradation of public services and the consequences of growing inequality.

Although only a minority of this group votes for the Democrats, their wealth and propensity to vote make them an important constituency. To have a plausible chance of political success, the Democrats need to convince at least some of this group that the benefits of living in a better society outweigh the costs of higher taxes.

But it’s important not to overstate this. Even if a more progressive tax program cost the Democrats some votes at the top of the income distribution, they could more than offset that by attracting middle and working class voters away from the Republicans, or simply by motivating them to vote.

It’s true, as Douthat says, that there is plenty of resistance to this program within the Democratic Party. But the once-overwhelming dominance of Wall Street and its advocates has been greatly weakened, notably because the financial lobby overwhelmingly supported Romney and shared his contempt for ‘the 47 per cent’. Unlike the situation in 2008, Wall Street is now clearly aligned with the Repubs.

And this is where the failure of Douthat’s own program (and the weaker versions proposed by other ‘reformers’ such as Levin and Ponnuru) becomes obvious. Douthat wants the Republican party to beat the Dems to the punch by offering an economic program that appeals to middle and working class voters. It’s patently obvious, however, that there is zero support for this program in any of the leading factions of the Republican Party, either among the leadership or in the activist base. There isn’t a single program benefitting the working class, from Social Security to the Earned Income Tax Credit to unemployment benefits to food stamps that can command the support of more than a handful of Republicans in Congress, and those few are likely to be driven out before long.

It seems clear, reading between the lines, that Douthat has already recognised this. As the NYT official Republican columnist, he faces some pretty big costs if he jumps ship (not to mention his tribal affiliation with conservative Catholicism). Still, I can’t see how he can go on pretending much longer.

[^1]: Some of these were always hacks, but we didn’t notice so much back in the day.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Monday Message Board

January 13th, 2014 128 comments

After a long break, another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language please. Side discussions and idees fixes to the sandpits, please

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Be careful what you wish for

January 11th, 2014 155 comments

So, Kevin Donnelly, newly installed as Pyne’s curriculum advisor wants more religion in Australian public schools. Donnelly bases his arguments on the claim that “Australia is a predominantly Christian country“. More generally, his argument is that we need to inculcate a commitment to the”institutions, values and way of life” of the Australian majority.

Before making arguments like this, Donnelly might want to take a look at the 2011 census data which shows that barely 50 per cent of those aged under 25 stated a Christian religious affiliation. In a dicussion of this last year, we found a combination of demographic effects and switching, which implied that Christians will probably be a minority of the population by the 2020s, as they already are in the UK.

Since around 30 per cent of young people attend private schools most of which state a Christian affilation, it’s a safe bet that the majority of public school students are non-Christian. Certainly, “no religion” is the biggest single denomination for the under 25 age group. So, if you accept Donnelly’s “majority rule” argument, there’s a strong case for saying there should be more explicit atheism in public schools.

More generally, Christians should think carefully before lining up for this kind of culture war. Australia has been mercifully free of the kind of “new atheism” represented by people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Atheists, agnostics and the religiously indifferent have been happy to live and let live, without feeling the need to engage in denunciation of religion. But if Christian activists like Abbott and Donnelly want to use their current bare majority to impose their religous views on the rest of us, they ought to expect the same when they become a minority, as is virtually inevitable.

Religion is currently favored in all sorts of ways in Australia, from tax deductions and exemptions to publicly funded chaplaincy programs. There hasn’t been much fuss about this, but if the right chooses to engage in a religious culture war, all that will change.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Philadelphia Story (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

January 8th, 2014 26 comments

I’m on the way back from bitterly cold Philadelphia at the moment after attending the meetings of the American Economic Association (and a bunch of related societies). I was at a very interesting session on long-run discounting, which had a panel of six with (as is common) one woman[^1]. Looking around the room, I realised that the panel was actually balanced (inside econometric joke) when compared with the audience, which was about 90 per cent male.

I don’t think that the academic economics profession is quite as male-dominated as that. Some casual discussions suggested a couple of hypotheses:

(i) There were some parallel sessions on gender issues for which the audience was mostly female (not surprising, but kind of ambivalent)

(ii) Men were more likely to attend the sessions while female colleagues were more likely to be on the hiring teams. For those unfamiliar with this exercise, a large part of academic conferences consists of academics sitting in hotel rooms for days on end while a string of recent PhDs give a 15 minute pitch on a piece of research (their ‘job market paper’) followed by a ritual Q&A (a plausible but depressing story)

I get the impression that academic philosophy is even worse than economics, but that most other disciplines are better. Any thoughts?

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Austerity in Australia, 1980s style

January 2nd, 2014 50 comments

The Sydney Morning Herald has an editorial praising the expenditure cuts introduced by the Hawke-Keating government in 1986 and 1987, and suggesting that Abbott should copy this example. Apparently, according to the Oz, Hawke and Keating themselves have endorsed this view (I haven’t gone behind the paywall for the full article).

This argument carries a great deal of force, because, as we know, the Hawke-Keating cuts restored the budget to surplus, leading to Keating’s famous declaration that the 1988-89 Budget was “the one that brings home the bacon”. Leading scholars like Alesina and Ardagna have pointed to this exercise as one of the great success stories of “expansionary austerity”.

What’s that you say? The economy fell in a heap in 1989, leading to a decade of deficits and fifteen years of high unemployment? To quote another Keating aphorism, that was “the recession we had to have”. I guess we are about due for another.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Time for Turnbull …

January 1st, 2014 56 comments

… to speak up in defence of climate science, or give up any pretense of being better than the rest.

If there is one prominent figure on the right of Australian politics[1] who could plausibly claim to be both sane (on issues such as climate change) and honest, it’s Turnbull. He has stood up in the past, notably against Abbott, but has said nothing (AFAICT). Until relatively recently, he could reasonably claim that the government’s policy was based on acceptance of mainstream climate science, and that, even if he disagreed with Direct Action, he was bound by the principle of cabinet solidarity. But a string of events, culminating in Maurice Newman’s latest idiocy have made this position untenable. If Turnbull remains silent, he is tacitly accepting denialism as the view of the government of which he is part.

It’s possible that speaking up could cost him his ministerial view. But, as Tony Abbott observed recently, that might be a liberating experience. And, unlike the GMH workers to whom Abbott was referring, it’s not as if Malcolm needs the money.

fn1. Two former leaders of the Liberal Party, Malcolm Fraser and John Hewson, have taken a strong stand on climate change. But Fraser has quit the party, and Hewson was threatened with expulsion over this and similar remarks.

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:


January 1st, 2014 58 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Farewell, again to Larvatus Prodeo

January 1st, 2014 83 comments

After returning for the election year, LP is closing once again. I’ll miss it. Blogs have transformed the media but, in the end, seemed to have been absorbed by more traditional forms. Feel free to contribute your thoughts on LP and the future, if any, of long-form blogs like this.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

New Year open thread

January 1st, 2014 12 comments

Post your thoughts on 2013, and predictions or hopes for 2014

Categories: Regular Features Tags: