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Weekend reflections

April 18th, 2014

It’s time for another weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. Side discussions to sandpits, please.

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  1. hc
    April 18th, 2014 at 10:31 | #1

    I was interested that the Victorian Government has suggested a cost-benefit test is inappropriate for large transport infrastructure projects (such as the East-West link). One reason was the silly engineers claim that projects should be assessed on the basis of “need” rather than economic viability – I think this is silly because a good CB study should reflect needs (and costs).

    The other reason interested me. It was that formulating a cost estimate would disadvantage government by revealing what the project would cost. Presumably then bidders wouldn’t make construction cost estimates below this leading to (on average) costly projects.

    I tried to think this through but didn’t get far. You don’t want an non-viably low cost estimate or the project itself may become nonviable. Also if governments provide a stingy cost estimate they exaggerate the benefits of the project. Of course in a perfectly competitive auction bidders should bid an estimate that just gives them a competitive return but most of these auctions are not very competitive and the cost estimates are little more than speculations. Maybe providing forecast costs does provide an anchoring point for bids?

  2. hc
    April 18th, 2014 at 10:39 | #2

    The Victorian Government agency identified here is the “Linking Melbourne Authority”.

    http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/rail-projects-will-not-help-traffic-congestion-hearing-told-20140415-36pqp.html

  3. J-D
    April 18th, 2014 at 11:48 | #3

    @hc
    What’s to stop a government from having the work done to produce an estimate of benefit without an estimate of cost? This would still tip the government’s hand to bidders to the extent of disclosing what would be in effect a ‘reserve price’ in reverse: the government would be implicitly committed to not accepting any tenderer’s bid that exceeded the estimate of benefit. So there would be a temptation for tenderers to bid as close as possible to that level without going over it. Still, if there was any competition at all, that would create some pressure on tenderers to bid lower in order to win the tender, and if there was no competition in the first place then it’s hard to see what harm would be done by disclosing the benefit estimate. (Of course an explicit commitment to a level of benefit would have the potential to cause harm to anybody who wildly overestimated the benefits, if subsequent experience showed up their error; but that’s the whole point, people like that should be harmed, in their reputations if in nothing else.)

  4. Ikonoclast
    April 18th, 2014 at 12:21 | #4

    I am sure all such problems of governance have arisen and been solved for the last 100 years. After all, how did we get any infrastructure built? For the Victorian govt to pretend it’s too hard now to do cost/benefit analyses and then follow up with ordered, fair and rational tender processes just illustrates they don’t want to do the job governments are elected to do. Pressure them in term and toss them out at end of term.

  5. yuri
    April 18th, 2014 at 14:25 | #5

    @Ikonoclast
    Why are you “sure all such problems of governance [sic] have arisen and been solved for the last 100 years”?

    Assuming you are not making a tautologous statement with no substantial content based on the fact that infrastructure was built so there must have been some sort of decisionmaking process, are you p erhaps expressing a naive faith in governments past?

    Or do you know something about past infrastructure decisions? Care to explain the Ord River Scheme to choose just my favourite amongst the big ones?

    At least the Vic Gov seems to know that private contractors are not primarily public spirited altruists when dealing with government.

  6. Ikonoclast
    April 18th, 2014 at 15:51 | #6

    @yuri

    I was more referring to the way modern, minimalist government tries to shy away from all direct state action. They want to put all decisions at least one remove from government. This is on the “if we do nothing we can be criticised for nothing” principle. They privatise or corporatise to create organisations who can be blamed for things. “Rising power costs? It’s not our fault we handed all that to managers in private enterprise and in govt corporations. We don’t actually do any of that now.” It’s a cop out of course. If government set up that structure they are implicitly responsible for everything that follows in any case.

    Re Ord River, I don’t know. Is the Ord River Scheme still a failure? It still supports agricultural production and hydro power generation.

  7. April 18th, 2014 at 16:22 | #7

    George Brandis is quoted in a Fairfax article (from a ‘Spiked’ interview):

    While he says he believes in man-made climate change, the Queensland senator tells the magazine he is shocked by the “authoritarianism” with which some proponents of climate change exclude alternative viewpoints, singling out Labor’s Penny Wong as “Australia’s high priestess of political correctness”.

    He said it was “deplorable” that “one side [has] the orthodoxy on its side and delegitimises the views of those who disagree, rather than engaging with them intellectually and showing them why they are wrong”.

    As examples, he points to Senator Wong and former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who he accuses of arguing “the science is settled” to shut down political debate on climate change.

    “In other words, ‘I am not even going to engage in a debate with you.’ It was ignorant, it was mediaeval, the approach of these true believers in climate change,” he said.

    What a strange man. So he wants us ‘believers’ (of something he purports to accept as reality) to engage civilly with deliberately dishonest trolls.

    People such as John Cook have been patiently doing that for years. Brandis doesn’t say what is supposed to happen after the trolls have been shown, in excruciating detail, precisely why they are wrong.

    I’m guessing that what he is advocating is eternally delaying action.

  8. Ernestine Gross
    April 18th, 2014 at 17:51 | #8

    Megan, In my albeit limited experience, lawyers without a prior degree in science [FN1] approach every problem with the skill they have, namely adverserial debate involving skillful usage of words. It seems to me, these people forget that adverserial means of conflict resolution involve a judge or a jury. They do not respect scientists as the jury. Scientists do not speak their language; they do not ‘advocate’ but merely report on their findings. Note, the politicians with a law background tend to say ‘I believe in climate change’. This is different from saying the scientific evidence convinced me. Brandis and Wong are on the same page in this regard.

    There is relatively little ‘debate’ on the scientific aspect of climate change when the Head of government has a PhD in Physics (eg Germany).

    FN1: There are some barristers who have a science degree.

  9. Ernestine Gross
    April 18th, 2014 at 18:20 | #9

    The big news in NSW is the resignation of Barry O’Farrell and the election of Michael Baird as the new Premier.

  10. John Quiggin
    April 18th, 2014 at 18:24 | #10

    @Ernestine Gross

    I tweeted on this point recently, and plan a full-length exposition before too long.

  11. zoot
    April 18th, 2014 at 18:40 | #11

    … one side [has] the orthodoxy on its side and delegitimises the views of those who disagree, rather than engaging with them intellectually and showing them why they are wrong”.

    Does Brandis have the same view about the orthodoxy that Earth is an oblate spheroid that orbits the sun? Does he really think it is deplorable that we don’t take the Flat Earth Society seriously?
    As a believer in climate change, has he ever tried to engage intellectually with people like Andrew Bolt on the subject of global warming?
    The man is a fool. But let me stress – everybody has the right to be a fool.

  12. J-D
    April 18th, 2014 at 19:17 | #12

    @Megan
    Brandis is in fact himself doing what he dishonestly pretends to be complaining of: attempting to delegitimise his opponents as a means of evading discussion of the substantive issues.

  13. April 18th, 2014 at 21:03 | #13

    @zoot

    And remember, between the last time he was rejected for silk and his eventual elevation to QC he never actually set foot in a court-room as an advocate.

    Just saying….

    Ernestine, re:

    lawyers … approach every problem with the skill they have, namely adversarial debate involving skilful usage of words.

    I would argue that this mischaracterises the job.

    A good advocate fully understands the facts involved, the law, the strengths and weaknesses of their client’s case and the evidence required to best argue that case. If, after doing all that competently, you lose the case in a fair ‘fight’ you have done your job and should have no regrets.

    What you do not do is go about telling everyone the Judge/jury got it wrong.

    Brandis is not a stupid man. That only leaves a few other explanations for this ‘logic’….

  14. Donald Oats
    April 18th, 2014 at 21:08 | #14

    As Megan has pointed to George Brandis’s utterances before I could, let me first agree with her comments and those following.

    Secondly, to directly address George Brandis on his assertion that climate change deniers (as he refers to them) are in some way locked out of the scientific debate: any so-called denier who has the minimum educational requirements (perhaps a basic university degree in something…) may participate in pretty much any scientific conference on the subject of climate science, and may present a poster and/or a scientific paper (pre-publication stage, i.e. pre-peer review) and argue their case during the question time after their presentation. They may continue to argue their case by submitting their article for publication in any one of a zillion scientific journals, and if rejected by one, they may try another—just as other scientists do. Their work stands or falls on its merits.

    To the best of my knowledge, John Cook’s research on this matter of whether climate science articles are indicating climate change (of the human-influenced kind) is a broadly agreed and evidentially supported hypothesis, the answer is that around 93% to 97% of published climate science articles take human-influenced climate change as real, and most of these articles consider it to be happening now. Cook’s research shows quite conclusively that climate change deniers, to use Brandis’s terminology, simply don’t publish many articles which make their assertions, and more importantly, nor do other (non-denying) climate scientists. This may quite reasonably be referred to as a “scientific consensus”, meaning that an overwhelming proportion of scientific articles in the peer-reviewed literature support or provide some confirmation of human-influenced climate change.

    The so-called climate change deniers, to use Brandis’s terminology, often argue that they have somehow been excluded from the peer reviewed literature. They have not. They do not routinely submit scientific articles (on the whole), and on occasions when they do, the simpler statistical analysis tools seem to be beyond the capacity to use correctly, or at least to use with sufficient consideration as to the (sometimes subtle) inevitable issues with data collected in the real world—see Tamino’s website to get some idea as to how deficient the statistical analyses often are. Having said that, there are some scientific articles which point to potentially incorrect interpretations of some data relevant to climate change, but as Cook’s work demonstrates, there are very few such papers in the peer-reviewed literature.

    Finally, as I said at the beginning, the option of registering at climate science conferences and then arguing their case with other climate scientists is always available at some conference, somewhere, sometime, in the world today, next week, next month, etc. It seems that they like to play in the MSM bearpit, a pit where opinion which is bigoted is considered a reasoned and sound argument capable of rebutting the painstaking work of many thousands of scientists doing many millions of human-hours of labour, often in less than salubrious conditions. Go forth, climate change deniers, make Brandis proud, make your case in scientific public forums, not MSM.

  15. Donald Oats
    April 18th, 2014 at 21:14 | #15

    I hope my previous comment didn’t breach some new code of conduct the government has installed to ring-fence itself from criticism. I wouldn’t want to see a government feeling persecuted now…

    PS: These comments are always my personal opinion, and do not in any way represent or repudiate my current or past or future employer(s)’s publically expressed statements upon policy or political positions of current or past or future governments. God Bless the Queen.

  16. Ernestine Gross
    April 19th, 2014 at 00:30 | #16

    @Megan

    I fully concur with your characterisation of a good advocate in a human society’s court of law. However, your argument is irrelevant because you conflate matters concerning the natural environment with matters concerning the institutional environment. Furthermore, you make a statement I can’t understand at all.

    Nature is not a client. Nature does not obey human-made laws that govern human societies (the institutional environment). There is no evidence that nature gives a damn about winning or losing a case in a human court of law. If it were otherwise, cyclones, earth quakes, and other events we call natural disasters would merely require appropriate legislation and penalties and good advocates to argue their case in a court of law to stop these events from occurring. This does not happen. Legislation is merely capable of mitigating the consequences for affected humans (zoning, building codes, …).

    I do not understand your sentence: “Brandis is not a stupid man.” Nowhere did I suggest Brandis is a stupid man. It would be silly on my part to do anything more than refer to his qualifications and achievements as an advocate in matters concerning the ‘institutional environment’. But human induced climate change concerns the ‘natural environment’. The methods used to study the ‘natural environment’ happen to be developed and practiced by scientists.

    From a contemporary economists’ point of view, legislative measures to reduce the risk of loss of human material welfare due to ghg emissions is no different, in principle, from legislation to reduce the risk of death or other physical harm from car accidents, drowning, stabbing, …

    The question I’d like to ask Mr Brandis is: Does he agree with legislation aimed at preventing people from inflicting physical harm on people?

  17. BilB
    April 19th, 2014 at 02:40 | #17

    Brandis is simply playing both sides of the net. While acting as a full on denier he is attempting to create the impression that he was actually an agent for the environment for when people finally start dying in huge numbers and the world will no longer tolerate those who intentionally delay climate change action. This is the type of weasel who, at that point, will suddenly claim to know all of the answers on how to “protect” Australians from the ravages of destructive climate change caused by “others”.

    If Brandis truly understood the peril thst we face with Global Warming he would publically denounce Abbott’s farcical soil carbon and tree planting “action” for the scam that it is.

    It is not hard to demonstrate the inadequacy of the Coalition proposal when you understand that each and every Australian is responsible for the burning of 15 cubic metres of fossil fuel each year. So visualise that. A five story high stack of fuel one metre square all the way to the top. Abbott claims that planting one tree per Australian is somehow going to resequester this amount of carbon. This is the science of the Coaltion. They are either completely deluded fools or blantant liars, there is no shade of grey on this for Brandis to colour himself with.

  18. April 19th, 2014 at 04:09 | #18

    Perhaps truth is not socially valued. That may explain the failure to accept the science of climate change and the expedient response of the Abbott Government. Furthermore, this implies an
    anti-democratic political culture, a more profound evidence of corruption than acceptance of a $3000 bottle of wine.

  19. kevin1
    April 19th, 2014 at 07:02 | #19

    @hc

    Not surprising that Napthine’s road boosters don’t want a CBA since the GAMUT (Melb Uni’s Australasian Centre for Governance and Management of Urban Transport) Submission on the East-West Link Needs Assessment Report (Eddington Report) quotes a consultants that the costs of the road tunnel are $7.1 billion and the benefits in time saved on the trips into and across town are projected to be $3.2 billion. Expert opinion doesn’t count for much as shown also by other Vic govt initiatives such as abolishing CBD tram fares (the opportunity costs being expansion of capacity in the suburbs and increasing CBD tram congestion) and an economically risky airport rail link (existing airport buses work very well AFAIK) also demonstrate vote harvesting over economic decisionmaking.

    When utility privatisation ramped up in the 1990s there were discussions derived from game theory and incomplete buyer information (Peter Bardsley at Latrobe Uni was a contributor) in favour of an iterative tender process, with information revealed in the first bids being used by the govt purchaser to bundle preferred costs and innovations for further negotiations with the shortlist of tendering parties. I have no idea whether govts do this in practice.

  20. J-D
    April 19th, 2014 at 08:02 | #20

    @Megan
    Appellate lawyers are widely viewed as the cream of the profession and are the major source of judicial appointments, and half of their job (the half where they’re working for appellants) consists almost entirely of arguing ‘the judge got it wrong’.

  21. April 19th, 2014 at 10:27 | #21

    @Ernestine Gross

    I was addressing the introduction of the word “lawyer” and the suggestion presented to explain Brandis’ quote.

    There is a stereotype, which I argue is incorrect, that lawyers in their practice use words almost magically to make things happen against expectation. Of course a very skilled and experienced lawyer might argue a case more successfully than a mediocre inexperienced one. But no lawyer can make black into white by word skills and debating techniques.

    I was contrasting the reality of a lawyer in practice with Brandis’ position (as a politician in government). A lawyer in practice applying Brandis’ intellectually dishonest logic wouldn’t last very long (ie: X is established and accepted as a fact but I argue that the opposite, Y, should be given at least equal consideration in making any decision).

    In my view, he is not applying “adversarial debate involving skilful usage of words” here. He is making a politician’s argument on inaction and delay regarding climate change.

    As I suggested above, it isn’t lack of intelligence that brings him to that place, so it must be something else.

  22. Salient Green
    April 19th, 2014 at 10:29 | #22

    @Megan
    “Brandis is not a stupid man. That only leaves a few other explanations for this ‘logic’….”
    Given that ‘stupid’ has a broad definition it’s probably more correct to say that he is not entirely stupid.
    He is not short of intelligence but one could argue that he lacks perception and common sense, and is therefore stupid, in dealing with climate science and racism.

  23. April 19th, 2014 at 17:14 | #23

    @Salient Green
    I think the point Megan is making is that, since Brandis isn’t stupid, he is, by implication, dishonest. But we knew that already.

  24. Salient Green
    April 19th, 2014 at 18:21 | #24

    @David Irving (no relation)
    Yep, and being dishonest, especially so carelessly and on such important issues is a whole big mess of another kind of stupid.
    To be completely honest, I think he is stupid, but he also owns a kind of narrow, shallow, self seeking, rat cunning type of intelligence which makes him dangerously stupid. There, I’ve said it.

  25. Megan
    April 19th, 2014 at 19:38 | #25

    @David Irving (no relation)

    …or he may be “evil”.

    There is a dangerously narcissistic/sociopathic ideology gripping most ‘Western democracies’.

    In that light, there may be nothing technically “dishonest” (apart from the inescapable intellectual dishonesty) about his statements.

  26. Ernestine Gross
    April 20th, 2014 at 00:59 | #26

    @Megan

    I don’t understand your post, including and in particular your apparent interpretations of my own words.

    I am talking about different skill sets of lawyers vs scientists and the different domains of inquiry and practice for which these skill sets have been developed (institutional vs natural environments). You call this stereotyping. If I were to agree with you, I would not know anymore how to find a plumber, when I need one, without facing the acute risk of getting, say, a creative writer. In short, if you interpret what I say as stereotyping then so be it.

    Mr Brandis is not a scientist and he does not claim otherwise. He says he is a ‘believer’ in human induced global warming. As such he is presumably amenable to persuasion one way or the other. He is not the Minister for Science – there is none in the current government. As Attorney General as well as by expertise, his domain is the institutional environment – the legal framework – and politics. I read his statements regarding human induced global warming as an attempt to shift the focus from the domain of science and economics to his domain, law and politics, and it is convenient to have a party political opponent, Penny Wong in this case, who has a similar skill base, law and politics. This way, Mr Brandis’ promotion of ‘freedom of speech’ is constrained to the domain where it makes sense, namely politics. He is quite open about this when he calls for a ‘political debate about global warming’.

    A Minister of Science is missing.

    Happy Easter.

  27. April 20th, 2014 at 06:56 | #27

    An interesting article discussed in the New Yorker:

    ‘Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens’
    Gilens and Page, in forthcoming issue of Perspectives on Politics

    From abstract:

    Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

    In a sense it is what we all know, but depressing to have research confirm it still. I guess it is similar in Australia. My own observations of Australian voting patterns compared with what people say in surveys of values and attitudes suggests many people here vote against their own professed values, which is a slightly different but probably related phenomenon.

  28. BilB
    April 24th, 2014 at 04:24 | #28

    This worth reading thoroughly, though you might need to take a relaxant before you start. It explains so much and particularly how Abbott got elected.

    http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2014/s3990190.htm

    Now I know precisely why Abbott got the unprecedented, near endless and unchallenged, ABC television time to push his anti science spiel for 2 years leading up to the last election.

  29. BilB
    April 24th, 2014 at 04:44 | #29

    According to Roy Spencer, close advisor to Tony Abbott, there is only one climate scientist in the world whose scientific work and opinion matters and that person is Roy Spencer, so we would all be well advised to become more aware of this great man who is the worlds “leading climatologist”.

    https://www.skepticalscience.com/skeptic_Roy_Spencer.htm

    If read this you will that Jo Nova is in lock step with Spencer, and you might find a lot more too.

  30. rog
    April 24th, 2014 at 07:16 | #30

    @BilB Yes, Maurice Newman dismisses all climate science except that of Roy Spencer.

  31. BilB
    April 24th, 2014 at 07:34 | #31

    You have to read into that that the Abbott government rejects all science except that of Roy Spencer, and that means that all Australian Climatw scientists are wasting their time an lives for as long as the Coaltion has power.

    Also what most people do not realise is that for 2 years before the last election Tony Abbott had a daily 1 to 2 hour morning television spot doing his “factory and business” visits in which he pounded the message of “toxic tax” and climate change doubt over and over dozens of times a day, if not hundreds, effectively brain washing the day time viewers, to the point that I made repeated complaints to the ABC. Now who are those daytime viewers? The grey vote. Newman very clearly had a hand in this unprecedented political interference. I am prepared to suggest that this is the principle cause for Abbott’s election, and that history will reflect this in examining how Libertarians were able to severely delay climate change action and the intense damage caused by this.

  32. yuri
    April 24th, 2014 at 21:05 | #32

    @Ikonoclast
    I suspect we might compete in not understimating human fallibility. Big private organisations, even when monoplistic, may have advantages in efficiencies which can be taken to be desirable – although the labour laws of some EU countries might make that difficult. But if the alternative is business run by top management and board which is public servants whose orientation, some engineers apart, has little to do with running a business and politicians who are torn between multiple and discordant demands then the weight of argument has to shift towards putting private capital at risk (British Steel is a classic case, likewise Qantas and isn’t a nice dream to think of railways capital losses after the early 1900s having been born by private capital?). Still the regulation of private monopolies of essential services has to be as subject to human fallibility in large institutions as public ownership and management.

    A different consideration that I know to be valid from talking to politicians of all persuasions is that the public sector vote can be too large. In California, without our compulsory voting, it has become deadly as Democrat aligned public sector unions are uniquely able to get out the vote.

    Sorry about that longwinded exposition. I merely intended to reply that the Ord River scheme may well be fine now and lots of happy catfish breeding up in Lake Argyle but, given the time value of money and alternative ways it could have been spent the argument for the scheme is a bit like praising Stonehenge as an investment because of the tourist dollars it now earns.

  33. Ernestine Gross
    April 25th, 2014 at 21:14 | #33

    BilB, Greg Hunt felt obliged to publicly distance himself from Maurice Newman.

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