Archive for July, 2015

The socialist objective

July 31st, 2015 55 comments

There’s a push within the ALP to remove the party’s long-standing socialist objective, which states

The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.

Then follows a long list of commitments, notably including
(i) the restoration and maintenance of full employment;
(j) the abolition of poverty, and the achievement of greater equality in the distribution of income, wealth and opportunity; and
(k) social justice and equality for individuals, the family and all social units, and the elimination of exploitation in the home

I’m ambivalent about this, both as as regards substance and timing. When I started this blog, I made the decision to describe myself as a social democrat rather than a democratic socialist. In 2006, I gave the following explanation, in a comment

I prefer “social democratic” because it clearly refers to the set of policies implemented and advocated by social democrats in the second half of the 20th century, including a mixed economy, an active welfare state, government responsibility for full employment and so on.

By contrast, socialism is less well defined. It can mean comprehensive public ownership, which I don’t support, or it can be just a general statement of values and aspirations, consistent with social democracy.

So, if the change was simply to replace “democratic socialist” with “social democratic”, and to give a description of goals consistent with that, I’d have no problem. But let’s look at the text proposed by NSW Labor Leader Luke Foley[1]

The Australian Labor Party has as its objective the achievement of a just and equitable society where every person has the opportunity to realise their potential.

“We believe in an active role for government, and the operation of competitive markets, in order to create opportunities for all Australians, so that every person will have the freedom to pursue their wellbeing, in co-operation with their fellow citizens, free from exploitation and discrimination”.

Foley’s further comments make no reference to full employment, equality, poverty or any other social democratic concerns. He goes on to say

We understand that competitive markets are best placed to deliver the economic growth that the people we represent rely on.

We also know that regulation and redistribution are necessary to correct market failures, to ensure dignity and opportunity for all Australians.

Is there anything here that Tony Abbott, or even Joe Hockey, could disagree with?

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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Demography and irreligion

July 31st, 2015 11 comments

A few months ago, I was a bit surprised to read a report put out by the Pew Research Center predicting that the proportion of the world population without a religious affiliation would decline sharply by 2050. The basic argument sounds plausible: an increase in the unaffiliated proportion of the population within countries will be more than offset by faster population growth in countries with higher rates of affiliation. The main points are presented in a peer-reviewed article in the journal Demographic Research, which suggests the analysis should be solid.

Still, I thought I would dig a bit, and found a longer version of the report here, including the projection that Christians would decline from 78.3 per cent of the US population in 2010 to 66.4 per cent in 2050. That seemed like a very slow rate of change, so I did some amateur demography of my own. I found another Pew report, released almost at the same time, which focused on the beliefs of Millennials (those born from 1981 onwards). This report showed that less than 60 per cent of Millennials currently report a Christian religious affiliation, compared to around 70 per cent of X-ers (born 1965 onwards) and much higher levels for older cohorts.
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Categories: Life in General Tags:

Back to the Deutschmark

July 28th, 2015 86 comments

The debt crisis has upended lots of my assumptions about European politics, so it’s perhaps not surprising that I find myself agreeing with just about everything in this piece from The Telegraph by Mehreen Khan, advocating a German exit from the euro. Less surprisingly, I also agree in general with this NY Times article by Shahin Vallee, who also concludes that the (virtually inevitable) breakup of the euro would be better achieved by an orderly German departure.
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Categories: Economic policy Tags:


July 27th, 2015 14 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on. Unless directly responding to the OP, all discussions of nuclear power, MMT and conspiracy theories should be directed to sandpits (or, if none is open, message boards).

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

July 27th, 2015 107 comments

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:

Sea change

July 27th, 2015 25 comments

Maybe it’s my chronic over-optimism, but it seems to me as if there has been a sudden change in the long-sputtering debate about taxation in Australia. Until a few weeks ago, “tax reform” was, as it had long been, code a “tax mix switch” which in turn was code for “tax food and use the proceeds to cut the company tax rate or the top marginal rate of taxation”. Joe Hockey was still pushing the second part of this package only a week ago.

But the reports coming out of the recent COAG summit seemed to convey a general acceptance that more tax revenue is needed to fund health expenditure in particular. The two top options were an increase in the rate of GST or an increase in the Medicare levy, with little mention of “base broadening” (more code for taxing food).

Meanwhile, Labor has been talking about a Buffett tax, that is, a minimum rate of tax levied on gross incomes, regardless of deductions. And, while the LNP still assumes that it can win by running against a “carbon tax”, that belief seems to have come unmoored from any general theoretical viewpoint. How can Abbott run against a “great big new tax on everything”, if he is happy to discuss a 50 per cent increase in our existing “great big tax on everything”, the GST?

I’m not clear what has happened to bring this about, or whether I’m misreading the signals. But it certainly looks to me as if the great political taboo against even mentioning higher taxes has been broken.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the RET

July 26th, 2015 21 comments

That’s the title of a paper I wrote a while back about the Renewable Energy Target scheme. I was reminded of it when Labor announced its proposal to raise the RET to 50 per cent by 2030.

First, it’s striking to observe that no one has popped up to claim that the target is unachievable or that an electricity supply system with 50 per cent renewables will be unworkable. The strongest claim I could find in this article describing coal lobby responses is someone from the Minerals Council of Australia saying that the target is “technically questionable” which could mean anything. By contrast, until very recently, sites like Brave New Climate were full of amateur experts claiming to demonstrate the impossibility of such a goal.

Second, it’s clear that the economic impact will be minuscule. Owners of coal-fired power stations (if they are not compensated, as they should not be) will bear most of the costs. Electricity prices may rise a little compared to the current RET, but will probably be no higher than if we had stayed with a coal-based system. Perhaps this will help to convince those who think that decarbonization of the economy as a whole must have a massive cost impact, but, based on past experience, I can’t see this happening.

Third, as argued in the paper mentioned in the title, an expanded RET may not be the best way to achieve climate goals, but, if the carbon price is below the appropriate level ($50/tonne or more), a RET for the electricity sector is an appropriate policy. The main problem is that the RET doesn’t discriminate between different fossil fuels. A RET, combined with incentives to close down brown coal power stations, would have much the same effects as an adequate carbon price, and is politically much easier to do.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Leaving it in the ground

July 23rd, 2015 33 comments

If there’s to be any chance of stabilizing the global climate, a large proportion of existing reserves of coal will need to be left in the ground. The Galilee Basin, estimated to contain 27 billion tonnes of coal, enough to raise atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by several parts per million on its own, is arguably the biggest test case in the world right now. Fortunately, the latest news is good.

The critical project is the Carmichael Mine proposed by Adani Coal. To get the coal out Adani proposed a new rail line and a port expansion at Abbot Point. Korean conglomerate POSCO (originally a steelmaker) was named as the builder of the railroad, with the prospect that POSCO would take an equity share and the Korean Export-Import Bank would lend money on favorable terms. If the rail line is built, other projects could go ahead. One such project, owned by Bandanna Coal (now in receivership) was just approved by Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

It now seems clear that Adani is mothballing the project. A month ago, the engineering design teams were told to stop work, and now Posco’s contractors have been sent home. Coincidentally or otherwise, Posco has announced the intention to return to its steelmaking roots, with aggressive cuts to its engineering and construction divisions.

Adani is still blaming regulatory delays, but this seems increasingly implausible. The sacking of the engineering teams will set the project back many months, if not years, and burning your primary equity partner doesn’t seem like a sensible response to regulatory problems. At this point, I’d say the strategy is to obtain and bank the regulatory approvals then hope that the price of coal increases in the future. This seems unlikely, given the collapse of demand in the US, declining demand in China and increasing Indian focus on renewables, in which Adani itself is a big player.

Moreover, with every year that passes, the obstacles to coal projects of any kind get bigger. Most international development banks will no longer lend to such projects, global banks are under similar pressure and institutional equity investors are being pushed to divest. It’s unlikely that the proponents of new coal projects in Australia will ever again see a government as favorable as the Abbott government, so if they can’t succeed now, they will probably never do so.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Monday Message Board

July 20th, 2015 128 comments

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:

Competitive equilibrium (excerpt from Economics in Two Lessons)

July 18th, 2015 45 comments

I’m now coming up to (what I hope will be) the most challenging part of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. The core theoretical point the first part of the book (Lesson 1) is that, under a set of ideal assumptions, competitive equilibrium prices both reflect and determine the opportunity costs faced by consumers and produces. This means that there is no way to rearrange consumption to make someone better off unless someone else is made worse off. (I’ve already mentioned my reasons for avoiding the term “Pareto-optimal” in this context.

What I’m trying to do here is to spell out the logic underlying these results in a way that foreshadows the discussion of market failure and income distribution, in Lesson 2, but still shows the power of market mechanisms. I’ll probably need a few goes at this, and this is my first try. Critical comments on everything from the underlying theory to editorial nitpicks are welcome. Sincere praise is also welcome of course, but constructive criticism is best of all.
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Categories: Economics in Two Lessons Tags:

After Melos

July 15th, 2015 27 comments

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s been thinking about the words Thucydides assigns to the Athenians in the Melian dialogue

The strong do as they will and the weak suffer what they must

And I knew the immediate context. Militarily powerful Athenians demanded that the inhabitants of neutral Melos surrender their city and pay tribute. When the Melians refused, Athens invaded, slaughtered the men and enslaved the women and children.

I didn’t however, have any broader context in which to place this episode, even though the information is readily available on Wikipedia for example, which is my source here (apologies in advance to any actual experts for inaccuracies). The story begins with the formation of the Delian League, an expression of Greek unity in the war against Persia. The Athenians used the League to supplant Sparta as the hegemon of Greece, and then to oppress the other members, leading to a series of attempted defections. In Thucydides words

Of all the causes of defection, that connected with arrears of tribute and vessels, and with failure of service, was the chief; for the Athenians were very severe and exacting, and made themselves offensive by applying the screw of necessity

Eventually, this policy lead to the outbreak of war with the Spartan-led Pelopennesian League (this war was Thucydides’ subject). The war on Melos took place during a brief period of peace about half way through the war. The war ended with Athens being utterly defeated. Only the mercy of the Spartans prevented the Athenians sharing the fate they had meted out to the Melians a decade earlier, as Sparta’s allies demanded.

Rather than extract analogies to current events, I’d like to observe that the historical setting suggests a very different reading of the dialogue to that commonly seen today. In most of the contemporary discussions I’ve read, the Athenian side of the dialogue is presented as embodying the remorseless logic of power politics. But in the light of the outcome (well known to his intended readers), it seems to me Thucydides is better read as showing the Athenians as subject to the kind of hubris that demands, and inevitably receives, punishment. By contrast, while the Melians made a bad bet in resisting, their arguments are entirely sound, and should have been convincing to a rational hegemon.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:


July 14th, 2015 111 comments

Obviously, my analysis of the Greek debt crisis was wrong. My crucial error was the assumption that, having held the referendum and being faced with an unacceptable offer, Tsipras would choose exit from the euro rather than capitulation. Judging by this interview with Varoufakis (H/T Chris), that’s what Tsipras thought too, until, too late, Varoufakis told him it couldn’t be done. Certainly Tsipras’ actions were consistent with that interpretation.

Syriza has clearly been beaten. But I doubt that the outcome will work well for the other side in the long run. (Nearly) everyone understands that the debt can’t ultimately be repaid. But the German voting public hasn’t been told that. A deal that had some kind of quasi-automatic mechanism for writing down the outstanding balance (for example, by multiplying up the proceeds from asset sales) might have got around this problem. As it is, an explicit writedown will be needed at some point, presumably after Syriza has been forced out of office. That will be incredibly unpopular in Germany, while making clear to everyone else the locus of sovereignty in the post-crisis EU.

Update Commenters generally disagree with my take on the Varoufakis interview. I’m not wedded to it. The crucial point is that exit from the euro is extremely difficult, and that this fact will be used to punish any eurozone country that tries to resist the controlling powers.

Categories: World Events Tags:


July 11th, 2015 32 comments

Another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. To recap, the Two Lessons are

Lesson 1: Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.
Lesson 2: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

In this section, I’m working on Lesson 1, leading up to the point (my restatement of what’s usually called the First Fundamental Theorem of Welfare Economics) that an ideal competitive equilibrium is one in which there are no unexploited potential gains from technical improvements or mutually beneficial exchange. For reasons I’ve spelt out already I don’t want to use the term “Pareto-optimal” to talk about this. I also want to confine “efficient” to its normal meaning of “technically efficient” and avoid the common economist practice of extending this to cover various definitions of “market efficiency”. So, I’m talking about “free lunches” or, more formally, benefits with no opportunity cost.

In Lesson 2, I’ll be looking, among other things, at the Second Welfare Theorem, which says any outcome with no free lunches corresponds to a particular initial allocation of property rights, broadly defined to include taxation obligations and entitlements of all kinds.

Now please comment, criticise and hopefully enjoy

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Categories: Economics in Two Lessons Tags:

Balancing the books

July 10th, 2015 43 comments

I’ve been at the Australian Conference of Economists for the last few days. Today we had presentations from the Queensland Treasurer, Curtis Pitt, who is about to bring down his first budget, and from Commonwealth Treasury Secretary, John Fraser.

Curtis Pitt’s big announcement was a rearrangement of debt and equity in Government Owned Corporations, increasing their borrowing and transferring the resulting equity to the general government balance sheet. The result is a $4 billion reduction in general government debt, part of a program to bring the debt/revenue ratio down to around 70 per cent.

A transfer like this doesn’t make any difference to the state’s net financial position. Bu it makes the point that publicly owned assets are assets, not liabilities, and the fact that we own them makes the state’s position stronger. As long as the higher gearing ratio is commercially sensible and the debt can be serviced out of GOC earnings, there’s no reason not to use this to improve measures of general government debt.

Privatisation also makes no difference to the net position, assuming assets are sold at their value in continued public ownership, and the proceeds are used to pay down debt. However, the StrongChoices plan put by the LNP at the last election, would have dissipated around half of the sale proceeds on pork-barrel projects (to be delivered only if the LNP won the seat in question). So, compared to the alternative, Labor’s management is fiscally responsible.

The only measure that is unaffected by balance sheet reshuffles (at least if it is correctly measured) is net worth, and the only way to increase net worth is for income (revenue and asset earnings) to exceed expenditure.

John Fraser’s performance was as expected, which is to say, deeply disappointing. As a colleague sitting at our table remarked, he came across as a politician not a Treasury secretary. Fraser repeated the Henry Review’s criticism of stamp duties and the case for not taxing mobile capital. But when I asked if that meant he supported land taxes, he squibbed the question, waffling on about what a great group of officials he was working with in the states.

Categories: Tax and public expenditure Tags:

Derp: An irregular verb

July 7th, 2015 28 comments

Following up on Noah Smith’s marvellous definition of derp, I thought I would add the first person to give the declension of this irregular verb

* I can’t see this happening
* You regularly restate your tight (low probability) prior
* He herped a flerp of derp, the twerp

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Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:


July 6th, 2015 18 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on. Unless directly responding to the OP, all discussions of nuclear power, MMT and conspiracy theories should be directed to sandpits (or, if none is open, message boards).

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

July 6th, 2015 34 comments

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:

Backing down on Greece’s debt is the safest, most rational option

July 6th, 2015 160 comments

I wrote this for The Guardian and Crooked Timber in response to the Greek referendum result.

Lots of people have raised the suggestion of applying game theory to the the Greek debt crisis. I haven’t attempted this, reflecting my general scepticism about game theory in the absence of a well-defined strategy space. But now the Greek government and public have made, what is, in effect, a final move. In view of the No vote, Syriza can’t accept a deal that doesn’t include an explicit debt write-off or one that obviously crosses its stated red lines. Within those parameters, its clearly eager for a face-saving compromise.

For the other side (effectively the Troika and the German government), since Syriza’s move has already been made, the problem has now been reduced to one of decision under uncertainty, which is something I am comfortable with. More precisely, it’s a choice between a “safe” option, with an outcome that is fairly predictable, and a “risky” option where the outcome is uncertain.
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Locke and the Declaration (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

July 5th, 2015 2 comments

I didn’t take part in the book event on Danielle Allen Our Declaration, except as a commenter. But, as it happened, I converged on some of the central questions by a different route. For some time now, I’ve been writing critically about John Locke and his propertarian theory of liberalism. Increasingly, I’ve come to the view that Locke is best seen as an American rather than an English political theorist, even though he was an absentee owner rather than an American resident.

Further, while his writings appear liberal if interpreted in the English context, and if attention is focused on the passages where he is seeking to diminish the power of the English monarchy, his crucial contributions to the theory of propertarian liberalism are his justifications of expropriation and enslavement in the American context. The combination of the two made him the ideal theorist for those who wanted a Declaration of Independence that justified rebellion against the British monarchy, in combination with rule by a slave-owning aristocracy in the newly independent country.

James Wilson’s contribution to the Daniel Ellen seminar, The Declaration of Independence isn’t egalitarian enough explores many of the issues, as does Gabriel Winant.

I’ve made a start to spelling out the arguments in a piece for Jacobin magazine, entitled John Locke Against Freedom, which has given rise to some interesting discussions on Facebook, Twitter etc. Chris Bertram has raised some effective criticisms, and hopefully will spell them out in more detail later on. A couple of notable points, with partial responses

* I’ve overstated the extent to which Locke’s influence was confined to the American context, although it remains clear that his political theory mattered more in that context than in England

* Even if Locke himself advocated and benefited from expropriation and slavery, it’s not obvious (as I assert) that his theory of classical liberalism necessarily entails these things. I plan to spell out the argument in more detail soon.

Categories: Philosophy Tags:

The IMF: An inexcusable, incorrigible failure

July 4th, 2015 55 comments

Chris Berrtram at Crooked Timber has already pointed out the failure of the core European institutions in their response to the global financial crisis. One excuse that can be made for these institutions is that they are still in the process of development, and were ill-prepared, intellectually and institutionally, for an event so far outside their experience. The ECB and EC developed in a period when controlling inflation and stabilizing government debt were the key imperatives, and they responded to the crisis accordingly.

No such excuse can be made for the third member of the Troika, the International Monetary Fund. The IMF has understood from the start that the austerity policies it has imposed are economically unsound and a repetition of past failures. And yet it has been unwilling and unable to do anything else.

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Economists call on climate change policy

July 2nd, 2015 68 comments

I’ve just signed a statement drawn up by a group of economists from the Toulouse School of Economics and the Université Paris-Dauphine, in advance of the current COP21 international negotiation. The aim of the statement is to encourage the parties to aim for a more comprehensive and economically effective agreement that would ultimately supersede the patchwork of voluntary commitments being put forward at present. While the commitments being made for COP21 represent a huge advance on the vague aspirations that emerged from Copenhagen, we should not lose sight of the ultimate goal of decarbonizing the global economy in a way that minimizes the economic costs by taking advantage of the power of price mechanisms.

From an Australian viewpoint, the most important part of the Call is Part 3: “Free rider” behavior must be hindered. The current government’s attempts to position Australia as a free rider on the efforts of others cannot succeed in the end, and will only do Australia harm.

If you’re a professional economist and agree with Call, you can sign it here. More generally, it’s open for discussion in the comments thread.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags: