Archive for January, 2016

A question about group selection

January 29th, 2016 73 comments

I’m doing some work on evolutionary models of game theory and need to understand the debate about group selection. It seems pretty clear that the great majority of evolutionary biologists reject the idea of group selection, but I haven’t found an adequate (to me) explanation of why they do so. A crucial problem for me is that the literature seems, without exception as far as I can see, to conflate group selection with co-operation and altruism. But the problem of group selection arises in non-cooperative settings, provided they are not zero-sum.

To illustrate the problem I’m struggling with, suppose that two previously isolated species meet as a result of some change. In one species (peacocks), competition between males for mates takes the form of elaborate, and energetically costly, displays. In the other species (penguins) males compete by providing food to their mates. In all other respects (diet, predators and so on) the two are similar. It seems obvious to me that the penguins, with their more efficient social arrangements, are going to outbreed the peacocks and eventually drive them to extinction.

It seems to me there are only two possibilities here
(a) My reasoning is wrong, and we can’t judge which species, if either, will dominate; or
(b) Even though it involves one group being selected over another, this isn’t what is meant by group selection

I’d really appreciate some help on this. I’m happy to have thoughts from anyone, but I’d most like to hear from actual experts with contact details.

Categories: Economics - General, Science Tags:

Education is an investment, not a filter

January 28th, 2016 44 comments

There’s been a fair bit of fuss about reports that it’s now much easier to get into a university course than it used to be. This is the unsurprising result of decades of public policy aimed in this direction (with some brief reversals, most notably when David Kemp was minister). This piece by Leith van Onselen is fairly representative

Thanks to the former Labor Government’s uncapping of university places in 2012, allowing universities to recruit as many students as they can fit, actual tertiary entrance scores have plummeted, meaning every man and his dog can now get a degree, devaluing their worth in the process.

Implicit in this statement is the “screening” theory of education, that the point of getting a university degree (or finishing high school for that matter) is to show that you are smarter than the people who didn’t. The idea that doing a degree might equip you with useful specific knowledge, or with general skills in reasoning, writing and so on, doesn’t get mentioned.

Assuming, as is fair in this context, that the “worth” of a degree is being conceived in monetary terms, the claim that degrees have been “devalued” depends on the future earnings of the students now being admitted. We can’t know this (neither can van Onselen). However, the long-term evidence is clear: in Australia, as everywhere else in the world, the wage premium for graduates has remained large enough to make going to university a very good decision, even as the proportion of young people undertaking university education has risen from a tiny minority in the mid-20th century to around 40 per cent today.

One interpretation of this is that, over the past century or more, the entire world has been engaged in more and more elaborate screening for no good reason. A more plausible explanation is that technological change has eliminated the kinds of jobs that used to employ kids with a Year 10 education (the median level of achievement when I was young), and replaced them with jobs that need the skills (specific and general) of a university graduate.

There’s every reason to think that these trends will continue in the future, so we are going to need more education not less. In my view, just about everyone should undertake post-secondary education either at university or TAFE.

In this context, I shoud note that van Onselen is spot-on about the disaster area that is for-profit education, particularly in the vocational sector. As I’ve said before, the for-profit providers should either be shut down or turned into contract providers for the TAFE system.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Known unknowns (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

January 27th, 2016 22 comments

In September 2002, according to Politico magazine, Donald Rumsfeld received a report (mostly declassified in 2011) stating that the intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s putative weapons programs was essentially worthless. For example, the report says:

Our knowledge of the Iraqi (nuclear) weapons program is based largely—perhaps 90%—on analysis of imprecise intelligence

The report was seen by Paul Wolfowitz, then Deputy Defense Secretary and now an adviser to Jeb Bush, but wasn’t shared with President George Bush, or with other members of the Administration, such as Colin Powell. And despite his musings about known and unknown unknowns (unsurprisingly the subject of some sardonic comment in the Politico piece, Rumsfeld showed no doubt in his public pronouncements about the supposed weapons.

This report ought to be (but won’t be) enough to discredit Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz once and for all. Given that they knew that the claimed legal basis for the war relied on spurious intelligence, both are guilty of the crime of a war of aggression. More to the point, in terms of US political debate, a Defense Secretary who sends thousands of US troops to their deaths in pursuit of a goal he knows to be illusory ought to be condemned out of hand.

On the other hand, does the report help to exonerate those who advocated war based on the spurious intelligence being pushed by Rumsfeld? Not to any significant degree. The fact that Rumsfeld was a four-flusher was obvious in December 2002, when Saddam denied having any weapons. As I observed at the time

In the standard warblogger scenario, the declaration was the trigger. Once it came out, the US would produce the evidence to show Iraq was lying and the war would be under way … Instead, Iraq is denying everything but the US is in no hurry to prove that Saddam is lying … The only interpretation that makes sense is that, despite all the dossiers that were waved about a few months ago – including satellite images of ‘suspect’ sites – the Administration doesn’t really have anything

Anyone who wasn’t already committed to war could have followed the same reasoning, and many did.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Monday Message Board

January 25th, 2016 33 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:

Hard cash and climate change: repost from 2005

January 20th, 2016 142 comments

While thinking about decarbonizing transport, I dug out this old post from 2005. It’s interesting to see how the debate has evolved (or not) since then.

The big change has been that the prospects for technological alternatives like alternative energy sources and electric vehicles have improved dramatically. As regards transport, I don’t see much reason to change the analysis I presented in 2005. Unfortunately, while some progress has been made along the kinds of lines I suggested, it’s been very limited compared to the radical changes in electricity generation. So, we are only at the beginning of the process of decarbonizing transport.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:


January 19th, 2016 61 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on. Discussions about climate policy and related issues can be posted here, along with the usual things.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Increasing fuel efficiency: standards vs prices

January 19th, 2016 24 comments

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ll be talking to the Victorian Transport Economic Forum on decarbonizing transport on Wednesday, 10 February 2016 from 5pm at the Public Transport Victoria Corporate Centre, 750 Collins Street, Docklands. I thought I’d start with the policy issue implying the smallest change in existing transport patterns, increasing the fuel efficiency of petrol-engined vehicles. The primary choice here is between relying on a carbon price and imposing fuel efficiency standards. For those who want the shorter version, I think we need both but standards are probably going to be more important.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Decarbonizing transport

January 18th, 2016 78 comments

I’ll be talking on this topic to the Victorian Transport Economic Forum on Wednesday, 10 February 2016 from 5pm at the Public Transport Victoria Corporate Centre, 750 Collins Street, Docklands. I’m still formulating my thoughts, so I’ll be happy to read those of anyone who’d like to comment. Here are a few observations to get started

* The process of decarbonizing electricity supply is well under way and, I think, just about unstoppable. To some extent at least, this process provides a template for an approach to transport. In particular, there’s a close analogy between cars and coal. Both have negative local effects (air pollution, congestion, negative amenity and so on) that haven’t been properly taken into account, in addition to generating CO2 emissions. Focusing on the local effects may be a more effective way of reducing CO2 emissions than attacking the problem directly

* By contrast, although we have the technology to greatly reduce the use of carbon-based fuels in transport, we haven’t made nearly enough progress, and it’s not clear what is the best way to go. Should the focus be on improving existing modes of transport (for example, with electric cars), or in switching modes (public transport instead of private) or in reducing the need for travel (with urban design, telepresence and so on).

* Relatedly, is it better to rely on prices, direct controls such as vehicle fuel efficiency standards, or on some other approach?

Categories: Environment Tags:

Monday Message Board

January 18th, 2016 12 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:

An inconvenient gun fact for Nicholas Kristof, and David Leyonjhelm

January 17th, 2016 69 comments

Nicholas Kristof has a column in the NY Times, headlined Some Inconvenient Gun Facts for Liberals . The headline, though presumably not chosen by Kristof, is a pretty accurate summary of the article, which berates liberals for proposing various ineffectual gun control measures, and concludes:

Let’s make America’s gun battles less ideological and more driven by evidence of what works.

If Kristof wants to be taken seriously, he ought to acknowledge the actual evidence of what works, namely, measures that drastically reduce the number of guns and restrict their availability. I discussed the evidence a bit more in this post, with links.

Of course, such measures aren’t politically feasible in the US, and have to be disavowed by politicians seeking even limited progress. But if Kristof started by admitting this, he’d end up with a very different analysis than the one he’s putting forward. The primary criterion for any gun control policy in the US has to be to maximize the ratio of long-term harm reduction to political cost. I don’t have any particularly good ideas about political strategies. Still, it’s clear that Kristof’s operating assumption that sweet reason will be sufficient, or even helpful, is way off the mark.

In the Australian context, it’s notable that the only people who deny the obvious facts about gun control are those who have a strong ideological or personal motive for doing so. It’s scarcely surprising that gun enthusiasts want to resist any measures that would inconvenience them, and are willing to employ spurious arguments to do so – that’s true for just about any group.

What’s more striking is the attitude of David Leyonjhelm, the Senate representative of the Liberal Democratic Party. When dealing with something he doesn’t like, such as wind turbines, he’s willing to accept utterly bogus claims of health risks. When it’s something he likes, such as guns whose only purpose is to kill, he’s just as happy to reject the evidence.

Unfortunately, this combination of attitudes is very common among self-described libertarians. The implication is that, as a libertarian, you can oppose any government restriction you dislike, while supporting any you favor – you just need to make up your own facts.

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:


January 16th, 2016 47 comments

We’ve had a series of fatal and near-fatal one-punch assaults in Queensland recently, several captured on CCTV. An even worse case, except that by pure luck the victim managed to put out his hands and avoid a severe head impact was shown recently. One attacker holds the victim to let a second punch him, after which the first (much bigger) attacker delivers a “king hit” and walks off.

What shocked me about this was the alleged attacker’s lawyer, who claimed that he might have a defence of “provocation”. This medieval defence was scaled back after it was used, successfully, by a man who beat his girlfriend to death with a steering wheel lock in 2005 as a result of jealousy, but it apparently remains available to street thugs whose attacks don’t cause grievous bodily harm.

When combined with recent “one-punch” laws, the result is an absurdity. A thug who throws a punch in response to an insult* can’t predict what will happen next. If the victim falls the wrong way and dies, it’s a mandatory 15-year minimum. But if the victim is lucky, so is the thug – he can get off scot-free, or nearly so, with a defence of provocation.

Regrettably, but predictably, the Queensland Law Society has sought to maintain this barbaric defence at every stage. The Law Society’s determination to keep every possible defence open, no matter how anachronistic, undermines more reasonable concerns they have raised with respect to issues such as mandatory minimum sentences.

* Actual or claimed

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:


January 11th, 2016 31 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on. Discussions about climate policy and related issues can be posted here, along with the usual things.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

January 11th, 2016 47 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:

The Great War of 1911 (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

January 11th, 2016 16 comments

I recently read Time and Time Again by Ben Elton. It’s about a time traveller who returns to 1914 Europe, aiming to prevent the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and, therefore, the Great War. Of course, the war isn’t prevented, and it turns out that there are vast numbers of timelines flowing from the summer of 1914, all more or less disastrous. This has inspired me to draft an alternate history I’ve long had in mind, where the War starts in 1911, as a result of the Agadir crisis.

I’ve changed the dates of some actual events, and the outcomes of some internal political debates, to bring more aggressive leaders and policies to the fore. I’ve also borrowed one improbable event from an earlier war. Still, the result seems to me no more improbable than the actual genesis of the War, beginning with the fatal wrong turn by Franz Ferdinand’s driver. Feel free to disagree, or to fill in some details of your own.

Read more…

Categories: Books and culture, World Events Tags:

More reform threatened

January 10th, 2016 56 comments

The Turnbull government is apparently keen to undertake more reform, in this case applying to the welfare system. This weekend I saw a couple of media reports, unsourced but apparently based on material supplied by Social Services Minister Christian Porter, based on the “alarming” projection that welfare payments will rise from $154 billion to $270 billion in a decade, more than can be accounted for by inflation and population growth.

A huge dollar figure makes for a scary headline but not for sensible analysis. The prosaic facts underlying this projection are
(a) Welfare payments are dominated by the old age pension
(b) The value age pension increases in real terms over time, since it is linked to earnings
(c) Even allowing for an increased age of eligibility, and more reliance superannuation, the proportion of the population eligible for the old age pension is unlikely to fall

Put these facts together, and it’s virtually certain that the welfare bill will grow broadly in line with national income (usually measured by GDP), and therefore will outstrip growth in population and inflation. Indeed, a quick check suggests a compound rate of growth of about 6 per cent*, almost exactly in line with nominal GDP (assuming 3.5 per cent real growth and 2.5 per cent inflation).

The government’s proposed reforms appear to involve attacks on recipients of welfare in the popular media sense of the term (Jobstart, disability benefits and so on). But the only ways in which the growth rate of the welfare bill can be held much below that of GDP are
(i) Freeze the real value of age pensions, as has been done to Jobstart since the 1990s; or
(ii) Reduce access to the age pension, either by further raising the access age or by tigntening means and assets tests.

* Porter’s briefing apparently suggested 7 per cent, which I can’t replicate. Feel free to check.

Directional politics

January 6th, 2016 21 comments

A few Prime Ministers back, Australian politics seemed to be all about Western Sydney. On the conservative side of politics, unremarkable politicians who managed to win and hold former Labor electorates were lionised, while similar wins in other parts of the country were seen as part of the normal ebb and flow of electoral politics. On the Labor side, the region was invoked by the NSW Right (many of whom preferred not to live there) as the basis for its “aspirational” politics. This was all nonsense. The two million or so people who live in Western Sydney vary far more among themselves than they differ from the Australian population as a whole. To the extent that they have any sort of collective identity it hasn’t stopped large numbers of them for voting for (or, for that matter, against) governments led by silvertails from the North Shore, Northern Beaches and Eastern Suburbs.

But since the brief return of Kevin Rudd, the focus has shifted back to an area of more traditional concern: Northern Australia and its supposed need for development. I had hoped to see the end of this when Turnbull became PM, especially given the government’s fiscal woes. But sadly, this is not to be. Not only is the $5 billion development fund still alive, but we are getting stories about Turnbull’s plans to “unlock the North“.

As it happens, I’m in North Queensland right now, and I lived in Townsville for most of the 1990s. Like everyone else in the region I received a special “zone allowance” under the tax system to compensate me for living in a pleasant (if rather warm) coastal city with all the amenities that would be expected by a resident of, say, Newcastle or Wollongong. I understand that this allowance is still available. Nothing of the sort is on offer to people in poor suburbs or declining country towns in the rest of the country.

Like every other place in Australia, the North has plenty of unmet needs for services and, though to a much lesser extent than people seem to think, physical infrastructure. But it is in no sense “locked up”. There are road, rail and air transport links that meet the needs of the region with the same adequacy or lack of it as most other places in the country. Internet access is taken for granted in all but the remotest parts of the region. Ports, and transport links to them, are well developed to carry agricultural and mineral exports wherever they need to be sent. And so on.

Moreover, as with Western Sydney, the region has much the same diversity as the rest of the country, with a corresponding diversity of needs and wants. The cities of Rockhampton, Townsville, Cairns and Darwin differ as greatly from each other and from the rural areas they serve as they do from cities and regions in the rest of Australia.

We don’t need a Northern Australia policy any more than we need a Western Sydney policy. Public infrastructure projects should be assessed on the basis of their merits, and not their location. Private investment should be left to the commercial judgement of those involved. The $5 billion development fund should be rolled back into general revenue and used wherever it is most needed.

Categories: Economics - General, Oz Politics Tags:

What the unions really need

January 2nd, 2016 54 comments

As I observed here, the Trade Union Royal Commission has spent tens of millions of public money to show that the corrupt behavior of a number of Health Services Union officials is the exception rather than the rule. The payments made to a dozen or more TURC lawyers, after a ‘limited tender‘ process of very dubious propriety, far exceed the amounts involved in any of the handful of offences alleged in the Commission’s report.

But that’s not to say all is well with the Australian movement. The steady decline in union membership is mostly the result of external causes (the increased power of employers, a stream of anti-union laws, and so on), but the unions haven’t always helped their own cause.

Here are some changes I think are needed:

* Term limits for union officials. To take just two examples, Bill Ludwig has been Secretary of the Queensland AWU since 1988 while Joe DeBruyn was National Secretary of the SDA from 1978 to 2014. Both men used their entrenched position to exert political power within the Labor Party, in ways entirely unrelated to the interests and concerns of their members. Which brings me to:

* Ending affiliation with the Labor Party (or any political party). Bob Hawke recently pushed this idea as a way of freeing the ALP from the corrupting influence of the CFMEU. But the real problem is the other way around. The ALP, like most Australian political parties is a shell, controlled by factional chiefs, notably including union officials who control important blocks of votes. Obviously, someone whose main role is as a party apparatchik can hardly do a good job of representing workers

* Actual workplace experience for officials. Bill Ludwig was, at least for a few years, a pastoral worker before he was a union official. By contrast, Joe De Bruyn was one of the first representatives of a modern type – the career union official. He went to work in the SDA straight out of uni , getting the job on the basis of DLP political connections, and stayed there until he retired 40 years later.

Feel free to comment or offer your own suggestions.

Update A colleague tells me that, before devoting himself to the concerns of retail workers, Joe de Bruyn had a brief stint as an agricultural economist at the University of Sydney, where I also worked early in my career. Agricultural economics was a formative influence for quite a few Australian politicians, notably including John Dawkins and John Kerin, as well as many who became prominent in the public service and the broader economics profession.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The Australian exception (crosspost from Crooked Timber Piketty seminar)

January 2nd, 2016 20 comments

Note I wrote two pieces in response to Piketty’s Capital . This one, on Australia, was based on one already published here, but I was asked to crosspost it and I’ve now done so.

Read more…

Categories: Books and culture, Economic policy Tags: