Archive for December, 2016

Education: Excerpt from Economics in Two Lessons

December 29th, 2016 21 comments

Here’s another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. As usual, praise is welcome, useful criticism even more so. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.

In the section over the fold, I’m looking at education.

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Categories: Economics in Two Lessons Tags:

Public Services: Excerpt from Economics in Two Lessons

December 28th, 2016 10 comments

As we saw in Section …, Lesson 1 does not apply to public goods, which can be used all, without any diminution of their usefulness, and for which no price can be charged. Many of the core activities of government may be regarded as providing public goods. These include public health measures, the control of air pollution, urban planning, police services and national defense.

More abstract services such as the legal system, the definition and enforcement of property rights, systems of weights and measures and so on are also public goods. Less obviously, macroeconomic management is a kind of public good (or sometimes a public bad). The level of economic activity, the rate of inflation, exchange rates and interest rates affect everyone, though in different ways.

Most advocates of Lesson 1 recognise at least some of these forms of public good provision as essential. The big disputes arise over services such as health, education and welfare services, which have long been provided, or at least funded, by governments. These services are commonly referred to as ‘human services’, and typically involve a personal relationship (doctor-patient, teacher-student, caseworker client and so on) between the service provider and the recipient.

Although these services are sometimes referred to as public goods, they don’t, in general, meet the criteria economists use to define public goods. A hospital bed or school place provided to one person isn’t available to others, and prices can be charged for access to these services.

On the other hand, neither do these services the standard conditions of Lesson 1. There are two central problems that arise. First, these services are expensive and recipients are rarely in a position to pay for them directly. As a result, all of the problems of risk and insurance, discussed in Chapter 10 …, apply to the financing of these services.

The second problem is that the relationship between providers and recipients typically involves an imbalance of information, power or both. A student is not in a good position to judge whether the education she is receiving is good or bad. Similarly, a patient must rely on their doctor’s expertise and professional ethics to get the appropriate treatment. In other cases, such as that of police services, there is also an imbalance of power, which may be misused.

Advocates of Lesson 1, such as Milton Friedman in Free to Choose have generally accepted the need for public funding to overcome the problems of financing education and, at least in some instances, health care. However, Friedman and others have assumed that any other problems can be overcome by market competition and consumer choice. Indeed, they have argued that market competition will help to prevent corruption and abuses of power that arise when governments provide services directly.

As a result, market advocates have favoured policies based on concepts such as ‘contestability’ and ‘contracting out’, in which for-profit firms compete to provide publicly funded services. The archetypal example is the perennial proposal for school ‘vouchers’, that is, funds allocated to students or their parents which can be paid to whichever school they choose to attend.

This idea was elaborated into a complete ‘reinvention of government’ by writers like Osborne and Gaebler in the late 20th century and implemented, to a large extent, in the wave of market liberal reform led by the Thatcher government in the UK. As a result, we have accumulated plenty of experience of market contestability and for-profit provision.

Theoretical analysis doesn’t give any clear answer as to which model of provision is likely to be best for services like health and education. However, after several decades of experience with market-oriented contestability, the empirical evidence is stark. For-profit provision of such services is at best problematic, and at worst disastrous.

The only other model with success comparable to that of public service provision is not-for-profit provision by organisations with a charitable or activist mission. Church-run schools and hospitals, and activist-run services like women’s shelters and services for the unemployed and homeless, have complemented the public sector, meeting needs that have been unrecognised or underserved.

The issue is not, in the end, one of public versus private. Rather it is the fact that market competition and the profit motive inevitably associated with it is antithetical to the professional and service orientation that is central to human services of all kinds.

Categories: Economics in Two Lessons Tags:

Monopoly and Regulation: Excerpt from Two Lessons book

December 24th, 2016 24 comments

Here’s another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. As usual, praise is welcome, useful criticism even more so. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.

In the section over the fold, I’m looking at public ownership.

Read more…

Categories: Economics in Two Lessons Tags:

Fuel efficiency standards could help curb Australia’s persistently growing emissions

December 24th, 2016 13 comments
Categories: Environment Tags:

That was quick

December 22nd, 2016 47 comments

Not long after the election, I perceived the signs of an emerging semi-formal coalition between the LNP and One Nation. Less than three months later, here’s Jeff Kennett, generally seen as a relative moderate in the Victorian Liberal Party, endorsing the idea.

To repeat what I said then, I remain convinced that this will prove a path to disaster for the LNP in the long run. One Nation is already repeating the history of meltdowns we saw in its first big run, and making clear that it stands for nothing beyond incoherent gesture politics. That’s true of rightwing identity politics in general, which is why I think it can’t last. It can, however, do plenty of damage in the meantime.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Privatisation and education re-re-re-post

December 21st, 2016 10 comments

I’m working on my long running book project Economics in Two Lessons, and I dug out this old post, originally written in 2008, which remains strikingly relevant today.
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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

The economics of open borders

December 21st, 2016 76 comments

A colleague recently sent me a paper on the economics of open borders, by John Kennan, which I hadn’t known of before, though it came out in 2013.
Kennan’s conclusion is striking

Liberal immigration policies are politically unpopular. To a large extent, this is because the beneficiaries of these policies are not allowed to vote. It is also true, however, that the enormous benefits associated with open borders have not received much attention in the economics literature.20 Economists are generally enthusiastic about free trade. But if free movement of goods is important, then surely free movement of people is even more important.
One conclusion of this paper is that open borders could yield huge welfare gains: more than $10,000 a year for a randomly selected worker from a less-developed country (including non-migrants). Another is that these gains are associated with a relatively small reduction in the real wage in developed countries, and even this effect disappears as the capital–labor ratio adjusts over time; indeed if immigration restrictions are relaxed gradually, allowing time for investment in physical capital to keep pace, there is no implied reduction in real wages.

So, is Kennan right about the benefits of open borders? And if so, is there a way of transferring some of those benefits to already-resident wage earners who would otherwise lose, or at least not gain, from expanded migration?
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Categories: World Events Tags:

If the Productivity Commission puts ideology ahead of evidence, do we still need it?

December 21st, 2016 23 comments

That’s the title of my latest piece in The Guardian. It’s a response to the Productivity Commission’s report on competition in human services. I wrote a submission in response to the draft report a while back, but it had no impact, and neither did any other evidence.. If anything, the final report is slightly worse than the draft.

My final para

Rather than close on a negative tone, I’ll make one suggestion for contestability. Private sector consulting firms have demonstrated a long-standing expertise in producing impressive looking reports to support the (predetermined) conclusion required by the client.

Given the predictability of the Productivity Commission’s conclusions on topics like this, private firms would have no difficulty in replicating them. Surely this is a service that could do with being opened up to the chill winds of competition.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Monday Message Board

December 19th, 2016 31 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:

Monopoly and Regulation: Excerpt from Two Lessons book

December 17th, 2016 12 comments

Here’s another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. Rather than work sequentially, I’m jumping between:

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 the section over the fold, I’m looking at monopoly and regulation. Next up, public ownership.

As usual, praise is welcome, useful criticism even more so. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.

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Categories: Economics in Two Lessons Tags:

Are young Australians (mostly) Christians ?

December 16th, 2016 24 comments

Regular readers will know that I’m not a great fan of analysis based on generations (Boomers, X, Millennials and so on). Most of what passes for insight on this topic consists of the repetition of unchanged cliches about the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old, the laziness and irresponsibility of the young, and so on, applied to whichever cohort happens to be old or young at the time.

But there are some genuine differences between cohorts, typically determine by the time they have entered adulthood. One of these is religion.
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Dutton, cringeworthy and (literally) un-Australian

December 15th, 2016 40 comments

Peter Dutton’s attempts to promote an “uprising” in support of Christmas, and against “political correctness gone mad” are un-Australian in all sorts of ways, but most obviously in the stunning cultural cringe they reflect. He’s borrowed the catchphrase of a British tabloid in an attempt to import a US culture war campaign that has been going on so long it’s a Christmas tradition in itself (I observed that it was old stuff, back in 2004). This guy is the best the Trumpist faction of the LNP/ON can come up with?

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics Tags:

Solving Newcomb’s problem with (possibly non) expected utility theory

December 12th, 2016 19 comments

The Grauniad has just resurrected Newcomb’s problem. I have a slightly special interest since the problem was popularized by one of my betes noires, Robert Nozick. So, in asserting that there’s a trivial solution, I have something of a bias.
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Categories: Philosophy Tags:


December 12th, 2016 11 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

December 12th, 2016 2 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:

Austrian economists and environmental policy

December 8th, 2016 40 comments

While working on my long-forthcoming book, Economics in Two Lessons, I came across an interesting article by Edwin Dolan published (with commendably openness to criticism) in the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. The conclusion

On a theoretical level, Austrian writers delight in claiming the moral high ground, condemning polluters as aggressors against property rights. On a practical level, however, they leave pollution victims in the lurch. They invite them to sue, but propose a set of legal standards that would guarantee that polluters would always win. They oppose all government measures to reduce pollution, whether through regulation or through measures to make polluters pay. As a result, at least in cases of environmental mass torts, the Austrian paradigm is a polluter’s dream and a victim’s nightmare. It offers far too little of any practical value toward securing property rights, too little toward facilitating environmental coordination, and too little toward promoting libertarian justice. Much work remains to be done.

Thursday Message Board

December 8th, 2016 41 comments

The site outage that has kept the blog off air for several days has now been resolved, so here’s a once-off Thursday Message Board, for comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language, please.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Build it, and they probably won’t come

December 1st, 2016 12 comments

When the SA Royal Commission on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle brought down its report, I welcomed the conclusion that there was no serious prospect that nuclear power generation would be feasible in Australia. That was unsurprising, since my own submission to the Commission had shown this pretty clearly. As regards the Commission’s recommendation for a waste dump, I argued that there could be no objection in principle, given that SA was an exporter of uranium and the waste had already been generated.

That left open the question of whether the waste dump proposal made economic sense. I’ve now looked at the case in more detail and concluded that it doesn’t. Countries with existing nuclear power industries have made arrangements that may not be satisfactory, but are unlikely to change. There is little prospect of any significant growth in the future. So, building a nuclear waste dump in the hope of attracting demand makes about as much sense as the actions of the protagonist in the movie Field of Dreams, who ploughed up his cornfield to make a baseball diamond for the ghosts of disgraced players.

I make the argument in more detail in this piece in New Matilda. Right on cue, Vietnam, which was one of the hypothetical users of the dump, decided that it would be better to dump nuclear power as uneconomic. Expect more announcements along these lines as the economics of renewable energy improve.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags: