Archive for December, 2017

Quiggin quizzical

December 17th, 2017 4 comments

My observations on the electricity demand associated with Bitcoin made it into the ABC News Quiz last week, which is a kind of fame, I guess.

Meanwhile, I had another piece in the Guardian, this time looking at the fact that, despite being called a “cryptocurrency”, Bitcoin is used even less as a currency now than it was several years ago. The core problem is that the system is so overloaded by miners creating new coins that processing transactions is slow, costly or both I mentioned the fact that game company Steam had stopped accepting coins and that the list of merchants accepting Bitcoin is small enough to fit on one page. Checking further I concluded that this list is out of date, but not in a good way. Lots of those included, such as Expedia, no longer accept Bitcoin, if indeed they ever did. Here’s one person’s experience. Bitcoin is now a “crypto asset” which is even more obviously a Ponzi fantasy than the original currency story.

One response I got was that transaction speed would soon be greatly improved by something called Lightning. Checking on this it appears that this is software in an alpha (very early) stage of development, which would allow any two parties to set up a transactions account separate from the main Bitcoin blockchain, and only occasionally update the main account. An analogy, for readers of a certain age, is the era before Bankcard, when, if you wanted to do something other than paying cash, you maintained a separate credit and debit account with every store you dealt with. This does not seem like the dawn of a new era to me.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Coalition politics and the end of market liberalism

December 14th, 2017 19 comments

Lots of commentators are making a fuss over the prospect of the Greens taking the seat of Batman following the likely and unlamented departure of Labor MP David Feeney (if not under S44 then at the next election). The underlying claim is that the election of Greens candidates represents an existential threat to Labor. This is typical of a commentariat mindset that sees anything other than majority Labor or LNP governments as recipes for disaster (the phrase “hung parliament” is indicative), even though we have decades of experience of such governments operating successfully both federally and in (I think) every state and territory. The reality is that, however fractious their relationship may be at times, Labor and the Greens constitute a centre-left coalition. As I said a year ago

For Labor that means giving up the idea that the Greens are a temporary irritant that will go the way of the DLP, if they are abused and/or ignored long enough. For the Greens, it means abandoning Third Way rhetoric suggesting that they represent an unaligned alternative to a two-party duopoly.

The details of the alignment between the two will vary according to the circumstances, from formal coalition to general support, but there is no alternative.

The problem of coalition politics is much more problematic on the right. Despite the frictions, I’m not thinking primarily of the LNP “coalition” (so rusted together that, even where they aren’t merged, the two are lumped together as a single “major party” in most commentary). Rather, the problem is the relationship between the LNP as a whole and the tribalist/Trumpist right, represented in various forms by One Nation, the Liberal Democratic Party, Bernardi’s Conservatives* as well as a large faction within the LNP itself. These two groups have nothing in common except that they have common enemies, and even that common ground is limited. They all hate greenies and unions, but the overt racism of One Nation and the religious bigotry of Bernardi repel lots of mainstream LNP types, while the Trumpist base is suspicious of banks and multinationals.

Most importantly, the ideological framework of market liberalism (aka neoliberalism, economic rationalism) and so on has lost its power, which always rested more on the idea that There Is No Alternative than on any positive appeal. Sermons about the need for reform, budget surpluses, more competitive tax regimes and so on no longer get the kind of automatic approval from the political class as a whole that they used to. So, the mainstream LNP no longer stands for anything in particular. Meanwhile, the Trumpists want nostalgic gesture politics without any concern for coherence or practical consequences.

For the immediate future, at least, politics in Australia has resolved itself into a struggle between two coalitions. Both are going to be fractious, but the big problems are going to be found on the right.

* There’s also the Katter party, but Katter is too idiosyncratic to fit into any classification.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

A barbarous relic

December 13th, 2017 29 comments

That’s what Keynes called the gold standard nearly a century ago, and he was right. I was reminded of this by the commentary on my latest piece on Bitcoin, published in the Conversation and also the ABC. I restated the points I made in my 2015 article on the massive and wasteful use of electricity in Bitcoin mining. The key points are that the cost of mining Bitcoins will inevitably rise until it is equal to the price for which Bitcoins can be sold, and that the great bulk of this cost is the electricity used to run specialised computer systems.

The responses included a great deal of huffing and puffing to the effect that I know nothing about cryptocurrency and shouldn’t comment, but showed no understanding of the central point, let alone any attempt to refute it. The scale of Bitcoin’s electricity use (which was hard to observe directly when I wrote in 2015 is now so massive as to be undeniable.

The other response, standard in cases like this, is whataboutery, that is, attempts to point out other wasteful uses of electricity compared to which Bitcoin is allegedly insignificant. I addressed one of these in the article, responding so someone who claimed that the electricity used by Bitcoin (serving at most a few million people) is “only” one-third of that of the rest of the global financial system.

Some other whatabouts led me to some interesting thoughts. One, which I plan to look at further is the use of electricity in electronic equipment on standby. The other, pushed with some vigour by commenters is gold. So, is gold worse than Bitcoin

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Reviving TAFE

December 8th, 2017 26 comments

I’ve just been invited to make a submission to a Senate inquiry into TAFE in South Australia. From what I can glean, this is a politically motivated exercise by the Turnbull government to make capital out of some embarrassing failures in a Labor state. But it gives me the incentive to write something about the catastrophic failure of vocational education and training in Australia, a failure for which there is plenty of blame to go around. Rather than making political capital out of such incidents, we need to rebuild the TAFE system as the core of a greatly expanded vocational education and training system, including public and non-profit institutions, free from the discredited ideology of markets and competition.

Among the points I want to cover

* The impact of decades of cuts in public support for vocational training
* The disastrous effects of subsidising for-profit providers
* The goal of universal participation in post-school education and training
* Integration of technical/vocational and university education

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Contradictions, Part 2

December 7th, 2017 12 comments

The contradictions in the LNP/IPA attack on free speech became even more evident today with the appointment of Gary Johns as the head Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. Johns was once a junior minister in the Keating government and used this position to give a non-partisan veneer to subsequent career as a hack for the IPA, which was followed by a stint at the Australian Catholic University.

Johns has been at the forefront of the push to suppress political advocacy by charitable organizations eligible for tax-deductible donations. So his appointment by Minister Michael Sukkar followed logically from the LNP/IPA anti-free speech agenda.

There’s just one problem. The announcement came on the day of the vote on equal marriage, an issue on which numerous religious charities campaigned on the losing side. So, in the same breath as announcing Johns’ appointment, Minister Sukkar expressed the hope that the legislation might be amended to allow charities to continue advocacy on this issue.

This is silly, of course. It was already obvious that no amendments would be passed. And, as Warren Entsch pointed out, under current interpretations of the law, there’s no need for them. As Entsch says “A charity may advocate on any issue relevant to that charity and nothing in this bill will change that”. He’s right of course, but the whole idea of appointing Johns was to change this situation.

Hopefully, the government will realise what a trap they are setting for themselves here. If they attempt to remove tax-deductibility for conservation organizations that engage in advocacy, they will create a precedent that can subsequently be used against religious organizations. Turnbull should overturn Johns’ appointment and find someone who actually supports charities and non-profits.

Assumming, as seems likely, that the government is in too much of a mess to work this out, perhaps the churches will do so. If they want to protect freedom of speech for themselves, they’d better start defending it for others (cue Ditrich Bonhoeffer).

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:


December 6th, 2017 31 comments

The breakdown of the market liberal right, and the accompanying rise of tribalist politics, is producing some interesting contradictions, most of which are embodied in the Institute of Public Affairs. David Leyonjhelm, a longterm IPA member has staged a provocation by inviting racist troll Milo Yiannopoulos to Australia under the banner of free speech. The Senate condemned him for providing a platform to someone who “incites abuse and harassment of women, jews, and members of the LBGTIQ and multicultural communities”. When the words of the motion were quoted back at him, Leyonjhelm threatened legal action, and stated his general willingness to use defamation law against his political opponents.

Meanwhile, at the same time as backing an IPA campaign to remove charity status from environmental groups that engage in political advocacy, Malcolm Turnbull is supporting amendments to the equal marriage bill, pushed by IPA alumnnus James Paterson to preserve the charitable status of groups that oppose the law.

What’s happening here, I think, is that a group that has always assumed itself to be part of the silent majority of “real Australians” is being faced with evidence that it is actually a shrinking minority, regarded by the majority as a set of noisy and unpleasant bigots. One reaction is to double down on aggressive assertion of its views, treating things like the outcome of the marriage survey as a temporary aberration. The other is to seek the protections traditionally accorded to minorities, appealing to the rhetoric of tolerance and diversity.

This contradiction can’t be sustained for long, although that won’t stop them trying. But how should the decent majority deal with this problem. The answer is to remember that everyone will be in the minority some time. We should reject the attempt to stop charitable groups from engaging in advocacy, even if we don’t always like what is being advocated. As regards free speech, we should resist the temptation to use legal bludgeons, but make it clear to the promoters of racism, and those willing to line up with them, that they will be called out for what they are. This has already happened to the LNP in Queensland and WA following disgraceful alliances with One Nation. One of the few encouraging signs from the right was Turnbull’s recent declaration (motivated by fear rather than principle) that the Federal LNP would do no preference deals with Hanson.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Victory in sight on Adani, but Aurizon still a threat

December 4th, 2017 22 comments

After years of campaigning, it finally looks as if the Adani mine-rail-port proposal in the Galilee Basin has been defeated. A week after the Palaszczuk government was re-elected on a promise to veto funding from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, the two biggest Chinese banks have announced that they will not be lending to the project either.

The election outcome is particularly striking. Premier Palaszczuk executed a rather inelegant backflip on this question after it became apparent that her weak pro-Adani position was politically untenable (I hope my column on the subject may have had some small influence there). My expectation (widely shared, I think) was that this would cost the government seats in Townsville and Rockhampton, where the local governments had committed millions of dollars to be nominated as FIFO hubs. In fact Labor held all these seats, with the possible exception of Townsville, still in doubt. Meanwhile, the LNP proposal for a coal-fired power station gained them nothing in North Queensland and cost votes in the South-East. With the election over, Adani’s political leverage in Queensland is now non-existent.

The Chinese banking decision also welcome. Although China is rapidly moving away from coal in its domestic economy, the Chinese export finance machine is still pushing coal projects around the world, as long as they use Chinese equipment and expertise. Perhaps this announcement is part of a broader change, or perhaps the Carmichael mine project is too much of a dog even for pro-coal lenders.
Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

Monday Message Board

December 4th, 2017 8 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: Economics - General Tags:

Bitcoin now a much bigger waste of energy

December 2nd, 2017 27 comments

I’m giving a talk tomorrow at a Colloquium organized by a group called Sort, on The Wasteful Economics in Resource Recovery, and I’ve been asked to talk a bit about blockchain technology. That reminded me that I needed to take another look at the issue, and what has changed since 2015 when I wrote that

at most of the market value of a Bitcoin reflects the electricity wasted in the calculations needed to “mine” it, with the obvious disastrous implications for the global climate.

and concluded that the sooner this collective delusion comes to an end, the better.

As far as I can determine, the only thing that has changed is that the Bitcoin bubble has got massively bigger and that the associated waste of energy is now much more widely recognised than when I first wrote about it.

Despite the huge increase in the market value of bitcoins, they seem further than ever from becoming an actual currency. Unsurprisingly, there’s no sign that governments are willing to accept bitcoins as legal tender. Nor is there any sign that they are displacing standard forms of money. On the contrary, bitcoins now seem to be seen as a financial asset, with no real suggestion that they will ever be a general medium of exchange.

As a check on this, here’s a list of firms that accept bitcoin as payment, which fits easily on to a single page. Sydney readers who would like to buy a beer with bitcoin are in luck, or were back in 2014 when the Old Fitzroy got a bit of coverage for saying it would accept bitcoins. There’s another pub listed in London, and that’s about it as far as drinks are concerned. After nearly a decade, Bitcoin acceptance remains the stuff of publicity stunts, not a serious commercial option.

At least by repute, bitcoins are used more extensively in covert transactions such as those involving drug trading, tax evasion and money laundering. But that’s scarcely a good reason to bet on them beintg around for a long while. If the scale of the problem gets large enough to cause real problems, governments will act to shut the whole system down or regulate it to the point where the compliance costs make the whole idea unattractive.

At any rate, the durability and magnitude of the Bitcoin phenomenon, running for nearly 10 years and with a putative value of nearly $US 100 billion, provides us with a very sharp test of the Efficient (financial) Markets Hypothesis. If Bitcoin eventually becomes a currency, the EMH and its supportsr will be vindicated, and I (along with quite a few other economists) will have a lot of egg on my face. If the bubble bursts, the roles will be reversed.

Finally, I should give a plug to Gridcoin. This is a project that aims to avoid the massive waste involved in Bitcoin by making calculations that are actually useful to science. This is a worthwhile idea. But with a current market capitalization of $21 million, it’s obviously got a long way to go.

There are also alternatives to the “proof of work” method of validating changes to the blockchain, such as “proof of importance”, which is analogous to Google’s page ranking systems. I’m still trying to find out more about these.

Categories: Economics - General Tags: