An opportunity for a Bill of Rights

November 18th, 2017 14 comments

One of the striking outcomes of the equal marriage survey is that a lot of people who had always assumed themselves to be part of (in Spiro Agnew’s phrase) the “silent majority” have been presented with undeniable evidence that they are actually in the minority. Not only that, but the minority to which they belong on equal marriage would be even smaller if it weren’t boosted by lots of people they’ve always thought of as undesirable minorities. Most notably, the note vote was swelled by Muslims and recent migrants from more traditional cultures.

Against that background, it’s not surprising to see people who have never had a good word to say about the United Nations, or about a Bill of Rights, embracing the idea of incorporating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights into Australian law (we’re already a signatory, but that has no legal effect).

It would be absurd to incorporate a document dealing with topics as diverse as the death penalty and war propaganda (both prohibited) into the Marriage Act. Nevertheless, now that the issue has been raised, it’s a great opportunity for Australia to get something like a Bill of Rights enshrined into law (though of course it wouldn’t change the Constitution).

It’s tempting to use the thumping majority recorded in the survey as a stick with which to beat those (variously described as “dinosaurs” or “reactionaries”) who campaigned against equal rights on this occasion. But all majorities are temporary. It would be far better to use this moment to make common cause in support of protections for minorities of all kinds.

Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The thin end of the wedge on anti-discrimination law?

November 15th, 2017 39 comments

The latest attempt to derail equal marriage was a proposal by a group of conservatives to remove anti-discrimination provision to allow a wide range of discrimination against same-sex married couples. The leading proponent of the proposal was James Paterson who, like so many Liberal MPs, is a former staffer at the Institute of Public Affairs.

Press coverage duly noted that Paterson had answered “Yes” in the postal survey and described him as a supporter of individual liberty, but didn’t as far as I can tell ask the obvious question: is Paterson’s position on discrimination specific to this issue, or does he support a general right to discriminate on racial, religious and other grounds?

The public record isn’t very clear on this. Insofar as he’s said anything about anti-discrimination law, Paterson has been opposed. This is consistent with the orthodox propertarian position that employers, business and landlords should be free from any interference from government. However, so far, he has only made this point explicit in relation to equal marriage and racist speech (Section 18C). So, it would be good to have a clear statement as to whether the current bill is intended as the thin end of the wedge, or whether he sees equal marriage as a special case.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Some whataboutery from Tim Nicholls

November 13th, 2017 10 comments

Among the tools used to defend the indefensible, the most widely used is “whataboutery”. When faced with a criticism you can’t answer, you point to something allegedly comparable done by someone supposed to be on the same side as your critic, and ask the critic “what about …”

A recent example (Hat Tip Bill Wallace). Presented on ABC TV with my observation that his election promises represent an arithmetic impossibility, Tim Nicholls resorted to whataboutery, suggesting that I had gone easy on Anna Palaszczuk in regards to the use of transfers of debt between the general government sector, GBEs and public service superannuation. Oddly enough, I’ll be covering this exact point in an article I’m now writing for The Guardian. The relevant para

Labor has been able to improve the accounting performance of the general government sector by requiring public enterprises to make bigger contributions to the budget and by making transfers from the funds hypothecated to pay for public service superannation. This doesn’t change the financial position of the public sector as a whole, but makes the budget sector look better. The relevant criteria is public sector net worth and net financial worth, which are unaffected by such manoeuvres. Fortunately, public sector net worth has never been a problem: the Queensland government had net worth of over $170 billion when the Costello Commission reported, a figure that is projected to exceed $200 billion by 2020.

Some broader responses:

* Whataboutery is a very weak defence in a clear-cut case like this. Even if I were an ALP hack (readers of this blog can judge for themselves), it wouldn’t invalidate the point I’m making

* I don’t think Palaszczuk is open to the specific criticism I’m making of Nicholls. She hasn’t promised to cut taxes or improve the budget balance, and her election spending promises look to be the kind of thing that can be managed within the normal budget process

* I’ve already been critical of both sides in this election campaign. My only published opinion piece was a criticism of Palaszczuk’s pro-Adani policy, which she has subsequently reversed (not claiming cause and effect here, of course). If Nicholls cares to put up an election platform that adds up and protects crucial services from cuts, I’ll be the first to congratulate him.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Monday Message Board

November 13th, 2017 17 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:

Where’s the money coming from?

November 11th, 2017 10 comments

In the Courier-Mail, Stephen Wardill responds to my observation that LNP’s campaign promises don’t add up, and must imply large unnannounced cuts to services, by suggesting that they may instead imply large unnannounced cuts in infrastructure, specifically the Cross-River rail tunnel project. There is a simple way to resolve this: the LNP could say where they plan to cut, and by how much. This idea doesn’t seem to have occurred to Wardill however.

It’s also easy to check that cutting the Cross-River project will go nowhere near filling the gap in the LNP’s promises. The commitment in the last budget was $2 billion, and the total (assuming no Commonwealth funding) is about $5.4 billion over 7 years, with a target completion date of 2024. Scrapping the current budget allocation of $2 billion would barely be enough to pay for the reintroduced Royalties for Regions program, let alone the many other ideas that have been floated. And none of that goes anywhere near achieving the promise of a surplus on fiscal balance.

So, as Robert Menzies famously asked, “Where’s the money coming from?”

Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Armistice Day, 2017

November 11th, 2017 20 comments

Another Armistice Day and the prospects for peace are bleaker than they have been for years. Not only are militaristic demagogues in the ascendancy just about everywhere, but the cult of the military is increasingly unchallenged, even in countries generally seen as peaceable, like Canada. Then there’s the threat of nuclear war posed by a much more capable North Korea, and the erratic responses of the Trump Administration.

It’s a day on which I feel increasingly alone. It seems obvious to me, 100 years after the bloodiest year of war in Australia’s history and the revolutions the war produced, that war and revolution are almost invariably a pointless waste of life and human potential, usually ending in disaster for all, and that even grave historical and social injustices are better resisted by peaceful means than by resort to force. But every military anniversary reminds me that this is the view of a small and shrinking minority.

One day, perhaps, peace will come. But not today.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Email update

November 10th, 2017 1 comment

Over the fold, my latest irregular email update. If you’d like to be on the mailing list, write to me at [email protected]

Read more…

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Why even bother ?

November 8th, 2017 17 comments

Questioned about the obvious arithmetical impossibility of his promises to increase spending, cut taxes and greatly improve the budget balance, Queensland LNP leader Tim Nicholls had two responses.

First, he claimed that he could balance the books by not renewing some unspecified programs as they aspire and by cutting government advertising expenditure. This is laughable. The savings from discretionary programs expiring in any given year are going to be tiny in relation to the billions Nicholls needs to find annually. As for government advertising, not only are the sums involved relatively modest, but this is a promise routinely made and broken by Opposition parties in just about every election. Nicholls may not like government advertising when Labor does it, but, in office, he was happy to spend $70 million on the Strong Choices asset sales campaign.

More importantly, Nicholls stated that his campaign would release costings by an unnamed accounting firm on 23 November, two days before the election and after lots of people have cast early votes. This is stunning. It’s obvious that the date has been selected to ensure that the costings can’t possibly be checked in time to confront him with the errors it will undoubtedly contain.

He might as well have promised them five minutes before the polls close on election day. Why even bother with such a charade?

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The laws of mathematics don’t apply to the LNP

November 6th, 2017 15 comments

LNP promises don’t add up

It is common for political parties to promise more than they can deliver at election time. Even by the relative lax standards of Australian campaigns, the LNP Plan “Getting Queensland Back in Business” stands out for its unreality. 

The Plan only promises to create 500 000 jobs through a fiscal policy that involves

* Cutting taxes;

* Increasing expenditure; and

* Improving the budget balance

These are all desirable objectives, but it’s a matter of simple arithmetic that all three can’t be achieved at once.

Reductions in revenue

The LNP plan proposes to:

* Increase the payroll tax threshold

* Freeze registration for 6-cylinder cars

*  Write down the value of GOC assets in electricity, and increase competition to drive down prices.  This must entail a reduction in the flow of dividends to the general government sector The LNP has criticised the current governments reliance on dividends from GOCs but has made no suggestion as to how this revenue source will be replaced.

Increased capital expenditure

The LNP Plan proposes a substantial increase in  infrastructure spending.  The strategy implies that spending will be increased by up to $3 billion a year. Explicit commitments of $1.3 billion for water projects and $500 million ‘Royalties for Regions’  are included in the Plan.  The Plan commits to building a new coal fired power station at an unstated costs. It has also been suggested that the M1 will be duplicated at a cost of $2.4 billion

Current expenditure

The LNP plan announces no cuts in current expenditure, other than symbolic targets such as the Safe Schools program and executive bonuses in energy businesses, which would yield minimum savings. The LNP has promised no forced redundancies and has advertised its intention to build schools and hospitals, though without a specific budget. The Plan includes expenditure commitments including a crime action plan, a youth employment plan and assistance for tourism.

Greatly improved budget balance

Following the recommendations of the Costello Commission of Audit, the LNP proposes to target a surplus on fiscal balance rather than, as at present, net operating balance. The difference between the two is net capital investment, currently around $3 – $4 billion. Proposed increases in infrastructure spending would make this difference even greater.

500 000 jobs

As for the 500 000 jobs promise, it turns out to be a simple statistical trick.  In previous election campaigns, it’s been common to commit to employment targets for a three-year term in government.  Nicholls has shifted the goalposts by promising to create the jobs over a period of 10 years, an annual rate of 50 000 jobs a year.  That’s only marginally greater than the rate achieved during the term of the Palaszcuk government. The implied annual rate of growth is 1.9 per cent, again only marginally higher than the rate of growth under recent Labor governments. It would, however, be a significant improvement on the outcome under the Newman government, when less than 50 000 additional jobs were created in a three year term of government.

Summary

Despite Malcolm Turnbull’s recent suggestion to the contrary, the laws of arithmetic apply in Australia and, in particular to Australian governments. The promises made by the LNP can be delivered only through large, unannounced cuts in general government expenditure. This is consistent with the strategy adopted by the Newman government in 2012, and by the Abbott government in 2013. 

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Sandpit

November 6th, 2017 9 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

November 6th, 2017 20 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.

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Connected and Disaffected

November 3rd, 2017 4 comments

That’s the title of a UK podcast on which I appeared recently, talking about Zombie Economics

Soundcloud stream: https://soundcloud.com/connectedanddisaffected/season-2-episode-1-the-grand-relaunch

Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=165173310736451&id=114184012502048

Twitter: https://twitter.com/CandDPodcast/status/925800309351428097

It can also be found on ITunes and other podcast directories.

Categories: Dead Ideas book, Media Tags:

Here’s a fine mess

November 3rd, 2017 61 comments

The great citizenship debacle rolls on, and it’s hard to see anyone coming out of it looking good.

The primary blame goes to the High Court which decided to use an absurdly literal interpretation of the Constitution to knock out a couple of independent candidates back in the 1990s (they’d been naturalised but hadn’t properly revoked their previous citizenship). If the first person to fall afoul of this interpretation had been a senior government minister, I have no doubt the Court would have decided differently. But literalism and precedent are a disastrous combination.
Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The MFP illusion

October 31st, 2017 23 comments

Expanding on a post a little while ago, I have a piece in Inside Story arguing that multi-factor productivity, the Holy Grail of microeconomic reform for the last few decades, is a residual that is and should be equal to zero.

From getting the idea to publishing it took me a few weeks. That’s a huge contrast from last century when the best I could have hoped for is an article in a low-prestige journal, taking a year or more and reaching an audience of, at most, a few hundred.

That’s great for me, as I’m more interested in reaching a large intelligent public than in impressing my fellow economists (I have to do that to keep my job, of course, but it’s not my top priority). By contrast, the general direction of the profession has been towards fewer and fewer articles in an ever-narrower range of prestigious journals.

Monday Message Board

October 30th, 2017 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.

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The end of fossil fuels: some data and quick calculations

October 29th, 2017 44 comments

The International Energy Agency recently released data showing that world coal production fell sharply in 2016, mainly because of big cuts in China. Looking at the graph, it appears that the peak in production was around 2013. The price of coal has experienced a “dead cat bounce” over the last year or so, essentially because China has been closing coal mines faster than it’s been closing or cancelling coal-fired power stations, but the picture tells the story for the future.

Global coal production (source IEA)

Until relatively recently, the decline of coal was the result of competition with gas, while new renewables weren’t even enough to cover the growth in demand. But a quick calculation shows that renewables will soon be taking out a bigger bite. Global electricity generation is currently about 20000 terawatt-hours (TWh) a year, growing at around 1.5 per cent, or 300TWh a year. Installations of solar PV and wind (I haven’t checked on hydro and other renewables) for 2017 look set to come in around 150 gigawatts (GW). Assuming 2000 hours of operation per year, that’s just enough to offset demand growth. So, any future growth in renewables must come directly at the expense of existing fossil fuel generation which in practice will almost always mean coal.

Turning to transport, regular commenter James Wimberley has an analysis of the prospects for peak gasoline (petrol) used in internal combustion engines. Summarising drastically, his best estimate for peak gasoline is 2032. Decarbonization requires an end to petrol-driven vehicle sales by around 2035. On this front, the good news is that quite a few countries, including the UK, France and India are pushing for an end by 2030.

Of course, all of this assumes that the attempts of Trump and Turnbull (along with likeminded culture warriors in Turkey, Poland and elsewhere) to bail out the dying coal industry come to nothing and also that Trump doesn’t manage to destroy the planet through nuclear war.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Lamest. PM. Ever.

October 27th, 2017 43 comments

So, we’ve wasted $100 million on a postal survey that won’t decide anything. It’s already evident that, even with a thumping majority for Yes, the bigots on the LNP backbench will fight all the way to protect the right to be a bigot. They are, in my view, playing a dangerous game here. The existing law gives lots of special privileges to religious organizations that are justified only on the basis that we all need to get along tolerantly. If that rationale ceases to apply, all those privileges are open to question.

Meanwhile, all the fine words about letting the people decide have gone out the window when it comes to indigenous recognition. Even though Abbott has gone along with Turnbull on the decision, I think, if he were still PM. he might have done better on this issue.

In any case, this confirms me in the view that Turnbull is the weakest Prime Minister in living memory. I thought that Billy McMahon was a competitor for the title until I discovered that he took the decision to kill off Australia’s foray into nuclear power (they’d actually excavated the site at Jervis Bay) over the opposition of the redoubtable Sir Phillip Baxter who saw the project as a step towards an atomic weapons capability. The cancellation of this project was a bigger achievement than Turnbull can claim in his 20-odd years in public life, encompassing the Republic referendum, the Murray-Darling fiasco, the downgrade of the NBN and his two years as Prime Minister.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Nuclear starts stop

October 23rd, 2017 40 comments

A steady stream of negative evidence hasn’t shaken the faith of believers in nuclear energy. Many of them are under the impression that the failure of nuclear energy is specific to the developed world, where some combination of environmentalism and NIMBYism prevents the adoption of an obviously sensible solution. It is widely imagined that China, India and other countries are forging ahead. This idea was plausible until fairly recently, but the latest evidence suggests that nuclear power is in terminal decline. Globally, only four nuclear plants commenced construction between 1 January 2016 and 30 JUne 2017. China hasn’t started any new plants this year and is sure to miss the 58GW target set for 2020.

The problem, simply, is that while China’s problems with delays and cost overruns have been less severe than those in the developed world, the same patterns are evident. New nuclear plants simply can’t compete with renewables.

I don’t expect that this will have the slightest impact on the Australian and US right, who have long since ceased to regard evidence as relevant to anything. But, for anyone who is still open to evidence, this debate ought to be over.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Sandpit

October 23rd, 2017 6 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

October 23rd, 2017 11 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.

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Judaeo-Christian

October 22nd, 2017 36 comments

My son Daniel pointed out to me a feature of Trump’s speech to the laughably named Values Voters summit which seems to have slipped by most observers. As summarized by Colbert King in the Washington Post

Telling a revved-up Values Voter audience that he is “stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values,” Trump suggested to the crowd, which already thinks a “war on Christianity” is being waged, that invoking “Merry Christmas” is a way of fighting back.

But “Happy Holidays” is exactly an expression of Judaeo-Christian values, coined to embrace the Jewish Hanukkah as well as Christmas. In this context, King’s suggestion that “Happy Holidays” is secular misses the point. The majority of secular Americans celebrate Christmas (happily mixing Santa Claus, carols, and consumerism). They say “Happy Holidays” as a nod to religious diversity among believers, not because they feel excluded from Christmas.

Insistence on “Merry Christmas”, by contrast, is a repudiation of the claim implicit in “Judaeo-Christian”, namely, that Jews and Christians have essentially the same beliefs and worship the same god, and that the differences between the two are ultimately less important than the commonalities. On any interpretation of Christianity in which all who reject Christ (including, I imagine, most of us here at CT) are damned, “Judaeo-Christian” is a much more pernicious version of political correctness than “Happy Holidays”.

I haven’t got to a proper analysis of this, so I’ll turn it over to commenters.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Pumped hydro

October 21st, 2017 34 comments

In my Conversation article on the Turnbull government’s plan to keep coal-fired electricity alive, I said that most of the opportunities for hydro-electric power had already been exploited. I was thinking of primary power generation, and in this respect, I maintain my view. However, I neglected the option of pumped storage, where water is pumped uphill when excess electricity is available, then run downhill through turbines to (re)generate the electricity when it is most needed.

My old university friend, Andrew Blakers, now with the Research School of Engineering at ANU emailed me to point out this study, looking at the large number of sites potentially available in Australia, more than enough to backup all the renewable energy we will be generating in the foreseeable future.

This isn’t just a theoretical proposition. The Kidston hydro storage project in the advanced stages of planning, will offer 2000MwH of storage combined with a co-located 270MW solar PV project. The same report mentions some big wind + storage projects.

Still, if Labor is silly enough to endorse Turnbull’s NEG idea, it’s hard to see any more progress being made.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Adani and NEG

October 19th, 2017 12 comments

I’ve published a couple of articles. One, in the Guardian , expands the argument of this post on Adani. The other, in The Conversation, is a response to the Turnbull government’s energy policy, which managed some remarkably good press, though that seems to be fading away as the realities become more evident.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

The mystery of early elections

October 17th, 2017 28 comments

The TV news hear in Brisbane has been running rumours about an early state election for most of the year. Even though a string of predictions have already proved false, the rumours keep coming. I heard another one yesterday, but today’s news suggests not, though with the odd phrasing

ANNASTACIA Palaszczuk has fuelled speculation she may wait until next year to call the election

which seems to suggest there is something odd about holding the election on time.

I have a couple of thoughts about this. First, I assume that somebody in the government or the ALP machine must be a source for these rumours. But thanks to the conventions of journalism, we never find out who[1]. At the very least, couldn’t political journalists stop repeating claims made by people who have been wrong over and over.

More importantly, why would any government, anywhere, voluntarily shorten its term in this way? The idea, of course, is that the party hardheads know when to seize the ideal moment to capitalize on the government’s popularity. That doesn’t apply in the current case, where the polls have been neck-and-neck. More importantly, this kind of advantage regularly dissipates in the course of an election campaign. Spectacular recent examples include Campbell Newman and Theresa May. But from my casual observation, it’s the norm rather than the exception for governments that go early to underperform expectations. That was true for the federal elections in 1984 and 1998 for example. Hawke expected a huge win in 1984 but ended up with a swing against him. Howard actually lost the two-party vote in 1998, and only squeaked in by good luck.

The issue ceases to be relevant after this election since we will move to four year fixed terms. I support fixed terms, but think three years is long enough for governments to keep themselves safe from voters.

fn1. An even more egregious case of this is the confident assertion the Kevin Rudd undermined the Gillard government, even though he said nothing in public that could be regarded as disloyal (unlike another recently deposed PM). We are supposed to take this assertion as true, even though those who make it refuse to go on record, even in the broadest terms, about what Rudd is supposed to have said and to whom.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Monday Message Board

October 16th, 2017 22 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:

Breaking ground in Adani’s Utopia

October 14th, 2017 12 comments

Having argued for some time that Adani’s Carmichael mine-rail-port project is unlikely to go ahead, I was initially surprised to read the announcement that Adani says it will break ground on Carmichael rail link ‘within days’. My mental image was of heavy earthmoving equipment excavating the route along which the line is to be laid. This seemed surprising to me, since there had been no evidence that the project was anywhere near that stage.

But a closer reading suggests that the “ground breaking” is of the kind seen in a typical episode of Utopia, in which lots of dignitaries are presented with shovels and turn over a piece of dirt, to “mark the official start” of the project. That is, presumably, a different “official start” from the one that was marked by another ceremony back in June. Obviously, this ups the pressure on governments to lend public money to the project since a failure to do so would mean abandoning a project that is “officially” under way.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Why zero (multifactor) productivity growth is OK for Oz (very wonkish)

October 13th, 2017 23 comments

I’m writing a book chapter about productivity, much of which will be a rehash of my 20-year debate with the Productivity Commission over measures of multi-factor productivity (MFP). In the process, I reread this op-ed by Ross Gittins, and the Treasury article on which it is based, by Simon Campbell and Harry Withers. As a result, I had what seemed to me like a Eureka moment. As with all such moments, of course, my insight might turn out to be either wrong or obvious.
Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Save the weekend! (now with link)

October 12th, 2017 19 comments

I have a piece in The Conversation about the decision to cut weekend penalty rates. This decision needs to be put in the context of forty years of policy aimed at pushing down wages, eroding conditions (such as the weekend) and weakening the position of unions.

I talked to Fran Kelly on ABC RN Breakfast just now.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Socialism for the 21st century

October 10th, 2017 24 comments

I have a long article in the Guardian putting forward some thoughts about a socialist economic policy program for the 21st century. The headline “Socialism with Spine” is a shortening of my observation that:

As it is used today, the term socialism does not reflect a well-worked ideology. Rather it conveys an attitude that could be described as “unapologetic social democracy” or, in the US context, “liberalism with a spine”

The contraction might have led some readers to expect a position more radical than the one put forward in the article. I’m advocating both a restoration of those aspects of 20th century social democracy that are still relevant today and new ideas to turn the 21st information economy to the benefit of the many, not the few.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Sandpit

October 9th, 2017 9 comments

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

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