Indigenous rights and the Adani Project

June 22nd, 2017 1 comment

As a part of my work on the Adani mine-rail-port project, I’ve been providing economic input to a project with Kristen Lyons and Morgan Brigg at UQ aimed at supporting the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Family Council (W&J) in their attempts to assert control over their traditional land. So far we’ve produced an initial report, a summary of which has appeared in The Conversation.

My general aim in this work is to examine more sustainable economic models than coal mining for both indigenous and non-indigenous people in the North Queensland region. More on this soon, I hope.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Weekly email #5

June 18th, 2017 1 comment

Here’s my latest weekly email. If you’d like to be added to the list, email me at johnquiggin1 at mac dot com

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Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Against epistocracy

June 17th, 2017 42 comments

I’ve finally been got around writing something about US philosopher Jason Brennan’s arguments for “epistocracy”, that is, restricting voting to people who are well-informed about the issues. For a long time, I assumed that such an idea would be ignored, and fade into oblivion, as most academic ideas do. But it’s popped up here in Australia. And, with democracy under challenge all around the world, it’s obviously not enough to say that it’s self-evidently a Good Thing that everyone should have the right to vote, and exercise it. So, I’ll try to offer some more specific objections.

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Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

OECD vs Globalisation

June 16th, 2017 11 comments

Not quite, but the OECD has finally recognised that globalisation isn’t currently working to deliver improved living standards for everyone, a fact implicit in the title of its latest report Making Globalisation Work: Better Lives for All, I have a piece in Inside Story, headlined: The OECD joins the backlash against unfettered globalisation looking at a recent report they’ve issued. The subheading is

But can an organisation that has promoted a globalised world economy take on the massively powerful finance sector?

(Hint: Probably not).

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Finkel

June 16th, 2017 11 comments

I’ve been flat out for the last couple of weeks, and haven’t had time to post. But I’ve finally found enough time to read the Finkel Review into the Future Security of the National Electricity Market (NEM). There are four inter-related points that come out of the report

1. The NEM has failed in its own terms, that is, with respect to the objective of providing reliable and affordable electricity. The Review recommends a variety of tweaks to the market rules, but the core measure is a shift to central planning by a new Energy Security Board, which effectively overrides the multiple existing market bodies. Not surprisingly, given the political environment the Review ignored my submission calling for renationalization of the Grid, but the logic is the same.

2. We need a carbon price, in one form or another, if we are to reduce emissions in line with our commitments. Given that all economy-wide options have been ruled out, we may as well start with an electricity specific policy. Within electricity, the existing Renewable Energy Target is a crude kind of price mechanism, with only two prices, one for renewables and the other for non-renewables. But, if we tweak that a bit, we can replace the largely irrelevant notion of “renewability” with emissions-intensity, and we have something like a carbon price. I pointed this out a couple of years ago. The Clean Energy Target Finkel Review doesn’t quite get there, but it goes most of the way.

3. The only way to get lower wholesale electricity prices is to expand renewables and let the owners of coal-fired power station take a corresponding hit to their profits.

4. Policy uncertainty has been at least as big a problem as bad policy. This was most obviously true of the Abbott government’s attacks on the RET, which stalled investment in renewables, while doing nothing for coal. Abbott is correctly blamed for many of our current problems. The implication is that a bipartisan compromise is better than holding out for the right policy, only to see it reversed after the next change of government. Whether that judgement stands up remains to be seen. If Turnbull does indeed face down Abbott, Abetz and the rest, and can reach an agreement with Labor, the arguments of the Review will be vindicated. And, with the denialists sidelined, it will become obvious that we need and can easily achieve more ambitious targets.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Sandpit

June 12th, 2017 21 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

June 12th, 2017 10 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:

What is Adani thinking?

June 8th, 2017 31 comments

A couple of days ago, Gautam Adani made the long awaited announcement that the Adani board had decided to proceed with the Carmichael mine-rail project in the Galilee Basin. As usual there was an asterisk. Construction work won’t start until Adani can get financial backing. This was previously supposed to in June 2017 (that is, within weeks) but has now been deferred until 2018. Still, Adani has opened a head office in Townsville, promises to hire up to 250 staff and is also saying it will begin pre-construction works like land clearing in the September quarter.

But on the same day, unnoticed by almost the entire Australian press, with the exception of Peter Hannam at the SMH, the board of Adani Power, the putative buyer of Carmichael Coal, made a much more consequential decision. They are spinning off the 4GW Ultra Mega Power Plant* at Mundra, along with a huge load of debt, into a subsidiary, provisionally called Adani Power (Mundra). The plan it seems is to sell majority ownership, hopefully to the government of Gujarat, and thereby leave the slimmed down Adani Power with a manageable debt load, while it shifts further away from coal and into renewables.

But without Mundra, Adani Power won’t have nearly enough coal-fired plant to take up the output of even the first stage of Carmichael. And this “mine to plug” model was crucial to the viability of the project. Even if the modest recovery in thermal coal prices over the past year were sustained, Carmichael couldn’t cover its costs by selling on the world market.

So what is Adani up to? I’ve thought about a bunch of hypotheses and now I have one that I think makes sense. Adani doesn’t want to write off the $2 billion or so it’s already put into acquiring the mine site, but it also doesn’t want to throw good money after bad. Suppose that, Adani gets $1 billion in loans from the Turnbull-Canavan Northern Australia slush fund to build the rail line, which is owned by a separate Adani company in the Cayman Islands. They could use that money to get started on the rail line, while discovering yet more reasons not to start spending their own money on the mine.

That would buy them perhaps a couple of years during which something might turn up. The price of coal might go up a lot. abd the Hancock-GVK Alpha project might somehow be revived. If so, the rail line could be viable even without Carmichael.

And, if nothing did turn up, Adani would have bought a couple of years breathing space before writing off the losses that have already been incurred, without spending a significant amount of its own money. Adani (Caymans) would slide gracefully into bankruptcy and the Australian public would be left with a half-built rail line to nowhere and a billion dollar hole in our collective pockets.

Of all the explanations I’ve tried out, this is the one that makes most sense to me right now. Comments appreciated.

* I love this grandiose name, redolent of the great days of Soviet-inspired central planning. The UMPP program was started with great fanfare a decade or so ago, but has now collapsed almost completely.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

The last gasp of a failed model

June 8th, 2017 14 comments

I have a piece in the Guardian headlined ‘Asset recycling may look new and exciting. But it’s the last gasp of a failed model‘ which pretty much sums up the piece. Also, in the Monday Message Board, commenter stockingrate points (via Yves Smith) to a much more comprehensive analysis by Josh Bivens and Hunter Blair of the Economic Policy Institute. To get a feel for the way this is playing in the US debate so far, this article in the Washington Post, where I’m quoted very briefly, is a good starting point.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Monday Message Board

June 5th, 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.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Clean coal

May 31st, 2017 37 comments

The Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg has announced legislation to allow the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to fund coal-fired power stations using Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), often called “clean coal”. Although there has been plenty of criticism, this is actually a Good Thing.

If it worked at low cost, CCS would solve a lot of problems, particularly for Australia. We could burn coal, and store the resulting carbon dioxide underground, fixing much of the climate change problem without changing anything else. The ease of this (hypothetical) solution is why CCS plays a big role in lots of climate change scenarios.

Unfortunately, cost-effective CCS doesn’t exist, and isn’t likely to. So, barring some great new discovery, the change in CEFC rules is purely symbolic.

What makes the announcement a Good Thing is that avoids the “bait and switch” used by Frydenberg and others in the past, where clean coal is described in terms of CCS, then shifted to included “High Efficiency, Low Emissions” (HELE) coal plants. This term refers to the fact that plants constructed today are indeed more efficient, and therefore have lower emissions per unit of electricity, than those built thirty years ago. But they are still far worse than gas-fired plants let alone renewables or (if it could be made to work) CCS.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Weekly email #3

May 29th, 2017 6 comments

Here’s the third of my planned weekly emails. If you want to be on the recipient list email me at [email protected] (preferred) or put in a request in the comments section. If you expected to get an email and didn’t, please contact me.

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Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Queensland government backing away from Adani?

May 29th, 2017 21 comments

Looking at news coverage and the emails I’m getting from climate action groups, it looks as if I may have misinterpreted the Queensland government’s move on royalties (or maybe I posted before the decision process was complete). The latest news is that the state government will take no part in processing any loan to Adani from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund. I’ll try to post again when I get a clearer picture on this.

What remains clear is that Adani is having a lot of trouble finding bank loans or equity investors to invest in the Carmichael mine project. Given the poor economics of the project, any money lent by Australian governments is likely to be lost, leaving the publci with a stranded and useless asset.

Update 31/5/17 The Guardian reports that https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/may/30/adani-reaches-mine-royalty-agreement-with-queensland-government to defer nearly all of its royalty obligations for the first five years of production under the new deal, with interest charged on anything owed to the state above that. Almost certainly the interest rate would be well below what a commercial lender would charge, given the risk of default.

More noteworthy, I think, is the following

That would be the trigger for what the company has flagged would be $100m to $400m of preliminary works. But the deadline for financial close, the securing of bank backing to build the mine and rail to haul coal to the coast, is early 2018

As has been true for the past several years, the date when the project actually starts still seems to be at least a year away.

We’ll see at least some money on the table if the “preliminary works” start on the supposed schedule. But my guess is that the scale of the work will be less than meets the eye. I wonder, for example, whether the expenditure figure includes work done before Adani mothballed the project back in 2015.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Sandpit

May 29th, 2017 8 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

May 29th, 2017 9 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:

Less is more

May 28th, 2017 12 comments

Reading the news, I find a lot of items demonstrating a scale of values that makes no sense to me. Some are important in the grand scheme of things, some are less so, but perhaps more relevant to me. I think about writing posts but don’t find the time. So here are a few examples, which you are welcome to chew over.

* Blowing things and people up is seen as a demonstration of clarity and resolve (unless someone is doing it to us, in which case it’s correctly recognised as cowardly and evil). The most striking recent example (on “our” side) was the instant and near-universal approval of Trump’s bombing of an airfield in Syria, which had no effect at all on events there. In this case, there was some pushback, which is a sign of hope, I guess.

* The significance of art and artists is determined by the whims of billionaires. Referring to the sale of a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat for over $100 million the New York Times says

most agree that the Basquiat sale has cemented his place in the revenue pantheon with Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon; confirming that he is not some passing trend; and forcing major museums to acknowledge that, by not having the artist in their collections, they passed over a crucial figure in art history.

[1]

* As far as economic research is concerned, less is more. More precisely, an academic economist with a small number of publications in top-rated journals is better regarded by other economists than one with an equal (or even somewhat larger) number of ‘good journal’ publications along with more research published in less prestigious outlets. I can vouch for that, though it’s less of a problem in Australia than in less peripheral locations. I have the impression that the same is true in other fields, but would be interested in comments.

[fn1] To be fair, this is preceded by a brief acknowledgement that “auction prices don’t necessarily translate into intrinsic value”, but there’s no suggestion that any other measure of intrinsic value is worth considering.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

More Adani asterisks

May 26th, 2017 9 comments

The Palaszczuk government has, unsurprisingly, capitulated to the Adani corporation’s demands for a tax holiday. To avoid accusations of bias, they have offered the same deal to other new coal projects. If these projects go ahead, the implications for the planet are disastrous. But, at least in Adani’s case, there are plenty of reasons to doubt that this will happen.

It’s now clear that any “investment decision” by Adani will involve spending modest sums on land clearing and surveying. That’s enough to keep the option open and avoid writing off the money already spent on the project. But the real decision, which requires bank finance, appears to have been deferred from June 2017 to some time in 2018. The first shipments of coal aren’t expected until 2020.

My guess is that, before anything of substance happens in the Galilee Basin, Adani will be back with more demands (maybe a Danzig corridor). Sooner or later, they’ll make an offer that can be refused, at which point they’ll pull up stumps and send in the lawyers asking for compensation.

(Sorry for the absence of links, I’ve been reading different bits and pieces).

Categories: Environment Tags:

Drug Wars: Crosspost from Crooked Timber

May 25th, 2017 10 comments

I got a preview of Drug Wars by
Robin Feldman and Evan Frondorf
. It’s not about the War on Drugs, but about the devices used by Big Pharma to maintain the profits they earn from their intellectual property (ownership of drug patents, brand names and so on) and to stave off competition from generics. Feldman and Frondorf propose a number of reforms to the operation of the patenting system to enhance the role of generics. I’m more interested in a fundamental shift away from using intellectual property (patents and brand names) to finance pharmaceutical research.
Read more…

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Simple, but not easy

May 24th, 2017 10 comments

I’ll be debating John Rivett at lunchtime today on the subject of Easytax. Rivett is a lawyer who works with John McRobert, the main proponent of the tax (three Johns have got a bit confusing at times). Details are here

I’d have preferred a free event, but I left it to the proponents to organise, so I can’t complain I guess. I’ve attached my presentation, which gives a fair idea of what I’m going to say, and I believe a video of the event will be made available.

Categories: Tax and public expenditure Tags:

Meanwhile, in the real world

May 23rd, 2017 26 comments

Advocates of an expansion of Australian coal mining are constantly claiming that India is desperate for imported coal to supply urgently needed electricity. Leaving aside the Indian government’s stated determination to end coal imports in the next few years (at least for the large public sector), what’s happening to actual demand for coal-fired electricity. Undoubtedly, it was growing very rapidly until quite recently. The Indian government had grandiose plans for a fleet of “Ultra Mega” power plants UMPP, a couple of which actually got built. And state governments were tendering out large contracts to supply electricity, designed with coal-fired power stations in mind.

In the last few weeks, there have been two big developments. Following a string of other cancellations, the government of Gujarat has cancelled a proposed UMPP Key quote

The new decision is believed to be also in line with the Centre’s push to bring down coal import. However, the state government is willing to provide land for a UMPP if the central government wishes to initiate one, says Sapariya. Adding: “Our focus is now on renewable energy. The government will encourage solar power.”

Meanwhile, the government of Uttar Pradesh has cancelled bids conducted in 2016 to procure 3,800 MW of power from independent power producers. Adani was among the suppliers shortlisted to share in the supply contract. This isn’t an isolated event

The UP government’s move, analysts said, is symptomatic of the deeper malaise: On the one hand, hardly any power purchase agreements (PPAs) are being signed and now, the bids for new contracts are being cancelled; on the other, plans to set up large thermal power plants are either being put in abeyance or abandoned. The Gujarat government, for instance, recently dropped the plan to set up a 4,000 MW imported coal-based ultra mega power project at Gir Somnath district, apparently because it thinks that upcoming renewable energy units could meet the the power requirement.

About 33,000 MW of thermal power plants, with an approximate investment of about Rs 2 lakh crore, are left stranded across the country due to the lack of PPAs.

That’s nearly 8 GW gone in the space of a few weeks. By my calculation (a check would be much appreciated) a 1 GW thermal coal station operating at 70 per cent capacity uses about 3 million tonnes of coal a year. Multiply that by 8 and you get 24 million tonnes, the entire projected output of Adani’s first stage project.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Adani outmanoeuvres Palaszczuk

May 22nd, 2017 28 comments

The eagerness with which the Adani board announced an indefinite deferral of the Carmichael mine project today speaks for itself. As has long been conjectured by everyone with an understanding of the hopeless economics of this project, Adani has been looking for an excuse to walk away and blame government obstruction. Not only do they get to defer writing off the billion or more they have already invested, but there is the prospect of extracting some kind of compensation. At worst, they have a story to tell the financial markets in India that’s a bit more appealing than “we bought a worthless asset at the top of the market”.

The Palaszczuk government’s mishandling of Adani’s bid for a royalties holiday gave the company the excuse it needed. Until now, the government had bent over backward to avoid appearing obstructive, while holding the line on putting in no financial support. If they had stuck to that when the holiday idea was floated, all would have been well. As it is, they are likely to bear the blame for Adani’s mistakes.

In the broader scheme of things, the outcome is, of course, a good one. There was always the remote chance that Adani might push ahead with the scheme, and now that appears to be dead. But the political cost to Queensland Labor will be huge.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Weekly email #2

May 22nd, 2017 8 comments

Here’s the second of my planned weekly emails. If you want to be on the recipient list email me at [email protected] (preferred) or put in a request in the comments section.

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Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Sandpit

May 22nd, 2017 5 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

May 22nd, 2017 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:

There are better things to spend $1 billion on than the Adani coal mine

May 20th, 2017 10 comments

That’s the self-explanatory headline for my latest piece in the Brisbane Times (reproduced in the other Fairfax papers, I think). Text is over the fold.

And, on the same theme, Richard Denniss.

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Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Weekend reflections

May 19th, 2017 8 comments

After a long break, it’s time for another weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. Side discussions to sandpits, please. Absolutely no personal criticism of other commenters.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Welcome to mailing list subscribers

May 18th, 2017 12 comments

Here’s the letter I’ve sent to (I hope!) everyone who’s signed up for my mailing list.

Hi everyone,
I’ve now received more than 60 requests to join the mailing list, so I thought I would send a quick note to everyone thanking them for their requests and the kind words many of you have added. I’ll be checking for messages that bounce and I’ll also post on my blog and social media pages so that people who miss out can tell me about it.
My plan at this stage is to send the email once a week on Mondays. I’ll include links to blog posts and tweets, and I have a few other ideas to try out. I’m also open to suggestions, as long as they don’t involve too much work. If you have suggestions, go to my blog johnquiggin.com and post them there, once I’ve put this message up.
Best wishes
John

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

House of Cards

May 17th, 2017 23 comments

So, we finally joined the 21st Century and got Netflix. We are watching House of Cards (US version), an episode most nights. Based on one season per year of time passed in the show, that’s about four weeks of dystopian fantasy per night. But, when we wake up in the morning, the day’s news almost always has more and crazier stuff packed into it than that, with subplots and story arcs being passed over for lack of space ( will the emoluments clause come back to bite Trump? did he suggest that Comey should imprison journalists? Who can keep track of it all).

Looking at the main plotline of Season 1, what would it take for life to imitate art and elevate Pence to the White House? There’s clearly no likelihood that the House Repubs will impeach Trump as long as they still hope to push through a big tax cut for corporations (which apparently depends, for arcane procedural reasons, on passing some kind of repeal of Obamacare). As Liam Donovan says in Politico

The criticisms may grow louder with each unforced error by the White House, but as long as the legislative dream is still alive it’s hard to imagine any sort of full-scale break. If that dream dies, however, it’s every man for himself.

But maybe this really is a house of cards. Suppose that three Republican Senators defected to the Democrats. That would kill the dream, at which point lots of Republicans might start thinking that a fresh start with Pence would offer them a better chance of survival in 2018. And, hey, they got Gorsuch. Once a dozen or so jumped, it would indeed by sauve qui peut for the rest.

It’s easy to name two Repub Senators (McCain and Collins) for whom it would make personal and political sense to switch sides. Given two, there must surely be a third. Still, I can’t see it happening any time soon. On the other hand, every day brings a new humiliation. Perhaps someone will find a hidden reserve of decency, or just frustration, and say that enough is enough.

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Categories: World Events Tags:

Mindboggled

May 16th, 2017 39 comments

I’ve never been a fan of Senator David Leyonjhelm, but even so, I find it hard to believe he made the mindbogglingly absurd statement attributed to him by today’s Oz. Accusing Bill Shorten of a $1.85 billion black hole in relation to his policy of keeping the levy on high-income earners,

But Liberal Democratic senator David Leyonhjelm yesterday called out the Labor costings as disingenuous. He said it was “misleading budgeting” because Labor had no way of extending the deficit levy from opposition.

Say what? On this basis, no Opposition should ever announce policy of any kind. And of course, that goes many times over for members of fringe parties that have no chance of ever forming a government. I’ll be interested to see if he claims to have been misquoted.

Regardless, Leyonjhelm is one of a stream of regrettable politicians to be drawn from the ranks of the Institute of Public Affairs (IIRC, some even worse possibilities were derailed by racist indiscretions on social media). I won’t name names, instead repeating my possibly unhelpful endorsement of Chris Berg as the only person associated with the IPA for whom I have any intellectual respect.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics Tags:

Churchgoing Labor voters

May 15th, 2017 32 comments

What proportion of Australian voters regularly attend church and identify as Labor voters? How many of those are social conservatives in the mould of, say, Joe de Bruyn? If I’ve interpreted this piece by Crikey’s Pollbludger correctly, the answer to the first question is about 4 per cent. The relevant bits

This is partly reflected by the long-term decline in religious observance, with the proportion of respondents who attended services at least once a month falling from 23% in 1990 to 17% last year.

….

Of still greater interest is a pattern over the past decade in which the observant have grown more pronounced in their identification with the Coalition rather than Labor, with the gap reaching a new peak of 52% to 25% in the 2016 survey.

25 per cent of 17 per cent is 4.25 per cent.

Turning to the second question, I’d be surprised if socially progressive observant Christians (and members of other religious) didn’t account for 5 per cent of the total population of Australia. So, if Labor gets the support of half of those, that would leave less than 2 per cent of the population in the religious conservative Labor voting category. That’s comparable to the support for the HEMP (pro sex, pro marijuana) party in the last Senate election.

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Categories: Economics - General Tags: