Some unwelcome good news

May 3rd, 2015 84 comments

The announcement by Tesla of a new home battery storage system, called Powerwall, costing $3500 for 10KwH of storage, has been greeted with enthusiasm, but also a good deal of scepticism regarding its commercial viability, which depends in any given market on such things as the gap between retail electricity prices feed-in tariffs for solar PV.

This is missing the forest for the trees, however. Assuming the Tesla system comes anywhere near meeting its announced specifications, and noting that electric cars are also on the market from Tesla and others, we now have just about everything we need for a technological fix for climate change, based on a combination of renewable energy and energy efficiency, at a cost that’s a small fraction of global income (and hence a small fraction of national income for any country) .

That’s something hardly anyone expected (certainly not me) a decade ago. And, given how strongly people are attached to their opinions, and especially their public commitments, there is bound to be a lot of resistance to this conclusion. Based on the evidence available a decade ago, people drew some of the following conclusions:

(a) decarbonizing the energy sector will require radical economic changes which will entail the end of industrial society/capitalism as we know it
(b) conclusion (a) is true and therefore climate change must be an enviro-socialist hoax
(c) any solution must involve a return to nuclear power on a massive scale
(d) any solution must involve the development and deployment of a “clean coal” technology
(e) a market-based solution will require a very high carbon price, say $100/tonne

I was in group (e), and was still talking about prices up to $100/tonne as recently as 2012. But it’s easy to revise a price number downwards in the light of technological change, much harder to revise strongly held and publicly stated conclusions like (a)-(d).

So, I’m not going to bother trying to demonstrate the assertion that a technological fix is now possible – from past experience, demonstrations of such points are futile. Rather, I’m going to spend some time thinking about the implications for the next round of global climate policy, and what constructive contributions I can make to getting Australia back on tract.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Going early ?

May 2nd, 2015 40 comments

According to the usually well-informed Laurie Oakes, the Abbott government is seriously considering the prospect of a double dissolution election, following the impending Budget. This makes no sense to me, not that this should mean it is unlikely to happen.

To recap, talk of a double dissolution emerged last year, in the wake of the Senate’s blocking of unpopular Budget measures. Facing bad polls, the government abandoned the double dissolution idea, then dumped most of the measures. The new budget is supposed to be pain-free and popular. But, if so, what is the need for a double dissolution to get it through

The obvious inference is that, once returned with a more compliant Senate, the government will return to its true agenda. How can this argument be refuted, given that the same agenda was explicitly repudiated before the 2013 election, only to emerge immediately thereafter?

Then there’s the question of a trigger/pretext. The only current trigger, I believe, is the bill to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. This is hardly a popular cause on which to fight an election, but more so than university deregulation, mentioned by Oakes as a possible second trigger.

Insiders generally assume that the trigger is a mere formality, of no electoral significance. But these are the same insiders who assured us back in 2010 that the Prime Ministership is in the gift of the relevant Parliamentary Party and that voters should not presume to be upset by an unexpected change. Given that it is nearly 30 years since the last double dissolution, I imagine many voters will want to know what is going on, and may have the temerity to take the constitution seriously.

Insiders are also easily impressed by a well-timed early election. Experience suggests that voters are not so impressed, and are likely to punish a government that goes early for no good reason. The most recent example was Campbell Newman in Queensland. He might perhaps have lost anyway, but he certainly didn’t benefit from running a campaign during the school holidays, despite his much-touted cleverness in “catching Labor by surprise”. Similarly, Kevin Rudd went early, when he would have done better (IMO) to take some time pointing out the weakness of Abbott’s position. And back in 1984, Bob Hawke went early to take advantage of his massive popularity, but still ended up with an adverse swing.

That’s my take, but perhaps the insiders know better.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Loaves and fishes, again

May 2nd, 2015 20 comments

I expanded my earlier analysis of the Galilee Basin mines in this piece for The Guardian. The really striking number is 483, the number of long-term new jobs the Carmichael mine is estimated to generate in the local (Mackay Isaac Whitsunday) region. That estimate comes from a computable general equilibrium (CGE) modelling exercise by Adani’s own consultants, ACIL Allen. Before the Queensland election, of course, much bigger numbers of 10-20 000 were bandied about. That’s partly a difference of coverage – the bigger numbers envisage, implausibly, that all the proposed mines in the Basin will go ahead, along with rail lines and port expansions.

Also, some of them focus on peak numbers during construction for each project, so that the jobs in question would only last a year or so. But the big difference is that the larger estimates were made using the discredited input-output method, in which each job created directly generates many more indirect jobs. This is an extreme version of the Keynesian multiplier effect, valid during a deep recession. But, as ACIL Allen observes, it makes sense only if you assume that the recession is going to last for the life of the project.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Monday Message Board

April 27th, 2015 67 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:


April 27th, 2015 56 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on. Unless directly responding to the OP, all discussions of nuclear power, MMT and conspiracy theories should be directed to sandpits (or, if none is open, message boards).

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

The tragedy of Gallipoli

April 25th, 2015 83 comments

100 years ago today, Australian and New Zealand forces landed at what is now Anzac Cove in the Gallipoli Peninsula, suffering heavy losses as they attempted to storm entrenched Turkish positions. Eight months later, having failed to dislodge the Turks, despite the loss of more than 10 000 killed and 20 000 wounded the Anzacs withdrew, managing to conceal the retreat and evacuate their positions with minimal casualties. This much, along with individual stories of heroism and suffering, is known to just about every Australian.

But there are many important facts that are less well known, and many questions that are rarely asked
Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

Rethinking tax policy for Australia

April 24th, 2015 95 comments

The title of this post is taken from that of the recent Treasury Discussions Paper on Tax, entitled Re:Think. Sadly, as I point out in this Guardian piece, there’s very little evidence of rethinking from Treasury. Most of the paper could have been lifted straight from the Asprey Review of 1975, and the sensitivities of the current government have ensured a step backwards from the Henry Review, with carbon taxes and resource rent taxes now off limits.

Undeterred, I’m going to start on my own review. I’m going to try something a little different in blog terms. This post will be updated whenever I get a chance, both with new material and in terms of publication date so that each new version will appear at the top of the homepage, hopefully with the comments being carried with it. I’m putting in some headings, and starting off with an idea I mentioned recently, that of a tax on bank profits

Aggregates: Revenue, expenditure, budget balance, debt and net worth

Revenue options

* A tax on the super-profits of banks, reflecting their privileged position. Tax base $29 billion. Possible revenue $5-10 billion, or 0.3-0.6 per cent of national income/GDP.

* Reforming the treatment of negative gearing “Quarantine” business losses for individuals, at least with respect to housing investments, and allow them only to be used as an offset against capital gains. Revenue estimate: rising over time to $5 billion a year, or 0.3 per cent of national income/GDP.

Expenditure requirements

Categories: Tax and public expenditure Tags:

Negative gearing

April 24th, 2015 17 comments

As I mentioned a while back, I’m planning a series of posts on tax policy. Since debate about “negative gearing” has been spurred by the suggestion that Labor might restrict it, this seems like a good time to cover the topic.

I’ll give my summary upfront, then go on. The problem is not negative gearing in itself but its interaction with the concessional treatment of capital gains. There are a variety of solutions, but the best is probably to “quarantine” business losses for individuals, at least with respect to housing investments, and allow them only to be used as an offset against capital gains.

Read more…

Categories: Tax and public expenditure Tags:

The cost of a policy depends on what policy you choose

April 24th, 2015 14 comments

I don’t usually respond to posts on Catallaxy, but I will try on this occasion to fix up what I hope is simply a misinterpretation. Responding to the recent proposal by the Climate Change Authority (of which I am a member) for an emissions reduction target of 30 per cent, relative to 2000 levels, to be achieved by 2025, Sinclair Davidson picks out the following sentence

As noted earlier, the Authority is not in a position to prepare meaningful estimates of the costs of meeting its recommended target, primarily because many of these costs will depend on the policies adopted.

and responds

Wow. Really wow. Let’s adopt a policy even though we have absolutely no idea how much it will cost.

This is a serious misreading. As the report says, there a variety of ways in which this target might be reached. There are the methods favored by economists, involving a major role for carbon prices. Costs of achieving emissions reductions using these methods have been estimated on many occasions. The invariable finding is that carbon prices can achieve large-scale reduction si emissions very cheaply.- typical estimates are for a reduction in the rate of economic growth of around 0.1 percentage points. Or, there are much more expensive methods, such as a massive expansion of the current government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (on which more later, I hope).

Since we don’t know what policy this, or a future government, might adopt, we can’t estimate the cost. So, to rephrase Davidson “Let’s propose a target even though we don’t know how the government, should they adopt it, will choose to achieve it”. That is, of course, exactly what the government asked the CCA to do in this report.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Lomborg review: repost from 2005

April 23rd, 2015 25 comments

The announcement that the Federal government will be (they say, only partly, but UWA appears to have a different view) funding a move of Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Center to the University of WA has attracted plenty of comment.

Rather than pile on, I thought I would repost my, decidedly mixed, review of Lomborg’s first CCC effort in 2005.

Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

Loaves and fishes (updated)

April 22nd, 2015 19 comments

Readers who attended Sunday School will remember the story of miracle of the loaves and fishes, performed by Jesus on the Sea of Galilee. A couple of fish and a few loaves of bread proved sufficient to feed a multitude.

Something similar appears to be happening in the Galilee Basin, where large, but economically marginal, coal mines are supposed to produce massive wealth for everyone. The Courier-Mail has a report of a court case in which the Alpha mine, owned by GVK Hancock, is claimed to be capable of generating $44 billion in royalties. The royalty rate in Queensland is 10 per cent for coal prices below $100/tonne (prices above that level will almost certainly never be seen again). At the current price of around $65/tonne, that’s $6.50/tonne. Alpha claims to be able to produce 32 million tonnes a year. If realised, that would make a little over $200 million a year. That is, to realise the amount claimed, the mine would have to produce at its maximum capacity for over 200 years.

But that’s the least of the problems. GVK Hancock’s own estimate of the cash costs of extracting coal is $55/tonne and others are as high as $70/tonne (I don’t know if this includes royalties. So, even at the most optimistic estimates of cost and extraction rates we are looking at a margin of $10/tonne for 32 million tonnes or $320 million a year, out of which a variety of corporate overheads will have to be paid. The capital cost of the project will be at least $10 billion. So, at current prices, the gross return on capital before interest, depreciation and amortisation (and tax, if any is paid) is at most 3.2 per cent, barely equal to the rate of interest on Australian government bonds. Obviously, no sensible lender or equity investor would look at this project.

A similar analysis can be performed for Adani’s Carmichael mine, which has apparently lost the $1 billion in funding proposed to come from the State Bank of India, as well as $300 million in equity promised by the Newman LNP government.

Adani claims cash costs of less than $50/tonne, but this seems very optimistic, being dependent on the assumption that other coal projects will fall over, reducing wages and other input costs. But it has a much higher projected output, around 50-60 million tonnes by 2022. So, it could be generating $900 million a year in EBITDA. But it’s hard to see that covering depreciation and interest on a $10 billion project. And of course, another $10-$20 off the coal price would kill the project completely, taking the lenders’ money with it.

In essence, these projects are being kept on life support in the hope of a recovery in coal prices to levels near those that were prevailing when the projects began. That really would be a miracle

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Waiting for the fallout: Australia and return of the patrimonial society

April 21st, 2015 26 comments
Categories: Economic policy Tags:


April 20th, 2015 16 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on. Unless directly responding to the OP, all discussions of nuclear power, MMT and conspiracy theories should be directed to sandpits (or, if none is open, message boards).

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

April 20th, 2015 24 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:

Locke’s theory of just expropriation (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

April 20th, 2015 41 comments

For quite a few years now, I’ve been working on a response to Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, a defence of free-market economics first published in 1946, but still in print and popular among libertarians. Hazlitt, as he says, is essentially just reworking Bastiat’s analysis of opportunity cost, represented by the broken window parable. What I’m trying to do is take the idea of opportunity cost seriously, and apply it across the board, including to issues of income distribution and property rights. It’s obvious (to me, at any rate) that any allocation of property rights to one or more people has an opportunity cost, namely the benefits that could be realised if the property rights were allocated to someone else. This is a live issue when property rights are being created explicitly right now, as they are with various kinds of intellectual property. But it is just as relevant when we come to consider the historical origins of property. I’ve spent a fair bit of time debating the question of whether property rights have a basis (say, in natural law) for existence independent of the states or governments that typically define and enforce them. I don’t want to talk about that issue right now, but it explains why I’m taking an interest in (I think) the most prominent proponent of natural law in relation to property, John Locke.

It’s a long time since I read Locke and, at the time, I was mostly concerned with Hume’s objection that

there is no property in durable objects, such as lands or houses, when carefully examined in passing from hand to hand, but must, in some period, have been founded on fraud and injustice.

That’s true of course. But rereading Locke[^1] I now conclude that he is not offering a theory of original acquisition, but rather one of expropriation, designed specifically to justify the “fraud and injustice” to which Hume refers.
Read more…

Categories: Philosophy Tags:

Goodbye to CPD

April 17th, 2015 30 comments

Like Mark Bahnisch, Eva Cox and a number of others, I’ve resigned as a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. It’s a sad day, since CPD has done a lot of great work, and I’ve enjoyed being involved in it. But the leadership of the Centre has taken a decision to move to the right in the hope of being more relevant to the policy process. The most recent outcome has been a paper on tax policy that broadly accepts the Treasury view of the issue, and pushes for a broadening of the GST base, which means taxation of fresh food. This isn’t a new or innovative idea. Rather, it has been part of rightwing orthodoxy for decades. CPDs endorsement allows its advocates to claim some “left” support. That claim obviously gained credibility from having Fellows like Mark, Eva and me. So, we had no alternative but to resign.

I should clarify that, apart from a nice title and a publishing outlet, I wasn’t getting any direct benefit from being part of CPD. So, I’m making a statement rather than a sacrifice.

Stop subsidising for-profit education

April 12th, 2015 94 comments

Among the many failures in the education ‘reform’ movement, the attempt to promote for-profit education has been the most complete. The Swedish experiment, for quite a few years seen as the exemplar of success, has turned out very badly.

In the US, the for-profit schools company Edison failed completely. Far worse for-profit universities like Phoenix, which have prospered by recruiting poor students, eligible for Federal Pell Grants, and enrolling them in degree programs they never finish. Phoenix collects the US government cash, while the students are lumbered with debts they can never repay and can’t even discharge in bankruptcy.

Several years ago, there was a major scandal in Victoria (which led the way in privatising vocational education) about similar practices.

This did not, of course, lead to any change for the better. Instead, governments across Australia followed the Victorian model. For-profit providers responded by emulating the University of Phoenix, with recruiters offering free laptops to anyone will to sign up for a course and the associated debts: the targeted groups were low-income earners who would not have to repay the income contingent loan except in the unlikely event that the course propelled them into the middle class.

This isn’t just a matter of fringe players: a report on A Current Affair[1] identified some of the biggest for-profit firms, such as Evocca, Careers Australia and Aspire. The Australian Skills Quality Authority is supposedly investigating. However, as with the authorities that are supposed to regulate greyhound racing, the obvious question is why, when these rorts have been common knowledge for years, a current affairs show can find the evidence ASQA has apparently missed.

It’s clear enough that privatisating VET-TAFE has been a failure, as would be expected based on international experience. But the answer isn’t to go back to the past. Rather, we need a national framework for post-school education, with funding both for TAFE and universities on an integrated basis.

There’s still the problem of how to wind down the for-profit system. I’d suggest that we could start by converting the better ones into contract providers of TAFE courses, and then gradually absorbing them into a unified system.

Those who don’t like that deal could compete like good capitalists in the open market, charging upfront fees and serving whatever market they could find, subject to ordinary consumer protection laws.

fn1. Presumably reflecting a change in the audience, A Current Affair has started targeting large-scale corporate wrongdoing rather than going solely after the easy target of dodgy tradespeople and low-grade con artists. Unfortunately, the story was spoiled by an apparently irrelevant attempt to drag in the Mormon affiliations of some of those involved in the basis, but you can’t have everything.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Rank Delusions

April 10th, 2015 20 comments

That’s the title of a piece I had in the Chronicle of Higher Education in February. CHE is paywalled, but they kindly agree to let me republish here, after a suitable interval. The article (or at least a near final version) is over the fold.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

CO2 emissions levelling out?

April 7th, 2015 236 comments

Preliminary estimates from the International Energy Agency, released in March, suggest that energy-related emissions of CO2[1] were unchanged in 2014 compared to 2013. Countries experiencing notable drops in emissions included China, Britain, Germany and the EU as a whole, but not, of course, Australia[2]

This has happened before, but only in years of global recession, whereas the global growth rate in 2014 was around 3 per cent. Of course, there are plenty of special factors such as a good year for hydro in China. Still, after looking carefully at the numbers, I’ve come to the conclusion that this really does represent, if not the long-sought peak in emissions, at least the end of the link between rising living standards and CO2 emissions.

The most striking feature of 2014 in this context was the behavior of fossil fuel prices. Coal prices had already fallen a long way from their peak levels in the years around the GFC, and they kept on falling through the year, even as coal mines began to close and lots of projects were abandoned. Oil prices remained at historically high levels until the middle of the year but then joined the downward trend, which has continued into 2015. Natural gas is a more complex story, since there isn’t a global market, and I haven’t figured it out yet.

Still, it seems to me that the 2014 outcome is a consistent with a story in which most growth in demand for energy services will be met by a combination of renewables and energy efficiency, and in which coal continues to lose ground to gas. The lack of demand implies that fossil fuel prices are likely to stay permanently below the levels anticipated when most recent projects were initiated.

Behind all this, it seems as if the various piecemeal measures introduced with the aim of switching away from fossil fuels are working better than almost anyone expected, and with minimal economic cost. Hopefully, this will encourage world leaders to set more ambitious targets, consistent with stabilising the global climate at temperatures 2 degrees or less above pre-industrial levels.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:


April 7th, 2015 144 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on. Unless directly responding to the OP, all discussions of nuclear power, MMT and conspiracy theories should be directed to sandpits (or, if none is open, message boards).

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

April 6th, 2015 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:

The Australian Sharia Lobby

April 6th, 2015 49 comments

There were a bunch of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations at the weekend, sparked by supposed concerns about the possibility of Islamic sharia law being imposed in Australia. While the anti-sharia demonstrators were clearly drawn from the extremist fringe, there has been plenty of commentary on this subject from commentators generally regarded as mainstream, and from elected politicians such as Cory Bernardi and Jacquie Lambie.

The prospect of any significant legislation being based on Islamic sharia law seems pretty remote. On the other hand, those who claim to be concerned about sharia law (the Arabic term simply means ‘religious law) might want to consider the much more relevant issue of ‘sharīʿat al-Masīḥ’ (the Arabic term for ‘religious law of Christianity’).

Despite the Australian Constitutional prohibition on establishing any religion, lots of Australian laws are derived from Christian taboos, and many more have been in the past. Equally importantly, there is a group called the Australian Christian Lobby which, as the name implies, lobbies for the imposition of sharīat al-Masīḥ. Its activities are reported as if it is a legitimate political grouping, and not, as concerns about sharia law would suggest, a theocratic danger to our personal freedom.

When you look at the kind of issues being pushed by the Australian Christian Lobby, notably on their signature issue of opposition to gay rights, there’s not much difference from what you might expect from proponents of sharia law.

As I’ve said before, it seems highly likely that Christians will soon be in the minority in Australia. So, my unsolicited advice to the ACL is that they should support tolerance and civil liberties for all, rather than attempting to use the temporary majority status of Christianity to impose their version of sharia law. There’s nothing wrong with political activity being motivated by general religious values, but a lot wrong with attempts to impose your own religious taboos on others.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Cognitive biases

April 5th, 2015 28 comments

Ross Gittins cites some interesting questions used by some of my QUT colleagues to assess cognitive biases before undertaking a study of investment behavior. Here you go: Try to answer before reading on or checking comments:

Give me high and low estimates for the average weight of an adult male sperm whale (the largest of the toothed whales) in tonnes. Choose numbers far enough apart to be 90 per cent certain that the true answer lies somewhere between.

Don’t like that one? Try this: give me high and low estimates of the distance to the moon in kilometres. Choose numbers far enough apart to be certain that the true answer lies somewhere between.

Now something more personal. When you buy a Lotto ticket do you feel more encouraged regarding your chances if you choose the number yourself rather than using a computer-generated number?

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Handicapping the Oz-NZ GDP growth race

April 4th, 2015 15 comments

There has been even more media excitement about the fact that New Zealand is currently experiencing more rapid economic growth than Australia. This is largely due to the fact that the two economies are in different phases of the medium term macroeconomic cycle.

However, there is another important factor that needs to be taken into account in making comparisons of this kind. Given access to the same technology, and with similar levels of education, poor countries will grow faster than rich ones, and will eventually converge to similar level of income. There’s a huge literature on this, to which I contributed a little bit back in the 1990s. The key finding is that, on average and under the conditions just stated, we should expect to see a poorer country make up around 2 per cent of the income gap with a richer country each year. That is, convergence will typically take around 50 years (there’s some tricky Zeno-style paradoxes here, which I don’t have room to discuss)

How does this affect comparisons between Australia and New Zealand. The IMF estimates here give income per person of 45138 for Australian and 33626 for New Zealand. So Australia’s income is about 35 per cent above the New Zealand level. The two countries were roughly on a par until the 1970s.

The standard convergence estimate is that NZ should make up about 2 per cent of that gap (or 0.7 per cent of GDP) each year. If the gap is larger, NZ could reasonably be said to be outperforming Australia for the year in question, relative to the standard 50 year timeframe for convergence. If the gap is smaller, NZ is doing worse than par.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Monday Message Board

March 30th, 2015 101 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:

How should we tax banks?

March 29th, 2015 43 comments

The first real Budget leak of the season has sprung, with indications that the government will introduce a tax on bank deposits, aimed at financing a deposit insurance fund. This was proposed by Labor in 2013, and attacked by Tony Abbott at the time. Judging by Andrew Leigh’s comments that “I don’t think we’re going to take any lessons on bipartisanship from Joe Hockey”, they haven’t forgotten.

The best course for Labor would be to support the measure, but to impose ACCC supervision to stop the banks passing the charge onto consumers. That should be the wedge for permanent ACCC oversight of fees and charges.

None of this, however, gets to the real issue. Banks are immensely profitable, and their profitability rests on the fact that they can never really fail. It’s nearly always cheaper for the regulators to bail a bank out (for example, via a takeover) than to actually shut it down and pay out the depositors.

The appropriate tax base for a profit-enhancing subsidy is profits, currently running at $29 billion per year. Bank profits should be subject to a special tax, reflecting their special status. This would raise substantially more revenue than a deposit insurance levy.

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Voting with their feet, and following the business cycle

March 28th, 2015 14 comments

Among the regular themes in the Australian business press is the claim that we are being outperformed, in economic terms, by New Zealand. I collected a bunch of such claims here, and they were even more prevalent (but hard to find now, being pre-Internet) in the late 1980s. I’m seeing the same theme recurring today (too many repetitions to link).

This is a recurring rather than a continuous theme: there are long periods during which Oz-NZ comparisons are absent from the press. So, if you took the Australian press at face value, it would be reasonable to suppose that Australia was becoming relatively poorer than NZ, not continuously, but in a series of downward steps.

In fact to a close approximation, the reverse is the case. But because market economies are cyclical, there are inevitably brief periods when the NZ economy is on an upswing and Australia in a slowdown or recession. It is only at such times that the business press notices New Zealand’s existence.

A point often made at such times is that net migration from NZ to Australia has slowed to a trickle, usually with the implication that this marks the end of the long term movement. In reality, the cyclical nature of net migration has been a marked feature of movement patterns, ever since the beginning of mass migration westward across the Tasman. The starting point was 1973 Closer Economic Relations Trans-Tasman Travel agreement, which coincided with the beginning of New Zealand’s relative decline. The authority here is Jacques Poot, and this 2009 paper sums up the story.

Interestingly, the flow has continued, unabated though still cyclical, despite the Howard government’s move to exclude Kiwis from welfare payments (arising, IIRC, from a dispute over concerns that NZ’s more liberal immigration policy would provide a ‘backdoor’ path to Australia).

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

The inevitability of red tape

March 27th, 2015 23 comments

I have a piece in The Guardian pointing out that the Abbott government’s Red Tape Reduction program is basically cover for a couple of big measures benefit the mining and gambling industries.

A bigger question raised by the piece: why does bureaucracy and red tape seem to grow without limits? Anyone who has ever worked as an academic, faced with a proliferation of pro-vice-chancellors, executive deans and multiple layers of hierarchy has certainly asked this question, and there’s nothing unusual about academics. The uselessness of administrators is the central theme of the comic strip Dilbert, popular in offices around the world.

The obvious explanations are
(a) stupidity; and
(b) administrative bloat benefits administrators and they are the ones who make the decisions

I don’t think either of these works adequately. Stupidity is certainly common, but the phenomenon is too pervasive to be explained in this way. As regards administrative self-interest, the problem is that senior executives could potentially gain a lot by cutting mid-level bureaucracy, and many have tried (remember ‘flatter organizations’ and ‘lean and mean’).

My own hypothesis is that every big mistake (for example, an undetected embezzlement or a mishandled episode of harassment) produces a permanent bureaucratic response designed to prevent a recurrence. This is very costly to reverse (who wants to deal with the first big embezzlement just after they downsized the accounting department) even if it would, in some sense, be less costly to put up with occasional failures. Moreover, for both good and bad reasons, I think we are, as a society, becoming less tolerant of institutional failures across a wide range of activities (systematic wrongdoing by financial institutions is a major counterexample but, I think, exceptional). So, we have more checks and balances, and more bureaucrats to enforce them.

Categories: Life in General Tags:


March 23rd, 2015 61 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on. Unless directly responding to the OP, all discussions of nuclear power, MMT and conspiracy theories should be directed to sandpits (or, if none is open, message boards).

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Monday Message Board

March 23rd, 2015 62 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: