From Montreal to Lima

December 21st, 2014 8 comments
Categories: Environment Tags:

The fossil fuel crash of 2014

December 20th, 2014 29 comments

Among the unforeseen (by me, at any rate) events of 2014, the collapse in the price of crude oil may be among the most significant. Prices have fallen from more than $100/barrel in mid-2014 to around $60/barrel today. This follows a more gradual fall in the price of coal. The thermal coal price peaked at $140/tonne in 2011 and has now fallen to around $70/tonne. Prices for metallurgical coal and iron ore have also collapsed.

What should we make of this? The big questions are
(i) to what extent does the price collapse reflect weak demand and to what extent growing supply
(ii) will these low prices be sustained, and if so, what will be the outcome.

The answer to the first question seems to be, a mixture of the two, with some complicated lags. Strong demand growth (briefly interrupted by the GFC) produced high prices which made new projects appear profitable. Now the projects are coming on stream, but demand has weakened. Since both demand and supply are inelastic (not very responsive to prices) in the short run, a moderate oversupply produces a big drop in prices.

Coming to the second point, if we are to reduce emissions of CO2, a necessary precondition is that the price of fossil fuels should fall to the point where it is uneconomic to extract them. Current prices are below the level at which most new oil and coal projects are profitable, so, if they are sustained, we can expected to see a lot of project cancellations and closures (this is already happening with coal to some extent).

The big question is whether sustained low prices will lead to a recovery in demand. There are at least some reasons to hope that it won’t. There’s pressure to reduce coal and oil use coming from many directions, so, even at lower prices, I doubt that we will see a surge in investment in new coal-fired power plants* or a return to oil for uses like heating.

So, the hopeful scenario is one in which the abandonment of new projects brings us the long-awaited advent of Peak (or rather Plateau) Oil and Coal** in the not-too-distant future, giving time for policy to push the global economy in the direction of decarbonization.

* Someone will doubtless point to the case of Germany. But as far as I can tell, the plants that have opened recently were commissioned around 2006, and most proposals made since then have been abandoned.

** Of course, gas is a different story, partly because there is no global market. Gas prices are rising in some places (Australia, for example) and falling in others as trade expands.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

MMT and Russia

December 18th, 2014 112 comments

Whenever I post anything about taxation and public expenditure, it’s a good bet that someone will pop up in the comments section to claim that, according to Modern Monetary Theory, states that issue their own currency don’t need taxation to finance public expenditure. That’s a misunderstanding of the theory, but it’s proved hard to explain this. The current crisis in Russia provides a teachable moment.
Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Tell ‘em they’re dreaming

December 15th, 2014 154 comments

The title of a piece in Inside Story on nuclear power in Australia. Readers won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t think it’s feasible in any relevant time frame (say, before 2040). I don’t expect nuclear devotees to be convinced by this (I can’t think of any evidence that would have this effect), but I’d be interested to see someone lay out a plausible timetable to get nuclear built here sooner than my suggested date.

To clarify this, feel free to assume a conversion of both major parties and the majority of the public to a pro-nuclear position, but not to assume away the time needed to generate a legislative and regulatory framework, take proper account of concerns about siting, licensing and so on.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Greenpeace and vandalism

December 14th, 2014 70 comments

In the light of the appalling vandalism undertaken by Greenpeace at Nazca in Peru, I thought I would repost this piece from 2011, published as Greenpeace, an enemy of science. I note that, as in the previous instance, those involved did not turn themselves in. In this case, they have apparently fled the country.

Greenpeace, an enemy of science

Tim Lambert comments on Greenpeace sabotage of a CSIRO experiment on GM crops. Sadly, Greenpeace has become an openly anti-science organisation.

I agree with everything Tim says, but I’d add something more on the politics of this action. This kind of criminal vandalism, in the “right” cause, appeals to the juvenile instincts that nearly all of us retain to some extent, but it has repeatedly proved disastrous for the left, and the environmental movement. It’s worth comparing this kind of action to civil disobedience protests, where people put themselves on the line and openly invite arrest. If these guys had any desire to promote genuine debate they would turn themselves in and defend their actions in open court.

Given the embrace of anti-science and anti-rational views by the political right, it is important that the left and the environmental movement should dissociate themselves entirely from this kind of action. It will be a long time before Greenpeace can regain my support, if they ever do.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

The Google Tax

December 11th, 2014 71 comments

The announcement by the Conservative UK government of a tax on diverted profits (popularly referred to as the “Google Tax”), along with reports that the Abbott government may follow suit, has received only limited attention (as far as I have seen) but seems like a very big deal. A few observations on this

* It’s notable that these are conservative, business friendly governments that are, like all governments, short of money. It appears that, thanks to the steady drip feed of revelations about the “Double Irish”, Luxembourg private rulings and so on, that, even for such governments, highly profitable multinationals have become an appealing target, at least relative to domestic taxpayers

* If successful, this tax will turn two of the standard presumptions of the corporate tax debate on their heads. First, that corporate tax minimisation is not only legitimate but part of the obligation of managers (the corresponding shift was made with respect to individuals, in Australia at least) decades ago. Second, and more important, that global corporations can choose where they pay tax. The point of the UK tax is that, once corporations are found to be engaged in tax avoidance (pretty much a slam dunk), they can be made to pay in any jurisdiction, at rates that jurisdiction considers appropriate.

* It’s hard to see how corporations like Apple and Google can dodge this. They could refuse to supply their goods and services to the UK, but that would be immensely costly, and would be likely to provoke retaliation from other EU members.

* This will make a big change to the OECD processes aimed at a co-ordinated response to base erosion and profit shifting. Until now, corporations have had a strong interest in slowing this process down, and shopping around for good deals from the likes of Ireland, Luxembourg and, of course, Delaware. Now that they face the risk of facing unco-ordinated punitive action applied in many different countries, enlightened self-interest would suggest that they should support a global deal.

* In combination with the GFC, which revealed the extent to which “global” banks actually depended on protection from their home national governments, limits on global tax evasion undermine much of the analysis of globalisation that was dominant in the late 20th century

* If capital income can be taxed effectively in the countries where profits are generated, there’s much less need for ideas like Piketty’s global wealth tax.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

The socialisation of economists (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

December 10th, 2014 71 comments

I’m following up Henry Farrell’s post on the superiority or otherwise of economists, and Krugman’s piece, also bouncing off Fourcade et al, with a few observations of my own, that don’t amount to anything systematic. My perspective is a bit unusual, at least for the profession as it exists today. I didn’t go to graduate school, and I started out in an Australian civil service job in the low-status[^1] field of agricultural economics.

So, I have long experience as an outsider to the US-dominated global profession. But, largely due to one big piece of good luck early on (as well as the obligatory hard work and general ability), I’ve done pretty well and am now, in most respects, an insider, at least in the Australian context.
Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Monday Message Board

December 8th, 2014 67 comments

It’s time for 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:

Weekend reflections

December 6th, 2014 34 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.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Broken promises and budget anger …

December 4th, 2014 108 comments

this chaotic mess won’t be fixed with the usual political script

That’s the headline for my latest piece in The Guardian. It’s over the fold

Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Truth in Labelling: Universities Australia edition

December 3rd, 2014 25 comments

A while ago, I suggested that bodies like Universities Australia should dissolve themselves and make way for a body that actually represents universities as communities of scholars (students and academics) and the workers (professional and administrative) who support them. I see I’ve been joined by Stephen Parker from the University of Canberra who describes UA support for deregulation as a “suicide ritual”. Meanwhile, Pyne is quoting the support of UA and its elite subset the Go8 as evidence of “consensus” in favor of his reform, treating the support of 30-odd individuals as more important than the overwhelming opposition of hundreds of thousands of students and staff.

Since these organizations appear determined to drag out their useless existence, can I at least ask for some honesty in labelling. How about

University Senior Management Australia and
Group of Eight University Senior Managers Who Are Better Than All The Others.

Seriously, it’s obvious that, while students, academics, other staff and senior managers have some common interests, they also have lots of conflicting interests. That’s true of universities, just as its true of the workers, bosses and customers of any industry in the private sector. The idea that a policy supported by top managers must be good for universities as a whole is on a par with the old claim that “what’s good for General Motors is good for American”

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Deficit fetishism

December 1st, 2014 39 comments

As the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook approaches, talk about the budget deficit is approaching panic. This piece from Deloitte, warning that “the budget is burning” is typical. It predicts a 2014-15 budget deficit of $34.7 billion, and future deficits “as far as the eye can see”.

Billion dollar numbers are big and scary, but some perspective is useful. Australia’s GDP is currently $1.6 trillion dollars per year, so the massive deficit is about 2 per cent of GDP. On Deloitte’s current “disastrous” predictions, the deficit should be below 1 per cent of GDP by 2017-18.

But wait, there’s more. Australian government debt is currently about 20 per cent of GDP. It has been around this ratio, varying with the business cycle, for many years. Since GDP grows at around 5 per cent a year in nominal terms, the debt/GDP ratio stays unchanged if debt also grows by 5 per cent, that is, if deficits are equal to 1 per cent of GDP (that is, 5 per cent of 20 per cent).

Simply put, the budget is so close to balance that it doesn’t matter. In the absence of the terms of trade shock from coal and iron ore, it would have made good sense to aim for a surplus. As it is, the sensible short-term macro strategy is to take a modest hit to the deficit and cushion the economy from contraction, a point that has been made by the OECD.

As always, there are long term problems that need to be addressed. But absurd panics about whether a (necessarily arbitrary) budget measure is a little above or a little below zero don’t help.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

The strengthening economic case for fossil fuel divestment

December 1st, 2014 23 comments

That’s the title of my latest piece in The Conversation. The bottom line

Leaving aside the ethics of divestment and pursuing a purely rational economic analysis, the cold hard numbers of putting money into fossil fuels don’t look good.

Unless universities are willing to bet on the destruction of the planet they have committed themselves to understanding and preserving, divestment from fossil fuels is the only choice they can make. Forward-thinking investors of all kinds would be wise to follow suit.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Sandpit

December 1st, 2014 7 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

December 1st, 2014 20 comments

It’s time for 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:

Coal and China

November 26th, 2014 32 comments

Among the sceptical reactions to China’s part of the joint announcement on climate policy made by the US and China, two were particularly prominent

* The statement didn’t require China to do anything until 2030
* The statement simply reflected “business as usual”

These arguments were almost immediately refuted when China announced, in its http://thediplomat.com/2014/11/in-new-plan-china-eyes-2020-energy-cap/ that it would cap coal consumption at 4.2 billion tonnes by 2020, with total primary energy consumption (including oil and gas) held below 4.8 billion tonnes of coal equivalent. By contrast, in 2013, the estimate was for 4.8 billion tonnes of coal alone. Back in 2010, the US Energy Information Administration was predicting continued growth in Chinese coal assumption to 2035 and beyond.
Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Sandpit

November 21st, 2014 41 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

50 years later

November 20th, 2014 15 comments

I once read a remark about the kind of bank advertisement that shows a proud young couple outside their first home, to the effect that it would be better to show them middle-aged, making the final payment on their 25-year mortgage, at which point the home would truly be theirs.

I have the same kind of reaction to the Queensland government’s (publicly funded, I believe) ads showing “ordinary Queenslanders” celebrating the fact that our public assets are going to be leased rather than sold under the government’s plan. Most of those in the ads are young (20s and 30s, I’d say). Even so, many of them will have passed on by the time the lease first comes up for renewal in 2064.
Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Subsidising coal

November 18th, 2014 41 comments

I was going to post on the Newman government’s announcement of subsidies to development of new coal mines in the Galilee Basin, but this piece by Michael West says it all. Key observation

The very day after the G20 concluded, with its recommendations about ending government subsidies to fossil fuels, it appears the Queensland government is poised to ramp up its subsidies for the humungous Galilee Basin coal project.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/business/mining-and-resources/wise-investment-or-fossil-fools-queensland-backs-coal-as-g20-moves-the-game-on-20141117-11odkq.html#ixzz3JM8yeHsw

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Monday Message Board

November 18th, 2014 204 comments

It’s time for 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:

A policy lesson from G20

November 14th, 2014 47 comments

After spending months warning us of terrorists, rioters, and (most fearsome of all) thousands of political minders roaming the streets of the Brisbane CBD, warning us to reconsider our need to travel and giving us a long weekend, Brisbane Lord Mayor Graham Quirk is upset with us for taking off to the beach or staying home and waiting the whole thing out. He has been roundly mocked. It’s now clear enough that, except for high-end hotels and restaurants, G20 is going to be an economic disaster for Brisbane.

There is a broader lesson here. Paying substantial amounts to attract an event where the audience is mostly going to regard the venue as interchangeable with lots of others (car races being a prime example) is almost never going to be a sensible economic policy. The inflow of event visitors will mostly be offset by the deterrence of other potential visitors and by an exodus of locals. And the idea that events like this “put Brisbane on the map” is silly.

We won’t be lining up for another international summit any time soon, but the Commonwealth Games will be in the Gold Coast in 2018. I’m confident that an analysis after the fact will reveal very little to show for the $2 billion we are spending on them.

I’ll qualify the above by saying that it’s a different story with mass participation events. Noosa Triathlon for example, attracted 14 000 participants and 50 000 spectators (mostly family members, I think). The local tourism council tipped in $250k. Assuming a similar amount from Tourism Queensland, that’s a subsidy of $10/head. The event could probably have gone ahead without any subsidy: the main contribution for this kind of event is organizing road closures and crowd safety.

Categories: Economics - General, Sport Tags:

Planet saved … in Brisbane!

November 12th, 2014 104 comments

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the agreement announced today by Barack Obama and Xi Jinping to limit US and Chinese greenhouse gas emissions. The limits are significant in themselves: not enough to guarantee stabilization of greenhouse gas levels at the agreed target of 450 ppm, but enough that we can get there just by ratcheting up an existing agreement rather than by looking for something new.

I’ll write more later, but I wanted to note this event as soon as I could

Categories: Environment Tags:

Remembrance Day

November 11th, 2014 59 comments

Every year on this day, I post on the futility of war, arguing that wars and armed revolutions are almost never justified. I haven’t convinced anyone, and there are probably more wars, frozen conflicts and insurgencies now than there were when I started blogging.

And I realise I haven’t even convinced myself. Intellectually, I know that wars will always turn out badly, but still when a new conflict erupts, I find myself picking sides and cheering for the good (less bad) guys.

Why do we fall for the spurious appeal of a simple, violent solution to complex and intractable problems? And why is it so hard to end a war once it has started? I have some half-formed ideas, but I’ll leave it to others to discuss.

In the meantime, Lest we Forget.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Monday Message Board

November 3rd, 2014 151 comments

It’s time for 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:

Brands of nonsense

October 31st, 2014 56 comments

That’s the title of a piece of mine the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a little while ago. It’s paywalled but they have graciously given me permission to republish it here.

Read more…

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Eyes of the world on Brisbane (G20), Department of the Absurd

October 29th, 2014 49 comments

Channel 9 News yesterday had a story about how the massive worldwide TV audience for G20 news coverage will discover that

* Brisbane has graffiti
* Roma St Transit Centre is ugly.

In reality of course, they will discover that we have a Convention Centre and hotels, providing backdrops for political leaders to pontificate about nothing much.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Wouldn’t know if their a**e was on fire

October 28th, 2014 156 comments

As I type this, it’s currently 35 degrees, at 9am on an October morning in Brisbane. And, while one day’s temperatures don’t prove anything, a string of studies have shown that the increasingly frequent heatwaves in Australia can be reliably attributed to global warming. We haven’t had an El Nino yet, but according to NOAA, the last 12 months have been the hottest such period on record.

It will be interesting to see what the denialists come up with in response to this combination of record breaking local and global warming. We can safely rule out anything along the lines of “as a sceptic, I like to wait for convincing evidence before accepting a new hypothesis. But, with the steady accumulation of evidence I’m now convinced”. I suspect we’ll get more along the lines of

* Graham Lloyd, reporting a new study by Jennifer Marohasy, showing that the communists at the Met Bureau are artificially pumping hot air through Australian cities to cover up the fact that they rigged the data to show exactly this warming

* The Telegraph, with a front-page story of an old codger saying something like “You think this is hot? Back in ’23, we had heat waves in July so bad that concrete footpaths melted”

* Andrew Bolt will readjust the start dates so he can continue to claim “no significant warming for the past x years”, omitting the crucial word “statistically”

Categories: Environment Tags:

Monday Message Board

October 27th, 2014 18 comments

It’s time for 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:

Three things the US has (just about) seen the last of [Crooked Timber Crosspost]

October 27th, 2014 121 comments

Here’s an assorted list of things that once seemed archetypally American, but have pretty much reached the end of the line. More precisely, there are no new ones, or hardly any, and the existing examples look increasingly down at heel

    Shopping malls
    Nuclear power stations
    Republican intellectuals

Feel free to discuss, deny, add to the list and so on.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Sandpit

October 26th, 2014 45 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags: