Why were we at war with Turkey?

April 25th, 2018 31 comments

It’s now more than 100 years since Australian troops landed on a Turkish beach to take part in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, which ended with nearly 30 000 Australians dead or wounded, among a total of up to half a million on both sides. For many of those years, I’ve been observing Anzac Day and mourning those losses. But in all that time, it’s never occurred to me ask why we were at war with Turkey, or rather why Turkey had chosen to join the German side in the Great War.

The answer is that the Ottoman government wanted an alliance with Britain and France, but was turned down. Russia, also allied with Britain and France, offered terms that amounted to a protectorate (it was the desire to keep Russia in the alliance that motivated the French rejection).

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Categories: World Events Tags:

GMI + JG = paid work as a choice for all

April 23rd, 2018 18 comments

I’ve been arguing for a while that a Guarantee Minimum Income (or Universal Basic Income) ought to be combined with a Jobs Guarantee to would make paid work a genuine choice for everyone. To spell this out, the GMI/UBI would make it possible to live decently without paid work, while a Jobs Guarantee would ensure that paid work was available to everyone. As a medium term policy, the best form of GMI would, I think, be the participation income advocated by the late Tony Atkinson. That is, a payment conditional on some form of social contribution, including voluntary work, study and childcare. Support for such a policy entails a direct confrontation with the punitive attitudes behind policies like Work for the Dole, while still maintaining the widely-held principle of reciprocity.

I was going to write more about this, but I just received an article by Felix FitzRoy and Jim Jin, in the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice which presents the argument very well. So, I’ll just recommend that to anyone interested in the issue.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Monday Message Board

April 23rd, 2018 25 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:

We are all socialists now

April 21st, 2018 22 comments

Socialism is much more than public ownership of productive enterprises. Still, if there is one policy that clearly distinguishes socialists from their (or rather our) opponents, it is support for public enterprise as a way of organizing large-scale production, and, in particular, as the preferred model for industries characterized by natural monopoly or other major market failures. The opposite view, dominant since the 1970s, is the market liberal framework that favors comprehensive private ownership, with “light-handed” regulation as the response to market “imperfections”.

Now that I’ve explicitly adopted the term “socialist”, I’ve been struck by the fact that I seem to be pushing against an open door. Consistent anti-socialists are pretty hard to find these days. Most of the Australian right favors the compulsory acquisition of the Liddell power station, on the grounds that they don’t like the business decisions of its owner. On that basis, it’s hard to see why we shouldn’t nationalise the entire financial sector.

As regards public infrastructure, the Institute of Public Affairs, once our leading free-market thinktank, has become an advocate for publicly-funded dam projects in Northern Australia, the most notorious of all pork-barrel projects. Malcolm Turnbull is pushing Snowy Hydro 2.0.

These examples illustrate a problem. Having started by rejecting public ownership on principle, market conservatives have no theory to work on when they lose those principles. So, they naturally support the worst kinds of boondoggles, based on political expediency.

As a socialist, I support a mixed economy in which both public and private ownership play important roles. The evidence of the past century shows, in my view, that most large-scale infrastructure should be publicly owned, and operate on a statutory authority model, accountable to the public through governments, but with politicians kept at arms length from day-to-day decisions. On the other hand, small business should be left to private ownership. That leaves a large share of the economy to balance between large for-profit corporations and public enterprise. The design of a mixed economy involves getting that balance right.

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:

Economics in Two Lessons, Chapter 9

April 19th, 2018 7 comments

Thanks to everyone who the first eight chapters of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. I’ve found the comments on Chapter 8 valuable, but haven’t yet found time to edit in response to them. Soon, I hope!

In the meantime, I’ve posted a draft of Chapter 9: Market Failure. Comments, criticism and praise are welcome.

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Categories: Economics in Two Lessons Tags:

For socialism and democracy

April 17th, 2018 98 comments

As I mentioned a while ago, in the years that I’ve been blogging, I’ve described my political perspective as “social-democratic”. In earlier years, I mostly used “democratic socialist”. My reason for the switch was that, in a market liberal/neoliberal era, the term “socialist” had become a statement of aspiration without any concrete meaning or any serious prospect of realisation. By contrast, “social democracy” represented the Keynesian welfare state I was defending against market liberal “reform”.

In the decade since the Global Financial Crisis, things have changed. Socialism still describes an aspiration, rather than a concrete political program, but an aspiration to a better society is what we need now as a positive response to the evident failure of neoliberalism.

On the other side of the ledger, nominally social democratic parties nearly all failed the test of the crisis, accepting to a greater or lesser degree to the politics of austerity. Some, like PASOK in Greece, have paid the price in full. Others, like Labor in Australia, are finally showing some spine. In practice, though, social democracy has come to stand, at best, for technocratic managerialism, and at worst for capitulation to the demands of financial capital.

So, I’ve changed the description of this blog’s perspective to socialist. I haven’t however, adopted the formulation “democratic socialist” which was used, in the 20th century, to emphasise a rejection of the Stalinist claim to have produced “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. That’s no longer necessary.

As has been true for most of the history of the modern world, the only serious threat to democracy is now coming from the right. So, it’s important to defend democracy as well as advancing the case for socialism.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:


April 16th, 2018 1 comment

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

April 16th, 2018 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:

Blowing stuff up

April 15th, 2018 30 comments

A while ago, I had a multi-topic post covering some things I hoped to expand on. One of them was this

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.

We’ve now had another round of bombing from Trump, and yet more instant applause. As I reread the para above, and looked at evidence on the general ineffectiveness of airstrikes, it struck me that there is a big asymmetry. The satisfaction we get when our side blows something or someone up is trivial in comparison to the hatred generated when we are on the receiving end. In most cases, the people and resources mobilised against the bomber far outweigh the physical destruction the bomber can inflict. Here’s a study (paywalled, but the abstract is clear) making that point about Vietnam; it seems to be entirely general.

I’ve talked here about large-scale aerial bombing, but all of these points apply with equal force to bombing campaigns undertaken on the ground by non-state actors, going back to the “propaganda of the deed” in the 19th century. Experience has shown that deeds like bombings and assassinations make great propaganda, but not for the side that carries them out.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Hackery or heresy

April 9th, 2018 22 comments

Henry Farrell’s recent post on the irrelevance of conservative intellectuals reminded me of this one from 2013, which concluded

Conservative reform of the Republican party is a project that has already failed. The only question is whether the remaining participants will choose hackery or heresy.

Overwhelmingly, the choice has been hackery (or, a little more honorably, silence).

The case for hackery is put most clearly by Henry Olsen. Starting from the evident fact that most Republican voters are white nationalists who don’t care about small government, Olsen considers the options available to small government conservatives. He rapidly dismisses the ideas of challenging Trump or forming a third party, and concludes that the only option is to capitulate. Strikingly, the option of withdrawing from party politics, and arguing for small government positions as an independent critic isn’t even considered.

As Paul Krugman has observed recently, conservative economists (at least, those who comment publicly). are a striking example for the choice of hackery over heresy. Krugman, along with Brad DeLong, has been particularly critical of a group of economists (Robert Barro, Michael Boskin, John Cogan, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Glenn Hubbard, Lawrence Lindsey, Harvey Rosen, George Shultz and John. Taylor) who’ve made dishonest arguments in favor of corporate tax cuts.

Recently, an overlapping group (Boskin, John Cochrane, Cogan, Shultz and Taylor) have taken the hackery a significant step further.

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Categories: World Events Tags:

Monday Message Board

April 9th, 2018 23 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:

Economics in Two Lessons, Chapter 8

April 8th, 2018 8 comments

Thanks to everyone who the first seven chapters of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. I’ve tried to think about all of them and respond to as many as possible, but I’m seeking comments from quite a few sources and may have missed some. Feel free to remind me if you think you have a point that’s been overlooked.,

I’ve just posted a draft of Chapter 8:Unemployment. This is one of the most important chapters in the book where I confront a central error in both Hazlitt and Bastiat – the implicit assumption that full employment is the norm in a market economy. So,

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Categories: Economics in Two Lessons Tags:

Negging the NEG

April 4th, 2018 33 comments

The proposal of the pompously named “Monash Group” that public funds should be allocated to investment in coal-fired power stations is, of course, absurd. Leaving aside its environmental effects, new coal-fired power is far more expensive than renewables or gas.

Nevertheless, the proposal is welcome in a number of respects.

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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The centre cannot hold

April 4th, 2018 42 comments

Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton have a piece in the Fairfax press decrying the collapse of centrism in Australia.

There are some problems with their data. As William Bowe has pointed out, the change in voter attitudes described by Harris and Charlton as “polarisation” looks more like a straighforward increase in support for the left, rising from 19.5 per cent to 31.4 per cent over the period 1996 to 2016. Measures of voter disaffection show no consistent trend over the period except for a sharp uptick in 2016.

Regardless of the data, there’s no reason to dispute the central claim that Australian politics is more polarised than at any time in the past twenty years.

The big problem with the piece, and the besetting sin of centrist analysis, is the near-complete absence of discussion of actual policy. The assumption is simply that whoever is in the middle must be right.
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Categories: Economics - General, Oz Politics Tags:

Economics in Two Lessons, Chapter 7

March 27th, 2018 24 comments

Thanks to everyone who the first six chapters of my book, Economics in Two Lessons. That brings us to the end of Lesson 1: Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.

Now its time for Lesson Two: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

I’ll start with a brief intro and then the draft of Chapter 7: Property rights, and income distribution

As usual, I welcome comments, criticism and encouragement.
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Categories: Economics in Two Lessons Tags:

Fortune favours the brave (updated)

March 27th, 2018 75 comments

Most of the political commentariat were convinced that Bill Shorten had got things badly wrong by announcing his policy on dividend imputation immediately before the Batman by-election. It was even more striking that, despite the pressure, Shorten didn’t cave into demands for changes to the policy. Michelle Grattan, for example, described the policy as an “own goal“. After Labor’s easy win, she backed off a little bit, but still claimed that Labor “has a selling job“. M

Maybe so, but I’d say the government is the one that has scored goals for the other side.

(Update 27/3) As predicted, Labor has tweaked the policy to exclude pensioners. That blunts the remaining lines of attack, but doesn’t cost much money, since the benefits go primarily to high-wealth self-funded (but massively tax-subsidised) retirees. By waiting until after the Batman by-election and the latest Newspoll, Labor looks gutsy (even Dennis Shanahan in the Oz conceded this) and Turnbull looks even weaker than before

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Categories: Tax and public expenditure Tags:

A sign of the times

March 27th, 2018 51 comments

Is the ball-tampering crisis:

(a) A sign of our national obsessions with sport, trivia and scandals at the expense of more important issues;
(b) A symbol of the socially corrosive and corrupting effects of neoliberalism;
(c) The End of Western Civilization As We Know It

Vote below

Categories: Sport Tags:

Grattan unreliable on electricity networks

March 26th, 2018 14 comments

The Grattan Institute has just released a report blaming high electricity network costs on public ownership and excessive reliability standards. I commented on a draft of the report, but there wasn’t much change in relation to my comments.

My comments are over the fold. Let me offer the following, slightly ad hominem argument. Grattan has backed the National Energy Guarantee, a radical change in Australia’s energy policy, which was justified mainly by the occurrence of a single blackout in Adelaide. Yet it asserts (without any evidence I can see) that the responses to earlier blackouts in Queensland and NSW represent unjustified “gold plating”.

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Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Francis Bator has died

March 26th, 2018 4 comments

Francis Bator, the economist who popularized the term “market failure”, has died at the age of 92 after being hit by a car. His NY Times obituary is here.

Francis’ passing is a cause of sadness for me as my book, Economics In Two Lessons draws heavily on his work from the 1950s and 1960s. He had read excerpts on Crooked Timber and corresponded with me about it, much to my surprise and delight. I was looking forward to sending him the manuscript but now I won’t get the chance.

Categories: Life in General Tags:


March 26th, 2018 2 comments

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

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

March 26th, 2018 29 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:

Another High Court disaster

March 22nd, 2018 16 comments

The High Court has done a great job in messing up Australian democracy with its absurdly literalistic reading of the Constitutional provisions on dual citizenship. It’s now added another layer of disaster with its refusal to hear Labor’s attempt to have Liberal MP David Gillespie disqualified on the basis that he rented space to an Australia Post outlet.

Of course, this case is utterly lacking in merit. Had the High Court heard it, and thrown it out without retiring for consideration, I’d be cheering them on.

In fact, however, they refused to hear the case because Labor couldn’t get the Parliament to refer the case, relying instead on a “common informer”.

So, we are now in the position where a Parliamentary majority can move to disqualify anyone on the opposing side, and the High Court will assess whether they have breached any of the byzantine rules they have constructed, rules that might potentially disqualify anyone who has ever taken money from the government, or had foreign born parents, or is Jewish, or can’t document every aspect of their ancestry back to the Paelolithic era. But if there is no such majority, it seems that there is no recourse.

What’s worse is my total confidence that there will be lots of comments explaining how the High Court has protected us from the risk that someone might serve in Parliament despite getting their paperwork wrong.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity Tags:

Government report cheers for wage cuts

March 22nd, 2018 30 comments

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about stagnation in real wages and the decline of the labour share of national income. In a recent Senate Submission, I made the point that there is nothing surprising about this

For the last 40 years, changes in labour market regulation have been almost uniformly anti-union and anti-worker, while public policy has been premised on the desirability of reducing wages.

I saw an interesting (and, I suspect, largely unconscious) illustration of this in a recent report from the grandly-titled Office of the Chief Economists. Among the many benefits of economic reform, the report cited the following

How does this relate to the wage share? When real wages are growing faster than GDP per person (and assuming a constant employment/population ratio, which is reasonably accurate), the wage share of GDP is rising. When real wages are growing more slowly than GDP per person, as they have done for the past 25 years or so, the wage share is falling. Looking at the beginning and end points we can see that wage growth has been slower than GDP growth over the period as a whole So, we can restate the conclusion as

Under the labour market institutions that prevailed between 1951 and 1981, the labour share of income increased. Since then, thanks to the adoption of market based approaches, workers have lost all the ground that they gained in the postwar decades, and then some.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Economics in Two Lessons, Chapter 6

March 22nd, 2018 5 comments

Thanks to everyone who the first five chapters of my book, Economics in Two Lessons. Now here’s the draft of Chapter 6: The opportunity cost of destruction This is the last part of the book devoted to Lesson 1 Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers. and the one where I agree mostly with Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. It seems particularly apposite 15 years after the beginning of the Iraq War.

As usual, I welcome comments, criticism and encouragement. I’d appreciate any comments on/ alternative suggestions for the opening quote – it’s not a perfect fit, but the best I could come up with.

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Categories: Economics in Two Lessons Tags:

Adani: Put up or pack up

March 19th, 2018 7 comments

That’s my suggestion for the way Bill Shorten can resolve his continuing problems over the Adani Carmichael mine-port-rail project. To spell it out, he should set a deadline (say June 30) for Adani to achieve financial close for the entire project, and commence construction. If the deadline isn’t met, Labor should oppose the project outright. This is only a marginal variant on the position of leading Adani supporter, Jenny Hill, who suggested a six month deadline in February. So, it gives plenty of cover for those who have supported Adani to fall into line.

The big risk is that Adani will somehow come up with the money to fund the project. As Tim Buckley has pointed out, Gautam Adani is, on paper, rich enough to pay for it out of his own personal wealth, but he shows no sign of doing so. The basic problem is that, while India may not achieve its stated goal of eliminating coal imports, the long term trend is clearly down. That’s only going to accelerate with the shift to renewables, in which Adani itself is a major player. While Mr Adani would rather keep the Carmichael project alive on life support, he’s unlikely to risk his own fortune on such a marginal project.

The end of Adani’s project will entail the end of the whole idea of developing the Galilee Basin. None of the other potential mines have any chance of starting if Adani fails. That leaves open the broader question of a moratorium on new coal mines, which Labor will need to address sooner or later. But the threat posed by the Galilee Basin coal is so great that it’s worth an inelegant compromise.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Monday Message Board

March 19th, 2018 23 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:

Changing places

March 17th, 2018 26 comments

When Malcolm Turnbull, as PM, first faced Bill Shorten, as Opposition Leader, I correctly surmised that this would be a contest between a bold and innovative leader, unafraid to put forward controversial policies if they were right for the country, and a timid pragmatist, tied down by secret deals with factional warlords, and standing for nothing. I just didn’t realise which was which.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Economics in Two Lessons, Chapter 5

March 17th, 2018 5 comments

Thanks to everyone who the first four chapters of my book, Economics in Two Lessons. I’m continuing with policy applications of Lesson 1: Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.
That will be followed by Lesson 2: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

Now here’s the draft of Chapter 5. Again, I welcome comments, criticism and encouragement.
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Where are the Greens going?

March 17th, 2018 84 comments

I haven’t had time to do a proper economic analysis of Labor’s proposals on dividend imputation credits. But you don’t need an economic analysis to see that making an overt appeal to conservative voters on the issue, as Richard di Natale has just done, is a very bad move if the Greens party wants to present itself as a left alternative to Labor.

Perhaps this is poor judgement in the heat of a by-election campaign, the significance of which seems to me to be greatly over-rated by all.

Alternatively, perhaps it indicates that di Natale is taking the Greens in a different direction. The obvious choices are

(i) A soft liberal centrist party in the mould of the Australian Democrats under Don Chipp
(ii) A serious push to displace Labor as the main alternative to the LNP

I don’t think there’s a real constituency for (i) and, to the extent that there is, it’s very different from the existing Greens support base.

I also don’t think (ii) has any chance of success. But, if it does, it will involve a lot of the kind of grubby compromises that are inevitably entailed in an attempt to put together an electoral majority. Labor’s shuffles on Adani and refugees are obvious examples, which have driven a lot of people to support the Greens. But now it looks as if the boot may be on the other foot.

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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Economics in Two Lessons: Chapter 4

March 15th, 2018 8 comments

Thanks to everyone who the first three chapters of my book, Economics in Two Lessons. I’ve learned a lot from the comments and made changes in response to some of them. These chapters have been a bit abstract, but now I’m moving on to some applications, which might be more interesting for some readers. Here’s the introduction to Part II

Lesson 1, Part II: Applications

The economic analysis showing how market equilibrium prices reflect the opportunity costs facing producers and consumers is elegant and, for a certain kind of mind, convincing.

For most of us, however, it’s more useful to see how the logic of prices and opportunity costs works in particular cases, sometimes in ways that conflict with strongly held intuitions. This will also give us more insight into the ways in which prices can fail to reflect opportunity costs for society as a whole, some of which we will examine in Lesson 2.

Now here’s the draft of Chapter 4:Lesson 1: Applications. Again, I welcome comments, criticism and encouragement.
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