That’s the headline for my latest piece in Guardian. Of all of the anti-science nonsense peddled by the political right, here and in Britain, none is more stunningly hypocritical than their campaign against the (non-existent) health risks of wind turbines. The self-image promoted by these guys (and, with a handful of exceptions, they are guys) is one of hardnosed scepticism about unproven risks, disdain for emotive appeals to feelings about the environment. But because wind turbines are supported by their tribal enemies, they swallow and propagate utterly absurd alarmist claims.
The Rudd government’s proposal to tighten up documentation requirements for the very generous tax concessions provided for people who receive motor cars as a fringe benefit has produced some striking examples of rent-seeking from the Australian right, notably including Catallaxy and the Australian Financial Review. Catallaxy has a string of posts defending this rort.
The Fin gives lots of space to bleating rent-seekers, while imputing to “academics” the opinion that this is a subsidy. I guess that’s fair enough, given that the Fin regards basic science as a matter of academic opinion, while treating the failed dogmas of the 1980s as proven facts. And, of course, the Opposition has promised to oppose the measure, while weaselling out on the question of whether it would reverse the changes if elected.
This really is a test for Rudd. If he wants to refute the oft-repeated claim that he is all spin and no substance, this is his first chance, and one of the best he is going to get.
Since we’ve been discussing Andrew Bolt, I thought I’d dig up another of his columns from ten years ago, in which he denounces all those who criticised the lies he help to propagate. It was published in the Herald-Sun on 9 June 2003, but can now only be found via republications in Internet forums – the link they give is broken. Comment is, I think, superfluous.
The canard that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet was so widely circulated and so damaging, one would have thought any politician would sew their lips shut rather than speak the phrase “invented the Internet” in any context other than a tribute to Tim Berners-Lee. But Tony Abbott has just described Malcolm Turnbull as the man who “virtually invented the Internet in Australia”. Either this is (a) a devilishly clever plot to lumber Turnbull with the Al Gore millstone, or (b) it is just about the stupidest thing Abbott has ever said. I’m going for (b)
For the record
* From the late 1980s, Al Gore led the work on the the High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991, which created the National Information Infrastructure, and was vital to the development of the Internet from its beginnings as ARPANET
* In the 1990s, when the Internet was an established reality in Australia, Malcolm Turnbull made a lot of money investing in an ISP
I just downloaded the Queensland government’s paper announcing, but not spelling out, a 30-year electricity strategy to be developed in the course of this year. I started with healthy scepticism about this, but scepticism turned to bemusement when, on page 5, I ran into one of the worst graphs I have ever seen.
This graph, taking up half a page, contains a total of six data points (energy intensity and gross state product for three states). The relevant data, such as it is, is contained in the three yellow bars. The legend describes them as “Electricity use (KwH) per $ of state product”, while the axis label claims that the measure is “Energy use (Mj) per $ of state product” Since a joule is a watt-second, it’s easy to check that a kilowatt-hour is 3.6 megajoules, but the difference isn’t large enough to work out which one is correct. It’s a fair bet, though not sure, that the quantity being measured is electricity use, and not all energy use. The only information conveyed is the unsurprising fact that Queensland’s economy is more electricity-intensive (or maybe more energy intensive) than those of NSW and Victoria.
The real joke, though, is the second measure, of total state product. This is of no interest at all, since it just reports the well known fact that NSW has a larger economy than those of Victoria and Queensland. But the thing that would make Edward Tufte turn in his grave (if he were dead, which Wikipedia tells me he is not) is that this irrelevant information is reported in a line graph, making it appear that there is some sort of relevant order here.
The rest of the graphics are almost, but not quite, as bad. There’s an amusing one describing the “engagement and accountability model”. Three Venn-style intersecting circles representing market, government and customer are overlaid with an equilateral triangle, the vertices of which are labelled “Engaged”, “Efficient” and “Effective”. All stakeholders are invited by the government to “get on board and challenge current thinking”.
Eager as usual to be a team player, I’ll be contributing some thoughts on the failure of electricity market reform to the Guardian, hopefully appearing tomorrow. I will certainly challenge current thinking and look forward to being welcomed on board by the Newman government.
fn1. Since no more explanation is given, I’ll take a stab at explaining the significance of these numbers. Assuming the Kwh measure is correct, and taking an average price of 15c/KwH, electricity amounts to around 3.3 per cent (0.15*0.22) of the total Queensland economy. That sounds about right to em.
Apparently, a new survey shows that Millennials (more precisely, US high school students interviewed between 2005 and 2007, and therefore born in the early 1990s) are lazy and entitled. More precisely, as textbook worker-consumers are supposed to, they would like nice stuff, but not if they have to work long hours to get it. I’m too bored to link to it, but you can easily find it.
The best that can be said for this kind of thing is that it relieves the monotony of boomer-bashing. Apart from that it is a repeat of the formulaic denunciation of adolescents that has been applied (in my memory) to Gen Y (insofar as this group differs from the Millennials) Gen X (Slackers), Boomers (hippies) and the Silent Generation (the original teenagers). Then there were the Lost Generation and so on back to the (apocryphal, I think) rant often attributed to Socrates. Only those who have the good fortune (?) to come of age in a time of full-scale war miss out on this ritual denunciation.
Responding to my observation that Andrew Bolt’s estimate of the impact of the carbon tax/price on global warming was out by a couple of orders of magnitude (he calculated the impact for one year, not that over the decades for which the policy is supposed to operate), Quadrant contributor John Dawson jumped into the fray and pronounced himself satisfied with Bolt’s arithmetic (H/T Terje Petersen). Dawson’s piece is too confused for a link but confusing enough that Terje couldn’t see where he ran into error. Rather than try to clean up this arithmetic mess, I’ll step back to something much simpler – the inability of Dawson, and his mentor Keith Windschuttle, to count to three.
Long-term readers will recall that, back in 2002, Windschuttle made quite a splash with The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land, 1803-1847, which attempted a revisionist account of the tragic history of the Tasmanian Aborigines. He didn’t achieve much except to point out some sloppy footnoting in a fairly obscure recent history. The main interest in the book was as an appetiser for the succeeding volumes, on Queensland and Western Australia, promised to appear on an annual schedule. Here, Windschuttle promised to refute the work of Henry Reynolds and others, who painted the frontier as a scene of prolonged violent warfare between the indigenous inhabitants and the white settlers who sought, successfully in the end, to displace and subdue them.
Year followed year, and promise followed promise, but Volumes 2 and 3 didn’t appear. Finally, in 2009, Volume 3 was published. Not only was there no Volume 2, but the new Volume 3 bore no resemblance to the book originally promised for 2004. Instead, it was a critique of the Stolen Generations report and the film Rabbit Proof Fence. Windschuttle said that this volume had been published “out of order”, and that the missing volumes 2 and 4 would appear “later”.
Even by Windschuttle’s standards, this is bizarre. The Stolen Generations debate refers almost entirely to the 20th century, so this volume, on his reasoning ought to come after the others.
It’s truly bizarre to see self-satisfied climate “sceptics” who can’t even calculate a standard error, but have convinced themselves they are smarter than professional scientists. Stranger still to see someone like Bolt, who’s incapable of basic arithmetic, treated as an expert by his readers. But surely even the editor of a literary magazine ought to be able to count to three.
As I said in my last post, I’m giving as good as I get from now on, and today I seem to be getting plenty
Over at Catallaxy (Google it if you want), Sinclair Davidson is complaining about my Australian Laureate Fellowship (total budget, including lots of postdocs, PhD students etc, $2 million over 5 years) as an imposition on the taxpayer. Sinclair also receives a taxpayer funded salary of at least $150K. The standard assumption is that 30 per cent of a professorial salary is for research, the rest for teaching, administration, community service and so on. By contrast, I’m funded 100 per cent for research, my own and that of my students and collaborators. So, let’s see who is goofing off on the taxpayer dollar.
Here’s Sinclair: two journal articles\, and zero working papers in the last five years. On my arithmetic, allowing 30 per cent of salary for research, that’s a rate of over $100k per publication.
Here’s me 29 journal articles and 36 working papers in the same period. That’s about $30k per publication, without allowing for material produced by the postdocs and PhD students funded by my grant.
Those aren’t exhaustive lists of publications by any means, but I doubt that the relativities would change if we had a more complete list, including books, reports and so on. Adjusting for journal quality, as perceived by the profession, would make the difference even sharper.
Updated With their usual affinity for conspiracy theories, commenters here at and Catallaxy are suggesting that my current Fellowship is a favor from my Labor mates (readers here will be aware of my slavish devotion to our PM, which has, it seems, finally paid off). Of course, the great thing with conspiracy theories is that, the longer you look, the more conspirators you find. I’m sure the Catallaxians will be unsurprised to discover that this is, in fact, my fifth fellowship of this kind (the publication count above refers to my previous one), and that the previous four were all awarded by the Howard government.
Further update Sinclair Davidson has responded with a more complete list of his publications, including quite a few that appear neither on the IDEAS database (because it doesn’t include low-grade journals like Agenda and Policy nor on his personal webpage at RMIT. As I said above, it doesn’t change the relativities.
Yet further update Davidson has managed to convince the ever-gullible Andrew Bolt that pieces in Policy (
not even ranked as a peer-reviewed journal by the ARC ranked C by the ARC), Agenda (ranked B) and a bunch of CIS/IPA publications constitute a stellar publication record. There’s nothing wrong with publishing in magazines like these (I do plenty of it), but it’s supposed to be a by-product of academic research, not a substitute for it. Bolt (innumerate, and out by two orders of magnitude on the impact of emissions policy), also repeats his claim that I’m the math-challenged one.
The Oz and Andrew Bolt have a tag team attack on me today (Google it if you want). Most of it consists of quotations, with lots of ellipses, that are meant to show me as a dangerous radical. I can’t say I’m too upset by that – from their perspective, it’s a fair assessment. But Bolt also repeats his claim that I made a factor-of-5 error in my estimate of the impact of Australia’s current 2020 target on global temperatures.
This is a striking piece of chutzpah, given that this estimate was made in the process of correcting a calculation by Bolt, which was out by two orders of magnitude. But it has finally provoked me to clear up some of the confusion on this. The starting point was this post by Bolt who used a calculation by Damon Matthews that each tonne of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere changes the equilibrium temperature by 0.000 000 000 0015 degrees, that is 1.5*10^-12 in scientific notation. Noting that the carbon price is expected to reduce emissions by 160 million tonnes per year by 2020, Bolt made the calculation that the emissions avoided in the year 2020 will reduce equilibrium temperature by 2.4*10^-4 or 0.00024 degrees, and treats this as an estimate of the impact of the policy.
This is an amazing howler on Bolt’s part. He’s only counted one year of emissions reductions for a policy that is supposed to permanently reduce emissions. I made the very quick calculation that, if the policy stays in place until 2100 and that the 2020 reduction in emissions was maintained over this period, the number used by Bolt would imply a reduction of 0.02 degrees. I did another rough calculation that came out the same way.
Bolt came back with a lower estimate by Roger Jones, who suggest that the policy would reduce temperature by only 0.004 degrees, lower by a factor of 5 than my estimate, but higher by a factor of 20 than Bolt’s silly calculation.
At this point I slipped up. As a result of a misunderstood conversation with Roger, I gave an incorrect explanation for the discrepancy. Roger subsequently advised that he had made his calculation using a standard modelling tool called MAGICC. I finally got around to downloading MAGICC, and trying it out, so I can now give an explanation for why our estimates differ. There are three main points
(1) The most important factor is that we are estimating two different things. MAGICC produces estimates of the temperature change by 2100, but the atmosphere takes a long time to reach equilibrium. For reductions in CO2 emissions spread out over the rest of this century, the change by 2100 is only about half the long run equilibrium change.
(2) Estimates of the sensitivity of the global climate to changes in CO2 concentrations vary. The most common measure is the equilibrium temperature change for a doubling in atmospheric CO2. Until recently MAGICC used 2.6 degrees as the default, on the low side of most estimates. I used 3.5, which gives a value around 30 per cent higher
(3) Finally, while it’s obviously silly to assume, like Bolt, that the policy is in effect for only one year, it’s not entirely clear how we should project its impact into the future. That depends on baseline projections of emissions from which to calculate percentage reductions. My simple estimate takes a constant reduction over 80 years, which is probably a bit on the high side. If you assumed that emissions were going to decline anyway over the second half of this century, the effect of the policy would be reduced, perhaps by half.
Those three factors, taken together, would account for the discrepancy in the two estimates. I don’t claim that I’ve got them exactly right and there may be points I’ve missed. But for someone like Bolt to pontificate on a subject like this, when he is incapable of avoiding or correcting even the most absurd errors, brings to mind Matthew 7:3-5.
Anyone who has been around the left of Australian (or UK) politics long enough will be aware of the Fabian Society. It’s a group that’s earnest in the way only an organization founded in the late 19th century can be. It produces carefully researched papers on topics like education funding and housing policy, invariably worthwhile, but rarely fiery.
The Society takes its name from a Roman general who achieved victory over the seemingly invincible Hannibal, by avoiding pitched battle and wearing his opponent down: the idea was that socialism should be achieved by gradual reform through democratic processes, rather than through the revolutionary approach advocated by Marxism. This gradual approach was symbolised by the adoption, as a logo, of a tortoise (or maybe turtle), drawn by Walter Crane, the leading illustrator of children’s books in the late 19th century, and a society member. And, after 100+ years, even the most optimistic Fabians would concede that, if anything, the tortoise exaggerates the pace of movement towards socialism.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, this resolutely gradualist approach, the Fabian Society has always loomed large in the demonology of the nuttier sections of the political right, appearing as some sort of cross between the Illuminati and the United Nations. Here for example is Rose Martin of the Mises Society, warning that the tortoise is now going at the pace of a freeway.
The Institute of Public Affairs is the leading Australian representative of this kind of wingnuttery (although it manages to get taken seriously by surprisingly many) so it’s unsurprising to see the IPA’s Julie Novak muttering darkly at Catallaxy about this “shadowy group” (she’s a bit puzzled that Julia Gillard openly declares her membership). What’s interesting is her claim, with illustration that “The logo of the Society, of a wolf dressed up in sheep’s clothing, is all you need to know about how these people seek to achieve their objectives”
Huh? What happened to the tortoise? The answer it turns out, goes back to a joke played by George Bernard Shaw early in the 20th century
A prominent figure in Australian politics in the first half of last century, Billy Hughes, ‘the Little Digger’, was famous for his flexibility, having successively led the Labor Party, National Labor, the Nationalists and then the United Australia Party, before serving in Labor’s Advisory War Council and then joining the Liberal Party. According to legend, he was once asked why he had never joined the Country Party (now the National Party) and replied ‘You have to draw the line somewhere’.
Starting about the time Hughes retired, the Institute of Public Affairs has been similarly flexible, serving first as a Liberal Party slush fund, and then combining a high-minded line in free-market ideology with hackish advocacy on the part of all kinds of vested interests. But, unlike Hughes, the IPA has decided not to draw a line anywhere.
Ever since the Brisbane Institute cancelled my invitation to debate Christopher ‘Lord” Monckton a few years ago, I’ve followed his career with more than usual interest. His ‘Loony Lord M’ character, owing a lot to Screaming Lord Sutch, has been a huge hit here in Australia. By contrast, back in the UK, officials of the House of Lords have taken offence at his claims to be a member of that institution. Some sniffy British Tories also seem to be upset by the claim that the UK government, along with Obama, Merkel and Gillard, are plotting to introduce a communist world government through a $20/tonne tax on CO2, and, of course, Agenda 21. Here in Australia, though, the fans love him for his ability to make the most absurd claims with a (sort of) straight face.
Given his obvious similarities to Sacha Baron-Cohen, it seemed reasonable to expect that Monckton would come up with a new character to keep his Antipodean fans amused. That expectation was proved correct when he turned up in Canberra as Crusader Monckton, endorsing pastor Danny Nalliah’s campaign against the oppressive rule of Shariah law in Australia, and the establishment of a new Judaeo-Christian political party. So far he’s getting rave reviews in advance press.
I’m a bit disappointed, though, that he doesn’t seem to be growing as an artist. Instead of making a clean break, he’s playing it safe, maintaining the previous climate delusionist shtick in parallel with the new one. And there isn’t really a lot of distance between the old character and the new one. Existing fans like Abbott, Albrechtsen, Bolt and, of course, Gina Rinehart will welcome the addition of the new Crusader persona, but there’s no way he can reach new audiences with such tired stuff. He really needs something more creative, like a campaign against gravity, or a claim that cancer is good for you.
Still, for those interested here’s the tour schedule
fn1. He ran at the first opportunity, receiving no votes. In emulation of the Monty Python Silly Party, he ran again, getting twice as many.
Over at Crooked Timber, I and others have been blogging about the death of the wonderful Aaron Swartz, driven to suicide by abusive prosecutors Carmen M. Ortiz and Stephen Heymann (there are petitions calling for their dismissal, which US readers are encouraged to sign, and another to pardon Swartz. Opinions differ on the last of these, but I think it should be supported).
Now we have a similar, though hopefully less tragic, case of the same mentality being applied in Australia. Last year, the University of Western Sydney tried to shut down its economics program. I was among the many who protested and the university backed down partially, agreeing to retain a major. But lots of people, including well-known macroeconomist Steve Keen decided to take the redundancy package and leave. Keen’s course was to be scrapped, and he commented to students that, in the absence of any way of retaking the course, he wouldn’t be able to fail them. Whether this was a joke, or a serious statement, it certainly pointed out the incompetence with which the shutdown was being managed. The University, possibly still smarting from its defeat, took disciplinary action against Keen and has now taken the extraordinary step of referring him to the Independent Commission Against Corruption. I’m sure that ICAC will laugh at this, but it’s the kind of threat that has to be taken seriously. I imagine Keen will face significant legal expenses as a result.
So far, I’ve referred to the University, but obviously these decisions were made by actual people, and those at the centre appear to be:
The vice-chancellor of UWS, Janice Reid hasn’t made any public statement as yet, AFAIK. If she has any care for the reputation of UWS, and her own, she needs to abandon this vindictive attempt at prosecution, and pull these bullying bureaucrats into line.
More at Catallaxy – on this occasion, I agree entirely.
Note - if you follow the Catallaxy link, do yourself a favor and skip the comments thread. Australia’s centre-right intelligentsia living up/down to its usual standard.
Last time I paid attention to Opposition climate spokesman Greg Hunt, he was talking to the Oz, making absurdly inflated claims about the impact of a carbon price on household electricity bills. Now he’s at it again, with a statement to Imre Salusinszky at the Oz, claiming that I endorsed Jonathan Moylan’s (reported) actions in the Whitehaven hoax, and that I supported market manipulation more generally. From that, he draws the conclusion that I have breached my legal obligation under the Public Service Act to comply with the law in all matters relating to employment, and therefore that I an not a fit and proper person to be a member of the Climate Change Authority. Here are the money paras from Salusinszky’s email to me and Hunt’s statement to the Oz
Greg Hunt says your public support for Jonathan Moylan raises a potential conflict with your role on the Climate Change Commission (sic), because the public service code of conduct deems that “an APS employee, when acting in the course of APS employment, must comply with all applicable Australian laws.” Hunt’s point is that by supporting Moylan you are implicitly endorsing stock market manipulation.
Under the Public Service Act it is clearly inappropriate and irresponsible for Statutory office holders to be supporting market manipulation and the use of false and misleading information. This raises deep questions in terms of both the Act and the public service Code and values on a number of fronts. The simple answer is that no public official should ever be endorsing the use of false and misleading information to manipulate the share market
Obviously, this is a grotesque misrepresentation. My view of Moylan’s (reported) actions was summed up by the observation “I’m not a big fan of hoaxes”. My posts on the subject were not concerned with the ethics of the hoax, but with the absurdity of the reactions to it.
But the claims that I acted unlawfully under the Public Service Act take Hunt’s silliness out of the normal political category, and well into the realm of defamation. Of course, Hunt is safe enough so far. I haven’t got the time, energy or financial resources to pursue him, other than through this blog. News Limited is a different matter. Given their deep pockets and demonstrable history of malice towards me, they’ll make a tempting target if they are silly enough to publish Hunt’s libels. I don’t usually read the Oz, but I will certainly do so with care tomorrow.
Update When he was advised of my response by Imre Salusinszky, Hunt backed off, though with bad grace (he stated to me in email that it was more than he thought I deserved) and in a way that makes his claim of a breach of the Public Service Act even more nonsensical (leaving aside the fact that, at least according to Bernard Keane, I’m not covered by the Act anyway). The resulting article, in which Hunt also attacks Clive Hamilton, is here.
While checking on that report, I found another Hunt piece, a passionate defence of free speech against the “un-Australian” threat of litigation. Published in the Oz, of course, and only five days ago.
Finally, I should say that I don’t have any complaints about Salusinszky’s actions in this matter. He advised me of the accusations and took my response back to Hunt. The report as published is an accurate representation of what I wrote.
fn1. A policy he supported for decades, until it became necessary to oppose it.
fn2. I never mentioned Moylan by name, and I have no knowledge as to whether he acted as reported and, if so, whether this constituted manipulation of the share market. As I said on Twitter, that’s his problem, not mine.
Continuing on silly claims about the Whitehaven hoax, the figure of $300 million is being bandied about as the cost to Australia’s Mums and Dads. I haven’t checked, but I assume that this is the change in market capitalization of Whitehaven from the opening to the point at which the hoax was exposed. That is, it’s the amount that would have been lost if all the shares in the company had been sold at the bottom, assuming this was feasible, which it isn’t. Of course, an equal amount would have been gained by the buyers.
But, ever vigilant on behalf of Australia’s Mums and Dads (I’d like extra bonus sympathy as a Grandad!), I thought I would check to see if any such outrages are continuing. It turns out that the All Ordinaries index has fallen 16 points, or about 0.4 per cent, since 10am. Assuming a market capitalization of 1.2 trillion, that’s nearly $5 billion ripped from our parental pockets in the course of a single morning. Almost certainly, some of this due to spurious rumors, some of which may have been deliberately spread.
Can’t something be done about this? Won’t somebody think of the children?
PS: I see in comments that Alison Parkes has made a similar point
… if their a**e was on fire. That’s just about literally true of Australia’s climate delusionists. As the hottest temperatures on record set off the predictable (and predicted) bushfires, they keep on with the same old stuff. This Catallaxy thread has it all, if you can stomach it – bogus statistical claims from fools too ignorant to estimate a trend line and too lazy to learn how, silly IPCC and BOM conspiracy theories, absurd economic alarmism about the allegedly catastrophic effects of the carbon price, CO2 as plant food, and so on. Catallaxy’s main rival in the lunar right stakes, the Oz, chimes in with an editorial snarking about Al Gore. Meanwhile, Christopher Monckton has teamed up with pastor, creationist and bigot Danny Nalliah, who blames the bushfires on God’s wrath, to promote an Australian version of the UK Independence Party.
There is no possible evidence or argument that can shift these guys. The only consolation is that, while ignorance is strength in the short run, a political movement that relies on delusion will fail in the end. The US Republicans, and their supporting apparatus of thinktanks, media outlets and blogs have found that out, having lost both elections and credibility. The same is happening here, particularly with respect to alarmist claims about the devastating effects of pricing carbon.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, I’m starting a long-postponed project on bushfires and climate change with a former postdoc of mine who’s been working in the US for some years and is back for a long visit, having arrived just as the Tasmanian fires started it.
At about the same time as announcing that Queensland was an economic basket case, requiring large scale sackings of public employees to balance the books, the Newman government called for tenders for a project that, among other things, involves demolishing the 1970s office tower in which the Premier, Deputy Premier and Treasurer work, and replacing it with a spiffy new one. Some might see a contradiction here, but according to Treasurer Tim Nicholls, the new building “won’t cost taxpayers a cent“.
I’m tempted to say “if you believe that, I have a bridge for sale”, but of course Australian governments of both parties have become adept in bogus sales of bridges, roads and assets of all kinds. So, I’ll quote the famous aphorism, There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.
In the case of the “free lunch” apparently offered by US bars in the past, it’s clear enough that you are unlikely to get the lunch more than once if you don’t order a beer or two, and that the price of the lunch is included in that of the beer. In a complex transaction like the current one, it’s not immediately obvious how we are paying for Mr Nicholls’ new office. Some of it is in the 15-year lease payable to the owners of the new building, some of it in land being given away with the deal and some of it, probably, in valuable rights being handed over free of charge. What we do know is that, when you can’t see the price of what you are buying it’s almost certainly higher than if you paid upfront.
Of course, we have a Commission of Audit, headed by former Treasurer Peter Costello, that is supposed to expose dodgy transactions in the State’s books. The Committee prepared its draft report over the same period as this deal was going down. The government hasn’t released the report. An amusing, but unlikely, possibility is that the Commission actually did its job and criticised this boondoggle, leading the government to bury the report. More likely, Costello has done his job by helping to create the panic needed to justify 20 000 sackings, and is now just an embarrassment.
While we are on the subject of irresponsible pranks, noted performance artist, “Lord Monckton” is returning to Australia after his highly successful tour a couple of years ago, when I was invited to, and then disinvited from, a debate with him. I had some good lines ready on my part in the conspiracy to impose a communist world government, but I never got to use them. On the other hand, Monckton played the straight man to Tim Lambert, reprising the famous McLuhan moment from Annie Hall.
It’s been suggested that “Monckton” is another manifestation of the multi-faceted Sacha Baron-Cohen, but this is incorrect. Like his model, the marvellous Screaming Lord Sutch, Monckton lives his character 24/7. In fact, Monckton outdoes Sutch in many respects. Sutch regularly ran for the English House of Commons as a candidate for the Monster Raving Loony Party, losing his deposit every time. Monckton topped this by running for the House of Lords, as an independent monster raving loony, and received zero votes. Emulating Monty Python’s Silly Party, he ran three times more, doubling his vote each time.
His latest tour will be a challenge. He doesn’t seem to have much new material to add to the loony climate denialist routines of his previous tours, and much of the audience is now in on the joke. For example, I’m pretty sure that Andrew Bolt tumbled after Monckton’s Galileo Movement prank. Still, fans of WWE wrestling are perfectly happy to cheer the faces and boo the heels, knowing perfectly well that the events are staged and scripted, and indeed getting additional entertainment from the soap opera of the “real story”
When commentators as disparate as me, Warwick McKibbin, Bernie Fraser, ACOSS the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia are all in agreement, it might be time for the government, and the opposition to start paying attention. At this point, I doubt that there is a single credible economist who thinks that the government’s promise to return the budget to surplus this financial year is a good idea. Yet the Treasurer remains absolutely committed, and the Opposition is ready to denounce him if we miss the target by even a single dollar.
To restate the case, it’s clear that growth is slowing, and, as usual in these circumstances, monetary policy is becoming less effective. In cases like this, fiscal policy ought to be moderately stimulatory, or at least left neutral, so that the automatic stabilizers (declining revenue and increasing welfare payments) are left to cushion the impact of a slowdown. Instead, thanks to this absurd pledge, the government is committed to matching every reduction in economic activity (and therefore in the budget balance) with its own cuts or tax surcharges.
Obviously, the reasoning here is political not economic. The government suffered badly from the gratuitous “no carbon tax” promise made before the 2010 election. To dump the equally gratuitous “early return to surplus” promise would involve a whole world of pain. And of course Tony Abbott cares nothing at all about good policy, unless it’s defined as policy that will make him PM. So, we have the politicians united on one side of the debate, and everyone who has any idea of economic reality on the other.
fn1. Feel free to parse this in comments, but the fact remains that the Rudd government was elected with a strong commitment to carbon pricing, which Labor then dumped in a loss of nerve before the 2010 and was forced back to (something like) its original position by the election outcome. In this context, the question of whether a specific promise was made and broken is of secondary intersest.
Following up on my post about Rachel Nolan’s arguments for privatisation, I ran across this interview with former ALP education minister and attorney general Cameron Dick, generally regarded as a rising star while Labor was in office. Before Nolan, Dick was the only minister willing to go on record with thoughts about Labor’s defeat and he had this to say
he felt the party should have concentrated more on the economy during the election campaign, emphasising the decisions it had made.
‘‘I do think Labor fell into the error, or seriously miscalculated and under-estimated the desire for Queenslanders to hold onto the AAA credit rating,’’ he said.
‘‘And I think the concern Queenslanders had generally about government debt and deficit.
‘‘And I think we were unable to effectively tell our story about investing in infrastructure to keep jobs.
‘‘I mean, that was the strategy we took as part of the global financial crisis.’’
Say what? All of these points would be a great explanation if Labor had lost the 2009 election, after sacrificing the AAA rating to maintain infrastructure and jobs as a strategy in response to the global financial crisis. But, in reality Labor won that election easily. The plunge in the polls came when they announced a drive to restore the AAA rating by selling public assets, mostly infrastructure, and by pushing the panic button with respect to government debt and deficits. All the polls showed that no one except the pollies (and powerful bureaucrats like Doug McTaggart and Leo Hielscher) gave two hoots about the discredited ratings agencies. They hated the asset sales, and dumped the government as a result.
To strengthen my conclusion from last post, while the Newman government has been a disaster, the Labor MPs who supported the sales to the bitter end (all but a handful) brought their fate on themselves, and deserved it. Labor will certainly win lots of seats next time around, and perhaps even win government. I hope they can do a better job selecting candidates whose views reflect those of Labor voters.
The most striking political development of the last decade or so has been the abandonment, by the political right, of any concern with reality. Mitt Romney ran the most deceitful and dishonest campaign in US political history, vowing not to be deterred by fact-checkers. His partisans, in the US and Australia have made denial of reality an artform. This approach has had some remarkable successes, notably in delaying action against climate change. But there is always the risk that deception will turn into self-deception and the US Presidential election illustrated that, with the emergence of “poll trutherism”, the belief that the polls pointing to Obama’s re-election were skewed in order to encourage Democratic turnout.
Now that poll-based predictions have turned out to be as close to accurate as statistical theory would predict, how will the right react? I can think of three possibilities
(a) Going deeper down the rabbit hole with the idea that the “increase Democratic turnout” strategy ensured that the polls were a self-fulfilling prophecy
(b) Attempting to return to reality on this issue, while maintaining delusional positions on other issues, and maintaining faith in the pundits who led them astray this time round
(c) A serious attempt to shift to a policy discourse based on evidence and analysis rather than talking points in support of positions chosen on a basis of tribal faith
I can’t imagine much progress towards (c). Apart from anything else, most of the existing rightwing commentariat would be unemployable if this were required of them. So far, I haven’t seen much evidence of (a), but it may well be bubbling below the surface. Still, at this point (b) looks most likely.
Gary E. MacDougal (The Wrong Way to Help the Poor, 10/10/12) claims that the Federal government currently spends an average of $87000 a year on the typical family of four living in poverty. MacDougall’s calculation is out by a factor of at least four and probably more.
MacDougal’s source, Michael Tanner of Cato, treats all means-tested programs as anti-poverty programs. This includes the Earned Income Tax Credit, Family Tax credit and other programs for the middle and working classes. As Tanner admits, these programs have at least 100 million recipients, and probably many more. So, the average payment is less than $10 000, not the $20, 610 Tanner estimates.
It gets worse. The number of recipients doesn’t include children or adult dependents, but MacDougal’s calculation does. His family of four would include at most two benefit recipients, and would therefore receive less than the poverty line income of $23 050.
… a ball bearing perhaps?
0.4 percentage points is the estimate of the CPI impact of the carbon price, published in the Herald Sun (hardly likely to understate it). In the attempt to stop this catastrophe, the Australian political right has trashed its intellectual credibility, embraced lurid conspiracy theories, reduced its leading publications to laughing stocks, and promulgated a string of easily falsified talking points, each one more absurd than the last. So, now that their predictions of doom have come to this, what will be their response? My guess is that they will double down – Catallaxy and Andrew Bolt are already on the job.
Of course, a price of $23/tonne is just the thin end of the wedge. Most estimates suggest that we need a price somewhere in the range $50-100/tonne to produce a long run shift to a low-carbon economy. That might amount to a price increase of 2 or 3 per cent – about the same as the GST.
I know I should just ignore the Oz, but faced with its continuous campaign to promote innumeracy, cheered on by the likes of Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt, I can’t help but try to set things straight. We’ve seen on many occasions that nearly all “sceptics” either misrepresent of misunderstand the concept of statistical significance, assuming it to correspond to the ordinary meaning of “significant”. The classic example is the Lindzen talking point, made in 2008 that “there has been no statistically significant warming since 1995″. As everyone who understands statistical signifance (notably including Phil Jones, who gave an accurate response and saw a distorted version of his words become a delusionist meme), that’s because statistical significance depends on sample size. Roughly speaking, to see a significant upward trend in a noisy time series, the trend, multiplied by the number of years of data, needs to be about twice the standard deviation of the random variation about trend. So, if you have an upward trend of 0.015 degrees per year, and a standard deviation of 0.1 (these are estimates, but feel free to check)) you typically need 14 or 15 years of data to see a statistically significant trend. Over shorter periods, it’s easy to eyeball a pause or decline, as this graph from Skeptical Science shows.
Lindzen obviously knew this, and it was easy to check that he could go back 13 years from 2008 (but no further) without finding a statistically significant trend. He also knew that, given a few more years of data, the trend for the period since 1995 would be statistically significant, but correctly assumed that no-one on the delusionist side would know or care. Now, the Oz has this, from Michael Asten, professor of geophysics at Monash University. It’s worded carefully enough for me to think he knows he’s pulling the same swifty as Lindzen, but it’s hard to tell for sure
Global temperatures have not increased in a statistically significant sense in the past 15 years. A pause of 10 years in the upward trend of the past 40 years would be unsurprising from existing models. A pause of 20 years would definitely surprise. Changes across the next five years will be watched closely.
As you would expect, Asten has to move Lindzen’s goalposts forward by a couple of years, to an implied starting date of 1997. Note also that he slides from “no statistically significant trend” to “a pause”. What can we say about this? In one sense he is right. As I’ve said, we need about 15 years of data to get a statistically significant trend, so we wouldn’t expect to find one with 10 years, and we would usually expect to find one with 20 years. But, of course, that number itself is variable. Asten is repeating basic facts about time series, in a way that would lead unwary or gullible readers (the vast majority, given the outlet) to suppose that recent evidence casts doubt on the observed warming trend. The only thing that’s hard to figure here is whether he is fooling himself as well as his readers.
fn1. (Lindzen himself often slipped from “no statistically significant warming” to “no warming” either out of sloppiness or because he thought no one was looking.
I quote in full the Audit Commission’s response to my critique, as reported by the Oz
The statement only responds to the findings of the QCU study, and not those of Professor Quiggin.
“There are no other points of substance in his (Quiggin’s) report which warrant a response,” the statement said.
Watching the 7:30 Report the other night, I saw Bronwyn Bishop (once touted as a possible PM) oppose legislation requiring automatic enrolment of 18-year olds to vote (already in place for state elections in NSW and Victoria). Her argument “it is a binding requirement, under the Electoral Act, for people to enrol themselves”. Umm, yes, and tomorrow, when the new legislation is passed, no such binding requirement will exist.
That’s how Robert Vienneau described me after some of my stoushes last year.
It seems as if my luck is holding in that respect at any rate. While I’ve had plenty of supportive responses after being booted from the Fin, I’m sure not everyone is sorry to see me go. Most of those in the latter class, however, haven’t seen any need to gloat.
I would have been disappointed, however, if Andrew Bolt had not lived down to his usual form on this occasion. Sure enough, as his fans have advised me both by email and in comments here, he’s written a gloating column, expressing the hope that Laura Tingle (a far better journalist than Bolt could ever be, even if he was trying) will be next to go.
Bolt can’t even manage an original line of attack, dragging out the tired misrepresentation of a 2007 blog post that the Telegraph ran last week.
The great thing about having Bolt as an enemy is that you get his fans thrown in as part of the package. There’s something comforting in knowing that, if someone dislikes you, there’s a high probability that they are the kind of person who comments on Bolt’s blog.
Of course, it isn’t much of a distinction to be one of Bolt’s enemies. With the exception of the late Paddy McGuinness (who at least had some style to combine with the vitriol) I can’t think of anyone who is less discriminating in his hatreds.
George Megalogenis is a smart and insightful writer, so I opened his new book The Australian Moment with anticipation. Alas, the very first sentence is the most tiresome of generation game cliches
Every rich nation reveals its character in its most selfish generation – the baby boomers
Showing that invoking the word “generation” instantly reduces your IQ by about 50 points, Megalogenis goes on to support his claim by a discussion of the results of a poll of voters taken in 1972, the year Gough Whitlam was elected, and the year before his government lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
The baby boom began in 1946, when returning members of the armed services started having big families. The end is usually placed somewhere between 1960 and 1963.
Whichever end date you choose, even the many boomers who were still in primary school ought to have been capable of doing the subtraction that would inform George that anyone born after 1951 (that is, the vast majority of boomers) was not a voter in 1972.
Austerity is hitting lots of people, across pretty much all social classes, except for the top 1 per cent, who are rapidly recouping their losses in the GFC and will soon be pulling even further away from the 99. Just at the moment, academics seem to be in the crosshairs, from Washington to Sydney and beyond. Here’s a post on the subject from my friend and former colleague Rohan Pitchford. To forestall a possible line of criticism, let me observe now that, while academics have it better than plenty of others under attack from austerity policies, anyone who plays on this kind of division is a tool of the 1 per cent, and will be treated as such by me.
Sackings Hit Economics School Hard (Guest post from Rohan Pitchford)
I was surprised and dismayed to hear that that several of my former colleagues at the School of Economics at the University of Sydney have been told to leave their jobs by July. A remarkable aspect is that the sackings happened by edict, several layers of administration above the School level. How is it possible for such a removed group to know the details of people’s work life, their roles and the reasons behind their roles without any form of consultation? (ANU also faces budget cuts, but is taking the enlightened bottom-up approach.)
I know all of those concerned personally, and the group includes both talented researchers, teachers and administrators. They were apparently selected using retrospective publication criteria. We all know that most people experience a ‘bare patch’ in their publications during the life course, whether it be because of a new child, a death in the family, illness (admin duties!) etc. Knowing the people involved, the criteria seem to me unfair and random.
Perhaps the most astounding fact in all of this is that Sydney Economics has been perennially understaffed– as a Professor there, I estimated that they were some 10 academics short of what is required to deliver requisite courses: The average class size is 110, I conjecture larger than any other department. There are not enough staff to cover all the classes taught, let alone to reduce class sizes to educationally appropriate levels. Sydney typically has had to hire part-timers to fill the gap. The department generates some 20 million dollars per year in revenue from its teaching program. I cannot imagine that this will do anything but hurt this important revenue base.
A big question is this: Are the sackings due to productivity, or are they in response to an administration that has grossly over-spent on buildings? I have heard rumours of expenditure of 100m on a new medical centre, and 360m on a new obesity centre preceded these sackings.
Solutions? I discuss a possible way forward for Australia here: