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Archive for the ‘Boneheaded stupidity’ Category

Starting as I mean to go on (updated)

March 13th, 2013 125 comments

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.

Motes and beams

March 13th, 2013 41 comments

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.

Read more…

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

GBS pwns IPA

March 11th, 2013 35 comments

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[1] (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[2] 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

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The IPA: Less scruples than Billy Hughes

February 28th, 2013 95 comments

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.

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Crusader Monckton

February 13th, 2013 119 comments

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[1]. 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.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Science Tags:

Swartz and Keen

January 19th, 2013 53 comments

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:

Kerri-Lee Krause, pro vice-chancellor (education) (quoted in the Oz story)
and
Clive Smallman, Dean of Business

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.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, World Events Tags:

Greg Hunt: Can’t add, can’t read

January 14th, 2013 59 comments

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[1] 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”[2]. 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.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics Tags:

$300 million

January 11th, 2013 28 comments

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

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics Tags:

Wouldn’t even know …

January 9th, 2013 57 comments

… 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.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity Tags:

TANSTAAFL

December 21st, 2012 77 comments

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.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics Tags:

Return of ‘Lord Monckton’

December 12th, 2012 79 comments

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”

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity Tags:

A surplus of stupidity

December 6th, 2012 62 comments

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[1] 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.

Doing the time warp

December 3rd, 2012 34 comments

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.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics Tags:

The reality wars are over. Reality won.

November 13th, 2012 111 comments

Discuss

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity Tags:

Reality bites

November 7th, 2012 47 comments

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.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity Tags:

An unpublished letter to the New York Times

October 27th, 2012 33 comments

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.

0.4 percent of a wrecking ball makes …

October 24th, 2012 165 comments

… 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.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

Statistical significance

October 19th, 2012 27 comments

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[1]

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.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

The ultimate non-response response?

September 7th, 2012 49 comments

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.

Impressive logic

June 23rd, 2012 32 comments

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.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity Tags:

Fortunate in my enemies

April 7th, 2012 218 comments

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.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity Tags:

Megalogenis messes up the generation game

April 5th, 2012 23 comments

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.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity Tags:

Austerity and academia

March 28th, 2012 179 comments

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:

Alesina, Ardagna, Austerity, Australia

March 19th, 2012 13 comments

A while ago I published a blog post, and later a Fin article, pointing out that the influential Alesina and Ardagna article, Tales of Fiscal Adjustment, that coined the term “expansionary austerity” was riddled with factual and analytical errors in its discussion of Australia. That piece has elicited a string of lengthy replies from the Catallaxy/CIS team, notable for the absence of any substantive content. Sinclair Davidson produced a mammoth post with multiple updates, entirely devoted to refuting a parenthetical snark on my part that the paper wasn’t peer reviewed. Now there’s another one from Steve Kates, who wants to quibble about the chronological relationship between Jean-Baptiste Say and the Mills, father and son.

So, an open challenge. In my original post, I give seven quotes from the Alesina and Ardagna article, all of which I say are wrong or at least misleading. Does anyone want to defend any of these? Special bonus points for anyone who can defend the opening sentence of their Australian section, which reads “In 1985, a single-party left-wing government took office and launched a stabilization plan to correct the internal and external imbalances (the current account deficit was 4.13% of GDP and the total deficit/GDP ratio was above 3% in 1984). ” (emphasis added).

UpdateKates has added a lengthy update to his post, without, AFAICT, defending the erroneous claims in A & A

The zombie economics of austerity in Australia (updated again)

February 16th, 2012 128 comments

Yesterday’s Fin ran a piece from Stephen Kirchner and Robert Carling of the Centre for Independent Studies, under the headline “Give austerity a chance” which was a pretty accurate summary of the contents. It’s paywalled, but you may be able to read it by clicking here. The piece relies almost exclusively on the work of Alberto Alesina and his colleagues, promoting the zombie idea of expansionary austerity. As I pointed out here, the most influential of these pieces by Alesina and Ardagna, is riddled with errors, at least as it applies to Australia.

Although Kirchner is a blogger himself, he and his co-author could be forgiven for missing my post. But Alesina’s work is probably the most-refuted piece of economic analysis put out (though never published in a peer-reviewed journal) in recent decades. It’s been demolished not only by the usual suspects like Krugman and DeLong (and me), but by the Economist, the IMF and even by one of Alesina’s own co-authors, Roberto Perotti.

Charitably assuming that Kirchner and Carling had managed to miss just about every publication on the question of austerity in the last year, could they not have spent 30 seconds with Google before hitting “Send”? A search on Alesina+austerity reveals a torrent of criticism, none of which they mention.

It is hard to know which is worse – the possibility that Kirchner and Carling, presented by the CIS as expert economists, were ignorant of all this, or the alternative hypothesis that they knew it and decided not to mention it. Either way, it’s an appalling breach of elementary standards of research.

I’m pretty sure the facts have been brought to the attention of Kirchner and Carling. The honest thing to do would be to write to the Fin pointing out that the work on which they relied was, at best, highly controversial. If Kirchner, Carling and the CIS are unwilling to do this, we can draw the conclusion that they cannot be trusted in anything they write.

Update Sinclair Davidson at Catallaxy has a lengthy reply, but the sole substantive criticism is that contrary to my parenthetical remark, Alesina and Ardagna did finally publish a peer-reviewed paper in 2010. But the work that was actually influential was done back in the 1990s. I’ll republish my blog post pointing out what a shoddy job that paper in describing developments in Australia. Davidson’s piece is notable for the lack of any substantive defence of Alesina’s work, and also for this , offered in response to my observation that the research in question had been comprehensively demolished by the IMF among many others

Fancy that – cutting edge research into a highly politicised aspect of public policy is “controversial”. Does Quiggin think AFR readers are so dumb they wouldn’t realise that?

So, next time you read an opinion piece from the CIS you can safely assume the caveat lector “This research is probably discredited, the authors almost certainly know it, but, if so, they’re not going to tell you”.

No one expects opinion pieces to be “fair and balanced”, but if you are going to rely on work that has been subject to serious and credible criticism, you should at least point out the main criticisms and (if possible) say briefly why you think they don’t stand up. As an example, Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level produces some striking evidence of relationships between inequality and bad social outcomes.. This work has been subject to a lot of criticism, not fatal in my view, but enough that it needs to be mentioned. I did this when I cited the work in Zombie Economics and then at greater length here

Further update While still not disputing any of the substantive points I’ve raised, Davidson digs deeper on the question of whether the original Alesina and Ardagna work was published in a peer-reviewed journal. The work was published in Economic Papers, which does not take unsolicited submissions. Rather the editors commission pieces, or you can propose a piece to them. That is, this is, as the webpage says, a policy forum, not an academic journal. Standard practice for publications of this kind is for the editors to approve (or return for revision, or, very rarely, reject) the pieces they’ve commissioned. This isn’t peer-review in the normal sense. I’ve always assumed that Economic Papers follows the standard practice in this respect, but Davidson is welcome to check it out, if he cares enough.

As a PS, I couldn’t resist checking a 700-comment thread on the US elections. I shouldn’t link, but I will. While there is plenty of not-so-innocent amusement to be had, what struck me was that most of the commenters appear to be creationists – the handful holding up the flag for evolution are getting hammered.

Not Lake Wobegon

February 14th, 2012 26 comments

I haven’t been paying much attention to the Oz since it went behind the paywall, but I happened to pick up a copy of today’s paper edition, and came across a fascinating piece by Christian Kerr (who, IIRC, used to write for Crikey as “Hillary Bray”). Trying to talk up public opposition to equal marriage as a reason for Labor hesitancy to push hard on the issue, he cites a survey showing that around 25 per cent of Australians agree with the proposition homosexuality is immoral. Conscious that 25 per cent is, well, a minority, he decides to look at individual electorates.

What’s really striking is Kerr’s discovery that ‘In 80 of the 150 federal electorates, an above-average number of people support the proposition’. I did some quick math of my own, and it turns out that 80 is almost exactly half of 150. So, next time you see a sample estimate that doesn’t suit your case, be sure to check subsamples. You, too, may find that half of them are above the average.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics Tags:

Expansionary austerity: some shoddy scholarship (repost)

February 10th, 2012 37 comments

I’ve just read ‘Tales of Fiscal Adjustment’ by Alesina and Ardagna, which appears to be the founding text for the idea of expansionary austerity. The level of scholarship, at least as it applies to Australia (which is their first illustration) is exceptionally poor, to the extent that it requires a rescuscitation of the ancient Internet tradition of Fisking. I’m going to quote excerpts from their text (about 50 per cent of the total), and intersperse them with my comments.

Read more…

Republican idiocracy

February 5th, 2012 46 comments

As usual with my Fin columns, Catallaxy was straight out of the gate with a response yesterday. It was perhaps unsurprising as my piece mentioned climate change, and the Catallaxy crew includes a self-described “prominent scientist”, Alan Moran, a signatory of public letters attacking mainstream climate science.

In Catallaxy terms, however, Moran seems to be the designated hitter for those occasions when I write about the US political scene. Last time out, he was criticising me for “anointing” Romney as the likely winner – he preferred to discuss the bold tax plans of Herman Cain and Rick Perry. Now, he’s upset that I’ve “anointed” Jon Huntsman as the only Republican contender who seemed likely to beat Obama, ruled out because of his heretical (that is, pro-science) views on climate change.

Anyway, the column is over the fold.

Read more…

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

Ancient laws

January 9th, 2012 8 comments

An article on the Fairfax website[1] refers to habeas corpus as an ancient legal action from 17th century England. That’s technically true, but shouldn’t the article point out that the crime for which the person in question was convicted (soliciting to murder) and the legal procedures under which he was convicted are even more ancient?

Habeas corpus may be old, and have a Latin name, but it’s still central to common law, and needs to be defended against those who would destroy it in the name of the War on Terror.

fn1. For some reason, it appears under “WA Today”. I did a little digging and the subject of the story is a property developer who once owned a Scottish island with a title attached (not a barony, I’m pretty sure).

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity Tags:

Agnotology and Santa Claus

May 16th, 2011 18 comments

For students of agnotology there is no more striking finding than the observation that many people, presented with evidence that undermines a strongly held belief, react as if that belief had been confirmed[1]. This seems to undermine any possibility that evidence will ever settle political disputes. And yet, evidence does seem to seep through in the end. Although belief in Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction persisted long after the absence of evidence had turned into clear evidence of absence, it faded away in the end (not that it has completely disappeared even now).

As a slightly more optimistic take on the experimental evidence, I offer the example of Santa Claus. Young children, presented with the suggestion that Santa isn’t real, blithely ignore it. Slightly older children, though, react in exactly the manner of the experimental subjects, reaffirming their belief in the Santa story and (of course) the associated presents. Later, of course, they accept the truth.

In some social contexts children are likely draw the obvious analogy between Santa and God, while in other contexts, the distinction between the two beliefs is maintained successfully. But regardless of context, there is an obvious risk, for those who would like their children to grow up as theists, in insisting too hard on the reality of Santa.

Similarly, I suspect that the apparent success of Republicans in believing six impossible things before breakfast, and in taking up new delusions as old ones are abandoned, may mask an underlying erosion of faith. Birtherism may morph into torturism without any obvious sign of stress, but at some level people must gradually become aware that their political beliefs are more like the faith that belief in Santa will bring presents and less like the belief that kicking a rock will give you a stubbed toe.

fn1. The general phenonomen of confirmation bias (paying attention to evidence that supports your belief and disregarding contradictory evidence) is well established. The first finding of reinforcement Nyhan and Riefler find that Democrats ignore contradictory evidence, while Republicans respond in the way I described. I can’t find the study that supported this. Nyhan and Riefler cite earlier research by Redlawski that I haven’t been able to find.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity Tags: