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New Zealand’s zombie miracle

September 21st, 2016 37 comments

Twice in the last couple of days, I’ve bumped into the seemingly unkillable zombie idea that the New Zealand economy is doing well and ought to be a model for Australia. Checking Wikipedia to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I found that, as of 2015, NZ income per person was 30-35 per cent below that in Australia, as it has been ever since the miraculous reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. NZ is down with Italy and Spain on most rankings, while Australia is comparable to Germany (above on some rankings, below on others).

This wasn’t always the case. Before the reform era, New Zealand and Australia had almost identical income levels, among the richest in the world. NZ took a bigger hit from British entry into the EU in the early 1970s but after 50 years, that can scarcely serve as an excuse (and of course, no one is predicted that Brexit will be a gigantic benefit to NZ; rather the reverse)

Then there’s migration. I dealt with this here, but I’ll repost crucial points over the fold.

Read more…

Sandpit

September 12th, 2016 120 comments

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

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Human services for profit: the evidence is in

September 7th, 2016 91 comments

Over at Club Troppo, Nicholas Gruen has a thoughtful piece on the role of competition and choice in human services. He’s responding to the less-than-thoughtful boosterism of the Productivity Commission and the Harper Review on this topic. It’s well worth reading. Before doing so, though it’s important to take a look at the mounting evidence that for-profit provision of human services is almost invariably disastrous.

I’ll write a longer piece on this soon, I hope. But here are three recent examples from the United States, which has led the way in for-profit human services, and is now beginning to pull back

Shonky for-profit educator ITT closes down without notice, right at the beginning of a new semester.

Following a damning report, the US Department of Justice announces it will no longer use private prisons.

Charter schools (some openly for-profit, many others run as businesses) have been failing at a starting rate.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

After neoliberalism: a snippet

August 30th, 2016 34 comments

Over the fold, some concluding comments from a chapter I’ve written about the rise and decline of neoliberalism. I’m drawing on the “three-party system” analysis I’ve put forward before, in which neoliberalism (in both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ forms) is increasingly breaking down under pressure from tribalists on the right, and from an amorphous, but still resurgent left.

This is just a snippet, which I hope will evolve into a more extensive discussion of the policies and political strategies the left should adopt in response to the breakdown of the neoliberal order.

Read more…

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Nitpicking on nominal GDP targeting

August 25th, 2016 49 comments

Writing in the AFR, economics correspondent Jacob Greber begins his discussion of the Xenophon proposal with the assessment “What a stupid idea”. Given that he is dismissing proposals with wide support in the economics profession (including economists as different as me and Warwick McKibbin in the Australian context) one would expect that he had a knockdown argument to present. In fact, he offers a valid, but minor nitpick and a string of confusions and errors.

The nitpick relates to the distinction between nominal GDP growth, as reported by ABS, and the way the term is commonly used in the context of monetary policy discussion, to refer to the sum of the inflation rate and the real rate of GDP growth. Inflation is typically measured by the CPI. However, the statistical nominal GDP is associated with a different inflation measure, the GDP deflator, which is heavily influenced by export prices. So, a policy that targeted the statistical measure would imply trying to reduce growth when export prices boomed, and increase growth when they fell. In most times and places, the difference is too trivial to matter, but in the context of the recent minerals boom in Australia, it was substantial. So, I’d suggest we really want to use the phrase “nominal growth targeting” with nominal growth spelt out as the sum of CPI inflation and real GDP growth.

After that valid point, we have a mess of confusions and contradictions. First, Greber objects to Xenophon’s proposal on the basis that it would push up housing prices. If this is to be taken seriously, it means that the RBA should be targeting asset prices as well as CPI inflation. While there’s a good case to be made here (I discussed the issues in a paper with Stephen Bell quite a while back) it contradicts the central claim that everything is fine with inflation rate targeting.

Making the contradictions even worse, Greber notes that inflation has been well below the target range for some time. That is, under an inflation targeting system, the Reserve Bank should be cutting rates. But Greber appears to oppose this, while conceding that “To be fair, there is a legitimate debate to be had about how far and for how long inflation should range outside the current band”. In this context, the question of a shift to nominal growth targeting is a red herring. Real growth (about 2 per cent) is only marginally below the likely long term trend (2.5 per cent), so a monetary policy that targeted both growth and inflation would, if anything, be a little less expansionary than a strict inflation target

The obvious problem being ducked here is that, if the RBA sticks to inflation targeting, it may well have to cut interest rates all the way to zero, as most other central banks have already done. So, the temptation is to accept a long period when we are below the target rate. But that, in effect, is switching from a 2-3 per cent target to a 0-3 target, something for which no real justification has been given.

Like Bernard Keane and Glenn Dyer to whom I responded previously, Greber makes much of Australia’s special circumstances, treating nominal GDP targeting as (to quote Keane and Dyer) as “a foreign solution”. This piece of economic exceptionalism is surprising coming from a haven of orthodoxy like the AFR, and even more surprising in the context of monetary policy. Inflation targeting, central bank contracts and 25-basis point interest rate adjustments aren’t Australian inventions. We adopted this approach at the same time as the rest of the world and for the same reasons. We’ve had much better outcomes as Greber notes, but there’s nothing to suggest that inflation targeting is the main reason.

On the contrary, inflation targeting has evidently failed nearly everywhere in the developed world, in at least three ways
* it has not kept inflation within the target range
* interest rates have been driven to zero or below, so that “emergency measures” like reliance on open market operations now appear to be permanent fixtures
* it has not delivered on the promise that targeting inflation would also deliver stable GDP growth

The first of these problems is already evident in Australia, and the second appears imminent. We should think twice before saying that, since nothing has gone badly wrong so far, we should stick with our existing policy framework.

Greg Jericho in The Guardian has some similar thoughts.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Living longer

August 23rd, 2016 60 comments

I’ve been invited to give a talk on the topic of challenges posed by an ageing population. This issue has been around ever since I can remember and, in a literal sense, it’s one I am pretty concerned about. Throughout my life I have, like the rest of the population, been aging at a rate of one year per year, and this poses plenty of challenges. On the other hand, as someone said recently, getting older may have its unpleasant aspects but it’s a lot better than the alternative.

Of course, when pundits talk about an ageing population, they do not mean that we are individually getting older but that we are not dying as soon as we used to. The result of this (and subject to demographic fluctuations) is that the average age of the population is increasing.

While I was a little snarky in my opening para, this is, in fact the correct way to think about things. We are, mostly, living longer and this creates a bunch of individual and social opportunities, choices and challenges. The two big ones are:

* How should the extra years of life be allocated between additional education, additional years of work (including household work most notably childraising) and additional years of retirement?

* What are the implications for our personal health and for the health care system.

I’ve looked at the first of these questions on quite a few occasions and concluded that the problems, if any, relate to the way the labour market works (or rather fails to work) for older worker

On the second, the operating assumption in much of the discussion seems to be that people will live longer, but that their health, at any given age, will be much the same as that of previous cohorts. This is obviously nonsensical. The reason the previous cohorts died earlier (on average) is that their health was worse. If people live longer, this will mostly mean more years of healthy life.

One possible exception I’ve been concerned about is dementia caused by Alzheimer’s and related diseases. Perhaps that’s inevitable deterioration rather than a product of ill health. But the news here is good. Age-specific rates of Alzheimers have been declining for the past 25 years as general health improves.

One remaining issue is that people with severe dementia are surviving longer than they used to, as a result of improved care, and this is socially costly. However, this is a once-off shift that has already happened, so the extra cost has been incurred already. Increases in lifespans associated with improvements in general health, including reductions in the age-specific frequency of dementia should not have any additional cost.

This is, in fact, an illustration of a more general point. The increase in health care expenditure we observe is the result of the development of new, and costly treatments. Unsurprisingly people want these treatments and are willing to pay for them, either privately or through the public health system. To regard this as a problem is like complaining about the availability of flat-screen TVs on the basis that buying them will increase our entertainment costs.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

The failure of privatisation and the case for a fully public TAFE system

August 11th, 2016 26 comments

I have a new article in The Conversation, riffing off ACCC chairman Rod Sims’ recent denunciation of privatisation policy in Australia. The Conversation’s ran with the headline “People have lost faith in privatisation and it’s easy to see why“. To be slightly more precise, when privatisation started in the 1980s, most people had an open mind on the issue – there was plenty of dissatisfaction with public enterprises like Telecom Australia. As they experienced privatisation, they became more hostile and, eventually, implacably so, even as the political class remained convinced of the merits of the idea. The successive defeats of the Bligh (Labor) and Newman (LNP) governments in Queensland illustrate the point. The rare cases when privatising governments have been elected or re-elected usually arise only when the Opposition is utterly unelectable (Baird in NSW for example).

Part of Sims speech and my article referred to the continuing disaster of for-profit vocational education. Right on cue, the day the piece came out, the Victorian government terminated the contracts of another 18 shonky providers (though they are still registered with the national regulator ASQA), with the students being directed to the public TAFE system.

Billions of dollars are being wasted and thousands of lives ruined by this continuing policy disaster. Yet, it seems, no one in authority is willing to admit that the whole idea of publicly funded for-profit education is a disaster, guaranteed to generate scams and rorts on an industrial scale. The whole system needs to be shut down and replaced by a fully public TAFE system. The minority of for-profit providers who are doing a decent job could be hired as subcontractors to teach TAFE courses.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Can this census be saved?

August 10th, 2016 71 comments

It appears that, having crashed last night with only about 10 per cent of households having submitted data, the Census website is now off the air indefinitely. It’s hard for me to see how this exercise can be salvaged. Almost certainly, lots of people who tried and failed to fill in their forms last night will be unwilling to do so again, especially in the absence of any coherent explanation for the failure. It’s looking increasingly as if the only option will be to give up and try again in five years time. Coincidentally or not, a ten-yearly census was exactly what the leadership of ABS was suggesting a couple of years ago.

This fiasco seems to have “reform” written all over it, from the new entrepreneurial leadership of ABS to the contracting out of vital functions to the benign/malign neglect displayed by the Abbott-Turnbull government. Peter Martin is very good on this, as is Chris Graham at New Matilda.

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Monday Message Board

July 18th, 2016 43 comments

Another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language please. Side discussions and idees fixes to the sandpits, please.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Sandpit

June 28th, 2016 67 comments

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

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Why is global finance so profitable (crosspost from CT)

May 12th, 2016 21 comments

In a recent post, I asserted that

activities like tax avoidance/evasion and regulatory arbitrage aren’t peripheral flaws in a financial system primarily concerned with the efficient global allocation of capital. They are the core business, without which the profits of the global financial sector would be a tiny fraction of the $1 trillion or so now reaped annually

As I’m working on income distribution issues my long-running book project, this seems like a good time to see if this claim can be backed up by hard numbers.

First up, here’s my source for the $1 trillion number (actually $920 billion). As a plausibility check, I’ve tried to estimate the total size of the global financial sector. Various sources, including Wikipedia estimate that the banking and insurance sector accounts for 7-8 per cent of US gross product. Extrapolating to world gross product of about $80 trillion that would give around $6 trillion for the total size of the sector. The US is almost certainly more financialised than the world as a whole. Still, the profit number looks about right. A trickier question is whether the rents accruing to managers and top professional in the sector should be counted as part of profits. I’d guess that these rents account for at least another $1 trillion, but I have no real idea how to test this – suggestions welcome.

Is tax avoidance/evasion and regulatory arbitrage a big enough activity to account for a substantial share of a trillion dollars a year? Gabriel Zucman estimates that there’s $7.5 trillion stashed in tax havens, of which around $6 trillion is untaxed. He estimates the tax avoided at $200 billion . I’ll estimate that half of that ($100 billion) is creamed off in financial sector, mostly as profits or rents. That implies a profit margin of a bit under 2 per cent, which seems reasonable.

Tax evasion by wealthy individuals is only a small part of the story. Legal tax avoidance is almost certainly more important. Most of that involves companies, but it’s important to distinguish between “close” corporations, which hide the activities of an individual or family and large global corporations. I don’t have any idea how to measure the cost of avoidance through close corporations. As regards global corporations, Zucman estimates that “a third of U.S. corporate profits, or $650 billion, are purportedly earned outside the country, with a cost to the US of $130 billion a year . Extrapolating to the world as a whole, that would be at least $500 billion. Again, assuming the financial sector creams off half of the sum, we get $250 billion (the fact that the finance sector itself accounts for around 40 per cent of all corporate profits means there’s a problem of recursion that I haven’t worked through)

Then there’s manipulation of exchange rate and bond markets. I have no idea how to measure this, but given that the notional volume of trade in some of the markets concerned is measured in the hundreds of trillions, it seems plausible that the profits and rents from market-rigging must be at least in the tens of billions.

These are probably the biggest scams, but there’s also regulatory arbitrage, privatization (a huge source of rent over recent decades), domestic tax avoidance and more.

Adding them up, I’d suggest that $500 billion a year is a low-end estimate for the profits and rents associated with various forms of anti-social financial sector activity.

There’s lots of potential error around these numbers, but the order of magnitude seems reasonable to me. As against the claim that the explosion in financial sector activity and profits over the past 40 years has been driven by the benefits of a more efficient allocation of capital by rational markets, the claim that it’s all about tax-dodging and socially unproductive arbitrage seems pretty plausible.

Obviously, the social cost of a financial system devoted to undermining tax and regulatory systems far exceeds the profits earned from the activity. That’s true of any kind of socially destructive, but privately profitable, activity. But the problem is greater in the case of financial sector activity because of the disastrous effects of financial crises.

Polls vs punters: an explanation?

May 6th, 2016 35 comments

Nearly a month ago, I noticed that betting markets were giving long odds (3.5 to 1) against a Labor win in the (presumably) forthcoming election. That would be a good bet if you thought Labor had a better than 22 per cent (1/(1+3.5)) chance of winning. Given that the polls were pretty much tied, I thought those were good odds.

Since then, the polls have moved steadily in Labor’s favor to the point where their lead is just about statistically significant in a meta-analysis (add lots of independent samples and the margin of error declines). At the same time, the government has barely had a good news day. Their one big hit, the kerfuffle about 10-year projections of tobacco tax revenue (a bipartisan policy) blew up in their faces a few days later when Turnbull and Morrison couldn’t/wouldn’t state the cost of their company tax plan. It seems that they had the $50 billion number ready, but had hit on the clever plan of having the Treasury announce it today, just before Parliament is dissolved so that Labor couldn’t … I’m not sure what (cue underpants gnomes). As a result of all this, the pundits, who dismissed the idea of a Labor win as implausible until very recently, are now coming around to the idea

Yet despite all this, the odds are barely unchanged at 3.3 to 1. That’s good for anyone who gives Labor a 23 per cent chance. There are a few possible explanations of this

(a) The idea that betting markets are highly rational aggregators of information is wrong
(b) Those betting in these markets have inside information or else insights unavailable to the rest of us.
(c) The markets don’t really exist in any substantial form and are just a publicity stunt for the bookmakers. That’s the argument of this 2013 article by Michael West, whom I’ve usually found to be sensible and reliable.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Budget bubble

May 1st, 2016 5 comments

The stream of leaks about Tuesday’s budget suggest that the process was still in turmoil until the last minute. If the last round of leaks are broadly accurate, it looks like a budget that will fit fairly neatly into a class war frame. On the tax side, the government has long been floating a cut in company tax rates and the removal of the budget emergency levy on incomes above $180k. At the last minute, they have apparently decided on an increase in the threshold (currently $80 000) for the 37 per cent marginal tax rate.

Presumably, Morrison and Turnbull think that this will be a vote-winner for people concerned about being pushed into higher tax brackets, or already in the higher brackets. How may such people are there, and who are they? Let’s suppose that the budget measures compensate for the bracket creep since Labor left office. The income tax statistics for 2012-13 showed that, at that time, 18.6 per cent of tax returns reported income of $80 000 per year.

Assuming a 10 per cent increase in nominal incomes since then, I estimate that around 5 per cent of taxpayers would have entered the 37 per cent bracket since then. Of course, most of these would be paying 37 per cent on only a tiny fraction of their income, but people don’t always judge these things sensibly. Still, a budget measure targeted at 5 per cent of taxpayers (a good deal less than 5 per cent of the electorate, even taking account of the fact that many are in couple families) doesn’t seem like an election winner.

The real punch of the measure is that everyone on incomes currently over $80 000 will benefit. Assuming a 10 per cent increase, the full benefit of $360 per year (the 4.5 cent difference in marginal rates, applied to $8000) would go to everyone with a taxable income above $88000. That’s about 25 per cent of the 12 million who file income tax returns or 3 million people.

Those above $180 000 will also benefit from the removal of the 2 per cent emergency levy, which is a much bigger deal for the beneficiaries. Anyone earning over $200k will gain at least $400 from this measure, more than from the tax cut

The threshold change I’ve calculated would cost around $1 billion a year to benefit a relatively small group of voters, most of whom are already Liberals and the rest of whom (including me, for example) are unlikely to be all that responsive to tax cuts.

As a political strategy, this doesn’t make obvious sense. I suspect, however, that most politicians and political commentators (particularly, though not only, on the conservative side) make their political estimates on the basis of people they know, many of whom are exercised about bracket creep, and very few of whom make less than $80 000 a year. I recall studies where members of the political class were asked to estimate the median Australian income, and got the number drastically wrong. The social bubble is reinforced by the intellectual bubble created by an increasingly fact-free rightwing world view.

Bubble thinking isn’t exclusively a problem of the political right. But it’s more prevalent there than at any time in the recent past. It may well prove the Turnbull government’s undoing.

* Peter Martin makes the same point about median incomes. After seeing a lower number in his article, I’ve corrected my original estimate of the budget cost, which was too high.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Predistribution: wages and unions (extract from Economics in Two Lessons)

April 28th, 2016 10 comments

Over the fold, an extract from my book-in-very slow-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. I’m getting closer to a complete draft, and I plan, Real Soon Now, to post the material so far in a more accessible form. But for the moment, I’ll toss up an extract which is, I hope, largely self-sufficient. Encouragement is welcome, constructive criticism even more so.

The book is aimed at a US audience (if it goes well, an Australian edition will follow, as with Zombie Economics). So, there are US-specific institutional points, but the general argument is applicable more broadly.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

I, for one (comment here)

April 21st, 2016 5 comments

Something went wrong with the “I, for one” post, so I’m attempting to open a comments thread for it here.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

test

April 21st, 2016 2 comments

Test

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Gas and climate change

April 16th, 2016 60 comments

As well as posting here, I have a couple of articles in the Conversation about the end of the coal era (I’ll give links in a subsequent post, if I get time). In all cases, I’m getting lots of people saying that the reduction in coal use in is entirely/overwhelmingly due to low gas prices caused by the rise of shale gas. So, I thought it was time for a post on the subject. I want to make three points

(1) This claim is presented in global terms, but it’s really specific to the US. There is no global market for gas, and the expansion of fracking is not global (it’s big in the US and in Queensland, but not many other places).

(2) The claim is out of date as applied to the US. New electricity generation capacity there is now dominated by renewables (still true even after capacity factors are taken into account, I think)

(3) The continuing low price of gas (like that for coal and oil) is being drive, in large measure, by competition from renewables

I also want to talk about different views on the role of gas in the decarbonization process, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Gaps and holes (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

April 8th, 2016 31 comments

Press coverage massive leak of papers from hitherto unheard of (by me, at any rate) Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca has, unsurprisingly, focused on the world leaders, celebrities and fixers whose financial affairs have been revealed in an unflattering light. As regards the financial system as a whole, the New York Times draws a fairly typical conclusion

Above all, the Panama Papers reveal an industry that flourishes in the gaps and holes of international finance.

Really? This description suggests that those involved are obscure minor players in the system, of the sort who might be expected to deal with dodgy law firms in tax havens. The real business of global finance is undertaking by upstanding financial institutions with transparent practices.

But writing this down is enough to see that it is silly. As usual in such cases, we find familiar names: HSBC, UBS, Credit Suisse,and RBS and so on. And of course this is just one firm in one tax haven. The absence of major American banks reflects, in large measure, the fact that they prefer tax havens other than Panama, where there is a high degree of US state countrol.

Again as usual, the line is that this is all in the past, and that the banks have cleaned up their act. But the criminal charges keep on coming. This is scarcely surprising when no major bank has been shut down, even for the most egregious wrongdoing, and where only a handful of bank employees have faced jail time over frauds that total well into the hundreds of billions.

As I’ve argued in the past, activities like tax avoidance/evasion and regulatory arbitrage aren’t peripheral flaws in a financial system primarily concerned with the efficient global allocation of capital. They are the core business, without which the profits of the global financial sector would be a tiny fraction of the $1 trillion or so now reaped annually. The burden of supporting this financial sector is a major factor in the secular stagnation now evident in most developed economies.[^1]

The financial globalization that began in the 1970s has not produced an efficient global financial market with a few gaps and holes. The gaps and holes are the market.

[^1]:Since it’s bound to be raised, the costs of financial globalisation to the developed world can’t be offset by considering rapid growth in China and India. These countries have, until recently, maintained tightly regulated financial systems, and have had plenty of criticism for it. Of course, that has resulted in plenty of corruption and misallocation of capital, but the sector simply hasn’t been enough to produce a large drag on growth. That’s clearly changed, in China at least, so it will be interesting to watch the consequences.

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Adani mirage fading

April 4th, 2016 28 comments

Adani Mining has just received the final approval from the Queensland government for the Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin. According to this report from February, citing a “top Adani Group executive”, operations should start in August 2016, which would be a disaster for the global environment.

But wait! Now it seems yet more “secondary approvals” are needed (it appears this refers to a bond for cleaning up the mess afterwards), and “we hope that construction would start any time in 2017”.

There’s more interesting stuff in the report.

He said the price of coal was not the main issue in determining the viability of the project, but rather the cost at which the coal could be mined as the company already had a price agreement with the Indian government.Adani Mining CEO Jeyakumar Janakaraj claims there’s no need to worry about the price of the coal they produce “We are an integrated player. We have sold electricity in India on a long-term price.

‘‘It is not about the price point of coal, it is about the cost point, at what cost can we produce coal so that we will always be able to make a profit with the electricity price that we have already sold,”

The reference to the Indian government is pretty cheeky, given the government policy of eliminating coal imports over the next few years, which looks to be on track to succeed. (it’s currently a little behind its targets for increased production, but that’s because of weak demand).

More importantly, Janakaraj’s claim that “We are an integrated player” suggests he does not know much about his own business. Adani was an integrated enterprise when the project began. But the restructuring of the Adani Group in 2015 separated Adani Power (the electricity producer with a diversified portfolio of coal-fired power and renewables) from Adani Mining, which holds the stranded assets like Carmichael. This analysis from IEEFA spells it all out. Adani Power would be breaching its fiduciary obligations to shareholders if it paid an above market price for coal from Adani Mining.

I found a response from Adani, which illustrates one of my favorite points. When you have no answer to a damning report, say that it is “flawed“. That’s true of just about anything, and saves you the trouble of an actual response.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Keeping Sea Lanes Open: A Benefit Cost Analysis

March 20th, 2016 21 comments

Whenever I raise the observation that navies are essentially obsolete, someone is bound to raise the cry “What about the sea lanes”. The claim that navies play a vital role in protecting trade routes is taken so much for granted that it might seem untestable. But it turns out that most of the information needed for a benefit cost analysis is available. Unsurprisingly (to me at least), the claimed benefit of keeping sea lanes open doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I’ve spelt this out in my latest article in Inside Story, reprinted over the fold.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Oz Politics Tags:

Peak paper

February 18th, 2016 37 comments

I’ve recently published a piece in Aeon, looking at the peak in global paper use, which occurred a couple of years ago, and arguing that this is an indication of a less resource-intensive future. Over the fold, a longer draft – I’ll add hyperlinks back in if I get a free moment.
Read more…

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The patrimonial society comes to Australia

February 7th, 2016 80 comments

Forbes just released its annual list of the ten richest Australians. Of the top eight, four inherited their wealth. The other four range in age from 75 to 85, suggesting that new heirs are likely to be joining the rich list before too long.

This pattern isn’t yet representative of the Australian wealth distribution as a whole, but it is becoming more so. Piketty’s patrimonial society is not far away.

There are a lot of things we can do to promote a more equal distribution of opportunity and outcomes, but a return to taxes on inheritance (preferably levied on the recipient rather than the estate) would be a good start.

A question about group selection

January 29th, 2016 73 comments

I’m doing some work on evolutionary models of game theory and need to understand the debate about group selection. It seems pretty clear that the great majority of evolutionary biologists reject the idea of group selection, but I haven’t found an adequate (to me) explanation of why they do so. A crucial problem for me is that the literature seems, without exception as far as I can see, to conflate group selection with co-operation and altruism. But the problem of group selection arises in non-cooperative settings, provided they are not zero-sum.

To illustrate the problem I’m struggling with, suppose that two previously isolated species meet as a result of some change. In one species (peacocks), competition between males for mates takes the form of elaborate, and energetically costly, displays. In the other species (penguins) males compete by providing food to their mates. In all other respects (diet, predators and so on) the two are similar. It seems obvious to me that the penguins, with their more efficient social arrangements, are going to outbreed the peacocks and eventually drive them to extinction.

It seems to me there are only two possibilities here
(a) My reasoning is wrong, and we can’t judge which species, if either, will dominate; or
(b) Even though it involves one group being selected over another, this isn’t what is meant by group selection

I’d really appreciate some help on this. I’m happy to have thoughts from anyone, but I’d most like to hear from actual experts with contact details.

Categories: Economics - General, Science Tags:

Hard cash and climate change: repost from 2005

January 20th, 2016 142 comments

While thinking about decarbonizing transport, I dug out this old post from 2005. It’s interesting to see how the debate has evolved (or not) since then.

The big change has been that the prospects for technological alternatives like alternative energy sources and electric vehicles have improved dramatically. As regards transport, I don’t see much reason to change the analysis I presented in 2005. Unfortunately, while some progress has been made along the kinds of lines I suggested, it’s been very limited compared to the radical changes in electricity generation. So, we are only at the beginning of the process of decarbonizing transport.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Increasing fuel efficiency: standards vs prices

January 19th, 2016 24 comments

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ll be talking to the Victorian Transport Economic Forum on decarbonizing transport on Wednesday, 10 February 2016 from 5pm at the Public Transport Victoria Corporate Centre, 750 Collins Street, Docklands. I thought I’d start with the policy issue implying the smallest change in existing transport patterns, increasing the fuel efficiency of petrol-engined vehicles. The primary choice here is between relying on a carbon price and imposing fuel efficiency standards. For those who want the shorter version, I think we need both but standards are probably going to be more important.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Directional politics

January 6th, 2016 21 comments

A few Prime Ministers back, Australian politics seemed to be all about Western Sydney. On the conservative side of politics, unremarkable politicians who managed to win and hold former Labor electorates were lionised, while similar wins in other parts of the country were seen as part of the normal ebb and flow of electoral politics. On the Labor side, the region was invoked by the NSW Right (many of whom preferred not to live there) as the basis for its “aspirational” politics. This was all nonsense. The two million or so people who live in Western Sydney vary far more among themselves than they differ from the Australian population as a whole. To the extent that they have any sort of collective identity it hasn’t stopped large numbers of them for voting for (or, for that matter, against) governments led by silvertails from the North Shore, Northern Beaches and Eastern Suburbs.

But since the brief return of Kevin Rudd, the focus has shifted back to an area of more traditional concern: Northern Australia and its supposed need for development. I had hoped to see the end of this when Turnbull became PM, especially given the government’s fiscal woes. But sadly, this is not to be. Not only is the $5 billion development fund still alive, but we are getting stories about Turnbull’s plans to “unlock the North“.

As it happens, I’m in North Queensland right now, and I lived in Townsville for most of the 1990s. Like everyone else in the region I received a special “zone allowance” under the tax system to compensate me for living in a pleasant (if rather warm) coastal city with all the amenities that would be expected by a resident of, say, Newcastle or Wollongong. I understand that this allowance is still available. Nothing of the sort is on offer to people in poor suburbs or declining country towns in the rest of the country.

Like every other place in Australia, the North has plenty of unmet needs for services and, though to a much lesser extent than people seem to think, physical infrastructure. But it is in no sense “locked up”. There are road, rail and air transport links that meet the needs of the region with the same adequacy or lack of it as most other places in the country. Internet access is taken for granted in all but the remotest parts of the region. Ports, and transport links to them, are well developed to carry agricultural and mineral exports wherever they need to be sent. And so on.

Moreover, as with Western Sydney, the region has much the same diversity as the rest of the country, with a corresponding diversity of needs and wants. The cities of Rockhampton, Townsville, Cairns and Darwin differ as greatly from each other and from the rural areas they serve as they do from cities and regions in the rest of Australia.

We don’t need a Northern Australia policy any more than we need a Western Sydney policy. Public infrastructure projects should be assessed on the basis of their merits, and not their location. Private investment should be left to the commercial judgement of those involved. The $5 billion development fund should be rolled back into general revenue and used wherever it is most needed.

Categories: Economics - General, Oz Politics Tags:

What do you do with a problem like Adani ?

December 24th, 2015 22 comments

Having jumped a number of legal hurdles, Adani is now seeking approvals from the Queensland state government, necessary for the Carmichael coalmine/rail/port project to proceed. This presents the government with a nasty dilemma.

On the one hand, refusing approval would be a PR disaster. Adani, and the government’s opponents, would blame obstructive regulation for the failure of the massive bonanza that has been promised. Adani continues to claim that project will give Queensland $22 billion in royalties and taxes, and up to 10 000 jobs, even though its own expert refuted these claims in court.

On the other hand, everyone (even the International Energy Agency, notably until recently for its stubborn faith in the coal of the future) knows that this project is uneconomic, and unlikely to proceed before 2020, if ever. And while the government has said it won’t subsidise the mine, it appears that it may be forced to spend some money on the Abbot Point upgrade.

So, |irony alert on| I have a simple suggestion to resolve the government’s problem. Just ask for a downpayment of, say, 5 per cent of the promised benefits ($1.1 billion). In the unlikely event that Adani pays up, this will be money for jam. If, as is virtually certain, the money isn’t forthcoming, the government can rightly claim to have protected the interests of the Queensland public.|irony alert off|

Taking the question more seriously, the government should seek evidence from Adani that the project has sufficient finance to proceed before issuing any approval. That will be enough to ensure an indefinite delay.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

The economist as Grinch

December 7th, 2015 51 comments

The Economic Society of Australia has started running a panel in which economists are asked to give their views on policy questions. I wasn’t too happy with the last one, on penalty rates, where I thought the question was ill-posed, and the majority of responses (though by no means all of them) failed to address the basic microeconomics of the issue.

The latest is a more light-hearted one, asking for responses to the proposition

“Giving specific presents as holiday gifts is inefficient, because recipients could satisfy their preferences much better with cash.”

Rather than give an opinion, I took the argument to its logical conclusion, as follows

The obvious problem with this claim is that exchanging cash is also inefficient, especially when combined with the generally accepted norm that equals should give presents of equal value. This results in a costly exercise that nets out to zero. Anyone who accepts the stated proposition shoud be in favor of cancelling Xmas and relying on the existing intra-family tax-transfer system

Monday Message Board

December 7th, 2015 16 comments

Another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language please. Side discussions and idees fixes to the sandpits, please.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Secular stagnation and technology

December 3rd, 2015 26 comments

One of the problems I have with the term “secular stagnation” is that it implies condition relevant to the very long term, say, the coming century. Such long run conditions presumably have to arise from fundamental causes in demography and technology. That’s the kind of argument that Piketty makes with his r > g theory of rising inequality. There are some good arguments for the view that the depressed state of the global economy, and particularly that of the more developed countries, can be explained in this way. But it shouldn’t be implied in the name of the problem. I’ve argued in the past that technology, specifically the Internet, doesn’t explain growing inequality,

The key quote from that New Left Project article, responding to Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation

The global crisis stopped economic growth, not only in the US, but in countries far inside the technological frontier like Greece; while it had hardly any impact in, for example, Australia, which avoided the initial financial crises and used Keynesian fiscal stimulus to offset shocks flowing from the global economy.

A further reason for scepticism about technological stagnation is that this explanation has been advanced in recessions and depressions ever since the beginning of the capitalist business cycle in the nineteenth century. Such claims represent the flipside of the equally common claim, made during every period of sustained expansion, that the economy has entered a New Era of untrammelled growth. The most recent episode of this kind was the ‘irrational exuberance’ of the 1990s, fuelled by optimistic claims about the potential economic implications of the Internet, which was opened to commercial use by the US Congress in 1992, and by capitalist triumphalism exemplified by Fukuyama’s The End of History.The collapse of the ‘dotcom’ bubble was softened by the housing bubble that developed shortly afterwards (again, not at all a new phenomenon), but the result was only to worsen the inevitable crash in 2008. The similarity of these events to previous bubbles and busts is good reason to doubt that they represent, or that they have inaugurated, a new phase in the evolution of capitalism.

Categories: Economics - General Tags: