Archive for the ‘Economics – General’ Category

Voting with their feet, and following the business cycle

March 28th, 2015 14 comments

Among the regular themes in the Australian business press is the claim that we are being outperformed, in economic terms, by New Zealand. I collected a bunch of such claims here, and they were even more prevalent (but hard to find now, being pre-Internet) in the late 1980s. I’m seeing the same theme recurring today (too many repetitions to link).

This is a recurring rather than a continuous theme: there are long periods during which Oz-NZ comparisons are absent from the press. So, if you took the Australian press at face value, it would be reasonable to suppose that Australia was becoming relatively poorer than NZ, not continuously, but in a series of downward steps.

In fact to a close approximation, the reverse is the case. But because market economies are cyclical, there are inevitably brief periods when the NZ economy is on an upswing and Australia in a slowdown or recession. It is only at such times that the business press notices New Zealand’s existence.

A point often made at such times is that net migration from NZ to Australia has slowed to a trickle, usually with the implication that this marks the end of the long term movement. In reality, the cyclical nature of net migration has been a marked feature of movement patterns, ever since the beginning of mass migration westward across the Tasman. The starting point was 1973 Closer Economic Relations Trans-Tasman Travel agreement, which coincided with the beginning of New Zealand’s relative decline. The authority here is Jacques Poot, and this 2009 paper sums up the story.

Interestingly, the flow has continued, unabated though still cyclical, despite the Howard government’s move to exclude Kiwis from welfare payments (arising, IIRC, from a dispute over concerns that NZ’s more liberal immigration policy would provide a ‘backdoor’ path to Australia).

Categories: Economics - General Tags:


March 23rd, 2015 61 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on. Unless directly responding to the OP, all discussions of nuclear power, MMT and conspiracy theories should be directed to sandpits (or, if none is open, message boards).

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Bad for the client, bad for the bottom line

March 20th, 2015 21 comments

My report on the NSW governments proposal to sell (they prefer to say “lease”, but it’s a sale) assets and then undertake a large-scale infrastructure program notionally funded by the proceeds cited the former Secretaries of the NSW and Victorian Treasuries the point that selling income-generating assets does not create a ‘bucket of money’ that can be used to fund non-income-generating infrastructure. I made the claim that regardless of their attitude to privatisation, economists (at least when writing honestly on the subject) would agree with this.

My point was proved, twice over, a couple of days ago. The main point was proved when global bank UBS released a research note headed headlined “Bad for the budget, good for the state“. Of course, UBS supports privatisation, but the adverse effect on the budget was obvious.

However, it turns out that a different part of UBS is advising the Baird government on privatisation. A quick call from the Premier’s office produced a revised version of the note with the offending phrase removed. This proved, via the contrapositive, the parenthetical aside in my claim.

The episode raises the question: what reliance can be placed on published reports from firms like UBS cited in support of government policy? Of course, the same question is equally applicable to reports like my own, which more commonly oppose government policy? A few thoughts over the fold.
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Plan B

March 19th, 2015 62 comments

Now that the Senate has rejected Pyne’s university deregulation plan, the obvious question is, what is Plan B? The first, negative answer: there is no acceptable plan that will deliver what the advocates of deregulation wanted, namely a highly stratified system, catering to a smaller minority of the population than at present, and topped by high-status institutions comparable to Yale and Harvard. That’s the US model and, as a system for educating young people, as opposed to generating research and reproducing a tiny elite, it’s been a miserable failure.

The correct way to think about this is to begin with the core objective of the process: to provide young Australians with post-school education that fits them for work in a modern economy and life in a modern society. That leads to two main principles

* A single system encompassing both universities and post-school technical education with easy flow between the two
* Uncapped access with an objective of (near) universal participation in some form of post-school education
* As with school education, the aim should not be stratification by quality, but the provision of a high-quality education for all, with resource allocation based on educational needs, not institutional history or individual wealth

I’ll leave aside, for the moment, the problems of the TAFE sector, though these are, I think, more urgent and difficult than those of the universities.

The big problem with what I’m proposing is that it will require more money for undergraduate education. That’s because the existing system relies on a mixture of student payments (through HECS), government funding and a cross-subsidy from fee-paying overseas students. There’s no substantial scope to get more money from overseas students, so the more domestic students the more thinly that cross-subsidy is spread. Similarly, although more government funding is merited, maintaining existing funding on a per-student basis while expanding numbers is probably too much to hope for. However, a clear focus on the core goal of universal post-school education would help a lot, though it necessarily poses some tough choices.

Broadly speaking, the goal I’m thinking about is to maintain existing teaching resources per student, while expanding access to cover a steadily increasing proportion of the population.

Some ideas are listed below (over the fold)

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A pig in a poke

March 2nd, 2015 28 comments

I’m doing some work on the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, currently being negotiated in secret by diplomats and business representatives from 12 countries. Two facts of interest
(a) Australia’s Trade Minister Andrew Robb is claiming that a final agreement might be reached by mid-March. While this looks over-optimistic, it implies there is a near-final text
(b) Obama has sought “fast-track” negotiating authority, but there is no sign that this is going to happen soon, given that quite a few Democrats oppose the deal outright, and many Republicans are hostile to anything that would give Obama more authority.

The idea of “fast track” is that the Administration cuts a deal and Congress is bound (by having agreed to the fast-track rules) to give it a Yes/No vote, with no amendments. The assumption (I think) is that, if amendments were permitted, they would proliferate to the point where the legislation would fail to implement the agreement with other parties, who might then back out. Of course, the result is that Congress is, in effect, buying a pig in a poke. Given the unlikelihood of an outright rejection of such a massive deal, they have to accept whatever Obama puts before them. The flip-side is can no individual Congressperson has to explain why they didn’t seek protection for whatever local ox might be gored by the deal: they can respond that they had no choice.

My question is: Suppose that the final text is agreed and made public before fast-track authority is granted. What would be the chances of Congress agreeing to a Yes/No vote, and what difference would it make? There are a lot of issues to be raised here about international relations, trade agreements and US politics, none of which I have a clear feel for. So, I’d be interested to hear what others think.

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Ernst and Young oversell privatisation

January 22nd, 2015 30 comments

Ernst and Young, leading consultants to the Queensland government have released a report claiming that electricity costs would be lower under privatisation. Although the report was commissioned by private infrastructure lobby group Infrastructure Partners Australia, it’s just a rehash of the same line EY have been pushing for years in similar reports commissioned by pro-privatisation governments. The central claim is that electricity prices have risen more in Queensland and NSW, under corporatisation than in Victoria and SA, under privatisation. What they don’t tell you is that this merely offsets increases imposed in the leadup to privatisation, with the result that retail prices are much the same in all four states, and far higher than when the process of market reform (supposedly to reduce prices through competition) began in the 1990s. Here’s the response I issued:

Media Release

Professor John Quiggin, of the University of Queensland criticised the Ernst and Young report on privatisation of the electricity industry.
The Ernst and Young report ignores the biggest factor leading to higher electricity prices throughout Australia: the failed process of market reform, corporatisation and privatisation of which the LNP government’s asset sales is a part,Professor Quiggin said.
Although the problems have differed from state to state, there is no evidence that states which undertook full scale privatisation in the 1990s have performed any better. South Australia has some of the highest electricity prices in the world, and Victorian prices are comparable to those in NSW and Queensland.

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Strong Choices or Weak Evasions

January 13th, 2015 37 comments

That’s the title of my review of the Queensland LNP proposal to privatise most of the state’s remaining public enterprises. There’s a report here from the Brisbane Times covering most of the main points. I also did an interview on Steve Austin’s ABC show, sandwiched between LNP Treasurer Tim Nicholls and pro-privatisation economist Judith Sloan.You can listen here

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January 6th, 2015 15 comments

Before the release of the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, there was a lot of talk that it would be the beginning of a concerted attempt by the Abbott government to reset the economic narrative. As it turned out, the release coincided with the Martin Place siege, and therefore received hardly any coverage on the day. More significantly, the government has done nothing with the MYEFO statement since its release. Treasurer Hockey issued a media release on the day, and nothing since. Finance Minister Cormann did a couple of media interviews on the day, then nothing. Tony Abbott has been completely silent.

The reason is obvious enough, and has been noted by quite a few commenters already (but I will restate the case anyway). The MYEFO report undermines the government’s policy narrative in several crucial respects. Key elements of that narrative are:

* Debt and deficits are always bad, are now at catastrophic levels and are the product of Labor profligacy
* More labour market reform is needed to prevent a wages explosion resulting in higher unemployment
* The mining sector is the key to Australian prosperity and was unfairly burdened by the carbon and mineral resource rent taxes

Read more…

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Best wishes for 2015

January 2nd, 2015 51 comments

To all my readers. I’ll try to find time for a proper review of 2014 and the prospects for the coming year, but in the meantime feel free to write about your own recollections, hopes and expectations.

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Sandy Hook and Peshawar

December 23rd, 2014 89 comments

A couple of news items that struck me recently

* Two years after the Sandy Hook massacre, a US Federal Appeals Court has ruled that people with a history of mental illness have a constitutional right to gun ownership.

* In the immediate aftermath of the Peshawar massacre, a Pakistani judge granted bail to the alleged planner of the Mumbai massacre, Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi, a leading figure in the (military-backed) Lashkar e-Taibi terrorist group.

Obviously, these decisions were neither aberrational nor the product of a legal system divorced from any social context. Rather, they reflect deeply ingrained views in the societies from which they emerged. Beyond that point, I don’t have a lot to say, but I’ll be interested to read the views of others.

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The fossil fuel crash of 2014

December 20th, 2014 43 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

MMT and Russia

December 18th, 2014 196 comments

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

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Tell ‘em they’re dreaming

December 15th, 2014 181 comments

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

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

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The socialisation of economists (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

December 10th, 2014 74 comments

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

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

December 1st, 2014 23 comments

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

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

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

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Coal and China

November 26th, 2014 32 comments

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

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

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

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A policy lesson from G20

November 14th, 2014 47 comments

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

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

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

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

Categories: Economics - General, Sport Tags:

Legal reasoning (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

October 15th, 2014 28 comments

Not surprisingly, the US Supreme Court’s non-decision on equal marriage has caused plenty of debate, including John Holbo’s smackdown of NR’s Matthew Franck.

The discussion got me thinking about the broader problem of legal reasoning, at least in its originalist and textualist forms, and also in precedent-based applications of common law. The assumption in all of these approaches is that by examining (according to some system of rules) what was legislated or decided in the past, lawyers and judges can determine the law as it applies to the case at hand. There are all sorts of well-known difficulties here, such as how words written a century ago should apply to technologies and social structures that did not exist at the time. And it often happens that these approaches produce results that seem unacceptable to most people but for which a legislative or constitutional fix is impossible for some reason.

It’s always seemed to me, though, that there is a much bigger problem with this approach, namely the implicit assumption that “the law” actually exists. That is, it is assumed that, if the appropriate procedure is used to interpret the inherited text, and applied to the problem at hand, it will produce a determinate answer. But why should this be true? The same law might contain contradictory clauses, supported by contradictory arguments, voted in by different majorities, and understood at the time of its passage in contradictory ways. Most notably, the same constitution might grant universal freedoms in one place, while recognising slavery in another.

At a minimum, such contradictions mean that there is no determinate law on the particular points of difference. But the problem is worse than this. The law rarely prescribes an exact answer in a specific case. The standard view of legal reasoning is the principles can be extracted from case law, then applied to new cases. But contradictory laws and contradictory cases produce contradictory principles. The ultimate stopping point is the paradox of entailment: a contradiction implies anything and everything.

I don’t have a fully worked out answer to this problem but I think it underlies a lot of the disquiet so many people feel about legal reasoning (apart from the ordinary disappointment when the answer it produces isn’t the one we want).

r > g

October 15th, 2014 26 comments

A standard piece of advice to researchers in math-oriented fields aiming to publish a popular book is that every equation reduces the readership by a factor of x (x can range from 2 to 10, depending on who is giving the advice). Thomas Piketty’s Capital has only one equation (or more precisely, inequality), at least only one that anyone notices, but it’s a very important one. Piketty claims that the share of capital owners in national income will tend to rise when the rate of interest r exceeds the rate of growth g. He suggests that this is the normal state, and that the situation prevailing for much of the 20th century, when r was less than g, was an aberration.

I’ve seen lots of discussion of this, much of it confused and/or confusing. So, I want to offer a very simple explanation of Piketty’s point. I’m aware that this may seem glaringly obvious to some readers, and remain opaque to others, but I hope there is a group in between who will benefit.

Suppose that you are a debtor, facing an interest rate r, and that your income grows at a rate g. Initially, think about the case when r=g. For concreteness, suppose you initially owe $400, your annual income is $100 and r=g is 5 per cent. So, your debt to income ratio is 4. Now suppose that your consumption expenditure (that is, expenditure excluding interest and principal repayments) is exactly equal to your income, so you don’t repay any principal and the debt compounds. Then, at the end of the year, you owe $420 (the initial debt + interest) and your income has risen to $105. The debt/income ratio is still 4. It’s easy to see that this will work regardless of the numerical values, provided r=g. To sum it up in words: when the growth rate and the interest rate are equal, and income equals consumption expenditure, the ratio of debt to income will remain stable.

On the other hand, if r>g, the ratio of debt to income can only be kept stable if you consume less than you earn. And conversely if r < g (for example in a situation of unanticipated inflation or booming growth), the debt-income ratio falls automatically provided you don’t consume in excess of your income.

Now think of an economy divided into two groups: capital owners and everyone else (both wage-earners and governments). The debt owed by everyone else is the wealth of the capital owners. If r>g, and if capital owners provide the net savings to allow everyone else to balance income and consumption, then the ratio of the capital stock to (non-capital) income must rise. My reading of Piketty is that, as we shift from the C20 situation of r <= g to one in which r>g the ratio of capital to stock to non-capital income is likely to rise form 4 (the value that used to be considered as one of the constants of 20th century economics) to 6 (the value he estimates for the 19th century)

This in turn means that the ratio of capital income to non-capital income must rise, both because the capital stock is getting bigger in relative terms and because the rate of return, r, has increased as we move from r=g to r>g. For example if the capital-income ratio goes from 4 to 6 and r goes from 2 to 5, then capital incomes goes from 8 per cent of non-capital income to 30 per cent[^1]. This can only stop if the stock of physical capital becomes so large as to bring r and g back into line (there’s a big dispute about whether and how this will happen, which I’ll leave for another time), or if non-capital owners begin to consume below their income.

There’s a lot more to Piketty than this, and a lot more to argue about, but I hope this is helpful to at least some readers.

[^1]: Around 20 per cent of GDP is depreciation, indirect taxes and other things that don’t figure in a labor-capital split, so this translates into a fall in the labor share of all income from a bit over 70 per cent to around 50 per cent, which looks like happening.

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Pyne on the American model

October 8th, 2014 16 comments

I appeared yesterday before the Senate Committee inquiring into the government’s proposed higher education reforms. I focused on criticism of the US model being advocated by the government and the Go8, and was ready with quotes from the Go8 submission. I was unprepared, however, for the line of questioning I got from LNP members of the Committee, who denied that the government, as distinct from the Go8, was pushing the US model. My iPhone wasn’t up to the job of producing a definitive statement on the spot, but I have now located the source I wanted, in which Pyne, speaking to the Policy Exchange group in the UK says (emphasis added)

We have much to learn about universities competing for students and focussing on our students. Not least, we have much to learn about this from our friends in the United States. They have developed a diverse array of institutions encouraging prospective students to pick and choose their futures and where they are going to study, immerse themselves in enriching extra-curricular activities, and make life-long friends. Students routinely chase a range of options as to where they study, whether that’s at home or in a place known as college. Going to college is a rite of passage for American high school graduates. And it is a gift that keeps on giving.

The competitive nature of American tertiary education breeds the sort of focus on competition for students that Glyn Davis referred to. It breeds loyalty and devotion to one’s alma mater – and we know that American colleges leave us for dead when it comes to attracting philanthropic support from their graduates.

Another Australian Vice Chancellor, Professor Warren Bebbington of the University of Adelaide, wrote last week in The Times Higher Education supplement, and I quote:

higher education in Australia could be transformed into the most dynamic system in the world. It (could) have the rich variety of the US university landscape but without the crippling debts that American students suffer.
This should be the focus of a fundamental community-wide debate.

He opined that:

the debate has been largely contained thus far, and has taken place in terms incomprehensible to the average person. Even worse, some of the most influential academic voices seem intent on preventing Australians ever benefitting from what is proposed.

In the US, nearly half of all students do not go from high school to a public university of the Australian type, but instead attend teaching-only undergraduate colleges offering only Bachelor degrees. Without research programmes, these colleges do a first-class job of teaching: through small classes and an intense extra-curricular programme. Students have an unforgettable, utterly life-changing educational experience.

He continued that:

this huge array of highly-individual undergraduate colleges is one of the glories of American higher education.

Such colleges do not exist in Australia. Ours has been a highly constrained system of universities with limited scope for universities to shape their own offerings to students.

As I’ve previously pointed out, Bebbington’s claim is ludicrously wrong. He’s describing liberals arts colleges that educate perhaps 2 per cent of the college-age cohort in the US, charge around $50 000 per year and have endowments of the order of $1 million per student. The second-tier state universities, community colleges and for-profits actually attended by half or more of the student population are nothing like this.

Clearly, Pyne (like the Go8) doesn’t have a clue about the model he is pushing. This whole package should be scrapped: If the government wants to make changes, it should do some research first.

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Two graphs that explain a lot

September 26th, 2014 36 comments

I could talk forever about these graphs (from IndexMundi), and may do so in the future. For now, I’ll just note that these are nominal prices. The US CPI has roughly doubled since 1989



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Monday Message Board

September 22nd, 2014 21 comments

It’s time for another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language please. Side discussions and idees fixes to the sandpits, please.

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Rawls, Bentham and the Laffer curve (cross-post at Crooked Timber)

September 9th, 2014 34 comments

The 1970s saw two important and influential publications in the long debate over justice, equality and public policy. In 1971, there was Rawls Theory of Justice, commonly described in terms like “magisterial”. Then in 1974, at lunch with Jude Wanniski, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, Arthur Laffer drew his now-eponymous curve on a napkin. Of course there was nothing new about the curve: it’s pretty obvious that an income tax levied at rates of either zero or 100 per cent isn’t going to raise any money, and interpolation does the rest. What was new was the Laffer hypothesis, that the US at the time was on the descending side of the curve, where a reduction in tax rates would raise tax revenue.

I’ve always understood Rawls in terms of the Laffer curve, as arguing in essence that we should be at the very top of the curve, maximizing the resources available for transfer to the poor, but not (as, say, Jerry Cohen might have advocated) going further than this to promote equality.

A couple of interesting Facebook discussions have led me to think that I might be wrong in my understanding of Rawls and that the position I’ve imputed to him is actually far closer to that of classical utilitarianism in the tradition of Bentham (which is, broadly speaking, my own view).

Facebook has its merits, but promoting open public discussion isn’t one of them, so I thought I’d throw this out to the slightly larger world of blog readers.

Read more…

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Republicans see Ebola, think DDT (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

August 24th, 2014 12 comments

I wrote not long ago about the zombie idea that the US ban on agricultural use of DDT, enacted in 1972, somehow caused millions of people elsewhere in the world (where DDT remains available for anti-malaria programs) to die of malaria. A thorough refutation is now available to anyone who cares to look at Wikipedia, but the notion remains lurking in the Republican hindbrain.

So, with the recent outbreak of Ebola fever (transmitted between humans by direct contact and bodily fluids), the free-association process that passes for thought in Republican circles went straight from “sick people in Africa” to “DDT”. Ron Paul was onto the case early, with stupid remarks that were distilled into even purer stupidity in a press release put out by his organization. Next up, Diana Furchgott-Roth, of the Manhattan Institute.
And here’s the American Council on Smoking and Health.
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How can we convince rightwingers to accept climate science …

August 21st, 2014 436 comments

… persuade them to stop being rightwingers[1]

I have a piece in Inside Story arguing that the various efforts to “frame” the evidence on climate change, and the policy implications, in a way that will appeal to those on the political right are all doomed. Whether or not it was historically inevitable, anti-science denialism is now a core component of rightwing tribal identity in both Australia and the US. The only hope for sustained progress on climate policy is a combination of demography and defection that will create a pro-science majority.

With my characteristic optimism, I extract a bright side from all of this. This has three components
(a) The intellectual collapse of the right has already proved politically costly, and these costs will increase over time
(b) The cost of climate stabilization has turned out to be so low that even a delay of 5-10 years won’t render it unmanageable.
(c) The benefits in terms of the possibility of implementing progressive policies such as redistribution away from the 1 per cent will more than offset the extra costs of the delay in dealing with climate change.

I expect lots of commenters here will disagree with one or more of these, so feel free to have your say. Please avoid personal attacks (or me or each other), suggestions that only a stupid person would advance the position you want to criticise and so on.

fn1. Or, in the case of young people, not to start.

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Energy storage getting real

August 19th, 2014 130 comments

Now that renewable energy sources like solar and PV are cheaper than new coal-fired power stations in most jurisdictions (anywhere with either favorable conditions or a reasonable carbon price), the big remaining question is that of supply variability/intermittency. As I’ve argued before, this problem is greatly overstated by critics of renewables who assume that the constant 24/7 supply characteristic of coal is the ideal. In fact, this constant supply produces a mismatch with variable demand and current pricing structures are set up to deal with this. A system dominated by renewables would have different kinds of mismatch and require different pricing structures.

That said, for a system dominated by solar PV, meeting demand in the late afternoon and evening will clearly depend on a capacity to store energy in some form or another. There are lots of options, but it makes sense to look first at relatively mature technologies like lithium and lead-acid batteries. Renewable News is reporting a project in Vermont, which integrates solar PV and storage.

The 2.5-MW Stafford Hill solar project is being developed in conjunction with Dynapower and GroSolar and includes 4 MW of battery storage, both lithium ion and lead acid, to integrate the solar generation into the local grid, and to provide resilient power in case of a grid outage.

The project cost is stated at $10 million, or $4m/Mw of generation capacity.

Assuming this number is correct, let’s make some simplifying assumptions to get a rough idea of the cost of electricity and the workability of storage. If we cost capital and depreciation at 10 per cent, assume 1600 hours of full output per year and, ignoring operating costs, the cost of electricity is 25c/KwH. There would presumably be some distribution costs, given the need to connect to the grid. Still, given that Vermont consumers are currently paying 18c/Kwh, this doesn’t look too bad. A carbon tax at $75/tonne would make up the difference.

How would the storage work? I’m starting from scratch here, so I’ll be interested in suggestions and corrections. I assume that the storage is ample to deal with short-term (minute to minute or hour to hour) fluctuations, which are more of a problem for wind.

How about on a daily basis? It seems to me that the critical thing to look at is the point in the afternoon/evening at which consumption exceeds generation (As I mentioned, prices matter a lot here). This is the point at which we would like the batteries to be fully charged. The output assumption suggests an average of about 12 MWh generated per day. If we simplify by assuming that the cutoff time is 6pm and that output drops to zero after that, the system requires that 8MWh be used during the day and 4MWh at night. That wouldn’t match current demand patterns, but if you added in some grid connected power (say, from wind, which tends to blow more at night) and shifted the pricing peak to match the demand peak, it would probably be feasible.

As regards seasonal variability, this would be a problem in Vermont, where (I assume) the seasonal demand peak is in winter. But in places like Queensland, with a strong summer peak, a system with lots of solar power should do a good job in this respect.

What remains is the possibility of a long run of cloudy days, during which solar panels produce 50 per cent or less of their rated output. Dealing with such periods will require a combination of pricing (such periods can be predicted in advance, so it’s just a matter of passing the price signals on to consumers), load-shedding for industrial customers and dispatchable reserve sources (hydro being the most appealing candidate, given that potential energy can be stored for long periods, and turned on and off as needed).

To sum up, we aren’t quite at the point where PV+storage is a complete solution, but we’re not far off.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Team Australia

August 7th, 2014 84 comments

George Brandis’ spectacular live meltdown over metadata retention has distracted attention from the abandonment of the government’s plans to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, prohibiting the kind of racial abuse dished out by the likes of Andrew Bolt and Fredrick Toben. Abbott’s rationale is that a purist attitude to freedom of (racially divisive) speech is something we can’t afford, given the need to unite against terrorism.

Obviously, neither Bolt nor Toben is a member of Team Australia[1]. Each makes it their primary business to stir up hatred, in Toben’s case against Jews and in Bolt’s case against (among many others) the “muslims, jihadists, people from the Middle East” he sees as responsible for Abbot’s backdown. The striking conflation of religion, geographical origin and terrorism is typical of Bolt’s approach.

Horrible as he is, though, Toben is not a serious problem. His Holocaust denialism is universally reviled, and it is a sign of strength, not weakness, in our democracy that he is free to walk the streets. Repealing the constraints imposed on him by 18C would only emphasise this.

Bolt is another story. It is his case that led the government to seek the repeal of 18C, and that motivated George Brandis’ gaffe (that is, a politically inconvenient statement of an actual belief) that people have a right to be bigots. Far from being reviled, Bolt has been embraced and coddled by the government, to the point of having exclusive access to the Prime Minister. He enjoys a well-rewarded position in the Murdoch Press. Even casting the net wider among our so-called libertarians, I’ve can’t recall seeing a harsh word against Bolt. He’s a tribal ally and his bigotry is either endorsed or passed over in silence.

It’s impossible in these circumstances, for the government to be taken seriously when they mouth the (apocryphal) Voltaire line about defending to the death speech with which they disagree. The repeal of 18C was clearly intended as an endorsement of Bolt, and not a statement of bare toleration. That position is now untenable, and it’s too late to switch back to Voltaire.

In summary, those on the right lamenting the continued existence of 18C ought to reflect on the fact that it’s their own overt or tacit endorsement of bigotry that’s brought this about. If they cleaned house, and dissociated themselves from the likes of Bolt, their claims to be supporting free speech might acquire a little more credibility.

fn1. I was going to add Sheikh Hillaly to this list. But based on this report, he seems to have joined the Team.

Categories: Economics - General, Oz Politics Tags:

Job search, yet again

August 1st, 2014 64 comments

I got lots of very helpful responses to my recent post on the search theory of unemployment, here and at Crooked Timber. But it has occurred to me that I haven’t seen any answer to one crucial question: How many offers do unemployed workers receive and decline before taking a new job, or leaving the labour market? This is crucial, both in simple versions of search theory and in more sophisticated directed search and matching models. If workers don’t get any offers, it doesn’t matter what their reservation wage is, or what their judgement of the state of the market. Casual observation and my very limited experience, combined with my understanding of the unemployment benefit rules, is that very few unemployed workers receive and decline job offers, except perhaps for temporary work where the loss of benefits outweighs potential earnings. Presumably someone must have studied this, but my Google skills aren’t up to finding anything useful.

And, on a morbidly humorous note, it’s a sad day for the LNP when efforts to bash dole bludgers actually cost them support. But that seems to be the case with the latest plans, both expanded work for the dole and the requirement for 40 job applications a month. I’ll leave it to Andrew Leigh to take out the trash on work for the dole (BTW, his new book, The Economics of Almost Everything is out now).

The 40 applications requirement has already been the subject of some amusing calculations. I want to take a slightly different tack. Suppose (to make the math simple) that the average job vacancy lasts a month. There are roughly five unemployed workers for every vacancy, so meeting the target will require an average of 200 applications per vacancy. The government will be checking for spam, so lets suppose that all (or a substantial proportion) of the applicants take some time to talk about how they would be a good fit with the employer and so on. Dealing with all these applications would be a mammoth task. One option would be to pick a short list at random. But, there’s a simpler option. In addition to the 200 required applications from unemployed people, most job vacancies will attract applications from people in jobs. A few of them may be looking for an outside offer to improve their bargaining position with their current employer (this is a big deal for academics), but most can be assumed to be serious about taking the job and in the judgement that they have a reasonable chance of getting it. So, the obvious strategy is to discard all the applications except for those from people who already have jobs. What if there aren’t any of these? Given that formal applications are going to be uninformative, employers may pick interviewees at random or may resort to the informal networks through which many jobs are filled already.

Trying to relate this back to theory, the effect of a requirement like this is to negate the benefits of improved matching that ought to arise from Internet search. By providing strong incentives to provide a convincing appearance of looking for jobs for which workers are actually poorly suited, the policy harms both employers and unemployed workers who would be well suited to a given job.

Update I found the following quote widely reproduced on the web

On average, 1,000 individuals will see a job post, 200 will begin the application process, 100 will complete the application,

75 of those 100 resumes will be screened out by the Applicant Tracking System (ATS) software the company uses,

25 resumes will be seen by the hiring manager, 4 to 6 will be invited for an interview, 1 to 3 of them will be invited back for final interview, 1 will be offered that job and 80 percent of those receiving an offer will accept it.

Data courtesy of Talent Function Group LLC

Visiting the TFG website, I couldn’t find any obvious source. The numbers sound plausible to me, and obviously to those who have cited them. But, if the final number (80 per cent acceptance) is correct, then it seems as if the search theory of unemployment is utterly baseless. Assuming independence, the proportion of searchers who reject even three offers must be minuscule (less than 1 per cent).

Austrian economics and Flat Earth geography

July 28th, 2014 51 comments

One of the striking features of (propertarian) libertarianism, especially in the US, is its reliance on a priori arguments based on supposedly self-evident truths. Among[^1] the most extreme versions of this is the “praxeological” economic methodology espoused by Mises and his followers, and also endorsed, in a more qualified fashion, by Hayek.

In an Internet discussion the other day, I was surprised to see the deductive certainty claimed by Mises presented as being similar to the “certainty” that the interior angles of a triangle add to 180 degrees.[^2]

In one sense, I shouldn’t be surprised. The certainty of Euclidean geometry was, for centuries, the strongest argument for the rationalist that we could derive certain knowledge about the world.

Precisely for that reason, the discovery, in the early 19th century of non-Euclidean geometries that did not satisfy Euclid’s requirement that parallel lines should never meet, was a huge blow to rationalism, from which it has never really recovered.[^3] In non-Euclidean geometry, the interior angles of a triangle may add to more, or less, than 180 degrees.

Even worse for the rationalist program was the observation that the system of geometry (that is, “earth measurement”) most relevant to earth-dwellers is spherical geometry, in which straight lines are “great circles”, and in which the angles of a triangle add to more than 180 degrees. Considered in this light, Euclidean plane geometry is the mathematical model associated with the Flat Earth theory.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Old men behaving badly (repost from 2011)

July 26th, 2014 61 comments

John Howard’s endorsement of Ian Plimer’s children’s version of his absurd anti-science tract Heaven and Earth has at least one good feature. I can now cut the number of prominent Australian conservatives for whom I have any intellectual respect down from two to one.[1] Howard’s acceptance of anti-science nonsense shows that, for all his ability as a politician, he is, in the end, just another tribalist incapable of thinking for himself. [2]

Although not all the tribal leaders are old men, an old, high-status man like Howard is certainly emblematic of Australian delusionism . Like a lot of old, high status men, he stopped thinking decades ago, but is even more confident of being right now than when he had to confront his prejudices with reality from time time. Like other delusionists, Howard has no scientific training, shows no sign of understanding statistics and almost certainly hasn’t read any real scientific literature, but nonetheless believes he can rank clowns like Plimer and Monckton ahead of the real scientists.

The situation in the US is similar but even more grimly amusing, with the sole truthteller in the entire Republican party, Jon Huntsman, recently reduced to waffling (in both US and UK/Oz senses of this term) because he briefly looked like having a chance to be the next non-Romney. This tribal mindlessness is reflected in the inability of the Republican Party, at a time when they ought to be unbackable favorites in 2012, to come up with a candidate who can convince the base s/he is one of them, but who doesn’t rapidly reveal themselves as a fool, a knave or both.

And, as evidence of the utter intellectual shamelessness of delusionism, you can’t beat the campaign against wind power, driven by the kinds of absurd claims of risk that would be mocked, mercilessly and deservedly, if they came from the mainstream environmental movement.

The global left is in pretty bad shape in lots of ways. Still, I would really hate to be a conservative right now.

fn1. Now down to zero. Turnbull has proved he lacks any real substance.

fn2. I’m not saying that all Australian conservatives are mindless tribalists. There’s a large group, epitomized by Greg Hunt and now Malcolm Turnbull, who understand the issues quite well, but are unwilling to speak up. Then there is a group of postmodern conservatives of whom Andrew Bolt is probably the best example, who have passed the point where concepts of truth or falsehood have any meaning – truth is whatever suits the cause on any given day.

Categories: Economics - General Tags: