Leadfoot Doyle crashes and burns

I didn’t take a very close interest in the Victorian state election – I share the lack of intense feeling about Bracks that is the secret of his success, and the result always looked like a foregone conclusion. One thing that gave me a bit of interest was Leadfoot Doyle’s appeals to the speeders lobby, promising to allow more dangerous roads with less of those pesky speeding tickets. Short of promising to legalise assault rifles, he couldn’t have done anything more irresponsible. In fact, he got predictable support from the same quarters in blogdom that support free access to guns, notably Tim Blair. Rather than say he and his friends want to enjoy themselves speeding and are happy to have a few hundred of their fellow-citizens have to die every year as a result, Tim trotted out the tired canard about revenue raising. To see how far off the mark this is, you only need to look at the results of vigorous enforcement of road safety laws, in which Victoria has led the way. As this ABS
history of road fatalities in Australia road deaths have been halved since the first serious enforcement measures (compulsory seat belts) began in 1970. Measured against population, vehicle numbers or kilometres driven the results are even more dramatic.
But Tim’s views have prevailed in the US, where enforcement of road safety laws is far less vigorous. The result is that road deaths there are rising. The comparison is even more unfavorable when expressed in terms of deaths per registered vehicle or per unit of distance travelled. In 1970, the US was easily the safest country in the world in which to drive thanks to excellent roads and state-of-the-art safety measures. Now, although our roads are still awful, Australians face lower risks on both measures and the gap is growing.
Robert Doyle wanted to undermine the most successful public health initiative in Australia’s history, one that has saved tens of thousands of lives. He richly deserves the crushing defeat he has received.

The worst job in Australian politics

I’m doing a bit of research for an article and I came up with the finding that the NSW Liberals have had twelve leaders since 1975 when the unlamented Robin Askin left office . Only Nick Greiner (1983-92) has lasted more than three years, and quite a few never even faced an election.

In the same period, Labor has had only three leaders (Wran, Unsworth and Carr), and, in the century since Jack Lang took over in 1923, only ten.

On current indications, the latest incumbent, John Brogden seems unlikely to break the mould, although nothing is certain in politics. He’s young enough to serve 30 years as Premier like Tom Playford in SA.

Song for Saturday

It’s time once again for a song, and what better than this heartfelt exile’s lament!

Take me back to Canberra

First verse and chorus
Take me back to Canberra, where the skies are always blue
And often in the winter, my hands and face are too
We’ve got a lofty tower, we’ve got three lovely lakes
We’ve got a great Assembly, to make all our mistakes

Our town is planned by experts, the best there’s ever been
The streets are always empty, but at least they’re always clean
Our roads go round in circles, it’s a very clever plan
However far you go you’ll wind upjust where you began

You can go to the National Gallery, you can and see Blue Poles
You can go and see the Treasury, where they keep the big Black Holes
But it’s really on the weekend, we all love Canberra the most
Cos half of us are up the snow, the rest are down the coast!

Seriously, I’m really loving Brisbane. The weather’s great, the people are friendly and, at least around our house, it’s much leafier than I expected, with lots and lots of birds. The UQ campus is beautiful, combining sandstone buildings with the expansive grounds more typical of a 1970-vintage Menzies university. And the crucial academic requirement, good coffee, is catered for in style. There’s a rooftop cafe right in the Economics department and another one 100 metres away with a view down to the river. The library and bookshop have their own cafes, not to mention the staff club and student union and there are another half-dozen at the local shops down the street.

Back of the envelope

A while ago, I blogged on the economics of a war with Iraq, suggesting that a long occupation would cost around $US100 billion per year. This was a ‘back-of-the-envelope’ estimate. Yale economist William Nordhaus has now present a range of estimates of the cost of a war, which are broadly consistent with this. For the total cost over ten years he gives estimates ranging from $121 billion for a quick war with an easy exit to $1500 billion for a prolonged occupation with adverse impacts on oil markets. I’d go for something towards the upper end of this range 5-10 years of occupation at $100 billion per year.

I don’t always agree with Nordhaus. On global warming for example I think he places too little weight on adjustment costs and hardly any on species extinction. But he’s very able and, if you accept his assumptions, he generally gets the implications right. So I’m glad my envelope is consistent with his more detailed analysis.

Thinking alike

I obviously missed this piece by Paul Krugman which appeared when my move was at maximum chaos, but fortunately it’s reproduced at Brad DeLong’s Webjournal. Like me, Krugman notes that acceptance of growing inequality of outcomes in a society with a meritocratic ethos is an unstable equilibrium. Inevitably it leads to acceptance of inherited inequality, a process that is already evident after only a couple of decades of neoliberal dominance.

On the optimistic side, I don’t believe the egalitarian ethos will be easy to erode, at least in Australia. Even in relatively good economic times, neoliberalism remains unpopular, largely because its benefits and costs are so unfairly distributed. As the Jeff Madrick piece I cited shows, this unfairness becomes even more glaring in a downturn.

Born-again believer in checks and balances

Federal Liberal MP and party heavyweight Petro Georgiou says that a Labor landslide (giving Bracks control of both houses) poses a threat to democracy, by removing checks and balances. He’s right but it’s pretty breathtaking hypocrisy from a member of a government that has routinely claimed a mandate for absolute power on the basis of 40 per cent of the vote and complained about Senate obstructionism. And Jeff Kennett did his best to destroy every check and balance that got in his way. To say that if Bracks gets the same power that Kennett had, ‘the first casualty will be responsible, accountable government in our state’ displays more hide than Jessie the elephant.

Moreover, the only reason this is possible at all is because the Victorian Liberals have been so determined to protect their gerrymandered majority in the Legislative Council. They could easily have negotiated reform along proportional representation lines to produce an upper house where neither major party could get a majority (unless it won a majority of the votes). Now it looks as if Labor will win and be able to write its own rules.

Left wing patriotism

A very brief ‘linking’ post has produced a fascinating discussion of patriotism, internationalism and whether it is possible to have a left wing version of patriotism. (To get full value, follow the link and read the comments thread, then come back to this post).

Interestingly, Samuel Johnson’s aphorism ‘Patriotism, sir, is the last refuge of a scoundrel’ refers to radical ‘patriots’ like John Wilkes, so called because they advocated government by and for the nation as a whole against the monarchist claims of Tories like Johnson. (There’s a discussion of this contested term here )Boswell’s Life of Johnson contains an amusing story, in which Boswell inveigles Johnson into dining with Wilkes and the two get on famously.

I suggest that patriotism is the benign version of nationalism, perfectly consistent with internationalism. It’s essentially a statement of membership of, and pride in, a community rather than an aggressive assertion of claims against others. I no more expect citizens of other countries to agree that ‘Australia is the best country in the world’ than I expect other people to share my feeling that mine is the best family in the world.

As an Australian, I can take pride in our success in building a tolerant and prosperous community with an egalitarian ethos, and can appeal to our egalitarian traditions as a particularly Australian reason for resisting growing inequality.

But, as Martin Krygier 1997 Boyer Lectures with pride goes shame in our collective failures, mistakes and crimes. John Howard wants us to take pride in the Anzacs, but disclaims responsibility for the stolen generation because he wasn’t there and didn’t do anything. Well, he wasn’t at Anzac Cove in 1915 either. In this respect, and more recently with respect to asylum seekers, Howard’s positiion is one of chauvinism rather than patriotism.

To end on a patriotic note, I’ll observe that Howard may not be perfect, but he has his strong points and, in any case, we elected him. One of our great blessings, which I hope will extend to the entire world before long, is that we get a chance to change our minds every three years.

The Rule of 70

In the discussion of global warming, the time it takes for a process to double is often one of the key issues, and has come up a couple of times in the comments thread. There’s a neat rule on this which I thought was worth a short post. For moderate growth rates, you can get the doubling time just by dividing the percentage growth rate into 70. That is, an economy with a 1 per cent growth rate doubles its output in 70 years, 2 per cent takes 35 years and so on.

The key to this rule is the fact that the natural log of 2 is just about 0.7. Actually it’s 0.693, but 69 doesn’t have as many prime factors and ‘The Rule of 69’ is hard to say with a straight face.

Normal growth in inequality

Jeff Madrick observes that unemployment pinches hard at the bottom of the economic ladder. As he observes the steady growth in US inequality observed over recent decades was briefly reversed, or at least halted, in the late 1990s when the unemployment rate fell to 4 per cent. Beginning in 2000, the growth in inequality has resumed.

Maddrick concludes correctly that the rate of unemployment is a major factor in driving the growth in inequality. But he is over-optimistic in saying that the experience of the 1990s proves that unemployment can be pushed down to 4 per cent and kept there. The late 1990s represented an unsustainable and probably unrepeatable bubble. At least under its current economic institutions, the US can’t hold unemployment much below 6 per cent. It follows that the same institutions generate steadily increasing inequality.

Of course, other countries haven’t done notably better on unemployment. Allowing for distorting factors like disability benefits, and differing propensities to imprison the unemployable, there isn’t a lot of difference between US, European, Australian and Japanese unemployment rates. But at current unemployment rates the US, and other English speaking countries have seen a lot of growth in (already high) inequality, whereas inequality in Europe and Japan has been much lower and fairly stable.