A sensible privatisation

I was somewhat alarmed to read in today’s Australian that “THE Beattie Government will today put up for sale the state’s two monopoly power retailers – Ergon and Energex – in an attempt to get the best price for the assets before they have to compete with private-sector companies.” While Ergon and Energex are indeed power retailers, their much more important role is running the electricity distribution network, an area where there is no capacity for competition.

The Courier-Mail does a better job, saying that the retail arms will be sold off, though it also fails to say what will be done with distribution. The estimated price of $1 billion is reasonable (maybe a bit optimistic, but I haven’t looked in detail) for the retail businesses, but far below the value of the distribution network.

To the extent that the current electricity model, including retail competition makes sense at all, selling off the retail arms of public distribution monopolies is a good idea. Retail and distribution don’t fit together at all well in this model. In fact, it would make some sense for electricity generators (most of which are publicly owned in Queensland) to buy or establish their own retail outlets. This would enable an efficient matching of risk.


The day before Anzac Day might not seem the best time to publish a piece claiming that the significance of the Australian victory at Kokoda was a myth propagated by the Labor party, but that’s what we got from Stephen Barton, a political scientist and former Liberal apparatchik.

The second part of the claim is both the most offensive and the most easily demolished. I got the full Kokoda legend taught to me at school in South Australia in the early 1960s, straight after saluting the flag and reciting our loyalty to the Queen at Assembly. That was about thirty years into the premiership of Sir Thomas Playford. The idea that the Labor party, or radical historians, managed to sneak the story into the school curriculum as propaganda is as unbelievable as it is offensive.

Now let’s turn to the substantive claim. I’m not an expert on military strategy, but neither is Barton, and he doesn’t cite anyone who is. He defends Churchill’s strategy of fighting Germany first and Japan second, and claims that

Japanese supply lines were overextended, their best troops were in China and their southern thrust had run out of steam


Had the Japanese driven south to Port Moresby it would have been a grim setback, but not a decisive blow.

This argument sounds plausible, but it would sound even more plausible if you crossed out “Port Moresby” and substituted “Townsville” or “Rockhampton”. The lines would have been extended even further then and the Japanese occupiers could have been left, as Barton suggests, to “wither on the vine” until the war was over. In effect, Barton has reinvented the Brisbane Line.*

* There’s no reason to believe the claim made by Eddie Ward that the Menzies government adopted, or even considered, a “Brisbane Line” plan. But it’s an obvious corollary of reasoning like Barton’s and there’s little doubt that such ideas were discussed.

BrisScience plug (again)

For Brisbane readers, tonight’s BrisScience lecture is on THROUGH THE ELECTRON LOOKING GLASS – John Drennan

In this second BrisScience talk, Prof Drennan will cross live to an operating electron microscope to take us on a real-time journey down to the atomic scale, from exploring the minerals that make up the deep earth to understanding biological cells.

Time: 6:30pm to 7:30pm (doors open at 6:00pm); complimentary wine, soft
drinks, and nibblies follow
Venue: Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts (420 Brunswick St,
Fortitude Valley)

Contact Jennifer Dodd (0408 796 357, jdodd@physics.uq.edu.au) with
any questions.

Credibility up in smoke

Among the scientists taking a public position sceptical of global warming, Richard Lindzen has always seemed the most credible. Unlike nearly all “sceptics”, he’s a real climate scientist who has done significant research on climate change, and, also unlike most of them, there’s no* evidence that he has a partisan or financial axe to grind. His view that the evidence on climate change is insufficient to include that the observed increase in temperature is due to human activity therefore seems like one that should be taken seriously.

Or it would do if it were not for a 2001 Newsweek interview (no good link available, but Google a sentence or two and you can find it) What’s interesting here is not the (now somewhat out of date) statement of Lindzen’s views on climate change, but the following paragraph

Lindzen clearly relishes the role of naysayer. He’ll even expound on how weakly lung cancer is linked to cigarette smoking. He speaks in full, impeccably logical paragraphs, and he punctuates his measured cadences with thoughtful drags on a cigarette.

Anyone who could draw this conclusion in the light of the evidence, and act on it as Lindzen has done, is clearly useless as a source of advice on any issue involving the analysis of statistical evidence.

Lindzen argues that we should be equally sceptical about both climate change and the link between smoking and cancer, but his argument can just as easily be turned around. If you accept Lindzen’s ‘impeccably logical’ view that the two arguments are comparable, you reach the conclusion that the link between human activity and climate change is now so well-established that it makes about as much sense to doubt it as to doubt the relationship between smoking and lung cancer, that is, no sense at all.
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What I’ve been reading and watching

The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler. This will be coming out soon from Yale University Press and I have an advance copy for a seminar to be run at Crooked Timber. The book deals with the implications of networking, social production and similar issues that I’ve been excited about for some time.

On the viewing front, now that The West Wing has come to the ABC and is on at a reasonable hour, I’m watching it, though the episodes must be quite a few years old. It’s rather like a parallel universe, but one in which the White House is in the same universe, instead of, as in reality, two parallel universes.

Still clinging on

Twelve days after losing the Italian election, Silvio Berlusconi is still clinging to power, refusing either to concede defeat. This is in line with his arrogant and authoritarian character, but it’s also a reflection of how much he has to lose. Until the elections, Berlusconi controlled not only the Parliament, but also much of the mass media and the judiciary.

If he loses, he faces the prospect of being forced either to leave politics or to divest himself of control over his media empire. And without political office, he will lose immunity from prosecution for his many dubious activities. So, it’s scarcely surprising that he is refusing to recognise the outcome of the election.

It’s vital that the incoming centre-left government pursue him on every front to break his massive political power once and for all. Although this is a forced move in political terms, it looks possible that squabbling within the coalition might lead them to duck the tough actions. In this sense, Berlusconi’s irresponsible and anti-democratic actions are a blessing, reminding the new government of the kind of threat they are dealing with.

Weekend reflections

Weekend Reflections is on again. Please comment on any topic of interest (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Feel free to put in contributions more lengthy than for the Monday Message Board or standard comments.

A counterexample

This report on a recent outbreak of mumps in the US midwest makes the point that the US has a far more stringent and effective system of universal vaccination than most European countries. For example, it’s impossible for a child to attend school without up-to-date vaccination records (at least that was my experience when I lived there).

Australia dropped the ball on this a decade or so ago when the Keating government (IIRC) passed responsibility to the states, but now seems to have restored effectively universal vaccination.

All of this is surprising to me. I would have expected that health scares about vaccination would be at least as easy to run up in the US as anywhere else, that objections on the grounds of individual liberty would be taken more seriously in the US than elsewhere, and that the complex patchwork of state and local management of health policy would lead to large gaps.

Is my general expectation wrong, or is there something special about the case of vaccination? Or is thus just an illustration of the fact that every predictive model fails sometimes?