The dismal science of freedom

The topic for my BrisScience talk tomorrow night is Economics: The Hopeful Science. The name, obviously, is an allusion to Carlyle’s characterization of economics as ‘the dismal science’. In choosing though, I was under the common misapprehension that Carlyle was attacking Malthus, and his prediction of a stationary economy with a subsistence wage, that could be raised only through ‘moral restraint’.

It turns out, however, that the phrase actually occurs in Carlyle’s defence of slavery, charmingly entitled, Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question*, and that the primary target is John Stuart Mill and other economists who favored free labour over slavery.
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ABARE on the costs of climate change

I’ve been reading the latest ABARE report on climate change, kindly sent to me by my colleague Renuka Mahadevan . While there are some problems with the analysis and even more with the way it’s been reported, the central findings are strikingly consistent with estimates I’ve made about the costs of stabilsing global CO2 levels, most recently here

All the evidence, though, is that we can reduce emissions to levels consistent with stabilising global CO2 levels over the next few decades at a cost of around 5 per cent of GDP – a few years worth of economic growth at the most. Quite possibly, as in previous cases, this wll turn out to be an overestimate.

ABARE studies a number of scenarios in which global CO2 levels are stabilised at 575 parts per million in 2100 and reports the estimated reduction in global product at 2050, which ranges from 1.7 per cent to 4.3 per cent, or from a bit under 1 years per capita growth to a bit over 2 years. That is, in the worst-case scenario (which is somewhat problematic in modelling terms, I think), the living standards in 2150 will be those that would have been reached in 2048 under the base projection.

ABARE is not known for lowballing the estimated costs of mitigating climate change, but if you’re going to do a credible modelling exercise, it’s inevitable that numbers of this magnitude will emerge. This simply reflects the fact that carbon-based fuels make up only a modest proportion of the value of total output, and that the demand for carbon (or more precisely C02) emissions is bound to be at least moderately elastic in the long run.

Vote Yes in Toowoomba

The struggle of science against stupidity (and, in some cases, selfish interest groups) is being fought out on a number of fronts – creationism, global warming and passive smoking to name but a few. Tomorrow the venue moves to Toowoomba where a proposal to deal with a drastic water shortage by recycling effluent is being opposed by a know-nothing scare campaign, whose proponents have neither credible arguments nor an alternative to offer. I’m happy to endorse people’s freedom not to drink recycled water if they don’t want to. Their local supermarket offers chemically identical spring water at around $1/litre, so if they don’t want to drink what comes out of the tap at $1/kilolitre, they don’t have to. But they shouldn’t make their fellow-citizens suffer for their irrational squeamishness.

BrisScience, 31 July

I’ve been very much enjoying attending the BrisScience lecture series, and next week I’ll get to give one. I’m talking on Monday July 31 at the Ithaca Auditorium, City Hall, on the topic “Economics: The Hopeful Science” (6pm for 6:30). The theme of my talk, which should be familiar to readers of this blog is that we can (and must) have both economic growth and protection of the environment.

Doha failure

The breakdown of the Doha round of trade talks on agricultural trade is unsurprising, but still disappointing. Neither the US nor the EU is really willing to give substantial ground. In the case of the US, the option of negotiating one-sided bilateral deals like the US-Australia FTA seems much more appealing.

A critique of Wood on global warming

I’ve been sent a critique of Alan Wood’s piece in the Oz claiming that global warming is a hoax. It’s written by a climate scientist who knows what he is talking about on this issue. Wood obviously doesn’t know or doesn’t care.

I was very disappointed in Wood’s piece. While his economic views are very different from mine, his columns on economic issues are usually rigorous, and if he makes a factual claim, it’s generally reliable. But his standards seem to desert him when he writes on this topic.

The response is in the (now relatively uncommon) form of a point-by-point fisking. Wood’s text is in plain type and the comment’s in italics.

One fairly trivial point is quite revealing. Wood claims, incorrectly, that the Mann “hockey stick” graph was “for a time, incorporated … into the IPCC’s logo.” As the analysis makes clear, the repetition of this bogus factoid indicates that Wood is sourcing his material from the denialist echo chamber, and not doing his own research. This is standard practice for our legion of rightwing hacks (and quite a few lefties as well), but it’s not the kind of thing I’d expect from Alan Wood.

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Civil war in Iraq

While world attention has been transfixed by the catastrophes in Lebanon and Gaza, Iraq has reached the point where sectarian bloodletting turns into civil war. Most of the country is already partitioned on ethnic and religious lines, and now the same thing is happening in Baghdad, with people abandoning mixed neighborhoods for the safety of homogeneous enclaves.

This development seems to finally mark the point beyond which slogans like “stay the course” make no sense any more. “Stay the course” presumed that the problem was an insurgency that could be defeated by the Iraqi government, given sufficient backing. Whether or not that was ever feasible, given the way in which the occupation acted as a recruiting agency for the insurgents, is now irrelevant. The forces driving the civil war are as much inside the government as outside. The occupying forces are doing nothing to stop it, and it’s not obvious that they can do anything.

Any suggestions on what to do next would be welcome. Given that the occupation has produced nothing but disaster, an early end to it seems like an obvious first step. But nothing now seems likely to stop the breakup of Iraq into warring statelets, at least some of which will be terrorist havens.

Update While the comment thread has been as acrimonious as you would expect, it’s been notably lacking in positive suggestions, particularly from those who supported the invasion. Stephen Bartos and a couple of others have some worthwhile discussion of the way a withdrawal could be managed, but the war’s supporters seem to think it sufficient to point out that Saddam was (and is) an evil man. Those of us who opposed the invasion knew that; what we were waiting for in 2002, and are still waiting for, was a coherent plan to deal with the consequences of an invasion.