I haven’t yet posted on the Queensland election campaign, and just as I was thinking about it I heard the tragic news that Lawrence Springborg has had to withdraw from the campaign due to sudden death of his wife’s father. I’d like to express my sympathy to Mr Springborg and his family, which I’m sure will be shared by readers.


This NYT piece by Adam Cohen starts with the observation that Americans are feeling pessimistic about the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and so on, then jumps to a recent work on philosophical pessimism by Joshua Dienstag, whose basic argument is summarised in this sample chapter. As Cohen says, pessimism in this sense is not a gloomy disposition, but a worldview that “simply doubts the most basic liberal principle: that applying human reasoning to the world’s problems will have a positive effect.’ Cohen concludes “Part of Mr. Bush’s legacy may well be that he robbed America of its optimism “.

But if optimism holds that applying reasoned analysis will have a positive effect, the experience of the Bush Administration merely illustrates the point that the converse is also true.
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I happened to notice that the iTunes music store was selling a new album by Paris Hilton, which had a two-star rating. This seemed like an interesting mean value, so I thought I’d see how it was derived, and took a look at some of the comments. The modal response was a one-star rating, often accompanied by a demand that iTunes introduce fractional, zero or negative stars to its system.

On the other hand, some listeners made a convincing case for five stars. For example, one headed Genius. pure and simple reads

By subverting modern pop music and turning every soul crushing cliche in modern music to tap-like ’11’ proportions, Paris has created 3:57 of towering avant garde… An almost coma-inducing tour de force, which ranks with Lou Reed’s ‘Meta Machine Music’ in the unlistenable stakes. Bravo, Maestro!

Even on the limited free sample available from iTunes, I think this rave review is warranted.

The apparent deceptiveness of the world

Googling around in connection with my review of Unspeak, I came across an old LanguageLog post on The apparent deceptiveness of the world, which cites the paradoxical statement

Appearances are not deceptive; it only seems as if they are.

and invites Brian Weatherson (who’s now one of the crew at Crooked Timber) to analyse it, saying

Clearly, if this is true, then it has to be false, and if false, it must be true. Yet it is not a standard liar-paradox sentence like as in classic liar sentences like This statement is false, or Everything I tell you is a lie, including this. It does not mention truth or falsity, or refer to itself. It is a metaphysical claim, as far as I can see. It speaks not about language or truth but about the nature of reality. It says (contrary to the old proverb) that reality does not present itself in a way that deceives our senses, and any perception we may have to the contrary is incorrect.

I think we can extract a coherent claim with the aid of Hamlet’s observation “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. I’d read the statement as saying something like “First appearances are not deceptive; it’s thinking about them that leads you astray”. While this is obviously false as a general statement, I think direct perceptions are usually closer to the mark than the results of the kinds of analysis (Freudianism, large parts of Marxism, a lot of public choice theory) that purports to strip away surface appearances and reveal the underlying truth.

Davos Down Under

I spent the weekend at Hayman Island, where I gave a talk on water to a conference run by the Australian Davos Connection, an offshoot of the Davos World Economic Forum, with quite a high-powered set of political and finance people in attendance (some are mentioned here). It’s all very low-profile and run on Chatham House rules (no names, no pack drill), so you’ll all have to imagine the fascinating gossip I could pass on if I wasn’t sworn to silence. Fortunately, there’s no problem talking about the substance of what was said.
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Inequality on the rise

Andrew Leigh points to ABS data showing increasing inequality in both wages and disposable income since the mid-1990s. This is scarcely surprising for a number of reasons. First, our poor performance in education means that the supply of educated workers has not kept up with the long-run trend increase in relative demand for such workers, so the equilibrium wage differential has increased. Second, IR reforms over the last decade and the decline in union membership would both be expected to increase wage inequality. Finally, whereas tax-welfare policy under the Hawke-Keating government generally offset the effects of increasing inequality in market incomes, the reverse has been true under Howard.

Looking at overseas experience, particularly the US, UK and NZ we can expect a whole lot more inequality once Workchoices takes effect.

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.

Is Peak Oil here already ?

There’s been a lot of discussion about claims that world oil output is going to reach a peak some time soon. If you look at the recent numbers, there’s a pretty good case to be made that world all output has already reached its peak at about 73 million barrels a day, a level reached in mid-2004, and sustained for the past two years.

Now there are lots of local factors that explain weak output in particular countries. Still, if the claims made by those who think oil output can keep on growing were correct, I would have expected the massive increase in prices (from a brief low of $10/barrel and a medium-term price of $20/barrel in the late 1990s to $75/barrel today) to produce a substantial expansion in supply.

This argument is pretty robust to whether oil producers believe that there is plenty of oil (implying that prices will come down again) or not. If prices are going to come down, then there’s a strong incentive to pump more in the short term, use secondary recovery from depleted wells and so on. If prices are going to stay high, there’s a strong incentive to bring large new fields online, even if they are in high cost locations. As far as I can see, neither of these things is happening.

Supposing that oil output has peaked, the obvious point to be made is that Peak Oil isn’t so bad. Sales of Hummers are plummeting, apparently, and lots more people are using buses (at least in Brisbane). And of course, the less oil there is to burn, the easier it will be to stabilise CO2 emissions (though we can’t just rely on Peak Oil – apart from anything else, there’s almost unlimited coal in the ground, far more than we can burn without frying the planet in the process).

Even if supplies have peaked (or, more plausibly, flattened out at the top of the curve), I doubt that prices will go much higher than this, though $100/barrel is certainly possible. If current prices are sustained, a lot of alternatives will become cost-competitive, as already seems to be happening with biofuels in the US. More importantly, demand is bound to respond more than it already has.
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