Terrorists and nukes

The recent news from the UK suggests that the threat of terrorist attacks is going to be with us for a fair while to come. Still, as a relatively frequent air traveller, I can’t say I’m too concerned by the news. The terrorists have managed to generate a barely observable increase in my (and everyone else’s) risk of death while travelling, and have now achieved a further marginal increase in the associated stress and inconvenience.

What scares me is the possibility that terrorists could get hold of nuclear weapons. Even a small atomic bomb could be a hundred times worse than all the attacks of recent years put together. Yet it doesn’t seem as if the threat is getting anything like the resources it merits. Of course, the biggest danger is that the bombs already made by Pakistan will get into the hands of someone linked to Al Qaeda, of whom there are plenty still in positions of power and could be more if Musharraf goes. There’s no easy way to reduce this threat. But a modest expenditure could help to buy up the enriched uranium, weapons systems and disgruntled scientists still floating around the former Soviet Union. I’d be a lot happier if I saw some evidence of this actually happening.

Queensland election

My mobile phone buzzed a few minutes ago with an SMS message from reader Mike Smith, advising that a state election has been called for Saturday 9 September. This is, I think, the first time I’ve received actual news by text message.

I’m not great on the instant analysis thing, but my off-the-cuff prediction is a narrow win for Labor. I heard on the news that Centrebet were offering 8/1 for bets on the Coalition, which seemed long enough odds for a flutter, but by the time I checked in they’d shortened to 6/1. Meanwhile Labor has ‘blown out’ from 20/1 on to 10/1 on. This still seems to me to underestimate the odds of Labor losing, given that the opinion polls are level pegging, but the margin isn’t enough to induce me to back my judgement with cash.

One question that arises is whether a Coalition government would be led by the Liberals or the Nationals. I caught the tail end of an interview with Springborg in which he assured voters that he would be Premier in the event of a Coalition win, but I don’t know if that was based on an agreement with the Libs (possibly unenforcable) or his confidence of winning more seats (dubious based on a quick scan of the marginals).

I’ve expressed the view that we’ll never see another National government and I still think that’s highly probable. The best chance for the Coalition is that the Liberals get more votes and seats than the Nats this time around, and then become a plausible contender next time around.

Good all round

The withdrawal of the Howard government’s legislation aimed at recreating offshore prison camps for asylum seekers is good news all round. The Liberal MPs who crossed the floor to vote against the bill (along with Family First’s Steve Fielding who indicated a vote against and Barnaby Joyce who threatened to abstain) have helped to revive the idea of Parliament as a place where laws are decided and debated rather than a rubber-stamp for the executive. Substantively, the failure of the bill reduces the likelihood of children being kept in detention centres again, though this is still, I think, possible under existing laws.

Despite the usual posturing, the outcome is not a bad one for Howard, as was shown by the rapidity with which he dropped the bill. There are no more votes to be had from anti-refugee demagogery, and the government was happy to back away from its past policies last year, and return to a process in which we implemented, at least in part, our legal obligations to deal fairly with asylum seekers. The problem was the inconsistency between the government’s rhetoric and actions in 2001, dealing with refugess from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the admission last year of refugees from West Papua (note to those who seek to use non-words like “illegals” in this context – those I refer to have had their refugee status confirmed by the standard legal process).

Not surprisingly, the Indonesians were upset by this inconsistency, which implied that the position of West Papuans was worse than that of people escaping from the Taliban or Saddam Hussein, so the government was pushed into yet another reversal. But now, Howard can go the Indonesians and say he has done his best and that the problem is with the Parliament. Not surprisingly, Downer has already done this.

Books and bombs, again

Reader Tom Stafford writes to publicise a protest against Elsevier:

Reed Elsevier is a publishing company with an arms trade problem. While the bulk of their business is in scientific, medical and educational publishing, they also organise arms fairs around the world. The aim of this website is to mobilise the academic community that writes and reads Reed Elsevier’s journals to persuade them to stop organising arms fairs. More details and petition here

I’ve been thinking about this on and off for a while, trying to work out what course of action is most effective in cases like this. Suggestions are welcome.

BrisScience and BrisReligion

The next in the BrisScience lecture series is on tomorrow (Monday) night, at City Hall, 6pm for 6:30. Continuing to diversify the range of topics, the speaker is Margaret Wertheim, on the topic ” Space and Spirit: Why Science and Religion Together are Driving us Crazy”. As the extract over the page suggests, Wertheim thinks that we have a fundamental pyschological need for a reconcilation of science and religion.

I’m not so sure about this. One of the most striking features of the late 20th century was the collapse of active religious belief in most of the developed world, with the glaring exception of the United States. This didn’t result in any direct sense from scientific discoveries about the universe. And, surprisingly, it didn’t seem to produce any big changes in behavior (there have been changes in sexual mores, but these have been just as noticeable in the US as elsewhere) or any obvious rise in cosmic angst. You can find some statistical differences between believers and non-believers, and between those who regularly attend religious services and those who don’t, but they are a lot smaller than much of the discussion of this topic would suggest.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it, as I’ll be presenting at the IAAE Conference in the Gold Coast so maybe some Brisbane-based reader would like to put in a brief report on proceedings.
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Water and climate change

I spent yesterday at the Gold Coast, at a pre-conference Workshop on Water leading up to the International Association of Agricultural Economics Conference which starts today.

My presentation gave some simulation results on the impact of climate change. It’s still preliminary, but for those interested here is the presentation.

There’s a big area set aside for WiFi users at the Conference, including at least one possible liveblogger, who has already chided me for my failure to report promptly. The competition in econoblogging is definitely getting keener, in all senses of the term.


The fight over the economics of protection has been going on, with Harry Clarke at Kalimna saying

The argument that Nicholas Gruen has propounded, and which John Quiggin seems to have supported, that low levels of tariff protection are justified by the existence of market power in export markets, is just wrong.

I don’t think Harry’s argument actually proves his claims – he just shows that the simple version of this argument is too simple, which is true of all simple arguments, including simple arguments for free trade.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that any terms of trade benefit from protecting the industry is likely to be negligibly small and that the standard counterarguments about retaliation make it a bad idea to try to impose optimal tariffs to extract such benefits. But the allocative efficiency benefits of reducing small tariffs.

But if neither of these effects is significant what are we arguing about? A couple of things.
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