New on the RSMG blog

Although I haven’t had time to post on the Switkowski report on this blog, Nanni has it covered in a couple of posts over at the RSMG blog, as well as the related topic of carbon trading.

Mark looks at the implications of higher water prices for dairy farmers and concludes that they ‘may not be priced out of the market as some commentators may have thought.

I report some good news for RSMG. We are ranked in the top 20 per cent of economics research institutions in Australia.

Finally, David is starting a discussion paper series. The first and second are on biosecurity and pest management.

Read, enjoy and comment

Hard to believe

Writing in the LA Daily News, in a piece full of harrowing stories of flight from Iraq, Pamela Hartman states

The United States has not liberalized its refugee policy in response to the worsening crisis in Iraq. More than 1 million Iraqi refugees of all religious backgrounds have poured into Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. In fiscal year 2006, just 202 Iraqi refugees were resettled in the United States.

The 1 million figure is broadly consistent with other estimates I’ve seen, but there’s no source for the amazingly low figure of 202 refugees. (If anyone can point to a data source that would be great.) I assume this excludes people like many of Hartman’s clients who’ve found some other route such as a family relationship, but that can’t change the fact that the US is ducking a central responsibility here.

Of course, the same is true in spades for Australia. At the same time as promoting the disastrous Iraq venture, many of our local warmongers have enthusiastically backed the view that we have no obligations to the refugees it has created, and are entitled to turn back any asylum-seekers who have not travelled here directly from Iraq (I’m sure that if any direct routes were feasible, a way would be found to block their use, so please don’t bother with legalistic defences of this disgraceful hypocrisy).

There’s no real way to salvage the disaster we’ve created in Iraq. But we must at least accept the responsibility of providing a haven to those fleeing the carnage we have created.

Update Judging by the comments, the pro-war view is that our obligations to take refugees extend only, or at least preferentially, to Christians.

Cole concludes

The Cole Commission has finally reported, and I can take some comfort from the fact that my predictions at the start have been borne out almost entirely.* No conclusive proof of government wrongdoing has emerged, no minister has resigned, and the government’s defenders have had no trouble squaring their denunciations of Saddam with the fact that we were financing his rearmament program up to the day the war began.

Only the last of these points really mattered, since it called into question the whole rationale for our participation in the war, and the good faith of those who urged. But now that the war is almost universally recognised as a disaster, this probably no longer matters. Even for those who justified the whole deal on the basis of commercial self-interest, it should be clear by now that we have lost any positive standing we had in the world wheat market and that the US will be able to lock us out of many markets we might otherwise have competed in with success.

For those who want more, though, occasional commenter Stepehn Bartos has produced a book called “Against the Grain – The AWB Scandal and why it happened”. It is published by UNSW Press in their briefings series, can be ordered online at He says

The book goes beyond the Cole Inquiry concerns of who did what when, and instead looks at the underlying causes of the scandal including inadequate due diligence at the time of AWB privatisation in 1999, poor design of regulatory supervision, and most importantly, the fact that Ministers and AWB officials were all part of the same small, closed circle and not inclined to ask questions even when information alerting the government to the possibility of the kickbacks started to come out.

It sounds like a substantial effort, given the short time, but of course many of the fundamental issues have been familiar from previous episode.

Read More »

The end for endnotes?

I’ve been reading Karen Cerulo’s Never saw it coming and while it’s generally pretty good, it contains what I assumed was a howler of a mistake, but turns out to be a gross misjudgement. Cerulo argues that the generally optimistic view taken by Americans does not extend to deviant groups, and uses as an example, the Heaven’s Gate cult which, as she states believed that they would be removed from the Earth by a spaceship following the comet Hale-Bopp, their true home’. As she says, most reporting of the group treated it as the epitome of the lunatic fringe. I assumed that Cerulo was somehow unaware of the fact that all the members of the group had committed suicide in an attempt to ensure that the spaceship didn’t miss them. I looked at the endnotes to check the dates on some of the cited media reports and discovered a note reading

144. Henry 1997, 4. Readers may recall in order to hasten their arrival in heaven, all thirty-nine members of the group engaged in a mass suicide

which to my mind justifies the lunatic fringe description. In any case, surely this point was important enough to include in the main text, or a footnote on the same page.

While I’m on this subject, is there any excuse for persevering with endnotes in books*? They’re just about useless, (those that don’t give something worse than useless like “ibid” or “loc cit”). If the material is of too little interest to be included in the main text or in footnotes, and can’t be omitted altogether for reasons of academic nicety, couldn’t it be placed in a supporting website?

* Footnote/endnote: A bit more discussion of this at Andrew Norton’s blog (thanks to Damien Eldridge for locating this for me)

What I’ve been reading

Never saw it coming by Karen Cerulo is a study of disaster preparedness or rather its absence. Cerulo argues that the failure to prepare for disaster is not a matter of individual incompetence or fecklessness. Rather she argues it reflects a bias towards optimism that is deeply embedded in American culture.

In the abstract the argument seems convincing, and there is plenty of psychological evidence to support it. But I find myself disagreeing with a lot of the detailed argument. On the one hand, some disasters can’t be prepared for in any effective fashion, so it makes sense not to worry about them.

On the other hand, Cerulo cites as an example of successful preparedness the massive Y2K remediation effort undertaken in the United States. As I’ve pointed out on many occasions, other countries undertook no preparation and came out fine. Russia and Italy are notable examples – the US State Department issued a travel advisory for Italy as did UK authorities and Australia actually evacuated its embassy in Moscow leaving a skeleton staff to wait out the cataclysm. This isn’t being wise after the event. Once the 2000 fiscal year began with no serious incidents it was obvious that for anyone except nuclear reactor managers and the like, ‘fix on failure’ was the optimal response.

I’m not sure what to make of my disagreements on the details.Some disagreements is to be expected in any detailed argument. But the range of disagreement leads me to think that maybe handling low-probability catastrophic risk is something we are not very good at, sometimes preparing for non-existent risks and at other times failing to foresee obvious possibilities.

Winning the lottery

I never win lotteries or raffles (maybe because I study them in my research on uncertainty) so it figures that my first win in decades should be the compulsory door prize at our Seiyushin karate Christmas party. Prize: five rounds with our Kancho (founder) (he’s the one in the picture). I collect on Wednesday night, so don’t expect much in the way of blogging on Thursday.


Faced with documentary evidence that the Australian Ambassador to the UN, John Dauth, told AWB chairman Trevor Flugge of the Iraq invasion a year in advance, correctly observing that even if weapons inspectors were readmitted this would only produce a brief delay, DFAT’s response is to say that it was just a lucky guess. This line has been swallowed with enthusiasm by JF Beck and, in comments here, by Currency Lad.

If this is an example of Dauth’s unaided powers of prediction, it’s a pity no-one asked him what would happen after the invasion.