Warwick McKibbin on climate change

Last night I went to hear Warwick McKibbin at the Brisbane Institute talking about climate change. It was a good presentation and Warwick made an effective analogy between the McKibbin-Wilcoxen plan for climate change which uses fixed prices in the short run and fixed quantities in the long run, and the bond market, where central banks set short-term interest rates but allow long-term rates to be set by the market.

One thing I hadn’t realised, though, is that the plan doesn’t allow for international trade in emissions permits, even in the long run. McKibbin sees this as an advantage, since there’s less of a reduction in sovereignty, but I see it as a big problem for two reasons. First, there’s an obvious efficiency loss in not allowing countries with low-cost offsets to trade with high-cost countries. Second, the biggest source of credits so far is China, the country that is going to need the most persuading to join an international agreement (contrary to Warwick, I’m confident the US will ratify Kyoto, perhaps extracting some concessions on timing and targets, as soon as Bush goes out, and that Australia will do so then, if not earlier). The possibility of gaining credits, combined with the threat of border taxes on exports from non-ratifying countries will be needed to overcome the obvious free-rider problems.

It doesn’t seem to me that the restriction to national markets is crucial, at least to the long-term part of the plan. A modified version that incorporated some form of international trade would be more appealing.

The fall and fall of the House of Sadr

One of the many useful services performed by Glenn Reynolds is his chronicling of the relentless decline of Moqtada al-Sadr. Some past instalments

The murders are the first sign of organised Iraqi opposition to Sadr’s presence a apr 29, 04

those who thought Sadr represented a mass movement among Iraqis were seriously mistaken. [May 5, 04]

ANOTHER BAD DAY for the increasingly irrelevant Sadr. [May 26, 04]


Demonstrators shouted chants denouncing al-Sadr, including one that equated him with deposed dictator Saddam Hussein. [Sep 3, 04]

Bush has successfully mitigated the perils of having to grapple with two insurgencies simultaneously– through a nuanced combination of sophisticated counter-insurgency efforts and attendant political machinations contra Moktada al-Sadr. [Nov 1, 04]

And now:

Moqtada al-Sadr doesn’t like the surge. That he’s saying so from a secret location may explain why. . . .

I think it’s time for Glenn to let up on the guy. Hated, with no public support, isolated, irrelevant, outfoxed by the sophisticated Bush and now a lonely fugitive, surely by this time he’s too unimportant for a post.

Another bad day for delusionists*

With Al Gore winning the Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth and the CBC news “The Denial Machine” airing on Four Corners last night, it must be getting hard to hold on to the delusions that have been propagated so vigorously throughout the parallel universe created by Fox News and similar bodies. While it’s no news to anyone who reads blogs on the topic, the revelation that the “skepticism” propagated by our local delusionists was produced by recycled hacks for the tobacco industry, such as Fred Singer and Fred Seitz (I was mildly disappointed that Steve Milloy didn’t get a run) must have shaken a few more people awake.

“Happy Feet”, an Australian animated feature about penguins that has been attacked by the Fox News delusion machine because it refers to overfishing, also scored a gong. No doubt, Neil Cavuto would have preferred an award to the Astroturf exercise on penguins produced by DCI. It’s delusion all the way down with these guys.

* The problem of terminology has always been difficult. It’s obviously unreasonable to use terms like “skeptic” or “contrarian” to describe people who produce or swallow transparently fraudulent propaganda like that of Singer and Seitz because it happens to suit their preconceived ideological views or financial interest. On the other hand, there have been vigorous objections to “denialist”. So, I’m switching to “delusionists”, a term which covers:
(i) people who manufacture delusions for a living like those mentioned already and their local counterparts
(ii) people who prefer to accept ideologically convenient delusions rather than face the truth
(iii) people who have genuinely been deluded by this propaganda (not many of these left in Australia now).

Dodging a bullet

Looking at the stories of pervasive corruption coming out of the Burke inquiry in WA, a point I haven’t seen noted is that Federal Labor dodged a bullet by dumping Kim Beazley just as the scandal was breaking. Beazley was no doubt telling the truth when he said he’d never spoken with Burke about the latter’s business interests. Still, given is role in WA Labor, he could scarcely have been unaware that Burke was in a position to influence ALP preselections, and that Burke was using that power for his own personal enrichment. That might not have been a crime, but it was obviously damaging to the Labor party. And given the damage Burke had already caused, having such a person as a friend was an indication of judgement so poor as to cast doubt on Beazley’s capacity for high office.

Sticking with state issues, I can’t recall such a deplorable choice as that being faced by the voters of NSW on May 24. If ever a Labor party could do with a spell in opposition to sort itself out, the NSW branch is that party. Iemma seems decent enough, but thoroughly mediocre, Carr made a dreadful mess of things but profited handsomely out of it, and the ministerial team seems On the other hand, thinking over the string of mediocrities, sharpers and no-hopers who’ve led the NSW Liberals since the corrupt but competent Robin Askin departed the scene, I can’t thing of one who’s less appealing than Peter Debnam.

By contrast with these states and with the systematic corruption of the Federal government (the fact that no-one in government can be charged with anything over the payment of hundreds of millions of dollars to Saddam Hussein indicates a situation far worse than if a single minister or public servant had acted corruptly), the problems faced by the other Labor state governments seem pretty minor. Still, I nearly spat out my morning coffee when I read that Peter Beattie was canvassing yet another canal project, reviving and expanded the Bradfield scheme. I can only hope this is some sort of diversionary tactic.

Update Not as clean a dodge as all that, as it emerges that Rudd met Burke several times. The factional system that gives power to people like Burke is a disaster for Labor. More generally, the decay of mass political parties is a big problem for Australia.

Discounting the future, yet again

Felix Salmon gnashes his teeth at yet another incorrect report on discounting and the Stern review, by David Leonhardt in the New York Times.

Using his discount rate and other assumptions, a dollar of economic damage prevented a century from now is roughly as valuable as 7 cents spent reducing emissions today. (In fact, it’s less than that, because Stern adds another discount rate, called delta, on top of eta.)
Leonhardt says that “spending a dollar on carbon reduction today to avoid a dollar’s worth of economic damage in 2107 doesn’t make sense” – but this is a straw man, since Stern never comes close to saying that we should do such a thing. Leonhardt also spends a lot of time on the academic qualifications of Stern’s opponents, but neglects to mention that Stern himself, a former chief economist of the World Bank, is actually a real expert on discount rates, and understands them much better than most economists do.

Salmon is right, both about the Leonhardt piece and, unfortunately, about the limited understanding of discounting issues on the part of economists in general.
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The Oz jumps the shark

Seeing a link to a story headed Cheney brings out the hate in peaceniks I thought it would be the usual stuff from one of the increasingly desperate pro-war pundits at the Oz. But this piece purports to be a news story.

The actual events detailed in the story don’t do much to justify the headline or the similarly hyperbolic opening paras. A small group of protesters (about 350) marched down George Street despite not receiving police permission. Scuffles broke out and ten people were arrested and charged when protesters tried to break through police lines. No injuries were reported on either side. In other words, a run-of-the-mill minor demo just like hundreds of others we have seen.

Although the Oz has been increasingly detached from reality lately (its editorial the other day referred to Howard’s triumph over Rudd in the Obama stoush, and it has long since lost the plot on global warming) it has generally made at least some attempt to adhere to the idea that news and opinion are supposed to be separate. Obviously, that particular shark has now been jumped.

What’s wrong with happiness measurement ? (crossposted at Crooked Timber)

Over at Club Troppo, James Farrell summarises the main elements of the economic research agenda on happiness, and some of the standard objections to it. For those who came in late, and probably didn’t imagine economists ever thought about happiness, the crucial finding is that “Cross country data shows pretty consistently that on average happiness increases with income, but at a certain point diminishing returns set in. In the developed world, people are not on average happier than they were in the 1960s.”

The data that supports this consists of surveys that ask people to rate their happiness on a scale, typically from 1 to 10. Within any given society, happiness tends to rise with all the obvious variables: income, health, family relationships and so on. But between societies, or in Western societies like Australia over time, there’s not much difference even though both income and health (life expectancy, for example) have improved pretty steadily for a long time.

I’ve long argued that these questions can’t really tell us anything, and an example given by Don Arthur gives me the chance to put it better than I’ve done before, I hope.

Suppose you wanted to establish whether children’s height increased with age, but you couldn’t measure height directly.
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