Working in a Faculty of Business and Economics, I get exposed to lots of business magazines I wouldn’t read otherwise. I saw one today with a cover which urged me to “empassion my sales!”.

Being a prosaic economist, I would have thought that, as long as a business can embiggen its sales and profit margins, empassionment is beside the point.

Farewell to the Bullets

For quite a few years now, I’ve been following both the fortunes of the Brisbane Bullets and those of an economic system centred on high levels of debt, validated by capital gains. These two interests have collided in an unfortunate fashion with the announcement that the Bullets license has been returned to the National Basketball League. This has been more-or-less inevitable since the owner, Eddy Groves, ran into financial difficulties arising from the impact of the credit crisis on his childcare group, ABC Learning.

I’ll doubtless have more to say on the credit crisis, and perhaps on whether private ownership of sporting teams is a sustainable model for Australia. But for now I’d just like to say thanks to the players and staff of the Bullets for providing me and my family with lots of fun and excitement over the years I’ve lived here in Brisbane, particularly in their last championship season 2006-07.

The nuclear option

Unsurprisingly, evidence that the Rudd government is serious about emissions trading has produced a new round of calls for the development of nuclear power in Australia. There is certainly a case to be made that an expansion of nuclear power should be part of the global response to climate change. But the latest chatter isn’t part of a serious response to the problem of climate change; rather it’s an attempt to duck the issues raised by an emissions trading scheme.

The crucial points to bear in mind are these

* Nuclear power will never be viable in Australia without a high price on carbon and a clear commitment that the price is going to remain high. So, there is no point in raising the nuclear option as a cover for opposing emissions trading

* There is no way that Australia is going to lead the rest of the developed world (in particular the US, but the same points apply to most of Europe and Japan) on this. The US is attempting to restart its nuclear industry on existing brownfield sites. This process started with the passage of new legislation in 2002 and, if all goes well, construction on the first plants might begin in 2010 and (very optimistically) be completed by 2014. Given our lack of any regulatory capacity, construction and management expertise and so on, we won’t even be able to get started before the US industry shows the way on new greenfield sites and produces a significant number of operating plants, say by 2020. With a fast paced program, we might get plants on line by 2030

* It follows that whether or not the Rudd government (or whoever is in government for the next 5 to 10 years) changes its policy on nuclear power will make no difference to anything of substance

Back on air

My hosting service had a major hard drive failure which has kept me off air for several days. Of course that meant I couldn’t post an explanation, but I belatedly realised (thanks to a reader getting in contact there) that I could have put up an announcement on my Facebook page. Anyway I’m back on air and I’ll make up for some of the lost time with some quick points

* Joshua Gans is selling the first copy of his book Parentonomics here on eBay to raise money for a cure for MS. Go and bid – it should be a fun read

* Ken Henry is using his annual leave to help save the endangered hairy-nosed wombat, but I’m expected a new round of extinctions among the endangered species of Opposition leaders.

* After equivocating for months, the Rudd government seems finally to have bitten the bullet, saying, correctly “We’ll make petrol dearer“. Meanwhile, looking at the international news, I’ve been struck with the failure of demagogic attempts like the Liberals’ proposed cut in fuel excise. The McCain-Clinton gas tax holiday seems to have sunk without trace, the EU has held the line against protests, and lots of countries (Indonesia and China among others) are cutting existing subsidies as the futility of a cheap energy policy becomes evident

* The news from the credit crisis in the US has been more alarming than ever. The collapse of the (largely bogus) bond insurance business of firms like MBIA and Ambac has generated a new crisis in markets for associated credit default derivatives. And it turns out the the infusions of equity received by most banks late last year, which ended the first round of the credit crunch had conditions attached which make any further resort to this rescue method highly appealing (essentially, those who made the first injection have to get free shares to offset any subsequent dilution). All of this is mindnumbingly complex. But whereas the inference from complexity used to be “this is much too hard to understand, and the experts have it all under control” it’s now more like “who knows where the next time bomb is hidden>”.

More oddity at the Oz

The Oz today has quite a good piece from David Coats, arguing that unions and the Labor party need to focus on the quality of work, extending the focus on rights at work to the broader idea that “good jobs and quality work are an essential driver of both good economic outcomes and good social outcomes”. As he notes, New Labour in Britain signally failed to do this “there is a key lesson for Australian Labor from the British experience. Labour in government in Britain made twin mistakes: the party had no compelling answer to the new questions about work, and it offered lukewarm support to progressives in the trade union movement who did.”

So what’s the lead-in from the Oz? “THE ALP and the unions must learn from British Labour and move beyond class war.”

Meltdown continues at the Oz

Just about everyone has piled on to this silly piece by David Burchell attacking political bloggers (more precisely, it seems, settling personal scores with unnamed but easily recognisable enemies, as in previous Oz attacks on bloggers)

So, just a couple of asides from me. First, it’s amazing and depressing that the Oz seems determined to continue trashing its reputation, already in tatters from its embrace of global warming delusionism, and the thrashing it took from pseph-bloggers in the leadup to the 2007 election. Australia could use a good national newspaper but it doesn’t have one (the Fin doesn’t really count in this context), and only radical changes from the top down can bring the Oz anywhere near delivering on this aim.

Second, at this point, the idea of “bloggers” or even “political bloggers” as a category has largely ceased to have any meaning. Just about everyone who writes on politics has some sort of blog (even if it isn’t named as such, a regular column, published on the net and allowing comments is, for all practical purposes a blog). Burchell might as well attack “typers” for lacking the gravitas of those who still compose their articles with a quill pen.

Of course, what he means in this context is clear. Well-established commentators who have an established position in old media are OK. Upstarts who write with no authority from anyone are not, particularly if they attract an audience.


Exams are just finishing up at the University of Queensland and the grim business of marking is well under way. I’m an observer of the process these days, since my research fellowship doesn’t involve running any courses (though I give a fair number of guest lectures in economics, political science and other subjects). Back in the 60s and 70s, when I was a student, the whole system of examinations and marks was one of the big targets of radical critique; even if relatively minor in the great scheme of things, exams loomed large in our lives, and seemed like a symbol of much that was wrong with society.

That kind of debate seems to have disappeared entirely. While a variety of alternatives to exams have been tried, the pressure to cut costs has driven most Australian universities back to near-total reliance on exams, and, within that, to heavy use of multiple choice and short-answer tests.

But I’m more interested in looking again at the fundamental question of why universities and schools spend so much time and effort on assessment. One possible explanation, is that they provide useful feedback to students on how they are doing, and to the university itself to guide things like admission to later courses. I don’t buy this at all. Feedback provided after you’ve finished a course isn’t much use, after all.

Is it to provide a service to employers? If so, couldn’t they run their own tests? Or is to give students a spur to effort? I guess the last of these is closest to the mark.