It’s time once again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.Weird Science film
Here’s my article from yesterday’s Fin
Among other things, I’ve been busy over the last few months putting together a Crooked Timber book event discussing the work of Scottish science fiction writer Charles Stross. The idea is that members of the CT group, and some invited guests write posts on the book(s) in question, the author responds and the whole thing is thrown open to comments. Our guest line-up this time is stellar, including Brad DeLong, Paul Krugman and Ken MacLeod. If you’re interested in SF, the literature of ideas in general or the future of book reviewing, go and have a look.
The Macintosh computer just turned 25 Johnny Got His Gun move . I bought one of the original 128K Macs not long after they came out. I remember being reluctation to shell out $50 for a box of 10 400k floppy disks (these were the the 3.5″ type that weren’t actually floppy, and became standard on IBM PCs quite a few years later). I thought I was unlikely ever to need 4 megabytes of storage, so I got the store to sell me what was left in a box they’d already opened. And I was pretty dubious that anyone could really use the 512K of RAM offered in w the top-of-the-line “Fat Mac” which came out soon afterwards. It didn’t take me long to discover my error and upgrade.
I’ve owned just about every model since then**, and Macs have been a huge part of my life. I’d find it hard to estimate the increase in my productivity* associated with using Macs instead of typewriters or command-line computers back in the 1980s and early 1990s. This question was the subject of long-running religious wars which persisted until quite recently, but after the emergence of Windows it became pretty clear that the Mac style of computing was the only serious option, and that people who didn’t want to use Apple Macs for one reason or another would only have to wait a few years for the MS knockoff (next instalment, Windows 7).
For a while in the 90s, it seemed likely that Windows would prevail, but the return of Steve Jobs to Apple changed all that. Now, there’s a lot of talk that minimal net-based computers will take over, but such talk has been round many times before (smart terminals, thin clients and so on) and never gone anywhere. At this point in my life, I’m pretty confident Macs will be around as long as I am.
* That was before blogs which soaked up an awful lot of that excess productivity, though with lots of compensating benefits.
** Though not, IIRC, the Mac SE/30, listed here as the best Mac ever. At the time it came out, I was using a Mac II at work, and a much-upgraded original Mac at home.
The speed with which bank nationalisation has risen to the top of the policy agenda has found the economics profession largely unprepared. The literature on property rights that developed in the 1970s produced a range of arguments in favour of private as opposed to public ownership which had at least some influence on the widespread adoption of privatisation policies in the 1980s and 1990s. Although subsequent theoretical and empirical developments, such as the discovery of the equity premium puzzle and developments in agency theory cast doubt on the claims of the original literature, the profession had moved on, and showed little interest in revisiting the issues. As Joshua Gans observes,
the main contributions have come from Australian economists who did this research a decade ago only to be told by international journals that as privatisation had occurred everywhere by then, no one was interested in the conditions under which government ownership would be preferable.
and notes “I guess that view is wrong.” Unsurprisingly, I was among those who tried, with limited success, to interest the international profession in this question.
It’s time once again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.
The news that, on average, superannuation investments lost nearly 20 per cent of their value last year Johnny Got His Gun movie download comes as no surprise, and its likely that there are plenty of unrealised losses still on the books. Still, while the losses on the stockmarket have been as bad here as anywhere, we can take some comfort in the fact that Australian superannuation funds, like Australian banks, don’t seem to be in the same trouble as some of their overseas counterparts. As the government scrambles to keep the financial system operational, it’s natural to ask what, if anything can be done about this.
In the short term, the answer appears to be, nothing, or very little. Fortunately, for most people the losses are, in a sense, notional, wiping out the spurious gains of previous years. It’s only for those at or near retirement that the crash presents an immediate economic problem. Given that the demand for labour is plummeting, the government could perhaps consider an ex gratia payment to people who choose to retire now. There are all sorts of problems with this, and in normal times, such a proposal would never pass muster, but plainly, these aren’t normal times.
Looking to the longer view, this is more than a bad year for superannuation funds. The crash and the way it came about undermines the fundamental premise that has driven Australian retirement income policy for the past decade: that allowing individuals, with good financial advice, to make their own investment decisions on the basis of defined contributions from employers to personal accounts, is the best way of financing retirement. The old age pension, in this view, serves as a residual for those who don’t manage to save enough.
This privatised approach (also represented in Bush’s failed attempt to reform Social Security in the US) is has been largely discredited by the crash. Financial advisers, even the honest ones, have proved to be useless. Lots of investments that were marketed as low-risk have turned out to be little more than junk. Morover, the idea that stocks will always perform better than bonds over the medium term (say a decade) has been proved false. This is a central premise of long-term investment advice.
We need to look again at the alternatives: either a return to employer-based defined benefit schemes, with portability of service, or some kind of national superannation schemes. In the short term, the call for an increase in the aged pension will also gain strength.
Update 27/1/09 The New York Times agrees. And today’s Fin has a piece from Robert Shiller denouncing the efficient markets hypothesis. I’d better get cracking with more refutations, while there are still plenty of doctrines left to refute.