The lost mid-week

I’ve been off the grid for the last few days, during which the Rudd government seems to have been making big decisions, or repudiating old ones, every day. The biggest, clearly, was the dumping of the ETS. In one sense, it’s hard to regret the abandonment of the failed deal with Malcolm Turnbull, which was probably worse than no policy at all. But the government should be negotiating with the Greens and holding the Liberals and independents to account, instead of caving in to the politics of fear, tribalism and ignorance.

On the positive side, the end of tobacco labelling is an important step forward in drug policy. It would be good to see drugs like marijuana treated in the same way as we are going with tobacco: legal but discouraged in every way possible.

A striking feature of these two issues was the appearance of the Institute of Public Affairs (long the paid mouthpiece of Big Tobacco and Big Coal) which was happy about the first, and critical of the second. Anyone who deludes themselves that they are “making up their own mind” to disregard the scientific consensus on the risks of tobacco smoking and climate change should realise that they have been sucked in by the IPA and similar hacks.

That’s all I have time for, and there’s the Henry Review and the Budget to come. Have a good weekend.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

My last post, arguing that the left needed to offer a transformative vision as an alternative to rightwing tribalism has drawn lots of interesting responses, and generated some great comments threads, both here and elsewhere (Some of them: Matt Yglesias,DougJ at Balloon Juice, Democracy in America at the Economist,Aziz Poonawalla at BeliefNet,Geoffrey Kruse-Safford |, and Randy McDonald).

Since my idea was to open things up for discussion, I don’t plan to comment on particular responses. I do want to respond to one theme that came up repeatedly, a combination of discomfort with words like ‘transformation’ and ‘vision’, and a feeling that a politics in which such words are employed is inconsistent with the pursuit of incremental reforms. Even though I stressed the need to learn from such critics as Burke, Hayek and Popper about the need for reform to arise from organic developments in society and to avoid presumptions of omniscience, the mere use of words like ‘vision’ set off lots of alarm bells.

To me, the difficulty of getting this right reflects my opening point in the previous post. After decades of defensive struggle, we on the left no longer know how to talk about anything bigger than the local fights in which we may hope to defend the gains of the past and occasionally make a little progress. But the time is now ripe to look ahead.

My main point in this new post is to reject the idea that there is a necessary inconsistency between incremental progress and the vision of a better society and a better world. (I’ll link back here to my earlier post on Hope, which might be worth reading at this point, for those who have time and interest.)

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High Penetration Solar Deployment

We’ve had a lot of discussion here of the difficulties of integrating solar PV (and wind) into an electricity network. Even leaving aside some obstinate reiteration of the baseload demand fallacy, I think it’s fair to say that most of us are arguing on the basis of very little information

Here’s a link to a US government agency studying High Penetration Solar Deployment. No results as yet that I can see, but this should prove interesting.

After the dead horses (crossposted from Crooked Timber)

We’ve had a bit of fun at Crooked Timber lately, pointing out the silliness of those who are supposed to be the intellectual leaders of the right, in its libertarian, neoconservative and Republican tribalist versions. But, as quite a few commenters have pointed out (including Jack Strocchi using the same phrase that occurred to me) the exercise does seem to savor a bit of flogging dead horses.

It seems to me necessary to go beyond this, which was one reason for my post on hope the other day. To make progress, we need to reassess where we stand and then think about where to go next. This is bound to be something of a confused and confusing process. Over the fold, I’ve made some (quite a few) observations, making for a very long post, which is mainly meant to open things up for discussion.

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Anzac Day, again

On this day, nearly 100 years ago, thousands of young Australians and New Zealanders ran on to the beaches of Gallipoli. Many of them died before the day was out, along with many more among the Turkish defenders and troops from Britain, Canada and many other places. By the time the campaign ended in failure, over 100 000 were dead and hundreds of thousands more severely wounded. A small toll by comparison with the main Western and Eastern fronts, but quite sufficiently horrific to be remembered a century later.

The Anzacs had no quarrel with the Turkish soldiers who were trying to kill them, nor did the people of Australia and New Zealand have any quarrel with those of Turkey. Their bravery and their lives were expended in the course of a bloody and pointless war between alliances of which the armies fighting at Gallipoli were tiny parts, over pretexts no one alive now, and very few at the time, could comprehend as the basis for a cataclysmic war.

By the time the Gallipoli attack was planned, the dreams of rapid and glorious victory that had led both sides to war had drowned in the mud of France and Flanders. It should have been obvious that this was a war no one could win. But, a peace that restored the status quo ante would mean an admission that it had all been for nothing.

Instead, the war planners kept coming up with futile strategic ideas like Gallipoli, secret weapons like poison gas, and new tactics previously considered unthinkable such as submarine attacks, without warning, on merchant shipping. By the time of the armistice in 1918, ten million or more had died, and the seeds of future wars had been sowed.

For all those who died, bravely following their country’s call to unknown battlefields, lest we forget.

Collapsing case for privatisation

The Bligh government’s case for asset sales rests in part on a supposed fiscal emergency arising from the global financial crisis and in part from the general ideological claim that putting infrastructure assets into the hands of the private sector will promote economic efficiency. Both parts of the case have taken a knock in the last couple of days. A study by Access Economics confirms the findings of the union-commissioned study by Bob Walker and Betty Con Walker (derided by the government and state Treasury at the time) that the budget position is much stronger than has been admitted so far.

On the second point, Liberal Lord Mayor of Brisbane Campbell Newman has conceded that the days of private toll roads are probably over. As I’ve been saying for years (getting on for decades now) these projects always involve a social loss. In the 1990s, it was almost always the public that took the loss while private operators made out like bandits. In the easy money environment of the 2000s, private investors made silly investments, and often lost the lot. Now that everyone has wised up, there will be no more deals like this.

By far the best solution would be for the state government to buy back all the toll roads, and replace ad hoc tolls with a coherent system of congestion pricing. The Bligh government instead, plans to sell off its own toll roads. As for congestion pricing, Anna Bligh has made her view pretty clear “not while this government is in office”. In reply to which I can only quote Men in Black – “Your offer is acceptable”.

H/Ts Darren Godwell, Tom Miller, Nancy Wallace

Abbott abandons half the population

Tony Abbott’s latest move, floating the idea that people under 30 should be denied access to the dole, is clear evidence of why he should never be Prime Minister. For that matter, it’s an illustration of the weaknesses that made him a second-rate (at best) minister under Howard.

The political calculation is obvious, although the arithmetic looks dubious to me. The idea is to appeal to the anti-youth prejudices of the older voters who form the core of Liberal party support. But older voters are hard to shift in general, and the kind of people who would like this proposal are mostly rusted-on Liberals, though they might once have been One Nation types. By contrast, Abbott’s overt appeal to bigotry against the young will surely cost the Libs votes among this group at a time when their attitudes are still being formed

Coming to the policy merits, Abbott’s supporting “reasoning” if such a term can be justified is that this measure will encourage people to move to “areas where there are skills shortages, such as in the Western Australian mining sector.” We are talking here about the age group where most people start forming long-term relationships and having children (median age for first child is 29, and appears to be declining at the moment). And, even if they are temporarily unemployed, most people in this age group have made career choices that are unlikely to be consistent with a flit to WA to work in the mines. And, even with relatively strong conditions, I doubt that the demand for labor in the mines extends say, to a cry for hairdressers, or bartenders or shop assistants, to pick a few occupations at random[1].

This idea seems too silly even to come from a focus group. In fact, it seems about on a par with the ideas I come up with after a triathlon and a few glasses of muscle relaxant. I usually manage to refrain from communicating these marvellous ideas on the blog, let alone announcing them to the public at large.

fn1. ABS used to publish data on unemployment by usual occupation, but they seem to have stopped.

(H/T Nancy Wallace).

Update: More from Kim at LP