Delusion and delay

Tony Abbott demonstrates yet again why he is utterly unqualified to be Prime Minister, pushing the absurd line that “global warming stopped in 1998” [1]. As John Cook points out, this silliness requires three separate cherrypicks, each worse than the last. And, as the same story shows, the rest of the Liberal Party is just as bad.

But is it any better to understand the science and do nothing about it as the Labor Party under Gillard is doing? The hacks and spin merchants who now control Labor policy are every bit as bad as Abbott. Delay is just as bad as delusion.

Truly this election is the most depressing I can recall in forty years. If there has been one in our history where both parties have so thoroughly dodged the issues, I’m not aware of it.

fn1. As previously stated, I’m not willing to debate the science of climate change on this blog, since there are plenty of better venues. But you don’t need much expertise in the statistics of time series to expose this line for the dishonest piece of cherrypicking it is. Anyone who espouses it is either a liar or a fool. If anyone wishes to put themselves into one or other of these categories in the comments thread they are welcome to do so.

Open letter on stimulus

Over Fifty Australian Economists Agree Fiscal Stimulus Prevented A Major Recession

Nobel Laureate Professor Joseph Stiglitz has stated publicly that the Australian Fiscal Stimulus was a well designed package that saved the Australian economy from a major recession that has hit almost all the other OECD economies. He argued that the Australian package was a model for other economies facing similar problems.

The attached letter was signed by over fifty academic economists. Several other academics and economists supported this view about the Fiscal Stimulus Package that prevented the Australian economy from a deep recession and prevented a massive increase in unemployment.

The Australian economy has come out of the Global Financial Crisis in surprisingly good shape thanks to this Stimulus Package.

The Australian unemployment rate is amongst the lowest of any of the OECD economies.

Unlike the US and Europe, we are not facing the possibility of a double dip recession.

The current level of government debt (the lowest in the OECD economies) is due to tax revenues falling during a slow-down in the economy, whilst social security payments increase. Most of the increase in the debt would have happened independently of the increased government expenditures associated with the Stimulus Package.

The Stimulus Package has led to an increase in infrastructure investment that would help the long-term development of the Australian Economy.

Labor’s Stimulus Package, 2010

The home straight

As we enter the final week of the campaign, all the indications are that Tony Abbott and the Coalition have fallen short in their improbably near-run attempt to limit Labor to one term. If this happens, there can be few losers of Australian elections who have more richly deserved their fate. Sadly, there can be few winners who have deserved it less than Labor, on the basis of its performance since the abandonment of the ETS and the axing of Kevin Rudd. (In the event of an upset, both judgements would still be true). The media, for whom horse-race metaphors like the one I’ve used to title this post, seem to be the best they can do, can share in the credit for this depressing business.

A few probably forlorn hopes: First, it will be some consolation if the Greens win some Lower House seats. The very unlikely event that they might hold the balance of power in both houses would be the just reward to the major parties for their appalling performance. Nothing is impossible, but the odds against are long.

Second, win or lose, the ALP needs to sack Karl Bitar and his crew, and intervene in the disastrous NSW branch. The combination of corruption, thuggery and incompetence displayed by this mob is breathtaking, and they are a huge millstone around the neck of the Labor party.

Third, given the general dishonesty of the campaign, I would be perfectly happy to see Julia Gillard dump her absurd idea of a citizen focus group, and proceed to implement the climate policies we all know to be necessary.

A final point. When the Coalition has looked like winning, various people have pointed to this mildly snarky post in which I predicted we would never see another Liberal government. My point was not that Labor would be in forever, but that the Libs and Nats would have to merge before they could win. That has in fact happened in Queensland, which makes the continued existence of a separate, but permanently coalitional, National Party in NSW and Victoria even more absurd. But obviously, I was expecting Labor to stay in for at least two terms. At this point, I’m willing to renew my prediction, though obviously it’s a matter of probability rather than certainty. To be clear, I expect the Libs and Nats to merge at a national level before they regain government.

Libertopia, with asterisks — Crooked Timber

As I was reminded in comments last time, snarking about libertarians is not a very productive substitute for writing well-argued posts about The Way Forward for Social Democracy, or writing my nearly-due examiners report for that PhD thesis, or revising my article on climate change on discounting, or getting the yard under control. But if I was capable of responding to that kind of reasoning, I wouldn’t be a blogger would I. So, in lieu of something useful, here’s a thought that occurred to me.

Among the more plausible candidates for an Actually Existing Libertopia, the US in C19 (with asterisks) is pretty prominent. Also, on the basis of fairly thin historical evidence, the Iceland of the sagas. It seems to me that these examples have one crucial point in common that hasn’t received much attention

Looking at the US case, it seems fair to say that, if you ignore the asterisks (women, blacks, native Americans and the emerging industrial working class), the 19th century setup was a fair approximation to the libertarian ideal. I’m going to ignore the industrial part of the economy for the moment, and, for the sake of argument, treat slavery and Jim Crow as aberrations peculiar to the South. Finally, and again for the sake of argument, I’ll concede the possibility that the legal rights of women and men could have been equalized (at least in formal terms) without upsetting the C19 applecart.

That leaves on remaining asterisk – native Americans – and it seems to me that this is the one that can’t be avoided. In a largely agricultural society, the historical norm has been the emergence of an aristocracy based on the ownership of land, and ruling over a tenant peasantry or landless laborers. The only case that doesn’t happen is where there is an appealing exit option for the peasants, such as migration to the city.

But another exit option exists wherever there is a frontier (that is, a border with a less militarily advanced society) as in C19 US. With a frontier, agricultural land is freely available to anyone willing and able to kill, drive away or enslave the current occupiers. That obviously makes life difficult for any aspiring aristocrats[1]. The Icelanders were in a similar position. If any local jarl got too big for his boots, it was a simple matter to hop into a longship and go off to loot some abbeys.

It is, as my Marxist friends used to say, no coincidence that the end of the era of (white male agricultural) US libertarianism came to an end with the “closing” of the frontier. I’d guess, though I have no real evidence that the same was true in Iceland once the Viking option was no longer available.

The standard Lockean case for (propertarian) libertarianism rests on the (universally false) assumption that an appropriation of land leaves “enough and as good” for anyone else. As long as land can be stolen from people who are outside the pale in one way or another, Lockeans (and a fortiori Jeffersonians) can convince themselves that they are devotees of liberty rather than of the forcible imposition of property rights in land (and, for Jeffersonians, other people). Once there’s no more land left to steal, it becomes obvious that propertarianism is fundamentally dependent on coercion, just like (for example) socialism or any other form of government.

fn1. The only place a real agricultural aristocracy emerged was in the South with slavery and then, in a more attenuated form, with sharecropping, dependent ultimately on Jim Crow.

Not going Galt — Crooked Timber

Henry’s post linking to Charlie Stross reminded me of one I was planning to do on the question – why has there never been a serious attempt at a real libertarian utopia? Most other utopian ideologies have inspired at least someone to attempt a practical implementation. On the face of it, libertarianism seems ideally suited to the belief in a fresh start, with no messy pre-existing claims. All sorts of ideas have been floated – island buyouts, sea-steading, co-ordinated moves to New Hampshire and so on, but none has gone anywhere. The only explanation I’ve seen, that libertarians are too independent and ornery to organise a utopia doesn’t convince me.

Thinking about the discussion we had though, it strikes me that there is a simple explanation: Actually Existing Libertarianism (see below) offers a better economic deal for nearly all libertarians than any feasible version of Galt’s Gulch. Once you do the math on going Galt, it’s not hard to see why no self-respecting libertarian would actually do it.

Let’s start with our oppressed libertarian, paying a 50 per cent tax rate, and waiting every year for Tax Freedom Day (July 1). Say that half this money is spent (highly inefficiently) on public services and the rest is given to the undeserving poor, bureaucrats and so on. I’ll make him (gender assumed advisedly) a computer programmer, so he can continue to earn his living from the comfort of his cruise ship, island or whatever. So, immediately he makes the break for Libertopia (island, ship or whatever), his disposable income doubles.

But then the problems start. The state may not do a great job providing services of all kinds, but those services have to be replaced. Libertopia doesn’t sound like a very appealing place for schoolteachers, nurses, and so on, so most public services would probably have to be supplied by external contractor. The cost of that would wipe out any savings from eliminating government inefficiency. So, the net gain in disposable income falls to 50 per cent.

More generally, you have the Stross problem. Suppose a starting population of 10 000. That’s too small to provide more than basic goods and services, so everything else would have to be imported in small quantities. As everyone who has spent time on an island (even one close to the mainland), or a small remote community, knows, that means everything costs more (often double) and most things aren’t available at all. Even if all the registered Libertarians in the US (about 250 000) moved en masse they would still be heavily dependent on high-cost imports. Almost certainly, that would more than wipe out the gain from tax freedom.

Finally, while our hero would never become disabled or unemployed, it’s bound to happen to some people. That means either budgeting for organised charity or putting up with lots of beggars. Randians might appreciate this daily testimony to their own superiority, but I suspect others would prefer that these losers move elsewhere.

All things considered, it seems pretty clear that Libertopia would yield its residents a greatly reduced standard of living, compared to what they could get from a government. Of course, the ideal would be a nearby government jurisdiction that would provide the large-scale industry needed for a ready source of consumer goods, a home for contracted-in service providers, support for losers and so on, but would not be able to tax the Libertopians.

But once you think that you realise that a partial approach to this outcome already exists, and has millions of inhabitants across the US. They’re called suburban Republicans. The suburbs benefit from urban centers, but resist paying for them, mostly successfully. It’s not exactly Libertopia, but it’s obviously close enough to be more appealing than going Galt.

Doing the math on Libertopia

Abbott adrift

Tony Abbott got away with his howler on the effects of carbon taxes on electricity prices. But, in a piece of poetic justice, he’s now been tripped up by his ignorance of the technical issues underlying his broadband policy, not nearly as bad a piece of intellectual laziness, in my view, but enough to cement the (correct) impression that he is not across the details of key policy issues. To be fair, he doesn’t pretend to be: he offers simplistic slogans to the voters because that’s all he is capable of understanding. In the US, such self-confessed ignorance is a pre-requisite for political success, at least on the right. It seems we are heading the same way.