Converts, conversely

Back in 2005, I wrote about the common experience of dealing with “ people who’ve shifted, politically, from positions well to my left to positions well to my right” (taking as an example, Nick Cohen). Paul Norton, about the same time, wrote along similar lines.

At the time, I mentioned that there weren’t many examples of people going in the opposite direction[1].  But as a commenter points out following this Ryan Cooper link to my last post on the collapse of the rightwing parallel universe, there are now lots of prominent US examples: David Frum, David Stockman, Andrew Sullivan, Bruce Bartlett and just now Michael Fumento. I’m quite surprised by Fumento, who has always appeared to me as a stereotypical culture warrior.

Of course, there isn’t an exact symmetry here, essentially arising from the fact that, whereas most of the L-R conversions happened at a time when the left as a whole was conceding a lot of intellectual and political ground to the right, the current situation is one where the US conservative movement and their international offshoots have moved sharply to the right and remain politically potent. So, it’s much more plausible for those making the R-L shift to claim “I didn’t abandon the conservative movement, it abandoned me”.

Still, never having had such a conversion experience I find it fascinating to observe. Particularly striking is the fact that a sharp change in position doesn’t much change the confidence with which views are expressed. Someone who was cautious and sceptical before a change in view will remain so afterwards. More strikingly, converts who held their old views with absolute confidence, will be equally confident of their rightness in abandoning those views.

fn1. Some earlier examples that occur to me now (all US) are David Brock, Michael Lind and Kevin Phillips. No tendency of this kind is evident in Australia as yet – I’d be interested in views from other countries.

The green fields of nuclear power (updated)

Despite Fukushima and the failure of the US “nuclear renaissance”, nuclear power still has plenty of fans in Australia. A question which opponents routinely ask is “where are the nuclear power plants going to go?”.

That’s obviously a difficult question, but there’s a subtly different, and even nastier, question behind it, namely “How should we decide where a nuclear power plant should go”. There are obviously all kinds of issues to be resolved. For example, should it be on the coast, and therefore potentially vulnerable to a tsunami? Should it be near or far from population centres?

If we in Australia made a decision to go for nuclear power, then decided to answer all these questions from scratch, it would take years, maybe a decade or more before we even picked a site (look how long we took over the much easier question of a site for the national capital). And, until we answered the siting question, any estimate of the costs of nuclear power would be a stab in the dark anyway. A plant located in the centre of the Nullarbor would be about as safe as you could get, but hopelessly uneconomic.

So, the obvious answer is; Look at what other developed countries have done when faced with the same problem. But it turns out there is a small difficulty. The answer, according to the US, Britain and every other developed country I’ve looked at, is “put your plant next to an existing one, so there won’t be any more trouble than you already have”.

Of course, it’s logically impossible that they always worked that way. But, as far as I can tell, the last time a new site was picked for a nuclear power plant in a developed country was in the 1970s, before Three Mile Island, let alone Chernobyl and Fukushima. Even supposing that experience were relevant, it’s lost in the mists of time – the decisionmakers involved are long since gone, and any records they left are probably buried in the archives.*

So, unless we can solve a problem that every other developed country in the world has chosen to duck for 30-odd years, we will never even get to the starting gate with nuclear power.

*Update It turns out to be fairly easy to retrieve material from the National Archives, for example, on the proposal, made in the late 60s and abandoned in the early 70s, to build a nuclear power station at Jervis Bay. Thanks to commenter Andrew for picking me up on this.

*Further update Contrary to the claim in the post, a Finnish company has announced a proposed site for a new reactor, though it is not clear that any proper approval process has been undertaken. I doubt that Finnish administrative processes will translate easily to Australia, but it looks like a counterexample to my claim.

Greece’s Uncertain Fate

That’s the title of my latest piece in The National Interest.Teaser follows

Although much remains uncertain about future developments in Greece and beyond, one thing can be predicted with certainty: no Greek government will voluntarily abandon the euro. The only parties favoring such a move are the (old-style Stalinist) Communist Party of Greece and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, neither of which has any chance of being part of a government. It is almost equally certain that no Greek government will take any further steps to implement the austerity measures previously agreed with the “Troika” of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund.

New elections to be held on June 17 are most likely to produce substantial gains for the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) at the expense of both the traditional governing party of the Left, PASOK, and the rejectionists of the Communist Party. Syriza advocates rejection of the current austerity package but is equally opposed to withdrawal from the euro. Given large enough gains, Syriza could potentially put together a government with support, or at least tolerance, from PASOK and the conservative but anti-austerity Independent Greek Party.

But the election outcome may be indecisive, perhaps leading to a government of national unity. Such a government would have little power to do anything decisive one way or the other.

The least likely outcome is a swing back to the traditional parties, with PASOK and its conservative counterpart the New Democracy Party gaining enough seats to form a coalition government. Even such a coalition would be unlikely to have the political will to enforce further austerity measures. On the other hand, it would certainly not abandon the euro.

Parallel universe collapsing?

Over the last few months, a string of seemingly solid pillars of the rightwing ideological establishment have crashed, or at least wobbled. The typical case has been one of over-reach followed by public exposure and then a rush of sponsors and other supporters for the exit. Examples include

* Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke and subsequent abandonment by sponsors

* The failed attempt by rightwing operatives at the Komen Foundation to blacklist Planned Parenthood

* The exposure of ALEC’s responsibility for the “stand your ground” laws that played a critical role in the Trayvon Martin case

* Most recently, the  Heartland Institute has seen sponsors bail and its entire Washington team (mostly focused on insurance issues) decamp, promising that their new operation will have nothing to do with climate “scepticism”

In addition to this, but arguably sui generis are

* the attempt (which looks like succeeding) by the Koch Brothers to take control of Cato, easily the most credible thinktank on the right of politics

* the denunciation of the Republican party by Norman Ornstein, long presented as the intellectually respectable face of the American Enterprise Institute

Read More »

Productivity and the Productivity Commission (updated)

For well over a decade, I’ve been debating the claim made by the Productivity Commission that Australia experienced a productivity surge in the 1990s. My claim has been that the apparent high rate of productivity growth in the mid-1990s was the result of measurement error, most importantly the failure to take account of the increase in the pace and intensity of work that was apparent to everyone (except PC economists) at that time. This view led me to conclude that the supposed productivity gains would dissipate as more normal labor market conditions returned, which was exactly what happened.

In most of these debates, one of my chief antagonists was Dean Parham, who worked for the PC at the time, and is now a Guest Researcher there. Today I heard that Parham had written a new paper on the weak productivity growth of the 2000s. So, I was keen to see what response he would have to my latest work and to my arguments about work intensity. The answer, quite literally is “Nothing”. I have, it appears become an un-person at the PC. Parham doesn’t cite any of my work and, more importantly, fails to mention work intensity at all.

Update The original version of the post contained a somewhat snarky suggestion that Parham had been negligent in ignoring my work. He has written to me to say that this is incorrect. The reason he doesn’t mention it is because, in his view, nothing I have written on this topic, at least since 2004, merits a response.

Further update Dean Parham writes that

the reason I did not mention your work or the work intensity thesis in my paper is that I did not consider it central to the focus of the paper (industry contributions) or even to the contextual motivation of the paper.

Since the contextual motivation of the paper is (as the title suggests) the slump in productivity, I can’t see that this differs from my summary. If Parham thinks my work merits a response, he’s welcome to provide that response here or in any other venue that suits him.

I’ve got some urgent commitments over the next few days, so I won’t be able to return to this topic until later. But in the meantime, here are some of the things I’ve written about this in the last few years. Agree or disagree, I think I’ve put forward a serious case that deserves an answer.