Paris in the Spring (crossposted from Crooked Timber)

Sunday was Mother’s Day in Paris, and also the occasion of a big demonstration against equal marriage, titled “Manif Pour Tous”, presumably with the unspoken reservation “sauf homos”. I ran into a bit of the crowd, coming back from this event [^1], and they were certainly loud and boisterous. The idea that this was a rightwing version of a “Paris Spring” occurred to me, and also to this commentator in Le Monde.

I’ve seen it suggested that resistance to equal marriage is stronger in France, because there’s no legal recognition for church marriages – everyone has to go through the same civil ceremony. I’d be interested in other thoughts on that.

Overall, the real appeal of the right still seems to me to lie in anti-immigrant rhetoric and, within Europe, on attempts to blame the people of one country or another for a crisis of the entire global system of financial capitalism. The backlash against equal marriage seems to me to be the last gasp of the cultural right, rather than the basis for a sustained upsurge. But then, what I know about social developments in France would fit comfortably on a restaurant menu, so I’d be interested in what others have to say on this..

[^1]: I’m actually in town for this conference, where I’ll be talking about bounded rationality and financial crises. Essentially a preliminary attempt to describe the “Black Swan” problem in terms of formal decision theory, with the hope that this will lead to a more developed theory of financial bubbles and busts.

Monday Message Board

I’m travelling, so posting will be light to non-existent for a while yet. In the meantime, another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language. Lengthy side discussions to the sandpits, please.

The arithmetic of space travel (crossposted from Crooked Timber)

There’s been a lot of excitement about the discovery of two Earth-like[^1] planets, a mere 1200 light years away. Pretty soon, I guess, we’ll be thinking about sending colonists. So, I thought it might be worthwhile to a little bit of arithmetic on the exercise.

I’m going to assume (generously, I think) that the minimum size for a successful colony is 10 000. The only experience we have is the Apollo program, which transported 12 astronauts to the Moon (a distance of 1 light second) at a cost of $100 billion or so (current values). So, assuming linear scaling (again, very generously, given the need to accelerate to near lightspeed), that’s a cost of around $100 trillion per light-second for 10 000 people. 1200 light-years is around 30 billion light-seconds, so the total cost comes out roughly equal to the value of current world GDP accumulated over the life of the universe.

Even supposing that technological advances made travel possible over such distances possible, why would we bother. By hypothesis, that would require the ability to live in interstellar space for thousands of years. A civilisation with that ability would have no need of planets.

[joke alert on] On behalf of my fellow Australians, I’m going to make a counter-offer. For a mere $10 trillion, we can find you an area of land larger than a typical European country, almost certainly more habitable than the new planets, and much closer. We’ll do all the work of supplying water and air, build 10 000 mansions for the inhabitants and guarantee a lifetime supply of food. I’m hoping for a spotters fee of 0.01 per cent.[joke alert off]

On a related point, what should we be wishing for here? The fact that no-one has sent a detectable signal in our direction suggests that intelligent life forms similar to humans are very rare. If habitable planets are very rare, then this is unsurprising – interstellar distances preclude both travel and any kind of two-way communication. If on the other hand, the emergence of intelligent life is common, then the evidence suggests that its disappearance, through processes like nuclear war, must also be common.

[^1] Where Earth-like means somewhere between Venus-like and Mars-like.

Costello again

The Final Report of the Queensland Commission of Audit, headed by Peter Costello, has been released. It largely abandons the claims made in the Interim Report, suggesting that the state’s fiscal problems are the result of irresponsibility on the part of the previous government. To its credit, the Commission identifies the real problem, namely, the long-term tendency for the share of expenditure going to human services such as health and education to rise over time. Since these services are largely provided or funded by governments, they can’t be provided, on the scale people would like, without increasing taxation.

Unfortunately, that’s where the credit stops. The core of the problem, identified by William Baumol in 1967, is that, for obvious technological reasons, productivity in these services tends to grow more slowly than in other sectors, most notably goods-producing sectors. The Commission’s proposed solution is breathtaking in its simplicity – if we could raise the rate of productivity growth in the human services sector, the problem would go away. Yes, and if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

My response, which got a run in today’s Courier-Mail, is here.

Word for Wednesday: Reform (repost)

Back in the early days of this blog, I was working on the idea of a new political dictionary, and made a start with a “Word for Wednesday” series. One of them is relevant to this comment from Megan, about whether we should put scare quotes around the word “reform”, to describe policies, advocated as beneficial reforms, but which we believe to be harmful. My general practice on this blog is not to use scare quotes, and I explain why.

As Raymond Williams points out in his excellent little book Keywords, from which I got the idea for this series, reform originally meant ‘restore the original form’ of something. In particular the Reformation was supposed to sweep away the abuses of the Papacy and restore the church to its original purity. As this example indicates, the worldview associated with this usage was one of decline rather than progress. The best one could hope for was to get back to things as they were in the good old days. This view was dominant in Western thinking from Plato to the 17th century.

From the 18th century onwards, reform underwent something of a reversal, since it now typically implied forming something new. But since the associated worldview was now one of progress, the assumption remained that reform entailed change for the better.

From the 18th century to the 1970s, the term reform was typically used to describe policies favored by the moderate left, in opposition to advocates of revolutionary change on one side and of conservatism and reaction on the other. From the 1970s to the end of the 20th century, though, the direction of policy change was reversed, with the rise of neoliberalism. However, the term reform continued to be used, even when the policies it described consisted of the dismantling of earlier reforms.

As a result, critics of neoliberal policies have frequently resorted to the use of “scare quotes”, as in my recent reference to ‘workplace reform’, or to similar alerts like “so-called”. While the automatic assumption prevails that the term reform applies only to desirable changes, such devices are necessary.

Where it’s feasible though, the best approach is to define reform as “any program of systematic change in policies or institutions” and make it clear that there is no implication of approval or disapproval.

Decarbonising Australia (updated)

I’ve been meaning to post about the Australian Energy Market Operator’s report on the feasibility of a 100 per cent renewable electricity supply system for Australia (H/T commenter Ben). In the meantime, Brian Bahnisch at LP has done a detailed summary, so I’ll refer you there and make a few points of my own.

First, this study should kill off, once and for all, claims made here and in many other places (notably, at Brave New Climate) that the intermittency of renewable electricity is an insuperable problem.[1] The AEMO is the body that manages the electricity market on a minute-to-minute basis, so it has the expertise to assess this claim, unlike the many amateurs who have tried their hands. And, since it might have to do the job, it has no reason to understate the difficulties of a renewables-based system.

Second, the estimate cost of $111 to $133 per megawatt-hour represents an increase of $60-80/MwH on current wholesale prices, or 6-8c/Kwh on retail prices. That’s much less than the increase we’ve seen thanks to the mishandling of electricity market reform. If we wound back those costs, we could actually end up with both 100 per cent renewables and cheaper electricity.

Third, although the study envisages a role for electric vehicles, it doesn’t present a full-scale program for decarbonization. But once you have a scalable, fully renewable electricity supply, everything else is comparatively easy.

Finally, if we take Tony Abbott at his word in wanting direct action to deal with climate change, this report provides him with a blueprint. If we want to, we can eliminate the great majority of domestic CO2 emissions simply by mandating renewable technology and electric vehicles. The cost would be substantial in dollar terms ($250 billion for the electricity component). But, over a couple of decades, it would be a barely detectable deduction from growth in national income.

Update As it turns out, there’s a response at Brave New Climate from Martin Nicholson. Nicholson reports on a study of his own, in which nuclear is included in the mix. On Nicholson’s estimates, this substantially reduces capital costs, a point of which he makes a big deal. But obviously, renewables have much lower operating costs and Nicholson estimates the levelised cost for his system at $124/MWh to $126/MWh. As he says:

As this is in the middle of the AEMO range, wholesale prices are likely to be similar with or without nuclear

Given that very few current-generation nuclear plants have been built, cost estimates for nuclear are speculative. The obvious inference for Australia is that we should push along with renewables, and take a “wait and see” position on nuclear, observing developments in the UK, US, France and China. If they can deliver nuclear safely and at low cost, we can add it to the mix (say, after 2030).

Sadly, I think most of the BNC readership are locked into a position that nuclear must be the answer, which requires them to believe that renewables won’t work. Even a comprehensive demonstration that renewables can deliver a 100 per cent solution at a cost comparable with optimistic estimates for nuclear isn’t going to shift them.end update

fn1. This is part of a rhetorical manoeuvre aimed at pushing the conclusion that nuclear is the only feasible zero-carbon option. Once it’s admitted that 100 per cent renewable electricity is feasible, nuclear advocates need to present a case based on comparative costs. In the Australian context, it will be very hard to make that case, given the need to set up a complete nuclear infrastructure from scratch.