The failure of electricity market reform

As many readers will be aware, The Guardian now has an Australian edition, and I’ve just published an opinion piece in their Comment is Free section, looking at What lies behind the power price increases in Australia?. While there are plenty of factors, they are tied together by the misconceived reform of the industry undertaken in the early 1990s. Concluding paras

he free market assumptions of the reformers were simply inapplicable to a network industry like electricity, where every participant interact with one another through a distribution and transmission system that has all the characteristics of a natural monopoly. The assumption that a combination of profit-driven investment and regulation in the public interest could resolve these contradictions has proved unfounded.

Equally importantly, even though the COAG reforms coincided with the emergence of global concerns about climate change, the reform process took no account of the possibility of carbon pricing, and made no provision for renewable energy. In particular, the assumption that households could be regarded purely as consumers failed to consider the possibility of solar rooftops, or of any interactions between households and energy suppliers to promote energy conservation.

Fixing this mess will take many years. But the first step is to admit that electricity reform has been a failure, and to re-examine the whole system without any ideological preconceptions.

I’m hoping to write more on how to fix the system soon, perhaps even making a submission to the Newman government’s inquiry on the subject.

Reversing reverse parking

It’s safe to say that, little as I expected of the Newman government, the reality has generally been worse. Still, I’m going to give them credit on whenever it seems due, and here’s the first thing they’ve done that I can happily support. Following the recommendations of a study commissioned by the previous Labor government, it’s planned to drop the reverse parking component of the Queensland driving test. Ever since I failed my first driving test on this score 40 years ago, I’ve regarded it as a piece of utter stupidity. Why should anyone else be concerned whether I can reverse park, any more than they should care whether I can change my own oil? If anything, the worse I am at parallel parking, the better for everyone else – not only do I leave more spots for them, but they don’t face the risk of being jammed in a spot by someone who has skilfully parked their car with millimetres to spare.

This seems absolutely obvious. But, to give the contrary view, I turn the mike over to Paul Turner from motoring body RACQ, who manages to ignore the obvious contradictions in his statement.

“What we want is safer drivers, so we think the more it leans to a strengthening of the licensing system, the better,” Mr Turner said.

He said although reverse parking did not carry a high crash risk, it was still a “technical skill” that deserved a place in the driving test.

I’d suggest that a more relevant “technical skill” would be a stiff test in formal logic. That would clear an awful lot of bad drivers off the road.

Worst graph ever?

I just downloaded the Queensland government’s paper announcing, but not spelling out, a 30-year electricity strategy to be developed in the course of this year. I started with healthy scepticism about this, but scepticism turned to bemusement when, on page 5, I ran into one of the worst graphs I have ever seen.


This graph, taking up half a page, contains a total of six data points (energy intensity and gross state product for three states). The relevant data, such as it is, is contained in the three yellow bars. The legend describes them as “Electricity use (KwH) per $ of state product”, while the axis label claims that the measure is “Energy use (Mj) per $ of state product” Since a joule is a watt-second, it’s easy to check that a kilowatt-hour is 3.6 megajoules, but the difference isn’t large enough to work out which one is correct. It’s a fair bet, though not sure, that the quantity being measured is electricity use, and not all energy use. The only information conveyed is the unsurprising fact that Queensland’s economy is more electricity-intensive (or maybe more energy intensive) than those of NSW and Victoria.[1]

The real joke, though, is the second measure, of total state product. This is of no interest at all, since it just reports the well known fact that NSW has a larger economy than those of Victoria and Queensland. But the thing that would make Edward Tufte turn in his grave (if he were dead, which Wikipedia tells me he is not) is that this irrelevant information is reported in a line graph, making it appear that there is some sort of relevant order here.

The rest of the graphics are almost, but not quite, as bad. There’s an amusing one describing the “engagement and accountability model”. Three Venn-style intersecting circles representing market, government and customer are overlaid with an equilateral triangle, the vertices of which are labelled “Engaged”, “Efficient” and “Effective”. All stakeholders are invited by the government to “get on board and challenge current thinking”.

Eager as usual to be a team player, I’ll be contributing some thoughts on the failure of electricity market reform to the Guardian, hopefully appearing tomorrow. I will certainly challenge current thinking and look forward to being welcomed on board by the Newman government.

fn1. Since no more explanation is given, I’ll take a stab at explaining the significance of these numbers. Assuming the Kwh measure is correct, and taking an average price of 15c/KwH, electricity amounts to around 3.3 per cent (0.15*0.22) of the total Queensland economy. That sounds about right to em.

Urbanization in China (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

The NY Times has an interesting, but unsatisfactory, article, on government attempts to promote urbanization in China, with a target of 70 per cent by 2025. The story is mostly about farmers whose land has been acquired by fiat, which fits into well-established journalistic frames. The bigger issue, buried right near the end, is the fact that, under the hukou system of registration, people classed as rural can’t legally live in the city. So, while about 35 per cent of the population is legally urban, the true figure is more like 53 per cent. That makes nonsense of the figures quoted at the beginning of the article, and the suggestion of forced urbanization on a historically unparalleled scale. In reality, the announced target implies a modest slowdown in rural-urban migration, which has occurred despite official disapproval.

The big question, at least from the viewpoint of rural Chinese, is whether China can shift to a universal social welfare and retirement income system to replace the workplace-based system of social welfare, of which hukou was part, and which made sense with comprehensive state ownership. This topic is touched on in the NYT article, but in a fragmentary and confusing way, and it’s one about which I know little. I’d be grateful if anyone could point to a more comprehensive treatment.

From an Australian point of view, the continued construction of high-rise apartment buildings, highlighted in the article, is a big deal, since it drives much of the demand for steel, and therefore iron ore and coking coal, that has underpinned our amazing run of good economic fortune, along with the willingness of both Australian and Chinese governments to implement large-scale fiscal stimulus at the time of the global financial crisis.

Update Paul Romer makes much the same points, from a more informed perspective than mine.

What I did on my holiday …

… from blogging.

I’ve been off-air for quite a while. First, I was travelling in Europe, mainly based in Paris, doing some joint work with colleagues there and attending conferences on decision theory. I made some good progress on my main project, on the role of unforeseen contingencies in financial crises, which hope will lead to some interesting posts in the future.

I got back a couple of weeks ago, with a week to spare before I went to the Cairns Adventure Festival, where I entered in the 70.3 (Half Ironman) event. I was the last person to finish within the stated cutoff time of 8 hours, though a few crossed the line after that. Still, I finished, which pleased me a lot given that two weeks in Paris would be suboptimal for training even if it hadn’t been wet and cold enough that I caught a nasty cold there.

That was a week ago, and I’ve been catching up on unfinished business, and planning a return to regular blogging. The state of Australian politics is so depressing that I plan to avoid the topic altogether[1], which will give me a chance to talk about some of the broader issues we face.

fn1. Let’s see if I can hold myself to this, or whether I get so annoyed I need to vent

Why gold is different from Bitcoins

I have a new piece out in the National Interest, explaining why gold, unlike Bitcoins, will remain valuable for many years to come. In essence, gold has an intrinsic value derived from its industrial and decorative uses, and this value is enhanced by the demand for gold as a store of value, and by the belief (mistaken in my opinion, and certainly not an option I would favor) that gold-backed currencies may be restored.

By contrast, in my view, this piece by Robert Murphy misses the crucial distinction. Monetary demand can enhance intrinsic value, but it can’t make an intrinsically worthless asset valuable. He also fails to state the crucial point about fiat money. The “fiat” comes from the fact that a state can demand taxes can declare (“fiat”) that its money is acceptable in payment of those obligations. Hence, as long as the state can enforce its demands, its money has real value.

How Gillard could have won for Labor (repost)

I see from my Twitter feed that the viewpoint I expressed a year or so ago is becoming more widespread. Of course, it’s too late now for anything but damage mitigation.

Repost follows:

How Gillard could win for Labor

By resigning gracefully. If I were advising Gillard on how best to secure her place in history, I’d suggest waiting until the 1st of July and then making a speech along the following lines

The carbon price, legislated by my government is now in place. It will soon become obvious that the scare campaign run by Mr Abbott and the Opposition has no basis in reality and that our plan will achieve cost-effective reductions in carbon emissions, while making most Australian households better off. I am proud of my government’s achievements in this and other areas. Nevertheless, I recognise with sadness that I am not the best person to take this message to the Australian public. I have therefore decided to resign the office of Prime Minister and advise my Labor colleagues to support the return of Mr Kevin Rudd to this position. Mr Rudd and I have had substantial disagreements over matters of managerial style, but we are agreed on the need for a Labor government with Labor values, and on the need for action in key areas including the carbon price, the mineral resource rent tax and the successful management of the Australian economy. I will give the new PM my enthusiastic support, and work for the re-election of a Labor government.

Would this work? I’m not really sure. But given Abbott’s failure to achieve any popular support at a time when Labor has plumbed unheard of depths of popular support, it would have to be worth a shot. At a minimum, it would help avoid the Queensland-style wipeout that is currently on the cards. And if it worked, history would certainly look kindly upon a PM willing to give up the job for the sake of her party and, more importantly, in the best interests of the country.