BBC News Hour

My piece on the incoherence of US and Australian policy in the Middle East, suggesting that we should leave the people of the region to sort out their own problems, attracted a fair bit of interest, including a discussion on the BBC. You can listen to it here (about 31:55) for the next few days. I’ll try to replace this with a permanent podcast link.

Independents to block asset sales in Qld

The ABC reports that eight independent and minor party MPs in the Queensland Parliament have agreed to vote against the government’s asset sales plan (spuriously called a lease). This has several implications

* Most obviously, if neither major party wins a majority at the next election, the asset sales won’t go ahead
* Since most voters don’t like asset sales, this increases the likelihood of existing independents holding their seats and perhaps of others winning seats, so that a minority government becomes more likely
* Polling isn’t very helpful here, since the “two-party preferred” measure isn’t relevant in these circumstances, and the sample size is too small too tell us about which seats will go which way
* In the event of neither party winning a majority, the chance of a Labor minority government is enhanced by the fact that asset sales will be a key issue
* Everything is further complicated by the fact that, if the LNP lose their majority, Campbell Newman will almost certainly lose his seat in the process

I don’t bet on elections any more after I couldn’t collect my winnings from Intrade (long story), but a bet on Annastacia Palaszczuk as the next premier looks a lot more promising than it did yesterday (of course, there’s always the truly bizarre possibility that some other Labor MP could challenge here – they need to rule it this kind of nonsense ASAP)

Legal reasoning (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Not surprisingly, the US Supreme Court’s non-decision on equal marriage has caused plenty of debate, including John Holbo’s smackdown of NR’s Matthew Franck.

The discussion got me thinking about the broader problem of legal reasoning, at least in its originalist and textualist forms, and also in precedent-based applications of common law. The assumption in all of these approaches is that by examining (according to some system of rules) what was legislated or decided in the past, lawyers and judges can determine the law as it applies to the case at hand. There are all sorts of well-known difficulties here, such as how words written a century ago should apply to technologies and social structures that did not exist at the time. And it often happens that these approaches produce results that seem unacceptable to most people but for which a legislative or constitutional fix is impossible for some reason.

It’s always seemed to me, though, that there is a much bigger problem with this approach, namely the implicit assumption that “the law” actually exists. That is, it is assumed that, if the appropriate procedure is used to interpret the inherited text, and applied to the problem at hand, it will produce a determinate answer. But why should this be true? The same law might contain contradictory clauses, supported by contradictory arguments, voted in by different majorities, and understood at the time of its passage in contradictory ways. Most notably, the same constitution might grant universal freedoms in one place, while recognising slavery in another.

At a minimum, such contradictions mean that there is no determinate law on the particular points of difference. But the problem is worse than this. The law rarely prescribes an exact answer in a specific case. The standard view of legal reasoning is the principles can be extracted from case law, then applied to new cases. But contradictory laws and contradictory cases produce contradictory principles. The ultimate stopping point is the paradox of entailment: a contradiction implies anything and everything.

I don’t have a fully worked out answer to this problem but I think it underlies a lot of the disquiet so many people feel about legal reasoning (apart from the ordinary disappointment when the answer it produces isn’t the one we want).

r > g

A standard piece of advice to researchers in math-oriented fields aiming to publish a popular book is that every equation reduces the readership by a factor of x (x can range from 2 to 10, depending on who is giving the advice). Thomas Piketty’s Capital has only one equation (or more precisely, inequality), at least only one that anyone notices, but it’s a very important one. Piketty claims that the share of capital owners in national income will tend to rise when the rate of interest r exceeds the rate of growth g. He suggests that this is the normal state, and that the situation prevailing for much of the 20th century, when r was less than g, was an aberration.

I’ve seen lots of discussion of this, much of it confused and/or confusing. So, I want to offer a very simple explanation of Piketty’s point. I’m aware that this may seem glaringly obvious to some readers, and remain opaque to others, but I hope there is a group in between who will benefit.

Suppose that you are a debtor, facing an interest rate r, and that your income grows at a rate g. Initially, think about the case when r=g. For concreteness, suppose you initially owe $400, your annual income is $100 and r=g is 5 per cent. So, your debt to income ratio is 4. Now suppose that your consumption expenditure (that is, expenditure excluding interest and principal repayments) is exactly equal to your income, so you don’t repay any principal and the debt compounds. Then, at the end of the year, you owe $420 (the initial debt + interest) and your income has risen to $105. The debt/income ratio is still 4. It’s easy to see that this will work regardless of the numerical values, provided r=g. To sum it up in words: when the growth rate and the interest rate are equal, and income equals consumption expenditure, the ratio of debt to income will remain stable.

On the other hand, if r>g, the ratio of debt to income can only be kept stable if you consume less than you earn. And conversely if r < g (for example in a situation of unanticipated inflation or booming growth), the debt-income ratio falls automatically provided you don’t consume in excess of your income.

Now think of an economy divided into two groups: capital owners and everyone else (both wage-earners and governments). The debt owed by everyone else is the wealth of the capital owners. If r>g, and if capital owners provide the net savings to allow everyone else to balance income and consumption, then the ratio of the capital stock to (non-capital) income must rise. My reading of Piketty is that, as we shift from the C20 situation of r <= g to one in which r>g the ratio of capital to stock to non-capital income is likely to rise form 4 (the value that used to be considered as one of the constants of 20th century economics) to 6 (the value he estimates for the 19th century)

This in turn means that the ratio of capital income to non-capital income must rise, both because the capital stock is getting bigger in relative terms and because the rate of return, r, has increased as we move from r=g to r>g. For example if the capital-income ratio goes from 4 to 6 and r goes from 2 to 5, then capital incomes goes from 8 per cent of non-capital income to 30 per cent[^1]. This can only stop if the stock of physical capital becomes so large as to bring r and g back into line (there’s a big dispute about whether and how this will happen, which I’ll leave for another time), or if non-capital owners begin to consume below their income.

There’s a lot more to Piketty than this, and a lot more to argue about, but I hope this is helpful to at least some readers.

[^1]: Around 20 per cent of GDP is depreciation, indirect taxes and other things that don’t figure in a labor-capital split, so this translates into a fall in the labor share of all income from a bit over 70 per cent to around 50 per cent, which looks like happening.

A simple route to climate disaster

I’ve mentioned quite a few times the spurious calculations offered by Ted Trainer of the Simplicity Institute, purporting to prove that renewable energy can’t sustain a modern lifestyle. But I haven’t looked hard at the other side of the coin; the idea that ‘degrowth’ could provide us with a sustainable, low-tech but still comfortable way of living, based on local self-sufficiency.

Samuel Alexander, also of the Simplicity Institute, has a piece in the Conversation, making this claim. Presumably, unlike energy technology, this is an area where the Institute ought to have some special expertise. Sadly, this does not appear to be the case.
Read More »

Rabbitohs and memory

In the course of a recent minor tiff on Twitter, accused of bandwagon jumping, I asserted that I had not only supported the Rabbitohs since (just) before their last premiership, but that I was old enough to remember actual rabbitohs, that is, itinerant sellers of rabbit meat. Now I’m wondering whether I’m conflating rabbit as an occasional treat with bottle-ohs, early recyclers who, as the name implies, went door to door collecting bottles. I can definitely remember a bottle-oh with a horse-drawn cart (this would have been around 1960 in Adelaide).

Any other readers of a certain age want to weigh in?

Also, is there a word for Twittertiffs?

Black Swans, Financial Crises and more

I’ve spent the last couple of days in Sydney at a conference organized by the Paul Woolley Centre for the Study of Capital Market Dysfunctionality. It’s striking that this is the only research group of which I’m aware that takes dysfunctionality, rather than the Efficient Markets Hypothesis as a starting point.

Various people have asked me about the paper and slides, so I’m putting them up for download.

Black Swans and Financial Regulation (presentation

Unawareness and financial innovation presentation and paper)

Give to MS research, or asylum seekers

I have about a week to go before my MS Swimathon, and haven’t yet heard the voice of the public on whether I should go the full Tony in my post-event photo. I’m going to set the default to “No”, and require five Yes votes, accompanied by $20 (or more) donations to change that.

If you’d rather give to an activist cause, I’ve been asked to advertise Esther Gyorki’s half-marathon run supporting the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

Pyne on the American model

I appeared yesterday before the Senate Committee inquiring into the government’s proposed higher education reforms. I focused on criticism of the US model being advocated by the government and the Go8, and was ready with quotes from the Go8 submission. I was unprepared, however, for the line of questioning I got from LNP members of the Committee, who denied that the government, as distinct from the Go8, was pushing the US model. My iPhone wasn’t up to the job of producing a definitive statement on the spot, but I have now located the source I wanted, in which Pyne, speaking to the Policy Exchange group in the UK says (emphasis added)

We have much to learn about universities competing for students and focussing on our students. Not least, we have much to learn about this from our friends in the United States. They have developed a diverse array of institutions encouraging prospective students to pick and choose their futures and where they are going to study, immerse themselves in enriching extra-curricular activities, and make life-long friends. Students routinely chase a range of options as to where they study, whether that’s at home or in a place known as college. Going to college is a rite of passage for American high school graduates. And it is a gift that keeps on giving.

The competitive nature of American tertiary education breeds the sort of focus on competition for students that Glyn Davis referred to. It breeds loyalty and devotion to one’s alma mater – and we know that American colleges leave us for dead when it comes to attracting philanthropic support from their graduates.

Another Australian Vice Chancellor, Professor Warren Bebbington of the University of Adelaide, wrote last week in The Times Higher Education supplement, and I quote:

higher education in Australia could be transformed into the most dynamic system in the world. It (could) have the rich variety of the US university landscape but without the crippling debts that American students suffer.
This should be the focus of a fundamental community-wide debate.

He opined that:

the debate has been largely contained thus far, and has taken place in terms incomprehensible to the average person. Even worse, some of the most influential academic voices seem intent on preventing Australians ever benefitting from what is proposed.

In the US, nearly half of all students do not go from high school to a public university of the Australian type, but instead attend teaching-only undergraduate colleges offering only Bachelor degrees. Without research programmes, these colleges do a first-class job of teaching: through small classes and an intense extra-curricular programme. Students have an unforgettable, utterly life-changing educational experience.

He continued that:

this huge array of highly-individual undergraduate colleges is one of the glories of American higher education.

Such colleges do not exist in Australia. Ours has been a highly constrained system of universities with limited scope for universities to shape their own offerings to students.

As I’ve previously pointed out, Bebbington’s claim is ludicrously wrong. He’s describing liberals arts colleges that educate perhaps 2 per cent of the college-age cohort in the US, charge around $50 000 per year and have endowments of the order of $1 million per student. The second-tier state universities, community colleges and for-profits actually attended by half or more of the student population are nothing like this.

Clearly, Pyne (like the Go8) doesn’t have a clue about the model he is pushing. This whole package should be scrapped: If the government wants to make changes, it should do some research first.

Yesterday's enemies, today's allies … and tomorrow ?

When a militarily powerful country tries to govern the affairs of millions of people on the other side of the planet, we shouldn’t be surprised that chaos results …

That’s of the grab from my latest piece in Inside Story, commenting on the utter incoherence of US (and therefore Australian) policy in the Middle East. An extended version:

How could it be otherwise? A rich and militarily powerful country has taken it upon itself to govern the affairs of millions of people on the other side of the planet, of whom it knows nothing. Its emissaries routinely elevate particular individuals, ethnic groups, religious sects and political parties as favourites, then just as quickly dump them in favour of new friends. Its tools vary randomly from overwhelming force to plaintive exhortation, with no clear or consistent rationale.

The key observation is that, with the exception of slavish obedience to the whims of the Netanyahu government, the US has switched sides on almost every conflict in the Middle East in the space of a couple of years.

My policy recommendation to the US is

an announcement that, from now on, the people of the Middle East would be left to sort out their problems for themselves. In particular, it would be useful to state that the United States has no strategic concern with Middle Eastern oil, and that energy policy is a matter for individual countries to determine according to their own priorities.

Inside Story doesn’t appear to take comments so read there (lots of other interesting stuff) and comment here.