Bernie Fraser: A brief appreciation

Bernie Fraser has just resigned as Chairman of the Climate Change Authority, of which I’m a Member. His chairmanship marked the culmination of a long career of public service, in which Bernie served as both Secretary of the Treasury and Governor of the Reserve Bank. Over many years, I’ve sometimes agreed and sometimes disagreed with Bernie on particular policy issues, but I’ve always found him to be committed to serving the Australian people and to a broad and humane view of our collective interests. At a personal level, he’s a great person to deal with and work with. He will be a big loss to the Authority, but we have made arrangements to carry on our work.

One of my Twitter followers asked for a post on which people might write appreciative comments, and here it is. If you want to discuss anything else (climate change policy, macro policy in the 1980s and 1990s, the future of the CCA) I’ll be opening a sandpit for this purpose.

When did “Free Trade Agreements” become “reform” ?

The Oz is pushing hard for the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. Support for the deal was (AFAICT) the only significant output from the “National Reform Summit” held by the Oz and AFR a week or so ago. This raises a few points of interest.

* Until very recently, bilateral trade deals of any kind were seen as the antithesis of free-market reform. Reformers favored either unilateral removal of trade barriers or global deals through the World Trade Organization. Admittedly, the latter is clearly a forlorn hope, but what happened to unilateral free trade

* Second, it ought to be clear by now that “reform” means “whatever the Oz and IPA wants”. For example, tax reform doesn’t mean taxing mineral rents or carbon externalities or tax-dodging trusts and shell companies. In essence, it means taxing food and giving the proceeds to the rich. Anyone concerned with good policy should stop using this word in a positive sense

* Most importantly, “Free Trade Agreements” are nothing of the kind. The key to the China deal is the expansion of the 457 system to allow for 100 per cent overseas workforces. Even if you think that’s a good idea, it should be addressed in the context of immigration policy. There’s a startling contradiction between this stuff and Joe Hockey’s high profile persecution of Chinese buyers who are allegedly pushing up the price of Sydney houses.

* The same is true of the other FTA’s this government has signed, and even more so of the proposed TPP. At most, the trade component of these deals consists of Australia selling its domestic policy sovereignty to foreign governments in return for the removal of their trade barriers.

Economics in Two Lessons: Income Distribution

Here’s another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. Rather than work sequentially, I’m jumping between:

Lesson 1: Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.


Lesson 2: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

In the section over the fold, I’m looking at how opportunity cost reasoning applies to policies that change the distribution of income, wealth and other entitlements.

As usual, praise is welcome, useful criticism even more so. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.

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CCS vs Hazelwood (updated)

It’s often hard to get an idea of the scale at which different technologies are operating. For example, there’s a lot of discussion about Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS or ‘clean coal’), though less than there used to be. To get an idea of current and near-future prospects for CCS in the power sector, I went to the Global CCS Institute list of large-scale projects. The site says

Large-scale CCS projects in the power sector are now a reality, demonstrated by:
* The world’s first large-scale power sector CCS project – the Boundary Dam Integrated Carbon Capture and Sequestration Demonstration Project in Canada (CO2 capture capacity of 1 Mtpa) – becoming operational in October 2014
* Commissioning activities on a new-build 582 megawatt (MW) power plant beginning at the Kemper County Energy Facility in Mississippi (US, CO2 capture capacity of 3 Mtpa) with CO2 capture expected to commence in the first half of 2016
* The Petra Nova Carbon Capture Project at the W.A. Parish power plant near Houston, Texas (US, CO2 capture capacity of 1.4 Mtpa) entering construction in July 2014, with CO2 capture anticipated by the end of 2016.

Tactfully ignoring the fact that the Kemper project has turned out to be a disaster, I thought I would scale this against an option that we can all comprehend, shutting down the brown coal power station at Hazelwood. According to this article, Hazelwood generates 15.7 million tonnes of CO2 per annum, or about three times the total from all CCS Power projects now in operation or under construction.

Looking further down the page, there’s a summary of all the CCS projects currently at any stage of consideration anywhere in the world

Globally, there are 14 large-scale CCS projects in operation, with a further eight under construction. The 22 projects in operation or under construction represents a doubling since the start of this decade. The total CO2 capture capacity of these 22 projects is around 40 million tonnes per annum.

There are another 14 large-scale CCS projects at the most advanced stage of development planning, the Concept Definition (or Define) stage, with a total CO2 capture capacity of around 20 million tonnes per annum. A further 15 large-scale CCS projects are in earlier stages of development planning (the Evaluate and Identify stages) and have a total CO2 capture capacity of around 30 million tonnes per annum.

So, if all of these projects were successfully completed, they would offset the emissions of six Hazelwood-sized plants. It gets worse. Many of these projects serve only to reduce the “fugitive” emissions from oil and gas fields, and most rely for their viability on using the captured CO2 in oil fields, to push more oil to the surface (enhanced oil recovery).

It’s time to bury the myth of CCS once and for all.

were implemented on schedule, the impact over the next fifteen years would be negated if we allowed Hazelwood to continue operating over that period.

The great replication crisis

There’s been a lot of commentary on a recent study by the Replication Project that attempted to replicate 100 published studies in psychology, all of which found statistically significant effects of some kind. The results were pretty dismal. Only about one-third of the replications observed a statistically significant effect, and the average effect size was about half that originally reported.

Unfortunately, most of the discussion of this study I’ve seen, notably in the New York Times, has missed the key point, namely the problem of publication bias. The big problem is that, under standard 20th century procedures, research reports will only be published if the effect observed is “statistically significant”, which, broadly speaking means that the average value of the observed effect is more than twice as large as the estimated standard error. According to the standard classical hypothesis testing theory, the probability that such an effect will be observed by chance, when in reality there is no effect, is less than 5 per cent.

There are two problems here, traditionally called Type I and Type II error. The classical hypothesis testing focuses on reducing Type I error, the possibility of finding an effect when none exists in reality, to 5 per cent. Unfortunately, when you do lots of tests, you get 5 per cent of a large number. If all the original studies were Type I errors, we’d expect only 5 per cent to survive replication.

In fact, the outcome observed in the Replication Study is entirely consistent with the possibility that all the failed replications are subject to Type II error, that is, failure to demonstrate an effect that is there in reality

I’m going to illustrate this with a numerical example[^1].

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