I’ll be at the State Library of Queensland tonight for Science Says!. I don’t know what I’ve let myself in for, but I’m assured it will be fun.

On Sunday, I’ll be talking at a Colloquium organized by a group called Sort, on The Wasteful Economics in Resource Recovery.

My last event for the year (I think!) will be a talk about the Economics Nobel award (yes, I know) at the Economics Society of Australia Christmas party. Free for members, probably not of much interest to others.

Last-minute economic policy post

Both Labor and the LNP have released their economic policies just two days before the state election. This isn’t just a matter of “costings”. Essentially, all the new expenditure items and tax reductions were announced with some fanfare during the campaign, while the revenue measures and expenditure cuts needed to fund these goodies have been kept under wraps until now. This is a terrible way to run an election, but the “hardheads” on both sides obviously think it’s a good idea (the same hardheads who gave us compulsory preferential voting on the Labor side and the Commission of Audit for the LNP).

On the LNP side, my assessments here and here have been confirmed. The tax cuts and extra spending promised by the LNP have been financed by cuts to services (euphemistically referred to as “efficiency dividends”) and by the abandonment of the Cross-River rail project, which appears to be vital if we are going to handle a growing Brisbane population in the future. The efficiency dividend will necessarily involve reduced employment. If the promise to avoid compulsory redundancies is adhered to in spirit as well as letter, that will mean a semi-permanent hiring freeze in areas with low turnover, which is likely to have adverse effects on efficiency.

These are big cuts, but not enough to reach the target of a surplus on fiscal balance. That means the stage is set for yet another Commission of Audit and unannounced further cuts.

Labor is planning to finance promised improvements in services through a mixture of tax increases (targeted at the relatively wealthy) and unspecified reallocation of existing funds, yielding a modest net increase in expenditure as compared to the cuts proposed by the LNP.

We have a choice then between Labor offering improved services, which must ultimately be financed by tax revenue and the LNP offering cuts in taxes, services and jobs. It would have been helpful if this choice had been made explicit four weeks ago, but still it is clear enough. Unsurprisingly, I prefer Labor.

Financing a UBI/GMI

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post making some observations on the closely related ideas of a Universal Basic Income or Guaranteed Minimum Income. The most important was

Observation 1: Any UBI scheme can be replicated by a GBI with the same effective marginal tax rates, and vice versa

I meant to follow up with a more detailed exploration of financing issues, but all sorts of other things intervened. However, I’ve now prepared a draft, which is over the fold.

Comments and criticism much appreciated

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Renewables, coal and culture war

In the final week of the Queensland election campaign, I’ve been busy trying to do what I can to influence the result. I’ve put out a couple of opinion pieces about the choice between coal and renewable energy. This one, in The Guardian, focuses on the central role of the culture war in motivating rightwing opposition to renewable energy. In The Conversation, I look at the economics and business aspects and debunk the idea that ‘ultrasupercritical’ technology makes coal-fired power a high efficiency, low emissions technology

Also, in New Matilda, I’m collaborating with Morgan Brigg and Kristen Lyons of the Global Change Institute to produce a five-part series on Adani and the resistance to the project by the Wangan and Jagalingou people.

An opportunity for a Bill of Rights

One of the striking outcomes of the equal marriage survey is that a lot of people who had always assumed themselves to be part of (in Spiro Agnew’s phrase) the “silent majority” have been presented with undeniable evidence that they are actually in the minority. Not only that, but the minority to which they belong on equal marriage would be even smaller if it weren’t boosted by lots of people they’ve always thought of as undesirable minorities. Most notably, the No vote was swelled by Muslims and recent migrants from more traditional cultures.

Against that background, it’s not surprising to see people who have never had a good word to say about the United Nations, or about a Bill of Rights, embracing the idea of incorporating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights into Australian law (we’re already a signatory, but that has no legal effect).

It would be absurd to incorporate a document dealing with topics as diverse as the death penalty and war propaganda (both prohibited) into the Marriage Act. Nevertheless, now that the issue has been raised, it’s a great opportunity for Australia to get something like a Bill of Rights enshrined into law (though of course it wouldn’t change the Constitution).

It’s tempting to use the thumping majority recorded in the survey as a stick with which to beat those (variously described as “dinosaurs” or “reactionaries”) who campaigned against equal rights on this occasion. But all majorities are temporary. It would be far better to use this moment to make common cause in support of protections for minorities of all kinds.

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The thin end of the wedge on anti-discrimination law?

The latest attempt to derail equal marriage was a proposal by a group of conservatives to remove anti-discrimination provision to allow a wide range of discrimination against same-sex married couples. The leading proponent of the proposal was James Paterson who, like so many Liberal MPs, is a former staffer at the Institute of Public Affairs.

Press coverage duly noted that Paterson had answered “Yes” in the postal survey and described him as a supporter of individual liberty, but didn’t as far as I can tell ask the obvious question: is Paterson’s position on discrimination specific to this issue, or does he support a general right to discriminate on racial, religious and other grounds?

The public record isn’t very clear on this. Insofar as he’s said anything about anti-discrimination law, Paterson has been opposed. This is consistent with the orthodox propertarian position that employers, business and landlords should be free from any interference from government. However, so far, he has only made this point explicit in relation to equal marriage and racist speech (Section 18C). So, it would be good to have a clear statement as to whether the current bill is intended as the thin end of the wedge, or whether he sees equal marriage as a special case.

Some whataboutery from Tim Nicholls

Among the tools used to defend the indefensible, the most widely used is “whataboutery”. When faced with a criticism you can’t answer, you point to something allegedly comparable done by someone supposed to be on the same side as your critic, and ask the critic “what about …”

A recent example (Hat Tip Bill Wallace). Presented on ABC TV with my observation that his election promises represent an arithmetic impossibility, Tim Nicholls resorted to whataboutery, suggesting that I had gone easy on Anna Palaszczuk in regards to the use of transfers of debt between the general government sector, GBEs and public service superannuation. Oddly enough, I’ll be covering this exact point in an article I’m now writing for The Guardian. The relevant para

Labor has been able to improve the accounting performance of the general government sector by requiring public enterprises to make bigger contributions to the budget and by making transfers from the funds hypothecated to pay for public service superannation. This doesn’t change the financial position of the public sector as a whole, but makes the budget sector look better. The relevant criteria is public sector net worth and net financial worth, which are unaffected by such manoeuvres. Fortunately, public sector net worth has never been a problem: the Queensland government had net worth of over $170 billion when the Costello Commission reported, a figure that is projected to exceed $200 billion by 2020.

Some broader responses:

* Whataboutery is a very weak defence in a clear-cut case like this. Even if I were an ALP hack (readers of this blog can judge for themselves), it wouldn’t invalidate the point I’m making

* I don’t think Palaszczuk is open to the specific criticism I’m making of Nicholls. She hasn’t promised to cut taxes or improve the budget balance, and her election spending promises look to be the kind of thing that can be managed within the normal budget process

* I’ve already been critical of both sides in this election campaign. My only published opinion piece was a criticism of Palaszczuk’s pro-Adani policy, which she has subsequently reversed (not claiming cause and effect here, of course). If Nicholls cares to put up an election platform that adds up and protects crucial services from cuts, I’ll be the first to congratulate him.

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