As I mentioned in relation to their advocacy of an end to coal, the Greens occupy a position where they can put forward policies that are outside the range of possibilities taken seriously by the commentariat. Another recent example is their proposal, during the Queensland election campaign for four additional public holidays. Of course, this idea was ridiculed by the major parties, which are still stuck in a mode of thinking where “jobs and growth” are ends in themselves rather than means to a better life. Jackie Trad, for example, was quoted as responding that “the election was about jobs, and that the proposal was “populist”, while Tim Nicholls described it as “loopy”. The attitudes expressed by Trad and Nicholls are typical of the neoliberal* thinking dating back to the 1980s that still dominates much of the political class.
Before the 1980s, it was generally understood that the benefits of technological progress included reductions in the paid work time needed to achieve a decent standard of living. Over the first three quarters of the 20th century, standard working hours were reduced from 48 per week to 44 then to 40, annual leave became a standard condition of employment, increased to four weeks a year in the 1970s, and the number of public holidays was increased. The last significant move in this direction was the 38 hour standard working week, introduced in 1983. Some more progressive Labor governments, such as that of the ACT have pushed for more public holidays. That’s the exception though: the general direction of public policy has been to push for more “flexible” (that is, flexible at the employer’s discretion) hours and working conditions, fewer long weekends and so on.
If we are to move to a more sustainable economy, a shift away from ever-increasing material consumption is necessary. A reduction in the time devoted to market work and production, as well as being desirable in itself, is an essential part of this process. An increase in the number of official public holidays, and a restoration of penalty rates for holiday work, would be an important signal that the era “jobs and growth” neoliberalism, setting the alarm clock early, and so on, is behind us.
* Here. I’m using “neoliberal” in the broad pejorative sense of “bad assumptions associated with the era of market reform that began in the 1980s” rather than in reference to a coherent theoretical position, for which I would typically use the term “market liberalism”. There’s nothing inherently free-market about the rhetoric of harder work, productivity and “competitiveness”, but the empirical fact is that they go together.
Ten years ago, when Bob Brown and the Greens called for a plan to end coal exports, their position was way outside the Oveandrton Window (the range of opinions taken seriously by the political class and commentariat). Ten years later, it’s entirely normal for financial institutions to announce that they will no longer fund coal projects, and for major national governments to join an alliance with the self-explanatory title Powering Past Coal.
The news isn’t all good. For a variety of mostly temporary reasons, China has increased its coal consumption in the last year, so that CO2 emissons are likely to have risen in 2017. But the general direction of public policy and energy investment is clearly right, and even reactionary governments like those of Turnbull and Trump have been powerless to do much about it. After all the posturing of the National Energy Guarantee, the coal lobby in the government had to swallow the announcement that the AGL Liddell power station would be closed and replaced by renewables.
More significantly, the threat that the massive (though low-grade) coal reserves of the Galilee Basin might be developed as a result of the Adani mine-rail-port proposal appears to have been staved off. Labor’s victory in the Queensland state election meant a veto of public loan funding through the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (a veto which also encompasses a rival rail project put up by Aurizon) makes it highly unlikely that Adani will find any commercial lenders. This conclusion was confirmed by the announcement that Adani has parted ways with Downer EDI, with which it had a $2 billion agreement to operate the mine. Downer is just the latest in a string of Adani partners to walk, or be pushed away (Posco, Worley Parsons and the bankers who were lining up to lend a few years ago). In the US, Trump’s efforts to save coal have been similarly ineffectual.
Looking beyond coal, we’ve had major developments in battery technology, symbolised by Tesla’s 100 MWh SA battery, which has already proved its worth and discredited the Turnbull/Abbott rhetoric about the reliability of coal. That goes along with electric cars and the announced decision of numerous national governments and some carmakers to go all-electric.
None of this should cause complacency. Turnbull, Trump and various likeminded governments (mostly nascent or actual rightwing dictatorships) are still doing their best to sabotage the planet, and the urgency of the problem is clearer than ever. But overall, this has been a very good year for the global climate.
A plug for a recent paper: one of my Twitter followers asked for a non-technical explanation, so here it is.
Flavio Menezes and I just released the latest version our paper “The Strategic Industry Supply Curve,” available here. The central aim of the paper is to extend the standard graphical analysis of supply and demand, familiar to every first-year economics student, to cases where markets are imperfectly competitive (monopolies and oligopolies). At present, these markets are analyzed using quite different theoretical tools, making only limited use of graphical representations.
The main innovation is the notion of the strategic industry supply curve, representing the locus of Nash equilibrium outputs and prices arising from additive shocks to demand. Special cases include monopoly, Cournot and Bertrand oligopoly and competition in linear supply schedules.
As in the standard graphical analysis, we can
* use measures of consumer and producer surplus to determine the distribution of the welfare gains from trade between consumers and producers
* derive elasticity measures for supply and demand
* analyse the comparative statics of cost shocks
Our analysis allows us to view imperfect competition as analogous to a case where producers engage in ‘cost-padding’. That is, the difference between the strategic supply curve (an equilibrium concept) and the industry supply curve (the sum of the supply curves of individual firms) can be seen as the measure of the ‘economic rents’ afforded by imperfect competition.
Our analysis has important implications for competition policy. For example, competition regulators examine industry supply curves, but do not directly assess the efficient costs of production. So, they are unable to distinguish directly between efficient costs and the ‘cost-padding’ associated with strategic behavior. Rather, the extent of such cost-padding is implicit in the the specific form of competition that it is assumed in the analysis (e.g., Cournot versus (differentiated) Bertrand). Conversely, assumptions about the form of competition are largely arbitrary and not informed by data. The approach in merger regulation contrasts sharply with that of monopoly price regulation, where the focus is on determining the monopolist’s efficient cost, so as to set efficient (in a second-best sense) prices.
The arbitrary nature of economists’ assumptions about the strategy spaces appropriate for game-theoretic representations of economic problems has been a long-standing theme of ours (refs). In this paper, we have turned this criticism around and shown how an explicit treatment of the strategy space can not only yield powerful new tools for economic analysis but can enhance the scope of such familiar tools as demand-supply diagrams.
I’ve had plenty of disagreements with Andrew Norton about education policy. But I couldn’t write a better response to the government’s decision to end open access to university education for young Australians than this one. So, I’ll just link to it and open comments.
From a comment on a Facebook post by Max Sawicky, asking about the difference between socialism and social democracy (sadly, I think the context was one of the internecine disputes in which the left has long specialised, though the right has now caught up and surpassed us).
Socialism and social democracy
I’ve switched back and forth between the two terms, with a more or less constant understanding of their meaning. For me, “social democracy” refers to the actual policy program advocated and to a significant extent implemented by social democratic parties in the mid-20th century: free and universal health care and education, a social welfare system sufficiently broad and generous to eliminate poverty, full employment and strong unions, in the context of a mixed economy. “Socialism” refers to a fundamental transformation of the capitalist system incorporating and going beyond the social democratic program to end large-scale capital and dependence on wage labour.
That is, as I use the terms, social democracy refers to a contemporary policy program and socialism to a utopian aspiration. During the period of neoliberal dominance, , I described myself as a social democrat, defending the achievements of the 20th century and trying to extend them where possible. Now that there is an opening for the future, we need the kind of utopian vision I associated with “socialism”.
A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.
Another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language please. Side discussions and idees fixes to the sandpits, please.