Coming events

I’ve got quite a few events coming up in the next ten days. I’ll be in Adelaide for the Writers Week (program here), appearing at the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, King William Road on Wednesday 4 March at 2pm in conversation with Jane Goodall, on the theme the Common Good. I’ll be signing copies of Economics in Two Lessons.

I’ve fitted in two earlier events on Tuesday 3 March. At 12 noon, I’ll be talking about the economic cost of the bushfire disaster, at the University of Adelaide (Level 6, Faculty of the Professions Building, Pulteney Street). Then at 5:30, I’ll be talking about Economics in Two Lessons to the Economics Society of Australia, Marjoribanks 126 SANTOS Lecture Theatre, Level 1, Nexus Building 10 Pulteney Street, Adelaide, SA 5000

On Monday 9 March, I’ll be back in Brisbane at the Customs House for the launch of The Brisbane Dialogues, an attempt to promote civil discussion across political divides. I’ll be debating North American philosopher Stephen Hicks on the topic (suggested by me) “Postmodernism is a rightwing philosophy”. As long-time readers will recall I was making this point long before Kellyanne Conway brought it to wider attention with the idea of “alternative facts“.

Planning for pandemics (repost from 2005)

The news of deaths from bird flu in Indonesia is pretty scary. Although, as I’ve mentioned recently Indonesia has made a lot of progress in many respects, the handling of this threat so far seems to show the worst of both worlds: all the ill ffects of authoritian habits combined with the timidity of weak politicians. There have been a lot of coverups, and an unwillingness to tackle the necessary but unpopular task of slaughtering affected flocks of birds. Things seem to be improving now, but there’s a long way to go.

It seems very likely that, sooner or later, bird flu will make the jump that permits human-human transmission, and quite likely that a major flu pandemic will result. The world, including Australia, is very poorly prepared for this. One thing we could do to prepare is to adopt a national program encouraging annual flu vaccinations for everyone, instead of just for limited categories of vulnerable people.

The main benefit of this is not that the shots would provide immunity against a new and deadlier flu variant (though there might be some limited benefit of this kind) but that we would have the infrastructure, production facilities and so on to undertake a mass vaccination against such a variant if it arose. As it is, it seems likely that many countries will be scrambling to get access to an inadequate world supply of vaccines, but if Australia and other developed countries ramped up normal levels of production, it would be much easier to generate extra supplies for our neighbours.

I haven’t looked into it, but my guess is that, even without considering the possibility of a pandemic, the benefit-cost ratio from such a measure would be pretty high. Flu is very costly in economic terms, and I suspect that, if pain and suffering were thrown into the balance, a program of universal free vaccination would come out looking pretty good.

Notes  I wrote this in 2005 thinking about new flu strains. The only difference I see with “novel” viruses is that the time taken to produce the initial batches of a vaccine is likely to be longer. As is usual with my policy advocacy, little if anything has been done along the lines I suggested.

Getting off coal: Orderly exit or last-minute stampede

I’m one of 10 000 Australian academics who signed an open letter to Unisuper (our industry superannuation fund) calling for a policy of divestment from carbon-based fuels. The first step in such a policy has to be divestment from thermal coal. Purely on fiduciary grounds, getting out of thermal coal is now a matter of cashing out before the assets are completely unsaleable. Just in the last week, here’s a list of investors, ranging from small institutions to financial giants that have made announcements along these lines

  • JP Morgan
  • Moody’s (saying that insurance companies should divest to reduce climate litigation risk)
  • The Royal College of Psychiatrists
  • The Jesuit Order in the UK
  • Creighton University (Jesuit University in the US)
  • Bristol University (UK)
  • Danish pension fund APG (selling its holding in KEPC)

That’s certainly a partial list, indicating that divestment decisions are now being announced on a daily basis, with many more happening quietly.

As the Wall Street Journal reported today, the exodus has reached the point where many coal companies have only a handful of institutional shareholders. These institutions, are too put it mildly, exposed to a lot of risk. And, for any other investors, a divestment decision by one of the remaining institutional shareholders would imply a big drop in the share price and therefore a capital loss.

Part of this flight is the toxic reputational risk associated with coal. As coal industry magazine CoalZoom has observed, reporting a study by Alva Group the bushfire catastrophe has had a huge impact in this respect to the point that

public awareness and a latent activist momentum which may only take one more high-profile incident to trigger concerted action have been built.

Sooner or later (as Moody’s notes above) that concerted action will include attempts to recover the damage caused by carbon dioxide emissions first from emitters, and then from their financiers and insurers.


Like most recreational tri-athletes, I don’t pay much attention to what’s happening in the top levels of the sport, let alone in the separate worlds of swimming, cycling and running[1]. But I took notice last year when Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon distance in under two hours, a barrier long thought to be unbreakable, and one that reminded my of my failed attempts to break four hours over the same distance.

Kipchoge had plenty of help in his effort, including pace runners (providing an added drafting benefit) and a guide car projecting laser light on to the track to ensure exact pacing. These non-standard features mean that the time doesn’t count as a record for the marathon event.

Apparently, the biggest boost, however, came from his shoes, Nike’s recently released Vaporfly’s which incorporate a special carbon plate and a foam designed to return as much as possible of the energy expended from the impact of each pace. In subsequent events, runners with Vaporflys have produced winning times as much as 4 per cent faster than would be expected. And, it seems, the benefit is just as great, or even greater, for middle-aged slowpokes.

As with similar innovations in swimming and cycling, there was a lot of pressure to ban these technological marvels. But the International Olympic Committee, unwilling to take on the might of Nike, decided to allow the shoes, while trying to limit further innovations.

So, should I lay out $A300 or so for a pair of these marvels, which apparently may last for only a couple of hundred km (YMMV)? For the moment, I’m not going to. I’m going to have one more try to break four hours, and for this purpose I’m racing against my (not quite as old) self, not other competitors or even the clock. Once the technology becomes general, I’ll no doubt adopt it like everyone else.

In the meantime, what really appeals to me is the claimed capacity of cooling wristbands to lower body temperature. Even in moderate temperatures, I end events drenched in sweat and temperatures in Queensland aren’t always moderate. Does anyone have any experience/thoughts on this?

Triggering the lefties

Looking at the string of appalling statements from the rightwing commentariat in the last week or so, I have come to the conclusion that they must be involved in a private contest to “trigger the libs”, in the parlance of the Trumpist right, by making statements that will provoke social media outrage to be used either for mockery or claims of persecution as the occasion demands.

Chris Uhlmann’s entry in the competition, exposing firefighter Paul Parker as a One Nation voter, was explicitly designed to do this. It fell flat, but Uhlmann announced victory anyway.

His competitors seem to have drawn the lesson that lefties aren’t as easily triggered as they thought. To win the competition, they needed to say something that would appal any decent person, then denounce anyone who criticises them as a leftie.

Rather than nominate a single winner, I’ll give every player a prize for their success in triggering me as a typical leftie

  • Ickiest: Andrew Bolt (tag-teaming with Gerard Henderson)
  • Most bizarre: Miranda Devine, picking on 9 year old Quaden Bayles
  • Most appalling: Bettina Arndt (not even going to link)
  • Dishonourable mention: Mark Latham (ditto)

As far as I can tell, we haven’t yet heard from Joe Hildebrand and Prue McSween, who would normally be keen competitors.

A legend in his own mind

The latest kerfuffle over volunteer firefighter Paul Parker manages to encapsulate, in a single vignette, the way the Australian media handles politics. It’s not an edifying story. After shooting to fame with an expletive tirade against Prime Minister Morrison at the height of the bushfire catastrophe, Parker attained the status of a minor folk hero. That was that, until he appeared on Channel Ten’s The Project to say that he had been “sacked” for his actions. The Rural Fire Service (which had earlier suggested Parker had been “stood down due to exhaustion”)  issued a not-quite denial, which was eagerly embraced by the PM.

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