Erasure (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

As statues of slavers are pulled down around the world*, we are getting the usual stuff from the political right about rewriting history and so on. This is obviously silly. Less than twenty years ago, the same people were thrilled by (misleadingly edited) images of US forces pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein. A bit before that, Lenin and Stalin had their turn.

Wondering about other cases, I looked at Wikipedia to find out about memorials to the personification of treachery against the United States, Benedict Arnold, who won a number of military victories for the American side in the Revolutionary War, before changing sides. It turns out that there are a couple, but he is never mentioned by name and, in one case, is represented by an empty niche. As Wikipedia observes, this is a striking instance of the practice of damnatio memoriae.

On one view, the idea here is to erase all memory of those whose memorials are destroyed. But this doesn’t happen, at least not reliably. With the exception of Washington, Arnold is probably the only Revolutionary War general most Americans could name. And the effect of the latest protests has to bring attention to the evil acts of men who had long been forgotten.

Thinking more about the example of Arnold, one way to deal with monuments of this kind is to remove the status, but leave the plinth and the original inscription, along with an updated version explaining the history.

Adani news, June 2020

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the climate crisis rolls on, slowed a bit by the economic impact of travel restrictions. The campaign to stop carbon dioxide emissions, including those from the Adani Carmichael project, has to continue as well.

It’s now almost a year since Adani Mining gained the final environmental approvals for the construction of the Carmichael mine and rail project. At the time, the company promised to ramp up construction in a matter of weeks, with at least 1500 jobs in prospect during the construction phase. What has happened in the subsequent year. Three points stand out

First, the project is proceeding, but it can still be stopped. Work on the site continues and contracts said to total $1 billion have been announced. Nevertheless, the progress so far has been much less than might be expected if, as announced, the mine is to be exporting coal by next year.

Second, in global terms, the news for thermal coal has been remorselessly bad.  Demand for coal-fired power has crashed in many countries, closures and cancellations have been announced regularly and major corporations and financial institutions have divested their assets
Finally, there is still no sign of the promised jobs bonanza.

What is happening on the site?

A number of recent announcements suggest substantial progress. The most notable are
* A $350 million contract with BMD for the construction of the rail line, including rail camps and other works, for a total of more than $1 billion in contracts.
* The completion of an airstrip permitting Fly In Fly Out (FIFO) operations
* Completion of the first of three camps for workers to construct the railway

However, throughout the long and troubled history of the project, Adani has made announcements of progress that turn out to be overstated.  For example, the claim that more than $1 billion in contracts have been issued repeats an earlier claim. Many previously announced contracts with Downer EDI, Kepco and other large companies have come to nothing.

The airstrip (pictured here) was macadamized in March, and is nothing like the $35 million airport Adani initially proposed to build, to be financed by Townsville and Rockhampton city councils. It’s unclear whether it would be suitable for the large planes that would be needed for a FIFO operation with 1500 workers as claimed.  

The contract for the construction of rail camps was announced in November 2019.  The construction of one camp in the subsequent seven months is much less progress than might be expected for a rail line that is supposed to be operational next year. Satellite imagery suggests modest progress at best beyond this development, though even this is sufficient to cause substantial damage to the local environment.

Meanwhile the coronavirus is said to have cost Gautam Adani $1.5 billion of his $9.2 billion fortune, which raises the question of whether he can afford to sink $2 billion into a project that seems unlikely to generate any significant cash flow at current coal prices (see below)

Much of the loss has come from a decline in the share price of Adani Power, the presumed customer for Carmichael coal. The Adani group has proposed to delist the company, repurchasing all its shares, a transaction that has been highly controversial in India

Overall, it is clear that the project is moving forward slowly. But, it still appears possible that Adani can be stopped by a combination of the global decline in thermal coal and continued pressure on every aspect of the production chain, from insurance and finance, through the construction of the mine and rail line, the financing of the Abbot Point coal port and the cronyism surrounding Adani Power’s dealings in India and Bangladesh.

An important example emerged recently with the exposure of a number of insurance companies that have outstanding contracts with Adani, negotiated through broker Marsh (a disgusted Marsh employee leaked the info).  Most of these contracts are nearly expired, and Adani will need either to renew them (some of the companies have said this won’t happen) or look elsewhere, such as to US company AIG, which still has no serious climate policy. You can take action here  and here

The global decline of thermal coal

In the year since Adani got its approval, the global outlook for thermal coal has worsened, steadily at first, and then rapidly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In most of Europe and the Americas, coal-fired power is disappearing fast.  Sweden and Austria closed their last coal-fired power plants earlier this year, and most EU countries have committed to a phase-out by 2030 (in many cases, by 2025). In the US, renewables now generate more electricity than thermal coal, which is likely to account for no more than 10 per cent of generation by 2030, while Canada has promised a complete phase-out.  

Although China has continued to develop and finance coal projects, other Asian countries, most notably Korea, have gone the other way.  In India, it is already clear that solar PV, even with firming is cheaper than new coal. Most Indian electricity generators, including Adani, are moving in this direction, even as Adani pushes ahead with projects that rely on political connections to secure an above-market prices.

The rise of renewable energy has been reflected in a sharp decline in the market price of thermal coal, which has fallen 40 per cent since the revised version of the Adani project was announced in November 2018


The central claim made in support of the Carmichael project is that it will generate large numbers of jobs. All sorts of numbers have been bandied about, but the current claim is that the construction phase of the project will generate 1500 direct jobs and many more indirect jobs. A year after the final approvals, and halfway to the announced date for shipping the first coal, there is no sign of these jobs.

Adani’s own jobs portal is currently advertising only a handful of jobs with the company. The “Carmichael jobs” website which includes ads from contractors such as Martinus rail, as well as Adani itself, has advertised less than 30 jobs in the last month. Adani is currently claiming that there are 500 workers on the project, a number that is almost certainly overstated.

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A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.

To be clear, the sandpit is for regular commenters to pursue points that distract from regular discussion, including conspiracy-theoretic takes on the issues at hand. It’s not meant as a forum for visiting conspiracy theorists, or trolls posing as such.


Now that the World Health Organization has finally endorsed a recommendation for wearing masks in public, it’s time for Australia to do the same.

The most important case is that of public transport including air travel. Urban public transport is vital, but until we take the necessary steps on masks, we will be stuck with recommendations to avoid peak hour travel, guaranteeing a return to private cars and congestions

The airlines have been the biggest transporters of the pandemic and have continued to behave irresponsibly, packing planes as full as possible without any requirement for masks. It’s time for government to step in and order them to require masks as a condition of travel.

Update: I checked and Rex is doing the right thing here, upsetting some passengers who want to be free to infect fellow passengers

Suppress, trace, test, repeat

When the Covid-19 pandemic started, it was generally assumed that the only serious policy option was to “flatten the curve”: that is, keep the spread slow enough that the hospital system was not overwhelmed, until either a vaccine was developed and generally available or most of the population had caught the disease giving rise to herd immunity. Both approaches looked likely to take at least a couple of years to work.

In retrospect, this assumption was surprising. China suppressed the initial outbreak in Wuhan, as well as the spread to other provinces, and held case numbers close to zero thereafter. But for a variety of reasons, good and bad, people either distrusted Chinese numbers or thought that the lockdown measures used there couldn’t be applied elsewhere.

It’s now clear, however, that these assumptions were false. Most* developed* countries have applied measures sufficient to reduce Covid-19 from an epidemic to a set of localised clusters. At this point, a full lockdown is no longer needed. Social distancing can keep R below 1 for the general population, so that local clusters don’t grow exponentially. And, as long as the numbers are small enough, contact tracing, testing and localised lockdowns can keep the disease under control.

That’s been the experience in East Asia, Australia and New Zealand and now, it appears in most of Europe. Progress hasn’t been uniform, but no country that’s managed suppression has gone back to uncontrolled spread.

The next step, evidently is reopening borders between jurisdictions where the virus has been suppressed. The most limited form, but still a significant step would be allowing entry subject to 14 day quarantine. That could be relaxed, conditional on returning a negative test. Finally, there’s the ‘bubble’, reopening borders without quarantine or specific testing.

There’s nothing particularly novel in what I’ve written above, but I don’t think the implications have fully sunk in. Indeed, I haven’t thought them through in detail myself. To give just one example, what if the US remains isolated from the rest of the world while travel to and from China is reopened?

  • Sweden didn’t attempt this, the US started but couldn’t persist long enough, and is now completely distracted by the collapse of the Trump Administration.
  • It’s still unclear what’s happening in middle-income and poor countries, where lockdown doesn’t seem feasible. There’s some hope that the disease will be less severe in the tropics where most of these countries are found. Younger populations means less vulnerability. And sadly, there is already such a large toll from endemic diseases and poverty that Covid looks less exceptional.

Would freezing minimum wages help recovery ?

I’ve just responded to a poll of economists, run by The Conversation and The Economic Society of Australia on this question. Here’s my response

No There has been extensive debate on the effects of minimum wages on labor demand. Over the last 25 years, the general conclusion has been that these effects are relatively small.

However, these questions are irrelevant in the current context. The pace of economic recovery will be determined entirely by macroeconomic conditions, including fiscal and monetary policy, continued success in suppressing the pandemic, developments overseas and consumer confidence. In this context, an increase in minimum wages will have a modest positive effect in bolstering demand.

In the longer term, the costs of the pandemic will have to be shared across the community. The crisis has shown that the work of lower-paid people is vital and undervalued, while much (not all) highly recompensed activity turns out to be of marginal importance in a crisis. Those on higher incomes should bear all or most of the cost of recovery.

Results of the poll should be out next week, I think


A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.

To be clear, the sandpit is for regular commenters to pursue points that distract from regular discussion, including conspiracy-theoretic takes on the issues at hand. It’s not meant as a forum for visiting conspiracy theorists, or trolls posing as such.