Freedom and the Commissioner

There have been quite a few recent cases raising questions around free speech and freedom of the press. Here are some thoughts, not all final.

First up, the question, raised by the cases of Peter Ridd and Israel Folau of whether employers can discipline or sack workers for their views on a range of issues.

Ridd is an academic at JCU who has expressed (often in intemperate terms) the (wrong and harmful) view that the damage to the Great Barrier Reef from climate change has been exaggerated. JCU sacked him, but his dismissal was found by the Federal Circuit Court of Australia to be unlawful.

This was a straightforward finding under industrial law, which accords no special status to academics. But there are good reasons why universities should adhere to a stronger standard, embodied in the notion of academic freedom. As the NTEU vice-president Andrew Bonnell said it’s clear that JCU breached its commitment to academic freedom.

The Folau case is much trickier. In a sense Folau’s religious views aren’t that unusual. Most Christian denominations hold, at least officially, that all non-Christians and all Christians who hold heretical beliefs will go to hell[1], along with Christians who die in mortal sin, which accounts for nearly everybody. But, as Brian Houston of Hillsong Church (not someone I expected to quote with approval) points out, telling people they are going to hell is not helpful either for religious tolerance or to convert them to the truth as you may see it.

What makes this case difficult is that Folau’s job is, effectively, one of marketing the Australian Rugby League so that it can attract sponsors (notably, in this case, Qantas). Whether or not Folau has a case against the ARL, no one can force the sponsors to renew the contracts, or, for that matter, the fans to show up (I don’t know many rugby fans, so this may or may not be an issue).

As is almost invariably the case, former Freedom Commissioner and IPA alumnus Tim Wilson comes out of this looking bad. Back in 2015, there was a similar case in which Scott McIntyre, an SBS sports commentator, expressed views about Anzac Day that were offensive in their content and even more in the way they were expressed on Twitter Even though McIntyre had nothing like Folau’s public profile, he was sacked. Wilson then “Freedom Commissioner” wrote that, since McIntyre was not legally prevented from speaking, there was no free speech issue

SBS simply decided it didn’t want to be associated with him. No one is guaranteed a job. Employers are not compelled to put up with behaviour that harms their public reputation.”

Now, Wilson is defending Folau against ‘censorship‘, even though, on the views he has previously stated, there can be no question of censorship in the absence of government action.

I wasted a lot of time on Twitter a few years ago, trying to pin Wilson down on this very question. I can now discern his position: if you say something acceptable to conservatives, it’s free speech, otherwise you can take your chances with the boss.

fn1. Just to tie things up neatly, denying the existence of hell is a heresy.

Eye of the needle, again (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

The US college admissions scandal is rolling on, seemingly endlessly. There’s been a lot of discussion of moral decay, hypocrisy and more. But no one seems to have mentioned the central point. The number of places in the Ivy League and similar schools has remained almost unchanged for decades, even as the demand for those places has been swelled by a wide range of factors, most notably by the growth in all forms of inequality, which is mediated in part by unequal access to education. Parents who want their children to maintain their position in the scale, or climb upwards, need to facilitate that access if they can.

There’s no fair way of allocating that limited set of places*, and, even if there were, the existing system is full of arbitrary roadblocks to some and loopholes for others. The standard way of allocating scarce goods in a market system is through willingness to pay, and that plays a big role in the process. But since an open market isn’t an option, willingness to pay isn’t enough on its own, and can’t be tied to directly to the admission decision. What you want, as this story says of Harvard is “well-off, multi-generational Harvard families [who] pay higher tuition and give more money” (ideally over a long period). Unsurprisingly, parents with money, but without the required social access have sought more direct methods of buying a way in for their children.

Catching and prosecuting a few parents isn’t going to change this, and neither is any reform of the admissions system. The problem can only be resolved by reducing inequality in society as a whole, and particularly, by increasing access to high quality post-school education. I have no clear idea how this goal should be pursued in the US, given the stratification entrenched in the system. Given the numbers involved, there’s a strong case for focusing on free access and more funding for community colleges, ideally with a transition path to four-year institutions. But I don’t understand the system well enough to know whether this would work. Regardless, the US case provides a warning for countries like Australia, where the leading universities (the so-called “Group of 8”) are keen to put more distance between themselves and the rest.

  • An system based solely on test scores, such as the SAT, would not be as obviously arbitrary as the current one. But it would clearly favor those with the resources to get test prep tutoring and so on. The Japanese example is not encouraging, at least from a distance.

Bookplug: the fox and the hedgehog

Economics in Two Lessons is coming out in the US next week. That gives me an excuse to share some of the nice things people have said about it. I’m particularly pleased with this one from Jacob Hacker, whose own work I admire very much.

With apologies to Isaiah Berlin, Quiggin is a foxy hedgehog: He knows two big things, and these twin lessons—about the virtues and limits of markets—sustain a pioneering, persuasive, and even passionate case for democracy and the mixed economy. Make room for two lessons in your mind, and on your bookshelf.”—Jacob S. Hacker, coauthor of American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper

Good news day!

Two big pieces of news for me today. This morning I got the first physical copy of my book Economics in Two Lessons.

Then, I got the news that, for the first time in my career, I’ve had an article accepted in Econometrica, the top theoretical journal in economics. It’s full of arcane maths, drawing heavily on the expertise of my co-author Ani Guerdjikova, but the key implication is simple. If people aren’t equally good at predicting movements in asset prices, restrictions on the set of assets available to them may improve economic welfare. This undermines the general presumption that financial deregulation will be beneficial.

All in all, a good day!

Pinker polymathic

The New York Times has a piece pushing the idea that nuclear power is the solution to our environmental problems. It’s familiar stuff, citing the French success in the 1970s, the promise of Gen IV and small modular reactors, and so on. Indeed, two of the authors had an almost identical piece in the Wall Street Journal in January. What’s most interesting is that the set of authors[1] this time includes Steven Pinker, who seems to be spreading his claims to expertise yet more broadly[2].

None of the authors has any training or expertise in economics, AFAICT. So, they make extreme claims such as that South Korea and China can build nuclear plants at one sixth the cost of the US. With the abandonment of the nearly-complete VC Summer project, the only nuclear plant now under construction in the US is the 2GW Vogtle project in Georgia. That looks like coming in at about $20 billion or $10 billion/GW. Most estimates of Chinese costs are around $3.5 billion or one third of that – the most optimistic I’ve seen is $2 billion.

Moreover, it might have been worth mentioning that South Korea has stopped new nuclear power and China hasn’t started a new project in three years. In both cases, renewables have undercut even the lowest estimates of the costs of nuclear.

Also striking is a sudden shift in the argument about halfway through. The article begins reasonably enough, pointing out that the success of the French model in the 1970s depended critically on the large-scale deployment of a small number of standardised designs. (That wasn’t the only crucial feature, as I’ve pointed out before.) That contrasts sharply with the current situation where nearly every new plant is First Of A Kind, or close to. They point to US efforts to promote new nuclear power, including the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, recently passed through Congress by big margins (361 to 10 in the House, and a voice vote in the Senate).

Then suddenly, the article shifts gears, claiming that the crucial problem is irrational public fear of radiation, nuclear accidents and so forth. The obvious question to raise is: how does this supposed climate of fear manifest itself? Obviously not in a Congress, generally notable for bitter partisan division, where pro-nuclear legislation sails through with negligible opposition. Nor is there any evidence of significant resistance at the regulatory level, where numerous plants have had their licenses extended.

With the abandonment of the nearly-complete VC Summer project, the only nuclear plant now under construction in the US is the two-reactor Vogtle project in Georgia. Googling for Vogtle protests, I found numerous links to protests from shareholders, customers and others concerned about the massive cost overruns of the project. But the only anti-nuclear protest I could find was back in 2011, and appeared to have no effect at all on the project.

The myth that nuclear power would roar ahead if only public fear could be overcome is comforting to nuclear fans. But the truth is that the technology is doomed by economics.


fn1. The only author with any relevant expertise is Staffan Qvist who works on Gen IV reactors and has previously written policy pieces with our own Barry Brook.

fn2. I also write on lots of different things. On the blog, I’m happy to state my views on all kinds of topics, as I would in ordinary conversation. But when I write for the general public, citing my professional affiliation, I try to stick to areas where I have some claim to expertise.