He said, she said

There’s been another kerfuffle about gender-neutral language. Although it’s mostly anecdotal outrage, the main issue seems to be whether, as is claimed by traditionalists, the masculine third person pronoun should be used in cases where no gender is specified. For example, “If a student writes an essay, he should not be marked down for his choice of pronoun”.

People have had fun with some extreme cases, like “since Man is a mammal, he suckles his young”.  But I think the problem can be posed with much more standard sentences. Let’s take sentences of the general form

“If you ask a [worker of occupation X], [pronoun] will say the biggest problem with the job is …”

The traditionalist claim is that, in all cases, the appropriate pronoun is “he”.  Think about that for a moment, and then I’ll give some examples.

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Francis Bator has died

Francis Bator, the economist who popularized the term “market failure”, has died at the age of 92 after being hit by a car. His NY Times obituary is here.

Francis’ passing is a cause of sadness for me as my book, Economics In Two Lessons draws heavily on his work from the 1950s and 1960s. He had read excerpts on Crooked Timber and corresponded with me about it, much to my surprise and delight. I was looking forward to sending him the manuscript but now I won’t get the chance.

Bad drivers should have their cars driven by robots (now with link)

A while ago I had one of those “Someone on the Internet is Wrong” arguments with the authors of an article arguing that we would need massively more evidence before we could conclude that autonomous cars are safer than those driven by humans. Rather than dig back to find those arguments again, I thought I’d <a href="http://I thought I'd link to this Bloomberg piece and, in particular the following passage”>link to this Bloomberg piece and, in particular the following passage

GM’s autonomous test cars were in 22 accidents in California last year, according to data from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles … In a November interview, GM President Dan Ammann attributed the accidents to testing in a dense urban environment and noted the company’s cars weren’t at fault in any of the incidents.

Suppose that in any crash between autonomous cars and humans, each is equally likely to be at fault. What is the probability of seeing 22 crashes caused by humans and none by autonomous cars. Obviously, it’s the same as that of a fair coin showing 22 heads in a row, which is 2^-22 or about 1 in 10 million.

Of course, the drivers involved in the crashes aren’t likely to be a random sample of the population. As is standard in such things, the 80/20 rule applies: 20 per cent of drivers are responsible for 80 per cent of crashes and traffic infringements. THe 80/20 rule is derived from a Pareto distribution, and we can apply it a second time to say that 20 per cent of the remaining 80 per cent of drivers are responsible for 80 per cent of the remaining 20 per cent of crashes. That is, 36 per cent of drivers are responsible for 96 per cent of crashes. On that basis, it’s perfectly possible that the remaining 64 per cent of good drivers are as good as autonomous cars or even better.

It might also be argued that autonomous vehicles may fail in defensive driving, that is, in reducing harm in a crash caused by the failure of another driver.

Still, it seems pretty clear that autonomous cars are a lot better than the drivers responsible for most crashes and infringements. It isn’t that hard to identify a lot of these drivers before they kill themselves someone else, since prior driving record variables, particularly a driver’s prior traffic citation history, are the most consistent and powerful predictors of subsequent accident risk. Now that cars don’t need steering wheels or pedals any more, there’s no obvious reason to put people with bad driving records back in charge of them. Bad drivers should have their cars driven by robots.

The generation game, yet again

At Inside Story, I’ve had yet another go at the silliness of generational analysis, reworking some material I’ve posted previously, but improving the analysis in some ways, I think. In particular, I think the intro helps to explain the persistent appeal of generational cliches in the face of repeated refutation.

Every generation thinks it invented sex, and every generation is wrong.” As that quotation from the American writer Robert Heinlein suggests, we all experience as unique and revelatory the transformations we undergo through the course of our lives, from childhood to puberty, adulthood, parenthood and old age. As a matter of logic and observation, though, these processes are experienced at all times and in all places, and differ more in detail than essentials.

This is the paradox at the heart of the otherwise inexplicable durability of claims that people’s characteristics can be explained by their membership of a “generation” (baby boomers, generation X, and so on).

My latest (ir)regular email

I guess I should call this an irregular email, since I haven’t sent one for a few weeks. As usual, I’d appreciate any compliments, brickbats, suggestions on things I should say more or less about and so on. johnquiggin1@mac.com.

Adani, energy and climate action

Farmers for Climate Action commissioned me to do a report on the proposed loan to the Adani Rail Project, focusing on alternative investments in the agricultural sector. It was release at the weekend, and got some coverage, including in The Guardian. The report is here, along with a summary. It’s recently got a nice run in Queensland Country Life
Other media interviews included Robyn McConchie RN Country Hour, and WIN Rockhampton. I also spoke to ABC Brisbane Drive about electricity prices

Asset recycling

There’s been quite a lot of interest from the US in the idea of ‘asset recycling’ which is being pushed hard by the finance operators who would profit from such a deal and also by our unlamented former Treasurer and now Ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey. My thoughts are here

I did interviews with the Washington Post a while back
with Bloomberg,
Asset recycling https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-08-10/australia-pitches-trump-on-a-plan-to-fix-america-s-roads-and-bridges
reported here and just now with Politico (yet to appear)


I gave to a video presentation to on Income: What to aim for and how to get there a workshop on UBI run by the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.
Penalty rates
I appeared by teleconference, before a Senate Committee today (24 August), defending penalty rates

Twitter feed https://twitter.com/JohnQuiggin
Blog https://johnquiggin.com/

Census crowdsource (repost)

In 2012, I crowdsourced an analysis of the census results, looking at the extent to which the increase in religion was driven by changes in stated affiliation from religious to non-religious, as opposed to the demographic replacement of older more religious cohorts by younger, less religous ones. A couple of wrinkles on this

* I didn’t mention immigration last time. It appears (unsurprisingly) that those born overseas are more likely to be religious, but less likely to be Christian, than the Australian born.

* As the ABS notes

The religious pattern of those under 18 is most similar to the 35-49 year olds, suggesting the form may be completed with their parents’ beliefs.

It seems likely that when they report for themselves, these young people will be more like the 19-34 age group. It’s hard to say whether we should call this an affiliation change or a cohort effect.

I’d like to ask again for a crowdsourced analysis. It may be useful to read the comments thread to my previous request.

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Lest we forget

For my Anzac Day post today, I’ll quote the man most directly responsible for the disaster, describing the war of which it was a part (H/T Daniel Quiggin)

Germany having let Hell loose kept well in the van of terror; but she was followed step by step by the desperate and ultimately avenging nations she had assailed. Every outrage against humanity or international law was repaid by reprisals often on a greater scale and longer duration. No truce or parley mitigated the strife of the armies. The wounded died between the lines; the dead moldered into the soil. Merchant ships and neutral ships and hospital ships were sunk on the seas and all on board left to their fate, or killed as they swam. Every effort was made to starve whole nations into submission without regard to age or sex. Cities and monuments were smashed by artillery. Bombs from the air were cast down indiscriminately. Poison gas in many forms stifled or seared the soldiers. Liquid fire was projected upon their bodies. Men fell from the air in flames, or were smothered, often slowly, in the dark recesses of the sea. The fighting strength of armies was limited only by the manhood of their countries. Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When it was all over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian states had been able to deny themselves: and these were of doubtful utility.

As it turned out, even this assessment was too optimistic. The second phase of the great world war saw the end of the few limits that had been observed in the first.

To pay respect to the Anzacs and those who followed them, we should stop repeating the mistakes and crimes of those who sent them to their deaths.


I’ve been on holiday over Easter, going to the National Folk Festival in Canberra, which is why I haven’t posted for a while. One thing that struck me during my break was the Easter editorial in the Oz. In place of the usual vague pieties, it was a full-scale blast of Christianism, demanding that Australians respect the specifically Christian nature of the holiday. This was followed up by Nikki Savva (not someone who has ever struck me as showing any religious feeling) denouncing Bill Shorten for desecrating this sacred holiday with mundane politics.
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Generation Trump

For years now, I’ve been railing against the generation game, that is, the practice of labelling people born in some period of 15-20 years or so as a ‘generation’ (Boomers, X, Millennials and so on ) then making various claims about their supposed characteristics. A generation or so ago, I made the point that

most of the time, claims about generations amount to no more than the repetition of unchanging formulas about different age groups ­ the moral degeneration of the young, the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old, and so on

But this, and a stream of similar articles and blogposts have had no impact that I can see. Since I can’t beat the generation gamers, I’ve decided to join them. And, rather than wait for a new generation to leave school and enter the workforce, as is usual, I’ve decided to jump ahead and identify Generation Trump, consisting of those born after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the US Presidency.

The crucial thing about this generation is that their character is formed entirely in Trump’s image. They are hedonistic, totally self-centred, have a short attention span, are prone to mood swings, and are almost entirely ignorant of the world beyond their own immediate concerns. On the other hand, they can be loving and affectionate, and many are totally family-oriented.

Astute readers will observe that, in a slightly toned down form, this is very similar what is now being said in contemporary depictions of Millennials, and was said about the ‘Slackers’ of Generation X when they were in their late teens and early 20s. That’s great for me, since it means I should be able to pump out marginal variants of the same cliches about Generation Trump until they mature into boring middle-aged adults. That is, of course, unless Trump himself does so first.