Armistice Day

With the smoke of a global catastrophe swirling all around, I nearly forgot to mark the end of the Great War, the (the first stage of the) long-ago catastrophe that defined most of the 20th century, and is still causing chaos and suffering even today. Lest we forget.

Monday Message Board

Back again with 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. If you would like to receive my (hopefully) regular email news, please sign up using the following link


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Wouldn’t know if their a**e was on fire

From 2014, sadly more apposite today

John Quiggin

As I type this, it’s currently 35 degrees, at 9am on an October morning in Brisbane. And, while one day’s temperatures don’t prove anything, a string of studies have shown that the increasingly frequent heatwaves in Australia can be reliably attributed to global warming. We haven’t had an El Nino yet, but according to NOAA, the last 12 months have been the hottest such period on record.

It will be interesting to see what the denialists come up with in response to this combination of record breaking local and global warming. We can safely rule out anything along the lines of “as a sceptic, I like to wait for convincing evidence before accepting a new hypothesis. But, with the steady accumulation of evidence I’m now convinced”. I suspect we’ll get more along the lines of

* Graham Lloyd, reporting a new study by Jennifer Marohasy, showing that the…

View original post 89 more words

Begging the question, or not

Over at Club Troppo, Nicholas Gruen says of the phrase “begs the question”

I love this term because it is such a simple, chummy way of naming something that’s maddening in is subtlety. To beg the question in its traditional meaning is to mistake the form of answering a question for its substance. One ‘answers’ the question by simply asking it again in another guise … Today, ‘begs the question’ is much more often used to mean ‘prompts the question’.

My response

The problem with the old use of “begs the question” is that it makes no sense. It’s a literal translation of “petitio principii”. The problem is that “question” here means “conclusion” and “begs” means something like “asks the listener to assume”. The modern use is also nonsensical. My solution is to use “offers a circular argument” for the old use and “prompts the question” for the new one.

Sloan and Quiggin agree?

If there’s one reliable constant in Australian economic policy debate it’s that Judith Sloan and I will be on opposite side. However, she’s picked up my idea of a nuclear “grand bargain”, with the rather striking claim that the carbon price side of the deal is already done

Interestingly, professor John Quiggin, a left-wing economist, has given his blessing to the introduction of nuclear power in Australia. He does this on the condition that a carbon price also be introduced, which he sees as a necessary prerequisite to make nuclear power cost-competitive.

The good thing is that we already have a (shadow) carbon price, given our Paris emissions reduction commitment. Estimates put a figure of $90 a tonne on the carbon price by 2030. This part of the bargain is ­already in the locker

The unstated premise here is that the government will do whatever is necessary to meet our Paris commitments, without reliance on accounting tricks, and with a path to further decarbonization. If I could be sure of that, I’d be happy to support removing the legislative ban on nuclear power.

Sadly, I don’t think there is any reason to believe that the government has any coherent thoughts at all on energy policy. Angus Taylor’s absurd claim that the Sydney City Council spent $15 million a year on air travel is enough to show that he is both innumerate (a minute’s thought would have shown that this would require every gardener and office worker in the council to get an overseas trip each year) and more concerned with culture war than with policy outcomes. This is par for the course – Abbott provides the template, and Morrison fits it perfectly.

Professional politicians

I plan a response to Nick Dryenfurth’s Blue Labor argument before too long. But for now, I’ll record one point of agreement. Far too many MPs, particularly on the Labor side are professional politicians, who have gone from university to a staff or professional union job (that is, not for a union of which they have previously been a member or activist) and then gained preselection through the faction system.

Worse still, for most of these MPs, political office isn’t the final goal, but a stepping stone to more lucrative opportunities in lobbying or the finance sector. Of course, those opportunities are mainly open to those who pursue right wing policies. That’s entirely consistent with belonging to the “Socialist Left” faction (exhibit A: Anna Bligh).

Following the success of affirmative action for women, Labor should set a target of having half its seats filled by people who have spent at least ten years working in a non-political job or in socially productive activity such as raising children.

What, if anything, is neoliberalism? (crosspost from Crooked Timber, repost from this blog 2002)

The comments thread on my WTO post raises the much-argued question of whether the term “neoliberalism” has any useful content, or whether it is simply an all-purpose pejorative to be applied to anything rightwing. O

In this 2002 post from the pre-Cambrian era of blogging, at a time when I aspired to write a book along the lines of Raymond Williams’ Keywords, I claim that neoliberalism is a meaningful and useful term, which isn’t to deny that it’s often used sloppily, like all political terms.

Some thoughts seventeen years later

First, this definition refers to the standard international use of the term, what I’ve susequently called “hard neoliberalism”, represented in the US by the Republican Party. I subsequently drew a distinction with “soft neoliberalism”, which corresponds to US usage where the term is typically applied to centrist Democrats like the Clintons. I’d also apply this to Blair’s New Labour, although, as stated in the post, there were points at which Blair and Brown drifted back in the direction of traditional social democracy.

Second, the discussion of how the right (in Europe and Australia) is shifting away from neoliberalism towards “the older and more fertile ground of law and order and xenophobia” seems as if it could have been written today. These processes take a long time to work themselves through.

As a corollary, the idea of Trump as a radical break with the past is unsustainable. There’s been a qualitative change with Trump and the various mini-Trumps, but the process was well underway before this new stage.

Finally, my characteristic overoptimism shows up in various places.

Neoliberalism and Failure: Some definitions

One obvious problem with my claim that neoliberalism has failed is that I haven’t provided a definition of either ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘failure’. Taking the second point first, there are several ways in which a political ideology may be a failure.

First, it may never attract sufficient support to have a serious influence on political outcomes. In this sense, ideologies like libertarianism and guild socialism may be regarded as failures.

Second, an ideology may be adopted and implemented, then discredited and discarded, or superseded by some new idea. This is the eventual fate of most political ideologies. Communism is the most recent example of a failure of this kind.

Third, an ideology may fail to deliver the promised outcomes. This is much more a matter of judgement, since promises are never delivered in full and failures are rarely complete.

It is important to remember that failure is never final. Democracy, for example, seemed like a failure until at least 1800. Although many democratic governments arose before that time, all had either collapsed in anarchy, given rise to demagogues who made themselves tyrants or decayed into oligarchy. The United States was the first country to establish a sustainable democracy, and there were plenty who opposed it there. Abraham Lincoln was not engaging in hyperbole when he said at Gettysburg that the outcome of the Civil War would determine whether government ‘of the people, by the people for the people’ could be sustained.

Now for a definition of neoliberalism. As the name implies, neoliberalism is a descendant of classical liberalism, defined by the fact that it is a reaction against social democracy, which also draws heavily on the liberal tradition. The US use of ‘liberal’ to mean ‘social democrat’ reflects the latter point.

Because it is primarily based on a critique of social democracy, neoliberalism places much more weight on economic freedom than on personal freedom or civil liberties, reversing the emphasis of classical liberalism. Indeed, it is fair to say that on matters of personal freedom, neoliberalism is basically agnostic, encompassing a range of views from repressive traditionalism to libertarianism.

In terms of economic policy, neoliberalism is constrained by the need to compete with the achievements of social democracy. Hence, it is inconsistent with the kind of dogmatic libertarianism that would leave the poor to starvation or private charity, and would leave education to parents. Neoliberalism seeks to cut back the role of the state as much as possible while maintaining public guarantees of access to basic health, education and income security.
The core of the neoliberal program is
(i) to remove the state altogether from ‘non-core’ functions such as the provision of infrastructure services
(ii) to minimise the state role in core functions (health, education, income security) through contracting out, voucher schemes and so on
(iii) to reject redistribution of income except insofar as it is implied by the provision of a basic ‘safety net’.

With this definition, a reasonably pure form of neoliberalism (except for some subsidies to favored businesses) is embodied in the program of the US Republican Party, and particularly the Contract with America proposed by Gingrich in 1994. The ACT Party in New Zealand also takes a fairly clear neoliberal stance, as do the more ideologically consistent elements of the British Conservative Party and the Australian Liberal Party.

My claim that neoliberalism has failed therefore uses several different meanings of the term ‘failure’. In Europe, apart from Britain, neoliberalism has mostly failed in sense (i). The EU is inherently social democratic in its structure and attempts by poltical groups in some Eastern European countries (notably the Czech Republic and Estonia) to pursue a free market line have failed in the light of the superior attractions of the EU. It is true that the European social democracies have given some ground, notably with respect to privatisation, but no genuinely neoliberal party has arisen or seems likely to. The political right has moved back to the older and more fertile ground of law and order and xenophobia.

In Britain, neoliberalism has failed in sense (ii). The Conservative party is hovering on the edge of extinction and, as I have arged previously, the ‘New Labour’ government has shifted steadily away from neoliberalism and towards a mildly modernised form of social democracy. The same is true in New Zealand, where the advocates of neoliberalism, once dominant, are now completely marginalised.

Although the Australian government started out with a clearly neoliberal framework it has gradually dropped it in favor of the kind of law and order/xenophobia/militarist position that characterises the traditional right. The repeated resort to ad hoc levies as fixes for industry-specific problems is indicative of a government that has lost its economic bearings. Moreover, the Liberals look like being in semi-permanent opposition in most of the states and the Howard government is unlikely to survive the end of the housing bubble (although given the quality of Federal Labor, anything could happen).

Finally, in the US, neoliberalism remains the dominant ideology but is increasingly failing in sense (iii). Three years ago, American pundits could seriously predict a never-ending economic boom. The combination of continued prosperity and ‘the end of welfare as we know it’ seemed to be on the verge of eliminating crime and unemployment. Now the most charitable assessment of US economic performance is ‘better than average’ and even this cannot be sustained of the current recession/stagnation drags on much longer. The basic problem is that, given high levels of inequality, very strong economic performance is required to match the levels of economic security and social services delivered under social democracy even with mediocre growth outcomes.