Hard cases make bad laws. Bad judges make them worse

Another day, another disastrous and anti-democratic decision from the High Court. The Court has already disqualified a large proportion (perhaps a majority) of Australians from standing for Parliament. It has now excluded a huge group from any participation in our democracy, beyond the bare right to vote.

The case in question concerned a public servant, employed in the Immigration Department, who criticised the department under a pseudonym (which proved inadequate to conceal her identity). This was obviously problematic: anyone who directly criticises the policies they are paid to implement creates concern about their ability to do their job properly.

So, the Court could easily have found against the employee in a narrowly drawn judgement that simply applied standard principles of employment. Instead, as in the s44 cases, they brought down a judgement with massive implications. The decision supports a code of conduct that, on its face, prohibits public servants from making any political comment, even on topics unrelated to their job. Given past behavior, it seems highly likely that the Court will take the broadest possible interpretation of this decision.

The only remedy in this case is for the Parliament to restrict the application of the code to allow public servants the same rights as other Australians, to discuss and debate public issues, except where it impinges on their capacity to do their jobs. That’s unlikely, but at least more feasible than a referendum to fix s44.

But if I could have the entire Court sacked and replaced by seven Australians selected by lot, I would certainly do so.

Are SMRs vaporware

It seems as if nuclear fans in Australia have given up on conventional Generation III/III+ reactors such as the Westinghouse AP1000 and Areva EPR: unsurprising in view of the massive cost overruns and delays experienced in attempts to construct them.

They’ve also gone quiet on the prospect of more advanced “Generation IV” reactors. Again that’s unsurprising. Most of the leading research projects in this field have been abandoned or deferred past 2030, even for prototypes.

The great hope now is for Small Modular Reactors, which will, it is hoped, be assembled on site from parts built in factories. The idea is that the savings in construction will offset the loss of the scale economies inherent in having a larger reactor (arising ultimately from the fact that the volume of a sphere grows faster than its surface area).

Lots of SMR ideas have been proposed, but the only one with any serious prospect of entering commercial use is that proposed by NuScale, with funding from the US Department of Energy. NuScale has recently claimed that it should have its first reactor (consisting of 12 modules) in operation by 2027.

A couple of observations on this. First, when the project was funded back in 2014 the proposed start date was 2023. So, in the course of five years, the target time to completion has been reduced from nine years to eight. That suggests the 2027 target is pretty optimistic.

Second, NuScale isn’t actually going to build the factory that is the key selling point of the SMR idea. The press release says that the parts will be made by BWX, formerly Babcock and Wilcox (who abandoned their own SMR proposal around the time NuScale got funded).

So, is BWX going to build a factory, or is this going to be a bespoke job using existing plants (presumably much more expensive). I went to their website to find out. But far from getting a clear answer, I could find no mention at all of a deal with NuScale, or of any recent activity around SMRs.

So, there you have it. Australia’s proposed nuclear strategy rests on a non-existent plant to be manufactured by a company that apparently knows nothing about it.

Rethinking nuclear

Apparently, in order to placate Barnaby Joyce and others, there will be a Parliamentary inquiry into nuclear power. I was thinking of putting a boring submission restating all the reasons why nuclear power will never happen in Australia, but that seemed pretty pointless.

Given that the entire exercise is founded in fantasy, I’m thinking it would be better to suspend disbelief and ask what we need if nuclear power is to have a chance here. The answer is in two parts:

  • Repeal the existing ban on nuclear power
  • Impose a carbon price high enough to make new nuclear power cheaper than existing coal (and, ideally gas) fired power stations
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How do student evaluations survive?

Among the few replicable findings from research on higher education, one of the most notable is that student evaluations of teaching are both useless as measures of the extent to which students have learned anything and systematically biased against women and people of color. As this story says, reliance on these measures could lead to lawsuits.

But why hasn’t this already happened. The facts have been known for years, and potential cases arise every time these evaluations are used in hiring or promotion: arguably every time the data is collected. And student evaluations are particularly popular in the US, where litigation is the national sport. Yet no lawsuits have yet taken place AFAICT.

Maybe the zeitgeist is changing. I was going to write this post before seeing the linked article, which turned up in my Google search. Any lawyers or potential litigants want to comment?

Cheap at twice the price

One of the vanished joys of academic life is the experience, after publishing an article, of getting a bundle of 25 or 50 reprints in the mail, to be distributed to friends and colleagues, or mailed out in response to requests from faraway places (if you live in Australia, everywhere is faraway), often coming on little postcards. Everything is much more efficient nowadays, and I just finished throwing away my remaining collection of reprints. But now, an electronic ghost of the reprint has come to visit.

Earlier this year, I contributed an article to a special issue of Globalizations on “The diffusion of public private partnerships: a world systems analysis”. This is a fair way outside my usual academic area of expertise, a fact which may be apparent to readers who know more about the topic than me, but I wanted to say something about Australia and New Zealand. I just got an email from the publisher offering 50 free e-prints . I don’t think my fellow economists will be much interested, and most would have library subscriptions anyway. So, I’m opening it up to my readers. As I understand it, the first 50 to download it get it for free. After that, anyone really interested can email me for a copy.

Update If you want a copy just click on the link