The use of “woke” as a term of abuse by rightwingers has expanded rapidly in the recent past. A typical example is Deputy PM McCormack’s claim (rapidly refuted by fire chiefs) that the supposed relationship between climate change and the bushfire disaster arose from “the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies.”

This is striking for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve never seen anyone in Australia describe themselves as “woke”. That’s not surprising: the term comes from the US and refers to changed consciousness of the structures of racial oppression there, and specifically to the position of black Americans. Being “woke” refers to things like the gaining of a new understanding the way blacks are portrayed in the media.

While Australia has plenty of problems with racism, particularly in relation to indigenous Australians, there hasn’t been any real transformation of consciousness here, or at least, anything sufficient to be announced as an awakening. So, the pejorative use of “woke” is yet another example of the dependence of the Australian right on culture war tropes imported from the US.

The same is true, by the way, of “political correctness”. The term was initially used ironically within the US left of people who were more concerned with taking the “correct line” than with effective action. It was then appropriated by the right to become the catchphrase we all know. In the Australian context, the term “ideologically sound” was used within the left, in just the same way as “politically correct”, but our local rightwingers never picked it up.

A second striking observation is that, having no real referent in Australia, “woke” is being used as an all purpose pejorative for anything the right doesn’t like. There’s nothing “woke” about being worried about climate change – the entire scientific community has been shouting about it for decades.

The extreme case, so far, is Janet Albrechtsen in the Oz (no link), using the term to describe veteran corporate gadfly Stephen Mayne, also notable as the founder of Crikey and previously an advisor to Jeff Kennett. Mayne certainly makes trouble for the cosy network of the Australian corporate elite, but describing shareholder activism* as “woke” stretches the term beyond any possible limit. In the current case, he is campaigning for more independent directors, while Albrechtsen (in a very confused piece) plays the gender card against him,

  • To be clear, I’m not referring to the kind of activism done by groups like Market Forces, pushing for divestment from fossil fuels. Mayne’s typically complaint is that boards aren’t capitalist enough preferring a comfortable life to their fiduciary obligation to maximize shareholder value.

IPA unsure about free speech (repost from 2014)

In the light of the Morrison government’s attempts to extend secondary boycott laws to cover boycotts by consumers, investors and advertisers, I thought I would repost this piece from 2014. I’m inclined to agree with Chris Berg (link broken unfortunately) that all restrictions on secondary boycotts should be scrapped. In particular, that applies to bans imposed on unions under Sections 45D and 45E of the Trade Practices Act.

John Quiggin

The reaction of the Institute of Public Affairs to the Abbott governments backdown on the race-hate proviions Section 18C has been, by its own admission, intemperate (“white hot anger” is the description they used; I think I also saw “ice-cold rage”.

By contrast, the IPA has been much more ambivalent on freedom of speech. I noted a while ago, this piece suggesting that environmentalists who questioned the viability of the coal industry could be prosecuted either under securities legislation or as an illegal secondary boycott. This view isn’t unanimous however. Following some Twitter discussion (must get Storify working properly for things like this) Chris Berg pointed to a piece he’d written arguing against such a use of secondary boycott legislation (and against such legislation in general).

I was, naturally interested in how Freedom Commissioner and former IPA fellow Tim Wilson would respond to proposals to suppress free…

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Publication lags

Among the many thoughts prompted by the bushfire disaster one relates to the shift from the “Defend or Leave” approach that was recommended in the 2000s, to the current policy of “evacuate before it’s too late”.

In the aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, I did some work on this topic with a colleague, Tyron Venn. Our conclusion was summarised in the title of our paper “Early evacuation is the best policy“. We included a discussion of how climate change would make the problem worse.

When we first adopted this title, it represented advocacy of a radical shift in policy. But the time taken to prepare the paper, followed by several rounds of refereeing, and getting it published meant that, when it came out in 2017, it was old hat. And the referees raised so many quibbles about the climate change section that we had to drop it.

I don’t really know how to deal with this problem. Peer review is essential. But the process is so slow, particularly in economics, that papers addressing current policy problems can’t easily make it through in time to be relevant.

Decarbonizing steel production

The global fire crisis has brought home the need for a drastic and rapid reduction in emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. We already have the technology needed to replace nearly all carbon-based electricity generation with renewables, and to use electricity to drive nearly all forms of transport.

Among the more intractable problems are those relating to industrial uses, of which the biggest single example is steel. We can make substantial shifts towards a “circular economy” by recycling scrap in electric arc furnaces, but we still need a carbon-free process for producing new steel from iron ore.

The most promising approach (DRI) involves using hydrogen to directly reduce iron ore to iron, which can then be used as feedstock for an electric arc furnace. An experimental plant has just opened up in Germany.

There is a catch, however. The most common approach to producing hydrogen is currently based on burning lignite, which wipes out any reduction in emissions (in the absence of a mythical sequestration technology), as in this LaTrobe Valley boondoggle.

The alternative, based on electrolysis of water requires, as you might expect, cheap electricity. Fortunately, with a marginal cost of zero, solar and wind can potentially fit the bill, at least if the electrolysis process can be adapted to work when power is cheap. Here’s a source claiming that electrolysis is already cheaper.

At this point, it’s clear that the problem isn’t technology or economics. It’s politicians and voters who would rather destroy the planet than admit they were wrong.

My best review ever

I don’t know how many referee reports I’ve received over the course of my career – certainly many thousand. Some have been insightful and helpful, some have missed the point entirely, and some have been outright nasty. But I just got the nicest report I’ve ever had, and I can’t resist sharing the opening paras, with my thanks to the anonymous referee. The paper in question is my contribution to a special issue of Econometrics on the replication crisis, arguing that the crisis can be understood as a kind of market failure. Here’s a link to the draft

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