Monday, April 30, 2007

Corruption, greed & lobbying in WA

If you didn’t watch Four Corners tonight on The Dark Arts please go to the ABC website and examine the relevant documents. Hopefully the transcript of the whole show will eventually appear online – the television broadcast will be re-broadcast on the ABC Wednesday.

The behavior of Brian Burke, Julian Grill and that charmer (expelled from the Liberal Party) Noel Crichton-Browne over the Smith’s Beach development in WA is deeply troubling. The behavior of local government members and officials in our esteemed state government bureaucracy also seems appalling.

Hopefully those who have committed illegal acts in relation to Smith’s Beach will be jailed for long periods and heavily fined.

What is worrying is that one suspects this type of inappropriate development decision might occur in local government bodies around Australia all the time. That millions of dollars can be made from a development approval or from evading the effects of a regulation creates huge incentives to be corrupt. It was interesting, to me, that those involved in the Smith’s Beach development decision seemed to crumple into monstrously corrupt patterns of behavior for so little, a few thousand dollars was enough.

One might think that those who obviously have so little integrity might place a reasonably high marginal valuation on it. They obviously don’t.

It was wrong of Kevin Rudd to secretly meet Brian Burke. Identifying this failure was not trivial political point scoring. The meeting showed the naiveté of Rudd and his proclivity to deceive when confronted with his own failures.

Obsessive fatties grow in number

I haven’t posted for a while on obesity. I have not lost interest in the area, it is just that I think economists and others have frustratingly little to offer in the way of robust analysis of what is going on. It is not clear what is causing increased average body weights, whether weight increase is as unhealthy as some contend and whether losing large amounts of weight improves health. I’ll get back to thinking about these issues when my current obsession with tobacco issues cools.

Certainly widespread community concern about obesity is having an impact. An article in the Age points out that community hysteria is developing over obesity. In particular, a dramatic escalation in eating disorders has occurred with new figures revealing rates have doubled in the last decade. In Australia those regularly binge eating, abusing laxatives, making themselves sick or undergoing extreme fasting jumped from 4.7% in 1995 to 11% in 2005.

Prevalence of full-blown anorexia and bulimia has remained constant at 2 to 3% but the percentage with the above disorders rose from 2% to 4.6%. While women were 5 times more likely to suffer from an eating disorder, there was a sharp increase in men bingeing and purging.

Experts say the nation's so-called obesity crisis has created huge fears of being overweight in a weight-conscious community.

Obesity might be a problem but so too are unbalanced attempts to address it. TV shows such as The Biggest Loser promote unhealthy weight loss procedures. Reducing weight should definitely be done gradually if you are to avoid increased mortality risks.

The survey giving rise to these findings involved more than 3000 people in South Australia and looked at adult eating disorders. It will be presented at a conference today – when I get a link I will post it.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Mr Rudd & Luna power

Mr Rudd's performance at this weekend's National Conference has been uninspired. His policies are populism that will damage Australia and do little more than hold out a fillip of hope for a fading trade union movement. Let me pick a few of the issues that have made news headlines.

On renewables and water tanks

This is a particularly poor policy. I am interested to see how some of Rudd's leftwing supporters (who do know better) will comment on it. The proposal is to give $10,000 interest free loans to households earning up to $250,000 to fund the installation of solar panels, solar heaters and water tanks. This is part of Labor's commitment to Australian climate change issues.

The interest subsidies are not means-tested In response to criticisms of this Mr. Rudd made comments that made me think twice about my earlier suggestions that this man has intelligence. I quote a number of his statements because they equally provide a good Sunday night laugh:

‘In some parts of Sydney, families were struggling on $200,000’.

‘Our policy includes all working families… We don't have some sort of class enemy basis upon which we do this - that's the old politics of the past’.

‘… he assumed that families who were having trouble making ends meet would be the ones who took up the offer’.

‘Families were struggling with four interest rate rises and a crisis in housing affordability… (to) find the extra available funds to go out there and stump up at commercial interest rates the extra money necessary to whack on the solar panels, it's a real challenge’.

‘We're also on about the great spread of Australia - that is, a whole people from diverse income backgrounds and our message is reflected in terms of what we're doing for small business, what we're doing for families through the industrial relations policy, what we're doing for the education revolution, what we're doing in terms of broadband.’

‘ the solar, green energy and water renovations plan, outlined at the ALP national conference today, had the potential to cut 15 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions - the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road for a year or planting 15 million trees.’

‘This is practical bread-and-butter stuff that the Labor Party is so good at’. (My bold, what a corker!)

Yes this is the man who is leading in the opinion polls! Mr. Rudd must know that, irrespective of its distributional implications, this is a totally uneconomic proposal that even supporters of Labor see as crazy – even if, for example, the solar technologies were implemented on a much larger commercial scale. There are cheaper and effective ways of saving both water and energy than relying on backyard technologies.

I doubt even Rudd believes this lunacy – its just vote-buying populism based on community ignorance. But on the basis of such lunacy can one take Labor’s views on uranium seriously?

Uranium

I am grateful that, yesterday the Labor Party at its National Conference abolished its 3 mines uranium policy. This was the obviously confused policy, that has prevailed since 1982, and which recognized the right of Australia to mine uranium in 3 locations but not in others. One of the locations (Roxby Downs) has massively expanded its planned outputs over this time to make it the largest producer on the planet - but that's fine, just keep production at those 3 locations.

It was also a plainly ridiculous policy and destructive of the national interest since nuclear fuels are a major source of electrical energy in the world todayabout 16% of the total - with Australia possessing 38% of low cost recoverable reserves. The old debate about whether the world should switch to nuclear power ended decades ago.

That the abolition of the three mines policy caused overwhelming controversy at the National Conference says much about the Labor Party and its fitness to govern federally – 205 votes for getting rid of this piece of stupidity versus 190 for retaining it does not confirm much a balance of sanity. This is a Luna Labor Party.

But the companion decision to retain bans on developing an Australian uranium industry displays even deeper illogic.

I am not convinced of the economic case for developing a dependence on nuclear fuels - as the Switkowski report emphasizes, the case seems to require that carbon emissions be taxed at a hefty rate. They should be taxed if one believes (as I do) that global warming is a real problem that we must urgently address - the issue is how ‘hefty’ is hefty?

But ruling out uranium use on the grounds of its economics is quite different from banning it at a Labor Party National Conference because a bunch of unionist hacks have confused priorities in addressing energy supply and greenhouse problems. How can use of uranium in Australia be a priori unjustified if we export it for use elsewhere? Processing nuclear fuels in Australia will involve waste disposal issues that can be addressed in Australia. If there is concern about waste disposal then why not create waste where it can be appropriately dealt with - Australia has the wealth, the regulatory framework and the physical environment to deal dsafely with the waste.

John Howard is on sound ground in pointing out the hypocrisy of Labor’s moves. Yes it is politics but fair politics. Howard too should be careful about the underlying economics. Unfortunately too he needs to watch the politics - Rudd will run a scare campaign up to the next election on whether voters want a nuclear power station in their backyard. Not many votes in the policy even if it is sensible.

I assume Labor will eventually come to its senses and get rid of its ban on a local nuclear industry. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 20+ years.

Industrial Relations

It is deeply worrying to me that Labor says it will be a 'business friendly' party and will 'talk to business'. The worry is that a party contemplating assuming federal office in this country needs to make such statements. One wonders how it would otherwise ever hope to govern.

The difficult feature of Labor’s IR policy is that the policy seeks to come to the rescue of a fading trade union movement when Australia is currently enjoying the lowest unemployment rate, 4.5%, that it has experienced for 32 years. Wages are increasing and even unskilled workers are rejoining the workforce. Wages are growing strongly in resource sectors but are not flowing through to less productive parts of the workforce thereby increasing inflation.

The basic fallacy in the Labor Party’s IR policy centers on the notion that one can legislate in a voluntary employment situation, to guarantee minimum wages and conditions for labour, without affecting the demand for labour. You cannot - at least once the restrictions are known to those doing the employing.

The union movement in Australia now represents only 20% of Australian workers and they are very much concentrated in the public sector. Furthermore, this role will diminish further particularly if the Coialition is reelected. The Australian economy is driven largely by service industries not manufacturing and this trend will continue. Workers in these industries do not see themselves as downtrodden section of the proletariat who will inevitably vote Labor. Most see the union movement as a negative social institution that causes unemployment and pursues a political agenda that they want no part off. The main asset the union movement in Australia possesses is substantial control of the Labor Party.

Until this changes and until union leaders like, Combet and Shorten. are seen not as leading lights but as dinosaurs representing narrow, unrepresentative sectional interests, it will be difficult to get much of sense on IR from the ALP. We do not need a return to trade union-driven AIRC rulings and that’s what the new structures envisaged by Rudd will become if Labor is elected.

Prior to winning Rudd has enormous clout with the unions – back me or we will lose is his battle cry. But after winning - a great transformation will occur - and he will have no clout. The Labor Party longs for power after more than a decade in the political wilderness but the major interest group driving policy, as well as determining ALP funding, is the trade union movement.

This is a structural feature of the Labor Party that limits Labor's options to take Australia forward. To say that the policy is ‘fair to families’ or that they guarantee ‘a fair’s day’s work for a fair day’s pay’ is weasel-word nonsense. It is not a sensible basis for IR policy where 80% of workers are not in trade unions and where flexibility not a heavy-handed revamp of the AIRC is called for.


Update 1: The Business Council of Australia response to Labor's IR policy is here.
Update 2: At both Andrew Leigh's and Joshua Gan's blog my post on the subsidy proposal is represented as a criticism of its distributional implications. I think a careful reading of the text above does not support this though, I agree, I could have expressed myself better. I simply found Rudd's defence of his position comic. If the subsidy is to provide a 'second-best' substitute for a carbon tax to encourage less carbon emissions then, on efficiency grounds, there is no case for 'means testing'. My case against the subsidy is it is an expensive alternative to using fossil fuels. The extra cost would swamp any external costs saved. The best proposal is to levy a carbon tax and let consumers choose their mix of conservation and use of alternative technologies.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Smokeless tobacco users

I received the following letter from a Dave Fullarton who claims to represent smokeless tobacco users in Australia. As far as I can judge his claims are valid and I am happy to give these claims publicity. In my view it is better if you don't use tobacco products in any form. But of the Australian population aged 14+ around 17.4% do smoke. Half of these people will die of tobacco-related diseases and, on average, each person will lose 10 years of their life because of smoking.

My own reading supports Dave's claims that the risks associated with smokeless tobacco products are miniscule compared to smoked tobacco.

Basically smoking tobacco is like using a 'dirty syringe' - it is a dirty way of getting nicotine to a user's brain because it combines the administration of nicotine (a comparatively harmless chemical) with in the inhalation well-known carcinogens such as tobacco-specific nitrosamines. It is far better from a health perspective to use smokeless tobacco or one of the nicotine replacement therapies (e.g. Nicorette) than to smoke cigarettes.

I've been prepariuing a longer study on smokeless tobacco products which I hope to post in outline form soon. In my view these products offer the best way of attacking the health problems associated with smoking - at least for those addicted to nicotine who find they cannot give up.

Copy of letter.

27th April 2007

Dear Harry

As President of the Smokeless Tobacco Action Group (STAG) I wish to introduce our organisation and in doing so communicate our goals. We established STAG in 1998 with the intention of representing US and some Swedish smokeless tobacco (S/T) users in an effort to achieve the following goals:

For tobacco control experts to recognise that western smokeless tobacco is a harm Reduction measure for smokers who cannot quit;

For Australian Governments to reverse legislation banning the import and sale of S/T products; and for S/T products to be taxed fairly as a low risk tobacco product.
As you can imagine, this has been a prolonged and sometimes frustrating endeavour but we are spurred on by the knowledge of the following facts.

There are up to 20,000 smokeless tobacco users in Australia.

Because of the recent customs tariff increase (from $2.33 to $290.74 per kilo) most S/T users are now smoking.

World respected research indicates that moist snuff (US and Swedish) is 98% safer than smoking.


Our first step is to get Customs and Treasury to drop the customs tariff down to a reasonable level taking into consideration (1) the extra water content in moist snuff making it much heavier than smoking tobacco and (2) S/T being 98% safer than smoking tobacco.

Federal Health have agreed with us on most points and have backed us but also suggested that the customs tariff is out of their hands.

6 months ago most politicians had no idea what snuff was and the hardest thing is to get them to read the research material we send them.

Having said that, we do have some Federal and State politicians who have indicated their support. Please let me know if you have any specific queries that I can help you with.

Regards
David Fullarton
President

Update: New Zealand has a similar group with an interesting website here.

Turn on, tune in & suspend your critical faculties

This recent article in Time asks whether Tim Leary was right - psychedelics are good for you?
The study of psychedelics in the '50s and '60s eventually devolved into the drug free-for-all of the '70s. But the new research is careful and promising. Last year two top journals, the Archives of General Psychiatry and the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, published papers showing clear benefits from the use of psychedelics to treat mental illness. Both were small studies, just 27 subjects total. But the Archives paper--whose lead author, Dr. Carlos Zarate Jr., is chief of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Research Unit at NIMH--found "robust and rapid antidepressant effects" that remained for a week after depressed subjects were given ketamine (colloquial name: Special K or usually just k). In the other study, a team led by Dr. Francisco Moreno of the University of Arizona gave psilocybin (the merrymaking chemical in psychedelic mushrooms) to obsessive-compulsive-disorder patients, most of whom later showed "acute reductions in core OCD symptoms." Now researchers at Harvard are studying how Ecstasy might help alleviate anxiety disorders, and the Beckley Foundation, a British trust, has received approval to begin what will be the first human studies with LSD since the 1970s.'
Of course these types of studies have nothing to do with whether these drugs are good for you. These experiments record how certain psychedelics can help resolve certain psychopathologies. One hopes they will not launch another 1970s bought of self-medication. Much the same sorts of reports were made in the 1060s and 1970s when LSD was commonly used as a treatment tool in Australian psychiatric hospitals. I'd be suspicious - recall that Leary himself was a psychologist at one of the most eminent US universities, Harvard, until he was sacked in 1963.

Here's one old clip of Tim Leary teaching us how the 'natural state of the brain is chaos'. What a load of nonsense! You would have to be drug-addled to believe this stuff.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Living rationally under the volcano?

I am interested in Arcidiacono et al (2007) which deals with whether forward-looking ‘rational addiction’ models best explain patterns of smoking among late middle-aged men. The suggestion is that one cannot observe whether decisions by young people to smoke or drink are consistent with rationally thinking through the health consequences of smoking or not.

As a general rule relatively few adverse heath effects occur in the first half of life. Young males who smoke, according to Hodgson (1992), have the same cumulative probability of surviving to age 35 as non-smokers. At age 45 (age 65, age 85 respectively) the corresponding ratio of the cumulative probabilities is 1.02 (1.18, 2.11 respectively) so that a smoker faces a 2% higher cumulative probability of being dead than a non-smoker at age 65, 18% at age 65 and 211% higher at age 85.

This evidence surprises me. The impression I had gained from other studies was that the smoking risks over middle ages were larger than these. For example, Doll et al (2004) examine smoking behavior of 34,439 male British doctors over a 50-year period and found that long-term smokers died 10 years younger than non-smokers – that is possibly consistent with the Hodgson data. But among men born around 1920, Doll et al found that prolonged smoking from early adult life tripled mortality to 43 per cent among smokers compared to 15 per cent among non-smokers between ages 35-69 – this seems much larger than the increased cumulative probabilities cited above. Or am I missing something? Moreover, according to Doll et al cessation at age 50 halved the mortality hazard and cessation at age 30 avoided most of it. There are huge public health gains from getting people to quit cigarettes.

According to the Hodgson claims, the disease consequences of smoking only really bite in the second-half of a male’s life. This means that a young male may choose to smoke rationally with complete account taken of future harmful consequences (without relying on hypotheses of above-average discount rates or impulsiveness levels) simply because, even with moderate discount rates, the cost of a premature death in the second half of their life has low present value.

In fact, examining data on young males won’t tell you if they are rationally choosing to smoke with a reasonable discount rate or behaving irrationally and myopically by enjoying the future now without regard to future consequences. In short you cannot test the ‘rational addiction’ hypothesis of Becker and Murphy (1988) using data on young males.

The Arcidiacono et al (2007) paper itself examines whether late middle-aged males – who do face significant extra mortality risks from smoking (and drinking). Do these males update their consumption behaviour in the face of adverse health shocks? Do they display rational forward-looking behaviour or is their behaviour myopic? They find that older males are rational addicts with moderately high discount rates who fully anticipate the risks associated with heavy smoking and drinking even though smoking, while young, can make sense at moderate discount rates. Myopic models in this setting imply much higher levels of drinking and smoking than do occur. Rational addiction models imply lower levels of these consumptions because individuals account for their future health costs. This is hardly surprising given that the conventional wisdom supposes that older people are more mature and have lower discount rates than adolescents. They will also be observing the health consequences of smoking.

Smoking when young does pose particular neurobiological costs as I have suggested before that are real even if they are not necessarily fatal. Also those who begin smoking or drinking when they are young are more likely to remain addicted to cigarettes or to become alcoholics than those who start later in life. It is thus costly to smoke when you are young even though, according to Arcidiacno (2007) it may be rational to smoke if you don’t mind smelling like a compost heap throughout your life, and don’t worry too much about dying a decent way down the track because you discount the future at a plausible rate.

I think this is an interesting viewpoint. In the past I have argued that young people behave irrationally because they have high discount rates – they are impulsive and so on. The argument constructed by Arcidiacono (2007) suggests that this issue is unlikely to be resolved by appealing to evidence and that observationally it doesn’t matter much because of the life-profile of health risks.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Americans win mid-east popularity contest

The leaders of Israel, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and even Iran, Syria and the terrorist group Al Qaida all want the US to remain engaged in Iraq according to this Guardian report. The reasons for wanting the Americans to stay however often have little, or nothing, to do with US objectives in Iraq.
‘The grand disconnect in the region is between the political sentiments of ordinary people, which are overwhelmingly for an end to occupation, and the political calculations of leaders, which emphasise the benefits of using the Americans and consequently of extending their stay - at least for the time being.

In this grim picture, the Americans appear the least sure and most confused. With unattainable objectives, wobbly plans, changing tactics, shifting alliances and ever-increasing casualties, it is not clear any longer what they want or how they are going to achieve it. By setting themselves up to be manipulated, they give credence to an old Arab saying: the magic has taken over the magician.
I am not sure the Americans are confused or if they just face a difficult situation. The barbarian Shiite religious fanatics in Iraq want nothing to do with a secular, Western-style, democracy based on principals of tolerance and co-existence. The barbarian Sunni thugs also despise any notion of democracy because their leaders are gangsters who resent the loss of tyrannical powers that they had under Saddam.

The Americans have the best of intentions in Iraq, in seeking to install a civilized democracy in Iraq, but it is difficult to deal with thugs and fanatics who find it simple to hold to ransom a civilian population, that has suffered decades of intimidation. It is a standard totalitarian/terrorist gambit. And every time a murderous thug blows up a hundred innocent civilians in a Bhagdad market place, the western media attribute blame to the US for yet another failure in Iraq.

And gullible dills around the world gulp down this contrived, terrorist propaganda effort without reflection.

ANZAC Day 2007

I posted on this special day last year when I went into Melbourne with my son William. We did the same thing today but again, to our joint shame, missed the Dawn Service.

It was close to a perfect autumn day in Melbourne – no wind and a clear sky – a wag on the train going into the city said that the weather had been organized by Kevin Sheedy for the annual Collingwood/Essendon clash.

In the city we started off in Bourke Street and wandered along the main route of the march, following those marching to the Shrine of Remembrance. I did do the things you should do on ANZAC Day - think about the meaning of war and the young men and women who sacrificed their lives. I also thought about my Digger dad who died 32 years ago. It is a day to stop and think.

But, in addition, you can’t help noticing the happiness on the faces of the thousands of people in the streets. It is a celebration of being proudly Australian. The march itself is also visually and aurally impressive. It is a day to reflect and a day to enjoy.

We finished at lunchtime at Flora near Flinder’s Street Station with a couple of great curries.
Update: A quality ANZAC day report is provided by Tim Blair - the pic above came from his commenter #2.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Nikki taught Cho

Nikki Giovanni (more here) was one of Cho Seung-hui's professors and is supposed to be a great black poet.

Below is one of her poems. It might help us understand her now deceased student.

The True Import of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro (For Peppe, Who Will Ultimately Judge Our Efforts) by Nikki Giovanni
Nigger
Can you kill
Can you kill
Can a nigger kill
Can a nigger kill a honkie
Can a nigger kill the Man
Can you kill nigger
Huh? nigger can you kill
Do you know how to draw blood
Can you poison
Can you stab-a-Jew
Can you kill huh? nigger
Can you kill
Can you run a protestant down with your'68 El Dorado
(that's all they're good for anyway)
Can you kill
Can you piss on a blond head
Can you cut it off
Can you kill
A nigger can die
We ain't got to prove we can die
We got to prove we can kill
They sent us to kill
Japan and Africa
We policed europe
Can you kill
Can you kill a white man
Can you kill the niggerin you
Can you make your nigger mind
die
Can you kill your nigger mind
And free your black hands to
strangle
Can you kill
Can a nigger kill
Can you shoot straight and
Fire for good measure
Can you splatter their brains in the street
Can you kill them
Can you lure them to bed to kill them
We kill in Viet Nam
for them
We kill for UN & NATO & SEATO & US
And everywhere for all alphabet but
BLACK
Can we learn to kill WHITE for BLACK
Learn to kill niggers
Learn to be Black men

Irrigation effects on ecosystems in the Murray-Darling Basin

The Murray-Darling Basin provides about 40% of Australia's agricultural output by value. As I posted yesterday irrigators in the MDB face immediate difficulties because water allocations might be set at zero over the current year unless dramatic rains occur over the next 8 weeks.

I now comment on issues of water management in the MDB in relation to ecological concerns - specifically to the promotion of the second major class of outputs in the MDB, biodiversity outputs.

Most of these comments I base on an unpublished article by Terry Hillman, ‘Ecological Requirements: Creating a Working River in the Murray-Darling Basin’ (to be published later this year in L. Crase (ed) ‘Water Policy in Australia: The Impact of Change and Uncertainty’).

I found Hillman's article of considerable value in trying to understand water resource management implications for ecology.

Hillman is concerned with the relationship between ‘working rivers’ – river ecosystems supporting a water resource used by humans. Natural resource managers have a duty of care with respect to such ecosystems if the water resource is to be maintained in a productive condition.

The MDB covers 14% of Australia but because the continent is so dry it is a ‘small’ river system in terms of water flows. Diverting water to agriculture reduces the average supply of water to the river system. Volumes of water flowing to the sea are now less than 30% of those under natural conditions. This has put pressure on the complex estuarine/freshwater ecosystems of the Corrong and the decline of River Redgum sites in the Chowilla area.

Water flows are also naturally highly erratic and unpredictable – left unregulated the Murray-Darling Rivers can be expected to cease flowing several times per century. There is also high seasonal variability in water supplies. This has meant that native flora and fauna in the MDB have developed capacities to adapt (and even to depend on) unpredictable hydrological outcomes. Hillman argues that it is these effects rather than volume effects which do most damage to ecosystems.

Irrigators need water and they particularly need water when it would be naturally scarce namely in the hot dry months. The diversion of water to human use and the smoothing of supplies are drivers for ecological change. Thus floodplains contain a mosaic of biodiversity types that reflect hydraulic heterogeneity which creates distributary channels, backwaters, billabongs, wet meadows and hence a variety of plant and animal communities. Hillman emphasises this perspective by reversing the standard view that the MDB’s primary role is to deliver maximise values for irrigators and to look instead at how well modern river management serves ecosystems.

Seven effects of smoothing the availability of water supplies:

1. Inter-Basin transfers. Not common in the MDB with the exception of water diversions from east-flowing rivers to the Murray and Murrumbidgee. Potentially there are ecological effects of such transfers and damage to the Snowy system has been one well-recognised effect of this arrangement.

2. Physical barriers. Weirs and dams are used to smooth seasonal water availability but the implied barriers prevent native fish and other marine invertebrates from migrating either seasonally or in response to flow conditions. The disruption of natural flow also restricts species dispersal creating significant spaces between population and hence habitat fragmentation. Sediment movements downstream are also inhibited. Reduced longitudinal connectivity limits the capacity of biological systems to adapt to such things as climate change.

3. Depressed summer temperatures. In deeper water bodies, during summer months, a stratification occurs whereby deeper layers get colder and lose oxygen content. When dams release water from low levels these effects can be detected for hundreds of kilometres downstream. This can inhibit or prevent fish and insect breeding. Reaches of the river system where temperatures are depressed problem depend on tributaries to maintain viable populations.

4. Inverted seasonal flow. Ironing out seasonal variability to synchronise water delivery with crop demand is achieved by capturing runoff in winter and early spring and releasing it during the hotter months. This inverts seasonal flows in areas downstream of major storages but upstream of major irrigation diversions. In conjunction with long periods of constant flow, high summer flows suppress the establishment of riparian plants and thereby pose a serious threat to bank stability. These damages are exacerbated by cattle grazing and turbidity.

5. Modified short-term flows. Loss of daily short-term river flow variation reduces a river’s productivity by reducing the zone through which sunlight can penetrate thereby limiting photosynthesis and diversity in this community - the biofilm. Constant water flow also concentrates water action at one stratum creating erosion notches resulting in bank slumping.

6. Removal of a flow class. Smoothing out very high and very low water flows and diverting excess flows into off-river storage for irrigation has important ecological effects. Maintaining stable low flows can create bank notching while diverting ‘excess’ flows limits inundations of floodplains damaging species dependent on such events. Periodic inputs of organic litter from floodplains help to restock the fertility of a river system. Reducing lateral connectivity between the river and its adjacent floodplains reduces the ecological productivity of a river system.

7. Changes in the frequency of significant flow events. A number of ecological processes (fish migration, water bird breeding) are cued by high water flow events and the timing of such events is made less frequent by the current water management regime. The lifespan of some bird species which depend on extreme flow events to induce breeding is now less than the interval between maximum flow events.

The effects of these interventions on biota can be classified into four groups:

1. Fish. There are about 40 species of native fish in the Murray/Darling although in catchments surveyed less than 50% of these species are being sighted. Overall fish numbers are 10-12% of their pre-1750 numbers. The reduction in numbers is due to in-stream barriers, depressed temperatures, seasonal shift of high flows and reduced frequency of high flow events. Some species are cued to migrate and breed by high flow events while others depend on high flow for successful movement. Alien species have impacted on numbers but poor flow management compromises the resilience of native fish populations.

2. Waterbirds. Waterbird rookeries occur throughout the MDB in non-permanent floodplain water bodies. Most have significantly declined over the past 50-100 years. Some wetlands must fill up and then remain full for long periods while others need to be fed from adjacent rivers. If these requirements are not met breeding success will be low. Increased modification of flows will reduce such successes.

3. River Redgum. This is the major floodplain tree along the Murray. It sets deep tap roots that reach into the groundwater and even where this water is quite saline the tree can survive for years. Flowering and seed set however require fresh water to feeding roots and this requires periodic inundation in an appropriate season. Lack of such flooding through stream-flow smoothing or continuous inundation will kill the tree. Reducing the frequency of flooding also allows competition from species such as Black Box.

4. Aquatic plants. These plants live under varying degrees of water cover – from totally submerged to emergent but capable of surviving for periods without water. They provide habitats for fish and invertebrates as well as protection from the erosive effects of river flow. Seasonal inversions and constant flow patterns have a negative effect on the extent and diversity of plant communities – particularly in conjunction with high turbidity.

Consequences for management.

1. One aspect of improving the ecological productivity and resilience of a working river is to reduce the direct human uses of water from the system. Another source of improvements is just to change the way the river system is managed without changing the quantity of water supplied.

2. Fish ladders can improve longitudinal connectivity by improving upstream migration opportunities. Other connectivity failures will not be addressed by such moves.

3. Lateral connectivity can be improved by periodically directing water supplies to floodplain areas.

4. Temperature changes induced by drawing water from the bottom of reservoirs can be dealt with by expensive retrofitting which allows for water to be drawn from other levels.

5. Seasonally inverted flows are damaging particularly when combined with inter-basin transfers such as in the Tumut River. These damages can be offset by fitting regulators to billabongs and larger floodplains to restore their ecological function.

6. Retiring water from human productive use is a last resort and should be achieved by increased efficiency if possible. Such efficiencies might involve agriculture or support for the environment. Allocations to improve the ecology require an investment in achieving good ecological knowledge.

7. Ecological allocations will need to be adaptive, strategic and flexible. Fixed rules won’t work though environmental reserves should be maintained. Management protocols need to direct water saved for ecological purposes to its best uses.

Given the likelihood that water availability will fall and temperatures will rise in the MDB over the next 20 years, due to climate change, the case for the policies suggested by Hillman will presumably intensify.

For the most part they are 'strengthening resiliance' policies although it would be interesting to contemplate policies that specifically address climate change concerns and which account for complementarities with agriculture. For example addressing salinity issues dirtectly promotes both agricultural and biodiversity outcomes and has a direct link with water supply policies.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Gun control: murder & suicide rates

Christine Neil and Andrew Leigh have released a fascinating paper on the effects of the Federal Government’s gun buyback on murder and suicide rates in Australia. Generally the authors are careful to not read too much into their statistical findings but overall conclude that the buyback has reduced the number of murders from between 2–36 per year and the number of suicides from between 126-247 per year. This suggests significant overall effects of gun control on rates of suicide, in particular, but also possibly on the murder rate. This contrasts with the finding of no effect on murder rates and no explicable effects on the suicide rate in an earlier study by Baker and McPhedran here.

Neil and Leigh do not make strong claims in this regard – it is a hard call since homicide rates and suicide rates have been trending down strongly through time anyway. The punch line in the author’s claims is that homicide rates are bounded below at zero so that recent substantial decrements in this rate, since 1996, are very significant since the rate itself cannot fall below the natural barrier of zero.

In Andrew’s blogpost, though not in his article, he calculates the cost of the buyback at $500 million and then aggregates the suicides and deaths together to deduce that a minimum total of 128 lives per year were lost. Taking recent estimates of the value of a human life at $2.5 million he calculates that the buyback paid for itself in two years.

That sounds right if the value of a suicide prevented is taken at $2.5 million. But people presumably kill themselves when they feel their own lives are not worth living. Their incomes may be low, their prospects poor or they may suffer from serious debilitating diseases. In short to follow the ‘optimal suicide’ literature (Hamermesh and Soss) ‘as soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death a man will put an end to his life’ (Shopenhauer, On Suicide). Adopting this viewpoint, preventing a suicide may not increase society’s wealth – it may in fact decrease it if you respect individual preferences. Presumably this is the idea behind the case for voluntary euthanasia.

Even if you dislike the macabre notion of attaching a zero welfare gain to preventing someone from killing themselves I am unsure that preventing people from killing themselves with a gun substantially reduces the suicide rate. Are not things like sleeping pills and carbon monoxide relatively painless substitute ways of killing yourself? If this is so then gun-driven suicides may be replaced with other types of suicides.

In either case, the cost-benefit case as presented becomes weaker. Including only the murders and maintaining a zero discount rate the results would suggest a net gain from the gun control measure if account is made of murders saved over 100 hundred rather than 2 years if the lower bound on effects is taken.

Another puzzling point that Neil and Leigh do not deal with is that suicide rates apparently declined for different forms of suicide - not just those involving guns. Thus the decline in the suicide rate might be hard to attribute to gun control.

Lest I be misunderstood I am in no way arguing that the ‘gun buyback’ was not good policy. This is only a qualification on what seems to me a very interesting study. I have lived in a society where there was widespread gun availability – Thailand – and I think that the fears that are a consequence of widespread gun ownership outweigh any benefits. The murder rate in rural Thailand while I lived there in the 1980s was massive and much of it was associated with gun use.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

A stupid endorsement of harm-minimization

Dr Alex Wodak made a statement to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services, as part of its inquiry into 'The impact of illicit drug use on families'. Wodak is Australia’s leading protagonist for increasing the role of harm minimization in illicit drug management policy. In my view he is being evasive in this statement and offering testimony to the Committee that is misleading in its implications and which would bring about disasterous policy outcomes for Australia.

We don’t want a community where large numbers of people use heroin, cocaine or amphetamines even if that usage can be made safe in very restricted terms. These drugs have damaging effects on people’s brains and generate many social evils. Harm reductionist defeatism won't help us deal with the drug problem and vthat is what Wodak's position amounts to.

Almost every part of Wodak’s statement I disagree with emphatically as did the Chair of the Committee Senator Bronwyn Bishop – she has been strongly criticized by those in the drug law reform movement for her rudeness. If I had been there I must admit that this type of nonsense would have got me annoyed too. I quote Wodak’s statement at length, bold bits that interest me and comment briefly on these bits as they occur. The complete unedited transcript of this part of the proceedings is here.

Wodak: ‘Harm reduction, a widely and possibly often willfully misunderstood term, is a simple concept. It means that we focus primarily on reducing the adverse consequences of drugs, such as deaths, disease, crime and corruption. The alternative to harm reduction is use reduction, as in the war against drugs. In use reduction, we focus primarily on reducing drug consumption, whatever the impact on deaths, disease, crime and corruption. The most important point about harm reduction is that the scientific debate about harm reduction is now over. Harm reduction is recognized widely to be effective, safe and cost effective’.

Response

Harm-minimization is not widely misunderstood. It means, as Wodak says, minimizing the costs of drug use. Legalizing drugs would reduce their prices while limiting the user costs of illicit drug use reduce non pecuniary costs of use. If you believe in the law of demand – that use depends negatively on price and other user costs – then demand would rise and a larger population would use drugs at a lower average level of risk. It is by no means clear that overall social damages would fall.

Use reduction as defined by Wodak is a straw man - note the use of the word 'whatever'. It is not practiced in pure form in any Western society. Huge amounts are spent trying to limit the availability of illegal drugs and huge amounts are spent dealing with the psychiatric and medical problems of the nitwits who use drugs.

There is no agreement on the value of harm-minimization as Wodak terms his policies. The scientific debate is not over. It is not clear at all that social damages would fall. The heroin drought in Australia of 2000 whereby interdictions substantially cut the supply of heroin and permanently reduced usage, overdose deaths and crime shows that Wodak is wrong. The long-term trends of decreased heroin and cannabis use show he is wrong. The attempts to reduce drug use by supply-side interdictions are proving successful.

Wodak: ‘Five Labor and three coalition governments, in Tasmania, Queensland and the Northern Territory, adopted harm minimization as our official national drug policy in April 1985. Every state and every territory government since then, whatever its political hue, has adopted and implemented harm minimization. The current federal government, despite its public stance, sensibly but unfortunately discreetly, continues harm reduction in several forms, including a $10 million a year enhancement of state-territory needle syringe programs, generous funding to support HIV prevention among injecting drug users in Asia, vigorously carrying the torch for harm reduction in debates within the UN system and by diverting drug-using offenders from the criminal justice to the drug treatment system. Needle syringe programs in Australia from 1988 to 2000, according to a Commonwealth department of health commissioned study, by 2000 prevented 25,000 HIV infections and saved up to $7.7 billion, while by 2010 needle syringe programs will prevent 4½ thousand deaths from AIDS. If this committee wants to scrap harm reduction in this country, you will have to take personal responsibility for the HIV epidemic that Australia then has to have’.

Response.

This is pure irresponsible political posturing. The Federal Government is, as Wodak notes, pursuing very much a harm-minimization-cum-supply-cum-suppression policy and it is a policy that makes much more sense than Wodak’s views. Why the word 'unfortunately' here? Is Wodak searching for a grizzle? It seems that what Wodak wants are the 'carrots' that support drug use without the 'stick' that seeks to limit it. Maybe the Government is rather discreet about this – it would not seek to give the public impression that it endorses dangerous illicit drug use and it is actively seeking to prevent illicit drug use. But it is spending a huge amount on treatment and other services for the druggie nitwits.

Who is suggesting scrapping needle syringe programs? Answer – nobody.

Wodak: 'There is growing realization that relying on drug law enforcement, Customs, police, courts and prisons to control illicit drugs in the last several decades has not worked, is not working and can never work. In the decades of global drug prohibition, drug production and consumption has soared around world. It is now a global $322 billion a year industry, of which 26 to 58 per cent may be profit. Drug problems have got worse and worse over the decades. Governments have spent more and more taxpayers’ money. This is a typically high-taxing, big government approach. Many fiscal conservatives, such as the Nobel prize winning economist Professor Milton Friedman, condemn these futile attempts to arrest and imprison our way out of our drug problems'.

Response

Just a series of false claims. The war on drugs is being successfully prosecuted in Australia and internationally. The difficulty is that Wodak does not seriously entertain the obvious counterfactual. What would usage levels be if drugs were legalized and how would overall levels of community harm be affected?

The heroin drought, recent experience in Australia and recent international experience (in particular the vast UN data bases) shows the War on Drugs is gradually winning. How would drug use problems improve if drug use was legalized and even greater attempts were made than at present to secure the health and safety of the nitwits who use illicit drugs?

Even Friedman acknowledges that the key difficulty with his reform proposals is that usage levels will rise. He is writing of a society where the main response to illicit drug use is imprisonment. Who is suggesting that for Australia?

Who says that drug abusers must be imprisoned? Most in Australia initially receive the option of treatment at public expense.

Wodak: What we have to do is redefine drugs as primarily a health and social issue, with funding for health and social interventions raised to the level enjoyed by drug law enforcement. Criticism of harm reduction and drug law reform may be clever politics in the short term, but the war against drugs has been an expensive way of making a bad problem worse. If drugs are treated primarily as a public health problem, as suggested recently by Justice Don Stewart, deaths, disease, crime and corruption will fall, and I expect that drug consumption will also fall once the huge profits of the industry are removed. In the current system, criminals and corrupt police control the drug market. Regulating this market mainly using public health measures is the least worst way of responding to these drugs’.

Response

The short-termism here is all Wodak's – not any Western government’s. The effect of legalizing drugs will be to reduce social costs in the very short-term. But a potentially huge new pool of users will almost certainly be generated whereas the current trend is for reduced numbers of users.

This is the myopia of a non-reflective doctor. Treat the problem that stands in front of you – not the reason for its existence. Wodak I am sure is a sound doctor but should stick to medicine and leave public policy to those who can take a broader view. Wodak wants what is best for the heath of his current cohort of patients. The policies he suggests will probably yield that outcome but at the expense of creating a larger drug-using pool and greater social damage.

Wodak is playing a cynical game. The Howard Government is pursuing harm minimisation as Wodak would want it but also pursues drug use suppression. Harms will be minimised if the minimum number of people use. But treating illicit drug users as misguided citizens who need to have every aspect of their behaviour mollycoddled rather than as the pimple-faced, sick nitwits that they are is wrong. So too is any suggestion that they should face no prohibitions but yet gain access to what is potentially a lifetime of support at community expense. The latter is foolish policy.

Bronwyn B got annoyed during Wodak's testimony, and quite justifiably. As I say, I would have got annoyed too.

Ice plan

The Federal Government has announced a $150 million plan to tackle the ice/amphetamine problem. About $60 million will be spent strengthening law inforcement abilities to tackle the supply-side and $80 million to treat the 73,000 nitwits who habitually take these destructive drugs.

Australian use of amphetamines is large relative to other countries but has been large for quite a while - its growing very slowly.

The Tough on Drugs policy is working although slowly. Use of serious drugs like heroin has diminished since 2000 and school kids are increasingly finding the idea of cannabis (and the duh, 'its cool' culture) unattractive. Good.


Thanks Lee

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Exxon-Mobil: economic insights from big oil

An article on the firm greenies love-to-hate, Exxon-Mobil, that is in the latest Fortune particularly interested me. In terms of share-market capitalization and profits this is the largest Fortune 500 firm and one of the world’s biggest - profits in 2006 were the largest in US history at $39-5 billion*. Exxon’s business is mainly oil and gas and that is exactly where it sees its future too. Unlike other oil majors it is uninterested in alternative energy supplies arguing that they are either uneconomic (solar, ethanol) or economic though out of its field of expertise (hydroelectric, biogas).

Exxon is an immense business with very high rates of return on capital relative to the other oil majors. In business terms it has managed to get things right. If it did seek to change its bottom line, by changing its areas of specialisation, it would need to be involved in very large new projects. But it just doesn’t envisage these arising in the energy area because it sees oil, gas and coal as the dominant fuels through to the end of the twenty-first century – other fuels and technologies will supply less than 30%.

Exxon admits it doesn’t have a clue what future oil prices will be but fears one particular long-tailed event - a collapse in oil prices. I have posted before on this possibility. Economists like Morris Adelman (of Genie out of the Bottle: World Oil Since 1970 fame) argued that price rises for supply-side reasons happened repeatedly over the 20th century only to be invariably followed by price collapses as demand fell with a lag in response to the increased prices and as new oil supplies were eventually brought on stream**. The current oil price hike is due to massive increased demand from China and India. But eventually these demands will be hit by persistently higher prices and as new and substitute supplies come on stream. These processes occur with long and variable lags – variable now because the global economic structure has changed and reactions to oil price increases will be tempered by feverish economic growth.

If oil prices slumped to say $25US per barrel none of the alternative energy technologies envisaged by the greenies would look remotely economic. If oil prices rocketed to very high levels then, although Exxon would face competition from new fuels, damage would be limited by the increased value of existing oil sales. Hence Exxon regards the prospect of low oil prices as the more severe business risk and emphasizes the role of oil and gas in its future.

By the way, Exxon is now acknowledging that climate change is a reality and that a policy response is required – it has stopped funding some of the denialist groups it did support and now lists, among the climate change groups it supports, our own ABARE. Exxon's own internal policy response to warming is to emphasise fields where it does have expertise – reducing CO2 emissions from oil and gas, designing more fuel efficient cars and so on.

* This is one helluva big firm. Market capitalisation is $426 million or 3X that of BHP-Billiton Australia's mining giant.

** I am a Adelman fan having listened to him speak in the 1980s. He is about as knowledgeable as anyone alive on world oil markets and has a passionate writing style. Currently in his 80s he is an Emeritus Professor at MIT. But he might finally be getting it wrong. As late as 2004 he was denying the existence of a world oil supply problem.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Irrigators must experience tough love

This is stunning news. Irrigators in the Murray-Darling Basin may be denied water allocations for the first time throwing into doubt up to $10 billion worth of agricultural production. This will push up food prices and reduce Australia’s GDP growth below 3%. According to PM Howard only town and urban water supplies in the MBD will be guaranteed this year unless drought-breaking rains occur in the next 6-8 weeks along the river system. The Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting only a 50% chance of above average rainfall over the coming winter.

The Federal Government is now spending $17 million per week assisting 17,500 farmers – an 80% increase over last years. It has also committed to a $10 billion national water reform package of which nearly $7 billion is devoted to an inept attempt to provide a technological solution to the underlying problem of excessive water allocations. The main advantage of the plan will be to give the Commonwealth the power to address water resource issues as a national problem.

Politically the fear is than, in an election year, the incumbent government will attempt to address concerns with more handouts that fail to address underlying problems. Likewise, the attempt by Julia Gillard and Anthony Albanese to link the current drought with global warming is opportunism that does not address real issues of concern.

Water allocations in the Murray-Darling Basin must be decisively reduced and agricultural activities such as dairying, viticulture and orcharding, that require smoothed delivery of water in an environment where drought is intrinsic, should not be dealt with as special cases that call for exemptions from general restrictions. Raising dairy cattle in semi-arid regions where there is total dependence on erratic irrigated water supplies is nonsense.

Tough love is needed. If assistance is to be given to farmers it must direct them to adjust permanently to environmental and economic realities – not just to provide incentives to hang on and perpetuate what everyone in the community (including the farmers themselves) know is an underlying problem.

Rising food prices will hurt consumers short-term but will offer advantages to efficient producers who are not reliant on overstretched irrigation supplies. They will help resolve chronic issues of excess capacity in areas such as viticulture. They also provide the right types of incentives for farmers to think intelligently about their agricultural product mixes and their incentives to invest in improved irrigation efficiencies.

The drought is a disaster for households depending on incomes maintained by overallocated water supplies. This disaster can and should be addressed with government aid but aid that offer long-term solutions to long-term water supply issues not temporary solutions that reflect a short-term need to vote buy.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Long-term trends in commodity prices

This article in the Reserve Bank Bulletin looks at recent trends in commodity prices in a longer-term perspective – in the main from about 1906.

Commodity prices have declined over the last century by about one half compared to a decline in the price of manufactured goods of about one-quarter. Overall commodity prices trended down until about 2001 when they subsequently rose sharply – though still remaining well below their levels of a century ago. China’s industrialisation has played a unique role by virtue of its size – in earlier periods the rapid growth of Japan and Germany was accompanied by price falls.

In addition earlier commodity price booms led to a much bigger supply response than the current boom. The demand-driven recent oil price surge has likewise not moderated real oil prices which now stand at historical peaks. However there has been an investment boom in commodity sectors which should eventually produce a supply response. Demand however is growing strongly and manufactured good prices are being kept in check. Thus high real prices could remain for quite a while.

Gondwana Link


One of my favourite places to visit in Australia is the southwest corner of the country. It has a fantastic variety of rare and interesting avifauna and some of the best natural wildflower displays I have seen. The area around Albany and particularly Two Peoples Bay interest me but the whole south west is a great place to visit.

Gondwana Link is an ambitious ecological program in southwest Western Australia that seeks to protect, manage and restore bushland in a 1000 kilometre long pathway, from the wet forests of the Australia's south west corner to the woodlands and mallee bordering the Nullarbor Plain. As part of this program Bush Heritage, Greening Australia and The Nature Conservancy have been raising funds, buying strategic properties, managing the bushland and re-vegetating large areas of cleared land. The idea is to increase ecological resilience to such events as climate change by providing a connected corridor of habitat that permits animal and plant relocations.

South-western Western Australia (SWWA) is (following the classification of Norman Myers) Australia’s single biodiversity hotspot. To qualify as a hotspot, a region must meet two criteria: it must contain at least 1,500 species of vascular plants (> 0.5% of the world’s total) as endemics, and it has to have lost at least 70% of its original habitat. In fact this area contains more than 10,000 plant and animal species – many of them endemic to this region. A great deal of native vegetation has been lost to land clearing and even fertile agricultural land is being lost to salinity. The promise is that improved conservation of landscapes will help conserve species and improve agricultural productivity.

The project itself commenced in 2002 and when complete will link 146,000 square kilometres of reconnected and restored land. Yesterday the Australian Government announced the 946 hectare Monjebup Creek Reserve would join the Peniup, Nowanup, Chereninup Creek and Yarrabee Westfarmers Reserves as part of the Gondwana Link project.

The southwest region as a whole is vulnerable to climate change. It is under significant stress due to poor land management. Land clearing has created salinity problems and impacted on the region’s biodiversity. These stresses have increased the region’s sensitivity to further climate–related changes: See Allen Consulting Group (2005).

Furthermore, SWWA has already experienced climate changes. This region has seen a 10-20 per cent decrease in its winter rainfall over the last 30 years and in tandem with this, temperatures have also increased substantially over the last half century.

Studies by the Indian Ocean Climate Initiative (IOCI) have indicated that the decrease in rainfall has been accompanied, and been associated with a change in the large scale global atmospheric circulation, which is consistent with changes projected by global climate models incorporating anthropogenic forcing. There is insufficient evidence to indicate that the enhanced greenhouse effect alone is responsible for the shift in rainfall levels and temperature patterns. Most likely, the climate changes are a function of both natural variability and anthropogenic change. Nevertheless, these climate pressures remain, and science suggests that they are likely to continue into the future as on overlay on ‘natural’ occurrences.

In work that I am now undertaking I will look at the implications of the Gondwana Link project in terms of its capacity for assisting in dealing with climate change. If the main relocation consequences of global warming are to encourage species south to cooler climates then species in the northern extremity of the project area will head south or south east. One difficulty is that numerous endangered species in this zone lie on its southern extremity and they cannot relocate into the ocean. For example, heathland systems in this area exhibit high levels of biodiversity and are already under pressure from habitat fragmentation and salinity. They are trapped from further southward migration as temperatures warm. Of course connecting up areas of disjoint native habitat by means of corridors will improve environmental resilience generally but this latter concern is a real one.

Some useful links: Official website; Bush Heritage News and here; The Nature Consultancy and Greening Australia. The Western Australian Greenhouse Strategy.

It is worth noting that Bush Heritage is also developing a Kosciuszko-to-coast (K2C) project in Southern NSW that will connect the Australian Alps with remnant bushland on the coastal ranges to the east. Scottsdale Reserve has already been purchased by Bush Heritage. It covers 1328 hectares of the Murrumbidgee River valley 12 kilometres north of Bredbo in New South Wales, a 45-minute drive south of Canberra. It rises in elevation from a large fertile grassy valley with rich alluvial soils, through dry sclerophyll woodlands and onto a grassy woodland plateau. This plateau drops steeply into the Murrumbidgee River itself.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

University of Melbourne model

I posted on the Melbourne Model being pursued by the University of Melbourne last year. The idea is to have undergraduate generalist degrees followed by full fee postgraduate degrees along the lines of the US liberal arts model. Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis already seems to be getting nervous about the implications of the plan for enrolments there next year. The fraction of full-fee paying students will increase from 25% to 33% and, even apart from this, the costs of gaining a degree will increase because of the longer times taken to gain qualifications. If one believes in the 'law of demand' the moves by Melbourne will reduce numbers seeking to utilise its programs.

Essentially options for existing students are restricted – they can already do ‘double degree combos’ if they wish – and, even apart from this, programs will become more expensive in time and aggregate tuition charges. Other universities around Australia eagerly look towards able students heading in their direction rather than to Melbourne. Of course I hope that happens.

Melbourne will offer a handful of top school achievers reasonably lucrative scholarships. Sixty students who achieve an ENTER score of 99.9 will get their undergraduate degree course HECS-free along with cash incentives of $5000 a year, or $10,000 for interstate students. Students who achieve an ENTER of 98 or higher will receive a one-off $2500 payment to help offset costs.

One wonders if these sorts of measures will have much effect. My guess is that most of these top ENTER students, at least in Victoria, would already have intended to enroll at Melbourne.

Perhaps it will prevent them from shifting elsewhere. If not the only effect of the scholarships will be to redistribute resources to, in the main, the well-off private-school-trained students who get the bulk of the top ENTER scores. It would then have almost no efficiency effects and would be distributionally regressive.

Professor Davis says “We're trying to establish a culture that says (we would like) the very best students to aspire to come to Melbourne and we've got to make it possible for them to get here.”
That’s fine if additional good students are brought to Melbourne and if education objectives are seen to be a zero sum game where one university sets out to take all. Its not my view of how things should operate.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Of Substance

One of the better publications I receive on licit and illicit drug consumption in Australia is Of Substance.

This is published by the Australian National Council on Drugs and is available in printed version or online free of charge (at www.ofsubstance.org.au) coutesy of the Department of Health and Aging. The April 2007 issue has just come out. It contains interesting articles. I’ll pick 3 examples.

An excellent article by Don Weatherburn on alcohol and indigenous Australians. The general argument supports Noel Pearson’s view that restricting the availability of alcohol and other drugs is better than spending a lot on treatment of abuse problems. Drug and alcohol problems, rather than social disadvantage, drive a great deal of indigenous problems with the criminal justice system. Education and employment are important but so too are the direct effects of drug and alcohol abuse.

The National Drug Research Group also points out that alcohol kills an indigenous Australian every 38 hours – mostly due to cirrhosis or suicide. The average age of their death is 35.

I also liked the review of the Australian Secondary Students’ Alcohol and Drug Survey for which I cannot find a weblink. More school kids aged 12-17 are alcohol abstinent since 1999 (29% in 2005 compared to 35% then) but the long-term trend in ‘problem drinking’ (more than 7 drinks in the past week in a single session for males) is discouraging (6% in 1984, 9% in 2005). The really good news is the massive decline in smoking. Current smokers were 19% of the total in 1999 and only 9% in 2005 while committed (addicted) smokers fell from 9% to 6% today. The fraction that used cannabis in the month before the survey halved over this same period from 14% to 7%. There are now more cannabis than tobacco users in our high schools.

Soak the rent-seeking gambling firms

The decision of the Victorian Government to levy an extra $1300 charge on poker machines to help fund health care is an interesting one. It takes the levy per machine to $4333 which, Tattersall’s chief executive Dick McIlwain laments, could ‘prevent further investment in the industry’ (AFR today, subscription only).

The extra-normal profits the gambling firms make (Tattersalls, Tabcorp and PBL) are due to the monopoly privileges they enjoy in owning gambling capital. These monopoly privileges are awarded by the State government.

Victoria’s gambling licences are due to be renewed in 2012 and the bidding firms will make smaller bids for licence renewal as a consequence of these higher tax levies. They will also reduce their bids as a consequence of the apparent regulatory risk they encounter in operating in a political and community environment that is basically hostile to their continued existence – in 1999 the levy was set at $333 per machine then in April 2005 the Government raised the levy from $1533 to $3033. Overall, the levy has trebled in 2 years. It is still, however, only a tiny fraction (about 4%) of revenue yielded per machine:
Tattersalls earns an average of $257 per machine per day, roughly $93,800 a year, while Tabcorp earns $263 per machine per day, about $96,000 a year.

The increased charges are a good move. Victoria doesn’t want increased investment by this industry – indeed we would be better-off with a smaller, more regulated industry given the scale of the social disaster inflicted by the introduction of pokies. While Mr Bracks likes to forget it, around 87% of Victorians favour slashing poker machine numbers. The public income generated from pokies is based on a regressive tax built on human misery. We could also do without the post-politics careers for ex-Labor pollies funded by big gambling. We would also be better-off raising this revenue as a congestion tax levied on Melbourne’s traffic.

The large gambling firms take no risks and not developing innovative or new products. They deserve at best a competitive return on assets employed. Governments should decide on the basis of community values to optimise the scale of the delivery of gambling products – this will presumably be lower than the scale that would maximise delivery of monopoly rents. It should then tax all of these rents away to ensure at most a competitive return on capital advanced.

The recent tax hikes should not leave these parasitic businesses under any illusion about the propensity of future governments to increase tax rates to capture any increased rents.

Monday, April 16, 2007

China addresses climate change

This is good news. China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, announced that his country was prepared negotiate on a new agreement limiting global warming emissions, to replace the Kyoto Protocol after 2012. China is not subject to emissions targets but will soon become the largest greenhouse gas emitter - China's cooperation is essential if global emissions are to be brought under control.

Research and political activity in China suggest it may be beginning to grasp that climate change poses a danger to itself. There is an extensive research effort going on in China that addresses climate change concerns.

A Reuters report suggests that China aims to reduce by 40% its greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of output by 2020 with an 80% cut by 2050. This is a 'no-regrets' oriented conservation option that makes sense for a country with low per capita energy consumption but low energy conservation efficiencies. China will reject strict caps for decades - this makes sense given that increasing per capita energy consumption is a development policy objective.

China's First National Climate Change Assessment that is about to be published in revised form notes the extreme vulnerability of China to climate change. This reflects its highly fragile environment, long coast-lines and current low per capita energy consumption.

The Chinese PM's announcement two days ago puts further pressure on countries like the US (and Australia) to cap emissions.

Don't legalise cannabis 3

Even more than binge drinking, teenage cannabis use causes poor mental health and increases the likelihood of progression to more dangerous drugs.
Researcher George Patton, who conducted the study for Melbourne University's Centre for Adolescent Heath, said that while both alcohol and cannabis carried health risks, the overwhelming evidence was that cannabis was 'the drug for life's future losers'.

This is apart from the fact that it causes lung cancer and might send you mad.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

So it goes: Kurt Vonnegut 1922-2007

A photo montage to a wonderful human being.

Update: A tribute by Anglophile.

Indigenous smoking

Australia’s aboriginals smoke at more than double the rate of non-indigenous Australians. They will accordingly suffer at least twice the level of heath damages from smoking. They are also very poorly informed of the heath consequences of smoking.

Those interested in aboriginal health often focus on issues of alcohol consumption and poor diet that produce the atrocious health outcomes of aboriginals. But in terms of heath damage nothing comes close to rivaling the damaging effects of cigarette smoking. It is not something that should be swept under the carpet - that a male aboriginal born in 2001 will die 17 years earlier than a non-indigenous male born in the same year is strongly linked to high rates of cigarette smoking.
In 1995, about 51% of indigenous adults smoked (ABS (1999)). Ten years later, the proportion of the indigenous population who smoke is unchanged, while the proportion in the non-indigenous population is 17 per cent (ABS (2006)). Higher rates of smoking are associated with lower socio-economic status, unemployment and early school leaving. These are characteristics of much of the indigenous population. Dispossession and dislocation are thought to contribute to the low self-esteem which is also associated with smoking. Members of the ‘stolen generations’
are more likely to smoke than other Indigenous Australians (Baker et al. (2006)).

Indigenous Australians are ill-informed of the dangers of smoking: a 1994 survey showed that one third thought it was safe to smoke up to one pack of cigarettes a day (ABS (1996)). While the level of understanding is likely to have increased since that survey, many people were unaware, for example, of the link between smoking and diabetes complications in 2004. There is little awareness of the dangers of passive smoking and of smoking while pregnant (NACCHO (2004)).
References

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (1996). National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey 1994: Health of Indigenous Australians. Canberra.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2006) Tobacco Smoking in Australia: A Snapshot, 2004-05. Canberra.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (1999). National Health Survey: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Results, Australia, 1995, Canberra.

National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, (2004). Tobacco Time For Action: National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Tobacco Control Project.

Women & cigarette smoking

Lee Smith sent me a useful link confirming that women are more susceptible to the adverse health effects of smoking than men. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has risen among women killing 1900 in Australia in 1993 and 2300 in 2003 – you’ve come a long way baby. This compares to a drop from 4000 to 3200 deaths among men. About 60% of COPD deaths are attributed to smoking.

I have been accumulating a data file on young women and smoking. There are a few interesting facts that I think many are unaware of.
To summarise: Young women have a higher incidence of smoking than young men perhaps because they are more easily addicted to nicotine than young men and use smoking as a technique for weight control. But young women are also subject to increased health risks from smoking.

In more detail.

Among Australian 14-19 year olds, more women smoke (11.9%) than men (9.5%). It seems that females are more susceptible to the addictive character of nicotine. A study of 12-13 year olds showed that the median number of days from initial tobacco use to symptoms of dependence was 21 days for girls, and 183 days for boys (DiFranza et al (2002)).

Studies of adolescents aged 12-17 also find that females often believe that smoking controls weight (Bowles et al. (2001)). Moreover, girls who report trying diets were more likely to take up smoking (Austin et al (2001)). 12-15 year old girls who reported valuing thinness in a Massachusetts study were nearly five times as likely as those who did not value it to take up smoking in the following four years (Honjo et al. (2003)).

It is certainly true that smoking cessation is associated with weight gain. Quit programs typically report an expected weight gain of 2-3 kilograms, but studies report average gains of about 5kg, and unbiased estimates of nearly 10kg, after taking in to consideration the characteristics of successful quitters (Eisenberg & Quinn (2006)). In one study, subjects following a diet to reduce weight gain after quitting were more likely to relapse (Hall et al (1992)).

Young women may not be aware that they have a greater risk of contracting lung cancer than men who smoke the same amount. Studies show that, even taking into consideration body weight, women are more susceptible to tobacco carcinogens (Zhang et al (1996)).
For young women even more than men - don't smoke!

References

Austin, S. B. & Gortmaker, (2001). Dieting and smoking initiation in early adolescent girls and boys: A prospective study. American Journal of Public Health, 91, 446-450

Baker A; Ivers RG; Bowman J; Butler T; Kay-Lambkin FJ; Wye P; Walsh RA; Pulver LJ; Richmond R; Belcher J; Wilhelm K & Wodak A. (2006) Where there's smoke, there's fire: high prevalence of smoking among some subpopulations and recommendations for intervention. Drug and Alcohol Review, 25, 1, 85-96.

Bowles, S., & Johnson, P. (2001). Gender, weight concerns, and adolescent smoking. Journal of Addictive Diseases. 20, 2, 5-14.

DiFranza JR, Savageau JA, Rigotti NA, Fletcher K, Ockene1 JK , McNeill AD, M Coleman M & C Wood, (2002) Development of symptoms of tobacco dependence in youths: 30 month follow up data from the DANDY study. Tobacco Control. 11, 228 –235.

Eisenberg, D. & Quinn B.C. (2006) Estimating the Effect of Smoking Cessation on Weight Gain: An Instrumental Variable Approach. Health Services Research 41, 6.

Gilliland, F.D., Berhane, K., McConnell, R., Gauderman, W.J., Vora, H., Rappaport, E.B., Avol, E. and J.M. Peters (2000) Maternal smoking during pregnancy, environmental tobacco smoke exposure and childhood lung function. Thorax 55, 271-276

Hall, S.M., Tunstall, C.D., Vila K.L., & J Duffy. (1992), Weight gain prevention and smoking cessation: cautionary findings, American Journal of Public Health, 82, 6, 799-803.

Honjo, K. & Siegel, M. (2003) Perceived importance of being thin and smoking initiation among young girls. Tobacco Control 12, 289-295.

Zang EA, Wynder EL. (1997) Differences in lung cancer risk between men and women: examination of the evidence. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 21, 88, 3-4, 183-92.


Saturday, April 14, 2007

Don't admit immigrants with HIV to Australia

John Howard reiterated Government policy when he said that those with HIV should not be admitted as migrants to Australia.

Under Australia's existing immigration arrangements, all people over the age of 15 who apply for permanent residence are tested for HIV. People under 15 are tested if either of their parents is HIV-positive, if they are an applicant for an adoption or child visa or an unaccompanied humanitarian visa, or if there are clinical indications or a history of possible infection. Temporary visa applicants are screened for HIV if they are seeking to work as a doctor, dentist or nurse.

Permanent visa applicants with a medical condition are automatically knocked back if the lifetime cost of their treatment exceeds $21,000.

The Immigration Department estimates the lifetime cost of an HIV-positive person is $240,000 to $250,000. In 2005-06, HIV-positive people accounted for 48% of requests for health waivers in cases where lifetime medical costs exceeded $200,000.

So Australia is being used by non-resident HIV sufferers who gain a health waver as a way of paying for the medical costs of their HIV infection. Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations spokesman Don Baxter said people with HIV ‘contribute enormously to Australia's benefit’. They would want to be contributing a lot given the infection risks they pose in the Australian community and the huge health costs they pose on us.

Australia’s HIV infection rate has soared since 1998. It would be negligent of any government to admit to Australia immigrants it knew was suffering from HIV. Do not admit them and do not give health waivers to those who come here with HIV.

One claim cited in the Arab Times is that Australia might be guilty of discrimination. It is discrimination but what a great idea discrimination in this instance. Australian citizens with HIV should receive normal health assistance. Those with HIV who live elsewhere should continue to live elsewhere. Australians who want to live with their HIV-infected partner in Australia should post a non-refundable $245,000 bond with the Commonwealth Government covering their partner’s heath costs attributable to HIV/AIDS. They should also be liable for any damage costs incurred by the partner as a consequence of spreading the HIV virus.

The claim that immigrants provide only a small component of HIV cases in Australia is not an argument for admitting those who are affected by HIV. Its an argument shoewing that the costs of excluding those with a serious disease that works against our national interest HIV is a small one to those excluded.

How to beat your wife - a user guide

Examining the way men treat women in the Middle East is almost a clich̩d popular sport. Other than football I love sport. So I introduce a film clip designed mainly for my male readers Рthough it might help my female viewers understand Рexplaining how to beat up your wife if she steps out of line.

This video shows that wife-beating is a form of ‘therapy’. A beating is ‘not an assault but discipline’. Understanding this it is difficult to dispute the right of a husband to give his spouse a decent beating- after all he is merely correcting a mistake and he does have the authority:

Quote: Sura 4:34 – ‘Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other...’.

This might sometimes be difficult to explain to some recalcitrant, little women. I mean ha, ha, ha if I told my wife that she was the ‘inferior’ and subject to my discipline, ha ha ha, she might convulse with laughter or target me with a saucepan. Is there a video explaining how to beat someone rolling on the floor with laughter! Can I throw the saucepan back?

The pain, embarrassment, divorce and legal costs might end up being mainly mine!

The female interviewer in the above-mentioned video points out to the gentleman justifying the right-to-beat logic (again, on the grounds that ‘Allah says that man has the best judgement’) that ‘women sometimes have better judgement’.

I like her spunk though she obviously needs to be corrected.

The other woman interviewing this gentleman had conducted a survey around the Middle East and came up with the hypothesis of the ‘culture of the electric cable’ that was valid for many civilisation centres - Palestine, Jordon, Kuwait, Egypt and Syria. The interesting multicultural hypothesis: Even men who didn’t know each other in these different centres all mystically gravitate to the practise of beating their wives with heavy electric cables.

Would it help these folks if they thought of Israel as a female country?

The gentleman in the video points out that only ‘light beatings’ (don’t leave a mark, don’t break bones, don’t kill) are permitted so the spunky female interviewer asks – ‘what is a light beating’ with an electric cable? The gentleman evades this one but does point out ‘With some women nothing helps except beatings… Let’s face it, women were created from a crooked rib’. Plausible, I have read it somewhere else I am sure.

In a follow-up video another gentleman asserts that beating wives is part of religious law – on how to ‘manage’ a wife ‘like an electric appliance’. The natural and scientific way of looking at marital relationships! I guess the electric appliance idea justifies use of an electric cable. That’ll teach ‘em.

If correct wife-beating practises could be spread internationally a cultural innovation would improve discipline among mothers and daughters on the basis of values that counteract Western decadence. Instead of treating child and wife-bashing as a social problem we could use the mother-of-all-electric-cord-mercies to promote misogyny as a social ideal.

Taliban values – primitive but devout - would direct us to a more civilised future! Death to Israel! Death to America! Flay that butt without killing her or breaking her skin.

And death to women who make us lose our namus.

As a postscript note from Feministing:
An Internet poll conducted by a local newspaper showed that 42% of married Saudi men say they do not have sexual problems. Meanwhile, 93% of married women surveyed said they were experiencing sexual problems.

Where’s the electric cord? What’s the matter with these ungrateful femmes?

Next week: Genital mutilation and more on honour killings. The way to eliminate 50% of the world's psycho-social problems.