Friday, November 30, 2007

Winning & triumphalism in sports & politics

The pleasure of having ‘your’ team win is one of the joys of some peoples' otherwise dreary lives – for example when a favoured (one of ‘our’) sporting team wins. When a bunch of yobbos, whose lifetime skill is the ability to guess the bounce of an oval-shaped ball and then kick it, win a football series, it brings profound joy to the team’s supporters and to the district that the team is named after. You would have to be killjoy to deny the masses (and those intellectuals who like to show they have not lost their common touch) these limited, rather puerile, sources of fun.

But triumphalism goes beyond the joy of winning. It is the view that a doctrine or belief should always triumph. It often raises its head in political contests and can sometimes be more bigoted and harmful.

The Age’s resident ratbag, Catherine Deveny, described her elation at the Rudd team’s Federal election victory as ‘post-coital’. It is now clear what has been missing in this miserable woman’s life for so many years and I wish her well with more marital or extra-marital fulfilment in the future. Maybe she would get erotic thrills from helping Kevin clear out his ear canals.

It cannot be denied that there are many perennially sad Labor supporters who are now temporarily bright happy people. This is good news for myopic utilitarians. However these sad people, many of whom have not smiled since 1996, are deluded into believing that Kevin Rudd will deliver an unending nirvana just by saying ‘sorry’ to aboriginals, by ratifying the largely-irrelevant Kyoto protocol and by making it harder for small business to employ unskilled workers by reinstating unfair dismissal laws. These will be, at most, temporary relief to those having a leftwing mindset.

My heart goes out to these naive, non-reflective citizens just as it does for the above-mentioned footie supporters. To the Labor left happiness, it is sad to say, can however only ever be a temporary thing. Given the fundamental rottenness they see in our corrupt, sad, unjust, deeply oppressive, sexist, racist, imperialist modern society this temporary happiness must inevitably dissolve into discomfit. My guess is that this intrinsically miserable lot will soon turn on Kevin Rudd as the next object of their sad aggressions and hatred.

Labor supporters need someone or something to hate. Indeed, Deveny states that she regrets Tony Abbott is not standing for the Liberal leadership because he would answer the core question ‘Who are we going to hate now?’

As Tim Blair points out Deveny’s problem is a version of ‘hate week’. Most people believe Deveny has a screw or three loose but her need, as one of Labor’s characteristic hate-filled supporters, is real and characteristic of a political party whose unifying behavioural norm is often a psychiatric disability.

Indeed, there is an extraordinary narky vindictiveness in the celebrations of Labor supporters. It goes well beyond comradely triumphalism. In particular, note the extraordinary vindictiveness of the left’s women? Tim Blair points out that Monica Dux was disappointed that Howard’s lip didn’t tremble and he didn’t cry during his concession speech. She wanted the great man reduced to tears. To her disappointment the speech was a gracious and a statesmanlike effort. Jill Singer (the ‘fainting goat’ of Melbourne journalism) was disappointed that Rudd didn’t rub Howards ‘nose in it’. I like to give both of these ungracious femmes a well-deserved kick in the rear-end.

Maxine McKew’s jolly stupidity is almost refreshing compared to the nastiness of these Labor-supporting hairybacks.

The male gender has also been engaging in pathological triumphalism. Over at Troppo, in an extraordinary attack, Nicholas Gruen uses a lengthy quote to attack one of the most decent and moral former Coalition MPs, Mal Brough, on the grounds that he sought to prevent sexual attacks on aboriginal children just to advance his own political career. A more accurate assessment of Brough is here. Unfortunately the good go down when the rabble win and it is a part of the triumphalist spirit to put the boot into both the good and the bad.

At John Quiggin’s blog, commenters are plotting ‘show trials’ for former Coalition MPs because of their policies on AWB (the inquiry exonerating them is insufficient), the war in Iraq and (weirdly) immigration. It shows yet another unattractive aspect of triumphalism.

Of course the suggestions for retribution are nonsense but they do show another dimension of the Labor state of mind. For these Labor supporters it was never an election campaign but a moral crusade where wicked sinners are to be punished. John Quiggin, himself, has been quick to point out that the Liberals are totally destroyed – they will never win another Federal election again. John is overjoyed with the Labor victory and he is much too smart to be vindictive so, I guess, it is a bit of harmless and fairly predictable left-wing fun.

For really ugly left-wing blogging the recent posts and comments on Larvatus Prodeo normally take the cake. This one from Mark Bahnisch is one of the milder examples. Ken Lovell has a typically nasty piece over at Surfdom with goofy photos filling in for a failed argument. And Troppo surveys the leftwing hatred in a convenient bile-laden post. The Liberals are finished, they won’t even be a good opposition and they should get zero press coverage (not troubling given Mark’s pre-existing role as a totally biased commentator at and so on. But wait till they really get worked up into their Hitlerite references to ‘Ratty’ and “The Rodent’. It is the voice of ‘troubled youth’ being heard – the conscience of our generation – so I guess it is OK.

To the victor go the spoils. But the intrinsically miserable character of some leftwing Labor supporters will eventually come into conflict with Kevin Rudd’s attempt to build an administration that mimics the skill and talents of the government of John Howard. Given the strength of victory even a self-destruct button initiated now will take quite a while to drive these carping, miserable souls back to where they belong, on opposition benches or on couches seeking psychotherapeutic counsel.

That is a pity because the longer this riff-raff stay in power the greater the damage that will be inflicted on Australia.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Rudd's ministerial team

What do you think of this lot? It is the important implication of the election. An open forum with constructive comment sought. I thought the senior ministers generally were as expected and reasonable. Here are some concise bios. Some good comment by Robert Merkel. I'll update as thoughts occur.

Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner received the positions of Treasurer and Finance Minister, respectively. They have been charged with making better use of the Treasury, which Mr Rudd says was neglected under the previous Coalition Government. Mr Tanner is also in charge of Business Deregulation, which the incoming PM says will be a key priority of his government. As expected, ticks though Treasury will be a challenge for Swan.

Julia Gillard is Deputy Prime Minister with the massive task of managing two portfolios: Industrial Relations and Education. Mr Rudd says the joining of the portfolios emphasises the link education and industrial relations has. Julia is very able but she has a lot to do. Andrew Norton argues we need a minister dedicated to education. I agree.

Peter Garrett has been given the Environment and Arts portfolios, but Penny Wong has been given the now separate portfolio for Climate Change and Water. For Garrett the decision to split off climate change represents a demotion. Both are weak and will come under challenge from new faces if they do not perform. Penny Wong interesting as an Asian lesbian.

Former Education Shadow Minister Stephen Smith has been given the Foreign Affairs portfolio. Mr Rudd says a Foreign Minister from West Australia is important in making sure the west is well-represented in Australia’s foreign policy dealings. Tick.

Joel Fitzgibbon becomes Minister for Defence. A bit of a challenge for this former TAFE teacher.

Anthony Albanese will become Infrastructure Minister.

The newly created Department of Innovation, Science and Research to Kim Carr. Poor appointment, concession to left. A dangerous voice on industry policy and 'innovation'.

Martin Ferguson will become the Minister for Resources, Energy and Tourism. Tourism has now been given a place at the cabinet table. Poor appointment, this hack and climate change skeptic should retire. His eyes are too close together.

Tony Burke will become Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Former union hack. Don't know.

Simon Crean will be Trade Minister while Nick Sherry receives the portfolio of Superannuation and Corporate Law. Ticks though a bit of a demotion for aging hack Crean. Sherry an unstable former union boss.

Craig Emerson becomes Minister for Small Business as well as the Minister assisting the Minster for Finance. Tick, good.

Brendan O’Conner will be in charge of Workplace Participation. Former union hack.

Nicola Roxon becomes Health and Aging Minister. Young intelligent. Tick.

Jenny Macklin will be Minister for Families, Community Housing and Indigenous Affairs, while Tanya Plibersek receives the Housing and Status of Women portfolios. Awful, very weak - Macklin hopeless as public servant and a hopeless non-performer in parliament.

Joseph Ludwig becomes Minister for Human Services.

Stephen Conroy becomes Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. Tick and tick for clever jargon in retitled portfolio.

Former Foreign Affairs Shadow Minister Robert McClelland becomes Attorney-General. Tick.

Former NSW Attorney-General Bob Debus becomes Minister for Home Affairs. Outer ministry.

Chris Evans, the leader in the senate, becomes Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. Unusual portfolio for ex trade unionist.

Alan Griffin will become the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.

Kate Ellis will be the Minister for Youth and Sport. Outer ministry - potential for promotion if hacks fail.

Star candidate Maxine McKew becomes parliamentary secretary to the PM. Bloody hell - make her the Minister for Ear-to-Ear grins. Should stick to TV.

Union heavyweight Greg Combet becomes Parliamentary Secretary for Defence procurement. Strange portfolio for union hack.

Mike Kelly also becomes a Parliamentary Secretary for Defence.

Bill Shorten becomes Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Families, Housing and Indigenous Affairs. Strange choice for union hack.

Veteran Bob McMullan becomes Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance, an area the incoming PM says is “close to his heart.” Not in Caninet.

Duncan Kerr will be Parliamentary Secretary for the Pacific while John Faulkner becomes Special Minister of State. I guess ticks.

Dumped: Mr Rudd has dumped five of the frontbench team he took to the election - Laurie Ferguson, Jan McLucas, Kate Lundy, Kerry O'Brien and Arch Bevis. Bye.

Economics, ecology & policy

I’ve been rather disappointed by the European Conference on Ecological Modelling. Partly because many of the ecological models are numerically-oriented and computer-based (there is a minor component that uses dynamic modelling and game theory that is more interesting) without a lot of emphasis on qualitative insight. There is a strong preference for ‘black box’ modelling – indeed conclusions are often presented without explicit reference to any model.

Most of all however is the obvious disconnect between ecologists and policy issues. The ecological models of the effects of climate change on plant and marine communities are complex, in terms of their science, yet many do not allow for interspecies competition or even for relocation mechanisms such as seed dispersal. In some cases new forests are supposed to emerge in disconnected areas of landscape because climatic patterns alone would make this feasible.

But the key challenges of climate change analysis with respect to biodiversity are how such changes might actually come about in fragmented landscapes over the short-term horizons of 100 years or so over which we expect significant climate change to occur.

I asked ecologists and biologists here about this and they said they were not trained to do (or interested in doing) policy exercises. That’s a pity it leaves people such as myself - without a scientific background - to try to do such things. Economics is often accused of being imperialistic but is that partly because of this gap? Things are happening in the natural world as a consequence of climate change and governments are spending dollars trying to deal with the problems. Someone has to try to work out where the dollars will be spent. Don't they?

It is a good question I will think about further. There are no market signals out there to provide guidance and economists have only general insights. They might well get it wrong.

By the way, there are several Aussies at the ‘Conference from CSIRO and other groups. Their papers seemed conspicuously good – I modestly, of course, exclude my own effort. These papers were, moreover, more immune to the polemical remarks above than many other contributions I listened to.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Anglicans outdone

Rioters, rumoured to be Presbyterians, have fired on police in France with shotguns. One policeman had an eye blown out. Youths burnt a library, a primary school and torched cars.

The attacks follow the deaths of 2 young males without crash helmets who drove an unregistered motorcycle into a police car at high speed.

Update 1: President Sarkozy has stated that those firing guns at police will be charged with 'attempted murder'. A report from Le Monde describes kids as young as 13 being urged by adults to torch buildings and to kill the 'pigs'.

Update 2: I was misled - they are in fact mainly Muslims not Presbyterians. The best account I read of what is happening came from Der Spiegel:

'Jihad may not be what's inspiring the rioters, but Islam is undeniably an inseparable component of their self-identity. Islam strengthens their sense of solidarity, gives them the appearance of legitimacy and draws an unmistakable line between them and the others, the "French."

...According to official figures, France is home to a little over 5 million Muslims, the largest per capita concentration of Muslims in any country in the European Union....France's Muslims feel marginalized, as do millions of other immigrants from former colonies throughout Europe, many of whom are unemployed. They live in suburban ghettos, unable to afford better neighborhoods. Now, with the ghettos turning in to battlefields, the notion that immigrants will voluntarily assimilate is proving questionable'. (my bold).

Tony Abbott

I am disappointed to read that Tony Abbott will not stand for the leadership of the Liberal Party. He claims to have insufficient support. I think Abbott was an excellent Minister for Health and that he displayed considerable loyalty to John Howard whom he disagreed with on hospital policy. Indeed, that one of his problems - he is closely associated with Howard and the Howard defeat.

Abbott has indicated that he might make a bid in the future if his support improves. This will come to pass if, as I expect, the Labor Party performs badly and the John Howard era becomes viewed nostalgically as one of the most prosperous and best-governed periods in Australian history.

I favour Malcolm Turnbull over Brendon Nelson and think Julie Bishop should get the Deputy Leadership - indeed she is much more experienced for the top job than Turnbull and has done a good job raising money for the Party. I would have a hard job not supporting her for the Leadership itself had she stood. I think she would have made a great team with Abbott.

Sadly, I cannot help thinking that prejudiced views on Tony Abbott's Catholicism have hindered his prospects. We live in a secular society where people like Abbott who seek to live by a decent moral code are regarded suspiciously.

I hope I am wrong but, if I am not, I think such prejudiced criticisms are entirely unjust and that Abbott, while arguing his moral positions - something as a non-religious person that even I respect -he has always respected the need for consensus.

I am sure too that if Abbott had been in the Labor Party (a near impossible hypothetical) he would have been treated very differently. Bigotry in Australia can be so one-eyed.

Update 1: Minutes after commenting below that I did not favour Brendon Nelson I got an email from the Liberal Party saying he got the job. I'll stick to my prediction that he will not lead the Liberals to the 2010 election. An interesting post supporting my view is given by Jason Soon. Pleased Julie Bishop got the Deputy job - well-deserved.

Update 2: I must qualify my claims about Abbott facing discrimination because he is Catholic. That certainly was not the basis for judgement in the Liberal Party since both Brendon Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull are Catholic. That is a good sign. In the broader community I still however think Abbott's views are more decisively recognised to have a religious basis. This will still affect things inside the Party.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I met him in the street

I ran into him in the street while searching for some lithium batteries for my $199 digital camera.

I said, ‘Oh James, Where does the riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, where does it brings us back (by a commodius vicus of recirculation) to Howth Castle and Environs? Tell me.’

He snapped at me ‘What’s your trouble young man?’

‘Well’, I said 'I bought your book but I never made it past page 1. And Howard is nowhere back in Aus. Should I set up shop in Trieste?’

‘Oh’ he said, ‘I thought you had the Venusian goop rot. Settle down boy and stick to white wine – you don’t wanna drink animal blood, do ya?’

As he walked off down the street I realised our meeting had a purpose. He did not turn back although I called several times.

Monday, November 26, 2007

European Congress on Ecological Modelling

I am attending the European Congress on Ecological Modelling and presenting a modified version of my paper ‘Conserving Biodiversity in the Face of Climate Change’ (published here, preprint here).

The modifications involve an approach to thinking about modelling climate change that use classical decision theory to analyse adaptations. This paper also reflects applied work I have done with graduate students on climate change in the Murray-Darling Basin and South-West Western Australia.

I am keen to get feedback on this latter paper.

Abstract: One approach to rationalising policies for addressing potentially catastrophic climate change when such policies may prove unnecessary is to suppose the policies provide a form of social insurance even in the presence of pure uncertainty. Then, provided the policies are effective when needed, such insurance can be justified as a minimax or precautionary response. Even if the policies are potentially ineffective, intervention can be justified by minimax regret considerations. This reasoning extends to justify ‘all weather’ policies provided such policies always act to reduce policy costs. If, however, policy decisions provide ‘all weather’ benefits in only certain states of the world, this rationale breaks down. Minimax regret can establish a case for ‘mixed’ policy responses provided that adopting a policy mix precludes the chance that intervention will fail altogether. Minimax and minimax regret policies are computed for a simple, dynamic, adaptive climate change planning problem and sufficient conditions for policy maker pessimism provided.

The Conference itself contains a fair bit of hard science and there are only a few economics presentations – the program is here. I am hoping to gain some ecological knowledge that will help my work. I’ll try to summarise what I learn in posts over the next few days and use these insights to develop my views.

Italian seafood

I am living about 100 metres from the coastline here in northern Italy and, yep, recalling my trade classes on comparative advantage based on factor endowments I have focused my culinary endeavors here on the local seafood.

Lobster, calimari, scampi, prawns, shellfish and some of the local fishes (including fresh tuna steaks) have been subject to lunchtime attacks over the past week or so. I am interested in the northern Italian approach which often combines a fair bit of olive oil with tomato. Some of the seafood soups have been delightful but for sheer perfection yesterday's lobster in a spicy, tomato-based sauce with pasta brought me reasonably close to a beatific vision.

I've grizzled a bit in restaurants here about the sweetness of the Italian whites but with the lobster I got a bone dry Tocai Friulano that reminded me of a great chablis and I was in heaven.

After several hours of contemplating the yacht masts and the seabirds in the harbour adjoining the restaurant I walked with a full stomach and an empty mind to Miramare Castle and its gardens for a stroll. It was a great afternoon.

Saudi justice for women

The Saudis are indeed wealthy barbarians. It is not being anti-Islamic to point to the horrors of a justice system which condemns a 19 year old woman to 200 lashes and one year’s jail for being gang-raped by 7 men at knifepoint for whom guilt (in Saudi terms) has been established*. Her husband has said they wish to appeal the decision – the courts have threatened an increased charge if they do. The court's claim - they are implementing the word of God as set out in the Koran. Specifically the Justice Ministry stated that:

The ministry also stressed the Saudi judicial system was based on Islamic law derived from the holy Koran and that a court ruling in the kingdom was only made after both sides in a case are given a fair and balanced hearing.
The woman is a Shiite and her female defence attorney is now facing criminal prosecution too for daring to offer her a defence.

In my view we have nothing to learn from such primitive, barbaric cultures other than to reject them. The West has much better values generally and certainly a more civilised justice system. Cultural relativism - forget it - I am not interested.

We have a valid interest in protecting our societies from people who hold such repugnant, intolerant views or who turn a blind eye when they are exercised. It is both the judicial crime itself that is the problem here and the society that endorses this as reasonable behaviour.

It is interesting to also note that Saudi Arabia is the source of 41% of the foreign terrorist fighters in Iraq. Most of these vermin are trying to foist their hateful values onto other more tolerant Muslim societies.

Where are the cries of opposition from the decent Muslims we are supposed to have in Australia? How many have protested? Tell us again fellows how women are truly liberated under Islam. Every instance of tyranny against women under Islam is an exception isn’t it?

And why the silence from the Australian left? I guess it isn’t a ‘Zionist atrocity’ and you can’t put this one down to George Bush. It is pure leftwing hypocrisy and part based on the fear that any criticism of any aspect of life in these sorts of societies is seen as culturally insensitive.

** Not that being guilty of voluntarily having intercourse with 7 men would justify a whipping or imprisonment. But even accepting the oppressive Puritanism of this awful society it remains unjust for the women given that she has been raped.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Formatting my blog

I have resisted the temptation to play around with blog formatting but have finally made some obvious changes. The list of recent commenters has gone - at a pinch I could reintroduce it - and the 'over the fold' feature has gone too. The former hard blue screen was sometimes a bit difficult to read and bolding of text often wasn't clear.

I'd be interested to know whether readers think it is an improvement. Sometimes the visual output varies by type of computer and monitor but, on the laptop I am using in my travels, the new formatting is a vast improvement in clarity.

Having switched to the newest Blogger site design software I can more readily make editing changes on formatting. Suggestions are welcome.

Eurasian curlew

The Eurasian curlew, a reasonably common northern hemisphere bird but one that seldom gets past southern Asia, was seen and photographed yesterday at Eighty Mile Beach, west of Broome, by members of the Australian Wader Studies Group (AWSG) . Chris Hassell found it and some 20 observers saw it. This is a new bird species for Australia.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Labor wins Federal election

It is clear to me (at 9-05pm EAT) that the Labor Party has won the Federal election. A disappointing outcome for the Coalition and some particular disappointments for me are the probable loss of seats by Mal Brough and, of course, John Howard. Bright spots? I cannot see many. Julia Gillard has intelligence and will be a valuable part of the new government as Deputy Prime Minister. Nicole Cornes for Labor didn't make it which was some sort of relief.

But the cheering yobbos in the Tally Room supporting Maxine McKew kinda said it all.

That's it for me on this election.

In Venice on election day morning

Having run out of museums and art galleries I took the train from Trieste to Venice today. The 2 hour trip winds down the steeply-sloped coastline through some industrial towns and then out onto some flat countryside and back to the coast at Venice. The autumn colours in the trees, the sombre grey skies and the elegant smudged landscape colours could well turn me into a poet. I was particularly taken with the near total lack of any commercial advertising pollution – billboards, ugly shop fronts etc. It is pleasant not having sales messages and garish colours shouted at you.

The countryside is just very attractive.

Venice is Venice, as in the glossy tourism books – interesting canals, old churches, intriguing local shops but an overriding memory I have got to say is lots of tourists and tourist souvenir stores. I eventually got tired of the crowds and headed off to a ristorante where I gobbled some palatable seafood and some fairly average merlot.

I am starting to enjoy my stay in Trieste and have increased my Italian vocabulary 400% from 3 to about 15 words over the past 3 days – clearly approaching fluency. It is comfortable here. The locals seem to be involved in a continuing, good-natured conversation and local community is strong. It is obviously something we do not have to the same degree in Australia – maybe we are compensated by higher living standards but that is not clear to me. Italian migrants to Australia must find aspects of life difficult in their new country.

Perhaps the less cohesive Australian society is a product of its more recent development that occurred along with mass usage of the private car. This led to sprawled out settlement and lower social cohesion. Of course you get compensations in terms of greater independence. These are the types of profound thoughts you get having spent about 4 days in a new location.

Tomorrow morning I will do some work. About midday here, the Australian election results should be finalised. I frankly dread the thought but I guess I’ll listen in.

Friday, November 23, 2007

I have already voted

There is a fair chance the riff-raff will seize Government in Australia tomorrow.

As most commentators have noted it is a somewhat strange position that a political party which has presided over the longest running economic expansion in our history should now face electoral defeat. Kevin Rudd is a strong and effective leader of a rabble-based party based on a fading trade union movement and leftist loose thinking-cum-social-romanticism. Rudd’s strength derives from the hope he gives Labor that it will gain power. In terms of policies he has almost nothing to offer. Perhaps he gives some hope and he certainly is clever with the verbiage but Rudd has simply me-tooed the government on most issues. He has set qualifications to the reforms on WorkChoices that mean little will happen during the next cycle of Federal Government, has climate change policies that are effectively identical to the Coalition and has glib education policies that ignore skill issues and simply offer a laptop to every kid. It is low-level politics from a bureaucrat master of cliché and cant.

So is there a case for an alternative management team with a new language to be installed to implement the current Government’s policies? The answer should be no but I don’t think it will be. The lack of experience, the zealous me-tooism and the dominant role of trade union hacks on Labor’s front bench provides a basis for policy imitation but not creative government.

A vote for Rudd puts too much at risk but, in an environment where things are operating so well, this has proven to be a difficult message to sell.

Now Labor even ‘me-toos’ Howard on ‘border protection’

That foul-mouthed, upstart of a former Prime Minister, Keating has wailed that ‘Australia has lost its moral compass under Howard’s rule’. Keating, has, in fact, never forgiven JWH for giving him a well-deserved kick in the rear end in 1996.

Among the Bankstown boy’s misrepresentations on this occasion:

Think about his tacit endorsement of Hanson's racism during his first government, his WASP-divined jihad against refugees — those wretched individuals who had enough faith in us to try to reach us in old tubs, while his wicked detention policy was presided over by that other psalm singer, Philip Ruddock. This is the John Howard the press gallery in Canberra went out of its way to sell to the public during 1995. The new-made person on immigration, not the old suburban, picket-fence racist of the 1980s, no, the enlightened unifier who now accepted Australia's ethnic diversity; the opposition leader who was going to maintain Keating Labor's social policies on industrial relations, on superannuation at 15%, on reconciliation, on native title, and on the unique labour market programs for the unemployed. (my bold)
Howard is no racist and he has expanded the immigration and refugee programs well beyond the levels provided by this guttersnipe. The press gallery didn’t defeat Keating in 1996 Keating - Australians just hated you – one of the most divisive leader Australia has had in the post-war period. It is a message you must learn to accept Paul. Your ‘labour market programs’ have been replaced and Australia now has its lowest unemployment for 33 years.

But will Labor offer an immigration alternative under Rudd? This is impossible to believe. They will just ‘me-too’ the Government on its record immigration intakes (or cut them slightly in response to the views of their anti-migration, trade union dominated front bench).

Consider what Mr Rudd said yesterday on turning back the ‘boat people’ queue jumpers:

Kevin Rudd has taken a tough line on border security, warning that a Labor Government will turn the boats back and deter asylum-seekers, using the threat of detention and the nation's close ties with Indonesia. (my bold)

In other words the Liberal policy that the Labor Party and its motley gang of quarter-brainers are grizzling about intensely is Labor policy. When I read this border protection policy expressed so starkly I almost fell over but I should not have been surprised – it has in fact been Labor policy for a decade. What grates are the assertions by people like Keating that Labor will restore what it considers to be a 'moral basis' to Australian politics. It won’t and Labor claims about morality are hypocrisy.

Border protection is one issue that has been repeatedly used as a means of attacking the Coalition. The Labor Party has clearly endorsed the policy it simultaneously criticises. To its masses of supporters this will be yet another instance of Kevin Rudd avoiding 'wedge politics' - avoiding stating what he believes to gain power. If that is so then Rudd is a liar rather than a hypocrite.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Minimising regret in climate change policy

The simplest yet most persuasive case for addressing climate change problems is that huge possible costs, even catastrophic costs in the future, can be avoided at relatively low cost now. If the future huge costs do not arise because we have got it wrong then we have wasted only a small amount now.

Similarly if most of the climatologists of the world have conspired against humankind to develop an unreasonable paranoia about climate change then we would sacrifice the cost made now for addressing the problem. Finally, if policies advocated to militate against or fail to work and we experience anthropogenic climate change anyway we would have, again, wasted these costs. But, even if these last events are possible – I certainly don't for a minute buy the bizarre conspiracy theory of the climate change denialists – we should go ahead and address the issue of climate change for what I would call minimax regret reasons (this link provides a nice discussion of this idea) – we best avoid the chance that future generations will experience a disaster we could have avoided at low cost. I assume, in fact, that this heuristic describes how most of us take insurance decisions – we do not weigh up probabilities and outcomes but make the judgement that insurance can be justified because it avoids imaginably bad costs at relatively low cost.

Recent work from the IPCC is based essentially an implicit acceptance of the idea of trying to minimise regret. They confirm the disastrous aspects of unaddressed climate change – species destructions, raising sea levels and threats to the world’s poor are already occurring. They also emphasise the low cost now of taking measures to deal with this problem. Specifically:

‘Global warming is destroying species, raising sea levels and threatening millions of poor people, the United Nations' top scientific panel said ... only firm action, including a price on CO2 emissions, will avoid more catastrophic events.Those actions will take a small part of the world's economic growth and will be substantially less than the costs of doing nothing, the report will say.

The report of the IPCC Change will be important ammunition when world leaders meet in Bali next month to decide what to do after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. The UN and many countries want strong mandatory reductions of the greenhouse gases that drive global warming.

The most stringent efforts to stabilise greenhouse gases would cost the world's economies 0.12% of their average annual growth to 2050......the first to suffer from global warming would be the poor, who would face faltering water supplies, damage to crops, new diseases and encroaching oceans’.

These moves by IPCC are political and rightly so. They are trying to drive a sense of urgency about the climate change issue using sensible logic. Most industrialised countries however continue to flout their Kyoto targets. Australia has not ratified Kyoto but has agreed to meet Kyoto targets adjusted up by 8%:

'UN figures released last night - just weeks ahead of a key meeting to start brokering a new global deal to cut emissions - show greenhouse gases from Kyoto's 41 industrialised and transition countries approaching ‘an all-time high’. Emissions fell 1990 - 2000 but they rose 2.6% between 2000- 2005... The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change said the increase was driven by continued growth in the world's highly industrialised countries and the accelerating economies of the former Soviet bloc nations, led by a big increase in emissions from transport.

The figures show Australia's greenhouse emissions in 2005 were about 25.6% above 1990 levels, although the figure falls to a rise of 4.5% when the effect of bans on land-clearing is included. This puts Australia on track to meet its generous Kyoto target of an 8 per cent increase on 1990 levels by 2012. (my bold)

Despite this latest upturn, the UNFCCC said last night all Kyoto signatories were projected to meet their target of cutting emissions by 5% from 1990 levels by 2012, although most of these cuts were the result of the economic collapse of Eastern European countries at the end of the Cold War. (my bold)

Their recent economic recovery has helped push emission rates back to record levels, even though their total emissions are still 35% lower than those reported in 1990...Fast-growth countries such as Turkey, Spain and Portugal have ratified Kyoto but still reported increases of about 50% or more since 1990, while emissions from fellow signatory New Zealand have increased by 23%, Canada by 54% and Austria by 14%. Emissions from the US, which, like Australia, has not ratified the protocol, are up 16.3% since 1990.

Countries that breach their Kyoto targets during the compliance period from next year to 2012 face theoretical penalties, although these appear unlikely to be enforced. They can also cut their emissions by buying emissions credits and investing in Kyoto's "flexible mechanisms", which include investing in programs in developing countries that cut emissions. Some developed economies including Denmark, Sweden, France and Britain have managed to reduce their total emissions since 1990’.

While Kyoto targets are not in themselves important - the focus should be on events post-2012 – holding countries to account and pointing out that targets are often being met by means that are hardly genuine attempts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, is a sensible ploy.

As the New York Times reports the message about climate change is alarming but not at all alarmist. There are still much respected voices out there that see much worse potential climatic effects of global warming:

‘The world is already at or above the worst case scenarios in terms of emissions,” said Gernot Klepper, of the Kiel Institute for World Economy in Kiel, Germany. “In terms of emissions, we are moving past the most pessimistic estimates of the IPCC and by some estimates we are above that red line.

The panel presents several scenarios for the trajectory of emissions and climate change. In 2006, 8.4 gigatons of carbon were put into the atmosphere from fossil fuels, according to a study in the proceedings of the National Academy of Science, which was co-written by Dr. Klepper. That is almost identical to the panel’s worst case prediction for that year.

Likewise, a recent International Energy Agency report looking at the unexpectedly rapid emissions growth in China and India estimated that if current policies were not changed the world would warm six degrees by 2030, a disastrous increase far higher than the panel’s estimates of one to four degrees by the end of the century.'

I think the minimax regret motivation for policy is sound and that the IPCC are exercising perhaps excessively moderate judgement to assess the situation. We need to pay more attention to the prospect of severe long-tailed catastrophic events given that the accompanying costs would be so drastic.

Bubbling Chinese equities

One of the core truths about every equity market is that eventually prices in it will decline. Indeed, paradoxically, the stronger the apparent basis for the market's positive growth the more certain it is that the decline will be severe. Why? Investors are a greedy lot and cannot resist the temptation of an apparently easy buck, or rimimbi.

The Shanghai market has increased 102% in the year to November 14 based on Chinese macroeconomic growth of 11% annually and massive re-investment of capital gains by individuals and firms into it. Firms have been taking capital profits and reinvesting them and are now, according to Business Week, putting the real Chinese economy at risk because of their dependence on such gains.

'By now every investor on the planet is trying to handicap what happens when China's scorching-hot stock markets finally start to cool off. The conventional wisdom is that China's greenhorn individual investors will take the hit, while corporate China—the companies that make shirts, build ships, and run utilities—won't feel much at all. The real economy these companies operate in is far too strong to be affected by stock wobbles, goes the argument. The price of corporate shares may fall, but underlying earnings will power on. (my bold)

That line of argument, though, is looking suspect for the simple reason that companies big and small are now playing the markets with abandon, using corporate funds to invest in each other's initial public offerings and bolster their bottom lines. ...Morgan Stanley figures 1/3 of reported corporate earnings in China stem from investments outside companies' core businesses—which in almost all cases means plowing money into stocks.

...these gains have no cash basis,' says Ding Yuan, a professor of accounting at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. 'It's really frightening.'

...If and when stock prices start to fall in earnest, companies will have to report these portfolio losses on their income statements, depressing their earnings. That, in turn, could hurt their own stock prices, pushing the market down both further and faster.

'It's a replay of what happened in Japan during their bubble,' says David Webb, a Hong Kong-based corporate governance expert and non-executive director of Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing. Japan Inc. gorged on stock and real estate, only to tumble into the red when those markets collapsed.

...In China, few investors possess the ability to comb through financial statements and distinguish a company's operating earnings from its stock plays. "People overestimate Chinese investors' sophistication," says Jerry Lou, head of China research at Morgan Stanley. 'Somebody needs to point out that the emperor has no clothes.'

No one inside China Inc., it seems, wants to think about what happens when the bubble bursts'.

It is a bubble and its self-destruction can damage the Chinese economy and, of course, the economies heavily dependent on trade with China.


I am in Trieste (pronounced Tree-est-a) in Italy. Amidst recovering from jetlag I am doing the tourist bit - I spent 30 hours in planes and sitting in airports getting here. My local (Italian) petrol supplier (Eva) in Australia tells me that the residents up here are not ‘real Italians’ – they are ‘snobbish northerners’. But they seem alright to me - glamorous looking, big-busted women with toothsome smiles and men without hairy chests or gold chains. People, generally well-dressed and, from the vantage point of my humble Aussi working class roots, sophisticated. Lots of smiles and animated conversations – the place has a good feel to it.

Trieste is a coastal city of northern Italy near Slovenia. It has beautifully picturesque agricultural surrounds and the city itself is rimmed by steep hills on one side and the ocean on the other. Architecturally it is a bit run-down (I wouldn’t go so far as to say ‘early demolition’) and there is some industrial ugliness but there are elegant (‘European’) buildings and wonderful oldish churches. Travel writers such as Jan Morris write of its ‘faded glories’ even though it was one of their favourite cities. Today I wandered through some museums and a former Jewish ghetto.

Trieste is nothing remarkable – just a good place to be - James Joyce lived here for years and there is a hotel named after him. I can imagine him getting drunk in one of the many little bars. In fact I could have easily replicated his antics last night – a bottle of excellent vino and jetlag did me in completely.

I have to work tomorrow. Pity.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Technological options for limiting problem gambling get a whirl

In an earlier post I discussed the use of technological fixes to limit problem gambling. In The Age a proosal by Victorian Gaming Minister Tony Robinson is advanced to do just that. I’ve been pretty savage with the Victorian ALP’s approach to the gambling issue (here, here) so it is fair that I report positive efforts they are making to address the massive social problems the pokies have led to in this state.

Roughly Robinson’s proposal is that all poker machine players be issued with electronic cards to track their gambling levels and to monitor potential problem gambling issues. I quote:

Electronic access cards to track the movements of poker machine players could be introduced as part of a radical approach to tackle the state's gambling addiction problem.

Thousands of poker players could be required to carry the cards to gain entry to hundreds of clubs patrolled by problem-gambling experts looking for at-risk .....

Mr Robinson said the Government was in discussions with RSL Victoria about a membership swipe card system to be installed at hundreds of RSL venues next year.
Mark Johnson, the RSL's chief operations officer, said the new card system would alert clubs to the presence of players who fitted into the problem gambling category.

The swipe machines would have an interactive screen that could lead people to more information and help to tackle their addiction, he said.

Tattersals and the clubs say they will cooperate with the proposed measures if they are effective. I will believe that if John Howard increases his majority next Saturday by 10 seats.

I believe the best solution to the pokie crisis is to gradually phase them out. This proposed measure looks administratively complex and determined problem gamblers (a large proportion of the total) will find ways around it. One way of improving its application might be to allow users to sue the clubs and hotels for excessive losses – there might be a practical way of doing this.

The State Governments have unleashed a monster which they now need to bring to heel. The monster gives them lots of revenue and lots of high-profile jobs for ex-MPs – it is sometimes difficult to take their sincerity seriously.

Meanwhile in NSW pokie users who gain winnings will be forced to ‘take a break’ by leaving their machine rather than collecting their winnings from an attendant. The idea is that pokie addicts suffer from ‘within session’ behavioural addictions that can be broken if they leave their machines for any reason because they regain their critical faculties. In my view it is a close to worthless policy because its effects can be so easily thwarted and it only applies to winners.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Rudd a leader without policy substance

There is a sensible editorial in The Australian today on the case for voting for Kevin Rudd. Rudd does not have a clear political position, his policies lack substance but he can lead.

'...the proposition on offer from Mr Rudd is to vote for him not on the strength of his policies but on the strength of his leadership in the hope that the single-mindedness and determination he has shown in getting elected can be turned effectively to running the country. It is a pitch for voters to take him on trust'.

Fair comment.

Junkies insist on rights to use public charity to buy their dope

This is cute. A protest from the junkie union (AIVL) objecting to John Howard’s proposal to prevent junkies spending public money on drugs, booze and cigarettes.

The AIVL supports the ‘second theorem of welfare economics’ – that charity transfers should be monetary leaving recipients to determine how they spend their money. Often I do too but not always. The money that supports these deadheads comes from Australian taxpayers. Without the faintest hint of a smile I am prepared to give some of my dollars to these ratbags so that they can enjoy living at my expense but, no, I won’t pay for their drug supplies. People who get themselves addicted to drugs evidently do not have the intellectual capacity to manage their budgets.

These recipients of public charity – as a consequence of their self-inflicted pain - should shut-up and be grateful for public indulgence of their stupidity.


All Australians are equal but some are more equal than others...

The Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL), the national organisation representing people who use or have used illicit drugs is shocked and appalled by the unexpected announcement today by Prime Minister Howard that a re-elected Coalition Government would take control of the welfare payments of people convicted of offences involving illicit drugs.

“This is the politics of exclusion” said Ms Louise Grant, AIVL’s President. “All of the candidates in this federal election, including the Government have talked about the importance of creating an inclusive community but this announcement by the Federal Government is the exact opposite of this. It is targeting some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our community and seeking to make their lives much harder at the worst possible time”.

Both research evidence and experience show that punitive legal measures have almost no impact when it comes to preventing continued illicit drug use among people convicted of drug related offences. “The announcement by the Prime Minister will not stop people using illicit drugs, it will simply mean that people will be forced to take even more risks than they currently do to obtain money for their drug use” Ms Grant stated.

AIVL is concerned that the quarantining of welfare payments for people convicted of illicit drug offences will result in higher levels of crime and other harms as people search for ways to obtain cash and/or ways to avoid being registered for government benefits. “People will go underground to survive and to maintain control over their lives” claimed Ms Grant.

“This proposal ignores the fact that people who receive government benefits are Australian citizens who have the right to make their own decisions about how they spend their income, regardless of how that income is derived” stated Ms Grant. (my bold)

AIVL also believes the Prime Minister’s announcement will establish a system of arbitrary additional punishment for people convicted of drug related offences who are in receipt of government benefits. “People who are convicted of drug offences have already been punished by the courts. They should not face additional punishment from outside the recognised judicial system.” If these types of paternalistic and undemocratic measures were imposed on other people in the community there would be outrage but when it is targeting people who use illicit drugs or Aboriginal people it is considered good policy.

As a community we should “just say no” to the politics of exclusion.

For further information please contact Louise Grant on 0424 903 565 or Annie Madden, Executive Officer on (02) 6279 1600 or mobile 0414 628. 136.
Yes these people care ‘vulnerable and marginalised’ but it is because they take illicit drugs. The policy is not binding except on the more stupid members of this group. If they don’t spend their charity handouts on dope, booze and carcinogens they won’t be penalised.

The claim that legal restrictions do not impact on drug buse is wrong given the evident success of increased interdictions in 2001 which markedly reduced heroin use.

It is interesting that the libertarian lot over at Catallaxy (who preach the case for individual responsibility, rational choice etc ad nauseam) also object to John Howards’s outrageous suggestion not to let junkies spend their dollars as they choose.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Efficiency considerations do not justify judicial murder

I am opposed to capital punishment in all situations. Terrorists who kill civilians make me feel close to ambivalent - if Bin Laden or his associates died I would not mourn - but still, on balance, I don't believe the state should kill people. My belief is moral - it is not based on a cost-benefit analysis of the death costs versus deterrance effects. To the contrary I think that potential killers might be deterred by the prospect of judical killings so that capital punishment is probably efficient even if it isn't just.

This New York Times discussion looks at some recent work on the issue.

Private costs of cigarette smoking

From Andrew Leigh I learned of a remarkable new paper by W. Kip Viscusi and Joni Hersch on the private costs of cigarette smoking. Only the summary is available at the link though you can download the whole paper if you have a university email address.

This is important research and first-rate applied economics with huge policy implications.

The private costs of cigarette smoking are the costs a smoker bears themselves as a consumer – mainly here the purchase costs plus the costs of ill-health and increased mortality.

There can be contrasted with the external costs of smoking which society bears as a consequence of smoking – these are mainly the extra health care costs - beyonf those borne by thye individual - that society picks up as a consequence of smoking and the very real costs of passive smoking.

These external costs are significant even if tax yields from excise charges on smoking exceed their implied monetary valuation of the externalities. Try telling a wife that her lung cancer death is offset in value by the extra taxes that her smoker husband contributed to the public purse. Moreover since a Pigovian tax is directed at marginal damages there is no reasohn for supposing that efficiency requires tax bills to equal non-internalised costs.

But in straight numerical terms - adapting a human capital viewpoint - the private costs of smoking are much more significant than these externality costs. It is the reason that I emphasise the role of private costs in my own arguments against smoking. Of course if you follow the libertarian view that people rationally weigh up all the costs of smoking and then smoke as freely-chosen, rational decision you won’t buy an emphasis on private costs at all. But I have never believed that smoking involves acts of rational choice.

A more accurate description would be that smoking is an act of adolescent folly that smokers continue to pay for over the rest of their lives because of the addictive character of nicotine.

I follow Andrew in quoting the abstract of the Viscusi and Hersch paper.

This article estimates the mortality cost of smoking based on the first labor market estimates of the value of statistical life by smoking status. Using these values in conjunction with the increase in the mortality risk over the life cycle due to smoking, the value of statistical life by age and gender, and information on the number of packs smoked over the life cycle, produces an estimate of the private mortality cost of smoking of $222 per pack for men and $94 per pack for women in 2006 dollars, based on a 3% discount rate. At discount rates of 15% or more, the cost decreases to under $25 per pack.

The figures suggest that the single packet of cigarettes purchased for about $12 would end up costing a consumer around $222 in total at reasonable discount rates once health costs are factored in. The estimated cost per packet is about 10 times the cost of earlier estimates by Sloan that have been discussed before on this blog. I’ve always found a cost in the order of $20 per packet to be about right. Ignoring discounting then if, as Sloan et al assume, a male loses 4.4 years of life as a smoker compared to a comparable person who does not smoke and this life is valued at $100,000 per year then the total cost is $440,000. If one smokes a packet of cigarettes per day over 40 years then 14,600 packets are consumed altogether which works out at about $30 per pack.

The much higher figures of Viscusi and Hersch arise because they account for the fact that smoking doesn't just kill people at the end of their statistical lives. Significant numbers of younger people die too as a consequence of smoking – this recognition accounts for about half the difference in these costs estimates from much lower earlier estimates.

Viscusi has in the past been criticised by some for minimising the impact of smoking by emphasising the role of external costs of smoking (such as passive smoking) which are small relative to other costs. He argues in 'Smoke Filled Rooms' that smokers know about the consequences of smoking and internalise costs, pay enough cigarette taxes to far more than cover their personal health costs and hence should be left alone. I wonder if he now revises his views. He should - it strains rationality to believe that men are internalising accurately costs of $222 per pack when they buy a packet of fags.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A 'new' bird species for Australia?

Last year on 10th November I had a wonderful day’s bird-watching around Atherton in Queensland. Late in the afternoon we saw a pair of Painted Snipe at Hasties Swamp. In total I saw 107 species that day the final birds being an elegant pair of Jabiru in the swamp next to Cairns airport.

Today, almost exactly a year later, Allen Gillanders this morning has claimed to have spotted a Green sandpiper in the same Hasties Swamp. The GS likes freshwater swamps.
This discovery, if confirmed, is exciting news for bird watchers – a new bird species for Australia. (Correction : Andrewt states in the comments that a first sighting was confirmed in 1998). There will be a mass exodus of twitchers from all over Australia to Cairns if the sighting is confirmed.

The GS is a migratory wader which breeds in Sub-Arctic Europe and Asia and normally does not get further south in its annual migration that the Malay Peninsula. It has been spotted once in Papua.

By the way Salon has an entertaining review of Scott Weidensaul’s history of bird watching in America ‘Of a Feather’. This is similar in some respects to the Australian history. Bird observers in the US - as in Australia - originally confirmed their sightings by shooting the birds they saw. It seemed 'reasonable' because there were so many of them. There aren't now.

Pac-Man defence: Rio to gobble BHP-Billiton?

This is weird – a rumour from the Wall Street Journal suggests that Rio Tinto may turn on its pursuer and attempt to takeover BHP-Billiton. This has intricate implications since Rio Tinto originally rejected BHP-Billiton’s offer to take it out on the grounds that the 3 BHP-Billion share offer for 1 Rio Tinto shares undervalued Rio Tinto. Rio Tinto would have to pay a huge reverse premium over this to get BHP-Billiton itself.

It is likely that both firms are undervalued but this squabble looks like a conflict over exercising control rather than maximising shareholder value.

What it does show is that Rio Tinto is worried the BHP-Billiton bid might win.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Amcor & Visy - more spy-vs. spy intrigues

This conflict gets richer and richer, deeper and deeper. Recall that Visy has just been fined $36 million for colluding with Amcor to restrict competition within the cardboard packaging industry.

Visy’s Richard Pratt has been publicly disgraced but Amcor has not been levied with anti-trust penalties on the grounds that it blew the whistle first on the cartel arrangement. The ACCC chairman, Graeme Samuel argued too that Visy was the prime mover in establishing the cartel.
Initially, it seems, Amcor tried to set prices so high that they were implausible and Visy responded with moves to undercut. Visy’s prices however remained high so Amcor undercut further and got the business. Visy got angry and Amcor squealed to the ACCC.

Richard Pratt claimed that the cartel was a ruse and the intent was to make Amcor relax and to then go behind its back to steal market share. A Federal Court judge, Peter Heerey, described this as the ‘John le Carre defence’.

Now in today’s Australian it is claimed that Amcor’s sacked CEO Russell Jones had told the ACCC that Amcor had initiated the price-fixing deal with Visy because it was frightened of its more dominant competitor. ‘Pratt ran a very aggressive and effective company that had a far better manufacturing footprint than Amcor had, and he would take work from Amcor almost at will…it was quite clear to me there was no other way (than to collude)’.

Does who did what first matter? Probably not a lot. No-one is pretending that Amcor was an angel in this setting. The intent of the ‘first whistleblower’ exemption from prosecution ruling is to exploit instabilities in cartel arrangements so that (i) that tend not to arise or, (ii) they tend to self-destruct quickly should they arise. Visy should not have acted illegally even if they believed Amcor was prepared to do so and future potential colluders will have to keep this sort of vulnerability in mind.

On the other hand it does seem strange that Visy entered into this arrangement with Amcor when they were evidently doing so well. Maybe Pratt really did have a secret plan to steal more of Amcor’s business.

This is a great business case study and deserving of thesis length treatment. I’d be interested in any takers.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


I am golfing Thursday at Rosanna so taking a break. A favourable poll for the Liberal Party would improve my putting. I am jangly at the prospect of ear-wax munches, rock stars and barren, leftist women running the country. Back Friday.

Thursday afternoon update: My putting was terrible. Curse Kevin Rudd and his popularity. But I did see a King parrot flying over on the 4th hole. Not a rare bird but I've never seen one before in this part of the Yarra River parklands.

Repeated me-tooism (climate change, education) & Labor deceit

As I have argued repeatedly Labor politicians are deceitful clowns.

A few weeks ago Peter Garrett announced that me-too-ism didn’t matter since Labor would tear up its promises once it got into office. He subsequently apologized and agreed he had been a dill.

Now Mike Kelly has announced that Labor will tear up its current education policies once it gets into office and reinstate Latham-style class-based warfare in education – the existing system of funding private schools was ‘a ridiculous approach to looking at the needs of schools, and we'll move away from that and get down eventually to a proper needs-based approach’. He subsequently apologized and agreed he had been a dill.

I think both Garrett and Kelly are being deceitful and that their original statements indicate their true intent.

So too does Andrew Bolt in a sprightly Herald-Sun article today. It is well worth reading and spot on.

‘….the day Rudd wins the election is the day I expect Labor's Left, in particular, to drop its who-me? smiles and start eating its leader alive'.
A great read.

Macquarie Bank's debt?

From The Australian some continued probing about the size of Macquarie Bank’s debt is still not providing answers. Is it as Jim Chanos asserts around $90 billion and is it the case, as I asked a few weeks ago, that Macquarie Bank is a Ponzi scheme destined to collapse?

This would leave its current managers drenched in wealth but its shareholders with nothing. Macquarie yesterday reported a strong financial performance over the past year though things slowed in the second half a bit.

River red gums at risk from cowardly Labor environmental policies

From The Age on the tragic fate of Victorian River red gum forests. 70% of these forests in the Murray-Darling Basin are in decline. I have already posted on the need to boost environmental water flows to these forests – they need a decent drenching every few years - but Victorian Premier Mr Brumby has declined to agree to this. It is hard to deal with farmer support for environmental destruction in the midst of a drought.

Farmers are calling for increased support during the drought when what they should be doing is facing up to is higher water costs.

Heads of private schools ask for more from parents & less from government

From The Age some heads of private schools have lashed out at the proposal by John Howard to allow non-means-tested tax rebates to parents of all students attending school. These heads do not of course pay fees – they receive them.

I hope the councils of the schools concerned will stand up for parent rights and give these principals a well deserved boot in the rear-end. These principals are renowned for taking advantage of a non-competitive environment and extracting every last dollar they can from parents of their students.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Four Corners on Federal Election - worth watching

I missed the Four Corners show, last Monday, on the forthcoming election. I went to the ABC website and saw this very fair interview painting a gloomy prospect for the Coalition from the beautiful Laura Tingle who I read in the AFR. I thought George Megalogenis from The Australian was good too though he is not nearly attractive as Laura. .

The main argument from both is simply that the gap in the increased support for Labor over the Coalition has not diminished. The amazingly high approval ratings of John Howard – particularly on economic issues are a central puzzle. The mortgage belt are frightened about interest rates and WorkChoices. Kevin Rudd is imitating John Howard by looking for consensus on issues that Labor would otherwise lose votes on – notice no arguments on Iraq or border protection. Good economic news and high economic growth rates support Labor – because it makes it is safe to change government.

Oh and what a disasterous bull-artist Kevin Rudd is! A glib, mealy-mouthed, electoral success story. Our next PM - Australians, come to your senses!

It was great journalism and incisive reporting from the Four Corners journalists. The ABC did a great job. The show itself worth looking at in full – again high-quality journalism. Great photography and the ingenious use of a sample of 5 marginal voters – though a small sample – covered the issues beautifully.

Howard me-toos Rudd but gives insufficient support to private schools

Mr Howard’s promise to provide tax deductions for 40% of education expenses up to a maximum of $800 per student matches the promises of the ear-wax muncher but does not significantly help adults sending their children to private schools. Costs of mid-range private schools range between $8,000-$20,000 annually per student and are a crippling cost for those seeking to avoid the public school system. On this issue I am an expert.

It is obvious that since 1996 Australian parents have lost faith in the public school system with their union-ridden closed shop attitudes. Yes, keep the mainly-free public system operating but encourage an alternative.

Making private education costs fully tax deductible would provide a real Australian education revolution driven by private sector incentives. Some of the cost of the proposal would be offset by reduced reliance of private schools on public monies that would leave the dwindling public school system better funded.

ADHD & treatments using drugs

Your children have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)? In the long-term they will be no better off using dangerous drugs like Ritalin or Concerta than behavioral therapies according to a study of 600 ADHD sufferers in the UK.

ADHD medications are widely prescribed in Australia - for some reason rates of prescription are 5X the average in WA. I agree with Dr. Aitkins - parents whose children have ADHD should monitor their sugar consumption.

Update: This report from today's New York Times suggests that kids with ADHD and other behavioral disorders suffer a lag in their development not a permanent impairment. Give them help but, most of all, give them time.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Supporting the right in the face of leftist barbarism

I am often criticised for supporting John Howard and the Liberal Party. Many people in the blogosphere think that for some reason it is idiosyncratic, and even somewhat perverse, to support a political party which has gained the majority support of the Australian population over four successive Federal elections and whose leader has been overwhelmingly popular in the electorate over that period.

This prejudiced view shows how narrow-minded and out of touch the crazy section of the Australian left has become. It also shows the contempt they feel for Australian public opinion and their need for abuse in dealing with figures such as the Prime Minister. He is a ‘liar’, ‘a rodent’ and so on. He deceives the ignorant masses and tricks his way into power.

Howard is none of these things. He is a decent and widely respected Australian who would never descend to the depths of the leftwing rabble. He has won successive elections because most Australians like him and his policies. Backing Howard and the Liberal Party is backing a consensus view in Australian politics - not an extreme one.

I generally can’t be bothered reading the diatribes on left-wing blogs. These sites do have some excellent writers and some good posts but, in the main, they operate as echo chambers where fanatics reinforce each other’s fantasies.

This sites do contain some really unpleasant posts. Let me pick on just one recent effort by Ken Lovell on Road to Surfdom to illustrate my point. This is a particularly ugly diatribe criticising John Howard’s decision to lay a wreath on Remembrance Day on the grounds that Howard is politicising the occasion. That he has been doing it every year for a decade or more matters little. Nor does it matter that a batch of Labor politicians are doing the same thing. This is the strident voice of one-eyed hypocrisy.

KL sees Howard on this occasion as displaying:

‘ ... creeping opportunism, his cynical expediency, his tawdry instinctive lunge for the cheap immediate party-political point-scoring over any thought of the national interest … along with all that must be reckoned Howard’s destruction of the office of Governor-General’. (my bold)
The sentence shows, more than anything, KL’s preference for exaggerated, derogatory language. In a break from his linguistic barbarism KL solemnly sees Remembrance Day as a day:

‘that above all calls for ceremonies that bring us all together in a solemn spirit of remorse and shame at the youth and the beauty and the joy of living that was sacrificed upon the altar of old men’s pride and avarice
Note how KL terms a solemn occasion into a populist anti-war rant involving 'old men's pride and avarice'. What a shocking statement to make about our fallen war dead and the reasons for their deaths. KL, moreover, knows who should have carried out this ceremony – it is not our elected PM but the unelected Head of State:

‘Someone of the order of Zelman Cowen or Bill Deane or Roden Cutler who can find the words and the manner to express the better part of what we feel as Australians’

Instead KL sees John Howard involved in the ceremony which disgusts him. This is what KL wrote:
‘Needless to say, he (i.e. JWH) seized the opportunity to wrap himself in the flag and talk a lot about the sacrifice and suffering of those whom he had bravely sent off to fight in the Middle East … thereby subliminally reminding us all of course of the importance of re-electing a Strong Liberal Government who can be relied on to keep fighting the War on Terror.

What a slimy, self-regarding, small, repugnant, grub of a man. Four weeks into an election campaign this worm has the indecency to stand up and pretend to speak for all Australians on the most solemn occasion in our calendar … a few minutes before he throws himself back into the partisan fray of lies and deception and divisiveness’. (my bold)

This is ugly language and largely deceit. JWH didn’t ‘talk a lot’ about those he had ‘bravely’ sent off to fight. Note the twisted, political viewpoint KL pushes here in the midst of his ‘respect’ for this solemn occasion. The language is as ugly as anything I have seen for a while - KL has problems in articulating a sensible view of what happened because of his deep hatred for Howard.

Howard had, in fact, reminded us that two soldiers recently died in Afghanistan. Moreover, to the inevitable response that Kevin Rudd leader of the Labor Party was doing much the same thing at the same time – he laid a wreath at King’s Park in Perth - KL writes:

‘...but in Rudd’s defence I have to say that if he hadn’t, he was certainly risking 48 hours worth of vicious mud-slinging from Howard’s amoral vacuous baying media leeches about his insensitivity to the fallen.

If Howard had any decency at all he would have declined invitations to participate in these ceremonies and urged Kevin Rudd to do likewise. It’s a job ideally suited to state governors and the Governor-General. But there was never any chance of that happening … not when the little shit could get some footage in the nightly news being Father of Our Nation’. (my bold)

Words run away from KL here and Rudd is not acting indecently he is just avoiding criticism. The intemperate language and narky criticisms scarcely suggest KL is well-equipped linguistically to be the left’s Miss Manners but he continues with advice to the incoming PM:

‘The incoming prime minister will have many opportunities to begin to restore this country’s dignity and decency. One will be to appoint a successor to Michael Jeffery who can be an eloquent and inspirational symbol of national unity on those occasions that transcend the grubby pissant politics which obsess the John Howards of this world’. (my bold)
This nonsense gets an award for some of the most tasteless tripe I have seen all year. KL does exactly what he wrongly accuses Howard of doing – politicising a solemn occasion where we honour our dead. Hence KL is a hypocrite - he does exactly what he criticises others of doing. He is also a narky buffoon - he sacrifices a solemn occasion to vent his hatred for John Howard. It is a commentary that displays prejudice, and the foul-mouthed stupidity of the worst of the riff-raff who support this end of politics. The comments made on the post at the Road to Surfdom site are just as stupid and unpleasant – a couple of them bemoan the fact that a majority of Australians have backed Howard! I wonder if they have the intelligence to understand the implications of what they are saying.

In fact, what Howard said at the Remembrance Day memorial service is accurately reported here. What he did refer to was the fact that two Australians have been tragically killed in Afghanistan during the current election campaign. There was no political element in it at all or any appeal to back one side or the other that anyone other than a leftwing grub could pick up.

I am happy to retain my preference for civilised people and civilised discourse on the right. The left convince no-one but themselves with this type of 'analysis'. If Kevin Rudd wins the forthcoming election it will be no thanks to this bunch. Indeed Rudd would retain towards them the same contempt that I do.

Urban population trends

Bernard Salt’s Population Growth Report 2007 for KPMG (I could not yet find an online version) makes interesting reading. Melbourne has joined the ranks of Australia’s fastest growing capital cities with nearly double the growth rate of Sydney and close to the growth rates of boom cities like Perth and Brisbane. But the Queensland coastline still holds the centres with maximum population growth – Cairns in particular is growing at twice the rate of Brisbane.

With current growth rates Melbourne would be the largest city in Australia in 20 years – returning Melbourne to its 19th century status as Australia’s largest and most popular city. Of course these projections presuppose no change in relative housing costs which would be quite unrealistic.

Around Australia the main competition for rapidly growing coastal areas and for 'sea changers' comes from city centres. The trend is strong everywhere but particularly in Melbourne and Brisbane. Young couples are living in apartments close to city centres to minimise their commuting costs.

The standout area is Sydney where some municipalities (Campbelltown, Fairfield) actually lost people as young adults leave older parents to live elsewhere. Indeed Sydney’s centre continues to grow while its periphery is shedding people.

The experience Salt identifies correlates with quite a bit of experience. Melbourne property prices grew strongly last year while Sydney prices did not. Still Sydney property prices remain very high. I was struck by this headline in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday while visiting - over the past year 570 government grants for first home buyers were given to people buying $1 million plus valued properties – a 44% increase over the previous year. It is a stunning figure.

My subjective feeling (no real evidence) is that Sydney housing on average is of higher quality than Melbourne's - houses in Sydney have often been renovated several times and the physical beauty of Sydney as an urban setting is not arguable. Melbournians gloat about their beautiful gardens but Sydney, with its milder climate, has some of the best urban gardens I have seen anywhere.

My main objection to Sydney as a place to live, apart from housing costs, is the cost of making journeys by road. A visit to the local shopping centre can be a congested nightmare in many suburbs. My impression of the train and bus services in the city are however generally very positive. The exception that has impacted on me is on the far north side areas where public transport is almost non-existent late in the evening. On the other hand if I owned a house at Palm Beach I probably wouldn't ever want to leave and would presumably have enough money that I could afford not to do so!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Happy 90th birthday Alison

I am delighted to be attending my mum, Alison’s, 90th birthday celebration in Sydney tomorrow. It is a total buzz for me. She is a great mum and a wonderful grandmother to her 5 grandchildren.

Being 90 years old is a big deal and is interesting demographically. For someone born in 1917 it is an accomplishment to reach age 90. The expected lifespan for a female born in that year was a smidgeon under 60. For a man it was around 58.

If you go to the AIHW web site, life expectancy for men and women has increased 20 years during the 90 years Alison has lived. Roughly 1 year’s extra life every 5 years.

Are these facts not interesting? Alison was still an infant when the Great War ended in 1918. She was not quite 12 when Wall St crashed in 1929. She was 22 when Hitler invaded Poland and 28 when the Soviet Union invaded Berlin to end the war in Europe. She celebrated her 50th birthday when Ming Menzies ended his second record term as Australian Prime Minister.

I could go on but the point I want to make is that when you are 90 years old you have seen a lot and have acquired a lot of knowledge. Alison has a lot of knowledge and, although she is physically a bit frail, she maintains all of her marbles. She is an astute observer of human nature and a canny stock-market punter whom I always listen to.

I am proud of her.

Defective teaching ethos in university economics

One prominent academic I know dislikes scientific exhibitions in museums (such as ScienceWorks in Melbourne) on the grounds that it makes 'science' seem too easy. The same academic dislikes the fact that I take my environmental economics students on fieldtrips to look at specific environmental problems. He thinks it is all a bit 'down-market'. He prefers Lagrangians to faeces in a pond or to birds nesting on remnant scraps of native vegetation.

These thoughts occur to me because I increasingly notice a trend among teachers of economics and finance in Australian universities towards what I would call educational sadism. It is the idea of deemphasising fact and institutions, accelerating the presentation of material so that the latest theory is used as exposition and generally making academic work as difficult and abstract as possible so that students have to jump really high intellectual hurdles to pass final exams. The secondary motivation these sadists come up with when pressed is that (i) education is a screening device designed to separate out an elite and (ii) that ultra-demanding quantitative courses that include huge volumes of material and vast numbers of concepts are necessary to provide intellectual fodder for doctoral programs. Doctoral graduates, in the main, re-enter academic life and become part of a new generation of educational sadists.

Indeed these new graduates often turn out to be worse than their teachers since they remember most clearly the most recent material they have learned and forget earlier motivational material. Hence they press advanced theory onto neophyte students and skip the motivational material on the grounds that the former is obvious to any ‘fool’ and can easily be omitted. Thus you can teach students about poverty by showing them a Lorenz curve or explain demand theory by solving an optimisation problem with Lagrange multipliers. You can teach students how firms finance themselves by means of counterexamples to the Modigliani-Miller theorem and so on. And if, as an older academic, you question any of this you are given a snappy impatient look that has a ‘take him off to the knackers yard’ feeling to it.

The difficulty with educational sadism is that it leaves out the most important component of a university education – namely learning. Don’t we all want students to understand what they are on about – not just to be able evaluate them? This amounts to asserting that education should impart human capital. It should not just be a screening device.

My view is that a lot of economics graduates from major Australian universities often do not understand much economics. Graduate level theses are often plodding applications of quantitative technique that show very little economics understanding. Graduate students operate often using only very restricted areas of their brain and are a rather frightened about encountering reality and indeed in considering applications of theory. Somehow we have sidelined the issue of thinking. Indeed understanding much about anything these days in a graduate thesis is problematic because understanding typically does not come into it. The result is a cut-and-dried world of lobotomised intelligence involving Lagrangians and Hamiltonians often with very little attempt to understand anything. Markets and market processes are often supressed.

Students who have spent 5 or 6 years studying economics are fearful of an elementary supply and demand argument but have no difficulty at all with a mechanical co-integration argument or an elaborate introspection using game theory. Time series econometrics and game theory have been among the destructive forces in modern economics. Applications of time series analysis in finance have the further distinction of being some of the most boring and thoughtless material you are ever likely to encounter in a university. They neither provide insight or illustrate intelligence.

Am I guilty of teaching sins myself? You bet I am – or at least I was. But I am a reformed character and I do try these days to think about my audience’s capabilities and my main desire is to instil learning. I am also primarily interested in the world – in the meat – not in models per se but in models designed to help us understand the world. My interest is the world. I like models that illuminate things and despise those models that don’t illuminate anything other than narrow, technical prowess.

For my sins - and my loud-mouthed claims on teaching - I have been put in charge of a first year microeconomics unit at my university for 2008 – a challenging assignment. It has made me think hard about what I think students should get from a first unit in microeconomics. I have examined a number of standard textbooks – they are all pretty much clones of the early text by Paul Samuelson - but am stunned with obvious sillyness in more modern approaches.

One of the texts has Powerpoint slides conveniently delivered by the book’s publishers and treats the theory of firm costs involving twenty new concepts in a one hour class with the really critical idea of marginal cost submerged in their somewhere. It is impossible for students to effectively internalise this amount of material in one hour.

I want a less cluttered introduction to microeconomics and will look for one.

The sickness I see in Australian economics instruction is something I will comment on in my blog over the coming months. I think things have gone right off track but I am prepared to listen to contrarty claims and to publish such as posts if there is interest.

One former Department chairman recently told me his honours students are told to pick a ‘paper’ and work on it for their honours dissertation. Why not ‘pick a problem?’ The same department rejected someone I would regard as the best young economics prospect in Australia on the grounds that he was too ‘policy-oriented’. The ideal it seems in these morgue-like departments is dry, uninteresting rubbish.

Our major local economics journal the Economic Record has lost its credibility and rejects anything that has policy relevance almost as a matter of principle. I recently did a literature research on the ‘Record in the 1950s and was stunned with the high quality and interest of the work in these early years. When I remarked on this to one of Australia’s most eminent economists he gave me an embarrassed look and said ’yes it was more interesting then’. And indeed it was. What has gone wrong?

Economics is an exciting discipline. I still believe that, despite my complaints where are attacks at the margin, there is no finer undergraduate university course a student can undertake. Theory, institutional understanding, history, politics, maths and statistics you get it all to at least some degree. A good economics courses should develop in a student the capacity to gaze at the world and to understand. This does involve theoretical understanding but it also involves knowledge of the world and institutions.

While I admire economics as a field that does not mean everything is fine about teaching it or about current research directions. Nor do the good aspects deny me the right to exercise a grizzle at current directions that I particularly dislike in economics teaching. Over the coming months I’ll try to offer some more constructive suggestions to improve things.