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John Quiggin

The worst case is happening

by John Quiggin on February 6, 2020

A couple of years ago, I published an article on why “extremely unlikely” climate events matter. The central point was that climate outcomes with a probability of 5 per cent or less (“extremely unlikely” in IPCC terminology) were still much more likely than risks we take seriously in our daily life, like dying in a car crash). As an illustration, at the time the piece was written, it seemed less than 5 per cent probable that, within two years, many countries in the world (including Australia) would see catastrophic fires on the scale of those that have actually happened.

I made this point in an interview for an ABC story on economists’ views of the likely costs of 3 to 4 degrees of climate change. Most of those interviewed agreed with me that the costs were likely to be much higher than suggested by economics Nobelist William Nordhaus (with whom John Horowitz and I had a debate in the American Economic Review quite a while ago). We pointed out, among other problems, that a paper he had co-authored implied an optimal July temperature of -146 degrees Fahrenheit.

Nordhaus declined an interview, but his viewpoint was represented by Richard Tol. Longstanding readers will remember Tol as a commenter here who eventually wore out his welcome.

The other point I made in the interview was that the abstruse debate about discount rates central to much of the debate between Nordhaus and Nicholas Stern has turned out to be largely irrelevant. The premise of that debate was that the costs of unmitigated climate change would be felt decades into the future while the costs of mitigation would be immediate.

As it’s turned out, the costs of climate change have arrived much sooner than we expected. And the only mitigation options adopted so far have been low cost or even negative cost choices like energy efficiency and abandoning coal (more than justified by the health costs of particulate pollution).

That doesn’t mean discount rates are completely irrelevant. If we manage to decarbonize the global economy by 2050, benefits will keep accruing well after that. But even if we stopped the analysis at 2050, we would still have a substantial net benefit. The likely cost of near-complete decarbonization now looks to be less than a two per cent reduction in national income. Reducing the frequency and severity of disasters like the bushfires will more than offset that.

Driving across the uncanny valley

by John Quiggin on February 5, 2020

In May last year, I posted a tally of successful and unsuccessful predictions, and was challenged in comments on my optimistic views about self-driving cars. I’ve said all I can about the fire apocalypse for now, so I thought I might check how things were going. That’s motivated largely by the belief that autonomous vehicles will almost certainly be electric, a view shared by GM CEO Mary Barro, according to this report.

The same report points to missed deadlines and delays, mostly caused by a small number of high-profile fatalities, all but one associated with Teslas on autopilot (Level 2 technology in the jargon)

That slowed things down enough to falsify my predictions. Neverthless, GM is now petitioning the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to allow up to 2500 completely driverless (no steering wheel or pedals) on the roads. At the same time, Google subsidiary Waymo claims to have started commercial operations of fully driverless (they prefer the term “rider only”) taxi services in its test area in the suburbs of Phoenix.

These are both small scale programs. The significance lies in the fact that they cross the uncanny valley of almost driverless (Level 3) technology with a human safety driver. The high-profile fatal crash that slowed things down in 2018 was caused by a distracted safety driver, and there’s no obvious way to overcome the problem of distraction in a vehicle that almost always drives itself.

The Waymo and GM vehicles are Level 4, capable of operating without any human intervention, but only in limited conditions (flat, sunny, Arizona suburbs). But, if the jump to fully driverless operation succeeds, it’s a matter of incremental steps to larger operating areas, a wider range of weather conditions and so forth. Given that they are being held to much higher standards than human drivers (who killed over 36000 people in 2018 without attracting much attention) the developers of AVs will have to be ultracautious in relaxing their operating constraints. But crossing the uncanny valley is the crucial step. If they succeed in that, the rest is a matter of time.

More news from the apocalypse

by John Quiggin on January 30, 2020

I’m still writing furiously (in both senses of the word) about climate change, the fire disaster in Australia and the responsibility the entire political right bears for this catastrophe, along with those of the centre and left who have shirked the struggle. Australian writer Richard Flanagan, in the New York Times, has compared our leaders to famous traitors like Benedict Arnold, Vidkun Quisling and Mir Jafar, and that’s a pretty good summary of how large numbers of Australians feel.

Over the fold, links to some of my latest commentary

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Libertarians Can’t Save the Planet

by John Quiggin on January 27, 2020

As promised, my article on climate change and the death of libertarianism/propertarianism, in Jacobin.

Conclusion

Global warming is the ultimate refutation of Lockean propertarianism. No one can pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while leaving “enough and as good” for everyone else. It has taken thirty years, but this undeniable fact has finally killed the propertarian movement in the United States.

Climate change and the strange death of libertarianism

by John Quiggin on January 18, 2020

It wasn’t that long ago that everyone was talking about the “libertarian moment” in the US. Now, libertarianism/propertarianism is pretty much dead. The support base, advocacy groups and so on have gone full Trumpists, while the intellectual energy has shifted to “liberaltarianism” or, a more recent variant, Tyler Cowen’s conversion to “state capacity libertarianism“.

Most of those departing to the left have mentioned the failure of libertarianism to handle climate change. It was critical for two reasons. First, any serious propertarian response would have required support ofr the creation of new property rights (emissions permits) and the restriction of existing ones (burning carbon). That would imply an acknowledgement that property rights are not natural relations between people (owners) and things (property). They are socially constructed relationships between people, allowing some people to use things and to stop other people from doing so. Second, the effort to deny the necessary implications of climate change inevitably resulted in denial of the scientific evidence that climate change was occurring. That contributed to a situation where most former libertarians are now Trumpists, happy to deny the evidence of their own eyes if that’s what the leader requires of them.

I’m working on a longer article spelling all this out. In the meantime, comments welcome.

Consumed by fire

by John Quiggin on January 11, 2020

It’s been hard to think straight with the fires that have burned through most of Australia for months. Brisbane was among the first places affected, with the loss of the historic Binna Burra lodge, on the edge of a rainforest, a place where no one expected a catastrophic fire. But, as it turned out, we got off easy compared to the rest of the country. Heavy rain in early December helped to put out the fires in Queensland, and we can expect the delayed arrival of the monsoon in the near future. By contrast, southern Australia normally has hot, dry summers and this has been the hottest driest year ever. The increased likelihood of catastrophic fire seasons was evident when I started work on this topic back in 2012 [1], and the risks for this year were pointed out to the government months in advance. The warnings went unheeded for two reasons.

First, the government had been re-elected partly on the basis of a promise (economically nonsensical, but politically powerful) to return the budget to surplus. Any serious action to prepare for and respond to a bushfire catastrophe would wipe that out, as indeed has almost certainly happened now.

Second, any serious assessment would have to focus on the fact that climate change is causing large-scale losses in Australia right now. The government is a combination of denialists and do-nothingists, neither of whom are willing to address the issue.

Of course, Australia is only a small part of the problem. Our government’s policies are helping to promote climate catastrophes in the US, Brazil and other places, and theirs are returning the favor. A policy shift in any one of these countries, with no change elsewhere, would make little difference to the country concerned. That’s the nature of a collective action problem. But on any ordinary understanding of justice, we are reaping what we, and the governments we’ve elected, have sown.

Over the fold, some links to pieces I’ve written on this topic.

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Intersectionality vs dominant identity politics*

by John Quiggin on December 31, 2019

Shorter JQ: Although the idea of intersectionality emerged on the left as a solution to problems involving class and identity politics, it turns out to the be the natural response to the rise of dominant identity politics on the right.

As I see it, intersectionality combines a recognition that people are oppressed both through the economic structures of capitalism and as members of various subordinate groups with a rejection of both:

  • “essentialist” identity politics, based on the claim that some particular aspect of identity (gender, race, sexuality, disability etc) should trump all others; and
  • “working class” politics, presented as a politics of universal liberation, but reduced by the failure of revolutionary Marxism to another kind of identity politics (I took this formulation from Don Arthur on Twitter. I had something to say about class and Marxism a while back)

The point about intersectionality is that there many kinds of oppression and injustice, and they interact in complex, more than additive, ways. The resulting political strategy for the left is not so much that of a “rainbow coalition” of distinct identity groups but a kaleidoscope in which different facets come to the fore at different times and places.

Now think about dominant/default identity politics (I’ll use the US/Australian version, but other versions can be obtained just by changing the dominant identity). The key idea, is that well-off, white, Christian men are being oppressed by virtue of challenges to their natural position of dominance, and rejection of their natural expectation of deference.

The central claim is also addressed to white Christian women, particularly married women, who are assumed to identify their interests with those of their families.

Looked at this way, the claims of dominant/default identity politics are the exact opposite of those underlying intersectionality. The more someone deviates from the “typical” American/Australian, the more they are seen as benefiting unfairly from social welfare systems, anti-discrimination policy and so on.

The right (along with much of the centrist commentariat,least until recently) at mostly fails to understand its relationship with intersectionality, in two ways.

First, they mostly don’t recognise their own politics as identity politics, though this is changing. This recognition is welcome for overt white supremacists, but more problematic for those who want to retain the illusion that their movement is based on broad ideological principles.

Second, they miss the point of intersectionality completely, seeing it as just old-style identity politics on steroids. That’s unsurprising, since they never paid much attention to disputes within the left over class and identity politics, and have used “identity politics” as a rhetorical cudgel.

How will all this develop? As white Christians become a minority, the implied political strategy is a combination of political mobilization for rightwing whites and voter suppression for everyone else. If this succeeds, we’ll be well on the path to dictatorship. If it fails, the right will need to expand the notion of acceptable identity, a path proposed, and then abandoned, after their 2012 election defeat.

  • As usual from me, amateur analysis, probably unoriginal and possibly wrong. Feel free to point this out in comments.

Tolerance, acceptance, deference, dominance

by John Quiggin on December 27, 2019

Warning: Amateur sociological/political analysis ahead

I’ve been thinking about the various versions of and critiques of identity politics that are around at the moment. In its most general form, identity politics involves (i) a claim that a particular group is not being treated fairly and (ii) a claim that members of that group should place political priority on the demand for fairer treatment. But “fairer” can mean lots of different things. I’m trying to think about this using contrasts between the set of terms in the post title. A lot of this is unoriginal, but I’m hoping I can say something new.

Starting from the left (in more senses than one), tolerance involves the removal of legal barriers to being recognised as a participating member of the community, with legal freedom from persecution, voting rights, property rights and so on. Women, gays, religious minorities and people of colour have all had to struggle to obtain this recognition. But, as has been pointed out many times, mere legal tolerance is demeaning and discriminatory. Identity politics involves a demand not merely for tolerance but for acceptance.

Jumping to the right, the idea of tolerance implies the existence of a dominant group that does the tolerating, either as a result of moral suasion or as a response to political pressure. Moving from tolerance to acceptance implies an erosion of that dominance. It becomes unacceptable for members of the formerly dominant group to express or act on the view that the other group is inferior: such views, once expressed openly without fear of adverse consequences, are now criticised as racist, misogynistic, homophobic.

The most difficult term in the series is deference. In sociology/anthropology, it’s typically used in counterpoint with “dominance”, as the attitude displayed by one submitting to dominance. But in the context of identity politics, I think there’s something more subtle going on.

Members of the formerly dominant group may be willing to extend acceptance to others, but they still expect a kind of deference in return. Most obviously, they expect to be treated as the default identity for the community as a whole, as “typical”, “real”, “true”, Americans, Australians, Finns or whatever.

When that expectation of deference is not fulfilled, the choices are to accept the new situation, or to support what might be called default identity politics. More or less inevitably, that implies an alliance with those who want to reassert or restore the group’s dominant position: racists, theocrats, and so on, depending on which aspect of the dominant identity is being challenged.

That makes default identity politics a “double or nothing” bet. If it’s political successful, it’s dragged further and further towards entrenched minority rule by members of the dominant racial or religous group, and typically towards some form of personal dictatorship. If it’s unsuccessful, the divisions it creates risks a reversal of the previous order. Instead of being accepted as one element of a diverse community, the formerly dominant group becomes the object of hostility and derision. The signs of that are certainly evident, particularly in relation to the culture wars around religion.

The Day after Brexit (repost from 2016)

by John Quiggin on December 14, 2019

Now that Brexit is almost certainly going to happen, I’m reposting this piece from late 2016, with some minor corrections, indicated by strike-outs. Feel free to have your say on any aspect of Brexit.

Since the collapse of faith in neoliberalism following the Global Financial Crisis, the political right has been increasingly dominated by tribalism Trumpism. But in most cases, including the US, this has so far amounted to little more than Trilling’s irritable mental gestures. To the extent that there is any policy program, it is little more than crony capitalism. Of all the tribalist Trumpist groups that have achieved political power the only ones that have anything amounting to a political program are the Brexiteers.

The sustainability of tribalism Trumpism as a political force will depend, in large measure, on the perceived success or failure of Brexit. So, what will the day after Brexit (presumably, sometime in March 2019) look like, and more importantly, feel like? I’ll rule out the so-called “soft Brexit” where Britain stays in the EU for all practical purposes, gaining some minor concessions on immigration restrictions. It seems unlikely and would be even more of an anti-climax than the case I want to think about.

It’s easy to imagine a disaster, and maybe that will happen. But suppose everything goes relatively smoothly. That is, Britain leaves the EU and the single market, but gets deals in place that keep trade flowing smoothly, retains visa-free travel for visitors and so on.

What will the day after feel like?

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Virtue signalling and vice signalling

by John Quiggin on December 5, 2019

One of the stranger terms of political abuse to enter the lexicon in recent years is “virtue signalling”. It’s used almost exclusively by the political right and covers many different kinds of statements, actions and policies, mostly associated with the culture wars.

A particularly striking feature of this is that, until recently, “virtue” was a term primarily associated with the right. Bill Bennett (Education Secretary under GW Bush) had a big hit with The Book of Virtues back in the 1990s. He’s now an apologist for Trumpism.

It’s too complicated to cover all aspects of this in one post, but it may be useful to compare two symbolic actions

  • displaying a rainbow flag; and
  • wearing a MAGA hat.

Clearly the term “virtue signalling” would be applied only to the first of these. And this is not just a matter of semantics, as it would be if the left had a corresponding term.

People who display the rainbow flag are virtue signalling in the obvious sense of the word: the flag says something like “equal marriage is a good cause. I support it, and so should you”.

Normally, the opposing response would be to say “No, it’s not a good cause, and those who support it are wrong’

The problem for the right is that they don’t have any moral standing for a claim like this, and they know it. While many rightwingers undoubtedly believe homosexuality to be sinful, they know that this belief violates norms of equal treatment and personal freedom they claim to accept, and they therefore can’t put it forward without inviting condemnation, or at least rejection, including from their own side. So, they have to resort to terms like “virtue signalling”, in this case implying an ostentatious moral superiority, combined with hypocrisy.

And the same is true across the whole range of issues summed up in the cognate term “Social Justice Warrior”.

The MAGA hat is the mirror image of this. The MAGA hat
(unlike, say, an American flag lapel pin) is not a claim, legitimate or otherwise, to be a patriotic American. Rather, it’s a deliberately offensive statement of support for Trump’s racism, misogyny and corruption.

The whole point is to “trigger the libs” as Trump Jr’s recent book puts it. No claim to virtue is being put forward. It’s a pure piece of identity politics, making the assertion that the wearers should be treated as superior without having any actual justification for this claim, moral or otherwise. Again, this can’t be spelt out; being an explicit white nationalist remains beyond the pale, and the conduct of the Trumpists defies any credible defense.

So, the intellectual apologists of the right can only resort to tu quoque, making the claim, in various forms, that the left is just as bad as their own side. This started with the Republican War on Science, but is now virtually universal.

The point of ccusing other people of “virtue signalling” is to make this claim, without having to say what is wrong with the virtue being signalled.

Virtue signalling and hypocrisy

Most of the time, the accusation of “virtue signalling” includes an implicit connotation of “hypocrisy”. But then, why introduce a new and obscure term for something we have known about for millennia?

The answer is that hypocrisy is a specific accusation that can be backed up, or refuted, by evidence. For example, if a church leader who claims to be a Christian advocates locking up innocent children, the case is pretty clear-cut.

By contrast, “virtue signalling” is an insinuation rather than a factual claim. It doesn’t need to be backed up, and usually isn’t. If the person accused of virtue signalling on the basis of a symbolic action shows that they are in fact making costly efforts in support of their cause, these actions are just added to the charge sheet.

The charge of virtue signalling doesn’t rely on the actual inconsistencies of individuals. Rather it relies on in-group shared negative perceptions of out-groups (inner city latte sipping lefties and so on).

To restate the central point, accusations of virtue signalling aren’t meant to promote actual virtue over fraudulent signals: rather to argue against virtue and in favour of vice. Those who use the accusation want to score points in favor of behavior they aren’t willing to defend openly.

In all of this, it’s worth remembering the observation of La Rouchefoucald that “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue”. The accusation of virtue signalling represents the refusal of vice to pay this tribute.

Russia or California ?

by John Quiggin on November 23, 2019

Would Republican voters rather live under a government like that of Russia, or one like that of California? This sounds a bit like those polling questions we used to laugh at, such as the 2009 finding that 14% of New Jersey Republicans thought Obama was Antichrist and 15% weren’t sure. But it actually reflects the choice Republican voters may well be facing.

Update: I was worried that I might be going over the top with this post. Immediately after putting it up, I found Bret Stephens saying much the same thing, (substituting Ukraine for Russia) in the New York Times. Not that I need Stephens’ endorsement, but obviously these thoughts are in the air. Also, I think Noah Smith mentioned the California scenario a while back, but I couldn’t find where. End update

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What, if anything, is neoliberalism?

by John Quiggin on November 2, 2019

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

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

Some thoughts seventeen years later

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

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

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

Finally, my characteristic overoptimism shows up in various places.

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Arrogance destroyed the World Trade Organisation …

by John Quiggin on October 27, 2019

… what replaces it will be even worse. That’s the (slightly premature) headline for my recent article in The Conversation.

The headline will become operative in December, if as expected, the Trump Administration maintains its refusal to nominate new judges to the WTO appellate panel. That will render the WTO unable to take on new cases, and bring about an effective return to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) which preceded the WTO.

An interesting sidelight is that Brexit No-Dealers have been keen on the merits of trading “on WTO terms”, but those terms will probably be unenforceable by the time No Deal happens (if it does).

No true war is bad?

by John Quiggin on October 13, 2019

On Facebook, my frined Timothy Scriven pointed to an opinion piece by classics professor Ian Morris headlined In the long run, wars make us safer and richer It’s pushing a book with the clickbaity title War! What is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.”. Timothy correctly guessed that I wouldn’t like it.

Based on the headline, I was expecting a claim along the lines “wars stimulate technological progress” which I refuted (to my own satisfaction at any rate) in Economics in Two Lessons”. But the argument is much stranger than this. The claim is that war, despite its brutality created big states, like the Roman empire, which then delivered peace and prosperity.

For the classical world at 100 CE or so, the era on which Morris is an expert, that argument seemed pretty convincing. As the famous Life of Brian sketch suggests, Roman rule delivered a lot of benefits to its conquered provinces.

The next 1900 years or so present a bit of a problem, though. There have been countless wars in that time, and no trend towards bigger states. On the contrary two or three dozen states (depending on how you count them) now occupy the territory of the former Roman Empire.

You could cut the number down a bit by treating the European Union as a new empire, but then you have an even bigger problem. The EU was not formed through war, but through a determination to avoid it. Whatever you think about the EU in other respects, this goal has been achieved.

Morris avoids the problem by a “no true Scotsman” argument. He admits in passing that the 1000 years of war following the high point of Rome had the effect of breaking down larger, safer societies into smaller, more dangerous ones, but returns with relief to the era of true wars, in which big states always win. That story works, roughly, until 1914, when the empires he admires destroyed themselves, killing millions in the process.

After that, the argument descends into Pinker-style nonsense. While repeating the usual stats about the decline in violent deaths, Morris mentions in passing that a nuclear war could cause billions of deaths. He doesn’t consider the obvious anthropic fallacy problem – if such a war had happened, there would not be any op-eds in the Washington Post discussing the implications for life expectancy.

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The third lesson ?

by John Quiggin on October 9, 2019

Another review of Economics in Two Lessons has come out. It’s by David Henderson and appears in Regulation, published by the Cato Institute (link to PDF). There’s a blog post with extracts here.

Unsurprisingly, given the source, it’s mainly critical of the analysis, but still has some kind words about the book. This para gives the flavour

Quiggin is a good writer who lays out much of the economics well. His analysis of rent control and price controls in general is a thing of beauty. Along the way, though, he makes small and big mistakes. He also shows by omission that the book, to be complete, badly needs a third lesson, on why government works so badly even when it intervenes in cases where markets work badly.

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