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John Quiggin

Why price control doesn’t usually work

by John Quiggin on August 26, 2015

Another extract from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. You can find a draft of the opening sections here. To recap, the idea of the book is to begin with the idea that market prices represent opportunity costs for the households and business who face them (Lesson 1), and then go on to explain why market prices won’t in general equal opportunity costs for society as whole (Lesson 2). A lot of the book will be applications of the two lessons, and this section is an application of Lesson 1. The title of this section is self-explanatory, so I’ll throw it open for comments. Praise is welcome, useful criticism even more so.

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War and Technological Progress

by John Quiggin on August 22, 2015

One of the big benefits of blogging for me is the chance to try out my ideas on an audience I couldn’t easily reach (or at least hear back from) in any other way. That’s particularly true when I’m writing a book, which is always a difficult process for me. My last post, on the opportunity cost of war produced a great comments thread. Particularly useful was a discussion, started by Chris, of the oft-heard claim that war stimulates scientific and technological progress. I’ve used my response, along with points appropriated from commenters to draft a new section for the book, pointing out how this claim ignores the problem of opportunity cost.

As always, comments of (nearly) all kinds are appreciated, and useful ones may be recycled.

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The opportunity cost of war (slightly updated)

by John Quiggin on August 18, 2015

What is true of natural disasters is even more true of the disasters we inflict on ourselves and others. Of these human-made calamities, the greatest is war. The wars engaged in by the US, Australian and other governments come at the opportunity cost of domestic programs that could save thousands of lives every year. The cost of war, in terms of American (and Australian) lives, is many times greater than battlefield casualty counts would suggest.

That’s the theme of this extract from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.

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Are natural disasters economic disasters ?

by John Quiggin on August 14, 2015

Yes. This has been the latest in our series “Short Answers to Misconceived Questions”.

Actually, there’s a longer answer over the fold, another extract from my book-in-progress Economics in Two Lessons. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.

This extract is a subsection of Part 2, in which I explore the implications of Lesson 1:
Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.
The conclusion is

if the damage bill measures the cost of restoring assets to their pre-disaster condition, it is also equal to the opportunity cost of the disaster, namely the goods and services that would otherwise have been produced.

I’ll be interested to see whether readers’ reaction is “That’s obvious” or “That’s obviously wrong”, assuming of course that you have any reaction at all. As always, civil comments of all kinds are welcome, particularly constructive criticism.

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The generation game and the 1 per cent

by John Quiggin on August 5, 2015

For a generation (fifteen years) or more I’ve been writing and rewriting the same piece about the silliness of the “generation game”, the idea that one’s year of birth matters more than class, gender or race in determining life outcomes and attitudes. But this is a zombie idea that can never be killed.

Stephen Rattner in the New York Times is the latest example, with a piece showing that US Millennials (those born after 1980) are doing much worse than previous generations at the same age, despite higher levels of education. Rattner notes the role of the recession, now nearly a decade old, but then jumps to the conclusion that it is the Baby Boomers, as a group, who are to blame. His only evidence for this is the long-discredited claim of a looming crisis in Social Security.

Rattner doesn’t present any evidence about the recent experience of non-Millennials, but his piece leaves the impression that the experience of doing worse than older cohorts at the same age is uniquely Millennial. So I thought I’d do his work for him, and dug out this graph prepared by Doug Short HouseholdIncomeByAge As can be seen, the group suffering the biggest loss, relative to older cohorts at the same age, are those households with heads aged 45-54 in 2013, a mix of late Boomers (for aficianados, this group is called Generation Jones) and early X-ers. But the main point is that median household income is falling for all groups except the 65+ cohort (mostly called Silents in the generation game). Part of this is due to declining household size, but (IIRC) household size has stabilized recently as forming a new household has become less affordable.

Rattner doesn’t mention, even once, the obvious and well-known explanation for the fact that median income is falling while mean income rises. This can only occur if the distribution of income is becoming more skewed, with the top tail (the 1 per cent) benefiting at the expense of everyone else.

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The Senate (not that one) blocks the TPP

by John Quiggin on August 4, 2015

The failure of talks in Maui last weeks to reach final agreement on the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement raises new, if slim, hope that this corporate wishlist may not be delivered after all. Friday was the last chance to get a deal that could be pushed through the US Congress before 2016, when Presidential campaign politics might disrupt everything. If that happened, and the new President opposed the deal it might never happen.

Although there were a bunch of issues that prevented a final deal, the biggest one was the demand for new protection measures for US pharmaceuticals (typical of what are absurdly still called Free Trade Agreements), and the biggest single obstacle was the attitude of an obscure legislative chamber, the Australian Senate. This piece in Inside Story gives some of the background.

Demography and irreligion

by John Quiggin on July 30, 2015

A few months ago, I was a bit surprised to read a report put out by the Pew Research Center predicting that the proportion of the world population without a religious affiliation would decline sharply by 2050. The basic argument sounds plausible: an increase in the unaffiliated proportion of the population within countries will be more than offset by faster population growth in countries with higher rates of affiliation. The main points are presented in a peer-reviewed article in the journal Demographic Research, which suggests the analysis should be solid.

Still, I thought I would dig a bit, and found a longer version of the report here, including the projection that Christians would decline from 78.3 per cent of the US population in 2010 to 66.4 per cent in 2050. That seemed like a very slow rate of change, so I did some amateur demography of my own. I found another Pew report, released almost at the same time, which focused on the beliefs of Millennials (those born from 1981 onwards). This report showed that less than 60 per cent of Millennials currently report a Christian religious affiliation, compared to around 70 per cent of X-ers (born 1965 onwards) and much higher levels for older cohorts.
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Beyond Galilee

by John Quiggin on July 24, 2015

If there’s to be any chance of stabilizing the global climate, a large proportion of existing reserves of coal will need to be left in the ground. The Galilee Basin in Queensland, estimated to contain 27 billion tonnes of coal, enough to raise atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by several parts per million on its own, is arguably the biggest test case in the world right now. Fortunately, the latest news is good.

The critical project is the Carmichael Mine proposed by Indian conglomerate Adani . To get the coal out Adani proposed a new rail line and a port expansion at Abbot Point. A Korean conglomerate, POSCO (originally a steelmaker)m was named as the builder of the railroad, with the prospect that POSCO would take an equity share and the Korean Export-Import Bank would lend money on favorable terms. If the rail line is built, other projects could go ahead. One such project, owned by Bandanna Coal (now in receivership) was just approved by Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

It now seems clear that Adani is mothballing the project. A month ago, the engineering design teams were told to stop work, and now Posco’s contractors have been sent home. Coincidentally or otherwise, Posco has announced the intention to return to its steelmaking roots, with aggressive cuts to its engineering and construction divisions.

Adani is still blaming regulatory delays, but this seems increasingly implausible. The sacking of the engineering teams will set the project back many months, if not years, and burning your primary equity partner doesn’t seem like a sensible response to regulatory problems. At this point, I’d say the strategy is to obtain and bank the regulatory approvals then hope that the price of coal increases in the future. This seems unlikely, given the collapse of demand in the US, declining demand in China and increasing Indian focus on renewables, in which Adani itself is a big player.

Moreover, with every year that passes, the obstacles to coal projects of any kind get bigger. Most international development banks will no longer lend to such projects, global banks are under similar pressure and institutional equity investors are being pushed to divest. It’s unlikely that the proponents of new coal projects in Australia will ever again see a government as favorable as the Abbott government, so if they can’t succeed now, they will probably never do so.

I’m now coming up to (what I hope will be) the most challenging part of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. The core theoretical point the first part of the book (Lesson 1) is that, under a set of ideal assumptions, competitive equilibrium prices both reflect and determine the opportunity costs faced by consumers and produces. This means that there is no way to rearrange consumption to make someone better off unless someone else is made worse off. (I’ve already mentioned my reasons for avoiding the term “Pareto-optimal” in this context.

What I’m trying to do here is to spell out the logic underlying these results in a way that foreshadows the discussion of market failure and income distribution, in Lesson 2, but still shows the power of market mechanisms. I’ll probably need a few goes at this, and this is my first try. Critical comments on everything from the underlying theory to editorial nitpicks are welcome. Sincere praise is also welcome of course, but constructive criticism is best of all. [click to continue…]

After Melos

by John Quiggin on July 15, 2015

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s been thinking about the words Thucydides assigns to the Athenians in the Melian dialogue

The strong do as they will and the weak suffer what they must
And I knew the immediate context. Militarily powerful Athenians demanded that the inhabitants of neutral Melos surrender their city and pay tribute. When the Melians refused, Athens invaded, slaughtered the men and enslaved the women and children.

I didn’t however, have any broader context in which to place this episode, even though the information is readily available on Wikipedia for example, which is my source here (apologies in advance to any actual experts for inaccuracies). The story begins with the formation of the Delian League, an expression of Greek unity in the war against Persia. The Athenians used the League to supplant Sparta as the hegemon of Greece, and then to oppress the other members, leading to a series of attempted defections. In Thucydides words

Of all the causes of defection, that connected with arrears of tribute and vessels, and with failure of service, was the chief; for the Athenians were very severe and exacting, and made themselves offensive by applying the screw of necessity

Eventually, this policy led to the outbreak of war with the Spartan-led Pelopennesian League (this war was Thucydides’ subject). The attack on Melos took place during a brief period of peace about half way through the war. The war ended with Athens being utterly defeated. Only the mercy of the Spartans prevented the Athenians sharing the fate they had meted out to the Melians a decade earlier, as Sparta’s allies demanded.

Rather than extract analogies to current events, I’d like to observe that the historical setting suggests a very different reading of the dialogue to that commonly seen today. In most of the contemporary discussions I’ve read, the Athenian side of the dialogue is presented as embodying the remorseless logic of power politics. But in the light of the outcome (well known to his intended readers), it seems to me Thucydides is better read as showing the Athenians as subject to the kind of hubris that demands, and inevitably receives, punishment. By contrast, while the Melians made a bad bet in resisting, their arguments are entirely sound, and should have been convincing to a rational hegemon.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.

Bluffed

by John Quiggin on July 14, 2015

Obviously, my analysis of the Greek debt crisis was wrong. My crucial error was the assumption that, having held the referendum and being faced with an unacceptable offer, Tsipras would choose exit from the euro rather than capitulation. Judging by this interview with Varoufakis (H/T Chris), that’s what Tsipras thought too, until, too late, Varoufakis told him it couldn’t be done. Certainly Tsipras’ actions were consistent with that interpretation.

Syriza has clearly been beaten. But I doubt that the outcome will work well for the other side in the long run. (Nearly) everyone understands that the debt can’t ultimately be repaid. But the German voting public hasn’t been told that. A deal that had some kind of quasi-automatic mechanism for writing down the outstanding balance (for example, by multiplying up the proceeds from asset sales) might have got around this problem. As it is, an explicit writedown will be needed at some point, presumably after Syriza has been forced out of office. That will be incredibly unpopular in Germany, while making clear to everyone else the locus of sovereignty in the post-crisis EU.

Update Commenters generally disagree with my take on the Varoufakis interview. I’m not wedded to it. The crucial point is that exit from the euro is extremely difficult, and that this fact will be used to punish any eurozone country that tries to resist the controlling powers.

TISATAAFL

by John Quiggin on July 11, 2015

Another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. To recap, the Two Lessons are

Lesson 1: Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.
Lesson 2: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

In this section, I’m working on Lesson 1, leading up to the point (my restatement of what’s usually called the First Fundamental Theorem of Welfare Economics) that an ideal competitive equilibrium is one in which there are no unexploited potential gains from technical improvements or mutually beneficial exchange. For reasons I’ve spelt out already I don’t want to use the term “Pareto-optimal” to talk about this. I also want to confine “efficient” to its normal meaning of “technically efficient” and avoid the common economist practice of extending this to cover various definitions of “market efficiency”. So, I’m talking about “free lunches” or, more formally, benefits with no opportunity cost.

In Lesson 2, I’ll be looking, among other things, at the Second Welfare Theorem, which says any outcome with no free lunches corresponds to a particular initial allocation of property rights, broadly defined to include taxation obligations and entitlements of all kinds.

Now please comment, criticise and hopefully enjoy

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Derp: An irregular verb

by John Quiggin on July 7, 2015

Following up on Noah Smith’s marvellous definition of derp, I thought I would add the first person to give the declension of this irregular verb

  • I can’t see this happening
  • You regularly restate your tight (low probability) prior
  • He herped a flerp of derp, the twerp

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Lots of people have raised the suggestion of applying game theory to the the Greek debt crisis. I haven’t attempted this, reflecting my general scepticism about game theory in the absence of a well-defined strategy space. But now the Greek government and public have made, what is, in effect, a final move. In view of the No vote, Syriza can’t accept a deal that doesn’t include an explicit debt write-off or one that obviously crosses its stated red lines. Within those parameters, its clearly eager for a face-saving compromise.

For the other side (effectively the Troika and the German government), since Syriza’s move has already been made, the problem has now been reduced to one of decision under uncertainty, which is something I am comfortable with. More precisely, it’s a choice between a “safe” option, with an outcome that is fairly predictable, and a “risky” option where the outcome is uncertain.
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Locke and the Declaration

by John Quiggin on July 5, 2015

I didn’t take part in the book event on Danielle Allen Our Declaration, except as a commenter. But, as it happened, I converged on some of the central questions by a different route. For some time now, I’ve been writing critically about John Locke and his propertarian theory of liberalism. Increasingly, I’ve come to the view that Locke is best seen as an American rather than an English political theorist, even though he was an absentee owner rather than an American resident.

Further, while his writings appear liberal if interpreted in the English context, and if attention is focused on the passages where he is seeking to diminish the power of the English monarchy, his crucial contributions to the theory of propertarian liberalism are his justifications of expropriation and enslavement in the American context. The combination of the two made him the ideal theorist for those who wanted a Declaration of Independence that justified rebellion against the British monarchy, in combination with rule by a slave-owning aristocracy in the newly independent country.

James Wilson’s contribution to the Danielle Allen seminar, The Declaration of Independence isn’t egalitarian enough explores many of the issues, as does Gabriel Winant.

I’ve made a start to spelling out the arguments in a piece for Jacobin magazine, entitled John Locke Against Freedom, which has given rise to some interesting discussions on Facebook, Twitter etc. Chris Bertram has raised some effective criticisms, and hopefully will spell them out in more detail later on. A couple of notable points, with partial responses

  • I’ve overstated the extent to which Locke’s influence was confined to the American context, although it remains clear that his political theory mattered more in that context than in England

  • Even if Locke himself advocated and benefited from expropriation and slavery, it’s not obvious (as I assert) that his theory of classical liberalism necessarily entails these things. I plan to spell out the argument in more detail soon.