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John Quiggin


by John Quiggin on October 22, 2017

My son Daniel pointed out to me a feature of Trump’s speech to the laughably named Values Voters summit which seems to have slipped by most observers. As summarized by Colbert King in the Washington Post

Telling a revved-up Values Voter audience that he is “stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values,” Trump suggested to the crowd, which already thinks a “war on Christianity” is being waged, that invoking “Merry Christmas” is a way of fighting back.

But “Happy Holidays” is exactly an expression of Judaeo-Christian values, coined to embrace the Jewish Hanukkah as well as Christmas. In this context, King’s suggestion that “Happy Holidays” is secular misses the point. The majority of secular Americans celebrate Christmas (happily mixing Santa Claus, carols, and consumerism). They say “Happy Holidays” as a nod to religious diversity among believers, not because they feel excluded from Christmas.

Insistence on “Merry Christmas”, by contrast, is a repudiation of the claim implicit in “Judaeo-Christian”, namely, that Jews and Christians have essentially the same beliefs and worship the same god, and that the differences between the two are ultimately less important than the commonalities. On any interpretation of Christianity in which all who reject Christ (including, I imagine, most of us here at CT) are damned, “Judaeo-Christian” is a much more pernicious version of political correctness than “Happy Holidays”.

I haven’t got to a proper analysis of this, so I’ll turn it over to commenters.


Socialism for the Information Economy

by John Quiggin on October 9, 2017

I have a long article in the Guardian putting forward some thoughts about a socialist economic policy program for the 21st century. The headline “Socialism with Spine” is a shortening of my observation that:

As it is used today, the term socialism does not reflect a well-worked ideology. Rather it conveys an attitude that could be described as “unapologetic social democracy” or, in the US context, “liberalism with a spine”

The contraction might have led some readers to expect a position more radical than the one put forward in the article. I’m advocating both a restoration of those aspects of 20th century social democracy that are still relevant today and new ideas to turn the 21st information economy to the benefit of the many, not the few.

A rare outbreak of unanimity on PFI

by John Quiggin on September 19, 2017

I’m doing some work on privatisation and wanted to look at recent UK experience with the Private Finance Initiative. So, I Googled for PFI in the last year (as Google personalizes searches, your mileage may vary). The result is a surprising degree of unanimity. Across the political spectrum, there is agreement that

  • PFI is a disaster, enriching private firms at the expense of the public
  • The other side is (mostly) to blame

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The generation game, yet again

by John Quiggin on September 5, 2017

At Inside Story, I’ve had yet another go at the silliness of generational analysis, reworking some material I’ve posted previously, but improving the analysis in some ways, I think. In particular, I think the intro helps to explain the persistent appeal of generational cliches in the face of repeated refutation.

Every generation thinks it invented sex, and every generation is wrong.” As that quotation from the American writer Robert Heinlein suggests, we all experience as unique and revelatory the transformations we undergo through the course of our lives, from childhood to puberty, adulthood, parenthood and old age. As a matter of logic and observation, though, these processes are experienced at all times and in all places, and differ more in detail than essentials.

This is the paradox at the heart of the otherwise inexplicable durability of claims that people’s characteristics can be explained by their membership of a “generation” (baby boomers, generation X, and so on).

I’ve just given a couple of talks focusing on inequality, one for the Global Change Institute at UQ, following a presentation by Wayne Swan and the second at a conference organized by the TJ Ryan Foundation (including great talks by Peter Saunders, Sally McManus, and others), where I was responding to a paper by Jim Stanford from the Centre for Future Work. Because I was speaking second in both cases, I didn’t prepare a paper or slides, but tailored my talk to complement the one before. That can be a high risk strategy, but in this case, I think it worked very well.

It led me to a new, and I hope improved, statement of the case against ‘trickle down’ theory. As always, the most important part of a refutation is a clear statement of the theory you propose to refute, so that it can be shown where it falls down. After the talks I wrote this up, and it’s over the fold. Comments and constructive criticism much appreciated.

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What’s left of libertarianism?

by John Quiggin on August 13, 2017


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Millennials are people, not clones

by John Quiggin on August 11, 2017

The Washington Post has an article on millennial attitudes to Trump, broken down by race/ethnicity. The results won’t surprise anybody who’s been paying even minimal attention. Other things equal, millennials are even more hostile to Trump than Americans in general. Of course, other things aren’t equal; as with the population at large, African-Americans most unfavorable to Trump, and whites are least so, though no group is favorable on balance.

What’s surprising, or at least depressing, is the contrarian framing of this as a counter-intuitive finding, against a starting point assumption that millennials should have uniform views. I can’t blame the author of this piece for taking this as the starting point; it’s taken as axiomatic in the vast output of generationalist cliches against which I’ve been waging a losing battle since the first millennials came of age in the year 2000.

Just to push the point a little bit further, this study only disaggregates millennials by race. If, in addition, you took account of the fact that millennials (on average) have more education, lower income and less attachment to religion than older Americans, you would probably find it impossible to derive statistically significant differences based on birth cohort.

The nuclear renaissance dies, forgotten and bankrupt

by John Quiggin on August 2, 2017

Unless you were paying very close attention, you probably haven’t seen the news that construction of two Westinghouse AP-1000 nuclear reactors at the Virgil C. Summer plant in South Carolina has been abandoned, following the bankruptcy of Westinghouse earlier this year. There are two more AP-1000 reactors under construction at the Vogtle site in Georgia, which are also likely to be scrapped. Either way, this seems the right moment to mark the end of the nuclear renaissance which offered high hopes in the early 2000s. The biggest remaining carbon capture and storage project, the Kemper plant in the US, was also abandoned a month ago.

So, at this point, there is no alternative to the combination of renewables, storage and energy efficiency. This would be a good moment for those environmentalists who accepted and promoted the nuclear story to recognise that any further efforts in this direction can only harm the prospects for a low-carbon future.

More soon on this, I hope

A trolley problem

by John Quiggin on July 26, 2017

I’ve generally been dubious about trolley problems and similar thought experiments in ethics. However, it’s just occurred to me that an idea I’ve tried to express in the economistic terms of opportunity cost, without convincing anybody, might be more persuasive as a trolley problem. So, let’s start with the standard problem where the train is about to kill ten people, but can be diverted onto a side track where it will kill only one.

In my version, however, there is a second train, loaded with vital medical supplies, which is about to crash. The loss of the supplies will lead to hundreds of deaths. You can prevent the crash, and save the supplies, by diverting the train to an alternative route (not killing anybody), but you don’t have time to deal with both trains. Do you divert the first train, the second train, or neither?

Hopefully, most respondents will choose the second train.

Now suppose that the first train has been hijacked by an evil gangster and his henchmen, who will be killed if you divert it, but will otherwise get away with the crime. As well as the gangsters, the single innocent person will die, but the ten people the gangster was going to kill will live.

The impending crash of the second train isn’t caused by anybody in particular. The region it serves is poor and no one paid for track maintenance. If the train doesn’t get through, hundreds of sick people will die, as sick poor people always have, and nobody much will notice.

Does that change your decision?

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Can we get to 350 ppm? Yes we can

by John Quiggin on July 22, 2017

There’s been a fair bit of buzz about an article in New York Magazine with an apocalyptic picture of climate change over the next century. I’ll for a more complete response later. But as it happens, I was already preparing a much more optimistic view, arguing that, at least in the absence of political disasters such as a long-running Trump presidency, the world is likely to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations around 450 parts per million by 2050, and reduce that to 350 ppm by 2100.

On current models, stabilization at 450ppm gives us a 67 per cent chance of holding the long term increase in global temperatures below 2 degrees. Warming of 2 degrees would not be cataclysmic for humanity as a whole but it would be a disaster for many people and also for vulnerable ecosystems such as coral reefs. That’s why wants to reduce concentrations to 350 ppm from current levels above 400 ppm. Is that even possible? In my view, the answer is Yes.

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Expertise and punditry

by John Quiggin on July 7, 2017

I concluded my post “Against Epistocracy” with the question “Who gets to decide who is well-informed? And who gets to decide who gets to decide?”. This is, I think, a fatal flaw in any system proposing to replacing democracy with rule by a well-informed elite, or any kind of putative aristocracy. But even in a democratic system, we have to make decisions about who should decide things. In many cases, we would like to call on expert advice, and that brings us back to the question “who, if anybody, is an expert on a given topic”. I don’t have a complete answer, but I think it’s helpful to distinguish between experts and pundits or, better, between expertise and punditry.

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Against epistocracy

by John Quiggin on July 6, 2017

I’ve finally been got around writing something about US philosopher Jason Brennan’s arguments for “epistocracy”, that is, restricting voting to people who are well-informed about the issues. For a long time, I assumed that such an idea would be ignored, and fade into oblivion, as most academic ideas do. But it’s popped up here in Australia. Nathan Robinson in Current Affairs has a trenchant piece on a variety of anti-democratic commentators, including Brennan, to which I can’t really add much.

So, I’ll try to offer some more specific objections to Brennan’s case for epistocracy.

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Less is more

by John Quiggin on May 28, 2017

Reading the news, I find a lot of items demonstrating a scale of values that makes no sense to me. Some are important in the grand scheme of things, some are less so, but perhaps more relevant to me. I think about writing posts but don’t find the time. So here are a few examples, which you are welcome to chew over.

  • Blowing things and people up is seen as a demonstration of clarity and resolve (unless someone is doing it to us, in which case it’s correctly recognised as cowardly and evil). The most striking recent example (on “our” side) was the instant and near-universal approval of Trump’s bombing of an airfield in Syria, which had no effect at all on events there. In this case, there was some pushback, which is a sign of hope, I guess.
  • The significance of art and artists is determined by the whims of billionaires. Referring to the sale of a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat for over $100 million the New York Times says
    most agree that the Basquiat sale has cemented his place in the revenue pantheon with Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon; confirming that he is not some passing trend; and forcing major museums to acknowledge that, by not having the artist in their collections, they passed over a crucial figure in art history.
  • As far as economic research is concerned, less is more. More precisely, an academic economist with a small number of publications in top-rated journals is better regarded by other economists than one with an equal (or even somewhat larger) number of ‘good journal’ publications along with more research published in less prestigious outlets. I can vouch for that, though it’s less of a problem in Australia than in less peripheral locations. I have the impression that the same is true in other fields, but would be interested in comments.

[fn1] To be fair, this is preceded by a brief acknowledgement that “auction prices don’t necessarily translate into intrinsic value”, but there’s no suggestion that any other measure of intrinsic value is worth considering.

Drug Wars

by John Quiggin on May 25, 2017

I got a preview of Drug Wars by
Robin Feldman and Evan Frondorf
. It’s not about the War on Drugs, but about the devices used by Big Pharma to maintain the profits they earn from their intellectual property (ownership of drug patents, brand names and so on) and to stave off competition from generics. Feldman and Frondorf propose a number of reforms to the operation of the patenting system to enhance the role of generics. I’m more interested in a fundamental shift away from using intellectual property (patents and brand names) to finance pharmaceutical research.
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House of Cards

by John Quiggin on May 17, 2017

So, we finally joined the 21st Century and got Netflix. We are watching House of Cards (US version), an episode most nights. Based on one season per year of time passed in the show, that’s about four weeks of dystopian fantasy per night. But, when we wake up in the morning, the day’s news almost always has more and crazier stuff packed into it than that, with subplots and story arcs being passed over for lack of space ( will the emoluments clause come back to bite Trump? did he suggest that Comey should imprison journalists? Who can keep track of it all).

Looking at the main plotline of Season 1, what would it take for life to imitate art and elevate Pence to the White House? There’s clearly no likelihood that the House Repubs will impeach Trump as long as they still hope to push through a big tax cut for corporations (which apparently depends, for arcane procedural reasons, on passing some kind of repeal of Obamacare). As Liam Donovan says in Politico

The criticisms may grow louder with each unforced error by the White House, but as long as the legislative dream is still alive it’s hard to imagine any sort of full-scale break. If that dream dies, however, it’s every man for himself.

But maybe this really is a house of cards. Suppose that three Republican Senators defected to the Democrats. That would kill the dream, at which point lots of Republicans might start thinking that a fresh start with Pence would offer them a better chance of survival in 2018. And, hey, they got Gorsuch. Once a dozen or so jumped, it would indeed by sauve qui peut for the rest.

It’s easy to name two Repub Senators (McCain and Collins) for whom it would make personal and political sense to switch sides. Given two, there must surely be a third. Still, I can’t see it happening any time soon. On the other hand, every day brings a new humiliation. Perhaps someone will find a hidden reserve of decency, or just frustration, and say that enough is enough.

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