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John Quiggin

Can globalization be reversed?: Part II (migration)

by John Quiggin on June 12, 2019

In my previous post about globalization, I concluded that plausible policy shifts (essentially, the continuation and widespread adoption of Trump’s current policies) could bring about a substantial reversal of one element of globalization – the complex global supply chains that now characterize the production of goods. In this post, I’m going to look at migration, which is now the most politically salient aspect of globalization, and argue that even draconian policies are unlikely to do more than slow the most important consequences of migration.
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The term “globalization” came into widespread use in the 1990s, about the same time as Fukuyama’s End of History. As that timing suggests, globalization was presented as an unstoppable force, which would break down borders of all kinds allowing goods, ideas, people and especially capital to move freely around the world. The main focus was on financial markets, and the assumption was that only market liberal institutions would survive.

The first explicit reaction against globalization to gain popular attention in the developed world[1] was the Battle of Seattle in 1999, but the process, and the neoliberal ideology on which it rested, didn’t face any serious challenge until the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. The Crisis destroyed Neoliberalism as a political project with positive appeal, but its institutions have remained in place through inertia.

Now, however, globalization is finally facing serious threats, most immediately from the nationalist[2] right, seeking to restrict movement of people and goods across national borders. There hasn’t yet been any serious challenge to financial globalization, but faith in the wisdom and beneficence of financial markets has disappeared.

An obvious question here is: can globalization be reversed? My short answer is: within current political limits globalization can be reversed least partially in the case of trade, but can only be slowed in the case of movements of people. I’m still thinking about financial flows.

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Keynes and Versailles, 100 years on

by John Quiggin on June 7, 2019

The 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles is coming back. I have a piece in The National Interest which ran under the headline (selected by the subeditor, as is usual), America Needs to Reexamine Its Wartime Relationships. Keynes first came to public attention with his critique of the Versailles Settlement, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, whith foreshadowed, in important respects, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

I argue that the rise, fall and rise again of the standing of Keynesian macroeconomics runs in parallel with views on the justifiability of the terms imposed at Versailles and more generally of the use of war as a policy instrument.

Hits and Misses

by John Quiggin on May 29, 2019

Looking back at past posts, it’s enjoyable to find those where I went out on a limb and have been proved right by events, or at least supported by subsequent evidence. A couple of examples

It’s less fun when things don’t go as expected. Take Bitcoin as an example. Its uselessness is now even clearer than it was when I started writing about it 2013. Use in legitimate market transactions is almost non-existent, while the darknet illegal markets in which it is the preferred currency are being busted so frequently as to suggest that anyone using them is taking a big risk of losing their money, or worse. Meanwhile, the dream that Bitcoin would justify itself through the magic of blockchain has evaporated. As far as I can tell, cryptocurrencies on the Bitcoin model are the only genuine examples of blockchain technology in actual use (the label has been attached to some other projects for marketing purposes.

I’ve always said that, given the irrationality of markets, no one can predict when Bitcoin will reach its true value of zero, and I was careful to maintain this position when I posted on Bitcoin’s decline below $4000 late last year. Still, I have to admit that I expected this mania finally to come to an end. That hasn’t happened; in fact the price has doubled.

I won’t worry too much about the occasional (or not so occasional) error. My track record is still far better than that of the many pundits who predicted success for the Iraq war and continued claiming imminent victory years after the disaster had become evident. And most of them are still in business, apparently just as credible as ever to their audiences.

Evidence and conventional wisdom

by John Quiggin on May 5, 2019

I’ve been looking over some posts from the bright dawn days of blogging in the early 2000s. One thing that struck me is that some ideas I put forward as unconventional but evidence based, are now fairly widely accepted. In view of the widespread, and justified, concern about a post-truth era, this seems encouraging, and worth investigating. A few examples

  • In this post on equality of opportunity from 2003, I noted that “contrary to popular belief, there is less mobility between income classes in the United States than in European social democracies.” I was drawing on a 1999 book, The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism by Goodin, Headey Muffels and Dirven, which I’d reviewed a couple of years previously. In 2009, when I started work on Zombie Economics, I wrote about this again. However, I soon realised I was pushing at an open door. The decline of social mobility in the US had become part of the conventional wisdom.
  • In 2004, some of the first studies of charter schools were coming out, showing that, contrary to the widely-shared expectations of education reformers, they weren’t showing any clear gains in student performance. I wrote about this fairly cautiously, noting that studies of this kind often fail to find any effect. As it turned out, however, the findings were replicated, particularly in the case of for-profit schools. This piece in the Washington Post (which used to be associated in some way with the for-profit testing industry, IIRC) shows how much the tide has turned against charters, and even more against for-profits.
  • Here’s a post on minimum wages, drawing on the work of David Card and Alan Krueger (whose tragic death recently was a big loss to the economics profession). from the early 1990s. By then, the formerly orthodox view that minimum wages had big negative effects on employment was sufficiently out of favour to be revived in Slate (then famous, or notorious, for “contrarian” views that generally tended to support the establishment).
  • Finally, I wrote a couple of mildly snarky pieces about the “Reading Wars” between phonics and whole language. This was one of the relatively rare cases in which the emerging evidence supported the cultural right. It’s pretty hard nowadays to find unequivocal supporters of whole language.

Looking at these examples, there’s a gap of about 10 years between the time the evidence emerged (or at least, emerged prominently enough for me to take notice) and the time the conventional wisdom adjusted. That doesn’t seem too bad. As the great replication crisis has shown, it’s unwise to take too much notice of an individual study on any social science topic.

Unsurprisingly, most of the examples above are cases where the emerging evidence was consistent with my broad political principles (I was never engaged in the Reading Wars, though I mostly lined up against the phonics advocates on other issues). I’d say that’s because most of the evidence we’ve had in the past twenty-five years or so has gone against the beliefs of the political right, who have had to retreat from the triumphalism of the early 1990s. But it’s obviously possible that there is confirmation bias at work. I’d be interested to see suggested examples of evidence shifting the conventional wisdom to the right in this period.

In print at last!

by John Quiggin on April 27, 2019

April 23 was the official release day for Economics in Two Lessons. The book is now out in Australia as well Economics In Two Lessonsis now available in Australia from Footprint books.

It’s nearly eight years since I started work on the book. I think it’s been worth the wait. The painful process has produced something better than I originally planned, with plenty of help from commenters here and elsewhere.

According to Amazon, the book is often bought along with Crashed, by Adam Tooze, which is great company to be in.

[Begin plug] If you’ve read and liked the book as it appeared here, this would be a great time to contribute a quick review [End plug]

Transactional Trumpism

by John Quiggin on April 21, 2019

The idea that Trump voters were former Democrats driven by economic anxiety, seems finally to have died. As was clear immediately after the election, most Trump voters had previously voted for Romney, and most of the rest were classic swinging voters who had voted for Republicans as well as Democrats in the past. The remnant of the remnant reflected the drift from Democrats to Republicans of less educated whites that long predated Trump (though it may have helped him win the Republican nomination).

Solving that puzzle, though raises another one. Why were so few traditional Republicans repelled by Trump to the extent that they would vote for Clinton, or else abstain. And why does Trump continue to attract such strong Republican support.

One answer is what might be called “transactional Trumpism“. This is the idea that a large group of Republicans dislike Trump’s racism and misogyny, but support him because of his success in delivering a traditional Republican agenda. The problem I have with this explanation is: what success?

The standard items on the list are: Supreme Court appointments, tax cuts and deregulation. But
(1) these things are the absolute minimum that would be expected from any Republican president
(2) Trump has made a mess of all them
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The eye of the needle, again

by John Quiggin on April 14, 2019

The US college admissions scandal is rolling on, seemingly endlessly. There’s been a lot of discussion of moral decay, hypocrisy and more. But no one seems to have mentioned the central point. The number of places in the Ivy League and similar schools
has remained almost unchanged for decades, even as the demand for those places has been swelled by a wide range of factors, most notably by the growth in all forms of inequality, which is mediated in part by unequal access to education. Parents who want their children to maintain their position in the scale, or climb upwards, need to facilitate that access if they can.

There’s no fair way of allocating that limited set of places*, and, even if there were, the existing system is full of arbitrary roadblocks to some and loopholes for others. The standard way of allocating scarce goods in a market system is through willingness to pay, and that plays a big role in the process. But since an open market isn’t an option, willingness to pay isn’t enough on its own, and can’t be tied to directly to the admission decision. What you want, as this story says of Harvard is “well-off, multi-generational Harvard families [who] pay higher tuition and give more money” (ideally over a long period). Unsurprisingly, parents with money, but without the required social access have sought more direct methods of buying a way in for their children.

Catching and prosecuting a few parents isn’t going to change this, and neither is any reform of the admissions system. The problem can only be resolved by reducing inequality in society as a whole, and particularly, by increasing access to high quality post-school education. I have no clear idea how this goal should be pursued in the US, given the stratification entrenched in the system. Given the numbers involved, there’s a strong case for focusing on free access and more funding for community colleges, ideally with a transition path to four-year institutions. But I don’t understand the system well enough to know whether this would work. Regardless, the US case provides a warning for countries like Australia, where the leading universities (the so-called “Group of 8”) are keen to put more distance between themselves and the rest.

  • An system based solely on test scores, such as the SAT, would not be as obviously arbitrary as the current one. But it would clearly favor those with the resources to get test prep tutoring and so on. The Japanese example is not encouraging, at least from a distance.

Good news day

by John Quiggin on April 10, 2019

Two big pieces of news for me today. This morning I got the first physical copy of my book Economics in Two Lessons.

Then, I got the news that, for the first time in my career, I’ve had an article accepted in Econometrica, the top theoretical journal in economics. It’s full of arcane maths, drawing heavily on the expertise of my co-author Ani Guerdjikova, but the key implication is simple. If people aren’t equally good at predicting movements in asset prices, restrictions on the set of assets available to them may improve economic welfare. This undermines the general presumption that financial deregulation will be beneficial.

All in all, a good day!

Pinker polymathic

by John Quiggin on April 8, 2019

The New York Times has a piece pushing the idea that nuclear power is the solution to our environmental problems. It’s familiar stuff, citing the French success in the 1970s, the promise of Gen IV and small modular reactors, and so on. Indeed, two of the authors had an almost identical piece in the Wall Street Journal in January. What’s most interesting is that the set of authors[1] this time includes Steven Pinker, who seems to be spreading his claims to expertise yet more broadly[2].

None of the authors has any training or expertise in economics, AFAICT. So, they make extreme claims such as that South Korea and China can build nuclear plants at one sixth the cost of the US. With the abandonment of the nearly-complete VC Summer project, the only nuclear plant now under construction in the US is the 2GW Vogtle project in Georgia. That looks like coming in at about $20 billion or $10 billion/GW. Optimistic estimates of Chinese costs are around $3.5 billion/GW or one third of the US price, not competitive with new renewables under most conditions.

Moreover, it might have been worth mentioning that South Korea has stopped new nuclear power and China hasn’t started a new project in three years. In both cases, renewables have undercut even the lowest estimates of the costs of nuclear.

Also striking is a sudden shift in the argument about halfway through. The article begins reasonably enough, pointing out that the success of the French model in the 1970s depended critically on the large-scale deployment of a small number of standardised designs. (That wasn’t the only crucial feature, as I’ve pointed out before.) That contrasts sharply with the current situation where nearly every new plant is First Of A Kind, or close to. They point to US efforts to promote new nuclear power, including the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, recently passed through Congress by big margins (361 to 10 in the House, and a voice vote in the Senate).

Then suddenly, the article shifts gears, claiming that the crucial problem is irrational public fear of radiation, nuclear accidents and so forth. The obvious question to raise is: how does this supposed climate of fear manifest itself? Obviously not in a Congress, generally notable for bitter partisan division, where pro-nuclear legislation sails through with negligible opposition. Nor is there any evidence of significant resistance at the regulatory level, where numerous plants have had their licenses extended.

With the abandonment of the nearly-complete VC Summer project, the only nuclear plant now under construction in the US is the two-reactor Vogtle project in Georgia. Googling for Vogtle protests, I found numerous links to protests from shareholders, customers and others concerned about the massive cost overruns of the project. But the only anti-nuclear protest I could find was back in 2011, and appeared to have no effect at all on the project.

Perhaps they mean that we should drop all the expensive safety precautions added since 1979, and go back to Generation II technology like that used in France. If so they should say so

The myth that nuclear power would roar ahead if only public fear could be overcome is comforting to nuclear fans. But the truth is that the technology is doomed by economics.


fn1. The only author with any relevant expertise is Staffan Qvist who works on Gen IV reactors and has previously written policy pieces with our own Barry Brook.

fn2. I also write on lots of different things. On the blog, I’m happy to state my views on all kinds of topics, as I would in ordinary conversation. But when I write for the general public, citing my professional affiliation, I try to stick to areas where I have some claim to expertise.

Rebalancing rights

by John Quiggin on April 2, 2019

That’s the title of a collection of papers published by the Green Institute, including one I posted here a little while ago. Lots of people were involved but Tim Hollo was the prime mover on this one.

Over the fold, a statement of my view that property rights, notably the rights of corporationsl are socially constructed. That view isn’t universally shared, to put it mildly, so feel free to respond.

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Rights of Nature, but not natural rights ?

by John Quiggin on March 24, 2019

There’s an interesting article by Anna Grear in Aeon, criticising the idea that Nature should have human-style rights, and linking to the website of the Centre for Humans and Nature, which has lots more interesting discussion.

I’ve recently written a contribution to a forthcoming book by Tim Hollo, in which I take the opposite view. My central point is that corporations are routinely treated as persons for legal purposes, and that the effect is frequently harmful to Nature. There is in my view, no reason in principle, not to give legal standing to representatives of Nature, similar to that given to the representatives of social constructions like corporations. A lengthy extract over the fold.

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Why is carbon pricing so hard?

by John Quiggin on March 13, 2019

I’ve just published a piece in Aeon (an excellent and free online magazine) drawing on the analysis in my (about to be published) book Economics in Two Lessons. I make the case that carbon pricing, whether through a tax of an emissions trading scheme, is the most cost-effective way to stabilize the global climate. Moreover, it’s straightforward to offset any adverse effects on low-income earners, displaced workers and others.

That raises the obvious question: if carbon pricing is so good, why is it so hard to implement, compared to less efficient alternatives like mandatory renewable targets. One factor, which I discuss, is that the creation of property rights over previously open-access resources creates obvious, and often powerful losers.

I was limited by space, so I couldn’t discuss the more puzzling problem of why regulations are more politically salable than prices even in the absence of income effects.

Monopoly: too big to ignore

by John Quiggin on March 9, 2019

That’s the headline given to my latest piece in Inside Story

Here’s the opening para

Two hundred years after the birth of Karl Marx and fifty years after the last Western upsurge of revolutionary ferment in 1968, the term “monopoly capitalism” might seem like a relic of outmoded enthusiasms. But economists are increasingly coming to the view that monopolies, and associated market failures, have never been a bigger problem.

and the conclusion

The problems of monopoly and inequality may seem so large as to defy any response. But we faced similar problems when capitalism first emerged, and Western countries came up with the responses that created the broad-based prosperity of the mid twentieth century. The internet, in particular, has the potential to enhance freedom and equality rather than facilitate corporate exploitation. The missing ingredient, so far, has been the political will.

Locke and slavery, again

by John Quiggin on March 9, 2019

A few years ago, I wrote a series of articles in Jacobin showing how Locke’s theory of property, on which most modern propertarianism is based, was entirely consistent with his personal involvement in American slavery and the expropriation of indigenous Americans. Historian Holly Brewer has come to Locke’s defence, pointing to more evidence about Locke’s involvement in American affairs, of which I was previously unaware. I’ve responded[1], arguing that, far from exonerating Locke, the new evidence shows that Locke was deeply enmeshed in American slavery throughout his life, yet never took a stand against it.

Brewer’s broader concern is to defend liberalism against critics who argue, pointing to Locke and the US Founding Fathers, that the whole ideology was conceived in the context of slavery. Here, I think she is making a mistake in accepting the idea of Locke, rather than the much more defensible Adam Smith as the founding theorist of liberalism.

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