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John Quiggin

A question about group selection

by John Quiggin on January 29, 2016

I’m doing some work on evolutionary models of game theory and need to understand the debate about group selection. It seems pretty clear that the great majority of evolutionary biologists reject the idea of group selection, but I haven’t found an adequate (to me) explanation of why they do so. A crucial problem for me is that the literature seems, without exception as far as I can see, to conflate group selection with co-operation and altruism. But the problem of group selection arises in non-cooperative settings, provided they are not zero-sum.

To illustrate the problem I’m struggling with, suppose that two previously isolated species meet as a result of some change. In one species (peacocks), competition between males for mates takes the form of elaborate, and energetically costly, displays. In the other species (penguins) males compete by providing food to their mates. In all other respects (diet, predators and so on) the two are similar. In particular, they are competing for the same food resources. It seems obvious to me that the penguins, with their more efficient social arrangements, are going to outbreed the peacocks and eventually drive them to extinction.

It seems to me there are only two possibilities here
(a) My reasoning is wrong, and we can’t judge which species, if either, will dominate; or
(b) Even though it involves one group being selected over another, this isn’t what is meant by group selection

I’d really appreciate some help on this. I’m happy to have thoughts from anyone, but I’d most like to hear from actual experts with contact details (mine are on the sidebar, or obtainable through Google).

Unknown knowns

by John Quiggin on January 26, 2016

In September 2002, according to Politico magazine, Donald Rumsfeld received a report (mostly declassified in 2011) stating that the intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s putative weapons programs was essentially worthless. For example, the report says:

Our knowledge of the Iraqi (nuclear) weapons program is based largely—perhaps 90%—on analysis of imprecise intelligence
The report was seen by Paul Wolfowitz, then Deputy Defense Secretary and now an adviser to Jeb Bush, but wasn’t shared with President George Bush, or with other members of the Administration, such as Colin Powell. And despite his musings about known and unknown unknowns (unsurprisingly the subject of some sardonic comment in the Politico piece, Rumsfeld showed no doubt in his public pronouncements about the supposed weapons.

This report ought to be (but won’t be) enough to discredit Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz once and for all. Given that they knew that the claimed legal basis for the war relied on spurious intelligence, both are guilty of the crime of a war of aggression. More to the point, in terms of US political debate, a Defense Secretary who sends thousands of US troops to their deaths in pursuit of a goal he knows to be illusory ought to be condemned out of hand.

On the other hand, does the report help to exonerate those who advocated war based on the spurious intelligence being pushed by Rumsfeld? Not to any significant degree. The fact that Rumsfeld was a four-flusher was obvious in December 2002, when Saddam denied having any weapons. As I observed at the time

In the standard warblogger scenario, the declaration was the trigger. Once it came out, the US would produce the evidence to show Iraq was lying and the war would be under way … Instead, Iraq is denying everything but the US is in no hurry to prove that Saddam is lying … The only interpretation that makes sense is that, despite all the dossiers that were waved about a few months ago – including satellite images of ‘suspect’ sites – the Administration doesn’t really have anything
Anyone who wasn’t already committed to war could have followed the same reasoning, and many did.

An inconvenient gun fact for Nicholas Kristof

by John Quiggin on January 17, 2016

Nicholas Kristof has a column in the NY Times, headlined Some Inconvenient Gun Facts for Liberals. The headline, though presumably not chosen by Kristof, is a pretty accurate summary of the article, which berates liberals for proposing various ineffectual gun control measures, and concludes:

Let’s make America’s gun battles less ideological and more driven by evidence of what works.
If Kristof wants to be taken seriously, he ought to acknowledge the actual evidence of what works, namely, measures that drastically reduce the number of guns and restrict their availability. I discussed the evidence a bit more in this post, with links.

Of course, such measures aren’t politically feasible in the US, and have to be disavowed by politicians seeking even limited progress. But if Kristof started by admitting this, he’d end up with a very different analysis than the one he’s putting forward. The primary criterion for any gun control policy in the US has to be to maximize the ratio of long-term harm reduction to political cost. I don’t have any particularly good ideas about political strategies. Still, it’s clear that Kristof’s operating assumption that sweet reason will be sufficient, or even helpful, is way off the mark.

The Great War of 1911 (updated)

by John Quiggin on January 7, 2016

I recently read Time and Time Again by Ben Elton. It’s about a time traveller who returns to 1914 Europe, aiming to prevent the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and, therefore, the Great War. Of course, the war isn’t prevented, and it turns out that there are vast numbers of timelines flowing from the summer of 1914, all more or less disastrous. This has inspired me to draft an alternate history I’ve long had in mind, where the War starts in 1911, as a result of the Agadir crisis.

I’ve changed the dates of some actual events, and the outcomes of some internal political debates, to bring more aggressive leaders and policies to the fore. I’ve also borrowed one improbable event from an earlier war. Still, the result seems to me no more improbable than the actual genesis of the War, beginning with the fatal wrong turn by Franz Ferdinand’s driver. Feel free to disagree, or to fill in some details of your own.

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A Christmas post from 2004

by John Quiggin on December 26, 2015

Here’s a Christmas post from my blog in 2004. The theme is that nothing about Christmas ever changes, so it’s a repost of the same post from 2003. Looking back from 2015, the only change I can see is that the complaints about inclusive language to which I referred as “old stuff by now” have now become codified, as the “War on Christmas”.

I’ll add one new thought that the use of “War on Christmas” rhetoric reflects a larger problem for Christianists: should they be asserting their privileges as a majority (as in the demand that their particular holiday be recognised as primary) or demanding their rights as a minority (as in their unwillingness to accept equal marriage). The two strategies undermine each other.

In anticipation of at least a short break, let me wish a merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and a happy New Year to everyone (at least everyone who uses the Gregorian calendar).

Read on for my unchanged Christmas message

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Piketty and the Australian exception

by John Quiggin on December 22, 2015

Note I wrote two pieces in response to Piketty’s Capital and managed to get confused as to which one was meant for this seminar. Here’s the piece I sent in originally, and which is referred to in Piketty’s forthcoming response. The crucial point is that, thanks to a combination of strong employment growth and redistributive taxation and welfare policies Australia has, to a substantial extent, avoided the sharp increase in inequality seen in other English-speaking countries. The conclusion

Australia’s experience belies the claim that any attempt to offset the growth of inequality must cripple economic growth. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that there is plenty of scope for progressive changes to tax policy that would partly or wholly offset the trends towards greater inequality documented by Piketty.

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Do we need a global tax to stop rising inequality?

by John Quiggin on December 18, 2015

One of the more depressing features of Capital in the 21st Century is the air of inevitability attached to the much-discussed r > g inequality. This is exacerbated, on the whole, by the fact that Piketty’s proposed policy response, a progressive global tax on wealth, seems obviously utopian.

What about a much simpler alternative: increasing the rate of income tax applied to the very rich, and removing preferential treatment of capital income? Piketty’s own work with Saez yields the conclusion that the socially optimal top marginal rate of taxation, after taking account of incentive effects, would be 70 per cent or more. Such rates prevailed, at least nominally, in the mid-20th century, without obvious ill effects. Again, Piketty provides the relevant evidence.

So, is there something about a globalised world economy that renders a return to high marginal rates of taxation impossible?

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Climate change and the culture wars

by John Quiggin on December 14, 2015

As I’ve argued on my own blog, it seems likely 1 that the global agreement on reached at COP21 in Paris will mark the turning point in efforts to stabilize the global climate. If so, it will mark the defeat of the right in one of the most bitterly contested arenas of their long-running culture war, and also one of the hardest to explain. There’s no obvious reason, apart from tribal hostility to “enviros” why this should have been a culture war battleground at all.2

There was, by 1990 or so, a well developed literature on “free market environmentalism” which pushed the idea that environmental problems were the result of inadequate property rights, and that the solution was to create such rights: in this case, tradeable emissions permits. Environmentalists were generally hostile to the idea, preferring direct regulation. Eventually most environmental groups came around to the view that a carbon price was essential to solving the problem. Instead of claiming victory, the right opposed the idea ferociously and effectively, with the result that the policy outcome has included much more intrusive regulation, and much less reliance on markets, than would have been optimal. The oddity of a supposedly market-oriented government in Australia preferring “Direct Action” over price-based policies is by no means unusual.

Has the climate change culture war helped or harmed the right? The harm is obvious enough. The scientific and economic evidence on climate change is so clear cut that mounting a case against it requires a huge amount of willing gullibility (the fact that is labelled “scepticism” is one of the smaller ironies of the story). The result has been a big contribution to the lowering of intellectual standards that allows someone like Donald Trump to become a plausible candidate for the Republican nomination in the US.

The intellectual damage has been particularly severe for libertarians, who have traditionally thought of themselves as the smart, logical types, deriving their policy positions from rigorous deduction. As the case of climate change has shown, you can get any answer you want if you make up your own facts. Now, we have the sorry spectacle of self-described libertarians making the kinds of spurious claims, in relation to the health effects of wind power, that were once the province of the least credible environmentalists, and demanding the appointment of highly paid government regulators. At the turn of the century, libertarianism had a plausible case to be the way of the future. Now, as far as I can see, it has disappeared from view in the US and survives in Australia only because of the vagaries of the Senate electoral system.

Against that, the struggle to save the planet from dangerous climate change has chewed up a huge amount of energy and effort on the left. Arguably, that has distracted attention from economic issues, and allowed the steady rise of the 1 per cent to go unchallenged. That analysis fits with the widely held view that the culture wars are just a device to keep the rightwing base agitated enough to turn out, losing time after time, but still providing the votes needed to keep pro-rich politicians in office.

  1. A Republican win in 2016 would certainly be a major problem. But the momentum is such that it would probably not make much difference. Even if a Republican Administration weakened environmental standards, no one is going to build a new coal-fired power station in the US, knowing that it might have to shut down after the next election. 

  2. There was, initially, some significant support from fossil fuel interests (notably Exxon) through bodies like the Global Climate Coalition. But that dropped off quite early as most big corporations worked out that they were better off changing their business models to incorporate renewables than fighting to save the old ways of doing things. For at least the last decade, the economic issues have been secondary – it’s all culture war all the time. 

Secular stagnation and technology

by John Quiggin on December 1, 2015

One of the problems I have with the term “secular stagnation” is that it implies condition relevant to the very long term, say, the coming century. Such long run conditions presumably have to arise from fundamental causes in demography and technology. That’s the kind of argument that Piketty makes with his r > g theory of rising inequality. There are some good arguments for the view that the depressed state of the global economy, and particularly that of the more developed countries, can be explained in this way. But it shouldn’t be implied in the name of the problem. I’ve argued in the past that technology, specifically the Internet, doesn’t explain growing inequality,

The key quote from that New Left Project article, responding to Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation

The global crisis stopped economic growth, not only in the US, but in countries far inside the technological frontier like Greece; while it had hardly any impact in, for example, Australia, which avoided the initial financial crises and used Keynesian fiscal stimulus to offset shocks flowing from the global economy.

A further reason for scepticism about technological stagnation is that this explanation has been advanced in recessions and depressions ever since the beginning of the capitalist business cycle in the nineteenth century. Such claims represent the flipside of the equally common claim, made during every period of sustained expansion, that the economy has entered a New Era of untrammelled growth. The most recent episode of this kind was the ‘irrational exuberance’ of the 1990s, fuelled by optimistic claims about the potential economic implications of the Internet, which was opened to commercial use by the US Congress in 1992, and by capitalist triumphalism exemplified by Fukuyama’s The End of History.The collapse of the ‘dotcom’ bubble was softened by the housing bubble that developed shortly afterwards (again, not at all a new phenomenon), but the result was only to worsen the inevitable crash in 2008. The similarity of these events to previous bubbles and busts is good reason to doubt that they represent, or that they have inaugurated, a new phase in the evolution of capitalism.

Secular stagnation and the financial sector (updated)

by John Quiggin on November 29, 2015

In my last post on private infrastructure finance and secular stagnation, I suggested a bigger argument that

The financialization of the global economy has produced a hugely costly financial sector, extracting returns that must, in the end, be taken out of the returns to investment of all kinds. The costs were hidden during the pre-crisis bubble era, but are now evident to everyone, including potential investors. So, even massively expansionary monetary policy doesn’t produce much in the way of new private investment.
This isn’t an original idea. The Bank of International Settlements put out a paper earlier this year arguing that financial sector growth crowds out real growth. But how does this work and what can be done about it?

The financial sector is an intermediary between savers and borrowers (for investment or consumption). So, the costs of running the financial sector and the profits generated in that sector must be included in the margin between the rates of return by savers and those paid by borrowers, or else they must be shifted on to society at large (for example, through bailouts or tax subsidies).

I’m still organizing my thoughts on this, so what I have are some ideas rather than a fully formed argument.

First, if the financial sector is unproductive, how can it be so large and profitable in a market economy?

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Reappraisals (repost from 2011)

by John Quiggin on November 22, 2015

As a followup to Corey’s post on Princeton, here’s something I wrote about Wilson in 2011. It’s striking how much the debate has moved on from where (in my perception, at least) it was in 2011.

As a very amateur analysis, I’d say that a triumphalist narrative of US history as Manifest Destiny (marred by some unfortunate episodes, best forgotten) is being replaced by one of struggles over slavery and war. In the process, lots of heroes become villains, while those who sought neutrality in the great struggles in order to pursue domestic policies, however laudable, shrink from giants to dwarfs.


As an Australian, I’m not much accustomed to think of political leaders in heroic terms[^1], something that reflects the fact that nothing our political leaders do matters that much to anybody except us, and even then most of the decisions that really mattered have always been made elsewhere. So, I’m fascinated by the US activity of ranking presidents and other political leaders, and eager to try my hand.

What has brought this to mind is running across George Will’s campaign against Woodrow Wilson, who always seemed to be presented in hagiographic terms until relatively recently. Much as it goes against the grain to agree with Will on anything, he surely has the goods on Wilson: a consistent racist, who lied America into the Great War, and used Sedition acts and similar devices to suppress opposition. His positive record appears to consist of a variety of “Progressive” measures (in the early C20 sense of the term) many of which were inherited from Teddy Roosevelt, and few of which were particularly progressive from a left viewpoint[^2], along with his proposal for the League of Nations, where he comprehensively screwed up the domestic politics, leading the US to stay out of the League.

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Private infrastructure finance and secular stagnation

by John Quiggin on November 19, 2015

For most of my academic career, I’ve been working on (more precisely, trying to demolish) the idea of private investment in public infrastructure, exemplified by the Private Finance Initiative in the UK and the Public Private Partnerships program in Australia. Here’s my first published article on the subject, from 1996. I conclude that

The current enthusiasm for private infrastructure, like the enthusiasm for public ownership which it replaced, has been based more on ideological beliefs in the virtues of one sector and the vices of the other than on any systematic economic analysis …Analysis of the relative performance of the private and public sector in different phases of infrastructure provision suggests that, in most cases, the private sector will be most efficient in the construction phase but the public sector will be best equipped to handle the risks associated with ownership.

Twenty years later, this analysis seems finally to have been validated. The UK Auditor-General recently reported that

Analysis of the 2012-13 Whole of Government Accounts (WGA) implies that the effective interest rate of all private finance deals (7%–8%) is double that of all government borrowing (3%–4%)

As a result of the excess costs, and some spectacular failures, bipartisan enthusiasm for the PFI has finally turned to disillusionment. Here’s the Telegraph, correctly putting much of the blame on New Labour. And, for balance, here’s the Guardian. There hasn’t been a similar admission of failure in Australia, but the flow of PPP projects has greatly diminished, and most new ones rely on a substantial component of public capital.

Unfortunately, the failure of private finance hasn’t led governments to resume the high levels of public investment that prevailed in the Keynesian era of the 1950s and 1960s. So, even with central bank lending rates at zero, there has been no real recovery in infrastructure investment. Apart from the direct effect of lower investment, there’s a strong case that infrastructure investment increases the returns from private investment in general and therefore stimulates growth.

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Nothing learned, nothing forgotten

by John Quiggin on November 18, 2015

I haven’t posted on the recent terror attacks, or the various responses, because I have nothing new to say, and nothing old to repeat that hasn’t been said, or repeated, better by others. It appears that no one has learned anything in the decade or so since the Iraq war began. This 2003 post from the Onion just needs the dates changed to be applicable (or not, for those who support the side being satirised here) to the current debate.

Having said all this, have I learned anything myself? The Iraq war turned me from being a liberal interventionist (though opposed in the case of Iraq) to a strongly anti-war viewpoint.

By December 2005, I had this to say[^1]

It would be a salutory effort to look over the wars, revolutions and civil strife of the last sixty years and see how many of the participants got an outcome (taking account of war casualties and so on) better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation. Given the massively negative-sum nature of war, I suspect the answer is “Few, if any”.

The ten years since 2005 have confirmed me in the rightness of my views[^2]. But since the same is true of nearly everyone on all sides, that’s not very helpful. [click to continue…]

Time to take the “con” out of reformicon ?

by John Quiggin on November 13, 2015

Ramesh Ponnuru has an article in the National Review, making the case that Hillary Clinton is likely to win the 2016 election. His central reason: Clinton has policies that will benefit middle-class Americans, and the Republicans do not. As he says

The Republican presidential candidates have not built their campaigns on offering conservative ideas that would give any direct help to families trying to make ends meet. Their tax-cut proposals are almost all focused on people who make much more than the average voter. So far, Republicans do not seem to be even trying to erode the Democratic advantage on middle-class economics.
All this is obvious enough, but it raises the question: rather than asking the Republicans to be more like Clinton, something they are obviously not going to do, why not just vote for Clinton? Or, for that matter, Sanders, who looks even better on these criteria.

The answer is pretty obvious. For whatever reason, Ponnuru is on Team Republican, as are other “reformicons” like Ross Douthat. But the Republican Party has shown little interest in his ideas, and the presidential aspirants none at all. So, he is in the position of a committed football fan who thinks his team is pursuing a bad strategy, or has picked the wrong players: the idea of following a different team is not an option.

As Damon Linker says here, this isn’t just a problem for the reformicons, but for anyone who aspires to the description “conservative intellectual”, and wants to engage with party politics.

Armistice Day

by John Quiggin on November 11, 2015

As Armistice Day comes around again, I find it more and more difficult to avoid despair. Each new war seems even more brutal and pointless than the last, bringing nothing but ruin and destruction to all concerned. And yet, opposition to war in general, or even to involvement in any particular war, is increasingly being seen as unpatriotic.

My annual ritual of writing a post on this day hasn’t helped at all. I’ve repeatedly had it explained to me by learned commenters that the mass slaughter of 1914 to 1918 (and, by implication, the even more massive slaughter that followed it over the 20th century) was a right and necessary response to German imperialism, or that it must be understood in its historical context. I need only change a few place names, and substitute different enemies, to hear the voices of our present leaders, explaining the need for our armed forces to deliver more death and destruction, because “we must do something”. The fact that our current enemies are of our own direct creation, and that a decade or more of these wars has succeeded only it making matters worse, seems irrelevant.

Just about the only consolation is the fact that the scale and loss of life from war has been decreasing over time. Large areas of the world once riven by war now seem to be free of it, or nearly so.

Against that, however, is the ever-present shadow of nuclear cataclysm. The world has managed to survive, permanently within a few minutes of catastrophe, for 70 years now. But can that continue indefinitely? when belief in the rightness of war and the need for military strength is such a powerful force among ordinary people, and even stronger among the rulers who have the power to launch these weapons. Without radical changes in thinking, it seems almost certain that nuclear weapons will be used, sooner or later. Even a limited nuclear war, between India and Pakistan for example, would be a disaster as bad or worse than the World Wars of the 20th century.