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John Quiggin


by John Quiggin on September 28, 2018

This is an extract from my recent review article in Inside Story, focusing on Ellen Broad’s Made by Humans

For the last thousand years or so, an algorithm (derived from the name of an Arab a Persian mathematician, al-Khwarizmi) has had a pretty clear meaning — namely, it is a well-defined formal procedure for deriving a verifiable solution to a mathematical problem. The standard example, Euclid’s algorithm for finding the greatest common divisor of two numbers, goes back to 300 BCE. There are algorithms for sorting lists, for maximising the value of a function, and so on.

As their long history indicates, algorithms can be applied by humans. But humans can only handle algorithmic processes up to a certain scale. The invention of computers made human limits irrelevant; indeed, the mechanical nature of the task made solving algorithms an ideal task for computers. On the other hand, the hope of many early AI researchers that computers would be able to develop and improve their own algorithms has so far proved almost entirely illusory.

Why, then, are we suddenly hearing so much about “AI algorithms”? The answer is that the meaning of the term “algorithm” has changed.
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Economics in Two Lessons: Introduction

by John Quiggin on September 23, 2018

The publication date for my new book, Economics in Two Lessons, is set for May 2019. Until then, I’m putting extracts up on a Facebook page I’ve set up. Here’s the first one, part of the Introduction.

Time to join the generation game?

by John Quiggin on September 18, 2018

As regular readers will know, I’ve spent a generation or more [1] deriding what I call the generation game – the idea of dividing the population up into birth cohorts (categories based on year of birth) such as Boomers, X-ers and so on (Millennials weren’t invented when I started) and assigning them various supposed characteristics. Most of the time, this exercise is little better than astrology. To the extent that there is any semblance to reality it simply reflects the fact that young people are, and always have been, different from old people.

But just as I have managed to get some traction with this idea, genuine cohort effects have emerged in politics in many countries. The sharpest case is Britain, where people over 65 voted massively for Brexit in the referendum and the Conservatives in the recent election, while those aged 18-24 went even more sharply the other way. As the map linked here shows, if only 18-24 year olds were voting, based on current polling data, the Conservatives would not have won a single seat[2]. If only those over 65 voted, the Conservatives would win 575 and the combined opposition 54.

This is a massive difference and can’t AFAICT be fully explained by differences in education, ethnic composition and so forth. It also represents a huge shift on the part of older cohorts, who were part of the electorate that gave Labour three terms not long ago. While there is some tendency for people to become more conservative as they age, it’s normally much more limited than this.

The explanation in simple terms, is Brexit. Most of the time, elections involving competing visions of the future. In the UK case, from the 1990s until Brexit, the contest was between hard-line Thatcher-style neoliberalism and Third Way Blairite soft neoliberalism. In the course of such debates, both sides routinely claim to be on the right side of history, to own the future and so on.

By contrast, Brexit represented an appeal to a (partly imaginary) past, against the present and the future. With the exception of a handful of neoliberal ideologues, who saw Brexit as a path to a free-market future, most Leavers were motivated by nostalgia for the glories of the past, and were willing to sacrifice the interests of the young to make a gesture in that direction.

What’s true of Brexit is true, though not to quite the same extent, of the culture war politics that have now become dominant on the political right in much of the English-speaking world. It’s driven in large measure by old men who lost the cultural battles of the 1960s and 1970s, and have never got over the fact.

The result is a situation where the right is appealing directly to members of older age cohorts with the result that younger cohorts are moving left. The most immediate effect has been to wipe out the support base of centrists of the Blair-Clinton-Keating type, who fail to appeal to either group.’m

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Economics in Two Lessons: Acknowledgements

by John Quiggin on August 30, 2018

Nearly seven years after I started, I’ve finally submitted the manuscript of Economics in Two Lessons to Princeton University Press. There’s still a lot of work to be done in turning it into a published book, and some changes are still needed, but this is as close to a milestone as I’m going to get.

Over the fold are the Acknowledgements. As I mention, I’m sure to have omitted someone, so if you have contributed comments and your name is missing, please point this out. Also, if there’s anyone commenting under a pseudonym who’d like me to use their real name, or vice versa, I’ll be happy to make the change.

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Economics, Trumpism and Migration

by John Quiggin on August 11, 2018

It’s obvious enough by now that support for Trumpism in the US and elsewhere is motivated primarily by racial and cultural animus, and not (or at least not in any direct way) by economic concerns. Still, to the extent that Trumpism has any economic policy content it’s the idea that a package of immigration restrictions and corporate tax cuts[1] will make workers better off by reducing competition from migrants and increasing labor demand from corporations. The second part of this claim has been pretty thoroughly demolished, so I want to look mainly at the first. However, as we will see, the corporate tax cuts remain central to the argument.

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Brexit and the oral culture of journalism

by John Quiggin on August 2, 2018

For anyone following the trainwreck of Brexit, Richard North’s is an indispensable source. North was (and, at least in principle, still is) a Leave supporter, proposing a model called Flexcit (roughly, the Norway/EFTA/EEA option), but has long since broken with May, Johnson and the rest of the Brexiteers.

North is scathing about the low level of analysis of just about everyone involved in the debate, the only consistent exceptions being Pete North (not sure if or how they are related) and his former employer Christopher Booker who, despite being on the denialist fringe of the climate debate, seems to make sense on Brexit.

I’ll ask a question about Brexit over the fold, but I mainly wanted to cite this important observation. Attacking a recent report, he writes that the author

proudly announces that his piece “is based on conversations” with certain prestigious persons, rather than to reference to primary sources. This so typifies the “oral culture” approach of what passes for journalism, with not even a passing reference to the Commission’s Notices to Stakeholders.

It is probably this superficial, prestige-driven approach which defines the popular Efta/EEA narrative. The average journalist would have a nose-bleed if they ever had to look at a copy of the EEA Agreement. In-depth “research” means looking up back copies of the Financial Times. As for the politicians, they seem to make it up as they go along.

The point about the oral culture is spot-on, I think. I remember observing long ago that journalists, unlike bloggers, assume that they can ring anyone up about anything and expect an answer. That has a huge influence on the way the media work.

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Some big news …

by John Quiggin on July 24, 2018

… least for me. Princeton University Press has agreed to publish my book, Economics in Two Lessons: Why Markets Work and Why they can Fail so Badly. I’ve been working on it for seven years, but it’s finally done. It should be published in the first half of 2019.

Stay tuned for news on a possible Australian edition.

Nearly seven years after I started work, here’s the final draft chapter from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. Thanks to everyone who commented on the first 15 chapters and encouraged me in the project as a whole.

I’ve had quite a few amusing snarks on Twitter to the effect that 16 chapters and 90 000 words is an awful lot for just two lessons. That’s true and yet there are even more topics I wanted to cover. In particular, I wrote quite a bit on health and education but have had to omit most of it for space reasons. Still, if anyone wants to point out critical omissions, now’s the time.

Comments, criticism and praise are welcome. I’m also on the lookout for telling graphs, insightful illustrations and apt quotations.

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Economics in Two Lessons Chapter 15

by John Quiggin on July 3, 2018

My long-running book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons is nearly done. Thanks to everyone who commented on the first 14 chapters.

Here’s a draft of Chapter 15: Monopoly and the Mixed Economy. Only one more chapter to come after this

Comments, criticism and praise are welcome.

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Economics in Two Lessons: Chapter 14

by John Quiggin on June 30, 2018

My long-running book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons is nearly done. I have a nearly complete manuscript, and am hoping for news from the publisher soon. Thanks to everyone who commented on the first 13 chapters.

Here’s a draft of Chapter 14: Policy for full employment. Two more chapters to come after this

Comments, criticism and praise are welcome.

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Abolish the death penalty

by John Quiggin on June 29, 2018

The discussion surrounding the US Supreme Court led me to think about the death penalty, one of the limited number of issues on which Justice Kennedy was a swing vote.* In this context, that means that he supported the death penalty in general but was concerned about due process and the execution of minors. It can safely be assumed that his replacement will have no such concerns.

That’s bad. But it’s only possible because the death penalty exists. The Supreme Court can’t sentence anyone to death; all it can do is fail to save them.

The only (possibly) feasible option therefore is to change the law to abolish the death penalty.There has been some progress at the state level, but that’s not going to stop executions any time soon. The only effective response is to pass Federal legislation abolishing or restricting the death penalty. Of course, that requires Democratic control of Congress and the Presidency, but so does any action with respect to the SC.

IANAL but this discussion seems to show that it would be possible in practice. At the very least, Congress could legislate the kinds of protections Kennedy supported, and repeal the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996

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Say not the struggle naught availeth

by John Quiggin on June 28, 2018

With all the grim news from the US Supreme Court today, it’s easy to feel despairing. And there are certainly strong arguments to support a pessimistic view.

On the other hand, we’ve been here before many times before. Arthur Hugh Clough’s poem “Say not the struggle naught availeth” was written in 1849 the aftermath of the collapse of Chartism, a movement that demanded universal male suffrage, secret ballots and other democratic reforms. Clough himself spent 1848 in Italy during the “Year of Revolutions”, most of which were defeated within a few years. Yet, in the end, the Chartist demands were met*, and then surpassed through the struggle for women’s suffrage. The struggle for democracy in Europe as a whole has ebbed and flowed (it’s ebbing at the moment), but has so far been successful.

Coming to the US situation, even though the right has all the levers of power, they are still losing ground on lots of issues, both in terms of public support and in terms of actual outcomes

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Economics in Two Lessons, Chapter 13

by John Quiggin on June 21, 2018

Thanks to everyone who commented on the first twelve chapters of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons.

Here’s a draft of Chapter 13 on Redistribution

Comments, criticism and praise are welcome.

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Economics in Two Lessons, Chapter 12

by John Quiggin on June 16, 2018

Thanks to everyone who commented on the first eleven chapters of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons.

Here’s a draft of Chapter 12 on Predistribution

Comments, criticism and praise are welcome.

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Shibboleths (repost from 2011)

by John Quiggin on June 14, 2018

Reading the latest post from John H, I was reminded of this one from 2011, about when the baton was being passed from Palin to Trump. A few thoughts on this

  • Agreeing with Corey’s take, there’s very little in Trump’s consistent denial of reality that wasn’t evident back in 2011. Trump’s change has been to make obvious what could previously be ignored
  • The eagerness with which virtually all Republicans (including Republican-voting “independents”) have embraced Trump refutes my suggestion that they will ultimately be turned off by this stuff
  • It’s striking that around the same time, Jonathan Haidt was getting lots of praise for The Righteous Mind. By taking conservatives’ self-descriptions as accurate, and ignoring evidence like the prevalence of birtherism, Haidt concluded that liberals had a caricatured view of conservatives, and their values of “Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity”. Now, it’s obvious that, for practical purposes, the caricature is the reality.

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