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John Quiggin

The socialisation of economists

by John Quiggin on December 9, 2014

I’m following up Henry’s post on the superiority or otherwise of economists, and Krugman’s piece, also bouncing off Fourcade et al, with a few observations of my own, that don’t amount to anything systematic. My perspective is a bit unusual, at least for the profession as it exists today. I didn’t go to graduate school, and I started out in an Australian civil service job in the low-status[^1] field of agricultural economics.

So, I have long experience as an outsider to the US-dominated global profession. But, largely due to one big piece of good luck early on (as well as the obligatory hard work and general ability), I’ve done pretty well and am now, in most respects, an insider, at least in the Australian context. [click to continue…]

Planet saved … in Brisbane!

by John Quiggin on November 12, 2014

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the agreement announced today by Barack Obama and Xi Jinping to limit US and Chinese greenhouse gas emissions. The limits are significant in themselves: not enough to guarantee stabilization of greenhouse gas levels at the agreed target of 450 ppm, but enough that we can get there just by ratcheting up an existing agreement rather than by looking for something new.

I’ll write more later, but I wanted to note this event as soon as I could

Remembrance Day

by John Quiggin on November 11, 2014

Every year on this day, I post on the futility of war, arguing that wars and armed revolutions are almost never justified. I haven’t convinced anyone, and there are probably more wars, frozen conflicts and insurgencies now than there were when I started blogging.

And I realise I haven’t even convinced myself. Intellectually, I know that wars will always turn out badly, but still when a new conflict erupts, I find myself picking sides and cheering for the good (less bad) guys.

Why do we fall for the spurious appeal of a simple, violent solution to complex and intractable problems? And why is it so hard to end a war once it has started? I have some half-formed ideas, but I’ll leave it to others to discuss.

In the meantime, Lest we Forget.

Brands of Nonsense

by John Quiggin on October 31, 2014

That’s the title of a piece of mine the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a little while ago. It’s paywalled but they have graciously given me permission to republish it here.

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Three things the US has (just about) seen the last of

by John Quiggin on October 26, 2014

Here’s an assorted list of things that once seemed archetypally American, but have pretty much reached the end of the line. More precisely, there are no new ones, or hardly any, and the existing examples look increasingly down at heel

    Shopping malls
    Nuclear power stations
    Republican intellectuals

Feel free to discuss, deny, add to the list and so on.

Gough Whitlam has died

by John Quiggin on October 23, 2014

Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister of Australia from 1972 to 1975, died on Tuesday. More than any other Australian political leader, and as much as any political figure anywhere, Gough Whitlam embodied social democracy in its ascendancy after World War II, its high water mark around 1970 and its defeat by what became known as neoliberalism in the wake of the crises of the 1970s.
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r > g

by John Quiggin on October 13, 2014

A standard piece of advice to researchers in math-oriented fields aiming to publish a popular book is that every equation reduces the readership by a factor of x (x can range from 2 to 10, depending on who is giving the advice). Thomas Piketty’s Capital has only one equation (or more precisely, inequality), at least only one that anyone notices, but it’s a very important one. Piketty claims that the share of capital owners in national income will tend to rise when the rate of interest r exceeds the rate of growth g. He suggests that this is the normal state, and that the situation prevailing for much of the 20th century, when r was less than g, was an aberration.

I’ve seen lots of discussion of this, much of it confused and/or confusing. So, I want to offer a very simple explanation of Piketty’s point. I’m aware that this may seem glaringly obvious to some readers, and remain opaque to others, but I hope there is a group in between who will benefit.

Suppose that you are a debtor, facing an interest rate r, and that your income grows at a rate g. Initially, think about the case when r=g. For concreteness, suppose you initially owe $400, your annual income is $100 and r=g is 5 per cent. So, your debt to income ratio is 4. Now suppose that your consumption expenditure (that is, expenditure excluding interest and principal repayments) is exactly equal to your income, so you don’t repay any principal and the debt compounds. Then, at the end of the year, you owe $420 (the initial debt + interest) and your income has risen to $105. The debt/income ratio is still 4. It’s easy to see that this will work regardless of the numerical values, provided r=g. To sum it up in words: when the growth rate and the interest rate are equal, and income equals consumption expenditure, the ratio of debt to income will remain stable.

On the other hand, if r>g, the ratio of debt to income can only be kept stable if you consume less than you earn. And conversely if r < g (for example in a situation of unanticipated inflation or booming growth), the debt-income ratio falls automatically provided you don’t consume in excess of your income.

Now think of an economy divided into two groups: capital owners and everyone else (both wage-earners and governments). The debt owed by everyone else is the wealth of the capital owners. If r>g, and if capital owners provide the net savings to allow everyone else to balance income and consumption, then the ratio of the capital stock to (non-capital) income must rise. My reading of Piketty is that, as we shift from the C20 situation of r ≤ g to one in which r>g the ratio of capital to stock to non-capital income is likely to rise form 4 (the value that used to be considered as one of the constants of 20th century economics) to 6 (the value he estimates for the 19th century)

This in turn means that the ratio of capital income to non-capital income must rise, both because the capital stock is getting bigger in relative terms and because the rate of return, r, has increased as we move from r=g to r>g. For example if the capital-income ratio goes from 4 to 6 and r goes from 2 to 5, then capital incomes goes from 8 per cent of non-capital income to 30 per cent1. This can only stop if the stock of physical capital becomes so large as to bring r and g back into line (there’s a big dispute about whether and how this will happen, which I’ll leave for another time), or if non-capital owners begin to consume below their income.

There’s a lot more to Piketty than this, and a lot more to argue about, but I hope this is helpful to at least some readers.


  1. Around 20 per cent of GDP is depreciation, indirect taxes and other things that don’t figure in a labor-capital split, so this translates into a fall in the labor share of all income from a bit over 70 per cent to around 50 per cent, which looks like happening. 

Legal reasoning

by John Quiggin on October 10, 2014

Not surprisingly, the US Supreme Court’s non-decision on equal marriage has caused plenty of debate, including John H’s smackdown of NR’s Matthew Franck.

The discussion got me thinking about the broader problem of legal reasoning, at least in its originalist and textualist forms, and also in precedent-based applications of common law. The assumption in all of these approaches is that by examining (according to some system of rules) what was legislated or decided in the past, lawyers and judges can determine the law as it applies to the case at hand. There are all sorts of well-known difficulties here, such as how words written a century ago should apply to technologies and social structures that did not exist at the time. And it often happens that these approaches produce results that seem unacceptable to most people but for which a legislative or constitutional fix is impossible for some reason.

It’s always seemed to me, though, that there is a much bigger problem with this approach, namely the implicit assumption that “the law” actually exists. That is, it is assumed that, if the appropriate procedure is used to interpret the inherited text, and applied to the problem at hand, it will produce a determinate answer. But why should this be true? The same law might contain contradictory clauses, supported by contradictory arguments, voted in by different majorities, and understood at the time of its passage in contradictory ways. Most notably, the same constitution might grant universal freedoms in one place, while recognising slavery in another.

At a minimum, such contradictions mean that there is no determinate law on the particular points of difference. But the problem is worse than this. The law rarely prescribes an exact answer in a specific case. The standard view of legal reasoning is the principles can be extracted from case law, then applied to new cases. But contradictory laws and contradictory cases produce contradictory principles. The ultimate stopping point is the paradox of entailment: a contradiction implies anything and everything.

I don’t have a fully worked out answer to this problem but I think it underlies a lot of the disquiet so many people feel about legal reasoning (apart from the ordinary disappointment when the answer it produces isn’t the one we want).

When a militarily powerful country tries to govern the affairs of millions of people on the other side of the planet, we shouldn’t be surprised that chaos results …

That’s of the grab from my latest piece in Inside Story, commenting on the utter incoherence of US (and therefore Australian) policy in the Middle East. An extended version:

How could it be otherwise? A rich and militarily powerful country has taken it upon itself to govern the affairs of millions of people on the other side of the planet, of whom it knows nothing. Its emissaries routinely elevate particular individuals, ethnic groups, religious sects and political parties as favourites, then just as quickly dump them in favour of new friends. Its tools vary randomly from overwhelming force to plaintive exhortation, with no clear or consistent rationale.

The key observation is that, with the exception of slavish obedience to the whims of the Netanyahu government, the US has switched sides on almost every conflict in the Middle East in the space of a couple of years.

My policy recommendation to the US is

an announcement that, from now on, the people of the Middle East would be left to sort out their problems for themselves. In particular, it would be useful to state that the United States has no strategic concern with Middle Eastern oil, and that energy policy is a matter for individual countries to determine according to their own priorities.

Inside Story doesn’t appear to take comments so read there (lots of other interesting stuff) and comment here.

My dear Mr. Quiggan …

by John Quiggin on October 6, 2014

… so begins this comment on a recent thread. I don’t have to read any further to know that the subsequent comment will be both hostile and silly.[^1]

My surname is mis-spelt fairly often, reasonably enough in the case of people who’ve only heard it and have to guess at the unstressed vowel. But it happens surprisingly often when all that is needed is to transcribe the text in front of them.

Likewise, I occasionally get people addressing me as “Mr” because they feel the need for a title and choose the default.

Neither, by themselves guarantees hostility and stupidity. But in ten years of blogging, I’ve never seen an exception to the rule that together, they imply exactly that.

Is this just me? Do other bloggers and commenters find that particular forms of address predict the content of comments? And, if so, which ones?

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Render unto Caesar

by John Quiggin on October 2, 2014

Of the three Jews described by George Steiner as, in Corey’s summary, having formulated a great and demanding ethics/politics, Jesus is to me the most interesting.[^1] That thought struck me while reading Jerry Cohen’s Self-ownership, freedom and equality, a Marxist response to Nozick. As Cohen observes early on, Marxists seem to have a lot more difficulty responding to Nozick than do (US) liberals or social democrats. That’s because the notion of self-ownership central to Nozick’s argument is closely allied to the Marxian idea that capitalism inherently involves exploitation (that is, extraction of surplus value from labor). Nozick’s claim was that the same is true of taxation, or any kind of claim on private property imposed by the state.

I’ll come back to self-ownership in a little while. The more interesting point, to me, is that Nozick’s argument was refuted in advance by Jesus when he was asked by Pharisees (arbiters of the law laid down by Moses) whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the Romans. This was, of course, a trap, since he could be arrested for saying No and discredited for saying Yes. Jesus showed them a coin with the emperor’s head on the obverse and said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. And “when they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.”

Jesus’ point is just as valid if the coin is replaced by paper currency bearing the picture of a president, or rent from a land title issued by a state, or a dividend coupon from a corporation established under state law. All of these things were initially obtained from states under conditions that (in most cases, explicitly) involved the obligation to pay taxes as determined by the legal processes of those states. Someone who takes Caesar’s coin and then repudiates the associated obligation to pay taxes is, quite simply, a thief (of course, theft implies property, and vice versa).

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Since we’re on the topic of appalling and bizarre things said by rightwingers, here’s my entry, from this morning’s inbox, with the headline above. It’s from the Foundation for Government Accountability, a Florida thinktank closely linked to ALEC (it also has some overlap with Cato and the State Policy Network).

The “argument” is that the expansion gives health care to poor people “many of whom (35 percent) with a record of run-ins with the criminal justice system”. This is illustrated with a “light-hearted” YouTube cartoon of convicts (riding in Cadillacs, naturally) pushing old ladies out of the line to get into the luxurious health care club that is Medicaid.

Given the catchy use of percentages (the 35 per cent figure is applicable to any assistance given to the poor), we can expect to see this one resurface in the Repub memepond on a regular basis. Paging Mitt Romney.

From derp to denial

by John Quiggin on September 23, 2014

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen four major reports (details over the fold) from very different sources, all making the same point: decarbonizing the world economy will involve economic costs that are
(a) small; and
(b) far outweighed by the benefits
And, the empirical evidence so far is strong. The EU and US have both reduced CO2 emissions significantly, at negligible or even negative economic cost. The measures announced by Obama, including vehicle emissions standards and restrictions on coal-fired power stations appear set to achieve further substantial reductions, again while yielding net economic benefits.

Against the expectations of doubters, wind and solar PV are steadily increasing their share of electricity generation, to the point where they constitute the majority of new installations in many countries. Again, the costs have been trivially small: in Australia’s case, made up almost entirely of the reduction in asset value imposed on existing generators.

There is as far as I am aware, no credible analysis to support the opposite claim (call it the economic armageddon hypothesis) that decarbonization will involve economic costs sufficient to greatly reduce living standards, or, for poor countries, prevent catchup to the developed world. (Again, more detailed argument over the fold.

Nevertheless, past experience suggests that lots of people are sufficiently wedded to the economic armageddon hypothesis that neither this, nor any other evidence will change their minds. I have previously analyzed this unwillingness to respond to evidence in terms of Noah Smith’s Bayesian definition of “derp“: “the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors”.

But I no longer think this is sufficient. A central concept of Bayesian decision theory is the separation of preferences from beliefs. That is, your subjective belief about the probability that a proposition is true should be independent of whether (because you have bet on it, or for some other reason) you want it to be true. This is the opposite of what is often called “motivated reasoning” or, less politely, “wishful thinking”.

This, I think, is the central distinction between “derp” and “denial”. Both involve the rejection of factual evidence that would (to a person without strong preconceptions) be overwhelmingly strong. This must involve strong prior beliefs. Denial differs from derp in that these factual beliefs derive from preferences, and are unlikely to undergo any updating. If anything, denial may be strengthened by evidence of the proposition being denied.

This in turn suggests different possible cures. Derp may eventually, if very slowly, be overcome by an accumulation of evidence. By contrast, denial can only be addressed by changing the source of wishful thinking; for example, by convincing rightwingers to stop being rightwingers.

That brings us to the question of why, if the case is so overwhelming, the political resistance to action on climate change has been so strong, and whether it can be overcome. I have a go at this in another post on my blog, where this one was already posted. It might be worth reading the comments threads to these posts before jumping in here.

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Monochrome swans

by John Quiggin on September 15, 2014

I have a request1 for help from scientifically literate readers. A lot of my research work is focused on the problem of unforeseen contingencies, popularly, if ethnocentrically, described as “black swans”. In particular, I’m interested in the question of how you can prepare for such contingencies given that, by definition, you can’t foresee exactly what they will be. One example, with which I’m very pleased, is that of the precautionary principle. It seems reasonable to say that we can distinguish well-understood choices involving hazards from those that are poorly understood, and avoid the latter, precisely because the loss from hazard cannot be bounded in advance.

Anyway, I was thinking about this in relation to the actual case of black swans (or, from my own perspective, white swans). The question is: what principles would help you to avoid making, and acting on, the assumption “all swans are white (or, in my own case, black)”. It seems to me that the crucial fact here is that the shift from black to white, or vice versa, is, in evolutionary terms, a small one. So, if you used something like cladistics, you would avoid choosing feather color as a defining feature of swans, and birds in general. As I understand it, a phylogenetic approach starts with features that are very strongly conserved (body plans) and proceeds from there. But, rather than assume that my own understanding is correct, it seemed simpler to ask.


  1. There’s a blog-specific word for this, but I refuse to use it 

Rawls, Bentham and the Laffer Curve

by John Quiggin on September 8, 2014

The 1970s saw two important and influential publications in the long debate over justice, equality and public policy. In 1971, there was Rawls Theory of Justice, commonly described in terms like “magisterial”. Then in 1974, at lunch with Jude Wanniski, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, Arthur Laffer drew his now-eponymous curve on a napkin. Of course there was nothing new about the curve: it’s pretty obvious that an income tax levied at rates of either zero or 100 per cent isn’t going to raise any money (* or, in the 100 per cent case, not very much money), and interpolation does the rest. What was new was the Laffer hypothesis, that the US at the time was on the descending side of the curve, where a reduction in tax rates would raise tax revenue.

I’ve always understood Rawls in terms of the Laffer curve, as arguing in essence that we should be at the very top of the curve, maximizing the resources available for transfer to the poor, but not (as, say, Jerry Cohen might have advocated) going further than this to promote equality.

A couple of interesting Facebook discussions have led me to think that I might be wrong in my understanding of Rawls and that the position I’ve imputed to him is actually far closer to that of classical utilitarianism in the tradition of Bentham (which is, broadly speaking, my own view).

Facebook has its merits, but promoting open public discussion isn’t one of them, so I thought I’d throw this out to the slightly larger world of blog readers.

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