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John Quiggin

No True Scotsman: Generation Game Edition

by John Quiggin on November 26, 2017

Following a “related stories” link, I found a 2014 piece from Dana Milbank which combines my favorite pet peeve, the Generation Game, with everyone’s favorite fallacy, No True Scotsman. I’m a bit late to the party, but I can’t resist such a tempting target.

Milbank wants to make the case that, unlike the great conciliators of the past and the cool, detached Generation X of which he is a member, Baby Boomers are given to a “scorched earth” conflict-driven style of politics. There’s just one problem. Most of Milbank’s villains (Pelosi, McConnell, Reid) were born before the baby boom, while the hero of his piece, Obama, is, sad to say, a Boomer. No problem, says Milbank, “generational boundaries are inexact”. Applying the No True Boomer test, Pelosi, McConnell, Reid are turned into Boomers, while Obama is promoted into Generation X. In these cases, the shift is only a year or so, but a moment’s thought would have provided Milbank with plenty of examples of scorched-earthers born five years or more outside the Baby Boom (Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch at one end, Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan at the other) and compromisers born in the middle of the Boom (Tim Kaine and the leading members of the DLC)

More to the point, the style of politics he’s talking about got its start with the Nixon-Buchanan Southern strategy “tear the country in half, and take the bigger half“. The fact that many of its most prominent practitioners are (mostly male) Boomers follows from the fact that they are currently the right age (roughly 55 to 70 depending on details) to occupy senior leadership in US politics.

Armistice Day, 2017

by John Quiggin on November 11, 2017

Another Armistice Day and the prospects for peace are bleaker than they have been for years. Not only are militaristic demagogues in the ascendancy just about everywhere, but the cult of the military is increasingly unchallenged, even in countries generally seen as peaceable, like Canada. Then there’s the threat of nuclear war posed by a much more capable North Korea, and the erratic responses of the Trump Administration.

It’s a day on which I feel increasingly alone. It seems obvious to me, 100 years after the bloodiest year of war in Australia’s history and the revolutions the war produced, that war and revolution are almost invariably a pointless waste of life and human potential, usually ending in disaster for all, and that even grave historical and social injustices are better resisted by peaceful means than by resort to force. But every military anniversary reminds me that this is the view of a small and shrinking minority.

One day, perhaps, peace will come. But not today.

The end of fossil fuels

by John Quiggin on October 30, 2017

The International Energy Agency recently released data showing that world coal production fell sharply in 2016, mainly because of big cuts in China. Looking at the graph, it appears that the peak in production was around 2013. The price of coal has experienced a “dead cat bounce” over the last year or so, essentially because China has been closing coal mines faster than it’s been closing or cancelling coal-fired power stations, but the picture tells the story for the future.

Global coal production (source IEA)

Until relatively recently, the decline of coal was the result of competition with gas, while new renewables weren’t even enough to cover the growth in demand. But a quick calculation shows that renewables will soon be taking out a bigger bite. Global electricity generation is currently about 20000 terawatt-hours (TWh) a year, growing at around 1.5 per cent, or 300TWh a year. Installations of solar PV and wind (I haven’t checked on hydro and other renewables) for 2017 look set to come in around 150 gigawatts (GW). Assuming 2000 hours of operation per year, that’s just enough to offset demand growth. So, any future growth in renewables must come directly at the expense of existing fossil fuel generation which in practice will almost always mean coal.

Turning to transport, James Wimberley has an analysis of the prospects for peak gasoline (petrol) used in internal combustion engines. Summarising drastically, his best estimate for peak gasoline is 2032. Decarbonization requires an end to petrol-driven vehicle sales by around 2035. On this front, the good news is that quite a few countries, including the UK, France and India are pushing for an end to new sales with target dates ranging form 2030 to 2040.

Of course, all of this assumes that the attempts of Trump and his Australian counterpart Turnbull (along with likeminded culture warriors in Turkey, Poland and elsewhere) to bail out the dying coal industry come to nothing and also that Trump doesn’t manage to destroy the planet through nuclear war.

Judaeo-Christian (updated)

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.

Updated A lengthy and sometimes heated comments thread, from which I’ll extract the following: “Judaeo-Christian” has been used in all sorts of ways, from an inclusivist way of speaking about the two main religious traditions historically present in European and the US, to a “supersessionist” Christian doctrine, in which Judaism is an imperfect forerunner of Christianity, to a code word for Islamophobia. Obviously, Trump and his audience were mainly using it in non-inclusive ways. Even so, there’s no way it can be consistent with a purely Christianist objection to “Happy Holidays”. The contradiction reflects the collapse of modern conservatisim into “irritable mental gestures that seek to resemble thought”.

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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