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John Quiggin

Debt and taxes

by John Quiggin on May 4, 2017

To misquote Benjamin Franklin and others, the only certainties in economic life are debt and taxes. Among the themes of political struggle, fights over debt (demands from creditors to be paid in the terms they expect, and from debtors to be relieved from unfair burdens) and taxes (who should pay them and how should the resulting revenue be spent) have always been central.

I mentioned in a comment recently, that Pro-debtor politics is always in competition with social democracy, and a couple of people asked for more explanation.
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Lest we forget

by John Quiggin on April 25, 2017

Today is Anzac Day, the anniversary of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign which marked the first major involvement of Australian and New Zealand troops in the Great War. In their memory, I’ll quote the man most directly responsible for the disaster, describing the war of which it was a part (H/T Daniel Quiggin)

Germany having let Hell loose kept well in the van of terror; but she was followed step by step by the desperate and ultimately avenging nations she had assailed. Every outrage against humanity or international law was repaid by reprisals often on a greater scale and longer duration. No truce or parley mitigated the strife of the armies. The wounded died between the lines; the dead moldered into the soil. Merchant ships and neutral ships and hospital ships were sunk on the seas and all on board left to their fate, or killed as they swam. Every effort was made to starve whole nations into submission without regard to age or sex. Cities and monuments were smashed by artillery. Bombs from the air were cast down indiscriminately. Poison gas in many forms stifled or seared the soldiers. Liquid fire was projected upon their bodies. Men fell from the air in flames, or were smothered, often slowly, in the dark recesses of the sea. The fighting strength of armies was limited only by the manhood of their countries. Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When it was all over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian states had been able to deny themselves: and these were of doubtful utility.
As it turned out, even this assessment was too optimistic. The second phase of the great world war saw the end of the few limits that had been observed in the first.

To pay respect to the Anzacs and those who followed them, we should stop repeating the mistakes and crimes of those who sent them to their deaths.

The poverty of psychology, again

by John Quiggin on April 14, 2017

Chris’ post on psychological theories of anti-egalitarianism reminded me of one I’ve been meaning to write for a while, responding to a whole subgenre of the Haidt school of political psychology dealing with the question: why do people maintain false beliefs in the face of contrary evidence? There seems to be an article in the papers on this every week or two (unsurprisingly, given the political situatin), and they are nearly always much the same.

Given the assumption that this is a matter of individual psychology, the answer must be applicable to everyone, and, in the US context, “everyone” means “both Republicans and Democrats”. The answer is some irrational/antirational feature of individual belief formation, such as confirmation bias. I’m not going to pick on any particular writers; examples abound.
The obvious problem here is that, to a first approximation, people believe what members of their social groups believe. So, the relevant questions are:

*How do social groups maintain, or correct, false beliefs in the face of contrary evidence ?

  • Under what circumstances do people break with false beliefs held by other members of their social group? If this happens, does it involve a break with the social group or the emergence of a dissident subgroup?

Once we look at things this way, it’s obvious that not all social groups are the same, Scientists have a social process for dealing with evidence, which differs from that of (to pick a group with almost zero overlap) Republicans. Obviously, scientists collectively are much better at correcting false beliefs than Republicans, even though, as individuals, both scientists and Republicans exhibit forms of motivated reasoning such as confirmation bias.

The question of how the members of groups change their beliefs seems like an obvious topic for study by social psychologists. And perhaps it is, but if so, their work has had no impact on the asocial psychologists I’ve seen talking about it.

An unhappy coincidence ?

by John Quiggin on April 10, 2017

The other day my incoming email included an invitation from an Olla Galal, special issue developer at Hindawi publishers, to be the Lead Guest Editor for a Special Issue of Occupational Therapy International. Nothing too surprising in that, although my knowledge of occupational therapy would barely extend to a paraphrase of the name. I’m always getting invitations like this, and while I had the impression that Hindawi was a cut above the kind of predatory publishing house that does this kind of thing, I wasn’t too sure. (I have received previous invitations of this kind from them, but in fields where I could at least be a plausible candidate.

What made me pay attention was this

In June 2016, Wiley and Hindawi entered into a new publishing partnership that converted nine Wiley subscription journals into Open Access titles. The journals will be published under both the Wiley and Hindawi brands and distributed through Hindawi’s online platform
So, if this is accurate, I could become a guest editor for a Wiley journal in a field in which I am totally unqualified. More seriously, authors of papers in the old version of Occupational Therapy International “very well respected in its field with an impact factor of 0.683” according to Olla Galal, will now be associated with the new one.

Having got this far, I thought I should check Beall’s list of predatory journals, only to discover that it went dark on 17 January* for unexplained reasons. This is certainly depressing. It seems that even supposedly reputable academic publishers are now engaged, with only the fig leaf of a “partnership”, in seriously predatory behavior. How long before we see them pandering to the demand for “alternative fact” journals to give proper credibility to creationism, climate science denial, antivax and so on, if they are not already?

  • Only a couple of days before Trump’s inauguration. Coincidence?

China, me old China

by John Quiggin on April 5, 2017

One of the reasons I like blogging and opinion writing is that I’m better at thinking up ideas than at the hard work needed to turn them into properly researched journal articles, which is the core business of being an academic. So, it’s great when an idea I’ve floated in a fairly half-baked form in a blog or magazine article gets cited in a real journal article. Even better when it’s a colleague or, in this case, former colleague who cites me.

James Laurenceson, formerly of UQ and now Deputy Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS, has an article just out in the Australian Journal of International Affairs (paywalled, unfortunately, but well reading if you can get access), on Economics and freedom of navigation in East Asia, which cites a short piece I wrote last year and reproduced here. My key points were

  • Contrary to many claims, China has no interest in blocking trade in the South China Sea, since most of it goes to and from China
  • For the smaller volume of trade between other countries, the cost of taking a more roundabout route is so small that China could not exert any significant leverage by restricting access to the South China Sea
  • There’s nothing special about this case. The whole idea that navies are vitally needed to keep sea lanes open is nonsense

Where I based the first two claims on a bit of Google searching and a couple of academic papers, James has developed the argument in convincing detail, addressing a wide range of possible counterarguments. If I could find someone to do the same thing for my third claim, I’d be very happy.

Generation Trump

by John Quiggin on April 1, 2017

For years now, I’ve been railing against the generation game, that is, the practice of labelling people born in some period of 15-20 years or so as a ‘generation’ (Boomers, X, Millennials and so on ) then making various claims about their supposed characteristics. A generation or so ago, I made the point that

most of the time, claims about generations amount to no more than the repetition of unchanging formulas about different age groups ­ the moral degeneration of the young, the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old, and so on

But this, and a stream of similar articles and blogposts have had no impact that I can see. Since I can’t beat the generation gamers, I’ve decided to beat join them. And, rather than wait for a new generation to leave school and enter the workforce, as is usual, I’ve decided to jump ahead and identify Generation Trump, consisting of those born after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the US Presidency.

The crucial thing about this generation is that their character is formed entirely in Trump’s image. They are hedonistic, totally self-centred, have a short attention span, are prone to mood swings, and are almost entirely ignorant of the world beyond their own immediate concerns. On the other hand, they can be loving and affectionate, and many are totally family-oriented.

Astute readers will observe that, in a slightly toned down form, this is very similar what is now being said in contemporary depictions of Millennials, and was said about the ‘Slackers’ of Generation X when they were in their late teens and early 20s. That’s great for me, since it means I should be able to pump out marginal variants of the same cliches about Generation Trump until they mature into boring middle-aged adults. That is, of course, unless Trump himself does so first.

Deal or No Deal

by John Quiggin on March 17, 2017

I was planning a post, looking at the Brexit negotiations in terms of game theory (more precisely, bargaining theory), but Frances Coppola has saved me the trouble. One reason for my hesitation was concerns similar to those expressed by Ariel Rubinstein, in a 2013 piece that seems to be having a bit of a revival lately. Still, whether or not game theory helps, I think Coppola has it about right.

Trumpism and religion

by John Quiggin on March 16, 2017

One of the striking features of Donald Trump’s election victory was the overwhelming support he received from white Christians, rising to near-unanimity among white evangelicals, where Trump outpolled all previous Republican candidates. In thinking about the global rise of Trumpism, I’ve been under the impression that the US is a special case, and that the rise of Trumpism in a largely post-religious Europe suggests that the link between Christianism and Trumpism is a spurious correlation.

But, on reading a bit about the Dutch election, I found the suggestion that there is a long tradition of confessional politics in the Netherlands (maybe Ingrid could explain more about this) and that support for the racist PVV is centred on Limburg, and inherited from the formerly dominant Catholic party there. And, re-examining my previous position, it’s obvious that being “largely post-Christian” does not preclude the existence of a large bloc of Christian, and therefore potentially Christianist voters.

So, I’m now thinking that Trumpism can be seen, in large measure, as a reaction by white Christians against the loss of their assumed position as the social norm, against which assertions of rights for anyone else can be seen as identity politics, political correctness and so on. As is usual, as soon as I formed this idea, I found evidence for it everywhere. Obvious cases are Putin and Russian Orthodoxy, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, and Fillon in France. Looking a bit harder, I found that British Christians voted strongly for Brexit. And, in my own backyard, all the Trumpist parties I described in this post (except, I think, Palmer’s) are strongly Christianist.

Of course, there’s nothing distinctively Christian in the actual politics of Trumpism, so the analysis applies equally well to Islamists like Erdoganhat (and al-Baghdadi for that matter) and Hindu nationalists like Modi. In fact, looking over the recent upsurge of Trumpists, the only counterexample I can find to the analysis is Duterte in the Phillipines, who has been denounced by the Catholic Church and has returned the compliment in spades.

What does this mean for the future of Trumpism?

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On Saturday, a state election was held in Western Australia, resulting in a big win for the Labor party, after two terms out of office. The election turned in part on declining economic conditions and in part on the incumbent government’s proposal to privatise the electricity industry, an idea that has almost invariably proved electoral poison (it keeps coming up because of the massive financial and career benefits to those who can push it through). But the biggest factor was a deal done between two Trumpist political parties (a guide to our many versions of Trumpism here), the governing Liberal party (selling a combination of Trumpism and neoliberalism in the manner of the US Republicans) and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. (The Liberals cut out their current coalition partners, the National Party, which had only one representative).

The result has been a disaster for both Trumpist groups. After polling near 10 per cent, One Nation got less than 5 per cent of the vote, and Hanson repeatedly made a fool of herself. The Liberals dropped 16 per cent, the biggest swing in WA history.
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Alternate history: Kerensky edition

by John Quiggin on March 8, 2017

Between SF and Trump, it’s hard to avoid alternate histories and futures here at CT. Most of my attempts focus on the Great War, and I’ve just had one published in the New York Times, leading off a series they plan on the centenary of the Russian Revolution(s). My question: What if Kerensky had responded positively to the resolution of the German Reichstag, calling for peace without annexations or indemnities?

In praise of credentialism

by John Quiggin on March 1, 2017

That’s the title of my latest piece in Inside Story. The crucial para

The term “credentialism” is used in many different ways, some of them contradictory, but the implication is consistent: too many young people are getting too much formal education, at too high a level. This implication was spelt out recently by Dean Ashenden, who contends that “education has not just grown to meet the expanding needs of the post-industrial economy, but has exploded like an airbag.” The claim that young people are getting too much education, and the supporting critique of credentialism, is pernicious and false.

Decent conservatives

by John Quiggin on February 26, 2017

Since Trump’s election victory, there’s been a lot of concern trolling (and maybe some genuine concern) that resistance to Trump will alienate decent conservatives who held their noses while voting for Trump, but might be attracted away from him by a suitably respectful presentation of a centre-right Democratic agenda. A notable recent entry is a piece in the New York Times by Sabrina Tavernise, which profiles three such voters, only one of whom has any criticism to make of Trump. The others complain that liberals have been mean to them, but make it pretty clear they would vote for Trump regardless. As is inevitable in such a piece, Jonathan Haidt gets a run – he’s the only expert quoted by name.
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Bastiat anticipates climate science denialism

by John Quiggin on February 23, 2017

I’m working on the environmental policy chapter of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons, which is a reply to Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, which in turn is a repackaging of Bastiat’s What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen. Hazlitt was aware of the difficulties posed for laissez-faire by pollution, and chose to avoid the issue. But, on Googling Bastiat + pollution, I came across a remarkable package in which Bastiat anticipates the climate change debate and takes the denialist side in advancee.

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A double disaster for science and public health (updated)

by John Quiggin on February 16, 2017

Zombies never die, and that’s even more true of zombie ideas. One of the most thoroughly killed zombies, the myth that Rachel Carson is responsible for millions of deaths from DDT, has recently re-emerged from the rightwing nethersphere where it has continued to circulate despite repeated refutation. That wouldn’t be worth yet another long post except for the source: Dr Paul Offit, a prominent pediatrician and leading pro-vaccination campaigner, writing in the Daily Beast. Offit’s revival of the DDT ban myth is a double disaster for science and public health.

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That’s the title of my latest piece in The Guardian. There are two key points

First, in terms of effective tax rates and tax paid, any means-tested Guaranteed Minimum Income can be replicated by a non-tested Universal Basic Income, and vice versa

Second, for a number of reasons, it would be better to begin by expanding access to an adequate Basic income (in Australia, the Age Pension is an obvious benchmark) rather than starting with a small universal payment and then increasing it to a level sufficient to live on.