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John Quiggin

A while back, in a context I can’t exactly remember, I made the point, which seemed to me to be obvious, that all property rights are derived from states governments, and so it’s impossible to sustain a claim that state government interference with property rights is inherently wrong. It rapidly became apparent that this point is controversial in all sorts of ways, so I thought it might be worthwhile to work out where the main lines of disagreement run.

The great thing about a blog like CT is that, on (almost) any topic, lots of my co-bloggers and readers know more than I do, and most aren’t shy about saying so. So, please point me to the relevant literature (about my only reference point here is James C Scott).

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Has vaccination become a partisan issue?

by John Quiggin on February 8, 2015

Some recent statements by Chris Christie and Rand Paul1 have raised the prospect that vaccination, or, more precisely, policies that impose costs on parents who don’t vaccinate their kids, may become a partisan issue, with Republicans on the anti-vax (or, if you prefer, pro-freedom) side and Democrats pushing a pro-vaccine, pro-science line. Christie and Paul took a lot of flak from other Republicans and even Fox News, and tried to walk their statements back, so it seems as if it won’t happen just yet.

But there are some obvious reasons to think that such a divide might emerge in the future, and that Christie and Paul just jumped the gun. The outline of the debate can be seen in the ferocious response to Reason magazine’s endorsement of mandatory vaccination. And, while Reason was on the right side this time, they’ve continually cherrypicked the evidence on climate change and other issues to try to bring reality in line with libertarian wishes.

The logic of the issue is pretty much identical to that of climate change, gun control, and other policies disliked by the Republican/schmibertarian base. People want to be free to do as they please, even when there’s an obvious risk to others and don’t want to hear experts pointing out those risks.2 So, they find bogus experts who will tell them what they want to hear, or announce that they are “skeptics” who will make up their own minds. An obvious illustration of the parallels is this anti-vax piece in the Huffington Post by Lawrence Solomon, rightwing author of The Deniers, a supportive account of climate denial3.

As long as libertarians and Republicans continue to embrace conspiracy theories on issues like climate science, taking a pro-science viewpoint on vaccination just makes them “cafeteria crazy”. The consistent anti-science position of people like Solomon is, at least intellectually, more attractive.

Update Another issue that fits the same frame is speeding. Anti-science libertarians in Australia and the UK are strongly pro-speeding, but I get the impression that this isn’t such a partisan issue in the US, the reverse of the usual pattern where tribalist patterns are strongest in the US.


  1. Christie was just pandering clumsily, but Paul’s statement reflects the dominance of anti-vax views among his base and that of his father (take a look at dailypaul.com). 

  2. Of course, the situation is totally different in cases like Ebola and (non-rightwing) terrorism, where it’s the “others” who pose the risk. 

  3. The Huffington Post used to be full of leftish anti-vaxers. But the criticisms of Seth Mnookin and others produced a big shift – Solomon’s was the only recent example I could find. Similarly, having given equivocal statements back in 2008, Obama and Clinton are now firmly on the pro-vaccine side. 

Asset sales and interest rates (wonkish)

by John Quiggin on February 4, 2015

One of the strongest most politically effective arguments made for selling publicly owned assets, such as government owned corporations is that, by reducing debt, it will reduce the interest rate on government bonds. This is plausible enough, and not by itself a conclusive argument. The interest saving (including the benefit of lower rates on remaining debt) needs to be set against the loss of earnings. But it would be nice to know how large this saving might be.

The Queensland state election, just passed, provides something of a natural experiment. The LNP government proposed to sell $37 billion in public assets and repay $25 billion in debt ($18 billion associated with the enterprises to be sold, and $7 billion in general government debt. Going in with 73 of 89 seats, the LNP was almost universally expected to be returned. Instead, they lost their majority and will probably lose office. Although the result is not yet final, everyone is now agreed that asset sales are off the table.

So, we should be able to look at the secondary market for QTC bonds to see how much this surprise changed the interest rate demanded by bondholders (this is what’s called an “event study” in the jargon of academic finance). You can get the data from https://www.qtc.qld.gov.au/qtc/public/web/individual-investors/rates/interactive%20rate%20finder//

and I’ve included it over the fold (a bit of a mess as I can’t do HTML tables)

The data shows that interest rates have generally been tending downwards, as you would expect given the Reserve Bank’s much-anticipated cut. On the trading day after the election, rates on longer term bonds rose by between 0.05 and 0.1 percentage points (or, in the market jargon 5 and 10 basis) points. But all of that increase, and more, was wiped out the next day when the RBA confirmed its cut. Overall rates on QTC debt have fallen by around 0.25 percentage points since Newman called, and then lost, his snap election.

To sum up, the surprise abandonment of one of the largest proposed asset sales in Australian history caused only a momentary blip in interest rates on Queensland government debt, immediately wiped out by a modest adjustment in monetary policy at the national level.

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Queensland election

by John Quiggin on February 1, 2015

We just had an election in my home state of Queensland, and the outcomes will be of some broader interest, I hope. The governing Liberal National (= conservative) Party has (almost certainly) gone down to a surprise defeat, going from 78 of 89 seats at the last election to a probable 40 or 41 this time. The key issues were broken promises (particularly regarding job cuts) and government proposals for privatisation.

This can be seen either as a reversal or a repeat of the last election when the governing Labor Party went from 51 seats to 7. That election was also fought on broken promises and privatisation, but with the roles of the parties reversed (Labor had won an election opposing privatisation, then immediately announced it would go ahead).

Among the actual or potential ramifications

Looking internationally, the outcome can be seen as a defeat for the politics of austerity and maybe as an example to suggest that Pasokification can be reversed, under the right circumstances.

Finally, I’ll link to my analysis of the asset sales, which got a reasonably prominent run during the campaign. It probably didn’t change many minds, but it helped to counter the barrage of pro-privatisation propaganda.

A one-horse troika

by John Quiggin on January 27, 2015

I’m a lot further from the action than DD, but I’m still surprised his confidence in the judgement and resolve of the Eurocracy in the coming confrontation with Syriza. Whatever you think about Greece, the failure of austerity in the Eurozone generally is patently obvious. It has already been admitted by the IMF (at least in its research, if not by its political leadership) and just last week by the ECB, with the shift to massive quantitative easing and the abandonment of the (supposedly unbreachable) ban on financing government deficits. That leaves the European Commission as the only horse still pulling the troika hard in the direction of austerity.

But the European Commission is almost as discredited as austerity. Apart from the appalling Olli Rehn, there’s the problem of Jean-Claude Juncker, who faced unprecedented resistance before getting elected, only to be exposed as complicit in tax avoidance/evasion on a scale that makes the dodges of Greek doctors look trivial. I just can’t see the IMF and ECB risking utter disaster in support of a policy they no longer believe in, at the behest of a shambles like the Commission.

That leaves the possibility that the German government will exert its (assumed) veto power more directly [I don’t understand the nature of this power, and would be happy to be enlightened]. My guess is that Merkel won’t be willing to take the risk of lumbering Germany with the responsibility of destroying Europe (again).

Predictions for 2015

by John Quiggin on January 15, 2015

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future, as Niels Bohr is supposed to have said. I’ve certainly found it so. Apart from the obvious possibility of being wrong, there’s the risk that others will misrepresent you. But, as long as you don’t take it too seriously, it’s helpful to frame discussion around a sharp prediction. So here are three for 2015

1. Peak Oil: I predict that global oil production (conventional and shale etc) will decline in 2015 and will never again reach the peak level of 2014. My reasoning is that 2014 supply can’t be sustained at prices below, say, $75, and (given a downward underlying trend in the developed world), 2014 demand won’t be reached again at prices above $75.

2. The End of Bitcoin: I’ve written in the past that “Bitcoins will attain their true value of zero sooner or later, but it is impossible to say when.” However, I now think the necessary conditions are in place for most holders of Bitcoins to recognise that their asset consists of used-up computation cycles with zero value. In particular, because mainstream merchants now accept Bitcoin (which they immediately sell), it’s possible for hardcore believers to dispose of their holdings without explicitly betting that the price will fall. Of course, the price won’t fall precisely to zero, but it should be well below $100 by the end of the year, and below $10 not long after that.

3. The Paris conference on climate change, will produce a half-baked compromise, which nevertheless represents progress towards stabilization at 2 degrees of warming: OK, this is pretty much a no-brainer, given that this is what we’ve been seeing ever since Kyoto in 1997, but I want to be sure of getting at least one right.

Consequentialist arguments for deontological claims

by John Quiggin on December 30, 2014

Thinking about various interchanges on the Internetz, a great many have the frustrating property that, while they appear to be couched in consequentialist terms, some or all of the participants are defending claims that they actually hold for deontological reasons[^1]. For example, a follower of Pythagoras (who, apocryphally, forbade the eating of beans) might appear in a discussion about beans and claim that we shouldn’t eat beans because

  • they cause flatulence
  • bean production is environmentally destructive
  • the bean industry is dominated by exploitative multinationals
    The problem for someone seeking to counter these arguments is that, even if they are all refuted, the Pythagorean will not agree that it is OK to eat beans.
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Sandy Hook and Peshawar

by John Quiggin on December 22, 2014

A couple of news items that struck me recently

  • In the immediate aftermath of the Peshawar massacre, a Pakistani judge granted bail to the alleged planner of the Mumbai massacre, Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi, a leading figure in the (military-backed) Lashkar e-Taibi terrorist group.

Obviously, these decisions were neither aberrational nor the product of a legal system divorced from any social context. Rather, they reflect deeply ingrained views in the societies from which they emerged. Beyond that point, I don’t have a lot to say, but I’ll be interested to read the views of others.

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.