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John Quiggin

After Melos

by John Quiggin on July 15, 2015

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s been thinking about the words Thucydides assigns to the Athenians in the Melian dialogue

The strong do as they will and the weak suffer what they must
And I knew the immediate context. Militarily powerful Athenians demanded that the inhabitants of neutral Melos surrender their city and pay tribute. When the Melians refused, Athens invaded, slaughtered the men and enslaved the women and children.

I didn’t however, have any broader context in which to place this episode, even though the information is readily available on Wikipedia for example, which is my source here (apologies in advance to any actual experts for inaccuracies). The story begins with the formation of the Delian League, an expression of Greek unity in the war against Persia. The Athenians used the League to supplant Sparta as the hegemon of Greece, and then to oppress the other members, leading to a series of attempted defections. In Thucydides words

Of all the causes of defection, that connected with arrears of tribute and vessels, and with failure of service, was the chief; for the Athenians were very severe and exacting, and made themselves offensive by applying the screw of necessity

Eventually, this policy led to the outbreak of war with the Spartan-led Pelopennesian League (this war was Thucydides’ subject). The attack on Melos took place during a brief period of peace about half way through the war. The war ended with Athens being utterly defeated. Only the mercy of the Spartans prevented the Athenians sharing the fate they had meted out to the Melians a decade earlier, as Sparta’s allies demanded.

Rather than extract analogies to current events, I’d like to observe that the historical setting suggests a very different reading of the dialogue to that commonly seen today. In most of the contemporary discussions I’ve read, the Athenian side of the dialogue is presented as embodying the remorseless logic of power politics. But in the light of the outcome (well known to his intended readers), it seems to me Thucydides is better read as showing the Athenians as subject to the kind of hubris that demands, and inevitably receives, punishment. By contrast, while the Melians made a bad bet in resisting, their arguments are entirely sound, and should have been convincing to a rational hegemon.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.


by John Quiggin on July 14, 2015

Obviously, my analysis of the Greek debt crisis was wrong. My crucial error was the assumption that, having held the referendum and being faced with an unacceptable offer, Tsipras would choose exit from the euro rather than capitulation. Judging by this interview with Varoufakis (H/T Chris), that’s what Tsipras thought too, until, too late, Varoufakis told him it couldn’t be done. Certainly Tsipras’ actions were consistent with that interpretation.

Syriza has clearly been beaten. But I doubt that the outcome will work well for the other side in the long run. (Nearly) everyone understands that the debt can’t ultimately be repaid. But the German voting public hasn’t been told that. A deal that had some kind of quasi-automatic mechanism for writing down the outstanding balance (for example, by multiplying up the proceeds from asset sales) might have got around this problem. As it is, an explicit writedown will be needed at some point, presumably after Syriza has been forced out of office. That will be incredibly unpopular in Germany, while making clear to everyone else the locus of sovereignty in the post-crisis EU.

Update Commenters generally disagree with my take on the Varoufakis interview. I’m not wedded to it. The crucial point is that exit from the euro is extremely difficult, and that this fact will be used to punish any eurozone country that tries to resist the controlling powers.


by John Quiggin on July 11, 2015

Another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. To recap, the Two Lessons are

Lesson 1: Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.
Lesson 2: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

In this section, I’m working on Lesson 1, leading up to the point (my restatement of what’s usually called the First Fundamental Theorem of Welfare Economics) that an ideal competitive equilibrium is one in which there are no unexploited potential gains from technical improvements or mutually beneficial exchange. For reasons I’ve spelt out already I don’t want to use the term “Pareto-optimal” to talk about this. I also want to confine “efficient” to its normal meaning of “technically efficient” and avoid the common economist practice of extending this to cover various definitions of “market efficiency”. So, I’m talking about “free lunches” or, more formally, benefits with no opportunity cost.

In Lesson 2, I’ll be looking, among other things, at the Second Welfare Theorem, which says any outcome with no free lunches corresponds to a particular initial allocation of property rights, broadly defined to include taxation obligations and entitlements of all kinds.

Now please comment, criticise and hopefully enjoy

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Derp: An irregular verb

by John Quiggin on July 7, 2015

Following up on Noah Smith’s marvellous definition of derp, I thought I would add the first person to give the declension of this irregular verb

  • I can’t see this happening
  • You regularly restate your tight (low probability) prior
  • He herped a flerp of derp, the twerp

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Lots of people have raised the suggestion of applying game theory to the the Greek debt crisis. I haven’t attempted this, reflecting my general scepticism about game theory in the absence of a well-defined strategy space. But now the Greek government and public have made, what is, in effect, a final move. In view of the No vote, Syriza can’t accept a deal that doesn’t include an explicit debt write-off or one that obviously crosses its stated red lines. Within those parameters, its clearly eager for a face-saving compromise.

For the other side (effectively the Troika and the German government), since Syriza’s move has already been made, the problem has now been reduced to one of decision under uncertainty, which is something I am comfortable with. More precisely, it’s a choice between a “safe” option, with an outcome that is fairly predictable, and a “risky” option where the outcome is uncertain.
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Locke and the Declaration

by John Quiggin on July 5, 2015

I didn’t take part in the book event on Danielle Allen Our Declaration, except as a commenter. But, as it happened, I converged on some of the central questions by a different route. For some time now, I’ve been writing critically about John Locke and his propertarian theory of liberalism. Increasingly, I’ve come to the view that Locke is best seen as an American rather than an English political theorist, even though he was an absentee owner rather than an American resident.

Further, while his writings appear liberal if interpreted in the English context, and if attention is focused on the passages where he is seeking to diminish the power of the English monarchy, his crucial contributions to the theory of propertarian liberalism are his justifications of expropriation and enslavement in the American context. The combination of the two made him the ideal theorist for those who wanted a Declaration of Independence that justified rebellion against the British monarchy, in combination with rule by a slave-owning aristocracy in the newly independent country.

James Wilson’s contribution to the Danielle Allen seminar, The Declaration of Independence isn’t egalitarian enough explores many of the issues, as does Gabriel Winant.

I’ve made a start to spelling out the arguments in a piece for Jacobin magazine, entitled John Locke Against Freedom, which has given rise to some interesting discussions on Facebook, Twitter etc. Chris Bertram has raised some effective criticisms, and hopefully will spell them out in more detail later on. A couple of notable points, with partial responses

  • I’ve overstated the extent to which Locke’s influence was confined to the American context, although it remains clear that his political theory mattered more in that context than in England

  • Even if Locke himself advocated and benefited from expropriation and slavery, it’s not obvious (as I assert) that his theory of classical liberalism necessarily entails these things. I plan to spell out the argument in more detail soon.

The IMF: An inexcusable, incorrigible failure

by John Quiggin on July 4, 2015

Chris has already pointed out the failure of the core European institutions in their response to the global financial crisis. One excuse that can be made for these institutions is that they are still in the process of development, and were ill-prepared, intellectually and institutionally, for an event so far outside their experience. The ECB and EC developed in a period when controlling inflation and stabilizing government debt were the key imperatives, and they responded to the crisis accordingly.

No such excuse can be made for the third member of the Troika, the International Monetary Fund. The IMF has understood from the start that the austerity policies it has imposed are economically unsound and a repetition of past failures. And yet it has been unwilling and unable to do anything else.

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Happiness and unhappiness

by John Quiggin on June 30, 2015

I have a chapter in a newly released book on happiness, extracts of which have been published in The Conversation. My argument, summed up as Measures of happiness tell us less than economics of unhappiness, is a reworking of points I’ve made in the past. In particular, I argue that it’s more useful to think about removing avoidable sources of unhappiness, and that has been the great success of social democracy and the welfare state.

An optimistic view on climate change

by John Quiggin on June 25, 2015

We had an interesting discussion in comments recently about the usefulness or otherwise of optimism in relation to problems like climate change. I’m a card-carrying optimist, as can be seen from this article for Australian magazine Inside Story arguing that the prospects are good for stabilising global greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 ppm.

On the whole, excessive pessimism is a bigger problem than over-optimism. As I’ve argued before, lots of people have locked themselves into positions (eg advocacy of geoengineering, or belief in the end of industrial civilisation) that are based on the assumption that stabilisation is impossible. Many of these people are not open to evidence that stabilization is feasible, and even likely.

There’s a strong case that we should do better than 450 ppm, with a common ‘safe’ figure being 350 ppm. Since we passed that level some time ago, that requires a long period of negative net emissions, which cannot easily be achieved with current technology. Still, if net emissions are reduced to zero in the second half of this century, and some technological advances are made over the next fifty years (a plausible assumption if we put in some effort), even 350 ppm might be feasible.

Since this was written we’ve seen the Dutch court decision mentioned by Ingrid. Also, the development of one of the biggest coal deposits in the world, in the Galilee Basin in Queensland, is looking a bit less likely. The main developer, Adani, has halted engineering work on the project. Adani didn’t announce this, but since it’s been reported, their spin is that it’s a tactical move to pressure governments to speed up regulatory approvals. My take from a while back is here.

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Here’s another draft excerpt from my book in progress, Economics in Two Lessons. To recap, the idea of the book is to begin with the idea that market prices represent opportunity costs for the households and business who face them (Lesson 1), and then go on to explain why market prices won’t in general equal opportunity costs for society as whole (Lesson 2). A lot of the book will be applications of the two lessons, and this section is an application of Lesson 1.

As before, all kinds of comment and criticism, from editorial points to critiques of the entire strategy are welcome.

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Economics in Two Lessons (draft excerpt)

by John Quiggin on June 12, 2015

I’m still redrafting the opening section of my book, on the concept of opportunity cost. Some applications to specific problems coming soon, I promise. In the meantime, comments and criticism, including editorial corrections and nitpicks, much appreciated.
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Big Oil changes sides in the War on Coal

by John Quiggin on June 11, 2015

As the time left to save the planet from uncontrolled climate change gets shorter and shorter, the previously glacial pace of movement on the issues has speeded up. One of the most important, and surprising, developments has been a string of increasingly sharp attacks on coal, coming from representatives of major oil and gas companies. As this (rather excitable) piece explains, the reason is simple. The policy debate has crystallised around the idea of a carbon budget – the remaining amount of CO2 that can be emitted while keeping atmospheric concentrations at levels consistent with 2 degrees of warming or less.

Obviously, if such a budget is imposed and adhered to, a lot of fossil fuel resources, currently sitting on corporate account books, will have to be left in the ground. Unsurprisingly, fossil fuel companies have done their best to prevent such an outcome, promoting science denial, and encouraging national governments to shirk their share of the burden with the argument that others should do more. Such a strategy implies a united front among fossil fuel owners, since the longer the imposition of a budget can be delayed, the better off they all are.

The recent break in the fossil fuel coalition therefore marks a new stage. Rather than try to expand the budget for all fossil fuels, the oil and gas companies have decided to get as much as possible for themselves, which means shutting down coal as fast as possible. The facts that have made such a strategic switch sensible are many and varied but the most important are

(a) the increasing recognition of the health effects of burning coal which gives national governments like that of China a strong incentive, independent of climate change, to reduce coal use
(b) the fact that the most immediately promising alternatives to fossil fuels are renewable sources of electricity which compete directly with coal, and are, to a significant extent complementary with gas (as a dispatchable source, gas-fired electricity tends to offset problems associated with the variability/intermittency of renewables.

What’s the appropriate response here? In the end, it will be necessary to phase out fossil fuel use altogether. But the logic of tackling coal first is inescapable. If that logic drives a wedge in the fossil fuel coalition, so much the better for all of us.

Opportunity cost: a Fabian idea?

by John Quiggin on May 26, 2015

As part of the research for Economics in Two Lessons, I’m looking in to the history of some of the ideas I’m talking about, including Pareto optimality, externalities and of course opportunity cost. I’m undecided as to whether I’ll include this material, perhaps as starred (skip if you feel like it) sections, or in an Appendix. Suggestions on this point are welcome.

My research on the intellectual history of opportunity cost has so far gone no further than Wikipedia, which attributes the term to Friedrich von Wieser, an Austrian economist in both the national (he was Minister for Finance there in 1917) and theoretical senses. Turning to the article on von Wieser, I was surprised to read that he put forward an argument very similar to mine regarding the relationship between opportunity cost and the distribution of wealth

Instead of the things that would be more useful, there are things that pay better. The greater the difference in wealth, the more striking are the anomalies of production. The economy provides luxury to the capricious and greedy, while it is deaf to the needs of the miserable and poor. It is therefore the distribution of wealth that decides what will be produced, and leads to a consumer of a more anti-economic variety: a consumer wastes on unnecessary, guilty enjoyment that which could have served to heal the wounds of poverty. —Friedrich von Wieser, Der Wert Natürliche (The Natural Value), 1914.
It turns out, even more surprisingly to me, that von Wieser was linked to a Viennese group of Fabians.

I’m still trying to digest this, and work out where to go next with it. Can anyone point to useful information about von Wieser?

Draft Preface: Economics in Two Lessons

by John Quiggin on May 23, 2015

Over the page, the draft preface for my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons

I got some great comments first time round, but I can see it would be easier if I presented my drafts in a more orderly fashion, though not necessarily sequential. So, I’ll begin at the beginning. Comments, both critical and favorable, much appreciated.

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After a couple of preliminary posts, here goes with my first draft excerpt from my planned book on Economics in Two Lessons. They won’t be in any particular order, just tossed up for comment when I think I have something that might interest readers here. To remind you, the core idea of the book is that of discussing all of economic policy in terms of “opportunity cost”. I’ll update as I go, in response to comments and criticism; this may create some difficulties reading the comments thread, but hopefully the improvement in the final product will be worth it.

My first snippet is about

Pareto optimality

The situation where there is no way to make some people better off without making anyone worse off is often referred to as “Pareto optimal” after the Italian economist and political theorist Vilfredo Pareto, who developed the underlying concept. “Pareto optimal” is arguably, the most misleading term in economics (and there are plenty of contenders). Before explaining this, it’s important to understand Pareto’s broader body of thought, one which led him in the end to embrace fascism.

Pareto and the “libertarian” path to dictatorship

Pareto sought to undermine the version of liberalism that dominated 19th century economics, according to which the optimal (most desirable) economic outcome was the one that contributed most to human happiness1, often (if somewhat loosely( summed up as ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’. Particularly as developed by the great philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill, this is a naturally egalitarian doctrine.

The egalitarian implications of the classical framework reflect the fact that the needs of poor people are more urgent than those of the better off. So, the happiness of the community as a whole all be increased by policies that benefit the poorest members of the community, even if these benefits come at the expense of those who are better off. It follows that a substantial degree of income redistribution will be social desirable and that large accumulations of individual wealth, which contribute only marginally to the happiness of a small number of people are undesirable in themselves, though they may in some circumstances be a by-product of desirable policies.

Pareto’s big achievement, further developed by a large number 20th century economists, was to show that much of economic analysis could be undertaken without invoking the concept of utility. Hence, interpersonal comparisons of utility, which invariably lead to the conclusion that redistributing wealth more equally is beneficial, could be dismissed as ‘unscientific’.

Pareto didn’t stop with an attack on the economic implications of Mill’s approach. Mill’s philosophical framework implied support for political democracy, including the enfranchisement of women. Since everyone’s welfare counts equally in the classical calculus, the political process should, as far as possible, give everyone equal weight.

Pareto reversed this reasoning, arguing that a highly unequal distribution of income was both inevitable and desirable; he proposed what he called a power law, described by a statistical distribution which also bears his name. Pareto’s “Law” may be summed up the 80-20 proposition, that 20 per cent of the population have 80 per cent of the wealth.

The supposed constancy of income distribution implies that any attempt at redistribution must be essentially futile. Even the aim is to benefit the poor at the expense of the rich, the effect will simply be to make some people newly rich at the expense of those who are currently rich. Pareto called this process ‘the circulation of elites’. (Footnote: In his dystopian classic 1984, Orwell has the Trotsky-like character Emmanuel Goldstein present the same idea as the starting point of The Theory of Oligarchical Collectivism. Orwell almost certainly derived the idea from James Burnham, an admirer of Pareto whose work Orwell saw as the embodiment of ‘power worship))

All of this led Pareto to become one of the first advocates of a political position combining an extreme free-market position on economic issues with hostility to political liberalism and democracy. Pareto welcomed the rise of Mussolini’s fascist regime, and accepted and accepted a “royal” nomination to the Italian senate from Mussolini.

Pareto was not really a fascist however. Rather, he developed a version of liberalism similar to that of his more famous successors, Hayek and Mises, both of whom embraced and worked for murderous regimes that had come to power by suppressing democratic socialist parties. Like Pareto, neither Hayek nor Mises can properly be described as fascists – they weren’t interested in nationalism or in the display of power for its own sake. Rather, their brand of liberalism was hostile to democracy and indifferent to political liberty, making them natural allies of any authoritarian regime which adheres to free market orthodoxy in economics. (Fn Supporters of Hayek and Mises commonly describe themselves as “libertarians”, but their alliance with brutal dictators makes a travesty of the term – they have been derisively described as “shmibertarian”).

Pareto optimality

Now back to “Pareto optimality”, and why it is such a misleading term. In ordinary language, describing a situation as “optimal” implies that it is the unique best outcome. As we shall see this is not the case. Pareto, and followers like Hazlitt, seek to claim unique social desirability for market outcomes by definition rather than demonstration.

If that were true, then only the market outcome associated with the existing distribution of property rights would be Pareto optimal. Hazlitt, like many subsequent free market advocates, implicitly assumes that this is the case. In reality, though there are infinitely many possible allocations of property rights, and infinitely many allocations of goods and services that meet the definition of “Pareto optimality”. A highly egalitarian allocation can be Pareto optimal. So can any allocation where one person has all the wealth and everyone else is reduced to a bare subsistence.

Recognising the inappropriateness of describing radically unfair allocations as “optimal”, some economists have used the description “Pareto efficient” instead, but this is not much better. It corresponds neither to the ordinary meaning of “efficient” nor to the meaning with which the term is commonly used in economics, which is also misleading, but in a different way.

The concept of opportunity cost gives us a better way to think about the possibility of making some people better off while no one is worse off. If such possibilities exist, then there are potential benefits that have no opportunity costs. Conversely, if there is a positive opportunity cost for any benefit, then we can’t make anyone better off without making someone else worse off. So, a “Pareto optimal” situation may be described, more simply as one where all opportunity costs are positive.

  1. This approach is often described as “utilitarianism”, and, until relatively recently, economists have mostly talked about “utility” rather than “happiness”. This terminology has been the subject of heated, but not enlightening, debate, with the result that it is best avoided.