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John Quiggin

A Christmas post from 2004

by John Quiggin on December 26, 2015

Here’s a Christmas post from my blog in 2004. The theme is that nothing about Christmas ever changes, so it’s a repost of the same post from 2003. Looking back from 2015, the only change I can see is that the complaints about inclusive language to which I referred as “old stuff by now” have now become codified, as the “War on Christmas”.

I’ll add one new thought that the use of “War on Christmas” rhetoric reflects a larger problem for Christianists: should they be asserting their privileges as a majority (as in the demand that their particular holiday be recognised as primary) or demanding their rights as a minority (as in their unwillingness to accept equal marriage). The two strategies undermine each other.

In anticipation of at least a short break, let me wish a merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and a happy New Year to everyone (at least everyone who uses the Gregorian calendar).

Read on for my unchanged Christmas message

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Piketty and the Australian exception

by John Quiggin on December 22, 2015

Note I wrote two pieces in response to Piketty’s Capital and managed to get confused as to which one was meant for this seminar. Here’s the piece I sent in originally, and which is referred to in Piketty’s forthcoming response. The crucial point is that, thanks to a combination of strong employment growth and redistributive taxation and welfare policies Australia has, to a substantial extent, avoided the sharp increase in inequality seen in other English-speaking countries. The conclusion

Australia’s experience belies the claim that any attempt to offset the growth of inequality must cripple economic growth. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that there is plenty of scope for progressive changes to tax policy that would partly or wholly offset the trends towards greater inequality documented by Piketty.

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Do we need a global tax to stop rising inequality?

by John Quiggin on December 18, 2015

One of the more depressing features of Capital in the 21st Century is the air of inevitability attached to the much-discussed r > g inequality. This is exacerbated, on the whole, by the fact that Piketty’s proposed policy response, a progressive global tax on wealth, seems obviously utopian.

What about a much simpler alternative: increasing the rate of income tax applied to the very rich, and removing preferential treatment of capital income? Piketty’s own work with Saez yields the conclusion that the socially optimal top marginal rate of taxation, after taking account of incentive effects, would be 70 per cent or more. Such rates prevailed, at least nominally, in the mid-20th century, without obvious ill effects. Again, Piketty provides the relevant evidence.

So, is there something about a globalised world economy that renders a return to high marginal rates of taxation impossible?

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Climate change and the culture wars

by John Quiggin on December 14, 2015

As I’ve argued on my own blog, it seems likely [^1] that the global agreement on reached at COP21 in Paris will mark the turning point in efforts to stabilize the global climate. If so, it will mark the defeat of the right in one of the most bitterly contested arenas of their long-running culture war, and also one of the hardest to explain. There’s no obvious reason, apart from tribal hostility to “enviros” why this should have been a culture war battleground at all.[^2]

There was, by 1990 or so, a well developed literature on “free market environmentalism” which pushed the idea that environmental problems were the result of inadequate property rights, and that the solution was to create such rights: in this case, tradeable emissions permits. Environmentalists were generally hostile to the idea, preferring direct regulation. Eventually most environmental groups came around to the view that a carbon price was essential to solving the problem. Instead of claiming victory, the right opposed the idea ferociously and effectively, with the result that the policy outcome has included much more intrusive regulation, and much less reliance on markets, than would have been optimal. The oddity of a supposedly market-oriented government in Australia preferring “Direct Action” over price-based policies is by no means unusual.

Has the climate change culture war helped or harmed the right? The harm is obvious enough. The scientific and economic evidence on climate change is so clear cut that mounting a case against it requires a huge amount of willing gullibility (the fact that is labelled “scepticism” is one of the smaller ironies of the story). The result has been a big contribution to the lowering of intellectual standards that allows someone like Donald Trump to become a plausible candidate for the Republican nomination in the US.

The intellectual damage has been particularly severe for libertarians, who have traditionally thought of themselves as the smart, logical types, deriving their policy positions from rigorous deduction. As the case of climate change has shown, you can get any answer you want if you make up your own facts. Now, we have the sorry spectacle of self-described libertarians making the kinds of spurious claims, in relation to the health effects of wind power, that were once the province of the least credible environmentalists, and demanding the appointment of highly paid government regulators. At the turn of the century, libertarianism had a plausible case to be the way of the future. Now, as far as I can see, it has disappeared from view in the US and survives in Australia only because of the vagaries of the Senate electoral system.

Against that, the struggle to save the planet from dangerous climate change has chewed up a huge amount of energy and effort on the left. Arguably, that has distracted attention from economic issues, and allowed the steady rise of the 1 per cent to go unchallenged. That analysis fits with the widely held view that the culture wars are just a device to keep the rightwing base agitated enough to turn out, losing time after time, but still providing the votes needed to keep pro-rich politicians in office.

[^1]: A Republican win in 2016 would certainly be a major problem. But the momentum is such that it would probably not make much difference. Even if a Republican Administration weakened environmental standards, no one is going to build a new coal-fired power station in the US, knowing that it might have to shut down after the next election.

[^2]: There was, initially, some significant support from fossil fuel interests (notably Exxon) through bodies like the Global Climate Coalition. But that dropped off quite early as most big corporations worked out that they were better off changing their business models to incorporate renewables than fighting to save the old ways of doing things. For at least the last decade, the economic issues have been secondary – it’s all culture war all the time.

Secular stagnation and technology

by John Quiggin on December 1, 2015

One of the problems I have with the term “secular stagnation” is that it implies condition relevant to the very long term, say, the coming century. Such long run conditions presumably have to arise from fundamental causes in demography and technology. That’s the kind of argument that Piketty makes with his r > g theory of rising inequality. There are some good arguments for the view that the depressed state of the global economy, and particularly that of the more developed countries, can be explained in this way. But it shouldn’t be implied in the name of the problem. I’ve argued in the past that technology, specifically the Internet, doesn’t explain growing inequality,

The key quote from that New Left Project article, responding to Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation

The global crisis stopped economic growth, not only in the US, but in countries far inside the technological frontier like Greece; while it had hardly any impact in, for example, Australia, which avoided the initial financial crises and used Keynesian fiscal stimulus to offset shocks flowing from the global economy.

A further reason for scepticism about technological stagnation is that this explanation has been advanced in recessions and depressions ever since the beginning of the capitalist business cycle in the nineteenth century. Such claims represent the flipside of the equally common claim, made during every period of sustained expansion, that the economy has entered a New Era of untrammelled growth. The most recent episode of this kind was the ‘irrational exuberance’ of the 1990s, fuelled by optimistic claims about the potential economic implications of the Internet, which was opened to commercial use by the US Congress in 1992, and by capitalist triumphalism exemplified by Fukuyama’s The End of History.The collapse of the ‘dotcom’ bubble was softened by the housing bubble that developed shortly afterwards (again, not at all a new phenomenon), but the result was only to worsen the inevitable crash in 2008. The similarity of these events to previous bubbles and busts is good reason to doubt that they represent, or that they have inaugurated, a new phase in the evolution of capitalism.

Secular stagnation and the financial sector (updated)

by John Quiggin on November 29, 2015

In my last post on private infrastructure finance and secular stagnation, I suggested a bigger argument that

The financialization of the global economy has produced a hugely costly financial sector, extracting returns that must, in the end, be taken out of the returns to investment of all kinds. The costs were hidden during the pre-crisis bubble era, but are now evident to everyone, including potential investors. So, even massively expansionary monetary policy doesn’t produce much in the way of new private investment.
This isn’t an original idea. The Bank of International Settlements put out a paper earlier this year arguing that financial sector growth crowds out real growth. But how does this work and what can be done about it?

The financial sector is an intermediary between savers and borrowers (for investment or consumption). So, the costs of running the financial sector and the profits generated in that sector must be included in the margin between the rates of return by savers and those paid by borrowers, or else they must be shifted on to society at large (for example, through bailouts or tax subsidies).

I’m still organizing my thoughts on this, so what I have are some ideas rather than a fully formed argument.

First, if the financial sector is unproductive, how can it be so large and profitable in a market economy?

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Reappraisals (repost from 2011)

by John Quiggin on November 22, 2015

As a followup to Corey’s post on Princeton, here’s something I wrote about Wilson in 2011. It’s striking how much the debate has moved on from where (in my perception, at least) it was in 2011.

As a very amateur analysis, I’d say that a triumphalist narrative of US history as Manifest Destiny (marred by some unfortunate episodes, best forgotten) is being replaced by one of struggles over slavery and war. In the process, lots of heroes become villains, while those who sought neutrality in the great struggles in order to pursue domestic policies, however laudable, shrink from giants to dwarfs.

Reappraisals

As an Australian, I’m not much accustomed to think of political leaders in heroic terms[^1], something that reflects the fact that nothing our political leaders do matters that much to anybody except us, and even then most of the decisions that really mattered have always been made elsewhere. So, I’m fascinated by the US activity of ranking presidents and other political leaders, and eager to try my hand.

What has brought this to mind is running across George Will’s campaign against Woodrow Wilson, who always seemed to be presented in hagiographic terms until relatively recently. Much as it goes against the grain to agree with Will on anything, he surely has the goods on Wilson: a consistent racist, who lied America into the Great War, and used Sedition acts and similar devices to suppress opposition. His positive record appears to consist of a variety of “Progressive” measures (in the early C20 sense of the term) many of which were inherited from Teddy Roosevelt, and few of which were particularly progressive from a left viewpoint[^2], along with his proposal for the League of Nations, where he comprehensively screwed up the domestic politics, leading the US to stay out of the League.

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Private infrastructure finance and secular stagnation

by John Quiggin on November 19, 2015

For most of my academic career, I’ve been working on (more precisely, trying to demolish) the idea of private investment in public infrastructure, exemplified by the Private Finance Initiative in the UK and the Public Private Partnerships program in Australia. Here’s my first published article on the subject, from 1996. I conclude that

The current enthusiasm for private infrastructure, like the enthusiasm for public ownership which it replaced, has been based more on ideological beliefs in the virtues of one sector and the vices of the other than on any systematic economic analysis …Analysis of the relative performance of the private and public sector in different phases of infrastructure provision suggests that, in most cases, the private sector will be most efficient in the construction phase but the public sector will be best equipped to handle the risks associated with ownership.

Twenty years later, this analysis seems finally to have been validated. The UK Auditor-General recently reported that

Analysis of the 2012-13 Whole of Government Accounts (WGA) implies that the effective interest rate of all private finance deals (7%–8%) is double that of all government borrowing (3%–4%)

As a result of the excess costs, and some spectacular failures, bipartisan enthusiasm for the PFI has finally turned to disillusionment. Here’s the Telegraph, correctly putting much of the blame on New Labour. And, for balance, here’s the Guardian. There hasn’t been a similar admission of failure in Australia, but the flow of PPP projects has greatly diminished, and most new ones rely on a substantial component of public capital.

Unfortunately, the failure of private finance hasn’t led governments to resume the high levels of public investment that prevailed in the Keynesian era of the 1950s and 1960s. So, even with central bank lending rates at zero, there has been no real recovery in infrastructure investment. Apart from the direct effect of lower investment, there’s a strong case that infrastructure investment increases the returns from private investment in general and therefore stimulates growth.

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Nothing learned, nothing forgotten

by John Quiggin on November 18, 2015

I haven’t posted on the recent terror attacks, or the various responses, because I have nothing new to say, and nothing old to repeat that hasn’t been said, or repeated, better by others. It appears that no one has learned anything in the decade or so since the Iraq war began. This 2003 post from the Onion just needs the dates changed to be applicable (or not, for those who support the side being satirised here) to the current debate.

Having said all this, have I learned anything myself? The Iraq war turned me from being a liberal interventionist (though opposed in the case of Iraq) to a strongly anti-war viewpoint.

By December 2005, I had this to say[^1]

It would be a salutory effort to look over the wars, revolutions and civil strife of the last sixty years and see how many of the participants got an outcome (taking account of war casualties and so on) better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation. Given the massively negative-sum nature of war, I suspect the answer is “Few, if any”.

The ten years since 2005 have confirmed me in the rightness of my views[^2]. But since the same is true of nearly everyone on all sides, that’s not very helpful. [click to continue…]

Time to take the “con” out of reformicon ?

by John Quiggin on November 13, 2015

Ramesh Ponnuru has an article in the National Review, making the case that Hillary Clinton is likely to win the 2016 election. His central reason: Clinton has policies that will benefit middle-class Americans, and the Republicans do not. As he says

The Republican presidential candidates have not built their campaigns on offering conservative ideas that would give any direct help to families trying to make ends meet. Their tax-cut proposals are almost all focused on people who make much more than the average voter. So far, Republicans do not seem to be even trying to erode the Democratic advantage on middle-class economics.
All this is obvious enough, but it raises the question: rather than asking the Republicans to be more like Clinton, something they are obviously not going to do, why not just vote for Clinton? Or, for that matter, Sanders, who looks even better on these criteria.

The answer is pretty obvious. For whatever reason, Ponnuru is on Team Republican, as are other “reformicons” like Ross Douthat. But the Republican Party has shown little interest in his ideas, and the presidential aspirants none at all. So, he is in the position of a committed football fan who thinks his team is pursuing a bad strategy, or has picked the wrong players: the idea of following a different team is not an option.

As Damon Linker says here, this isn’t just a problem for the reformicons, but for anyone who aspires to the description “conservative intellectual”, and wants to engage with party politics.

Armistice Day

by John Quiggin on November 11, 2015

As Armistice Day comes around again, I find it more and more difficult to avoid despair. Each new war seems even more brutal and pointless than the last, bringing nothing but ruin and destruction to all concerned. And yet, opposition to war in general, or even to involvement in any particular war, is increasingly being seen as unpatriotic.

My annual ritual of writing a post on this day hasn’t helped at all. I’ve repeatedly had it explained to me by learned commenters that the mass slaughter of 1914 to 1918 (and, by implication, the even more massive slaughter that followed it over the 20th century) was a right and necessary response to German imperialism, or that it must be understood in its historical context. I need only change a few place names, and substitute different enemies, to hear the voices of our present leaders, explaining the need for our armed forces to deliver more death and destruction, because “we must do something”. The fact that our current enemies are of our own direct creation, and that a decade or more of these wars has succeeded only it making matters worse, seems irrelevant.

Just about the only consolation is the fact that the scale and loss of life from war has been decreasing over time. Large areas of the world once riven by war now seem to be free of it, or nearly so.

Against that, however, is the ever-present shadow of nuclear cataclysm. The world has managed to survive, permanently within a few minutes of catastrophe, for 70 years now. But can that continue indefinitely? when belief in the rightness of war and the need for military strength is such a powerful force among ordinary people, and even stronger among the rulers who have the power to launch these weapons. Without radical changes in thinking, it seems almost certain that nuclear weapons will be used, sooner or later. Even a limited nuclear war, between India and Pakistan for example, would be a disaster as bad or worse than the World Wars of the 20th century.

Are recessions abnormal ?

by John Quiggin on November 8, 2015

I’m on to the macroeconomics section of my book in progress, Economics in Two Lessons. The key point of this section is that, whereas the academic economics profession has wasted most of the last thirty years on the project of founding macroeconomics on (some near approximation of) standard neoclassical microeconomics, the validity of the core results of neoclassical microeconomics depend on the assumption that the economy is operating at full employment[^1]. This observation isn’t original – it was why Keynes saw his theory as saving capitalism from itself. Even the title I used in this post on the macro foundations of microeconomics turns out to be a reinvention of the wheel.

Having noted the importance of the full employment assumption in the abstract, how relevant is it? If the economy is, with notably rare exceptions, at, or close enough to, full employment, then it seems safe enough for economists to continue, as the profession has for 40 years or so, to treat macroeconomics as a special subfield with little relevance to the rest of the discipline.

To put the question simply, are recessions abnormal?

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No New Coal Mines

by John Quiggin on October 29, 2015

Along with 60 other Australians, mostly more eminent than me, I’ve signed an open letter to world leaders calling for a moratorium on new coal mines and coal mine expansions. The letter focuses particularly on Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine in Queensland but this is part of a global movement to stop new coal mines everywhere in the world.

The underlying reasoning isn’t spelt out but ought to be clear enough. If we are to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 ppm or below, as the world’s leaders have already agreed we should, it is necessary for carbon dioxide emissions to peak soon, and decline to zero over the next 30 years or so. Given that burning coal creates major health hazards in addition to C02 emissions, coal burning needs to eliminated even more rapidly. That means first, that no new coal mine can expect to work for an operating life of more than 30 years, and second that any new coal mine must be offset be additional closures of existing coal mines. Once these factors are taken into account, it’s essentially impossible for new coal mines to make economic sense within the constraints imposed by a limited carbon budget. Certainly, that’s the case for Carmichael, which is a massive boondoggle keeping alive only in the hope of extracting some form of government assistance or compensation.

Labour Lords Resign the Whip

by John Quiggin on October 27, 2015

I don’t have much to say about this, but I couldn’t resist the multiple absurdities embodied in the title. For those who haven’t heard anything about this, two appointed members of the House of Lords (Warner and Grabiner) have announced that they will no longer follow the direction of the Labour Party on how to vote, and a third (Mandelson) has made noises suggesting he may go the same way. This is a result of the party’s leadership election, in which the members a (nominally, at least) democratic socialist party chose a (nominally at least) democratic socialist leader.

For those who are a little closer to the action, this is your chance to comment or speculate on the implications.

Worthwhile Canadian Initiative

by John Quiggin on October 20, 2015

I’m writing from the other side of the planet, but there are enough Oz-related links to offer some thoughts on the Canadian election result.

First, taken in conjunction with the recent removal of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, this is a big win for the planet. Abbott and Harper were the only two world leaders who were clearly climate denialists (despite some official denial-denialism) and now they are both gone. That leaves only the US Republican Party as a serious political force dominated by denial (of course, a big “only”). The chance for a decent agreement coming out of the Paris conference in December has improved significantly

Second, as the UK election also showed, the combination of multiple parties and First Past the Post voting is highly unpredictable. If things had shaken out a little differently, Harper might have managed it back into some kind of minority government, or we could be seeing the NDP rather than the Liberals winning on the basis of strategic voting. Applying this to the UK example, the idea that Cameron’s victory was in some sense inevitable is fallacious. Had a few things gone differently, we could all be talking about the mysterious appeal of Ed Miliband.

Third, the supposed dark magic of Oz spinmeister Lynton Crosby did Harper no good. If anything, Crosby’s dog whistle strategy motivated the majority to vote strategically against Harper. But I suspect that people like Crosby are better at selling themselves to politicians than at selling politicians to the public.