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John Quiggin

Word targets and creative procrastination

by John Quiggin on November 26, 2013

I think I’ve written before about creative procrastination, but I can’t immediately find it, so I’ll restate my idea here. Whenever you have an urgent deadline, the desire to procrastinate becomes irresistible. Rather than trying to resist it, the optimal response is to succumb, but to have a list of necessary but non-urgent tasks at hand (as I’ve argued before, there’s no need to prioritise non-urgent tasks. Just divide them into those you are going to do, and those you aren’t, then do them in whatever order suits). Now, the guilt induced by the deadline should stop you goofing off on FB, killing boars or whatever, so the desire to procrastinate will force you to tackle the jobs on your list. Then, as the deadline approaches you will finish the job. This works even better if (as is usually the case) an extension of the deadline is possible, but you can conceal this knowledge from yourself until the last possible moment. That way, you get a second round of creative procrastination, plus you have enough time to do the main job properly.

That’s all revision. My new idea for today links this to my long-standing advocacy of word targets. I try to write 500 to 750 words of new material every day. 500 words a day might not sound much, but if you can manage it 5 days a week for 40 weeks a year, you’ve got 100 000 words, which is enough for half a dozen journal articles and a small book. So, that’s my target. If I haven’t written enough one day, I try to catch it up the next day and so on.

And here’s the link. If you’re involved in a big project like a book, or a PhD, there aren’t really any deadlines. But, if you make a rule of being caught up on your word target at the end of the week, you create an automatic deadline for yourself. While doing your best to avoid dealing with this deadline, you create an automatic opportunity for creative procrastination, during which you can deal with admin tasks, write blog posts, sort out your reference system and so on.

Obviously, everyone is different. But this has certainly worked for me and, as a by-product, for CT readers (at least, those of you who don’t just skip over my posts to get to the good stuff). The marvels of creative procrastination have produced hundreds of blog posts, some of which have even turned into books.

Konfrontasi

by John Quiggin on November 21, 2013

So far, the Snowden revelations regarding NSA spying, both domestic and international, have produced plenty of outrage, but not much in the way of effective pushback. As we already learned during the Bush years, the US government can do pretty much whatever it likes to just about anyone. Only Angela Merkel has received a promise that her phone won’t be tapped in future.

That’s not true for junior partners in the English-speaking “Five Eyes” agreement.[^1] It turns out that, under the recently defeated Labor government DSD (the Oz NSA equivalent) tapped the phone of the Indonesian President (generally known by the acronym SBY) and his wife. The new conservative PM, Tony Abbott has refused even the same gesture as Obama made to Merkel, defending Australia’s right to spy on anyone we want to. But Australia isn’t the US, and the Indonesians are furious. The Ambassador has been recalled, and all bilateral co-operation programs have been suspended or placed under review. THat includes co-operation with Australian efforts to stop the flow of asylum seekers, which Chris discussed recently.

I was going to write a more detailed analysis, but I can’t improve on this by Tad Tietze.

[^1]:.The Five Eyes are US, UK, Canada, Oz and NZ. It’s striking that this ethno-linguistic bloc has been maintained even though NZ has long pursued an independent (notably, anti-nuclear) line in foreign policy. It’s also unsurprising that (just out today), even here, http://www.computerworld.co.nz/article/532448/draft_memo_suggests_us_spying_five_eyes_allies/.

Wall Street Isn’t Worth It

by John Quiggin on November 14, 2013

That’s the title of my new piece at Jacobin, which links back to a variety of discussions we’ve had here at CT, in particular this one from Ingrid. Mankiw, whom Ingrid cites, offers an implicit defence of the 1 per cent, implying though not quite asserting, that the gains accruing to those in this group (largely senior executives and the financial sector) have been the price we pay for a process that benefits everyone, yielding a Pareto improvement. As Ingrid says, Pareto improvements aren’t as self-evidently desirable as Mankiw assumes. My argument focuses on Mankiw’s factual premise, concluding that the expansion of the financial sector has made the majority of people worse off. This implies that a response to the global financial crisis focused on attacking the financial sector is feasible as well as being, in my view, politically necessary as an alternative to rightwing populism.

Jacobin doesn’t appear to have a comments section, so feel free to comment and criticise here. I’ve had an interesting discussion with Daniel on Twitter already, but it’s not really a great medium when more than a few people are involved.

Armistice Day (crosspost)

by John Quiggin on November 11, 2013

I usually write a post on 11 November, the anniversary of the armistice that brought a temporary end to the Great War that engulfed Europe in 1914 and continued, in one form or another, until the end of the 20th century. But nothing I write could match this from former Australian Prime minister Paul Keating. The core of the piece

The First World War was a war devoid of any virtue. It arose from the quagmire of European tribalism. A complex interplay of nation state destinies overlaid by notions of cultural superiority peppered with racism.

The First World War not only destroyed European civilisation and the empires at its heart; its aftermath led to a second conflagration, the Second World War, which divided the continent until the end of the century.

But all of it is worth reading and remembering, along with Keating’s 1993 speech at the funeral of the unknown Australian soldier.

I’m not going to take comments on this at CT, but you can discuss it at my blog.

The macro foundations of microeconomics

by John Quiggin on October 25, 2013

Twitter alerted me to an amusing exchange between Chris Auld, posting a list of “18 signs you’re reading bad criticism of economics and Unlearning Economics, responding with 18 Signs Economists Haven’t the Foggiest. UL suggests that Stephen Williamson manages an impressive 9 out of 18 in his review of Zombie Economics (my response here with more from Noah Smith.

Scoring myself against Chris Auld’s list, I’d say I’m in the clear. But quite a few commenters on Zombie Economics have made complaints along the lines of his point 1, that I focus too much on macroeconomics (and finance). The implication is that, even if macro is totally wrong, only a minority of economists do it, and microeconomists are in the clear.

This defense doesn’t work, at least not in general.

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A minor life-hack

by John Quiggin on October 22, 2013

I’m currently reading Scarcity by by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. At this stage, I’m inclined to sympathise with the unnamed colleague who commented “There’s already a science of scarcity. It’s called economics”. So far, it’s mostly straightforward applications of the observation that time and attention are scarce resources, combined with some fairly familiar observations from behavioral econ on how people fail to optimise either the first-order problems of allocating a tight budget or the second order problem of allocating time and attention to the first-order problem (my terms here, not theirs). However, I’m only part way through, and the authors promise to show how their approach differs from the way in which economists would normally think about this kind of problem.

This post is about a specific and well known observation cited by Mullainathan and Shafir. Faced with paying $100 for an item that could be had elsewhere for $50, most people are willing to put in a fair bit of effort (say, driving for an hour) to get the lower price.[^1] On the other hand if the item costs $1050 and could be had for $1000, people with reasonably high incomes mostly pay up, instead of driving to the other store. This is obviously inconsistent with standard opportunity cost. [click to continue...]

The Port Huron statement and the Southern Strategy

by John Quiggin on October 20, 2013

A while ago, I listened to a fascinating talk by Erik Olin Wright about Envisioning Real Utopias, on which we held a book event a while back.1 He mentioned the Port Huron Statement, published by Students for a Democratic Society in 1962. I looked it up, and was struck by the fact that it envisaged, and welcomed, the political realignment later implemented by Richard Nixon as the Southern Strategy, and which still dominates US politics.

A most alarming fact is that few, if any, politicians are calling for changes in these conditions. Only a handful even are calling on the President to “live up to” platform pledges; no one is demanding structural changes, such as the shuttling of Southern Democrats out of the Democratic Party…. super-patriotic groups have become a politically influential force within the Republican Party, at a national level through Senator Goldwater, and at a local level through their important social and economic roles. Their political views are defined generally as the opposite of the supposed views of communists: complete individual freedom in the economic sphere, non-participation by the government in the machinery of production. But actually “anticommunism” becomes an umbrella by which to protest liberalism, internationalism, welfarism, the active civil rights and labor movements. It is to the disgrace of the United States that such a movement should become a prominent kind of public participation in the modern world — but, ironically, it is somewhat to the interests of the United States that such a movement should be a public constituency pointed toward realignment of the political parties, demanding a conservative Republican Party in the South and an exclusion of the “leftist” elements of the national GOP.

I don’t suppose the SDS activists thought that the combination of the Goldwater right and the Southern Democrats would form a majority coalition strong enough to dominate US politics for decades. Still it’s far from obvious that they were wrong in wishing for the emergence of a clear partisan division to replace the coalition politics of the time.2

Any assessment of the realignment is complicated by the shift to the right that took place throughout the developed from the 1970s onwards. The fact that this shift seems to be going into reverse in the US.3, while it is accelerating in Europe, may be in part the product of the great realignment. Oddly enough, precisely because partisan politics is so new in the US, the Dems seem to be more willing to engage in it than their Social Democratic counterparts in Europe (of course, they’ve been schooled in it by the Repubs for twenty years or so). And while the objective position of the Dems is still well to the right of European SocDems, they seem to be breaking with neoliberal ideas like the Grand Bargain at precisely the time the SocDems are (for the most part) capitulating to austerity.


  1. We seem to be missing the link on this, but here’s my opening contribution

  2. BTW, it seems bizarre to me, and to other non-US people I’ve talked to that the acryonym GOP is used to describe the Repubs, even by a group as hostile as the SDS. There’s no corresponding acronym for the Democrats – it would seem that DP and RP or just D’s and R’s would serve much better. Any thoughts on this? 

  3. As evidenced both by the renewed electoral success of the Democrats, and more tenuously, by a shift away from the idea of a market liberal “Grand Bargain” and towards a reassertion of support for the institutions of the New Deal (minus the accommodation with Southern racism). 

Why do we *still* have a Nobel Prize in economics?

by John Quiggin on October 14, 2013

Ingrid links to some fascinating discussion from Philip Mirowski of the role of Swedish domestic politics in the establishment of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, with emphasis on the way in which claims of “scientific” status for economics helped the claim of the Swedish central bank to independence from government.

In the broader context, it seems pretty clear that, if the idea had arisen even a few years later, it would have been rejected. In 1969, economics really did seem like a progressively developing science in which new discoveries built on old ones. There were some challenges to the dominant Keynesian-neoclassical synthesis but they were either marginalized (Marxists, institutionalists) or appeared to reflect disagreements about parameter values that could fit within the mainstream synthesis.

Only a few years later, all of this was in ruins. The rational expectations revolution sought, with considerable success, to discredit Keynesian macroeconomics, while promising to develop a New Classical model in which macroeconomic fluctuations were explained by Real Business Cycles. This project was a failure, but led to the award of a string of Nobels, before macroeconomists converged on the idea of Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium models, which failed miserably in the context of the global financial crisis. The big debate in macro can be phrased as “where did it all go wrong”. Robert Gordon says 1978, I’ve gone for 1958, while the New Classical position implies that the big mistake was Keynes’ General Theory in 1936

The failure in finance is even worse, as is illustrated by this year’s awards where Eugene Fama gets a prize for formulating the Efficient Markets Hypothesis and Robert Shiller for his leading role in demolishing it. Microeconomics is in a somewhat better state: the rise of behavioral economics has the promise of improved realism in the description of economic decisions.

Overall, economics is still at a pre-scientific stage, at least, as the idea of science is exemplified by Physics and Chemistry. Economists have made some important discoveries, and a knowledge of economics helps us to understand crucial issues, but there is no agreement on fundamental issues. The result is that prizes are awarded both for “discoveries” and for the refutation of those discoveries.

The crisis of 2011, in 2013

by John Quiggin on September 30, 2013

Since a shutdown of the US government now appears inevitable, I thought I would look back at a post from 2010, in which I predicted such an outcome, expecting it to come in 2010. As it turned out that was premature, but much of the analysis still stands up pretty well, notably including the final sentence

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The global party of stupid

by John Quiggin on September 21, 2013

Australia’s new conservative ministry has just been sworn in, and while it includes Ministers for Border Protection (that is, stopping refugees) and Sport, and even a minister for the centenary of the Anzac landings on Gallipoli in 1915, there are no longer ministers for science or higher education[^1].

This is part of a fairly consistent pattern. The US Republican Party recently vetoed the creation of an unpaid position of National Science Laureate. In Canada, the Harper government eliminated the position of National Science Advisor, among many other anti-science moves. All of this reflects the fact that scientific research on topics like climate change and evolution regularly reaches conclusions that conflict with the policy preferences or religious beliefs of rightwingers. [click to continue...]

Bookplugs

by John Quiggin on September 17, 2013

I’ll be at Brisbane’s Avid Reader bookshop this evening, helping at the launch of Pushing our luck: ideas for Australian progress, a new book of essays from the Centre for Policy Development. We’ve got a few years to reflect on policy ideas following the recent election win for the Murdoch-LNP, so this is a good time to get started.

While I’m at it, I’m going to mention a bunch of books I’ve read, and intended to write about, but haven’t had time (may do so later)

Earthmasters: Playing God with the Climate by Clive Hamilton, is about geo-engineering, often presented as the backstop alternative to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As the title indicates, this book is an argument that reliance on geo-engineering is a recipe for disaster. I agree, though I think it’s clear that sometime this century we are going to have to find a way to achieve, in effect, negative emissions, that is a situation where human and natural processes take more CO2 and methane out of the atmosphere than they put into it. That’s not exactly geoengineering, but it is a conscious intervention to change the atmosphere, or at least return it to an earlier state

Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia by Andrew Leigh, economist and MP. A great book on the looming end of the “fair go” in Australia. I’d put more emphasis on the role of policy and less on technology than Andrew does, but that puts me in a minority among economists.

The Infinite Resource by Ramez Naam. This is the book that Bjorn Lomborg ought to have written, instead of the silly and deceptive “Sceptical Environmentalist”. Naam doesn’t pretend that the risk of environmental catastrophe is spurious or that markets will fix the problem by themselves, but nonetheless has an optimistic take on the scope for innovation to allow the human race to not only survive but thrive.

Occupy the Future a volume of short essays arising from the Occupy movement. Lots of useful resources here

Masters of the Universe:Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics by Daniel Stedman Jones. Not a new topic, but a lot of new information and analysis – well worth reading.

The New American Economy:The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward From 2009, interesting in itself and because Bartlett is one of the most notable examples of the intellectual trend of conversion from right to left, evident since the late 1990s, and reversing the pattern of earlier decades.

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway Another older book, but indispensable now that the merchants of doubt and delusion have gained political power here

Bankers, Bureaucrats, and Central Bank Politics: The Myth of Neutrality by Christopher Adolph. Makes the obvious but vital point that central bankers aren’t neutral bureaucrats. For many, central banking is a step towards, or an interlude in, a career in the financial sector, and the policies they advocate while in the public sector reflect this.

That hasn’t left a lot of time for fiction, but I think I have now read everything by the late and much-missed Iain Banks (including all the SF stuff written as Iain M. Banks).

What is it like to be a bug?

by John Quiggin on September 14, 2013

According to Calvin, at least, the same as to be a bat. But for the rest of us, it seems obvious that there is likely to be a qualitative difference between the subjective experience (if any) of a bug, and that of a bat. And, if true bugs don’t work for you in this example, there’s always the colloquial “bugs” such as bacteria and viruses, which presumably don’t have any experience at all.

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Another two-step

by John Quiggin on September 13, 2013

I’ve always been envious of John Holbo’s discovery of the two-step of terrific triviality, a manoeuvre we’d all seen, but never properly identified. I’d like to solicit names for a manoeuvre I run into all the time in debates over climate policy which goes along the following lines

A: The planet is doomed unless we abandon industrial civilization/adopt my WWII-scale emergency program

B (me): On the contrary,we could cut emissions by 50 per cent quickly and with minimal effects on living standards.1

A: What about cars, methane from ag production, air travel etc?

B: (me) We could cut vehicle emissions in half just by switching to the most fuel-efficient cars now on the market, methane by eating chicken instead of beef, air travel by videoconferencing and taking one long holiday in place of two short ones. The same for most other sources of emissions.2

A: That’s absurd. No one would ever stand for that.

So, does anyone have a name for this manoeuvre, or, alternatively, a defense of this kind of argumentation


  1. Actually, we need a 90 per cent reduction by 2050. That would be a bit harder, but once you accept the idea that we could greatly reduce emissions without harming living standards, we’re down to arguing about parameter values in economic models. All economic models yield the conclusion that we could decarbonize the economy over 40 years while still improving living standards greatly. 

  2. I’ll leave aside the question of whether it’s better to bring this about using prices (eg a carbon tax) or direct controls. My preferred answer is a bit of both, but either will work for the purposes of this example. 

Homeopathy and vaccination

by John Quiggin on September 11, 2013

I was working on a piece about how to respond to anti-vaccination beliefs, when it struck me that, in the absence of the germ theory of disease, vaccination looks a lot like homeopathy – you use a tiny amount of something that causes a mild version of the disease you want to prevent. I wondered whether the success of vaccination in the 18th century had any impact on the development of homeopathy. A very casual search suggests not, though there is something called homeopathic vaccination. Does anyone know more about this?

Assad and the ICC

by John Quiggin on September 7, 2013

I was going to write a long post arguing the case for a UNSC resolution to indict Assad before the ICC, but Google revealed that Edward Bernton at the Globalist had already written it. So, I’ll just add some notes over the fold

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