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John Q

A little bit of good news from Australia

by John Q on February 15, 2024

Over the last few years, the Australian and UK Labor/Labour[1] parties, have followed strikingly parallel paths.

  • A better-than expected result with a relatively progressive platform (Oz 2016, UK 2017)
  • A demoralizing defeat in 2019, followed by the election of a new more conservative leader (Albanese, Starmer)

  • Wholesale abandonment of the program

  • Failure of the rightwing government to handle Covid and other problmes

Because we have elections every three years, Australia is now ahead of the UK and we now have a Labor government led by Anthony Albanese. In its election campaign and its first eighteen months in office, Labor ran on a platform of implementing rightwing policies with better processes and minor tweaks to the most repressive aspects. This is, AFAICT, what can be expected from Starmer in the UK.

But over the last month or so, we’ve had a series of significant policy wins, which may set the stage for more.
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Won’t somebody think of the old people?

by John Q on January 17, 2024

Continuing my discussion of the recent upsurge in pro-natalism, I want to talk about the idea that, unless birth rates rise, society will face a big problem caring for old people. In this post, I’m going to focus on aged care in the narrow sense, rather than issues like retirement income, which depend crucially on social policy.

Looking at Australian data on location of death, I found that around 30 per cent of people die in aged care, and that the mean time spent in aged care is around three years, implying an average of one year per person. Staffing requirements in Australia amount to aroundone full-time staff member per residents. So the “average” Australian requires about one full-time working year of aged care in their lifetime, or about 2.5 per cent of a working life. This is, as it happens, about the proportion of the Australian workforce currently engaged in aged care.

But what if each generation were only half the size of the preceding one? In that case, the share of the labour force required for aged care would double, to around 5 per cent.

If you find this scary, you might want to consider that children aged 0-5 require more care than old people, and for a much longer time. Because this care is provided within the family, and without any monetary return, it doesn’t appear in national accounts. But a pro-natalist policy requires that people have more children than they choose to at present. To the extent that this is achieved by subsidising the associated labour costs (for example, through publicly funded childcare), it will rapidly offset the eventual benefit in having more workers available to provide aged care.

And that’s only preschool children. There’s a significant childcare element in school education, as we saw when schools closed at the beginning of the pandemic. And school-age children still require plenty of parental care. (I’ll talk about education more generally in a later post, I hope).

Repeating myself, none of this is a problem when people choose to have children, more or less aware of the work this will involve (though, as everyone who has been through it knows, new parents are in for a big shock). But it’s clear by now that voluntary choices will produce a below-replacement birth rate. Policies aimed at changing those choices will have costs that exceed their benefits.

Mute inglorious Miltons

by John Q on January 12, 2024

Chris’s post on declining population has prompted me to get started on what I plan, in the end, to be a lengthy critique of the pro-natalist position that dominates public debate at the moment. My initial motivation to do this reflected long-standing concerns about human impacts on the environment but I don’t have any particular expertise on that topic, or anything new to say. Instead, I want to address the economic and social issues, making the case that a move to a below-replacement fertility rate is both inevitable and desirable.

I’m going to start with a claim that came up in discussion here and is raised pretty often. The claim is that the more children are born, the greater the chance that some of them will be Mozarts, Einsteins, or Mandelas who will contribute greatly to human advancement. My response was pre-figured several hundred years ago by Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Gray reflects that those buried in the churchyard may include some “mute inglorious Milton” whose poetic genius was never given the chance to flower because of poverty and unremitting labour

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Billions of people alive today (the majority of whom are women) are in the same situation today, with their potential unrealised through lack of access to education and resources to express themselves. Rather than adding to their numbers, or diverting yet more resources away from them, we ought to be focusing on making a world where everyone has a chance to be a great poet or inventor.

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Here’s a piece I wrote for The Guardian. It’s also at my Substack. Some of it is Australia-specific but some may be of more general interests

The policy debate about the cost of living is among the most confused and confusing in recent memory. All sorts of measures to reduce the cost of living are proposed, then criticised as being potentially inflationary. The argument implies, absurdly, that reducing the cost of living will increase the cost of living.

The issue here is that the “cost of living” is an essentially meaningless concept, rather like the sound of one hand clapping. The problem isn’t the cost of buying goods, but whether our income is sufficient to pay for those goods. For most of us, that means the real (inflation-adjusted) value of our wages, after paying tax and (for homebuyers) mortgage interest.

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The gallon loaf

by John Q on January 6, 2024

I’ve been working a bit on inflation and the highly problematic concept of the ‘cost of living’ (shorter JQ: what matters is the purchasing power of wages, not the cost of some basket of goods). As part of this, I’ve been looking at how particular prices have changed over time, focusing on basics like bread and milk.

One striking thing that I found out is that, until quite late in the 20th century, the standard loaf of bread used to calculate consumer price indexes in Australia weighed 4 pounds (nearly 2kg). That’s about as much as three standard loaves of sliced bread. Asking around, this turns out to be the largest of the standard sizes specified in legislation like the Western Australian Bread Act which was only repealed in 2004, AFAICT.

Going back a century or so further, the Speenhamland system of poor relief in England specified the weekly nutrition requirements of a labouring man as a ‘gallon loaf” of bread, made from a gallon (about 5 litres) of flour, and weighing 8.8 pounds (4kg). Bread was pretty much all that poor people got to eat, so the amount seems plausible.

But why one huge loaf rather than, say seven modern-size loaves? And turning that question around, why are our current loaves so much smaller?
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Welcome to Doug Muir

by John Q on January 3, 2024

As 2024 dawns, Crooked Timber has a new member for 2024. Doug Muir, formerly with A Fistful of Euros, and more recently an insightful commenter here at CT will be blogging here from now on. I’m looking forward to what he has to say.

New Year Gifts

by John Q on January 2, 2024

It’s still New Year’s Day in places, but the world of academia seems to be back to work, and sending me a variety of gifts, some more welcome than others. Coincidentally or otherwise, it’s also the day I’ve moved to semi-retirement, a half-pay position involving only research and public engagement.
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Within pretty broad limits[1], I’m an advocate of historical ‘presentism’, that is, assessing past events and actions in the same way as those in the present, and considering history in relation to our present concerns. In particular, that implies viewing enslavers, racists and warmongers in the same light, whether they are active today or died hundreds of years ago.

A common objection to this position runs along the lines:

Suppose that at some point in the future, the vast majority of people are vegans. They will judge you in the same way as you judge past enslavers, racists and warmongers. In anticipation of this, you should suspend judgement on people in the past.

I don’t buy this.
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In defence of effective altruism

by John Q on November 23, 2023

With corrupt crypto king Sam Bankman-Fried as its most prominent representative, the Effective Altruism movement is not particularly popularly these days. And some other people associated with the Effective Altruism movement have bizarre and unappealing ideas. More generally, the association of the idea with the Silicon Valley technobro culture we’ve been discussing here has put a lot of people off. But the worst form of ad hominem argument is “someone bad asserts p, therefore p is bad”[1].

Whether under this name or not, most economic research on both welfare policy and development aid takes the premise of effective altruism for granted. The central premise of effective altruism is simple: if you want to help poor people, give them what they most need. The practical force of this premise arises from a lot of evidence showing that, in general, what poor people need most is money.

(Image generated with DALL-E)

The starting point for the premise is some version of consequentialism. It is most directly opposed to the idea that altruism should be evaluated in terms of personal virtue. To take a typical example, effective altruism would say that someone with professional skills that are highly valued in the market should not volunteer in a soup kitchen, they should spend the time working for high pay and then donate their pay to the people who are hungry. [2] And there are plenty of highly popular interpretations of personal altruism that are even less effective, such as “thoughts and prayers”.

Coming to the question: why give people money, rather than addressing their needs directly, I will quote from my book Economics in Two Lessons which presents the issue in terms of opportunity cost.

What would a desperately poor family do with some extra money? They might use it to stave off immediate disaster, buying urgently needed food or medical attention for sick children. On they other hand, they could put the money towards school fees for the children, or save up for a piece of capital like a sewing machine or mobile phone that would increase the family’s earning power.

The poor family is faced with the reality of opportunity cost. Improved living standards in the future come at the cost of present suffering, perhaps even starvation and death. Whether or not their judgements are the same as we would make, they are in the best possible position to make them.

There are plenty of qualifications to make here. Maybe the most important is that family heads (commonly men) may make decisions that are more in their own interests than in those of the family as a whole. Giving money to mothers is often more effective.

And sometimes delivering aid in kind is the only way to stop corrupt officials stealing it along the way.

In addition, there are some kinds of aid (local public goods) that can’t be given on a household basis. If people in a village don’t have clean drinking water, then the solution may be a well that everyone can use.

Nevertheless, whenever anyone advocates a policy on the basis that it will help poor people it is always worth asking: wouldn’t it be better to just send money?

[1] Ad hominem arguments aren’t always bad, as I’ve discussed before. If someone is presenting evidence on a factual issue, rather than a logical syllogism, it’s necessary to ask whether you are getting all the facts, or just those that suit the person’s own position .

[2} Contrary to the SBF example, it doesn’t suggest stealing money to buy an island in the Bahamas, then covering up by giving some of the loot away

Armistice Day

by John Q on November 10, 2023

I’ve been posting on Armistice Day ever since I started blogging back in 2002, arguing against war and lamenting the disaster of the Great War which has cast a shadow over all of our subsequent history, including the terrible wars that afflict the world today. This year, I’m too depressed to say anything more, except to express the hope that peace will come one day.

The big one (updated)

by John Q on October 30, 2023

(14 Nov update) I got this badly wrong. Johnson followed the same path that doomed McCarthy, passing a short-term fix with Democratic votes. It’s hard to see why the Republicans went through all these contortions to end up where they started.

Government shutdowns, and threats of shutdown, have become routine in the US, with the result that no one much worries about them any more. Typically some kind of compromise is reached just as the deadline approaches, and government returns to quasi-normality.. Occasionally, bluffs are called and a ‘shutdown’ actually happens. Civil servants are sent home, public facilities are closed and so on. But the armed forces operate as normal, Social Security checks go out, and IOUs take the place of actual spending for various essential purposes. After a few weeks at the most, that produces enough pressure to deliver some kind of resolution. As far as I can see, that’s what most political commentators think will happen in November, when the next deadline is reached.

I foresee something more drastic and dangerous. It’s hard to imagine the Republicans in the House of Representatives agreeing on any set of demands for a spending bill, short of requiring Biden and Harris to resign and install Johnson as President* . But if they do come up with a program, it will be so extreme as to be totally unacceptable to Biden and the Democrats. And, the long history of blackmail efforts like this seems to have stiffened spines on the Democratic side.
Earthquakes: Facts, Definition, Types, Causes and Effects of Earthquake …

So, there will probably be a shutdown. But how will it end? Leaving aside the fact that Johnson is a far-right extremist dedicated to the overthrow of US democracy, cutting any kind of deal with Biden would be signing his own resignation (but see below). On the other side, capitulation would doom Biden’s presidency.

That means the shutdown has to continue past the symbolic stage of closing national parks and so on, to the point where it is doing serious damage to the US economy and society, with debt downgrades, personal and corporate bankruptcies and so on. That will still not be enough to shift the Republican extreme right, so no deal will be achieved with Republicans alone. What are the remaining possibilities? Here are a few I’ve thought about, roughly in order of probability

  • Johnson cuts a deal with the Democrats, passing a continuing resolution in return for the promise of some abstentions, or even active support, when the Freedom Caucus try to vote him out. This seems the most likely option to me, but it will be very painful on both sides
  • Biden capitulates. I still see this as unlikely, but the pressure to do so will be immense.

  • A handful of Republicans remember that they are supposed to care about the country they govern, and cross the floor, knowing they will lose their seats and face the obloquy of most of their (former) friends and supporters.

  • Biden invokes emergency powers to reopen the government and defies the Supreme Court to stop him. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know what these powers might be, but the issue is essentially political. Unless he is impeached or otherwise prevented from acting, emergency powers are what the President says they are, a point made by Abraham Lincoln at the beginning of the Civil War (a relevant precedent in the current state of the US).

I haven’t seen anyone else predicting such a crisis, so maybe I’m over-estimating the difficulty of reaching a resolution. IIRC, I was among the first to predict a crisis like this when the Republicans retook the House in 2010**, but I couldn’t see a resolution then either, and one was reached in the end.

  • Joking, but not really – I can imagine at least some of them demanding this, with the proviso that Johnson would then resign in favour of Trump.

** There was a debt limit crisis in 2011 and a 16-day shutdown in 2013.

Crossposted from my substack https://johnquigginblog.substack.com/p/the-big-one

Retrofuturism

by John Q on October 25, 2023

(Crosspost from my Substack blog, where post includes links and images)>

I don’t think I’m the only one to notice that Marc Andreesen’s ‘Techno-Optimist Manifesto’ has a curiously dated feel, as if the author had been cryogenically frozen around the time he cashed out of Netscape. Two points particularly struck me.

First, there his paean to market processes, which are represented as “Willing buyer meets willing seller, a price is struck, both sides benefit from the exchange or it doesn’t happen”

This statement might have seemed plausible at the height of the dotcom boom, which coincided with the high point of faith in ‘turbo-capitalism’. But it’s not at all descriptive of the way in which the Internet and the World Wide Web have developed, as Andreesen himself ought to remember.

Until the mid-1990s, the Internet and the World Wide Web were products of government funded organizations, developed by academics and other users without a profit motive. The associated software, including Andreesen’s Netscape Navigator were given away free of charge (Gopher, the main rival to the WWW, failed because the he University of Minnesota tried to cash in on it). The Internet rapidly displaced commercial enterprises like AOL (who tried to buy their way back in by acquiring Netscape, and were themselves bought by Time Warner in one of the most disastrous acquisitions of all time). Even after the Web was open to commerce, much of the innovation (blogs, Wikipedia, most recently the Fediverse) came from non-commercial sources.

But even the for-profit Internet doesn’t fit Andreesen’s description. Google, Facebook and other platforms don’t rely on exchanging their services at an agreed price. Rather, they provide a service that is free of charge, and make their money by serving ads and harvesting user data for other marketers. At a stretch, one might say that advertisements in traditional media represent an agreed price “watch 20 minutes of our sitcom, and consume 10 minutes of ads”. But cookies and trackers are surreptitious – no one can really know how much they are paying. We are seeing a gradual shift back towards subscription models, both for traditional media outlets and for new entrants like Substack. But these are the exception rather than the rule.

Hardware vendors like Apple come a bit closer to the traditional market model. But even they rely critically on ‘intellectual property’, that is, laws preventing competitors from supplying equivalent products.

The result of all of this is that, in the Internet economy, there is almost no relationship between contribution and reward. Andreesen is a billionaire while Tim Berners-Lee drove a used car for years (more recently, though, he has been reported as having a net wealth of $50 million). As Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow have pointed out , the crucial thing is to establish a choke-point at which wealth can be extracted. These choke points do more to hinder innovation than to promote it.

Then there’s his pitch for nuclear fission. Again, this made sense in the late 1990s. The reality of global heating, and therefore the need to stop burning coal was becoming undeniable. Alternatives such as wind and solar were prohibitively costly. So, the risks of nuclear accidents and the problem of managing waste were outweighed by the certainty of climate catastrophe under business as usual.

But in 2023 nuclear power is a dead duck, a C20 technology with a string of failed revivals in C21. New additions have barely kept pace with closures of old plants.

By contrast, solar PV is the biggest single example in support of techno-optimism. From essentially zero, it’s reached the point where annual additions are around 400 GW a year, almost as much as the total installed capacity of nuclear. Costs have plummeted and, after some generous initial support from government, most of the process is being driven by markets. There is no better case of creative destruction than the rise of solar PV

Andreesen’s failure to recognise this illustrates two points

• He’s ignorant and doesn’t choose to inform himself, instead gullibly following sources that pander to his confirmation bias

• He’s driven not by rational belief in the progress of technology but by rightwing culture war politics

Finally there’s Andreesen’s rejection of the precautionary principle, which has been endorsed by quite a few generally sensible people, including Daniel Drezner . The precautionary principle has been interpreted in all sorts of different ways, from the common sense of “look before you leap” to the absurdity of “don’t do anything that might go wrong”.

But the most sensible interpretation, and the one relevant to the current debate is that of a burden of proof on innovators (I wrote about this with Simon Grant, here). That is, the precautionary principle, as applied to any particular domain, says that innovators should have to demonstrate in advance that their proposed innovation will not be harmful.

The opposite view, summed up by aphorisms like “move fast and break things” and “better to seek forgiveness than permission”, is that innovation should not be constrained. Negative consequences can be dealt with after the event, and, if necessary, rules can be adjusted to prevent a repetition.

The precautionary principle isn’t universally applicable. There’s widespread (maybe not universal) support for applying it to new medicines, whereas not many people would want to apply it to new restaurant menus (assuming they complied with existing health standards).

Looking at Andreesen’s manifesto, three cases come to mind. First, since he’s now a financier, there is the case of financial innovation. The default here is to allow any innovation that complies with the rules covering existing financial instruments. In my view, this has turned out very badly, most obviously in the leadup to the GFC, but also with more recent innovations like Buy Now, Pay Later, not to mention cryptocurrencies, in which Andreesen is heavily invested.

Then (not mentioned in the manifesto) but maybe in the background there’s the case of genetically modified crops. Here the precautionary principle was applied early on, following the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA. This process allowed research that established, fairly convincingly, that food produced from GM crops was just a safe as that produced using crops developed by traditional breeding and selection (also a form of genetic modification). That finding didn’t end controversy over issues like corporate control, or debate over specific innovations like Roundup-Ready (glyphosate-tolerant) crops, but it gave pretty good assurance that the nightmare scenarios floating around at the time of the initial discoveries would not materialise.

Finally, of course, there are recent developments in Artificial Intelligence, from which Andreesen hopes to make a lot of money. I’m not convinced by the apocalyptic scenarios put forward by people like William McAskill (and linked in some obscure way to the idea of ‘effective altruism’). But I also haven’t seen a clearly convincing counterargument to say that such an apocalypse can’t happen, or, at least, is less of a concern than other risks it might tend to offset, for example by generating enough prosperity to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict. And that’s also true of risks that aren’t existential such as the possibility of large-scale fraud through techniques like voice replication. Following the logic of the precautionary principle, I’d prefer (if possible) to slow down the pace of development and try to understand the consequences before they are irreversible.

None of this makes me a techno-pessimist. But, having seen lots of glowing visions of the future crumble into dust, I’m not impressed by Andreesen’s revival of 20th century tech-boosterism. Scientific progress provides us, collectively, with a range of technological options. The choice between them should be made wisely and democratically, not by the whims of venture capitalists.

Given the latest catastrophe in Israel/Palestine, it’s time for me to repost my comprehensive plan for US policy in the Middle East, just as applicable now as it was when I suggested it back in 2011.

As usual, it’s over the fold.

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Lucy and the football

by John Q on October 3, 2023

It’s a movie we’ve seen over and over again in US politics. Centrists engage in respectful discussion with a thoughtful conservative[1], only to discover they are actually talking to a dishonest troll. Yet, just like Charlie Brown lining up to kick Lucy’s football, they keep coming back for another try.

Examples include Paul “policy wonk” Ryan, JD “voice of the heartland” Vance, and most recently Richard Hanania, for whom I can’t come up with a suitable nickname. Hanania’s public writing has always skirted the edge of outright racism, so it was no surprise when it turned that he had published far worse stuff under a pseudonym. That was enough to lead Bari Weiss to cancel him, but the majority reaction among his interlocutors was to accept a redemption narrative.

Hanania rewarded his backers with a tweet so breathtakingly dumb it’s still hard to believe. Challenged on his opposition to aiding Ukraine, he asserted that the US was spending 40 per cent of GDP on such aid, and laid out some of the alternative ways the money could be spend (years of funding for social security, for example).

This claim was so absurd that lots of people looked for an 11-dimensional chess explanation. Sadly, the prosaic explanation appears to be that US aid is equal to about 40 per cent of Ukraine’s GPD. Hanania must have read this number and misinterpreted it. That could only be done by someone utterly clueless about economics and public policy, but Hanania hasn’t needed a clue to become a big fish in the small pool of rightwing intellectuals.

Why do centrists keep falling for this? The answer, to paraphrase Voltaire is that, since no-one like the imagined intelligent, honest conservative exists, they have to be invented. In reality, intelligent honest conservatives, are either ex-Republicans (for example, David French and the Bulwark group) or open enemies of democracy (Adrian Vermeule).

But once they recognise that there is no serious thought to their political right, centrists would have to recognise that they themselves are the conservatives. That would entail an intellectual obligation to engage with the left, which is the last thing they want.

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Balance or both-sidesism

by John Q on September 22, 2023

It’s time for me to have my final say on a dispute with Matt Yglesias that has been going at a fairly slow pace.

A couple of weeks ago, Matt put up a post (really a Substack newsletter, but I still think in blog terms), headlined Polarization is a choice with the subtitle, “Political elites justify polarizing decisions with self-fulfilling prophesies”

I responded with a snarky but (I thought) self-explanatory note, saying “Peak both sidesism here. Republicans want to overthrow US democracy, while Democrats stubbornly insist on keeping it. Surely there is some middle ground to be found here

A few days ago, Matt came back to ask “I’m curious what actual things the article says you believe are wrong. You clearly didn’t like it since you choose to mischaracterize it in a mean-spirited way, but I’m not sure what you didn’t like about it.”

So, here’s my response.
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