Monday, October 18, 2021

Nobel winners make economics more useful, not a parlour game

It turns out that, in economics, maths – like technology and much else – can be used for good or ill. The three academic economists (and one ghost) who won this year’s Nobel Prize in “economic science” used mathematics to make economics more realistic and thus more useful to society.

The reason economics has become dominant among the social sciences – has had so much influence over the thinking and actions of governments - is the belief that understanding how and why people behave the way they do in the economic dimension of their lives – their producing and consuming – will help our leaders solve problems with the economy and make us happier and more prosperous.

But sometimes I suspect that the bulk of academic economists – whose beaverings won’t go anywhere near winning any prize – have lost sight of the goal of improving economists’ understanding of how the economy works and being more useful to the community and its leaders in improving our lives.

I worry that academic economists have become more inward-looking and more concerned with impressing each other than in serving the mugs who ultimately pay their wages. (I make the same criticism of journalists, by the way.)

In the years since World War II, the greatest project in academic economics has been to make it more scientifically “rigorous” by making it more mathematical. To express economic reasoning not in words or diagrams, but in equations.

These days, you shouldn’t do economics at university if you’re no good at maths (which may help explain why student numbers are down). No one gets to be an academic economist unless they’re good at maths. No one gets to be an economics professor unless they’re really good at maths.

Impressing the other academics with your great maths is the way you get on in academic economics. Maths is just so logical, so beautiful, so “elegant”. But sometimes I think these people love maths for its own sake and are turning economics into a branch of applied mathematics.

In an infamous study economists prefer to forget, economists attending the American Economics Association’s annual meeting were asked to answer a question about opportunity cost. Eighty per cent of them got it wrong. Opp cost is the foundation on which most economics rests. Makes you think all these PhDs know more maths than basic economics.

It’s true that expressing an argument in mathematical equations exposes any flaws in your logic – given the assumptions the argument is built on. That’s why the results of modelling – including the epidemiological variety – should be viewed with caution until you know and accept as plausible the key assumptions on which the modelling’s based.

The other day I wrote that economics’ greatest weakness is its primitive model of human behaviour, based on the mere assumption that people always behave “rationally” – which I defined as acting with carefully considered self-interest.

A couple of economics professors took me to task on Twitter. Oh no, not that old canard. “Rational” is just one of the many words in economics that are used to mean something other than their meaning in common speech.

No, what we mean by “rational” is not that people always think logically, but that we look at people’s “revealed preference” – what they actually do, not just what they say. This, I was assured, had long been part of mainstream economics.

Sorry, not convinced. It’s a circular definition: what people actually do (as measured by the statistical data available) is rational behaviour. Why? Because people are always rational. It’s getting around an implausible assumption by making it even more implausible. By defining non-rational behaviour out of existence.

Why would you do that? To make the assumptions of the neo-classical model mathematically “tractable”. That contrived meaning of “rational” may be longstanding mainstream econometrics, but it ain’t mainstream economics. That’s unconsciously assuming economics is now just maths.

When people were going crazy buying toilet paper last year, Australia’s brightest young economist export, Professor Justin Wolfers, argued it was “rational fear” to join the queue because, if you didn’t, toilet paper might all be gone when yours ran out. That was using “rational” to mean what everyone thinks it means.

You can say the same about former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan’s famous admission in 2008, after the global financial crisis, that he was mistaken to assume the banks’ “self-interest” would protect them from doing risky things that ended up damaging their shareholders.

The commentator Ian McAuley has observed that both engineers and economists use equations and mathematical models, but engineers check their maths against reality and modify their equations accordingly. Economists? Not so much.

To be fair, predicting the behaviour of bridges and suchlike is a lot easier than predicting the behaviour of human beans. This has led many academic economists not to worry about the plausibility of the assumptions on which their model rest.

Just make whatever nips and tucks are need to mathematise the mainstream model and think of all the fun games you’ll be able to play running different “data sets” through it. Other academic economists will be impressed.

Fortunately, not all academic economists are content with their work having such a tenuous link to real-world problems. Nor are the people who decide who gets the Nobel Prize in economics. The various founders of behavioural economics – which my critics contend isn’t real economics - have received awards, including a psychologist.

And the three academic economists sharing last week’s awards were about trying to make economics more realistic and therefore useful to economic policymakers.

Professor David Card, of the University of California, Berkeley, sought to test the straight-from-theory belief - then almost universally accepted by mainstream economists – that raising the minimum wage would increase unemployment, by searching for empirical evidence to support or refute neo-classical theory.

Until relatively recently, economists believed there was no way they could use experiments to test their theories. But a previous Nobel laureate showed some laboratory experiments were possible. And Card showed how theory could be tested by finding a “natural experiment” – a circumstance where the real world had created a test group and a control group, such as two nearby cities in different states, where one state had raised the minimum wage and one hadn’t.

Professors Joshua Angrist and Guido Imbens have done natural experiments too, and have also developed statistical methodologies for going beyond finding correlations between two variables to being able to demonstrate which caused which – showing other social scientists how it could be done.

The point is that the three honoured economists (plus the ghost of Professor Alan Krueger, who was a co-author with two of the three, but died in 2019) did reams of maths – or, more specifically, statistics – but put it to much more productive purposes. There’s hope for economics yet.

Read more >>

Friday, October 15, 2021

The 'net' in net zero emissions offers a huge temptation to cheat

Perhaps the hardest part of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 is the “net”. We won’t get to zero emissions without it, but it’s tricky and presents us with a great temptation to turn the whole exercise into a rort.

The goal is “net zero” because it’s neither possible nor sensible for us to eliminate every last emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But that won’t be a problem provided we can offset what few emissions remain by finding ways to remove from the atmosphere an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide that’s already there.

How could we do that? By taking advantage of “carbon sinks”. Before we began burning fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas - for energy at the start of the Industrial Revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was fairly steady and so had little effect on the world’s average temperature.

There were natural emissions of carbon dioxide, but these were matched by natural processes – carbon sinks - that removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

As the Grattan Institute explains in its latest report, trees, vegetation, soils and oceans absorb carbon dioxide as part of their lifecycle, and hold it for a period before releasing it again.

“Sometimes this cycle is short (for example, a plant that grows and dies within a year) and sometimes the cycle is long (for example, a tree that lives for hundreds of years and takes hundreds more to decay).

“Natural cycles tend to balance out: the carbon that is absorbed by a plant will be released when the plant dies, but will be reabsorbed by the new plant that grows in its place,” the report says.

But all our burning of fossil fuels has destroyed this natural balance. The past 250 years have seen a huge build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which has trapped heat from the sun and caused a rise in global average temperatures, in the same way a greenhouse allows you to grow tropical plants in Europe.

We’ve reached the point where further addition to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will cause average temperatures to become even more uncomfortable and damaging, as well as causing more extreme weather events.

The obvious solution is to move away from burning fossil fuel and get our energy from renewable sources – sun and wind – that don’t affect temperatures and weather patterns. We don’t have to stop producing and using fossil fuels immediately, but we shouldn’t get in any deeper by building new fossil-fuel power stations, coal mines and oil and gas wells.

But not all emissions come from burning fossil fuels for energy. Some come from, for instance, the coking coal used to make steel, from making cement and from burping and defecating cattle and sheep.

So, some emissions may never be eliminated and others would cost far more to eliminate than to offset by other means.

The obvious way to offset is to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by beefing up our natural sinks – many of which have been diminished by economic development.

The Grattan report says we can avoid further land clearing, manage our forests better and restore forest to land that’s been cleared. We can manage fires better by doing planned burning earlier in the season.

We can store more carbon in soil by changing management practices – no-till agriculture, crop rotation, stubble retention on cropping land and sowing more productive grass varieties on grazing land. We can store more carbon – “blue carbon” – by encouraging more mangroves, sea grasses and tidal marshes.

But the report warns “there is still considerable uncertainty about the costs, permanence and measurement of many offsetting activities”. For this reason, offsetting should be used as a supplement to, not a substitute for, reducing emissions.

When governments encourage carbon removal by paying farmers and others who do it – or permit a market in which businesses required to reduce their emissions buy carbon credit certificates from others who’ve removed carbon from the atmosphere – they must ensure these transactions have “integrity”. That they’re ridgy-didge.

Grattan lists six requirements for certification: establishing a credible baseline for measuring progress; assessing how long the carbon will stay locked up; assessing whether, without payment, the activity would have happened anyway; ensuring no double-counting by people on both sides of the transaction; ensuring no adverse environmental side-effects; and requiring adequate monitoring, reporting, record-keeping and verification.

Many people fear carbon credits will be used to avoid reductions in the production of fossil fuels. And when you hear Energy Minister Angus Taylor assuring people in the coal, oil and gas industries that they “have a great future”, it makes you think such fears are warranted.

The Australia Institute recently ran a TV ad saying net zero is a fraud if the fossil fuel industries continue expanding. True.

And the sad truth is that Scott Morrison doesn’t have clean hands when it comes to using carbon credits to mislead us. He’s claimed repeatedly that our emissions are falling and we’re on track to “meet and beat” our target of a 26 per cent reduction by 2030.

In truth, emissions from the non-land sectors are continuing to grow. He’s able to say total emissions are down only because of a huge once-only reduction in emissions from land clearing that occurred before the 26 per cent reduction was promised in 2015.

Research by the Australia Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation has found there was a massive surge in applications to clear native forest before the NSW government imposed limits on land clearing.

Since little of this approved clearing has actually happened, the administrators of the federal Emissions Reduction Fund have counted the difference as “avoided deforestation”, even though it’s quite implausible that anything like that much land could have been cleared in the time available.

Encouraging farmers to remove carbon from the atmosphere is a good idea. But there’s great scope for the unscrupulous to turn it into a fraud and another National Party rort.

Read more >>

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

We risk becoming a business kleptocracy, with pollies showing how

I was startled the other day to hear a mate saying he was a bit depressed by the thought that Australia was turning into a business kleptocracy. What? Surely not. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised he was on to something.

I’ve written a lot in recent times about the failure of what lefty academics call “neoliberalism” and its quest for smaller government. Going back to the reign of the Howard government, both sides of politics have accepted the fashionable idea that, though there are plenty of services governments should continue asking taxpayers to pay for, the actual delivery of those services should be “outsourced” to the private sector.

Why? Because, as everyone knows, the public sector is inefficient, whereas the private sector is highly efficient. Because it would be so much better to have more of us working for business and fewer working for the various arms of government. The greater efficiency should lead to lower taxes.

I’ve pointed to instances where this mixture of ideology and tribalism has failed, leading to lower quality services without much evident saving to the taxpayer. In a democracy, it’s always right to hold governments ultimately responsible for their stuff-ups.

But is that the whole story? My mate’s looking at it from a different angle: what do the many failed attempts to hand service delivery to for-profit operators say about the ethics and trustworthiness of Australia’s business people?

That, for a surprising number of them, if you see some money lying around with nobody watching, you grab it? That while ripping-off customers is unethical and will soon get you a bad reputation, overcharging “the government” is a harmless, victimless crime? No human was hurt in the making of this profit?

One of the first government services to be outsourced was childcare. Before long, a single company bought up more than half the childcare centres, expanded overseas and then collapsed. To avoid leaving many parents in the lurch, government had to step in and sort it – at great expense.

Much of the sector remains privately owned. Last week the United Workers Union produced a report finding that three-quarters of the 12,000 enforcement actions taken since 2015 were against for-profit providers.

The Rudd government drew much criticism over the deaths of several people caused by faulty installation of pink batts during the global financial crisis. But what does it say about all the inexperienced operators using unqualified workers who flooded into the industry because they saw an easy buck to be made?

Bipartisan decisions to open vocational education to private operators and charge fees on a similar basis to the HECS loan scheme, attracted many new operators, some of which used salespeople offering free iPads to unsuitable youngsters who signed up for “free” online courses. Cost the taxpayer millions in debt write-offs.

The present government and the four big banks swore there was no need for a royal commission into possible misconduct but, when its hand was forced, we all remember how much misconduct was uncovered.

An accountants’ report for the royal commission into aged care found that, using a common definition of profit (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation) for-profit aged care providers in the second-highest quartile had a profit margin of 16 per cent, compared with 13 per cent for non-profits and 4 per cent for state government providers in 2018. Return on equity was 12 per cent for non-profit providers and 72 per cent for for-profit providers.

This week Sydney’s Star casino joined Melbourne’s Crown casino in being accused of turning a blind eye to suspected money laundering, organised crime and foreign interference.

Whether or not you think Treasurer Josh Frydenberg should have included in the JobKeeper scheme a provision to claw back assistance that proved not to be needed, it’s surprising to see some big companies announcing healthy profits while hanging on to their grants.

This week the Fair Work Ombudsman filed court proceedings alleging that the Commonwealth Bank had knowingly breached its wage deals with employees as part of a $16.4 million underpayment.

The ombudsman’s annual report for 2019-20 said it had recovered more than $123 million for 25,000 employees, including $90 million in underpayments that employers self-reported.

Some of our biggest and seemingly most respectable companies, including Woolworths, Coles, Wesfarmers’ Target and Bunnings, Qantas and Crown casino – not to mention the ABC – have admitted or been accused of “wage theft”. Underpayment seems standard practice in the restaurant industry.

We’re asked to believe these are innocent mistakes made by big corporations with big human relations departments and computerised payroll systems because industrial awards and agreements are so hellishly complex. Sorry, I don’t.

Much easier to believe a culture has developed that business’ contribution to the economy is so heroic that behaving with honour and even obeying penny-fogging laws is optional.

And how could business people have reached such a self-serving conclusion? Perhaps by observing the Morrison government’s unashamed rorting of grant programs and Saint Gladys’ sanctification of political pork barrelling: it’s not illegal and everybody does it.

Read more >>

Monday, October 11, 2021

Fear is driving good economic policy out of the political market

When it comes to politicians, some are good shots and some are cheap shots. These days, the successful politicians – you wouldn’t call them leaders – have relied heavily on cheap shots. The cheapest being to spread fear.

The simple truth is that humans have evolved to continually check their environment for threats. Those who weren’t so obsessively cautious died from some misadventure before they’d managed to have kids.

One way of defining civilisation is that it’s the quest to remove all threats to life and limb. This is the largest role performed by government and the main thing our taxes pay for.

The welfare state – including universal health care and social security payments – is about removing the threat of people dying because they’re too old or sick or disabled to work, or just can’t find a job. The welfare state is a giant risk-sharing system, a massive insurance scheme.

But though our lives have become infinitely less risky – one reason we live much longer than our great grandparents - we go on scanning our environment for threats. Which is good news for the news media - and the reason most of the news they choose to tell us is about bad things – and for less-scrupulous politicians.

Politicians have long known how easy it is to play on our fears to their own advantage. In our more racist past, the “Yellow Peril” was a frequent issue in election campaigns. Scott Morrison’s AUKUS nuclear subs deal led pollster Peter Lewis to wonder whether Morrison would consider “tapping the Coalition’s longstanding brand advantage on national security for a fear campaign about China’s rising influence”.

As the independent economist Saul Eslake rarely loses an opportunity to remind us, in recent years it has suited politicians to greatly exaggerate the risk we face from terrorists. Both sides have been happy to play to our fears that all those people arriving in leaky boats would take our jobs and clog our highways.

But issues of economic management are far from immune to the fear treatment.

Since politics has become so professionalised – a career path you start on after university, rather than a contribution you make after succeeding in some other field – politicians are people who worry more about what they have to do or say to attain and retain power than about why they need power to fix all the things they believe need fixing.

The more we’ve come to distrust our politicians – all politicians – the more they’ve realised the only thing they can say that we’ll believe is how bad their opponents are. Ask a minister how the government’s policy would work and the answer you get is disparagement of the opposition’s policy.

Invariably, any plan to tackle pressing economic problems, or just make the economy work better, has pros and cons, winners and losers. Bingo. A pollie with a plan is a pollie fighting a scare campaign.

One man with a massive plan was economist-turned-pollie Dr John Hewson. He lost the unlosable election in 1993. Another man with a plan was Bill Shorten. He had to fight scare campaigns on every front.

This was partly the Liberals’ retaliation for the success of Labor’s under-the-radar social media Mediscare in the 2016 election. Guess what? The coming federal election will be the battle of the scare campaigns, with as few substantive policies as possible.

Gresham’s Law says bad money drives out good. A new law says scare campaigns drive out policy reform. Or maybe B-grade pollies drive out A-grade. When it comes to standards of political behaviour, it’s always a race to the bottom.

One price we pay for this is that it encourages pollies to take no thought for the morrow. “I’ll just get re-elected and cope with whatever problems arise, if any do.” It raises muddling through to bipartisan policy.

Another price is that we go through the ritual of electing governments with little knowledge of what they secretly hope to do – or may have to get on with if circumstances force their hand. Why risk outlining your intentions when it’s safer to make up stories about your opponents’ evil intent.

But not to worry. An ever-helpful media will spend most of the election campaign pressing them to bind their hands by “ruling out” this and ruling out that. Thanks, guys, that’ll really help.

Since the rise of Tony Abbott, the Coalition has benefited greatly from scare campaigns about the cost of acting to reduce carbon emissions.

But pressure from G7 leaders, international financial markets, sensible Liberal voters threatening to elect independents, and now even the Business Council, may force Morrison to campaign on the claim that moving from fossil fuel to renewable energy could do wonders for the economy.

It’s true – but who’ll believe him?

Read more >>

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Cheapest, easiest way to reach net zero is to put a price on carbon

If Scott Morrison fails to front for the Glasgow climate conference at the end of the month, his preference to stay home while we’re dismantling the lockdown will be only one reason. The other’s that the conference isn’t looking like it’ll be a roaring success.

You wouldn’t know it from all Morrison’s agonising over signing up to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but it’s the easy bit. The hard part about Glasgow is the expectation you’ll make an improved commitment on how much you’ll have done to reduce carbon emissions by 2030.

Unlike us, most of the big players have already put their revised commitments on the table. That’s the problem with Glasgow. So far, those commitments add up to much less than needed to hold the global average temperature rise to the “well under 2 degrees” agreed on at Paris in 2015, let alone the 1.5 degrees the poorer countries demand.

As many of us now realise, we wouldn’t be trembling in our boots over the enormity of getting our emissions down to net zero by 2050 – and making big strides long before then – had we not abolished after only two years the perfectly good carbon pricing scheme the Gillard government introduced in 2012.

By 2014, people had realised the carbon tax accounted for only a little of the huge increase in electricity prices we experienced, and that the Coalition’s talk of $100 legs of lamb was just a fairy story.

Of course, the carbon price would be higher by now, and we’d have had to extend it beyond electricity and gas to all other sources of emissions.

The series of studies the Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood is doing on how we can reduce emissions in other parts of the economy – transport, manufacturing, agriculture – shows that without the help of a carbon price it’s much harder going.

And it strikes me that insufficient reliance on a carbon price may explain much of the trouble the other parties to the Paris Agreement are having in making adequate progress. Indeed, it could be we won’t make it to net zero without the biggest emitters making greater use of emissions pricing.

In a recent paper, Ian Parry, of the International Monetary Fund, says more than 60 carbon tax or emissions trading schemes have been introduced at sub-national, national or multi-country levels. In recent months, China and Germany have launched major initiatives, the carbon price in the European Union has risen above €50 ($80) a tonne of carbon dioxide, and Canada announced its price would rise to the equivalent of $185 a tonne by 2030.

Even so, only about a fifth of all global emissions are covered by pricing schemes, and the global average price is only about $4 a tonne. Parry says that’s a far cry from the global price of about $US75 (more than $100) a tonne needed to reduce emissions sufficiently to keep global warming below 2 degrees.

Does $100 a tonne sound expensive? It is in the sense that the price increase built into the prices of emissions-intensive goods and services needs to be big enough to produce sufficient change in the behaviour of consumers and businesses.

But it’s cheap when you realise that the purpose of a carbon tax (or, equivalently, the proceeds from the government auctioning emissions permits to businesses who need them) is not to raise additional revenue but to change behaviour.

So the proceeds can be used to make equivalent reductions in other taxes, especially income tax. Thus people pay more for some of the goods and services they buy, but pay less income tax. People on welfare benefits have them indexed to cover their higher living costs.

As we discovered in 2012, introducing a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme (ours was the former that, after a few years, would become the latter) is a relatively simple business. You don’t tax emissions directly, but use scientific estimates of the average amount of carbon dioxide the production and use of that class of product emits.

But almost all economists recommend using a carbon price to decarbonise the economy also because they think it’s the policy instrument likely to achieve the objective with the least disruption to the economy and least loss of growth in the production of goods and services.

That’s what economists really mean when they say a carbon price is the cheapest way to get to net zero. They know that sufficiently large changes in relative prices will change people’s use of fossil fuels.

Get this: a carbon tax is a tax the government actually wants people to find ways to avoid having to pay. It’s intended to discourage people from using fossil fuels. How? By using electricity, gas and petrol less wastefully.

By switching to renewable energy (which is untaxed) because it’s relatively cheaper. By making sure that the next car or appliance or production machine people buy is more energy-efficient than the last. By increasing the monetary incentive for businesses to come up with less-polluting ways of doing things and inventing less-polluting machines.

To save face, Morrison has set his face against using the price mechanism to save the planet. But economic reality – or pressure from other, more sensible countries, or even voters – may yet change his tune.

One worry about putting a price on carbon is whether it would put our exporters at a disadvantage. A new and opposite worry is whether countries that have one when we don’t will protect their industries by slapping a “carbon tariff” on our exporters.

But the International Monetary Fund has come up with a solution to these worries that would also allow every country to use carbon pricing to make greater progress towards net zero. It proposes that the G20 countries (including us) phase in a uniform carbon minimum or “floor price” of $US75 a tonne of CO2 by 2030. Smart idea.

Read more >>

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Farmers have most to lose - or gain - from climate change

Doesn’t it strike you as strange that the born-again Scott Morrison – by now, presumably, deeply ashamed of his public fondling of a lump of coal during his unregenerate days – is being held back from signing up to the target of net zero carbon emissions by that fierce defender of farmers and rural Australia, the National Party?

Farmers are, if you’ll forgive the expression, at the coal face of the damage climate change is doing and will keep doing to Australia. They’ll also be among the chief beneficiaries of successful international action to stop further increase in global warming.

By now there’d be few farmers who didn’t understand that. Certainly, all the main farming lobby groups, from the National Farmers Federation down, have endorsed the net zero target and want to get on with it.

So what’s the National Party’s problem? Just that it sees itself as champion of two regional industries, agriculture and mining. Trouble is, the miners have always seen their interests as lying in fending off action to reduce the use of fossil fuels for as long as possible.

The Nats’ allegiance to mining gets stronger as you move north, and reaches its peak in Queensland. And it’s not hard to guess which of the two industries has the deeper pockets when it comes to generous support for the party cause.

But not to worry. The Nats’ method of operation within the Coalition has long been to blackmail the Libs into shifting more money from the city to the bush. It doesn’t have to be well spent as long as there’s more of it. And all the nudging and winking coming from the chief national Nat, Barnaby Joyce, suggest the Nats (or most of them) will surrender their principled position as long as the price is right.

One part of the price could be to exempt agriculture from any effort to reduce its own emissions. But a recent report from the Grattan Institute says that would be a mistake for two reasons. Agriculture accounts for 15 per cent of our total emissions, so we won’t make it to net zero if it isn’t pulling its weight like other industries.

But also, now the big countries are serious about climate change and are requiring their own industries to shape up, they’ll be using a carbon tariff to punish exporters from those countries that aren’t doing likewise. Any excuse to protect their own farmers from our more-efficient operators would not go unused.

So let’s start at the beginning. Farmers are disproportionately affected by climate change, including by higher temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and increasing drought, bushfires and floods.

As Grattan’s James Ha reminds us, federal government research says changes in rainfall have cut farm profits by 23 per cent compared to what could have been achieved in pre-2000 conditions.

Cropping farmers have done worst, but if global warming reaches 3 degrees, livestock in northern Australia are expected to suffer heat stress almost daily. As the climate continues to change, the value of some farming land may fall considerably and some properties may become increasingly expensive to insure.

Agriculture’s emissions of greenhouse gases have fallen somewhat in recent years, but this is a result of the drought. As herd size is rebuilt, emissions will increase – until the next big drought.

About three-quarters of agriculture’s emissions come from cattle and sheep. Most of this is our 24 million cattle and 64 million sheep burping methane (which causes a lot more warming than carbon dioxide), and then the nitrous oxide (also worse than CO2) that comes from their poo.

Then come emissions from the use of diesel to fuel most farm equipment, emissions from the use of chemical fertilisers and lime, and emissions from plant matter left after harvest.

All this makes farm emissions difficult to reduce. There are vaccines and dietary supplements to reduce methane belching, but they are not yet well developed and are hard to use on wide-ranging animals.

Farm equipment has not yet been adapted to use electric motors. Even so, there are practices that could be changed to manage farms more efficiently and with fewer emissions.

State agriculture departments have spent much over many years teaching farmers how to bring their practices up to date, and they need to spend a lot more teaching farmers how to adapt to climate change and reduce emissions.

Similarly, the CSIRO has spent taxpayers’ money on advancing farm technology over many decades. We should be investing in technological solutions to limit methane emissions. Where farmers need to buy expensive new equipment, the government could help them with “income-contingent” loans similar to HECS loans to uni students.

Farmers will gain directly from emission-reducing practices that also increase their productivity. They’ll be enormously better off from whatever the global effort does to limit further warming.

And, remembering the “net” in net zero, they’ll benefit greatly from doing things that allow them to sell “carbon credits” to firms in other industries – so long as it’s not just another National Party boondoggle.

Read more >>

Monday, October 4, 2021

The economy can self-correct, but only up to a point

As you’ve no doubt noticed, the crippling lockdowns in Sydney and Melbourne turn out to have one important side-benefit: NSW and Victoria have the highest rates of vaccination, which offers those states a path out of lockdown.

By contrast, the other states – which sensibly closed their borders to people coming from the two highly infected states – have the advantage of not needing to lock down, but the disadvantage of low rates of vaccination.

The two states that built the highest walls against the coronavirus - Queensland and Western Australia – have the lowest vaccination rates. (Which suggests they may not be feeling quite so superior once the lockdowns end and the virus’s chances of penetrating their borders are greatly increased.)

You don’t need me to tell you the two sides of the coin are connected. The incentive to get vaccinated has been greatest in the most infected states and least in the least infected states.

What you may need me to tell you is that this offsetting outcome is just what an economist is trained to expect. One of the most important and useful insights of economics is that market economies possess an inbuilt self-correction mechanism, a negative feedback loop.

Positive feedback causes a variable that’s going up to keep going up and a variable that’s going down to keep going down, whereas negative feedback causes a variable that’s going up to start going down, and a variable that’s going down to start going up.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but economists love negative feedback. Why? Because it returns a market and, by extension, the whole economy, to “equilibrium”.

Equilibrium means a state where everything’s in balance and thus at rest. There is – until the next “shock” to the system comes a long - no pressure for things to change.

What is it that always pushes markets back to equilibrium? “Market forces”.

This refers to the interaction between the demand from consumers for some product on one side and the willingness to supply that product on the other. What brings demand and supply into balance is the “price mechanism” – the price keeps changing until demand and supply are equal and the price is stable.

Say there’s some shock that causes the quantity demanded to exceed the supply available. This will cause the market price to rise, and the rise will send a “price signal” to both buyers and sellers.

The signal to buyers is: buy less. Be less wasteful in your use of the product, or look for similar products that are cheaper. The signal to sellers is the reverse: sell more. Now the product has become more profitable, produce more of it.

So, the price mechanism has caused a fall in the demand for the product and a rise in its supply. This will push the price back down until demand and supply are equal again. The market will have “cleared,” leaving nothing unsold, and the price will be back to about where it was before the shock. Equilibrium will have been restored.

Simple, eh? Neat, eh? And that’s a big part of the reason the economists’ way of thinking about how markets and market-based economies work hasn’t changed much in 150 years.

You see, too, why economists believe that prices – particularly changes in them – are the great incentive for people to change their behaviour. You want to decarbonise the economy? Put a price on carbon emissions.

Another instance of the equilibrating effect of prices is the existence of “arbitrage”, particularly in the markets for shares and other securities. Any difference in the price of the same security in different markets won’t last because the actions of people seeking to profit by buying in the cheaper market and then selling in the dearer market will soon eliminate the discrepancy. Economists call this “the law of one price”.

Putting all this another way, economists have long understood that markets and market economies are, in the modern idiom, “interactive”. Any new action always leads to a reaction, as the people affected change their behaviour to cope with the new development.

This understanding is why economists don’t worry about some developments as much as normal people do. Normal people say: look what’s just happened - it’s terrible. Economists say: yes, but then what happens? They call this the “second-round effect” and their model is supposed to predict what it will be.

For example, economists have never been impressed by all those reports warning that, by 2030, there’ll be a massive national shortage of teachers/nurses/other skilled occupation as all the baby boomers retire. No, there won’t. Why not? Because employers will take evasive action and other employees will take advantage of the opportunities presented.

But the notion of equilibrium can be taken too far. The doctrine of “laissez-faire” (leave it alone) – which lurks just below the surface of what lefty academics call neo-liberalism, but I prefer to call market fundamentalism – says that, since market economies have an inherent ability to return themselves to equilibrium after any shock, government intervention to correct the problem will only make things worse.

This is the old case of taking an element of truth and raising it to the status of a magic answer. The economists’ theory of how markets work is grossly oversimplified. In the real world there are lots of problems that can’t be solved just by leaving it to market forces.

Wait for market forces to stop global warming, and you’ll wait forever, decimating the economy in the process.

Or cases where waiting for the market to solve the problem would take too long or extract an unacceptable price in human suffering. Do nothing about the pandemic and waiting for all of us to get the virus and thus achieve herd immunity would cost too many lives.

The econometric models that economists use to forecast the macroeconomy or predict the effects of some policy proposal rely heavily on the assumption that, over the (unspecified) long term, the economy always returns to where it would otherwise have been. Yeah, sure.

The opposing theory to certain return to equilibrium – which comes from the physical sciences - is “path dependence”. That where you end up after equilibrium is disturbed depends on what else happens to the economy while it’s supposed to be on its way back to where it was. It could be knocked off course and never return to the previous path it was following.

The notion of equilibrium contains a lot of truth. Trouble is, so does the notion of path dependence. As always, the whole truth is somewhere in the middle.

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Friday, October 1, 2021

Economists need updating on what makes humans tick

At the heart of the weaknesses of economics – its frequently wrong predictions and the bad advice its high priests often give governments – is its primitive understanding – its “model” - of how and why humans behave the way they do.

It’s taking economists far too long to realise that to understand how the economy works you’ve got to start by understanding how the people who make up the economy work. The model economists started with in the second half of the 19th century and haven’t really moved on from is the mere assumption that businesses, workers and consumers always behave “rationally” – with carefully considered self-interest.

In the 150 years since economists decided their stick-figure assumptions were a sufficient foundation on which to build their model of economic behaviour, the other social sciences – psychology, sociology, anthropology – have made much progress in understanding human behaviour and motivations.

So, just this once, let’s set aside “Homo economicus” and see what wisdom the more social social scientists have to impart.

In his book, Moral Tribes, the Harvard moral psychologist Joshua Greene lays out a view of human behaviour that accounts for most of the things missing from economics. He starts with the proposition that the way humans behave is heavily influenced by the way we have evolved.

As one of the founders of behavioural economics, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, explained in Thinking, Fast and Slow, humans are good at thinking rationally, but it takes time and (literally) requires energy, so we’ve evolved to make most of our everyday decisions instantly and instinctively – without conscious thinking.

Our feelings and emotions can’t be dismissed because their role is to do most of our thinking for us. To motivate our instinctive reactions.

Humans have spent all but the past 10,000 years or so in roaming bands of hunters and gatherers. So it’s no surprise we still think like members of a tribe. We feel an affinity with those in our tribe, but not with people in other tribes.

As tribal animals, we care deeply about our relations with those around us, the other members of our tribe. It’s being in the tribe that protects us from harm and provides us with food, friends and someone to mate with. So we have to keep in with the tribe; make sure we’re not kicked out.

This is where moral attitudes come from. Morality is about how we treat others. Greene says “morality is a set of psychological adaptations that allow otherwise selfish individuals to reap the benefits of co-operation”.

You can get competition within tribes, but mainly they’re about co-operation for mutual benefit. We co-operate to organise enough food and shelter, but also for the group’s protection against its enemies, animal or human.

As tribe members, the moral issue we face is “me versus us”. We’ve evolved to remember to suppress unbridled self-interest and treat others well. Thus we’re good at co-operating in shared objectives, and our moral standards involve punishing others who fail to co-operate.

This co-operation does much to explain our success in becoming the dominant species and in radically transforming the world to make ourselves more comfortable. Greene says we’ve defeated most of our natural enemies. We’ve outsmarted most of our predators, from lions to bacteria.

But note this: our ability to co-operate as a tribe has evolved into a weapon to use in competing with other tribes. And, though our evolutionary instincts may not have changed a lot since we ceased being roaming hunters, our success has greatly changed the circumstances in which we live.

Though we live in countries with populations of many millions, we still have moral instincts that evolved to help us solve the problem of me versus us, not the problem of us versus them.

In one sense, we no longer live in small tribes that don’t have much contact with other tribes, but only sometimes do we see ourselves as living in, say, one big Australian tribe. We tend to see ourselves as members of many tribes, according to our differing characteristics: not just the party we vote for, but the part of the country we live in, our ethnic origin, our religion, our occupation, social class, education and much else.

Our tribal instincts keep most of us believing and behaving the way our tribe thinks we should. But the moral intuition of particular tribes has evolved in differing directions. What I see as the moral – or fair – thing to do, may be quite different to how you and your tribe see it.

Most countries used to be fairly homogeneous, with most people in the country adhering to the same religious views, particularly about issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and assisted death.

These days, many people have abandoned traditional religious views, though many haven’t. And much moving between countries means most countries have many people from differing religious traditions.

This leaves us with moral tribes that can’t agree on what’s right or wrong. This applies not just to sexual morality, but to whether I think it’s “fair” for me to pay more tax to support you when (I tell myself) you wouldn’t need my support if you’d worked as hard as I have to get what I’ve got.

Because our two-speed brains are adept at finding fancy rationalisations for “values” that are really just instinctive desires, we argue about our sacred Right to this or that treatment – which the other tribe counters with its own sacred (but conflicting) Right.

And, Greene says, even when we think we’re being fair, we unconsciously favour the version of fairness most congenial to our tribe.

He offers no magic answers to these widespread problems caused by modern tribalism. But he does say that, with a better understanding of why these tribal disputes arise, we all ought to be a lot less self-righteous about the moral correctness of our position and more willing to find compromises all of us can live with.

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