Scottish independence: a good idea or a bad idea?

Today the people residing in Scotland can decide whether they want to see an independent Scotland or to have Scotland remain in the UK. The betting markets concur with the opinion polls and favour the status quo: the markets give roughly 20% chance that the ‘yes’ vote will win and that Scotland will become independent.

The majority of economists talking about the referendum have focused on whether or not the Scots would be financially better off with their own country, debating things like North Sea oil revenues and currency unions. I think that is a distraction: looking at small and large countries in Europe, you would have to say there is no noticeable advantage or disadvantage to being a small country and that the Scots are hence unlikely to be materially affected in the long run by independence.
Independence is more about self-image and identity than it is about money. Even though the push for independence might well come from politicians and bureaucracies that gain prestige and income if they ruled an independent country, the population deciding on the vote will probably vote on emotional grounds, not economic. Young male Scots appear overwhelmingly in favour of independence; females and old people prefer to keep things the way they are. The latter groups are bigger and are expected to sway the day.

Personally, I have two related reasons to oppose the breaking up of larger countries in Europe into smaller ethnically defined states, not just Scotland, but also Catalonia, the Basque region, the Frisian province, Bavaria, and all the other regions of Europe:

  1. These independence movements are ethnic and hence by definition exclusionary. This is a big concern: large nation states have slowly moved away from the story that they exist for people of the ‘right’ bloodlines and with ancestors who lived in the ‘right’ place. The UK, the US, France, Australia, and even Germany and Spain have moved towards an identity based on stories about what it means to be British, American, French, Australian, etc., rather than a ‘blood and earth’ ethnic nation state story. Speaking tongue-in-cheek, the Brits have an upper lip story, the Americans have an exceptionalism story, the French have been convinced they like reading Proust, the new Australians are told in their citizenship exams that they believe in a fair go, etc. These stories contain treasured national stereotypes, complete with imagined histories. The key thing is that are inclusive, ie any newcomer from another place can participate in such stories. The Australian national anthem is a beautiful example of this super-inclusive attitude as it, almost uniquely, mentions neither ethnicity nor religion as a basis for being Australian. The ethnic stories of the independence movements are, in contrast, exclusionary and hence harmful to the self-image of any migrant. It is a move to a past that we have little reason to be proud of, as it marginalises current and future migrants. The story surrounding Scottish independence is thus not that the Scots are people who like to wear kilts and enjoy haggis, but that they make up the people who have suffered 700 years of oppression by the English. What is a recent newcomer from, say, Poland to do with such a self-image but conclude that they do not really belong there? Continue reading

The Prophet on Polygamy

My brothers, did I not tell you that “None of you becomes a true believer until he likes for his brother what he likes for himself” and that “Being a true Muslim is achieved by loving for people what you love for yourself”?

And what can you want more fervently for your brothers than that they have wives of their own? What is more despicable, more lecherous, and more an affront to god than to deny your brothers a wife by taking all the desirable young women for yourselves?

I weep when I see rich Muslims take 2, 3, 4, sometimes even 7 young wives for themselves whilst their impoverished brothers have none and are thus forced into extreme behaviour for their chance to be happy. This is not Islam, this is greed.

I weep when I hear rumours of the rich Gulf States offering deals to Muslim governments of poorer countries to have 14 to 21 year old Muslimas come and clean their houses on temporary visas without the accompaniment and protection of their families. Why not give the job to old widowed women? Have you not had your fill of Phillipinos by now? This is not Islam.

I weep as the mullahs, imams, ayatollahs, and the other powerful use my example as an excuse for their behaviour. I married widows and divorcees, in a situation where many men had died in war and were scarce. Now there are more than enough men. Is it not Sharia Law that polygamy should be the exception? As a wise judge recently said to a man who misguidedly claimed refuge in Sharia Law for his lecherous behaviour: polygamy should be the exception, such as when the first wife is infertile or “as a part of social duty and charitable motives or when it seeks to prevent destitution”. Hoarding women for status and sexual pleasure is not Islam.

So shame on you, King Abdullah-of-11-wives! Shame on you, Bin-Laden-of-4-wives! And shame on you, all those princes and wealthy men that have followed their examples and denied wives to others by having so many yourselves!

My fatwa is that all those who have married additional wives desirable to others that you should seek out new husbands for those wives and in each instance that you meet a suitable match, you should divide your wealth in as many parts as you have wives and offer the biggest share in dowry.

Your Prophet Continue reading

How academics, ministry experts, and civil society are losing: is the government now for the few?

The latest federal budget in Australia by the Liberal Party was a real break with the recent past in which politicians were reluctant to offend any large group of voters and in which the status quo with respect to entitlements was avidly kept. There was a bit of playing around with extra money under Labor – spent on projects like the NBN – and there were some attempts at taxing the richest sectors more, such as the carbon tax, but it was largely a case of ‘All quiet on the Western front’.

This budget was different and seems to herald a shift in orientation of our political elites, not just the Liberal Party. What seems to have happened is that the political elites now take their cue from well-organised interest groups, to the detriment of the unorganised majority, effectively trailing the US by about a decade. The US saw the same move towards a ‘money talks’ society about 10 years ago, including the lifting of the Glass-Steagall laws that were meant to prevent the kind of financial piracy that lead to the GFC. In the US the trend is again reversing, but here we are just getting to the crest of money-talks politics. This is dressed up as going towards ‘small government’, but in reality we are talking about Government for the few. It is an inequality increasing agenda that rewards topic-specific organisation. Let me expand.

As Ross Gittins has pointed out in a whole set of articles on the budget, the headline changes are quite dramatic for the majority, especially for young poor people: the Gonski reforms, benefitting the least able within the schooling system, have been axed; the Carbon Tax, a tax mainly on a couple of big firms (mines and electricity generators), has been repealed; the age-pension, which is one of the main transfer programs, has now been indexed to inflation rather than average wages, which implies a 2% reduction in relative terms per year and 25% within about 12 years; the public school system and the hospitals will similarly see their commonwealth subsidies indexed to inflation, ensuring the same 25% decline in about 12 years; the cuts in parenting support similarly hit large parts of the population, whilst the effective halving of the unemployment benefits for the young (via the 6-months-on, 6-months-off rules) are estimated by the Department of Social Services to eventually impoverish close to half a million people.

One might see all this as indications of a move towards ‘small government’ and ‘starving the beast of government of funds’. That is certainly the storyline kept up by the Coalition and one that business economists bandy around also. It was the story of the Bush years in the US. If you look closely though, you will find it is not about small government at all. For you would have missed all the areas where government just got bigger. Substantially bigger. So look at the other changes to see the full picture. Continue reading

How to lie with statistics: the case of female hurricanes.

I just came across an article in PNAS (the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) with the catchy title ‘Female Hurricanes are deadlier than male hurricanes’. It is doing the rounds in the international media, with the explicit conclusion that our society suffers from gender bias because it does not sufficiently urge precautions when a hurricane gets a female name. Intrigued, and skeptic from the outset, I made the effort of looking up the article and take a closer look at the statistical analysis. I can safely say that the editor and the referees were asleep for this one as they let through a real shocker. The gist of the story is that female hurricanes are no deadlier than male ones. Below, I pick the statistics of this paper apart.

The authors support their pretty strong claims mainly on the basis of historical analyses of the death toll of 96 hurricanes in the US since 1950 and partially on the basis of hypotheticals asked of 109 respondents to an online survey. Let’s leave the hypotheticals aside, since the respondents for that one are neither representative nor facing a real situation, and look at the actual evidence on female versus male hurricanes.

One problem is that the hurricanes before 1979 were all given female names as the naming conventions changed after 1978 so that we got alternating names. Since hurricanes have become less deadly as people have become better at surviving them over time, this artificially makes the death toll of the female ones larger than the male ones. In their ‘statistical analyses’ the authors do not, however, control adequately for this, except in end-notes where they reveal most of their results become insignificant when they split the sample in a before and after period. For the combined data though, the raw correlation between the masculinity in the names and the death toll is of the same order as the raw correlation between the number of years ago that the hurricane was (ie, 0.1). Hence the effects of gender and years are indeed likely to come from the same underlying improvement in safety over time.

Using the data of the authors, I calculate that the average hurricane before 1979 killed 27 people, whilst the average one after 1978 killed 16, with the female ones killing 17 per hurricane and the male ones killing 15.3 ones per hurricane, a very small and completely insignificant difference. In fact, if I count ‘Frances’ as a male hurricane instead of a female one, because its ‘masculinity index’ is smack in the middle between male and female, then male and female hurricanes after 1978 are exactly equally deadly with an average death toll of 16.

It gets worse. Even without taking account of the fact that the male hurricanes are new ones, the authors do not in fact find an unequivocal effect at all. They run 2 different specifications that allow for the naming of the hurricanes and in neither do they actually find an effect unequivocally in the ‘right direction’ (their Table $3).

In their first, simple specification, the authors allow for effects of the severity of a hurricane in the form of the minimum air pressure (the lower, the more severe the hurricane) and the economic damage (the higher, the more severe the hurricane). Conditional on those two, they find an insignificant effect of the naming of the hurricanes!

Undeterred and seemingly hell-bent to get a strong result, the authors then add two interaction terms between the masculinity of the name of the hurricane and both the economic damage and the air pressure. The interaction term with the economic damage goes the way the authors want, ie hurricanes with both more economic damage and more feminine names have higher death tolls than hurricanes with less damage and male names. That is what their media release is based on, and their main text makes a ‘prediction graph’ out of that interaction term.

What is completely undiscussed in the main text of the article however is that the interaction with the minimum air pressure goes the opposite way: the lower the air pressure, the lower the death toll from a more feminine-named hurricane! So if the authors had made a ‘prediction graph’ showing the predicted death toll for more feminine hurricanes when the hurricanes had lower or higher air pressures, they would have shown that the worse the hurricane, the lower the death toll if the hurricane had a female name!

The editors and the referee were thus completely asleep for this pretty blatant act of deception-by-statistics. Continue reading

What are the likely consequences of HECS fee liberalisation?

The Australian government education minister Christopher Pyne has made his wishes clear for the tertiary education sector: he is following the wishes of the GO8 Vice-Chancellors and wants to remove the caps from the HECS fees asked of domestic students. This seems to fit in a vision of greater competition for the sector, and hence the fee deregulation is accompanied by changes to the accreditation regime to make it easier for competitors to come in. There seems to be no appetite for changes in university governance, nor any attempt to remove the benefit that existing inner-city universities have in the sense that they don’t have to pay for their premises whilst newcomers would have to pay rent for their premises.

Let us presume that the minister gets his way, either this time round or next time round, and that we will hence see HECS fee deregulation for domestic students with easier rules for accreditation, and no significant changes otherwise to the current environment. Following on from the efforts of Rabee Tourkey and Rohan Pitchford on this blog, what are the likely consequences?

First off, we can look at the consequences of a similar fee deregulation in the UK in 2010: at least a doubling of fees at the top and a proliferation of discounters at the bottom.

Should we expect these things to occur here too? One should expect both elements to occur here even more strongly because in our case there are less alternatives for students and hence a greater potential to increase fees and have chaos as the bottom: the main differences between us and the UK in this market is that the UK is more densely populated and that students thus have many more universities close by them, allowing for far more real competition than will be the case here. Thus, given that distances between cities are so large in Australia, one should expect the price hike to be well above double in this country. So from Hecs fees of around 10,000 AUS per year, I expect we would go to 30,000 AUS per year at the GO8s, pretty much within a year or two following fee deregulation.

At the bottom, it will be chaos, just like in the UK. You will get all sorts of scams and desperate ploys, essentially because the government is writing a blank cheque via the HECS scheme. Many will come to collect. Continue reading

Piketty questions on Australian Inequality

The French economists Thomas Piketty recently published a long-prepared book on the growth of inequality in the Western World over the last few centuries. His main contention, as I see it, is that wealth inequality is rising rapidly again and that we are returning to 19th century levels of inherited inequality, complete with ‘upper class’ behaviour and dismissive attitudes towards the poor. His work finds an echo in this recent book by Andrew Leigh on Australian inequality that similarly notes the increase in inequality over the last few decades.

From a research point of view, the main questions Piketty’s views raise for Australian economic scholars who are worried about inequality, are:


  1. How do the super-rich in Australia actually make their money? Did they make it ‘on merit’ by inventing new techniques, or did they make their money by ‘grabbing it’ from the public purse by means of political patronage? The easiest way to answer this question is to go over the list of wealthiest Australians and look how they made their fortunes: by being innovative geniuses or by cosying up to political power and thus get away with stuff others did not. Pikketty very much points to the second source of wealth as a key mechanism for the explosion in the pay of super-managers, like bank-managers, whose pay is not truly linked to ‘performance’ but much more to what they manage to grab from their heavily-subsidised institutions. The same goes for CEOs in many major companies: they often did not build them up or add much to their productive value, but are in the position to grab the wealth created by these organisations anyway, no matter how incompetent they might be. In Australia there is an argument to be made for run-away ‘political rent-seeking’ as the prime cause of increasing inequality, but more extensive data on this point is needed.
  2. What institutions and tax arrangements would actually work to reduce the importance of political patronage if that is indeed the main cause of the rising inequality? Australia, like much of the Western world, already has quite a few institutions dedicated to fight the abuse of (market) power, such as the ACCC and the many public utilities regulators, but it might be the case that we are nevertheless in a period of reduced vigilance because the nature of the economic system has changed. The ‘old institutions’ that worried about abuse of power in manufacturing and public utilities might not be so relevant for an economy in which over 70% is service based, meaning one needs to think about what institutions are appropriate for the more murky world of property development, education, and financial services, in which government regulation is both inevitable and creates tremendous opportunities for rent-seeking. The recent proposal in Queensland to prevent the Crime and Misconduct Commission from looking into political misconduct, undoing the key part of the Fitzgerald reforms following an earlier period of rampant political corruption in Queensland, is in that sense a clear move backwards.
  3. How detrimental is inequality based on patronage for the wellbeing of the vast majority of Australian? Does it lead to a culture of compliant acceptance of the majority with a low station in life and low opportunities for their children too; or does it not matter much because even the poorest still get a pretty decent life? Can Australia as a small country ignore the World-wide effects and opportunistically base its economy on catering for the whims of the super-rich within the Asia-Pacific region, effectively making a world-wide change work for us? Those of us who are not super-rich themselves then can be their educators, cleaners, plumbers, gardeners, nail polishers, call-girls, security guards, and superannuation consultants. Somewhat our current trajectory.

I merely have strong suspicions on these research questions, no evidence that would convince a reasonable skeptic. Anyone who already thinks they have an educated answer to these questions should thus share their wisdom in the comment thread!

The future of online courses?

My own university, the University of Queensland, has around 6 flagship courses that it puts online for free, in a deal that involves universities from around the world who put up the courses that they excel in. It typifies the current reality of online courses: it is free; it is relatively high-quality; and almost no-one uses them because it is not material that is worth something.
Online courses currently are much like bootlegged high-class literature: it enables those who are self-driven to learn something about everything without paying for it, but it does not tap into the money streams of the education market, which, after all, is a market of diplomas and accreditation. Until online courses come with accreditation, there simply is no money in online courses and we are looking at the academic equivalent of owning horses: a gentlemanly way to get rid of your money.

What would a future with accreditation look like? Since students want high-name brands, it would involve many thousands, perhaps millions, of students doing the same exam by a top-brand name at the same time, and receiving a diploma from that top-brand name based on the exam results.

How would this work? Well, since it is important for a top-brand name to maintain confidence in its brand, that top-brand would have to control the examination as it happens all around the world simultaneously. This means it will only send out the exam seconds before the start of the exam, but much more importantly, it will mean that the people doing the exam will be monitored by cameras and brand-accredited examiners all around the world.

In effect, we would thus be looking at a system of world-wide examination rooms in which one can do, say, 1st year biology from Harvard, 2nd year physics from Oxford, and 3rd year economics from a conglomeration of Dutch universities (like the Tinbergen Institute). The material on which the exam is based will then be online and for free, but local universities will have provided tutorials in which students get trained and in which their misconceptions get ironed out so that they understand the material: the ‘low-tier’ universities start to become a franchise of the high-tier universities and they mainly offer feed-back on the learning of their students.

What is in it for the high-tier universities? Lots and lots of money. Continue reading

Bruce Chapman on Government as a risk Manager

Jan Libich recently interviewed Bruce Chapman, who was one of the main architects of the HECS scheme via which university places are financed in Australia, a system that is being copied all around the world now, making Bruce Australia’s most influential international economist by a mile. Bruce talks about this scheme and about the problem of how to manage risk more generally for governments. Follow the link and enjoy!