An MYEFO mystery: what’s with the resource tax?

It’s the time of the mid-year Economic Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) and we’re told that we’re about 11 billion deeper in the red this financial year than we thought, with the treasurer blaming the dropping iron price and the reduced wage growth. I have gone over the MYEFO documents (which are an exercise in obfuscation if ever I saw one), found that wage growth and the dropped iron ore price would ‘only’ cost us 2.3 billion each in this financial year (2014-2015), noted that this was far short of the 11 billion headline, and thus went looking for the ‘real story’.

This threw up the mystery of the resource tax. Here is what it says on table 3.2:

Table 3.2: Impact of Senate on the Budget (underlying cash balance)
Estimates Projections
2014‑15 2015‑16 2016‑17 2017‑18 Total
$m $m $m $m $m
Impact of decision taken as part of Senate negotiations(a)
Repeal of the Minerals Resource Rent Tax and related measures -1,684 -2,334 -1,670 -947 -6,634

which seems to means that the repeal of the minerals resource rent tax (and related measures) is costing us around 2 billion per year. Yet, in the ‘Overview Part’, the MYEFO says “The repeal of the Minerals Resource Rent Tax and other related measures will save the budget over $10 billion over the forward estimates and around $50 billion over the next decade.”.

What is going on?

Update (thanks Chris Lloyd): it seems to be a language issue. Part of the story seems to be that the MYEFO is counting the repeal of the mining tax, which was an election promise, as something the Senate inflicted on the budget, so the 2 billion a year is ‘revenue foregone’. So the MYEFO is blaming the Senate for the outcome of an election promise, using an odd formulation to say that the repeal will save us 50 billion when it seems to imply it would cost us 50 billion. Weird.

What was unexpected about Syria and Egypt?

Middle-East watchers have been surprised by the events in Syria and Egypt the last 2 years. The betting markets in 2011 and 2012 expected the collapse of the Syrian regime, but it didn’t happen. The West and most Al-Jazeera commentators thought the coup that deposed the Morsi-government was unsustainable and that some accommodation with the Brotherhood would have to be found. Even Israeli analysts, who by and large were against the Morsi-government, predicted that the new military regime could not survive. Both judgements seem incorrect so far: the Syrian regime looks safe and the Egyptian military junta is now as firmly in charge as ever. What did the watchers miss, ie what should we pay more attention to in the future that we didn’t see before?

And let me honest and say that I too was wrong on both counts: I have been making a point of giving predictions on many aspects of European and Middle Eastern politics for about 4 years now. I called lots of things right, from the chaos in Lybia, to the continued Greek bailouts in the EU, to the rise of the Egyptian brotherhood. Nearly everything, except for the developments in Syria and Egypt. As I said in December 2013, I thought in 2012 that the Americans would arm some part of the Syrian opposition and thus bring down the Assad regime. The betting markets scored it around 85% likely that Assad would be gone by the end of 2013. Similarly, in August of 2013 I thought there was no way the Egyptian army could so clearly assume total economic and political control (I thought this alongside 15 Al-Jazeera commentators at the time and, apparently, the Israeli intelligence community thought the military junta very fragile too). What did I/we fail to see?

In the case of Syria, it now appears that the missing ingredient was the psychology of the US president. As expected, the US state department did indeed want to pick a winner in the Syrian civil war. At least, Hillary Clinton claims to have argued for it strongly. But Obama vetoed it according to her, apparently not able to see the tremendous disruption that would ensue in the whole region of a failure to interfere. Obama might have been following his father’s belief that to interfere was neo-colonial and would only lead to more future trouble. Obama might have thought that others in the region, such as the Turks, would not tolerate any mayor disruption and take control. Obama might have simply miscalculated the brutality that the Syrian regime was willing to inflict on its own population, or the brutality of the many groups who were being sponsored by other countries. Whatever the reason, it seems Obama won the internal fight and kept the US out of it.

The muddled strategy of the US was pretty hard to foresee in 2011/2012 and it seems to have involved the particular psychology of the president, so on that one the main lesson is that some presidents mean what they say and can deliver when they say they don’t want to involve the US in foreign adventures. To see that coming would require an intimate level of knowledge of the actual psychology of lots of world-leaders, something that is not reasonable to expect from any individual observer because politicians and their entourage make a point of creating an appealing image of themselves which makes it nigh impossible to know what they are really like, so as a mis-predictions go there is little structural to be learned there: a particularly unusual draw of the statistical error term!

In the case of Egypt, what was missed seems more fundamental: no ‘random error’ in sight to explain what has happened. No single individual has behaved unusually, rather the Egyptian population has reacted differently from expected. At least, no one I have read called all the developments before they happened. Continue reading

Does increasing the legal age for buying alcohol reduce traffic accidents?

Does increasing the legal drinking age reduce traffic accidents caused by young drivers? The idea is that if you increase the legal age at which people can drink, young people are going to quietly abide by the law, not do anything stupid, read the bible, contemplate their sinful natures, and stay out of trouble.

Hang on though, one thinks: drink-driving is already illegal at any age, so what exactly does one expect to change when one restricts the sale of alcohol to 21 years and over, instead of having the current age limit of 18? If you were worried about them breaking the law before, why would you think changing the drinking laws would help? Breaking 2 laws is harder than 1?

In a recent letter to the Medical Journal of Australia, Jason Lindo and Peter Siminski, two economists from Texas and Wollongong respectively, point out that the more recent and more authoritative economics studies find that raising the age limit on buying alcohol does not help reduce serious traffic accidents at all. They do this in reaction to a completely one-sided account by medics who call for the drinking age increase, citing mainly cross-sectional studies (find attached the letter by the two economists and the reply of the authors of the offending article, which basically admits the cherry-picking that they originally engaged in:Lindo and Siminski 2014 with Toumbourou et al reply).

Lindo and Siminski point out that in New South Wales, changes to drinking laws did not change the accident rate of young people. Neither did a recent reduction in the drinking age in New Zealand, where the drinking age reduced from 20 to 18, increase accident rates amongst the 18-19 year olds (their behaviour was changing already, but not after the law change). Moreover, they point to studies that show that people indeed do substitute alcohol for other drugs that also affect their driving, which helps explain why there is on balance neither a positive nor a negative effect on traffic accidents from changing the age drinking laws. The studies they quote, which include the only studies on Australia on this topic, used the latest techniques based on analysing changes in behaviour of young people just before and after the introduction of the laws, which is what one wants to do. Prior studies are less convincing because they compare behaviour between regions within a country or over long time periods, which comes with the problem that regions and periods differ for many other reasons than merely the drinking age.

More generally, one can doubt the wisdom of a puritanical attitude to alcohol simply by looking at differences across countries. Central Europe, and in particular France, Italy, Spain, and the other Southern European countries, have much more relaxed attitudes to alcohol, with kids learning much younger to be responsible with alcohol. The more repressive attitude in the UK and here in Australia, on the other hand, is associated with binge drinking, very high rates of teenage pregnancies, and extreme risk behaviour. Once the kids do get access to alcohol, often by illicit means as the forbidden fruit is made so enticing, they dont hold back, which should make one wonder about the wisdom of declaring the fruit so forbidden.

Lando and Siminski thus try to inject a bit of common sense and self-reflection into our debates on alcohol laws, apparently having to fight a rather puritanical bunch of medics that insists we cannot trust young people and should ban them from buying alcohol till they are 21. Yet, we allow those between 18 and 21 to drive, to vote, and to die for us as soldiers in foreign battles, but we are supposed to declare them incompetent when it comes to drinking?

Lando and Siminski are hence right, both on the latest science that says there is no real relation between the drinking age and traffic accidents, and on the larger issue of consumer choice: if we abandon the idea that all voters are equal and that we should proscribe the behaviour of some of them, where do we stop? Should we lock up all young people from the age of 15 to 25 to prevent them from doing anything we did ourselves but do not want them to do? I have heard medics argue this at conferences….

So it is a very paternalistic and holier-than-though brigade that wishes to control the lives of others, without any regard to the joy they are destroying, using selective studies to argue their case. Why did the MJA publish the original one-sided piece by medics, one wonders? Economists are right to resist such reckless and blinkered destruction of consumer surplus.

PhD Scholarships on “The Behavioural Economics of Undesirable Cooperation”

Some people engage in socially disruptive behaviour on their own, such as when they free-ride on paying taxes. Others cooperate with others though when they are socially disruptive: cronyism, corruption, nepotism, gangsterism, and favouritism are all examples of cooperative behaviour that benefits a clique but comes at the expense of larger organisations and societies. How does such socially detrimental cooperation arise and is it done by the same people who would be disruptive on their own? What adverse consequences does it have for other members of society? What can be done to counter such behaviour?

An international team of top scholars at the University of New South Wales, the University of Queensland, and Duke University has obtained an Australian Research Council Discovery grant to find out. Fully funded PhD scholarships are available for students interested in these questions.

Students would be involved in devising and running laboratory experiments, as well as possibly running field experiments in developing countries. There will also be opportunities to help construct theoretical models of clique formation in diverse contexts, and to conduct micro-econometric modelling of the incidence and consequences of undesirable cooperation.  Outcomes of interest might include output, income, mental health, happiness, social cohesion, job mobility, and entrepreneurship.

Successful applicants will need to have at a minimum an undergraduate degree with Honours in economics, good written English, and excellent analytical skills. Proven interests in experiments, panel data econometrics, micro-models, and/or behavioural economics are desirable. Willingness to travel internationally and conduct research in developing countries would also be beneficial.

Students would be based in Sydney, though supervision would be shared with the University of Queensland. PhD scholarships of up to AUD$30,000 per year for 3 years are available.

Applications should be sent to Dr. Gigi Foster at [email protected].   Want more information?  Contact Ben Greiner ([email protected]) or Paul Frijters ([email protected]).

Where are we with Geo-Engineering in 2014?

Geo-engineering is increasingly looking like the only politically viable way of averting temperature rises above 2 degrees in the coming century. This is for three interlocking reasons: i) Any mayor country can try geo-engineering on its own without permission from anyone else, meaning one does not need a world coalition sustained for centuries to have an effect; ii) It holds the promise of immediate relief because ‘natural Solar Radiation Management’, ie volcanic eruptions that add lots of light-reflecting particles into the atmosphere, were found to cause immediate worldwide temperature drops, which compares favourably with the lags of decades and centuries that hold for CO2 emission reduction plans; and iii) It might be exceedingly cheap compared to any policy involving emission markets. For instance, according to a 2012 piece by McClellan and co-authors, we could keep the planet at current temperature levels at a cost of merely 10 billion dollars a year by having a fleet of planes deliver reflective particles high in the earth’s atmosphere.[1]

Given that continued global warming is predicted to happen in the next century no matter what emission policies are adopted, geo-engineering by some impatient large country is starting to look nigh inevitable. I reported in 2012 on the research efforts funded by the Royal Society, the Gates Foundation, and others. You now have dedicated institutes on this issue (eg. http://iagp.ac.uk ), and lots of new proposed experiments. With a large glut of published studies in recent years, it is time for an update: how far are we now in the world of geo-engineering?

The honest answer is that the scientific community is pussyfooting around when it comes to geo-engineering. Field experiments are largely stalled as scientists are awaiting regulatory frameworks that will protect them from criticisms of other scientists and environmental groups. Proposed regulatory frameworks designed to deliver this, such as by Nordhaus and colleagues, find it hard to get much political traction because politicians seen to support regulatory frameworks themselves become targets for criticism, both by those who pretend there is no climate change and by those who insist there is climate change but who also insist on emission reductions as the only way to return to our current climate some 300 years from now. Voters who agree the world is getting too hot and who would like it cooled down in their own lifetime rather than that of their great-great-great-great-grandchildren are still too rare to bother with for politicians.

This does not mean there is a lack of bright ideas. The engineers looking into this really are a very creative bunch, talking about whitening clouds, aerosol sprays, reflective shields, and artificial trees. One new idea that I hadn’t heard before is to genetically alter our crops so that they reflect sunlight better than the current crops. I don’t know whether this has any chance of getting serious traction, but one has to admire the ingenuity of the idea. Still, ominously, almost no field tests or large scale long-term testing is underway as scientists are waiting for societal approval to go ahead. Continue reading

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