Liberalising Marijuana laws doesn’t seem to promote use much

The Effects of Marijuana Liberalizations: Evidence from Monitoring the Future
by Angela K. Dills, Sietse Goffard, Jeffrey Miron – #23779 (HE LE PE)


By the end of 2016, 28 states had liberalized their marijuana laws: by decriminalizing possession, by legalizing for medical purposes, or by legalizing more broadly. More states are considering such policy changes even while supporters and opponents continue to debate their impacts. Yet evidence on these liberalizations remains scarce, in
part due to data limitations. We use data from Monitoring the Future’s annual surveys of high school seniors to evaluate the impact of marijuana liberalizations on marijuana use, other substance use, alcohol consumption, attitudes surrounding substance use, youth health outcomes, crime rates, and traffic accidents. These data have several advantages over those used in prior analyses. We find that marijuana liberalizations have had minimal impact on the examined outcomes. Notably, many of the outcomes predicted by critics of liberalizations, such as increases in youth drug use and youth criminal behavior, have failed to materialize in the wake of marijuana liberalizations.

Posted in Economics and public policy, regulation, Science, Social Policy, Society | Leave a comment

Solidarity when there are first mover options: Bankers starting to consider their political options

Image result for I love my bankThis is from Ian Rogers’ regular newsletter for the financial industry.

There may be a dash for the exits from the rowdy sanctums of the Australian Bankers Association, with more than one bank jostling for first mover advantage and any accolades from a select set of stakeholders for doing so.

Banks of different stripes are treating a respectful – or in your face – resignation from the ABA as a strategic matter of the utmost importance. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Selection by lot and international relations


These soldiers are at war. The Western Front, Christmas day, 1914.

Selection by lot is a simple idea, so it’s not surprising that it can be useful in many situations. Whenever I see institutional dysfunction or idiocy, I think “how could selection by lot improve things?” In a discussion last week with the Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen – a person of unusually good judgement and thoughtfulness it seems to me – my mind naturally turned to the question of how selection by lot might be useful in international relations.

Imagine a treaty between two countries in which either side could bring about diplomatic mediation by way of a citizens congress. That citizens’ congress would take place between two groups of citizens, one from each country with all appropriate support from translators and if necessary meeting in an independent country etc. They would be chosen according to some methodology utilising randomness subject to any requirements of representativeness of the national citizenry – for instance as to gender, age, regional location etc – as supervised by some trusted third party country or supra-national body such as the UN or the ICJ.  They would then deliberate on any diplomatic matters at hand. I wonder if Australian citizens would have been as ungenerous with Timor Oil as our government has been, though it’s nice to see that there’s an end in sight for that business.1

Imagine the possibilities in the worst possible situation – that of war. Wars are so terrible, so horrible that my guess is that most are just a mistake. Sometimes they flare up when there are big, difficult things to resolve. And some of the worst we’ve known flare up as the result of poor diplomacy and/or unstable international institutions – like WWI. In both situations various toxic forces powerfully reinforce each other: Human beings’ physical and cultural ‘fight or flight’ mechanisms, their groupishness – their preparedness to their own and other groups behaviour with very different levels of understanding and empathy – and structures of political and economic power.

Rearrange the architecture of the way these groups become a group negotiating on its future and that future could be much brighter, much less pockmarked by horrific events brought on by accidents that foreclosed the necessary amount of goodwill being developed. As we saw most tantalisingly, most movingly in the Christmas truce, 1914 when the picture above was taken. Continue reading

  1. Declaration of (relative) ignorance. I don’t know a lot about this, so may need to revise my view as to our ungenerousness in the presence of any pesky facts.
Posted in History, Political theory, Politics - international | 6 Comments

Meanwhile in an echo-chamber near you …

Image result for treasury fan charts forcast site:au

It twigged with me a few years ago just how biased economic discussion is towards things economists or their audience would like to know, rather than what economists can or do know. As with those interminable pre-match footy commentaries, economists can add very little value to simple rules of thumb when it comes to macro-economic forecasts, especially when it matters most – at important turning points in the economic cycle. But everyone takes out their notebook the moment a senior figure from Treasury or the Reserve Bank starts opining about “how we see the future”. On the other hand, to their great credit, both the Treasury and the RBA publish fan charts which illustrate how rapidly their forecasts’ capacity for foresight decays – as illustrated. (I’ve not come across private sector forecasts that do this – but then I don’t spend my time reading much of that so I’d be grateful if someone who does could correct or affirm this claim.)

Still things are getting a little better. Philip Tetlock’s early work on Expert Political Judgement now being followed up by the Good Judgement Project has shown that people can be trained to do quite a bit better. In any event, participating in Burgmann College’s mentoring program, I was speaking with an economics grad who had been active on the Good Judgement Project which prompted me to send his CV to a couple of Melbourne based projects that are at the cutting edge of forecasting.

Thinking I might recommend this person’s CV also to the main economic forecasting houses inside government, I searched both of their websites for the words “Tetlock” and/or “Good Judgement Project”. Perhaps Google is not indexing well enough but I got a single hit from 2011 referencing Tetlock’s 2006 book “Expert Political Judgement”, though the link  was no longer on the Treasury’s site or cached. Woeful really. John Quiggin reminds us of something similar with his tragicomic story of how the Australian Signals Directorate – an institution one might hope had some expertise in digital security –require government websites to adopt security practices from a few decades ago which ensure that, in the words of the xkcd cartoon, everyone is forced to use passwords that are “hard for humans to remember, but difficult for computers to guess”.

All of which reminded me of Tom Burton’s excoriating editorial on the monoculture of the Federal bureaucracy: Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Employment | Leave a comment

Down with Presidentialism: Guest post by Mike Pepperday

This book included Linz's long essay about the perils of presidentialismPeople disappointed with democratic outcomes often call for better education of the citizenry. But the democracies began, and flourished, in the nineteenth century, when people were quite poorly educated. They proved resilient and backsliding only seems to occur where democracy is not properly established.

Nearly everywhere, a choice developed between two options called left and right, represented by two political teams. The international pervasiveness of this division reflects something in the nature of human sociality. Experience has been that, over time, the sides take turns at governing.

Voting essentially consists of choosing one of the two sides every few years. If it is useful to educate the voters, professors of philosophy, political science and economics must do it better. There is no such evidence and presumably on average fifty per cent of them vote for the wrong side every election.

Education of the voters seems irrelevant. Perhaps the problem is not that voters are too dumb but that leaders are too clever. That would mean political institutions should be designed to restrict leaders’ power. This, of course, is the very purpose of democracy.

Realisations of democracy (“rule by the people”) are imperfect so flaws are countered by ad hoc measures such as term limits and powerful courts. Such measures help but the problem goes deeper.

The worst flaw is the presidential system. This is where the people elect the chief executive who then chooses the cabinet ministers. It malfunctions everywhere. It is currently in disarray, or has failed outright, in the Philippines, South Korea, Brazil, Venezuela, and Turkey. Generally in Latin America it has an appalling record. Russia and the other post-soviet presidential countries have fallen to autocrats and brought democracy into disrepute. Indonesia will succumb, perhaps soon, as will East Timor. Continue reading

Posted in Philosophy, Political theory, Politics - international | 22 Comments

Good old Collingwood forever: Speech to the Australian Evaluation Society Annual Conference

In Memoriam: Bill Craven 1

Image result for rg collingwoodHerewith my speech to the Australian Evaluation Society Annual Conference dinner last night, also published at The Mandarin.


In 2005 Peter Shergold, the country’s most senior public servant said this:

If there were a single cultural predilection in the APS that I would change, it would be the unspoken belief of many that contributing to the development of government policy is a higher order function – more prestigious, more influential, more exciting – than delivering results.[1]

He spent another three years championing this idea from the top job. But then a decade later, reporting to Prime Minister Abbott on the public service concluded that progress on the point had been scant.[2]

All of which serves to underline the point that the hierarchies that dictate policy are not just hierarchies of people, but also of knowledge. You can see the power of hierarchies of knowledge when it comes to Royal Commissions. When some shocking revelations came to light about South Australia’s child protection system, the Premier set up a Royal Commission. As others had done in child protection before him.

When a system full of people paid hundreds of dollars a day fails, we send in the lawyers – a profession which might not know anything about child protection – but we pay them thousands of dollars a day. No-one ever got sacked for buying IBM or hiring Deloitte and surely those QCs can work out a thing or two about child protection. And we keep getting back answers that don’t work.


When I was a kid, law was the uber discipline. There was no other. But today there’s another discipline which is more powerful still. Its senior practitioners aren’t paid like QCs but they dominate the upper echelons of the public service. I’m speaking of my own profession – economics.

Economics has always chased Adam Smith’s grand vision of following Isaac Newton in building a vast disciplinary edifice from simple axiomatic foundations. Smith himself spoke of the Newtonian Method of rhetoric and it’s pretty obvious that he cast his two great books accordingly. Especially as Smith’s idea of economics as a moral science has given way to the more modern (perhaps I should say ‘modernist’) idea that we can codify Smith’s idea in formally specified models, this gives economics a relentless reductionism. That’s a great strength in many contexts. It simplifies things down to certain commonsensical basics and so it sweeps away a lot of undergrowth. Where we can get by adequately without that undergrowth, so much the better.

Nevertheless as powerfully as the radical abstractions of economics can help us get to the nub of a matter, they’re also a seductive invitation to ignore much that matters. In the world of policy, rather than take their discipline as Keynes suggested, a set of tools for structuring open-minded inquiry and exploration, many economists take their discipline to endorse settled conclusions which then become a badge of tribal identity, and an invitation to hubris.

Even that isn’t all downside. Economists’ pride in the rigour and hard-headedness of their discipline has made them champions for evidence-based policy. As the economists at the PC have pointed out, we are spending many billions of dollars on programs to promote aboriginal welfare with remarkably little attention to whether they work or not. It’s the economists at the PC supported by economists like Peter Shergold and his successor Martin Parkinson that have managed to get an additional $40 million allocated for evaluating programs for indigenous Australians which is a great opportunity for policy learning, and God knows we could do with some in that area.

But too impatient, too hubristic a quest for rigour can lead us astray.

Here’s the thing. In the last few months, I’ve made a point of asking a number of such people at very senior levels, econocrats who regard themselves as rusted on evidence-based policy people if they know what ‘program logic’ is. They don’t.

Continue reading

  1. On Marnie Hughes-Warrington from ANU’s History Department tweeting this address, I sent her an email as follows:

    Subject: Seeking to contact Bill Craven

     Hi Marnie,

    Thanks for your tweet to my speech on RG Collingwood. I’ve always wanted to write to Bill Craven, who taught me “Ren and Ref” in 1977 (I think) who was the first person to introduce me to that way of thinking, including I think introducing Collingwood. For a long time I’ve entertained a vague idea that I should practice economics in a way that was informed by that thinking, but I’ve only come recently to reflect on it and articulate it – which I also did a little here. I wanted to email him and thank him – but I have no idea of contacts for him. I’m hoping that perhaps the history school at ANU may be able to enlighten me.

    Marnie sent the email to the head of the History Department – an old friend of mine from uni – Nicholas Brown – who told me he’d died about ten years ago. That Owl of Minerva has a lot to answer for.

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Ethics, History, Humour, Philosophy | 1 Comment

My 60th Birthday: Let the record show …

We hurtle along the conveyor belt of life just hoping not to start hearing Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my way” ringing in our ears too soon. So it was with some trepidation that I arranged a 60th birthday party. I’d not had anything like it since my 30th. Anyway dilemmas arose from trying to figure out just who to invite. How ‘close’ a friend should they be? On the most conservative criterion I wouldn’t get much of a party together. Anyway, I decided to rattle through my ‘contacts’ – at considerable and rather slapdash speed – and ask anyone I knew whom I liked and thought gave good conversation. That was pretty much it. 1

So imagine a room with 70 odd people, most of whom don’t know each other but all of whom find they’re having a really interesting and animated conversation. It was a blast. And then speeches! I didn’t quite know what I’d say but just started making notes of the Frank Sinatra type. My earliest memory was … soon the writers/speakers’ block lifted and I started knitting my speech together on my screen.

It was sad that my son Alex couldn’t be there – but he was chasing glory amongst Ivy League universities of New England in middle distance running preparing for greater things. Better him than me. And I loved the speeches and am honoured to call all the cuties giving them friends. You can watch them in the videos above. And if you’ve been paying close attention to Troppo, you’ll understand that I’m making the event an annual one – with a few changes from this one. Indeed, we’ve already had our first annual reunion precisely two months from the original event.

Everyone spoke from notes except me and my daughter Anna, so her speech can be reproduced below. Mine is also reproduced though parts of it are in note form and I fiddled a little more with it after the event as it started intriguing me to try to articulate out how I got to be the kind of economist I am. For better or worse, I can’t think of anyone else with an approach like mine. For better in the sense that I think it gives me some ideas about things that others don’t have. For worse because what I say doesn’t fit all the well worn grooves into which policy discussion amongst Very Serious People quickly arranges itself. Continue reading

  1. Except that I’m sure I missed some people who met this criterion because I ran through the contacts pretty quickly, and my contacts file is pretty scrappy. Sorry about that!
Posted in Economics and public policy, History, Life | 6 Comments