Whining about Stiglitz, Sloan undermines herself beautifully

For all of Judith Sloan’s righteous ranting against Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, her piece essentially boils down to this: Joseph Stiglitz is American, Australia is doing better economically than America, and so therefore Stiglitz should shut up and go home.

A pretty babyish position to have.

Still though, taking Sloan at her best, what she’s suggesting has a pretty fundamental problem. It’s been true for the past two decades that Australia is doing better economically than America. But it’s also true that Australia is an economy with more government intervention than America’s.

It’s a pretty fundamental truth that Sloan is pretty eager to ignore. These kinds of comparisons are superficial and don’t tell us much, but since Sloan thinks it’s good argument to use them, I could just as easily suggest that that reason we’re doing better is because we have a much better mix of government intervention, and that going backwards on that is likely to worsen our problems.

People who regard themselves as commentators should be above this kind of crap. Unfortunately, I don’t have much confidence that Sloan will improve on this front anytime soon.


“Compassion-mongers” or just people with common sense

Writing in The Australian, Nick Cater continues the conservative campaign against asylum seekers, labelling those against the conservative worldview as “compassion-mongers”.

He wrote as though compassion wasn’t a quality you would want in anyone with the temerity to call themselves human. I would’ve thought that “mongering” would be more associated with things like “fear-mongering”, which is what people like Cater love doing, day-in and day-out.

Cater did himself no favours either by getting his readers to take a “look at the scoreboard”.

Between 2002 and 2007, when the Pacific Solution was in place, there were 288 arrivals. From 2008 to last year, when the rules were eased, there were 51,796 arrivals.

Sorry Cater, but that’s not the point. There were probably thousands of refugees who could have arrived that 2002 and 2007 for whom the opportunity for us to offer protection was forgone. Regardless of how many asylum seekers that could have arrived between 2002 and 2007 that we would have rejected, that group of “genuine refugees” would have been much larger. And what a tragedy that is for those refugees.

Misuse of the English language aside and childish references to the scoreboard aside, there is still the unanswered argument that asylum seekers, regardless of the outcome of their claims, have certain rights and dignities that Australia currently does not even pretend to respect.

Even when some asylum seekers turn out to be economic migrants and economic migrants only (and thus have their claims rejected — this is not a point in dispute from the left), Australia doesn’t have the right to punish them — through detention centres, crap food, abuse etc. — for the crimes of people smugglers.

This group of asylum seekers were essentially deceived into handing over good money by criminals. It is unreasonable to expect that they should have known better, given the general assymetry of information. Most asylum seekers don’t even know Australia does offshore detention!

It’s not as though the Australian government also punishes anyone who’s been scammed on the Internet for having the nerve to fall for a scam. The entire point is that the scammed didn’t know that they were being scammed, just as asylum seekers don’t know that this isn’t the most effective channel to get to Australia.

Once we start accepting that line of analysis, then we should at least be able to restore some sorely needed balance to our bizarre approach to refugees.

Gary Johns, waffling cheerleader with no substance

In one of the worst instances of drivel I have ever seen in The Australian, Gary Johns advises that the Prime Minister Tony Abbott should advocate for lower energy prices. Without ever coming up with any substantive reasons why that would be a good idea beyond that it would be “popular” and would “grind the Red/Green enemy into the ground”.

Beyond mockery of Johns for his intellectual lightweightedness and his ludicrously over-the-top rhetoric, there are some pretty good reasons why lower energy prices isn’t something we should necessarily be enthusiastic about. You know, if they came at the expense of much more carbon emissions, well that wouldn’t be so good. At some point, the cost of increased natural disaster cleanup and sea rise mitigation would cancel it all out.

But I give Johns too much respect here. No real need to come up with legitimate policy responses when the best he’s got is a comparison of Abbott against the Red/Green enemy with the Brits against the Germans.

Making assumptions on asylum seekers risky

Two days ago, I wrote that it was notable in the case of the 41 asylum seekers returned to Sri Lanka that nothing had been proven about whether they had political reasons for leaving or not.

Still nothing has been proven, but Jason Koutsoukis writing in The Age today about one of the families concerned has cast doubt on Bolt’s sweeping claims that these were all economic migrants. Allegedly, this is a relatively well-off family that because of political views has endured kidnapping and ransom.

(An observation to add from my previous post: Having material wealth does not mean that someone is an economic migrant. In contrast to the conservative commentariat’s seizing upon iPhone 5s and credit cards being confiscated, it has never been the case that the wealthy are never persecuted.)

Bolt’s quick conclusion that none of the 41 sent back were at any risk of being mistreated looks increasingly like jumping the gun. Sure, it may still be the case that none really needed Australian protection. But that doesn’t detract from the broader argument that Australia should’ve assessed their claims seriously rather than offloading them at the first chance.

Claiming asylum seekers were after jobs misses the point

Andrew Bolt:

…Every passenger I’ve seen interviewed so far say nothing about having been “persecuted”, with just one vague exception. All have said they were on their way to Australia or New Zealand to search for work…

So? Firstly, it hasn’t been proven that the 41 asylum seekers that were sensationally returned to Sri Lanka hadn’t been persecuted, or that their primary intention of going to Australia or New Zealand was to search for work. Just bringing up a few quotations where asylum seekers said that expanded economic opportunity was something they hoped for doesn’t prove that jobs was their primary motivation to hop on a boat. Omitting to mention persecution doesn’t mean persecution never happened.

But secondly, and more importantly, even if it is proven that these were not “genuine refugees”, that in no way excuses the government’s disgraceful disregard for its obligations to asylum seekers. Even if a person is later shown to not be a refugee, they still have the right to seek asylum, the right to have that claim processed fairly and speedily, and the right to be treated with dignity while they wait for the outcome of that claim.

On all those counts, the federal government has performed atrociously. In no way was the rushed process fair, with no reasonable access to legal advice. Nor was much attention paid to proving that there would be no serious risk in just sending them back to Sri Lanka. And from all accounts, their dignity as humans with a right to access basic necessities of life was not fully respected.

The debate as conservative commentators see it needs to be broader than just speculating on answers to a narrow question of whether a specific group of asylum seekers arriving by boat are “genuine refugees” or not. The real debate should be whether Australia expends any effort on being a decent global citizen by setting a process that respects the rights of those who attempt to arrive here by boat.

Greg Sheridan embarrassing on ETS

In a piece in The Australian astounding in its incoherency, Greg Sheridan makes a fool of himself attempting to argue against an emissions trading scheme and in favour of direct action.

He starts badly, of course, whining that the media are all on the side of a carbon price or ETS. Considering that Murdoch owns most of the Australian print media, that’s a hilarious lie. But more substantively, he tries to make two points: that the Coalition’s Direct Action policy does more than is really necessary compared to the rest of the world, and that it would be crazy to enter into an ETS. On the first, he misses the point, and on the second, he makes embarrassing blunders.

Arguing that we will already be doing more than everyone else, Sheridan decides to play ignorant. The point that responsible commentators have been making that he never acknowledges is that no-one is doing enough to counteract the serious damage climate change is poised to inflict on the world over coming decades. Even if it were accepted that Australia was doing more per capita than other nations, it’s hardly an honour to just be slightly less bad than everyone else.

Or to indulge Sheridan’s apparent love for bad analogies: it’s like having a smashed table and using a bit more sticky tape than the other guy to try to fix it. To state the obvious, sticky tape was never going to be up to the task.

Of course, Sheridan’s underlying sentiment here is that Australia shouldn’t make sacrifices while others aren’t willing. This really is just a rehash of an old dispute between the climate change movement and the conservatives. Is taking action is more likely to lead others to do the same and therefore get the results that are needed, or should we wait until absolutely everyone is satisfied before we do anything? There is extensive commentary on this that I won’t repeat, but I’ll indulge in pointing out that it’s no coincidence that China is committing to greater measures now that the United States is as well. And that this new status quo is seriously embarrassing Australia.

But where Sheridan really shoots himself is with his faux analysis of why an ETS is no good. Besides the usual rubbish about bureaucracy, Sheridan says:

“Imagine you could receive a finan­cial credit for every neighbour you promised not to punch and then sell those credits to people who did want to punch their neighbours. You would have a huge incentive to pretend to want to punch all your neighbours.”

Yeah, just one problem with that, Sheridan. When pretending to want to punch all your neighbours, you would need to first obtain some of those “credits” to be able to sell any, most likely by buying them at substantial cost. That fact in itself really cuts down on that “huge” incentive you banged on about. Not to mention that you would run the substantial risk of looking foolish if you bought those credits at a higher price than you were later able to sell them.

(Yes, Rudd’s CPRS would have given away quite a lot of free permits, but not all permits would have been free, the ones that were would have been given to actors that clearly weren’t going to be able to reduce emissions in a great hurry and therefore be in a position to quickly sell them off for profit, and most importantly, free permits are not inherent to an ETS.)

What Sheridan believes to be a problem that strikes at the core of an ETS is no more than an exaggeration.

This is not to say that any ETS would be flawless or that no-one would try to game the system. But these are problems with the process, not the principle itself. And at least a properly constructed ETS would reduce carbon emissions more substantially at lower cost to the government than some idiotic Direct Action scheme where companies can simply take cash for doing not very much at all.

Sheridan would do us a favour if he avoided cheerleading so hopelessly for the Prime Minister.

It’s always Labor’s fault, says Chubb

Former journalist and Monash Associate Professor Philip Chubb today laid all of the blame for the failure of carbon pricing policy over the last six or seven years at Labor’s feet in a piece in The AgeIt reads like another sad and wistful tale of how Labor once again failed to live up to the dreams of its true believers. The only problem is that it’s only half-right and pretty unfair.

Yes, it is pretty reasonable to say that Labor was less than persuasive in its attempt to publicly argue in favour of carbon pricing, or even to argue that Rudd was a very flawed leader. But that was only ever half the challenge — the other half of it was getting any form of an Emissions Trading Scheme (then referred to as the CPRS) through Parliament. The numbers game. You know, the game that actually gets anything done in this country. And anyone who actually recalls their history will remember that Labor needed the support of the Greens, Nick Xenophon and Family First’s Steve Fielding to pass anything if the Coalition would not budge.

I think you see the problem with that.

When Fielding and arguably Xenophon was running in an opposite direction to the Greens, an ETS was never going to be legislated without the support of the Coalition. Even if Labor were better negotiators and managed to put Xenophon and the Greens and themselves on the same page, they’d still fall a vote short. Fielding, a man who wasn’t even convinced of the science of climate change, was never going to be persuaded.

That in the first place is why Labor chose to negotiate with then-Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull. It wasn’t because it was a great opportunity to exploit Liberal weakness, as Chubb rails. It wasn’t even to stick it to the Greens, as Chubb implies in his recently published book — why anyone would negotiate with the Greens when their numbers weren’t going to be enough to pass climate legislation that would also be backed by Xenophon and Fielding is beyond me. No, it was pure political necessity. The perfect CPRS which fulfilled all of the environmentalist’s demands was never going to pass, and so therefore it made sense to at least attempt some form of a CPRS than nothing at all. When Turnbull was then knifed, it finally became absolutely impossible to pass any form of carbon pricing policy unless there was an election.

It is true that Labor then put off the CPRS. But Labor never said that it would not price carbon at some time in the near future; it was a policy that was shelved, not done away with. (Even when Gillard infamously declared that there wouldn’t be a carbon tax under a government she led, she did add that she always believed in some form of carbon pricing.) Moreover, even if it maintained a facade of desperation to pass one during that term, it was pretty clear that it wasn’t going to happen. So why expend the energy?

This is not to argue that Labor’s tactics on climate policy were flawless, or that its contribution to the climate debate was top-notch at the time. But the situation was always more complicated than the popular left-wing media narrative that Labor just simply passed on a wonderful opportunity to legislate an emissions trading scheme that also ensured a minimum of the kind of electoral backlash that would guarantee a swift repeal after an election and make the action pointless. Despite Labor’s flaws, which are inherent to all political parties and not unique to itself, it’s outrageous to say that the main thing that was standing between good climate policy and bad was Labor’s own dysfunction.

All too often in recent years, Labor gets all the blame when things go wrong but never any credit when things go right. Commentators who take themselves seriously should deliver a more nuanced analysis of the actual circumstances.