Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Myths of the Pacific Garbage Patch

In Lies You’ve Been Told About the Pacific Garbage Patch Annalee Newitz interviews Scripps Institution marine biologist Miriam Goldstein:
You've probably heard of the "Pacific garbage patch," also called the "trash vortex." It's a region of the North Pacific ocean where the northern jet stream and the southern trade winds, moving opposite directions, create a vast, gently circling region of water called the North Pacific Gyre — and at its center, there are tons of plastic garbage. 


Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The history of family life

George Monbiot, in Kin Hell, looks at the history of the family and finds that it "has been wildly misrepresented by conservatives".
“Throughout history and in virtually all human societies marriage has always been the union of a man and a woman.” So says the Coalition for Marriage, whose petition against same-sex unions in the UK has so far attracted 500,000 signatures. It’s a familiar claim, and it is wrong. Dozens of societies, across many centuries, have recognised same-sex marriage. In a few cases, before the 14th Century, it was even celebrated in church.
Monbiot also writes:
 The belief that sex outside marriage was rare in previous centuries is also unfounded. The majority, too poor to marry formally, Gillis writes, “could love as they liked as long as they were discreet about it”. Prior to the 19th Century, those who intended to marry began to sleep together as soon as they had made their spousals (declared their intentions). This practice was sanctioned on the grounds that it allowed couples to discover whether or not they were compatible: if they were not, they could break it off. Premarital pregnancy was common and often uncontroversial, as long as provision was made for the children.

The nuclear family, as idealised today, was an invention of the Victorians, but it bore little relationship to the family life we are told to emulate. Its development was driven by economic rather than spiritual needs, as the industrial revolution made manufacturing in the household inviable. Much as the Victorians might have extolled their families, “it was simply assumed that men would have their extramarital affairs and women would also find intimacy, even passion, outside marriage” (often with other women). Gillis links the 20th Century attempt to find intimacy and passion only within marriage – and the impossible expectations this raises – to the rise in the rate of divorce.
Edit 17/05: When Same-Sex Marriage Was a Christian Rite.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Executing an innocent man - another Texan case

In The wrong Carlos: how Texas sent an innocent man to his death Ed Pilkington writes about the case of Carlos DeLuna who was executed in 1989 in Texas. Thanks to the work of Professor James Liebman and the Columbia Human Rights Law Review it now appears almost certain that DeLuna was innocent and that the murder was committed by "a notoriously violent criminal called Carlos Hernandez".

Housing price growth in Australia

Christopher Joye, in The gap narrows as east almost meets west (and Queensland) in housing prices and costs, looks at how house prices in Australia have increased as interest rates have dropped. He also looks at how some states have lagged other states in this increase.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

The UK economy

Jonathan Portes in The pasty tax could pay for a £30 billion infrastructure programme: four charts show why history will judge us harshly suggests that the UK Government is getting it wrong on macro economic policy:
When I'm asked in interview or articles to sum up concisely why I think the government should change course on fiscal policy, I usually say something like this:

    "with long-term government borrowing as cheap as in living memory, with unemployed workers and plenty of spare capacity and with the UK suffering from both creaking infrastructure and a chronic lack of housing supply, now is the time for government to borrow and invest.  This is not just basic macroeconomics, it is common sense. "
He concludes with:
Twenty, or fifty, years from now, economic historians will look back at the decisions we are taking now. I cannot imagine that they will be anything but incredulous and horrified that - presented with these charts and figures - policymakers did nothing, international organisations staffed with professional economists encouraged them in their inaction, and commentators and academic economists (thankfully, few in the UK) came up with ever more tortuous justifications.  In Simon Wren-Lewis' words, they will ask  why "a large section of the profession, and the majority of policymakers, appeared to ignore what mainstream macro [and, I would add ,basic common sense] tells us".   Their judgement will be harsh.
Eating the Seed Corn - Paul Krugman's take on the matter.

Why the best in drama is coming from TV

Edward Jay Epstein in Role Reversal: Why TV Is Replacing Movies As Elite Entertainment looks at why TV is now producing the best in elite entertainment:
Once upon a time, over a generation ago, The television set was commonly called the “boob tube” and looked down on by elites as a purveyors of mind-numbing entertainment. Movie theaters, on the other hand, were considered a venue for, if not art, more sophisticated dramas and comedies. Not any more. The multiplexes are now primarily a venue for comic-book inspired action and fantasy movies, whereas television, especially the pay and cable channels, is increasingly becoming a venue for character-driven adult programs, such as The Wire, Mad Men, and Boardwalk Empire. This role reversal, rather than a momentary fluke, proceeds directly from the new economic realities of the entertainment business.
It's all down to the economic model of HBO apparently.


Morallity can't be bought

Michael Sandel in Too rich to queue? Why markets and morals don't fit (an extract from his book What Money Can't Buy) looks at what happens when everything, even queuing is up for sale:
Why worry that we are moving towards a society in which everything is up for sale? For two reasons: one is about inequality; the other is about corruption. In a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means. The more money can buy, the more affluence (or the lack of it) matters. But also, putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. Paying children to read books might get them to read more, but it might also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction. Sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about.
One issue he notes is that people are more likely to do the right thing if there's no monetary reward involved. he gives a couple of very interesting examples. In one a village in Switzerland where support for a nuclear waste dump halved when residents were offered payment:
For many villagers, willingness to accept the nuclear waste site reflected public spirit – a recognition that the country as a whole depended on nuclear energy and that the nuclear waste had to be stored somewhere. If their community was found to be the safest storage site, they were willing to bear the burden. Against the background of this civic commitment, the offer of cash felt like a bribe, an effort to buy their vote. In fact, 83% of those who rejected the monetary proposal explained their opposition by saying they could not be bribed.

Distribution of professional opinion on climate change

Paul Krugman highlighted a post by Joe Romm ‘Hug The Monster’: Why So Many Climate Scientists Have Stopped Downplaying the Climate Threat. Romm looks at why climate scientists are much more concerned in private than they are in public about the impact of global warming, although that is starting to change:
The piece helps dispel the myth that climate scientists have long been overhyping climate impacts — when everyone who actually follows climate science and talks to any significant number of climate scientists knows that the reverse is true. As Blakemore writes:

    Established scientists, community and government leaders and journalists, as they describe the disruptions, suffering and destruction that manmade global warming is already producing, with far worse in the offing if humanity doesn’t somehow control it, are starting to allow themselves publicly to use terms like “calamity,” “catastrophe”, and “risk to the collective civilization”….
Romm has the following graph in his article:

That's a truly frightening graph.

Romm also links to an other article he wrote An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces. In the article he has a chart from the Hadley Center:

Romm also has a chart from the National Center for Atmospheric Research showing the likely impact of climate change on droughts via the Palmer Drought Severity Index:

The PDSI [Palmer Drought Severity Index] in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl apparently spiked very briefly to -6, but otherwise rarely exceeded -3 for the decade (see here).

    The large-scale pattern shown in Figure 11 [of which the figure above is part] appears to be a robust response to increased GHGs. This is very alarming because if the drying is anything resembling Figure 11, a very large population will be severely affected in the coming decades over the whole United States, southern Europe, Southeast Asia, Brazil, Chile, Australia, and most of Africa.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research notes “By the end of the century, many populated areas, including parts of the United States, could face readings in the range of -8 to -10, and much of the Mediterranean could fall to -15 to -20. Such readings would be almost unprecedented.”

For the record, the NCAR study merely models the IPCC’s “moderate” A1B scenario — atmospheric concentrations of CO2 around 520 ppm in 2050 and 700 in 2100.  We’re currently headed much higher by century’s end, but I’m sure with an aggressive program of energy R&D we could keep that to, say 800 ppm.
Things aren't looking good.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Ways people defend their belief against climate change

Over at The Conversation Ullrich Ecker and John Cook in No one likes to change their mind, not even on climate look at ways people defend their beliefs despite the weight of contrary evidence. They do so using examples from the documentary I Can Change Your Mind About Climate.
Last night’s ABC documentary I Can Change Your Mind About Climate was about two people — conservative former politician Nick Minchin and youth activist Anna Rose — exposing themselves to information that ran counter to their deeply held beliefs. We know from both research and experience that people cling to information that is in line with their beliefs and worldviews, even when they suspect or even know the information to be false. In other words, people will defend their beliefs. To do so they engage in “motivated reasoning”.

There can be various reasons for motivated reasoning. People might be defending their beliefs in an attempt to protect their feelings of identity and self-worth. Your deepest beliefs about the world define who you are, and hence you need to defend them to defend yourself.

On the other hand, people sometimes publicly defend their beliefs even though they know they are wrong. It could be an attempt to rationalise irrational behaviour, or justify decisions that are in actual fact driven by vested interest or a hidden agenda.

Using the documentary, let’s have a closer look at the strategies people use to defend their beliefs and purport rationality.
This article is well worth reading.

More on productivity

There's a post on the Radical Expectations blog titled Productivity and Whether the Sky is Falling. It looks at theories of economic growth and the relationship of labour market regulation and productivity. It concludes with:
As the chart makes clear, productivity in the mining Industry fell 17% this year! And it has been declining for years! This is a disastrous trend, sure to spell doom for our miners. Why aren’t we hearing about the catastrophic collapse of mining? Why aren’t we seeing long lines of lorries carrying bedraggled miners back from Karratha to Sydney?

Because that, in Julia’s words, would be “crap”.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Pension increases under recent Governments

Peter Whiteford in Social welfare and class warfare: the give and take of budget balancing takes a look at the 2012-13 federal budget and its impact on pensioners. Some interesting graphs.

Moves in Israel to remove exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews

Ruth Margalit in Draft Reform in Israel looks at how the recent announcement that the Kadima Party would join the coalition Government in Israel will result in many ultra-Orthodox Jews losing their exemption from military service. However, this may create issues given the attitude of many ultra-Orthodox Jewish men to women.

Longer term the Israeli Government also needs to get ultra-Orthodox Jews back into the work force:
As complicated as it may be to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the army, there’s no question that the current reality of exemption is unequal, unjust, and unsustainable. But tackling the disproportionate military burden offers just a partial solution. The real test for the government—unity agreement or not—would be to finally address the labor burden. A country in which one segment of the population is parasitic on another cannot thrive in the long run. The social-justice protests that swept the streets of Israel last summer is set to resume in the coming weeks. It would do well to champion the unbalanced division of labor as its cause, and to ensure that the ultra-Orthodox community enters the country’s workforce and—at long last—starts pulling its weight. A new report by Israel’s trade and labor ministry shows that if demographic trends remain the same, the workforce will shrink by six per cent over the next twenty years. If the draft law doesn’t worry Netanyahu, this should.

The state of Greek politics

Paul Mason in Greekonomics looks at the political situation in Greece. It doesn't leave one optimistic.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Overton Windows and Economics

In The macro Overton window Noah Smith explains how the some people are attempting to push the Overton window to the right to maintain the status quo.
The "Overton window" is basically the range of positions on a certain question that are considered reasonable. In macroeconomic policy discussions in the United States, certain positions are, for whatever reason, outside the Overton window - Marxist ideas, mercantilist ideas, the gold standard, etc. Whatever your position is in an argument, you want it to be in the middle of the Overton window instead of at the edge. You do not want to be seen as someone who is on the borderline between serious and kook.

In the debate over the causes of, and proper responses to, the current recession, the Overton window matters. If one edge of the window corresponds to Old Keynesianism and the other edge corresponds to the policy status quo, it's likely that what will end up happening will be something in between those two extremes, e.g. more quantitative easing. But if the rightmost edge of the window corresponds to the idea that demand shocks don't affect output at all, then what will end up happening will probably look more like the status quo.

Hence it makes practical sense for economists who favor less countercyclical policy to try to yank the Overton window toward the right, even if their objective analyses admit the possibility that Keynesians might be right. Or even if conservative economists don't do this intentionally, it certainly helps their cause when someone does it.

The author then goes on to give examples supporting his argument. He goes on:
Note that both Jones and Cochrane make almost explicit reference to the Overton window. Jones says RBC "rarely makes it into mainstream discussions," while Cochrane says "It's certainly possible" that Obama is behind the slow recovery. They aren't claiming that this extreme view is true. They merely wanted it included in the discussion. They want the Overton window to include it.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Better off more likely to cheat

Rich people more likely to take lollies from children: study cites a study in the USA that shows that:
People from wealthy backgrounds are more likely than poorer people to break laws while driving, take lollies from children, and lie for financial gain, a United States study says.
The article also reports that:
Even Dr Piff, who has studied the impact of wealth on people's morality and charitable giving in the past - finding that rich people tend to give less to charity than poor people - was surprised to see them taking sweets from kids.

"I was astonished," Dr Piff said. "On average, people in the upper rank condition took two times as much, so it was a pretty sizeable effect."

Also, in that particular study, researchers conditioned some of the subjects first to think of themselves as of a higher social rank by asking them to compare themselves to others with less.

The exercise showed that people could be trained to think more highly of themselves, and that they would in turn act with more greed and less ethicality, demonstrating that status drives greed.

"We also got them to increase their likelihood of saying 'I'd do all these unethical things,'" such as keeping the change without saying a word if a coffee shop cashier returned them too much money.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Median weekly wages in Australia

Matt Cowgill recently tweeted median weekly wages for Australia:

Full Time Workers
2010: $1,050
2011: $1,100

All Workers
2011: $900

Interestingly, according to Matt, if you earn more than $1,979 per week ($102,908 per year) before tax then you're in the top 10% of workers in Australia.

Reform to GST distribution coming

Tim Colebatch, in Victoria: Cash tight now, but reform could help looks at how money, especially GST revenue is distributed to the states by the Grants Commission.

I think it's worth noting that W.A., which is shouting the loudest about the issue, has benefited from equalisation for almost the entire life of the Commonwealth.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Sites refuting "refugees paid more than pensioners" hoax

Here are some sites refuting the hoax email claiming that "illegal immigrants/refugees living in Australia" are given more than double the assistance provided to age pensioners:

The Real Benefits For Asylum Seekers In Australia
Refugee Monthly Allowance From Australian Government Hoax
Letter to the Editor:  Refugees not paid more than pensioners

Here's the current (as at  20 March 2012) Age Pension rates in Australia: (Source Age Pension - payment rates)

Status     Pension rate per fortnight
Single     $695.30*
Couple     $524.10* each

*These amounts exclude the Pension Supplement amount which is currently a maximum of $60.20 a fortnight for singles and $90.80 a fortnight for couples (combined).