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Cranks of the 1930s: Marion King Hubbert

Daniel Yergin on Marion King Hubbert, the original peaknik:

Marion King Hubbert was one of the most eminent—and controversial—earth scientists of his time. Born on a ranch in San Saba, Texas in 1903, he did his university education, including his Ph.D., at the University of Chicago. One of his fundamental objectives was to move geology from what he called its “natural history phase” into its “physical science phase,” firmly based in physics, chemistry and, in particular, rigorous mathematics.

In the 1930s, while teaching at Columbia University, Hubbert became active in a movement called Technocracy and served as its educational director. Holding politicians and economists responsible for the debacle of the Great Depression, Technocracy promoted the idea that democracy was a sham and that scientists and engineers should take overthe reins of government and impose rationality on the economy. “I had a boxseat at the Depression,” Hubbert later said. “We had manpower and raw materials. Yet we shut the country down.”

Technocracy envisioned a no-growth society and the elimination of the price system, to be replaced by the wise administration of the Technocrats. Hubbert believed that a “pecuniary” system, guided by the “hieroglyphics” of economists, was the road to ruin.

posted on 18 September 2011 by skirchner in Economics, Oil

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Where’s Kerry Packer When You Need Him

The government looks set to proceed with a media inquiry. Twenty years ago, Kerry Packer demonstrated the right amount of respect and deference to be afforded the parliament in relation to such inquiries. It is still the most colourful defence of the rule of law in relation to cross-border acquisitions ever mounted in Australian public life. I was working in Parliament House at the time and I think it is fair to say that most of the politicians on the print media inquiry felt ashamed of themselves at the end of that hearing.

 

posted on 13 September 2011 by skirchner in Economics, Foreign Investment, Media, Politics

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Data versus Anecdote on Foreign Acquisitions in Agriculture

The debate over foreign acquisitions of both agricultural and urban land has been driven by anecdote rather than data. Some high profile acquisitions have gained considerable media attention, but this has obscured the underlying reality that Australia’s broadacre, dairy and other farms remain overwhelmingly Australian-owned.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) have been engaged in a data gathering exercise to measure the level of foreign ownership in Australian agriculture. As of 31 December 2010, the ABS finds that:

99% of agricultural businesses in Australia were entirely Australian owned;
89% of agricultural land was entirely Australian owned; and
91% of water entitlements for agricultural purposes were entirely Australian owned

This helps put the current debate in proper perspective. Foreign investment in agriculture should be welcomed, but agriculture in Australia is likely to remain overwhelmingly Australian-owned.

posted on 12 September 2011 by skirchner in Economics, Foreign Investment

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Financial Repression: Coming Soon to a Market Near You

It’s not inflation you have to worry about:

It is conjectured here that the pressing needs of governments to reduce debt rollover risks and curb rising interest expenditures in light of the substantial debt overhang (combined with the widespread “official aversion” to explicit restructuring) are leading to a revival of financial repression—including more directed lending to government by captive domestic audiences (such as pension funds), explicit or implicit caps on interest rates, and tighter regulation on cross-border capital movements.

posted on 09 September 2011 by skirchner in Economics, Financial Markets

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Stephen Williamson on John Quiggin’s Zombie Economics

Can’t blame Rupert Murdoch for this one.

posted on 08 September 2011 by skirchner in Economics

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Sovereign Wealth Funds as ‘Social Control of Public Wealth’

The Greens are big supporters of making greater use of sovereign wealth funds. This op-ed in The Age helps explain the appeal of sovereign wealth funds to the left:

contemporary Left thinkers have increasingly argued that the ‘‘financialisation’’ of society - the replacement of government-funded retirement with individually-funded savings invested in financial markets, the privatisation of core services, the increasing ownership of society by hedge funds and the explosive use of credit - needs some tempering through social control of public wealth.  That could come through government ownership of vehicles such as sovereign wealth funds.

In other words, the role of SWFs is to disintermediate the private sector from saving and investment decisions. This is perfectly understandable coming from a left-wing perspective. However, it begs the question as to why so many Coalition MPs, such as Malcolm Turnbull and Josh Frydenburg, are also such enthusiastic supporters of SWFs.

The private sector already saves and invests for the future through private capital markets. It is governments that routinely squander future wealth thorough increased public spending and borrowing. Increased public saving via a SWF sounds virtuous, until you recognise that public saving is just deferred government spending. Unless you think future governments are going to make better spending decisions than the governments we have actually had, the argument for increased public saving via a SWF is decidedly weak.

In this op-ed, I argue that some of the objectives behind a sovereign wealth fund could be better achieved through binding fiscal responsibility legislation. If a politician supports a SWF, but opposes fiscal responsibility legislation, then you know they can’t be trusted with a SWF.

posted on 07 September 2011 by skirchner in Economics, Financial Markets, Fiscal Policy

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How to Fix a Conflicted RBA Board

I have an op-ed in today’s AFR arguing for monetary policy decision-making to separated from the Reserve Bank Board. Full text below the fold (may differ slightly from edited AFR text).

continue reading

posted on 06 September 2011 by skirchner in Economics, Financial Markets, Monetary Policy

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Incise: New CIS Blog

The Centre for Independent Studies has a new blog called incise. I will cross-post between the two blogs, although some material that appears here won’t appear there. Institutional Economics will remain the definitive source for all my bloggy and other goodness. Note that I now tweet more than I blog, so join my 100 odd Twitter followers here if you haven’t already done so.

posted on 05 September 2011 by skirchner in Centre for Independent Studies

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How to Respond to the Terms of Trade Boom

From this week’s Ideas@theCentre:

Listening to some commentators, you could be forgiven for thinking that the terms of trade boom was the worst thing that ever happened to the Australian economy.

Relative to what we pay for our imports, Australia now gets higher prices for its exports than at any time since at least 1870. This was illustrated by Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens’ observation that ‘five years ago, a ship load of iron ore was worth about the same as about 2,200 flat screen television sets. Today it is worth about 22,000 flat-screen TV sets.’

This increased international purchasing power is attributable not only to rising commodity prices, but also lower prices for imports, not least manufactured goods. The flip side of Australia’s terms of trade boom is the collapse in the terms of trade for countries like Japan.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the 1950s, economists Raúl Prebisch and Hans Singer argued that manufactured goods prices would enjoy a secular rise relative to commodity prices and that developing countries should engage in activist industrial policy and import substitution to avoid a declining terms of trade. The same argument has long been made in Australia, but would have had disastrous consequences if its policy prescriptions had been followed in response to previous terms of trade slumps.

Julian Simon would certainly agree with the proposition that real commodity prices should decline in secular terms, but he also noted the broader gains in real purchasing power from increased productivity and declining real prices for manufactured goods. It is fair to say that Simon would have been agnostic on any trend in their relative prices.

The terms of trade boom came about in part because it was unexpected, not least by the mining industry itself. It underinvested in the 1990s, partly because of implicit acceptance of the Prebisch-Singer hypothesis on the part of many investors. Historical experience highlights the danger of conditioning public policy on assumptions about the future direction of relative prices for traded goods.

Our best response to the terms of trade boom is to become even more open to inflows of foreign labour and capital and to reduce the government’s command over resources so that the mining industry can expand with less pressure on other sectors. While the non-mining sectors will contract relative to mining, they can still expand in absolute terms if we continue to remove government-imposed resource constraints to overall economic growth.

posted on 02 September 2011 by skirchner in Economics, Foreign Investment, Free Trade & Protectionism, Population & Migration

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The Shadow RBA Board

The Centre for Applied Macroeconomic Analysis at the ANU has put together a Shadow RBA Board:

Made up of senior Australian economists, the shadow board was set up as a research project by The Australian National University to look at interest rate setting by monetary policymakers.Director of the Centre for Applied Macroeconomic Analysis at ANU Professor Shaun Vahey said board members were asked to rank their preferred target interest rate, and to give the probability that each interest rate is appropriate.“Each economist gave a percentage value for how much they preferred each interest rate using an electronic voting system,” he said.

“The board members are not forecasting actual RBA board behavior, but are considering what they believe is the appropriate rate.”

Of course, what you believe to be the appropriate rate should be the same as your prediction for the actual interest rate outcome, unless you think the RBA Board is behaving inappropriately! Not surprisingly, at the August meeting, every member of the Shadow Board except Shaun assigned the single highest weight to the current official cash rate setting, endorsing the current stance of monetary policy.

This highlights a major point of difference between the Shadow RBA Board and its overseas namesakes. The US Shadow Open Market Committee and the UK’s Shadow Monetary Policy Committee were established specifically to critique current policy from a monetarist perspective, as well as advocating reform of existing monetary institutions. The members of the Shadow RBA Board for the most part share with the RBA the standard New Keynesian framework for monetary policy, which is unlikely to lead Shadow Board members to adopt a radically different policy stance, even in a probabilistic setting. This is not to say that the New Keynesian model is an inappropriate framework. As Ed Nelson has shown, the basic features of the New Keynesian model can be derived explicitly from quantity theory identities.

One possibly unintended consequence of the Shadow RBA Board will be to hold it members accountable for their policy prescriptions. Having confidently announced in a press release that ‘the current interest rate is at the correct level,’ it will now be more difficult for members of the Shadow RBA Board to retrospectively criticise the stance of monetary policy. Unlike the US and UK shadow policymaking bodies, the Shadow RBA Board may find themselves locked-in to defend the official policy position.

posted on 29 August 2011 by skirchner in Economics, Monetary Policy

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‘Everybody’s Money’s the Same Colour to Us’

Australian farmers don’t want a bar of scare-mongering by the Farmers Federation:

farmers such as Simon Tiller have a clear message to any foreigner interested in his multi-million-dollar operation: come on down.

The 29-year-old father of two would not say where the “considerable overseas interest” was coming from for his $15.5 million wheat, barley and canola concern east of Esperance, 700km southeast of Perth, but he is adamant foreign investment is pivotal to keeping Australian agriculture strong and productive.

“Can you imagine the mining industry getting off the ground without foreign investment? It’s a sophisticated global economy and we need to keep pace,” he told The Weekend Australian.

While the West Australian Farmers Federation has warned about the dangers of “large-scale Chinese ownership” following moves on Australia’s sugar industry and rumours China was seeking 80,000ha of WA farmland, grain producers such as Mr Tiller around Esperance won’t have a bar of any “scaremongering”...

Foreign investment was good for farmers who wanted to sell - it gave them an out - and those that didn’t as it “kept values rising”.

I make related arguments in this op-ed.

posted on 27 August 2011 by skirchner in Economics, Foreign Investment

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Are People Hard-Wired for Density?

Hunter-gatherers validate Julian Simon:

Every additional person requires less land than the previous one. That’s an important statement. Not only does it say we’re hardwired for density, it also says a group becomes 15 percent more efficient at extracting resources from the land every time their population doubles. Each successive doubling in turn frees up 15 percent more resources to be directed towards something other than hunting and gathering. In other words, complex societies didn’t just evolve as a way to cope with high-density—they evolved in part because of high density.

posted on 25 August 2011 by skirchner in Economics, Population & Migration

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The PBO is Not the End of Politics

Bloomberg is seemingly the only news organisation to have thought that the introduction of the Parliamentary Budget Office legislation is worthy of note. The Bloomberg report suggests that the federal opposition have unrealistic expectations for the new body:

“We want an independent source,” opposition Finance spokesman Andrew Robb told the Melbourne Age newspaper last month. “I’d expect next time there will be no debate over our costings.”

As I argued in this piece for The Drum, it would certainly be desirable to put an end to pointless partisan bickering over costing assumptions and instead focus on the merits of the policies being proposed apart from their assumed implications for the budget bottom line. Unfortunately, the political process is such that politicians cannot admit to being wrong and they are unlikely to accept contrary opinions from the PBO, no matter how independent. My guess is the PBO will very quickly disappoint the expectations of the opposition and independents and will itself become embroiled in partisan conflict.  This was the Canadian experience, discussed by Peter Reith here. Reith seems to think we can do better, but gives us no real reason to think that we will.

Robert Carling and I have a better idea.

posted on 22 August 2011 by skirchner in Economics, Fiscal Policy

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Selling the Gold Stock as Bailout of Last Resort

Michael Lewis quotes a senior Bundesbank official on selling the gold stock to meet an ECB insolvency:

The E.C.B. itself might face insolvency, which would mean turning for funds to its solvent member governments, led by Germany. (The senior official at the Bundesbank told me they already have thought about how to deal with the request. “We have 3,400 tons of gold,” he said. “We are the only country that has not sold its original allotment from the [late 1940s]. So we are covered to some extent.”)

The IMF bailed itself out by selling its gold stock. Why not the members of the ECB?

posted on 20 August 2011 by skirchner in Economics, Financial Markets, Gold

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CIS Liberty & Society Student Conference

CIS is seeking applications for its Liberty & Society Student Conference:

Liberty and Society is a unique conference program for undergraduates, postgraduates and recent graduates over the age of 18 who live in Australia, New Zealand or the South Pacific. The goal of the Liberty and Society conferences is to create an intellectual environment where ideas and opinions about what makes a free society can be discussed, argued and learnt.

Liberty and Society is for young people who may be questioning the standard answers they are getting regarding social, political and economic issues. You may not see yourself as a fitting into the ‘left’ or ‘right’ mould. This is an opportunity to consider the classical liberal perspective. Classical liberalism promotes individual freedom, private property, limited government and free trade.

Students from every Australian state and New Zealand attend. Formal and informal discussions on economics, political thought, law and social policy dominated the weekend interspersed with arguments about foreign policy, education and politics. Generous scholarships allow everyone to apply.

Join us for an intellectual experience that may change the way you think about the world.

posted on 17 August 2011 by skirchner in Classical Liberalism

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