Figuring out the strange new rules of resource constraint

Change is coming?Just a decade ago, Australian labour was easy to find and infrastructure projects were often no-brainers. Now our economic times seem to have changed – and policymakers may need to adjust to a new set of rules.


The world is always changing, but sometimes parts of it change uncharacteristically fast.

Take the 1970s. Anyone under 60 has little memory of the economic world before 1973. But in that year, oil prices soared, unemployment started to rise, the Bretton Woods agreement continued unravelling – in short, the rules changed substantially, and forever. Most of us have spent most of our lives in this world.

In the 2020s, it seems arguable that the rules are moving again. The challenge of this era is to manage changing resources constraints. We struggle with an emerging scarcities of human resources, but also scarcities of labour-related resources, such as housing, and possibly of capital. But we also have emerging new abundance in important areas.

Not surprisingly, governments seem reluctant to move away from the thinking that served them pretty well just a decade ago. Most politicians grew up in that world, its strategies seemed to work, and so those politicians are mostly reluctant to drop those strategies now. It’s not just generals who want to fight the last war.

Reining in the 2010s infrastructure spending

A paradigm case of 2010s strategy is the Victorian government’s Melbourne Suburban Rail Loop, an underground railway line through the middle suburbs of Melbourne, for which it currently plans to borrow more than $100 billion dollars. Most urban transport experts say these suburbs don’t warrant such facilities, but the government has stuck to its loopiness even after the departure of the loop’s chief backer, former premier Dan Andrews.

But now rising debt costs mean Victoria’s state Budget is suddenly looking … um, “pressured”. Though it might be too late for the Victorian government to stop now without losing face, it’s increasingly obvious that this project should never have been started.

I’ve written plenty about the Loop project. But the same pattern seems to apply to the energy transition, mostly overseen by an LNP government.

Australia is committed to sharp emissions reductions over the next quarter-century. That means reconfiguring our electricity transmission system. It also means replacing much of our existing energy infrastructure with solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and other systems, such as what is called “pumped hydroelectric storage”. In such a system you take water from the bottom of your hydroelectric system and pump it back uphill, using cheap power that might come from people’s rooftops on a sunny day – and run that water back through your hydro plant when it’s needed on an overcast day or a hot night.

If current projects are anything to judge by, the task of replacing Australia’s electricity infrastructure is going to be messy. The example par excellence is what began life as  “Snowy 2.0”, back in the days when “2.0” was the sort of snazzy modern name you gave to a building project to make it seem more sexy.

When Malcolm Turnbull announced this project in 2017, he declared: “I am a nation-building Prime Minister and this is a nation-building project.” He might have been less enthusiastic if he’d known it would cost at least $12 billion and take until late 2028 to complete, but those are the latest projections.

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Posted in Economics and public policy, Employment, Immigration and refugees, Politics - national | 3 Comments

William Hague gets on board

176f2153-9614-43a7-aeda-57a4acd7cebb_300x300William Hague has caught the bug for democratic lottery. And he writes about it well. This simple sentence is a nice little microcosm. “Social media companies are poisoning the democratic world with the addictive spread of narrow and intemperate opinions.” Hear hear.

Writing about the proposal of sortition in Ireland seven years ago, Hague takes up the story.

This idea was met by considerable scepticism. The Irish opposition party of the time, Fianna Fail, thought that “an issue of such sensitivity and complexity” could not be dealt with adequately in this way. The chosen citizens would just reflect the existing deep divisions in society. They would not be sufficiently expert. A judge-led commission would have more expertise and carry more weight. That would be more “intellectually coherent”.

Yet the citizens’ assembly was established nonetheless, and over the following six months something fascinating and inspiring occurred. An appointed chairwoman and 99 “ordinary” people, chosen at random and therefore completely varied in age, gender, regionality and socioeconomic status, did a remarkable job. They adopted some commendable principles for their debates, including respect, efficiency and collegiality. They listened to 25 experts and read 300 submissions. They heard each other out and compromised more effectively than elected representatives.

The result was an overwhelming recommendation that the constitution should be changed, and a clear majority view that the relevant section of it should be deleted and replaced, permitting their parliament to legislate on abortion in any way it saw fit. This was later endorsed in a historic referendum. One of the country’s most intractable issues had been resolved clearly and decisively, in a way the political parties could not have managed and would not have dared. …

1 At a time when all these trends are turning people against their own compatriots and reducing debate to simplistic and unsubstantiated assertions, it has to be a source of hope that if you put 100 random people in a room with an important question and plenty of real information, they will often prove that democracy isn’t yet finished. They will listen patiently, think clearly and find solutions. Somewhere, in this gathering darkness of hatred, lies and opposing cultural identities, there are open-minded and constructive citizens willing to turn on a light.

He also notes how many of his fellow parliamentarians are against the idea. It’s easy to say that that would reduce their power, but in my experience it’s not nearly so simple. Politicians think their job is to come up with good policy. They do try, but the whole fabric of political life is keeping powerful people happy. But they live in hope. Perhaps one day more of them will realise that to actually do good policy you need allies. And a citizen assembly is a useful ally for a positive centrist government (from either the left or right), just as the accord was a very powerful ally for the Hawke and Keating Governments.

My one disappointment is that, Hague’s imagination does not run beyond the idea of citizen assemblies as bodies with only advisory power. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

More here.

  1. Then after summarising some of the ways in which democracy is coming apart, Hague continues.[]
Posted in Democracy, Sortition and citizens’ juries | 4 Comments

Michael Polanyi in 1960 on Teilhard de Chardin on evolution

Michael Polanyi was highly suspicious of the hyper-reductionism of neo-Darwinism. It’s reduction of the evolution of a thing so vast as life into a single causal mechanism. And it was a good call.

Darwin himself had proposed that natural selection was a major mechanism of evolution, but not the only one. He was good with the existence of Lamarckian mechanisms, which was a pretty good call given that they keep turning up. But neo-Darwinism held that there was just one mechanism behind evolution — genetic variation — and that this was driven exclusively by random mutation. It’s worth pondering the hankering for closure this claim embodies. Why the enthusiasm to shuffle such mechanisms off the scientific stage.

Neatness is one reason. Arrogance another. Laying down the law on the grounds that you’re uniquely qualified to pontificate about them is inherently satisfying to many. There’s also a doubling down on driving purpose out of evolution. And that’s something science had been doing since the scientific revolution — driving our Aristotelian notions of telos from biology. And that was also driving God out of biology. All good if God is seen as some imposition — some being intervening in the universe whenever he wants to vote someone off the island.

The thing is, immanent purpose is an obvious fact of biology. The heart has the purpose of pumping blood. It’s designed to pump blood. That doesn’t mean it has an intelligent designer watching on, occasionally reaching for their remote. But it does mean that it was designed. It was designed immanently. We’ve known for a long time that the immune system works this way — it creates a randomising process of experimentation and then puts its thumb on the scales by amplifying the more promising experiments. (This is the way social media is driving our species to conflict — only where the immune system is part of a healthy emergentism (at least from our point of view, and depending on your values, from the universe’s) the immanent design in social media is, at least in the first instance regressive, leading us down the brainstem towards lower levels of capability and organisation. Perhaps over time we will evolve ways of using its potential positively.

In any event the idea of systems of “directed chance” and the ‘emergentism’ that naturally arises from it fascinated Polanyi and lay as one of the core elements of his philosophy of science and of humanity.

Which meant that I was fascinated and impressed by this brief review.

An Epic Theory of Evolution

THE SUCCESS of “The Phenomenon of Man,” by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is a mystery and a portent. … I have seen a dozen reviews highly praising it and have noticed no adverse criticism. I, myself, had readily turned to Teilhard, since I reject the current genetical theory of evolution and had no doubt that Teilhard rejects it too.

But what about all those who so eagerly read and praise the book? Does their acclaim mark the rise of a vast underground movement, sweeping aside the writers and readers who had shortly before accepted the worldwide pronouncements made on the occasion of the Darwin centenary? Where was the public now applauding Teilhard when Sir Gavin de Beer declared that modern genetical research has “established as firmly as Newton’s laws of motion that hereditary resemblances are determined by discreet particles, the genes, situated in the chromosomes of the cells. . . “? Can this be reconciled with Teilhard’s teachings?

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Democracy: doing it for ourselves

Above is the video of a presentation I made at NESTA in London on 15th November with discussants Claire Mellior and Martin Wolf. I reproduce (AI generated) timestamps in the shownotes of the video below.

00:00 – Introduction and Overview The talk begins with an introduction to the challenges facing contemporary society and the roles of NESTA in addressing them, including applied research, venture building, and policy shaping.

02:09 – The Politics of Policy Solutions The speaker reflects on the difficulties of implementing policy solutions due to the complexities of politics and the need for radical ideas to meet the scale of current challenges.

03:34 – Panel Introduction and Project Background Introduction of the panel members and their contributions to the field, along with a mention of NESTA’s work in collective intelligence design.

05:14 – Democracy and Governance Types The talk shifts to a discussion of different types of governance, with a focus on Aristotle’s typology and the concept of democratic lotteries.

10:43 – Media Influence on Politics Analysis of the impact of media, especially the reduction of presidential soundbites over time, highlighting the influence of media on political discourse.

16:22 – Brexit and Citizen Juries The speaker discusses the impact of citizen juries on public opinion, particularly in the context of Brexit, and how deliberation influenced people’s views.

22:04 – Activism and Nonpartisan Politics The focus shifts to the concept of nonpartisan activism and the importance of citizen juries in representing democratic legitimacy and influencing policy.

28:44 – Embedding a People’s Branch in Government The idea of a ‘people’s branch’ in government is proposed, suggesting a chamber chosen by sampling to represent a check on elected representatives.

37:05 – Panel Responses and Discussion The panel members respond to the talk, discussing their perspectives on deliberative democracy, the role of citizen assemblies, and the complexities of political change.

50:18 – Q&A Session The question and answer session begins, allowing for audience engagement and further exploration of the topics discussed.

You can access the audio here.

I am not sure why YouTube’s transcript creation hasn’t activated and but I’ve posted a rough transcript beneath the fold. Continue reading

Posted in Democracy, History, Innovation, Politics - international, Politics - national, Sortition and citizens’ juries | Leave a comment

The Voice For John Stuart Mill

The biggest winner from the referendum on the weekend is John Stuart Mill. 

There’s a strand of left-wing orthodoxy these days that deprecates free speech and brands opposing viewpoints as dangerous wrongthink. This firebrand mode of thinking is excellent at producing an engaged cabal of supporters, but its fruits will often face oblivion in the privacy of one’s own voting booth. 

The Yes campaign was undermined by its intellectual siege mentality. In the face of an implacable campaign, only the people already beyond the pale could raise legitimate objections, and so these objections were thought to be invalidated solely by the lack of virtue of those who raised them. 

Although John Stuart Mill is a dead white man, the Yes campaigners could do with reading his arguments for free speech and actually engaging with the viewpoints of the opposing side. When political decisions are made privately, it’s better to reduce the fervent engagement of your own tribe to garner more lukewarm support from the other.

Posted in Democracy, Philosophy | 23 Comments

Sotto Voce: The case for an informal vote

I find it hard to understand how passionate some folks are about voting Yes or voting No. Not because I do not understand passion, but because the cases for either position are so unconvincing.

I am not “barracking” for either side. If the result is Yes I will find it hard to watch the self-satisfied ABC pundits or Albo taking a bow of glory. If the result is No, I will not want to watch Dutton’s fork-tongued opportunism and I will really hate to see the disappointment of our indigenous peoples.

Guess who won’t be tuning in to the watch the count.

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The academy and partners try wellbeing frameworks

I discover that I don’t seem to have cross-posted this old essay previously published in the Mandarin, and since this is my place of record (where I can make notes to myself in the comments of new sources, thoughts or developments) I am doing it now.

This is part three of Nicholas Gruen’s essay series about the difficulty of translating policy into outcomes. Read part one, on wellbeing frameworks, and part two on commonsense hacks government could use to bolster Australians’ wellbeing.

1he sciences we now possess are merely systems for the nice ordering and setting forth of things already invented, not methods of invention or directions for new works.” — Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1620.

In the first of these essays I tried to show how little change occurred as the result of the Australian Treasury’s Wellbeing Framework (now abandoned). That’s partly because our policymakers took it far less seriously than those in other countries like the UK and New Zealand. Nevertheless, even those countries’ wellbeing frameworks didn’t focus as productively as they might have done on wellbeing. If they had, they’d have generated sufficient information to allow us to start constructing – both generally and within specific portfolios – schedules of increasingly promising ‘no-regrets’ initiatives as we did with greenhouse emissions abatement curves, as illustrated.

Here I want to argue that what we see up close in policymaking has its close analogue in the academy. Firstly in the academic literature, I’ve found incredibly little discussion of the kinds of considerations illustrated in the chart. I presume there are others, but this is the only article of its kind I can find, and even here it’s notable that the focus is on developing frameworks for generating lists of interventions rather than the process of identifying obviously high-quality projects to which frameworks can be applied in due course when one finds the need and the time to prioritise.

In this part I take a look at a strangely becalmed Australian wellbeing project going on essentially within the academy – though with multiple stakeholders from the wider world. After around nine years, it seems to be just getting going. Yet even now the priority remains establishing a framework rather than searching for the most worthwhile policy interventions. And, even once it does get going, I’m doubtful as to what it will achieve. I’ll illustrate my claim by looking at the corresponding Canadian initiative, which is much further advanced.

Let me summarise my claims in this part and relate them to the general claims introduced in the previous part of the essay. Almost all the discussion occurs at a very high level. As we saw with the Australian Treasury’s wellbeing framework, it’s easy to announce some attractive principles – that policy advice should be framed with regard to a concept of wellbeing that goes beyond the purely economic outcomes captured in GDP. But if I might use the term, if these fine ideas are to ‘trickle down’ to improve our lives, these high-level ideas need to be operationalised. To do so we need to relate the apex principles in a wellbeing framework to concrete policy advice. This would require the framework to change business-as-usual advice and so change policy priorities in some noticeable way, for instance by changing policy advisors’ understanding of the relative value of different programs or changing their priorities in how existing and new programs are developed.

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