The hazard of uncertainty

For most people uncertainty is an uncomfortable feeling.  Yet we are forced to live with it every day.  The farmer wonders if rain will arrive in time to save his crop.  Many a cancer sufferer lives with the uncertainty of cure or recurrence.   The self-funded retiree endures the uncertainty of the stock market.  Uncertainty is an ever-present hazard and erodes confidence.

Prediction is fraught with uncertainty.  Yet prediction is what we rely on to make important decisions.  When an adverse event occurs, we ask what happened, why did it occur, and how can we avoid it recurring.  In some instances, such as a road crash, what happened is often obvious, why it has occurred is usually resolved by careful investigation, but how to avoid a similar event may defy even the wisest.  In medicine, what has happened, the diagnosis, is often patently clear; why it occurred is largely known; and the outcome, the prognosis, is generally predictable from experience.  But sometimes neither diagnosis nor prognosis is certain, so both patient and clinician live with uncertainty until the resolution is possible.

In financial systems, what has happened is usually there for all to see, but why it’s happened is often obscure, complex, and possibly inexplicable, so that avoiding a similar situation is beyond comprehension.  Without understanding the cause, no preventive action is possible.  This is where we find ourselves with the stock market decline, the global financial crisis, and the economic downturn.  We are working within a multifaceted complex financial system which operates like all systems – every part influences every other part.

Given this known complexity, the numerous imponderables, the paucity of reliable information, and sometimes the deliberate hiding of it, it is surprising, even dismaying, that so many voice their opinions with such confidence, such assurance that they understand the problem and have the solution at hand.  Some such commentators have prima facie authority because they are economists, or experts in monetary matters; others – politicians, economics correspondents, and sundry columnists, are less well credentialed.  But lack of suitable qualifications to give an informed opinion seems to be no barrier to loudly and authoritatively voicing one.  This would not be so much of a problem were it not for the fact that no one, no one at all, knows enough to give a reliable opinion.  So it’s all hot air, dangerously masquerading as learned comment.

No one knows, not even Warren Buffett, what the stock market will do this week, next week, next year.  About all that can be said is that if this market downturn follows the pattern of previous ones, recovery will occur eventually.  The trajectory is anyone’s guess.  Likewise, no one can predict the trajectory of the economic downturn.  We just have to live with the uncertainty.  Moreover, the effects of moves made by the Government, such as the bank guarantee, made in a near-vacuum, are not predictable with any real precision.  So what a pity it is that so many, qualified or otherwise, try their hand at the hazardous process of predicting.  What a shame it is that people make such bold assertions without even rudimentary evidence to back them, and use them to inflict political damage. More...

Barack Obama’s message to Australian politics

Barack Obama began his acceptance speech “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”  He went on to say “It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled – Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America. It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”

There’s a message there for Australia, for Australian politics, for the Australian media.  We have a multicultural society, we have the same groups, we have the same political divide, and we have the same cynicism, fear and doubt, much of it generated not just from contemporary circumstances, but by politicians and particularly the mainstream media.  At this time of international crisis, we need what Obama offered – hope.  He said: “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.”

The message is not just one of hope, not just that ‘we will get there’, but most importantly ‘we as a people will get there’.  At times of war, we in Australia have stood together as a people.  Now with the global financial crisis inundating us, we need to stand together, put aside partisan positions and work together to stay above the tidal wave and ride it until it dissipates.  To do this we need statesmen, not politicians.  Martin Luther King said "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."  All politicians should have that hanging in their walls, stamped on the top of their letterheads - it may drive them towards statesmanship.  Those in the media should rally round the politicians as they stand together, as they strive for statesmanship.

That there is a long way to go is evidenced by the coverage of the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, MYEFO to the in-group.  More...

Glenn Milne – the mischievous journalist

If a politician or bureaucrat wants to gain some publicity for a rumour, some gossip, or a little dirt on an opponent, or wants to make a damaging leak or insert an uncomfortable wedge, to whom would he or she go?  High on the list would be Glenn Milne, the mischievous maestro of scuttlebutt and ‘inside information’.  Presumably that is why Paul Keating was known to refer to him as ‘The Poison Dwarf’, a nickname that has stuck.  Milne is a Canberra journalist and political commentator with News Ltd, political editor of The Sunday Telegraph, and a columnist for The Australian.  He appears regularly on the ABC’s Insiders.  Formerly he was chief political correspondent for the Seven Network and political editor of The Australian.  He is vice president of the National Press Club, and is currently a candidate for the presidency.

Look at recent Milne articles.  They’re an unusual mixture.
Rudd rides high but wears out weary staffers – another piece on Milne’s well-worn theme that Kevin Rudd is overworking his staff.  This article and its scuttlebutt are explored below.

Anger at Rudd's leaked Bush call – Milne’s account of the “ongoing consequences for relationships between the two countries”.
Pragmatic Abbott heeds lessons of Coalition's fourth term – some timely advice to Tony Abbott and the Coalition on how to regain government.

Hairy-chested PM bids up Turnbull – an article that depicts Kevin Rudd and Turnbull as participants in some crazy poker game, trying to outbid each other, but Rudd of course is more ‘hairy-chested’.

New class warfare – a piece that focuses on class warfare in education, wanders around other topics, but concludes with ‘the Opposition can win’ theme.

Malcolm Turnbull's chance  - sage advice to Turnbull arising from the Henson affair and some timely political philosophy for the Coalition.

Market injection well planned – an article that lauds Wayne Swans’ $4 billion injection “of confidence boosting taxpayers' money into the non-bank mortgage lending sector”.

Writing material such as Milne’s effort of 3 November in The AustralianRudd rides high but wears out weary staffers demands some skill and well-tried techniques, which are elaborated upon below

First say something positive, something that even adversaries can scarcely deny, then follow with the all-powerful qualifier – but.  Milne’s piece begins: “On the basis of all recent published polls, voters are very happy with the Government, rating Kevin Rudd as the most popular prime minister. But there is another set of numbers that suggests there is deep unhappiness, if not dysfunction, within the Government.”

When stating the qualification, use words like suggest.  Such words don’t pin the writer down irretrievably as would words like show or demonstrate or prove.  So Milne says “But there is another set of numbers that suggests there is deep unhappiness...”

Then add a more sinister rider, usefully preceded by if not.  So Milne adds “..., if not dysfunction, within the Government.”

Now you’ve set up an enticing morsel of intrigue. More...

The CPRS, Treasury modelling, and the predictable reaction

Now that the long-awaited Treasury modelling for the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme has arrived, it is a salutary exercise to check how well the predicted reactions of the players match their actual response.

Predictably the Government has used the modelling to reinforce its determination to start the scheme by 2010.  2010 is a whole year, so there is twelve months’ flexibility in the start date.  But since 2010 is an election year, the timing of the introduction to some extent will be governed by the poll date.  To support its case for an early start, the Government has used the modelling data that shows that delay in implementation will be costly.  Kevin Rudd and his Minister for Climate Change and Water Penny Wong have injected a note of urgency, citing the increasing evidence of steadily accelerating global warming.  They have pointed to the relatively modest cost of a dollar a day increase in electricity and gas prices based on emission prices between $23 and $32 per tonne, leading to a oneoff rise in the consumer price index of between 1 and 1.5 per cent.  They also assert that early global mitigation will reduce longterm costs and that “delaying mitigation action in the global economy will increase climate change risks, lock in more emissionintensive industry and infrastructure, defer cost reductions in lowemission technologies and heighten distortions associated with tradeexposed industries. This will increase the cost of achieving any given environmental goal.”  On the positive side, the report shows that demand for lowemission goods and services will increase with a CPRS and that an emission trading market would create new sources of revenue.  The consolidated fact sheets are here

Predictably, Ross Garnaut agrees that the Government's proposed emissions trading scheme should go ahead as planned despite the global financial crisis and that 2010 is the best possible time to push ahead with the scheme.

For its part the Opposition has been as predictable in its response.  Having called for months for the modelling to be released urgently to inform those preparing a response to the Government’s Green Paper, and insisting that it was ridiculous to expect submissions in its absence, it has bucketed the modelling.  First, it has ridiculed the modelling on the grounds that it has not taken into account the current financial crisis.  The argument sounds plausible enough.  But the report itself says “The modelling focuses on the medium to longterm transformation of the Australian economy.  Market fluctuations, such as the current global financial crisis, will not materially affect the analysis.”  Since the timeframes modelled are 2020 and 2050, it’s hard to see how the 2008 financial crisis is relevant.  It might be to the start date which is likely about two years ahead, but even then the effects of the crisis are likely to be much less than now.  And in any case these effects will govern the trajectory of the introduction.  So the complaint about the current crisis not being factored in is spurious.

The strategy of mounting seemingly plausible arguments, but which on cursory analysis are clearly invalid, is one we have seen from the Opposition before.  Something similar occurred over the Government guarantee when Malcolm Turnbull ridiculed Rudd for not consulting with the Reserve Bank governor prior to the October 12 decision, superficially a preposterous thing to do.  But Turnbull knew full well that a Reserve Bank member, head of Treasury Ken Henry, was present and was the direct conduit from the governor to the PM.  The barb was soon blunted, but no doubt Turnbull hoped that it had had its desired effect.  Is this strategy deliberate and therefore disingenuous, or does the Opposition really believe its own rhetoric, which is even more disturbing. More...