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Nowhere Man

The Beatles might have had something to say about Ross Garnaut’s supposed monopoly on the truth

11 June 2011

12:00 AM

11 June 2011

12:00 AM

The Beatles might have had something to say about Ross Garnaut’s supposed monopoly on the truth

Reading about Professor Ross Garnaut’s performance at the Press Club in Canberra last week, where he released his report on climate change, got me thinking about the Beatles, economists and democracy.

Start with the economists. As it happens I was born into the profession, in a way. My dad was an economist. My sister is an economist. And I have had lots and lots of interactions in universities with economists. I like the way they think in terms of scarcity and efficiency, and even the way they simplify Benthamite utilitarianism into a quest for wealth maximisation, acknowledging the limitations that simplification carries with it.

Of course, the ones I know don’t parade around pretending that this social science that is economics gives them some mysterious hotline to God regarding ‘the Truth’. Economics involves people’s differing value judgements and divergent preferences that distinguish it from double-blind drug trials, where there is a true answer to whether some remedy works or does not work (meaning ‘yes’ to antibiotics and ‘no’ to almost all alternative medicines, such as homeopathy).

In fact there are huge disagreements among economists. They still argue over the causes of the Great Depression in the 1930s. They differ massively on whether Keynesian stimulus is a good idea or not. They differ on the precise causes of the recent global financial crisis. And just about none of them predicted that same GFC.

So it was a bit off-putting to hear Professor Garnaut present himself, an economist, as the purveyor of undiluted gospel truth.Worse than that, he is simply wrong to assert, or at least imply, that all top economists agree with him.

Let’s make it simple and put things in their best light for him. Let’s just agree that we are facing future global warming and a big cause of that is man-made carbon dioxide (and other gas) emissions. That leaves the big, big, big question of what to do, which in turn depends in large part on what other countries are doing.


Certainly there are economists no less qualified than Professor Garnaut who think the best use of scarce resources is simply to prepare for a warmer world and spend money on new technologies.

And one of the key issues is what to do in a world where you can’t know what others are going to do. This is in the nature of the prisoner’s dilemma more than a co-ordination problem. It seems to me that there is plenty of evidence that other countries are not doing much at all about carbon dioxide emissions, other than mouthing platitudes. To say Canada or Russia or China is doing much is, at best, a highly distorted reading of the facts, in my view.

Which brings me to the pop band I really like, the Beatles. Professor Garnaut’s response to the perfectly sensible point that an insignificant little country like Australia would be daft to be at the forefront of moves to drive up costs across all of industry is condescension, pure and simple. ‘Take him by the hand and reassure him that he has no reason to fear,’ is the lame retort Garnaut gives, forsaking any attempt to offer facts. You can almost hear Paul and John singing ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ in the background as he says it.

But here’s the thing. There is plenty of evidence that emissions trading schemes don’t work well because they are open to gaming, and have been gamed, not least by China and by emitters moving production offshore. There are questions about how markets work when the biggest emitters, China and the US, are not on board. (And why does Garnaut take at face value the assurances that US reduction targets will be met in the absence of a carbon price, while rubbishing the same claim here?)

There are even strong grounds to think that a carbon dioxide price here in Australia, contrary to what the good professor says, will in fact put us at the forefront of global efforts to reduce emissions. And condescending little quips to exceedingly friendly audiences in the Press Club change that not a whit.

It would be more honest if Professor Garnaut were to come clean and say he sees this issue not in economic but in highly moralised terms, in which there are those on the side of angels (his side, naturally) and those on the side of evil and wickedness (those who differ from him), and that Australia needs to take a hit to advance this cause in global terms. We need to be some shining light on the hill, or what have you.

But of course that wouldn’t be all that politically palatable, which brings me to democracy. You see, Professor Garnaut comes across as thinking not just that he is the best economist around on this issue, but also that it can’t be left to mere politicians. So he recommends an independent committee be established to set Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions reduction levels.

Wow! So we’d have a carbon tax that our Prime Minister promised before the last election not to bring in (but did anyway), that she refuses to fight an election on, and that under the Garnaut plan would be palmed off to an (say it with me with a straight face) ‘independent’ committee. I can’t think of a less democratic option imaginable, short of Soviet-style command and control.

And of course we’re all asking ourselves, ‘Would that be the sort of political independence that Professor Garnaut himself has displayed, with his right-down-the-line party political support for the Gillard government?’ Is that the sort of committee we’d have, a bunch of Garnaut clones?

At this point the Beatles tune that comes to mind is ‘She Loves You’, or possibly ‘Taxman’.

Here’s the thing, Professor Garnaut. When political elites try to impose their visions of some higher good on everyone else without the need to convince the voters first, you get European Union-style democratic deficiency; you get a euro currency no one voted for and now has too little public support; you get committees and commissions and quangos that cut to the heart of democratic self-government.

The move to greater democratic input was driven in the West by political parties on the left of the spectrum. That so many of those parties, as with this Gillard government, have seemingly given up on the views of the voters — because the self-styled progressive elites that have captured them think they know better — is pathetic.

Listen. Do you want to know a secret? Voters are not stupid. You will be left twisting and shouting over this if you disdain the voters, all your yesterdays seeming so far away.

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland.


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