Monthly Archives: July 2004

10 – The White Album

In 1968 The Beatles released a double album which is actually called “The Beatles” but which is universally referred to as “the White Album”, in reference to its stark sleeve art. Less slick than their most celebrated works, and all the better for it, I think it is still the best album ever released.

Unlike almost any other album, my experience of the White Album is that it rewards an unlimited number of plays. There is so much of it, and so much of it is brilliant. The album is sometimes described, with a hint of disparagement, as four solo albums, but that doesn’t go close to doing it justice. After all, the backing band on these solo albums is The Beatles, and they were at the peak of their powers.

white_album_1This album marks the start of what must surely be the most incredible 12 months of creative productivity by four musicians in history. Consider this. From mid 1968 to mid 1969, they recorded this double album, the Let It Be album, the Abbey Road album, enough additional material for the two CDs of Anthology 3 (a triple album on vinyl), five fantastic singles “Hey Jude”, “Get Back”, “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, “Let it Be” and “Something”/”Come Together” (eight of the ten songs on them appeared not at all or in different versions on the albums), made the film Let It Be, and released the film and soundtrack album Yellow Submarine.

In the same period, outside the Beatles, there were five (five!!!) Beatles solo albums recorded or released (one film soundtrack by George and four highly experimental albums, one from George and three from John and Yoko), a landmark single from John (“Give Peace a Chance”), Ringo acted in a major film with Peter Sellers and Paul wrote and produced big hits for Badfinger and Mary Hopkins. As well as all this, they wrote quite a number of songs that turned up later on solo albums. And in the middle of all that, two of them got married. John’s wedding was staged as a protracted media circus as part of his campaign for peace. They did all this in just barely over one year, and it was a year when they weren’t always getting on well. It’s not as if this extraordinary productivity caused the quality to suffer either. Not all these outputs are classics (the solo experimental albums are pretty hard to listen to in fact) but much of the year’s output stands among the best music ever made.

It is interesting to compare this output with the usual release schedule of major acts these days. For example, through the 1990s, U2 released three albums, for an average of about five songs per year. An average of 15 tracks per year is extremely high, probably reached by only one or two major artists. The Beatles’ efforts in this incredible 12 months spawned over 110 tracks that were released at the time or subsequently, not even counting their non-Beatles work, and not counting the unreleased Get Back album, or its relative, Let it Be … Naked, which finally saw commercial release in November 2003.

white_album_2

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

9 – Distance

I live in a town called Albany, south-east of Perth in Western Australia. Perth is a long way from all other cities and is often described as the most isolated city on earth. Albany is 400 km more isolated than that, which makes my regular travel to other cities rather protracted, to say the least.

Some research has found that farmers are slower to adopt a new farming technology if they are physically more distant from the organisation or person who is promoting the technology. One can easily imagine possible reasons for this. Perhaps the information appears less relevant to distant farmers than to those who are close to the information source, or perhaps they receive less exposure to information about the technology, because the area to be covered by a communicator increases disproportionately as the target range increases, and because communicators naturally prefer to operate closer to home.

I find that distance adds to my challenge in attempting to be a player in national research and policy issues. The reasons why people further away seem less ready to adopt my ideas are probably much the same as for lower technology adoption by more distant farmers.

People know or suspect that the natural environment in Western Australia is unique to some extent, so perhaps it is easy (when convenient) to assume that my analyses of environmental issues are of limited relevance in other regions. Indeed, sometimes this is absolutely true, but sometimes not. I have been frustrated a few times to hear of my work being downplayed because it is assumed to be of relevance in WA only, when I know that it is of high relevance in the region of the critic. For example, some of my arguments about low off-site benefits from salinity management have fallen into this category.

An even more frustrating situation of this type is where a critic exploits my distance away as a way of discrediting my work to others. This has happened too. I am particularly vulnerable if the critic is locally based, as they tend to be. I find that a local visit, like a crusader on campaign, does help to counter such problems. If only it didn’t take to long to go anywhere from Albany.

Still, I shouldn’t complain. I’ve just finished reading a biography of another crusader, King Richard I of England, who made the journey from northern France to Syria (shorter than Albany to Sydney) in the late twelfth century. It took him 11 months to get there (although to be fair he did stop to invade Crete and Cyprus on the way), and the return trip took 17 months (including 9 months imprisoned in German castles while he was held for ransom).

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

8 – Is economics hard hearted?

I watched a lot of tennis from Wimbledon when it was on a week or two ago. The big story of the tournament was the success of 17-year-old Russian Maria Sharapova who had a stunning victory over Serena Williams in the women’s final. Maria played some supernatural tennis shots, but even more impressive was her coolness and steely determination when things looked bad for her, especially in the semi-final against Lindsay Davenport. Maria had such focus and determination that she appeared hard and almost joyless. Until, that is, she won each match, and then she displayed a fantastic smile and you realised she isn’t hard or joyless at all.

Some people look upon economists as a hard and joyless bunch. “The dismal science” they say. I’m not certain what they mean, but perhaps it relates to the way that economists can often be party poopers, arguing against actions or projects or reforms that others have considered to be a good idea. One of my contributions to this genre has been to criticise the proposal by the Australian Conservation Foundation and the National Farmers Federation for the Australian Government to spend A$65 billion over 10 years on a dramatically expanded environmental program. An easy target, perhaps, but one that got a ridiculous amount of coverage in the media.

One argument against the conception of economists as being hard-hearted is the characters and interests of economists themselves. I admit that I do know one or two who fit the “hard and joyless” description, but I know many more who are passionate about their areas of professional interest and who care deeply about promoting the best interests of the community. Indeed, attempting to promote and protect the best interests of the broad community (especially against the efforts of special interest groups to corner the political market) is something that economists put more effort into than most other disciplines. David Bennett puts it nicely: “The profession of economics is at its best when it is defending the public interest in the widest possible sense.”

One way that economists attempt to protect the public interest is by applying a constraint that the benefits of action (broadly defined) should exceed the costs. Calls for government action put forward by environmental advocates are sometimes couched in terms that imply the action should be pursued at any cost. Economists particularly decry such calls. At any cost is too high.

I made this point in something I wrote two years ago: “A determination to prevent all environmental degradation at any cost only makes sense if one is willing to overlook the potential alternative uses for these enormous sums of money, including improved services for people with mental and physical disabilities, health services, poverty alleviation, education, and so on. Of course the environment can and should hold its own in the allocation of resources, but one cannot sustain an argument that it should take precedence over all other uses of public funds.”

This is not to advocate that a full benefit:cost analysis should be conducted for every possible environmental investment. That would be both problematic and expensive. Rather it should be seen as a need for investment in the environment to be balanced against other possible investments. It is not about economising for economy’s sake. It is a recognition that the “opportunity cost” of public money is important to the community. Funds spent on the environment are not available to be spent on other important public services or amenities.

Furthermore, expenditure of any public funds has the opportunity cost that, as a consequent of their removal from private individuals or businesses through the tax system, the funds will not be spent in the ways that would have been most beneficial to those people, as judged by them.

The positive-net-benefit criterion of economists, which is sometimes interpreted as hard-hearted or even anti-social, is actually a reflection of soft-hearted and pro-social objectives on a broader canvas.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Postscript, 5 August 2004. I heard a lovely comment by Bill Malcolm on this theme a couple of nights ago. It was to the effect that people think economists are dismal because we sometimes say you shouldn’t do worthwhile things. But we’re not. We just say you shouldn’t do stupid things.

Postscript, 23 May 2005. Email from Paul Webster: “The phrase ‘the dismal science’ does get used quite a bit, sometimes improperly. Its origin was Thomas Carlyle who in the 1860s was moaning about the then subject which, following Malthus, said that the future of the human race was geometric population growth limited by linear food supplies. i.e. starvation and pauperism! Not what the Victorians wanted to hear!”

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. (2002). Loving, losing and living with the environment, Connections: Farm, Food and Resource Issues 2: 25-36. http://www.agrifood.info/connections/autumn_2002/Pannell.html

Pannell, D.J. (2003). Heathens in the chapel? Economics and the conservation of native biodiversity, Presented at a workshop of the Cooperative Research Centre for Plant-Based Management of Dryland Salinity, “Biodiversity Values in Agricultural Landscapes”, Rutherglen, Victoria, 14-15 October 2003. Forthcoming in Pacific Conservation Biology.

http://dpannell.fnas.uwa.edu.au/dp0301.htm

7 – Government inquiries into salinity

Last week, another government report on salinity was released. This one was by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Science and Innovation, under the optimistic title, “Science Overcomes Salinity”. The point of the inquiry was to see whether the Australian Government is making appropriate use of science in its National Action Plan for Science and Water Quality (the NAP). In short, it isn’t. The 24 recommendations of the Committee document lots of room for improvement. We knew that, of course – I’ve made complaining about it since the week the NAP was announced in November 2000 – but it is nice to see the issues so thoroughly documented and clearly articulated by a Government committee.

Amongst other things, they point to the lack of realistic options for farmers to deal with salinity, and the need for R&D to develop a broader range of options that are not just effective against salinity, but also profitable for farmers. There has been a remarkable complacency about the availability of suitable salinity management options, when the reality in most regions is that the available options for salinity prevention would send farmers broke long before they would deliver salinity benefits. Only since 2001 has there been any concerted effort to turn this around (with the commencement of the Cooperative Research Centre for Plant-Based Management of Dryland Salinity), and this has nothing to do with the NAP. The CRC program is completely independent of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, which runs the NAP.

I commented on this in my submission to the House of Reps Committee: “The success of Australian efforts to contain and manage salinity in the long run will depend substantially on the success of efforts to develop new farming options and farming systems that are commercially competitive with existing farming systems. It seems quite inappropriate that the setting of the level of investment in R&D in this area is left to chance – the actual level is whatever emerges out of funding sources and processes independent of the national salinity program.”

You might imagine that such important findings by a bi-partisan committee of parliament would lead to the problems in the design of the program being addressed. However, all my contacts with policy experience have said that reports from House of Reps inquiries are usually ignored. The Committees have no power to enforce their findings and there is no requirement for the department that runs the program in question to even respond in writing to the report, unless their minister requests it. In many cases, the best that can be said of such reports is that they are useful to reinforce arguments by others who are pushing for change.

The report itself is thick (358 pages), thorough, balanced, and generally pretty good (with one exception being its over-emphasis on issues in communication and agricultural extension). It represents a major expense and a huge amount of work, both by the Committee and by the 100 or so groups and individuals who made submissions. I find it rather disturbing that the accepted norm for such reports is that they sit on shelves and achieve little. Surely, if it is just going to be ignored, the resources used in its preparation could have been put to much better use. The only defense for the system that has been put to me is that it helps to educate back benchers, and there is a chance that they will eventually become ministers. It is a pathetic defense.

The next government report on salinity will be by the Australian National Audit Office, who are inquiring into the NAP. They at least have more teeth than a House of Reps Committee, and they cannot be ignored so easily. Hopefully they too will recognise some of the flaws in the current design of the program.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. (2001). Salinity policy: A tale of fallacies, misconceptions and hidden assumptions, Agricultural Science 14(1): 35-37. full paper (26K)

Pannell, D.J. (2001). Dryland Salinity: Economic, Scientific, Social and Policy Dimensions, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 45(4): 517-546. Final journal version (212K pdf file) also available via the Journal homepage: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-8489.00156/abstract