Sky News AM Agenda - 19 January

This year, my usual spot on the Sky News AM Agenda has moved to alternate Thursdays and my sparring partner is now Victorian Liberal backbencher Kelly O'Dwyer. Today we talked about the financial situation in Europe (compared with the strong performance of the Australian economy), and the manufacturing sector.
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Mobile Complexity

In today's Canberra Times, Ross Peake writes up my criticism of Australian mobile phone carriers for offering needlessly complex plans. A snippet:
A Federal Labor MP is gobsmacked that Australian mobile phone companies get away with offering plans that are very difficult to understand and compare.

Andrew Leigh is turning his frustration into a campaign, based on his experience with simpler plans offered in the United States.

He says the complexity of phone plans has a particularly hard impact on people with low levels of financial literacy. ''Complexity hurts the poor, new migrants and the elderly - in this sense unnecessary complexity operates like a regressive* tax,'' he said. Mr Leigh, who represents the northern half of Canberra, concedes that the Federal Government has little role to play unravelling the complexity of plans and caps. ''You can't legislate simplicity,'' he said.

* The article accidentally quoted me as saying 'progressive'. But of course a tax that hurts the poor is a regressive one.
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Advice to PhD Students

On 29 Nov, I spoke to PhD students at the ANU Crawford School. In case you'd like to watch it, the video has now been posted on the ANU website.

And here's my list of 10 suggested topics for economics PhD students.
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Great Teachers Have Lasting Effects

In the NYT, Nick Kristof writes up an important new paper on the impact of great teachers.
Having a good fourth-grade teacher makes a student 1.25 percent more likely to go to college, the research suggests, and 1.25 percent less likely to get pregnant as a teenager. Each of the students will go on as an adult to earn, on average, $25,000 more over a lifetime — or about $700,000 in gains for an average size class — all attributable to that ace teacher back in the fourth grade. That’s right: A great teacher is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to each year’s students, just in the extra income they will earn. ...

Conversely, a very poor teacher has the same effect as a pupil missing 40 percent of the school year. We don’t allow that kind of truancy, so it’s not clear why we should put up with such poor teaching. In fact, the study shows that parents should pay a bad teacher $100,000 to retire (assuming the replacement is of average quality) because a weak teacher holds children back so much.

Here's the academic abstract:
The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood
Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, Jonah E. Rockoff

Are teachers’ impacts on students’ test scores (“value-added”) a good measure of their quality? This question has sparked debate largely because of disagreement about (1) whether value-added (VA) provides unbiased estimates of teachers’ impacts on student achievement and (2) whether high-VA teachers improve students’ long-term outcomes. We address these two issues by analyzing school district data from grades 3-8 for 2.5 million children linked to tax records on parent characteristics and adult outcomes. We find no evidence of bias in VA estimates using previously unobserved parent characteristics and a quasi-experimental research design based on changes in teaching staff. Students assigned to high-VA teachers are more likely to attend college, attend higher- ranked colleges, earn higher salaries, live in higher SES neighborhoods, and save more for retirement. They are also less likely to have children as teenagers. Teachers have large impacts in all grades from 4 to 8. On average, a one standard deviation improvement in teacher VA in a single grade raises earnings by about 1% at age 28. Replacing a teacher whose VA is in the bottom 5% with an average teacher would increase students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 for the average classroom in our sample. We conclude that good teachers create substantial economic value and that test score impacts are helpful in identifying such teachers.
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Peter Veness

Last night, 27 year-old AAP journalist Peter Veness lost his battle with cancer. He had been diagnosed in 2009, and given just a few months to live. His survival for nearly three years is testament to his extraordinary inner strength.

As a new backbencher, I came to know Peter through his razor-sharp questions at the doors of Parliament House. Peter’s questions were always the most nerve-wracking part of a doorstop interview, because you knew that he couldn't be distracted from his focus on the important issue of the moment. He was no fan of the sideshow aspects of modern politics, and his eyes were invariably on the long game.

I sometimes wondered whether Peter acted like this because he knew his own clock was running out – and whether the rest of us would do well to act in the same way.

Australia has lost a fine scribe. Peter will be sorely missed by his many friends, and particularly by his widow Rebecca, his parents Cheryl and David, and his siblings Tim and Lara.
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Sky News AM Agenda - 11 January

David Lipson hosted Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham and me on the Sky News AM Agenda program this morning. Topics included multiculturalism, manufacturing and the benefits of foreign investment.

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Listening to the Evidence

Don Weatherburn, director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, has a terrific op-ed in today's SMH, castigating governments who are evidence-based in name only (shall we call them ENO administrations?).

A snippet:
You would never be able to market a pharmaceutical drug in Australia without rigorous evaluation by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. But state and territory governments routinely spend large sums of taxpayers' money trying to reduce crime and re-offending without subjecting the measures to any evaluation. Where evaluations are undertaken, the results are often ignored.
The promise to appoint additional police and impose tougher penalties on crime are staples at nearly every election; yet no Australian state or territory government has ever promised to evaluate and publicly report on the effects of additional police and tougher penalties.

And it isn't just those old staples that escape critical scrutiny. The list of policies shown by my office to have no effect on re-offending in NSW includes high fines for drink drivers, supervision of offenders on good behaviour bonds, detention for juvenile offenders, the forum sentencing program (a restorative justice program for young adult offenders) and the circle sentencing program (under which Aboriginal offenders are brought before community elders for sanctioning).

Despite the negative results, all these policies remain in place. Meanwhile, programs that have been known for years to be effective, such as the NSW Drug Court Program, are only now being expanded.

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Sky AM Agenda - 19 December

In a relatively short Sky AM Agenda discussion with Mitch Fifield, we discussed the latest asylum-seeker tragedy and the consular assistance being provided to Julian Assange (I also drew on Michael Fullilove's comparison between News of the World and Wikileaks).

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Holiday Reading

For anyone looking for holiday reading, here are a dozen books I've enjoyed this year. Apologies for the lack of fiction.
1. Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender - A book that helped debunk plenty of my ideas about the role of genes in shaping gender. As

2. Ed Glaeser, Triumph of the City - The man who helped revive urban economics embarks on a romp through the history and value of cities.

3. Tim Harford, Adapt - A succession of splendid tales, tied together by the FT's 'Undercover Economist'. Like Freakonomics, but with more economics.

4. Christopher Hitchens, Arguably - Essays on everything from Afghanistan to poetry, from the late great public intellectual (but if you haven't read Hitch-22, start there first).

5. Abhijit Banerjee & Esther Duflo, Poor Economics - Solving global poverty, one randomised trial at a time.

6. Tyler Cowen, The Great Stagnation - The (in)famous Marginal Revolution blogger combines a neat economic history of the US, plus some concise ideas about where to next.

7. David Remnick, The Bridge - The seminal biography of Barack Obama.

8. Donald Green and Alan Gerber, Get Out the Vote - Most political campaigning books are of the 'I reckon' variety. This one is based on solid evidence from (yes) randomised trials.

9. Nick Dyrenfurth &Frank Bongiorno, A little history of the Australian Labor Party - More emphasis on ideas and big themes, less dwelling on the machinations of bearded men. One of the best histories of our party.

10. Jonathan Weiner, Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality - Will humans ever live forever?

11. Peter Hartcher, The Sweet Spot - A modern-day take on the Lucky Country, from a brilliant and refreshingly uncynical journalist.

12. Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From - Innovative ideas aplenty, told with the wit of a great storyteller.

While we're on the topic, here's a 2010 piece that Mac Duncan and I wrote about what federal politicians were reading, and here's the full spreadsheet of what politicians were reading at the time.

Feel free to use comments to post your recommended holiday reading.
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Vale Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens - one of the world's great public intellectuals - is dead at 62. He knew oesophageal cancer would soon take him, and has thus been in what he called his year of 'living dyingly'.

Early obituaries at the New York Times, Slate and Vanity Fair.
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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.