Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend

Jul 31, 2021
Parliament House – squawking next week

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

The pandemic’s progress

The Sydney outbreak

Whichever way we look at it, it’s serious.

Nationally it dwarfs all outbreaks since last November.

Or it can be compared with Victoria’s outbreak last year, with both outbreaks shown below on a logarithmic axis – the usual way to portray exponential growth. This graph goes up to the 59th day when Victoria’s numbers peaked at 725 cases, before commencing a three-month return to local eradication. New South Wales is now at the 44th day since the first case (the limousine driver) in this outbreak. There is no guarantee that Victoria’ trajectory will repeat in New South Wales, but it might rhyme.

Once case numbers become so high, contact tracing at best can do no more than hold the fort as Norman Swan explains on Coronacast. Almost all effort now has to go into reducing the virus’s rate of reproduction, its R number – the number of people each infected person goes on to infect. (Adrian Esterman of the University of South Australia has an explanation of R numbers published in The Conversation.)

The R number in New South Wales, or more specifically Sydney, is well above 1.0, and it has to be brought down to less than 1.0 if the virus is to be contained and locally eliminated. The lower the R number, the faster the virus recedes.

No one measure alone will bring about that reduction in R. Restricted mobility and social isolation are crude but effective measures. Facemasks and ventilation play their part. So too does vaccination, but vaccination takes time to take effect: as at Tuesday only 39 per cent of adults in New South Wales had received any vaccination and only 17 per cent had received a second dose. It takes time for vaccination to bring R down: time for people to be persuaded to vaccinate, time for people to arrange to be vaccinated; time for the vaccine’s effects to kick in – probably a couple of weeks. Even then, first dose vaccination has only a limited (but still useful) effect in reducing the virus’s circulation.

Some estimates on the effectiveness of one- and two-dose vaccination against the Delta variant are publishedin the New England Journal of Medicine, suggesting that the first-dose effectiveness of both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines is around 30 per cent.  If that is so, even a first dose will help in reducing R in the Sydney outbreak.

It is notable that the New South Wales government is applying different measures in different party of Sydney and surrounding regions. As shown on a map generated by the state health department, the virus is concentrated in a small cluster of suburbs about 25 km west of the CBD, with small outbreaks in other regions of Sydney where presumably contact tracing can still be effective. It’s similar to the approach firefighters may take – to contain a blaze, while extinguishing surrounding spotfires.  But that approach has understandably caused resentment. The outbreak started in the prosperous eastern suburbs, but the cost of harsh lockdowns and restrictions on mobility is being borne in the poorer western suburbs.

Vaccination in Australia

Vaccination is not just a New South Wales issue. Progress to “full” or two-dose vaccination by age group is shown in the graph below. We will keep updating this for the foreseeable future, for it illustrates some of the issues in dealing with the pandemic in Australia.

Notable is the general low rate of vaccination – only 17 per cent. The most vaccinated group are those over 70, who were in Phase 1b of the original program and have probably been receiving their second dose in July – three months after becoming eligible for a first dose in March. We can see strong growth in this group, and can expect to see more growth in the 50-70 group as their second dose of AstraZeneca comes due. But the vast majority of people under 40 remain unvaccinated and there is little progress: out of 8.5 million Australians between 16 and 40, only 0.7 million are vaccinated, and among 5.0 million young Australians under 16 we have no records, but can assume that the number vaccinated is tiny.

At the other end of the age spectrum we note that even among the very old – the people who are dying in the Sydney outbreak – vaccination rates are still below 50 per cent, and there are still substantial numbers of people over 70 (about 22 per cent) who have not even had a first dose. These figures would be of less concern if workers in aged-care homes were vaccinated themselves, but there are reports that these workers have low rates of vaccination. Christopher Knaus points out in The Guardian that vaccinating aged care workers is “not a focus” for the Commonwealth, even though there is a requirement that they be vaccinated by mid-September.

There are suggestions, based on experience in other countries, that the prevailing Delta variant is deadlier for unvaccinated young people that earlier strains were, but as Norman Swan explains on Coronacast, that may simply be because older people are more likely to be vaccinated, and the present vaccines are very good at preventing infection against the Delta variant, and against its worst effects. Swan explains, however, that the Delta variant is more contagious and almost certainly more virulent (i.e. likely to cause severe disease) than earlier variants. That is, it’s deadlier for everyone. And there is the problem of “long Covid” among all age groups.

Assuming no even more virulent variants appear, there is a long way to go before we can safely live with the virus. Modelling by a team at the Grattan Institute – Race to 80: our best shot at living with Covid – suggests that “fully vaccinating 80 per cent of all Australians, and 95 per cent of the over-70s, will give us the best chance of gradually returning to normal life – with open borders and no lockdowns”. The model considers a matrix of R values for the virus and possible vaccination targets, and it estimates the number of cases, the demand on ICU and the number of deaths for each combination.

The central conclusion is that if R remains high, we have to achieve at least an 80 per cent level of vaccination to keep deaths and demand on ICU within reasonable bounds. The results are not linear: there is a very big difference between 70 per cent vaccination and 80 per cent vaccination.  (There is a risk that politicians, in some imagined trade-off, will compromise, say at 70 per cent, believing that to be 7/8 as effective as 80 per cent vaccination. It isn’t.) The report concludes with suggestions for a number of carrots, sticks and nudges (even a lottery) that could be used to achieve high rates of vaccination.

One key conclusion of the model is that if children under 12 can be vaccinated by the end of the school year, we should be able to lift most internal and external restrictions by the end of the year. Otherwise we will have to wait until March next year.

That’s all about the possible path to returning to “normal” in the next six to eight months. In the medium to longer term much depends on availability of mRNA vaccines, either locally-made or imported. An article in the biopharmaceutical journal BioPharmaDispatch reminds us that twelve months ago one of Morrison’s key senior policy advisers was in contact with representatives of vaccine companies, who were expressing “frustration and exasperation over the health portfolio’s lack of serious progress on procurement”: PM was forced to intervene on vaccine after months of inaction.

Mental health: how are we coping?

Ever since lockdowns started there has been a great deal of media discussion about mental health, but it has mostly been focussed on how individuals can cope with the stresses of the pandemic.

On last week’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue’s guest Ian Hickie, of the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney, stressed the importance of collective well-being: Under lockdown, we need to think about the mental health of the collective.

Our mental health depends not only on our own capacity to cope, but also on our relationships – not just myrelationships with others, but our relationships with one another, in families, workplaces, circles of friends, local communities and even at a national level.

Doogue and Hickie go on to discuss how both public policies and our personal behaviour can help or hinder the task of sustaining healthy communities – communities that can deal with the anxieties and uncertainties associated with the pandemic. (18 minutes.)

At the end of the session Geraldine Doogue reminds us of Ian Hickie’s and James O’Loghlin’s weekly podcast Minding your mind.  The 20 July podcast is The importance of social connection.

The rest of the world

Worldwide the rate of new cases is again increasing, presumably as the Delta variant takes over from other variants, but so far the rise in deaths has not been as sharp as the rise in cases. Maybe this is because older and more vulnerable people have been prioritised in vaccination. And maybe there is a bias in recording, because cases and deaths are recorded better in “developed” countries, where vaccination rates have been highest, than in “developing countries” from which we are almost certainly getting less data.

Worldwide 52 doses of vaccine have been administered for every 100 people, but that doesn’t mean 52 per cent of the world’s population has had even a first shot, for that figure includes second doses in many “developed” countries, most of which have achieved at least 60 per cent first dose vaccination and 40 to 50 per cent “full” vaccination.  Vaccination rates in Africa and South Asia are still very low – only 1 or 2 per cent in most African countries.

This week’s WHO Covid-19 epidemiological update has maps of the case and death rates in late July.  South America, southern Africa and Russia are all recording high death rates. In our region most countries are coping reasonably well, but Fiji, Indonesia and Myanmar are recording high death rates. In Japan as a whole infection and death rates are low, but a worrying upsurge in cases in Tokyo is putting severe stress on its hospitals.

What’s Covid-19 doing to fertility?

In most “developed” countries, including those with already low birth rates such as Italy and Japan, birth rates have fallen since the onset of Covid-19. Even though Australia is among the countries most lightly touched by Covid-19, our birth rate has fallen: it is now at 1.66 children per adult woman, well below the 2.10 rate required to hold a population steady.

On last week’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue’s guests Sophie McBain from New Statesman and Patrick Parkinson from the University of Queensland discuss the reasons people are having fewer children and the long-term consequences of lower birth rates.  What will a world with fewer babies look like?

Pessimism about the future is one compelling explanation. There is uncertainty about climate change, possible future pandemics, and long-term economic conditions. Also, although it’s not specifically linked to the pandemic, women have more choices about partnering and reproduction than in previous times.  (17 minutes.)

McBain and Parkinson speculate on how different an older world might be, not only in terms of economists’ usual concerns about dependency ratios, but also in terms of relationships.

McBain has a recent article in the New Statesman: The baby bust: how a declining birth rate will reshape the world.

Data sources

See our separate web page of hyperlinks to generally reliable information and analysis about Covid-19, including data on vaccination and the WHO Covid-19 epidemiological updates.

Australian economics

Labor lite

On Monday Anthony Albanese announced  that Labor in office would “uphold the legislated changes to personal income taxes and maintain the existing regimes for negative gearing and capital gains tax”.

He is referring to the tax cuts, commencing in 2024-25, that will see everyone with incomes between $45 000 (the present 32.5 per cent threshold) and $200 000 paying a marginal tax rate of 30.0 per cent, eliminating the 37.0 per cent bracket that presently kicks in at an income of $120 000. The tax cuts will also lift the 45 per cent threshold from $180 000 to $200 000.

These will result in the following reductions in marginal tax rates for those with the following incomes:

between $45 000 and $120 000, a reduction of 2.5 per cent (32.5 to 30.0);

between $120 000 and $180 000, a reduction of 7.0 per cent (37.0 to 30.0);

between $180 000 and $200 000, a reduction of 15.0 per cent (45.0 to 30.0).

The major beneficiaries of these cuts will be the 9 per cent of taxpayers with incomes above $120 000. The even smaller group of taxpayers – about 1.5 per cent – with incomes over $200 000 a year will receive $9 000 in tax cuts.

Albanese’s press release did not explain the economic justification for retaining these cuts.

On the ABC RN Drive program, Richard Denniss explained the economic irresponsibility of Labor’s backdown. These boosts in income to the already well-off will do little to stimulate the domestic economy, will worsen inequality, and will cost the budget $17 billion a year. Lest we think Denniss’s view comes only from the “left”, we can consider the IMF’s support for “improved tax capacity and higher progressivity” published in its April edition of Fiscal Monitor: A fair shot.

As many journalists have commented, Labor’s political strategy is about going to the election without any proposal to change taxes. In view of the way Morrison and the Murdoch media lied about Labor’s tax plans in the 2019 election, that is understandable. Labor probably feels assured that because the Coalition Government has spent massively during the pandemic, Labor will not have to go through the (almost meaningless) ritual of balancing all spending proposals against revenue and savings proposals. It therefore should not feel constrained in its election promises to present $17 billion of offsetting savings or other taxes to pay for these cuts.

That all makes sense in the short term, but whatever strategy underlies Labor’s decision not to differentiate itself from the Coalition, in failing to stand up against a grossly unfair tax system it is contributing to corrosive forces of political cynicism – “they’re all a bunch of bastards” – and is paving the way for a populist backlash. One scenario for such an outcome is a bloc of Trumpist senators determined to undermine the authority of Parliament.

Labor’s promise to retain the present concessions on negative gearing and capital gains is even less defensible. These have been significant factors in driving house price inflation, making housing unaffordable for first home buyers, and directing savings into speculation rather than productive investment.

On the same day that Albanese made his announcement, the National Australia Bank released its residential property survey, forecasting average capital city dwelling price rises of 18.5 per cent over this year (December 2020 to December 2021).

Perhaps there is some logic in Labor’s going easy on negative gearing and capital gains tax. The higher housing prices rise, the worse will be the inevitable crash, triggered by a rise in interest rates, or supply catching up with demand in a thin market.  When it comes the crash will have terrible consequences for naïve investors who have over-committed themselves to housing speculation, and for those who have mistaken the rising value of their houses as increases in real wealth. Labor would not wish the public to associate the crash with their tax policies, and once the crash occurs the political mood may be supportive of meaningful tax reform.

But that explanation may credit Labor with too much foresight.

Labor proper

It appears that Labor has been having two bob each way politically, for on the same day that Albanese announced that Labor in office would continue with the Coalition’s distortionary and inequitable tax policies (see the previous article), he committed Labor to going ahead with an anti-corruption commission.

It would “operate as a standing Royal Commission into serious and systemic corruption in the federal government”.  It would have “a broad jurisdiction to investigate and hold to account Commonwealth ministers, public servants, statutory office holders, government agencies, parliamentarians, personal staff of politicians and other Commonwealth public officials”.

Missing from Albanese’s statement is any mention of timing, such as “in Labor’s first term in office … ”.  Also it is strange that he announced a policy that would have a great deal of popular support at a time when so much media attention is directed to the Olympic Games and the Covid-19 outbreak in New South Wales. Surely, in view of public support for an anti-corruption commission, he should be shouting it from the rooftops.

Why has economic reform stalled?

“Problems with our institutions – our systems of governance – are cruelling the chances of policy reform”.

So writes the Grattan Institute’s John Daley in the introduction to the paper Gridlock: removing barriers to policy reform. Looking over the last 40 years, there has been a distinct slowing in the pace of policy reform, and well-considered proposals for economic reform are increasingly suffering rejection.

Daley and his team of researchers found that in earlier times governments were able to implement reforms that were initially unpopular with the electorate, a process that involved a great deal of explanation and strong leadership, but by now it is very difficult for unpopular reforms to get past first base. Vested interests of course mobilise to block reform, but Daley points out that when governments provide ample public evidence, the resistance of vested interests and the fear of change can be overcome.

Rather than the power of vested interests, the impediments are to be found elsewhere: media that is hyper-partisan and does not explain economics well, ministerial advisers who are too focussed on electoral politics, public opinion, a weakened and politicised public service, political patronage, and the fact that some important proposals cross partisan shibboleths – “beliefs that mark party or factional loyalty”.

Daley has a separate article on shibboleths in Inside StoryTribal gridlock: a hardening of shibboleths is eating away at good government. Doing nothing about climate change is a Coalition shibboleth, not changing the rate or coverage of GST is a Labor shibboleth.

The Grattan Institute report lists a large number of “reforms”, with the normative assumption that they all represent good public policy. In particular it lists privatisations of the Commonwealth Bank and of electricity and water utilities as successes, while noting that support for privatisation dropped once consumers experienced how privatisation played out.  Many economists would go along with the public’s view of privatisation of natural monopolies, seeing it result in bloated bureaucracies, technological conservatism, the need for elaborate regulatory mechanisms, duplicated infrastructure, wasted expenditure on marketing, and high prices. And surely we miss the practice of “benchmark competition”, whereby a government-owned financial institution would operate in the market as a means of keeping the market in check.

But otherwise the report lists many well-considered reforms where public opinion stands in the way of their adoption. These include “increasing middle-ring housing density; shifting from stamp duties to land taxes; more rational transport project selection; road congestion pricing; increasing the Age Pension age; including more of the value of the family home in the Age Pension asset test; ending decades of counter-productive first-home buyer incentives; rationalising regional development programs; and not increasing compulsory contributions under the Superannuation Guarantee above 9 per cent.”

Daley summarises the task of government in a democracy:

Liberal democracies are usually a delicate balance between popularly elected rulers and a whole series of institutions designed to temper popular views. It has been accepted constitutional theory for centuries that the primary duty of elected representatives is to govern according to their judgment of what is in the interests of their electors, rather than simply following the opinion of their electors.

So all we have to do is to restore liberal democracy: no small task in a country that has allowed crony capitalism to displace good government.

Consumer prices

Consumer prices are volatile: we shouldn’t pay too much attention to the 3.8 per cent year-on-year rise revealed in the June Quarter CPI, because it comes off the base of a huge fall in the June Quarter last year as the early effects of the pandemic set in. Over the two years since June 1999, i.e. since before the pandemic, consumer prices have risen 3.0 per cent, or at an annual rate of 1.5 per cent.

Some of the factors contributing to the CPI are once off, including a fall in domestic airfares associated with government subsidies and a rise in automotive fuel prices following a recovery in global oil prices. In view of the ongoing fall in the Australian dollar we might have expected to see some rise in prices of imported goods, but apart from the rise in fuel prices. there is no evidence of such a rise.

For those who could do with some plain English background on the CPI – what it means and how it is calculated – Peter Martin has an informative explanation in The Conversation: What’s in the CPI and what does it actually measure?

Paying attention when we shop

In the right hands the tools of market research can help promote social good, and that is what the Baptist World Aid Australia has done in commissioning the Australian Ethical Consumer Report. Its focus is on clothing, or more specifically fashion, and it considers two dimensions of ethical standards – the labour conditions in which clothing is made, and the environmental impact of clothing in its cycle from production to disposal.

Most Australians – 87 per cent – want to direct their purchases to more ethical suppliers, but only 46 per cent indicate that they regularly purchase from ethical/sustainable fashion brands.

As with much attitudinal research, this work reveals gaps between intent and practice, but the research shows that 39 per cent of respondents don’t know what brands are ethical, and 33 per cent find that shopping ethically is too expensive.

An important condition for ethical consumption is an outlook that goes beyond national boundaries – to the conditions in countries where clothing is made. The report reveals strong but not surprising age-related differences in response to questions “I feel more like a global citizen than a national citizen” and “I feel a sense of solidarity with people all over the world”.

From the website you will find a link to a quiz to reveal your shopping type.

The far right

The Taliban’s return

The Taliban is re-occupying Afghanistan. The only questions relate to the extent of that re-occupation – how long can Kabul hold out? – and whether it will rule with the same brutality as it did in the late 1990s after it had displaced the Mujahideen and before the US-led invasion in 2001. Few observers are putting much faith in the 2020 US-Taliban deal with its fine words about women’s rights and press freedom.

Writing in The Conversation, Kaweh Kerami of the University of London believes that the Taliban will once again assert its strict interpretation of Islam, and that it will improve its ties with some neighbouring countries. The Taliban: what could its return to power mean for Afghanistan?

Husain Haqqani, formerly Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and now of the Hudson Institute, considers the Taliban’s return from a Pakistani perspective, in view of Pakistan’s history of nurturing the Taliban. Pakistan’s military sees the Taliban as an important partner in their rivalry with India, but if Pakistan sustains support for a resurgent Taliban, relationships with the US will come under severe strain, the country could become more isolated on the world stage, and domestically sectarian divisions could worsen: Pakistan’s pyrrhic victory in Afghanistan: Islamabad will come to regret aiding the Taliban’s resurgence in Foreign Affairs.

It’s too easy to see the Taliban as a purely Afghani movement, but it also has Pakistani roots. Shirvan Neftchi, an Azerbaijani producer of CaspianReport, has a 16-minute YouTube video Origins of the Taliban. He reminds us of the upbringing of refugee boys, separated from female company, whose “education” was in one of Pakistan’s 2000 madrassas, and who are now “emotionally disturbed” young warriors, with no ties to family or normal society. A combination of toxic masculinity and AK47s does not make for a liberal democracy.

Who were those protesters on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne last Sunday?

By what we could gather from television and other video clips, they looked like an Australian version of a Trump rally. The protests were well-coordinated, being part of a “worldwide rally for freedom”, possibly organised by the German far-right Freie Bürger Kassel group.

Fergus Hunter and Laura Chung, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, noted that organisers were using the encrypted app Telegram, favoured by far-right groups, and they identified the influence of climate change conspiracy theorists, QAnon and the Proud Boys: Revealed: the fringe groups where Sydney’s lockdown protest began.

Liberal MP George Christensen stood out for his presence alongside QAnon supporters at a rally in Mackay. In Brisbane former Liberal MP Craig Kelly spoke at a rally. Morrison criticised those who attended rallies in Sydney and Melbourne because the protesters at these rallies were breaking public health rules, but he defended those who were at the Mackay rally on the basis of their right to free speech. Hugh Breakey, president of the Australian Association for Professional and Applied Ethics, writing in The Conversation, reminds us that free speech doesn’t give us the right to endanger other people’s health.

In the days when the communists were a significant (though overstated) group in Australian politics, Labor always took care to dissociate itself from them. By contrast the Coalition has generally been permissive towards far-right groups, the only exception being its condemnation of Islamist extremists. Those who are able to take a non-partisan view of extremist movements, such as the Global Internet Forum on Extremism and Technology,  do not make such a distinction. Their latest digest, for example, has links to the Canadian Government’s public safety website where four new terrorist threats are listed – the Three Percenters (a militia movement), the Aryan Strikeforce, a prominent American Nazi, and a Daesh affiliate.

Organised crime and the far right

Writing in Open Democracy, journalist Michael Colborne points out the links between organised crime and the international radical right.  There are stages of the relationship.  Both groups use encrypted communications. As the radical-right gets more organised it needs finance, often raised through illegal channels, to upgrade its marketing.  When it turns to violence it makes use of arms-smuggling networks. And when it is well-established it develops strong relationships with politicians and people in law-enforcement authorities, intelligence agencies, and anti-corruption bodies.

Campbell Newman’s departure

Remember Campbell Newman – the Queensland Premier who won office for the LNP in 2012 in a landslide vote, reducing Labor to just 7 seats in the 89-seat parliament?  He ran an administration reminiscent of the worst days of the Bjelke-Petersen era. He went on to pursue an aggressive program of privatisation, deep cuts to public services, a harsh “law-and-order” program, and a partisan takeover of the state’s Crime and Misconduct Commission.

He has now quit the LNP in disgust, apparently because he finds it to be too far on the left for his comfort, and has hinted at plans to return to politics at a federal level. The issue that seems to have predicated his departure is the general level of bipartisan support for Covid-19 restrictions.

Writing in Inside Story Norman Abjorensen sees his departure in the context of general problems in the uneasy relationships in the Queensland merger of the Liberal and National parties – a model other states have wisely not emulated. He also sees Newman’s departure in the context of his dissatisfaction with the Morrison Government: Shock turns to surprise.

Campbell Newman is not the only politician from a major party to head off to the far right.  Two former Labor politicians, one a former state health minister, both associated with the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, have banded together to resurrect the Family First Party in time for the next election.

In an article on his Poll Bludger site William Bowe reports that former Liberal MP Ross Cameron, who is now the staple for Sky News After Dark, “could head the Liberal Democrats’ New South Wales senate ticket”


Decline and fall

The Covid-19 crisis has brought into prominence the story that the Black Death in 14th century Europe, by reducing the labour supply, brought down feudalism. There is speculation that Covid-19 will have consequences of a similar magnitude. The rise of China and the relative decline of “the west” lends credence to that idea.

That historical narrative is attractive for its simplicity, but Cambridge historian John Rapley, writing in AeonPlagues and empires – corrects the record. In fact after the Black Death those with property and power actually strengthened their position. He sees something similar happening today in the way governments in “developed” countries have responded to Covid-19. It’s the nature of that response that could contribute to the fall of the western empire.

That response has been through monetary and fiscal stimuli that have boosted the financial wealth of the property-owning classes, as we have seen in rising real-estate and stock market prices, even while the real economy is experiencing, at best, anaemic growth.  Economists are inclined to see asset price inflation as an undesirable by-product of stimulus measures, but Rapley sees it in terms of a deliberate move to preserve the financial wealth of the privileged.

“Developed” countries have incurred heavy public and private debt to provide this stimulus, but that debt has financed asset price inflation, rather than productive assets that would contribute to future prosperity. By contrast “developing” countries are using debt to finance real assets.

Rapley has a 14 minute segment – Can pandemics cause empires to fall? – on Late Night Live.  He is author of Twilight of the Money Gods: economics as a religion and how it all went wrong (written before the pandemic).

The great divergence

For almost a year Slate has been running a series of articles by Timothy Noah, former editor of The Washington Monthly, under the heading The great divergence – a term used by Paul Krugman to describe America’s widening gaps in income, wealth and opportunity. Noah’s approach has been to consider each popular explanation for the divergence and examine the evidence to support or refute the explanations. As Noah says in his first substantive entry, “the usual suspects are innocent”, but there are many other possible causal factors one finds on digging into the data.

A Californian blogger named Rajesh has pulled together all of Noah’s entries and summarised them in a concise and rigorous form, including Noah’s estimates for the contribution of each factor, which we have pulled together in a pie chart:

By “education” Noah is referring to the decline in school and technical education, which has widened the gap between those with and without college degrees. “The rich” refers to the winner-take-all phenomenon that has seen the emergence of a small but fabulously wealthy class of the “stinking rich”. Rajesh writes “For Wall Street stinking rich, they became rich by deregulation of the financial industry and for CEOs, a combination of tax policy, lack-of-internal promotions and a new Hollywood-like celebrity status caused their incomes to skyrocket.”

Closing gaps


The Productivity Commission has released the 2021 Closing the Gap Report.  This is an ongoing project, with regular reports on 17 targets for monitoring progress towards outcomes important to the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

This report presents data for seven targets for which recent data is available. To quote its summary:

Progress toward the seven targets is mixed. Three are on track (healthy birthweight babies, the enrolment of children in the year before full-time schooling and youth detention rates), while the remaining four are not on track (life expectancy, adult imprisonment, out-of-home care for children and suicides).

Of these four indicators where progress is falling short, the most stark relates to suicide, where the rate has risen from 17 per 100 000 in 2009 to 27 per 100 000 in 2019.

Writing in The Conversation, Janine Mohamed of the George Institute for Global Health suggests that the Closing the Gap project be expanded to cover aspects of well-being related to control and decision making.

USA – Vale Bob Moses

The civil rights leader Bob Moses died last Sunday. He never achieved the prominence of Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, but his work is noteworthy in part because of his emphasis on ensuring that students from disadvantaged groups, mainly Afro-Americans, could pursue studies in mathematics at high school, leading on to college mathematics. He founded the Algebra Project, a movement dedicated to achieving mathematical literacy for all school children in the USA.

His work is important, because a poor level of mathematical literacy works against the poor and against the public interest generally. It provides a fertile ground for scaremongers and fake news peddlers. Anti-vaxxers thrive on people’s inability to understand probability. The virus is raging in many places because people don’t understand exponential growth. Mortgage brokers and investment advisers exploit clients’ inability to handle basic financial mathematics. Right-wing politicians rely on people’s ignorance of basic economics to convince workers and people struggling in small business to vote for governments that enact policies to enrich the idle and undeserving.

Polls and surveys

Young people with insecure income

Anglicare has commissioned Ipsos to survey Australians’ experience of insecure income over the twelve months to May 2021. It found that 56 per cent of Australians aged 18 to 29 experienced income insecurity, compared with 45 per cent of those aged 30 to 49, and 26 per cent of those over 50.

Counter to what one may have expected in view of the pandemic’s big outbreak in Victoria, income insecurity was worst in New South Wales and the ACT: to that date both had been comparatively lightly touched by Covid-19.

In a press release issued on Monday, by which time the pandemic was raging in New South Wales, Anglicare called for more realistic levels of pandemic support for those who are out of work.

New South Wales

William Bowe’s Poll Bludger reports on a poll of 1600  people in New South Wales, that found overwhelming opposition to the lockdown protests (only 7 per cent support), high approval for Premier Berejiklian, even higher approval for chief health officer Kerry Chant, and high dissatisfaction with Morrison.

Resolve political monitor

Resolve’s latest poll (July 28) confirms the general pattern of other polls: Labor’s primary vote is trending upwards, but not as strongly as in other polls. Unlike other polls it has separate categories for “independents” and “others”, which may help explain why its primary vote for the main parties is lower than is shown in other polls.

What should be of concern to Labor is that on economic management “the Liberals and Scott Morrison” are still well ahead of “Labor and Anthony Albanese”.  Maybe people are judging “economic management” on the basis of fragile indicators such as the headline unemployment rate and asset values, rather than more serious and entrenched indicators of structural weakness, particularly productivity and underemployment.

The poll’s website allows users to choose disaggregated indicators – such as voting intention by age. Interesting, but take care in interpreting disaggregated results: the more the data is disaggregated the greater is the margin of error.


Australia Institute webinars

Tuesday 3 August, 1300 AEST: Katharine Murphy, Pete Lewis, and Ebony Bennett “Poll position” – a discussion of polling trends and methods.  (This webinar is held every two weeks as issues unfold.)

The webinar is free, but registration is essential. See the Institute’s seminars webpage.

The calming influence of yoga

Feeling stressed by lockdowns, climate change, government corruption? Here are some yoga exercises even the novice can do.

If you have comments, corrections, or links to other relevant sources, we’d like to hear from you.  Please send them to Ian McAuley — ian, at the domain name

See Michael West Media for more analysis of these and other economic and political issues, and watch out for Peter Sainsbury’s Sunday environment round up.

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