Aug 17, 2019

A regular collection of links to writings and broadcasts in other media

ABC’s Saturday Extra with Geraldine Doogue (from 0730 to 0900 or on their website  in case you miss it).

Reports this week indicate the tug of war between Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro and would-be leader, Juan Guaido has worsened. Raul Sanchez Urribarri from LaTrobe University updates us.

Two new schemes announced this week will fast track visas for highly skilled people in STEM start-up fields. How will they work, who is being recruited, and what can Australia offer that other countries can’t? Guests: Dr Michael Biercuk from Q-Ctrl and Alex Gruszka from Startup AUS.

Once the Australian Treasury supplied frank and fearless advice to ministers but in recent years the relationship has undergone dramatic changes, says former economic adviser Paul Tilley in his new book, Changing Fortunes.

Is the Australian Public Service as flexible and innovative as it should be? Two experts argue that we are falling behind the rest of the world:  so how can that trend be reversed? Guests: Beth Noveck, head of President Obama’s Open Government Initiative and Professor Rod Glover.

Journalist Frank Langfitt wanted to see how political and economic changes affected ordinary people in China, so he started driving a free taxi around Shanghai and talking to his passengers. The result is a book, The Shanghai Free Taxi.

Other commentary

Casinos – protected by a bipartisan political omertà

“The symbiotic relationship between politics and the [gambling] industry has turned Australians into the biggest, and losing-est, gamblers in the world.” That’s a quote from an article by Mike Seccombe  Political parties cash in on gambling largesse, published in the Saturday Paper  and posted by the Centre for Public Integrity. Recent revelations about Crown Casino are just the latest chapter in a series of stories about the gambling industry’s political influence.  That influence has corrupted both our main parties whose members in the House of Representatives voted against establishing a parliamentary committee to investigate allegations of corruption and criminality by Crown Casino. (In fairness to Labor, the article points out that the Coalition has disproportionately benefited from the gambling industry’s donations and scare campaigns.)

The winding political path to the banking “royal” commission

The ABC program Conversations  has two episodes on the background to the “royal” commission into Australia’s banks and financial institutions.

The first, Exposing the banks: the journalist who sparked a royal commission, is an interview with Adele Ferguson, author of the work Banking bad: Whistleblowers. Corporate cover-ups. One journalist’s fight for the truth. The program covers the cultural change following financial deregulation of the banking sector, the deliberate policy of weak regulation, and the experiences of individuals including National Party Senator John “Wacka” Williams. Towards the end of the 50 minute podcast you can hear how the Commission came about – including the relation between the banking commission legislation and the same sex marriage legislation. And you will learn that the inquiry that emerged was much less wide-ranging than that sought by independent senators.

The second episode  A heartbreaking, Machiavellian drama: what went on inside the Banking Royal Commission is a conversation with Dan Ziffer, the ABC business journalist who had the job of reporting on the commission as it proceeded. Ziffer describes the contrast between the modest expectations of the commission and the startling revelations of the proceedings.  This is a story not only about bad behaviour, but also about the forces that contributed to our housing bubble, and the fragility of the Australian economy, so dependent on banking and housing. Ziffer’s longer account of his observations is in his book A Wunch of Bankers.

Do you have a spare $3000?

ME (the Members’ Equity Bank owned by industry super funds) has produced its 16th Household financial comfort report. Its main finding is that “Australian households are feeling overall worse about their net wealth, jobs, income and living expenses”, particularly among working Australians. Of greatest concern is the cost of necessities – food, fuel, utilities. A lack of confidence is reflected in an increase in precautionary savings among lower-wealth households, from a very low base. The survey asks about people’s ability to raise $3000 within a week for an emergency. Roughly a third of households could do so easily, another third would have to make some financial adjustments (e.g. re-drawing on an existing loan), and a third would be unable to raise the money without doing something drastic.

Did you miss your invitation to the Conservative Action Conference?

In case you couldn’t make it to the Conservative Action Conference to hear Janet Albrechtsen, Tony Abbott, Mark Latham, Nigel Farage, Raheem Kassam, Peta Credlin, Ross Cameron and other leading world intellectuals, The Guardian’s Michael McGowan provides a short account of proceedings. It seems that much of the conference was release of a pent-up fury at one of Australia’s own conservative politicians, Labor’s Kristina Keneally. (This mob has its own concept of conservatism, which aligns more with Augusto Pinochet’s ideas than with Edmund Burke’s.)

Many media reported on Farage’s comments on two Liberal politicians– Malcolm Turnbull is a “snake” who “pretended to be a conservative” and Scott Morrison is a true conservative, whose credentials are confirmed by the way urban Australians dislike him.

Farage’s affection for Australia’s Coalition ministers is matched by Brexit campaigner Daniel Hannan who expresses his gratitude for support given to his campaign by John Howard and Tony Abbott, who seem to have trouble in understanding that the UK is a foreign country and that foreigners generally do not enter other countries’ partisan debates. Hannan is enthusiastic about re-establishing imperial-era trade and immigration ties with Australia.

A growing but unrecognised terrorist threat

“Last year right-wing extremists killed more people in America than in any year since 1995, the year of the Oklahoma City bombing. The vast majority of these were by white supremacists. It is a threat that authorities in the West have taken too lightly.”  That’s the concluding paragraph in an Economist article  What is “White Nationalism”?

The threat of right-wing terrorism is confirmed by Nick Rasmussen, former director of America’s National Counterterrorism Center, visiting ANU’s National Security College.

Paul Keating saved the economy from ruin – all on his own

Paul Keating in his usual modesty appears on the ABC’s 730 Report defending the scheduled increase of superannuation to 12 per cent and crediting superannuation with hauling us out of a chronic current-account deficit.

In response to Laura Tingle’s question “Wasn’t one of the lessons of the election campaign that oppositions shouldn’t be brave?”, Keating defends the idea of brave policies, but he argues for a broadening of the taxation base rather than what he saw as a redistributionist approach in Shorten’s campaign. Labor lost the election because “it failed to understand the middle-class economy that Bob Hawke and I created for Australia”.

In view of the swings revealed in the election, where more prosperous middle-class electorates swung towards  Labor – confirmed once again in William Bowe’s map of swings to and from Labor  in Melbourne (he did Sydney the previous week) – Keating’s assertion needs some careful consideration.

Writing in The Conversation  Jason Pallant and Sean Sands analyse retail spending patterns, and they suggest that the middle-class is losing ground relative to those at the top and bottom of the income distribution scale. The middle-class Keating created may not be as secure as he believes.

Don’t expect to see “congestion-busting infrastructure”: it’s going to get worse

Infrastructure Australia has released its 2019 Infrastructure Audit, and its general message is that although there has been some increased expenditure on infrastructure, the provision and maintenance of infrastructure is far from keeping pace with our needs, particularly in rapidly-growing regions – including our urban fringes.  (Diplomatically it does not ascribe the problem to two decades of governments prioritising tax cuts over investment in infrastructure and engineering skills.)

It’s a large report covering transport, energy, telecommunications, water and what it calls “social infrastructure” (as if “economic infrastructure” has its own justification separate from social needs, such is the frame of bureaucratic thinking). Each chapter is rich in detail. For example some of the findings of the transport chapter:

  • Road and public transport congestion is costing $19 billion a year and is expected to cost $40 billion a year in 2031, mainly in Sydney and Melbourne. (These are estimates of economic costs. Don’t expect the Morrison Government to care about these costs, for its expressed concern is only with fiscal costs. Talk of “congestion busting infrastructure” is not backed by budgetary appropriation.)
  • “Our radial public transport networks are inflexible and have varied levels of service and relatively low mode shares. Unless our public transport networks are designed to cater for a broader range of trips, they will not meet the changing needs of a growing number of customers.”
  • Australia’s new passenger vehicles are much more emissions-intensive than those sold in any European country.
  • Our transport emissions are on a strong upward trend, mainly from commercial vehicles.
  • While vehicle-kilometres are rising, revenue from fuel excise is falling.
  • Road fatalities (per 100 000 residents) are much higher in the non-metropolitan regions than in the city – in “very remote” regions they are eight time higher than in major urban regions.

And on energy:

  • “The National Electricity Market and the institutions which support its operation, have continued in the absence of decisive federal leadership.” (That’s extraordinarily frank language for a bureaucratic organisation.)
  • In spite of the lack of incentives, consumers are willing to act to reduce peak electricity demand.
  • “Coordinating investment in new generation and network assets in Renewable Energy Zones can promote investment in renewable generation, provide clarity for network investors, and increase scale and lower costs for new generation providers.”
  • Rooftop solar systems have a payback of less than seven years. (Assuming panels last 30 years, that’s a real tax-free return of 10 per cent!)

Can Morrison and Taylor stem the tide of electric vehicles?

Image from BITRE (CC)

Labor went to the election with a target that would see 50 per cent of all new car sales being electric by 2030, a proposal ridiculed in the Coalition election campaign. But modelling by the government’s Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, using conservative assumptions, suggests that in 2030, 40 per cent of car sales will be electric, before flattening out at about 60 per cent by 2050.  (The curve is one of those “logistic” functions, where growth starts slowly before accelerating rapidly as positive network externalities develop). Batteries will continue on their downward cost curve, and as they do electric cars will be offering higher ranges, with 600 km or so becoming a norm. The report makes no mention of electric commercial vehicles.

The gender dimension of financial stress

Writing in the Fairfax media, Jenna Price gives advance notice of a study by Marian Baird and her colleagues looking at the experience of women over 45, who find they have to stay working – often in multiple jobs – to cope with inescapable financial demands, particularly mortgage debt accumulated over decades of overpriced housing.  And because of broken work patterns, they have less in superannuation savings. “This is not discretionary work” says Baird.

Such findings should lead us to look at employment numbers with caution. The headline figures from the ABS labour force data for July show an impressive growth in employment, including full-time employment. They also reveal that over the last year female labour force participation has risen from 60.4 per cent to 61.1 per cent, and that the unemployment rate among women seeking full-time work is 6.1 per cent, well above the 5.0 per cent for men. These figures may indicate necessity rather than opportunity.

Inverted yield curves

There has been a great deal of airtime given to the phenomenon of “inverted yield curves”. That happens when the return on short-term bonds exceeds the return on long-term bonds.  According to economic theory and to common sense this shouldn’t happen – otherwise investors could make a motza by borrowing long-term and investing short-term. Academic research shows that inverted yields are almost always followed by a recession, with a time lag of about 18 months. That’s a reasonably robust empirical finding, but no amount of research has been able to explain the mechanisms which relate inverted yields to recessions.

Writing in The Washington Post  finance reporter Jonelle Marte gives a reasonably clear explanation of the inverted yield curve, with at least a tentative explanation of the way it translates into a recession.

Hong Kong

While the mainstream media attention is directed to the theatre of the Hong Kong protests and to speculation about intervention from Beijing, there has been little written about the source or history of the protestors’ grievances. Writing in Foreign Affairs,  Suzanne Sataline fills that gap, pointing out that the protests, originally directed at Beijing, have been increasingly directed to the city’s own government.

Making America weak again

That’s the title of an article by Eugene J Dionne in Commonwealcommenting on Trump’s foreign policy. His erratic policies toward China, and his affection for dictatorships is “squandering the high ground” the US once occupied in international affairs, and is thwarting any chance of a united push against China’s abuses.

Jürgen Habermas’s chronicle of western political ideas

Bernard Keane’s Side View  draws our attention to a review of the evolving political philosophy of Jürgen Habermas, written by historian Matthew Specter in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The review is really a potted summary of Habermas’s 12 volumes of political writings. Habermas’s contribution to political ideas has been his ability to meld German idealism with US and UK pragmatism, and to develop and refine his views as he observes world-wide political and economic developments. At a time when many despair about the emergence of populist governments with contempt for the truth, contempt for liberalism, contempt for cosmopolitanism, contempt for critical argument, and contempt for civic institutions, Habermas’s work is a welcome reminder that political ideas are fluid. He sees the need for Europe to re-assert its role as a moral pacesetter to counterbalance the hegemonic unilateralism of Trump’s America.

Boeing Boeing

Aviation enthusiasts have immersed themselves in the technical reports of the crashes of two 737 Max 8 aircraft. (The short answer is about high-attitude stalls brought on by crook software.)  Matt Stoller takes an organizational view: it’s about the displacement of Boeing’s once strong engineering culture with the financial profit-maximising culture of its management following its merger with McDonnell Douglas.

A visiting education expert discovers Australia’s education divide

Professor Pasi Sahlberg is a respected Finnish expert on school education who has come to Australia to take up the position as deputy director at the Gonski Institute for Education at the University of New South Wales. Coming with his family from Finland to another prosperous “developed” country he naturally assumed that the best school for his children would be the local public school. On the ABC website he writes about his  shock and disappointment at what he found.

Don’t blame the High Court for muzzling public servants

Last week’s ruling by the High Court upheld the right of the public service to fire a public servant who had anonymously tweeted anti-government opinions. She wasn’t revealing state secrets: she was simply doing what citizens take for granted in countries with guaranteed rights of free speech. But as the High Court confirmed, unlike the US, Canada, New Zealand and most of Europe, we have no such guaranteed right in Australia. This means two million Australians, employed by governments, are denied one of the basic rights citizens enjoy in most democracies. Crispin Hull does not criticise the High Court. Rather, he writes:

Australians should understand that to qualify as a liberal democracy a bill of rights is pretty much compulsory. History tells us that liberal democracy is both gained and lost gradually, step by step. In recent years, Australia has been taking some of those steps.

The Government sets the record straight on Timor and the Witness K case

Pearls and Irritations does not normally act as a medium to distribute unmediated government political information – we leave that to the Murdoch press – but in view of the flood of left-wing commentary on the prosecutions of Witness K and Bernard Collaery we feel obliged, in the interest of “balance”, to provide  a link to this short three minute video from the Department for Coveting Thy Neighbour’s Goods.

Saturday’s Good Reading and Listening  is compiled by Ian McAuley


Watch out tomorrow, Sunday, for Peter Sainsbury’s Sunday environment round up.

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