Oct 12, 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).

The US decision to pull troops out of Syria creates a dangerous geopolitical vacuum – what comes next?

Two weeks ago, new laws intended to crack down on fake news went into effect in Singapore. But the final ruling on what news is fake will come from government MPs – and in a country which already exercises tight control over its media they’re causing widespread alarm.

Is the era of economic constant growth over – and if so, what comes next?

Twentieth century dictators use two tools to rule – fear and the personality cult. Historians have paid too little attention to the latter, says Frank Dikötter in his new book How to be a Dictator: The cult of personality in the twentieth century.

Josephine Tovey has been a lifelong, voracious reader: in the last few years she’s found reading a book from cover to cover almost impossible, against the siren call of Twitter, Facebook and streaming services.

Other commentary

Michelle Bachelet delivers the 2019 Whitlam Oration

“Human rights are not impractical philosophical ideals. They are sound policy choices, which build strong, healthy, secure, peaceful and thriving societies.”

That strong theme is in the 2019 Whitlam Memorial lecture  by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.

She contrasts the progress under the Whitlam Government in signing on to international treaties –  “most notably the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination”— with the rise of defensive isolationism in recent years. She warns that campaigns in the name of religious freedom can undermine more basic rights such as freedom of expression and prohibition of discrimination. She outlines the difficult rights issues in regulating digital media. She defends young people who speak out on climate change.

In 1974 Bachelet, after a period in which she and her parents were imprisoned and tortured by the Pinochet regime for her father’s political views, managed to flee to Australia, where she found refuge and safety. Understandably she is highly critical of the contrast between her own experience and Australia’s present treatment of refugees, particularly the public narrative that surrounds this policy.

You can also hear Bachelet in a short interview on the ABC PM  Program, talking with Linda Mottram about  the current events in north-eastern Syria.

Eastern Europe: populism with post-communist characteristics

Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies and Isaiah Berlin Professional Studies at Oxford University, has written an account of post-1989 Eastern Europe,  Time for a New Liberation, New York Review of Books. It’s a story of dashed hopes for a liberal era following the collapse of communism in Poland, East Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic, as elections in these countries have seen the rise of authoritarian populists.

He explains this development along several dimensions. One is emigration – many of these countries have lost their best-educated people to other countries in the old “west”. Another is immigration – there has been a sudden surge of foreigners off a small or zero base, in countries with no tradition of multiculturalism. Another is the destruction of institutions under communism – elections are easy to hold, institutions take time to re-develop. Another is cronyism – the elites in the old communist system have often become the owners of the now privatised state businesses.

Above all, what has emerged is not the imagined model of capitalism contained in a strong society, but a ruthless, exploitative form of capitalism. Echoing the prophecy of Karl Polanyi, a Hungarian writing 75 years ago, he writes that “they have developed not just a market economy but a market society”.  That wasn’t how it was meant to turn out.

The West’s mistake after 1989 was not that we celebrated what happened in Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest as a triumph of liberal, European, and Western values. It was all of that. Our mistake was to imagine that this was now the norm, the new normal, the way history was going.

The problem, Ash argues, is not just that the old Eastern Europe has become illiberal. It is also the model of capitalism that the old “west” has developed – hardly an attractive model.

Is liberal democracy a transient phenomenon in human history?

That’s a question posed by Crispin Hull in his article Anglospheric apoplexy a threat to us all.  The US, the UK and Australia have all seen a growth of tribalism and nationalism, disdain for international cooperation, erosion of the rule of law and the emergence of autocratic authority figures with contempt for democratic institutions.

These are dangerous times for liberal democracies and liberal democrats. We in Australia should be especially vigilant now because Britain and the US have for all of our existence been the prime examples to which we have looked up to and followed. If they lurch to autocracy we will have to be robust enough to say they are our examples no more.

Foreign policy lessons not learned: How Obama paved the way for Trump

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Peter Beinart  reviews three books  by people intimately involved with Obama’s foreign ventures – Susan Rice (ambassador to the UN), Samantha Power (she followed Rice as ambassador to the UN) and Ben Rhodes (Obama’s foreign policy speechwriter).

Each author traces his or her own transition from youthful idealism to a more realistic understanding of the possibilities in international diplomacy.

Beinart finds that all authors engage in an understandable degree of self-justification, but in doing so they fail to analyse and describe the failures of ventures in Libya, Syria and elsewhere. In failing to explain the lessons to be learned “liberal internationalists like Rice, Power, and Rhodes make it easier for nativist bigots like Trump to proffer a lesson of their own: that Washington should care less about people overseas, especially if they are not Christian or white.”

He goes on to write:

Among the lessons of Libya and Syria is that state collapse can be as brutal as state repression. These disasters have helped Trump jettison the notion that the United States has any real responsibility for human rights beyond its borders, and they have helped him outline an international vision in which sovereignty is king.

… they fail to acknowledge the uncomfortable ways in which Trump’s disregard for human rights represents a continuation of—rather than a break from—the policies of the government in which they served.

US and Australia retreat from foreign engagements

On ABC Radio Nightlife  with Phillip Clark, Thursday 10 October, Ramesh Thakur discusses  Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds in Syria and Morrison’s Lowy Lecture in which he signalled a disdain for international agencies and their treaties and agreements – particularly on climate change.

Ramesh takes us through the realpolitik of America’s withdrawal, pointing out that the decision is in line with Trump’s promises. It is a betrayal of an ally, but as he reminds us, countries may have permanent interests but they don’t have permanent friends.

On Morrison’s Lowy Lecture speech, he warns that Australia, unlike large countries such as the USA, depends heavily on a rules-based order. We should not question the principle of a rules-based multilateral order, because that order is vital to our security and prosperity. But “Morrison in his speech came dangerously close to saying that”.

Ramesh’s segment runs from approximately 1:02 to 1:17. The Lowy Institute has posted Morrison’s lecture . You can read his complaints about “an unaccountable internalist bureaucracy”. (Ramesh carefully explains the governance of the UN: it is certainly not as Morrison would have us believe.)

“Louts, thugs, bullies”: the myth that’s driving Morrison’s anti-union push

That’s the title of a piece in The Conversation  by Anthony Forsyth, Professor of Workplace Law at RMIT University, describing the excesses of the Morrison Government’s newly-re-introduced “Ensuring Integrity Bill”. It’s a bill proposing harsh measures against unions on the flimsiest of grounds – much harsher than would apply to any miscreant company director or manager.

The problems the bill is supposed to address have either long been solved or are covered by existing legislation. Forsyth sees the bill in the context of the Morrison Government’s push to portray unions as a threat to the economy – a portrayal supported by so-called employers’ organisations who fail to understand the role of unions in protecting capitalism from its own self-destructive forces.

Trump’s trade wars: he’s also going after Europe

Writing in The Washington Post  Siobhán O’Grady reports on Finnish President Sauli Niinisto’s meeting with Donald Trump. Most of the article is about Trump’s lack of respect for Niinisto and his country. He also reminds us that Trump’s trade war extends to Europe: he is threatening tariffs based on the allegation that the EU has been illegally subsidising Airbus.

(The WTO has reportedly ruled that such tariffs would comply with its rules. Surely this should bring into question the relaxed safety requirements  the US Federal Aviation Authority allowed Boeing in its certification for the 737 Max – a relaxation that saved Boeing the cost of a re-design. Does not this count as a subsidy?)

Trump’s good and faithful servants

“It’s the story of Faust, who sold his soul for renown, then endured the ugliness of that deal.” That’s how Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times, describes the way Secretary of State Pompeo ingratiated himself to  Trump, as if he had never warned fellow Republicans against endorsing Trump, saying that Trump would be “ an authoritarian president who ignored our Constitution”. Pompeo is not the only one who has struck a Faustian bargain: Bruni also refers to earlier critical statements about Trump by others who went on to hold senior positions in the White House, including Kellyanne Conway, Mick Mulnaney and Lindsey Graham. (But has Trump’s Syria withdrawal stretched Graham’s loyalty a little too far?)

 Portugal’s election – a consolidation for the left

It was Portugal’s turn for an election on Sunday and the Socialist Party of Prime Minister António Costa consolidated its position, with 37 per cent of the vote, up from 32 per cent in 2015.  There was a sight swing away from other parties of the left, but Costa will be easily able to form a coalition with other parties on the left, according to Politico’s analysis.  While two new far-right parties managed to get 3 per cent of the vote, the mainstream parties of the right appear to have lost support.

Greta Thunberg: “Young people are starting to understand your betrayal”

The usual chorus of right-wing commentators – Amanda Vanstone, Miranda Devine, Chris Kenny – have been quick to belittle Greta Thunberg. PM Morrison, who didn’t bother to attend the UN Climate Change Summit, joined in putting her down with a condescending pat on the head: “I always like kids to be kids” he said in a doorstop interview in New York, essentially accusing Thunberg and her followers of creating “needless anxiety”.

It takes only five minutes to watch her carefully-delivered speech, rather than the out-of-context snippets reported in right-wing media. She is angry, and she is warning us of the urgency of action on climate change, but do we accuse the firefighter who warns us to evacuate of raising “needless anxiety”? When she says to the assembled statespeople “you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is” we might reasonably ask who are the adults in the room.

Best wishes for the Liberal Party’s 75th birthday

Writing in The Conversation, Michelle Grattan reports on an interview  with The Australian’s Tony Branson, in which Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull gave some rather frank comments on the occasion of the Liberal Party’s 75th birthday.

Abbott said he would like to return to Parliament.  Turnbull, unsurprisingly, talked about Morrison’s intransigence on energy policy and the influence of a group of reactionary climate denialists on the Liberal Party’s policies.

What’s the point of private health insurance?

That was the subject of a discussion on The Drum  last Monday evening. Ellen Fanning gathered five commentators: Nursing Professor Mary Chiarella, Consumers Health Forum CEO Leanne Wells, oncologist Ranjana Srivastava, health economist Stephen Duckett and Private Healthcare Australia CEO Rachel David. Rachel David’s organisation is actually representative of the health insurers and not, as its name may suggest, private hospitals and other private health care providers – an important distinction not always made by those who fail to question the link between private hospitals and private insurers.

They covered most issues concerning PHI. Apart from David, who made a not well-supported statement about the cost to Medicare were PHI to lose its subsidies (claiming it would require an extra $19 billion a year in public funding), the panel was concerned with exposing problems and trends rather than trying to defend any position. Duckett pointed out how “a small number of greedy” doctors is responsible for 89 per cent of out-of-pocket costs for those holding PHI – a problem the insurers are unable to address. Srivastava pointed out how private hospitals tend to take the easy cases, shifting the burden of hard cases back on to public hospitals.

The discussion touched on broader issues in health care funding. One was whether public and private insurance mechanisms, designed in an era when acute care was the greatest need, are appropriate for the present era when care for chronic conditions is the greatest need. The other was the sustainability of a model where “community rating” relies on cajoling the young to subsidise the old.

There was no questioning of the idea that the funding of private hospitals should be linked to PHI; they all tended to talk about the “private system” as if that link is unbreakable. Similarly there was no suggestion that wealthy retirees seeking private care should pay for their own care without the support of subsidised PHI. And there was no recognition that while private hospitals may relieve public hospitals of the patient load, they also take resources away from public hospitals, thus countering any benefit in taking a load off the public system. In fact the consumer spokesperson admitted that she had used PHI to jump the queue in getting priority treatment, thus pushing other consumers down the line.

(To view it, go to The Drum website, and choose the program for Monday October 7.)

Wealth taxes have moved up the agenda

That’s the title of an article  in The Economist. Traditionally economists have been unenthusiastic about wealth taxes, but in an echo of Piketty’s call for wealth taxes, the article points out that widening wealth disparities strengthen the case for such taxes, probably on very large inheritances and transfers. (They’re talking about real money, not the second-hand car you give your kids on their 18th birthday.)

The article cites a paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research – Use it or lose it: Efficiency gains from wealth taxation. The abstract is written in the language of economists, but its basic argument that while traditional corporate income taxes apply most heavily to the most efficient enterprises (that’s why they are profitable enough to pay tax), wealth taxes also pick up wealth gained through idle speculation and low-productivity activities. To quote The Economist  “Shifting the burden of tax from capital income to wealth, they argue, would reward investors capable of achieving outsize returns on their investments, and shrink the fortunes of those unwilling or unable to put their lucre to productive use.”

(The Economist  allows non-subscribers up to three free articles a week – a generous allowance – but if you are not a paid-up subscriber you will have to register.)

Corporate taxes on the tech giants

The OECD has released a paper Secretariat Proposal for a “Unified Approach” under Pillar One. Its title gives little indication of its content: it’s about ways to collect more (or any) tax from companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, renowned for shifting their operations to low-tax jurisdictions. The OECD paper is a model of bureaucratic turgidity, but it is basically about establishing formulaic rules for allocating profits between jurisdictions.

Writing on the ABC website, Nassim Khadem explains that the OECD approach will fall short of collecting a reasonable amount of revenue from these corporations. Prominent economists, including Wayne Swan, are seeking a stronger way to tax such footloose enterprises.

America’s economic prospects – is a recession on the cards?

When Linette Lopez writes in Business Insider Australia  about the failure of  Trump’s economic policies  she’s mostly covering familiar ground. But she also reminds us of the nature of economic indicators – employment and consumer confidence. Unemployment is still falling and consumer confidence (response to the statement “good time to buy household goods”) is holding up.  She points out that these are what economists call “lagging indicators”. As a recession develops firms try to hang on to employees as long as possible, and as firms discount heavily consumers see more bargains on offer. The present state of these indicators is very similar to their state before the last three recessions.

Australia’s economic prospects – we’re in line with Cuba, Venezuela and Zimbabwe

Researchers at the Growth Lab at Harvard’s Center for International Development have been looking at the extent countries have diversified their production into more complex sectors. Their index of economic complexity  “captures the diversity and sophistication of the productive capabilities embedded in the exports of each country.”  Countries that have increased their economic complexity will enjoy faster economic growth than those that have remained stable or gone backwards.

Australia is one of the few countries (along with the UK, Armenia, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Senegal and Venezuela) whose economic complexity score has fallen sharply over the last ten years. Our prospects for medium-term economic growth are dim.

Who’s spruiking the property market?

There are early signs that in spite of high levels of household debt, capital city real-estate prices are on the way up. An organisation known as the “Property Investment Professionals of Australia” has released a survey of property speculators’ beliefs and attitudes. (They use the term “investors” rather than “speculators”, presumably to elevate  respectability of the activity.) Of those surveyed, 82 per cent believe that this is a good time to invest in residential property.  They report that 75 per cent “said Labor’s proposed changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax influenced their federal election voting decision”.

The only hint of realism is that 88 per cent would like to see more education about the risks and benefits of property investment. (If they had such education, would they still be putting their money into property, or would they go for long-term growth assets, such as equities?)

Julia Gillard tries to bring Anglophiles to their senses

Anglophiles such as Tony Abbott see in a no-deal Brexit a return to a blissful world when young Australians made their overseas pilgrimage to Earl’s Court, when we gave preferential tariffs to Vauxhalls and Morris Minors, and when we deferred to our colonial masters. Julia Gillard pours cold water  on the supposed benefits of an Australia-UK trade deal (maybe an Australia-England trade deal), according to an article by Latika Bourke in the Sydney Morning Herald.  Trade deals take many years to negotiate, and Gillard points out that in Australia’s interests the UK is “at the back of the queue when it came to Australia’s preferred trading partners, of China, Japan, US, Korea, India, New Zealand and Singapore.”

(The string of comments on this article reveals much more economic reality among the Herald’s readers than among Abbott, Morrison and Australia’s sentimental Anglophiles.)

Almost one electric vehicle for every American

The catch is that those 300 million electric vehicles are in China and belong to Chinese, writes Stephen Roach of Yale University  in the  South China Morning Post. China is still a large contributor to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s on an impressive trajectory of structural change towards de-carbonising its economy. Roach writes that “the West” (presumably he’s referring mainly to the US) is quick to demonise China over trade, but it is reluctant to give China credit for its green leadership.

Britain post Brexit

Post Brexit a falling pound may make holidays in mainland Europe less affordable. Inspired by Morrison’s “where the bloody hell are you” campaign, Boris Johnson has asked the British Tourist Promotion Board to prepare a promotion for local tourism  (warning – semi-nudity).

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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