Nov 16, 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 dispute over who owns a holy site in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya – Hindus or Muslims – has been in the courts for decades, and has been a bone of contention since 1528. This week the Supreme Court decided in favour of the Hindus. Did they just hand the nationalists a victory? Guest: Sadanand Dhume.

It’s not just koalas. The fires’ devastating effect on wildlife – from frogs to potoroos – has left them without homes or food.

Dr Martin Parkinson has advised and worked alongside ten prime ministers and a dozen cabinet ministers. He talks to Geraldine about the Canberra “bubble”, and why Australia seems unable to move forward on some of its most pressing challenges.

In an increasingly polarised world, psychologist and neuroscientist Jamil Zaki argues that empathy is a skill that can, and should, be reclaimed.

Last Saturday Geraldine interviewed Christopher Patten, who had just delivered the 2019 Fraser Oration. The program’s producers have provided  a link to his Oration on Political Leadership  (video and transcript).

Other commentary

No, Michael McCormack: scientists and mayors aren’t “raving lunatics”

Personal stories of loss, slanging matches between National Party and Green politicians, and the usual “this is not the appropriate time” attempts to deny people a voice, have made it hard for the voices of reason to be heard. Three that have broken through these barriers are:

Greg Mullins, former Commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW, mainly on federal politicians’ refusals to hear or act on early warnings – interview with Hamish Macdonald,  on ABC RN Breakfast (13 minutes);

Carol Sparks, Mayor of Glen Innes Severn Council, on dealing with the local consequences  when policymakers don’t take science seriously: “Their ignorance and arrogance have delivered us only ashes” – writing in The Guardian;

David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania, specifically on hazard reduction –  interview with Hamish Macdonald  on ABC RN Breakfast (5 minutes).

(The idea that there is something wrong or tasteless in making “political” statements about public policy failure may be the rule in authoritarian dictatorships: Morrison and his colleagues seem to find it hard to understand how democracy works.)

Spain moves a little to the right while the socialists form a minority government

Because Spain has more political parties than the Catholic Church has orders of nuns its politics are complicated. In the national election last Sunday six parties – three “left”, three “right”, shared 87 per cent of the vote. Support for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Workers’ Party – a traditional social-democratic party – was essentially unchanged at 28 per cent while among the parties of the right losses and gains more or less balanced out, but within those parties the far-right nationalist Vox Party gained at the expense of more moderate parties.

The Socialists have struck a coalition deal with the anti-austerity party Unidas Podemos, but that still leaves them 19 seats short of a majority in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies. Most press coverage, including The Guardian’s Sam Jones –  Pedro Sánchez reaches accord with anti-austerity party in bid to form government – and Spain’s El País –  How an “impossible” governing coalition was clinched in an hour – is about how the Socialists are likely to be able to govern in a minority.

While Europe’s left is fragmented the right is united

There was a time when throughout Europe, and even globally, the left was united behind a common cause, but Lea Ypi, writing in Social Europe, warns that the right is now speaking with one voice:

The secret of the advance of the new right is that it practises what the old left used to preach. It is a new international, with a shared message, a shared vision of social change, shared adversaries and now a shared political platform. It does all that while cultivating local roots and speaking a language that people understand. Instead of classes it speaks of nations, instead of politics it speaks of culture, and instead of capitalists it speaks of immigrants.

The European roots of “political Islam”

On the ABC’s Philosopher’s Zone David Rutledge interviews Asmir Mufti, Professor of Comparative Literature at UCLA, on the politics of the recent influx of migrants and refugees into Europe. Mufti argues that what is known as “political Islam” is a movement shaped by the history of the colonial experience in those countries from which the immigrants come. European colonisation in India, Egypt and other countries with large or dominant Muslim populations shaped Islam into forms we know today – a shaping he calls the “Protestantisation” of Islam. He goes on to look at the history of European ethnic conflicts, the Holocaust being the most recent and vivid example, but the tensions are older. He is not certain that “the conflicts that defined European politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have been overcome”.

Technology – trade wars and cyber wars

China’s great technological leap forward

Since China joined the World Trade Organization at the start of this century its growth has been extraordinary. Writing in The American Interest, R Stephen Brent of the Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy outlines the path of China’s industrial development since it opened its economy. At one level China set out on a typical “developing country” path, based on low-cost labour. But linked to this was also a deliberate policy of building its technological assets and competitive strength:

China has used three general methods to tap foreign technology: attracting foreign investors by offering low costs, accessing foreign technology by forced technology transfers and IP theft, and adapting foreign technology in local products.

(The American Interest allows one free article a month.)

America’s war on Chinese technology

That’s the title of a Project Syndicate article by Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs, who compares US concerns about security risks posed by Chinese technology firms – particularly Huawei – with the scare over Iraq’s imagined weapons of mass destruction. America’s scare campaign about the security threat from Chinese technology companies – a campaign that extends to America’s allies – is a threat to the world trade order.

In international affairs, no less than in other domains, stoking fears and acting on them, rather than on the evidence, is the path to ruin. Let’s stick to rationality, evidence, and rules as the safest course of action.

Introducing Fancy Bear and Sandworm

They’re cuddly names but they’re not avatars in computer games. Rather they’re Russian hacking syndicates that have already engaged in effective cyberwar against Ukraine and have the capability to do a great deal of other damage worldwide. Sandworm: A new era of cyberwar and the hunt for the Kremlin’s most dangerous hackers is the title of a recently-published book by Andy Greenberg.  On the OneZero site is a transcript of Hope Reese’s interview with Greenberg, essentially a review of his book. Instead of directing its efforts to preventing cyberwars, the US has allowed the conflict to escalate. It watched silently as Russia mounted a severe cyber attack on Ukraine, and instead of pursuing a defensive policy it went in hard to develop its own cyber weapons that others have stolen and have turned against the USA and other countries.


Newspoll – support for Labor back to 50:50

William Bowe reports on last weekend’s Newspoll  which hints at a slow recovery in Labor’s primary vote (up 2 to 35 per cent) and a corresponding fall in the Coalition’s primary vote, resulting in a 2PP tie. Not too much should be read into such movements which would lie within margins of error, but the poll does show a significant gain in Albanese’s approval rating. What some would consider as his “net approval” is now 5 percent (42% approval – 37% disapproval) compared with Morrison’s of 3 per cent (46% – 43%).

Essential – same messages as Newspoll, cautious support for our right to protest

Essential has a poll showing a steady erosion in Morrison’s net approval and a growth in Albanese’s net approval (mainly due to a fall in his disapproval). But Albanese is still a long way behind as preferred PM. There is a strong age gradient in these ratings: as preferred PM Morrison has a 2:1 lead among voters over 55.

Essential also surveys people on participation in protest activity. Unsurprisingly the young have been more active in protests than older Australians (who largely confine their protests to signing petitions rather than attending rallies.)  Across age groups and partisan affiliations there is strong support for “the right to peaceful protest”, but in response to the statement “Government has the right to limit citizen protests when it is contrary to the national interest” 47 per cent of respondents agree with this limitation. Almost two-thirds of Coalition voters support a “national interest” restriction.  Also the right of protestors “to pressure banks not to invest in companies that are building coal mines” has 53 per cent support.

(It is notable that in both the Newspoll and  Essential polls, while Labor and Albanese are tracking comparatively well on approval, Albanese remains a long way behind as “Preferred PM”. Morrison is appearing in situations where one would normally expect to see a president or monarch in other democracies – attending military commemorations, comforting victims of disasters and so on – while assiduously avoiding anything with real policy content. He may make an acceptable, if dull, president.)

Anyone who works hard enough can get out of poverty

Just kidding. But the ABC’s National Talks Survey finds that about half of Australians agree with that statement. There are strong partisan differences: agreement is strongest among Coalition supporters (72 per cent), followed by One Nation (65 per cent), Labor (33 per cent) and Greens  (23 per cent). There is also a strong gender divide: 59 per cent of men agree, compared with 42 per cent of women. Michel Janda’s  presentation and interpretation of these findings  includes the considered views of those who work on the frontlines of poverty reduction and of those who have slipped into poverty. They know through experience that the proposition that one can lift oneself out of poverty simply by working hard is just plain wrong.

America’s coming poll

Journalists and political pundits love American elections because they drag on over such a long period. The election is twelve months away, but a large field of Democrats are campaigning strongly for preselection. In The New York Review of BooksA Dem for all seasons? – Michael Tomasky writes about the front runners – Sanders, who finds he isn’t the only anti-establishment candidate this time; Biden, who seems to have lost some energy; and Warren, who is running strongly on “Medicare for all” (i.e. a single-payer national health insurer). In a situation familiar to left-of-centre parties the world over, they have to find a path that appeals both to traditional working-class voters and to younger, urbanised liberal voters.

On that last point The Economist has a series of charts  showing the widening political gap between Americans with and without degrees. Among so-called “whites” the gap is particularly large: “those without a college degree backed Mr Trump over Mrs Clinton by a margin of more than two to one”.

Labor’s loss: comment upon comment

Last Saturday we covered Labor’s review of its 2019 election campaign. (Its period of openness didn’t mast long: it’s already removed the document from its website, but you can download a copy from the Analysis& Policy Observatory.) Now for the reviews of the review:

Laura Tingle believes that Labor will have to go into the next election with a pared-down policy and spending agenda  (she makes the strange suggestion that even though taxing imputation credits did not cost Labor votes among those affected, they will probably drop the policy). “It’s probably time for the party to find a new roadmap”, because it’s now impossible to find “the Labor heartland”.

By contrast Lindy Edwards of UNSW does not suggest that Labor should shrink itelf to a small target. She points out that in the election Labor was “still caught in the neo-liberal straitjacket”. Their policies of taxing the rich to pay for public goods and to re-distribute the dividends of economic growth were poorly explained. “There wasn’t a narrative about why that wealth might have been unfairly gained, or about the people they were seeking to protect from exploitation.”

Crispin Hull places Labor’s review in the context of the need for fundamental reforms in electoral funding: it’s too easy for the rich to buy an election outcome. The Centre for Public Integrity has a list of 15 reforms designed to eliminate the undue influence of money on politics.

SA Parliament – shades of liberalism

A private members’ bill to decriminalise sex work was defeated in the SA House of Representatives in a “conscience vote” – 25 against, 20 for. The 19 Labor members were almost evenly split (9 against, 10 for), while the 24 Liberal members voted 2:1 against (16 against, 8 for). The two independents supported the bill. The bill had previously been passed in the Legislative Council – historically considered as the more conservative of the two chambers.

The ABC’s Casey Briggs covers the political issues associated with the proposed but defeated bill.

(What is a “conscience vote”? Should not every elected representative be guided by his or her conscience when voting?)

Wealth distribution (i.e. financial wealth distribution)

Globally 2019 has seen a slight closure in wealth inequality. But within many countries wealth inequality has continued to widen, and the very wealthy – the top one per cent – have continued to do well. Young people – “millennials” – are facing tough conditions with high education costs and unaffordable housing.

These are some of the findings in  Credit Suisse’s Global wealth report 2019. It has a section on Australia, reporting that “Australia’s wealth per adult is fourth highest in the world in US dollars. In terms of median wealth, it ranks second after Switzerland”. But much of that wealth is in housing (the price of which can rapidly fall) and in mineral resources (which can result in the economic distortion of the “resource curse”).

With specific reference to the USA, Mary Papenfuss, writing in Huffington Post, points out that America’s wealth gap continues to widen, as a result of Trump’s tax cuts and the fall in interest rates.  She points to research showing that the super-rich (the 400 richest families) have a lower tax rate than the bottom fifty per cent.

Economics – the times they are a-changin’

A hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Mohamed El-Erian, Chief Economic Adviser at Allianz, speaks to Elysse Morgan on the ABC’s The Business Program, on short-term global economic prospects.

He explains how the monetary stimulus of low interest rates is not addressing the problems faced in “developed” countries. He’s not necessarily critical of central banks: they have no choice but to push monetary policy as far as it can go, even though they know it’s ineffective. But monetary policy cannot address structural problems of low productivity, the need for change in skills, and infrastructure deficits. Worse, low interest rates inescapably widen wealth inequality. He says it’s odds-on for a Europe-wide recession. (7 minutes)

Hard travelin’ ahead

ABC’s business reporter Michael Janda  summarises a report by Bank of America Merryl Lynch (not publicly released) in which they foresee a coming decade of fundamental economic turning points. We’re entering the next decade with interest rates at 5000 year lows (illustrated in a graph with a logarithmic x axis). The economic consequences of ultra-low interest rates are becoming harder to ignore, as are the consequences of climate change. The bank’s analysts are forecasting peak inequality, peak globalisation, peak internal combustion engines, peak youth and peak stuff (we have enough stuff as environmental concerns take over). They point to the way these developments are re-defining political battlelines.

No shelter from the storm

Joseph Stiglitz summarises economic development in a short article in Project Syndicate  The end of neoliberalism and the rebirth of history. Anyone unfamiliar with Stiglitz’s work may read it as a Trumpian attack on globalisation and on the elites from the professional classes. But his criticism is more pointed – it’s aimed at the form of globalisation that has “left individuals and entire societies unable to control an important part of their own destiny”, and at those economists – the elites in the worlds of finance and government treasury departments – who have pushed simple neoliberal models in a blind faith in trickle-down economics.

Modern monetary theory: don’t think twice, it’s alright

Many readers of Pearls and Irritations are enthusiasts for “modern monetary theory”. Writing for the Institute for New Economic Thinking, Lance Taylor traces its roots in orthodox economic theory – Not so modern monetary theory. Traditionalists need not be fearful of MMT – it’s alright as a means to counter the business cycle and to  employ under-utilised resources. But it can be pushed too far.

Don’t bash unions: we need them now more than ever

The Morrison Government’s “Ensuring Integrity Bill”, proposing further restrictions on unions and their members, is still the subject of parliamentary negotiations. On the ABC’s Breakfast program ACTU President Michele O’Neil describes the asymmetry of treatment of businesses and unions. A large retailer can steal $300 million in wages and suffer no more than a slap on the wrist, while the bill provides for severe penalties for unions when there are minor technical breaches of the law. And the legislation is unnecessary: there are already laws about union behaviour. As confirmed by recent data on stagnant wage growth (the ABS Wage Price Index released on Wednesday), the loss of the power of unions to bargain for higher wages is hurting the whole economy. (10 minutes).

On the same legislation Anthony Forsyth of the RMIT School of Business, writing on the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society site, describes the  legal aspects of the bill. Provisions of the bill “would directly interfere with the rights to freedom of association and independent functioning of trade unions guaranteed by, among other international instruments, the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise”.

Comrade Littleproud’s plan for luxury pastures 

It may be 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but central planning is as strong as ever in the ranks of the Coalition Government – this time in an agricultural plan that surpasses anything Lenin’s People’s Commissar for Agriculture Vladimir Milyutin might have concocted.

Well-fed Potemkin cow

Writing in The Conversation Lin Crase of the University of South Australia walks us through the Commonwealth Government’s plan to subsidise the South Australian Government to generate water from its desalination plant, at a cost of 95 cents per 1000 litres, so that the River Murray water so liberated can be sold to farmers at 10 cents a 1000 litres, on the condition that they use it to grow hay. “It means, on a best-case scenario, the federal government will be spending A$85 million to subsidise the production of hay worth A$72 million to its producers” – with profits kept by those farmers growing lucerne hay who will sell it to struggling farmers at market prices, or perhaps will who game the system to re-sell their 10 cent water to other water users.

(Milyutin was shot in Stalin’s purges. Hopefully Littleproud will have a gentler exit when he leaves public life.)

Liberation of Honecker’s “quiet” Germans

November 9 was the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – the end of the authoritarian regime in East Germany where the Moscow-controlled dictator Erich Honecker, in the name of security, used state powers to ensure that citizens of the GDR behaved as unquestioning and compliant “quiet” Germans. The Berlin tourist promotion body visitBerlin has a web presentation of  Berlin’s celebrations last week.


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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