Nov 23, 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).

Are the bushfires really unprecedented and what could we do to prevent them happening again?

The much-predicted retail bounce has failed to materialise. But what those figures may not reflect is a generational shift, where the drivers are renting rather than owning, buying online rather than in a bricks and mortar store and paying for experience rather than goods. Guest: Pippa Kulmar, co-director, Retail Oasis

It’s different in Queensland – especially when it comes to politics. Lech Blayne on why Labor lost the north and whether they can win it back

Next year’s anniversary of Cook’s arrival in Australia has thrown the spotlight back on the navigator. But despite the heated debate around his legacy, we hardly seem to know anything about him. Guest: Peter FitzSimons

Flying High: taking the longest non-stop flight in the world was stressful enough. Battling a head cold and allergies didn’t help.  Nor did the Ambien. And the decongestants. And the melatonin…

Last Saturday Geraldine interviewed Jamil Zaki – “Whatever happened to empathy?”. His recently-published book is The war for kindness: Building empathy in a fractured world.

Other commentary

People are rebelling, but they’re not revolting

Peter McPhee of the University of Melbourne is a historian of the French Revolution. He wonders if the rebellions and protests we are seeing today (Hong Kong, Iraq, Iran, Chile, France) will lead to revolutionary outcomes. Writing in The Conversation he lists the conditions that led to the world’s great revolutions (English, American, French, Russian and Chinese) and concludes that “the upheavals in our contemporary world are not revolutionary – or not yet”.

That doesn’t mean the current protests are pointless. He writes that in democracies like Australia they indicate “a deep cynicism around a commitment to the common good … created by a lack of clear leadership on climate change and energy policy, self-serving corporate governance and fortress politics”.

What passes for the foreign policy of Australia lacks any sense of strategic realism

That’s a quote from Paul Keating’s keynote speech on Australia’s China policy, delivered at the Australian Strategic Forum on Monday. The text is published in full in The Guardian and it can be seen in a YouTube video (26 minutes – pity about the intrusive advertisements).

His address starts with a dispassionate account of the economic rise of China, and the difficulty the US Government has in understanding its inevitability. He is equally dispassionate about America’s foreign policy: Trump’s contempt for institutions is harmful, but America’s military isolationism is inevitable – and desirable. Keating acknowledges Trump’s amateurism and gaucheness but he points out “his intuitive stance will take America where the next president or the one after that would take it anyway.”

In the context of the decline of American hegemony he urges Australia to develop a realistic policy, based not on the primacy of fragile military alliances, but on work towards “a region which gives China the space to participate but not dominate”. Our impediment is a one-dimensional view of China:

The subtleties of foreign policy and the elasticity of diplomacy are being supplanted by the phobias of a group of national security agencies, which are now effectively running the foreign policy of the country.

(In last Wednesday’s Pearls and Irritations you can read Christopher Knaus’s comments on Keating’s speech.)

Money – what it is and where it comes from

One of the most difficult and contested economic concepts is “money”. Is it created by governments and banks, or is it something that emerges as a result of economic activity?

These may appear to be abstract questions of economic philosophy, but policymakers’ understanding (or misunderstanding) of the nature of money underpins governments’ economic policies and has a direct effect on our day-to-day lives.

Davis Graeber of the London School of Economics (author of Bullshit jobs), has written in the New York Review of Books a review of Robert Skidelsky’s work Money and Government: The Past and Future of Economics. His review gives a brief and readable summary of macroeconomics in general, of Keynesian economics in particular, and of the meaning of “money”. (Skidelsky was Keynes’ biographer.)

Mainstream economists nowadays might not be particularly good at predicting financial crashes, facilitating general prosperity, or coming up with models for preventing climate change, but when it comes to establishing themselves in positions of intellectual authority, unaffected by such failings, their success is unparalleled. One would have to look at the history of religions to find anything like it.

On the question of where Australia’s money is coming from – specifically the money fuelling our re-inflating housing bubble – Nathan Lynch, writing on Michael West’s site, suggests that much is coming from international “flight capital”.  It’s not only Westpac and the Commonwealth Bank that have been weak on supervising the flows of dirty money: our money-laundering laws in general are too weak.

Australia’s  fragile economy in forty minutes

Starting last Monday night and concluding on Thursday night, the ABC’s 7.30 Report has been running a four-part series on Australia’s economy, hosted by Alan Kohler. It would be hard to find anyone more skilled than Kohler in explaining economics to a wide public, and in this series Kohler, (with the help of Joel, a young and well-informed Über driver), explains Australia’s main structural weaknesses: extreme levels of household debt, economic incentives favouring speculation in housing stock over productive investment, economic growth based on immigration rather than improved productivity, stagnant real incomes, intergenerational inequities, and over-dependence on China.

(To find the programs, each of which is about 10 minutes at the start of the 7.30 Report, go to the show’s main page and scroll to the specific program.)

Opinion polls

We’re more worried about climate change than border security

What are the top issues that should command the attention of the Australian Government? According to a poll this month by JWS Research – True Issues – they are: “The environment and climate change” (34 per cent of unprompted respondents), “Hospitals, healthcare and ageing” (28 per cent), and “Employment and wages” (22 per cent). Significantly, since JWS polled Australians in February as the election campaign was heating up, concern for “The environment and climate change” has risen (+ 5 points) while concern for “immigration and border security has fallen” (– 8 points).

Do these shifts mean that public opinion is shifting, or are they simply a manifestation of the Coalition’s ability, with the help of its media allies, to shift the public debate to topics of its liking at election times?

The poll shows that since the election Australians have become much less optimistic about their future – both their personal future and the future performance of local, state and national economies.

Trump is losing support

It’s impossible to make any predictions about next year’s US election before his Democrat rivals have endorsed a candidate, but it is clear that Trump’s approval which improved a little in his second year of office, remains solidly negative, and has taken a hit since impeachment proceedings got underway, according to FiveThirtyEight’s consolidation of polls.  Politico reports on a poll finding that 70 per cent of Americans believe Trump was wrong to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden, and that a small majority believe he should be removed from office. (The poll pre-dates the latest testimony from Gordon Sondland.)

But do voters really care about impeachment? 

Writing in Vanity Fair Ken Stern, drawing on movements in polling numbers,  warns that uncommitted voters (“Independents” in American political terms) may see impeachment as a deliberate partisan distraction from issues that really matter to them. They know Trump is a crook, but they cynically beliebe all politicians are crook.

Meet your suburban Jihadist

The Lowy Institute has collected data on Australian citizens and residents charged with terrorism offences or who are known to have joined terrorist organisations, released in its Typology of terror. (Its dataset is confined Islamist terrorism; it does not cover other extreme right-wing terrorism. For an account of other extreme right-wing terrorist movements see Jeff Sparrow’s Fascists among us: online hate and the Christchurch massacre, published this month.)

Its research confirms some stereotypes and demolishes others. The typical terrorist is male and in his mid-20s, but (unlike his counterparts in Europe) he is not a disaffected loser: he is not a school dropout and is probably employed. He is almost certainly not a refugee, and he does not have a criminal record. He is almost certainly born and raised in Australia – typically of immigrant parents (similar to his counterparts in Europe). Among national backgrounds the only significantly over-represented country is Lebanon.

You can hear the report’s author, Rodger Shanahan of the Lowy Institute, discussing the findings of the report on the ABC’s Breakfast Program with Greg Borschmann.  (12 minutes)

(The finding on a lack of criminal conviction raises questions about the way the Commonwealth assesses people for clearances to enter secure areas of airports. Their assessments are centred on police checks for criminal records, even covering speeding and possession of marijuana!)

How to build a future more like Star Trek than Terminator

That’s an unlikely title for Joe Walker ’s (The Jolly Swagman) interview with Andrew Leigh, Labor’s Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and Charities.

The first 18 minute segment of the 54-minute interview is mainly about Leigh’s personal and political journey – including his participation in the Indigenous Marathon events as they occur around the world, both as a supporter and a participant.

Most of the discussion, from then on, is about how technological change is changing our private and collective lives. They go into the complexities of technological change – how it relates to employment patterns, productivity and our well-being generally, demolishing a few popular but unsubstantiated beliefs along the way. In effect the discussion is an introduction of Leigh’s book, co-authored with Joshua Gans Innovation and Equality, launched on Thursday.

The OECD has two pieces of advice for Australia. Morrison probably won’t listen

The OECD Economic Outlook, released on Wednesday, predicts low economic growth worldwide – the lowest since the 2008 crisis. It projects a steady economic performance for Australia. That is, we are likely to limp along on a low growth path, with no rise in per capita income. It warns that in a low interest rate environment, unless lending standards are tightened, there is a risk of a destabilising housing bubble. It also calls for a more expansionary fiscal policy. (The Morrison Government is unlikely to heed either of these pieces of advice). In its quaint bureaucratic language it warns Australia that “the risks to the economic outlook are tilted to the downside”.

More reviews of Labor’s review

Remembering the Light on the Hill

In the Canberra Times Norm Abjorensen has a short but wide-ranging analysis of Labor’s election loss, in the context of the struggles faced by social-democratic parties the world over. In going along with neoliberalism, albeit more gently and responsibly than their rivals on the right, they have lost their capacity to distinguish themselves, and because inequalities have widened on their watches, they have lost credibility.

Abjorensen argues for more local responsiveness in Labor’s campaigns and policy-making.

Centralisation in the party apparatus, beginning with the 1991 national conference, saw power in the hands of fewer people and reflected less diversity just as the electorate was becoming more diverse.

Labor’s obsession with western Sydney is a distraction from longer-term trends

Labor’s review placed strong emphasis on its loss of working-class support in western Sydney, but writing in Inside Story Peter Brent points out that the 2019 swing was off a high base in the 2016 election. The 2019 swing may simply be a regression to the mean. Western Sydney remans reasonably strong for Labor, while Labor’s vote is slipping in NSW and in Australia generally. Chasing after a particular demographic – “low-income voters in outer suburbs”, “people of faith”, “Queenslanders” Brent sees as “a recipe for malfunction”  How about reconnecting with Australians?

Tales from the workplace

Overwork and underwork

Bill Browne, at the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, has produced the 2019 update of its publication Excessive hours and unpaid overtime. It’s a story of a labour market that is too inflexible to meet the needs of workers. Many workers would like to work more hours, while some would like to work fewer hours. A preference for longer hours is highest among part-time and casual workers. It also finds that, on average, Australian workers are putting in the equivalent of 6 weeks of unpaid overtime each year.

The headline figure for the state of employment is the unemployment rate. Less attention is given to the underemployment rate, as measured by the proportion of people who prefer to work longer hours if available. At the turn of the century the underemployment rate was 6.3 per cent; by October this year it has risen to 8.5 per cent. The graph below shows the total labour force underutilisation rate – the sum of unemployment plus underemployment.  Underutilisation remains stubbornly high at about 14 per cent: among Australians aged 15 to 24 it is around 30 per cent.

Source: ABS 6202.0, Table 22

The gender pay gap is on track to close – in 2062

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency has produced the Gender Equality Scorecard for 2018-19.  There is still a $26 000 gap between men’s and women’s pay, and it is closing at a glacially slow place. The good news is that employers are taking more action on domestic violence; the bad news is that improvement in gender balance stalls at top levels. As in previous annual surveys, the pay gap remains the widest in the finance and insurance industry, and lowest in public administration and safety.

In The Guardian Melissa Davey reports on Marian Baird’s interpretation of the scorecard. Baird, co-director of Sydney University’s women and work research group, suggests that “secrecy and caution around releasing data on pay is one of the biggest impediments to the gender pay gap, especially in non-unionised and private sector companies”, and that the observed steady closure of that gap may be due to wage stagnation generally rather than specific efforts by employers.

How about treating older people with respect?

Treasurer Frydenberg is talking about dependency ratios: as birth rates stay low, and as people live longer, there will be fewer Australians of working age to support older Australians. He wants Australians to stay in the workforce longer.

Writing in The Conversation Andreas Cebulla of the University of Adelaide collates a number of studies analysing the reasons older people stay in or leave the workforce. It is hardly surprising that job satisfaction is a factor:

Improved job satisfaction could come from reducing time pressures, minimising physically demanding work, better pay, skill development opportunities and more autonomy. In particular, greater flexibility over working hours would help.

(If Frydenberg is really concerned about dependency ratios, why is his government persisting with fiscal policies that result in the young subsidising wealthy retirees?)

Transport reform

The Productivity Commission has released its draft report on National transport regulatory reform, covering land and sea freight transport. It’s hardly gripping bedtime reading or content for a dinner-table argument, but it’s worth a glance, because it is mainly concerned with commercial road users – heavy trucks and lighter delivery vehicles – when so much of the popular debate is about “cars”.  The report focuses on productivity and safety, and it finds capacity to improve the industry’s performance on both criteria. Unsurprisingly for the Commission, it is keen to see further work on road user charging.

It is also notable that the environmental performance of the industry gets little attention in Frydenberg’s terms of reference or in this draft report. This is in spite of the sector’s significant contribution to greenhouse gases, noise pollution, and local air pollution resulting from diesel fuels. The electric truck is a lot further off than the electric car, and our non-urban rail network is not electrified.

Mortgage arrears

Guy Debelle, Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank, has a short piece on mortgage arrears. Only about one per cent of mortgages are in arrears more than 90 days – a low figure compared with the levels of arrears that preceded the US housing crash in 2008. But arrears have been growing, particularly in the mining states of Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland. “The experience in Western Australia provides an insight as to how housing lending in the rest of the country may perform if there was an economic downturn”.

If someone says you’re “woke” is it an insult?

John Quiggin examines the curious way Australia’s right, including Janet Albrechtsen and Michael McCormack, have introduced the US term “woke” to Australia. The term is specifically about changed consciousness of America’s unique forms of racial oppression, but somehow it has become, in Australia, a term of abuse applied to any person or group who dares utter the truth about issues that threaten to bust the protective bubble shielding Morrison and supporters from the world’s hard realities.

Boris Johnson’s formative years

George Monbiot has a compelling explanation for Boris Johnson’s bellicose behaviour.  It’s boarding school.

If you think you have, or have had, a hard job

In a rare exposure of political backstage work, Michael Spicer takes us to the desk of the prompter desperately trying to help a member of the royal family of one of Europe’s offshore islands, who has been enjoying sleepovers in the home of a high-profile sex offender.

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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