Mar 14, 2020

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

That virus – containment or widespread outbreak?

At least one certainty

There’s one thing we can be sure of about coronavirus:

The one certainty of infectious disease outbreaks is that information about them will change day to day, even hour to hour. In the modern era, social media amplifies the spread and power of uncertain or false information, vastly complicating the task of health officials.

That’s a statement from Amy Lauren Fairchild, Dean of the College of Public Health at Ohio State University, writing in Foreign Affairs: Science can’t save us from coronavirus panic.

A near certainty is that Trump’s information crackdown will make things worse. She describes how Trump has deliberately weakened America’s public health system, for example by de-funding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even without Trump’s interference, there is a dilemma in public policy: if authorities try to calm the situation and urge people to go about their normal business, they can be accused of putting lives at risk; if they take strong measures such as lockdowns and quarantines they can be accused of limiting people’s freedom and stifling the economy.

Time for Australia to get real

Scott Morrison says Australians should head to the “footy” this weekend. Bill Bowtell of the Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity, University of New South Wales – someone who may know a little more about public health than a marketing spruiker – doesn’t agree.

In an interview on ABC Breakfast on Friday he points to the government’s failure to take the virus seriously: if it did it would have a proper, clear, information campaign about how Australians can protect themselves, it would be prohibiting large gatherings, and it would not be withholding information from the public.  Comparable countries in Asia – Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, Hong Kong – have reduced the new infection rate dramatically while we flounder. (8 minutes)

Pity the US has a for-profit health system

In an interview on ABC Breakfast, economist Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University points out that the pandemic will cause a massive economic disruption. If the virus becomes widespread there will be a major economic effect in terms of days lost, deaths and stress on the health system.  If it is to be contained, then the measures of containment – social distancing and quarantining – will also have a big economic effect. Speaking of the US he says:

We don’t have a public health system in this country … we have a private system that is disconnected from public policy … This is a for-profit health system with a very weak public health perspective and we’re going to suffer big consequences for that.

He points out that because the US isn’t well set up for testing, it probably has many times the official number of coronavirus cases, meaning that the virus will probably spread very quickly. He also expresses some views on the competence of the US President to handle the crisis.

Not the first time

Writing in Inside Story Not so lucky this time –  Michael Bartos of ANU describes how communities have handled outbreaks of infectious diseases in times past – a history that goes back to Biblical times. Successful control or elimination of polio, tuberculosis and smallpox led us to believe we had infectious diseases licked, until AIDS came along. We have learned a great deal since then: “China decided to transform itself into a paragon of public health virtue in the face of emerging epidemics by valuing shared information, acting decisively and openly, and cooperating globally”. He weighs up the possibilities of containment or widespread outbreak: neither can be ruled out at this stage.

Health care in the US: it’s expensive, inequitable and inefficient

Researchers at The Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative of the Brookings Institution, have produced a paper  A dozen facts about the economics of the US health-care system.  This is a system which, for most Americans under 65, relies on funding through private health insurance. It leaves many uninsured, many underinsured and many unable to pay high out-of-pocket costs. At 17 per cent of GDP the USA spends far more on health care than any other advanced country (other countries spend 8 to 11 per cent of GDP on health care), and in terms of health outcomes delivers poorer results.

Right-wing ideologues may claim that at least privatisation of funding and delivery saves on government expenditure. The reality, however, is that that profit-motivated insurers, medical specialists, hospitals and pharmaceutical firms have used their market power to force up prices to the extent that the US Government, which runs Medicaid for the “indigent” and Medicare for those over 65, spends more than the governments of countries such as Canada and the UK, which operate publicly-funded single-payer systems with universal coverage. The same ideologues may claim that private funding and provision saves on administration, but the US has the highest administrative costs of all advanced countries.

(It is strange that Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” is considered radical by American standards – even by Elizabeth Warren.  It is not unlike Australia’s Medicare, and involves much less government control than the systems operating in Canada, the UK and the Nordic countries.)

That stimulus package

As is usual on government fiscal measures, most media commentary is about “what’s in it for me”.  The Australia Institute points out that the package is about the right size, but the wrong shape. Unlike the stimulus package of the Rudd Government, which was spent on individual handouts and public works, $3 out of every $4 of the Morrison package will go to businesses, but as the Australia Institute says, “businesses don’t spend when their sales are falling”. And there’s not much point in a depreciation allowance if your business isn’t making a profit. (Many businesspeople will wisely put the stimulus handouts to paying down debt.)

One sector most seriously impacted by the virus outbreak – universities – receives no assistance at all.

(Perhaps it would be too much to expect the Morrison Government to support institutions responsible for promoting the values of reason, empiricism, logic and critical thinking.  There is something hypocritical for the Coalition to talk about “team Australia” and “patriotism”, when they have so blatantly sacrificed the nation’s interests to get themselves re-elected.)

Is the world financial order resetting?

Two events have spooked stock markets – the coronavirus and the breakdown of OPEC negotiations late last week, which saw Russia and Saudi Arabia fail to come to an agreement to keep oil prices high.

Coronavirus sent financial markets into a series of falls a couple of weeks ago, but the fall this week, following the collapse in oil prices, was sharper.

Writing in Bloomberg John Authers, Senior Editor, Bloomberg Bbusiness, has a detailed interpretation of the oil price shock. One consequence is that it could force high-cost US shale oil producers into bankruptcy, which would have its own effects on financial markets, and increase America’s dependence on imported oil, with implications for its already high current account deficit. Less noticed in the popular press has been a sharp fall in US bond yields, which signifies a loss of any residual faith that central banks can control inflation.

Just as the Bretton Woods world financial order came apart in the early 1970s, he sees another shift on the way, and possibly the end of the US dllar as the world’s safe haven currency.

For those who have blown their Bloomberg free article allowance, or who seek a less technical explanation (but without the graphs in the Bloomberg article), Authers is interviewed by Phillip Adams on Late Night LiveCrash , Bang , Wallop: Global Markets and the viral apocalypse.   It has been clear to those with some detachment from the bubble of financial marketplaces that monetary policy lost its oomph some years ago. Authers uses the Road Runner cartoon character Coyote as a metaphor for this delayed realisation; Road Runner has chased Coyote off the cliff, but it is only when he looks down and realises that he no longer has solid ground below that he falls down. (Cartoon courtesy Kindpng) (18 minutes)

(A note for investors.  When commentators say something like “$100 billion wiped off the value of Australian companies”, that’s almost meaningless. The companies’ assets today are pretty much the same as they were yesterday and on January 22 when the market peaked.  And forget those headlines about your superannuation, unless you’re managing your superannuation as a day trader, in which case you’re probably in breach of your fund’s trust deed. Be patient.)

“We’ve lost all our moral high ground”

That’s a quote from Sophie McNeill, interviewed by Fran Kelly on ABC Breakfast about her book We can’t say we didn’t know. McNeill spent three years as ABC’s Middle East correspondent, and came to world prominence in her personal intervention to help Rahaf Mohammed, a young Saudi woman under threat of death for renouncing Islam and attempting to flee from her family. (She sought asylum in Australia. Dutton intervened to stop her arriving, but Canada took her in.) Her publisher, Harper Collins, describes her work as:

… the human stories of devastation and hope behind the headlines – of children, families and refugees, of valiant doctors, steadfast dissidents and Saudi women seeking asylum. These innocent civilians bear the brunt of the lawlessness of the current age of impunity, where war crimes go unpunished and human rights are abused. Many risk everything they know to stand up for what they believe in and to be on the right side of history, and their courage is extraordinary and inspiring.

But why, when so much is exposed, do we not act, asks McNeill? How can we claim moral authority to condemn China’s treatment of minorities when our Prime Minister gives a speech about “negative globalism” undermining the UN’s peace efforts? How did we let our defence minister promote arms sales to Saudi Arabia just two months after Australian TV viewers had been exposed to the horrors suffered by the people of Yemen? (10 minutes)

She is also interviewed by Phillip Adams on Late Night LiveImpunity for those who wage war? – covering the same ground in a longer interview. (21 minutes)

From across the ditch

Sunday March 15 will mark one year since an Australian right-wing terrorist murdered 51 people at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Center in Christchurch. Two articles relate to that occasion.

Writing in The Guardian Charlotte Graham McLay reports on her interviews with a number of survivors who lost family members and friends – Brutalised but defiant: Christchurch massacre survivors one year on.  It’s a story not only of grief and suffering, but also of grace, understanding and even forgiveness.

Samara McPhedran of Griffith University in a Conversation article – In an election year, gun reform has become political in New Zealand and Jacinda Ardern is losing her support. She reports how promised tough new gun laws have been watered down because of a lack of parliamentary support. Jacinda Adern’s Labour Party does not have a high share of the vote: it’s in coalition with Winston Peters’ New Zealand First, a party that is somewhat scandal-prone.


The Essential Report of 10 March has monthly political ratings, and responses to questions about Commonwealth Government priorities, perceptions about which party can best manage the economy, coronavirus, energy subsidies, and the sports rorts.

Morrison’s net approval, while still negative, has picked up, while Albanese’s has slipped a little.

In a slightly contradictory pair of responses, 71 percent of respondents believe that investigations into MPs’ involvement in allocating sports grants should continue, while 43 per cent believe that Bridget McKenzie’s resignation should be the end of the matter. (71 + 43 = 115; 115 > 100 ??)

Morrison and Albanese are scoring about equally as the preferred prime minister.

In line with a long-established pattern, voters believe that the Coalition is better than Labor at managing “the economy generally”, while in their responses on specific questions about economic outcomes, particularly “the economy to benefit workers”, Labor comes out well ahead. It’s as if “the economy” is some cruel deity that can be appeased only by sacrifices inflicted on the community by its priests in the Coalition.

In spite of Labor’s good track record in handling the 2008 global financial crisis, people believe the Coalition would do a better job than Labor in handling “a global economic crisis”, and in spite of the Coalition’s poor administrative track record, voters believe the Coalition would do better than Labor in handling security and health threats. (Morrison’s use of public resources for political promotion is paying off.)

On priorities for the government there is a large swag of issues, unsurprisingly headed by health.  Strangely, older Australians believe they are less likely than younger people to develop coronavirus.

There is a set of questions on support for government spending on research on energy sources. There is surprisingly high support for “clean coal” (50 per cent), with predictable partisan differences.  Nuclear power gets low support, particularly among women.

What to read, watch and listen to when you’re quarantined

Every month Geraldine Doogue on Saturday Extra has a segment The Pick: what to read, watch and listen to. For this month two reviewers (Michael Wesley and Aarti Betigeri) review a number of works, including:

Peter Burke: A social history of knowledge (book, 2000).  Burke covers not only the creation of knowledge, but also its destruction – the craft of agnotology, the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt.

Christina Thompson Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia (book, 2019). A story of epic voyagers and extraordinary skills in navigation, long before Europeans ventured into the Pacific.

Samanth Subramanian How Hindu Nationalists are tearing India apart (Guardian article, 2020).  About how, on Narendra Modi’s watch, India is moving away from its secular constitutional roots.

Malcolm Gladwell Revisionist history (a series of half-hour podcasts) “Gladwell’s journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood. Every episode re-examines something from the past—an event, a person, an idea, even a song—and asks whether we got it right the first time.”

Reviews of these, and other works, are on the Saturday Extra website.

East Timor – a story of betrayal by Australian governments

Anti-terrorism laws passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks have bene used to muzzle Australians trying to expose corruption by the Australian government.

On the ABC’s Late Night Live, Phillip Adams interviews former ACT Attorney-General Bernard Collaery about how successive Australian governments, Coalition and Labor, have betrayed East Timor – Hidden bugs and helium: Bernard Collaery on our troubled history with East Timor – for at least 50 years, and to this day are using doubtful legal processes to sustain a cover-up of the betrayal. Extraordinarily, in his research Collaery has found material in the Australian archives to be heavily redacted: he has had to rely on the more open archives in one of Europe’s offshore islands to find records of Australia’s deception.

As much as can legally be revealed is in his book Oil under troubled water: Australia’s Timor Sea intrigue.

Postmodernism explained

The title of an article in AeroChomsky vs. Foucault, revisited, could convey the impression that it’s about the arcana of philosophy and linguistics, but it is really an exposure of the way of thinking that has driven the corruption of political behaviour, particularly by politicians such as Johnson, Morrison and Trump.

Noam Chomsky is a defender of the values of the Enlightenment and of “old-fashioned concepts such as justice and truth”, while Foucault embraced the philosophy of postmodernism – that there is no objective reality or firm moral standpoint.

Although postmodernism is generally associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, over this century it has underpinned the political philosophy of the right. It lies behind the moral relativism that allows politicians to lie in parliament with impunity, to treat the law with contempt, and to ignore the science of climate change as “just another opinion”.  The article concludes:

For the left to succeed, it must reject the postmodern critique of justice and truth and anchor its claims in an objective human nature. Otherwise, all roads lead to Foucault.

 Two events in Sydney

Thursday March 19 – National Integrity Forum “Strangling Accountability”

The Centre for Public Integrity has an all-day forum at the Sydney University Law School, with a stellar cast of jurists, public policy and political experts, and journalists, on topics including anti-corruption agencies, royal commissions, secret governments and the roles of democratic institutions.  See the event and registration details on their website.

Monday March 30 – the John Menadue Oration

Again a reminder that the Centre for Policy Development is hosting the 2020 John Menadue Oration. Professor Megan Davis, Pro Vice Chancellor Indigenous and Professor of Law at the University of New South Wales, will address the question “Can Australia deliver?”.  See the event details on the CPD website, which includes a link to the Eventbrite registration page. (17:30, Monday March 30)

Trump offers accommodation to stranded cruise ship passengers

According to an article in the New Yorker, Trump is likely to offer on-shore accommodation to passengers stranded on the Grand Princess.

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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