SATURDAY’s GOOD READING AND LISTENING FOR THE WEEKEND

What people in other forums are saying about public policy


The pandemic here and abroad

By now it’s clear that different countries are pursuing different policies and are experiencing the pandemic in different ways. Some countries in our region, and some island-nations, seem to be on a path to eradication, so long as they maintain strong border controls.  In Europe and America the rate of infection remains high as is shown in our chart below, updated from last week. And in poorer countries, although there is still little data, it appears that the virus is going to run largely out of control.

As those infection rates stabilise or fall in Europe some countries are starting to loosen restrictions.  Reading and listening to some press reports one would believe they are about to open up the whole show – tourism, football, rock concerts – and that we should do the same. But in fact the relaxations in Europe are minor and are being implemented slowly – fewer restrictions on outdoor exercise in Spain, some small specialty shops in Germany allowed to open, and so on.

Below is an update of the detail on Australia, South Korea and New Zealand.  It’s hard to get those curves to hit the axis – that’s why any consideration of rapid relaxation of restrictions should be out of the question.

Information sources

Over the weeks we have been listing some of the more trustworthy information sources.  We re-present that list here, without repeating the comments and qualifications (which can be read in previous Saturday roundups.)

The WHO daily situation report;

Our Department of Health Coronavirus (COVID-19) current situation and case numbers;

Our Department of Health Coronavirus (COVID-19) health alert;

A group of volunteers’ daily-updated site Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Australia;

The ABC’s daily-updated site Charting the COVID-19 spread in Australia;

The Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center;

Norman Swan’s Coronacast;

The Economist paywall-free Coronavirus hub;

The coronavirus update from the Harvard Gazette.

Another resource is the ABC’s The one Covid-19 number to watch, which describes the importance of the reproduction factor (R) in modelling the spread of the virus, with comparisons with other countries.

Some journalists who probably dozed off when their teachers were covering compound interest are saying that so long as the number of infected cases is growing at or below one per cent a day we’re doing OK, but that isentirely wrong: if infections were growing at one per cent a day we would have six times the number of infections in six months.

(There is a  mathematical explanation of R on the Pearls and Irritations site.)

A pandemic makes life interesting and challenging for statisticians, as established concepts such as “trends” and “seasonal adjustment” suddenly look ridiculous, and as Alan Kohler on the nightly ABC TV news shows graphs of plunging consumer confidence, business expectations and other once-orderly series. The ABS has announced a program of special statistical releases – some regular but brought forward, some specifically related to the virus.

Norman Swan on policy – good measures, muddled policy

Last week we drew attention to the way, in spite of excellent progress towards “effective eradication” of the virus as articulated by the health minister, Morrison has redefined the objective as “suppression”, whatever that means. On ABC Breakfast Norman Swan takes up the same question and explains how, when we get close to eradication, we can open up the economy piece-by-piece, provided we have good testing, tracing and attention to outbreaks.   He also has some observations on the policies the IMF and World Bank are inflicting on poor countries, making assistance to those countries grappling with coronavirus conditional on privatising their health services – a dangerous condition.  (7 minutes)

Lockdowns, social isolation, or both

Those countries that have taken strong action against Covid-19 have tended to apply both lockdown and social isolation, but as more data accumulates some evidence is emerging that social isolation may be more effective in keeping the virus down than lockdowns. One US study, looking at results in different states, finds there is no empirical evidence for these lockdowns, but its methodology, which is about as rigorous as is possible on the basis of the data available to its author Wilfred Reilly, is subject to many qualifications.

A more rigorous study has been reported by Snehal Fernandes, Science and Technology writer at the Hindustani Times. She reports on the work of Gautam Menon, professor of biology and physics at Ashoka University. Drawing on a detailed epidemiological model he finds that lockdowns rank poorly in comparison with extensive testing and social distancing. Testing, quarantine more effective than lockdown to check Covid-19, suggests epidemiological model.

The general qualification of these and other studies is that in some countries lockdowns and social isolation may be inseparable, and that for industries involving close personal services there is little difference between a lockdown policy and a social isolation policy.

Herd immunity for some?

In most prosperous European and Asian countries the idea of letting the virus rip to achieve herd immunity is well off the table. Even the slow spread in Italy, Spain and the UK, where at least 99.5 per cent of the population remains uninfected, has overloaded health systems and has proven to be politically unacceptable.

Writing in Bloomberg, Ari Altstedter raises a confronting proposal: Infect Everyone: how herd immunity could work for poor countries, suggesting India as a country where such a strategy could be successful because of its combination of a disproportionately young population and crowded, multigenerational living conditions for millions of its citizens.  Altstedter draws on work being done by researchers at Princeton University and at the joint US/India Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy. Social distancing and isolation of the vulnerable would still be part of the strategy, but in line with some models the researchers believe herd immunity can be achieved with as few as 60 per cent of the population infected. (Other studies suggest a much higher percentage.) He acknowledges important risks and qualifications in his article, and points out that Modi has given no indication that his government plans such a strategy.

(There is the problem, however, that so far there is no guarantee that people gain any significant immunity after being infected.)

Making sense of the USA

In the USA the virus is spreading into the inland “red” states, where many governors have wisely imposed restrictions similar to those imposed by our state governments. But they’re not getting support from the federal government, and it’s commonplace to see protest gatherings of angry people, ignoring social-distancing advice, seeking to have restrictions relaxed.

With a view to explaining rather than justifying this attitude, Mark Blyth, writing in Foreign Affairs, contrasts this attitude with that prevailing in European democracies, and suggests that the difference relates to fundamental structural differences, including beliefs about the nature of society and the role of government.  In Europe the state is the ultimate protection against destitution; in America that role falls to the market. As a result of this embedded belief, America is headed not only for a high death toll but also unnecessarily severe economic damage. The U.S. economy is uniquely vulnerable to coronavirus: why America’s growth model suggests it has few good options. (It is probable that those countries that have chosen “the economy” over “health” will experience worse economic outcomes than those that understood where their real priorities should lie.)

Girt by sea and holding together

“Pandemics don’t change us, at least in the short term They reveal us.”  That’s a quote from Waleed Aly, writing in The Age –  Look at the US and the UK and be glad we’re not like them. A glance at the charts above reveals how we’re coping in comparison with those countries. America’s political degeneration has been on clear display since November 2016 (Aly finds its problems go back further). In the UK politics is far more toxic than here.

Australia is a different place. More equal, less economically ravaged, but also less divided by the kind of toxic politics that has beset the US and the UK recently. To be sure, we’ve had a crack at some of these things. Inequality is rising, our economy was beginning to stutter even before COVID, and we’ve given divisive, dysfunctional politics a good go for a decade. But we were nowhere near as far down that path, and right now it’s saving us.

(Geography helps, as does our federal system, because whatever Morrison’s initial ideas may have been, state and territory governments have been falling over themselves in a competition to stamp out the virus.)


What post-virus economies might look like

 “We cannot have a functioning economy unless we first comprehensively address the public health crisis”.

That’s a quote from an open letter to the Prime Minister and members of the national cabinet signed by 222 economists.  To quote further:

A second-wave outbreak would be extremely damaging to the economy, in addition to involving tragic and unnecessary loss of life.

It may seem strange that they should feel the need to issue such a warning: the measures they recommend are essentially an endorsement of those already announced by governments. That’s because there are still voices calling for herd immunity. One of the more prominent voices, dressed in a cloak of academic respectability, is that of former Liberal NSW minister Pru Goward: Baby boomers won’t like it but next step after lockdown is herd immunity, published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Her contribution is an assertion based on anecdote and with apparent disregard for easily-obtained numerical data on the impracticality of “herd immunity” and the absence of evidence that infection confers immunity.

As with climate change, parts of the media are quoting academics who are writing way outside their areas of expertise, whose opinions therefore carry no more authority than those of callers to Alan Jones.

RBA Governor Philip Lowe: Upbeat tone but tough times ahead

When asked on the ABC’s Four Corners on Monday night what can be done to restore the economy, the Reserve Bank Governor pulled the journalist back a step. He said “The first order question is what we can do to contain the virus”. His speech the following day – An Economic and Financial Update – repeats that priority:

Inevitably, the timing and pace of this recovery depend upon how long we need to restrict our economic activities, which in turn depends on how effectively we contain the virus.

Media reports have tended to concentrate on the bank’s estimates of a ten per cent fall in national output in the first half of this year and a twenty per cent fall in hours worked, but these are tentative, as is the bank’s forecast of a strong recovery: it all depends on when it will be safe for aspects of normal life to return, and as always in coming out of a recession, it depends on “resolution of the uncertainty that people feel about the future”. (It would have been undiplomatic for him to have pointed out that such confidence depends on the slim possibility the Morrison Government can put forward a realistic economic plan.)

Whenever it occurs the path to recovery will be tough. We can expect more corporate failures, particularly for companies with weak balance sheets. A period of deflation is a possibility (with consequences for highly-indebted households). There will probably be slow wage growth, and even those households with liquidity are likely to restrain their spending. It is also probable that there will have to be structural change in the economy, a point Lowe took up in responding to journalists’ questions.

Dealing with debt

Listening to Treasurer Frydenberg this week one may believe that the economy was performing well until a couple of unfortunate incidents over the last few months caused some minor setbacks, and all that’s needed to get it roaring back to full speed is to go through with scheduled personal tax cuts and to cut business taxes, in the belief that the ensuing high growth will rapidly pay off the government’s accumulated debt.

Per Capita has published a paper by Emma Dawson and Matthew Lloyd-Cape: Some facts about debt, presenting a conventional economic and accounting analysis of public debt. No, our public debt isn’t high by world standards. No, public debt doesn’t weaken the economy – provided it’s spent on something useful. No, corporate tax cuts do not stimulate investment and employment. No, fiscal austerity does not help economic recovery. No, the government’s trickle-down economics won’t address our structural problems of low productivity and high private debt.

Is the virus killing traditional media?

That was a question Geraldine Doogue put to journalist and publisher Stephen Mayne and to publisher and editor Kyle Pope on last Saturday’s Saturday Extra: Is the media a victim of the virus? Demand for news and information has never been higher, but at the same time advertising revenue, already diverted to platforms such as Google and Facebook, has been reduced further by the recession. Newspapers serving non-metropolitan regions, with small print runs and dependent on advertising from local businesses, have been very hard hit, while larger papers have reacted by making economies in journalism. (17 minutes)

Pope pointed out that high-quality media with large circulation, such as the New York Times, by now have switched to much more reliance on subscription. (That raises the question, not discussed, as to why news and information should be considered as a by-product of advertising. Public funding, subscription, and pay-per-view models could surely be explored as ways of developing a proper market for media, removing the intrusion of advertising from our lives.)

The NBN we never had

On the ABC’s Rear Vision Kerri Phillips asks three technology experts what happened to the NBN, Australia’s “information superhighway”? It’s a story of lost opportunity, of the Coalition’s determination to destroy anything initiated by Labor, of Tony Abbott’s technological ignorance determining government policy, and of the Coalition’s failure to understand the basic economics of networks and public utilities. It’s also a story about Labor, once a party committed to nation-building, meekly retreating into the same mindset of mediocrity as the Coalition.

Older, privileged Australians have an even bigger debt to the young. They should repay it.

Crispin Hull writes Boomers should repay debt to young. The burden of dealing with the virus has fallen largely on young people.

Fairness should demand that some of the perks given to the ageing Boomers, especially by the Howard Government, be wound back. It should demand that some of the imposts put upon the younger generation be removed and some of the tax breaks be transferred from older people to younger people.

Will the Coalition lead Australia back to the bad old days of protectionism?

Even as invading forces were closing in on Germany, Hitler’s architect and town planner, Albert Speer, was bringing him plans and blueprints for Germania, a Berlin built on a grand monumental scale.

Is the Coalition’s idea about going back to the wonders of trickle-down economics something similar – a distraction from the realisation that the post-virus world may be like nothing they can envisage and require completely different policies?

The ABC’s Ian Verrender takes us through a brief history of economic shocks, and how they have resulted in fundamental shifts in economic policies. Quoting Larry Summers he writes: “The basic responsibility of government is to maximise the welfare of citizens, not to pursue some abstract concept of the global good.”

There is a danger that in a world where governments are turning inwards, the Morrison Government will take us back to protectionism rather than finding ways to secure our supply lines and diversify our economy in fairer and more productive ways.

We’re tired of living in a market; we want to live in a society

Mark Carney is the recently-retired Governor of the Bank of England. He has been invited by The Economist to write on The world after covid-19.  He sees significant changes relating to globalisation (on hold), and to corporate and individual risk. The main change relates to a reversal of a seventy-five-year trend, where the market price of everything has become the value of everything. The discovery that citizens prioritise health over “the economy” should lead policymakers to re-think their basic models: we live in a society, not in a market.

Carney draws on the work of Michael Sandel, author of What money can’t buy: the moral limits of markets.  The movement to a “market society”, in which human values were to be subordinated to the rules of the market, was prophetically forecast in 1944 by Karl Polanyi in his work The Great Transformation: the political and economic origins of our time.


Polls and surveys

Essential on the virus

Essential polls keep getting bigger. Once again they are surveying our attitudinal and behavioural changes in relation to the coronavirus, building up a time series starting on March 22.  Over that time our concern about the virus has risen and settled at a high level, and we have become more concerned about its financial and economic impacts, but the latest poll shows that our fear of contracting the virus has fallen somewhat.

That doesn’t mean we’re keen to see restrictions relaxed: only 15 per cent want to see restrictions lifted within the next two weeks, and only a further 14 per cent want to see them lifted within the next month. The main response is that it’s too soon to consider lifting restrictions. Younger people are understandably keener to see restrictions lifted than older people.

There are two new questions. One relates to the government’s tracking app: 38 per cent of people say they would download it but 63 per cent of people say they would be concerned with personal security of their data and only 35 per cent are confident that the government would not misuse the data. (How different might these figures be if the Coalition had not been behaving so dishonourably over the last seven years?)

The other question relates to trust in institutions. Apart from law-enforcement organizations, which already enjoy high trust, there has been a leap in trust in a wide range of institutions. The Reserve Bank and the ABC, for example, have improved their already-high standing.  Even political parties have come off their low.

Perhaps we have been enjoying the relative absence of political spin and obfuscation.  But even in the week since Essential did this poll, Coalition ministers are returning to their established pattern of meaningless twaddle, spin and patronising dismissal of any criticism of their policies.

 We’re a compliant lot. That’s fortunate

The ABS has released the results of a special survey about behavioural changes in response to Covid-19 and associated government policies.  By the time of the survey – the first week in April – almost all government measures to restrict the virus were in place.

It found that 26 per cent of those who had a job were working fewer hours, while 13 per cent were working more hours.

Its findings on health precautions reveal a very high level of compliance with rules and advice, such as close to 100 per cent observance of social distancing, and more than 60 per cent of respondents reporting that they were avoiding public spaces, cancelling personal gatherings, and self-isolating. Women were more likely to be taking precautions than men (probably reflecting occupational differences).  About a quarter of men and women reported that they were working from home.

Job losses concentrated among the young

The ABS has produced a special report on employment, based on ATO payroll data between 14 March and 4 April, showing job losses over that period. Young people have been disproportionately affected, and among industries the worst employment losses were in “accommodation and food services” (– 26 per cent) and “arts and recreation services” (– 19 per cent).


Other pestilences

Ten catastrophic risks: a pandemic is just one of them

While Malcolm Turnbull is warning us of Murdoch’s political influence and the power of the hard right in the Coalition (as if we didn’t know already), John Hewson has found another role as Chair of The Commission for the Human Future. Its report Surviving and thriving in the 21st century lists ten risks – climate change, environmental decline and extinction, nuclear weapons, resource scarcity, food insecurity, overpopulation, dangerous new technologies, overpopulation, universal pollution by chemicals, pandemic, denial and misinformation, and failure to act preventatively.

In spite of these risks influential members of the political class show disdain for scientific knowledge “and some are actively hostile to it”.

A core feature of catastrophic risk is the significant amount of (often deliberate and well-funded) misinformation that contradicts the factual consensus on what is to be done. It is of the highest importance that we increase public understanding of the evidence for catastrophic risk and decrease the volume of misinformation and public deceit released by special interests and their followers.

There are more persistent killers than Covid-19

In Saudi Arabia 121 people have died from Covid-19, a figure overshadowed by 184 people who were put to death last year by the government.  Amnesty International has reported on countries’ use of the death penalty last year.  China still tops the list, followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt.

The good news is that there is a worldwide decline in executions, but there are countries, including the Philippines, moving to re-introduce the death penalty, as is the Federal Government in the US after almost two decades without carrying out any.

The Murray-Darling Basin – a story of climate change and mismanagement

Last week saw the release of the report by Mick Keelty into the distribution of flows into the Murray-Darling – Impact of lower inflows on state shares under the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement.  The figure below, taken from the report, summarises what has happened to inflows.

Regarding management of the resource, it’s mainly a story of overallocation of water in NSW to rice and cotton growers, leaving irrigators downstream in Victoria and South Australia dependent on what’s left over. As climate change has reduced inflows, and as irrigators upstream have continued to take a largely fixed amount, downstream irrigators have had to cope with an amplified effect of climate change and very little water is reaching the mouth of the Murray.

Writing in The Conversation Daniel Connell summarises the report: No water, no leadership: new Murray Darling Basin report reveals states’ climate gamble. Connell reminds us that the Murray Darling Basin Plan was originally intended to make water management in the Basin more environmentally sustainable, but its critics – big irrigators and National Party politicians – have been calling for “environmental water to be released, leased or sold to irrigators for consumptive use”.


Governance and democracy

Threats to press freedom: Australia ranks poorly

Reporters sans Frontières has released its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, suggesting that:

… the next ten years will be pivotal for press freedom because of converging crises affecting the future of journalism: a geopolitical crisis (due to the aggressiveness of authoritarian regimes); a technological crisis (due to a lack of democratic guarantees); a democratic crisis (due to polarisation and repressive policies); a crisis of trust (due to suspicion and even hatred of the media); and an economic crisis (impoverishing quality journalism).

On top of these threats is the reaction of governments to the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen some governments (starting with China) using harsh means to suppress information.

It’s informative to click through to their map and rankings. The only region that stands out for strong press freedom is northern Europe (not including the UK). While New Zealand is up there with the northern Europeans, we are down at 26th place because of police raids on the media, our harsh defamation laws, concentrated media ownership, the closure of AAP, and Morrison’s deliberate obstruction of coverage of environmental issues.

Four ways governments have lost our trust

It is possible that our lack of trust in the Morrison Government will derail an opportunity to take up what may be the most effective weapon against the Covid-19 virus, the contract-tracing app. Writing in the Canberra TimesTrust in the government and coronavirus – ANU academics Sean Innis and Ryan Young list four ways the Commonwealth Government has behaved so as to weaken our trust. These are failures of delivery (NDIS, NBN), failures of basic standards of good government (sports rorts), failures of communication and engagement (talking points, spin), and failures to adapt to the modern world (protection of old energy sources).

(Why do Innis and Young, like so many academics and journalists, write as if these are inevitable systemic failures emerging from the nature of government, rather than calling out those who have deliberately set out to wreck our democratic institutions? In Australia John Howard, Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and their camp followers have led the assault on good government.)

East Timor: The Morrison Government is still persecuting those who expose betrayal and injustice

The Readings project has a podcast of former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks interviewing Bernard Collaery on his book Oil under troubled water which documents the way successive Australian government have betrayed East Timor, including Alexander Downer’s connivance to hide from the UN and the Timorese the presence of large quantities of helium gas, and in 2004 his authorisation to bug the Timorese cabinet room. Collaery and “Witness K” are being prosecuted for helping expose a gross injustice. (40 minutes)

A way back for social democracy

Last week we had a link to a discussion between Ian Goldin and Phillip Adams on how communities and their governments will handle risk once the world is on the path to recovery. Picking up on that theme Ken Dwyer drew our attention to an article by Ania Skrzypek of the Foundation for European progressive studies –  Solidaristic, social and sensible—reflections on progressivism for today and when tomorrow comes – published in Social Europe.  Skrzypek points out that the catastrophe has been a shared experience, that can “provide a “counter-current to the neoliberal tide of atomisation”.  Our rapid adaptation to dealing with the virus has demonstrated to policymakers that people are more adaptable and innovative than policymakers assume. And it has provided the ultimate test of political leadership, showing up the shortcomings of European populists such as Orbán, Kaczyński and Johnson.

Why has Russia been sending health aid to New York?

This is just one of the questions addressed by Keir Giles of Britain’s Chatham House on Late Night LiveGeopolitics of a pandemic. Russia and China are working in similar ways to pursue their interests and to manipulate political outcomes in other countries, but while China’s objective is to impose its own economic order, Russia’s objective is simply to wreck the joint – though, as Giles observes, Trump no longer needs the help of Russia to do that.

On last Saturday’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue interviews Joshua Yaffa, Moscow correspondent for the New Yorker, on how Putin is managing the Covid-19 outbreak: Russia, the wily man and the corona. Like Trump, Putin initially said that the virus was under control, but the virus is now breaking out aggressively. Yaffa, author of Between two Fires: truth, ambition and compromise in Putin’s Russia, explains how Putin is turning this situation to his advantage, and how, as in times going back to the period of the czars, Russian politics has not really changed.

Nation left shocked and confused after public servants serve the public

That is actually a quote from the Betoota Advocate, but it’s also the introductory sentence of an article by David Bowtell, associate Director of the NSW Branch of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA): Public sector agility emerges in response to Covid-19. He notes how the government, accustomed to belittling the public service and turning to interest groups for advice, has turned to the public service to get the nation through the crisis:

This crisis has thrust the public sector into the spotlight, demonstrating its potential when forced to display agility, what it is ultimately capable of, and the public’s ability to trust it. Capturing the lessons from this experience and applying them will be fundamental to meeting the economic, social and environmental challenges on the other side of COVID-19.


Postmodernism and ideology

We have had some thoughtful comments on articles about ideology and postmodernism.  Rather than taking space on this website, we have a link to them on an external server (short PDF).


Getting back to business on climate change

The ANU invites people to a webinar Prospering in a low-emissions world: preparing Australia for the future at 14:00, Thursday May 14.  Brad Archer, Chief Executive Officer at the Climate Change Authority, will present the key findings and recommendations of a report the Institute will be releasing, followed by a Q&A session with Professor Mark Howden.


April 25

Here is a link to Keating’s Eulogy for the Unknown Soldier. And to remind us that war is a shared experience for all soldiers, here is a link to the all-Flemish Ypres Pipes and Drums, at the Langemarck Cemetery on Flanders Fields, playing Ludwig Uhland’s 1809 lament Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden for British and German reservists.


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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Ian McAuley is a retired lecturer in public finance at the University of Canberra and a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.

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