May 2, 2020

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

The pandemic’s progress

Australia is doing well – or at least seven of our eight states and territories are doing well. But NSW with 32 per cent of the nation’s population, accounts for 45 per cent of recorded cases, and although cruise ships have left its shores, over the last week it has accounted for 43 of the nation’s 79 new cases. Considering this rate of new infections it should be the last state to lift any restrictions and should not reward irresponsible footballers by allowing them to set a bad example in displaying a violent contact sport. The interests of overpaid and immature young men should not override the public’s interest in safety.

So what explains Morrison’s petulant demand that schools re-open? Possibly it needs to be seen in the context of the coming Eden-Monaro by-election. It’s useful for the Coalition to spread the idea that bully unions (teachers in this case) are setting the political agenda against the national interest.

Those country curves

As the weeks go by patterns are starting to emerge. The graph below is an update of last week’s, but with Spain dropped because of a distortion arising from that country’s major re-classification, and with Germany and Sweden added because they reveal different trends.

New cases in Italy and Germany are rapidly falling: Germany by now is almost at the point where New Zealand was a month ago. Could some European countries move to eradication?  In Sweden, by contrast, where a low-key permissive approach has been taken, the curve is still on an upward trend. In Britain the rate seems to have peaked, and in the USA there is no sign of a downturn: its high rate of infections is dragging on.

Below, as presented last week, is the focus on South Korea, Australia and New Zealand for the last three weeks (a generous period to allow cases without transmission to clear). There may be some frustration that these curves won’t hit the axis, but in pure theory they never do – that’s the mathematical nature of compounding.  At our rate of transmission Australia and New Zealand still have a way to go before we can match where South Korea now is.  (Zeno’s paradox in action.)

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;

The ABC’s The one Covid-19 number to watch, tracking the reproduction factor (R)

The ABS program of special statistical releases.

It’s an ill wind that blows no good

The Alliance for Gambling Reform reports that poker machine gamblers have saved $1.0 billion in the weeks since pubs, clubs and casinos have been closed because of coronavirus restrictions – $1 billion boost to Australian economy off back of pokies shutdown.  Tim Costello said:

COVID-19 crisis presented Australian society with an opportunity to rethink the way we socialise, especially at the many valued clubs around Australia. Football, RSL and other clubs that are meant to serve our communities should be doing just that – serving communities, not draining them of money via poker machines. They should be safe places for people to gather, have a meal, catch up with friends and family, and see live entertainment.

It is not clear if addicts, deprived of poker machines, have turned to other forms of gambling, but Steve Cannae, reporting on the ABC website – How the lives of poker machine addicts have improved during the coronavirus lockdown – reports on cases where gamblers, unable to go to poker machine venues, have been able to start recovering their lives. Online gambling seems to lack appeal, and there are other forms of gambling, specifically horse racing, that are far less addictive.

Covid-19 as cover for unfettered ministerial power

Joo Cheong Tham of the Centre for Public Integrity warns that that Covid-19 ministerial powers need to be reined in.  Many of these powers are unnecessary, they bypass parliament, they lack adequate accountability, they run the risk of increased corruption, and they raise the possibility of poor decision-making. Most importantly, parliament should sit during the crisis.

Herd immunity – a bad idea that won’t go away

Ideas such as injecting disinfectant are so absurd and irresponsible that they barely warrant mention, but the similarly absurd and irresponsible idea of letting the virus spread so as to achieve “herd immunity” keeps getting raised, particularly by the anti-science political right.

It has been necessary for Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, once again to point out that it’s not under consideration “because we’ve had so few people that have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and we are nowhere near that concept of herd immunity” – Australia “nowhere near” herd immunity in fight against coronavirus, health authorities say.

So far 0.027 per cent of the Australian population has been infected, and there have been 93 deaths. If the virus were to spread to the rest of the population, assuming we could maintain our low death rate (1.33 per hundred cases), there would be 340 000 deaths in our country. Is mathematical incompetence a pre-requisite for acceptance into the right-wing bubble?

Message to journalists: health and the economy are not in some competition

Like the belief that diseases are caused by miasmas, the idea that there is some trade-off between “health” and “the economy” hangs around far too long. There is no trade-off between “social policy” and “economic policy”: all policy is social policy.

Chris Bowen, shadow minister for health, showed he understands what public policy means in a radio interview when the interviewer, who should have known better, tried to put policy choices in a trade-off frame, suggesting that “health had trumped the economy”. His reply:

I don’t accept that health trumps the economy. It’s the same question.  What is ultimately best for Australia’s health outcomes, is also ultimately best for Australia’s economic outcomes. I don’t accept this dichotomy. … I don’t accept that there is some sort of trade-off here.

Other countries’ experiences

Covid-19 in Africa

On the ABC’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue interviewed Simon Allison, Africa editor of The Mail and Guardian and The Continent on the question How is Africa coping with the virus?. We’re inclined to mistrust the small figures reported by “developing” countries, but Allison suggests that they may be “pretty accurate” because the WHO has had a flu-monitoring network in Africa, which means that anyone turning up to a clinic with flu-like symptoms would be recorded. He confirms that If the virus spreads health systems will be overwhelmed, but he suggests that because African policymakers have experience with epidemics they are making much better decisions than their western counterparts. (12 minutes).

(It is hard to confirm the claim that infection figures are accurate but there will be some confirmation or disproof when analysts look at death figures: has there been an unexplained leap in recorded deaths? Because deaths lag outbreaks by up to two weeks, it will be some time before such estimates become available.)

Covid-19 in Iraq

As the virus spreads into poorer countries we could provide many cases of fear and misery. The situation in Iraq may illustrate what happens when the virus breaks out where there is failed administration and the legacy of war. It is described in a Foreign Affairs article by Rozina Ali:  The Iraq War Paved the Way for Coronavirus Catastrophe. Part of the problem lies in the emigration of health care workers. (Australia has been one of the beneficiary countries.) To make matters worse, in their de-Baathification push US officials fired many doctors and administrators, and the country’s health care system has still not recovered from the sanctions imposed after the Gulf War. Iraqis see hospitals not as places of treatment, but as places where people go to die.

Covid-19 in Singapore

Until mid-March Singapore was held up as a model of a country with its infection rates under control. Schools were open, people were eating in restaurants, and much of life was proceeding as normal. But there was a degree of complacency, even smugness. Because the numbers were small people didn’t notice that the virus was growing at a compound rate, and by late April its rate of new infection was at the same rate as Spain’s and Italy’s in their worst days.

It’s a sobering reminder of the risk of lifting controls too early, as many Australians are demanding, particularly those claiming to represent “business” interests.

Writing in Croakey – Did the Singapore strategy work after all? – Martyn Goddard takes us behind the Singapore numbers. The numbers are almost entirely explained by an outbreak in Singapore’s crowded migrant worker hostels, while Singaporean citizens, although now locked down, are exposed to no more danger than Australians and New Zealanders.

Covid-19 is not an equal-opportunity virus

Some of the already-privileged are riding out the crisis with little inconvenience, even in countries with high infection rates. Professionals who can work from home and well-off retirees are in little danger, while those who keep food supplies flowing, keep cities running and, most importantly, care for the ill, are exposed to risk. Others have lost their jobs or their businesses.

That’s the main message from Joseph Stiglitz, interviewed by Andrew West on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics program – Coronavirus, war and the new inequality. He explains these effects in a co-authored article in The Lancet: Why inequality could spread Covid-19. He and West go on to discuss his recently-published book People, power and profits: progressive capitalism for an age of discontent. Stiglitz reminds us that our prosperity stems from advances in science and learning, which the “small government” movement has devalued, while the gains of economic activity have gone to rent-seekers – people skilled at living off the efforts of others. (14 minutes)

Australian politics – Payne, Morrison, Turnbull, Richard Nixon

By now we’re seeing the return of politics as normal as Morrison lets the more troublesome children out of the car, and as he allows government policy to be shaped less by health and economic advice and more by his hope that the Coalition will take the seat of Eden Monaro off Labor in a by-election.

Diplomacy as only amateurs can practice it

In time, when the coronavirus is defeated or contained, there will be a thorough inquiry into its origins, into how governments have handled it (why did so many “western” governments dither?), and into other lessons in handling such catastrophes. Such a review is built into the WHO’s guidelines.

So why has our government been so quick to jump on to Trump’s “blame China” bandwagon, and why have Marise Payne and the whole Morrison Government been so gauche in handling the issue?  (Even Dutton, in his charming way, has had a go at China)

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald former Foreign Minister Bob Carr points out that even if we want to handle the issue of China’s wild meat markets there are other ways to do it – ways in line with long-established diplomatic procedures: Once again we look like diplomatic amateurs on China:

… we look like diplomatic amateurs with only one international personality: not a roaring lion, but a puppy rolling over to have our tummy tickled by our great ally, after being sent yapping around the yard to return with the rubber bone

Is Morrison enjoying a “Nixon in China” opportunity?

There is a reasonably well-supported theory that governments can achieve change by making moves into territory that ideologically belongs to the opposition. Republican President Richard Nixon opened up relations with China: a Democrat would have found it far too risky. In Australia it was the Hawke Labor Government that reduced tariffs.

Writing in Inside StoryThe man, the times, the party,  Peter Brent shows how the Morrison Government’s massive Keynesian boost to the economy fits this pattern. If Labor had won the election last year and had tried to do the same, it’s almost certain that the Coalition Opposition would be presenting it as unaffordable folly and would be doing everything they could to thwart it. (Labor supporters regretting their loss should reflect on the composition of the Senate, where the Coalition and One Nation form a strong anti-reform bloc.)

“I am a liberal” – Malcolm Turnbull at the Sydney Writers’ Festival

Last Saturday we had a link to Malcolm Turnbull’s interview with Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 730 Report.  At the Sydney Writers’ Festival he is in a long (72 minutes) interview with Annabel Crabb on his book A bigger picture.  The first twenty minutes are really about Turnbull as author – and poet!  The rest of the interview is about politics, starting with Turnbull’s political ideas – an exposition of liberalism – before it moves on to a look inside the tribal idiocy of the Liberal Party in government. Turnbull describes the disproportionate influence of a hard-right group, answerable to the Murdoch media, that has effective control of the government on climate change. It will take a “devastating election defeat” to bring the party to its senses. (The recording is still and silent until around 2:22 minutes.)

One of Turnbull’s literary critics is Kevin Rudd. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald he lists Five ways Malcolm Turnbull’s memoir gets it wrong, while agreeing with Turnbull’s “account of the Murdoch media’s pernicious role in Australian politics”.

Good news on the CPI, but the shops are closed

There was a time when the ABS quarterly release of the Consumer Price Index made headlines, but this time the media seems hardly to have noticed it.  The CPI has risen by 0.3 per cent over the quarter and 2.2 per cent over the year. The rise back to the RBA’s preferred 2-3 per cent preferred range relates to losing the effect of last quarter’s zero per cent rise, when prices of imported items fell.

This quarter there were falls in transport, communication and recreation & culture groups, offset by rises in food (1.9 per cent, affected by the drought, the bushfires and now by Covid-19), health (1.7 per cent, mainly to do with annual changes in health insurance and resetting the PBS safety net), and education (2.6 per cent). Considering where rises and falls have occurred, if you’re largely housebound your CPI will be higher than that measured by the ABS because the stuff you must buy, particularly food, has gone up more than the stuff you can’t buy.

Statistical nerds will find on the website a paper about how the ABS is grappling with including items such as “overseas holiday travel” in its base when no one is travelling.

The world economy after Covid-19

A synopsis in 21 minutes

On the ABC’s Late Night Live Jonathan Green interviews Singaporean scholar and diplomat Kishore Mahbubani – Could COVID-19 mark the dawn of the Asian century?. Mahbubani explains how economic power is shifting to east Asia, but he stresses that this is not about the decline of the “west”. America will remain a powerful country, and the re-emergence of Asia is based on its adaptation of western scientific and technological developments. Mahbubani’s main regret is that in this instance of a global crisis America has retreated from global leadership, and is instead engaged in a stoush with China.  (A stoush which the government of its little mate across the Pacific has rushed to join.)

Breaking news – three economists agree with one another

On the ABC’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue had a lively discussion with three economists on the question Which way ahead for the global economy. Adam Tooze of Columbia University emphasised the political aspects of coming economic challenges. Rana Foroohar, an analyst with CNN and columnist with the Financial Times, took a historical perspective: the present situation is similar to the lead-up to the Great Depression. Percy Allan, former Secretary of NSW Treasury and now with UTS, explained the fiscal and monetary choices we now face, suggesting what amounts to a short-term application of aspects of Modern Monetary Theory, before returning to fiscal and monetary orthodoxy. In spite of their different perspectives their views converged. The pandemic has forced us to confront global problems that have been accumulating since 2008.

Will America let a crisis go to waste?

Writing in Foreign Affairs Sven Steinmo and Mark Blyth predict that once the pandemic has passed America will “demand to get the ‘free market’ to work by cutting both taxes and spending” – Can a Pandemic Defeat the Politics of Austerity?: The Key to Economic Recovery After COVID-19.  They contrast America’s likely path with Roosevelt’s ambitious programs, particularly his Works Progress Administration that re-built the nation’s physical infrastructure, and they explain how the country successfully handled the ensuing public debt.  What America needs now, in the light of the Covid-19 experience, is a single-payer health care system. He reminds us that in 1947 Truman introduced the idea, but was thwarted by Republicans in Congress. (Echoes of Chifley’s battles with the Liberal Party and the British Medical Association.)

Worldwide arms expenditure is still on the rise

SIPRI – The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – reports that military expenditure worldwide reached $1.2 trillion last year: Global military expenditure sees largest annual increase in a decade. The largest spenders, accounting for 62 percent of that $1.2 trillion, were the United States, China, India, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Within Europe Germany led the increase in military expenditure.

Democracy eroded

The Bertelsmann Stiftung, a German organisation generally seen as near the neoliberal end of the political spectrum, has released its report Inequality and repression undermine democracy and market economy worldwide, finding that “the number of people who are governed poorly and less democratically is increasing worldwide”. It classifies a range of countries in central Africa, in the Middle East from Saudi Arabia through to Pakistan, and China and much of south-east Asia, as “hard line autocracies”. It also classifies much of eastern Europe as “defective democracies”. Brazil, India, Hungary and Turkey are all noted as once-stable democracies where the rule of law and civil liberties have been weakened.

A viral outbreak of polls

Essential – we’re less fearful but we don’t want restrictions lifted too quickly

Essential has another weekly poll devoted entirely to Covid-19 questions:

  • 83 per cent of us are concerned about the coronavirus but that’s down from our peak of 88 per cent;
  • a quarter of us still feel we’re likely to develop the virus – younger people believe they are more likely to develop it than older people;
  • only 15 per cent believe there has been an over-reaction to Covid-19;
  • even fewer (13 per cent) believe the economy “will rebound within 2-3 months and grow just as strong or stronger than before”;
  • 70 per cent of us believe that the government’s response to Covid-19 has been good – a figure that’s been growing over time – younger people, however, are less positive;
  • a similar percentage of us approve of our state governments, but there are significant differences between states: Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia, are rated more highly than Queensland and New South Wales.

There is a set of questions about the tracing app. We are concerned about personal security, but 40 per cent of us say we would download it.  There are partisan differences, however: Green and Coalition voters are much more likely to download it than Labor voters, and “other” voters are even less likely to download it. (Does this mean that One Nation and United Australia voters are discriminated against because there is no version for rotary dial phones?)

There is also a set of questions relating to tax reforms to reduce debt. Our preference is for what would be called a solidly “left” set of measures. The only measure with net opposition is an inheritance tax, but the responses by age defy rational explanation: only 10 per cent of people over 55 support an inheritance tax, compared with 27 per cent of those aged 18-34. Explanations welcome.

The Australia Institute on the app – men like it, women are a little circumspect

The Australia Institute has polled people on the Covid-19 app. Overall 45 per cent of all surveyed will download and use it, but by gender there is a difference: 52 per cent of men but only 38 per cent of women report that they will download it and use it.

Newspoll – we love Scotty from marketing but we’re not sure about his mates

William Bowe’s Poll Bludger reports on the Newspoll that reveals an extraordinary boost for Morrison’s approval rating: it’s up seven points to 68 per cent, just below Kevin Rudd’s short-lived record of 70 per cent. But that doesn’t translate to any boost in support for the Coalition. The 2PP vote is 50-50. The Coalition’s primary vote is 41 per cent (the same as at last year’s election), while Labor’s is 36 per cent (33 per cent at the election).

Yet journalists, speculating on the coming Eden-Monaro byelection, are focussing on Morrison’s personal rating, rather than the party’s.

Approval ratings are fairly meaningless – Albanese’s low 45 per cent approval may mean people don’t think he’s doing enough to rid Australia of the Coalition, but of more concern to Labor would be the poll ‘s finding of Morrison’s 56 to 28 lead as preferred PM. His Trumpian style as an elected CEO is paying off. But, as John Warhurst points out writing in the Canberra Times (paywalled), “The occasional forays into the limelight made by those of the right wing, such as Peter Dutton, remind voters of the fragility of the Liberal Party.”

William Bowe also reports on Newspoll’s findings on state leadership ratings and on the coronavirus app.  All state premiers, apart from Queensland’s Palaszczuk, matched or bettered Morrison’s approval rating, showing much the same ranking as in the Essential poll reporting above.

On the app, Newspoll found that 33 per cent of respondents said they would definitely take it up with another 21 per cent saying they would probably take it up.

Albert Camus’ The plague – a reflection

The New York Review of Books has re-printed Tony Judt’s 2001 Review of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague (La Peste). The book can be read on several levels: mostly it is seen as an allegory of the German occupation of France from 1940 to 1945. It can also be read in terms of its setting – life in a city locked down by an epidemic.  Judt’s review reminds us that it’s mainly about the struggle of living a moral life:

Camus’ insistence on placing individual moral responsibility at the heart of all public choices cuts sharply across the comfortable habits of our own age. His definition of heroism—ordinary people doing extraordinary things out of simple decency—rings truer than we might once have acknowledged.

Judt’s work is more than a book review; it’s also rich in detail about Camus’ own life, not only his life in Algeria, but also the demands others made of him:

Camus was exhausted and depressed at the burden of expectations placed on him as a public intellectual: as he confided to his notebooks, “everyone wants the man who is still searching to have reached his conclusions”.

Quiet Americans sing up

In 1920 Solomon Linda, a South African of Zulu origin, wrote the song “Mbube”, rendered into English in 1961, and in April re-rendered by a group of quiet Americans.

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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