Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend

Aug 22, 2020

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

The pandemic’s progress

No graphs this week — a few temporary resource restraints.

In Australia the story is about two states, one beating the virus down by strong repression (bringing down the R factor), the other with an outstandingly successful program of tracing, but with the annoyance of one or two cases most days, for which there is no link to known cases: the virus is still spreading in New South Wales.

There is no sign of the 1100 daily cases in Victoria that The Australian was confidently predicting two weeks ago.  The ABC’s Media Watch has a three-minute segment with a convincing explanation of that story’s origin — a story The Australian had splashed across its headline. Government authorities have enough trouble dealing with nutters and conspiracy theorists distorting official information, without having to deal with such irresponsible journalism in what once was a reputable (albeit biased) daily paper.

If, as likely, Victoria’s numbers keep on falling, and if New South Wales can manage to prevent a Victorian-style outbreak (it’s still a strong possibility), we can expect to hear calls from those claiming to speak for the “business community” for governments to open up the economy once there is a low number of daily cases.

This is the mindset that leads to the outcome the UK and parts of the US are suffering. How these can be justified on economic grounds (let alone health grounds) is beyond comprehension. It’s possible that those who think this way just don’t understand the dynamics of system instability, positive feedback, and exponential growth. Epidemics don’t spread in a neat linear way. 

In spite of Victoria’s brutal demonstration of exponential growth, and the positive experiences of six of our eight territories that have eliminated community transmission of the virus, there are still many who believe we can live with some steady flow of cases, provided the numbers are small. On Club Troppo Nicholas Gruen explains how many politicians are falsely guided by “linear” thinking — a utilitarian calculation that leads to the idea that there is some optimal flow of cases, balancing various interests. On the Victorian experience he writes:

Nearly eradicating it, or rather eradicating it and then bungling keeping it eradicated looks like being pretty much the most expensive option of all. And yet as we eradicated it, everyone couldn’t wait to ease the restrictions. They were reassuring us of simple – dare I say fairly linear – trade-offs between our health and our economy.

The “suppression” vs “elimination” argument: what does New Zealand tell us?

Mainly that it’s an unproductive argument.

But New Zealand’s experience does tell us that a stated aim of elimination within a well-bordered region is a worthwhile stated and understood policy. It allows the government to take immediate action once there an outbreak and to get back to business as quickly as possible. 

For some, self-quarantining is costly.  We’ve taken too long to realise this

We have read the media reports about aged-care workers and meat workers. Writing in The Conversation, Kantha Dayarum and Scott Fitzgerald of Curtin University and John Burgess of RMIT go into detail about the pressures people in these low-paid industries face: Workplace transmissions: a predictable result of the class divide in worker rights. They also list the partial, and belated, responses from state and federal governments.

Their contribution is a stark reminder of the cost, paid by the most vulnerable, of underemployment and the government’s policy of workplace “flexibility”.

Why a vaccine might fail: mistrust

Heide Larson is an anthropologist in charge of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the WHO. Her 12-minute Ted TalkWhy do people distrust vaccines? – reveals some related factors. Globally, because the USA is the home of many big pharmaceutical firms, mistrust in the USA plays a significant part.

She also reports on surveys among Europeans; she believed at first that Europeans might be protected by a cultural tradition of scepticism, but she found rumour-mongers in Europe to be plentiful and credible. One of her researchers

found that people who are most likely to vote for a populist party also were the ones most likely to strongly disagree that vaccines were important, safe or effective. What did we learn? Vaccines cannot escape the political and social turbulence that surrounds it. Scientists were unprepared for this tsunami of doubt and questions and distrust.

She also reports that those spreading rumours about vaccine conspiracies, thanks to their clustering in social media, were much more effective in recruiting believers than those promoting vaccination.

Could we have done better?

In response to a recent weekend roundup Fernando Longo wrote that he would love to see an analysis of what would have happened if our government had started shutting down in early February, rather than in mid-March.

The answer probably lies in Taiwan, a developed country with about the same population as Australia, that is also girt by sea.  A contribution to the BMJ by six Taiwanese public health experts explains how they kept cases and deaths low without ever having to go into lockdown.  (Latest data — 486 cases, 7 deaths.)  Its economy has taken a hit, but it’s been a mild hit in comparison with most other countries (including Australia).

Could we have done the same? Some people claim that when Tony Abbott cut the CSIRO’s budget we lost the capacity to respond to a pandemic, but the ABC’s Factchecker suggests that is not the case. A more likely explanation is that those who could see what was happening didn’t have voice in those areas of the public service in regular contact with executive government. For the most part, particularly under Coalition governments, the top ranks of the public service are filled by those who are most adept at responding to ministers’ demands for political support. If that ability corresponds with competence in public policy — such as an understanding of the system dynamics of a virus, that’s a rare but unusual blessing.  


Sources of generally reliable information on Covid-19 are on a separate web page.


Belarus: wasn’t the collapse of the Soviet Union supposed to herald a new era of democracy?

The more sensational aspects of Lukashenko’s rigged election are well-covered in the mainstream media (why didn’t he go for more respectable methods of rigging, such as an electoral college or single-round first-past-the-post voting?)

Deutsche Welle reports that the Speaker of Germany’s Bundestag, Wolfgang Schäuble, is calling on the EU to seek a peaceful resolution of Belarus’s agonies, acknowledging that the days of Lukashenko’s dictatorship were limited. “Schäuble said the European bloc also has a “responsibility” towards its neighbors. With regards to Russia and the alliance between Moscow and Minsk, he warned that the EU was not looking to expand its influence”.

Measured by the norms of diplomatic language, Schäuble’s statements may appear to be mild, but in the context of 75 years of German sensitivities to its eastern neighbours, they represent a reasonably strong stance.

Phillip Adams on his Late Night Live program interviews Nigel Gould-Davies, former UK ambassador to Belarus: Belarus on the brink. He draws analogies to the fall of Romania’s Ceausescu in 1989. (16 minutes)

Why should we pay attention to an election in a distant country, once part of the Soviet Union, with which Australia has few connections? During the Cold War, the rhetoric of western politicians was all about the abuse of human rights in the USSR and its satellite countries, but since the USSR’s collapse in 1991 the silence of those same voices, particularly those in the USA, shows that all they worried about was communism. Just so long as those countries are now safe for capitalism, whatever its manifestation, the old order can carry on with impunity, and the KGB, under whatever name it now operates, can carry on with business as usual.

What would a Biden foreign policy look like?

In Foreign Affairs Joe Biden writes Why America must lead again: rescuing U.S. foreign policy after Trump.

At this stage in a presidential campaign, Biden is unlikely to go beyond generalisations, but what he writes is reassuring for those hoping to see America take a more traditional line in shaping the world order:

The Biden foreign policy agenda will place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilize collective action on global threats. The world does not organize itself. For 70 years, the United States, under Democratic and Republican presidents, played a leading role in writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations and advance collective security and prosperity—until Trump.

What’s the difference between Democrats and Republicans?

“The Democratic Party is basically a governing party, organized around developing and implementing public policies. The Republican Party has become an attack party, organized around developing and implementing political vitriol. Democrats legislate. Republicans fulminate.”

That’s Robert Reich’s answer on his website. “Democrats are lousy at bare knuckles political fighting” he goes on to add. Trump did not arise as a new phenomenon; the Republicans have been honing their attack skills for half a century.

China, America, Australia — touchy relations

Xi Jinping is not Stalin

Xi Jinping is not Stalin is the title of a Foreign Affairs article by Michael McFaul, about “how a lazy historical analogy derailed Washington’s China strategy”. It is correct that Xi’s authoritarianism is similar to Stalin’s, that he runs a ruthless and harsh dictatorship, and that he “has created a cult of personality that would impress Stalin’s propagandists”. But that analogy should not be taken much further. China’s place in the world is very different from that of the old Soviet Union, and the present US-China rivalries and conflicts are very different from those of the  US-Soviet Cold War.

The false analogy has led the US to misdirect its efforts, for example into a massive arms build-up — a legacy of the Truman doctrine — and has led it to overlook the need to strengthen itself at home. China is not ruled by a new Stalin.

America’s established Cold War mindset “gets in the way of developing a sophisticated, successful U.S. policy to contain, deter, and engage China over the long haul”.

More from our Kevin

In our August 8 roundup we covered Kevin Rudd’s article in Foreign Affairs: Beware the guns of August—in Asia. He describes conflicts over Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea. It’s the last of these he sees as most dangerous, the South China Sea having become “a tense, volatile, and potentially explosive theater at a time when accumulated grievances have driven the underlying bilateral political relationship to its lowest point in half a century”.

You can near him covering the same ground as his essay, with more detail of relevance to Australia, on Phillip Adams’ Late Night Live: On the new low point in China-US relations. (41 minutes)

Australian society

Barbarians at the gate — Tehan’s attack on learning

In an open letter on the importance of protecting Australian philosophy 123 philosophers have criticised Tehan’s approach to tertiary education. There should be no need to choose between liberal and practical courses, or between humanities and the sciences.

Employability is one significant aim of tertiary education. Yet it should not be allowed to trump other aims, even in strained economic times. An educated citizenry is the backbone of democratic culture. Just as training is needed before one can successfully build a bridge, or perform a surgery, or teach a class on Australian history, so too is training needed before one can successfully express complex ideas in clear language, rigorously evaluate policy arguments, or build coalitions between interest groups with distinct but overlapping interests.

On a more basic level they point out the role philosophy plays in sustaining democracy:

Democratic governments, and the voters they represent, must increasingly confront extraordinarily difficult ethical issues, many of them unprecedented: for instance, issues about how we should tackle climate change, fairly distribute the costs of pandemics, and respond to refugee crises. Progress on ethical problems like these cannot be accomplished by scientific and technological research alone. These issues are the subject matter of moral and political philosophy.

On the ABC’s Minefield Waleed Aly and Scott Stevens discuss The “value” of philosophy with Moira Gatens, Challis Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney, one of the letter’s signatories. She describes what is lost when philosophy is devalued. She exposes the unsubstantiated assumptions underlying the government’s plan, reveals the false dichotomy in Minister Tehan’s thinking (exposed in his June Press Club speech Job-ready graduates), and describes some applications of philosophy to public policy issues. (The entire program runs for 46 minutes; Gatens’ involvement is from around 12 minutes to 25 minutes.)

How the Pacific War shaped not only postwar policies, but also the country we live in today

The Australia that emerged after the Japanese surrender in 1945 was very different from the militarily weak, poor, and industrially backward country that had meekly (but justifiably) followed Britain into Europe’s conflict six years earlier. In 1939 Australia didn’t even have a car industry (our vehicle firms were simply assemblers and finishers); by 1943 we were making four-engined airplanes. In 1939 Australians saw themselves as “98 per cent British” and the country had no independent foreign policy; the postwar era saw a fundamental change in the country’s ethnic composition under a massive immigration program and the emergence of ANZUS.

The ABC’s Rear Vision program How WW2 changed Australia explains that this transformation was guided by the Curtin Government’s early dedication to postwar reconstruction. Australia’s economic and cultural modernisation was not a spillover from wartime mobilisation. Rather it was the outcome of deliberate policies from a government with faith in Australians’ readiness to make sacrifices for the national interest (as Australians are doing now in response to the pandemic. The Curtin Government also understood that such a period of sacrifice should be followed by a fairer, more confident and more prosperous order. (That understanding is yet to emerge in relation to our climate-change and pandemic experiences.) (29 minutes)

How we’re adapting to Covid-19

The ABS has published The household impacts of COVID-19 Survey for May.

In spite of the low rate of new cases in the survey period (mid-May when there were only around 12 new infections a day, almost all in Victoria), people had made significant behavioural changes. Some changes would have been necessitated by government restrictions: 77 per cent of people had cancelled personal gatherings and 55 per cent had changed or cancelled travel plans. Some other changes would have been by choice: 75 per cent of people were avoiding public spaces and 95 percent reported that they were keeping social distance from others.

These levels of compliance are consistent with the proposition that the virus is being spread by a minority who, through necessity, ignorance or carelessness, are disregarding rules and advice. Those who dig into the data will notice that Australians born overseas are more likely than those born in Australia to take action to suppress the spread of the virus: 42 per cent of those born overseas were using a face mask, compared with 20 per cent of native Australians.

The survey also asked what people had done with stimulus payments. It appears that between 40 and 50 per cent of recipients used them to increase savings or to pay down debt, rather than to spend on consumption. (It’s hard to be more precise, because when someone responds, for example, that it was used to “pay credit cards/other household debt” we don’t know whether that is a permanent clearing of debt or simply a reference to the way the funds were allocated in that month.)

The Government would have hoped that the payments provided a macroeconomic boost, but when people are carrying a high level of debt and are facing uncertainty, many wisely use spare funds to strengthen their personal balance sheets.

Australia’s economy

Margaret Thatcher is dead but she haunts Frydenberg

Writing in Inside Story, John Quiggin notes that Josh Frydenberg claims that his response to Covid-19 is inspired by Margaret Thatcher. Quiggin points out that the Coalition is learning the wrong lessons from that analogy — Different crises, different times. He explains how Thatcher took her country through a program of radical change — “using tight monetary policy, budget cuts and privatisation. In the process, she transformed Britain from a declining industrial power to the home of global finance.” That was in response to a problem very different to that faced by Australia today. 

What would a genuinely radical response to the crises of the twenty-first century look like? Certainly not like the fag ends of the 1980s reform agenda being pushed by Josh Frydenberg. Most obviously, the obsessive focus on debt and deficits that has dominated Australian politics for decades has proved to be almost entirely irrelevant in a real crisis. In addition, a sustainable response to the climate crisis must include a complete decarbonisation of the energy system.

He also points to the limited thinking behind the “jobs, jobs, jobs” mantra, a way of thinking that is limited to the idea of work for market wages.

House prices — from financialisation to rentierisation

Josh Ryan-Collins and Cameron Murray, respectively from University College London and the University of Sydney, using long time-series analysis, go beyond the usual criticism that housing in Australia has gone from a means of living to a financial asset (financialisation). It is now subject to “rentierisation” as a result of a series of policies, dating back 60 years, to favour “investors” in the market. The shift started with the privatisation of public housing, followed by many changes in taxes relating to “negative gearing” and capital gains.

One distortion they identify is a higher return to housing than to wages: this is a national finding, but in simple terms it means Australians would be better off by putting their effort into speculating in the real-estate market than in working for a wage. Their paper is When homes earn more than jobs: the rentierization of the Australian housing market.

The authors provide a summary in The Conversation: When houses earn more than jobs: how we lost control of Australian house prices and how to get it back.

Guess who’s calling for net zero carbon by 2050

That renowned bunch of tree-hugging romantic greenies. The National Farmers’ Federation, has issued a short press release, throwing its weight behind an economy-wide target of net zero carbon by 2050.

Polls and surveys

No significant polls this week

The Essential Report for August 10 gives approval ratings for Morrison and Albanese. Last month’s dip in Morrison’s approval was only temporary. Morrison has strengthened his lead as preferred PM.

Other noteworthy findings:

Asked about the most important issues influencing people’s voting intentions, “stop community transmission of Covid-19 as soon as possible” comes out on top, followed by economic issues.

On “reducing national debt” and “managing the economy” the Coalition has a clear lead over Labor, even though Labor leads the Coalition on “supporting those in financial need” and “improving the education system”. It’s as if people don’t see these as eco ich concerns.

People put high trust in health authorities and border security agencies. The ABC scores well above commercial media.

It has a set of questions on the coronavirus, starting with the poll’s regular question about people’s general concern. Our concern is back up to the level it commanded when it first broke out. On other coronavirus issues:

Our assessment of governments’ (level not specified) response to the outbreak has fallen, but is still positive.

On the response of state governments, both New South Wales and Victoria have lost support, but at 49 per cent one would still give Victoria a conceded pass. Western Australia’s support is at 86 per cent.

People generally feel that over time they are becoming better-informed about Covid-19, but there are still some disturbing beliefs: 32 per cent believe “it’s no more dangerous than a typical winter flu” and 20 per cent believe Hydroxychloroquoine is a “safe and effective treatment for Covid-19”.

Victorians seem to be remarkably forgiving of their politicians: since the outbreak from hotel quarantine they express more favourable views of both Andrews and Morrison. Even security companies don’t come off too badly. The blame goes to “individuals being irresponsible”. Victorians generally support the restrictions: 70 per cent or more support the curfew and other restrictions on mobility.  Even 60 per cent of Victorians aged 18-34 support the curfew.

Around 60 per cent report that the restrictions will have an impact on their lifestyles. Surprisingly, however, only 41 per cent of people in paid work believe the restrictions will have a negative influence on their work. (Presumably “Jobkeeper” influences this figure.

Poll Bludger — not much change in Federal voting intention or in the ACT

William Bowe’s Poll Bludger reports on the latest Newspoll. No trend is evident: the Coalition is holding about the same primary vote and the same small TPP lead over Labor as in earlier Newspolls and as at last year’s election.

The ACT goes to the polls on October 17. U Comms has published an opinion poll showing Labor and the Liberals both on 38 per cent, with the Greens on 15 per cent. Apart from a rise in support for the Greens, these results suggest little change from the 2016 election. 

Threats to democracy

Message to Malaysia: stop intimidating journalists who are doing their job

The Board of the National Press Club has issued a short statement, calling on the Malaysian Government immediately to cease its criminal investigation into journalists, including five Australians, over their cover of migrant workers during the pandemic

Watch out tomorrow, Sunday, for Peter Sainsbury’s Sunday environment round-up

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