Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend

Jan 16, 2021

What people in other forums are saying about public policy


Remember when the US was the world’s model democracy?

The fools on the hill

There is no shortage of opinion on last week’s assault on the Capitol. Even if we covered only those from well-informed sources there would be hundreds of comments worth linking. Below is a small selection of comments, from different but not necessarily contradictory perspectives:

Some see it in its most uncontentious terms – a breakdown in security. Tom Nolan, a criminologist from Emmanuel College, questions why the police were so poorly prepared, particularly in view of the amount of intelligence available, and why they so easily buckled to the pressure from the rabble: The uncomfortable questions facing Capitol Police over the security breach by MAGA mob. Writing in The Atlantic, Kellie Carter Jackson of Wellesley College goes a little further, pointing out that “the police reaction—calm, measured, tolerant—to that uprising suggests that when it comes to engaging in violence against the state, white perpetrators have nothing to lose”: The inaction of Capitol police was by design.

Robert Reich, never one to mince his words, calls it an attempted coup. He lists Republican politicians who were wise enough not to be among the crowd, but who nevertheless have worked to de-legitimise the election results. He cites the fourteenth amendment of the constitution, prohibiting from election to Congress anyone who has engaged in “insurrection or rebellion” against the Constitution, or has “given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof”. On the ABC’s 730 Report, Stan Grant seeks comment from people with insight into Trump’s behaviour: former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel makes it clear that Trump has been fomenting unrest all along, while Richard Armitage, deputy Secretary of State in the George W Bush administration, calls Trump a “domestic terrorist”. Counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen says “it’s not too extreme to suggest that the US is in a pre-revolutionary or pre-insurgency state”.

Elaine Godfrey, writing in the Atlantic, points out that not all the rioters were a disorganised rabble. Some were ex-police or ex-military, trained in combat, and were well-prepared, possibly planning to inflict physical harm on Vice-President Pence for his supposed treachery in breaking from Trump and his forgoing what they saw as a last-ditch opportunity to negate the election: It was supposed to be so much worse.  The FBI, noting that some rioters were carrying plastic zip-tie handcuffs, is investigating whether there was a plan to kidnap members of Congress. There are also suggestions, plausible enough to be reported in the Washington Post, that some members of Congress may have aided the attackers, for example by giving the ringleaders reconnaissance tours of the building in the days before the attack. The Independent draws attention to the same claims of insider assistance, and suggests that some police may have deliberately helped the rioters. (The fact that a Congressperson shows an insurrectionist around the building does not necessarily mean he or she is complicit in the crime. Anyone can find themselves unwittingly aiding criminals.)

Alex Newhouse of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, writing in The Conversation, notes that the event has been in planning for many weeks. He has been monitoring right-wing traffic on the Internet, and has “no doubt that the demonstration was specifically designed to force Congress to overturn the election. Although the act of storming the Capitol may not have been planned, the demonstrators had prepared for weeks to use at least the threat of physical violence to intimidate Congress and Pence during the certification process”.

Arnold Schwarzenegger draws an analogy with Hitler’s Kristallnacht, the 1938 attack on Jewish-owned businesses carried out by “the Nazi equivalent of the Proud Boys”. Trump will soon be as irrelevant as an old tweet, but what about those elected officials who have enabled his lies and treachery? Schwarzenegger sees the incident as a dark event, but is optimistic about America’s capacity for healing and renewal. Hakeem Jefferson of Stanford University, drawing on political and sociological research, writes that the riot was about maintaining white power. “They are a dangerous mob of grievous white people worried that their position in the status hierarchy is threatened by a multiracial coalition of Americans who brought Biden to power and defeated Trump.”

Many observers have provided interpretations of the symbols on the rioters’ t-shirts, flags and other props. Jonathon Sarna of Brandeis University explains the meaning of “6MWE” (it’s confronting) and other anti-Semitic symbols. CNN journalists Mallory Simon and Sara Sidner use photographs of the rioters’ regalia to draw attention to particular Nazi and other symbols of hatred.

Fintan O’Toole has a more general perspective. He sees the incident’s roots in the way parties on the right court or welcome into their ranks those on the far right.  “They think they can keep the mob outside the door while they get on with the real business. Sooner or later, the mob comes through the door and openly occupies the space the suave men have prepared for it.” – Trump’s insurrection has been advertised for months.

Noam Gidron of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Peter Hall of Harvard, writing in The Conversation, consider it from the perspective of Trump’s supporters – a perspective relevant to all democracies where many are excluded socially and economically. They point out that “people who engage in fewer social activities with others, mistrust those around them and feel that their contributions to society go largely unrecognized are more likely to have less trust in politicians and lower satisfaction with democracy”. They also point out that two-party political systems tend to intensify polarisation.

Stan Grant sees the problem as deep-rooted. Trump is simply the latest president who has been loose with the truth, and America has long been “locked in a perpetual culture war, lacerated by class, race and faith”. The sick politics at the heart of this week’s US crisis go deeper than Donald Trump.  “The country’s deep inequalities are destroying the promise of America. It must redistribute wealth and reach back to those left behind”. He refers to Richard Kreitner’s book Break it up: secession, division, and the secret history of America’s imperfect union – a warning that from the union’s inception it has been hard to hold the country together against its strong divisive forces. In a subsequent article, written after Trump’s impeachment, Grant paints a dismal picture of America – “a tribalised society, fractured along class, race and culture”. It’s not just an American problem, it’s a sign of the fragility of democracy.

Trump still has loyal supporters

A Politico poll taken after the assault on Congress found that 40 per cent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents would still vote for Trump were he to run in 2024 – down from 53 per cent from a similar poll in November.  Among all voters 55 per cent said Trump should resign the presidency. (The assault was on January 6; the poll surveyed voters over January 8 to 11.)


The pandemic’s progress

Australia – beware of British bearing virus

In 1788 Australia was invaded by British bearing infectious diseases to which the people of this continent had no immunity.

As Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes, often in strange ways.  We are now concerned about a new strain, first discovered in Britain, and which is unfairly being called the British strain, which, along with a “South African” strain, both of which are more transmissable (but not more deadly) than the strains that have been dominant so far. (A hundred years ago the British and others unfairly called the epidemic the “Spanish” flu.). Because of our success in suppressing the virus (only 0.1 per cent of us have been infected) we are particularly vulnerable.

Community infections over the last eight weeks are shown in the graph below. We normally report this over four weeks – the infection-free period in which the most conservative authorities feel it is safe to open up borders and revert to a low level of restrictions. But we  get a clearer picture of developments, particularly the New South Wales outbreak, if we use the longer time period this time.

As at 15 December last year the infection numbers were suggesting that we had eliminated the virus (outside hotel quarantine).  But by that stage, there had been at least one outbreak in New South Wales, which was to show up in the figures in the following days. Then there was another outbreak in New South Wales probably associated with transport of a quarantined patient. What we can reasonably say about these cases is that they are of a US strain and have come in through leakages in our hotel quarantine system – a system with many weak points.  Although the graph shows cases in Victoria and Queensland, all have been traceable to the New South Wales outbreaks.

These outbreaks led to a degree of criticism of New South Wales, including Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan’s plea for New South Wales to cooperate with other states and to try to eliminate the virus as other states do rather than relying on contact tracing to get on top of outbreaks. In response to criticisms from McGowan and from some epidemiologists the Berejiklian Government dug into its stance, and complained that other states re-imposed travel restrictions – an unreasonable complaint in view of the fact that the restrictions would not have been necessary had New South Wales been more careful with hotel quarantine and had acted more quickly and decisively on its first outbreak.

As at Friday January 15, there have been no detected cases for two days, but the New South Wales Government has prudently said it will take up to four weeks to “mop up” remaining cases, such is the consequence of not acting promptly.

The arrival of the new strains, detected in hotel quarantine in Brisbane, has quelled any notion that we can put resources into “mopping up” outbreaks as they occur rather than stopping them in the first place. (That approach is based on the false idea that “economic” and “health” objectives can somehow be balanced, but the best condition for consumers and businesses to plan and spend is one in which people can reasonably expect that their mobility won’t be restricted and their plans wrecked because of an outbreak, no matter how small.) An outbreak of these new strains in the community could very quickly overwhelm the best contact-tracing system.

The ease with which the British strain seems to have been transmitted within a Brisbane quarantine hotel has warned us of the risk we now face, and authorities in all states are on the lookout for people who have been discharged from that hotel who may have contracted the virus during their 14-day stay. Our hotel quarantine system is being severely tested: in spite of reduced numbers of returning Australians we are still getting 12 to 15 cases a day because people are coming from countries where infection rates have risen.

Although authorities have not linked the decision to pull forward a rollout of vaccination, the risk of development of a UK or US situation in Australia must surely be on their minds.

In the meantime, however, the New South Wales Government lets a cricket match go ahead, and Victoria is hosting a major international tennis tournament with 1200 players, officials and support staff all from overseas. Governments seem to be unwilling or unable to stand up to the sports lobby – a lobby that has nothing to do with recreation or fitness, and everything to do with big money and corporate sponsorship.

Other countries

We’re hearing a great deal about problems in the UK.  Their infection rates may have peaked at around 900 daily cases per million, but it will be some time before their death rates peak. Other European countries show a huge range of infection rates: over the week to 12 January, daily infection rates per million population varied from 46 in Finland up to 1223 in Ireland. Ireland had been in a tough Victorian-style lockdown, and was making good progress in early December, but it appears that a too-early easing of restrictions, social mixing during the Christmas season, and the introduction of more transmissible strains, have caught the country off-guard.

Another country to have seen an outbreak is Japan: since December their daily case rate has doubled from 25 to 50 per million: in other words it has climbed to the level of the best-performing country in Europe. (To put all these figures in perspective, Australia’s daily new case rate per million is less than one, and most of these are overseas arrivals.)

Within a few weeks it may be possible to see some early effects of vaccination in those countries that have the process underway.

Vaccines

Mary-Louise McLaws, writing in The Conversation, describe how our vaccine rollout will occur. Australia’s vaccine rollout will now start next month. Here’s what we’ll need. If you’ve ever confronted the problem of serving cold beer or wine at a summertime picnic, you will start to appreciate the logistics of delivering the Pfizer vaccine, which has to be held at – 700 until close to delivery.  It will take a huge commitment of resources, and could be derailed if those resources are committed to dealing with a breakout of the virus because of poor control of quarantine.

The ABC has two articles helping us understand why it would be unwise to wait for a “perfect” vaccine: Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine boss warns against delaying immunisation rollout in Australia by Samantha Hawley and Coronavirus vaccines only need to be 50 per cent efficacious according to the WHO — why? by Alan Weedon. A vaccine that has been 90 percent efficacious in clinical trials is probably better than one that has been 70 percent efficacious, but, as these authors reveal, the comparative effectiveness in vaccines leading us to personal safety and herd immunity is far more complex than can be captured in a singe number.

In an interview on the ABC’s Breakfast program John LaMattina, former R&D President at Pfizer and now a partner at Puretech Health, provides a survey of developments from the perspective of those who manufacture and distribute vaccines. It’s not simple, and we can be reasonably assured that many more vaccines will become available as the year progresses. (The ABC, for some reason, has not separately linked this segment. Go into the program’s page for Wednesday 14 January, and select the whole program. Sally Sara’s interview with LaMattina starts at 1:44:39, and runs for seven minutes.)

Our lack of an aged care plan cost lives

So far the pandemic has cost 909 lives in Australia. Only a few countries – New Zealand and some developed countries in East Asia – have had had a lower death rate.  If we had handled the pandemic as badly as the UK or the USA 30 000 Australians would have died.

But 685 of those 909 deaths have been in aged care homes, all but 30 in Victoria. Of course the Victorian Government shoulders responsibility for having mishandled hotel quarantine, but as Sarah Russell and Elizabeth Minter point out on Michael West Media, responsibility for the disproportionately high death rate in aged care establishments rests with the Commonwealth. In spite of its role in funding and regulating aged care the Commonwealth had no plan to deal with a pandemic and even though there were early outbreaks in aged care establishments in New South Wales it does not seem to have applied learning from that experience when Victoria experienced its major wave.

Sources

Sources of generally reliable information and analysis about Covid-19 are on a separate web page. Norman Swan’s Coronacast explains the reason Queensland and South Australia rapidly applied short lockdowns. He also helps us understand what is meant by the UK strain being “70 per cent more transmissible”. The Economist has a short article “Who should get the jab?”, describing the ethical and technical issues around setting priorities for vaccination: it isn’t straightforward. The Harvard Gazette reports on findings about seasonality of Covid-19 transmission rates: UV exposure does tend to render the virus less transmissible, but we shouldn’t get too excited because the effect of UV is much weaker than the effect of measures such as masks and social distancing.


The Australian economy

What the Rich List reveals about our economic structure

The Financial Review Rich List can be interpreted in many ways. To some it is a recognition of success. To some others it exposes a fundamental fault of capitalism.

We have looked at it from yet another angle – the source of the $284 billion financial wealth accumulated by the top fifty individuals on that list.

Almost 60 per cent of that fortune has come from three activities – mining, property development and gambling – what some economists such as Mariana Mazzucato would classify as “wealth-extracting” activities. The extraordinary profits in all three activities depend in large part on privileges granted to rent-seekers by governments – the absence of a resource-rent tax, the benefits of publicly-funded infrastructure and urban zoning favourable to property developers, and lax regulation of gaming machines to name a few.  Only in the “other” category do we find representation of the wealth-creating industries that would dominate similar lists in real “developed” countries, with governments less accommodating to rent-seekers.

Crispin Hull, writing in the Canberra TimesEver upward. Wealth in time of plague – analyses this accumulation of financial wealth from a different but equally valid perspective – the division of national income between profit and wages. Profits have been gaining at the expense of labour for 45 years:

Corporations are making their increasing income for shareholder dividends not by making and selling more stuff from innovation and investment in more efficient production methods. Rather they are making it by taking it from what has hitherto been labour’s share of income.

Where was Australia?

Last week the French Government, in cooperation with the UN and the World Bank, hosted the One Planet Summit.  Its focus was on biodiversity, supported by four themes – protection of marine and terrestrial areas, promotion of agro-ecology, finance for biodiversity, and protection of tropical forests, species and human health. Emmanuel Macron, Ursula Von Der Leyen, Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau and even Boris Johnson were there in person or electronically, as were many other prime ministers and presidents.

The United States was not officially represented: no doubt it would have been there had the summit been held after January 20. But Australia had no excuse for not being there.

Election priorities

Many are betting that Morrison will bring forward the federal election to this year. John Hewson, writing in the Canberra Times, lists what should be Morrison’s priorities:

  • proper recognition of the First Australians in the Constitution and in Parliament;
  • an effective and fair transition to a low-carbon society by mid-century – there is no reason we should not become a global leader in low-carbon technologies and markets;
  • an education and research revolution – the revolution that “Rudd promised but never delivered”;
  • proper development of our economic structure to become competitive in services;
  • reform of our complex, inefficient and unfair tax and transfer systems.

It is hard to see anything in Hewson’s wish list that would not resonate with most “left” or “right” inclined voters.

But Hewson, who knows the Liberal Party intimately, believes Morrison will pursue no bold agenda. He will do just enough to shore up his electoral support. A good crisis – the Covid-19 pandemic – will have gone to waste.


The unbearably slow path to energy transformation

The National Electricity Market: alive but not in rude health

The Energy Security Board has published the Health of the National Electricity Market, an annual check-up as recommended by the Finkel Review.  It’s essentially a report card and stocktake of the NEM against a set of affordability, reliability and emissions criteria.

The main concerns in this report are about consumer debt and the difficulty of integrating an expanding supply of renewables – mainly medium and small-scale generators – into the grid as thermal stations close. It’s worth a glance, particularly for some of the comparisons between states. For example, Victoria is the only state with a significant penetration of smart meters: otherwise consumers seem to have little capacity to manage their demand and to shift usage outside peak periods. While the report shows no partisan or anti-renewable bias (in fact it notes that renewables have contributed to lower prices), it pays little attention to the ability for market and technological innovations to reduce the need for peak capacity. (The Morrison Government’s justification for its support for gas-fired generators is based mainly on a claimed requirement for “dispatchable” power at peak periods.) Nor does it take into account the possibilities for integration of geographically-separated energy resources in renewable energy zones as outlined in the Australian Energy Market Operator Integrated System Plan.

It has a revealing chart (P27) on planned closure of ageing coal-fired generators. Over the next 15 years most closures will be in New South Wales, but from then on most closures will be in Queensland.

Writing in Renew Economy –  ESB’s market vision falls short of what’s needed for renewable grid – David Leitch suggests that its authors have been too unimaginative in their thinking. They are bound by the inertia of old technologies, by the artificial divisions between generators, distributors and retailers in the NEM design, and by a model of consumers as passive participants at the end of the transmission and distribution networks.

The Coalition was never enthusiastic about dealing with climate change

With the new year has come the release of selected cabinet documents from the year 2000 – the fourth year of the Howard administration. Doug Dingwall, writing in the Canberra Times, has combed through documents relating to climate change, with detail on ministers’ conflicting views on whether Australia should adopt a domestic emissions trading scheme. Cabinet documents 2000: Don’t tie govt’s hands on climate action, agencies told ministers.

If you want to do your own excavation of the archives you can look at five relevant documents – three cabinet submissions and two cabinet decisions – that throw some light on the Howard Government’s half-hearted approach to the Kyoto climate change commitments. Ideally we would provide you with links to those documents, but we cannot, because the National Archives inactivate any search that has not been activated for thirty minutes. (We can speculate about the reasons they make it so difficult.) So below is the way you can have a look at these documents.

Open the National Archives web page.  On that page you will see a link into the latest cabinet documents. Click on to “View latest Cabinet Documents” – see the illustration alongside.

Once you are in that page scroll down to the heading “Where are the Cabinet records held?”  Click on the option “Submissions and decisions: A14370”.

From the screen that appears, select “Basic search”, and enter the words “Climate change” and “2000” and “2000” in the date boxes (i.e. repeat “2000”).

That will reveal a list of 20 records, all with the frustrating heading “Access status: Not yet examined”.  But click to the following page where records 21 to 38 are listed.  Only the last five documents are open – the ones with small document symbols in the second-last column.  Click on the document symbols.

The first document is a short cabinet decision stating a commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, but with the condition “that competitive export industries [liquified natural gas in particular] would not be penalised”.

The second document is the cabinet submission proposing that Australia, rather than committing to emissions reduction, should seek to achieve credit for use of greenhouse sinks (afforestation, reforestation, revegetation and so on) as a means of accumulating credit for its Kyoto commitments.  It’s a negotiating stance in line with that of Russia and the USA, but which is strongly opposed by the EU.

The third document is about penalties for non-compliance with the Kyoto protocols. Those penalties should be “neither punitive nor mandatory”.

The fourth document endorses “an [international] emissions trading market which operates effectively and without significant restrictions”. It also states clearly that the government expects Australia’s emissions in 2010 to be “between 105 and 120 percent of the 1990 Kyoto base year”. This submission has many pages of economic analysis, presumably based on input-output analysis, pointing out the adverse effects of measures to do with climate change. It’s a static analysis however: it does not consider the possibility of an industrial and economic transformation that could be involved in de-carbonising the Australian economy. Of course economic models will reveal net costs if only existing industries are considered without any consideration of replacement activities.

The last document is a short cabinet decision. The government was to oppose a ministerial meeting in Oslo in December 2000, and was enthusiastic about “the possibility that a better outcome might occur under a new US Administration”. We might recall that George Bush had just defeated Al Gore in the 2000 election in which the Republican Governor of Florida had intervened to stop any recount while the ballots, excluding those with “hanging chads”, were favouring Bush.

A few nudges can trigger self-sustaining action on climate change

Thomas Schelling introduced the concept of the “tipping point”. A tipping point is the point at which a small change in a social system sets off a positive feedback mechanism, leading to significant (possibly runaway) change. The tipping point can often occur well before system changes are noticeable to the observer.

Simon Sharpe of University College London and Timothy Lenton of the University of Exeter show how there are tipping points in relation to climate change – Upward-scaling tipping cascades to meet climate goals: plausible grounds for hope, published in Climate Policy. For example, the more electric vehicles people buy the more charging points will be built, leading to more people buying electric vehicles, and so on. Some other tipping points relate to economies of scale – for example the point at which growing demand for electric vehicles supports firms investing in higher-scale and lower-cost production is a tipping point.  (Economists always have trouble getting their head around the possibility of higher demand leading to lower prices.) Or renewable energy projects may become so plentiful that investors can lower their risk premiums when financing new projects. There are public policies that can help bring a system to the point where they are ready to tip.

Keltan Joshi has a short summary of the paper in Renew Economy.

Trump’s Christmas gift to Scott Morrison

Just before Christmas Donald Trump awarded Scott Morrison the Legion of Merit, for “leadership in addressing global challenges”. Is that the global challenge of stopping countries taking action on climate change?


The row over free speech

Michael McCormack has trouble understanding free speech

On Monday’s ABC Breakfast Alison Carabine interviewed Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack on states’ coronavirus actions and on the assault on the Capitol. He wisely avoided expressing any opinion on states’ coronavirus policies, but when Carabine raised the assault on the Capitol (7:45 minutes into the interview), he responded with strange metaphors about horses, asserting that the assault on the Capitol was “similar to those race riots we saw around the country last year”.

Amnesty International Australia has been quick to condemn McCormack’s suggestion of moral equivalence between Black Lives Matter protests and the violent assault on the Capitol, an attack instigated by the nation’s most powerful office-holder.

When she asked about social media shutting down Trump he responded: “I don’t believe in that sort of censorship”. Even when Carabine specifically asked “do you believe his actions and comments helped incite that unrest?” he didn’t seem to understand that free speech is not an unmitigated right. He didn’t realise that those in authority who have the voice and credibility that come with public office have particular moral responsibilities that set boundaries around their utterances.

With the issue of free speech now on the agenda, the use of social media by Coalition backbenchers Craig Kelly and George Christiansen has come into prominence. Both have defended their use of social media to promulgate misleading ideas on climate change, on Covid-19 and even on the notion that left-wing groups were involved in the Capitol riot. Particularly concerning for the government and for public health experts, as the Commonwealth is ramping up an immunisation program, is that these two backbenchers have been promoting hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19. Government ministers have refrained from criticising Kelly and Christiansen or even mentioning their names: even the Communications Minister responsible for social media policy has avoided comment.

On the ABC Breakfast program on Wednesday Nationals MP Anne Webster made the reasonable point that Kelly holds no particular position in government: he is a backbench member of Parliament and therefore by implication Morrison has little capacity to direct his behaviour. But we should note that in 2018 Scott Morrison intervened to support Kelly to head off a preselection challenge: he owes his voice to Morrison’s intervention. (Kelly’s electorate, Hughes, in Sydney’s southern coastal reaches, provides a ripe opportunity for an independent candidate to return it to adult hands.)

Morrison has been on leave during these incidents, but it is notable that unlike some other world heads of government he has stopped short of criticising Trump for his role in instigating violence. So much for the idea that leaders in democracies should unite to defend the institutions and values of democracy. In fact, former Treasurer and Ambassador to Washington Joe Hockey has actually joined in the right-wing chorus  who claim that there was Democrat vote fraud in the election.

At what point does “free speech” become “incitement to violence”?

Writing in The Conversation Peter Ives of the University of Winnipeg draws our attention to the principles expressed by philosophers Immanuel Kant and JS Mill. Kant was somewhat absolutist, but Mill clearly distinguished between speech in the context of argument and speech in the context of calls to action. In fact Mill used the example of speech before an angry mob that could incite violence. Ives reminds us that Mill contended that “such speech should not count as free speech but as action, and when harmful should be regulated”: Why “free speech” needs a new definition in the age of the internet and Trump tweets.


Public ideas

Deaths of despair and the future of capitalism

Joe Walker’s latest (11 January) Jolly Swagman podcast is an interview with Angus Deaton, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in economics, author of The great escape: health, welfare and the origins of inequality, and most recently co-author, with his partner Anne Case, of Deaths of despair and the future of capitalism. Deaton sees market capitalism as the only viable economic system: centrally planned socialism was hardly a roaring success. But people, quite reasonably, are turning against market capitalism because so many people are being left behind: capitalism is no longer delivering.  “So I think we’ve got to fix it, otherwise we’ll lose this great engine that produces stuff and could keep us healthy and can allow us to enjoy good lives” he says.

The interview is mainly about his and Case’s quest to understand why, after many decades of improved health outcomes, life expectancy in the US started falling as a result of preventable conditions (including suicide), particularly among middle-aged “white” men – “deaths of despair” to use their terminology. (Walker presents the data at the beginning of the session.)  Deaths are not the only indicator of distress: there are also drug dependence, unstable relationships and the loss of community institutions.

Deaton discusses the growing gulf between the privileged who have enjoyed good education and those whose schooling has been cut short through economic circumstances – the “deplorables” to use one aspiring president’s insensitive description. He traces the problem largely, but not only, to rent-seeking behaviour, singling out for special mention America’s hugely expensive, ineffective and unjust system of health care.

The interview is 85 minutes, and Joe Walker has provided a transcript, with many hyperlinks to related works.

Understanding Piketty

Thomas Piketty’s latest book, Capital and ideology, is not an easy read: the hard copy version is almost 1100 pages. But it’s an important work, extending the ideas in his 2014 work Capital in the twenty-first century.

Social Europe has a 36-minute podcast interview with Piketty, where he summarises his main ideas. Widening inequality, particularly inequality of wealth, is threatening the legitimacy of capitalism. It must be addressed by progressive taxes, including progressive taxes on wealth, but it’s difficult for any sovereign state to tax wealth because in this age of hyper-globalisation, capital is mobile, and countries are engaging in races to the bottom to lower taxes.

The first 19 minutes of the podcast are mainly about the difficulties of achieving fiscal cooperation in the EU – where, in principle, it should be comparatively easy. After all the EU was created because the 1939-45 War came about, in part, because of individual countries pursuing beggar-thy-neighbour policies. Then he recounts his findings on voting patterns and education, and the lesson from history that countries that do not invest in their public services, particularly education, suffer economically.

There is also a short summary of Piketty’s Capital and ideology on Club Troppo.

Understanding Brexit and capitalism

George Monbiot has a short (7-minute) podcast explaining how the successful campaign to take Britain out of the EU was a smokescreen to cover for a push by oligarchs to gain a strong position in a UK cut adrift from a strong and united Europe. The campaign was ostensibly about “foreigners”, “Europe”, “culture wars”, and “an independent nation”, but these were cover for the real agenda about “warlords of capitalism” displacing “domesticated capitalism”.  The warlords in Russia and elsewhere seek a capitalism untethered from the restrictions of the administrative state – the restrictions that keep the excesses of capitalism in check.

Also on Brexit Brendan O’Leary, of the University of Pennsylvania, points out that the Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland are precarious. Northern Ireland remains in the EU customs union, but has been separated from the EU social institutions: A referendum on Irish unity is coming, whether we like it or not, published in the Irish Times.

Financial incentives don’t direct our lives, but we’re led to think they do

The neoliberal argument in support of tax cuts is that high taxes discourage people, particularly the worthy and entrepreneurial wealthy, from working. But to what extent do financial incentives really encourage us to work? The question is not new, but the false notion that high taxes kill the work ethic just won’t go away.

Ross Gittins describes a behavioural economics experiment that contrasts the way we think financial incentives work in general in the economy (we generally think they are very important in directing behaviour) and how they actually influence our own behaviour (they are only part of the motivational mix alongside status, dignity and social connections): Why much of what we’re told about taxes is off beam.

The Cold War gets another run with a few changes in actors

The December 2020 editorial of Monthly Review describes geopolitical manoeuvring since the USSR-US Cold War ended in the 1990s. Since then the US has been working to re-establish hegemony, a venture that has been developing a new cold war between the US and China. The authors see America’s involvement in the Middle East and the Trump Administration’s close relationship with Russia in the context of a US-China competition for hegemony.


The best of the USA

Two soldiers from the USAF play the Largo from Dvorak’s New World Symphony.


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

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