Fred Gruen: A centenary

My father Fred was born Fritz Heinz Georg Grün to a family living at Reisnerstrasse 5, Vienna on 14th June, 1921 making today the centenary of his birth. Accordingly I’m reposging a speech I gave at the unveiling of the portrait of him by his good friend Erwin Fabian in Hay concentration camp * not long after they both arrived. Erwin died less than a year ago aged 105.

* It was not an extermination camp obviously enough, but I believe (though I’ve not been able to source it) that at the time there was an official sign in Hay along these lines “Concentration Camp =>”. Certainly early in the war the term ‘concentration camp’ was officially used in Australia to describe such facilities — though, given their experience in the Boer War, the British were now using the term ‘internment camp’ which became standard usage in Australia.


Last night I attended the unveiling of a facsimile of a portrait of my father painted when he was fresh off the boat in 1941. Thanks go to Bruce Chapman above all, but to many others for organising. To Erwin Fabian, who pained the portrait all those years ago. It’s been over 16 years since Dad departed and I’ve made two other speeches reflecting on things, one at his memorial after he died, another, more general one using Dad as a foil to reflect on ‘the asylum seeker issue’. I needed to make another one!


When Heinrich Schliemann unearthed a gold mask in Mycenae, he was reputed to have said “I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon”. In a more modest way Erwin Fabian’s magnificent portrait allows us to gaze back through time – upon the face of a very different person to the one we all knew.

When Dad arrived in England in 1936, he was 15 and alone. He must have been scared. Met by a teacher from Herne Bay College where he was to board, Dad had no English. “Salve” he said, greeting the teacher in Latin. No dice: He was the gym instructor.

The portrait was painted just four months after the Dunera arrived. To find him in those days you just followed the signs in the main street of Hay to the “Concentration Camp”. Dad must have wondered where his mother Marianne was; how she was. She was taken to Theresienstadt. It was a way-station to Auscwitz.

It also had creepy similarities to Hay. Theresienstadt was Hitler’s home for Europe’s Jewish cultural elite. So, as the inmates quietly starved, it doubled as a set for Nazi propaganda showing how well Jewish ‘resettlement’ was going. As she waited to discover her fate, Marianne would sometimes have attended lectures, recitals, poetry readings, and concerts, just as Dad was doing in Hay.1 Continue reading

  1. I have since discovered from the Yad Vashem database that one ‘Marie Grün’ was transported to Lotz Ghetto on a passenger train from Vienna in 1942 and I think that was Marianne. If so, the Theresienstadt story seems false. Further, if she was shipped out of the ghetto to an extermination camp, chances are it was Chelmo.
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Scott Morrison’s covid dilemma

Pre 2020, I considered Scott Morrison a political enemy of the policies I wanted for Australia, but since then have sympathised with every attempt he has made to get Australia out of its love-affair with covid-mania. Over the fold is my take on what I think Scott Morrison’s view of the covid-period is and the dilemma that he now faces. Continue reading

Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Dance, Death and taxes, Democracy, Health, Politics - international, Politics - national | 58 Comments

To fix the financial system, nationalise money, not the banks: Guest post by Michael Haines

Michael Haines

Michael overheard me pontificating with a friend at my local café and we got talking. After lengthy emails on various topics including universal basic income, I invited him to post on Troppo — with this being the result. Michael has had 40+ years in senior management and consulting roles (including at CEO and board level), across: government, telecommunications, brewing, construction, consumer goods, car manufacturing, transport and logistics. He was a Board Member of Australian Logistics Council and Chair of its ICT Committee, as well as Member of Austroads Intelligent Transport Industry Reference Group. In 2011, he established VANZI, a ‘not-for-profit’ Initiative in collaboration with a range of national stakeholders to broker development of the Digital Built Environment. In 2016, he led the team that wrote the Road Map for 3D Queensland.

To fix the financial system, nationalise money, not the banks: Guest post by Michael Haines

This post outlines a novel way to stabilize the banking system by:- a) converting all bank deposits AND loans to ‘Central Bank Money’, and b) appointing each bank as ‘Agent for the Central Bank’.

At present, only 3-4% of our money is ‘risk-free national money’ (cash).

Most is in the form of deposits, created when loans are made by commercial banks, other deposit-taking institutions, and ‘fintechs’ that have a banking licence (together called ‘banks’).

This Bank of England paper explains the process in detail.

The deposits are liabilities of the banks; placing our money ‘at risk’ if our bank fails.

As banks underpin the financial system, it is generally agreed that they have a responsibility to lend only at the ‘low risk’ end. Risky ventures are seen as the preserve of equity

Unfortunately, banks often abrogate their social responsibilities by taking on unreasonable risks.

This is largely a ‘system problem’, that requires a system solution. Continue reading

Posted in Economics and public policy, Innovation | 22 Comments

What has the pandemic told us about wellbeing?

Wellbeing science has behaved very honourably during this pandemic in my opinion, particularly in the UK, where many of the best-known wellbeing researchers openly pointed to the disproportionate costs of lockdowns compared to their (dubious) benefits. Many stood up in newspaper articles and scientific publications (see also here and here) to be counted against the madness of UK lockdown policies (to no effect, but at least ‘we’ were not complicit bystanders). ‘We’ tried to warn about the disaster that was being inflicted, essentially because ‘we’ knew about the immense harm done when one keeps families and friends physically apart. Also, ‘we’ knew where to look for big negative effects of the disruptions, namely mental health, government debt, IVF treatments, and such.

Yet, how about the other direction: what have we learned about wellbeing from the statistics coming out during the pandemic? After all, it was a huge shock to many parts of the social system and should hence be a prime supplier of insights as to what matters and how things interrelate.

The figure below tells the essential story as it has emerged in several countries. The figure shows the behaviour of the “ONS4” wellbeing module during the pandemic in the UK from the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, which has the advantage that it had a consistent methodology before and after March 2020 (ie it was an online survey already).

The top-left graph is the main wellbeing question on how individuals evaluate their own life. As we now know from many countries in Europe, the first lockdown in April-May was bad for wellbeing (a drop of around 0.3), but the second one in the winter (Sep-Mar) was way worse (o.8, which is over 10%). Now, this drop was predicted beforehand on the basis that social life was directly important for wellbeing and would be disrupted with distancing rules. So ‘we’ expected both an immediate drop, but also a very quick return to wellbeing normality if social distancing rules were lifted, as they were largely in the summer of 2020, and are starting to be lifted now. In this regard, the evidence is confirmatory: most of the wellbeing effect is temporary and very probably tied to social distancing rules. We saw that in Australia too: strong wellbeing effects during lockdowns, but not much afterwards, so for instance no social ‘scarring’.

So the first lesson is confirmatory: social relations seem to matter and can be disrupted by anti-social policy. Yet, social relations also come back very quickly when restrictions lift. Continue reading

Posted in Coronavirus crisis, History, Science, Social, Social Policy, Society | 14 Comments

Surveillance capitalism is helping the disadvantaged: who knew?

Here’s some claims about recent research on fintech and AI.

Berg, Burg, Gombovic, and Puri (2018) suggest that digital footprints can help boost financial inclusion, allowing unbanked consumers to have better access to finance. Similarly, Frost et al. (2019) show that fintech firms often start as payment platforms and later use consumer data to expand into some provisions of credit, insurance, and savings and investment products.

Yet public policy and (shall we call it?) ‘concerned advocacy’ approach such innovations in a highly asymmetric way. They don’t ask ‘what level of regulation would maximise overall good (Bentham) — or overall good to the most disadvantaged (Rawls). They ask “can this new technology produce invidious discrimination?” Almost inevitably it will. But the focus of policy and advocacy is then turned to minimising the downsides, not maximising the upsides or optimising the net outcome. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Gender, Philosophy, Political theory | 7 Comments

Zweig on doing good rather than grandstanding: a story

I’ve quoted Zweig several times on this blog since reading his memoirs, but I was going to post this — and forgot. So, better late than never, here it is. A lovely story:

One day I had an express letter from a friend in Paris, saying that an Italian lady wanted to visit me in Salzburg on important business, and could I see her at once? She called on me the very next day, and what she had to tell me was indeed shocking. Her husband, a distinguished medical doctor of humble social origin, had been educated at the expense of Matteotti. When Matteotti, leader of the Socialists, was murdered by the Fascists, world opinion, already weary with all the demands on it, had reacted once more against a single crime. All Europe had risen in indignant protest. His loyal friend the doctor had been one of the six brave men who dared to carry Matteotti’s coffin openly through the streets of Rome. Soon after that, ostracised and under threat, he had gone into exile. But the fate of Matteotti’s family weighed on his mind. In memory of his benefactor, he tried to smuggle Matteotti’s children out of Italy to safety abroad.

However, in the attempt he himself had fallen foul of spies or agents provocateurs, and had been arrested. As everything calling Matteotti to mind was an embarrassment to Italy, the outcome of a trial on those grounds would not have been too bad for him, but by devious means the public prosecutor had associated his trial with another going on at the same time, and that case was concerned with an attempt to blow up Mussolini with a bomb. So this doctor, who had won the highest honours serving his country on the battlefields of the Great War, was sentenced to ten years’ hard labour. Continue reading

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Is the birthrate in Victoria dropping fast?

One of the things I keep track off in covid-times is what is happening to births. Though it was initially suggested couples might use their extra lockdown-time to produce babies, it has become clear that in the Western world the opposite is true and that they reduce births by 10-20%.

How about Victoria, which is the state in Australia with the longest and strictest lockdowns? Well, I just downloaded the monthly birth statistics from the Victorian government. Those statistics tell about the number of birth registered by month, which thus allows for things like home birth that were only registered weeks later. The advantage of the series is that it is consistent over time (lockdowns or no lockdowns, all births have to be registered).

Month-Year Count
April 2021 5079
March 2021 6479
February 2021 5452
January 2021 5000
December 2020 5180
November 2020 6267
October 2020 6648
September 2020 7075
August 2020 6011
July 2020 4508
June 2020 7392
May 2020 6168
April 2020 6399
March 2020 6710
February 2020 6685
January 2020 5975
December 2019 6069
November 2019 6372
October 2019 8091
September 2019 5976

The data tells a clear story. There is a lot of variation by month, like the outlier in October 2019, suggesting some months are popular registration months. The key thing I wanted to know when looking this up is whether births dropped 8 months after lockdowns. Well, in the first four months of 2021, there were 22,010 births whilst in the first four months of 2020 there were 25,769. That is a drop of 17%, which is a big number and completely in line with what is found elsewhere in the West, but not strongly statistically significant. Victoria did see some out-migration, but only in the order of 1-2%, so not enough for the birth drop. Those first four months of 2021 contained babies conceived  from around April-August 2020, so the lockdown period. It will be interesting to see whether there is a rebound later in 2021.

Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Death and taxes, Health, Parenting, Social, Society | 14 Comments