Detox democracy through representation by random selection: Reprint

As Troppodillians may know, I occasionally use the comments section of Troppo to minute notes to myself — often references — to which I may wish to return some day. So I can use this thread in that way, I’m reproducing something I first published a while back on the Mandarin. It was an attempt to enumerate all the ways in which selection by lot could complement our ailing electoral system.  By all means ignore it if you’ve seen it, but if you haven’t, if you’ll pardon the fact that it’s quite long, I hope you find it of interest. Of course contemporary comments on it are also welcome. (Apologies that footnotes take you to actual footnotes, but on the Mandarin version of the essay if you click on them — or below if you want to just scroll down manually.)

Part one. Part two is here.

As Western democracy degrades before our eyes, (President Donald Trump wasn’t really imaginable even a few years or so ago and is still hard to fully comprehend) we need to remember the choices that were made as modern democracy was founded, at the time of the American and French Revolutions. Democracy was a dirty word!  Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws repeated Aristotle’s claim that “Voting by lot is in the nature of democracy; voting by choice is in the nature of aristocracy”.1

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Posted in Democracy, Sortition and citizens’ juries | 1 Comment

The COVID-Induced Experiment on Interest Rates and House Prices: Is Cameron Murray As Right As You Can Be?

We’ve just had an economic experiment of epic proportions and there’s really only one conclusion: on house prices, Cameron Murray is as correct as anybody can be about a contested economic issue.

Cameron Murray is an all-round interesting thinker whose views at least on some topics you almost definitely will have some provocative issues with. One such claim, which he’s made in a variety of places, is that by far the biggest factor on house prices is interest rates. Of course, you have to discount massive government policy change or an economic depression producing widespread unemployment. But barring that, it’s interest rates all the way.

In this COVID period, we’ve had:

  • a massive narrative change (the story told ad nauseam during 2020 was that house prices would crash)
  • a massive government-backed building boom increasing supply
  • a massive drop in immigration, as well as depopulation in certain areas, reducing demand
  • a large drop in rents
  • great economic uncertainty with a concomitant rise in unemployment during 2020

And yet, the drop in interest rates swamped all those factors above to push house prices to further highs. Even credit flow dropped without much of an impact on the massive upswing in house prices.

Granted, people can argue with Murray’s position on the margin, but I put it to you that one of the silver linings of this whole COVID debacle is that we can put to rest one of the great Australian economic debates and definitively conclude: house prices are all about interest rates.

Posted in bubble, Economics and public policy | 10 Comments

Fatalism and counterfactuals in times of lockdowns

One of the more curious phenomena of the last 18 months has been the fatalism on display on both sides of the lockdown divide. In the anti-lockdown brigade fatalism props up in the guise of “this was the inevitable outcome of decades of planning”, a view of humanity  wherein only ‘evil’ has agency and the rest is a passive victim of fate, though usually the adherents of such a story line make an exception for themselves and everyone who follows them (because only they can stop evil). In the pro-lockdown camp, fatalistic thinking is of the form “it had to be this way and there was nothing we could have realistically done otherwise”, which sometimes is followed by its somewhat revealing corollary “and there is nothing I am going to do about it because it is all inevitable”.

In both versions of fatalism, there is a negation of human agency, either as individuals or as a collective. It is pre-enlightenment thinking. Let me here expand on the fatalism I see in the pro-lockdown camp because I regard it as a mental prison I hope some in the pro-lockdown camp can escape from once they recognise it.

That is not a counterfactual!

The fatalism I have often seen in this pandemic by those going along with the lockdowns is of the form ‘we had no choice’. There are many variants of the ‘we had no choice’ meme, including the kiddy version (‘the virus forced us’), the political version (‘the political reality was that we had to do this’), and the intellectual version (‘I have not heard a realistic counterfactual’).

To understand how these variants are but branches of the same fatalism, we need a reminder of what the whole notion of ‘choice’ actually is in scientific, legal, and democratic thought. To understand fatalism we need to ask the perhaps strange question of whether choice really exists or is but a convenient invention. Continue reading

Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Cultural Critique, Dance, Death and taxes, Life, Philosophy | 6 Comments

On Faust, Lord of the Rings, and lockdowns

A major theme in our book “the Great Covid Panic” (now also on Kindle!) is how a whole layer of politicians, medical advisers, and opportunistic business people grabbed the opportunity for more power and money during the lockdowns of 2020-2021. We detail how they did it and what the effects were on their society. The tilt towards authoritarianism happened nearly all over the world to varying degrees, but nowhere more obviously than in Australia. Just last week, for instance, parliament passed a bill allowing the police to access and change any online communication (email, facebook, Troppo) that Australians engage in. That bill is symptomatic of a grab for power under the cloak of fear, which of course will mean a transfer of resources from poor to powerful. In Victoria one can think of Brett Sutton as an exemplar of someone seduced by power, whilst people like Fauci and Witty come to mind in the US and the UK, both sitting on top of rapidly expanding empires like the CDC in the US that even tried to grab power over housing (curtailed by the Supreme Court).

In this post I want to talk about something not in the book: the tragedy of these power-grabbers themselves. What do our greatest pieces of art say about what is in stall for those seduced by power? The Tragedy of Faust of course is exactly on the topic of how seductive power is and what it costs those who succumb to it. The Game of Thrones story-arc of Daenerys was also on that theme of how someone good became someone bad as fame went to her head.

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Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Dance, Death and taxes, Health, History, Life, Philosophy, Social | 4 Comments

The Great Covid Panic: now out!

It’s here, the booklet I am sure you have all been waiting for. The one which Gigi Foster and Michael Baker slaved over for 10 months. It is also on Kindle. It is dedicated to all the victims of the Panic, in poor countries and rich countries. They include our children, the lonely, and the poor.

The short publisher blurb: How to make sense of the astonishing upheaval of Spring 2020 and following? Normal life – in which expected rights and freedoms were taken for granted – came to be replaced by a new society as managed by a medical/ruling elite that promised but failed to deliver virus mitigation, all in the name of public health. Meanwhile, we’ve lost so much of what we once had: travel freedoms, privacy, a democratic presumption of equality, commercial freedoms, and even the access to information portals. Something has gone very wrong.

The longer blurb that our publisher chose for it is over the fold! There is also a website that will tell you where book launches will take place, which bookstores sell it, and who has liked it sofar. Continue reading

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Two summary pieces of HART and SWPR on masks

Guy Fawkes Mask ➤ V for Vendetta Mask purchase | horror-shop.comSince I learned in April 2020 that transmission of covid was mainly via extremely small aerosols, I have regarded face masks as a placebo: they are to aerosols what garden gates are to mosquitoes. Yet, placebos have a role so I wasn’t too against them and willing to have my assessment overturned by new insights. After all, face masks might not stop aerosols, but they made many people feel better and might unexpectedly work in some other way against covid, such as by changing behaviour or changing the way the air flows into noses, or whatever. 16 months later, I am more against them because a multi-billion dollar industry has arisen that thrives on creating a mask-waste mountain and is thus heavily invested in their continued use, just as the industry of hand sanitizers, tests, and others. I personally found masks a nuisance to wear and an overt sign of submission. I have a like-minded friend in Sydney going around Sydney shops with a guy fawkes mask as a quiet symbol of defiance against compulsory masks.

I want to share two external reviews on masks of two different groups I have been following. One is a group of largely retired UK doctors who assembled in 2020: the HART group that looks at all the medical science around covid. The people involved in that group write on personal title, so one knows who the advice is from, which is a big plus. The second is a pre-existing’ Swiss policy research’ group formed in 2016. It is a bit like the research version of wikileaks and seems to have found its origin largely in concerns for press freedom and suspicion of the CIA, which is why its contributors are anonymous (which I understand, but dont like, particularly not as a sole source of information). SWPR took it upon itself early on to wade through the science of covid so as to come to its own assessment.

I have found the combination of them useful. SWPR is not so good in understanding the models or being consistent about what explains covid-outcomes, but is good at classic medical stuff (treatments, trials) and media manipulation. The HART group is good on covid measurement issues, medical organizational matters, and has better modelers on their team, but it largely stays away from political economy and is less prepared to venture guesses about origins and such. Yet, both have taken reasonable lines on things for which there is little doubt. Both those sources for instance say vaccines reduce covid severity. These sources have not always agreed the last 18 months and I have noted technical issues in areas I have particular expertise where they didn’t quite understand what some sophisticated empirical studies were saying, but I have learned to lean on them for useful summary takes. I haven’t detected an obvious bias. Here is what the HART people say about masks (

Contrary to the Government message that it ‘follows the science’, the sudden change in advice by the WHO was not based on any new, high-quality scientific studies. By summer 2020, there was substantial evidence that non-medical masks for the general public did not reduce the transmission of respiratory viruses. A review of 14 controlled studies had concluded that masks did not significantly lessen the spread of seasonal ‘flu in the community.[] A Norwegian Institute for Public Health review found that non-medical masks achieve no benefit for healthy individuals, particularly when viral prevalence is low.[] From a common sense angle, scientists had argued that cloth masks contain perforations that are far too big to act as a viral barrier and therefore ‘offer zero protection against COVID-19’.[]

Inevitably, the public often wear masks incorrectly, or improperly handle them when putting them on, or removing them, constituting an additional infection hazard. There has been recognition of this contamination risk in the scientific literature[] and other researchers have cautioned against the use of cloth face coverings.[] Potential harms to the wearer include exhaustion, headaches, fatigue and dehydration.[] Some doctors have suggested an increased risk of pneumonia.[] Furthermore, the widely varying physical characteristics of the face coverings used by people in the community, that are not standardised for material, fit, length of wearing, changes after washing and drying, and disposal, means that laboratory research on mask efficacy cannot be generalised to real-world situations.

With particular reference to COVID-19, the only large randomised controlled trial exploring the benefits of adopting face coverings in the community found that masks (even the surgical variety) did not result in a significant reduction in infection risk for the wearer.[] A detailed analysis[] of all research investigations, including those purported to suggest that masks might achieve some benefits, led to the view that there is ‘little to no evidence’ that cloth masks in the general population are effective.

Masks impair verbal communication, render lip-reading impossible for the deaf, and stymie emotional expression, the latter effect potentially constituting a gross impediment to children’s social development. Acting as a crude, highly visible reminder that danger is all around, face coverings are fuelling widespread, irrational fear.

Wearing a mask will heighten the distress of many people with existing mental health problems and may trigger ‘flashbacks’ for those historically traumatised by physical and/or sexual abuse. Sadly, going without a mask (even as a means of avoiding psychological distress) can often attract harassment and further victimisation. In response to this, ‘exemption lanyards’ have been developed, which further stigmatise those who cannot wear face coverings due to health conditions or previous trauma.

Note that this is their summary conclusion, which did not go over the more positive studies that one would like to see discussed. Continue reading

Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Death and taxes, Health, IT and Internet, Science | 41 Comments

Midnight’s Library

The graphic from the nifty NYT review.

On the strength of nothing more than the fact that it’s Audible’s free book of the month, I’ve started listening to Midnight’s library. It’s fun and engaging. I’ll copy and paste a review with which I broadly agree and then copy and paste the most enjoyable scene so far. I hope you enjoy it.

It is no secret that Matt Haig has mental health issues, dogged by the darkness of depression that has taken its toll on his life. His acute observations and experience of his condition informs this exquisite, inspiring, compassionate and empathetic novel where he creates the concept of the midnight library, to be found in the spaces between life and death, to explore life, the issues that afflict our world, through philosophy and more, endeavouring to tease out what might make life worth living and a joy and what gives it meaning. The device used to implement his goal is the ordinary Nora Seed, who has lived her life trying to please others, who has hit rock bottom, suffering the loss of her cat, her job, overwhelmed by the burden of a lifetime of regrets, seeing no light in her life whatsoever. She is tempted by thoughts of suicide that has her ending up at the midnight library.

The midnight library is magical, for a start, the library has a limitless number of books, and these books are far from ordinary, Haig sprinkles gold dust in each book, offering Nora the opportunity to see how her life would have turned out if each and every decision at every point in her life had been different. The books illustrate the endless possibilities that life holds for Nora and all of us. Nora explores each book, with inquisitiveness and curiosity, the widely disparate lives that could have been hers, no easy task as she has to slip into each new life with the complications of being unfamiliar with it and do so without alerting the other people present. It soon becomes clear that there are pros and cons to each book/life, to each decision and choice made, each life containing its own mix of despair, pain and regrets that must be accommodated and handled. Continue reading

Posted in Humour, Philosophy | 2 Comments