The journalist as courtier: COVID19 edition


Well, certainly wearing a mask walking down the streets of Melbourne makes no sense at all

Brendan Murphy, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, March 9. 

The philosopher Mary Midgley styles her own writing as that of a critic. She means something urgent by this – not something academicInTheBadSense. This publicly available essay is a great read on the subject as usual from my mate Mary, but here’s a passage from elsewhere to give you the sense of it:

Plumbing and philosophy are both activities that arise because elaborate cultures like ours have, beneath their surface, a fairly complex system which is usually unnoticed, but which sometimes goes wrong. In both cases, this can have serious consequences. Each system supplies vital needs to those who live above it. Each is hard to repair when it does go wrong, because neither of them was ever consciously planned as a whole.

In that spirit, I present this close reading of a recent news article by David Speers. He’s an excellent case study because he works hard for his reputation of being even-handed, even in the culture of abusive partisanship that prevailed when he was in the Murdoch stable.

Also, journalists keep up an incredible pace of output which puts me in awe of them. So we shouldn’t judge them by the standards of those who have much more time to consider their view. Nevertheless, Speers’ article presents an excellent example of what I call ‘the journalist as courtier’. My critique amounts to these points which shouldn’t really make much higher cognitive demands on the journalist.

  1. While journalists’ job is to report the doings of power, they should do so in an open-minded and, where appropriate, critical way, particularly when reporting governments’ reasoning.
  2. In reporting disagreements between the government and its inevitable critics, the journalist should be fair to those critics whose points are worth reporting. It is journalists’ job to foster this debate as part of their critical role in democratic deliberation in our political system. Thus they should be putting such critics’ views to government and reporting their response to the public.
  3. It is understandable that the journalist wishes to entertain their audience – but they should entertain the reader whilst attending to the debate they’re reporting. Here the debate, which is supposed to be the subject of the report, plays no structural role in the reporting/analysis. It’s just part of the scenery – along with various bromides about ‘tough choices’ – life and death no less.
  4. This effectively neuters the media’s second most important function – after informing the public of facts – its role in subjecting power and authority to scrutiny.

Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Economics and public policy, Health, Humour, Philosophy | 8 Comments

Blogging the Spanish Flu

We’re constantly in team meetings here in the underground bunker at Club Troppo working out how to tweak the linkbait. An edict has already been passed down the line from the AI that runs the place that no posts will be published on anything but Coronavirus for the next six months (when our JobKeeper payments stop and we’ll all be released for the AFL Grand Final between Collingwood and the Joint Commonwealth Government Treasury/Health Department Coronavirus team (which will also be due for a run round the block.)

So how to keep the readers entertained and clicking on the links, <metaphor>sipping on the champers</WhatsAMetaphorYouEh> here at ClubPony? Paul Frijters has already taken one for the team with his notorious “What do we want? COVID Genocide, When do we want it? Now!” posts. Beyond that, our plan is for mindless epidemiological chit chat, but we do have one or two more angles in the can.

Thus an old friend of mine from Melbourne Law School and member of the Melbourne Cricket Club wrote me this email.

You’re an economist. The Age this morning showed a chart comparing economic downturns. It showed that the Spanish flu only caused a contraction of about 1% in 1918/19 but we are projecting double digit contractions from this pandemic. It seems the Spanish flu in medical terms was at least as serious as Covid-19 and provoked severe restrictions on movement so why the difference in economic effects? I’m just curious.

I worked things out on the fly as follows:

Very interesting question. I don’t know the answer.

My guess is that there would have been much less locking down, but who knows. Perhaps they just had fewer people getting SC kinds of fees ;)

(Actually I think that’s quite a good idea for a hypothesis. I’d imagine the proportion of the workforce considered to be in ‘essential services’ was much higher. I mean what jobs were being done in 1919 that things could keep ticking over without?

Not banking, not accounting. Servants, governesses could keep doing their jobs in situ. All automatic systems they ran, required people to run them – in technical areas they were called ‘calculators’ – and they were people, usually women with pencil and paper (you’ve no doubt seen the movie ;)

There wasn’t much tourism – or, judging from my childhood forty years later, even eating out.

I’m struggling to get much past travelling salesmen and pubs. And the VFL GF was held, so who knows if the season was disrupted?

I’ve just checked – the footy went on as normal – so not a lot of lockdown going on – first things first

Collingwood ended up on top of the ladder, Melbourne the bottom.

Those were the days!

Anyway, in replying I did happen upon the net and this article by Frank Bongiorno, whom I then wrote to asking him to elaborate. To which he replied: Continue reading

Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Economics and public policy, Humour | 11 Comments

How many WELLBYs is the corona panic costing?

How much unhappiness is created by the unemployment of millions of people in Western countries (mainly N-Am +Europe) caused by the corona panic? How much unhappiness has been created due to the vast expansion of loneliness and physical inactivity? And in terms of the tradeoff between the quality of life and the length of life, how many “equivalent lives” are the isolation policies costing us via our reduced quality of life?

In an earlier post I calculated the loss of life due to the economic recession caused by the hysteria to be at least 10 million whole lives in the whole world, probably closer to 50 million. This was essentially calculated from taking the discounted economic loss to be at least 50 trillion and combining it with the rule of thumb that the value of a statistical life in the world is around 1-4 million each, a bit higher in the richer countries and much lower in the poorest countries. 10-50 million lives lost was thus the expected loss of life in the decades to come due to less government services, poorer nutrition, and increased social tensions of the type we are seeing in India.

Now I want to consider the importance of the quality of life, focussing just on the billion or so living in the West, using a wellbeing criterion: the likely effect of the social isolation and the economic collapse on the levels of life satisfaction of the population. The basic unit of analysis is the WELLBY, which is one point change in life satisfaction for one person for one year when measured on a 0-10 scale. As a rule of thumb, the average year of life in richer countries is worth about 6 WELLBYs, less in poorer countries where average wellbeing levels are lower. Then a whole life of 80 years, which is the average life expectancy in the West, is worth about 480 WELLBYs.

I will look only at the two items that I think are the most important components of the WELLBY loss involved in the panic and the social isolation policies: unemployment and the mental health costs of isolation.

We cannot accurately know the full WELLBY costs from unemployment and loneliness caused by the corona panic, but we can make an educated guess using the estimates around on the economic collapse, the social collapse, and what we know from the wellbeing literature. Over the fold, I detail why I think another month of mass isolation will cost the West at least the equivalent of a million deaths in terms of reduced quality of life. Continue reading

Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Death and taxes, Democracy, Education, Employment, Health, History, Politics - international, Science, Social, Social Policy, Uncategorized | 35 Comments

May the farce be with you: legal edition

Well, well, well. The legal system has bungled its way to releasing a guilty man. Even if George Pell were not guilty of any acts of child molesting (as it was called during most of the time he was doing it) he’d belong in jail for his criminal disregard and wilful hostility towards the interests of the thousands of innocent children who were abused and whose lives were so devastated as people were shifted from parish to parish.

Having watched Revelation’s Episode 3 – remarkably quickly removed from the ABC’s iView Website this morning – 1it is clear on a host of similar fact evidence that Pell is in fact guilty of the crimes he was convicted of by a judge and jury.

For now, I take a small amount of comfort that the monumental incompetence of this system which has enriched the lives of so many lawyers in the last few years for putting on this dysfunctional show, has engineered a situation where a man goes to jail even though everyone has known there was a good chance he’d be found not guilty at the end of the process.2

I’m sure if I asked a lawyer why this was the case they’d come up with a good reason – or at least a reason that satisfied them. It wouldn’t satisfy me – it’s completely stupid. Perhaps you know that you haven’t really made it as a profession if you can’t do things that are utterly absurd on their face and have a large number of the trained professionals telling you that it really was for the best and that the system would be much, much worse if it didn’t do such utterly stupid things.

Certainly, economics qualifies as a profession if that’s the criterion. Professions that have to build things that work – like engineering – not so much.

Postscript: Just tell me about the money. One more thing. At the end of Episode 3 of Revelation the (I think) then most senior Catholic was in Rome for a Vatican gabfest on the crisis of child sex abuse in the Church. He seemed like a reasonable enough guy – but who knows. He’d obviously have been schooled in the PR of it all and he gave some statement to the assembled cardinals (if that’s what they were – they dressed in green silken robes and had pink skull caps on – as you do.)

The language had been amped up from the (at least in retrospect) creepy language adopted by so many apologists for the church as these revelations have been processed by the churches. I recall Pell talking about his ‘Melbourne’ model of solving this crisis talking about ‘walking with victims’ and all that stuff. (About all that can be said for that kind of stuff is that it’s better than the treatment they got in private.)

Anyway, I’m thoroughly uninterested in words from the church. I think we should have a moratorium on them. The only thing that will satisfy me are the words Mario Draghi used to save the Euro – at least for a time. “Whatever it takes”. I want to hear senior Catholics say this:

Enough with the words.  I am ashamed to say that my church has utterly debased them since this crisis was dragged into the light – with the Catholic Church relentlessly resisting at every turn. ‘By their fruit ye shall know them’. Accordingly, I say to you now that my Church is not serious if it does not immediately set about unwinding the labyrinth of the legal structures it has put in place to deny those who have a rightful prior claim on the wealth of the church – the victims of my church’s crimes.

Post-postscript: The Pope seems pretty pleased he’s got his boy off – all very reminiscent of Jesus really when you think about it.

  1. It reads “In response to the High Court’s decision regarding Cardinal George Pell, the ABC has temporarily removed episode three of Revelation from its platforms while updating its content”.
  2. The only case for this would be if Pell was a chance to abscond, but measures can be taken to render the chances of that negligible.
Posted in Cultural Critique, Law, Religion | 83 Comments

Troppo group subscription to Crikey: is this the last gasp?

From Twitter.

Till now I’ve organisd a TROPPO GROUP CRIKEY SUBSCRIPTION for around 50

I advertised I was doing renewals on Twitter and Troppo a month ago and got about 1 or 2 takers

Now someone else wants a renewal

If I can get some serious buy-in I’ll rinse and repeat

If not that’s it!

Posted in Best From Elsewhere, Blegs | 2 Comments

Dependency theory and my impatience with impatience

This post is barely worked up from an email I wrote in response to a student in development studies. She’d been working on environmental this and that and the Sustainable Development Goals (about which I’d class myself a card-carrying member of the economists club as being highly sceptical). Anyway, having sent her to my missive on environmental policy as symbolism, She asked me about Dependency Theory. This is, with a bit of light editing, what I wrote back. As you can see, I’m going on impressions I have, not any deep learning about the subject. So this is strictly FWIW – which may be very little.

I don’t know much about dependency theory. I’d be wary of the way in which it is so easily politicised. I don’t mean by that to suggest an ideological bias one way or the other but rather something else. I’ve recently come to think that one of the most important ways we hold ourselves back is impatience. Particularly the impatience with which we proceed from intellectual idea to some policy proposal. (This was the point of all those pictures of Leonardo Da Vinci doing design and engineering work on flying machines and the impossibility of building an efficient modern jet plane without literally millions of hours of work – design work, engineering work prototyping. Much of this work won’t work out, some of it will and slowly capability – social, technical, organisational, economic, policy – is built – see this presentation.

So of the people who cooked up dependency theory – at least reading about it on Wikipedia, I’ve not done so before – they’re not all people with ideological barrows to push – a lot of them are just trying to understand development to promote it.

But it’s then become a way for the left to blame the developed countries for their plight and a means to justify impatience. The pitch is this – “just follow our (often Marxist or strongly leftist) agenda and things will all sort themselves out”. But the main problem of the developing countries is their inability to patiently build all the technical, social and market infrastructure for their economy to become more productive.

A good rule of thumb here is the idea that if a nation imposes trade restrictions, it will bear around 80 percent of the total global cost of those restrictions – with countries trading with it bearing the other 20% (this will generally vary somewhat with the size of the country and at least intuitively you’d expect the larger the country, the more costs it could impose on other countries, but that’s just my intuition – it could be wrong).

So there’s some truth in dependency theory I think but

  • It’s only a very partial explanation of under-development and
  • More importantly if one wants to use it as a frame, you can use it to pinpoint very specific ways in which it might work – so that the developing country can focus its policy response to those things that are blocking its development. That then gives you a way to frame what is a more promising line of analysis in people like Rodrik, Hausmann and so on (Being South American, you’ll be pleased that Hausmann is South American – though in his case Venezuelan).

Anyone have any other (preferably better informed) thoughts?

Posted in Economics and public policy | 3 Comments

Information, ignorance, trade-offs and system collapse

Whoever is doing PR for this virus has certainly come up with a natty logo.

An argument someone put to me today which makes a lot of sense. In the GFC markets collapsed not just because there was too much risk in the system – though there was – but because it was hidden. With the various bits of sub-prime debt sliced and diced into teensy pieces many of which had different risk characteristics anyway, it was impossible for many people on the hook to know their position. And so they couldn’t participate any longer in the market – because people wouldn’t accept them as a counterparty. And so one part of the market seized up after another.

One can distinguish between two approaches to the coronavirus crisis –  high information and low information. In low information countries which can’t locate the risk the trade-off between economic and health policy is very extreme. One needs to lock down the population to get the rate of spread down. These countries include China (early on), most countries in Europe and the US – though people are saying the Germans have better information – and are doing better.

Australia has done a lot of testing but it doesn’t seem to be very well targeted, though no doubt it’s getting better. Meanwhile, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea have proceeded with much lower disruption to their economies, much less need to lock their population down, because they can track the virus with testing and strong case management of those who test positive.

I’ve previously noted my amazement at the official Australian policy of simply assuming that this will go on for six months because it seemed to me we weren’t given good reasons to believe that it was impossible to get the virus under control and then get rid of it with a short sharp shock of 4 to 8 weeks as New Zealand are trying to do. I now add this point. We were assured again today that we’re in this for six months.

If we can’t transition to a quick exterminate the virus strategy, why can’t we transition to the proven East Asian Strategy in the space of four to eight weeks? I also wonder why we’re not using normal tech much more. If you attend school in Nanjing now, they take your temperature on the way in. If it’s elevated you’re not welcome in the building. With over 80 per cent of coronavirus cases having elevated temperature, it’s a very efficient test.

Posted in Economics and public policy, Health | 16 Comments