Weekly salon 7/1: 2022 new year edition

1. Sawatdi bpi mai kap!

That is a Thai new year’s greeting which means means:

    May you find compassion, loving kindness and equanimity along your paths over the next year!

On a personal level that would help. I think most people feel well rid of 2021, and hope for better in 2022.

2. Will humanity survive?

Andrew Leigh, they say, is always the smartest man in the room, and one of the nicest. Since entering parliament in 2008 he has now launched his 8th book. This Saturday Paper article (no doubt pay-walled) is an interview with Andrew Leigh on humanity’s one-in-six chance of ending.

He says he likes people and would like to see them live through another 30 million generations of humans that could populate the planet before the sun blows up.

The first and worst of four big existential threats is runaway artificial intelligence, which he says has a one in 10 chance of wiping us out in the next 100 years. We need to make sure we are in control and if we aren’t we need to ensure that AI’s values align with ours.

I can’t get into that topic, so I’ll leave it there.

A pandemic from an engineered disease is assessed as a one in 30 chance, compared to a one in 10,000 chance from a natural organism, that is, a zoonotic disease that jumps the barrier from animals.

With climate change he reckons there is “maybe a 10 per cent chance of a 6 degree temperature rise, and 1 per cent chance of 10 degrees.” I think he is saying 6 degrees would depopulate us but not wipe us out.

He pauses here to say a one in 100 chance of disaster would still call for strong action on climate. The usual safety factor required of airlines is one in a million.

I interrupt here to say that one in a million is a 0.0001 per cent chance. The odds offered by the IPCC are an insult to common sense.

Nuclear war is the fourth. I did not get a clear quantum from the article. Obviously nukes are nasty, and having nine nuclear powers is unsettling.

Beyond those four is a fifth, namely political failure. He is talking here about increasingly populist undemocratic leaders, which he does not see in classical terms of left and right. He’s talking Philippines, Hungary, Turkey and Poland. Beyond them:

    In 2019 and 2020, the world’s four largest democracies, with a combined population of over two billion, were run by populists: Trump in the United States, Modi in India, Widodo in Indonesia, and Bolsonaro in Brazil. And we’ve seen a decline in the share of countries that are rated as strongly democratic.

He says:

    Populists regard politics as being a contest between a pure mass of people and a vile elite. For the left-wing populist, your classic Latin American 1970s populist, the vile elite is the super-rich. For right-wing populists, the enemy tends to be the intelligentsia – people with university degrees, urbanites, experts and immigrants. But it’s the demonisation that really matters. On both sides, populism is all about dividing rather than uniting. (Emphasis added)

In Inside Story a former academic colleague of Leigh’s, Paul T’Hart, attests to his smartness in his review Welcome to the Titanic. However, he says Leigh needs to apply his super brain more to the problem of how we fix the situation.

3. Putrid politics

Leigh does not think Australia is immune from a slide into populism.

John Hewson gives PM Morrison the rounds of the kitchen in A rat with a gold tooth.

Hewson is saying Morrison is a liar, is corrupt, is more interested in maintaining political power than in good government. He says:

    It is time for a reset of our politics. In recent decades politics has drifted away from a focus on delivering good government; it is now little more than a short-term game, the sole objective of which is winning or keeping government.

    Policy decisions are taken for short-term, politically expedient reasons – what is perceived to be the advantage relative to winning or keeping government. As a result many of the big issues have been left to drift – childcare, aged and disability care, genuine tax reform, systemic welfare reform, universities and higher education reform, and many more.

    The process of politics has become very self-absorbed. It has been attracting the wrong sort of people, focused more on their political careers within the party and in some cases what they can extract to their personal benefit, during or after politics.

His immediate worry is that Morrison is going to run a scare campaign in the election based on lies about Labor and everything.

He’s probably on the money there. Labor’s problem is that they need to take Morrison down, but struggle to do that with a leader who has little public standing. Katina Curtis has an unsettling review of the developing campaign. Frydenberg accusing Albanese of being a Troskyite is not edifying.

For substance, you could try Craig Emerson, who analyses historic Budget Papers from 1970 and finds that Labor is indeed better at running the economy.

That builds on his two previous columns.

First, Morrison’s new age of stagnation:

    Yes, the economy has rebounded – but only to its pre-pandemic levels of unreformed mediocrity.

Second, Where’s Morrison’s ambition for Australia?

    Scott Morrison’s transactional government seems merely to want to return to the rut of slow economic growth with no ideas for the future.

When Morrison is not skiting about his government’s achievements, he is telling us that governments should get out of people’s lives, and do nothing.

In fact the Morrison government is doing plenty. Michael Pascoe, while investigating what has been happening with the many billions of dollars of Commonwealth grants, has found that tens of millions are going to golf clubs and related businesses, with only 2.2 per cent going to Labor electorates. See The Great Golf Rort where Labor seats need not apply.

To finish the year and herald the new one Pascoe really let fly in Olde Pascoe’s Almanacke reveals the pirate prefers the plank to putrid politics in 2022!!

4. Robodebt specialist put in charge of university research grants

You really could not make this stuff up.

In a sick joke Morrison has put Stuart Robert in as acting education minister to replace Alan Tudge who dropped off the perch because his former media adviser alleges that their affair was emotionally abusive and on one occasion physically abusive. Pascoe above says that Robert:

    was absolutely unbelievable, someone clearly unqualified, someone with bugger-all credibility, you know, someone responsible for an almighty disaster like Robodebt, someone who had run up a massive IT bill on the taxpayer for their religion side-hustle, someone who had been sacked as a minister over a dodgy trip to China.

This clown now has the power to reject university grants, which according to him “do not demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money nor contribute to the national interest”.

In other words, they did not pass the pub test. His pub test.

All were in the humanities: two on climate, two on China, two more on literature. Jenna Price tells the tale in the SMH:

    Every year, thousands of Australian researchers apply for funding through the Australian Research Council (ARC), about the only organisation in Australia which gives money for all kinds of projects. Applications are Herculean labours and there is so little money only about 20 per cent of grants ever get funded. You have to be smart, skillful and cunning to get through the 200-strong College of Experts. Jobs rely on these grants but, much more importantly, the future of Australia relies on the outcomes of these grants.

The Government held the whole process up for two months, delaying 587 approved grants, then pushed out the bad news late on the Friday before COVID-Christmas.

Julie Hare in the AFR in Robert’s research grants veto a pre-election ‘dog whistle’ reports Labor’s Kim Carr as saying this is “a nod and a wink to the Pentecostal church.”

John Roskam of the Institute of Public Affairs said:

    “The idea of a political veto, a ministerial veto, a government veto on university research is, at one level, reprehensible,” said Mr Roskam. “It runs counter to a liberal democracy.”

As COVID cut a swathe through universities, shedding about 40,000 staff, the government reaction went well beyond gratuitous hectoring. It was like dancing on the grave of a vanquished enemy.

They really do treat us like mushrooms.

5. Australia’s slide into ‘competitive authoritarianism’

Lucy Hamilton at Pearls and Irritations has found a new diagnosis in Democracy in decline: Australia’s slide into ‘competitive authoritarianism’.

Worth a read. I’ll just highlight:

    Energy Minister Angus Taylor has stacked the bodies in charge of transforming Australia to a post fossil fuel economy with sector lobbyists and executives. The Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO are both compromised by lobbyist appointments.

Nothing is sacred.

She ends with:

    Australia’s future hangs in the balance: the struggles facing us over climate crisis directions in particular endanger our ability to vote out a government determined to crush transparency and protest. It is by recognising the concept of “competitive authoritarianism” that we can truly see the breadth of the risk we face and the urgency of addressing the threat.

At the same site Jenny Hocking writes that A culture of corruption is engulfing the Morrison government:

    The Morrison government has corrupted the idea of democratic government itself by undermining of political institutions.

    A culture of corruption is engulfing the Morrison government. It’s not just the endless graft and largesse – the million-dollar contracts to Liberal linked companies, the generously (mis)allocated ‘grants’ to Coalition seats, the personal sinecures to retiring party faithful, the cruel illegality of Robodebt – we’ve become inured to all that, this is a corruption of the idea of democratic government itself. It is insidious, pervasive, and in its undermining of political institutions, dangerous.

She suggests Morrison will pay a political price. I’m not so sure.

More to come

That’s around 1630 words so far. There is more to come, but the above is enough to digest in one go.

Update: For more on reviewing 2021 and looking to 2022, see Weekly salon 12/1.

24 thoughts on “Weekly salon 7/1: 2022 new year edition”

  1. First post I have ever done without a graph or image!

    I want to get back to climate soon. That is my new year’s resolution.

  2. The Davidson’s have form on grants. Me: I worked for a while for an organization called AMIRA which set up cooperatively funded research grants for the mining industry. Some times the mining industry would say they wanted research in X and I would talk to potential researchers and set up proposals. Sometimes a researcher would put a proposal to us and, in some cases I would work with them to turn the case from “The mining industry has a moral duty to support whatever I am interested in” to a proposal that would benefit potential supporters.
    At one stage H was employed as the community development officer for Newman. She would help get money from the government for community organizations. Her approach included ringing up the funding organization and have a general talk about current priorities and pick up the buzzwords. After the talk what started off as a project involving reading to children would morph into a project involving old people reading to children on the grounds that the funding organization was more concerned about what was happening to older people. After the project was run H would be careful to report back to the funding organization as well as putting in photos and words about the project in the newspaper she edited.
    My take on my sociologist son is he took notes on how his mother worked and applied them in later life. At one stage he was about to lose his job so he applied for a number of grants. In the end he got so much grant money that his university had to put on more people to do the work he had got funds for.
    From what you say about the robo man he doesn’t sound like the right sort of person to be administrating research grants. However, I am always a bit cynical about researchers complaining about not getting grants.

  3. John, reacting to your comment about researchers complaining about not getting grants, it is not up to some dickhead politician to overrule the decision of an expert body, and then not give a reason.

    There was a second article by Julie Hare in the AFR looking at the actual grants – The stories behind the research grants Stuart Robert vetoed:

      The arsenal and clothing of the man who killed 50 people in attacks on two mosques in Christchurch in 2019 were covered in symbols and writing, many of which were understood only by medieval historians.

      Obsessions with medieval culture and literature have been repeated by white supremacists and neo-Nazis across the world and it is something that Daniel Anlezark, a historian and medieval literature expert from the University of Sydney, was hoping to more fully understand when he applied to the Australian Research Council for a Discovery grant.

      When the message came on Christmas Eve, Professor Anlezark was at Taronga Zoo with his wife Anne Rogerson, a classics and ancient history scholar at Sydney University, with their two small children.

      Dr Rogerson, whose project was on Latin literature in post-Roman North Africa, got the thumbs up. Professor Anlezark got the thumbs down.

      … His research project, titled “Finding friendship in early English literature”, had been approved for funding by the ARC’s College of Experts.

    To robodebt man understanding the basis of white supremacism behind mass murder is a waste of money.

    Maybe he did not have the right buzzwords.

  4. Brian: Robo man was the wrong person for the research money allocation job on the basis of his robo job and the way he conducted it. Assessment of his decisions will be coloured by this history and add to the perception of political bias.
    On the other hand I would want to know more before commenting on the funding decisions. For example, was the topic one that has been flogged to death or something new that might help government decision making? Was the applicant the right person to do the research and…..?
    AMIRA funded research in a number of ways:
    1. Long term programs that progressed broad subjects such as mineral processing and would include short term projects that looked at specific aspects of mineral processing. Some of these long term programs we refunded every few years.
    2. Substantial projects aimed at particular problems. These might continue over a number of funding cycles.
    3. Short projects funded over one cycle that were often aimed at testing some new innovation.
    It is not clear how the funding in historical research is managed. I guess I favour the bulk of the programs being long term that support long term development and employment.

  5. Well, Seasons Greetings to all readers and others…

    Serious and saddening thoughts here. I’ve been entertained and entertaining my five grandsons 7 – 12 years old. We’ve had a great time doing old-fashioned things like playing in the pool, taking walks, going to the scooter park. And the kids were getting into games – the little one UNO but the older ones chose either interactive streaming games on their devices or a board game titled “Smallworld” (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/40692/small-world )

    I was not very good at the computer game, ‘got vapourised by a 6 yo opponent somewhere on earth. The board game also eluded my understanding and I was soundly defeated by a nine-year-old grandson. These kids, so immersed in their activities have no idea of the pathway ahead, of the foreboding that an understanding of this Weekly Salon presents.
    Yet I recall my parents talking in the same terms about the awful prospects ahead and the dim future. It did not happen as they saw it, in fact, as one who was a recipient of the technical and social benefits of the post-war 50 years I was pretty happy.
    The optimist in me hopes that current issues will be resolved, but watching the US, geopolitics, and noting the Australian government’s ignorant and uninspired governance I am not especially hopeful.
    If you accept that the fundamental problem of Earth is that Man has over-populated and abused Her, then an outcome that drastically reduces our population levels may well be the best outcome for the planet. That possibility has new relevance with the new virus technology where it seems we can now generate maladies that can have extreme consequences.

    Last, there is an item that suggests China has already collapsed, but we don’t know it yet. If it’s true the implications are extraordinary, as are the opportunities for countries to re-establish their manufacturing abilities. See:

  6. Geoff: “Last, there is an item that suggests China has already collapsed, but we don’t know it yet. If it’s true the implications are extraordinary, as are the opportunities for countries to re-establish their manufacturing abilities.”
    Yep: I thought China’s decision to punish Australia for a mild insult to China by restricting our barley imports to China sent a very clear message:
    “You would be a mug to get into a position where your business depended on sales to or products from China.”
    It is not clear if the problem is Li Ping or subordinates who are so scared of Li Ping that they feel obliged to to punish those who insult their great leader.
    I feel that free trade obsessions have done a lot of damage to a lot of countries. For example, Trump style politics has grown on the sufferings of American workers who lost their jobs as a result of Democrat support for free markets.

  7. JD I think globalisation and neoliberalism are two components that work against equity on a worldwide scale.
    But the demise of a country because of those effects, or circumstances that cause those effects can be reversed. I’m reminded of the Springboks and the world castigation that isolated them. They were forced into re-defining their economy because they had to. Similarly, NZ had currency issues and was forced to limit imports (or really the loss of their currency overseas). Today NZ has examples of many innovative programs that suggest they have used innovation and balls to become more self-sufficient. I think that Oz needs to take the same path, and re-set its approach to industry, and become less dependant on overseas purchases. Even if China is robust, we should still ween ourselves off overseas reliance.

  8. Free market globalization favours big countries because they have the capacity overwhelm a small country industry at times when the small country is uncompetitive because of an overpriced currency. When the big country is uncompetitive the small country simply does not have the capacity to overwhelm the big country.

  9. South Africa and New Zealand had little choice and were forced to rise by “pulling on their own bootstraps”
    In this way, they became less vulnerable to the larger economies.

    They will not overwhelm the dominant economies but they can provide goods and services just the same and live more independently than otherwise.
    If China does actually fail, imagine the world implications.

  10. One day I’ll repost the essay I did back in the early years of this century on Margot Kingston’s Webdiary. It was 5,000 words plus, so don’t start me!

    It was after the WTO Meeting in Cancun, Mexico, 2003 because the poor countries rebelled and would not take it anymore.

    What happened is that the powerful countries, especially the USA, turned their attention to regional and bilateral trade agreements, on the same terms, favouring them and their powerful multinationals.

    I think your link on China has credibility, Geoff, but if the analogy is Japan, then Japan did not sink beneath the waves and become irrelevant.

    The late Immanuel Wallerstein thought that the capitalism which had developed over 500 years was unstable, and was morphing into something else.

    He kept saying that progress was not to be presumed, and a new form may not be better than what we’ve had or got now.

    Bottom line, my crystal ball is clouded, and the future is almost certain to be what almost no-one predicted.

  11. Senator Murray Watt has just tweeted:

    Wide Bay/Burnett is flooding while Scott Morrison has a $4.7B disaster fund that:

    • hasn’t built a single disaster prevention project in 3 yrs

    • hasn’t spent a cent on disaster recovery

    • has earned his Govt over $750M in interest.

  12. Geoff, here in Qld the government is trying to advance manufacturing.

    They’ve established a 10-year roadmap and other initiatives.

    I remember in Peter Beattie’s time there was an emphasis on developing biotech/health industries. With COVID there was a surprising amount of effort that was already underway, including Allume, which makes rapid antigen tests for the Americans.

  13. Thanks, Brian. I think all governments hold out incentives and plans to develop stuff. It’s sort of expected of them I guess.
    I had in mind a more macro effort that was all of government that really went all out to generate new business. They would have to change many rules e.g., how much of a building site could actually be built on and many other “charges” for delivery of utilities such as power and roads. Many of these costs deter development and ultimately limit expansive development. Almost paradoxically that can put more pressure on a given site by requiring investment in new technology (output) on the limited land available. That would be swapping capital for labour perhaps but it may also mean that the business can grow without losing staff.
    Training should be highlighted. I think there was a Whitlam minister (Dawkins?) who mandated training of staff. Brilliant idea. I need a plumber at home, have to wait months because they can’t get qualified people because no one wants to train employees. So now charge-out rates for plumbers and mechanics are around $130/hour. At least trades can earn a decent living now, but there is a shortage of qualified people.

    Hence my leaning towards a very broad scale approach to re-enabling our nation.

  14. There is a pretty high risk that we will see a cyclone here soon. Hopefully it will stay offshore but either way we will get solid rain.
    Already the supermarket shops are running out – toilet-paper gone, frozen foods very depleted. The Bruce highway has had some cuts well south of us and that has already affected supply to here.
    Ah well…

  15. Scott Morrison has spent lots of our money to stop a disastrous fall in LNP votes in key seats.

  16. I was born into a world where WWll was still running and all the adults would have lived through a major world depression. A world where economic failure and high unemployment were seen as causes of the rise of the Nazis and the resulting world war. A world where Australia suffered from rationing and shortages because some shipping to Australia got diverted to the war effort or sunk by submarines.
    After the war my communist in-laws to be became more and more influential in the union movement and scared the likes of Menzies who saw them as the new Nazis. Menzies was so scared that he tried to win a referendum to ban communism.
    The more thoughtful leaders of the West decided that they needed to do more than just build up their armed forces. They did things like set up systems to stabilize the value of the major currency. They used things like tariffs to stabilize trade and protect jobs.
    They did a good job. By the time I left school the issue is what I wanted to do rather than where I might get a job. I didn’t know anyone who left school when I did that didn’t get a job.
    Then we had the Vietnam war and boys of my generation being conscripted to join the armed forces to help fight the Vietnam war. (A war that was seen by many as being driven with our obsession about learning the lessons of the Czech invasion and other precursors to WWII.)
    A result of this subscription was a growing questioning of the wisdom of our elders that spread beyond the Vietnam war.
    Whitlam for example challenged the wisdom of our protection system to the point where he removed the tariffs that protected the Tas weaving industry. (Lost him every seat in Tas at the next election.)
    The time was right for a mindless move to free trading.

  17. Geoff, picking up your concern about apprenticeships and tradies, going back 50 years government-owned utilities used to actually do stuff, like run railways, build roads, generate electricity etc. Young people had the opportunity to learn trade skills in a union-protected environment.

    Some always left and became private operators, filling need that could not be filled by public utilities.

    Hawke/Keating started the privatisation fad, but Howard plus finished it off, so that every person was meant to become a business centre.

    Some people want the dignity of work but will never have the entrepreneurship to survive in a fully marketised economy.

    You know the rest – “if you have a go, you’ll get a go” and the division into ‘lifters and ‘leaners’.

    Big capitalism is based on robbing the poor to make money for the one per cent.

    In the US ordinary working stiffs went for about 30 years without getting a pay rise in real terms. I read a column today in the AFR which says workers in the US are now getting pay rises because they are in genuinely short supply.

    In these circumstances we are going to get real inflation, beyond the norms of 2-3% and the central bank fix of printing money does not work any more.

    The link is Christopher Joye Why the Greenspan-Bernanke put option may have expired.

    Probably pay-walled.

    It follows his December piece Be afraid: the zombie economy can’t last.

    He’s saying that workers there have already had pay rises of over 4%, that listed shares are 40% over-valued, that property values could also drop, and that 15-20% of public companies are zombie companies that will not be able to pay there way in the world.

    His latest ends with:

      If this inflation shock is persistent, and long-term interest rates really do have to normalise to, say, the 3 per cent plus levels observed in 2018, it would be reasonable to expect some pretty material reductions in the value of many asset classes, including equities, fixed-rate bonds, property, venture capital, and crypto. And there will be frankly few places to hide.

      Obvious destinations include short-selling if you can get the timing right, real cash (ie, bank deposits), and perhaps high-grade floating-rate debt. The flip-side of this coin is that there may be some very attractive re-entry points in the next year or two, especially if markets overreact, as they tend to do.

      A crucial insight, however, is that this time is different, and unless inflation does crash back to earth, central banks will not have the free option of bailing markets out via interest rate cuts and QE, as they

    have repeatedly done since the “tech wreck” of 2000. The Greenspan-Bernanke put option may have just expired.

    This may turn out as bad or worse than what is happening in China.

  18. We are in a position where housing inflation is out of control because of very very low interest rates. Housing inflation could trigger a GFC if the inflated market collapses, people owe far more than their house is worth.

  19. “,,, people owe far more than their house is worth…”
    Yes, John, that is a fate worth than death? That suddenly lenders are not 100% supported by equity? Or is there another option? Probably if we set aside the sub-values of mortgagee properties. Surely panic and execution are not sensible options. Best to rethink those options into more sociological terms that also support the traditional equity rules. Property market collapses only support those with a penchant for investing in distressed property sales.

  20. When we built our first house in the 1960’s the government owned Commonwealth bank would only lend what could be paid back by 25% of the husband’s income. Bit chauvinistic but it minimized the risk of not being able to repay compare with todays non rules and meant that people started with smaller, lower cost houses and upgraded later when they could afford to. It also meant that most australians could expect to own their home once the loan was paid off.
    The collapse of the rules means that the average size of houses is now about 240m2 per house, twice what it was in the good old days. (Australia now has the world’s highest m2 per house occupant combined with an affordable housing crisis.)

  21. My folks built a home on a brownfield site in Ryde, circa 1948. It was barebones. No floor covering, outside toilet, no fences, gardens, or anything. Over time, neighbours helped neighbours build fences, sheds as could be afforded. Many homes were financed by war service loans which were modest in sum but low-interest rates.
    Today, even with really low-interest rates, homes are not basic. Many have five bedrooms, 2 or 3 bathrooms, living areas, a media room, and a study. Often the floors are covered at the move-in time and likely the landscape has been done. Airconditioning is normal. Block sizes can be very small, 400 sq metres or less, forcing many homes to be 2-storey.
    These are my observations after 25 years in the building industry in SA.
    I would deal with a lot of young couples who were building houses of $600K+. Some were concerned with the debt others not. Some explained that the bank or lender insisted upon a very near complete building because it helped secure the debt in the case of default. It also increased the immediate cost of the home rather than spreading it over time, and increased the loan to the bank of course.
    The best system was a low finance start and fellow tradesmen would donate their labour and discounts to doing various parts of the construction. Over a few years, those friends would all have fine homes with very low debt. OK, that option is not available to everyone but maybe we could get a little creative about the timeline over which houses could be built.
    Developers are necessary, like them or not. But they are lumped with providing a lot of public infrastructures which of course is passed to buyers. That’s good and bad because they may be charged exorbitant prices for some items. Twenty years ago I was quoted $5,000 per electricity pole. Now that power is underground, the cost is higher. Anyway, suffice to say there are many efficiencies that could be introduced to lower prices.

  22. Geoff: Back in the good old days we had plenty of low cost housing with few developers. Now it is unusual for housing land to not to have fallen into the hands of a developer who sets high priced standards on what is built on the land. Ditto expensive land + house packages.
    We have a critical affordable housing crisis in NE NSW. The proposed solution? Release more land to developers. And median house prices over $1m.

  23. John, for some unknown reason that last comment got caught in the spam filter. I’ve just liberated it.

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