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‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘Australia

resetting the electrical agenda

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the all-electric la jamais contente, first car to break the 100 kph barrier, in 1899

In his book Clearing the air, Tim Smedley reminds us of the terrible errors we made in abandoning electric vehicles in the early 20th century. Smedley’s focus was on air pollution, and how the problem was exacerbated, and in fact largely caused, by emissions from car exhausts in increasingly car-dependent cities like Beijing, Delhi, Los Angeles and London. In the process he briefly mentioned the electric tram systems that were scrapped in so many cities worldwide in favour of the infernal combustion engine. It’s a story I’ve heard before of course, but it really is worth taking a deeper dive into the mess of mistakes we made back then, and the lessons we need to learn. 

A major lesson, unsurprisingly, is to be suspicious of vested interests. Today, the fossil fuel industry is still active in denying the facts about global warming and minimising the impact of air pollution on our health. Solar and wind power, and the rise of the EV industry – which, unfortunately, doesn’t exist in Australia – are still subject to ridiculous attacks by the heavily subsidised fossil fuel giants, though at least their employees don’t go around smashing wind turbines and solar panels. The website Car and Driver tells a ‘funny story’ about the very earliest days of EVs: 

… Robert Davidson of Aberdeen, built a prototype electric locomotive in 1837. A bigger, better version, demonstrated in 1841, could go 1.5 miles at 4 mph towing six tons. Then it needed new batteries. This impressive performance so alarmed railway workers (who saw it as a threat to their jobs tending steam engines) that they destroyed Davidson’s devil machine, which he’d named Galvani.

If only this achievement by Davidson, before the days of rechargeable batteries, had been greeted with more excitement and wonder. But by the time rechargeable batteries were introduced in the 1860s, steam locomotives were an established and indeed revolutionary form of transport. They began to be challenged, though, in the 1880s and 90s as battery technology, and other features such as lightweight construction materials and pneumatic tyres, started to make electric transport a more promising investment. What followed, of course, with the development of and continual improvements to the internal combustion engine in the 1870s and 80s, first using gas and then petrol – the 1870s into the 90s and beyond was a period of intense innovation for vehicular transport – was a serious and nasty battle for control of the future of private road transport. Electricity wasn’t widely available in the early twentieth century, but rich industrialists were able to create a network of filling stations, which, combined with the wider availability of cheap oil, and the mass production and marketing capabilities of industrialists like Henry Ford – who had earlier considered electric vehicles the best future option – made petrol-driven vehicles the eventual winner, in the short term. Of course, little thought was given in those days to fuel emissions. A US website describes a likely turning point: 

… it was Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T that dealt a blow to the electric car. Introduced in 1908, the Model T made gasoline [petrol]-powered cars widely available and affordable. By 1912, the gasoline car cost only $650, while an electric roadster sold for $1,750. That same year, Charles Kettering introduced the electric starter, eliminating the need for the hand crank and giving rise to more gasoline-powered vehicle sales.

Electrically-powered vehicles quickly became ‘quaint’ and unfashionable, leading to to the trashing of electric trams worldwide. 

The high point of the internal combustion engine may not have arrived yet, as numbers continue to climb. Some appear to be addicted to the noise they make (I hear them roaring by nearly every night!). But surely their days are numbered. What shocks me, frankly, is how slow the public is to abandon them, when the fossil fuel industry is so clearly in retreat, and when EVs are becoming so ‘cool’. Of course conservative governments spend a fortune in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry –  Australia’s government  provided over $10 billion in the 2020-21 financial year, and the industry in its turn has given very generously to the government (over $1.5 million in FY2020, according to the Market Forces website).

But Australia is an outlier, with one of the worst climate policies in the WEIRD world. There will be a federal election here soon, and a change of government is very much on the cards, but the current labor opposition appears afraid to unveil a climate policy before the election. The move towards electrification of vehicles in many European countries, in China and elsewhere, will eventually have a knock-on effect here, but the immediate future doesn’t look promising. EV sales have risen markedly in the past twelve months, but from a very low base, with battery and hybrids rising to 1.95% of market share – still a paltry amount (compare Norway with 54% EVs in 2020). Interestingly, Japan is another WEIRD country that is lagging behind. China continues to be the world leader in terms of sheer numbers. 

The countries that will lead the field of course, will be those that invest in infrastructure for the transition. Our current government announced an infrastructure plan at the beginning of the year, but with little detail. There are issues, for example, about the type of charging infrastructure to fund, though fast-charging DC seems most likely.

In general, I’ve become pessimistic about Australians switching en masse to EVs over the next ten years or so – I’ve read too many ‘just around the corner’ articles with too little actual change in the past five years. But perhaps a new government with a solid, detailed plan will emerge in the near future, leading to a burst of new investment…. 

References

Tim Smedley, Clearing the air, 2019

https://www.caranddriver.com/features/g15378765/worth-the-watt-a-brief-history-of-the-electric-car-1830-to-present/

https://www.energy.gov/articles/history-electric-car

https://www.marketforces.org.au/politicaldonations2021/

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 27, 2022 at 1:07 pm

the world’s greatest democracy?

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forget about the kid, just get the t-shirt

 

Over the last 5-6 years, since Trump, to my great bemusement, began to emerge as a serious candidate for the US Presidency, I’ve been following US politics more than ever before, and more than I’ve ever felt inclined to. I try not to be prejudiced against the USA as a nation, and of course I’ve met individual United Staters who are as varied as individuals from other nations, but just as I’ve always had a special loathing for bullies and thuggish individuals, sometimes known, when they’re invested with some sort of official or tacitly accepted power, as ‘authoritarians’, I’ve also tended to harbour ill-feelings towards nations that like to throw their weight around on the international stage, or governments that do the same vis-a-vis the general citizenry.

Interestingly, as I observe myself, I find that my anti-authoritarian attitude has never led me to embrace libertarianism, as I’m too much aware of the hyper-social nature of humanity, and of many other species. So when I think of social evolution, I think of the social side above all, and of promoting awareness of this social side, and of enhancing the social situation for the individuals linked into it, which of course means all of us. And that ‘all’ needs to be as comprehensive as possible, not species-specific.

We humans have – at least most of us – organised ourselves (or have been organised) socially into political units known as nations, in recent centuries. And of course there have been up-sides and down-sides to this development. It surprises me, for example, how quickly nationalist fervour can be stirred up within these relatively recent entities – good for sporting competitions, but not always so good for those who want to leave the nation they find themselves in for a richer or safer one. ‘They don’t belong here’ is a chant I’ve heard more than once. And there are other, more subtle nationalistic tropes. Here in Australia, we poo-poo bad behaviour by calling it ‘unAustralian’, just as United Staters use ‘unAmerican’ (I suspect this is because the terms have a nice flow to them, whereas ‘unBritish’ sounds too clunky), as if Aussies or Yanks are generally better than other humans.

Which brings me to ‘American exceptionalism’, the idea that what they call ‘the American experiment’ is unique in human history. That’s to say, unique in some positively extraordinary way, for of course the formation of every nation or political system is unique. Since paying more attention to US politics, and the media that reports on it, I’ve heard a number of pundits – Maggie Haberman, Chuck Rosenberg, Adam Schiff and Joe Scarborough to name a few – mouthing terms such as ‘the American experiment’, ‘the world’s greatest democracy’ and ‘the leader of the free world’, either with virtual puffed-out chests or a mantra-like blandness, as if they might’ve had such platitudes drummed into them back in kindergarten.

So, to pick out one of these clichés, the USA as ‘the world’s greatest democracy’, let me explore its meaning and its truthiness. The term can be taken to mean two different things – that the USA is the world’s greatest country (militarily, economically or otherwise), which also happens to be a democracy, or that the USA has the world’s greatest (democratic) political system.

So let me take the first meaning first. Does ‘the greatest’ mean ‘the most powerful’ or ‘the best’? Or both, or neither? Or does it mean the greatest in terms of opportunity or well-being for its members? Whichever way you look at it, there are problems. A nation may be ‘great’ – that’s to say, full of well-fed, time-rich, intellectually productive members, because, through a whole set of complex circumstances, it has managed to exploit or even enslave its neighbours, or regions with resources that this nation knows how to profit from – as occurred in the ‘Belgian’ Congo under Leo Victor. That’s to say, look behind the self-aggrandising term ‘great’ and you’re likely to find exploitation – of resources and also of people. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans created profoundly hierarchical or slave states. The centuries-long feudal era was a period of massive intellectual and physical exploitation, often of women, nameless and forgotten.

Returning to the USA, its people have fallen for the same fallacy that the Egyptians, the Persians, the Romans, the Brits and the Japanese fell for – that their economic and military power entailed some sort of moral superiority. Often they learn their lesson too late. The term ‘savage’ was used to refer to African, American and Australian cultures by late arrivals from Europe, most of whom only came to understand the complexity and profound rootedness of their culture after it had been uprooted. And some are still clueless about these cultures. I spent some years teaching English to people newly arrived from Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, whose experience of indigenous Australians was of drunken cadgers and brawlers in the heart of the city – their traditional meeting place for thousands of years before the British usurped them. How to even begin to explain, in a foreign language, the cultural devastation these people had experienced?

In the USA the problems of colonial expropriation are compounded by those of abduction and slavery, which, very obviously, are far from being solved. The ‘greatest’ in terms of GDP means little to the majority when the gap between the rich minority and the poor has widened massively in recent decades, and poverty levels for African-Americans and Hispanics have hit record lows. US ‘freedoms’ allow for workers to be paid lower wages than anywhere else in the WEIRD world, leading to obvious poverty traps. Australia’s minimum wage is almost three times that of the USA (though we have our own failings in other areas, such as the treatment of refugees). Joe Scarborough has more than once cited the USA’s top universities as proof of the nation’s greatness, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of United Staters have zero chance of attending these institutions.

So how do we measure a nation’s ‘greatness’ if we disregard GDP, or at least treat its status as a measure with skepticism? The answer, of course, is that there’s no objective measure. If science is your consuming passion, there are a number of countries that are world leaders in the field, depending on the precise field. If you’re deeply religious you’ll find a country to suit your spirituality, within reason. If money-making is your life’s purpose, there are a few nations that might fit the bill. Others might be better for a simple community life. Of course, not all of these countries will be democracies, but that’s a problem with democracies, they change from election to election. If you want to live in a democracy, you’re going to have to cope with these changes.

This brings me to the second meaning. Does the USA have the world’s best democratic system? I’m more confident about answering that one, and the answer is definitely ‘no’. But I’ve already given my reasons in previous posts – for example, here, here and here. To my mind great democracies don’t have to have nuclear weapons, a roll-call of billionaires, or super-guy Presidents with numbers attached. They don’t need to rabbit on about individual freedom as the be-all and end-all of human striving, when in fact no individuals have ever existed for long without a social network, into which they’re born and within which they will have to operate until the day they die.

Of course there are worse countries, and probably worse democracies, than the USA – and I do agree that democracy is the worst political system apart from all the others, but it seems to me that one of the keys to an effective political system is an ongoing recognition of its weaknesses and failings, and an ongoing effort to bring about improvement. Rabbiting on about being ‘the greatest’ and the world’s natural leader has the opposite effect. Brilliant people are rarely big-heads. They just behave brilliantly. And are judged as brilliant by others, not by themselves.

Not that United Staters are ever going to listen to me!

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 24, 2022 at 10:27 pm

a hydrogen energy industry in South Australia?

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an artist’s impression of SA’s hydrogen power project

I recently received in the mail a brochure outlining SA Labor’s hydrogen energy jobs plan, ahead of the state election in March 2022. The conservatives are currently in power here. The plan involves building ‘a 200MW hydrogen fuelled power station to provide firming capacity in the South Australian Electricity Market’.

So, what does a ‘hydrogen fuelled power station’ entail, what is ‘firming capacity’ and what does 200MW mean?

A presumably USA site called energy.gov tells me this:

Hydrogen is a clean fuel that, when consumed in a fuel cell, produces only water. Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of domestic resources, such as natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and renewable power like solar and wind. These qualities make it an attractive fuel option for transportation and electricity generation applications. It can be used in cars, in houses, for portable power, and in many more applications. Hydrogen is an energy carrier that can be used to store, move, and deliver energy produced from other sources.

This raises more questions than answers, for me. I can understand that hydrogen is a clean fuel – after all, it’s the major constituent, molecularly speaking, of water, which is pretty clean stuff. But what exactly is meant by ‘clean’ here? Do they mean ‘carbon neutral’, one of today’s buzz terms? Presumably so, and obviously hydrogen doesn’t contain carbon. Next question, what exactly is a fuel cell? Wikipedia explains:

A fuel cell is an electrochemical cell that converts the chemical energy of a fuel (often hydrogen) and an oxidizing agent (often oxygen) into electricity through a pair of redox reactions. Fuel cells are different from most batteries in requiring a continuous source of fuel and oxygen (usually from air) to sustain the chemical reaction, whereas in a battery the chemical energy usually comes from metals and their ions or oxides that are commonly already present in the battery, except in flow batteries. Fuel cells can produce electricity continuously for as long as fuel and oxygen are supplied.

So the planned 200 megawatt power station will use the chemical energy of hydrogen, and oxygen as an oxidising agent, to produce electricity through a pair of redox reactions. Paraphrasing another website, the electricity is produced by combining hydrogen and oxygen atoms. This causes a reaction across an electrochemical cell, which produces water, electricity, and some heat. The same website tells me that, as of October 2020, there were 161 fuel cells operating in the US with, in total, 250 megawatts of capacity. The planned SA power station will have 200 megawatts, so does that make it a gigantic fuel cell, or a fuel cell collective? In any case, it sounds ambitious. The process of extracting the hydrogen is called electrolysis, and the devices used are called electrolysers, which will be powered by solar energy. Excess solar will no longer need to be switched off remotely during times of low demand.

There’s no doubt that the fortunes of hydrogen as a clean fuel are on the rise. It’s also being considered more and more as a storage system to provide firming capacity – to firm up supply that intermittent power sources – solar and wind – can’t always provide. The completed facility should be able to store 3600 tonnes of hydrogen, amounting to about two months of supply. There are export opportunities too, with all this excess supply. Japan and South Korea are two likely markets.

While it may seem like all this depends on Labor winning state government, the local libs are not entirely averse to the idea. It has already installed the nation’s largest hydrogen electrolyser (small, though, at 1.25 MW) at the Tonsley technology hub, and the SA Energy Minister has been talking up the idea of a hydrogen revolution. The $11.4 million electrolyser, a kind of proof of concept, extracts hydrogen gas from water at a rate of up to 480 kgs per day.

The difference between the libs and labor it seems is really about who pays for the infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, the libs are looking to the private sector, while Labor’s plans are for a government-owned facility, with the emphasis on jobs. Their brochure on the planned power station and ancillary developments is called the ‘hydrogen jobs plan’. According to SA’s Labor leader, Peter Malinauskas, up to 300 jobs will be created in constructing the hydrogen plant, at least 10,000 jobs will be ‘unlocked from the $20bn pipeline of renewable projects in South Australia’ (presumably not all hydrogen-related, but thrown in for good measure) and 900+ jobs will be created through development of a hydrogen export industry. He’s being a tad optimistic, needless to say.

But hydrogen really is in the air these days (well, sort of, in the form of water vapour). A recent New Scientist article, ‘The hydrogen games’, reports that Japan is hoping that its coming Olympic and Paralympic Games (which others are hoping will be cancelled) will be a showcase for its plan to become a ‘hydrogen society’ over the next few decades. And this plan is definitely good news for Australia.

Japan has pledged to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, this is likely impossible to achieve by solar or other established renewables. There just isn’t enough available areas for large scale solar or wind, in spite of floating solar plants on its lakes and offshore wind farms in planning. This is a problem for its hydrogen plans too, as it currently needs to produce the hydrogen from natural gas. It hopes that future technology will make green hydrogen from local renewables possible, but meanwhile it’s looking to overseas imports, notably from Australia, ‘which has ample sunshine, wind and empty space that make it perfect for producing this fuel’. Unfortunately we also have an ample supply of empty heads in our federal government, which might get in the way of this plan. And the Carbon Club, as exposed by Marian Wilkinson in her book of that name, continues to be as cashed-up and almost thuggishly influential as ever here. The success of the South Australian plan, Labor or Liberal, and the growing global interest in hydrogen as an energy source – France and Germany are also spending big on hydrogen – may be what will finally weaken the grip of the fossil fuel industry on a country seen by everyone else as potentially the best-placed to take financial advantage of the green resources economy.

References

Hydrogen Jobs Plan: powering new jobs & industry (South Australian Labor brochure)

https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-fuel-basics

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_cell

https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/hydrogen/use-of-hydrogen.php

‘The hydrogen games’, New Scientist No 3336 May 2021 pp18-19

Marian Wilkinson: The Carbon Club: How a network of influential climate sceptics, politicians and business leaders fought to control Australia’s climate policy, 2020

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-03-23/hydrogen-power-play-in-sa-as-labor-announces-gas-plant-project/100022842

Written by stewart henderson

June 24, 2021 at 7:49 pm

more on rapid antigen testing, and the vaccine race

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So to continue with this issue of rapid at-home testing, there are/were many tests of a more simple and potentially cheaper type being manufactured, but they were all diagnostic tests (i.e tests that require expert interpretation as part of a diagnosis), and even if they’d been scaled up fairly rapidly they wouldn’t meet the kind of demand Dr Mina was envisaging. That’s to say, not doubling the tests available but multiplying those tests by a hundred or more, for nationwide availability in the US. 

I want to get clear here, for myself, about the difference between an antigen test and a PCR test. An antigen test detects viral proteins. The paper strip test Dr Mina refers to contains antibodies that will bind to the antigens, or proteins, if those antigens are present in sufficient numbers. The presence of those antigens, or viral proteins, indicates that the virus is active – it is producing the antigens via the ribosomes of host cells. The PCR test detects viral RNA, whether or not the RNA is active. And so the antigen test reveals infectivity. The PCR test more often than not finds inactive viral fragments, since this RNA remains in the cell for some time after the period of infectivity, the upswing, which is relatively short. 

Dr Mina has this to say about the sensitivity of the two test types. The PCR test will pick up virus from a few days to six weeks (or more) after infection, but the subject may be infective, that is, able to spread the virus, for the first two weeks (or less) after acquiring it. So its sensitivity to detecting an infective subject is not so great as its sensitivity to the virus itself (living and reproducing, or dead, or disabled). An antigen will be testing negative, both in the very early phase of infection, when the virus isn’t yet producing enough viral protein to show up on the test, and in the long phase when the virus, or parts of it, are still present but no longer replicating and infecting. So it is actually more sensitive to infectivity, which is exactly what’s required. And this essentially has to do with the frequency with which the antigen test can be used, because the PCR test has this lag time built into it. 

It’s hard to believe that it’s this simple and straightforward, and that supposedly smart regulators aren’t jumping on this and getting these tests out there. Could I be missing something? I note that Dr Mina uses transmissible rather than infective, by the way.

So why aren’t such tests available? In the USA, it’s because it sounds a lot like a diagnostic, which requires approval or licensing from an organisation called CLIA – but that’s for them to work out. As to the situation here in Australia, which hasn’t had to deal with anything like the mess they’ve made for themselves in the USA, such a testing system would still help to detect spreaders, providing there was blanket use, and this would mean fewer lock-downs and less economic impact. As would be the case globally. An ABC article from late October features an interview with Prof. Deborah Williamson, director of clinical microbiology at Melbourne’s Doherty Institute, who recognises the value of rapid antigen testing, but feels that we need ‘to better understand their effectiveness as a screening tool in different epidemiological contexts’. This is understandably cautious, but then there isn’t the urgency in Australia that there so obviously is in the USA. But the USA has another major problem, which is almost incomprehensible considering the disaster that has unfolded there – and that is lack of compliance. Even if rapid antigen testing – cheap and in such supply that it could be utilised on a daily basis by the whole population – even if this was made available, there’s surely a major question as to whether most people would use the test any time they looked a bit peely-wally [under the weather], let alone when they were completely asymptomatic. So you could say that Americans are paying the price for their ‘rights without responsibility’ ideology – not shared by all Americans of course, but apparently shared by too many for them to escape from this, or any other pandemic, lightly. 

Anyway, if we imagine a world, or a country, of largely compliant, responsible individuals, and widely available, cheap or free antigen testing, there would be no need for the quite onerous contact tracing mechanisms that we now have – signing in by phone or by hand at restaurants, pubs and the like – because those testing positive at home wouldn’t be attending those places until they tested negative again. Businesses could run, schools, airlines, etc. Economies could function almost as normal. 

Of course now we have the vaccine, or almost. So far though it’s the Pfizer/BioNTech two-shot vaccine, which needs to be kept at way below zero (celsius) temperature, so, difficult to scale up and make available to those without proper facilities. No sign of that one coming to Australia for a while. I read an article yesterday, ‘The Amazing Vaccine Race’, in Cosmos mag. It outlines some of the contenders – the companies and the vaccine types. It points out that some companies are trying to play the long game, to try not for the first vaccine, or one of the first, but the best. The problem though, says, Nicolai Petrovsky, whose company Vaxine is based here in Adelaide, is that ‘the first runners end up getting all the resources’. And it may take quite a while to work out the best, and if the early runners turn out to be good enough, we may never find out which would’ve been the best. Vaxine is currently trialling a covid19 vaccine which combines the virus’s spike protein with an adjuvant (a treatment which enhances the immune response of the vaccine) based on a plant polysaccharide. And there are some 160 other contenders, according to the article. One in Sydney is combining the spike protein with bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) which has been shown to reduce mortality from a range of viral respiratory infections. And there are others, just sticking with Australia, some with a degree of complexity that defeats me, for now. However, there are scant resources for local production here.

Although phase 3 trials of the current front-runners tested for safety among many thousands, it’s unlikely that scaling up to the millions will be without casualties, however minimal. And there’s the question of long-term immunity, which can’t really be tested for in this rushed situation. So it will be very interesting to see which of the current contenders wins out in the ultra-long run, or if something we’ve barely heard of yet finally proves the best option. 

References

Rapid Coronavirus Testing – At HOME (COVID-19 Antigen Tests) with Dr. Michael Mina (video)

https://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2020-10-24/rapid-antigen-tests-for-coronavirus-screening/12808176

Dyani Lewis, ‘The Amazing Vaccine Race’, in Cosmos: the science of everything, issue 88, September-December 2020.

Written by stewart henderson

December 9, 2020 at 5:44 pm

there’s no such thing as a fair election 2: Australia’s systems, and the real value of democracy

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Canto: So let’s talk about varieties of representative democracy, because I’ve never been clear about them. Looking at the Australian experience, this government website has a summary which starts thus:

The Australian electorate has experienced three types of voting system First Past the Post, Preferential Voting and Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote).

The first-past-the-post system hasn’t been used in Australia since the 19th century. All our elections now use forms of preferential and proportional representation voting. Australia, incidentally is one of only three countries in the world that uses preferential voting in major elections. Under full (as opposed to optional) preferential voting, each candidate on the ballot must be given a preference, from first to last. This tends to favour major parties, whose candidates are recognisable, but it can also lead to a local election being won by a candidate with fewer votes than her major opponent.

Jacinta: Yes, this can occur when no candidate gets a majority on the first count. A second count is then held and the candidate with the least votes is excluded. That candidate’s second preferences are distributed amongst the remaining candidates. This may give the second most voted-for candidate the lead, with over 50% of the vote. Or it may put the most-voted-for candidate over the 50% line. Or neither, in which case a third count occurs, until one candidate scores over 50%.

Canto: Yes, as this shows, minor party candidates need to score highly in the first count to have much chance, as second preferences are more often than not directed (by how-to-vote cards, which they may not choose to follow) to the more high-profile major party candidates. This is why minor parties almost never win a seat in the House of Representatives, which, unlike the Senate, uses the preferential voting system. And overall, there can be a problem with this type of voting in single-member electorates, in that one party may win a few seats by large margins, while another wins many seats by a small margin, and so wins more seats while losing the popular vote. That’s of course why governments often engage in pork-barrelling to swing marginal seats.

Jacinta: Some of the concerns raised by full preferential voting can be alleviated somewhat by an optional preferential system, but that brings its own problems which we won’t go into here. Let’s look now at proportional representation, which in the Australian context is described thus on our government website:

Proportional Representation is not a single method of election, for there are a number of variations in use, including the Single Transferable Vote, two variants of which are used in Australia. One is used in Senate elections, and the Hare-Clark version….. is used for elections to the Tasmanian House of Assembly and the ACT Legislative Assembly.

The Senate model for elections is described thus:

Each state and territory acts as a single, multi-member electorate in Senate elections. In half-Senate elections six senators are elected from each state, and two from each territory. In full Senate elections, which follow a dissolution of both houses of the Parliament, 12 senators are elected from each state and two from each territory.

To be elected, a candidate must achieve a quota of votes. Without going into detail, the system provides a greater likelihood of minor parties gaining a Senate seat, and so a greater diversity of voices tends to be heard in that chamber. This also helps the Senate’s function as a ‘house of review’ as the governing party has difficulty in gaining a majority there.

Canto: In ‘Choices’, a chapter of David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, proportional representation is described even more negatively than other options, as it tends to result in watered-down, compromise solutions which end up pleasing nobody and, more importantly, don’t actually solve the problem at hand. But the real issue is broader. We can try to invoke mathematics and social-choice theory to make political systems more representative, but even if this was ‘successful’, which various no-go mathematical theorems show can’t be done, the question arises as to whether the most ‘truly’ representative system will be the fairest and best. As Deutsch points out, all this argy-bargying about voting and representational systems is about input to the system rather than output in the form of good decision-making – the institution of good policy and the removal of bad policy. The creation of pathways to good policy.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s worth quoting what Deutsch, partially channelling Karl Popper, is aiming for here:

The essence of democratic decision-making is not the choice made by the system at elections, but the ideas created between elections. And elections are merely one of the many institutions whose function is to allow such ideas to be created, tested, modified and rejected. The voters are not a fount of wisdom from which the right policies can be empirically ‘derived’. They are attempting, fallibly, to explain the world and thereby to improve it.

Canto: Interesting that Deutsch is careful not to say anything negative about democracy here, but he’s actually underplaying the role of democracy in decision-making, because we all know, I think, that new and important and worthwhile ideas aren’t created by democratic process, but by intellectual elites of one kind or another. These ideas are often carried forward by elected officials who have either helped to create them or have been persuaded by them. It may be that they don’t work or ‘their time hasn’t come’, but if there is a kernel of truth or real benefit to them, as for example with renewable energy and electric vehicles, they will, with modifications and adaptations, succeed in the end.

Jacinta: Yes, and what this sort of progress has to do with democracy is that there really is no political system that nurtures innovation and improvement in the way that democracy does, even if it does so with what sometimes seems frustrating slowness, and with the blockages by vested interests that so often infect politics, democratic or otherwise. Patience, I suppose, is a virtue.

Canto: Yes, democracy is in some ways a politics of persuasion, an invitation to try and discuss and dispute over new ideas, with accepted rules of engagement, trial and error, modification, exchange and respect, grudging or otherwise. And of course, with ongoing elections, it’s also a politics of renewal and revision, and that’s the fairest way of going about things as far as I can see it.

References

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/RP0708/08rp05

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2020 at 3:34 pm

Covid19: world progress, cytokine storms, our plans

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to be explored further

Canto: So while we need to be worried about – and to know something about – the cytokine storm that the Covid19 infection can lead to (and we’ll learn about that soon), there’s also a storm of activity on the SARS-CoV-2-fighting front.

Jacinta: Yes, intravenous zinc was talked about in the Medcram series as an effective tool in fighting viral pneumonia, and a world-first trial is being conducted by Austin Health and Melbourne University to test its effectiveness for Covid-19 sufferers with respiratory problems. We’re still catching up on the Medcram series, and update 52 talks of the drug ivermectin, already on the WHO list of essential medicines. The WHO website, incidentally, is promoting a ‘solidarity’ clinical trial for Covid-19 treatments, involving, singly or in combination, remdesivir, hydroxychloraquine, lopinavir, ritonavir and interferon beta-1a. So that gives some idea of the work that’s going on to fight symptoms and reduce the death rate.

Canto: And, you know, I’ve been feeling guilty about singling out the USA as the worst-case scenario all round. It’s not actually so. It’s not fair to look at total figures and point out that the USA tops the list for Covid19 fatalities, and draw calamitous conclusions. You have to take into account its much larger population compared, for example, to number two on the list, Spain. The US has suffered about 2.5 times the fatalities of Spain, but it has about 7 times the population. In fact, if you look at fatalities as a proportion of population, there are many countries worse off than the USA – namely Spain, Italy, France, the UK, Belgium (the worst hit), the Netherlands, Switzerland, Ireland and Sweden. All European countries, notably.

Jacinta: Yes and I’m sure they’ll all have their particular stories to tell about why this is happening to them, and will be wanting to learn lessons from Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and even our big faraway island, but I really want to look at solutions, in terms of eradicating the virus, or blocking it, or building up our immunity. Having said that, flattening the curve, and reducing fatalities, is a primary focus, which means continuing the physical distancing and looking for ways to keep economies running while this goes on. In spite of patches of civil libertarian activity here and there, the vast majority of our global population is on the same page with this, I think.

Canto: Well I’m looking at an Axios article from the Johns Hopkins website. It compares global performance under Covid19 to a mock pandemic exercise, Event 201, conducted some six months ago. They’ve found some positives and some negatives in their analysis. Positives – a greater degree of compliance with physical distancing measures than expected, ‘the degree of surge capacity augmentation in the health care system which has been possible’, and the rapid growth of international collaboration among scientists, leading to a quickened progress of trials for possible treatments. Negative – disparate and often contradictory messages from authorities – mostly political authorities – leading to confusion and distrust of governments and other institutions. This is partially explained by the complexity of the virus itself, which has made it difficult to characterise to the general public, and to be fully understood by non-medical authorities, such as political leaders.

Jacinta: It’s a weird situation, as there’s no end in sight, everyone’s worried about ending restrictions too soon, yet everyone’s worried about the economy, and those countries, like Australia, that are heading towards winter, are bracing for heightened problems, while northern hemisphere countries are hoping for summer’s relief but worried about the autumn when it might be hard to cope with a second outbreak, should it come. And medicos are warning that expectations of a vaccine in eighteen months might be overly optimistic. But I want to be optimistic – I want to look at anything that’ll reduce symptoms and save lives. One treatment, among many others it should be noted, is hydroxychloraquine, which is being given so much of a bad press, because of its being over-hyped by a Trump administration intent on getting political points for a silver-bullet cure. There have already been a number of small, less-than-gold-standard studies, some in which the drug is combined with the antibiotic azithromycin, and the results appear to be all over the place. We’re still awaiting the results of randomised, placebo-controlled, double-blinded studies, which are under way.

Canto: I note that a couple of reports on chloraquine and hydroxychloraquine on the JAMA website have been taken down, I suspect because of all the politicising. That’s a shame. Anyway I mentioned the cytokine storm at the beginning of this post, so I’ll try to comprehend it. A clue to the meaning comes in this mid-March article on the Lancet website. In an early sentence it mentions ‘cytokine storm syndrome’, and in the following sentence refers to the treatment of ‘hyperinflammation’. It seems the two terms are interchangeable. Another term, in the very next sentence, is ‘a fulminant and fatal hypercytokinaemia’….

Jacinta: Sounds like they’re just showing off.

Canto: Please don’t say that about our frontline covidtroops. Okay, a better site for understanding cytokines and their storms is this from New Scientist. As we’ve guessed, it’s an over-reaction of the immune system, sometimes fatal. Cytokines are small proteins, produced throughout the body, which trigger inflammation as an immune response. Sometimes the intensity of the cytokine response results in hyperinflammation. So you might say the cytokine storm is the cause and hyperinflammation the effect.

Jacinta: So this raises questions. For example, why do some have what seems an over-production of these cytokines and others don’t, in response to SARS-CoV-2 in particular? And what do these cytokines actually do to cause inflammation?

Canto: You’re asking me? Well, it’s conjectured that younger people don’t have the developed immune system that produces all these cytokines, and that’s why you don’t see symptoms. But that raises the question – do others have over-developed immune systems, but maybe only for this particular virus? Is there a general goldilocks level?

Jacinta: And is there a way of distinguishing between those who succumb to the hyperinflammation, which in turn can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), and those who succumb to the virus itself? Or is it always the immune response that does people in?

Canto: I don’t think so. If the immune response doesn’t work at all, I suspect the virus will spread like a cancer to the rest of the body?

Jacinta: That can’t be right. That’d mean those kids who don’t suffer the cytokine storm, or any immune reaction, would remain infected until it spread through their bodies and they dropped dead. That definitely isn’t happening.

Canto: No, you’re right – they’re developing antibodies, presumably, (and that’s a whole other story), without going through much in the way of suffering. In fact, children’s apparent immunity to the virus is something of a mystery that demands further research. If everyone could develop that kind of immunity…

Jacinta: So many questions we can’t answer. I mean, not just the myriad questions we, as dilettantes and autodidacts, can’t answer, but the fewer but many questions epidemiologists, virologists and ICU workers can’t answer. But I propose that we continue to try and educate ourselves and explore, in our feeble but earnest way. I propose that we dedicate this blog, for the foreseeable, to exploring terms and conditions, so to speak, and treatments, such as ‘cytokine’, ‘ACE-2’, ‘hypoxia’ and ‘quercetin’ and how they relate to or are affected by the Covid-19 infection. Like putting pieces together in a jigsaw puzzle, sort of. It might help us being overwhelmed by the whole picture.

Canto: Okay, let’s try it.

References

Coronavirus pandemic update 52, Medcram youtube video

https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/news

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30628-0/fulltext

https://www.newscientist.com/term/cytokine-storm/

https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/event201/

https://www.axios.com/coronavirus-global-pandemic-preparation-fdce4bff-f1d3-433d-bceb-cc20ac869102.html

https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/pages/coronavirus-alert

Written by stewart henderson

April 29, 2020 at 11:55 am

Covid-19: act quickly, test widely, maintain distance

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CECI N’EST PAS UN KIT DE TEST

So Covid-19 is the inescapable pandemic, the great test of administrations worldwide. We’re beyond blaming China for inflicting this upon the world, though this shouldn’t be forgotten, as mistakes need to be remedied. But now we’re looking elsewhere for praise and blame. Few people are keen to praise the Chinese government for its methods, however effective they might be. They’re looking to more humane governments, those that have achieved similar results without the brutality.


A much-discussed essay from Imperial College London compares suppression with mitigation, and favours suppression, and this is proving controversial, as others say it’s overly pessimistic, citing apparent success in flattening the curve in South Korea, for example. Of course there’s the difficulty of knowing whether reported data is reliable, whether testing is thorough enough and so forth. This article from The Conversation looks at South Korea’s success and suggests it may be as much due to its surveillance technology regime as to its effective virus testing program. Other countries, such as Taiwan and Singapore, have also been very successful, apparently, though with a much smaller case load. Another enigma appears to be India. It has been praised for shutting its borders early, but surely there would be a difficulty in obtaining reliable figures in such a diverse patchwork of a nation. Still, if we take its reported figures on face value, it has been an outstanding success story, so far.
South Korea’s success has much to do with its sophisticated biotech industry (something we in Australia can also boast of), which can produce tests quickly. It also has a well-developed healthcare system, apparently. It has done more testing than any country, other than China, so its figures are likely to be more reliable. But it can also track contacts of Covid-19 sufferers through debit and credit cards and mobile phones (the country is at the top of per capita users of these items). The country also employs CCTV surveillance more than just about any other country in the world, and this is mostly acceptable to its citizenry. My own conversations tell me that such surveillance would cause much greater concern here.

So the pandemic will continue to be combated with a variety of methods by different countries, all looking to others to see what works and to modify working methods to suit their own people. Keep alert for success stories and analyse them, see if they can be replicated. Italy appears to be a disaster, but not everywhere. In the northern town of Vo, where the first Italian Covid-19 death was reported, health authorities managed to lock down and test all 3000 of its residents at the outset, and found a 3% infection rate. The infected, most of whom displayed no symptoms, were quarantined, and a later large-scale test found the rate had been reduced to less than 0.5%. Of course, this is a small town, but the lessons are obvious. Test widely and act swiftly, and make sure you’re prepared for this sort of situation, unlike the USA, where federal neglect under the wanker in the white palace has virtually eviscerated its CDC. The CDC’s failure to provide test kits to state public health labs at the start of the outbreak has massively hampered the ability to isolate and trace contacts of the infected, so important during the early stages. Labs around the country are still struggling to fill the void, while the wanker engages in the standard down-playing, over-promising and blame-shifting that’s inherent to him.


Here in Australia we’re ranked 21st in the number of cases, not great for a sparsely populated island nation, far from the epicentre, though our connections with China, and our slowness in shutting down travel from that country, is the likely explanation. The good news is that we’ve recorded only seven deaths from a little over a thousand cases so far. The bad news is that the curve isn’t flattening, with more than a hundred new cases recorded in the last 24 hours. Stop press: make that more than 200, and Australia has jumped to 19th in the number of cases, though still only 7 deaths thankfully. I’ve just listened to a press conference by our Prime Minister and Chief Medical Officer announcing closures to pubs, restaurants, cinemas and cafes for the foreseeable. Schools, however, are to remain open, with everyone expected to follow distance rules of four square metres. This is all extremely unnerving. I’ve been asked to teach tomorrow, with different classes starting at different times to prevent crowding on arrival and departure. I’ve agreed to do it, though I’m over sixty with a pre-existing bronchial condition (but it’s more the over seventies that are at risk). Much of the questioning at the press conference was about the school situation, with states such as Victoria not apparently being aligned with the federal government on whether they should remain open. It may be difficult to maintain the four square rule in a relatively dynamic, interactive classroom, and then there’s the question of virus spread by people who haven’t been tested and show no symptoms. Our students have already been here for a while, and I’m presuming, without much knowledge, that infectiousness is greatest in the early stages of contracting the virus. There are also rumours, mentioned in the press conference, that the young may be ‘super-spreaders’. The Chief Medical Officer claimed that there was no evidence to this effect, and I note that the term is rather frowned upon as ‘unscientific’, but without more widespread testing we really don’t know what, or who, we’re dealing with when we enter a classroom.


Meanwhile, just in the past 24 hours there’s been a spike of cases here in South Australia, all from people recently returned from overseas and interstate. Of course, these are the people who would be tested… And, Australia has now jumped to 16th in the world for number of cases, but the death toll remans the same – in fact we have the lowest mortality rate of all the top twenty countries, according to worldometer, but I’m personally a bit skeptical of these figures.
May we live in interesting times…?

Written by stewart henderson

March 23, 2020 at 11:09 pm

Posted in behaviour, covid19

Tagged with , ,

electric vehicles in Australia – how bad/good is it?

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Hyundai Ionique electric – top marks from the Green Vehicle Guide

 

Following on from the interview with Prof Mark Howden that I reported on recently, I’m wondering what the situation is for anyone wanting to buy an EV in Australia today. What’s on the market, what are the prices, how is the infrastructure, and what if, like me, you might want just to hire an EV occasionally rather than own one?

Inspired by Britain’s Fully Charged show, especially the new episodes entitled Maddie Goes Electric, I’m going to do a little research on what I fully expect to be the bleak scenario of EV availability and cost in Australia. Clearly, we’re well behind the UK in terms of the advance towards EV. One of Maddie’s first steps, for example, in researching EVs was to go to a place called the Electric Vehicle Experience Centre (EVEC), for a first dip into this new world. I cheekily did a net search for Australia’s EVEC, but I didn’t come up completely empty, in that we do have an Australian Electric Vehicle Association (AEVA) and an Electric Vehicle Council (EVC), which I’ll have to investigate further. Maddie also looked up UK’s Green Car Guide, and I’ve just learned that Australia has a corresponding Green Vehicle Guide. I need to excuse my ignorance up to this point – I don’t even own a car, and haven’t for years, and I’m not in the market for one, being chronically poor, and not having space for one where I live, not even in terms of off-street parking, but I occasionally hire a car for holidays and would love to be able to do so with an EV. We shall see.

So the Green Vehicle Guide ranks the recently-released all-electric Hyundai Ioniq as the best-performing green vehicle on the Australian market (that’s performance, not sales, where it seems to be nowhere, probably because it’s so new). It’s priced at somewhere between about $35,000 and $50,000. Here’s what a car sales site has to say:

The arrival of the Hyundai IONIQ five-door hatchback signals Australia is finally setting out on its evolution to an electrified automotive society. The IONIQ is the cheapest battery-electric vehicle on sale in Australia and that’s important in itself. But it’s also significant that Australia’s third biggest vehicle retailer has committed to this course when most majors aren’t even close to signing off such a vehicle. In fact, just to underline Hyundai’s push into green motoring, the IONIQ isn’t just a car; it’s a whole range with three drivetrains – hybrid, plug-in and EV.

I need to find out the precise difference between a hybrid and a plug-in… It’s steep learning curve time.

Anyway, some reporting suggests that Australia’s bleak EV situation is turning around. This Guardian article from August 2019 predicts that EV sales are set to rise significantly, regardless of government inaction:

Modelling suggests the electric vehicle share of new car sales in Australia will rise from about 0.34% today to 8% in 2025. It is predicted to then leap to 27% of new car sales in 2030 and 50% in 2035 as prices of electric car technology fall.

2025 isn’t far off, so I’m a bit skeptical of these figures. Nevertheless, I’ll be monitoring the Australian EV scene more closely from now on.

References

https://www.iea.org/policies/7885-a-national-strategy-for-electric-vehicles

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/14/half-of-all-new-cars-sold-in-australia-by-2035-will-be-electric-forecast

https://www.greenvehicleguide.gov.au/

Maddie Goes Electric, Episode 1: Choosing your electric car (A beginner’s guide) | Fully Charged

Written by stewart henderson

January 19, 2020 at 5:14 pm

Trump and the USA’s failure, part 1 – some modern history regarding two democratic systems

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It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry. Thomas Paine

So Australia’s getting a tiny mention now in the Trump debacle, as he and his henchmen try desperately to find dirt on Mueller, Biden, anyone they can divert attention to as this iniquitous regime stumbles towards its own doom.
So it seems to me an opportune time to reiterate and expand upon some of my views about the US political and social system which led to this pass.

First, a bit of a history of modern democracy and a corrective, to some of the views I’ve regularly heard on MSNBC and CNN as the journos and other pundits wring their hands over how the mighty have fallen. It seems accepted wisdom in the USA that their country is the leader of the democratic world, the potential bringer of democracy to the unenlightened, the light on the hill, the world’s moral police officer, the first and best of the world’s free nations. And its beginnings are often cited in the War of Independence against a tyrant king. So how could a nation, which owes its very existence to a revolt against tyranny, succumb to the blusterings, badgerings and bullying of this tyrant-child in their midst?

Well, let’s look at this story.  Britain did indeed tyrannise its colony. But let’s take note of some facts. George III was a constitutional monarch. Lord North was Britain’s Prime Minister during the war of independence. A century and a half before the War of Independence, Britain beheaded its king for being a tyrant. It was then ruled for a time by the Long Parliament, and then the Rump Parliament, before Oliver Cromwell was made Lord Protector of the Realm. These were some of the first none too successful steps towards a modern democracy. Baby steps. Two steps forward, one step back you might say. It didn’t work out so well, and the monarchy was restored in 1660, under the proviso that there would be some parliamentary representation. Then in the 1680s another king was forced out of the country, again for being a tyrant, and trying to convert the nation to Catholicism. This Glorious Revolution, as it was called, brought another branch of the royal family in from overseas, and William and Mary Stuart were presented with the crown, and the first constitutional monarchy was formed – though of course Magna Carta had earlier brought about the first limitations to royal authority, and there were more limitations to come in the future. Again, baby steps away from tyranny and towards democracy. A Bill of Rights was introduced in 1689, much of it based on the ideas of the political philosopher John Locke whose work also influenced the American constitution. 

So, America’s War of Independence was a war against tyranny, I grant that, but the tyrant was more a nation, or a government, than a king – though George III was certainly tyrannical in his attitude to the colonies. Britain, at the time, and for a long time afterwards, was a very powerful nation. And – guess what – powerful nations are always bullies. Always. That’s a universal. Imperial Britain was always a bully to its neighbours, and to less powerful nations that it could benefit from exploiting. The USA in more recent times, has been the same, as has China, Russia (or the USSR) and powerful empires of the past, Roman, Babylonian, Egyptian Assyrian, etc. It doesn’t matter their internal politics – they’re always bullies on the international stage. That’s why more powerful international agencies are needed and are just beginning to arise.

So getting back to democracy – the first US Presidential election was an odd one, as there was only one candidate – Washington. There were no parties, and very few states, and even then only about 7% of the adult population of those few states were considered eligible to vote, based on the possession of property (and of course skin colour, and gender). So, one of the bigger baby steps towards democracy, perhaps, but still another baby step. Of course, parliamentary membership in Britain at the time was subject to a vote, but also with a very limited franchise. 

So The USA significantly contributed to modern democracy, without a doubt, but the whole democratic movement proceeded by baby steps worldwide. For example, it’s surely unarguable that no nation or state could consider itself an effective democracy until it gave women – half the effing population! – the vote, and the USA was far from the first nation to do so. In fact the first state of any kind to do so was New Zealand in 1893, followed by the colony of South Australia – my home, from which I’m writing – in 1894. The USA didn’t grant the vote to women until 1920. 

So enough about democracy for now, but one reason I brought this up was to sort of complain a bit about American jingoism. You’re a really flag-waving, breast-beating country, and you tend to go on about patriotism as some kind of fundamental value. I say you because, though I have precious few readers, by far the majority of them come from the US, according to my WordPress data. Now, this kind of jingoism doesn’t allow for too much healthy self -analysis and critical distance. You need to get out more. I live in Australia, I was born in Scotland, so I’m a dual citizen of the UK and Australia, but I barely have a nationalistic cell in my body. I’ve never waved a flag in my life, never sung a national anthem. Nowadays I call myself a humanist, but I really came to that idea much later – my kind of visceral discomfort and dislike of nationalism goes back to my childhood, I can’t easily explain it, and any explanation would be post-hoc rationalism. I’m happy in any case that my humanism chimes with modern times, as we live in a more global and integrated world than ever before, but I do recognise that nations are still necessary and useful, and that global government will probably always remain an Einsteinian pipe-dream.

In any case, I feel lucky that I’ve spent most of my life here in Australia. The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a group of 35-40 countries, the most developed economies in the world – the world’s richest countries by GDP. Every year for several years now, they’ve rated the member countries on a ‘Better Life Index’ based on 11 different criteria, such as health, income, safety, job opportunities and so on. Basically, a rating of the best countries in the world to live in. A new rating has just come out, and Australia ranks at number two, up from number three last year, but down from number one the year before, and the year before that. So lucky me, though I have plenty of criticisms about the way this country is going. So how does the USA rate? Well, it’s never been number one, or two, or three or four or five or six, and I could go on – which isn’t to say it’s anywhere near the bottom. But could this just be anti-American bias from the OECD? Well, in a sense yes, because I suspect they’re biased towards nations or states that look after their citizens – where there’s more of a sense of communal values. They measure categories such as ‘civic engagement’, ‘community’, ‘environment’ and ‘work-life balance’, categories which step a little beyond individual rights and freedoms – and I think that’s a good thing.

So here’s how I see the problem. The USA seems a little overly obsessed with the individual, and that seems to put it a little out on the libertarian end of the spectrum that stretches from libertarians to communists. I’d argue that there’s never been any instantiation of a communist state or a libertarian non-state – and in a democracy, which is by its nature a bottom-up sort of system, which has to cater for a wide range of views about government, you should always expect to be swinging mildly in the centre between these extremes. But America’s focus on individual freedoms and the great individual leader was evident from the outset, with the way it set up its federal political system. My plan here is to compare it to the Westminster system which I know quite well, and which has sort of evolved slowly rather than being set in stone by an all-powerful 18th century constitution.

Under the Westminster system there’s no directly elected President. Of course, that system did begin with a great individual power, the unelected, hereditary monarch, who, in the time of the USA’s founding and the drawing up of its constitution, was a lot more powerful than today’s monarch. So it seems to have been the thinking of the founding fathers that you could have this powerful figure but he could be elected. And I do say ‘he’ because, be honest, there’s nothing in the thinking of the founding fathers to suggest that they would ever have contemplated a female President. So, remembering that many of the ideas of the founding fathers actually came from Britain, through the likes of John Locke and Tom Paine, their idea seemed to be something like a constitutional President, elected rather than blue-blooded, and hedged around by a parliament that was more constitutionally powerful than the parliament of the time back in the old ‘mother country’. And by the way, it slightly irritates me that there’s this lexical difference for the legislature in the USA versus Britain/Australia, i.e congress/parliament. They’re really the same thing and I wish they had the same name. From now on I’ll use the term ‘parliament’ to refer to the legislative branch under both systems.

So, it seems – and I’m by no means an expert on the US constitution – that the constitution was drawn up to create a kind of balance of power between three branches of law and government – the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. And this would have been quite revolutionary and progressive in its time, some two hundred odd years ago. In fact, the founding fathers may have seen it as so progressive and all-encompassing that the term ‘eternal’ might have been whispered about, like the eternal values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And so they may have suffered from that natural pride which assumed that the constitution ought not to be altered without difficulty, and so the USA has largely been stuck with it. And I should point out – because it strikes non-Americans as a bit weird – that Americans seem a bit overly obsessed with their constitution.

Okay, so I’ll leave it there for now. Next time I’ll focus a bit more on the Westminster system, and a comparison between Prime Ministers and Presidents.

Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2019 at 1:20 pm

Newstart problems

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Australia has been described as a/the ‘lucky country’, and considering that we’re thrown into the world, with no choice as to parentage, genetic inheritance, social environment or time period (or species, for that matter), it’s pretty clear that being born or brought up in Australia in the second half of the twentieth century constitutes a lucky deal for most. I’ve recently been reading, with a deal of squeamish reluctance at times, stories and histories of the struggles and sufferings of today’s Palestinians, either under Israeli authority or in impoverished and humiliated exile, which has further emphasised for me my sense of my own luck in the dice-throw of life.

But of course there are problems and inequities here too. I haven’t written much about Aussie domestic issues, having been strangely mesmerised by the Trump train-wreck and other exotica. Australia seems boringly stable by comparison, though somewhat influenced by the conservative, isolationist turn taken by advanced and not-so-advanced nations elsewhere. Certainly our current conservative government has succeeded in maintaining power, much like governments elsewhere, by doing virtually nothing. No energy policy, no healthcare policy, no education policy, no attempt to deal with the long-term refugee situation offshore, no employment policy, and of course as little taxation as can be gotten away with. This is what they describe as ‘responsible government’ – don’t do anything which will draw attention let alone criticism. The best governments should be invisible, not to say inert – for, as Reagan more or less said, government is always the problem, never the solution.

Which brings me to the subject of this post – employment, unemployment and Newstart, the interestingly named allowance given to jobseekers under Australia’s welfare system. Our country’s principal advocacy agency for the poor, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) has been campaigning for some time to ‘raise the rate’ of Newstart, which currently sits at around $39 a day, a figure which, it says, hasn’t changed in 25 years. The question of raising the rate became a hot issue in the recent federal election, with Labor making noises about the poverty trap problem, but failing to commit to any changes. Only the sadly unelectable Greens had a policy, promising to almost double the rate to $75 a day. All of this amid claims that various policies and strategies are aimed at maintaining a pool of unemployed at a certain rate that’s beneficial to the overall economy. Of course the cost of unemployment to government is related both to the amount paid and the number of unemployed. The unemployment rate is always a dodgy measure, as people can be employed part-time, or voluntarily, or simply doing questionably useful things like writing blogs… We don’t look at the unemployment rate of birds, or sharks, but we can be sure there aren’t too many of them wasting time tweeting inanities and cheating at golf…

It’s also been pointed out regularly enough that, if unemployed people aren’t contributing by making lovely foamy shapes on our daily lattes, or adding to the rate of diabetes and diet-induced heart conditions, they’re at least contributing to the economy by spending their dole on whatever’s needful for their survival. And if they were given a little more – as, say, advocates of a universal basic wage would have it – the flow-through would arguably be even more helpful.

Whatever the definition of ‘unemployed’ might be, it hasn’t changed here for some time, so the rate can be reliably compared to previous months, years and decades. It currently sits at 5.2% and hasn’t changed much over the past year or more, but it seems the underemployment rate is on the rise, and advertising for jobs is dropping. There’s also been a gradual trend in rising unemployment and underemployment among older people, and this is a feature of particular interest to me. There are mutual obligation requirements for everyone on Newstart, though they’re different for those between 55 and 59, and they change again for those 60 and over, though it’s not easy to work out the details from Centrelink’s website.

If you’re registered with the Department of Human Services online portal, MyGov, you can find out what a person’s commitments are for obtaining a Newstart allowance. For a start you have to agree to and sign a Job Plan, overseen by a service provider. For older clients, the person engaged in this supervision is often young enough to be their daughter – or grand-daughter if you’re lucky/unlucky. As part of this Job Plan, you need to have looked for 20 or 30 jobs in the previous month to continue getting benefits, and to show proof of this to your provider. I believe the number is actually 20, though I know of one person over 60 who was asked to do 30 a month, and when he asked about voluntary work he was told that was all fine, but he still had to fulfil the obligation of applying or inquiring about 30 paid jobs per month. Possibly he was informed incorrectly, but it’s an indication of the kind of thoughtless humiliation some older jobseekers are put through. The undervaluing of voluntary work is, of course, a common theme in modern post-industrial society. The current government, for example, in resisting any increase to the Newstart allowance, insists in interview after interview that Newstart should always be seen as a temporary payment, a bridge to paid employment – no matter the age of the recipient. It seems that talk of voluntary work as a value in this area is strictly forbidden.

Unemployment is often seen as primarily a youth problem, but an ACOSS report from September last year states that only 17% of Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients are under 25, while 43% are over 45, with that older percentile growing. Changing work practices and automisation are likely to exacerbate this trend. Government spokespeople, including ministers, continually argue that there is plenty of work available, as long as people are prepared to move, but this is hardly an appealing option for older people, whose social and family lives have become, over time, connected to a particular region. Politicians often spruik about a flexible, mobile workforce, but there’s a clear clash between hyper-mobility and building and maintaining communities.

There is also the question of whether politicians are sincere in claiming that they want full employment – whether it has ever been a target to aim for. There is apparently a theory popular among economists that if the unemployment rate drops below about 5%, the lack of labour supply will give workers more bargaining power in terms of wages and conditions, to the ‘detriment’ of employers – the favoured sector of conservative governments. It’s notable that the current federal government has recently started a new round of union-bashing. So it’s quite plausible that these conservatives are playing a double game here – blaming the unemployed for their predicament while seeking to maintain a sufficient pool of unemployed to stifle wages growth. Wages have certainly been stagnant here for some time (especially for low wage earners – see the graph above), while CEO salaries continue on an upward spiral. It’s worth noting, however, that the RBA is talking about the need for ‘spare capacity’ reduction in the marketplace, which would be assisted by a reduced unemployment rate. Such reduction would bring higher levels of growth to what is currently a sluggish market with a 1.3% inflation rate.

Meanwhile, there are many other issues with Newstart. DHS administrative data from two years ago revealed that some 25% of recipients had a significant disability. Most of these disabilities were physical but unsurprisingly depression, anxiety and hypertension were reported as common problems among the unemployed and underemployed. It’s unlikely that many of these people could afford adequate treatment. Young people on the payment are struggling with rents and utilities while trying to live on part-time, unreliable jobs. Pay rates in vital but under-funded and under-respected jobs in aged care, for example, are inadequate – and often the work is too demanding as a full-time occupation. There appear to be problems with inadequate and poorly targeted training courses that young people – and some older people – are shunted into in order to meet their obligations. Then there’s the problem with Centrelink’s automated communications system – a cost-saving measure that’s causing plenty of headaches for recipients. I won’t go into detail here, but it’s certainly getting harder to talk to real people if you’re unemployed, with all the automated messages you’re bombarded with – many of them providing misleading or incorrect information – being marked ‘no reply’. It all adds to the humiliation of the experience, to the sense that you’re not being dealt with as a real person. The estimated cost-saving to the government of this increased automation – some $2 billion – will help to make up for the revenue lost from tax cuts to the nation’s highest earners. And so it goes…

Written by stewart henderson

August 4, 2019 at 11:29 am