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Posts Tagged ‘government

Covid-19: lies, damn lies and statistics

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Brazilian President Bolsonaro, explaining how government mismanagement and corruption is a good thing

Canto: So Russia is being described as a ‘late arriver’ with regard to Covid-19. It now has the second-highest number of cases, as everyone knows. Yet the mortality figure is astonishingly low. It’s only natural to be suspicious as there’s surely no obvious epidemiological explanation. It’s worth comparing Russia to Germany, whose figures few would quibble with, given its reputation for efficiency. It’s been treated as the European outlier in terms of its response, but nobody appears to be praising Russia for its tiny mortality rate. Why would that be?

Jacinta: Just looking at some reporting, various reasons have been given. Take this one from Dr. Elena Malinnikova, the chief of infectious diseases in the Russian Ministry of Health:

The low mortality is due to timely detection of infection as well as the fact that that Russians tend to see their doctor soon after symptoms appear.

Canto: Hmmm. Other nationalities don’t see their doctor, when there’s a killer pandemic on the loose? And ‘timely detection of infection’ sounds overly vague to me.

Jacinta: Let’s try another one. ‘Russian journalists have reported that more than 60% of all cases diagnosed in the country have been in Moscow, which has a younger and healthier population than rural areas’.

Canto: Yeah, but in the USA it’s the richer, more heavily populated regions of the north-east that have been hardest hit. The rural regions much less so.

Jacinta: Okay. In the article linked to above, Kent Sepkowicz, a physician and infection control specialist, provides good reasons why Russia’s mortality figures don’t make much sense on their face. And before I report on that, let’s look at rough reported mortality rates of a few countries, for comparison. I’ve just looked at total reported deaths as a percentage of total cases. As of May 20, the USA’s mortality rate is around 6%, the UK’s a horrendous 14%, Germany’s has gradually risen to 4.6%, and Brazil, another latecomer like Russia, and now with the fourth largest number of cases, is at 6.5%. Russia, on the other hand, is at 0.95% mortality. That’s a huge disparity, which we might call ‘Russia’s miracle’. But, as Sepkowicz points out, despite reports that Russia is doing well on testing (more than ten times that of Brazil, and somewhat more than the USA, and they might’ve started earlier too), Russia scores poorly on the comorbidity front, otherwise known as ‘pre-existing conditions’, such as heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes and obesity. It has an ageing population, and smoking is far more prevalent there than in European countries and Brazil. The testing regime is definitely not so much better than other countries to account for Russia’s apparent success – both Spain and Italy have done more tests per population.

Canto: Hello, are you saying there’s something shifty in the works? Vlad and and his charming circle would never lie to us, surely?

Jacinta: I don’t know that they’d gain much from fudging the figures…

Canto: Are you kidding? Isn’t that like saying Vlad wouldn’t gain much from rigging his election results? What he loses in international credibility, he might gain on the national scene, and that’s more important for him. But maybe there’s some less nefarious reason for the low mortality – I know they’re counting the numbers differently in some way. But the deaths from Covid-19 are the deaths from Covid-19. It should be a straightforward matter.

Jacinta: What about the deaths from x, y or z, exacerbated by Covid-19 infection?

Canto: I think that’s what they’re doing in Russia. Unless they’re certain that it was Covid-19 directly, they’re not counting it, even if they’ve tested positive for the virus, and then they die. They might be arguing that they were going to die anyway, Covid-19 just hastened the end.

Jacinta: Very dodgy if true. You could say that about anyone who’s a bit peely-wally.

Canto: Anyway let’s look at another country in this very complicated trans-national battle against the virus. Brazil’s an interesting one. I’m noting that countries with right-wing laissez-faire governments tend to be killing their citizens at a faster clip than leftist or centrist governments. Whadyareckon?

Jacinta: That’s a bit crude, but let’s look again at the reported figures and give number of deaths per number of cases as percentages. I’m going to leave out Russia and China, as I don’t trust what they’re reporting – which isn’t to say I entirely trust the other nations, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Britain, as mentioned, is very high at 16%, and has a conservative government. A very interesting country to look at is Belgium, which has the highest death rate per million of population of any major country in Europe. It’s death-to cases percentage is also high, at just over 16%. The country’s political situation is horrendously complex. They’ve had a caretaker PM for a year or so, and there’s basically a caretaker government after messy election results in March, in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. This interim government is supposedly in place just to manage the crisis. Clearly it’s not going well. It would be reasonable to put their problems down to no strong central government, à la the US. Now, Brazil has a notoriously extreme-right government at present, and I’ve already given its deaths-to-cases ratio, but the number of cases is rising rapidly, as are the number of deaths. Now, let’s have a look at Scandinavian countries, often glorified as models of good government. I’ll include in that vague grouping, in order of population: the Netherlands (17m), Sweden (10m), Denmark (5.8m), Finland (5.5m) and Norway (5.4m), and I’ll exclude Iceland, which has all the advantages of a distant island re isolation (it’s 87th in the world for cases). On deaths-to-cases: The Netherlands 13%, Sweden 12%, Denmark 5%, Finland 4.7% and Norway 2.8%. On those statistics, it seems that the smaller the country, population-wise, the better managed it has been in terms of preventing mortality, which does make some sense.

Canto: Okay so I’ll look at their current governments. the Netherlands is clearly hard-hit, Covid-19-wise. It has a multi-multi-party system (that’s not a typo) and is currently governed by a centre-right or conservative-liberal party, VVD, presumably supported by the next largest party, PVV a right-wing nationalist group. The left appears to be divided amongst a number of smaller parties, and the current government has been in power for ten years. Sweden, also faring badly under Covid-19, currently has a minority government with a social democrat PM after a controversial and inconclusive election in 2018. So it’s a centre-left government relying on centre-right parties. The social democrats have been in power, mostly as a majority, since 1917, but there has been a movement towards the right in recent years. Denmark, doing better than the previous two, but faring much worse than we are here in Australia, where we have a death-to-case ratio of 1.4%, has again a multi-party system – and by the way, all of these Scandinavian countries, except Finland which is a republic, are constitutional monarchies practising parliamentary democracy like Britain, and, in a weird way, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The leftist social democrats are currently in power in Denmark, and they have a far tougher position on physical distancing than the Swedish government. Finland Has both a President and a Prime Minister, somewhat like France. The Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, made news worldwide as the youngest PM in the world when elected late last year. She’s a social democrat and heads a coalition government, which seems to be the case with most Scandinavian governments.

Jacinta: Yes, They seem designed that way so the parliament is more or less forced to collaborate in order to get things done. It seems a much better way to run a country, a far superior system to that of the USA, much more team-based. Anyway, statistics seem to suggest that, overall, strong central governments that can co-ordinate efforts effectively, and have the support of the people, are doing better at saving lives. It’s not a conclusive finding though, and no doubt each country has its confounding factors.

Canto: Norway, finally, has handled things in much the way you would expect of the nation rated first in the world by the OECD. On March 19 this year, their federal government was granted emergency powers by parliament until December. That’s one way of creating strong central government, albeit temporarily. The current government is essentially right-centrist, within a multiparty system where the balance is usually held by left-centre parties. Clearly, though, this is a nation where people place more faith in government than, say, in the USA. And speaking of libertarianism and such, it’s interesting to look at Brazil more closely. When we began this post a couple of days, ago, Brazil was fourth in the world in terms of confirmed cases. Now it’s up to second, that’s how fast-moving things are.

Jacinta: And it’ll never reach top spot, surely – the USA is way way ahead of the rest of the world.

Canto: So Brazil is a republic, and currently has an extreme right-wing government under Jair Bolsonaro, who, according to this very recent New Yorker report, seems to be doing everything he can to exacerbate the situation. Brazil’s rise in cases has been more recent than most, and the death toll is now rising rapidly, now up to sixth in the world.Bolsonaro is shrugging it off and encouraging defiance of state restrictions in much the manner of Trump, whom he idolises. So it seems that when you get extreme anti-government government – negligence mixed with incompetence – as in the case of Trump and Bolsonaro, the death toll will likely be devastating, and will impact mainly the poor, elderly and disadvantaged. Who would’ve thunk it?

References

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/13/opinions/russia-low-covid-19-mortality-rate-sepkowitz/index.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/without-a-government-for-a-year-belgium-shows-what-happens-to-politics-without-politicians/2019/12/19/5c13cb48-20de-11ea-b034-de7dc2b5199b_story.html

https://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/economies/Europe/Belgium-POLITICS-GOVERNMENT-AND-TAXATION.html

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

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

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

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

https://www.forbes.com/sites/carmenniethammer/2019/12/12/finlands-new-government-is-young-and-led-by-women-heres-what-the-country-does-to-promote-diversity/#28236f8835aa

https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-coronavirus-hits-brazil-hard-but-jair-bolsonaro-is-unrepentant


Written by stewart henderson

May 23, 2020 at 10:47 am

Covid 19: hopes, failures, solutions

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under pressure

Covid-19 continues to be devastating, especially in the USA, where there are vastly more cases than anywhere else, and vastly more deaths, though the picture there is complex. The hardest-hit region, the New York area, is seeing devastation in poorer districts such as Queens, where the Elmhurst public hospital is inundated with uninsured, critically ill patients. New York has suffered almost half of US deaths. Some other states and regions, especially physical outliers such as Alaska, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands, have very low numbers, and it would be hard to explain why the spread of cases across the mainland has been so uneven. Of course it’s obvious that there has been no federal leadership on the pandemic.

Here in Australia, where the numbers seem to be improving (we’re 33rd on the list of total cases, down from 18th when I first started paying attention to the list about three weeks ago, and 52nd on the list of total deaths), our conservative federal government is keen to open up the country again, and has released modelling to the effect that the virus will be eliminated from the mainland if we maintain current physical distancing measures, though it’s likely to take weeks rather than months:

The model suggests that every 10 people infected currently spread the virus to five more people, on average. At that level, the virus would eventually be unable to circulate and would die out within Australia.

Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Australia in course to eliminate Covid-19, modelling shows’

Australia’s current reproduction number (R0) is just a little over .5. A maintained R0 of 1 or less will eventually eliminate the virus. Of course, there will be fluctuations in that number, so it will be difficult to project a time when things are ‘all clear’. Another difficulty with modelling is that the number of infected but asymptomatic people is unknown and difficult to estimate. For example, recent Covid-19 testing of the entire crew of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt found that a substantial majority of those who tested positive were asymptomatic, casting doubt on previous estimates (already worrying for transmission) of one in four cases being asymptomatic.

The asymptomatic/presymptomatic transmission issue was addressed by Bill Gates in this article back in February. It’s what makes SARS-CoV-2 a much more serious threat than the previous SARS and MERS viruses. Gates, in this very important article, also provides an outline of what needs to be done globally to fight this pandemic and to prepare for inevitable future ones. If only…

It’s worth comparing Gates’ call for national and global co-ordination, and more expenditure, in the fields of epidemiology and disease prevention, with another more recent article, also published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which tells a tale of Britain and its NHS, gutted by years, in fact decades of ‘reforms’ and budget cuts:

Thanks to government “reforms” of the NHS, it has become highly decentralized, with over 200 commissioning groups in England that can make independent decisions about staffing and procurement of equipment — far from the monolithic “socialist” health care system it is often assumed to be. The devolved governments in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have substantial health system autonomy. At a time when central management of staff and resources might be most helpful, the decentralized decision-making structure leads to competition for resources and inconsistent policies.

One can hope that the travesty of this virus, especially in places like the US and the UK, will lead to a rethinking of the importance of a well-funded, centralised, co-ordinating and interventionist government in modern states, with particular emphasis on the healthcare system. But I suspect that, in the USA at least, things will go the other way, and the government-hating and government-blaming will only intensify. I’d love to leave this topic and look at solutions – that’s to say I’d love to focus more on the science, but I’m barely equipped to do so. Still, I like to have a go. A very technical and comprehensive review review of pharmacological treatments has been posted recently on the JAMA website, which includes an account of how SARS-CoV-2 enters host cells and utilises those cells for reproduction.

The review claims that currently the most promising therapy is the antiviral drug remdesivir. So what is it and how does it work? I’ll try to answer that question next time.

References

https://www.news.com.au/world/coronavirus/global/epicentre-of-the-epicentre-this-queens-ny-hospital-is-coronavirus-ground-zero/news-story/6d0213ab9d5dd82fa12339f551be99ce

https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2020/apr/16/coronavirus-map-of-the-us-latest-cases-state-by-state

https://www.smh.com.au/national/australia-on-course-to-eliminate-covid-19-modelling-shows-20200416-p54kjh.html

https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2005755?query=recirc_artType_railA_article

https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2003762

https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2764727

Written by stewart henderson

April 18, 2020 at 1:18 pm

On politics and states – some opening remarks

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‘It takes a village to raise a child’ – Andaman Island girls

One of my abiding interests in life is how to organise society effectively for the benefits of its members. It’s so easy to criticise corrupt and incompetent governments and states, but it seems clear to me that, given the crooked timber of humanity, there’s no ideal form of state or anything close to it. In any case I’m a pragmatist rather than an idealogue, so I’m guessing that the posts I write on this topic will be more about what to avoid rather than what constitutes best practice.

Governments can and should play many roles in trying to provide for an effective society, and these roles often seem to be in conflict. For example, I’ve always been keen on government’s regulatory role in protecting the potentially exploited from would-be or actual exploiters. This would seem to conflict with government’s role in promoting economic success and well-being, in which, for example, traders and producers seek to sell products of highly contested worth. 

Of course one popular view of government is that it should play a minimal role, allowing markets to flow as freely as possible. However the claim that government is ‘always the problem, never the solution’ strikes me as easily refuted. The hands-off approach from government led to the global financial crisis of 2007, in the minds of all but the most hardened libertarians, and in Australia, a recent Royal Commission into the banking sector, which was fought against vigorously by then Federal Treasurer (and now Prime Minister) Scott Morrison, has revealed banking corruption on a massive scale by all of the major banks in the country. Why would anyone think that self-regulation works, given the lessons of history and what we know of human nature?

So I believe that states – that’s to say governments – should have a major role to play in protecting their citizens from exploitation, while providing incentives for industry and capital enterprises to develop and thrive – with certain provisos. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, for example, that I feel that good science, in industrial and other capital enterprises, should be encouraged by government. So good government necessarily entails scientifically literate government. In this respect I believe that good government should be more interventionist than, say, government is expected to be in the USA, where, apparently, pharmaceutical products of highly dubious efficacy can be advertised. Truth in advertising appears not to be a major concern of government in that country, and I thank that’s a mistake.


Looking around the world and reading history, I find the worst governments, in terms of corruption and disastrous consequences for the governed, are those that have managed to avoid being held to account for their actions by those affected. That’s why democracy, bolstered by a free and informed fourth estate, and of course an independent judicial system, has proved to be more effective than its alternatives. But of course democracy is practiced in many different ways in many different states, and it too has its failings.


There’s also the complex role of culture in many states or governing systems. Nationalists tend to exaggerate or manufacture cultural traits, while humanists like myself tend to underplay them or wish them away, but I think the significant increase in globalisation in recent decades has been a benefit overall. Isolationism sees its most extreme examples in North Korea and the Andaman Islands, two very different cases, requiring us to think of culture, its manipulation or otherwise, in complex ways.

I’m not sure where all this is going, but I’ve been wanting to write about this sort of stuff for a long time. I’m currently reading a political history of Korea (north and south) and Russia, in the lead-up to the Putin dictatorship, and of course I’ve learned a lot about the problematic US presidential system over the past three years or so, so there’s plenty to reflect upon…

Written by stewart henderson

January 24, 2020 at 10:43 am

random thoughts on human rights

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Over the years I’ve had arguments and discussions with people, and semi-disputes online, about the status of human rights, and rights in general. Some have been quite dismissive of their ‘mythical’ nature, others like Scott Attran have described them as a crazy, transcendental idea invented by a handful of Enlightenment figures back in the day, and boosted by the reaction to world wars in the 20th century. There have been objections by certain states claiming they don’t give sufficient cognisance to ‘Asian values’, and Moslem countries have argued that they need to be amended in accordance with Shar’ia Law.

The first point I would make is that, granted that rights are a human invention, that doesn’t make them ‘unreal’ or in some sense nugatory. Tables, chairs, buildings, computers, bombs, democracy and totalitarianism are all human inventions, but very real, if not all of equal value. To describe human rights as a form of transcendentalism also doesn’t make sense to me. Certainly if you say ‘God has granted certain inalienable rights…’ you’re using transcendental language, but that language is, I think, superfluous to the idea of rights, which, I would argue, is grounded in both empiricism and pragmatism.

I would also argue, no doubt more controversially, that human rights make little sense if based entirely on the individual. They are principally about human relations, and so imply that each individual is part of a larger social entity, within which they may be accorded ‘freedoms from’ and ‘freedoms to’. Aristotle puts the point well in his Politics:

the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state.

It follows that rights must be under the guardianship of states and enshrined in and upheld by their laws. This is vital because individuals often have competing interests, and it’s sometimes the case that particular individuals don’t recognise or understand that there’s a common, social interest beyond their own. This is the difficulty with rights – because we often think of them as my rights or my freedoms, we fail to understand that these rights, though granted in some sense to individuals, must be based on the thriving of the wider social sector, whether we’re referring to village, tribe or state. And it is to these larger social entities – states, or civilisations – that we owe our phenomenal success as a species, for better or worse.

This raises a question of whether the best human rights should flow from the best states, or vice versa. Interestingly, Aristotle and his students collected some 150 constitutions from the world of Greek poleis or city-states in order to devise the best, most ‘thriving’ city-state possible, which of course should have involved comparing the constitutions with the situation on the ground in those city-states. We don’t know if any such comparison was made (it’s very doubtful), but it does suggest that Aristotle thought that the state, via its constitution, was the engine of a thriving citizenry rather than the other way around.

Turning to rights in the modern world, the unfortunate claim by Tom Paine in his Rights of man (1791) that ‘rights are inherently in all the inhabitants’ of a state, has helped to create the confusion about rights being ‘natural’ to humans, like having two legs and a complex prefrontal cortex (the latter being largely the result of living in increasingly complex and organised society). If we’re to take human rights seriously, we need to be honest about their a posteriori nature. They need to be seen as the result of our understanding of how to create an environment that best suits us, as the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. In that respect, we’ve come a long way, not only from Aristotle (who excluded women and slaves from his citizenry), but also from the the late eighteenth century revolutionaries (who executed Olympe de Gouges for daring to even suggest adding women to the rights-owning citizenry of her own nation). Indeed, examining the issue of rights historically should remind us that they need to be updated on the basis of our ongoing advances in knowledge. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by this understanding, should certainly not be fixed in stone.

My views, of course clash with ‘natural law’ notions of human rights, which tend to be based on the individual an sich, and have claims to be outside of social or temporal considerations.

If we try to think of rights as ‘natural’ or self-evident, rather than something we construct to help us understand what we owe to, and might expect from, the best of civil states, we might well agree with Alasdair McIntyre’s view that there’s nothing natural or self-evident, say, about allowing people, by right, the freedom to express or live by their religious views. Many religious views are notoriously idiosyncratic and sometimes offensive from an outsider’s perspective, and adding the ‘no harm’ principle doesn’t suffice to smooth things over. The jury is very much out as to whether religion is, or has been, a benefit to society, but it’s well known that some religions have, in the past, engaged in human sacrifices. And even today new religions might crop up which may involve practices that the majority would find inimical both to individual and social well-being. And of course the very definition of religion is far from being self-evident. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

However, it makes no attempt to define religion, and in the same Article it claims the right of all to ‘manifest his… belief…in practice and observance’. This, if taken literally, is absurd, as a person might hold a belief that slave-owning is okay, and is given the green light by this Article to ‘manifest that belief in practice.. and observance’. No doubt my criticism doesn’t capture the liberal ‘spirit’ of the Article, but it does highlight an obvious problem. People do act on beliefs, and many actions, based on those beliefs, can be harmful, and subject to criminal prosecution. The law, of course, prosecutes acts, not thoughts, so we know that we’re free to think what we want – we don’t need a ‘right’ to protect this. I won’t try to define religion, but at least it seems to involve both beliefs and actions. Actions will be subject to civil and criminal law, so it might be argued that rights don’t find a place there. Beliefs are private unless and until they’re acted on, in which case they’ll be subject to law. So there’s a question whether rights have a place there also.

The more I look at human rights, the more difficulties I see. Let me take, more or less at random, Article 21 of the UDHR:

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Section 3 here reads like a directive, but I agree that every member of a state should be allowed at least the opportunity to cast a vote for government. In Australia, voting is compulsory for eligible parties, as it is in some 22 countries (though enforced in only 11). It’s questionable whether compulsion accords with human rights and freedoms, but given the socially constructed nature of humanity, voting should definitely be encouraged as a duty, at the very least. The ideal, of course, would be that everybody is aware of what they owe to the state, and their interest in creating and maintaining a state that is beneficial to the whole and so to themselves as a part.

There is no doubt in my mind that participatory democracies make for better states than any alternatives, and if this can be bolstered by human rights language that is fine, though I think that interest and duty (what we owe to ourselves and others) makes more sense as an argument. The ‘Asian values’ objection here (revisited recently by the Chinese oligarchy) is bogus and self-serving, as evidenced by the success of democratic nations such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. There is a tendency in Asian nations to be more collectivist in thinking and behaviour than in many European nations, and especially the USA, but this would make them more attracted to participatory democracy, not less.

Concluding remarks – the more I look at rights, the more questionable I find them. I would rather encourage a neo-Aristotelian way of thinking. We’re now political animals more than ever, in a wider sense than Aristotle saw it, because civilisation itself is political, and civilisation is hardly something we can opt out of. I don’t advocate world government – that was an impossible if admirable ideal – but I certainly advocate intergovernmental co-operation as opposed to zero sum nationalism. We need to make an all-out effort to improve our state structures and understanding between them for the sake of all their members (and the rest of the biosphere).

Written by stewart henderson

August 31, 2019 at 8:44 am

a few thoughts on libertarianism

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Libertarianism is like Leninism: a fascinating, internally consistent political theory with some good underlying points that, regrettably, makes prescriptions about how to run human society that can only work if we replace real messy human beings with frictionless spherical humanoids of uniform density (because it relies on simplifying assumptions about human behavior which are unfortunately wrong). I don’t know who wrote this.

not quite

Aren’t libertarians a lovely lot?

I might look more closely at some libertarian philosophy later, but for now I want to critique the kind of standard libertarianism I’ve heard from politicians and bloggers.

Well, okay, I’ll start with a philosopher, Robert Nozick, whose much-vaunted/pilloried book Anarchy, State and Utopia I tried to read in the eighties. I found it pretty indigestible and essentially learned from others that his argument depended rather too much on one principle – the human right of individuals to certain positive and negative freedoms, but especially negative ones, like the right to be left largely alone, to make their own decisions for example about how to contribute to the greater good. The book ended up advocating for a minimalist state, in which everyone gets to create their own communities of kindred spirits, organically grown A cornucopia of utopias. The kind of state that, ummm, like, doesn’t exist anywhere. That’s the problem. Utopia is definable as a society that only exists in fantasy.

And then there’s the exaltation of the individual. This is the problem I’ve encountered with every libertarian I’ve read or viewed – and I’m quite glad I’ve rarely had any personal encounters with them.

If I did, here would be my response. Homo sapiens are the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. Language has massively facilitated this, and in turn has become our most powerful social product. Common languages have created civilisations, and this has allowed us to dominate the planet, for better or worse. And civilisation requires, or just is, organised social structure. That’s to say, a state, that eternal bogey-man of the libertarian.

This entity, the state, has shaped humans for millennia. Today, we owe (largely) to the state the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the education we’re hopefully still having, the jobs we’ve had and lost, the houses we live in, the cars we used to drive, and the good health we increasingly enjoy. That’s why, it seems to me, we owe it to ourselves to make the state we live in as good as we can make it, in terms of health, safety, opportunity, support, pleasure and self-improvement, for all its members.

It seems to me we have to work with what exists instead of trying to invent utopias – because, obviously, one person’s utopia is another’s nightmare. What exists today is a variety of states, some clearly better than others. The minimalist states are among the worst, and they’re understandably called failed states. There is no effectively functioning minimalist state on the planet, a fact that many libertarians blithely ignore. Their emphasis on individual liberty seems to me the product of either beggar-thy-neighbour selfishness or starry-eyed optimism about natural affinities.

Again, I turn to the USA, my favourite whipping-state. This hotbed of libertarians has not blossomed as it could, considering its booming economy. From this distance, it seems a sad and often stomach-turning mixture of white-collar fraudsters and chronically disadvantaged, over-incarcerated victims, and good people who largely accept this as the status quo. The you-can-achieve-anything mantra of the American Dream generally sees individuals as blank slates who can best fulfil their potential when pulled from the rubble of the coercive state. Or State, as many libertarians prefer.

It didn’t take my recent reading of Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, a superb overview of human behaviour and its multifarious and interactive underpinnings, or Steven Pinker’s earlier The Blank Slate, to realise that this was a dangerous myth. It was always screamingly obvious to me, from my observation of the working-class milieu of my childhood, the variety of skills my classmates displayed and the problems they faced from the outset, together with my readings of more privileged worthies and their patrician connections (Bertrand Russell on the knee of William Gladstone always comes irritatingly to mind), that there has never been anything like an even playing field for exhibiting and making the most of whatever qualities we’re gifted with or are motivated to cultivate and improve.

So this is the problem: we’re not free to undo what has been ‘done to us’ – the parents we have, the country (or century) we’re born in, the traumas and joys we’ve experienced in the womb, our complex genetic inheritance and so forth. All of these things are connected to a much wider world and a past over which we have no control. They shape us (into go-getting libertarians or bleeding-heart liberals or whatever) much more than we’re generally prepared to admit. And these shaping forces, since the emergence of civilisation and that sometimes messily organised unit called the state, are profoundly social. And even if we’re not talking about western civilisation it’s the same – it takes a village to raise a child.

These shaping forces aren’t necessarily bad or good, they just are. But all in all we should be glad they are. The social brain is the brightest, most complex brain, and such brains wouldn’t have developed if the individual was sacrosanct, in receipt of the right to be ‘left alone’. Civilisation is surely the most impressive achievement of human evolution, and as Ralph Adolphs of Caltech puts it, ‘no component of our civilization would be possible without large-scale collective behavior’. 

The state, of course, has its drawbacks, as do all large-scale multifaceted administrative entities. The ancient Greek city-states produced a host of brilliant contributors to their own esteem as well as to the world history of drama, philosophy, mathematics and history itself, in spite of being built on slavery and denying any equitable role to women, but even there the (probably few) slaves who worked in the most enlightened households would’ve benefitted from the collective, and the women, however officially treated, were surely just as involved and brainy as the men.

As society has grown increasingly complex we as individuals have grown in proportion, as have our individual delusions of grandeur. At least in some cases. What the best of us should have learned, though, is that a rich, diverse, dynamic society, which cannot but be organised, produces the best offerings to its children. Diminishing the state by refusing to contribute to it actually diminishes and impoverishes the self, diminishes connection and the recognition of collective value. This raises the rather large point that the self isn’t what most people think it is – an autonomous, self-actuated entity. Instead, it is driven by complex social inputs from the very start, indeed from long before it came into being. Just as events from long before a crow is born, or even conceived, will go a long way in determining how that adult crow behaves.

Yet the myth of the individual, autonomous self is a live one, and it’s what drives most libertarians. In so far as people see themselves as self-actualising, they will argue the same for others, and absolve themselves from responsibility for others’ failures, mistakes or incapacities. Such attitudes significantly play down disadvantages of background, and even reduce exposure to those differences. Since everyone has the choice to be as successful as me (according to my own measure of success), why should I waste time hanging out with losers? By that measure, to suggest that silver-spoon libertarians would willingly provide support to disadvantaged communities is as unrealistic as expecting Donald Trump to hang out with the construction workers on his trumpy towers.

In some respects, libertarianism represents the opposite pole to communism, on a continuum that stretches into complete delusion at both ends. There have never been any actual, functioning communist or libertarian states. Both are essentially abstract ideologies, which take little account of the science of evolved human behaviour. When we do take account of that science, we find it is fiendishly complex, with the individual as a unit being driven and shaped by social dependencies, connections and responsibilities, which are generally vital to that individual’s well-being. In western democratic societies, apart from family and workplace organisations, we have government, which includes, in Australia, councils, states and a federation of states. It all sound terribly complex and web-like, and some apparently see it as ‘the enemy of individual liberty’ but in fact it’s the web of civilised human life, which we’ve all contributed to creating, and it’s a pretty impressive web – though more impressive in some places than in others. I think the best thing we can try to do is to improve it rather than trying to extricate ourselves from it. In any case, doing so – I mean, removing ourselves from organised society – just won’t work, and fundamentally misunderstands the nature of our evolved humanity.

Written by stewart henderson

April 3, 2019 at 2:32 pm

fish deaths in the lower Darling – interim report

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Jacinta: We wrote about this issue in a piece posted on February 11, so it’s time to follow up – an interim report came out on February 20, and a final report is due at the end of March, but my feeling is that the final report won’t differ much from this interim one.

Canto: Yes I get the feeling that these experts have largely known about the situation for a long time – unusual climatic conditions plus an increasing lack of water in the system, which would make the remaining water more susceptible to extremes of weather.

Jacinta: So here’s some of what they’re saying. There were three separate events; the first on December 15 involved tens of thousands of fish deaths over a 30km stretch of the Darling near Menindee, the second on Jan 6-7, over 45kms in the same area, involved hundreds of thousands of deaths, even millions according to some residents, and the third on Jan 28, with thousands of deaths. Likely effects on fish populations in the Darling will last for years.

Canto: And they warn that more deaths are likely to occur – though no major events have been reported since – due to low inflows and continued dry conditions in the catchment area. Monitoring has shown that there are problems of low dissolved oxygen and ‘high stratification’ at various points along the river. I presume ‘high stratification’ is self-explanatory, that the water isn’t mixing due to low flows?

Jacinta: Yes, but I think the issue is thermal stratification, where you have a warm surface layer sitting above a cooler, oxygen-depleted sub-surface layer. These are excellent conditions for algal blooms apparently. And the low flows are a natural feature of the Darling. It’s also very variable in flow, much more so than the Murray, due to its low relief, the more variable rainfall in the region, and the tributaries which create a large catchment area. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Canto: Neither do I. I note that they’ve been carefully critical of the NSW government’s ‘Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan 2012’, because between the draft and final implementation of the plan the number of high-flow Class C shares was reduced and the number of Class A (low flow) and Class B (medium flow) shares increased, which meant more extraction of water overall, and at lower flows. They recognise that there have been recent Federal moves to reverse this, but clearly they don’t consider them sufficient.

Jacinta: Yes and the problem goes back a way. They refer to an analysis from almost two decades ago:

The flow regime in the lower Darling has changed significantly since the completion of the Menindee Lakes storage scheme in 1968, and as a result of abstractions in the Barwon–Darling and its tributaries. It is estimated that the mean annual flow in the Darling River has been reduced by more than 40% as a result of abstractions in the Barwon–Darling (Gippel & Blackham, 2002). 

Presumably ‘abstractions’ means what I think it means – though elsewhere they use the term ‘extractions’ which is confusing.

Canto: We should point out the immense complexity of the system we’re dealing with, which we can see from detailed maps that accompany the report, not to mention a number of barely comprehensible charts and graphs. Anyway the effect of ‘water management’ on native vegetation has been dire in some regions. For example, reduced inundation of natural floodplains has affected the health of the river red gums, while other trees have been killed off by the creation of artificial lakes.

Jacinta: And returning to fish deaths, the report states that ‘the influence of upstream extractions on inflows to the Menindee Lakes is an important consideration when assessing the causes of fish deaths downstream’. What they point out is that the proportion of extractions is higher in times of lower inflow, which is intuitively obvious I suppose. And extractions during 2017-8 were proportionally the second highest on record. That’s in the Northern Basin, well above the Menindee Lakes.

Canto: And the extractions have been mainly out of the tributaries above the Barwon-Darling, not those principal rivers. Queenslanders!

Jacinta: No mention of Queenslanders, but let’s not get bogged down..

Canto: Easily done when there’s hardly any water…

Jacinta: Let’s go to the provisional findings and recommendations. There are 18 briefly stated findings in all, and 20 more expansive recommendations. The first two findings are about extreme weather/climatic conditions amplified by climate change, with the expectation that this will be a continuing and growing problem. Findings 3 and 4 focus on the combined effects of drought and development. There’s a lack of updated data to separate out the effects, but it’s estimated that pre-development inflows into the Menindee Lakes were two or three times what they are now. Further findings are that the impact of diversions of or extractions from flows are greater during dry years, that extractions from tributaries are more impactful than extractions from the Barwon-Darling Rivers.

Canto: The findings related directly to fish deaths – principally findings 10 through 15 – are most interesting, so I’ll try to explain. The Menindee Lakes experienced high inflows in 2012 and 2016, which caused greater connection through the river system and better conditions for fish spawning and ‘recruitment’ (I don’t know what that means). So, lots of new, young fish. Then came the bad 2017-8 period, and releases from the Menindee Lakes were less than the minimum recommended under the water sharing plan, ‘with the intent to prolong stock and domestic requests to meet critical human needs’. So by the end of 2018, the high fish biomass became trapped or restricted between weirs, unable to move upstream or downstream. As the water heated up, significant algal blooms developed in the areas where fish had accumulated. Thermal stratification also occurred, with hypoxic (low oxygen) or anoxic (no oxygen) conditions in the lower waters, and algal blooms proliferating in the surface waters, where the fish were forced to hang out. Then conditions suddenly changed, with lower air temperatures and stormy conditions causing a rapid destratification. The low oxygen water – presumably more voluminous than the oxygenated water – dominated the whole water column and the fish had no way out.

Jacinta: Yes, you can’t adapt to such sudden shifts. The final findings are about existing attempts at fish translocation and aerating water which are having some success, about stratification being an ongoing issue, and about lack of knowledge at this preliminary stage of the precise extent of the fish deaths.

Canto: So now to the 20 recommendations. They’re grouped under 3 headings; preventive and restorative measures (1-9), management arrangements (10-13), and knowledge and monitoring (14-20). The report noted a lack of recent systematic risk assessment for low oxygen, stratification and blackwater (semi-stagnant, vegetation-rich water that looks like black tea) in the areas where the fish deaths occurred. There was insufficient or zero monitoring of high-risk areas for stratification, etc, and insufficient planning to treat problems as they arose. Flow management strategies (really involving reduced extraction) need to be better applied to reduce problems in the lower Darling. Reducing barriers to fish movement should be considered, though this is functionally difficult. Apparently there’s a global movement in this direction to improve freshwater fish stocks. Short term measures such as aeration and translocation are also beneficial. Funding should be set aside for research on and implementation of ecosystem recovery – it’s not just the fish that are affected. Long-term resilience requires an understanding of interactions and movement throughout the entire basin. Fish are highly mobile and restriction is a major problem. A whole-of system approach is strongly recommended. This includes a dynamic ‘active event-based management’ approach, especially in the upper reaches and tributaries of the Barwon-Darling, where extraction has been governed by passive, long-term rules. Such reforms are in the pipeline but now need to be fast-tracked. For example, ‘quantifying the volumes of environmental water crossing the border from Queensland to NSW…. would increase transparency and would help the CEWH [Commonwealth Environmental Water Holdings] with their planning, as well as clear the path to move to active management in Queensland’.

Jacinta: Right, you’ve covered most of the issues, so I’ll finish up with monitoring, measuring and reporting. The report argues that reliable, up-to-date accounting of flows, volumes in storage, extractions and losses due to seepage and evaporation are essential to create and maintain public confidence in system management, and this is currently a problem. Of course this requires funding, and apparently the funding levels have dropped substantially over the past decade. The report cites former funding and investment through the Co-operative Research Centre, Land and Water Australia and the National Water Commission, but ‘by the early 2010s, all of these sources of funding had terminated and today aggregate levels of funding have reduced to early 1980s levels, at a time when water was far less of a public policy challenge than it is today’.

Canto: We await the government’s response to that one.

Jacinta: And on fisheries research in particular, it has been largely piecemeal except when their was a concerted co-ordinated effort under the Native Fish Strategy, but the issue right now is to know how many fish (and other organisms) of the various affected species survived the event, which involves multi-level analyses, combined with management of Basin water balances, taking into account the ongoing effects of weather events due to climate change, in order to foster and improve the growth and well-being of fish stocks and freshwater habitats in general. Connectivity of the system in particular is a major concern of the report.

Canto: Right, so this has been a bit of a journey into the unknown for us, but a worthwhile one. It suggests that governments have been a bit dozey at the wheel in recent years, that extractions, especially in the upper reaches and tributaries, haven’t been well monitored or policed, and the connectivity of the system has suffered due to extractions, droughts and climate change. Funding seems to have dried up as much as some of the rivers have, and we’ll have to wait and see if this becomes an election issue. I suspect it’ll only be a minor one.

Written by stewart henderson

March 17, 2019 at 12:01 pm

why the US has one of the worst political systems in the democratic world, and why they’re unlikely to change it

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I think this may be the longest title of any blog piece I’ve written, but that’s not the only reason why few will read it. After all, most of my readers are from the USA, and they’ll be put off by the title for other reasons. Anyway, here goes.

Of course I’m not really qualified to rank all the democratic political systems out there – I’m no expert on the German, French or Spanish systems, or those of the Scandinavian countries – but I think it’s a reasonable assumption that few if any other other democratic states would accord as much power to one person as the USA does.

I’ve been on a steep learning curve re the US system, but of course there’s plenty I still don’t know about. I live under a variant of the Westminster system here in Australia, and that’s the system I’m most familiar with, and as a British/Australian duel citizen, and a sometime student of British history, I know a fair amount about the origins of parliamentary democracy in Britain. The Westminster system of course, has other variants in New Zealand, Canada and other countries formerly under the British Empire, including India, Pakistan and South Africa, but my focus here will be on Australia as fairly typical of democracy at least in the English-speaking countries other than the US. And don’t forget I’m no expert generally, being an autodidact/dilettante, but I like to think I’m a keen observer, and don’t we all?

This my view: I’ve learned enough about the US political system – the Presidential system in particular – in the past 12 months to drop my jaw to the floor and keep it there for most of that period. It really is a shocker.

I’ll summarise, then expand. The US directly elects its President – a really bad idea. There’s no vetting of Presidential candidates: Americans like to boast that anyone can become Prez. Do you really want just anyone to be given that responsibility? Once elected, nominally as a representative of one of the two major parties, the President sets up office completely separately from the Congress/Parliament in which the two major parties, together with smaller parties and independents, battle it out to run the government to their liking, ideologically speaking. Or is it the President who runs the government? It’s confusing. The President, in his separate, isolated sphere, has veto powers, pardoning powers, special executive powers, emergency powers, power to shut down the government, power to appoint members of the judiciary, power to appoint a host of unelected and very powerful officials and to hire and fire at will, with limited oversight. The President is, apparently, not legally required to announce conflicts of interest, or present any account of his finances, and is at liberty, or certainly appears to be at liberty, to enrich himself and his family by virtue of holding the office of President. The President, by virtue of his office, is immune from prosecution, during his time in office, for any crime committed before, during, or in order to obtain, his Presidency – or such is the view held by a substantial proportion of the legal profession.

And yet the vast majority of American citizens don’t believe they’re living in a Banana Republic. On the contrary, they believe they’re living in the Greatest Democracy on Earth, the Greatest Nation on Earth, the Leader of the Free World, the Shining Light on the Hill, etc, etc, etc – and of course it’s this jingoism, this lack of self-critical insight (with many, but not enough, honourable exceptions) that will make it so hard to effect change when Trump is dumped..

So, let’s start with direct election. It doesn’t happen under the Westminster system. In Australia we have general elections every three years. We vote for a local member in our electorate (in the US they’re called districts) as well as for the party of our choice federally. That’s to say, our general elections are the equivalent of the US mid-terms, only more important, as we don’t have a Presidential election. So, if the US had a similar system to us, their recent election would be the general election, the Democrats would have won government from the Republicans in a landslide, and the new Prime Minister, the leader of the Dems in the House, would be Nancy Pelosi, taking over from the retiring PM, Paul Ryan. Chuck Schumer, the leader in the Senate, would probably take up the position of Deputy PM, and the positions of Treasurer, Attorney-General, Foreign Minister etc, would have already been decided before the election, as they would have been the opposition spokespersons for those positions (aka shadow Attorney-General, shadow Treasurer, etc). The Prime Minister would have the power to swap those positions around and introduce new blood (called a Cabinet reshuffle), but of course all of these persons would have won their local electorates in the elections. Most would be experienced in the parliamentary system.

Under the US Presidential system, the whole nation is asked to choose between two candidates, usually a leftist or a rightist. There are of course caucuses and primaries, which basically ‘weed out’ the less popular candidates until only two are left standing. But this system is so separate from Congress that it’s possible for anyone to run, and to win, regardless of political experience, historical knowledge or any other sort of nous – though having a lot of money, or a lot of rich backers, is virtually essential to success. In the case of Trump, his relentless branding of himself as a successful businessman and super-smart outsider was enough to fool many of the least thoughtful and most disadvantaged Americans, as well as to convince many of the crooked rich that he might prove a useful tool. And so Trump, in spite of being super-incompetent, ethically moribund and a total financial fraud, won the election… or, rather, won the electoral college, probably with the assistance of foreign agents.

The major flaw of this kind of direct democracy was pointed out almost 2,500 years ago by the ancient Greek philosophers, who were unabashed anti-democratic elitists. They’d seen how ‘the mob’ could be swayed by windy orators who promised to fix problems and to bring great success and richesse at little cost. One of them, Creon, persuaded the Athenians to embark on a disastrous campaign against the city-state of Syracuse, which so depleted Athenian resources that they were overrun by the Spartans, which ended the Peloponnesian War and the Athenian ascendancy once and for all.

Trump won’t do that kind of damage to the USA, but he’s already damaged America’s reputation for decades to come, as well as selling out his base, endangering the lives of immigrants, massively neglecting the business of running his country in all its essential minutiae, and filling the swamp to overflowing.

So what’s the solution to this direct election process? It doesn’t need to be jettisoned, but it can be improved (though I’m for ditching the Presidential system entirely). You can replace the electoral college with a first past the post (or winner takes all) system. Of course, if that system were in place in 2016, Hillary Clinton would be President. More importantly, though, the electoral college system is easier for interfering agents to manipulate, by focusing attention on ‘purple’ electorates, as was done in 2016. A more centralised system would be easier to keep ‘clean’ , and would require a very sophisticated, equally centralised hacking and propaganda campaign to manipulate. Besides that, it is obviously fairer. The person who wins most votes nationwide should surely be the nation’s President.

Then there is vetting. Here’s where I display my elitism. Every candidate for President should have to submit to testing, regarding the nation’s politico-judicial system, its constitution, its history, its network of foreign and trade relations, and, a hobby-horse of mine, its science and technology sector (since achievements in this sector have changed lives far far more than any political achievements). You don’t want an ignoramus to be your President ever again.

Of course there’s also financial and legal vetting. The Emoluments Clause appears to lack claws. This should be turned into solid, unequivocal law.

The legal position of the President should also be clarified. As the Chief Law Officer of the nation he should never be considered above the law. Having said that, the Attorney-General should be the first law officer, not the President. Other powers of the President need to be reassessed in a root-and-branch fashion – pardoning powers, veto powers, special executive powers and so-called emergency powers. Clearly, to accord vast and manifold powers to one person, and then to consider him immune from prosecution because of the powers so accorded, is a recipe for dictatorship. I mean – duh!

But there’s another reason why this Presidential system is seriously flawed. Under the Westminster system, if the Prime Minister is found to have engaged in criminal activities, such as serious campaign finance violations, conspiracy with foreign powers to influence their own election, obstruction of justice, directing foreign policy on the basis of self-enrichment, and other egregious antics, s/he would be charged and forced to stand down. The party in power would then vote on a new leader – who may or may not be the Deputy PM. This would of course be somewhat traumatic for the body politic, but certainly not fatal. Changing Prime Ministers between elections is quite common, and has happened recently in Britain and Australia. Not so in the USA, where the Vice President, a personal choice of the now discredited Prez, is necessarily the next in line. Think of Mike Pence as President – or think of Sarah Palin taking over from John McCain. Why should the electorate have to suffer being presided over by the bad choice of a bad (or good) President? This is a question Americans will be asking themselves quite shortly, I reckon.

So why is the system unlikely to change? I’ve mentioned American jingoism. Even those media outlets, such as MSNBC and CNN, that spend much of their time exposing Trump’s lies and poor decisions and general worthlessness, seem never to question the system that allowed him to gain a position so entirely unsuited to him. It just astonishes me that the idea that a person in his position might be immune from prosecution can be taken seriously by anyone with an adult mind. The fourth estate should be hammering this obvious point home on a daily, if not hourly basis. Trump should now be in custody. His ‘fixer’, Michael Cohen, is currently on bail for campaign finance felonies, among other things. He will serve three years in jail. Trump was the Mr Big in those campaign finance felonies, and should serve more time than Cohen, as a matter of basic logic. Why has he not been charged? There is absolutely no excuse. And he shouldn’t be allowed out on bail, due to his known habit of obstructing justice and witness tampering. How can anyone respect a justice system that hasn’t acted on this? The world is watching incredulously.

As I see it, the Presidential system is a kind of sop to American individualism. The USA is a hotbed of libertarians, who see ‘universal’ education and health-care systems as ‘socialism’, while the rest of the western world just calls it government. Many of their worst movies feature one machismo guy – male or female – sorting out the bad guys and setting the country to rights. That’s another reason why they won’t want to muzzle their Presidents – after all, if they had much of this concentrated power removed from them, why have a President at all? Why indeed. The Westminster system is more distributed in terms of power. The Prime Minister is ‘primus inter pares’, first among equals, the captain of the team. S/he can always be replaced if injured or out of form or is no longer representing the team adequately, for whatever reason. The team, though, is the thing. Us, rather than me. But the USA is full of screaming mes. And now they have a screaming me as their President. It’s the ultimate self-fulfilment. I watch from afar with guilty fascination, not unmixed with schadenfreude – but with a particular interest in what will happen post-Trump. My bet is that there will be some changes, but nowhere near enough – they’re too wedded to romantic and adventure-laden fantasies of individualism. So the USA with its wild-west hangover of a Presidential system will always be worth watching, but never worth emulating.

Written by stewart henderson

January 3, 2019 at 10:28 am