We’re all “real Australians”

That’s the title for my latest piece in Inside Story. Opening para

One of the most tired tropes in Australian politics involves identifying some part of the country (or a particular occupational or identity group) as the “real Australians” who must be catered to in order to win or retain government. In the last decade or so, we’ve been through rural and regional Australia, Western Sydney, Queensland, “tradies,” “people of faith” and probably a few I haven’t noticed.

Paying for what we used to own: The strange case of CSL

That’s the headline for my latest piece in Independent Australia. Opening paras

AS WE WAIT anxiously for the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine, which will be made overseas, most Australians will welcome the news that a new vaccine manufacturing plant will be built in Melbourne to produce vaccines for influenza and Q fever (and possibly for future pandemics), as well as antivenenes for snake and spider bites.

The plant is the result of a deal between the Commonwealth Government and Seqirus, a subsidiary of global biopharmaceutical firm CSL. Under the deal, the Commonwealth commits to pay $1 billion over ten years for a variety of products including antivenenes.

At this point, those with long memories might recall that the “C” in CSL once stood for “Commonwealth” and that the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories began producing vaccines and antivenenes more than 100 years ago. Under public ownership, CSL developed both polyvalent antivenene against all the major Australian land snakes and the first Q fever vaccine. Why then, are we paying nearly $1 billion to a company we once owned to provide pharmaceutical products that were developed when we owned it?

Concluding para

In 30 years of privatisation in Australia, there has not been a single case where the public would not have been at least as well off if the asset had remained in public ownership. Turning this around, there is now a strong case for renationalisation of a wide range of private assets, including roads, electricity transmission and distribution network and airports. It is time to call the failed experiment of privatisation to a halt.

RCEP

For some reason, I’ve been asked to do an interview with a Korean radio station about the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, frequently described as “the world’s largest trade deal”, on the basis that the countries involved have a combined population of 2.2 billion, more than any previous deal.

The most interesting thing about the deal is what’s not in it (also, who’s not in it, notably India and the United States). Early drafts followed the classic pattern, with strong Intellectual Property and Investor State Dispute Settlement, while excluding environmental and labour protections (which never had a chance in this deal) . In the final agreement, the IP content, which previously included things like a binding commitment to Plant Variety Rights has been watered down to a generic agreement that IP is a good thing, while ISDS is gone altogether.

ISDS was always an appalling way of institutionalizing[1] corporate power. But the attempt by Philip Morris to use ISDS to overturn Australia’s plain packaging laws, using a spurious corporate base in Hong Kong, seems finally to have tipped the balance against it.

Much the same can be said about strong IP. The remorseless extension of copyright, calibrated to the lifetime of Mickey Mouse, seems finally to have come to an end in the US, and any attempt to extend the scope of IP now encounters vigorous resistance.

fn1. I’m sure there is a better word to express what I mean here, that corporate power is locked in more or less irrevocably by this kind of deal. But I can’t find it in the memory bank, or the Thesaurus. Any suggestions?

Covid and the climate emergency

(Another extract from the climate chapter of my book-in-progress, Economic Consequences of the Pandemic)

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated a variety of social and economic trends, some beneficial and some harmful, that were already underway before 2020.

An important example of a beneficial effect has been an acceleration of the decline of carbon-based fuels. Lockdowns early in the pandemic produced a substantial reduction in demand for both electricity and transport. As well as providing a brief glimpse of a world with greatly reduced atmospheric pollution, the lockdown accelerated shifts in the energy mix that were already underway.

Since solar PV and wind plants cost nothing to operate, the reduction in electricity demand fell most severely on carbon-based fuels, particularly coal. As a result, the combined contribution of PV, wind and hydroelectricity to US energy generation surpassed that of coal for the first time in 130 years.

Official projections from the EIA suggest that coal use will return to its gradually declining trend in the wake of the pandemic, exceeding renewables for some years to come. However, the pace at which coal plants are being closed or converted to run on gas has accelerated during pandemic. Meanwhile, despite weak demand, wind and PV plants are being installed at a record pace, partly because near-zero interest rates make capital investments cheaper.

The reduction in transport usage reduced demand for oil, at one point leading to a startling situation where the price of oil was negative, as unsold oil exceed the capacity for storage. Although the price has recovered somewhat, it seems unlikely that transport demand will return to its previous trend.

At the same time, there has been continued progress, both technological and political, in the electrification of transport. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently announced that the sale of petrol and diesel cars would be prohibited after 2030, an advance on previous commitments. The decline in long-term interest rates also enhances the economic position of electric vehicles, which have higher upfront costs and lower operating and maintenance costs than petrol and diesel vehicles. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/auto-loan-interest-rates-drop-in-may-to-lowest-level-since-2013-according-to-edmunds-301069143.html

Not all energy-related developments associated with Covid have been positive. The convenience and cheapness of online taxi platforms like Uber and Lyft has reduced use of public transport in many cities. The pandemic, with the need to avoid crowded spaces like buses and subway cars has exacerbated this trend. And, while the option of working remotely reduces the need for travel, it has encouraged a more dispersed workforce with less need to commute to the central city locations best served by public transport.

Climate change after the pandemic

Even as the future of US democracy remains in the balance, and as the pandemic still rages, I’m still working on my book The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic. At this stage, it’s hard to get a clear idea of how things will look when and if the pandemic is brought under control. One thing that is certain is that the problem of climate change/global heating will not have gone away. Over the fold, the intro for the chapter I’m writing on this topic. Comments, criticism and compliments all gratefully accepted.

The pandemic disaster has absorbed all of our attention. But the longer-running, and ultimately more dangerous disaster of global heating has continued to wreak its ever-increasing havoc.

The hottest temperature ever reliably recorded (130 F or 54 C) was observed on Sunday August 16 2020, at Death Valley. Unsurprisingly the record temperatures gave rise to hundreds of disastrous fires throughout California The scale of the fires was described by the New York Times as ‘staggering; with 1.4 million acres burned by August. But this was not a once-off disaster. Fires in 2017 set a new record for their extent and damage, only to be eclipsed by even worse disasters in 2018. The fires of 2019, which saw much of the electricity grid shut down for days on end, and 250 000 acres burned, seemed mild by comparison.

This pattern is not unique to the US. Massive fires have occurred from the Arctic to the Amazon. Over the Southern hemisphere summer of 2019-20, my own home country, Australia, experienced the worst bushfire season on record, with major cities blanketed in toxic smoke for weeks on end. Thirty-four people were killed by the fires themselves, but hundreds more died from the acute effects of the smoke, and many more are likely to die of long-term effects. Humans weren’t alone. Nearly 3 billion animals were killed or displaced, with whole species threatened with extinction.

On the Atlantic coast of the US, the climate drove a different kind of disaster. As has become normal in recent years, the first storms of the North Atlantic hurricane season arrived in May, before the official start of the season on June 1. In August, Hurricane Laura became the strongest on record (by windspeed) to make landfall in Louisiana, tying a record set in 1856. Only the speed with which Laura moved inland prevented catastrophic damage on the scale seen with disasters like Katrina and Sandy. By mid-November, the 2020 season was declared the most active on record. There is now very strong evidence that climate change is causing more severe hurricanes, with heavier associated rainfall and rapid intensification.

As with the pandemic, we had plenty of warning about climate change. The science of global warming has been understood since the 19th century, and evidence that warming is taking place began to mount from the early 1980s. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988, and produced its First Assessment Report in 1990, leading to the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The report established that global warming was taking place and that “emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases: CO2, methane, CFCs and nitrous oxide. These increases will enhance the greenhouse effect, resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface. The main greenhouse gas, water vapour, will increase in response to global warming and further enhance it.” However, considerable uncertainty remained regarding whether observed global warming was due to natural variability, human activity or some combination of the two.

The Second Assessment Report in 1995 presented stronger evidence that warming was being driven by greenhouse gas emissions. But already there was pressure from some governments to water down the conclusion.

A series of subsequent IPCC Assessment Reports has documented the increase in global temperatures and established, beyond any reasonable doubt, that human activity is primarily responsible. The most recent was the Fifth Assessment Report, released in 2014. The key finding:

Warming of the atmosphere and ocean system is unequivocal. Many of the associated impacts such as sea level change (among other metrics) have occurred since 1950 at rates unprecedented in the historical record. There is a clear human influence on the climate. It is extremely likely [probability greater than 95 per cent] that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed warming since 1950,

For-profit services drive standards down

That’s the key point of my article in The Guardian this week. The intro focused on aged care and the headline picked that up, but the main points are general

There’s nothing inherently desirable about competition. If the alternative is collusion against the public interest, competition is a necessary evil. Far better, when it can be achieved, is cooperation to be the best we can at what we do. That’s the core value of the service professions, professions derided by market reformers as “producer interests”.

Much the same is true of choice. As far as flavours of ice cream are concerned, some people will like butterscotch, some will go for mango and some might even prefer Neapolitan. The more choices the better. But for the human services that matter most to us, it’s not a question of how many choices we have. What matters is the quality of the best choice. We want our doctors and nurses to keep us well, our teachers to educate and inspire us, and our carers to give us comfort and dignity.