One failure too many

That’s the title of my latest piece in Inside Story , also printed in the Canberra Times under the headline Sydney’s coronavirus outbreak highlights hard choices“”

Key para

Poor understanding of uncertainty was evident in the rush to label New South Wales as the gold standard and assume that a handful of successes was evidence that there was nothing to worry about. This conclusion didn’t take account of the fact that the policy could not afford even one failure. All high-risk strategies share two key features: they work until they fail, and they are likely to be hailed as the product of genius until they are not.

31 thoughts on “One failure too many

  1. “Estimates of the basic reproduction rate for the Delta variant are around 5. Even with a 90 per cent effective vaccine and no other measures, the vaccination rate required for herd immunity is over 90 per cent.”

    The good news is a 90% effective vaccine is likely to reduce the spread of the virus by the vaccinated by over 90%. But for vaccines to be 90% effective, 3 jabs are likely to be needed. The good news here is three half doses may be enough to provide this much protection. The bad news is, we seem incapable of removing our heads from our behinds and acting appropriately to minimize risk, such as administering fractional doses.

  2. Scott Morrison could do well to reflect on the words in his maiden speech;

    “ We must also give attention to local government and give them a direct voice in how our nation is governed. They should be given a clear and mandated role in service delivery and the means to do their job. Commonwealth, state and local government should operate like a three-legged stool, each supporting the other. At present it is more like a three-legged dog.”

  3. I have never been an advocate of the let ‘er rip approach, but I think at some point we’re going to have to pull the cord (probably in 2022, maybe in 2023). Looking forward, this approach isn’t as offensive as it has been up till now, because it can be combined with mass vaccination to minimise health and social impacts. The key point here is that vaccination is very effective in preventing hospitalisation and probably even more effective in preventing death. With the combination of vaccination, improved health care and spare capacity in hospitals, it will be possible to reach a point of stability in terms of infection numbers. We’ll never reach herd immunity any more than we can reach herd immunity from the common cold or influenza, but COVID-19 could become just another of the viruses we live with. To assume otherwise represents a failure to grapple with uncertainty that I think is very uncharacteristic for you, John.

    I think this is interesting to consider in relation to some of your earlier posts about the pandemic and the possibility of eradicating or suppressing influenza and colds (eg. In May of last year, the costs of suppressing these illnesses seemed relatively low, while the benefits seemed both realisable and high. After Melbourne’s lockdown last year and our latest struggles, I’d argue this no longer seems to be the case. Suppressing viruses would be possible only in a society which placed virus suppression unreasonably high on its list of priorities.

    The biggest challenge to the let ‘er rip argument remains those who are unable to be vaccinated and are also most susceptible to death from COVID-19. However, as a society we do plenty of things that impact negatively on an unhealthy few (such as spewing particulate pollution into the air and causing enormous problems for asthmatics); it’s not clear why COVID-19 should be a special case.

  4. It’s not difficult to make everyone in Australia almost completely safe from COVID. All that’s required is:

    1. Dedicated and competently run quarantine centers for returnees and visitors.
    2. Near universal vaccination.
    3. Vigilance against new variants that may arise overseas and protection against them through keeping them out followed by improved vaccination.

    This is not difficult for a rich country like Australia to achieve. If we wanted to, we could have had all three at the start of the year. The failure to nationalize/create adequate vaccine production capacity as soon as the virus failed to be contained in China was the first step on the disaster cascade.

    We can still have all three in a relatively short period of time with more effort and a lot more competence. But still less effort than what lockdowns require.

    We have an answer. It’s achievable. And a lot cheaper on balance than letting a virus with still uncertain long term effects infect millions of Australians.

  5. J.Q. and Ronald are correct. We cannot live with this virus. Would people say the following? We can live with smallpox. We can live with malaria. We can live with TB. We can live with dengue. We can live with Zika. Of course we do not say this, as developed countries. We seek eradication or near eradication in each case. The statement I have been hearing that “We cannot keep locking down”, is an absolutely absurd statement. Yes, we can and must keep locking down. Did people in the Blitz say “We can’t keep going to bomb shelters?” Of course they did not. They kept going so long as the Blitz continued. The war had to be won to stop the need for going to bomb shelters. The war against COVID-19 has to be won unconditionally (total victory, total eradication). There is no alternative.

    The fallacy that we can “live with COVID-19” is based on a complete lack of understanding of;

    (a) virology;
    (b) epidemiology;
    (c) economics; and
    (d) uncertainty (as J.Q. points out).

    The virologists and epidemiologists know we cannot live with this virus without accepting a retreat from modern medical and public health progress. It would mean us going backwards again to a situation of endemic serious disease in developed countries. COVID-19 is not just a flu, not even just the worst kind of flu. It is worse than that by factor of 10 at least. And it is rapidly evolving to become ever worse. It was and is well known that mRNA viruses, especially those of the coronavirus group and SAS subgroup would be highly likely to rapidly and continuously mutate, especially when permitted to infect hundreds of millions of people. How was this knowledge forgotten, suppressed and denied by the neoliberal economic class? Well, because they don’t understand virology; epidemiology; economics or uncertainty. Because they refuse to understand it or they actually don’t have the intellectual capacity (or perhaps) training to understand it. Actually, I think it is a lack of intellectual capacity. They are just smart enough to absorb ideology but not smart enough to absorb complex science, complex systems thinking and risk-probability concepts. The neoliberal establishment are fools who will destroy us if they are not thrown out of power.

  6. “Near universal vaccination”.

    Ronald, while I quote from your post, the statement is typical of many opinion articles or comments I’ve read.

    What about children?

    There is the age group 12 to 17 for which vaccination is possible in the USA and, subject to some medical advice, also in some EU countries. There is the age group 0 to 11, for which there is no vaccination anywhere.

    I am not qualified to form an educated opinion on the question of children beside noting there is apparently no easy answer or advice among the relevant experts. Apparently there are still too many unknowns and too little data.

  7. 97% vaccination rate needed for delta variant!!!

    A COVID-19 vaccination model for Aotearoa New Zealand

    From the executive summary:

    “While there are significant uncertainties in R0 for new variants, for a variant that would have R0=4.5 with no public health measures (e.g. the Alpha variant), the population immunity threshold is estimated to require 83% of the population to be vaccinated under baseline vaccine effectiveness assumptions. For a variant with R0=6.0 (e.g. the Delta variant), this would need to be 97%.

    While coverage is below this threshold, relaxing controls completely would risk serious health impacts, including thousands of fatalities.”

    We can be certain that we will be facing delta variant and/or worse when the next bad variant evolves and gets into Australia under Morrison’s weak and foolish policies. Thus we will need 97% vaccination of the entire population or else continued masking and lock-down measures. Clearly with young children and people with medical conditions precluding vaccination, we will never reach the 97% rate. Therefore other stern measures, including masks, isolating and periodic lock-downs will have to continue indefinitely for many years. My prediction is that this crisis will be with us for many years. People need to abandon the illusion that it will be over any time soon. It will be a vaccine development / virus mutations arms race and the virus may be more likely to win that us. I will follow up that last statement when I can.

  8. The news continues to be all bad about COVID-19.

    “Dire Coronavirus Prediction: Virus Evolving to Escape Current Vaccines, Treatments – “May Be Condemned to Chasing After the Evolving SARS-CoV-2 Continually” ”

    “If the rampant spread of the virus continues and more critical mutations accumulate, then we may be condemned to chasing after the evolving SARS-CoV-2 continually, as we have long done for influenza virus,” Ho says. “Such considerations require that we stop virus transmission as quickly as is feasible, by redoubling our mitigation measures and by expediting vaccine rollout.”

    Of course, the rampant spread and rapid multiple mutations continue to this day because SARS-CoV-2 was initially allowed to spread unchecked around the world, except in China and a few minor and inconsequential countries (in population terms). This spread represents a massive own goal by neoliberalism and science denialism. Millions have died unnecessarily and many more millions are already condemned to inevitably die unnecessarily because of the anti-science lunacy embedded in neoliberal capitalism.

  9. Boris Johnson’s “experiment” is interesting. Tomorrow all legal restrictions related to Covid-19 are to be removed in the UK – no compulsory masks, no working from home restrictions and no social distancing. To be clear the advice is not to abandon all these control techniques but this is not legally mandated. Pubs and clubs can open freely. But today there were 54,000+ cases of the virus in the UK with 41 deaths. 87.5% of the population have been at least partially vaccinated and 67% have had both jabs. Deaths are miniscule compared to earlier periods when 1000 per day were dying. So too are hospital admissions – 500 per day compared to 4000+. With 50 deaths per day there would be around 18000 deaths annually compared to annual deaths from the flu of between 10,000-30,000.

    Presumably the gamble here is something Australia must move towards. We cannot keep closing down large slabs of Australia indefinitely. We are a long way away from UK levels of vaccinations and it will take a while to get there but, in the meantime, we can look at the experience of countries like the UK, the US and the Netherlands and see what happens there.

    Are there problems with “long-term Covid-19”? Will new strains emerge which circumvent the vaccines? These are the big issues. I’d like more information on the severity of the illnesses being experienced by those vaccinated – hospitalisation data is only one index.

    My own view is that Morrison’s plan for staged relaxation of restrictions following high levels of vaccination in Australia is a sound one. But we can learn from the misfortunes of others and also look for low cost social interventions rather than strict lockdowns when the inevitable new cases emerge. Masks are not a big deal and mass gatherings of footie fans can stop. Sitting down when nyou go to a pub is not a restriction. Many people work productively from home. Many low cost interventions should be retained for a year or so until we see how this thing pans out.

  10. Ernestine, give parents $1,000 for each child they have vaccinated and you’ll see a very high level of child vaccination. It’s not a problem. (It’s even possible to administer vaccines without an injection, so it could be made less scary.) Or don’t vaccinate children and accept a potentially higher death and disability toll from the virus. That’s also an option. We just need to crunch the numbers to work out if it’s lousy option.

  11. Actually, Ernestine, we could give $200 to the parents for each child they have vaccinated and $200 directly to the child. Then let child nagging make up for the $600 reduction in incentive.

    Note: There is no reason why child sized amounts of vaccine can’t be given to children. It is, of course, something that should be trialed and monitored at first, but it is very unlikely there would be any easily measurable change in risk from that seen in adults or younger adults.

    Of course, if vaccinating 1 adult does as much good as vaccinating 1 child when it comes to halting the spread of COVID, we should vaccinate the adults first. One reason is greater years of life saved on average per vaccination, but also because being jabbed hurts more when you’re a kid.

  12. On the other hand, not vaccinating children creates a population pool that mingles and which the viruses can easily tear through, so beyond a certain percentage of adults vaccinated, it can make sense to start vaccinating children.

  13. I favour elimination.
    Really effective herd immunity for delta is unproven and in my view is wishful thinking at this stage.

    Higher vaccination rates help with elimination but loosening restrictions on the vaccinated as an incentive for uptake has to be offset against the proven ability of the vaccinated to transmit delta.

    Lets not give up on elimination:
    – Many fewer people entering the country.
    – Dedicated quarantine.
    – Better masks and ventilation and filtration.
    – Tighter lockdown especially NSW.

  14. A certain smug complacency has enveloped Australian Government, when it comes to federal action, as opposed to state responses.

    An entire year has passed, in which we could have had multiple lines of manufacture of multiple classes of vaccine, and if we had surplus—and we should have by now—we could donate or sell at a subsidised rate to our near neighbours, who are currently in absolute crisis.

    An entire year has passed, since we knew enough to appreciate that we would need very, very, secure quarantine for international arrivals. Instead, we squandered that year by having a running series of horrible lock downs across much of Australia (11 million people at this time), each one eroding segments of the economy, and more to the point, people’s health. Mental health is inevitably affected when stress is unrelenting and is highly uncertain in its nature. It’s not about being “strong” or whatever, it is about what specific kinds of stress are the kinds you cannot take for year(s) at a time.

    Fit-for-purpose quarantine is entirely possible, even for tens of thousands of monthly arrivals. Only money and will are required to make it so. It is very obvious to me that if we expect vaccination to suddenly mean we can open up the country to arrivals *without* fit-for-purpose quarantine on entry, we will be guaranteeing the continued circulation of this most pernicious beast of a virus. How do you vaccinate a population to cope with a reproduction rate in the range of 5 to 7?

    Furthermore, at this point in time, we have a paucity of research data as to the safety and/or efficacy of the various vaccines in juveniles. If the worst case scenario were to occur, it would be that the vaccines are not efficacious in juveniles, and also juveniles can harbour the virus, symptom-free, yet spread it, acting as a perpetual reservoir. Since we have no real insight into this sort of scenario at present, we shouldn’t continue the smug complacency of assuming we have all in hand.

    Remember the old adage, that initially virulent viruses rapidly mutate into less virulent variants? Covid-19 has blown that nice little fairy tale right out of the water and into orbit.

    Finally, there are a whole host of viruses that initially infect people, cause the initial disease—chicken pox, for instance—and decades later, dormant viral genetic code, or even dormant virus particles become active and cause post-disease injury, such as shingles. Or cancer (HPV); or post-Polio syndrome. We know that the attack surface for the SARS-Cov-2 virus is the ACE-2 receptor on human cells; it is the way the virus adheres and then penetrates the cell wall. If only the ACE-2 receptors were unique to one organ in the human body. Unfortunately, these receptors are ubiquitous. This is one of the reasons that the so-called “Long Covid” recovery involves multiple organs in the human body. Even your brain is not safe. So, if any stupid motherfekker politician thinks we can just let this virus rip, even in a fully vaccinated adult population, they have no idea at all what long term damage awaits.

    Perhaps we end up with just another bad flu, so to speak. Or, we simply can’t eradicate it, it evolves too quickly, it hides and goes dormant in germline cells or—God Forbid—lymph nodes (HIV, for example). We are playing with fire, if we don’t employ both a massive vaccination rollout effort, and a properly run set of international arrival quarantine facilities. We need both to happen, not just one or the other. Now, maybe none of what I have detailed actually happens, with respect to the risks; my point is that each of those issues comes with massive uncertainties as to the scope and nature of the downside.

    Then again, seeing the past 25 years of the LNP dancing about any meaningful appreciation as to the risks and uncertainties of Anthropogenic Global Warming, I guess I am in deep despair as to what I see for the coming couple of years in Australia.

  15. I fully agree with Stockingrate above. Others above who make converse arguments, like Harry Clarke (HC) above, do not understand this disease and this pandemic phenomenon. They also do not, with all respect, understand the economics of this kind of crisis.

    The HC argument amounts to a delayed “let it rip” argument. It feeds off a number of fallacies.

    (1) It assumes that SARSCoV2, the disease COVID-19 and the disease’s sequale are now all well understood. These assumptions are not true.

    (2) It assumes that letting the virus mutate further and evolve for vaccine escape and treatment escape, in a still much less than adequately vaccinated population, is risk-less. The converse is true. This is a very risky thing to do. The results are likely very dangerous in terms of further mutations. All the scientific and medical authorities in the UK are telling Boris NOT to open up yet.

    (3) It assumes an economy versus health argument when this argument has already been dis-proven by economists like John Quiggin and indeed by the actual empirical outcomes of different approaches thus far in different countries.

    The vaccines are NOT a sure-fire prevention although so far they can reduce severity and deaths, albeit scarcely to a level which equates favorably to a standard flu season. Standard flu seasons are a very poor metric standard because they also represent a public health failure and a lack of investment in prevention.

    For SARSCov-2, vaccine escape and treatment escape are real and indeed certain. The only issues are how severe they will be and whether the virus or human vaccine research, development and deployment will win the race. My money I am sorry to say is on the virus winning this race. The virus is certainly smarter than Boris Johnson. Boris Johnson: wrong the first time, wrong the second time, wrong the nth time and wrong now. Why would anyone follow his advice?

    Elimination is the only safe strategy and would have been and still is the cheapest strategy. Elimination is the only safe strategy because SARSCov-2 is a very strange “beast” and unlike any virus we have ever faced; even unlike SARS1 and MERS because of its (SARSCov-2’s) extraordinary infectiousness, because of its high mutation rate, because of its sheer novelty in a number of other respects and because we have never seen a completely novel disease of this contagiousness and air-borne route, and finally subtlety of attack forms through almost the entire body and its many organs, enter a human population of nearly 8 billion people most of whom will still remain vaccinated or improperly vaccinated for years yet.

    For the above reasons, elimination is the only safe strategy. This is true even if we must begin this one country at a time. Or are we now accepting the roll-back and permanent retreat of public health standards? This means accepting the collapse has begun. The early Victorians of England would look at as aghast: “Do you really want to go back in time, as it were, by having a new endemic, uncontrollable disease?”

  16. Sorry, John, I agree that we have shown that flu can be suppressed. I was trying to make the argument that the costs are higher than we thought. Reading back on my post, it seems I never quite got to that point. I tutor in economics at UQ and I have seen the standard of education we provide decline significantly. I also work in the library, and the stresses placed on students, particularly during exams, have increased as well. Some students want through their whole first year without making a friend because they just didn’t spend enough time on campus.

    Looking back at my youth (I’m 39), some of the peak moments I experienced were in a sweaty mass of bodies in a moshpit, or pressing up against strangers and acquaintances on a dance floor. This was not just fun, but legitimately euphoric experiences with a sense of connection with my fellow humans and with art. I also remember thinking, “Where did I get this cold? Oh, that’s right I went to that gig on Saturday night.”

    The fact that the (entirely justified) restrictions haven’t affected us too badly shouldn’t make us forget that not only have many people’s lives been negatively affected, many people’s lives have also been diminished. Life is messy and contagious and chaotic. We sanitise it only at considerable cost. That cost might seem worth it to those of us with comfortable home offices and white collar jobs, but it’s worth remembering that what others value and experience can be very different.

    Maybe all this is moot, because by the time the vaccine strollout reaches enough people to consider opening up we will have ample evidence from other countries as to how that runs.

  17. Ikon, I am in basic agreement with you. The biggest impediment to a truly enduring solution to the problem is that politicians come to the table with such a variety of backgrounds and knowledge—even with determined and willful ignorance, i.e. Barnaby Joyce—that the best of our human beings in Australia are not at the fore of the solution finding point of the spear. There is simply no honest reason why we couldn’t have been manufacturing m-RNA vaccines, and/or others, by this moment in time. Imagine if the federal government had said to CSIRO biochem and epidemiologists, come hither, and tells us how to build an m-RNA facility to operate at mass scale, etc. Or SAMHRI in South Australia? Or pretty much any of the big universities around Australia (or, that’s right, they refused to pay JobKeeper to keep the countless casual staff minions on, the people who populate the labs and such)?

    There is simply no reason we couldn’t have state of the art international quarantine facilities by now.

    No, there is no honest reason for not meeting the challenge head-on; we didn’t. We had the good fortune for a pleasure cruise ship breakout to not end in more than hundreds of deaths and thousands of unwell individuals. Bad for them, but lucky escape for the rest of us.

    As somebody who has—through no fault of mine—a chronic illness, should I catch the virus, even if I am fully vaccinated, there is no guarantee that the combination of the chronic illness, the medications, and my knocked about immune system, wouldn’t succumb to the combined onslaught. So, this is a bit shit for me. What will people like me do? I don’t want to catch it, even if vaccinated.

    PS: at the local, a place that I can occasionally squirrel away, not stuck in my apartment, some footy fans rocked up, acting all belligerent about having to do the QR thing, and on being called out on not having bothered to do it. These are the people for whom I feel some study in physical violence would be good for the soul.^fn1 What is wrong with these sausages? Anyway, top marks to the staff for not backing down.

    fn1: No, I don’t really want physical violence to ensue. However, there is a kind of anger that such people evoke, and it is really not easy to ignore them. Sure, they finally QR checked in. Why their commotion before bothering to do it? What brand of stupidity have they ingested?

  18. I’ll add the obvious, we are apparently manufacturing *some* vaccine at *some* rate, but how is that helpful, when the rate of production is so low, and the restrictions on who qualifies for receiving a vaccine is blocking people for whom the demand for a vaccination is very high? If we had been churning out great buckets of vaccines per week, the stratification of who is allowed to receive it wouldn’t have been a bad strategy. With the current rates of production and actual execution of vaccination, there is a major bloody problem with the current approach. Who do we protect, when we can’t source enough vaccine to have a mature discussion about it? Man, I am so mad about this.

  19. The vaccine rollout in Australia has so far involved 10 million jabs and over 2 million fully vaccinated. It is slow but, given the low incidence of the disease in Australia relative to other countries, not too bad. Infections per million in Australia are about !% of those in the US. Our shutdowns have, so far, been effective though at a huge economic cost. Other countries need the vaccines now more than we do. Think about Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. Still we will all be vaccinated by years end or before.

    An advantage of the slow vaccine rollout is that we can observe any misfortunes in other countries. Specifically the US, UK. How will the vax vs. virus experiment of Boris Johnson pan out? What are the long-term effects of “slow Covid” on infected young people? Will new strains circumvent current vaccines? What are the best vaccines longer term?

    Getting as “mad” as Don is because we don’t have such an abundance of vaccines that choice as to who gets them is irrelevant, is itself crazy. No, its not obvious we could have produced all that we need ourselves., So far the vaccines have emphasised the elderly and medical staff – this is where the bulk of fatalities have occurred – and is sensible selectivity.

  20. “Boris Johnson’s “experiment” is interesting.”

    I heard one EU virologist, Professor Alexander Kekule, saying in a recent public interview (Markuz Lanz, 7 July 2021) that scientists are observing the UK experiment with great interest. However, he would strongly advise against copying it (the UK approach). He considered the UK’s plan, known as Freedom Day (19 July 2021) as being more daring than that of Israel. The latter reintroduced restrictions very quickly.

    The Guardian UK recently published an open letter, signed by a very long list of medical experts from a broad range of specialisations and related disciplines (eg math modelling, nursing) warning against the Freedom Day experiment. They providing specific reasons, including negative economic consequences and the danger of further variants developing, which could threaten not only the UK but the world (the worst one would be a variant, called escape variant, which in the limit becomes ‘immune’ to the vaccines. The list of signatories, which I skim read, consisted primarily of people from the UK, but also people from the USA, Australia, Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Canada – these are the countries I remember, there may be more.

    The recently appointed Health Minister of the UK, who according to the Gurardian UK of today had received two doses of a vaccine, has tested positive to the infection. He is in isolation. How many of his colleagues will need to isolate is not known as yet. Boris Johnson will isolate (reversal of previous announcement just in).

    Boris Johnson has modified his previous assertion that ‘the link between case numbers and death and serious illness has been broken’ to ‘the link …. has been weakened. In other words, the form of the equation is unchanged but the parameter values are no longer the same whereby the path of the parameter value changes over time is not known as yet.

    As for Long Covid, the Guardian UK of today reports of a study on this subject having commenced in the UK. There are many public reports by medical experts and some by individuals who are affected by this sickness. While these reports are meaningful to me, I am not qualified in this area and therefore do not wish to summarise what I have learned, suffice to say I would not want to get Long Covid, not even the mildest version.

    Locally, Health Minister Hunt announced the UK visitor Katie Hopkins will have to leave Australia immediately if her deliberate flaunting of Australia’s health rules while being in a quarantine hotel are confirmed. The behaviour of Katie Hopkins, as reported in the smh, was extremely provocative and rude, IMO.

    In the back of my mind I am collecting economic cost categories of the British Freedom Day experience:
    *Days of isolation for vaccinated people who test positive: reduced productivity, work flow interruptions…
    *Days of sickness for unvaccinated people who test positive:
    *Days of hospitalisation for infected people (medium cases)
    *Days of ICU for infected people (serious cases)
    *Days of hospitals having to postpone non-urgent treatments (there is still a queue from the last wave)
    *Days of Contact tracing
    *Days of Long Covid adults
    *Days of schooling lost
    *Long terms effects on children, which are not well known as yet
    *Days of severe lockdown if the experiment fails. Income lost for individuals and businesses.
    There is no monetary value one can ethically assign to the loss of a life (or long term serious health consequences, particularly for people who are currently school children).

    The above cost categories affect primarily the UK society. Should another variant of the virus to be ‘first detected in the UK’ – as they put it – it would affect a lot of other people and countries. The alpha variant was ‘first detected in the UK’.

    It seems to me, JQ’s post is particularly relevant to the ‘Freedom Day’ experiment.

  21. Very good post above by Ernestine.

    A key part which stands very well on its own is;

    “The form of the (death and serious illness) equation is unchanged but the parameter values are no longer the same (and) the path of the parameter value (as it) changes over time is not known as yet.”

    This is an absolutely brilliant expression of the key idea. It is concise, elegant. It illustrates that the key problem is unchanged whereas the key parameters are changing and are of unknown future trajectory. Any person, who can understand this idea, understands in a nutshell why what Boris is proposing is wrong-headed. If people cannot understand why what Boris is proposing is wrong, they have failed to understand the single concept above. Such a person stands in need of more mathematical, logical, scientific or philosophical training. Any single one would do and would enable the concept to be grasped.

    Once again, brilliantly put by Ernestine and in a way which shows that mathematical, logical, scientific and empirical philosophy training are all first cousins, if not siblings, who talk the same lingo and belong in the same course. Simplistic market fundamentalist economics and public discourse bowdlerized economics seem to be entirely bereft of these forms of thinking. This is why our political and business classes are taking us the wrong way. They do not grasp the necessary concepts. This is why we are in so much trouble.

  22. Yes Ikon, a great comment by Ernestine (as per usual).

    Ernestine thanks for putting it so bluntly;
    “There is no monetary value one can ethically assign to the loss of a life (or long term serious health consequences, particularly for people who are currently school children).”.

    I ask “would you have rescued Tony Bullimore?”

    “Tony Bullimore is lucky to be alive after nearly drowning in 1997, but 20 years on he is still hitting the high seas.

    “The British sailor was miraculously saved by the Australian navy after five days stranded in the Southern Ocean.

    “He capsized during an around the world yacht race and used an emergency beacon to attract attention 2,500km away from the Australian coast.

    “This year marks 20 years since the rescue, which is estimated to have cost $6 million.”…

  23. “There is no monetary value one can ethically assign to the loss of a life,” is the kind of thing people say when they don’t understand opportunity cost. Every lifesaving intervention comes at a cost somewhere else. Every dollar we spend on breast cancer treatment could be spent on foreign aid. Every dollar of lost tax revenue due to lockdown could be spent on making roads safer. Every school student left behind by a substandard lockdown education costs us a computer programmer in the future, who would have made a more efficient system for scheduling surgery. Etc.

    I very rarely agree with Uncle Milton, but he explains this very clearly here:

  24. seqaugur,

    No, I am afraid you don’t understand opportunity cost. If you are measuring opportunity cost in the numeraire (Australian dollars in this case) to make your equations then you have already gone wrong. The issue is that in matters oif mathematics, physics and all real things (like humans) you can only equate quantities in commensurable (and scientific or SI) dimensions. This principle also properly applies to opportunity costs even in the economic realm, meaning the realm of the real physical economy including humans BUT NOT the financial economy. This concept is difficult to grasp and I don’t expect you to grasp it straight away. It goes against every bit of conventional undergrad or bowdlerized economic training. But I suspect someone like John Maynard Keynes would have rapidly grasped the concept; perhaps even did grasp it, on his own in his own way.

    Opportunity costs are only meaningful if the items measured are real and share a real dimension, including the dimension of numbers of same or similar real items, as exemplified by the mole measurement in science (chemistry, physics). For example, opportunity costs of a ship and all resources used to rescue one man can only be validly calculated by comparison to the costs, if any, to lives of other humans. If it could be demonstrated that diverting to save that man cost the lives of two other men on another raft and these man could have been saved at the opportunity cost of that one man… only then is an opportunity cost calculation or equation valid.

    If 50 million in sinking bullion could be saved at the opportunity cost of that one man’s life should a rescue ship divert to save the bullion instead of the man? Let us assume there is a deep sea trench at that location and the bullion will be forever unrecoverable.. In conventional terms, the opportunity cost of saving that man is 50 million dollars, all other things being equal BUT in commensurable terms the opportunity cost of saving that one man, in that “logically sealed” moral dilemma is zero lives (barring fatal rescue accidents).

    Would a captain divert to save 50 million dollars instead of the man? Well, quite a few might. But If so he would rightly, in human ethical terms, be pursued by law and prosecuted for murder or at least negligent manslaughter.

    If you want a good exposition related to this argument about commensurables and incommensurables (in a more ecological paradigm) see:

    The Aggregation Problem:Implications for Ecological and Biophysical Economics – Blair Fix.

    If you still can’t understand, keep working on it. It takes a lot of mental work to throw off indoctrination, for that is what it is.

  25. Money, Ikonoclast, can be exchanged for goods and services. This concept is difficult to grasp and I don’t expect you to grasp it straight away. To put it another way, money represents control of resources. When money is spent on one activity rather than another, it means that real, concrete, actual resources are directed toward one activity rather than another. If the government spends money on an advertising campaign, that money can’t be spent on bushland rehabilitation. In concrete terms, that means the labour hours spent on the advertising campaign can’t be spent on poisoning weeds and planting natives. It means the resources that were expended making the cameras used to shoot the ad can’t be used to make a line trimmer used in the bush regeneration. The fact that the camera uses aluminium rather than steel is irrelevant, because somewhere along the line an allocation decision was made to produce aluminium rather than steel.

    The issue of commensurability might be as important as you suggest in a small, closed economy, but it’s only important in specific circumstances in a global economy. The point of the article you refer to is that we need to bear in mind the assumptions that we make when comparing economic activities and be prepared to consider different frames, not that money is useless as measure of resource allocation. I would recommend the Perry Scheme as a good way of outlining how you can hold a position but not be overcommitted to it: .

    Even in your example with the gold, the captain could use that gold to take control of a large quantity of resources and direct them to saving lives elsewhere. So in commensurable terms, the opportunity cost of saving the drowning man is the thousand lives she could have saved with the resources she diverted from other uses with the money you got from the gold that you salvaged.

  26. seqaugur,

    Good points but not unanswerable I think. However, give me time to read your link and absorb it properly. I also need to consider the issue of not being over-committed to a position (as might you I guess, but I don’t know). The discussion is nuanced for sure. Plus of course your patronising or matronising of me was justified given my patronising of you.

    When I argue my position, I always do so in the most forthright, clear and seeming-dogmatic manner. It does not usually mean I am absolutely certain I am right. I do enjoy getting push-back as it challenges me to refine my ideas and positions or even abandon them if I can be convinced I am wrong.

    “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that” – John Stuart Mill.
    The gender specific wording is Mil’s own of course.

  27. seqaugur: – “Money, Ikonoclast, can be exchanged for goods and services. This concept is difficult to grasp and I don’t expect you to grasp it straight away. To put it another way, money represents control of resources. When money is spent on one activity rather than another, it means that real, concrete, actual resources are directed toward one activity rather than another. …”

    “Energy is the economy. Money is a call on energy. Debt is a lien on future energy.”

    “Global human society is functioning as an energy dissipating superorganism.”

    “All life self-organizes around energy. As organisms and species grow, they become more complex and need increasingly sophisticated means to ensure greater energy supply.”

    Something to ponder…

  28. seqaugur,

    Expanding on my comment at July 23, 2021 at 11:17 am.

    1. The Perry foundation schema is interesting. I understand what they are driving at. It comes back to theories of truth.

    2. I follow the correspondence theory of truth which I think is the most supportable theory of truth. However, the correspondence theory of truth has both assumptions and domain limitations like any essentially philosophical theory. The main assumptions behind the correspondence theory of truth are;

    (a) There are subjects, namely humans – or more properly in this discussion human consciousnesses for humans physically are also objects – with subjective perceptions and subjective feelings: both these latter comprising myriad and shifting quale, in philosophical terms, as discrete subjective experiences,)

    (b) There are objects in an objective world. This presupposes a position of objective realism where an objective, material or brute-fact-existent(s) world or cosmos is held to exist independently of human thoughts and perceptions about and of it. Thoughts and conceptualizations are quale too.

    The correspondence theory of truth, to my mind, makes most sense and functions best scientifically and pragmatically when one takes C. S. Pierce’s view of truth.

    “That truth is the correspondence of a representation to its object is, as Kant says, merely the nominal definition of it. Truth belongs exclusively to propositions. A proposition has a subject (or set of subjects) and a predicate. The subject is a sign; the predicate is a sign; and the proposition is a sign that the predicate is a sign of that which the subject is a sign. If it be so, it is true. But what does this correspondence or reference of the sign, to its object, consist in?” – Charles Sanders Peirce.

    When we say each truth or falsehood belongs exclusively to a specific proposition then we retreat from asserting absolute Truth (with a capital “T”) to asserting specific truths each with with small “t” but some or many speficic truths may link into a broad objecyive picture as in the hard sciences. When reading the argument below, remember this argument is limited to and by the main assumptions made by the correspondence theory of truth. It can help us understand a theory of objective truth and everything covered by objective realism but it cannot help us understand personal, cultural or formal truths. This equates to a physis / nomos distinction. By the by, the real economy is of the physis and the legal law, cultural practice, institutional and financial economy is of the nomos.

    Following Pierce, a “Theory of Truth” means a theory of how formal signs are related to real objective existents. This incorporates the idea that language statements and mathematical equations, which function as compounded formal sign statements, may be related in some way to the signified real objects, forces, processes or systems to which they refer and model. This correspondence theory of truth must hold that there can be true representations and false representations of real existents and real systems. This must be so, even if unavoidably in practice, a “true” representation is always an approach to truth rather than a complete, final or absolute truth. This correspondence of signs, as word statements, equations or models (real or virtual), to the real is to be conceived of as a homomorphic correspondence when modelling is expressly or implicitly occurring. This is as opposed to mere formal or customary naming as in “That man is Bill Jones.” Aside from such formal or customary naming, there must be something in the structure and relations in a compounded modelling sign statement (be it a language statement, maths equation, real model or virtual model) as a formal system, which homomorphically matches one or more essential structures, relations or processes in the real objects/real systems being referred to.

    As Bertrand Russell wrote, “we are driven back to correspondence with fact as constituting the nature of truth”. Homomorphism, as a concept, is the most suitable way in which to conceive of this correspondence. Homomorphism as employed in active modelling practice may be considered as the procedure of generating a structure-preserving statement, equation, map or model of a real object or real system, or a part thereof. For a dynamic model this will also entail a process-preserving or process-mapping component. In algebra, a “homomorphism is a structure-preserving map between two algebraic structures of the same type”. The preservation of essential aspects in structure, relation and dynamism in the model, in relation to the real object or system, is critical to any claim that it be an accurate or true model in some sense; that it corresponds with (at least some) real, empirical facts.

    I could continue with this theory, an original development of my own but building very obviously on much that has been developed before, but that would have to go to the sandpit.

    3. I wrote earlier that the correspondence theory of truth and the position of objective realism both start with assumptions (a prioris) and domain limitations (their applicability is limited to a specified domain) like any essentially philosophical theory. The domain limitation is one of empirical verifiability, Anything which is not clearly empirically verifiable is not amenable or reducible to the theory (and practice) of he correspondence theory of truth. We have to be able verify objectively and agree by consensus that we have verified objectively. In science, the agreement by consensus comes by observation and experimental (empirical) testing and the demonstration that observations and experiment results are repeatable by different observers.

    The “conflict” or discrepancies of the truths of the nomos versus the truths of the physis is a very fraught arena of course.

    “In the fifth and fourth centuries bc a vigorous debate arose in Greece centered on the terms physis (nature) and nomos (law or custom). It became the first ethical debate in Western philosophy. Is justice simply a matter of obeying the laws, or does it have some basis in nature? If the laws conflict with my natural needs and desires, why should I submit to them? Is society itself ‘natural’, and what difference might the answer make to our evaluation of it? Both nomos and physis had their supporters, while some tried to dissolve the antithesis altogether.” – Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    I will wrap up this philosophical discussion at this point and we can take it to the next Sandpit perhaps. My economic or political economy answer to you about money and opportunity cost can also go to that sandpit. To sum up here, I can see a lot of value and interest in the Perry Scheme, or schema as I called it. In my own journey in trying to understand economics I have come a long way but reached no definitive destination yet, other than that I decided I needed to grapple with the ontology of economics. That meant in turn that I needed to grapple with ontology proper. It’s now my main area of interest in “early” old age. Others play golf or do crosswords.

    My ludic interests (ludic is from the Latin and refers to a range of pastimes – stage shows, games, sports and even jokes) in the field of RTS (Real Time Strategy) computer games – playing, programming and theorizing about them – led me to consider the whole issue of modelling games which are modelled on the real (to some extent). RTS games contain formalized economies and formalized militaries. The consideration of modelling problems, including decisions about the abstracting, simplifying and scaling (especially the unavoidable fundamental differences in scaling time compared to space) of virtual models also led me, in fact first led me, to the problems of ontology and the problems of all modelling, especially via the process of attempting to create dynamic models homomorphically congruent with the real in time scale as well as space scale

    Footnote: I don’t want to overstate my programming abilities. I worked in the Pascal scripts of a game not in the source code of its game engine. I mainly changed parameters but also altered some processing logic at the scripts level.

  29. seqaugur,
    1. I appreciate your exercise in designing an incentive mechanism ($1000 to parents to let a child be vaccinated – ignoring there is no vaccine for children under 12! vs $200 each to a child and parents – 1 or 2 parents?) Setting aside the little technical problems (the stuff in brackets) in your mechanism, I would say you avoid the harder problem of incentive compatibility of a mechanism. You avoid this problem by assuming your ‘solution’ is also a ‘solution’ to the problem faced by the parents and the children. As it stands your solution is in search of a problem.

    Unfortunately, in some societies the income and wealth distribution is so extremely unequal that parents have been reported to sell one child to get money to buy food for the others. Such cases reflect your ‘mechanism’, except for a possibly different risk profile for children. We are not at this point in Australia as yet and I am confident that we won’t be there in the foreseeable future.

    2. Opportunity cost. Ikonoclast makes the important point that opportunity cost is reasonably well defined when the cost of A in terms of the benefit of B foregone refer to the same class of things. IMHO, there are situations where the notion of opportunity cost is useful, namely those special cases in an economy where the monetary prices of goods and services are such that the members of a liberal society (where individual’s preferences count) would accept these prices as reasonable. In the more general case, the notion of opportunity cost is not helpful in a liberal society because in many situations there are as many opportunity costs as there are individuals.

    Your reference to money really misses the point in the case in question. Where can you buy one unit of ‘life’? Not even slavery enables the exchange of money for a life.

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