Whataboutery and the pandemic (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Among the many consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the measures taken to control it, there has been an epidemic of whataboutery. The starting point is the claim “we have locked down the entire economy to reduce the number of deaths from Covid-19, but we tolerate comparably large numbers of deaths from X”. Popular candidates for X include smoking, road crashes and influenza. In most, though not all, cases, the inference is that we should accept more deaths from the pandemic. Indeed, the majority of those using this argument are also opposed to any proposal to do more about the various examples of X they cite

I’m going to take the contrapositive, and argue that the inconsistency pointed out here should be resolved by taking stronger action to reduce avoidable deaths from a wide range of causes, with the primary examples being road deaths and smoking.

While whataboutery on these topics typically suggests that society has made a decision to tolerate deaths from these causes, the reality is that there have been increasingly stringent measures to reduce them, adopted over many years, and that in both cases, the ultimate objective (explicit in some jurisdictions, implicit in others) is to reduce deaths to zero. In the case of roads, this aim is expressed in Vision Zero, adopted initially in Sweden and subsequently in a variety of other places. The UK government aims to end smoking by 2030, and most governments have interim targets which imply ultimate elimination of smoking.

With or without explicit targets, the policy approach everywhere has been much the same. Restrictions aimed at reducing the risk in question have been introduced gradually over many years, with each new restriction providing a starting point for the next. In Australia’, for example, partial bans on tobacco advertising were introduced in the late 1980s. These were followed by complete ad bans, then by compulsory health warnings in small print, and finally by a requirement that cigarette packets should display gruesome photos of the consequences of smoking. At the same time, from an initial situation where smoking was universal, it has been progressively restricted in all public spaces, and where children may be exposed (as in private cars).

There is indeed an inconsistency here. If the restrictions in place now are justified in terms of a balance between health costs, damage to non-smokers and the restrictions on the rights of smokers, they would have been even more justifed 30 or 50 years ago, when the damage done by smoking was much greater. Coming back to Covid whataboutery, the inconsistency is not between accepting deaths from one source and not another, it’s between the urgent action necessitated by the pandemic and the slow pace adopted in other cases.

The slowness with which policies aimed at ending smoking, or road deaths, is easily explained. Governments have introduced them at a pace that avoids substantial political costs, and the risk of sustained non-compliance. In the case of smoking, for example, it is necessary to deal both with powerful and unscrupulous tobacco companies, using every available tool[1] to resist controls, and with a large addicted population, some (though not all) of whom have no desire to quit.

The success (so far) of lockdowns in controlling Covid, and their general acceptance outside the US, suggests that we should move more rapidly to eliminate public health risks, even where this involves coercive measures to stop people endangering others, and to prevent young people from endangering themselves. For example, partial bans on smoking in public places, or in the presence of children, should be made total. A more ambitious proposal of this kind would be to raise the smoking age, one year at a time, so that young people currently under the legal age would not be allowed to smoke until they were, say, 25 (hardly anyone begins smoking as a mature age adult, which is in itself an indication that it is not a choice open to a rational defence).

In the case of road deaths, the most obvious measures are lower speed limits in urban ares, and a greater willingness to take dangerous drivers off the road permanently. These measures will be adopted eventually – the only question is how many innocent lives will be lost before they are.

fn1. The tobacco companies not only lobbied directly, and funded a variety of front groups (astroturf smokers rights groups and free-market think tanks), but fought Australia’s packaging laws through international trade actions, ginned up by bribing governments or exploiting the Investor-State Dispute Settlement clauses of trade agreements. They were defeated, but almost certainly succeeded in deterring poorer countries, which could not afford such fights, from following Australia’s lead.

Border deflection

Another recent piece, this time in Inside Story. Opening paras

Supporters of ethnonationalist and anti-immigrant sentiment have been quick to seize on the Covid-19 pandemic as evidence against what they call “open borders,” by which they mean any relaxation of the stringent controls that prohibit international migration by anyone who falls outside a tightly defined set of categories, each subject to numerical limits. The underlying idea is that foreigners who don’t look or think like us are all potential carriers of infection, and that we can keep ourselves safe by excluding them.

The reality is quite different. The vast majority of Australia Covid-19 cases acquired overseas had a recent history of travel to Europe or the Americas, or arrived on cruise ships such as the Ruby Princess. Hardly any (in fact none, as far as I can determine) were new migrants to Australia.

Sports rorts shorts

As I’ve said a few times before, I’m not a big fan of scandals. With much of the country burned over the last season (not even last summer, it started in June) and coronavirus in the way, our supposed leaders could do better than argue about handouts for boatsheds. But the corruption is obvious, and someone has to pay. So, here’s my suggestion.

Morrison’s chief of staff, John Kunkel admits that he ran the entire show (given that he was in charge of Morrison’s office, this is highly plausible) and that Morrison knew nothing about it (doubtful, but impossible to disprove). Phil Gaetjens ( Kunkel’s predecessor, now Secretary of PM & C admits he screwed up the investigation. Both of them resign, and everyone goes about their business.

Result: the Opposition get their scalps, and can claim vindication. The government protects Morrison and loses a couple of obscure apparatchiks (admit it , you had to Google them just as I did). The Australian public gets the leaders it elected back on the job. They might not do a good job, but that’s our problem for voting them in.

Triggering the lefties

Looking at the string of appalling statements from the rightwing commentariat in the last week or so, I have come to the conclusion that they must be involved in a private contest to “trigger the libs”, in the parlance of the Trumpist right, by making statements that will provoke social media outrage to be used either for mockery or claims of persecution as the occasion demands.

Chris Uhlmann’s entry in the competition, exposing firefighter Paul Parker as a One Nation voter, was explicitly designed to do this. It fell flat, but Uhlmann announced victory anyway.

His competitors seem to have drawn the lesson that lefties aren’t as easily triggered as they thought. To win the competition, they needed to say something that would appal any decent person, then denounce anyone who criticises them as a leftie.

Rather than nominate a single winner, I’ll give every player a prize for their success in triggering me as a typical leftie

  • Ickiest: Andrew Bolt (tag-teaming with Gerard Henderson)
  • Most bizarre: Miranda Devine, picking on 9 year old Quaden Bayles
  • Most appalling: Bettina Arndt (not even going to link)
  • Dishonourable mention: Mark Latham (ditto)

As far as I can tell, we haven’t yet heard from Joe Hildebrand and Prue McSween, who would normally be keen competitors.

Our political class: the National Party

There are lots of things going wrong with Australian government, resulting, for example in its failure to deal with climate change. One of these things is the membership of our political class. The problems are widespread but I’ll start with the National Party. The name itself is a problem, dating back to the brief delusion, encapsulated by the Joh for Canberra campaign in the 1980s, that the Country Party (as it then was) could become the dominant rightwing party. To the extent this idea had any substance, it was based on the success of various Country Party spivs in securing seats in the Gold and Sunshine Coasts.

What we now have is the process in reverse – a string of upper class spivs posing as salt of the earth bushies, and being elected to rural seats. To take just a few examples:

Barnaby Joyce: an accountant, educated at Riverview

David Littleproud: a hereditary politician and agribusiness banker

Matt Canavan: born on the Gold Coast, UQ education, previously an executive at KPMG and an economist at the Productivity Commission

Bridget McKenzie: allegedly Bendigo-based Minister for Decentralisation, primary residence in the Melbourne suburb of Elwood

The current beleaguered leader, Michael McCormack will probably turn out to be the last National leader who could claim any real association with the land

Coming up: The Socialist Left

Post materialism liberal enviro elitism

That’s how a Labor partisan on Twitter described my criticism in Independent Australia of Labor’s strategy of avoiding any policy difference with the Morrison government, and shutting down all discussion of the climate catastrophe until they get around to announcing a policy for the 2022 election. The one exception I noted (and the one that incited this response) was support for the coal industry. As I noted

Rather than offer a climate policy in response to the catastrophic bushfires of the last summer, Labor took the view that ‘the immediate focus should be on firefighters battling the blazes, people at risk and those grieving lost loved ones’. While scoring points on scandals like the sports rorts and cynically exploiting of divisions within the Government, Labor has put forward hardly a word of criticism of the Morrison Government’s policy position, let alone any alternative.

There have, however, been a couple of exceptions to this pattern of near-invisibility. First, Labor has made it clear that coal mining is here to stay and that the future of coal-fired power will be left to “the market”. Second, while displaying intense solicitude for those voters who switched their support to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, Labor has engaged in co-ordinated and ferocious attacks on the Greens.

My article mainly focuses on the point that Labor can’t assume that it will have a reliable majority in Parliament, and therefore shouldn’t engage in partisan warfare with Greens and independents with whom deals will need to be made in future. But I’d like to discuss the whole “wait until 2022” thing a bit more.

No one expects an Opposition party to have a detailed election program at all times, and it’s unsurprising that Labor would want to reconsider some issues in the light of the 2019 loss. But I’ve never seen anything like the argument coming out of the Labor party that, since they aren’t in government, they shouldn’t be expected to have policies on anything, and shouldn’t vote against regressive and disastrous government policies. Even more striking is the corollary that the only decent thing to do about the climate disaster is to sit quietly and then vote for whatever policy Labor comes up with in two years time.

Maybe I was spoiled by several years in which that notoriously post materialist liberal enviro elitist, Bill Shorten, actually proposed policy, but I can’t remember any Opposition, from either side of politics, being as lame as this one. It’s fortunate, perhaps, the Morrison government is so incoherent and incompetent that it effectively functions as its own opposition.

Back to man bites dog: yet another #Ozfail

Yesterday, the Oz ran the headline “Labor fails to win the middle ground”, reporting the unsurprising Newspoll result that high income earners[1] on $150000 or more mostly vote for the LNP.

Today, it’s done a backflip, quoting Joel Fitzgibbon as saying that Labor is losing its working class base.

Nothing too surprising here, but its worth remembering that the two-party preferred vote in the May election was 51-49 for the LNP, whereas the polls predicted 51-49 for Labor. If Labor were losing badly among both the well-off and the working class, this would be impossible.

[1] Recall that in Ozspeak, “middle” means “upper”

Dog bites man: also, high income earners vote LNP

To read political commentary recently, in Australia and elsewhere, one would imagine that working-class voters have deserted Labor and other left parties en masse, and that these parties now depend on the votes of wealthy inhabitants of the inner city.

The Oz (not linked) has just down a breakdown of recent newspolls, which shows this to be pretty much the exact opposite of the the truth. Of course, being the Oz, this is given the negative spin that “Labor fails to win back the middle” (remember that in Ozspeak, and most political commentary, “middle” means “top”[1]. It’s also important to note that most of the discussion compares Labor to the sum of the Liberal and National Parties. This count the Greens, who are effectively part of a fractious left coalition, as well as centrist and right wing minor parties.

The key finding

The greatest margin in favour of the Coalition was among those with household incomes of between $100,000 and $150,000, with a split of 50 per cent to 28 per cent.

There was a similar picture among higher-income earners targeted by Labor’s class war on the wealthy — those earning household income of more than $150,000 — with the government holding a 21-point lead, 50 per cent to 29 per cent.

Under normal circumstances, this would be the ultimate “dog bites man” story. But, given the absurd state of political commentary, particularly from the Murdoch Press, it will come as a shock to many.

An unsurprising implication, given that high income earners tend to live close to the central business district is that the Liberal party holds most seats in these areas (archetypal examples are Kooyong and Higgins in Melbourne and Wentworth and Bennelong in Sydney, but the pattern extends to through the Eastern suburbs in both cities and the North Shore in Sydney). The exceptions are a handful of seats in formerly working class areas very close to the CBD, where a combination of gentrifying young professionals and the remainder of the old working class population vote for either Labor or the Greens (Albanese’s seat of Grayndler for example).

Again, for anyone who paid attention to the outcome of the election rather than the spin put out by (for example), Blue Labor, there would be no surprises here.

Pasokification

That’s a term coined to describe the fate of the Greek social democratic (and nominally socialist) party PASOK, which implemented austerity measures in the wake of the global financial crisis, and was subsequently wiped out, with most of its voters going switching their support to the newly created left party Syriza.

In France, Germany and the Netherlands, much the same has happened with the Greens gaining many of the votes lost by social democrats. Broadly speaking, the more a social democratic party has gone for centrist respectability, the worse it has done. In Spain, the Socialist Party has formed a coalition government with the leftwing populist party Podemos. In Portugal, confusingly there is both a Socialist (anti-austerity) and Social Democratic (pro-austerity) parties. Unsurprisingly, the SDs have lost ground.

Could something like this happen in Australia. I’ve always been critical of the idea that the Greens could replace Labor as the main left-of-centre party. That’s because the policy differences between the two were less significant than the stylistic/cultural differences, which meant that the Greens appealed to a relatively limited section of the electorate.

However, with the massive overreaction to the unexpected election loss in May, Labor under Anthony Albanese seems to determine to test out the possibility of Pasokification. Having waved through the Coalition’s regressive tax cuts, and “big stick” energy laws, Albanese has now failed to offer any response to the fire emergency, opting instead to promote coal exports. He has trained all his attacks on the Greens and has had nothing to say about the government.

Our only hope at this point is to replace Labor with an opposition that will actually oppose the government, and push for serious action in response to the climate emergency. That will take time we don’t have, but I can’t see any alternative.

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Anti-politics from the inside

There have always been lots of people who saw nothing in politics except a bunch of windbags scoring points off each other. And a year or two back, there was a thing called anti-politics which attempted to give some kind of intellectual basis for this sentiment.

Although I’ve known lots of anti-political/apolitical people and paid attention to the discussion of anti-politics, it’s always been something I’ve viewed from the outside, and as a problem to be remedied by doing a better job of explaining the importance of political issues. I’ve often (in fact usually) been highly critical of the political positions of the major parties, but always highly engaged.

But now, I’m suddenly experiencing anti-politics from the inside. The country is on fire, and there’s no end in sight. The government is doing nothing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and actively promoting measures that would make things worse.

But watching the last session of Federal Parliament you wouldn’t know any of this. Angus Taylor is supposed to be the minister for emissions reduction: he’s failed miserably and lied about it continuously. But instead of discussing this, the politicians are arguing about bogus anecdotes and documents Taylor has put out as part of the culture war. Meanwhile, the government’s prime concern is to make life a bit tougher for a few hundred refugees, thereby getting the all-important win to end the year.

If this is what’s on offer, count me out.