From the monthly archives:

February 2020

Planning for Pandemics (repost from 2005)

by John Q on February 28, 2020

The news of deaths from bird flu in Indonesia is pretty scary. Although, as I’ve mentioned recently Indonesia has made a lot of progress in many respects, the handling of this threat so far seems to show the worst of both worlds: all the ill ffects of authoritian habits combined with the timidity of weak politicians. There have been a lot of coverups, and an unwillingness to tackle the necessary but unpopular task of slaughtering affected flocks of birds. Things seem to be improving now, but there’s a long way to go.

It seems very likely that, sooner or later, bird flu will make the jump that permits human-human transmission, and quite likely that a major flu pandemic will result. The world, including Australia, is very poorly prepared for this. One thing we could do to prepare is to adopt a national program encouraging annual flu vaccinations for everyone, instead of just for limited categories of vulnerable people.

The main benefit of this is not that the shots would provide immunity against a new and deadlier flu variant (though there might be some limited benefit of this kind) but that we would have the infrastructure, production facilities and so on to undertake a mass vaccination against such a variant if it arose. As it is, it seems likely that many countries will be scrambling to get access to an inadequate world supply of vaccines, but if Australia and other developed countries ramped up normal levels of production, it would be much easier to generate extra supplies for our neighbours.

I haven’t looked into it, but my guess is that, even without considering the possibility of a pandemic, the benefit-cost ratio from such a measure would be pretty high. Flu is very costly in economic terms, and I suspect that, if pain and suffering were thrown into the balance, a program of universal free vaccination would come out looking pretty good.

Notes  I wrote this in 2005 thinking about new flu strains. The only difference I see with “novel” viruses is that the time taken to produce the initial batches of a vaccine is likely to be longer. As is usual with my policy advocacy, little if anything has been done along the lines I suggested.

I gave a keynote speech at the annual conference of the Center for Enrollment Research Policy and Practice last month, and it occurred to me that some of you might find it interesting. The following is the text I talked from (with one joke that I extemporated added to the text because I remember it – there was several others that went down well, but they are lost to posterity).

I should start by saying I’m not an expert on the admissions process or on enrollment management, although thanks to my association with the Center and attending this conference a few times I know much more than a normal professor would. Or should. I’m not an administrator.. I’m a college teacher and a philosopher, and those roles each give me different reasons for humility when addressing the people who take real responsibility for managing our institutions. So please don’t take what I am going to say as criticism or as telling you how to do your jobs. It’s neither. (I know when people say that you shouldn’t take what they are going to say as criticism that usually means they are going to criticize you but…. well, I’m not). What we try to do as philosophers is offer intellectual resources to people to help them see problems slightly differently, and thereby perhaps to find better solutions – not to tell them what the solutions are. And it’s a good thing our job isn’t telling people what the solutions are since I don’t know what they are. As you’ll see.

I was asked to talk about transparency in admissions, and I’m going to do that, but I am also going to talk a little bit about transparency in other areas of our shared enterprise.

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by Chris Bertram on February 24, 2020

Sometimes you are reading a novel and it is so extraordinary that you think, is this the best thing I have ever read? For me, that feeling probably comes on about once a year, so there are quite a lot of books that have evoked it. Still, that they do says something, and the latest to have sparked it is Anna Burns’s Milkman, the Booker Prize winner from 2018.

Milkman is, all at once, a tremendous linguistic performance, a triumph of phenomenology, am insightful account of sexual harrassment, a meditation on gossip and what it can do, a picture of the absurdities of enforced communitarian conformity, and a clear-eyed portrayal of what it is to live under the occupation of a foreign army and the domination of the necessary resisters to that army who are, at the same time, friends and family, sometime idealists but sometimes gangsters, bullies and killers.

Anna Burns’s sentences, the stream of consciousness of her 18-year-old narrator, loop back on themselves with further thoughts and reconsiderations. The voice is a combination of personal idiosyncracy and northern Irish English, i.e. comprehensible to speakers of other versions of English but sometimes odd or disconcerting. You can’t skim and get the plot. You have to hold on, read each sentence, and sometime start it again.
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Sunday photoblogging: Coal loader at Avonmouth

by Chris Bertram on February 23, 2020

Back from 2007

Coal loader at Avonmouth


by John Q on February 23, 2020

Like most recreational tri-athletes, I don’t pay much attention to what’s happening in the top levels of the sport, let alone in the separate worlds of swimming, cycling and running[1]. But I took notice last year when Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon distance in under two hours, a barrier long thought to be unbreakable, and one that reminded my of my failed attempts to break four hours over the same distance.

Kipchoge had plenty of help in his effort, including pace runners (providing an added drafting benefit) and a guide car projecting laser light on to the track to ensure exact pacing. These non-standard features mean that the time doesn’t count as a record for the marathon event.

Apparently, the biggest boost, however, came from his shoes, Nike’s recently released Vaporfly’s which incorporate a special carbon plate and a foam designed to return as much as possible of the energy expended from the impact of each pace. In subsequent events, runners with Vaporflys have produced winning times as much as 4 per cent faster than would be expected. And, it seems, the benefit is just as great, or even greater, for middle-aged slowpokes.

As with similar innovations in swimming and cycling, there was a lot of pressure to ban these technological marvels. But the International Olympic Committee, unwilling to take on the might of Nike, decided to allow the shoes, while trying to limit further innovations.

So, should I lay out $A300 or so for a pair of these marvels, which apparently may last for only a couple of hundred km (YMMV)? For the moment, I’m not going to. I’m going to have one more try to break four hours, and for this purpose I’m racing against my (not quite as old) self, not other competitors or even the clock. Once the technology becomes general, I’ll no doubt adopt it like everyone else.

In the meantime, what really appeals to me is the claimed capacity of cooling wristbands to lower body temperature. Even in moderate temperatures, I end events drenched in sweat and temperatures in Queensland aren’t always moderate. Does anyone have any experience/thoughts on this?

Who will pick the turnips?

by Chris Bertram on February 20, 2020

I have a [new piece up at the LRB blog on the UK’s post-Brexit immigration plans]( I argue that at the core of the plans is an intention to treat EU migrants and others as a vulnerable and exploitable workforce and that the logic of denying a long-term working visa route to the low paid leads to three possibilities: either the businesses that rely upon them will go bust, technology will substitute for labour, or the UK will have to start denying education to young Britons so that they become willing to be the underpaid workforce that picks turnips and cleans the elderly in social care.

An important new book about refugeehood

by Chris Bertram on February 19, 2020

A brief plug for an important new (and affordable) book: every home should have one! David Owen has long been know for his thoughtful contribution to philosophical debates around migration, and now he has published a brilliant short book, [*What Do We Owe to Refugees?*]( in the same excellent *Political Theory Today* series from Polity that my own book appears in. David’s book is highly readable and gives a solid introduction to the main controversy that runs through modern debates on refugeehood, namely, whether we should adopt a “humanitarian” or a “political” conception of refugees and what we owe to them.

A humanitarian conception of refugees focuses attention on them as needy persons forcibly displaced through no fault of their own. They may be fleeing persecution, or war, or natural disaster or environmental collapse, and the duties that we have to them flow from our common humanity. It is their neediness and not the specific cause of their neediness that is the most important factor. A political conception, by contrast, sees refugees as victims of a special wrong, the denial of political status, of effective citizenship through persecution by the very state whose obligation it is to include them as citizens and to guarantee and respect their rights. Refugeehood as conceived of by the political conception is an internationally-recognized political substitute for the membership that has been unjustly denied by a person’s persecutors.
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Sunday photoblogging: Green post-box

by Chris Bertram on February 16, 2020

A bit of a collector’s item this (taken in 2016). In Ireland there are many British postboxes with the sovereign’s initials that have been overpainted in green by the Irish government since independence. This one, on the Falls Road in Belfast could not be of a type that would appear in the Republic of Ireland because the monarch in question, Elizabeth II, came to the throne after Irish independence, but has been overpainted by Irish republicans in Northern Ireland. In the event of a united Ireland, we could expect official overpainting.

Posted after a bit of twitter discussion with Declan Gaffney and Joel Walmsley yesterday. Joel has [a blog on Irish postboxes](

Green Postbox on the Falls Rd in Belfast

The truth about the Badger State

by Harry on February 14, 2020

The Badger State does, in fact, have a state animal. It is the badger.[1] (We also have a state bird, a state tree, a state flower, and many other state things – in fact, a former student of mine is responsible for us having a state pastry which he says, with a mixture of bemusement and regret, was the legislative achievement for which he received the most plaudits from his constituents).

The badger is not a significant part of our local fauna. There’s one in the local zoo, called Buckingham (when one Buckingham dies, another takes its place, forever. Why Buckingham? I haven’t looked that one up, maybe there is some link with the Palace). And through googling I learned to my surprise that there are some in the wild, though nobody’s ever seen them (unlike possums, raccoons, chipmunks, opposums (whatever they are) and bloody squirrels that my UK visitors think are cute, but are in fact, like the other buggers I’ve mentioned, bloody pests). It is natural, but wrong, to assume that the Badger State is so-named after the badger. On the contrary, the badger got the honour of becoming our state animal because we were already the Badger State (and nobody had the imagination to think it would be funnier to have a different animal, like the chipmunk, or the cockroach, as its state animal). It was the Cornish miners who gave our state its nickname. When they came to the Western part of the state to mine tin, or lead, or something (they named town which they used as the base for mining “Mineral Point”, and if you go to Mineral Point it is still full of people with names straight out of a Daphne Du Maurier novel) were forced to live in holes dug into the hills which they recognized as being like badger setts. The nickname originates in the exploitation of workers, or the dignity of labour, depending on your preference.

You can see below (if I’ve managed to load the images correctly) the Wisconsin coat of arms (Yes, we have a coat of arms, as well as a bird, an animal, a flower, etc) followed by the Cornish coat of arms.

This was a public service announcement for the benefit of the President of the United States of America. And, to be fair, nearly everyone who lives in Wisconsin.

[1] Not, unfortunately, a cricket badger. That’s me.

My country (hard) right or wrong

by Maria on February 13, 2020

A united Ireland just got closer, but not in a good way. It looks like the only competent and respected SoS for Northern Ireland in I don’t know how long is being sacked by the PM today. Julian Smith, helped hugely by the NI electorate finally losing patience with Sinn Fein and the DUP, managed to get power-sharing and regional government functioning again. He put the effort in to understand his brief, and even managed to talk some sense to his peers in cabinet about why it’s a terrible idea for British soldiers to be impervious to criminal prosecution for ‘historic’ offences. (Conservatives who are usually so worried about moral hazard in other walks of life seem not to notice the huge incentive for the Ministry of Defence to stonewall investigations until prosecutions are difficult or impossible.)

So it was probably inevitable that in an era of ‘my country, right or wrong’, Johnson would sack the only NI SoS interested in or capable of ensuring a modicum of justice for civilian victims of the armed forces in NI. The main reason for sacking Smith seems to be to pander to the Sun/Mail newspapers, not the actual armed forces where discipline and consequences are sort of the point. Then again, the prime minister has lived his whole life without personal discipline, and ensuring that consequences are only for others.

The consequences for others this time are likely to be; power-sharing in Stormont falls apart again or staggers on so dysfunctionally it may as well not. The NI protocol, with its legal and quasi-constitutional consequences for Brexit, is probably breached. And the party whose central political strategy is based on the illegitimacy of the British state in NI will benefit perhaps even more than it just did in Ireland’s general election. And while I am viscerally, perhaps even genetically predisposed to shiver in disgust at everything Sinn Fein says and does, and to wish the left in Ireland had better to offer, I have to admit that, on this, they are not wrong.

Deliberate cruelty and injustice

by Chris Bertram on February 11, 2020

The UK Home Office [has just proceeded with a deportation flight to Jamaica]( On the flight are “foreign national offenders” convicted of serious crimes. On the flight are also people who have been in the UK from an early age (2 or 3), and people who were convicted of one-time drug-dealing offences, for example. The courts have stopped the removal of a few people who had been denied access to legal support. Naturally, the Home Office and Conservative politicians foreground the “foreign” aspect and the presence of “serious criminals” to perform being tough to the public and their base whilst refusing to discuss the “individual cases” that don’t fit with their propaganda. Labour politicians and others have demanded to know why the flight went ahead when we are still awaiting the results of an inquiry into the Windrush scandal (which included unjust deportations) and in defiance of recommendations that people who came to the UK as small children should not be deported to places where they know no-one. Defending the government’s conduct in the House of Commons, the new immigration minister, Kevin Foster made a comparison between black immigrants (such as midwives) who make a contribution and criminals, thereby suggesting a standard of deservingness that communities of immigrant origin have to meet. And with some justice, the Tories can say that this deportation regime has its basis in laws passed by New Labour in 2007, a point highlighted in [Maya Goodfellow’s excellent book, Hostile Environment](

The case raises many issues, but I’d like to foreground three. The first is the willingness of the government to stigmatize as “foreign criminals” people who are anything but foreign, who have been socialized as British, who have nothing and nobody in the country of the nominal nationality. This is because British nationality law puts registration as British beyond the financial grasp of many low-income families or imposes a “bad character” test on children as young as 10 to prevent them from registering. The second is that this shows that the Windrush “moment” is over. Despite having cried some crocodile tears over a scandal that saw some people deported and others lose their homes, jobs and be denied medical care, the government has done nothing to prevent such things from happening in the future and most of the victims have not even been compensated. In fact, the British government remains determined to make it as hard as possible for people at the sharp end of its immigration and nationality regimes to assert and defend their rights, leaving them at the mercy of government officials. The third is that this may be electorally popular, which raises questions for the left: how do we fight injustice in a democracy when deliberate cruelty and injustice come with political benefits?

Sunday photoblogging: Courtyard in Ortygia, Sicily

by Chris Bertram on February 9, 2020

Surprised I hadn’t used this one for Sunday photoblogging before. Taken with a Fuji X100s which I later sold and then somewhat regretted selling. Now I see that that camera has a new generation, the X100v, and I’m tempted, though the price is forbidding for a fixed-lens camera.

Courtyard in Ortygia

The worst case is happening

by John Q on February 6, 2020

A couple of years ago, I published an article on why “extremely unlikely” climate events matter. The central point was that climate outcomes with a probability of 5 per cent or less (“extremely unlikely” in IPCC terminology) were still much more likely than risks we take seriously in our daily life, like dying in a car crash). As an illustration, at the time the piece was written, it seemed less than 5 per cent probable that, within two years, many countries in the world (including Australia) would see catastrophic fires on the scale of those that have actually happened.

I made this point in an interview for an ABC story on economists’ views of the likely costs of 3 to 4 degrees of climate change. Most of those interviewed agreed with me that the costs were likely to be much higher than suggested by economics Nobelist William Nordhaus (with whom John Horowitz and I had a debate in the American Economic Review quite a while ago). We pointed out, among other problems, that a paper he had co-authored implied an optimal July temperature of -146 degrees Fahrenheit.

Nordhaus declined an interview, but his viewpoint was represented by Richard Tol. Longstanding readers will remember Tol as a commenter here who eventually wore out his welcome.

The other point I made in the interview was that the abstruse debate about discount rates central to much of the debate between Nordhaus and Nicholas Stern has turned out to be largely irrelevant. The premise of that debate was that the costs of unmitigated climate change would be felt decades into the future while the costs of mitigation would be immediate.

As it’s turned out, the costs of climate change have arrived much sooner than we expected. And the only mitigation options adopted so far have been low cost or even negative cost choices like energy efficiency and abandoning coal (more than justified by the health costs of particulate pollution).

That doesn’t mean discount rates are completely irrelevant. If we manage to decarbonize the global economy by 2050, benefits will keep accruing well after that. But even if we stopped the analysis at 2050, we would still have a substantial net benefit. The likely cost of near-complete decarbonization now looks to be less than a two per cent reduction in national income. Reducing the frequency and severity of disasters like the bushfires will more than offset that.

Driving across the uncanny valley

by John Q on February 5, 2020

In May last year, I posted a tally of successful and unsuccessful predictions, and was challenged in comments on my optimistic views about self-driving cars. I’ve said all I can about the fire apocalypse for now, so I thought I might check how things were going. That’s motivated largely by the belief that autonomous vehicles will almost certainly be electric, a view shared by GM CEO Mary Barro, according to this report.

The same report points to missed deadlines and delays, mostly caused by a small number of high-profile fatalities, all but one associated with Teslas on autopilot (Level 2 technology in the jargon)

That slowed things down enough to falsify my predictions. Neverthless, GM is now petitioning the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to allow up to 2500 completely driverless (no steering wheel or pedals) on the roads. At the same time, Google subsidiary Waymo claims to have started commercial operations of fully driverless (they prefer the term “rider only”) taxi services in its test area in the suburbs of Phoenix.

These are both small scale programs. The significance lies in the fact that they cross the uncanny valley of almost driverless (Level 3) technology with a human safety driver. The high-profile fatal crash that slowed things down in 2018 was caused by a distracted safety driver, and there’s no obvious way to overcome the problem of distraction in a vehicle that almost always drives itself.

The Waymo and GM vehicles are Level 4, capable of operating without any human intervention, but only in limited conditions (flat, sunny, Arizona suburbs). But, if the jump to fully driverless operation succeeds, it’s a matter of incremental steps to larger operating areas, a wider range of weather conditions and so forth. Given that they are being held to much higher standards than human drivers (who killed over 36000 people in 2018 without attracting much attention) the developers of AVs will have to be ultracautious in relaxing their operating constraints. But crossing the uncanny valley is the crucial step. If they succeed in that, the rest is a matter of time.

Another shot from the same walk. This time I have boosted the saturation a bit.

Sognsvann lake, Oslo, Norway