Info-philanthropy: a cost for a big benefit

As part of the Government 2.0 Taskforce in 2009 I coined the term ‘info-philanthropy’ though someone may have coined it before me and the Taskforce proposed that it qualify as a head of philanthropy. I don’t think any changes?have been made, but there’s reasonable scope to include it under the existing arrangements.

In any event, I’ve been doing a bit of work with the Paul Ramsay Foundation on philanthropy’s response to the crisis. As usual, my own mind goes towards using the crisis to try to innovate in ways that survive long after the crisis. In any event, this is a small thing which is to identify one useful thing people can do with?their time sitting at home.

I’m a fan of Libri-vox?– but more or less on principle. It’s a surprise that it’s not a lot better?than it is. Most of?the recordings are a good deal worse than the professional recordings on Audible.?You might expect that, and in the early days of peer-to-peer production, you’d be in company. But with the appropriate adjustments in expectations, Wikipedia is better than Britannica and Linux is better?than its professional competitors. I see no reason why?there shouldn’t be retired actors, and non-retired actors seeking a name for themselves, teachers and just normies recording books with the best being promoted through the ranks so that with popular books like Middlemarch and Crime and Punishment?there are really great recordings available.

But alas it is not so. Anyway,?I gained insight as to why when?I enrolled in Librivox myself with the intention?of recording a few chapters of R. G. Collingwood’s Religion and Philosophy, which isn’t available, or chapters of books that?I’d like to read by Alfred North Whitehead that are likewise not available. Then?I got the email recorded over the fold.

As?you can see, it’s a miracle of user-unfriendliness. So that’s something that could be attended to in the crisis. A simpler set of instructions and a service to take prospective narrators sitting out?there in the suburbs through what steps remain necessary. And an engagement with retirement villages and aged care facilities everywhere to get?those who might like to do this kind of thing doing it.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill during another, more serious crisis, it’s hard to think of a resource that might be provided by so few that could do so much for so many.? Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Economics and public policy, Information, Web and Government 2.0 | Leave a comment

Altruism comes from a model – the virtues from life

Models, windows, reductionism and pluralism

We’re familiar with the idea that thought creates ‘models’ of reality. So it’s easy to slip into thinking that our task is then to just make our models better and better, i.e. more accurate representations of reality. This leaves out what Mary Midgley calls ‘philosophical plumbing’ which involves continuing careful thought about how well those ideas are doing their job. That’s why I like her alternative metaphor which involves thinking of ‘reality’ as the body of water with fish swimming through it in a public aquarium with our ‘thought’ being the various different windows through which we can view that space.

The metaphor by which thinking builds ‘models’ of reality often leads to reductionism. Living in the physical world we all acquire the intuition that smaller objects are the building blocks of larger ones and, in that sense more fundamental. The sandcastle is built of grains of sand and not vice versa. Those grains of sand are built from chemicals, and those chemicals are built from atoms and so on. Similarly, it has been proposed that physics investigates the most fundamental things about our universe, then chemistry, then biology and then the social sciences.[1]

Midgley’s ‘windows on an acquarium’ view of thought suggests otherwise:

There is, for example, the way a furniture maker studies tables (as solid things on which one can rest a cup) and the way sub-atomic physicists study tables (as collections of atoms that consist mostly of empty space). One is not more “real” than the other.

The easy intellectual pluralism of Midgley’s aquarium metaphor prompts us to ask how good the view is from each of the windows available to us. Any window might be large or small, clear or foggy. Its location might obscure important perspectives or enhance them.

Which brings me to my subject. In the last two hundred-odd years our ethical world has become impoverished. Until then our view of our ethical life was had through the numerous windows which we called the ‘virtues’. Virtues such as courage, and honesty and prudence and justice. Adam Smith takes a peek through all these windows and more in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.?

However today the virtues seem old-fashioned and they’re strangers to much modern ethical thinking. Today we talk about ‘altruism’. But altruism is a new-fangled fiction, like ‘the ether’ in nineteenth-century physics and cosmology. It’s a ‘filler’ concept which enters our mind because it seems to be implied by the way we’re thinking. Its presence in our lives is experienced, if at all, only dimly. I think we rely far too much on this window into our ethical life. I make this argument in the following sections, firstly by outlining some other fictions, then by describing the origin of altruism as a concept and then by elaborating the appeal of the virtues. Continue reading

Posted in Ask Troppo's Love Gods, Cultural Critique, Ethics, Philosophy, Political theory | 16 Comments

What should Australia do in the coming recession?

There is one hell of a recession coming for Australia. Economic activity has already reduced by 20% and actual unemployment will probably peak near 20% too, and about a million businesses have already applied for some sort of assistance. The population increase of the last 20 years has come to an abrupt halt, from an increase of a quarter of a million per year, to a decrease this year that can easily be half a million.

Even if countries stop their lock downs and gradually return to some semblance of economic policy sanity, there are three economic shocks Australia cannot avoid, and a fourth one its politicians must work hard to avoid:

  1. A shock to commodity prices and profits. Oil prices have more than halved and coal prices are down 30% from last year. These prices should be expected to remain low given the huge reduction in international demand and the build up of stock piles. What that for instance does is make shall oil and gas exploration in Australia uneconomical. It greatly reduces profits to mining companies, and negatively affects pensions which have invested heavily in commodities.
  2. A shock to tourism, business trips, and foreign students. This year, the tourists and traveling business people will stay away because they are not allowed to fly in. Ditto for many students. The hospitality, business travel, and student market should be expected to tank for several years because there is now less money for long-distance travel and high-priced university degrees. Also, China and India, which are the two biggest suppliers of foreign students, are going through their own down turn and are quite likely to try and reduce the number of students and business travelers going to Australia, keeping them in their own countries.
  3. A shock to the property market via a reduction in population coupled with a glut in accommodations coming onto the market anyway. The property boom is effectively over and seems unlikely to re-start for years.
  4. A shock to the trade relations with China. This one depends on whether the American lobby can be prevented from forcing Australia to sever the ties.


One should not underestimate the size of these shocks. They herald a major downturn in the biggest export industries and in the major sources of growth of the last 20 years. Let us look at the implications for foreign policy, education, macro-economic policy, and taxation. Continue reading

Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Death and taxes, Economics and public policy, Education, Employment, Health, Politics - international, Politics - national | 9 Comments

UK policy wonks following Troppo in saying the lock downs were a mistake (but hiding the message a bit)

Here at Clubtroppo, we have been saying for well over a month now that a quick look at the economic damage and the health damage of the responses to the corona virus tells you they dwarf the possible benefits of suppressing the virus, anywhere in the West. This has lead to the prediction that the narrative will flip very soon such that the lock downs will be openly recognised as extremely unhealthy for the population, far worse than the virus. That shift is indeed occurring right now in Australia.

A team of befriended policy wonks in the UK – Richard Layard, Gus O Donnell, Nancy Hey, and others – have now openly adopted the same methodology we have used here at Troppo and that I have co-developed the last three years in the UK. Their paper is here. If you read it properly you will find it says exactly the same as I have done, but tries to soften the message a bit to make it palatable to the politicians. So they dont quite say that the UK politicians have been total buffoons for having instigated the lock downs and that the damage of the lock downs is far greater than their potential benefits, but they sort of say exactly that. As Yes Minister could have said, a very courageous stance. Well done!

Let’s take the paper apart and see how they apply the WELLBY approach and the tricks they have had to resort to, to soften the message. Walking through their paper and their assumptions is a great way of learning the logic of wellbeing cost-benefit analyses and the real tradeoffs the UK and our world have faced.

The basic idea of using the WELLBY.

Firstly, they buy into the notion that we should pick our policies on the basis of how many WELLBYs are generated at what costs, whereby a WELLBY is one point in life satisfaction on a 0-10 scale for one person for one year. I was the first to coin the WELLBY and it was first seen in a peer-reviewed paper recently (Frijters et al. 2020) though I have been teaching it for two years now at LSE. The first mention on national television was by our very own Gigi Foster on ABC Q&A this week! Much of the methodology followed is in a Handbook I co-wrote with one of these authors (who did the numbers on this paper) for the UK government, which these authors have read and in essence follow. [1]

So the name of their exercise is to try and track for every month in the near future, starting in May 2020, whether or not to lift the lock downs in the UK based on the stream of WELLBY of the two scenarios (continued lock down versus no lock down).

Of course the crucial thing here is the assumptions on what would happen in these two scenarios: continued lock down or no lock down. As is usual in this kind of exercise, they do not fully flesh out either scenario because that is somewhat impossible, but they implicitly assume many things by how they say things would progress in them. Indeed, they give a lot of “flesh on the bone” for their scenarios.

Lock Down versus no Lock Down, what do they mean?

In their “continued lock down scenario”, they envisage sustaining another 100 thousand new unemployed every month. In the “no lock down” scenario they say people will get out of unemployment at the same rate they went in (several hundreds of thousands per month). You might say that is rather generous towards “no lock down” since we know the bounce back in recessions is nowhere near as fast as how quickly the problems mounted, but this in actuality lets the government off the hook because it pretends the economic disaster can be fully remedied in only a few months. They assume something similar for the income losses. If you think it through, this reduces the costs of the implied recession by a factor of about 10 versus what the IMF and other economic forecasters are now saying (which I first anticipated and then simply followed in my later posts). If only! Continue reading

Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Death and taxes, Health, History, Methodology, Social Policy, Society | 12 Comments

COVID-19: The path back (with updates)

Note: Article expanded on 24 April and again on 27 April. The middle now has more meat. So you can read it again!

As Paul Frijters has recently said on this site, many countries will soon ease their restrictions on social isolation.

As Paul has been pointing out, we pay a high economic and hence social cost for restricting various parts of the society.?Paul thinks the current price is far too high. I hold him in high regard, but I simply don’t know enough to say, or whether he knows enough to say, or whether anyone else does either. The numbers do seem insanely hard to work out: you must determine not only what it costs to keep someone alive, but the price you would pay in extra infections by keeping restrictions lighter and letting them circulate, infected, in the population.

But there is a limit to how much any country will pay to save a life. (Australia’s published limit is somewhere above $4.9 million, according to a note from the PM’s department.)

So deep in the government, policymakers are building exit strategies?(and, hopefully, briefing communications experts about how to express those strategies to people).

Too many people jump to the assumption that?governments, especially those on the right,? will happily kill lots of people for the sake of lining shareholders’ pockets. My assumption is different: governments, including those on the right, want to win elections. And so far, Scott Morrison and indeed the whole national cabinet have prospered by making good – indeed, anti-Trumpian – decisions.

So here’s my guess about where the national cabinet will go from here, and why it won’t be easy.

When does the return begin?

Australia will probably move fairly carefully, finding the areas where activity can be opened up with near-zero damage.?We may well follow the sort of course mapped out by Harvard’s?Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics in its newly-released?Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience.?It suggests the key steps in returning the economy to something more like normality are: Continue reading

Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Economics and public policy, Health, Medical, Politics - national, Social Policy | 11 Comments

Unseen victims of the corona panic: IVF babies and their parents

Did you know that Australia has over 13,000 IVF babies born per year, the UK over 20,000, the West as a whole (Europe+US+offshoots) over 200,000 and the world as a whole 500,000? And did you know that due to the corona panic these services have been halted pretty much everywhere, meaning those children don’t get born and the parents will be childless, which causes tremendous pain and grief?

Here I want to calculate just how many lost babies and childless families are being created by the panic and every subsequent month of lock downs. The bottom line is that in Australia, there is an equivalent loss of life years to about 26,000 corona-related deaths per month due to the halt in IVF services. For every person who has died with corona in Australia so far, more than 2,000 years of life of IVF babies has been sacrificed, and a similar number of years of thwarted parenthood have been inflicted. For the West as a whole, the bottom line is that within 6 months of lock downs, more life will have been prevented and blighted via the halt in IVF services than is likely to have been lost if there would have been no panic and no particular prevention policies at all. These are enormous and unconscionable losses.

To know the total loss of halting IVF treatments we need to get an idea as to how easy it is to “start up again” once the process has been disrupted, and whether it is likely or not that delayed treatment will turn into no babies.

One key thing to know about fertility treatments is that women need over a month preparation before they can have the treatment, quite apart from the consultations and paperwork. They need to be on hormone treatments to get their eggs to ovulate, which can then be harvested, and they need to be on a stable hormone level before any fertilised eggs can be placed back. Disruptions to the process mean one needs to start again.

This means that even a single week of corona virus lock downs means more than one month’s worth of preparation is down the drain as all bets are off with the planned IVF treatments. So the first month of corona related lock downs will roughly cost two months worth of IVF treatments, though after the initial month, one loses only one month of treatment for every subsequent month of lock downs. Continue reading

Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Death and taxes, Economics and public policy, Health, Science, Social, Social Policy, Society | 36 Comments

How the Corona narrative will flip: two predictions.

My first prediction is an easy one: many countries are going to ease their restrictions on social isolation in the coming weeks, including many countries with an ongoing corona problem. They simply have to if they want to have any economy left. You can see this happening to different degrees in Denmark, Spain, Austria, Finland, Belgium, and Australia.

My second prediction is that the political and medical elites in Western countries are? gradually going to be forced to take back almost everything they have been saying about the effect of lock downs in the last two months.

Why are the medical and policy elites going to resist changing their message? They essentially have no choice. They need to rescue their own careers, which requires saving face. Also, they managed to convince the population of their message. If they suddenly started taking it all back, the hysteria they have fanned would turn on them. So they are initially going to continue to speak about the corona virus as if it is the End of Days.

Why do they need to gradually stop their current mantra about how lock downs are the “safe things to do”? Because they will actually need the population to believe the opposite of what they were told before.

Take the business of “flattening the curve”, which took a long time to explain to the population, but at heart is about having a reduced infection rate so as to prevent the hospitals from being overwhelmed. The endgame on flattening a curve is herd immunity, which needs a lot of people to get this virus. If you lock them up, they cant get it as quick so locking people up simply means it takes longer before they get it.

The most recent research tells us that in most Western countries (ie those not as warm as Australia where a flu is not a big problem anyway), we’d have to keep imprisoning the population for years before one achieved the herd immunity one needed to prevent the IC units at the hospitals from being overwhelmed.

Years of mass imprisonment is simply not on politically or economically. As the pain of the first set of lock downs really becomes felt, populations are not going to accept a repeat. So the politicians are going to be forced to speak out against the necessity of flattening the curve and ignore those medics who continue to argue for it.

This also means accepting the inevitable increase in corona cases when opening up. That will lead to overflowing IC units in hospitals, or at the very least will need to involve turning people away for whom there is no space.

This in turn means the politicians are going to have to openly ignore the data on the corona virus when cases start going up again. They cannot sell this without in some way disowning the previous “flattening the curve” argument. They will need a new narrative. They will probably try something like “its painful but we cannot keep imprisoning the population” argument.

That is just step 1 in becoming more honest though. Yet more honesty will follow because they will be forced to address the fear itself.

Importantly, it is now becoming clear that the health problems associated with mass imprisonment and keeping the population afraid are much worse than the corona threat. A 2015 NHS report thus already said that social isolation causes health damage, such as a “50% excess risk of coronary heart disease”.

Fear is responsible for the paradox of hospitals that have much fewer patients outside of the IC units because people are too afraid to go to hospital. Fear of the virus is disrupting inoculation programs, partly because parents are too afraid to have their children innoculated. People are not showing up for medical check-ups. Those who particularly need exercise to remain healthy, like the old and the frail, are too afraid now to do it. This damage will increase over time as months of neglect and inactivity have far graver effects on health than merely a week or two of inactivity. Continue reading

Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Democracy, Economics and public policy, Politics - international, Politics - national, Science, Social Policy, Society, Uncategorized | 71 Comments