Monday 25th of May 2020

alone in our own mind — the isolationists versus the freedomologists...


We were ill-prepared…

No, I mean we — as countries — were badly prepared for such a “pandemic”. Our social mentality has been based on making money — The rich guys mostly — while most of us have been surviving from day to day, on credit based on the illusion of better days ahead, including a barbecue on Sunday next, and a bit of food in the freezer… Nothing wrong with this, but this semi-carefree attitude was not preparing us for an accidental or organised pandemic. 

Not even “the" Bill Gates and his pandemic modellists could even explore the extend of the damage to our social fabric. They mostly looked at the theory of injecting people with stuff, on controlling the disease with armies of doctors and medical supplies in tents, especially in poor countries, those that don’t have coronavirus yet, but are under ebola epidemic — not counting the ordinary devastation brought by Malaria which kills more than 400,000 persons every year. 

Even then, these planners were ill-prepared. The damage is structural. The foundation and pillars of our democratic societies have collapsed. Or have they?

Did we have too much freedom to do whatever we liked, within the parameters of decency, sometimes on the border of debauchery and having too much fun to replace our poverty of spirit? Have we missed something in our structural relationships in which democracy has failed to prevent a near total shut down of itself and being replaced by a pseudo-fascist dictatoriat — which may not work either?

How long are we going to “hibernate”? Are statistics enough to let us know what is the relative damage? Are "our” leaders up to the task, and of necessary philosophical understanding which necessitate abandoning their ruthless market-theory, for demanding restraint and imposing home isolation, until the storm has passed? Is the storm going to pass or are there darker clouds we cannot see? Are the tanks a-coming?

Are we rebelliously skeptical enough?

We were ill-prepared… I don’t mean this household, that has managed over the years to dodge the few bullets of shit-crap from the upper echelons — probably by good luck, the security grilles on the doors and windows, and a few other hidden safety measures, including a tiny bit of “prepping” —just in case. How long will we have to live off tin food, when the shops finally close, because someone coughed a bit too loud in the aisle of the frozen department? Will I have to protect my small veggie patch, day and night from hungry hordes of carrot-hunters, gun in hand? I only have a water pistol to chase the pissing cats that destroy my newly planted seed patches...

At the moment, most people are prepared to “stretch the curve”… The unlucky ones, with no cash reserves, and by now with accumulating debt and no work, have to beg for their life. The cost of this pandemic response is horrendous. The restaurant trade and the entertaining gigs are dead. DEAD. Bugger. This is more than tragic. These were the only things that maintained a certain “joie-de-vivre” in the local neighbourhood, on a planetary scale. 

We need to make a fast switch to the internet entertainment channels. But staying a million miles away from friends and having no convivial feasts? Is this the end of things, my friend, or is it the beginning of a new era? Lonely monks and nuns in our separate dungeons? Or like the pope in the middle of his empty square?

When those who are unable to pay their Netflix, Stan or Foxtel subscription become isolated, the only recourse becomes YouTube or old comedies like Father Ted interspaced with adverts… And how long can we cope with this isolation, in which we cannot lower our heart rate like bears in winter? Eventually, only iChat, Messenger or the old Skype will be the only way we get our daily dose of contacts, entertainment and news… until the network is finally shut down by cyber-viruses, or no-one being able to maintain the network and/or create new soaps... or we can't pay for our NBN supplier...

Families could become hubs of violence and incest. Lonely people will become lonelier. The weight of our imperfections will become more and more evident. How do we last the distance by looking at our own navel?

And when we are let out again, will it be safe? Won’t we be hit by another ton of bricks from a rattus-rattus bizovirus? Or a simple ton of bricks?

War was more predictable. You knew the bastards were lying to go in Iraq — and you had a fair idea when they were going to line you up against the wall. And you could defend yourself, until you died like a hero to a cause — the senselessness of which slowly sank in the tarpits of oil exploration. Here the coronavirus uncertainty is going to get at people. One does not know when one is going to be a statistic. And we have no defence weapons. Pills?

Our best defence is to stay as healthy as possible. And we know how precarious this is, especially, the older we get. Real vitamins from real fruit are “essential” but not too much as some of the acids can burn holes in our ageing colons. Inflammatory bowel disease is going to become rampant. 

Meanwhile are we entering the stage of the “giving up competition?” The isolationists versus the freedomologists? 
We were ill-prepared… Philosophically speaking, we were delusional with our human superiority. Will we learn to be humble or will we become more delusional — and destroy nature with a flame-thrower?

Some people in high places are already warning of the rebound after this necessary-imposed “compassion" — the revenge. The revenge of the “markets”. Capitalism unbridled…

Be aware…

As the good doctor Horn at the Heinrich-Braun-Klinikum hospital said: "The pandemic is yet to come."

Gus is a fierce atheist, a neo-nihilistic existentialist: we are not essential to the well-being of the universe, but we are aware of our relative well-being. For the moment, we could stay at home and be creative for ourselves with a captive audience of one. 

So far, this is better than being dead.

surreality comes to the iPhone generation...

"Well, what else are we gonna do?"

The message went around my share house group message chain on Thursday. 

A Friday night barbeque inside the protected (hopefully germ-free) realm of our yellow terrace house in inner-city Sydney was the plan. 

That is, if we could find something to cook. 

Before coronavirus, trying to organise a Friday night barbeque with five late-20s/early-30-something housemates was pretty much impossible. 

We'd all have Friday night drinks, dates, individual plans — you wouldn't bother trying. But like a lot of things over the past week, those days are gone. 

As coronavirus changes our lives forever, new realities have emerged. And my house is like a warped test case of the virus's impact on young professionals — pretty much a demographer's dream.

Two of my housemates, both freelance TV producers, lost their jobs overnight. Gone. Done. No more income. Just brutal. 

One of them sent a text through to the house group chain on Wednesday: "House fam," it read. "What's your age and how long you been living in the house again? I need it for Centrelink. Cool" 

At the start of the month, my housemate sending a text like that was simply implausible. She was travelling overseas to start a three-month contract on a very successful reality TV show (well, as successful as you can in today's TV land). 

She was saving to buy a house. Not anymore. She baked cupcakes instead this week and completed a puzzle.

Both are unsure what they're going to do — their previous experience in retail and making coffee is redundant as well. 

Scott Morrison's call for people to man the phones at Centrelink is something one of them is seriously considering, while the other worked on a live entertainment streaming event last night. 

"It won't make any money, I just need to keep working," she told me. 

The other two housemates — it's a big house — kept their jobs. They both work in the digital space, one of the few areas — outside of toilet paper manufacturing — that appears to be safe from drastic cuts. 

In the meantime, for us still lucky enough to work, our house has turned into a makeshift co-working space, with Zoom meetings and emails pinging around like Tom Cruise on that computer in Minority Report. It's utterly surreal.

The pros and cons

But we're lucky; we're all healthy. We've all been very mindful of physical distancing measures and basic hygiene (I think I've washed my hands more over the past two weeks than the previous two months put together).

We know how important it is to stay home (I made the house watch Foreign Correspondent on Tuesday night — we do not want to turn into Italy). 

We've been exercising (one housemate bought one of those "you got a door, you got a gym" things and has been doing five chin-ups every time he needs to go to the "lunchroom" — our kitchen).


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Meanwhile, optimism in the Freakyecnomics is satistically wonky:

As a general rule, any time you need to use the phrase “since the Great Depression” things are not going well. Right now, of course, things are not going well. They are not just going badly, they are going badly quickly.

Through my lifetime there have been three “worst since the Great Depression” times for the economy – the early 1980s, the early 90s and the global financial crisis. In each case we never really got close to experiencing dramatic declines in production and income that happened during the 30s.

Out of those three cases the worst our GDP per capita ever fell in a year was 2.2%. By contrast, during the Depression, there were three consecutive years where it fell by more than 3.5% and one where it fell by more than 10%.

Most of us have lived in a time of moderation.

Consider that from 1920 to 1946, Australia’s annual GDP per capita either rose or fell by more than 4% 14 times; over the past 50 years it has happened just once.

Right now it would not be a shock if such a fall occurs in the June quarter alone.

In the US things have ground to a halt such that the total number of unemployed has increased by more than 50% in a week.

When such things occur, even comparison with the Great Depression fails.

Here in Australia the numbers are going to be just as bad. The numbers of people this week applying for Newstart this week are unprecedented (though not unanticipated) and Westpac economists now predict our unemployment rate will hit 11% by June.

Were that to happen the unemployment rate would have risen 6%pts in four months. The previous biggest four-month jump was in 1982 when unemployment rose 2.4%pts, from 7% to 9.4%.

The Great Depression was as bad as it was because economies around the world went backwards for three to four years. Australia’s GDP per capita in 1931 was 20% below what it was in 1928; in the US it fell 31% from 1929 to 1933.

Were our GDP per capita to fall by 20% that would take us back to 2001 levels – 20 years of growth wiped away.

Fortunately, things are a bit different now from the 30s.

Firstly, the world is not on the gold standard as it was in the 20s and 30s, so central banks have been able to engage in an extremely strong monetary policy response.

And secondly, John Maynard Keynes has already written his General Theory, so we know that fiscal expansion, not austerity, is the best response.

This, of course, is a different economic crisis – people are unemployed because the government has in effect mandated that their workplaces close. And so the hope is that when the crisis is over everything snaps back into place.

But generally it takes longer to recover than it does to fall.

It took two years of the Great Depression to lose 20% of GDP per capita and five years to make it back. During the 90s recession it took three years for the level of employment to fall from 59.6% to 55.5% and more than seven years to get back to the pre-recession level.

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It's likely that this pandemic is going to cost more than a quarter of the world GDP — say about US$23.5 trillion. And according to some "stats" unless the ecomony is not shut down by 80 per cent (yes 80 PER CENT!!!!) the virus will continue on its merry way.


By this stage all the grogonomics of this world will have been superseded by the freakyecnomics... It's could become a bum rush when the gates of hell are opened...



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broke or dead — not much of a choice...

There is a lot more to this time of massive change than the immediate crisis of fighting a pandemic.

What many, perhaps most, haven’t understood yet is that our economy and society are being upended.

“In a week we have shifted from a globalised liberal economy and free society to a command economy with closed borders, regimented movement and a welfare state,” Reform Club chairman and former NSW Treasury secretary Percy Allan recently wrote to friends and colleagues.

“And through necessity, all sides of politics support it.

“When COVID-19 is over will people demand stronger government (to cope with crises) or pine for laissez-faire (to allow free will)? That’s an important debate.”

The pace of change in March 2020 was a little overwhelming, maybe quite overwhelming.

That pace is playing a role in the sense of unreality people are feeling and why some have been slow to grasp the need for behaviour to change.

The debate about what sort of society comes after this crisis will have to wait. Everyone involved is too busy dealing with the immediate issue.

Suddenly commit to spending a couple of hundred billion dollars, with more to come.

Throw a million people out of work. Close borders. Close state borders.

Give police extraordinarily broad powers over the population. Have troops enforcing isolation curfews.

Nothing near as big has ever happened as quickly.

Talk to people who lived through the last world war (or be someone who had talked to them when more were still around) and the changes to war-time footing were much more gradual, leisurely even, by comparison.

But some of these big changes do need immediate understanding. One of them is: How we pay for it.

The Australian Financial Review on Tuesday ran a column by its political editor headlined “The huge stimulus numbers throw up the inevitable question”. That question was “How do we pay for it?”

It’s slightly bemusing that nobody at Monday’s media conference thought to ask it.

As it turns out, it’s the government’s intention to pay for the couple of hundred billion dollars of quick extra debt the old-fashioned way: The government will be borrowing the money.

There are possible alternatives, extreme unconventional monetary policy whereby the government could issue zero-coupon bonds directly to the Reserve Bank to print money.

Instead, the Australian Office of Financial Management will issue bonds to the required value and the market will buy them, boosting our government debt total.

In theory, such a sudden flood of extra raising might put some upward pressure on interest rates and, if foreigners fancy our bonds, the Australian dollar.

But these are not times of textbook theory, particularly with the QE twist of the Reserve Bank officially targeting a three-year bond rate of 0.25 per cent and buying about $3 billion worth of bonds a day to achieve that target.

The RBA has even posted the three-year target on its home page, just to underline the commitment.

Given that Monday’s effort was only Stimulus 3.0, with 4.0 and maybe 5.0 yet to come, the AOFM’s current $558 billion of treasury bonds on issue is likely to end up close to $1 trillion.

Remember a decade ago when government debt was a demon figure used to scare the kiddies?

Or June 30, 2013 – the year the government changed – when gross government debt was $257 billion?

It was a nonsense, of course.

It was low government debt and affordable, but a decade of political opportunism painted it as evil.

The reality of our current debt explosion is that it is quite affordable if it pays for a return to anything like ‘normal’ growth.

Like the price of reducing climate change, it is cheaper than the alternative.

If the interest rate on the bonds is below economic growth, the growth takes care of the government’s ability to service the debt.

It would require a mighty bleak world and particularly inept management for Australia’s growth to get stuck below a fraction of a percentage point.

So one of the first changes of our post-COVID-19 political world should be a recalibration of political rhetoric.

It would be too much to ask for the Prime Minister to come clean with the population, fess up to the decade of debt demonisation being largely political BS, like the attack on pricing carbon and a more rational taxing of resources rent.

The debt will have to be dealt with when times suit.

It could be used as a force for good, as a cattle prod (or excuse) for genuine, overdue holistic tax reform that would help create a healthier economy and society.

It would need to be reform that would offend just about every vested interest – broadening the GST, at least capping the franking credit rebates, an inheritance tax, no-exceptions land tax, a carbon price, lower income tax rates, removing the tax-free status of superannuation in the pension phase, et al

“Never waste a good crisis.”

Or it could be used to damage the country with the sort of austerity drive and reduction in government services beloved by the hard right – the small government, low-taxing neoliberal myrmidons exemplified by the Institute of Public Affairs and its alumnae and fellow travellers populating the governments’ ranks.

There is a very important debate ahead about our post-COVID-19 nation.

In the meantime, be grateful the ideologically straitjacketed didn’t hold sway last month or many more of us would be in dire poverty – or dead...


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The epidemic or pandemic or coronapanic isn't going to go overnight. It's going to take more than eight months to have a vaccine, which might work in about 45 per cent of "cases". No vaccine is ever 100 per cent proof. There will be "several" vaccines available coming from different labs. "Flattening the curve" by isolation is working to a point. Beyond this WE DO NOT KNOW THE LENGTH OF THE CURVE, which should we follow the rates of infection and compare with the rate of flu transmission, the curve for the coronavirus has to be "twice" as long as that for a flu season which is about 6 months — even with vaccination.


So what do we do? Stay in our little boxes?


Already there are signs of people going mad in isolation..., with no clubbing, no pubbing, no shopping for frivolities, nor public/stage entertainment, the young and the restless — the next generation — are traumatised beyond their iPhones.

We, old people, can cope much better with this lonely status, but we are weaker against the coronavirus. All we need now is for John to be seasick... or get gastro from the ship's food... which would affect far more people under present conditions. Happy days, take as much cash from the government as you can — and maintain your stock of toilet paper...