Politics

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What a tangled web we weave when first government accounting practices to deceive….

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 19/04/2021 - 6:42am in

This was a good Zoom meeting: ‘The Austerity Doctrine in the Time of Coronavirus’ here (about an hour), with Yanis Varousakis, Naomi Klein, Brian Eno and Stephanie Kelton, which is quite a line-up. For me Yanis Varousakis was the most on the ball in his assertion that the ‘nightmare of the powerful is that the... Read more

COVID-19 Vaccines: Risks, Benefits, and Indemnity

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 19/04/2021 - 4:52am in

Tags 

Health, Politics

The Morrison government has provided Indemnity for vaccine manufacturers but not Australians at risk of the exceedingly rare, but sometimes fatal, blood clots linked to the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

 On April 13, 2021, US health authorities recommended a pause in the rollout of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson/Janssen COVID-19 (adenovirus vector) vaccine. The delay is because six women have suffered rare but severe blood clots out of nearly seven million doses administered. As of April 13, 2021, there are no similar cases among more than 180 million people in the US who received the Pfizer BioNTech or Moderna (mRNA) vaccines.

Meanwhile, health authorities in other countries have taken varied responses to similar concerns about the AstraZeneca (adenovirus vector) vaccine:

  • Denmark has become the first country in the European Union to drop AstraZeneca’s vaccine from its Covid-19 immunisation program.
  • Finland and Sweden use it for those aged 65 and over.
  • Germany, South Korea, Italy, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Portugal, Slovenia, and South Korea vaccinate those aged 60 and over.
  • Canada, Belgium, and France vaccinate people over 55 years of age.
  • Australia vaccinates those over 50 years of age.
  • Greece and the UK vaccinate those over 30 years of age.
  • Austria, Estonia, Ireland, Malaysia, and Thailand vaccinate those aged 18 and over.
  • In New Zealand and Switzerland, the AstraZeneca vaccine has yet to receive marketing approval, while in the US, an application has yet to be submitted.

These different decisions reflect the difficulties of regulators, such as the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), on applying AstraZeneca’s adverse effect data on country vaccination strategy. The regulators agree that:

  • There is evidence of a severe but rare side-effect Involving thrombosis (clotting) with thrombocytopenia (low blood platelet count) following administration. This reaction has a high mortality of up to 40%.
  • Such clotting reactions have been one case per 25,000 Norwegians, 1 per 80,000 Netherlanders, 1 per 87,000 Germans, 1 per 150,000 in the European Union as a whole,1 per 250,000 Britons and 1 per 295,000 Australians; overall, around 1 case per 100,000 vaccinations.
  • There is an increasing risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19 infection in older adults (and hence a higher benefit from vaccination) and a potentially increased risk of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia following AstraZeneca vaccine use in younger age groups.

The decision to continue to use the AstraZeneca vaccine depends on a risk-benefit analysis that includes the risk of contracting COVID-19 (short-term and long-term effects) in particular populations compared with the risk of these groups experiencing severe side-effects from the vaccine and the availability of alternatives.

These factors make decisions difficult; the risk-benefit ratio varies between people of different ages and the virus’s prevalence. The latter can also change. Decision-making data is graphically represented by the Winton Centre Cambridge.

In Australia, ATAGI recommends the Pfizer vaccine is now preferred over AstraZeneca’s in adults aged under 50 years. However, the latter can be used in adults where the benefits outweigh the risks, and the recipient has given informed consent. Given current limitations on the Pfizer vaccine supply in Australia, this situation might apply to people with underlying health conditions that increase their risk of a poor outcome from COVID-19 infection or aged care workers concerned about possible COVID-19 breakouts in nursing homes.

There are three ongoing issues. First, is AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson’s adenovirus vector vaccine technology causing the blood clots? The jury is still out. Second, how to diagnose and treat the specific “Vaccine-induced prothrombotic immune thrombocytopenia” (VIPIT). Guidelines are available. Finally, why hasn’t Australia introduced a no-fault vaccine injury compensation scheme to assist people who experience rare but severe vaccine side-effects? A no-fault vaccine injury compensation scheme recognises that if the government promotes community vaccination for the collective good, then it should also accept the ethical and financial burden for the few people who will sustain a severe injury. Many other countries have such schemes, including the UK, US, New Zealand, and Canada. Why not Australia?

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Myanmar steps back into darkness

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 19/04/2021 - 4:51am in

Tags 

Politics

Since the February 1 coup, the Tatmadaw – the official name of Myanmar’s armed forces – has escalated its crackdown on citizens protesting against the military takeover that ousted Myanmar’s democratically elected government.

Unfortunately, this brutal reaction is only the latest in a series of repressive moves across Southeast Asia in recent years as political groups, backed by powerful militaries, intervene in government. Such dictatorships have arrested the growth of participatory democracies in countries close to Myanmar, including Thailand and Cambodia. The enduring authoritarian governments in Laos and Vietnam do nothing to enhance democracy or the respect for human rights, while nations such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are fragile democracies.

The semi-democracy that had prevailed in Myanmar since the military began to share power in 2015 came to an abrupt end with the coup. The military’s willingness in 2015 to ease its tight controls on the people of Myanmar was in sharp contrast to its performance since it seized power in a 1962 coup. Under the leadership of General Ne Win, Myanmar (then called Burma) endured 26 years of military rule. In 1988, nationwide protests broke out but were ruthlessly suppressed as hundreds were killed and jailed.

The actions of the Tatmadaw have provoked widespread condemnation from the international community. Economic sanctions have followed from countries in Europe and Asia, but unfortunately, those restrictions on trade and income do not necessarily mean trouble for the coup masters who have their own industries, wealth and resources. In fact, the sanctions imposed on the country – trade embargos, freezing assets, blocks on tourism and student travel, for example – will greatly impact the blameless poor and middle class.

Pope appeals for dialogue

As security forces in Myanmar have increased their crackdown on civilians, with disappearances, detentions and the killing of peaceful protestors, Pope Francis appealed for an end to violence and the start of dialogue. “Once again, and with much sorrow, I feel compelled to mention the tragic situation in Myanmar, where so many people, especially young people, are losing their lives for offering hope to their country,” the pope said at the end of his weekly general audience on March 17.

The specter of authoritarian rule shadowed the pope’s visit to Myanmar in November 2017. Every effort was made by the papal mission to work in unison with the local Church. Catholics make up a very small minority in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, and making a move deemed to be “wrong” by the Tatmadaw would have meant considerable trouble for majority, ethnic Bamar Catholics, though most belong to ethnic minorities. Pope Francis was extremely aware of the trouble the Rohingya minority were in at the time of his visit. But he reserved any expression of that concern to his time in Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees had fled after brutal treatment by the Tatmadaw.

In 2021, life in Myanmar has got worse for many more than the Rohingya. Without mentioning her name, the pope recalled the iconic gestures of Sister Ann Rosa Nu Tawng in a street in the city of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State.[1] This nun made world headlines when photographs were published of her kneeling before police and extending her arms while begging police not to shoot or hurt protesters. “I, too, kneel on the streets of Myanmar and say, ‘Stop the violence,’” Pope Francis said. “I, too, spread wide my arms and say, ‘Make way for dialogue.’” It was the fourth time the pope had spoken about the crisis unfolding in Myanmar. “Bloodshed resolves nothing,” he said, repeating his call for dialogue to begin.

Nuns have played a significant role in the nationwide anti-coup protests by marching in the streets, praying at convents and standing before churches to express their solidarity with the people of Myanmar. In early February, the sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition reached out to protesters and offered them drinks and snacks. They also visited the families of two Buddhists killed by security forces in Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city where, to console them and pray for the departed souls. Nuns from various congregations have joined laypeople and seminarians to march in the streets for a peaceful solution to the crisis by reciting the rosary and singing gospel songs in Yangon, Mandalay and Loikaw. On March 6, nuns from the Sisters of Charity congregation reached out to six families in Monywa in central Myanmar to pray for the deceased and provide rice and cooking oil.

Cardinal Bo leads the Catholic response

Catholic responses in Myanmar have been led by Cardinal Charles Bo, the archbishop of Yangon and president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. In a March 14 open letter to all the people of the nation, including jailed civilian leaders and the military, he wrote: “As the leaders of the Myanmar Catholic Church [we bishops] urge all parties in Myanmar to seek peace. This crisis will not be resolved by bloodshed. The killings must stop at once. So many have perished. The blood spilled is not the blood of an enemy. It is the blood of our own sisters and brothers, our own citizens.” His letter wanted to put a stop to the rising number of dead among the protesters.

The protesters are demanding the military release their elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which scored their second landslide victory in the November, 2020 elections. She and many elected leaders are being detained in unknown locations.

Suu Kyi is facing several charges that her supporters say have been fabricated. On March 11, Suu Kyi was accused of accepting illegal payments worth US$600,000 as well as gold while she was in government. She had already been charged with illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios and flouting Covid-19 restrictions.

The military junta, ‘a murderous, illegal regime’

The United Nations, human rights groups, bishops and Catholic organizations have condemned the brutal military crackdown in Myanmar.[2]

In an address to the UN Human Rights Council on March 11, rights envoy Tom Andrews said that “Myanmar was currently being controlled by a murderous, illegal regime.” He said the junta’s security forces were committing acts of murder, imprisonment, persecution, torture and reclusion as part of a coordinated campaign in a widespread and systematic manner with the knowledge of the junta’s leadership that is “likely committing crimes against humanity.”

Andrews called for a united global response as “the people of Myanmar need not only words of support but supportive action. They need the help of the international community now.” He said the UN Security Council’s statement on March 10 that expressed deep concern about developments in Myanmar was welcome but “wholly insufficient.” He urged member states to commit to taking strong, decisive and coordinated action as a coalition of nations — an emergency coalition for the people of Myanmar.

Christine Schraner Burgener, the UN special envoy on Myanmar, condemned the continued bloodshed as the military defied international calls, including from the UN Security Council, for restraint, dialogue and full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. “The ongoing brutality, including against medical personnel and destruction of public infrastructure, severely undermines any prospects for peace and stability,” she said in a statement on March 14. “The international community, including regional actors, must come together in solidarity with the people of Myanmar and their democratic aspirations.” She said she had heard from contacts in Myanmar heartbreaking accounts of killings, mistreatment of demonstrators and torture of prisoners.

A team of UN investigators appealed for people to collect documentary evidence of crimes ordered by the military to build cases against its leaders.

Catholics feel Myanmar’s pain

Showing more unity in their opposition to the coup than ASEAN, the regional grouping of southeast Asian nations, the Catholic Church has rallied strongly to the support of people of Myanmar. SIGNIS, Pax Christi International and the Focolare movement released a joint statement on March 15 that voiced solidarity with Myanmar’s citizens. They said they had heard the message of the people of Myanmar stating that “this coup is essentially about overthrowing them, their will.” “We deplore the extreme authoritarianism that saw fit to trample on the nation’s constitution, which in fact permitted limited democracy while maintaining much of the armed forces’ power,” said the statement. “It is ultimately not about removing political opponents or supposed public order. It undoes years of patient work for the fundamental rights of citizens and crushes tenuous dreams of a free, democratic country.”

The three groups joined the United Nations and other human rights organizations in calling for the release of Suu Kyi and other detained Myanmar officials and leaders. They asked the military to stop using violence and arbitrarily detaining peaceful protesters and journalists. They called for justice and accountability for the atrocities committed against the Rohingya people and other ethnic minorities as well as prevention of such crimes and abuses in the future.

The response of the Asian Churches

South Korean bishops have raised deep concerns about Myanmar’s brutal response to peaceful protesters as they called for freedom, democracy and peace. “We learned from history that the normal and innocent people’s appeals and solidarity could open a door to a new world,” the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea said in a March 11 statement. It said in the past South Korea also went through the pain and suffering that Myanmar is now experiencing.

Cardinal Archbishop Andrew Yeom Soo-jung of Seoul wrote to Myanmar’s Cardinal Bo and expressed concern about the ruthless military actions. “I strongly support the people of Myanmar and their desire for democracy, and I truly hope that they will get it back very soon,” he wrote. “Please know that all the clergy, religious and faithful of the Archdiocese of Seoul are sincerely praying for true democracy to be restored in the country.”

In a rare gesture, Myanmar’s most powerful Buddhist monks’ association called on the junta to end violence against protesters and pursue dialogue. Buddhist monks have played a leading role against military dictatorship as they led the 2007 uprising known as the Saffron Revolution, which was suppressed by a violent crackdown.

Myanmar’s acting vice-president Mahn Win Khaing Than has called for a revolution against military dictatorship as this was “the darkest moment of the nation.” The ethnic Karen civilian leader, who is in hiding, was charged with high treason by the junta on March 17.

Where to from here?

Having lost its leader, Nobel Prize winner Suu Kyi, Myanmar faces dark days. Half-developed democratic processes and economic reforms mean the country is poorly placed to weather this storm. There will be little investment in the country apart from considerable Chinese interest in its resources and other opportunities. But what is worse is that Myanmar will return to the status of an untrustworthy and poor state that it thought it had escaped with the process leading to participatory democracy.

But as that happens, the legacy of British times will reassert itself. Myanmar is a country of 135 ethnic groups and borders and divisions, as they are in India, are artificial. And the wars between the military and financially and militarily well-resourced ethnic armies will shape domestic politics and deprive the country of opportunities for development.

As broad and popular dissatisfaction with the rule of the Tatmadaw increases the opportunities for conflict and division will only grow. The range of predictable problems of long gestation suggests that unless a leader of broad popular appeal like Suu Kyi emerges, Myanmar is in for a long wait until things get better. However, it would be a mistake to think that the forces guiding the Tatmadaw to execute the February 1 coup are the only guiding spirits in that dark organization. For at least five years, some better interpreters of Myanmar’s spirit have guided the country and they are still there in the army.

Moreover, and at a much more pragmatic level, many in the army have assets and investments that need a stable economy to thrive and for these wealthy generals to get returns on their investments. There will be many in Myanmar’s military and business elites (and the two overlap) that will not endorse a return to the no win situation for the country that prevailed from 1962. That was the military dictatorship of General Ne Win. A return to that context will not be appealing to the military who saw things getting better for them.

In a recent interview[3] Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for the Holy See’s Relations with States declared: “I don’t think the coup will be reversed. Unfortunately, the policy of the generals will prevail in suppressing opposition to what they have done. Sadly, that’s how I see it.” He also drew attention to “the context in which it is all taking place” and added that this is “a region of other authoritarian governments as well, so it is not as if they are getting denounced by their neighbors. I think that unfortunately the generals will not go back, and maybe international sanctions will have some impact but the generals have chosen their course, and I don’t think that will be changed.”

This article was written by Michael Kelly and John Zaw and has been republished from La Civilta Cattolica 16 April 2021. Click here to read the original article.

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Behind every algorithm, there be politics.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 19/04/2021 - 3:07am in

In my first class in computer science, I was taught that an algorithm is simply a way of expressing formal rules given to a computer. Computers like rules. They follow them. Turns out that bureaucracy and legal systems like rules too. The big difference is that, in the world of computing, we call those who are trying to find ways to circumvent the rules “hackers” but in the world of government, this is simply the mundane work of politicking and lawyering. 

When Dan Bouk (and I, as an earnest student of his) embarked on a journey to understand the history of the 1920 census, we both expected to encounter all sorts of politicking and lawyering. As scholars fascinated by the census, we’d heard the basics of the story: Congress failed to reapportion itself after receiving data from the Census Bureau because of racist and xenophobic attitudes mixed with political self-interest. In other words, politics. 

As we dove into this history, the first thing we realized was that one justification for non-apportionment centered on a fight about math. Politicians seemed to be arguing with each other over which algorithm was the right algorithm with which to apportion the House. In the end, they basically said that apportionment should wait until mathematicians could figure out what the “right” algorithm was. (Ha!) The House didn’t manage to pass an apportionment bill until 1929 when political negotiations had made this possible. (This story anchors our essay on “Democracy’s Data Infrastructure.”)

Dan kept going, starting what seemed like a simple question: what makes Congress need an algorithm in the first place? I bet you can’t guess what the answer is! Wait for it… wait for it… Politics! Yes, that’s right, Congress wanted to cement an algorithm into its processes in a feint attempt to de-politicize the reapportionment process. With a century of extra experience with algorithms, this is patently hysterical. Algorithms as a tool to de-politicize something!?!? Hahahah. But, that’s where they had gotten to. And now the real question was: why? 

In Dan’s newest piece – “House Arrest: How an Automated Algorithm Constrained Congress for a Century” – Dan peels back the layers of history with beautiful storytelling and skilled analysis to reveal why our contemporary debates about algorithmic systems aren’t so very new. Turns out that there were a variety of political actors deeply invested in ensuring that the People’s House stopped growing. Some of their logics were rooted in ideas about efficiency, but some were rooted in much older ideas of power and control. (Don’t forget that the electoral college is tethered to the size of the House too!) I like to imagine power-players sitting around playing with their hands and saying mwah-ha-ha-ha as they strategize over constraining the growth of the size of the House. They wanted to do this long before 1920, but it didn’t get locked in then because they couldn’t agree, which is why they fought over the algorithm. By 1929, everyone was fed up and just wanted Congress to properly apportion and so they passed a law, a law that did two things: it stabilized the size of the House at 435 and it automated the apportionment process. Those two things – the size of the House and the algorithm – were totally entangled. After all, an automated apportionment couldn’t happen without the key variables being defined. 

Of course, that’s not the whole story. That 1929 bill was just a law. Up until then, Congress had passed a new law every decade to determine how apportionment would work for that decade. But when the 1940 census came around, they were focused on other things. And then, in effect, Congress forgot. They forgot that they have the power to determine the size of the House. They forgot that they have control over that one critical variable. The algorithm became infrastructure and the variable was summarily ignored.

Every decade, when the Census data are delivered, there are people who speak out about the need to increase the size of the House. After all, George Washington only spoke once during the Constitutional Convention. He spoke up to say that we couldn’t possibly have Congresspeople represent 40,000 people because then they wouldn’t trust government! The constitutional writers listened to him and set the minimum at 30,000; today, our representatives each represent more than 720,000 of us. 

After the 1790 census, there were 105 representatives in Congress. Every decade, that would increase. Even though it wasn’t exact, there was an implicit algorithm in that size increase. In short, increase the size of the House so that no sitting member would lose his seat. After all, Congress had to pass that bill and this was the best way to get everyone to vote on it. The House didn’t increase at the same ratio as the size of the population, but it did increase every decade until 1910. And then it stopped (with extra seats given to new states before being brought back to the zero-sum game at the next census). 

One of the recommendations of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship (for which I was a commissioner) was to increase the size of the House. When we were discussing this as a commission, everyone spoke of how radical this proposition was, how completely impossible it would be politically. This wasn’t one of my proposals – I wasn’t even on that subcommittee – so I listened with rapt curiosity. Why was it so radical? Dan taught me the answer to that. The key to political power is to turn politicking into infrastructure. After all, those who try to break a technical system, to work around an algorithm, they’re called hackers. And hackers are radical. 

Want more like this?

  1. Read “House Arrest: How an Automated Algorithm Constrained Congress for a Century” by Dan Bouk. There’s drama! And intrigue! And algorithms!
  2. Read “Democracy’s Data Infrastructure” by Dan Bouk and me. It might shape your view about public fights over math.
  3. Sign up for my newsletter. More will be coming, I promise!

Stop Siding With The Powerful: Notes From The Edge Of The Narrative Matrix

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 18/04/2021 - 10:59pm in

The US government’s armed goon squad executed a 13 year-old special ed student whose hands were empty and in the air and they’re telling Americans to worry about Russia and China.

The word fascist gets thrown around a lot, but if admitting you support police executions without trial as long as the victim is a “thug” doesn’t meet the definition, I don’t know what does. And that’s exactly what anyone who smears such victims is admitting.

Send all cop apologists to a desert colony where they can set up their Judge Dredd dystopia that lets police execute anyone without trial if they’ve been labeled a “thug”.

Defending the most powerful is always the wrong position. Defending cops from the people. The rich from the poor. The US empire from weaker powers. White people from the causes of people of color. Men from feminism. Israel from Palestinians. You’re just helping to create a more unjust and imbalanced world.

Most people intuitively grasp this, which is why a lot of effort by the powerful goes into making the up-power party look like the down-power party. But that just proves that power knows it can make itself more powerful by getting more people to defend and side with it.

You’ll see such distortion in attempts to spin the leaders of empire-targeted governments as the up-power party just because they’re the dominant power within their own nation, even though they’ve got the might of the entire US-centralized power alliance stacked against them.

That distortion is also what you’re seeing when the US plays the poor widdle victim to Russian hackers and terrorists, or when people talk about Israel as this tiny little underdog surrounded by enemies when it’s armed to the teeth and backed by the entire US power alliance.

That distortion is also what you’re seeing here:

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You could make the case that the US State Department exists primarily to reverse the perception of the powerful and the weak in the eyes of the international community. Read Tony Blinken’s Twitter page; that’s practically all he ever does.

This is generally who I spend all my time arguing against: people who are defending powerful from the weak, and people who are trying to spin the powerful as weak and defenseless.

In totalitarian countries the government spy agency tells the news media what to publish, and the news media unquestioningly publish it. In free democracies the government spy agency says “Ooh buddy have I got a scoop for you,” and the news media unquestioningly publish it.

“It’s not about ‘left’ versus ‘right’ Caitlin, that’s just something the elites made up to divide us.”

Okay well what do you call the thing where there are no elites because we took what they stole and created a fair and equitable society where everyone has enough? I want that.

Who cares if there are extraterrestrials? If there are we’re nowhere near mature enough as a species to interact with them anyway. Hell, we have giant-brained leviathans swimming in our own oceans whose mental lives we don’t understand at all, and we’ve nearly killed them off.

Some people hope the ETs will save us from the conditions we’ve created for ourselves. No they won’t. If there are ETs and they have noticed us they’re certainly not going to give a psychotic omnicidal species powerful energy technologies. There will be no ET ex machina ending.

Our species is like a guy with a completely fucked up personal life who keeps chasing goals and accomplishments outside of himself thinking it will make him happy. We need to stop looking up to the stars and focus on our severe issues right here. We’re on our own for this one.

And while we’re on the topic, what are we doing about this?

Anything? No? Okay, well, cleaning this up needs to happen, and soon. We’re choking ourselves to death here and it’s madness and no one talks about it because cleaning is not sexy or profitable. One of the many reasons capitalism is unsustainable is that it offers no reason to pour human effort and ingenuity into eliminating the giant garbage continents forming in our oceans, or to leave fossil fuels in the ground, or to stop strip mining, or leave forests as they are.

One way we could make it profitable is fining the corporations for every branded piece of garbage of theirs that we find in the Patch. Ten bucks for every Coke can, etc. That will fund the operation and put the responsibility for closing the loop on packaging right where it needs to be.

________________________

New book: Notes From The Edge Of The Narrative Matrix.

The best way to get around the internet censors and make sure you see the stuff I publish is to subscribe to the mailing list for at my website or on Substack, which will get you an email notification for everything I publish. My work is entirely reader-supported, so if you enjoyed this piece please consider sharing it around, liking me on Facebook, following my antics on Twitter, or throwing some money into my tip jar on Ko-fi, Patreon or Paypal. If you want to read more you can buy my books. For more info on who I am, where I stand, and what I’m trying to do with this platform, click here. Everyone, racist platforms excluded, has my permission to republish, use or translate any part of this work (or anything else I’ve written) in any way they like free of charge.

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How Taiwan Beat COVID-19 – New Study Reveals Clues to its Success

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 18/04/2021 - 8:50pm in

There's much to be learned from Taiwan’s success in preventing COVID-19 from taking hold, as vaccines roll out and new variants emerge.

Sunday morning thoughts

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 18/04/2021 - 7:25pm in

Thoughts from my Twitter account this morning:

Sunday environmental round up.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 18/04/2021 - 4:50am in

Tags 

climate, Politics

‘Net-zero emissions’: is it just greenwashing for business-as-usual? Despite the COVID-induced global economic slowdown, deforestation and the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouses gases both increased in 2020. Limited bleaching and death of corals on the Great Barrier Reef this summer.

The term ‘net-zero emissions’ has become ubiquitous. Governments, global intergovernmental bodies and companies love to use it in their targets because it sounds good – it’s got ‘zero’ in it and that’s what we all want, isn’t it? Zero greenhouse gas emissions!! Unfortunately, ‘net-zero’ is mostly being misused to avoid the real issue: reducing emissions, principally from the burning of fossil fuels, to absolute or ‘real zero’. Many corporations and governments are using the term, particularly ‘net-zero by 2050’, to greenwash business-as-usual emissions, or even increased business-as-usual emissions, and defer responsibility for meaningful climate action to future managers and ministers.

There are two main ways in which governments and companies are misusing the term ‘net-zero’, and the ‘offsets’ that reduce emissions from gross to net, to justify to the unsuspecting the continued burning of fossil fuels:

1) ‘We’re planting more vegetation, mainly trees, that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Sure, we still emit 20 million tonnes of CO2 per year but we’ve planted enough trees to absorb the same amount’, is the wool-over-the-eyes claim here. The main problem with this furphy is that the ‘net’ in ‘net-zero’ is not meant to allow a company or more broadly a society to continue emitting whatever it wants and offset these emissions on a balance sheet by planting enough trees to (allegedly) absorb an equivalent amount of CO2. Rather, the ‘net’ qualifier to ‘zero emissions’ is really meant to be recognition that the emissions from some activities, such as steel and cement making and air travel, are particularly difficult to prevent and will take the greatest time and effort to eliminate. Instead of shrugging and saying, ‘Ah well, we’ll just have to live with that for the time being’, the idea of ‘net-zero’ is that until this relatively small proportion of total emissions (say, 10-20%) can be eliminated, they should be offset by, for instance, planting trees so that the continuing, but hopefully steadily decreasing residual emissions, do not increase the already far too high concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.

2)  ‘We’ve changed the way we were planning to do things so that we will not now emit some emissions that we would have.’ This one is a real con and even Mark Carney, ex-head of the Bank of England and almost the patron saint of climate action in the global finance sector, was recently caught out perpetuating this sleight of hand. A simple mathematical example makes the duplicity of this ‘avoided emissions’ approach clear. Imagine that a widget-making company uses 100% fossil fuel-generated energy and the generation of this energy emits 100 tonnes of CO2 per year. Imagine the company plans to double widget production and intends to purchase the additional energy they need from solar and wind farms. With this plan they will avoid emitting an additional 100 tonnes of CO2 per year. On their books, this is then offset against the  100 tonnes they still emit from the use of fossil fuels. Hey presto, ‘net-zero’ emissions despite still emitting 100 tonnes of CO2 per year. Ignoring the fact that only real emissions reductions to as close to real zero as possible will prevent human and environmental catastrophes.

It’s great that all Australian states and territories have set goals of net-zero emissions by 2050 – it demonstrates that at least they understand there’s a need for climate action. But there are several problems:

1) in the developed world we should be reaching net-zero by 2040 at the latest, not 2050 (the recent Climate Council report says 2035);

2) there’s a serious risk that achieving ‘net-zero’ will involve a lot of creative carbon accounting rather than real emissions reduction, particularly bearing in mind the difficulty of ensuring integrity in the implementation of ecosystem offsets and measurement of the actual carbon sequestration achieved;

3) many offsetting or carbon trading schemes may turn out to be little more than damaging disruptions to ecosystems and communities in the Global South so that the Global North can continue its prodigal behaviours.

Measures to improve the integrity and effectiveness of offsetting schemes include: prioritising near-term action; permitting countries to count CO2 absorption only from offsetting schemes within their own borders; establishing separate targets for emissions avoided completely and emissions removed from the atmosphere in carbon sinks; ensuring the protection of existing intact ecosystems; and formulating international guidelines for integrity, monitoring and transparency.

Despite the economic and consumption consequences of COVID-19, the loss of forests increased by 7% globally during 2020 (12% in the tropics), with almost 100,000 square miles (the size of Victoria plus some) of tree cover lost. Many causes were involved. Land clearing (often illegally) for  crops and cattle ranching continued, while massive fires in Russia, USA and Australia, droughts and insect infestations were related to climate change. As the figure below clearly demonstrates, most of the losses occurred in Russia, Brazil, Australia and the USA. Deforestation is increasing in Brazil (where many of the fires in the Amazon were deliberately lit to clear land) and the Congo but Indonesia has been decreasing its deforestation since the disastrous human-lit fires of 2015.

It wasn’t only the forests that provided bad news for the environment during 2020. The economic recession slowed down many industries and dramatically reduced transportation and travel, resulting in a 7% decrease in carbon emissions. But despite this, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and methane, the two main contributors to global warming, continued to rise. In fact, the annual increase in CO2 during 2020 (2.6 parts per million) was the fifth highest ever recorded and would have been the highest ever had it not been for COVID.

The increase in the level of methane in the atmosphere during 2020 (14.7 parts per billion) was the largest annual increase ever recorded.

Corals can tolerate only a narrow temperature range and even half a degree Centigrade increase in summer can cause bleaching if it goes on for too long. In February I highlighted the rise in sea temperature at Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef and the bleaching that was beginning to occur. Fortunately, several cyclones passed close by but not directly over Lizard Island during the summer and the associated rainy windy weather cooled surface waters and reduced the stress on the corals. So, although some bleaching has occurred it seems likely that there won’t be much death of corals this year, which is great news as it should help the Reef continue to recover from the disastrous summers of 2014-2017. Unfortunately, this will probably be only a temporary respite as continued global warming all but guarantees that summer sea temperatures on the Reef will be high enough to cause further coral bleaching and death in the near future.

One nest box might look much like another nest box to you and me but not to a possum, parrot or microbat. The 2019/20 bushfires destroyed many of the trees that animals call home. On the valley floor of Bush Heritage’s Scottsdale Reserve near Canberra 80% of trees with hollows were lost. Stepping in quickly to provide emergency accommodation, staff and locals have constructed 60 nesting boxes, each one carefully designed and located to suit a particular species and discourage predators. The boxes are being installed over autumn to be ready for the new home-owners to take up residence in winter and spring.

Scottsdale nest box builders and installers. Photo: Phil Palmer

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Hong Kong’s housing crisis- an underlying factor in the 2019 riots.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 18/04/2021 - 4:49am in

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China, Politics

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has a serious housing problem.  There has been much discussion over the last several years about how this has amplified social discontent.  This conversation intensified during the major 2019 protests that became a lengthy anti-government and anti-Beijing rebellion.

Critical arguments have focussed prominently on the serious lack of housing accessibility due to very high purchase prices and the elevated profits of major, private housing developers.  The basic problem, as stated, is not unfounded, but the full picture on housing in Hong Kong is far more complex and interesting, while still deeply concerning.

As it happens, Hong Kong faced a more formidable housing crisis over 60 years ago, to which it responded with a remarkably successful solution.  I argue below that the essential outline of an answer to today’s housing crisis can be found within the exceptional remedies applied to that earlier housing emergency.  To understand why this is so, it is instructive to look, in some detail, at how Hong Kong’s housing regime came to be where it is today.

The Public Revenue System in Hong Kong

One can reasonably claim that Hong Kong is a remarkable tax policy museum.  For a First World jurisdiction, it has an unusually limited range of taxes – there is no prescribed, general Sales Tax, nor any formal Capital Gains Tax, for example.  Yet one can also argue that has been a centre of revenue policy innovation.  The innovation, above all, has pivoted on successfully accessing non-usual sources of public revenue (especially land-related revenues).  The result is that tax reform has been kept to a minimum.  Hong Kong thus retains a Revenue Regime (RR) which is (formally) low tax, clearly simple (with low compliance costs) and it has generated revenues sufficient to build excellent infrastructure, to provide often first rate government services, to enable Hong Kong to stay virtually debt free and to amass huge fiscal reserves. It is, as happens, also a system well-equipped to pay for and maintain a robust Rule of Law regime.

From its inception, British Hong Kong (BHK) was a Free Port, so Customs Duties were not available as a source of revenue.  Also from the outset, the British did not allow any sale of freehold land.  All land was made available as leasehold land (with strict conditions attached to each particular lease).  Landholders wishing to vary the building-usage allowed under a particular lease had, on each such occasion, to pay a premium to the Hong Kong government to secure the variation.  They still do.

This policy traces its roots to Britain’s bleak experience in losing the American Revolutionary War – and its American colonies – some 60 years earlier.  That war was significantly triggered by disputes over London-sourced taxation and price-setting.  The Colonial Office thereafter emphasized the importance of making new colonies – including Hong Kong – internally self-financing as far as possible.

In pursuit of this outcome, the practice of restricting the availability of land for development In Hong Kong evolved.  The notably hilly terrain added sense to this approach.  But this policy also helped drive the price of available land up towards the limits of what the market would accept and, thus, revenue receipts.  When one factored in the consistent strong, opium-based, growth in the economy over the first 50-plus years of British Hong Kong, the government found that its land-based revenue regime more than compensated for the shortfall in expected funding from the originally planned opium-based revenue stream

The colony’s fiscal foundations proved to be so sturdy that, within around 40 years of its founding, the Hong Kong Government had already amassed more than one year of total, normal, public expenditure in fiscal reserves.  A by-product of this policy was the retention of remarkably extensive areas of green-space surrounding Hong Kong’s far smaller, built-up area.

This land-related revenue regime was further strengthened as the total area comprising the Crown Colony increased significantly, initially in 1860 and then in 1898.  The expansion of Hong Kong increased the Hong Kong Government’s “land-bank” greatly.

The land-based revenue system remains a mainstay of the Hong Kong fiscal regime to this day.  These foundations were fundamental in allowing the colony to thrive without need to resort to any sort of direct income taxation for around 100 years – and when such taxes came they were kept low and simple.

A good way to get a feel for just how financially significant this system is, in operation, is to look at an example.  In 1995, the Hong Kong Government put a parcel of land (Lot 129) of around 180,000 square feet up for sale on Ap Lei Chau, which is an island located to the south of Hong Kong island.  Ap Lei Chau is connected by a causeway bridge to neighbouring Aberdeen on Hong Kong island.  The whole area is densely populated.  As is the case across much of Hong Kong, these high density urban areas are surrounded by wooded mountains and the sea.

Lot 129 is located along the Ap Lei Chau waterfront, across the road from numerous small-scale shipyards which service the local fishing fleet and the many pleasure junks and luxury yachts moored in the large Aberdeen Typhoon Shelter.  The government sold the Lot 129 lease – for industrial use – for just under US$30 million in 1995 to a secondary commercial-industrial developer.  By 2005, two primary residential property developers had acquired a significant interest in Lot 129 (by now valued at about US$74 million).  The two property developers needed to have the lease modified to allow a major, high-end residential development in several modern high-rise tower blocks to proceed.  The lease modification premium – paid to the government – to convert the lease from the original-sale industrial use to the high-end residential use was approximately US$504 million.  The Hong Kong Government thus derived US$534 million within around 10 years, virtually at two strokes of a pen, from the two Lot 129 transactions.

It is important to note that a key feature of this land-based revenue system is that the public land-revenues are mainly collected “up front”.  Leases in BHK typically had durations of 75, 99 or (less commonly) 999 years – with renewal rights.  Government Rent per annum (where lease-stipulated) was minimal: customarily 3% of a conservatively estimated annual, potential rent-value.  The drawbacks of relying on this “up front” payment system have been well argued by a number of commentators (for example, it crowds out smaller, less cash-rich developers and thus curbs competition).  For successive Hong Kong Governments this system has proved highly attractive, however.  For one thing, the transaction costs associated with collecting very large amounts of public revenue each year are kept remarkably low.

Since the establishment of the HKSAR within the PRC on July 1, 1997, almost all new government leases have been granted for 50 years.  The government has confirmed, however, that it has complete power to issue or renew leases beyond 2047.  The great majority of leases include a right to renew.

Hong Kong, thus, developed the use of land as a long-term, fundamental revenue source in a way no other First World jurisdiction has.  Elsewhere, primary urban land has largely been sold off into private hands.  Only in Hong Kong does government retain an indefinite, profit-sharing, core proprietorial interest in all land.  Henry George, the 19th century (American) Patron Saint of Land Taxation (one of whose followers, Lizzie Maggie, created the precursor to the game of Monopoly) never conceived of such a system.  But had George understood it in detail, it is likely he would have approved and may have adopted key aspects of what he saw into his own exceptional taxation framework.

Hong Kong’s first ever income tax was the War Revenue Ordinance passed by the Legislative Council  (LegCo) in 1940 enacted in response, above all, to the rapidly expanding invasion of China by Japan.  It created a system of schedules, establishing three separate taxes on different categories of income – a Property Tax with a flat rate, a Salaries Tax with progressive rates and a Profits Tax with a flat rate for corporations and progressive rates for unincorporated firms.  The Ordinance exempted all offshore income from taxation.

In drafting the Ordinance, the War Revenue Committee copied the schedular British Income Tax system introduced by Prime Minister Addington in 1803, despite the fact that the British system itself had been reformed in 1910 to base tax liability on a taxpayer’s total income.

The new, post-war, 1947 tax legislation passed by LegCo, the Inland Revenue Ordinance (IRO), retained the basic schedular structure and the restricted territorial ambit of the War Revenue Ordinance.  Since 1947, the IRO has been formally re-examined on three occasions, in 1954, 1968, and 1976, by Review Committees.  No major alterations have been made to the IRO, however.

 One decisive role of the PRC-enacted, mini-constitution of the HKSAR, the Basic Law, is to provide for the highest degree of fiscal separation between Hong Kong and the Mainland (Two Systems) within the PRC (One Country).  Particular effort has been put into drafting provisions in the Basic Law which are designed to install a constitutional, “fiscal firewall” between the two Tax Systems.

Article 106 of the Basic Law provides that Hong Kong is to have its own independent finances and prohibits the PRC from raising taxes in Hong Kong or sharing the HKSAR’s tax revenue.  Article 108 further provides that:

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall practise an independent taxation system.  The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall, taking the low tax policy previously pursued in Hong Kong as reference, enact laws on its own concerning types of taxes, tax rates, tax reductions, allowances and exemptions, and other matters of taxation.

Housing in British Hong Kong

The critical role of adequate basic housing in maintaining colonial stability was made starkly clear to the BHK Government on the evening of Christmas Day, December 25, 1953, when a devastating fire swept through the Shek Kip Mei squatter area in Kowloon.  Some 53,000 immigrants from the Mainland, whom the BHK Government had no choice but to look after, were made homeless overnight.  The Governor, Sir Alexander Grantham launched what was to become one the most massive public housing projects in any large city, worldwide.  Grantham was able to commence this project because the BHK government could, both: supply the land on which to build; and fund the construction expenditure.  Initial temporary housing was erected within two months.  Between 1954 and 1964 the BHK Government built more than 140 multi-story “Resettlement Blocks” as they were known.  In 1971, the then new Governor, Sir Murray Maclehose, announced a still bigger public housing programme to house close to 2 million people in flats (small as they were) fitted with decent facilities.

The remarkable outcome has been the creation of Hong Kong’s vast stock of Public Rental Housing (PRH) – now over 800,000 flats – and the mass provision of subsidized Home Ownership Scheme (HOS) residences – now in excess of 400,000 flats.  All such flats are small with average living space per person at around 11 square metres.  Older PRH estates are often conveniently located and even new estates normally have good public transport access.

Rents average less than $US250 per month or 10-15% of disposable income.  As that income normally falls below the taxable threshold, resulting in zero liability for Salaries Tax, PRH residents typically have enjoyed disposable incomes of 85%-90% of gross income, after rent.  Thus, the large majority of low income Hong Kong residents are comparatively well housed, though in small flats.  A system exists, too, for passing on a PRH flat from one generation to the next, subject to a means test regime.  Almost 30% of Hong Kong residents live in PRH with about another 20% living in subsidized, privately owned housing.

But how was this housing revolution was funded when private market residential flats prices have long been, per square foot, among the highest in the world?  Because the BHK Government had retained the freehold title of virtually all land, the then readily available land used to build PRH and HOS flats came at zero nominal cost as the scheme was implemented.  And all that public revenue from (high value) land-related transactions greatly assisted in the creation of the ample fiscal reserves which readily funded building costs.

The completed flats have been let at low rent to stable, reliable tenants, on the whole, so that bad debt and excessive wear-and-tear problems are minimized.

The very worst off, amongst those living below the Poverty Line in Hong Kong were – and still are – the poor who lack access to PRH.  Stuck in low income jobs (if that fortunate) families of four or more can find themselves with no choice but to rent (an often non-legal) “subdivided unit” of 10 square metres or even less.  This is where the poverty gap in Hong Kong is intolerably evident.  Around 230,000 people are estimated to live in more than 100,000 such subdivided units.  The PRH waiting list for such people averages almost six years, according to one recent report.

An Antipodean Comparative Perspective

Some comparative context is useful to add perspective on these difficult housing problems facing Hong Kong.  New Zealand and Australia do not face the very constrained land-availability problems of Hong Kong.  Both are wealthy First World jurisdictions blessed with significant natural resources.  Yet according to recorded figures, homelessness is a significantly greater problem in both jurisdictions compared to Hong Kong.

The official Hong Kong homelessness rate was under 1,200 in 2018.  Academic studies, looking at street-sleepers, say that the real rate is at least 2,000.  In a population of 7.7 million this is equivalent to a rate of .015% to .026%.  (The poor in Hong Kong renting sub-divided units endure very harsh, cramped living conditions, of course – but they do have a fixed home to return to each evening.)

Homelessness estimates for New Zealand range from an official government figure of 4,000 to an academic study figure of 41,000 in a population of almost 4.8 million, equivalent to a rate ranging from .083% to .85%.  In Australia, homelessness was estimated, by the Australian Bureau of Statistics at over 115,000 in 2018, in a population of just on 25 million, which translates as rate of .46%.  It is true that different measuring methods may be being used but these figures are at least indicative.  Using the minimum comparative figure, New Zealand has a homelessness rate which is more than three times the higher estimate for the HKSAR.  Using the highest New Zealand and Hong Kong estimates, the New Zealand rate is over 32 times higher.  In Australia, the rate is almost 18 times higher.

Some other comparative statistics related to the provision of PRH in New Zealand and Australia are worth noting.  Housing New Zealand has about 62,000 PRH units available for rent – a ratio of units to total population of 1.3%.  The ration in Australia is somewhat higher than that for New Zealand at 1.7%.  Just looking at PRH flats in Hong Kong (not including HOS flats) the comparative ratio is just on 11.4 % – almost nine times higher than in New Zealand and almost seven time higher than in Australia.  In both New Zealand and Australia, rents for PRH are typically about 25% (or more) of total income compared to 10-15% in Hong Kong.

Housing in the HKSAR

So why does the HKSAR face such a housing crisis today?

First, consider the demand-side of the explanation.  Basic claims for better access to decent accommodation have continued to rise.  Apart from close to a quarter of a million, penurious Hong Kong residents  living in tiny, sub-standard flats waiting to move to PRH, other demand-factors are applying pressure.  Under a long-sanctioned (by the British) migration programme, over 50,000 family-reunion Mainlanders per year (of typically modest means) are allowed to take up permanent residence in Hong Kong.  This typically has added over 1 million new residents to the Hong Kong population every 20 years.  Then there is the mass of younger HKSAR residents who, not unreasonably, very much aspire to move out of the family home and into a home of their own.

Next – and crucially – compared to several decades ago, the Hong Kong Government has now run up against major land shortage problems making it more difficult than ever to build badly needed additional PRH flats and HOS flats.  This land shortfall is not, however, a product of a dire shortage of physical land within the HKSAR.  It is far more a consequence of entrenched policies restricting land usage – and land creation.  Some of these policies are of very long-standing.

For political-historical (and hilly-geography) reasons, measurably less than 30% of the total HKSAR area (today) of some 1100 square kilometres is subject to high density development.  Over 70% is designated as “countryside” which includes low-rise accommodation, farmland and remarkably expansive “country parks”.  Moreover, for political-environmental reasons, land-reclamation, a consistent practice from 1842 and throughout the BHK era, has become increasingly difficult to implement.

The government has ambitious plans to increase the supply of housing by 450,000 public and private units (70% public and 30% private) over the coming years through until 2029 – using, inter alia, re-zoned farmland and low density areas and so called “brownfield” sites (without reclaiming areas in country parks).  This is, though, a project constrained by an abundance of contemporary, rights-influenced, legal and NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) obstacles.

The government is, thus, also planning a massive reclamation to create around 1,700 hectares of new land (in essence, a new island) close to the eastern end of Lantau Island, not so far from Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.  Housing could be provided here for over one million people by 2035.

The Lantau Tomorrow proposal is, predictably, controversial, though many of the criticisms amount to making the perfect and enemy of the good.  Few places have had greater, successful experience with land reclamation than Hong Kong.  Only the government can “build”: new land.  With new land, the NIMBY problems are far less acute and by building its own new land, the bargaining power of the government will be enhanced as it deals with the leasehold-owners (often major developers) of farmland and related sites.  The cost is great and there are risks.  Completing the project may initially involve spending much of the fiscal reserve fund.  This would reduce the cash reserves but the land reclaimed would create a, potentially more valuable asset-reserve.  One conservative estimate suggests that the value of the land created should exceed the reclamation cost by 14% (US$145 billion vs US$128 billion).  It is planned that much of the created land would be sold (on a leasehold basis) to private developers creating a prominent cash replenishment of fiscal reserves.

This huge new reclamation also has significant potential to assist in ways no other proposals can, for example, by allowing the complete relocation (and redevelopment) of large, ageing PRH estates while retaining “neighbourhood” characteristics.

Another Comparative Perspective

Interestingly, Singapore is now providing some fresh evidence of the long-term (stability-maintaining) wisdom of the Hong Kong approach.  In notable respects the Singapore public housing system is superior to that in Hong Kong.  In particular, living space is unmistakably better and Singapore uses an “owner-occupier” model where almost all occupiers (over 80% of the population) live in flats which are owned under a 99 year lease.  However, these leases do not have any renewal rights.

The reason is that it is a long-standing policy of the Singapore Government that such leased-flats are to be handed back to the government after 99 years to allow for redistribution to future generations.  As certain leases now have less than 50 years to run, some owners are finding that their primary asset is beginning to depreciate in value and re-selling to other eligible buyers is made more difficult.

The Singapore Government is trying to explain that owning such a flat was never meant to be an indefinitely secure, appreciating investment and to convince owners that it is in the public interest that this is so.  This is not an easy task and it looks set to grow more difficult as time passes.

 Conclusion

I argued at the outset that seeing Hong Kong’s housing predicament primarily in terms of sky high purchases prices and maximum developer profits provides a notably incomplete portrait of the overall housing position in the HKSAR leading to an abbreviated misreading of the whole picture.

Frankly, Hong Kong has long lived with these price and profit realities.  They are very significantly a product of the land-related revenue system which has done such a remarkable job of boosting public revenues in HK since 1842, while supporting a low-rate, simple general taxation system.  Curbing the supply of land for private housing has not only boosted developer profits – it has also singularly enhanced public revenues.

However, this core element in Hong Kong’s unique revenue system created a major problem in that it was pricing even basic, decent housing far beyond the reach of the lower paid and, indeed, was making it unaffordable for a clear majority of residents.  This was a result of the system’s inherent tendency to push land prices higher combined with policies producing a shortage of available land for high density usage and the almost always steady growth in demand.

For more than six decades successive Hong Kong Governments have applied a distinctive solution which has involved creating one of the most extensive systems for providing public housing (or social housing as it is now often called) seen anywhere on this scale.  The government has used land over which it had so prudently retained ultimate ownership and ample saved funds, not least from the land-related revenue streams, to bring about this housing revolution.   It is, in many respects, an extraordinary public policy achievement.

The result, today, is that the government still directly provides PRH for around 2.5 million Hong Kong residents – and it continues to build (and rebuild) PRH on a very large scale.  Meanwhile, the HOS flats, which permit flat purchases by lower-income groups at discounted prices has been a primary and effective way of allowing access to home ownership to purchasers who would otherwise be shut out of the market.  These buyers do not have to pay the cost of the underlying land value on first purchase (effectively from the government) – this is collected at the time of certain resale transactions.  These flats house around 1.5 million residents.

The solution has, however, always left too many behind.  This was so during the BHK era.  And it remains the case today.  Intense levels of demand continue to exceed supply – and it is not hard to see why.  There are the pressing needs of the poorest Hong Kong residents living in over 100,000 tiny, sub-standard flats and paying, per square foot, extremely high rents.  Then there are the 50,000 family-reunion Mainlanders immigrants per year and the conspicuous number of younger HKSAR residents who face inordinate difficulty in securing a home of their own.

Since mid-2020, new measures have being applied by Beijing in the HKSAR to help rebuild stability following the exceptional political rioting in 2019.  These remedies are quite drastic, including a conspicuous reduction in the role of democratic elections.  But they are a direct and calibrated response to an extended, offshore supported insurrection in the HKSAR – followed by a further election-based, political destabilization project – both of which unfolded during the ongoing escalation of the US-led, confrontational, Sino-containment project.

A crucial aspect of rebuilding Hong Kong’s stability is the wholesale restructuring of the LegCo electoral system.  For more than a decade LegCo grew increasingly dysfunctional.  It became the base for a political struggle between the pro-democracy opposition and the HKSAR Government (and Beijing).  In due course, the determined, continuous nature of these opposition tactics, which were sometimes visibly extreme, effectively rendered Hong Kong’s legislature no longer fit for purpose.  These radical new reforms have addressed what had become a severe shortfall in the ability of the HKSAR to govern itself by recasting the primary foundations of LegCo.

Despite the depletion of Hong Kong’s very large fiscal reserves due to exceptional deficit-spending to cushion the severe economic impact of the COVID pandemic, ample reserves (including within the relevant housing authorities) remain to help drive the accelerated building of substantially more social housing (for rent and for sale).  Ernst & Young estimated, in January, 2021, that COVID spending has reduced the reserves by about 30% but remaining reserves still totalled over US$100 billion.  Moreover, once the Hong Kong economy begins growing, we can expect, as in the past, to see these reserves being steadily replenished.  Finally, this enhanced building project will generate substantial reliable revenues from sales and rents as each phase is completed.

The good news, overall, is that the environment for tackling the Hong Kong housing problem has distinctly improved.  Although the government still faces that very serious land supply problem, it is now possible to consider more freely, how to address this singular impediment.

Continuing, serious research on the Lantau Tomorrow proposal makes good policy sense as component in the long-term planning to address Hong Kong’s enduring housing needs.  As noted above, advancing that proposal will also put the government in a better bargaining positing as it negotiates a way through the pricing and legal complexities required to access privately held brownfield (etc) sites.

But there is one further option that should now be seriously considered.

Singapore has a population of around 5. 5 million living within an area of 719 square kilometres compared to 7.7 million living within 1100 square kilometres in Hong Kong.  A report by Ken Chu, a leading businessman, in the South China Morning Post in 2017, noted, acutely, that in Singapore around 14% of land is used for housing with around 10% set aside as parks and nature reserves while the comparable figures in Hong Kong are 7% of land devoted to housing and around 40% set aside as country parks and reserves.

Numbers of country parks in the HKSAR include areas of low-ecological value which abut significant housing estates.   Chu, who strongly favours increasing the supply of public sector, subsidized housing, makes a cogent case that Hong Kong should look very seriously at these areas, arguing that taking just 2.5% of such land could allow the construction of over 400,000 new residential units.

Building on this land is not straight-forward as it is typically hilly; there are significant civil engineering challenges.  But a number of large public housing estates were successfully built during the BHK era on awkwardly elevated sites.  This can be done.

As explained above, this remarkably high level of green space in Hong Kong is a clear if indirect product of the British policy of greatly restricting the land available for high density development.  Today, Hong Kong’s extensive country parks are a source of justifiable pride.  They are also “protected” by voluble often strident green-group lobbying.  It is a fair bet that these civil society guardians live in sound housing – they do not live in sub-divided units.

In truth, what was once a positive British legacy has also become, over time, an impediment to sound planning in the public interest.  The taboo on resolving this conflict of priorities in order to address the most basic social need – decent housing – needs to be lifted.

Massive spending on public housing (widely defined), enabled by Hong Kong’s super-solvency, has provided a crucial foundation for the dominant, long-term social-stability which has largely prevailed since the end of World War II.  That stability has been regularly tested by intense, sometimes deadly, political protesting.  After each such ordeal, Hong Kong has, typically, collectively righted itself.  Today it needs to do so, again, as it rebuilds after the immensely damaging upheaval in 2019.

Although the HKSAR will fairly soon have a radically transformed legislature, the reformed LegCo will take time to find its feet.  However, the path has been made clear to consider a full range of imaginative solutions to the fundamentally important housing crisis in the HKSAR.  It has become feasible to work constructively on securing a significant fix for this problem over the next 10 years.  This was not conceivable working within the previous LegCo structure.

Adding to the sense of urgency, Beijing, frustrated by all of the governance difficulties regularly thrown up since 1997, is insisting that Hong Kong has to put confrontational politics aside and apply itself constructively and energetically to fix what Beijing says matters.  Housing is one elemental item at the top of that “solutions-needed” list.

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A Minneapolis community and systematic racism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 18/04/2021 - 4:44am in

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Politics

While I think would be a conceit for outsiders to imagine the lives of the residents of George Floyd’s neighbourhood, the trial in Minneapolis does however provide a limited glimpse of a lived experience which, other than for many indigenous citizens, is alien to most Australians.

In The Heart of Darkness, the narrator observes that for Marlow “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze”. The jury will determine the guilt or innocence of Derek Chauvin over George Floyd’s death and his trial will then be over. That tale will then have been told. But the testimony of the witnesses exposes the ongoing and ever present life of a community.

The onlookers testified that they were drawn to the disturbance, and took videos, because they knew something bad would probably happen. A familiar intimation of trouble. A lesson learned over time. Day-to-day experience had given them an intuitive sense that all the elements of a potential tragedy were present. But it wasn’t voyeurism that brought them to the scene. The videos and voice recordings show something else entirely.

The locals seemed to know from experience that individuals, unsupported and unobserved, are vulnerable. Only under the gaze of the local community is there any protection or chance of justice for their fellow citizens. It must be like living with lions. When the patrol cars enter their neighbourhood, prowling on the lookout for those who the authorities deem miscreants and perpetrators, or just undesirables, the lone individual has little chance. The people living in the area know this and it drives a collective response to attend situations where bad things might happen.

Alisha Oyler, the 23-year-old cashier from the Speedway store across the road, began recording events from her work place, eventually moving outside and taking seven videos in all. I had to reflect on that. A young woman who was so alert to the signs in her environment that she reacted before anything dramatic had occurred; because life in the neighbourhood had sensitised her to the subtle, small indicators of possible impending trouble.

Sixty-one-years-old Charles McMillian who was driving by pulled over from the same instinct. He was the first witness onto the scene. This was his neighbourhood and he had to see what was happening. Not because he was nosey. He wanted to give George Floyd some advice based on his personal observations of how best to survive a police interaction, and to attempt moral suasion on Derek Chauvin to mitigate the disaster he could sense was emerging.

He advised Mr Floyd not to resist because once they have you in the squad car the end result is certain. But it was his interaction with the police officer that is telling. Impotent before the officers, Mr McMillian reminded Derek Chauvin that he would be able to go home to his family safe that night and as a human he should want to see the same for others. Confronted by the power of the state, Mr McMillian called on their shared humanity and the moral principles they should all live by. He and his community have little else to fall back on. He cried in the witness box recalling his helplessness to avert the tragedy.

Another compelling example of the camaraderie, mutual care and shared responsibility, grown out of the recognition that they only have each other and that is never enough, comes from Darnella Frazier. Darnella was seventeen at the time she recorded the events. She also showed that preternatural sense that things would go wrong and that all she could do was document the events as they unfolded.

The videos show her providing vocal support to Floyd on the ground and urging the police to pay attention to his condition. She also broke down in tears when asked about how witnessing the event had affected her. She said that every night she apologised “to George Floyd for not doing more.” Frazier, a white teenager, said every time she views the video she thinks of all the black men who could have been in the same situation as Floyd.

There were more witnesses who showed the same sense of community; who saw the situation as familiar, and as one that they had all encountered one way or another in their normal lives. Christopher Martin a cashier at the Cup Foods grocery store, Donald Wynn Williams a mixed martial arts fighter, Genevieve Hansen a Minneapolis firefighter, and a nine-year-old girl all told of similar reactions. Impotence, frustration, sadness, incomprehension, and resignation, and a deep sense of regret that they could do nothing to stop what was happening.

George Floyd’s death has had an international impact and the vision of him dying shocked people everywhere. Protests were sparked across the world over the disproportionate chances of black people being killed by police. But for the handful of people who gathered on the sidewalk at the corner of Chicago and 38th Streets in Minneapolis on the 25th of May, 2020, it was an event so common that they could see in advance how the course of events would unfold. People brought to the scene by signs that only people familiar with the environment could read, who could taste trouble in the air, and detect an unwelcome change in the atmosphere.

For outsiders this trial is a small insight into the reality of systemic racism. It not only occasionally kills. It is a constant presence. It puts whole communities in a state of perpetual preparedness, where the worst is always to be anticipated, and survival depends on constantly scanning the environment.

The determination of the senior police officials to reform bad behaviour by injecting proactive policies and training into police practises was also clear in their testimony. The results on the street indicate this process still has a long way to go.

The impression given is of a strong community that is accustomed to regular threatening intrusions. Experience seems to have given them a keen awareness of changes in their environment and the realisation that they need to come together and rely on each other. Their constant state is one of alertness, frustration at their impotence, and sadness at their shared predicament.

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