Taking a break part two

Syria and climate change – reaping what you sow

It is a curious fact that many of those most gung ho about committing troops and other assorted massive military options to Syria are often among the leading climate sceptics – with some preeminent examples being our former PM Tony Abbott and various US Republican presidential candidates.

The thought sprung to mind after reading a paper – Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought – in the March 2015 Proceeedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The paper – by Colin P. Kelley of University of California, Santa Barbara and, Shahrzad Mohtadib, Mark A. Cane, Richard Seager and Yochanan Kushnir of Columbia University – looked at the recent drought in Syria. Farming and herding appeared in what is now Syria about 12,000 years ago – hence the name the Fertile Crescent.

The paper authors said: “Before the Syrian uprising that began in 2011, the greater Fertile Crescent experienced the most severe drought in the instrumental record. For Syria, a country marked by poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental policies, the drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to political unrest. We show that the recent decrease in Syrian precipitation is a combination of natural variability and a long-term drying trend, and the unusual severity of the observed drought is here shown to be highly unlikely without this trend. Precipitation changes in Syria are linked to rising mean sea-level pressure in the Eastern Mediterranean, which also shows a long-term trend…(along with) a long-term warming trend in the Eastern Mediterranean, adding to the drawdown of soil moisture… (and)…. No natural cause is apparent for these trends, whereas the observed drying and warming are consistent with model studies of the response to increases in greenhouse gases.”

“Analyses of observations and model simulations indicate that a drought of the severity and duration of the recent Syrian drought, which is implicated in the current conflict, has become more than twice as likely as a consequence of human interference in the climate system,” they conclude. One might also observe, of course, that we reap what we sow.

Taxation survey

We now know just how little tax big business pays thanks to the ATO data which the Liberals – and business – didn’t want released. We also know, thanks to her interview, that our new ABC MD worked for Google in Singapore but had nothing to do with the fact that Google avoided tax in Australia by routing revenue through the city state. One hopes that she rapidly becomes more aware of ABC operations than she was of Google’s.

However, you can work out how the tax she pays on her $900,000 salary compares to what corporations pay in Australia. Indeed, you can even compare your own tax burden with that of the companies in a useful little calculator published by The Guardian on 18 December 2015. Please don’t choke on your Xmas crayfish when you make the comparison.

Innovation and optimism

 On November 21 2015 The Economist published a series of articles on the ‘internet of things’, open data and associated developments and what it meant for companies, governments and individuals. Ostensibly all good stuff for our new PM and his emphasis on innovation, agility and optimism – but unfortunately it takes more than mouthing the words to get the outputs hoped for. Indeed, in a leader summing up the internet of things and what it means, The Economist, said: “Governments, too, need to adjust. Bureaucratic initiatives like Industrie 4.0 (a 2011 German initiative) matter less than the basics: top-notch broadband infrastructure, the right balance between open data and privacy, and decent computer-science teaching in schools.” Now let’s look forward to some journalist asking, in response to the next Prime Ministerial statement on innovation and agility, just how “top notch’ Australia is in all these areas.

Perhaps we could also revisit our disappearing manufacturing industry. Ha-Joon Chang, a Cambridge University Reader in Economics. He has been talking for a while about the ‘discourse of the post-industrial service economy’ highlighting its harmful impact on the UK, for instance. In a recent Financial Times article on lessons from the Swiss chocolate industry (a starting point indicative of his engaging and illuminating style) he points out that rather than being a poster child for a service economy Switzerland is “actually the most industrialised economy in the world, with the highest rate of manufacturing output per person”. Taking into account relative price changes he finds that over the past few decades  “the share of manufacturing has declined only marginally in most advanced countries (the UK is an exception) and even increased in countries such as the US, Switzerland, Sweden and Finland. Thus, contrary to what the discourse of post-industrialism believes, the ability of produce manufactured goods competitively remains the most important determinant of a country’s living standards.”

And as for Australian business bleats about wages pricing Australia out of manufacturing and other things the list of countries where manufacturing has increased suggest that there is little or no correlation between wages and manufacturing output.


Barton Swaim, the former speechwriter for the former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (of Brazilian lover fame), highlighted in a TLS article (31 July 2015) some irritating shorthand quirks which get entrenched in speechwriting habits. Politicians have always had distinctive speech quirks which are quite easy to imitate. The blog once turned out, while a group of staffers was waiting around late at night, a series of very brief speeches in different styles fashionable at the time – including Jerry Brown now back as Governor of California with a rather different style – to demonstrate how formulaic even good techniques can become.

Swaim focusses on some Sanford quirks but also lists a host of others. For instance: the use of “from…to” as a means of creating connections between problems and policies which probably have no correlation at all; “whether it’s” and “selflessly” when re-nominating someone undistinguished to a position;  “speaks volumes” as a means of making it sound like you are making a large claim without actually doing so;  and, “about” as in any attempt to frame whatever you are talking about something else altogether eg. Swaim points out that Bill Clinton  – as are lots of other politicians – was a great user of ‘about’ in this context and Swaim uses the example of “reforming our tax structure is about more than just our economy; it’s about our future.” Now where have we heard that before?

Religion and charity

One of the arguments, albeit a very weak one, about religion is that it makes people moral. The lessons of history suggest this is not exactly right. As many have reminded us in response to Tony Abbott’s call for an Islamic Reformation, the European Reformation quickly led to a century of warfare killing, intolerance and general bastardry.

To test whether religion and altruism were, however, linked Dr Jean Decety of the University of Chicago studied 1170 families (about half of them Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu) in Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa, the US and Turkey, using an activity to measure altruism, He found that children of religious parents were less likely to be altruistic than those of non-believers.

The paper (whose title says it all) – The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World – was published in Current Biology on 5 November 2015. It makes it clear that modern day religious types don’t love their neighbours. But then neither did their forbears during the Thirty Years’ War.

Some New Year insights

The blog got interviewed recently about the Baird Government’s new anti-pot sloth campaign. The blog hasn’t seen all the ads but apparently one features a sloth at a family Xmas. The blog mentioned to the interviewer that many family Xmases – a time which leads to divorce, heart attacks, suicides and arguments – might be easier to cope with after a couple of joints and the campaign might therefore encourage greater rather than lesser use. The blog also mentioned that the campaign, like most government drug campaigns, is not really about solving the problem. Instead, they meet Harold Macmillan’s observation about government, that “We cannot do very much, but we can seem to be very busy – and that is half the battle nowadays.

And a thought about showing not telling from Horace, who has been much on the blog’s mind much this year, “things heard incite the mind much less than those things our trusting eyes see.”

Finally, perhaps the New Year might bring some government policies which contribute to a Bogota mayor’s policy aspiration – “a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.”