From, a post summarizing recent findings about how well Obamacare is working on cost containment. There are two particularly interesting links in the post, one from the Kaiser Foundation about the expected 2015 health insurance plan costs, and an updated estimate from the Congressional Budget Office on the future costs of Obamacare. They both present slightly surprising news about how well Obamacare is working.

Falling health insurance premiums

The Kaiser Foundation reviews the cost of health insurance plans annually, and in 2013 it released estimates of the 2014 plan costs. This year it updated those estimates, using comparable methodology, and has found that the cost of some plans is going to fall dramatically, with a 0.8% drop in the cost of plans overall. The Foundation press release is available here, and includes a link to the report here [pdf]. This report is interesting because it looks at the cost of specific types of health insurance plan available through the health insurance exchanges (HIE) set up under Obamacare, so it is directly assessing the cost of plans that were introduced under Obamacare’s rules, operate within its mechanisms, and should be subject to cost containment and competition under the system established by Obamacare. The plans analyzed were the lowest-cost Bronze plan and the two lowest-cost Silvers. These plans are chosen because they are subject to subsidies, so the change in costs will directly affect the government’s budget bottom line, and they are also the plans poorer Americans are most likely to take up.

The system under which these plans operate is costly, but is explained fairly simply in the report. Basically people earning up to 400% of the poverty line are eligible for subsidies when they select these plans, which ensure they pay no more than 9.5% of their income for health insurance and as little as 2.5% for the poorest. Bronze plans get a stronger subsidy rule for people on up to 250% of the poverty line (I think). This is a kind of compensation for having been forced to take up insurance by the Individual Mandate aspect of Obamacare. Furthermore there is a nasty little competition-enhancer built into the act, which I didn’t know about and which is explained on page 4-5 of the document: if you are on a subsidized plan and some new insurer offers a cheaper plan of the same kind, your subsidy will be reduced by the difference in plan costs if you don’t switch plans. So as soon as a cheaper plan enters the marketplace, the insurer offering the more expensive plan will begin to bleed customers; and because there is now no way for an insurer to refuse to sell you a plan, the major blocker of churning (inability to switch plans due to pre-existing conditions) that used to exist will no longer prevent competition from being effective. As we will see, this nasty little trick buried in the law may have a significant role to play.

The Kaiser Foundation analyzed 15 plans from 15 states that included a major city and that have released their 2015 estimated premiums. It found major increases in the cost of plans in some states, from 8.7% in Tennessee to 0.8% in Los Angeles; and major falls in others, from 0.7% in New York to 15.6% in Nevada (page 2; unlabelled figure). Note that this means just in California and NY alone you are seeing no average change in plan costs in an area affecting a population of something like 60 million people. The average fall over the whole dataset was 0.8%; it’s not clear to me if this is a population-weighted average. On pages 3-5 you can see that these changes don’t affect people living on salaries up to 400% of the poverty line in most cases; all the changes actually affect is the size of the subsidy these people receive. It seems to me that this means all the competition pressure on health insurance companies arises from offering plans to people earning over 400% of the poverty line, to employers, and in attempts to grab market share through offering cheaper plans to the subsidized population. I think this is still a huge amount of competition pressure on the insurance companies, and the Kaiser Foundation offers some evidence that this competition is working. is all breathless about how “premiums never fall” and “this is unprecedented,” but I don’t know if that is true or not; it could just be that the health insurance companies miscalibrated their plan prices in 2013, when the HIEs were first opening, because they (like a lot of people!) misjudged how popular the Exchanges would be, and now they are able to lower prices because they have a larger pool of low-risk customers than they expected. If that is the real reason for these falls, then it seems likely future falls in premium price are not to be expected; but even if this is the case, it still points to a huge win for Obamacare, since getting low-risk young people into insurance plans to push down prices was a core goal of the policy.

I have a caveat on the future progress of premium prices under best-case scenarios; see my final point below for more on this.

Reduced subsidy cost to the government

The CBO report can be accessed here [pdf], and presents an interesting picture of both predicted costs to the government, and insurance numbers. This report is also an update on a previous report, calculated using the same methodology, so enables comparability over time. Basically the CBO over-estimated the cost to the government of subsidies provided to people taking plans on the HIEs, to the tune of $100 billion over 9 years (that’s a pretty big overestimate!!) The main reason for this overestimate is that the cost of insurance plans is lower than expected, and is expected to rise at lower rates than previously predicted. The average cost now is $3,800, which is expected to rise to $6,900 over the next 9 years; the estimate for 2015 is $3,900 where previously it was $4,400 (page 6), indicating that greater downward pressure has been exerted on prices than was expected, and driving future savings.

The CBO also provides estimates and predictions of health insurance coverage rates (Table 2 on page 4), which show some pretty amazing figures. Most importantly from a coverage perspective, the number of uninsured has been calculated to have decreased by 12 million in 2014, rising to 26 million in 2024 with the majority of those figures being made up in the early years. That’s a huge achievement for health reform in the USA, and if it is sustained will truly be Obama’s great legacy. From the perspective of other nations with 99% coverage of universal insurance it’s a poor outcome, but from the perspective of the USA it’s the biggest social welfare achievement in several generations.

The CBO estimates of coverage include estimates with and without illegal immigrants included, because undocumented immigrants are not eligible for subsidies or access to the HIE, and will form a larger portion of the pool of uninsured as time passes. However, even after excluding them from the pool of uinsured, by the CBO’s calculations the problem of the uninsured will not be fully solved by Obamacare at any time in the next 10 years: insurance coverage will increase to 92% of non-elderly legally resident Americans by 2024 (Table 2 on page 4, again). The exact increase in coverage over a world without Obamacare is not calculated, but it appears to be about 10 percentage points. Now, in 2014, with Obamacare fully functional for 6 months to a year (and some of its provisions in place for a couple of years) coverage is still only 86%. For the sake of America’s poor and sick, I hope that the CBO’s projections prove to be an underestimate.

From the CBO’s projections it is worth noting that Obamacare is expected to cost the government about $150 billion a year a decade from now. That’s not small change! But the post has some other figures from other reports which suggest that actually there are major cost containment outcomes beginning to show, which is interesting and in my opinion unexpected – I thought cost containment would be one major area where Obamacare would fail. I also didn’t think competition pressures would be effective in lowering prices at least in the short term, so it will be interesting to see if Obamacare exceeds my expectations. Watch this space!

These two linked reports between them do give a fairly good overview of the function of Obamacare, how it works in practice and where its limitations are. Obamacare is a complex beast and it’s worth reading them if you want to get a better understanding of how the new system works from a policy and financing perspective. Reading them also helps to give a sense of how complex the US health financing system is, and how difficult and delicate a task it is to introduce a law aimed at moving towards universal health coverage that doesn’t use a top-down single payer system. The more I see of Obamacare in action, the more I appreciate the challenge Obama faced and the skill with which he developed his signature policy.

A caveat on the future of Obamacare: where the real costs lie

At the bottom of the Vox post is a link to this related post on eight facts about America’s insurance system. It has some interesting material about different problems with the American system, but point 5) seems most relevant to the debate about cost containment under Obamacare. According to this post, hospitals and health plans have very low profit margins compared to drug companies and manufacturers. Part of this is probably just statistical anomaly: major hospital networks and health plans in the USA are not-for-profits, and by design cannot be expected to contribute to calculations of profit margins. But the broader point is important: while Obamacare focuses heavily on competition through health plans, the companies providing these plans don’t have the ability to cut costs through their own operations. If they achieve cost containment, they are going to have to do it through pushing down the profits of the people they purchase drugs and technology from. But these are the people furthest removed along the purchasing chain, and hardest for a fragmented insurance industry to force price reductions from. This suggests that in future the health plans will not be able to further compete on price without further structural reforms to the way the industry works, most particularly some kind of cost constraints on the medical device and drug manufacturers. While superficially this might seem antithetical to the modern capitalist system, it’s pretty standard in most countries with good cost containment programs (Australia and Japan, for example) to have fairly strict price controls on drug companies.

The problem for insurers in America is that they don’t have bargaining power. They need to exert price controls on companies that can sell to their competitors, and because they are offering a service in a fragmented market they can’t effectively withdraw their purchasing power as a last-ditch negotiating tactic. In future I think this means a US administration is going to have to step in to directly fix some maximum prices, or use innovative policy instruments to give defacto joint bargaining power to the insurance industry. I suspect one way that this could be done would be to make the HIE a vehicle for price negotiation – so all insurance plans operating through an HIE can use the HIE as an intermediary for price negotiations with device/drug companies, kind of like the Wheat Marketing Board that used to negotiate prices on behalf of all wheat farmers in Australia. You can bet that the pharmaceutical industry will fight such a change viciously. Another possibility could be to exempt health insurance companies from racketeering or anti-competitive practices laws when they are negotiating with providers, so that they are able to openly collude to fix prices. This would likely also kick up a huge stink, and could have serious negative consequences if other sectors of the economy managed to successfully demand the same right (I’m looking at Microsoft, of course). Another option would be for the government to find ways to encourage (or force) mergers of insurance companies until they reach a large enough size that they can effectively negotiate with providers; but the size required would likely lead to monopoly providers in some states, which would undermine the competition benefits arising from exchanges.

I think this is a fundamental problem of a free market in health, that is going to be very hard to fix without substantially altering the amount of “freedom” in the free market. Obama has shown, I think, that carefully-constructed law has the potential (not yet achieved!) to guide a free market system towards universal health coverage without completely breaking its fundamental structures, so maybe future extensions of Obamacare to resolve these cost constraint limits are also possible. But when we look at how difficult it has been to get Obamacare through, and consider the unique properties of the person who achieved it, it’s really hard to believe that after Obama leaves office there will be another person with the same talents and traits, and the same initial popularity, who will appear in the next 10 years and be able to achieve the next steps in health financing reform in the USA. Maybe Clinton could, though I don’t know; but certainly things will be dire for Obamacare if the next president is a Republican. I really hope that Obama is able to turn Obamacare’s political image around, and use it to win the next presidential election. For America’s poor, the next couple of years will be crucial, and the outcome far from certain.

Norman Tebbit Seeks Another Minority Voter

Norman Tebbit Seeks Another Minority Voter

Today’s Guardian has an article on the UK Conservative Party’s “minority problem”: it’s inability to get a decent vote share from non-white British citizens. The article seems to be quite neutral on the issue of the Tory’s appeal and electoral strategies, at times even appearing to be pasting text from a Conservative pollster (at times the voice changes, and it seems to have a slightly different perspective to the main thrust of the article, as if text had been copied from an email).  The key problem for the Tories is that they just don’t seem to be able to muster a decent representation amongst minorities, which in the UK primarily means British of black or South Asian descent, and are being outpolled by Labour at a cracking rate (16% vs. 68% according to a quoted survey). Now that they’re in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats the Tories are starting to realize that even a small improvement in minority vote could have saved them a world of trouble, and as is often the case that huge gap seems like it should be easy pickings. So what is going wrong? The article describes a series of problems which bear more on the party’s image and past representation of its identity, rather than on anything about its current policy content, and I think the problems they face – and the solutions they have begun to recognize as important – are in many ways analagous to the problem of getting more women to participate in role-playing. The ultimate end point for the Tories if they fail to up this vote is also similar to that facing gaming if it doesn’t diversify its appeal: obscurity and insularity.

The problem the Tories have identified is a really frustrating one: a large proportion of minority voters identify with their policy but just won’t vote for the party. They like the content, but are put off by what’s on the box, and by the people they historically associate with the scene. The article sites studies that found

while better-off white people were significantly more likely to vote Conservative than their less wealthy counterparts, the same was not true for non-whites. That is despite the fact that minority groups were more right wing than the majority on the key issue of tax and spend.

and also identified non-white British as naturally inclined to Tory policy:

high-income people, politically on the right, who want a smaller government (and a tough stance on crime and immigration according to other studies) are still much less likely to vote Tory if they are non-white. Whatever the offer, they simply think this is not a party for people like them [emphasis mine].

Basically the problem is not the policies of the party, or some lack of alignment on fundamental shared goals: it is that the party itself turns them off. There’s something wrong, to the extent that one study even found

even when people support an idea (many minorities take a tough stance on immigration for example), finding out it is a Tory policy puts them off

This is a sign that the problem is the way they perceive the party, both presently and as a party with a political past. It’s not difficult to find examples of why minorities might be uncomfortable with the Tories, such as this election slogan from 1964:

If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour

I guess the person who coined that slogan didn’t think about the effect it would have 30 years or 50 years later, but a slogan like that kind of echoes down the ages, doesn’t it? The studies cited found other problems too: the “go home” anti-immigrant buses, historic support for apartheid, and the author cites her own discomfort at the claim that “multiculturalism has failed.” The posturing on Europe probably also looks different to groups of people who are more suspicious of the xenophobic direction of politics than are mainstream voters – these dog whistles aren’t heard just by the dogs, but also by their prey, and there’s a lot of bad faith that the Tories have to ask potential minority voters to overlook. They were, after all, going to be the blood on the streets in 1964 …

These challenges facing the Tory party are an interesting mirror of one of the main strands of debate about how to engage women in role-playing, and particularly whether the behavior of men in gaming spaces, and the representation of women in gaming, might be part of the problem. I have argued before that the reason that care in representation of women is important is not that they care about seeing tits-and-arse for its own sake, but that images of lingerie-clad sex dolls with chain mail panties mark out the hobby as a male-only space. They serve the role of girly calendars in a workshop, to make women feel like they are intruding in a male space. These tits-and-arse pictures are the “nigger for a neighbour” campaign slogan of gaming. Alongside them comes the behavior of gamer men – the BO problems, the staring, the rampant mansplaining (fuck, gaming must be the only hobby where socially maladjusted dudes mansplain to other men, like alphasplaining or something), and all of this wrapped up in a nice package in which the men in the hobby are aging as a cohort. And on top of that the rape humour, rape games, and barely-suppressed sexual violence of some products. It’s not that women don’t mind a bit of sexual violence in entertainment (hey, GoT is very popular with chicks!) or tits-n-arse (women like to perve on men just as much as men do on women), and everyone who is an adult has learnt to suffer through BO problems (except the sufferers, apparently); it’s the combination of these things as representative face of the hobby that makes women back away smiling. For a long time the hobby (and the world of nerd-dom generally) has made it uncool and uncomfortable for women to be gamers. Even though they might like the content of the games, and be perfectly comfortable with (or even into) the idea of scantily-clad heroes hacking away at orcs, they simply think this is not a party for people like them.

We’re like the conservative party of hobby-space.

The solution has not come rapidly to the gaming community – certainly in past posts on the topic here, and threads I read elsewhere, I get the sense that male gamers often don’t care about women joining their groups, are actively opposed to it, think that changing the way women are represented and written about is “political correctness” or “suppression of artistic freedom,” or think that these aspects of the hobby are a fixed thing like descending armour class, and that the only people who we care to let into the hobby are people who accept these things. This misses the representational issues and the issue of boys’ club mentality, and it means acting as if the preferences of the boys in the group are not actually malleable preferences, but god-given fixed parts of the environment. Just as the Tories have taken the assumption that the only minorities they want in their club are black men and women who are somehow comfortable with a party that until recently publicly called them “niggers.” Because you know, that’s just how it was back then. Now that the Tories have worked out that they’re heading into very difficult times if they don’t start to reach out to a group that constitutes 14% of the population, they’re working first and foremost on those representational issues, and then on trying to show they’re honest about opening up policy to minorities, to try and overcome that sticky sense of bad history that keeps the party glued to the spot.

But hey, the Tories did well: they only ignored 14% of the population. For most of its history the RPG industry has overlooked 50% of the population …

Some people I know think it doesn’t matter – we’re just a hobby after all and there are lots of other things women can do. But I think that the problem is bigger than that. We are aging as a cohort, with only a small number of people joining us, and the kinds of representational issues that keep women from joining us also make non-nerdy men suspicious of us. If we continue to age with only small numbers of (male) newcomers, as a market we will get smaller, with an associated decline in diversity and quality of products available to us. We will stagnate. This is the fate facing the Republicans in the USA, who also have a minority problem but face structural problems in coming to terms with it, and can’t find a way out of this bind of shrinking into obscurity[1]. We don’t need to be like that, and I think some of the more modern game companies have realized that. I read on YDIS that D&D 5th Edition has a wider range of non-white figures in art, and less sexploitation art; games like Malifaux and World of Darkness, while often rooted in an overly gothic and sub-cultural aesthetic, have at least tried to diversify the way they represent women in both art and game terms. I think Ars Magica was the first game I ever read that regularly had female characters as examples, female players as examples, and switched between male and female pronouns in text. These are small things but it’s these representational issues which first and foremost, I think, signify to women that they aren’t welcome. It’s small steps, but if the UK conservative party can do it, surely we can too?


fn1: Spit-flecked obscurity, so there is that …

The most well-respected methods for reducing carbon emissions seem to be carbon taxes and carbon price mechanisms. I have written before about how I think they will not work to achieve a zero carbon state, based on lessons from the field of public health. Here I want to explore in a little more detail just what we might expect in the long-term from a carbon taxation system.

An illustrative example: Effects of carbon taxes on fishing

Fish are a staple food in Japan, and fishing is a carbon intensive practice because fishing fleets use diesel oil. We can get a rough estimate of how much carbon is required to produce a single piece of fish, and use this to estimate how price would change under a carbon tax. First, consider the total carbon emitted in catching fish: this website puts it at between 1750 and 3300 kg for a ton of fish, with the highest carbon emission amongst farmed fish. The analysis suggests that 1kg of wild-caught frozen salmon will be associated with 1kg of CO2; a carbon footprint of up to 6Kg can be expected for fish that is caught in say Chile, and shipped to the US. Taking 5kg as a conservative estimate of the carbon footprint of a kg of fish, we can see that  for a carbon tax of $X per ton, $X/200 is added per kg of fish sold in the super market. So for a price of $250 per ton, we get $1.25 per kilogram; for $2500 per ton, we get $12.50 per kilogram.

The Coles website tells me that salmon fillets are currently $30 per kg. A carbon price of $2500 a ton will increase their cost by approximately 30%.

We can calculate the cost for fresh fish in a supply chain directly, so let’s try this for a typical fresh Tokyo fish, Mackerel. The website has a carbon footprint profiler which indicates that you need to take into account “landed to live weight” and “final processed form to landed weight,” which we can estimate fairly conservatively (though I don’t know the details). This ancient paper (pdf) gives an efficiency of about 3% for shrimp fishing, while this FAO document gives landed weights of between 3 and 84%. Working with Mackerel from that document, let’s assume that only 3% of caught fish is actually edible[1], and make that the “landed to live weight” ratio. The FAO provides a handy guide to “conversion factors” for converting landed fish to actual final processed form, as an annex (pdf) to this guide. Taking the mackerel factor, let’s assume that only 50% of the final fish is eaten, in the form of a fillet. The site then asks us to show how much the fish traveled before and after processing, and by what means. Let’s assume it is landed fresh in Tokyo after a 5 day fishing trip, and that it traveled 40km by truck to the processing plant, then 40 km by van to the shops, and was eaten within a day (pretty standard in Tokyo). Using “Trawling for Herring in the NW Atlantic” as our model fishing method, we get 7.4 tons of CO2 for every ton of final product. So we would need to add X/133 to the per kg price of the fish. For a carbon price of $250, that’s $1.90; for $2500, a $19.00 impost. This site tells me that Mackerel in Japan costs between 600 and 8000 Yen per kilogram ($6-80), so a $2500/ton carbon tax would change this price range to $25-100 per kg. The Coles website tells me Australians already pay $20/kg for tinned mackerel – is it very likely that Japanese will baulk at paying $25 for fresh mackerel? Furthermore, this is for the most inefficient live catch and processing values I can find. If the live catch efficiency goes up to 10%, for example, the impost for those carbon taxes drops to $0.60 – $6.

No one on earth is currently considering a $2500 ton carbon tax. Even $250 a ton is considered radical, but $250 a ton will increase the final price of mackerel by $0.60 – $1.90 per kg. Does anyone seriously believe that this impost will be sufficient to force the fishing fleet to go carbon-neutral?

What are the long-term impacts of carbon taxes?

I chose fishing as an example because it differs from electricity generation in one simple way: short of returning to sailboats, there is no viable low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels for fishing boats at present. So the fishing industry will have little choice but to absorb the price of a carbon tax, pass it on to consumers, or disappear, unless and until an alternative energy source becomes available. If our goal is to get to a carbon zero economy and still be able to eat fish, a carbon tax is surely not going to work. But there are other aspects of the economy that are entirely vulnerable to a carbon tax, most especially electricity generation and public transport. So how well are carbon taxes predicted to work in these industries?

There does not seem to be a lot of available modeling on the long-term impact of carbon taxes, but those reports that have been published are not promising. For example, this report by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby describes a carbon tax starting at $10/tonne and increasing to $250/tonne at $10/year. They use four different established models to identify total, and industry- and region-wide effects of the carbon tax. Their final estimate of the effect of the carbon tax is a 50% reduction in emissions by 2035 (page 30). After that the gains decline. This report, from the carbon tax center, proposes a system of tax and credits that appears to correspond with a $113/tonne tax, and would lead to 25% reductions in emissions by 2024 on a 2012 baseline. says we need to get to 350ppm by the end of the century to avoid catastrophe; we’re currently on 400ppm and increasing at 2ppm per year. If we halve global emissions by 2035, we’ll be above 420ppm, and still increasing.

As another example, my July electricity bill was $66 for 214kwh of electricity. In Tokyo at the moment this is mostly gas, and would (according to Wikipedia) have released a total of 107 kg of CO2, based on median emissions. At $250/ton that’s going to increase my electricity bill by about $25/month. How much electricity use will that discourage? $25 is a cheap meal out with a few drinks. At $2500/ton it’s $250/month – two cheap meals out and two trips to a love hotel. Am I willing to give up two dates a month in order to keep my electricity use unchanged?

I don’t believe that even a $250/ton carbon tax will be sufficient to force carbon neutrality in electricity generation, and $2500/ton, while it will make solar and wind competitive and force a fairly rapid switch to renewables, may not lead to much change in other behavior, especially in industries like shipping and trucking where alternatives are expensive and still barely off the drawing board. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby report tells us that in the USA each $1/ton of carbon tax is a $.009/gallon increase in petrol prices; $2500 a ton will increase petrol prices by $22.5/gallon. Currently in Tokyo gasoline is sold at probably $2/gallon. Will people completely stop using cars at $25/gallon? Given that a single journey in Japan can cost $5 in parking, and a car can travel 35 mpg, i.e. two trips per parking cost, the total cost of those two trips will go from $14 to $35 in Tokyo. Is that sufficient to stop recreational use of cars?

These reports make clear that even sizeable taxes of up to $250/ton are not enough to get where we need to go. The first report, suggesting $10/year increases in the tax, shows the obvious problem – as the tax grows, the incremental benefit of further increases declines, so going to higher taxes will have smaller and smaller effects. By the time we’re at $300/ton, a further $10/year increase will be less than the effect of inflation on prices in many countries. People will stop responding to those taxes by that time. And as I showed in the case of fishing, there will be many industries where this cost can be passed onto consumers with a negligible effect. I routinely buy fish fillets in Tokyo for $2/fillet, am I seriously going to reduce my carbon footprint if the price of such cheap food doubles?

What we need to bear in mind here is that we don’t want to reduce recreational use of cars by 50% over the next 30 years, or by 90%; realistically, any CO2 emitting form of transport needs to be cut by 99%. These taxes alone are not going to do that.

What do we need to do to achieve carbon zero?

Carbon neutrality will not be achieved by taxes alone. We need additional government interventions to make it happen. Carbon taxes with appropriate transfers to ensure that poor people are compensated for the change are a good start, but they are only a start. We need to go a lot further if we want to achieve these goals. Some policy interventions should include:

  • Complete electrification of freight rail: Australia’s rail freight system (indeed all inter-city lines) is still diesel-powered; it should be electrified immediately, so that it can be shifted to a renewable energy source as the taxes bite
  • Expansion of passenger and freight rail: Most Australian cities are heavily dependent on road transport, which for the foreseeable future is immune to carbon abatement policies. As much as possible, the transport network needs to be shifted to rail, that can be electrified
  • Electrification of all buses: all public buses should be immediately electrified
  • Implementation of tollways: all major interstate highways should be shifted to a toll system, with tolls based on both distance travelled and journey speed, and tolls manipulated to ensure long distance travel is always cheaper by train and bus than by car
  • Construction of high speed rail: this is never going to be profitable in Australia, so it should be subsidized by government, using carbon tax proceeds, and prices fixed in such a way that it is always competitive with air travel and private road travel
  • Minimum price for air travel: Air travel will never be carbon neutral, so it needs to be discouraged or people need to find ways to use their journeys more efficiently (i.e. travel less often and stay longer). A minimum price will encourage this, and should be designed so that electric high speed rail is always cheaper
  • Nuclearization of all large ocean-going vessels: if it’s large enough to have a nuclear power source, it should. No freight should be carried on a CO2-emitting ship.
  • Reorientation of commercial fishing fleets around batteries and nuclear tankers: I don’t know if this is possible, but fishing needs to be redesigned so it is carbon neutral. If it isn’t yet possible to design battery powered ships, research funds should be dumped into this
  • A timetable for the banning of internal combustion engines: Some time in the future, internal combustion engines need to be banned. This timetable should be implemented now. By e.g. 2020, gasoline-using cars should be illegal, so people have 6 years to buy a battery car or convert to CNG; by 2025 or 2030, CNG cars should be illegal. That gives a 15 year time frame to completely electrify the personal transport industry
  • Immediate conversion of cars to compressed natural gas: This should be a brief boom industry, as all old cars are converted.
  • Lower all speed limits: so that cars travel more efficiently and private travel is less time-efficient than public transport
  • Ban all new coal-extraction licenses: No new coal mines should be built anywhere in Australia, and furthermore no new development should be allowed in connection with existing mines. Existing infrastructure bottlenecks to efficient extraction should be seen as a good thing.
  • Divestment laws: Investment funds should be required to divest all holdings in carbon-intensive industries on a reasonable but definitive timetable
  • Scale-up of electric charging points: Cars should be rechargable anywhere
  • Mandatory roof-top solar: for all businesses
  • Mandatory grid integration: no power company should be able to refuse a reasonable request to sell power into the grid.
  • Mandatory storage in new buildings, and subsidies to convert existing buildings: apartment blocks are not efficient solar collectors, but they could still be built with sufficient storage that they can store some solar power for release onto the grid at night
  • Ban all rice and cotton production in the Murray-Darling watershed: water needs to be returned to the river for greening of the river course, because restoring natural wetlands and green areas is essential to improving carbon sequestration
  • Huge rewilding and reforestation programs: Carbon sequestration through forestry management is essential, and this project needs to be undertaken immediately, so that it forms a key part of future carbon reduction strategies. It can be conducted in such a way as to support and restore biodiversity
  • Huge research grants on storage and renewable energy: We need to get to the point where electric trucks and ocean-going boats are a possibility within 20 years. This will need research. We should be doing it

And finally, I think that climate change denial should be illegal outside of scientific journals – if people want to claim it’s not happening they should be required to present peer-reviewed scientific evidence. Funding climate change denial should be a criminal act. The government should further refuse to offer contracts to organizations that have hosted denialists or funded denialists in e.g. the last 10 years. These people need to be driven out of public life and should have no influence on public debate. It is absolutely ludicrous that after three of the hottest months on record (April, May and June), the government’s business advisor is publicly claiming that a period of major global cooling is imminent. That dude should be unemployable, and preferably in stocks[2].

A lot of these programs will require major government subsidies, transfers and loans, and huge government intervention across a range of marketplaces. We need to stop acting as if the worst consequence of responding to the climate crisis is government intervention in markets, and start recognizing that it is the minimum requirement to stave off a civilization-level disaster. It’s huge government intervention now, or civilization collapse later.

So go looking back through history and ask yourself – has any civilization collapse ever been preventable through a small tax that raised the price of fish by 10%? I think you’ll find the answer is no. The emergency is coming, and we need to act as if it’s an emergency, not a minor market failure.

fn1: For farmed fish, this number should be near 100%, obviously.

fn2: This is clearly a rhetorical point

Since I have half an hour to spare and my Obamacare post has triggered some discussion of GOP presidential hopefuls, I thought I’d chuck out two random musings (or questions) on the next US presidential election.

Was George Bush’s apparent stupidity reassuring to “moderates”?

A lot of hay was made in the shining sun of Bush’s apparent bumbling stupidity[1]. But I wonder if this wasn’t actually reassuring to non-conspiracy-theory-minded “independents” and “moderates” that he could be trusted in power. While worried leftists assumed that his stupidity meant he was a puppet for the evil shadow-govt of Cthulhu-worshipping Republican activists[2], for people less inclined to worry about threats from beyond space and time they might have actually been inclined to think “this dude seems pretty thick, but also like a nice guy, maybe he’ll put a little more faith in his advisors than the previous guy did”? I don’t know to what extent Clinton was beginning to grate on the electorate in 2000, but I have a vague memory of Republican attacks on him invoking the “he’s too smart by half” kind of approach, and certainly in Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004 I remember attempts to portray Kerry as too thoughtful and out of touch. The only thing worse than an incompetent dude in the presidency is an incompetent dude in the presidency who thinks he is smart. Whereas a dumb shmuck who appears humble enough to trust his advisors might actually not be so bad – and back then in 2000 the Republican rhetorical trick of claiming that all government policy-makers and advisors were corrupt and untrustworthy was not yet in full swing, so voters might still have had the idea that government sometimes actually gets things right. In that case, some “independents” and “moderates” might have actually been convinced that Bush could do okay. And sometimes he did: PEPFAR was his Bush’s response to HIV/AIDS in Africa and has been one of the most successful global health interventions in history. It’s my belief that Bush introduced PEPFAR because he wanted an alternative to condom promotion and behavioral interventions that accepted the existence of pre-marital sex, but by consulting with his advisors he actually came up with a policy that worked. Of course, he also consulted with his advisors on Iraq, so he didn’t always have quality advisors … but in 2000 voters were judging presidential candidates at the End of History, and the idea you’d have some thick idiot in the presidency making decisions about multiple wars on foreign soil probably didn’t really seem plausible.

Would a similar thick “man-of-the-people” rescue the Republicans from Clinton?

I don’t think a similar approach would work with current potential candidates (e.g. Paul Ryan). People thought it might work with Sarah Palin (which I think is part of the reason they made her VP for Romney), but it didn’t. I think there’s a simple reason for this: compared to the modern crop of post-tea party idiots, George Bush was not an ideological candidate. “Independents” and “moderates” could vote for him as an alternative to too-lefty, too-smart-by-half Gore on the assumption that he wouldn’t be an idiot in charge of a radical ideology. Sarah Palin, on the other hand – in addition to being brazenly, openly stupid and probably proud of it – is clearly driven by an ideology she only seems capable of understanding on a visceral level. You have to be pretty crazy to think that having someone like that with their finger over the Big Red Button is a good idea[3].

Are Republican leaders completely adrift from their intellectual roots?

During his election campaign Romney made a famous gaffe, talking about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income tax and calling them moochers. He didn’t intend this comment for public consumption, but put it out there in a conversation on political theory for private backers. I find it interesting that the inheritor of a conservative (US-style) political tradition could be so naive about the intellectual history of his own party as to make this comparison at a theoretical level. It has been the goal of conservative politics since at least Reagan to remove people from the federal income tax system. A “compassionate conservative” like Bush would consider it his or her goal to reduce the proportion of people paying income tax, while ensuring that those taxes that were collected supported a compassionate society. A “movement conservative” from the Reagan era would consider the removal of ordinary Americans from the income tax system to be a goal in and of itself. Under the ideology of movement conservatism these people have been liberated from a form of tyranny. In that conversation, if he had any understanding of conservative history at all, Romney should have been saying something along the lines of “our side of politics liberated a lot of that 47% from paying income tax, and I intend to use that achievement to win their votes” or “I consider it a failure of modern conservative rhetoric that we have failed to win votes from people who we liberated from income tax.” Instead he turns on people who are the beneficiaries of conservative political action, compares them with scroungers, and suggests that they are natural friends of the Democrats because they’re all on welfare, rather than keeping the money they worked to earn as Reagan intended. To me this suggests that modern Republican leaders – even the supposedly moderate ones like Romney – are completely out of touch with their conservative intellectual roots. Given the support Romney received from some quarters of the right for this comment, it also seems that a lot of modern conservative pundits have lost it. In place of reasoned political action from a conservative intellectual tradition, they have fetishized a few symbolic components of that tradition (taxes! freedom!) and deploy them as rhetorical weapons in any debate without any consideration for why they are important to conservative tradition, or what the limits of debate about these topics might be.

It is this intellectual drift which I think makes Republicans vulnerable on healthcare, and so badly unable to handle a post-Obamacare world. Serious health policy planners, Obama and his advisors looked at the problem of moving towards universal health care at affordable cost from the perspective of what is possible, what can be achieved, what needs to be done and how it can be paid for[4]. Republicans looked at the problem in terms of TAXES! FREEDOM!!!1!

A sad note on Bush’s legacy

Reviewing Republican behavior in the post-Tea Party World, one almost yearns for a return to the simpler years of Bush. And here I have to say I’m a bit sad about how badly he let himself down. If Bush had not invaded Iraq he would have left a mixed legacy, that would have left historians praising him on some aspects and learning lessons from his era. Instead, he killed a million Iraqis and unleashed the gates of hell in the Middle East: today Obama is considering air strikes on the Islamic State to save the lives of some tens of thousands of christians, who have been left adrift in the chaotic world Bush created. Absent his massive Iraq stupidity, Bush would have been assessed in terms of his compassionate conservatism and his poor management skills, which would have meant:

  • Plaudits and universal acclaim for the success of the Presidents Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, which Bush initiated and which has been hugely successful in containing HIV/AIDS in Africa
  • Criticism for his poor handling of the Afghan war, but acceptance that any US president would likely have to have invaded Afghanistan given the circumstances, and most importantly assessment of the war on its own merits rather than in the shadow of his huge mistakes in Iraq
  • Criticism of his handling of Hurricane Katrina, tempered with the recognition that many institutions at many levels of government and in the private sector were not ready for that event, and that the lessons learned were really important for handling subsequent disasters
  • Plaudits for his engagement with minorities, both through his promotion of (and in my opinion, respect for) black leadership figures like Rice and Powell, and for his willingness to fight his own party over amnesty for Latin Americans living illegally in the USA

Obviously given that the GFC happened on his watch, he massively incresed the deficit and his tax cut ideas were stupid beyond despair, he would never be heralded as the greatest president who ever lived, but it would be nice if his achievements and ordinary failings could be assessed without having to presage them all with his war crimes. When I was at the AIDS conference watching Bill Clinton speak, I kept thinking to myself that it would have been nice if Bush could have been there in his place, to talk about the achievements of PEPFAR as it came to an end, and to urge people to commit to preserving the gains that arose from his legacy. Indeed, his recent speech in Africa, while a bit emarrassingly stilted, was an admirable example of his genuine concern for the health of people on that continent. But of course Bush could never come to a conference like the AIDS conference, because everywhere he goes the shadow of his act of mass murder hangs over him.

And I think it was at that point – or somewhere between there and the GFC – that everything went wrong with the Republican party. Who knows what would have happened in the healthcare debate if Obama had been challenged by an inheritor of Bush’s compassionate conservative, rather than a hyper-wealthy free market nutjob or a bloodthirsty lunatic mummy and his bloodthirsty lunatic Alaskan sidekick? We will never know, because they cocked it up, and Bush destroyed his own legacy with his insane and criminal decision to invade Iraq.

fn1: I say apparent because I’m not convinced he was as stupid as he acted, and a lack of ability to do basic book learning is not a sign of stupidity anyway

fn2: Please note, I make no contention that these “people” do not exist.

fn3: And let’s just think for a moment about how things would be unfolding in Ukraine now if Sarah Palin was President.

fn4: Within the sad confines of modern politics, obviously

The Affordable Care Act has been in place for a while now, and after the initial teething problems it is beginning to settle down into something resembling a functioning system, and serious health policy researchers are beginning to report on its progress. The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) reported in July on a series of measures of progress under Obamacare, and the results were generally positive.

The NEJM article covers some of the more controversial aspects of Obamacare, and also shows how hard it is to understand health financing policy (and outcomes of that policy) in the USA. It notes that 7.8 million young Americans are now covered under their parents’ health insurance where previously they wouldn’t have been, and also notes that this policy has been one of the most popular aspects of Obamacare. In calculating coverage more generally it has to consider the conflicting effects of the medicaid expansion and the newly-affordable bronze plans on the one hand, and cancellations of existing plans on the other. In total, the article concludes

Taking all existing coverage expansions together, we estimate that 20 million Americans have gained coverage as of May 1 under the ACA.We do not know yet exactly how many of these people were previously uninsured, but it seems certain that many were. Recent national surveys seem to confirm this presumption. The CBO projects that the law will decrease the number of uninsured people by 12 million this year and by 26 million by 2017. Early polling data from Gallup, RAND, and the Urban Institute indicate that the number of uninsured people may have already declined by 5 million to 9 million and that the proportion of U.S. adults lacking insurance has fallen from 18% in the third quarter of 2013 to 13.4% in May 2014.

On the one hand this appears to be a huge gain (though it depends on your perspective; see below). On the other hand, coverage of health insurance remains at 87% after the ACA (including so-called bronze plans); in comparison, China has 90% coverage of health insurance, and most of the rest of the OECD is up around 98-100%. It may not seem fair to compare America with countries as advanced in health financing as the Europeans, but consider this: Ghana has 65% coverage of its National Health Insurance Scheme, though private payments still make up 66% of total health expenditure, and Ghana is planning on gradually increasing this figure. I don’t mean to belittle Ghanaians by comparing them with a country as disfunctional as the USA, but given the relative wealth disparities it seems that the USA could do better than 87% coverage. Especially when you consider the political cost to the government of implementing this law.

On the topic of canceled policies, the NEJM can’t provide figures (the studies are not available), but it does point out that many of these policies would not have been canceled if the Republicans hadn’t stymied introduction of the law[1]. The grandfathering clause applied to policies extant when the law was signed in March 2010, but no one expected it to take 3.5 years to implement the law, and had it sailed smoothly through congress presumably most people would have been able to retain their (sub-standard) plans. The NEJM also points out that turnover in health insurance markets is huge, and in the absence of the ACA most of the people whose plans were canceled would likely have changed their plans anyway:

Health-policy expert Benjamin Sommers and colleagues point out that there was significant turnover in the individual market before the ACA went into effect: between 2008 and 2011, only 42% of people who started out with such coverage still had it after 1 year[2].

It’s also worth remembering that the reason these plans were forcibly canceled is that they didn’t meet minimum standards – and it’s worth bearing in mind that the ACA’s minimum standards would be considered reprehensible in any other OECD country. I have reported before on the NEJM’s findings about the poor performance of ACA-rated “bronze” plans, but the canceled policies were canceled because they didn’t live up to the standards of these highly flawed bronze plans. Complaining about having your insurance plan canceled even though it is basically an exercise in extortion seems counter-productive to me …

The other big issue for Obamacare is the risk pool. Obamacare included a “mandate,” a set of rules intended to punish young adults who did not sign on to health insurance before a certain date, with the intention of increasing the number of healthy people paying into the health insurance pools. This is done to ensure that people at low risk of illness are basically subsidizing the sick and elderly, a problem solved in other countries by simply providing financing for health through taxation. The big challenge of market-based systems is that young people won’t pay for insurance they don’t really need, but under a market-based system there is no way to make them. Obamacare is meant to close this loophole and the “moral hazard” associated with it, but it appears that it hasn’t been hugely successful. The NEJM reports that

enrollment among 18-to-34-year-olds surged as the March 31 deadline approached, climbing from 27% of total enrollment in February to 31% in the month of March. It is widely agreed that there is no single desired rate of young-adult participation. What really matters is whether the observed rate turns out to be consistent with the projections of insurance companies for any period — that is, whether the 31% participation is about what the companies expected for 2014. If young-adult participation fell short of expectations, this could prompt rate increases in 2015. However, even if participation in the pools skews to an older age than companies predicted, an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 2015 premiums might increase by only 1 to 2% to offset higher-than-expected costs. This modest projected effect of an older pool reflects the fact that under the law, health plans can still charge an older person a higher premium than a younger person.

This suggests (though not very clearly) that the mandate has served its purpose, but has only increased the proportion of total enrolment by young people by about 15%, and no one knows if this is enough[3]. I wouldn’t take this small increase as a sign of great success, and it suggests that in the future insurance premiums will rise, even though one goal of Obamacare was cost containment. It’s also worth noting that there is a large pool of young Americans with pre-existing conditions who were not previously eligible for health insurance (or not at reasonable prices) and some proportion of the increase under Obamacare is likely to be people with pre-existing conditions grabbing the chance to sign on[4]. These people are not going to lower the cost of insurance. But the ACA seems to have included a subtle get-out-of-jail clause for the insurers:

Carriers with higher-than-expected claims will receive reinsurance payments, for example. This factor alone reduced premiums by 10% in 2014 and will continue to play an important role in limiting premium increases in 2015.

So, the insurers are protected against the worst effects of signing up a bunch of sick people and failing to recruit young and healthy people. All these premiums, tax breaks, cross-subsidies and protections seem incredibly complicated, and it really does seem like it would be simpler just to introduce a single payer and let them slowly take over the health landscape. But that would be … anti-freedom, or something. Because reasons. So here we are …

… Which brings us to the question of the future of Obamacare. The NEJM is treating it as a fait-accompli, and is now beginning to publish articles on healthcare policy in the Obamacare world[5], though their articles seem to be predicated on the assumption that Obamacare is fundamentally flawed (they say “major ACA provisions don’t work”, which is surely medical-journal-speak for “you really screwed the pooch”), but they do seem to be accepting the new health financing landscape. My opinion is that the ACA is here to stay, and it seems to be surviving most of the legal challenges. This doesn’t surprise me, because it doesn’t seem to me that Americans have any stomach for genuinely radical (to them) healthcare reform, and it tells me that health policy makers in the USA – on both sides of the political spectrum – are going to have to accept the ACA as the new political landscape, and work within it to reform it rather than trying to overturn it, whether their goal is to overturn it for free-market or single-payer reasons. I don’t think the ACA will ever be as successful as more rational programs in other countries, but if reasonable politicians work within its framework they can continue to improve insurance coverage and, if they can make the cost containment elements work, they can probably improve quality of insurance too. Unfortunately the ACA is complex, works across multiple sectors of the private and public health system, and depends on a lot of goodwill, so it will be very easy for the Tea Party Tendency to undermine it from within government…

Fortunately, however, the ACA contains the key to its own success. If the NEJM is right, something like 20 million people have gained health insurance where previously they were either unable to pass the hurdles, or unable to afford it. That is 20 million potential Democrat voters at the next election, and I really don’t think one can underestimate the power of security in health care as a voting incentive. These people will be looking at a revolutionary change to their own lives, and the Republicans are going to campaign in the next election on a direct promise to revoke that revolution. On top of that, a lot of big American companies are desperate for healthcare financing reform, and the ACA has proven to those companies without a shadow of doubt that only one party in the US system is serious about delivering healthcare reform. This, plus the demographic slide slowly eating the Republicans, and their lack of talented presidential candidates, suggests to me that the next elections are going to be Democrat victories, and the ACA will be locked in as the health financing policy for the USA for the foreseeable future. In my opinion this is not the best outcome for Americans, but it is certainly a vast improvement on the past. Let’s hope the Tea Party and their apparatchiks in the popular media don’t wreck this chance for ordinary Americans to finally achieve security in healthcare, one of the fundamental goals of modern developed nations.


It appears more evidence is beginning to come in from government reports and independent surveys. The blog Lawyers, Guns and Money has a post suggesting that 60% of California’s uninsured have managed to get insurance through the ACA, and that the majority of these are through medicaid, which indicates they probably were uninsured due to financial problems rather than pre-existing conditions (there’s a link to Krugman in the blog, and also some kind of conspiracy theory screed on the Naked Capitalism blog). I also found (through the same bog) a vox article showing striking changes in Kentucky’s proportion of uninsured. The chart in that article is quite powerful, and apparently Kentucky had a functioning exchange from the beginning with an aggressive campaign to get people signed up. I wonder if voters in states that chose to reject the ACA’s medicaid provisions and exchanges might start to look askance at the priorities of their current legislatures …?

fn1: Well, it doesn’t quite say that … this is my straightforward interpretation of the language of the paragraph.

fn2: I should mention here that if you can’t read the original article due to a paywall, please don’t make the mistake of thinking that these statements aren’t referenced. I remove the references when I copy and paste text from the original article, because I can’t be bothered also copying and pasting the references.

fn3: It’s worth noting here that because most developed countries have universal health care systems based on taxation and national insurance, there are very few countries outside of America where research can be done on private insurance financing. So in addition to running a system that from the outside looks to be incredibly inefficient and low quality, the USA is also running a system that cannot benefit from the research outputs of the rest of the world.

fn4: The pre-existing condition issue has always seemed to me to be the easiest example of why the USA needs to change its system, and also the most obvious example of how inhumane and cruel the US system is. No one is responsible for their own genetics, but in the USA the market for healthcare is basically designed to exclude people with certain random background traits. That’s just mean.

fn5: For some reason they insist on calling it the “Affordable Care Act.” Weirdos.

Over the past 15 years, Australia’s immigration debate has focused on whether “illegal” boat arrivals can be prevented by policies in the home country, or whether they are determined primarily by refugee flows in the countries of origin. This is broadly referred to as the debate about “push” versus “pull” factors in immigration. On the one hand, commentators (generally “conservative”) suggest that Australia’s “lax” immigration policies, and generous policies towards refugees, encourage people to try to come here. These “lax” policies seem to be primarily represented by the visa system, and so the Howard (“conservative”) government introduced Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) which offer no guarantee of a long-term home – theoretically the holder of a TPV will be required to return home when their national situation stabilizes. This seems hardly likely to be a deterrent given that the national situation in nations like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka doesn’t stabilize over periods of less than a decade, but a deterrent it is believed to be. Other policies are often seen as part of this process of reducing “pull” factors – offshore processing, reduction of benefits (a big issue in the UK, where asylum seekers cannot get any benefits or access the NHS), restrictions on family reunions, etc. Of course, all of these policies are predicated on the idea that in amongst this flood of refugees is a certain non-trivial proportion of people who are not “genuine” refugees, and that for some reason these people need to be weeded out and prevented from “taking advantage” of our “generous” systems.

On the other hand, some commentators (generally “left wing”) suggest that immigration flows are primarily driven by the situation in the countries where people come from, and desperate people are largely unconcerned about the policies of the countries they are fleeing to. Under this “push” philosophy, people flood out of their home country when everything goes to shit, and the policies of the countries they’re heading to don’t amount to more than a temporary impediment. Basically under this model a bunch of people from Syria, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Myanmar have been heading away, and some of them have got trapped in Malaysia and Indonesia. From there they dribble out on boats to Australia, and Australia’s specific processing and visa policies aren’t relevant because people will do remarkable things when the alternative is either dying in their homeland or rotting in a transit camp in intermediary countries.

Unfortunately, the truth of this battle – which to Australians is important, because we’re the 8th richest country in the world, so it would be a disaster to us if a couple of thousand people took advantage of our hospitality – is difficult to resolve in the Australian context. National visa and asylum seeker management policy has changed frequently, but drivers of refugee flow have changed separately in a complex way: the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq has ebbed and flowed, wars have sprung up in Syria and Libya, the war in Sri Lanka flared up and came to an end, and the situation in Myanmar and Pakistan is complex and unknowable. Furthermore, at various times the Australian government’s policies of direct intervention against boats – turning them back, or leaving them to drift against international maritime law, or sending the SAS to raid boats that rescued refugees – has changed. Currently the government refuses to report numbers of arrivals or boats turned back, so it’s impossible to assess the success of the current policy. So the debate in Australia – and let’s face it, knowing whether these people are trying to take advantage is far more important than helping them – has been difficult to resolve.

This week the Guardian had an article describing how refugee flows have changed in Europe, and this article – if true – gives some further information about the relative importance of push vs. pull factors. The situation in Europe is dire, and dwarfs Australia’s refugee “problem”, and the level of human catastrophe also dwarfs the situation that the Australian Prime Minister was crying crocodile tears about while in opposition – hundreds of people drown at a time on a regular basis in the Mediterranean. From the clinical standpoint of trying to answer the oh-so-important question of whether they’re all grafters, Europe is a much more useful experimental setting, because it involves multiple countries with multiple different policies on asylum and refugee management. The refugees are targeting France, Italy and Greece, and they have been coming overland and by sea. Since Greece built a wall more have been coming by sea, and the numbers have exploded since the war in Syria – 350 in 2012 compared to 7000 in 2013 – and these refugees are targeting several countries that, as far as I can tell, haven’t changed their migration and asylum-seeker handling policies at all. It’s also worth noting that the mediterranean doesn’t have any interim processing centres – people flee straight to the reception countries – whereas Australia is the target of people spilling over from processing centres in Indonesia and Malaysia. So presumably Europe’s experience measures actual changes in flow, rather than changes in interim processing centres. The UN is proposing processing centres to handle the huge numbers and reduce the appalling fatalities at sea, but no one appears to be proposing changes in European policy that would “discourage” asylum seekers – neither is anyone proposing resettling them all on a malaria-ridden remote island where they can riot at their leisure without being filmed. Uncivilized brutes, those Europeans. But this lack of “deterrent” measures is not new, yet the flow has changed – at just the time that the west is also receiving reports of new brutalities in Syria, and the collapse of the rebel efforts there.

I take the events in Europe as strong evidence for the “push” theory of refugee flows. That isn’t to say that changing “pull” factors wouldn’t affect these flows, but given there is literally nowhere else for these people to go (except Australia?) it seems unlikely they’d make a difference. The European experience confirms my suspicion that refugee flows are primarily determined by what is happening in the origin country, not by the policies of the destination countries. Which, unless we can find a way to stop the chaos happening in the middle east[1], is going to mean accepting that we need to start accepting more refugees, and preparing for bigger flows in the future. An unlikely political outcome, at best …


fn1: I wonder if not supporting insurgencies might be a good start?

This is a tale of how I successfully broke all the rules in the travel advisory, and lived to tell the tale of a tear-gassing and a close encounter with a riot policeman. It’s also the high point of the long series of disasters that was my Turkish trip – starting with booking the ticket for the wrong month, and finishing with my shoes falling apart late on Monday evening – with 4 weeks of my round-the-world trip still to go …

Check for riot police and water cannon tanks in your hotel BEFORE travelling!

Check for riot police and water cannon tanks in your hotel BEFORE travelling!

I am on a round-the-world trip in which I am making three stops for work-related training: a week in Konstanz, 2 days in Switzerland, 10 days in London and a week in Seattle. Each training trip is a week apart, but to return to Japan between each trip would be both ludicrously exhausting and ludicrously expensive, and since I haven’t had any time off in a year it seemed like a good idea to fill the in-between weeks with holidays. The first of these is three days in Istanbul. My trip here is so stupidly unplanned that I a) booked my ticket from Zurich for the wrong month (and had to rebook when I got to the airport!) and b) didn’t check the political situation in Turkey. When I booked my hotel I found myself thinking “Taksim square – sounds really familiar” but I didn’t bother to check, and so didn’t discover that protesters have been targeting Taksim square since May last year.

It's just not cricket!

It’s just not cricket!

So I arrived at Taksim square after an enlightening taxi ride, dumped my stuff and went out for dinner. Returning from dinner, I was near my hotel door (like, literally) when my throat started burning and my eyes watering. Now, in Tokyo we sometimes have these things that I call “Shibuya moments” – you can be standing at a very sophisticated part of town, surrounded by classically sophisticated Japanese people, and suddenly be overwhelmed by this huge stench as if the universe had farted on you. So my first thought was “is this the Istanbul version of a Shibuya moment? Because if so they really need some environmental planning laws!” But then my rudimentary knowledge of chemistry kicked in and I thought “no, that’s impossible!” Then my rudimentary knowledge of Europe kicked in, and I thought – “tear gas! … football riot!” The last football riot I saw (in London) was very entertaining – watching arseholes having their arsehole bitten off by dogs is hugely entertaining. So, naturally, I headed towards what I thought was a football riot.

You have one second to reach Minimum Safe Distance!

You have one second to reach Minimum Safe Distance!

My investigation led me into a long shopping street called Istiklal, and I soon realized that this was not a football riot, and it was serious. For starters, there were a royal crapton of riot police. Every side street entering Istiklal was blocked by a single phalanx, and there were probably 100 at the top of the street (near my hotel!) where I first smelt the tear gas. In addition, they had turned up with more equipment than you would usually need outside of the South Korean riots of the 1980s (or Ukraine of the week before) – Armoured Personnel Carriers and a handful of water tanks, plus every policeman had a gas mask and every five or so had a rubber bullet gun. Furthermore, their buses were guarded by men armed with uzis or some kind of even bigger automatic rifle (being Australian, I’m not really familiar with this stuff).

The calm before the storm

The calm before the storm

Mostly everything was calm, and remarkably everyone was just wandering around doing their shopping, ignoring the whole thing. But every now and then you could hear this loud banging, and get a whiff of the tear gas (with immediate coughing and eye pain, just from the merest tendrils of the stuff!) And down the far end of the street there was a definite growing tension, and the sound of chanting. I found myself next to two young women who explained that this was a rally against some kind of nasty new internet censorship law (in which the government would get access to your browser history!), and part of a long-running campaign against authoritarianism that had begun last May and so far had seen six protesters die. I didn’t find out more though because as they were telling me this, a beer bottle came sailing sedately through the air and shattered on a nearby riot policeman’s helmet. At this point everyone started running, including the two girls I had been talking to (who had been at previous demos), and I opted for discretion over valour and ducked around a corner. At this point nothing bad had happened to me or anyone else I had seen.

These men endorse Bjork's approach to papparazzi

These men endorse Bjork’s approach to papparazzi

From here I did a bit of exploring and emerged in a new alleyway facing onto Istiklal. There was a wall of riot police between me and the main street and they didn’t seem interested in letting anyone through, so I stayed in the alley and took a photo. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a lone riot policeman behind me, and turned around to hear him yelling at me and advancing rapidly towards me, baton in one hand and attitude in the other. By now everyone was strung out on the tension, and this guy had probably just been in a fight, he wasn’t impressed by my little 7000 yen camera. I backed up with my arms spread and said clearly and slowly “I’m sorry, I don’t speak any Turkish,” and that immediately calmed him down but he was still fuming – he started yelling at me in the international language of “fuck off” (fortunately now obviously not intending to cave my head in) and I decided to take his sage advice. I probably should have taken, earlier, the advice of my embassy and not hung around large and aggressive gatherings, but hey … so far so good, right?

Not a romantic mist

Not a romantic mist

So now I found myself in another alley, and slightly lost. I wandered around briefly and found a group of people standing at the end of  a street, watching some guy firing a flare gun at the riot police. I guessed this wasn’t going to end well for anyone involved and moved on. I soon found another street that seemed more peaceful, and I was trying to find out how to move back towards my hotel when a group came around the corner, in hot debate with a couple of riot cops. As I watched, these cops grabbed a guy in the group and started wrestling with him, and everyone in the street screamed and started running at the same time. When in Rome, and all that – I headed off with them. I didn’t have much time to see what was going on, but the afflicted guy seemed like one of the gypsy-type characters who hang around the square, one of his assailants was unslinging a plastic bullet gun, and as I headed around the corner I heard a loud bang. My guess is that chap – who seemed entirely innocent – is currently nursing a deep and unpleasant bruise.

An essential truce

An essential truce

From here I ran around a corner to discover another street filled with tear gas, fortunately far enough away that again I only got its outlying tendrils – and again developed stinging eyes and a rapid cough. That stuff is nasty, and the excitement was rapidly becoming warying. Things also seemed to be heating up, and I had the impression that the cops were going to start getting indiscriminate, so I ducked into a nearby pub. Here I found football and beer, and whiled away a pleasant 45 minutes watching Galatasaray win their game. Because Turkish soccer is quite violent the second half had 10 minutes of injury time, so I ducked out after five. On the street I found the above scene, of riot police gathered at the nearby cafe to watch the last five minutes of the game. Only in Europe …

So, I’ve confirmed that you can safely ignore all your government’s travel advisories. Or, more likely, I was very lucky. That first encounter with the riot policeman could have been a holiday-spoiling (not to mention life-spoiling) moment, and I really shouldn’t have gone sniffing out trouble. I get the impression that this campaign against corruption is a pretty reasonable thing, and the goals of the demonstrators generally laudable. But regardless of who is right on whatever issues beset Turkey (and I think there may be many) I hope that it gets resolved soon, without further loss of life (or interruptions of football viewing). My impression is that Turkey has a rocky but ultimately peaceful and successful future waiting for it. I hope these riots turn out to be a positive influence on that future…


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