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The trouble with lockdowns in a democracy | ticker VIEWS

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Let me start by saying this: Lockdowns work. They have saved thousands of people’s lives and avoided a full blown medical catastrophe. But they only work while they’re in place.

And after 18 months of this – we’ve worked out the problem with lockdowns in democracies.

I remember sitting in the Ticker newsroom at 5am on a Monday morning in January last year. It was a small office as we were just a startup media news company back then.

As I looked around for stories to put in our 8am news bulletin, the obvious choice was the situation in China. The pictures coming out of Wuhan were frightening but felt like a world away. Streets being disinfected by ridiculously menacing looking machines. It truly felt like a 90s sci fi film.

Chinese streets being disinfected last January.
Chinese streets being disinfected last January.

But it was the sudden lockdown in China that was the story. We’d never seen anything like it in Australia, and had never even considered the thought that the government had the power to force people to stay home, welding apartment complex doors shut. Forcing people to isolate from each other, closing 11 major cities across China. All by the way, allowing international travel out of the country. We shrugged it off as “glad we don’t live under a totalitarian state:”.

Then alarmingly, the first case showed up In Melbourne. We know what happened after that.

ENDLESS LOCKDOWN

The trouble with lockdowns is once they start, there’s no point lifting them. Even as vaccination rates increase in the UK, and Freedom Day is days away, there’s growing debate about whether it’s safe to do so. In Spain, despite the jabs, restrictions are coming back.

We should have worked out now that as soon as lockdowns are lifted, despite the best efforts of all of us to follow the rules, circumstances outside of our control means we end up back in lockdown.

There are too many variables. The states blame the slow vaccine rollout and the lack of federal government controlled outback quarantine facilities. The federal government blames the states.

And now in Australia, the two largest states are in lockdown, with no end in sight, in the dead of winter.

It was the obvious question late last year as the Victorian Premier urged forced us to stay in lockdown to get the rolling average number of daily cases to below five, and then eventually eradicate the virus. It’s as if we win. But this doesn’t end.

The problem was obvious at the time but conveniently overlooked by politicians. The flights kept arriving, the cargo ships kept arriving. It might be possible to lock the population down, but it’s impossible to remain an affluent nation without allowing people to return home, or for cargo ships to arrive with products to build homes or sell in stores.

It’s also impossible to continue your way of life in lockdown.

THE SOCIALIST REVOLUTION?

Perhaps the most frightening outcome of this situation is the empowerment of certain parts of society over others. And the tragic inequality that lockdowns have on society. For example, if you work for the government, your circumstances aren’t the same as someone who is a sole trader or an employee in private enterprise. When the government snaps, you are unable to go to work. If your job requires you to be at a workplace, then you are out of work. And government assistance isn’t enough to cover your costs.

Too many journalists have fallen for the theatre of the daily press conferences, rather than reflecting the concerns of the people who are suddenly unemployed.

While every vote is treated as equal, every circumstance isn’t.

Over the past year and a half, businesses have lost so many employees that people who were thinking of leaving before now have no reason to ever come back. In the TV industry, it’s now hard to find people to take jobs, because so many people left the industry for good. The legal industry is facing the same crisis, made worse by a lack of immigrants to fill roles.

I have friends who drive trams, and even though public transport patronage is well down on pre-pandemic levels, the drivers haven’t been impacted. Governments have swollen. Debts have ballooned.

And yet, we’re not fussed by that. For the past decade, debt levels in local, state and federal governments have soared, yet because the economies have been growing thanks to Chinese buying power and immigration levels, the threat of debt hasn’t been something on our minds. We might have a big credit card, but we have had the money to pay it. Move on.

But now without immigration, and with China buying less of our non-resource based goods, no one seems able to answer the question – what comes next?

NOT EVERY BUSINESS IS A BIG BUSINESS

The hardest part of watching thing pandemic and transition play out is watching it through the eyes of running a business. I’m no longer just a journalist, I am accountable for 20 staff. It completely changes how you look at the world. It’s not just about my career anymore, it’s about their job security, mortgages and expenses.

When I hear or report on conversations about “business should be doing more” my eye twitches. Because what they actually mean is big faceless corporations. The big companies with big profits. The Harvey Normans, the Coles, the banks.

But unfortunately, the rules imposed on (big) business often impact small and medium business – whether it’s by increasing superannuation, or assuming business doesn’t need anything in the budget because corporate profits have rebounded. But not every business received JobKeeper.

Then there are the things you can’t measure. For example, when the Victorian government slapped a levy on big business to help pay for mental health (which suffered greatly due to the Victorian government’s record breaking lockdown), the banks responded by not hiring back 3-400 staff they were planning to. Marketing budgets were cut. The flow on continues.

When you lockdown the people of Sydney and Melbourne, thousands of businesses suffer in every other state – yet they’re not the recipient of any government funding available to businesses in the locked down states. It’s all too convenient.

TALL, SUBERVIENT POPPIES

Victoria was only just in a full blown lockdown just over a month ago. We all abided by the rules, giving up our freedoms, our exercise, our happiness at the dreariest time of year in the hopes of avoiding another prolonged lockdown.

But it didn’t stop it. Because you can’t stop a virus or human nature. When those three revivalists arrived in Victoria, the Andrews government was off the hook. This lockdown hasn’t led to the usual blue faced anger of past restrictions. Most of us have given up fighting. When the lockdown for midnight Thursday was announced late in the day, it didn’t surprise me. People don’t need warning anymore. We’ve come to expect it.

And that’s the most dangerous thing. Anyone under 40 woke up yesterday in Sydney or Melbourne and could have thought this – I’m under 40 so can’t get the jab, despite so many young people being infected in Sydney. I can’t leave the country even if I wanted to. And there’s no way to send a message until there’s an election. It’s a health response for senior voters.

Former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson wrote this week: “Australians demonstrate that the “tall poppy syndrome” is alive and well by constantly rubbishing politicians — that is, until they are in their company when many become obsequious and subservient.”

Perhaps the downside to these lockdowns is we have given up fighting for fairness and now find ourselves subservient to wide-ranging rules. I wonder what the long term impacts of that will be. It reminds me of what happened to travel and privacy after September 11. Bureaucrats rarely like to hand back power.

Anytime anyone questions the logic, the mob shout back “what about the health advice!?”

Well, my doctor says I shouldn’t drink. But I’ll raise my glass to that.

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Who would win a war between the U.S. and China?

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The U.S and China are in the grips of an arms race, which has not been seen since the depths of the Cold War era

Chinese President Xi Jinping wants his armed forces to become a modern powerhouse by 2035.

In his eyes, they should be “fighting and winning wars” by 2050.

It’s an overt and confronting military strategy, at least that’s how the West perceives it.

In May, a reporter asked U.S. President Joe Biden if he would come to Taiwan’s aid militarily if a conflict ever arises. He answered “yes” at the time because “that’s the commitment we made”.

The answer was a change in the U.S.’ history of strategic ambiguity, and likely caused a stir among Chinese officials.

So, when U.S. House Speaker visited the democratically-ruled island last week, China was hardly going to stay silent.

“We take this trip at a time when the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.”

NANCY PELOSI, U.S. HOUSE SPEAKER

Pelosi is the most senior U.S. official to visit Taiwan in 25 years. This is an issue for Chinese officials who are committed to the ‘One China’ principle.

As China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying said “there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China.”

China has responded to Pelosi’s visit by test firing ballistic missiles near the island, which is home to over 23 million people. Taiwan has also simulated its defence capabilities, as Chinese Navy vessels remain in the Taiwan Straits.

The U.S. House Speaker meets with Taiwan’s President.

China’s live fire drills sent ballistic missiles into Japan’s exclusive economic zone for the first time.

“Those who play with fire will perish by it and those who offend China will be punished.”

WANG YI, CHINA’S FOREIGN MINISTER

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen said the military exercises were “unnecessary responses”.

How does China’s military stack up?

While we don’t know much about China’s military, we do know it is growing at a rapid rate.

In 2014, China overtook the U.S. with the world’s largest navy.

“The crisis will end at a time and in a manner of China’s choosing,” said Dr Michael Sullivan, who is an international relations practitioner at Flinders University.

The U.S. Congressional Research Service, which advises lawmakers and strategy, predicts Chinese navy ships will increase by nearly 40 per cent between 2020 and 2040.

“Some U.S. observers are expressing concern or alarm regarding the pace of China’s naval shipbuilding effort and resulting trend lines regarding the relative sizes and capabilities of China’s navy and the U.S. Navy”

U.S. Congressional Research Service

Of course, the sheer size of a military does not necessarily correlate to its strength. For example, the U.S. has 11 aircraft carriers while China has three.

The U.S. also has more nuclear-powered submarines and larger warships.

As such, it’s hard to imagine President Biden risking a rather expensive aircraft carrier to end the current situation in the Taiwan Straits.

The Chinese Navy is growing at a faster rate than any other fleet.

Beijing does not publish its military spending data but analysts believe the nation is seeking to fast-track its military capabilities through hypersonic missiles.

As the name suggests, these weapons are known for their speed. In fact, they can travel at more than five times the speed of sound.

China denies using these weapons but the West remains concerned because of their speed, and limited detection on radar systems.

“The Chinese government is demonstrating that the era of the U.S. calling the shots militarily in the Taiwan Straits is over.”

Dr michael sullivan, flinders university

The U.S. Pentagon increased its budget requests to $3.8 billion to develop hypersonic weapons for this fiscal year.

The nation currently uses cruise missiles but these are inferior to hypersonic weaponry because of their slower speed, shorter range and tracking capabilities.

How will this end?

China has not fought in a war since 1979 after a tense battle with Vietnamese forces.

This means Beijing’s forces have not been on show in the modern era, and it seems the West would very much like it to keep it that way.

“We await further political fallout between Beijing and Washington. Though there is no direct indication of what form that may take, diplomatic retaliation is one possibility, ranging from recalling the Chinese Ambassador in Washington to expelling US Embassy staff from Beijing,” Dr Sullivan said.

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Why airline executives are being forced to face customers

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As frustrated customers take their anger out on the remaining airport checkin staff, airline executives are being forced onto the front line to face customers.

The return of summer in Europe has been overshadowed by travel chaos, leaving passengers frustrated and often out of pocket.

Thousands of people have been left to battle airport queues that last hours, long delays and thousands of cancellations.

Airports and airlines face staff shortages forcing them to reduce the number of scheduled flights – often at short notice. 

It’s a global problem, with airports and airlines rushing to hire back the thousands of positions they axed at the start of covid.

But how do you do it, and how long until things return to normal?

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Ticker Views

Sinema Paradiso – Biden loves this movie

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It was a shocker out of nowhere when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced a week ago that he had reached a deal with Senator Joe Manchin on a revival of significant pieces of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda for the American people:

  • The largest investment in clean energy and renewables ever undertaken by the United States, putting the US more firmly on track to meeting most of its 2030 carbon reduction targets
  • Reduced prescription drug prices for consumers and cuts in health insurance premiums – saving millions of households billions of dollars in the cost of medicines and health care
  • A national minimum corporate tax – with no tax increases for Americans earning less than $400,000

BEVERLY HILLS CALIFORNIA – It was less than a month ago that Manchin shredded Biden’s agenda, leaving the president’s party with very little to show voters this November that they can govern. 

Disunity among Democrats means political death, because if the party that controls the House, the Senate and the White House cannot produce the legislative goods for the American people, the Democrats’ half life going into the November midterms will be halved again.

Finally, the Democrats in the Senate fully understood this, from the socialist warrior Bernie Sanders, who decried what was left of the ambitious Biden agenda (this bill “does not address the major crises facing working families,” he said) to Ed Markey, the leader for decades on climate change. Markey said he would vote “to protect” the Schumer-Manchin-Sinema compromise — “which means voting no on amendments, even ones I support” on climate.  Both Senators understood it was better to get something real done than to be left with nothing for voters – that no Democratic Senator could let the best be the enemy of the good, as much as they hated settling for far less than they wanted.

Even Kirsten Sinema of Arizona finally came to the party she had helped wreck last December, when her vote for the Biden agenda was not certain. She stood firm on nixing one funding mechanism – taxing wealth industry managers on their capital gains – by accepting other taxes that would more than foot the bill.  

As they say here in Hollywood, Sinema Paradiso was a boffo performance.  And the president loved it:

“Today, Senate Democrats sided with American families over special interests, voting to lower the cost of prescription drugs, health insurance, and everyday energy costs and reduce the deficit, while making the wealthiest corporations finally pay their fair share.  I ran for President promising to make government work for working families again, and that is what this bill does — period.”

Behind the scenes, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who last year when everything was booming blew the whistle on the inflation that has been roaring across America for months, concluded that these social items, paid for in this way, would help curb inflation.  Other eminent economists concurred.

And to nail that point, this bill is called the “Inflation Reduction Act.”

The Senate vote on Sunday, with the 50-50 tie between Democrats and Republicans broken by Vice President Kamala Harris, capped one of Biden’s best months in office:  The killing in Kabul of the head of Al Qaida, the passage of the most significant industrial policy legislation in years to spur the strength and competitive edge of the US semiconductor industry, overdue legislation to care for veterans exposed to burn pits in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the new gun safety legislation. And this new legislation will build on the trillion-dollar infrastructure rebuilding program enacted into law last year. And Biden had Covid.

Suddenly, Joe Biden looks good in the Director’s chair.

One more vote later this week in the House of Representatives will crystallize all this.  The same political lesson re-learned by Senate Democrats now is staring House Democrats in the face.  They have a margin of four votes.  Unity will ensure victory; defections will bring down the curtain on dozens of their House colleagues – and themselves.

All this sudden legislative momentum, after months of paralysis, is occurring when the extremism of the Trump Supreme Court is causing a shift in the political tectonic plates.  Last week, in one of the most Republican states in the country, Kansas, voters decisively rejected a state constitutional amendment to prohibit abortion. That meant that a lot of Republicans in Kansas (!) thought the Supreme Court had gone too far. In Indiana late last week, the Republican legislature passed one of the strictest anti-abortion laws anywhere -and it was immediately signed by the governor.  This will happen in other states. 

Millions of women, and those who care about them, are angry that their constitutional right to reproductive health care has been taken away.  And they are mobilizing to vote in November.

Republican political hardheads are worried the anti-abortion zealots have gone too far.

For all these reasons, this is a moment for Democrats to show they can deliver on significant promises they made to the American people in 2020 and shift the polarity of these extraordinarily polarizing times.

If they fail in the House, this movie is over.

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