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Bret Stephens (New York Times): Campus Antisemitism, Free Speech and Double Standards

The presidents of Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania testified before a House committee on Tuesday about the state of antisemitism on their campuses. It did not go well for them.

Representative Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican, asked the presidents whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” violated the schools’ codes of conduct or constituted “bullying or harassment.” None of them could answer with a yes. M.I.T.’s Sally Kornbluth said it could be, “if targeted at individuals, not making public statements.” Penn’s Elizabeth Magill called it “a context-dependent decision.” Harvard’s Claudine Gay agreed with Magill and added that it depended on whether “it crosses into conduct.”

By the next day, those answers were drawing rebukes not only from Republicans and wealthy donors like Bill Ackman and Marc Rowan, but also from prominent Democrats. The Harvard law professor emeritus Laurence Tribe reproached Gay for “hesitant, formulaic and bizarrely evasive answers.” Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, who is a nonvoting board member at Penn, called Magill’s answer “unacceptable.” The White House also weighed in: “It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said,” a spokesman, Andrew Bates, said. “Calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country.”

I have some sympathy for the three presidents following their stumbling performance. None have been in their jobs for long. They all expressed abhorrence for antisemitism during more than three hours of testimony. And they are clearly struggling with how to balance respect for free expression on campus with opposition to hate speech. When Magill later posted a video trying to clarify her remarks, she had the broken look of someone who thought she was about to be sacked.

But the deep problem with their testimonies was not fundamentally about calls for genocide or free speech. It was about double standards — itself a form of antisemitism, but one that can be harder to detect.

The double standard is this: Colleges and universities that for years have been notably censorious when it comes to free speech seem to have suddenly discovered its virtues only now, when the speech in question tends to be especially hurtful to Jews.

The point came across at different moments in the hearing. Representative Tim Walberg, a Michigan Republican, observed that Carole Hooven, an evolutionary biologist, had been hounded out of Harvard (though not fired outright) for her views on sex categories. “In what world,” Walberg asked, “is a call for violence against Jews protected speech but a belief that sex is biological and binary isn’t?” Gay offered no real answer. Representative Donald Norcross, a New Jersey Democrat, asked Magill if she would permit a hypothetical conference of 25 racists to go forward at Penn — given that in September, under the banner of free expression, she had allowed a conference that included speakers she herself had condemned as antisemitic to take place at the school. She could not bring herself to answer yes.

Other examples abound. M.I.T.’s alleged commitment to viewpoint diversity, which Kornbluth extolled at the House hearing, was hardly evident two years ago, when one of its departments canceled a scientific talk by the University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot because he had questioned the wisdom of some diversity initiatives.

At Stanford, the university issued a statement after the attacks of Oct. 7 saying it “does not take positions on geopolitical issues and news events.” Yet Stanford was outspoken on the subject of George Floyd’s murder.

At Yale, the law professor Amy Chua was relieved of some teaching duties and ostracized by students and the administration on blatantly pretextual grounds while her original sin, as The Times reported in 2021, was her praise for Brett Kavanaugh. Yet when Zareena Grewal, an associate professor of American studies at Yale, posted on X on Oct. 7 that Israel “is a murderous, genocidal settler state and Palestinians have every right to resist through armed struggle,” Yale defended her by saying Grewal’s comments “represent her own views.”

The word for all this is hypocrisy. Gay, Kornbluth and Magill may not be personally to blame for it, because they only recently took over the helm of their schools. But there’s an institutional hypocrisy that they at least have a duty to acknowledge.

They also must decide: If they are seriously committed to free speech — as I believe they should be — then that has to go for all controversial views, including when it comes to incendiary issues about race and gender, as well as when it comes to hiring or recruiting an ideologically diverse faculty and student body. If, on the other hand, they want to continue to forbid and punish speech they find offensive, then the rule must apply for all offensive speech, including calls to wipe out Israel or support homicidal resistance.

If Tuesday’s hearing made anything clear, it’s that the time for having it both ways, at the expense of Jews, must come to an end now.

Tom Friedman: New York TImes: This Is the 9/11 Lesson That Israel Needs to Learn

As Israel debates what to do next in Gaza, I hope Israel’s political-military leadership will reflect on the adage often attributed to Confucius: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves” — one for your enemy and one for yourself.

Wise man, Confucius.

The reason I was so wary about Israel invading Gaza with the aim of totally eliminating Hamas was certainly not out of any sympathy for Hamas, which has been a curse on the Palestinian people even more than on Israel. It was out of a deep concern that Israel was acting out of blind rage, aiming at an unattainable goal — wiping Hamas from the face of the earth as one of its ministers advocated — and with no plan for the morning after.

In doing so Israel could get stuck in Gaza forever — owning all its pathologies and having to govern its more than two million people amid a humanitarian crisis, and even worse, discrediting the very Israeli military that it was trying to restore Israelis’ trust in.

Quite honestly, I thought back to America after 9/11. And I asked myself, what do I wish I had done more of before we launched two wars of revenge and transformation in Afghanistan and Iraq for which they and we paid a huge price?

I wish I’d argued for what the C.I.A. calls a “Red Cell” or “Red Team” — a group of intelligence officers outside the direct military or political chain of command, whose main job would have been to examine the war plans and goals for Iraq and Afghanistan and stress-test them by proposing contrarian alternatives for achievable goals to restore U.S. security and deterrence. And to have that Red Team’s recommendations be made public before we went to war.

As a retired senior U.S. intelligence official said to me: The role of the C.I.A.’s Red Cell on other thorny problems “was to help the U.S. government make decisions with eyes wide open and to buy down, but not eliminate, risk. It’s not a sign of weakness to make fully informed decisions and I think the Red Cell is a great tool for weighing alternative options and potential second- and third-order effects. Israel’s leaders need to be rigorous and not only passionate at this moment in time.”

So it’s with that in mind that I am proposing Israel create not only a Red Team for how to deal with Hamas in Gaza but also a Blue Team to critique the Red Team. Israel needs to have a much more robust internal debate because it has clearly rushed into a war with multiple contradictory goals.

Israel’s stated aim is to get back all its remaining hostages — now more than 130 soldiers and civilians — while destroying Hamas and its infrastructure once and for all, while doing it in a way that doesn’t cause more Gazan civilian casualties than the Biden administration can defend, and without leaving Israel responsible for Gaza forever and having to pay its bills every day. Good luck with all that.

Here’s what an Israeli Red Team might point out and advocate instead.

For starters, because the military and cabinet rushed into Gaza in this war and seemingly never game-planned for any endgame, Israel now finds itself in a difficult predicament. It has pushed well over one million civilians from northern Gaza to the south to get them away from the fight as it has attempted to wipe out all Hamas fighters in Gaza City and its environs. But now, the only way that Israel can take the ground war to southern Gaza — around Khan Younis, where Hamas’s senior leadership is suspected of hiding in tunnels — is by moving through this mass of displaced people and by creating even more.

Facing this predicament, the Israeli Red Team would suggest a radical alternative: Israel should call for a permanent cease-fire that would be followed by an immediate Israeli withdrawal of all military forces in Gaza on the condition that Hamas return all the hostages it has left, civilians and military, and any dead. But Hamas would get no Palestinian prisoners in return. Just a clean deal — Israeli withdrawal and a permanent cease-fire in return for the 130-plus Israeli hostages.

There would be an Israeli asterisk, though, which wouldn’t be written in, but everyone would understand it is there: Israel reserves the right in the future to bring to justice the top Hamas leaders who planned this massacre. As it did after the Munich massacre, though, Israel will do that with a scalpel, not a hammer.

What might be the advantages of such a strategy for Israel? The Red Team would cite five.

First, it would argue, all the pressure for a cease-fire to spare Gazan civilians more death and destruction will fall on Hamas, not on Israel. Let Hamas tell its people living out in the cold and rain — and the world — that it will not agree to a cease-fire for the mere humanitarian price of returning all the Israeli hostages.

Moreover, Israel would have ensured that Hamas got no big political victory out of this war like forcing Israel to free all the more than 6,000 Palestinians in its jails in return for the hostages Hamas is holding. No, no — it would just be a clean deal: permanent cease-fire for Israeli hostages, period. The world can understand that. Let’s see Hamas reject it and declare that it wants more war.

Second, some, maybe many, in Israel would complain that the military did not achieve its stated objective of eliminating Hamas, therefore it was a Hamas victory. The Red Team would respond that, for starters, the objective was unrealistic, especially with a right-wing Israeli government unwilling to work with the more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to build an alternative to Hamas to run Gaza.

What Israel will have achieved, the Red Team would argue, is to have sent a powerful message of deterrence to Hamas and to Hezbollah in Lebanon: You destroy our villages, we will destroy yours 10 times more. This is ugly stuff, but the Middle East is a Hobbesian jungle. It is not Scandinavia.

And think smart about it: In the wake of such a permanent cease-fire, Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader, would have to come out of his tunnel, squint into the sun, and face his own people for the first time since this war started. Yes, the morning after he comes out, many Gazans will carry him on their shoulders and sing his name for dealing such a heavy blow to the Jews.

But on the morning after the morning after, the Red Team would predict, many of those carrying him around would begin whispering to him: “Sinwar, what were you thinking? My house is now a pile of rubble. Who is going to rebuild it? My job in Israel that was feeding my family of 10 is gone. How am I going to feed my kids? You need to get me some international humanitarian assistance and a new house and job — and how are you going to do that if you keep lobbing rockets at the Jews?”

With Israel out, the humanitarian crisis created by this war in Gaza would become Sinwar’s and Hamas’s problem — as it should be. Every problem in Gaza would be Sinwar’s fault, starting with jobs.

Keep in mind, as Reuters recently noted, that before Oct. 7 Israel was issuing “more than 18,000 permits allowing Gazans to cross into Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank to take jobs in sectors like agriculture or construction that typically carried salaries up to 10 times what a worker could earn” in Gaza. Gaza was also exporting over $130 million a year of fish, agricultural produce, textiles and other products to Israel and the West Bank. That’s now all stopped.

Third, the Israeli Red Team would argue, this will create the same kind of deterrence for Hamas that Israel’s devastating bombardments of pro-Hezbollah communities in the southern suburbs of Beirut did in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has never dared to provoke a full-scale war with Israel since.

The Red Team would add that not only would the damage Israel has inflicted on Hamas and Gaza create similar deterrence, but so too would the fact that Israel could now reimagine and strengthen its own border defenses. Hamas has shown Israel where all its vulnerabilities were and how it smuggled in so many weapons — and Israel can now make sure this will never happen again.

Fourth, one of the biggest strategic benefits of Israel getting out of Gaza in return for an internationally monitored cease-fire is that it could then devote full attention to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah and Iran would not like that. They want Israel permanently militarily overstretched and forced to keep a good chunk of its 300,000-plus reservists — who drive its economy — permanently mobilized to govern Gaza.

They also want Israel’s economy permanently overstretched to pay for it. And they want Israel morally overstretched by permanently owning the Gaza humanitarian crisis, so that every day the sun did not shine in Gaza, the rain did not fall, the electricity did not flow, the world would say that it is Israel’s fault. Israel’s worst enemies could not design a worse fate for it — and that is what Hezbollah and Iran are praying for.

Finally, the Israeli Red Team would argue, Israel has important healing to do at home. This surprise attack happened because Israel had a prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who had fractured the country by trying to mount an insane judicial coup and who governed Israel for a total of 16 years with a strategy of dividing everyone — religious from secular, left from right, Ashkenazim from Sephardim, Israeli Arabs from Israeli Jews — weakening the country’s immune system. Israel can be healed internally and resume its project of normalizing relations with its Arab neighbors and forging a stable relationship with the more moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank only if Netanyahu is removed. If the war goes on forever, that will never happen. And that is exactly what Netanyahu wants.

But now comes the Israeli Blue Team. What would it say about the Red Team?

Well, first, it would ask, what do you do if Sinwar simply says no, I won’t accept just a cease-fire, I need my 6,000-plus prisoners out of Israeli jails and I will pay the price in Western public opinion to hold out for them? Then Israel is stuck again.

The Israeli Blue Team would say: We have a better idea. First, downgrade our objectives. Declare that the military’s objective is not to wipe Hamas off the face of the earth, but to significantly diminish its fighting capacity.

Because, the Blue Team would say, we actually don’t believe in deterrence. Hezbollah has not really been deterred since 2006. That is an illusion. Iran is just saving Hezbollah for the day Israel will threaten its nuclear program. We Blue Teamers believe in constantly diminishing our enemies’ capabilities. Once we have greatly diminished Hamas’s capabilities, we are not going to stay in Gaza forever until we kill every leader.

Instead, we will pull back and create a perimeter and outposts one mile inside the Gaza-Israel border to ensure that our border communities can never again be attacked overland as they were on Oct. 7. And we will do that to emphasize that we have the abilities and intentions to return at will if Hamas keeps firing rockets at us. If Hamas wants to trade our hostages for prisoners, we can talk. As for governance of Gaza, a diminished Hamas can stay in charge if that is what Gazans want. Let Hamas be responsible for the water and electricity.

Finally, the Blue Team would say to the Israeli political leadership: “Stop lying to yourself and the public. If we try to conquer and hold all of Gaza, Gaza will not only swallow us in the end, you politicians will create huge doubts in the public’s mind about the military by giving it an unachievable goal and Israel simply cannot afford more doubts about the military a second longer.”

In sum, Israel needs this kind of internal debate, where an Israeli Red Team and Blue Team can remind the country’s leadership that there is no perfect outcome waiting for Israel in Gaza. Fixing Gaza “once and for all” was always a fantasy.

But here is what is not a fantasy: The true history of Israel-Hamas relations. It is very simple. It is war, timeout, war, timeout, war, timeout, war, timeout …. Hamas thrives in the wars, because that is all it can deliver and all that it exists for. Israel thrives in the long timeouts — in the cease-fires — when all of its societal, economic and innovative strengths come to the fore. Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah want to drag Israel into a permanent state of war. Israel needs a Red Team and a Blue Team to advocate instead for longer cease-fires, a more hardened border and the flexibility to return to Gaza if Hamas forces it to.

Not perfect, but perfect was never on the menu. It’s the Middle East, Jake.

New Tork TImes: Unvaccinated and Vulnerable: Children Drive Surge in Deadly Outbreaks

Stephanie Nolen, New York Times (Nov. 25, 2023)

Large outbreaks of diseases that primarily kill children are spreading around the world, a grim legacy of disruptions to health systems during the Covid-19 pandemic that have left more than 60 million children without a single dose of standard childhood vaccines.

By midway through this year, 47 countries were reporting serious measles outbreaks, compared with 16 countries in June 2020. Nigeria is currently facing the largest diphtheria outbreak in its history, with more than 17,000 suspected cases and nearly 600 deaths so far. Twelve countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, are reporting circulating polio virus.

Many of the children who missed their shots have now aged out of routine immunization programs. So-called “zero-dose children” account for nearly half of all child deaths from vaccine-preventable illnesses, according to Gavi, the organization that helps fund vaccination in low- and middle-income countries.

An additional 85 million children are under-immunized as a result of the pandemic — that is, they received only part of the standard course of several shots required to be fully protected from a particular disease.

The cost of the failure to reach those children is fast becoming clear. Deaths from measles rose 43 percent (to 136,200) in 2022, compared with the previous year, according to a new report from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The figures for 2023 indicate that the total could be twice as high again.

“The decline in vaccination coverage during the Covid-19 pandemic led us directly to this situation of rising diseases and child deaths,” said Ephrem Lemango, associate director of immunization for UNICEF, which supports delivery of vaccines to almost half the world’s children every year. “With each new outbreak, the toll on vulnerable communities rises. We need to move fast now and make the investment needed to catch up the children that were missed during the pandemic.”

One of the biggest challenges is that the children who missed their first shots between 2020 and 2022 are now older than the age group typically seen routinely at primary health care centers and in normal vaccination programs. Reaching and protecting them from diseases that can easily turn fatal in countries with the most fragile health systems will require an extra push and new investment.

“If you were born within a certain period of time, you were missed, full stop, and you’re not going to get caught just by restoring normal services,” said Lily Caprani, UNICEF’s chief of global advocacy.

UNICEF is asking Gavi for $350 million to purchase vaccines to try to reach those children. Gavi’s governing board will consider the request next month.

Many developing countries have some experience of carrying out catch-up campaigns for measles, targeting children between 1 and 5, or even 1 and 15, in response to outbreaks. But now those countries also need to deliver the other vaccines and train personnel — typically community health workers who are only accustomed to vaccinating babies — and to procure and distribute the actual vaccines.

Dr. Lemango said that despite the urgency of the situation, it had been a struggle to get plans for such campaigns in place and that he hoped most could come together in 2024.

“Coming out of the pandemic, there was this hangover — no one wanted to do campaigns,” he said. “Everyone wants to return to normalcy and do regular strengthening of immunization. But we already had unfinished business.”

In some countries, such as Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia, health systems have recovered from severe Covid disruption and have regained or even surpassed the levels of vaccination coverage they had reached before the pandemic. But others — mostly countries where vaccination rates were already considerably lower than the targets set by UNICEF — have not caught up to their previously lower levels.

The countries with the most zero-dose children include Nigeria, Ethiopia, India, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan. Many with the lowest levels of coverage are facing compounding challenges, such as the civil conflicts in Syria, Ethiopia and Yemen; the growing population of climate refugees in Chad; and both of those problems in Sudan.

Ghana’s experience is representative of the challenges of many lower-income countries. Parents couldn’t take their children for routine shots when communities were locked down to protect against Covid, and when those restrictions were lifted, many parents still stayed away because of fear of infection, said Priscilla Obiri, a community health nurse in charge of vaccinations in low-income fishing communities on the edge of the capital, Accra.

Of the children Ms. Obiri sees these days at a typical pop-up vaccination clinic, where she sets up a table and a few chairs in the shade at a crossroads, as many as a third will have incomplete vaccinations, or sometimes none at all, she said. She agrees on a plan with their mothers to make up the gap.

But some parents don’t, or can’t, bring their children to a clinic. “We must go out to the community and hunt for them,” she said.

As Ms. Obiri and her colleagues attempt to regain that lost ground, they face another challenge: disinformation campaigns and hesitation about Covid vaccines have spilled over and eroded some of the traditional eagerness that parents had to get their children routine immunizations, according to the Vaccine Confidence Project, a long-running research initiative at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“In 55 countries, there was a precipitous drop between 2015 and 2022 in the number of people who said that routine immunization is important for children,” said the project’s director, Heidi Larson, whose team collected what she described as “robust global polling data” in more than 100 nationally representative surveys.

Even as people around the world were seeking information about vaccines, there was a surge in mis- and disinformation, she said, and people with low trust in officials and official guidance were particularly vulnerable to believing alternative sources of information.

In 2015, 95 percent of Ghanaian parents said they believed vaccines were safe. That figure plunged to 67 percent of parents in 2022. It had climbed back to 83 percent by October of this year.

Dr. Kwame Amponsah-Achiano, who oversees the childhood immunization program in Ghana, said he did not believe that confidence had fallen during the Covid pandemic. Demand remains high and has outstripped the program’s ability to supply in some areas, he said.

Ms. Caprani said UNICEF had found that both problems were occurring in parallel.

“You can have demand outstripping not just physical supply, but also outstripping access — convenient, affordable, reachable access — and simultaneously see some declining confidence,” she said. “It’s not necessarily the same people.”

Last year, 22 million children missed the routine measles vaccination given in their first year of life — 2.7 million more than in 2019 — while an additional 13.3 million did not receive their second doses. To reach herd immunity, and prevent outbreaks, 95 percent of children must have both doses. Measles acts as an early warning system for gaps in immunization, because it is highly transmissible.

“There are communities where an outbreak of measles is a bad thing, and there are communities where it’s a death sentence, because of the combination of other risk factors such as poor malnutrition, poor access to health care, poor access to clean water,” Ms. Caprani said.

New York Times: The Startling Evidence on Learning Loss Is In

By New York Times The Editorial Board

In the thick of the Covid-19 pandemic, Congress sent $190 billion in aid to schools, stipulating that 20 percent of the funds had to be used for reversing learning setbacks. At the time, educators knew that the impact on how children learn would be significant, but the extent was not yet known.

The evidence is now in, and it is startling. The school closures that took 50 million children out of classrooms at the start of the pandemic may prove to be the most damaging disruption in the history of American education. It also set student progress in math and reading back by two decades and widened the achievement gap that separates poor and wealthy children.

These learning losses will remain unaddressed when the federal money runs out in 2024. Economists are predicting that this generation, with such a significant educational gap, will experience diminished lifetime earnings and become a significant drag on the economy. But education administrators and elected officials who should be mobilizing the country against this threat are not.

It will take a multidisciplinary approach, and at this point, all the solutions that will be needed long term can’t be known; the work of getting kids back on solid ground is just beginning. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be immediate action.

As a first step, elected officials at every level — federal, state and local — will need to devote substantial resources to replace the federal aid that is set to expire and must begin making up lost ground. This is a bipartisan issue, and parents, teachers and leaders in education have a role to play as well, in making sure that addressing learning loss and other persistent challenges facing children receives urgent attention.

The challenges have been compounded by an epidemic of absenteeism, as students who grew accustomed to missing school during the pandemic continue to do so after the resumption of in-person classes. Millions of young people have joined the ranks of the chronically absent — those who miss 10 percent or more of the days in the school year — and for whom absenteeism will translate into gaps in learning.

In the early grades, these missing children are at greater risk of never mastering the comprehension skills that make education possible. The more absences these students accumulate, the more they miss out on the process of socialization through which young people learn to live and work with others. The more they lag academically, the more likely they are to drop out.

This fall, The Associated Press illustrated how school attendance has cratered across the United States, using data compiled in partnership with the Stanford University education professor Thomas Dee. More than a quarter of students were chronically absent in the 2021-22 school year, up from 15 percent before the pandemic. That means an additional 6.5 million students joined the ranks of the chronically absent.

The problem is pronounced in poorer districts like Oakland, Calif., where the chronic absenteeism rate exceeded 61 percent. But as the policy analyst Tim Daly wrote recently, absenteeism is rampant in wealthy schools, too. Consider New Trier Township High School in Illinois, a revered and highly competitive school that serves some of the country’s most affluent communities. Last spring, The Chicago Tribune reported that New Trier’s rate of chronic absenteeism got worse by class, reaching nearly 38 percent among its seniors.

The Times reported on Friday that preliminary data for 2022-23 showed a slight improvement in attendance. However, in some states, like California and New Mexico, “the rate of chronic absenteeism was still double what it was before the pandemic.” The solutions are not simple. There is extensive evidence that punitive measures don’t work, so educators may need a combination of incentives and measures to address the economic and family issues that can keep children away from school.

Researchers have long known that American students grow more alienated from school the longer they attend — and that they often fall off the school engagement cliff, at which point they no longer care. This sense of disconnection stems from a feeling among high school students in particular that no one at school cares about them and that the courses they study bear no relationship to the challenges they face in the real world.

These young people are also vulnerable to mental health difficulties that worsened during the pandemic. Based on survey data collected in 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this year that more than 40 percent of high school students had persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness; 22 percent had seriously considered suicide; 10 percent reported that they had attempted suicide.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, many parents and educators have been raising the alarm about the effects of grief, isolation and other disruptions on the mental health of their children. In addition to reconnecting these young people to school, states and localities need to create a more supportive school environment and provide the counseling services these students need to succeed.

The State of Virginia took a big swing at the problem of learning loss when it announced what is being described as a statewide tutoring program. But high-impact tutoring is labor intensive and depends on high-quality instruction. It is most likely to succeed when sessions are held at least three times a week — during school hours — with well-trained, well-managed tutors working with four or fewer students at a time. Such an effort would require a massive recruitment effort, at a time when many schools are still struggling to find enough teachers.

While tutoring is a step in the right direction, other measures to increase the time that students spend in school — such as after-school programs and summer school — will be required to help the students who have fallen furthest behind. In some communities, children have fallen behind by more than a year and a half in math. “It is magical thinking to expect they will make this happen without a major increase in instructional time,” as the researchers Tom Kane and Sean Reardon recently argued.

A study of data from 16 states by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University shows that the most effective way to reverse learning loss is to increase the pace at which students learn. One way is by exposing them to teachers who have had an extraordinary impact on their students. The center proposes offering these excellent teachers extra compensation in exchange for taking extra students into their classes. Highly trained, dedicated teachers have long been known to be the most reliable path to better educational outcomes, but finding them at any scale has always been difficult. If creative solutions can be found, it will help reverse learning gaps from the pandemic and improve American education overall.

The learning loss crisis is more consequential than many elected officials have yet acknowledged. A collective sense of urgency by all Americans will be required to avert its most devastating effects on the nation’s children.

Crisis, what crisis?: Reproducibility and Health Economics

Philip Clarke, Professor of Health Economics, Nuffield College, Oxford University.

For a decade, science has faced a replication crisis in that many of the results of many of the key studies are difficult or impossible to reproduce. For example, the Open Science Collaboration in 2015 published a paper involving a replication of 100 psychology studies that found that many replications produced weaker evidence for the original findings. A study in the journal Science reproducing 18 economic experiments soon followed and again found that up to one-third could not be reproduced. The question still to be answered is whether health economics faces a reproducibility crisis, and if this is the case, what do we do about it?

To fully understand the reproducibility crisis, one must look at the incentives for authors trying to publish scientific articles. It is only human nature to regard results that are perceived as positive or statistically significant as telling a better story than negative or non-significant results. A common manifestation is P-hacking which arises when researchers look to report effects that are deemed statistical significance above a threshold such as 0.05. A recent analysis of over 21,000 hypothesis tests published in 25 leading economics journals show this a problem, particularly with studies employing Instrumental variables and Diff-in-Diff methods. 

An initiative editors of health economic journals took in 2015 aimed at reducing P-Hacking was to issue a statement reminding referees to accept studies that: ‘have potential scientific and publication merit regardless of whether such studies’ empirical findings do or do not reject null hypotheses’. This appears to have had some impact, but health economics faces a unique set of challenges. Often there are pressures to demonstrate that an intervention is cost-effective by showing that it falls below a predefined cost per QALY threshold, which produces what could be termed cost-effectiveness threshold hacking.

Beyond formal hypothesis testing, the widespread use of key health economic results such as EQ-5D value sets means reproducibility is likely to be extremely important, as the results of such studies become inputs into potentially 100s of other analyses. It is perhaps not surprising that one of the only replications conducted in health economics has been over the EQ-5D-5L value set for England, although in less-than-ideal circumstances. Rather than a one-off, replication should be seen as integral to the development of foundational health economic tools such as value sets and disease simulation models that are critical to so much research.

The question now for the discipline is how can we promote and facilitate replication and avoid the pitfalls of P or threshold hacking?

One approach undertaken by the Mount Hood Diabetes Challenge Network has been to run comparable scenarios through various health economic diabetes simulation models. A recent challenge involved a comparison of 12 different Type 2 diabetes computer models that separately simulated the impact of a range of treatment interventions on Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALYs). The variation in outcomes across models was substantive, e.g. up to a six-fold variation in incremental QALYs associated between different simulation models (see figure 1). This suggested that the choice of simulation model could have a large impact on whether a therapy is deemed cost-effective and, when combined with threshold hacking, means that many economic evaluations are likely to be more in advocacy than science.  

To create greater transparency, the Mount Hood Diabetes Challenge Network has also created specific guidelines for reporting economic evaluations that use diabetes simulation models to enable replication and has developed a simulation model registry. The registry is designed to encourage those developing models to provide documentation in one place and report on a set of reference simulations. Modelling groups are also encouraged to update these simulations each time the model changes, which provides a benchmark to compare different simulation models and how models evolve. Health economic model registries can potentially improve the science of economic evaluation in the same way clinical trial registries have improved the conduct and reporting of randomized controlled trials in medicine.

Finally, those conducting experiments or quasi-experimental methods can now submit registered reports. This initiative started with psychology journals with the idea that authors submit the protocol before undertaking the study to a journal for peer review. After review, if the registered report is accepted, the journal commits to publishing the full study regardless of the results’ significance. Registered reports are a way of avoiding the pitfalls of P-hacking and publication bias.

There are now more than 300 journals that allow registered reports, but take up by economic journals has been slow. Quality of Life Research and Oxford Open Economics are the only two options for those undertaking health economic experiments. Hopefully, these initiatives and an online petition signed by more than 145 health economists will encourage other health economic journals to provide this option in future.

Health economics embracing registered reports and developing health economic model registers are two ways to strengthen the discipline as a science.

Figure 2 Comparisons of incremental life-years (ΔLYs) and incremental QALYs (ΔQALYs) across different models by intervention profile. Originally published Tew M, Willis M, Asseburg C, et al. Exploring Structural Uncertainty and Impact of Health State Utility Values on Lifetime Outcomes in Diabetes Economic Simulation Models: Findings from the Ninth Mount Hood Diabetes Quality-of-Life Challenge. Medical Decision Making. 2022;42(5):599-611. doi:10.1177/0272989X211065479 (Note figure is Creative Commons)

A new general interest journal to make economics open again

Agustín BénétrixAnanish ChaudhuriPhilip ClarkeAmrita DhillonAna Beatriz GalvãoPushkar MaitraUgo Panizza

In recounting his life as an applied economist, Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton concluded that he greatly benefitted from the openness of economics and its lack of nepotism and patronage (Deaton, 2011). Many now question this perception of openness and suggest that economics can be clubby and hierarchical (Galiani and Panizza, 2020).

In economics, the publication process is extremely long (Ellison, 2002). A lengthy publication process is frustrating for everybody but can be disastrous for young scholars on the tenure clock (Conley et al., 2013). The profession also gives excessive weight to publications in a small number of journals (often referred to as Top-Five) even though there is weak empirical support for the fact that these journals produce more impactful papers than lower ranked journals. There is also the risk that this excessive focus on a small number of journals ‘incentivises professional incest and creates clientele effects whereby career-oriented authors appeal to the tastes of editors and biases of journals’ and ‘raises the entry costs for new ideas and persons outside the orbits of the journals and their editors’ (Heckman and Moktan, 2020).

The launch of a new general interest economic journal is an opportunity to address these challenges.

Oxford Open Economics is the first general interest journal in Economics that is fully open access. The approach of providing open access to sound science has been popular in the natural sciences for a while with journals such as Scientific Reports from the Nature Publishing Group or the Public Library of Science journals. With Oxford Open Economics, the discipline of Economics can now be part of this movement designed to provide better access and easier dissemination of research findings.

Economic journals often reject papers on the basis of subjective evaluations of likely impact and breadth of interest. These subjective evaluations become a source of publication bias and reinforce the impression that economics is elitist and clubby. Oxford Open Economics will strive to avoid such subjective evaluations by adopting ‘sound-science’ peer review, where the focus is on methodological rigor rather than subjective judgments of novelty.

Furthermore, many scholarly journals are published not by university affiliated publishers but by commercial publishers, who often charge hefty subscription fees to libraries. The rationale of this commercial model of charging high fees for research results and peer review of the same carried out for free by academics at publicly funded universities has been questioned by authors such as Bergstrom (2001). This pricing model results in limiting access to new research, particularly in developing countries, whose libraries are often unable to afford the exorbitant charges. Providing open access to the latest research can go a long way toward removing this barrier.

The goal of Oxford Open Economics is to become a top general interest economic journal but it wants to be more than that by also publishing high-quality articles that are usually shunned by traditional journals. Funding agencies emphasize the need for interdisciplinary research, but interdisciplinary articles are traditionally difficult to publish in an economic journal. Oxford Open Economics aims to be an outlet for high-quality and interdisciplinary research. Along similar lines, papers with null results are often difficult to publish, a fact that leads to selective reporting (or p-hacking) and ‘file drawer effect’. Oxford Open Economics plans to address this issue by publishing high quality studies with null effects. A recent evaluation by Blanco-Perez and Brodeur (2020) showed that the editors issuing such an explicit statement had an impact in reducing publication bias and so we plan to adopt a similar policy with Oxford Open EconomicsOxford Open Economics also looks forward to publishing review articles that take a strong stand on the state of the literature on a given topic.

With Oxford Open Economics, we plan to offer a quick turnaround. We want to reduce repetition and redundancy in the review process by allowing authors to share reports and decision letters from previous submissions or to opt for a no-revision option, which means that they will not receive a revise and resubmit decision. Even for authors who do not submit previous reports and decision letters and do not opt for the no-revision option, we plan to provide a first decision within 6–8 weeks from submission and avoid multiple rounds of revision.

As noted above, the publication process in Economics tends to be lengthy. Part of this seems predicated on the premise that while research questions in the medical and natural sciences require rapid dissemination due to their immediate impact on health-related and social outcomes, issues in the social sciences are slower-moving and hence the turgid pace of the publication process is perfectly acceptable.

A recent editorial in the journal Science has argued the case of the need for much greater level of translational research (Proctor and Geng, 2021). For example, developing a highly effective COVID-19 vaccine is not enough if people choose not to get vaccinated. In this regard, economists alongside other disciplines have much to contribute. Take for example, a large pre-registered randomized controlled trial in Sweden and data on population-wide administrative vaccination records, Campos-Mercade et al. (2021) show that modest monetary payments of $24 increased vaccination rates by 4.2 percentage points from a baseline rate of 71.6%. In contrast, behavioral nudges increased stated intentions to vaccinate but had only small and not statistically significant impacts on vaccination rates. Whether one agrees with or disputes these findings, the fact remains that this line of work clearly falls within the purview of economics and that these results should be of immediate interest to both researchers and policy makers. There is no obvious reason why researchers undertaking such work must automatically look at natural science outlets for disseminating their results rather than ‘economic’ ones.

The purpose of peer review is to make sure that research findings are reported honestly, backed up by rigorous evidence and are free of mistakes. Yet, the current incentives in economics have degenerated to a point where the peer review process becomes an opportunity for reviewers to look for excuses to reject papers or to request elaborate and time-consuming revisions that often do not add value and slow down the process considerably.

Where possible, we, as editors, also plan to both implement and generate evidence that can both improve the journal and the publication process for both reviewers and authors. For example, in 2015, several health economic journals adopted a policy that reminded referees to accept studies that ‘have potential scientific and publication merit regardless of whether such studies’ empirical findings do or do not reject null hypotheses’. We also plan to look to generate evidence that increases both the scientific value of the journal and the process of publication for both authors and reviewers.

In a world populated by predatory publishers, credibility and high academic standards are key for a new journal and Oxford University Press is a guarantee along these lines. Oxford University Press is the largest university press in the world and the second oldest; it publishes more than 450 academic journals, including some of the most prestigious economic journals and a newly launched series of fully open access journals. Oxford University Press is thus the ideal partner for a new journal that wants to make economics open again.

Our team of senior editors has expertise in Macroeconomics and International Finance, Experimental Economics, Health Economics, Political Economics, Applied Econometrics and Development Economics and our editorial board covers the whole spectrum of economic research. Hence, we welcome submissions in all fields.

References

Bergstrom, T. (2001) ‘Free Labor for Costly Journals?’ Journal of Economic Perspectives, 15: 183–98.

Blanco-Perez, C., and Brodeur, A. (2020) ‘A Publication Bias and Editorial Statement on Negative Findings’, The Economic Journal, 130: 1226–47.

Campos-Mercade, P.  et al.  (2021) ‘Monetary Incentives Increase COVID-19 Vaccinations’, Science, 374: 879–82.

Conley, J. P.  et al.  (2013) ‘The Effects of Publication Lags on Life Cycle Research Productivity in Economics’, Economic Inquiry, 51: 1251–76.

Deaton, A. (2011) Puzzles and Paradoxes: A Life in Applied Economics. https://www.princeton.edu/~deaton/downloads/Angus_Deaton_Puzzles_and_Paradoxes_v1.4_9_13_10.pdf  Mimeo, Princeton University.

Ellison, G. (2002) ‘The Slowdown of the Economics Publishing Process’, Journal of Political Economy, 110: 947–93.

Galiani, S., and Panizza, U. (2020) Publishing and Measuring Success in Economics, London: CEPR Press.

Heckman, J., and Moktan, S. (2020) in ‘Publishing and Promotion in Economics: The Tyranny of the Top Five’ Ugo Panizza and Sebastian Galiani, (eds) Publishing and Measuring Success in Economics, London: CEPR Press.

Google ScholarProctor, E. K., and Geng, E. (2021) ‘A New Lane for Science’, Science, 374: 659.

Google ScholarCrossrefPubMed

Does support for elimination imply support for lockdowns?

John Gibson and Ananish Chaudhuri

John Gibson is Professor of Economics at Waikato University. Ananish Chaudhuri is Professor of Economics at the University of Auckland. The views expressed are their own.

A recent New Zealand Herald poll finds that 46% of respondents support “elimination” while a further 39% support “elimination till vaccination”.

Does the support for elimination imply support for Level 4 lockdowns? If so, then for how long and for how many more lockdowns will people support?

How do the 39% supporting elimination till vaccination interpret their position?

Israel has vaccinated a large proportion of its population with the same Pfizer vaccine we are relying on. Yet, that vaccine has proved insufficiently effective against the Delta variant. Infections in Israel have skyrocketed of late.

A recent paper by Pfizer’s own scientists shows vaccine efficacy (VE) for infection with the Delta variant falls by 10 percentage points per month, to be just 53% if the second jab was more than 4 months ago. Falling protection was almost as fast against other variants, declining by 8 percentage points per month.

VE for the at-risk elderly (≥ 65 years) starts low and wanes at a similar rate as for all-age groups: VE against infection (from all variants) is highest at 80%, within a month of the second jab, and by four months later VE is down to 43%.

Waning protection was almost as fast against other variants, declining by 8 percentage points per month.

The Ministry of Health website suggests that New Zealand’s elimination strategy is based on four pillars.

First, “Keep it out”, which involves border control and managed isolation “designed to keep COVID-19 out of the New Zealand community and prevent onward transmission of COVID-19 from New Zealand to other countries (e.g. in the South Pacific)…”

Second, “Prepare for it”: here the key risk being mitigated is to prevent “undetected cases of COVID-19 in the community”.

The third pillar is “Stamp It Out” which “encompasses contact tracing and case management to eliminate COVID-19 as quickly and efficiently as possible from the community, and the activation of higher Alert Levels to contain the spread of any incursion.”

The fourth pillar is “Manage the impact” which is less immediately relevant to the current discussion.

The above does not automatically suggest that “elimination” and “Level 4 lockdowns” need to be synonymous. Leaving aside border control policies, with adequate testing and contact tracing, elimination should be achievable even in the absence of Level 4 lockdowns.

Indeed, other countries such as Taiwan seem to have managed such elimination successfully.

Suppose we assume that elimination is synonymous with lockdowns. What have we learned in the last eighteen months or so?

The headline results from the (in)famous Imperial College paper of Ferguson et al assume an absence of “spontaneous changes in individual behaviour” (p.6).

Yet empirical study of actual humans (e.g. their shopping patterns) finds almost 90% of response was private action, and so the models greatly overstate lockdown efficacy (and are too alarming about the no-lockdown option).

Subsequent studies looked at Covid-19 deaths, as the outcome that really matters, and also because deaths data should be more reliable than infections data. Variation in the strength of lockdown (or lockdown versus no lockdown) is not related to variation in Covid-19 death rates. Yet the question of death with Covid versus death from Covid affects these studies, especially as jurisdictions with good public health data start to retrospectively revise Covid death totals, which were inflated by up to one-third.

The most recent studies look at all-cause mortality, as these data have fewer biases (one is dead or not, irrespective of cause) and also show lockdown collateral damage. Across European countries, stricter lockdowns did not reduce excess mortality, while across 43 countries and all U.S. states excess mortality rose following the imposition of lockdowns.

Local defenders of lockdown may note New Zealand had no excess mortality in calendar year 2020. However, an unprecedented post-lockdown surge in deaths that carried on through the summer into 2021 largely reverses that pattern if the full 12 months after the first lockdown is considered.

While lockdowns have not worked to reduce deaths in the present, they almost certainly harm future life expectancy. This especially matters for New Zealand, due to the following:

The long-run relationship between the real value of our economic activity (what we produce) and life expectancy is 50% higher than the OECD average. A 10% fall in real GDP, in the long-run, reduces NZ life expectancy 1.8% below what it otherwise would be. So these trade-offs should matter more here than elsewhere.

Real GDP in 2020 was 5.2% below expectation (using the last 2019 fiscal update). Part of this fall was outside our control but much is from a “go hard” approach. With a Covid response stringency of the median OECD country our 2020 GDP growth rate would be 3 percentage points higher (lockdown stringency is unrelated to mortality so this is all pain no gain).

The $14 billion of output not produced in 2020 is not shifted through time, it is a permanent loss. The same will be true for the 2021 lockdown. A share of future output also has to go on debt-servicing, as NZ tried to borrow her way out of this pandemic, and so is not available to fund improvements in life expectancy.

New Zealand residents currently alive can expect 224 million more life years (based on the latest 2017-19 period life tables). If real GDP ultimately falls 10% below what was expected pre-Covid (e.g. if Level 4 lasts as long as in 2020), and if we apportion half of this to the unusually harsh NZ response (rather than to overseas factors), then our politicians and health bureaucrats will have presided over a fall in life expectancy where there are two million fewer life years than would otherwise be expected. If this loss was full concentrated on a select group, it is equivalent to 46,000 deaths.

In case one doubts these calculations, note that the Treasury long-term fiscal forecasts released recently show future life expectancy is almost two years below what they had previously forecast in 2016. 

Putting all of the above together, a thorough review by Canadian economist Douglas Allen concluded that lockdowns will go down as one of the greatest peacetime policy failures.

A strategy for vaccination success.

The Prime Minister has recently laid out some plans for opening New Zealand’s borders. Contrary to what some may think, re-joining the rest of the world is crucial for our future prosperity. The longer we delay the further behind we will fall. 

What is our biggest challenge now? Getting the adult population vaccinated.

Recently, John Key proposed telethon-type messaging on vaccination rates with this information being updated and shown on TV screens.

Here is a better idea.

Despite what the government would have you believe the vast bulk of people are not anti-vaxxers or rabble-rousers. They just want to get on with their lives. What then prevents vaccine uptake? Inertia! 

Currently the government is asking people to log on to websites, find a centre close to where they live, figure out a suitable date and then sign up for a jab. This may be thought of as the “opt-in” option. 

Instead, here is what we should be doing. Send each eligible adult a date, time and place for vaccination. Those above 65 or 70 could be given times during the weekday while those younger would get times during the evening or in the weekend. If needed pay extra to those administering jabs during evenings and weekends.

We do something similar before the elections when we send people information about where to go to vote. This should not be logistically too onerous.

People have the option of changing those dates but offered a date, a vast bulk of people will go ahead and show up at the appointed time.

It would also be useful if people could get this done with their own GPs since when it comes to medical advice these are our most trusted advisors. 

Research suggests that when it comes to retirement savings with employer-matched contributions, firms that use the “opt-in” option, where they ask workers to sign up to a program, often end up with fewer enrolees. On the other hand, firms that use the “opt-out” option do better. In this latter case, workers are automatically enrolled but have the option of opting out. Most workers do not and stay enrolled in the scheme. These people end up with much higher savings.

In one firm that switched from opting in to opting out, participation rate was 35 percentage points higher after three months on the job and remained 25 points higher after two years.

In another firm that offered a default contribution rate of 3 per cent of salary, more than one-quarter of workers contributed exactly that amount, even though the employer matched contributions up to 6 per cent of salary. Once the firm raised the default to 6 per cent, workers started contributing the same proportion.

A 2013 report in the Guardian found that approximately one year after Britain introduced automatic enrolment with an opt-out feature, there were 1.6 million more savers in workplace pensions. Only 9 per cent chose to opt out.

Relying on the “opt-out” option for vaccination will lead to much quicker uptakes. In countries such as Canada or Sweden governments are also trying other innovative approaches such as lotteries and/or financial incentives.

In the meantime, we need to stop talking about vaccine mandates, vaccine passports and ostracizing the unvaccinated etc. None of those things will come to pass or help and such talk only ends up raising people’s hackles. 

To those who are not generally opposed to vaccinations, I suggest the following. Yes, the Covid vaccines are not particularly effective against mutant strains. But nevertheless, the expected value is still positive. If you meet another person, vaccinated or unvaccinated, you are still better off being vaccinated. In the parlance of game theory, this is a dominant strategy; a strategy that does better against all other strategies adopted by others.

Are there side-effects? Maybe. But all vaccines have side-effects and there is little evidence to suggest that the side-effects to the current ones are any more dire than others. These are very low probability events that people often over-estimate. If you are scared or worried, let it be; opt-out. 

But equally the government needs to realize that we will never get as many vaccinated as we ideally want. And it also matters less than is being made out to be. There is little value in holding out for a great outcome when we can get a perfectly good outcome. We need to get going. 

Why we could not just “trust the science” in dealing with covid-19

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, we were told to just “trust the science” implying: listen to the advice of epidemiological researchers. But this was a narrow view of what the relevant “science” was. Epidemiologists can tell us about case and infection fatality rates of pathogens or their prospective path of transmission. But what we do with that data, what level of risk we are willing to tolerate, what costs we are willing to bear and what freedoms we are willing to sacrifice is no longer a question for epidemiologists. In fact, this question should not be left to them. It requires expertise from other social sciences and humanities. In reality, this “trust the science” mantra was an abdication of responsibility by our leadership for decisions that require statesmanship and are fundamentally political in nature; a pretense that a narrowly defined view of science can substitute for ethical judgments that ultimately need to be made by elected leaders.    

Which brings us to the news that there is much consternation around the fact that the consumer price index is up by more than 3% on an annual basis. Why the surprise? This is one of many inevitable outcomes of the zero-Covid mindset. The government has refused to acknowledge that Covid-19 was not merely a health crisis; it was also a social and economic crisis requiring a multi-pronged response rather than single-minded devotion to elimination. The “scientists” advising the government failed to understand that while too little social distancing leads to loss of lives and livelihoods from Covid-19, too much social distancing implies a loss of lives and livelihoods from other diseases and factors. Little thought was given to issues like our geographical isolation, the impact on global supply chains; that vaccination roll-outs may take a long time; that this will make it increasingly difficult to hunker down in Fortress New Zealand.  

The Covid-19 recession is also different. In the past, governments were fighting recessions caused by shocks that had already happened. But for the Covid-19 induced recession, faced with declining output and the prospect of large-scale unemployment, our government started borrowing heavily, thereby dramatically increasing the government’s debt. But simultaneously, the government (in the guise of the Reserve Bank) bought back that same debt in a massive program of quantitative easing; printing money to stimulate economic activity. This would be funny if the consequences were not so dramatic. Not surprisingly, it became clear soon enough that the ability of quantitative easing to stimulate business spending was going to be limited. This is because what was holding back such spending was not a lack of credit but an acute uncertainty about what the future held.   

In most recessions house prices take a nose-dive. But not this time around; partly because this recession hit the non-asset owning blue-collar workers far more than the while-collar ones. The latter had the option of working comfortably from home and therefore, did not experience much economic hardship. The historically low interest rates set off a quest for higher returns, resulting in investors gravitating toward houses and equities, furiously bidding up prices and fueling speculative bubbles. Among other things, this will create long-term wealth (and inter-generational) inequality. A government that touts its progressive credentials was essentially giving away free-money to the asset holding class. 

On top of this, the government decided to adopt another common populist tactic: the minimum wage was put up to nearly three-quarters of the adult median wage. I firmly believe that the negative employment consequences of minimum wages are often blown out of proportion by opponents. But not in a recession and certainly not in a situation when the country’s borders are shut tightly thereby depriving businesses of making compensatory adjustments. In any event, the inflationary pressures we are experiencing are more due to the quantitative easing rather than the minimum wage increase. These policies hew closely to ones followed by other populist regimes such as in Argentina or Venezuela. First, money creation to deal with large fiscal deficits; followed by wage increases (helped by substantial minimum-wage hikes) and declining unemployment. Soon, however, bottlenecks appear and prices skyrocket.  

The government is supposedly keen on having more skilled labour. This would require building up capacity in the tertiary education sector. Yet, by restricting funding and forcing redundancies, the government is in the process of bringing our universities to their knees. The government deficits are creating a temporary boom in consumer spending and giving people the impression that everything is fine; but this will be short-lived. In the meantime, long lasting damage is being created to the country’s productive capacity. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) another group of people will be tasked with repairing that damage, which will become ever more apparent with the passage of time. As the saying goes, those who would give up essential liberties for temporary security will have neither security nor liberty.  

Proposed Hate speech law further proof of nz government’s authoritarian streak

There is understandable unease with the proposed new hate speech law. But for those of us paying attention, this proposal is part of an established pattern manifesting an inherently authoritarian mindset.  

Back in mid-March, 2020, New Zealand was in Alert Level 2. Then we went to Level 3 for one day before moving to Level 4. At the time, two legal experts wrote: “[The lockdown] imposes the most extensive restrictions on New Zealanders’ lives seen for at least 70 years; perhaps ever. No matter how ‘necessary’ these may be, we should expect such restrictions to have a clear, certain basis in law and be imposed through a transparent and accountable process.”  

Subsequently, a Court found that the first nine days of this lockdown was “unlawful”. In response, the government passed “under urgency” the Covid19 Public Health Response Bill. According to one report in Newsroom “the bill went through Parliament in less than two days and with no select committee hearings (and) grants police warrantless entry to premises if they reasonably believe virus-related orders are being breached.”

Both the Human Rights Commission and civil rights advocates expressed reservations about this law given the concentration of power in the hands of the Executive.

Later in 2020, New Zealand Ombudsman Peter Boshier revealed that he was “horrified” to learn that in the aftermath of the pandemic the government had actually considered suspending the Official Information Act, before backing down. Curbing freedom of the press is a well-established authoritarian practice.

Recently, another court found the government guilty again of exceeding its powers (ultra vires) when it rolled out a universal vaccination program under the 1981 Medicines Act. This once again required a hasty fix to the existing law to ensure that the vaccination program is lawful.

In a recent article, my colleague Robert MacCulloch argues that even the government’s climate change strategies are more about power than about prudent policy making. Another columnist noted that the government is well on its ways toward establishing a command and control economic and social structure.

A recent paper by two European researchers shows that countries hit to the same extent by Covid-19 were more likely to declare a state of emergency when their constitutional emergency provisions granted them more discretionary power.

But the assumption of such emergency powers by the Executive has long term consequences for a country’s development.

Now we have the proposed hate speech law.

The fact that the drafters of the law have little understanding of what they are talking about is made clear by an example that is provided in the draft bill.

It states: “For example, the film classification regime limits the freedom of expression of creators and viewers to uphold the rights of children and other members of the public, to protect them from content they might find harmful or that breaches society’s standards.”

At best film certification regimes can be construed as a form of censorship. This is a far cry from classifying something as hate speech since a film maker is seldom thrown into prison for making a movie with controversial content. At worst, the movie gets a R rating or is prevented from being shown widely.

Possibly the most problematic part of this new law is Proposal Two, which would prohibit speech that “maintains or normalises hatred, in addition, to speech that incites or stirs up hatred.” The word “hatred” replaces four different terms in Section 131 of the Human Rights Act: “hostility”, “ill-will”, “contempt” and “ridicule”. “Hatred” is obviously so much easier to define than the other terms.

Why may this be problematic?

I have been highly critical of aspects of the government’s Covid-19 elimination strategy. While I am certainly not opposed to vaccination, I am deeply sceptical about vaccinating children for Covid-19. Globally very few children have contracted Covid-19 and therefore they are unlikely to pass it on. These children are being vaccinated not for their own health, but in order to protect other, mostly elderly, citizens. This is not dissimilar to (at times forced) sterilization policies to reduce population growth, notably in Indira Gandhi’s India back in the 1970s and Alberto Fujimori’s Peru in the 1990s; inflicting an invasive medical procedure on individuals supposedly for the greater good.

There is a serious moral dilemma here that vaccine proponents are choosing to ignore.

The draft suggests that “more groups would be protected by the law if hatred was incited against them due to a characteristic that they have.” How is characteristic defined? This implies that the new law could well find me guilty of violating Section 21 of the Human Rights Act for inciting hatred toward the elderly and medical professionals.

“Knowledge workers” like academics, performers, journalists or lawyers, who tend to dominate airwaves and social media typically skew left of centre. Consequently, we worry a lot about right-wing authoritarianism. But left-wing authoritarianism is a problem too. Stalin and Mao were no less evil than Hitler or Mussolini. But the proper functioning of a liberal democracy is crucially dependent on calling out authoritarianism, whether on the left or on the right. After all, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.