Saving the economy or lives: The new neoliberal 'debate'

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Cartoon by Paul Dorin / @DorinToons

Pressure is mounting on Scott Morrison to listen to economists, not epidemiologists, about when physical distancing rules should be lifted. Dr Martin Hirst reports.

SAVING the economy or saving lives should not be a difficult choice. Why are we being bombarded with “back to normal” propaganda from senior journalists at the major news outlets? They are not just reporting what they’re hearing, they are actively promoting this new message.

For example, The Australian’s Adam Creighton has described the current physical distancing regime as 'hysteria' and a 'damaging over-reaction'  in an opinion piece this week.

Creighton’s an economist, not an epidemiologist. He has zero qualifications to be making such assertions. It’s also nonsense of a particularly damaging sort. It is precisely the stringent physical distancing and Australians’ willingness to go along with it that has slowed the rate at which new infections are occurring.

Let’s be totally clear about this. The “flattening of the curve" just means that the rate at which new cases are being detected has slowed down. It does not mean that it’s time to relax physical distancing and open everything up just like before.

There are two clear reasons why we’re now seeing this “back to normal” pushback. The first is purely economic — while sections of the economy are not functioning business doesn’t make a profit and it costs money to keep machinery and workers idle. The second is ideological and political.

The longer this stasis continues, the harder it will be for governments and employers to force everyone to accept a return to “normality”. There is genuine fear that we could be heading for a recession and record unemployment that is potentially an explosive political situation for the Morrison Government, and one they want to avoid.

Sacrifice the elderly

Adam Creighton’s not the only self-described expert pushing the “snapback” message that Scott Morrison began talking about just before the Easter long weekend.

A similar line is being pushed in the Australian Financial Review (AFR). AFR economics reporter John Kehoe has argued that “losing” a few over-60s to the coronavirus is a small price to pay for an economic recovery. After all, they’re old, they’ve had a good life and they should now get out of the way.

Kehoe is even willing to have his 68-year-old father die in order to save the economy.

My father is 68 and insists he’s had a good run. With the swimming pool and tennis club in his Victorian town now closed, his daily pursuits are off limits. His physical fitness and mental well-being are suffering.


Many seniors like him would not put their own life above the livelihoods of their children and grandchildren, if the economic and social costs are too great.


Morrison suggests people of all ages are equally worth saving.

How terrible, to be contemplating putting your own dad up for euthanasia to save the profitability of the airlines. Our Prime Minister – arrogant and shameless though he may be – shows more compassion than this cold-chested economic rationalist.

What patricidal maniacs like the AFR's John Kehoe don’t tell you, as they’re busy justifying a kinder, gentler form of genocide, is that the phrase “economic recovery” refers to the rate of profit, an increase in the “return on investment”, a healthy “bottom line”.

These modern-day grifters in the pay of 21st Century robber barons also don’t mention that they’re also pushing very hard – on the front page of The Australian, in the columns of the AFR and in backroom, whispered conversations with Morrison and his ministers – for a wage cut for the rest of us. Or at least a wage “freeze”, along with the reduction in protections offered by industrial awards.

The “snapback” that Morrison, Cormann, Frydenberg and their IPA-approved advisors and Minerals Council experts are planning means a brutal and sharp return to high unemployment. It means the removal of "unfunded empathy", the slashing of social welfare measures, the closure of childcare centres, cuts across the board in government spending and a general rise in attacks on our incomes, our rights and our supposed freedoms.

Here’s the compassionate side of the argument from the AFR’s John Kehoe.

'"Let it rip" herd immunity is not the answer.


But strict physical isolation for the over 70s and the vulnerable, plus government-funded delivery services for this cohort must be part of the answer.'

The argument that the economy is more important than saving lives should be abhorrent to most sane people.

In fact, most sane people are now waking up to the argument that perhaps the economy is not worth saving; at least not in its present form.

A system in crisis

The economy – capitalism – was already failing, well before the current pandemic caused the crisis to deepen. Unemployment was already going up; production and consumption were already stagnant; businesses were already closing and downsizing their workforce.

Now an estimated 1.4 million Australians have been dumped out of their jobs because of the pandemic. According to alarming figures from the Roy Morgan research company, a staggering 3.92 million Australians are now unemployed or under-employed (meaning they’d like to work more than they currently are). These are close to depression type numbers. And whenever there’s a “snapback” to something approaching “normal”, the underemployment and unemployment rates are going to stay high for some time to come.

Capitalism has always been prone to crisis and it’s actually a very unstable system that prioritises the wealth of the few over the needs of the many. It cannot cope with a major global shock without finding ways to safeguard wealth and make workers pay for the cleanup.

We have to be thinking about new ideas and new ways to manage the economy. The failure of neoliberal “trickle-down” and low tax policies have not worked and will not work into the future.

The idea, floated by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, that somehow taxes and even the GST will be increased to “payback” the cost of welfare measures adopted to support people through the pandemic is just repetition of a failed policy and a failed ideology.

Thinking that giving people a wage subsidy now and then expecting them to go into poverty to pay it back when things are “normal” again is the very definition of stupidity. If it’s not, it should be.

The talk of an early easing of social distancing restrictions so that the economy can get working again is another wrong-headed and ideologically driven idea. It is being pushed hard now because the Coalition Government and its business backers do not want there to be any room for thinking that an alternative to their version of “normal” is possible.

The longer the crisis continues, the harder it will be for them to convince most of us to just let them run things again, the way they used to be.

The senior journalists have been briefed and they’re on board with the government and business leaders. This is why the “pressure is growing” message has been floated by David Speers and others over Easter and is now picking up pace.

We are being prepared to accept the “no option” argument now so that there are no other options on the table.

We see this playing out as the economists and politicians put pressure on the doctors and epidemiologists to give up their resistance to an early lifting of social distancing, reopening schools and getting “back to normal”.

For once we need to ignore the economists and politicians — their advice will get us killed.

Dr Martin Hirst is a journalist, author and academic. You can follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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