Tuesday, 15 March 2022

Romantic Piano by Dinara Klinton and the joys of familiar music

I had the pleasure of attending the Romantic Piano concert by Ukrainian pianist Dinara Klinton last week at St-Martin-in-the-Fields. It was an evening of culture in sombre times, and the now familiar name of the besieged town of Kharkiv felt even closer, with the program noting it as Klinton's hometown. The altar of the church behind the piano was bathed in blue and yellow lights, and concertgoers would have seen anti-Putin protests across the road at Trafalgar Square in the evening. 

As I took my seat in the pews it struck me that it had taken more than 3 months in Europe for my first concert, with the winter wave of Covid in Europe having complicated plans. I later realised that it was actually my first concert in more than a year, since before Sydney's four month lockdown. Or just my second musical event in the two years after I caught Sir David McVicar's rather dark and foreboding Don Giovanni at the Sydney Opera House on 23 February 2020, before things fell apart. 

Again, I was struck by the power of live music, even when performed by a single musician. Not only is there a spatial, physical aspect of music that cannot be replicated by even the best sound systems, but also a kind of communion through the shared physical presence with other audience members and the musicians. It also entails a different level of commitment and focus, a welcome diversion from our highly distracted modern lives.

There was a sweetness in Klinton's rendition of the music, and one of the movements of a Beethoven sonata felt almost Mozartian in her hands. Chopin's Aeolian Harp was soothing to the point of feeling  therapeutic. The initial phrases felt like cascading warm waves of water soothing the tired muscles of both my physical and spiritual bodies. Even though aeolian means arising from the wind, the element I felt it invoked was water, especially the flowing waves of the left hand.

With several familiar pieces in the selection of the evening's music, I realised the extent to which the familiarity with the music allowed me to appreciate the technique and interpretation of the musician. Klinton tickled our ears with every unforeseen accent or emphasis of a note or phrase, the departures from the version known in my memory becoming a source of unexpected delight especially in Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody

When we listen to music we have never heard before, the musician plays the role of an intermediary, introducing us to the work of the composer by bringing it to life for us. 

Perhaps listening to familiar pieces then is a way for us to repay our debt to the musician, and engage as it were, in a conversation where it is the musician who is being heard rather than the composer, who changes roles and becomes the facilitator rather than the speaker. 

Therein lies the beauty of classical music and perhaps true art more generally. With different artists you can enjoy the same piece as if for the 'first time', many times. There is a relevant quote by Proust on the subject of listening to music for the first time, and the role that memory plays, but I shall let it pass for fear his one or two sentences will double the length of this blog post.

Despite currently being an itinerant nomad with no fixed home and certainly no CD player, I was very happy to purchase a CD of Dinara Klinton (with the proceeds going towards the humanitarian efforts in Ukraine), and will certainly keep an eye out for her future performances.  

Here's an example of her sublime, elysian, Aeolian Harp, which puts the version I have in my music library in the shade:

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RU55glsPXc 

Perhaps a topic for another post: Thank God for the Romantics, what a plain, boring world we would live in if not for them...

Saturday, 5 March 2022

Musings in Venice

Of all the architectural delights of Venice, if I had to choose a favourite it would have to be the basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, whose iconic dome looms across the Grand Canal. There are several echoes of this basilica with our present day, as it was built as a votive offering for deliverance from the plague. 

It was different in the 17th century, when such magnificent basilicas were built to commemorate the end of pandemics. I doubt our generation will leave a similar monument to future generations commemorating our pandemic of 2020-21.

While English speakers may instinctive think Santa Maria della Salute may mean Saint Mary of the Salute, but from my rudimentary research on an online dictionary, Saluti is a declension of the Latin word for health, salus. So really, it was an offering of thanks quite literally to the Madonna of public health. 

Here's a description of the Santa Maria della Salute, freely excerpted from Wikipedia:

While its external decoration and location capture the eye, the internal design itself is quite remarkable. The octagonal church, while ringed by a classic vocabulary, hearkens to Byzantine designs... The interior has its architectural elements demarcated by the coloration of the material, and the central nave with its ring of saints atop a balustrade is a novel design. It is full of Marian symbolism – the great dome represents her crown, the cavernous interior her womb, the eight sides the eight points on her symbolic star.

The interior is octagonal with eight radiating chapels on the outer row. The Baroque high altar arrangement, designed by Longhena himself, shelters an iconic Byzantine Madonna and Child of the 12th or 13th century, known as Panagia Mesopantitissa in Greek[4] ("Madonna the mediator" or "Madonna the negotiator") and came from Candia in 1669 after the fall of the city to the Ottomans. The statuary group at the high altar, depicting The Queen of Heaven expelling the Plague (1670) is a theatrical Baroque masterpiece by the Flemish sculptor Josse de Corte.

(As an aside, I love the word "hearkens")


Looking back at photos of Venice I remember the rush of beauty I was surrounded by, but after having all my senses saturated with it, I also started to wonder, what do I do with this beauty? 


What does it mean to admire beauty, particularly works of art and architecture? Is it to learn more about them to be able to understand and appreciate them intellectually? Or is it to simply observe them and allow them to cast their spell of attraction and wonderment at us? 


Particularly with paintings and architecture, I have been yearning for an introductory guide to art – its periods, key protagonists, movements, the meaning the painters wished to imbue their work with. As a dilettante I feel I have gathered some scattered knowledge about art and artists that moved me, and wish I could better order it in my mind. 


Or is it mere intellectual vanity to know about a painter and get a thrill of recognition when you come across a work bearing his name? A reassurance that unlike the uncultured masses, I actually know of this painter and something about her. 


This troubled me as I went through the Galleria Academia, anxious of how little I knew of the Venetian school of painting beyond a few famous names like Titian, and impressions I had gleaned from art documentaries on YouTube. Yet I was haunted by the anxiety that I was just another hung over cruise ship tourist walking through the rows and rows of Madonnas in a singlet, achieving little more than being able to tick a box and tell people at dinner parties that yes, I’ve been to that gallery, and appear cultured and well-travelled. 

Even so, there is something in Venice that awakens the artist in us. I wished I could paint the hues of the sunlight as they danced and played with the lagoon all day, or express them in poetry or set the swinging rhythms of the gondola the gentle lapping of the waters in the canals in music like Vivaldi and the other composers in this excellent album.


Another difficulty I have noticed is absorbing, processing and retaining everything you see and learn in museums and art galleries. A few weeks earlier, after an enjoyable visit to the Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin I wanted to compare the experience to my first visit here 4 years ago. It was illuminating if not somewhat disconcerting to discover that I was attracted to exactly the same paintings as 4 years ago, but had forgotten that I had ever seen them. In my defence, I had probably seen thousands of paintings since and had few occasions to revisit my memories of the art of Schloss Charlottenburg. 

Perhaps someone needs to write a How-to guide on being a respectable dilettante... 

Photos below in order: approaching Santa Maria delle Salute from San Marco Square by gondola; its octagonal dome from the inside; The Queen of Heaven expelling the Plague (1670);  the basilica seen during sunset 

Monday, 25 January 2021

What happened to the Australia we knew?

In the 19th century, Prince Metternich of Austria famously described Italy as "merely a geographical expression", reflecting the patchwork quilt of politically separate states that made up the peninsula. This also seems an apt description of Australia in 2021, a motley crew of uncoordinated, bickering, largely independent states on a continental island sharing a currency, an army and some sporting teams, but little else.

It even seems reasonable to ask if the Commonwealth of Australia is as cohesive or functional as other unions of sovereign states like the European Union. Other than a brief period in the early stages of the pandemic, EU nations have largely kept their borders open to each other. Even in the depths of the crisis in Europe when hospitals were overflowing and there was a humanitarian crisis, it would have been unthinkable to hear senior national EU leaders publicly declare, to paraphrase Queensland Premier Anna Palaszczuk, "people living in Italy, they have Italian hospitals. In Germany we have German hospitals for our people." Far from being embarrassed, Queenslanders rewarded Palaszczuk for her parochialism at the state election, even after fatal medical mishaps resulting from northern NSW residents being denied access to their nearest hospitals.

The Tweed today feels wider than the Rhine, and the Nullarbor much more impassable than the Alps.

Travelling to Tasmania requires what is effectively an e-Visa, registering with the government before arrival, while WA's G2G is even more like an online visa system. One needs to satisfy the bureaucracy they have a valid reason to travel to WA, with no guarantee permission will be granted. For those who apply for a WA visa, the first reason in the drop down list of reasons to travel is "Senior Government Official" followed by "Active Australian Military", followed by 5 other categories of government officials. The ordering of that list almost gives the impression of a Soviet-style system designed more for government officials than the masses. For mere civilians seeking entry to fortress WA, "compassionate or other grounds" does not appear until halfway down the page.

Spare a thought for Scott Morrison. It must be an awkward time to be Prime Minister of Australia. What we long have thought of as the highest office in the land, the most powerful political position, is less relevant than could ever have been imagined, particularly in the midst of a national and global crisis.

What does the PM think of the relative merits of suppression and elimination of the Covid-19 virus? What does Health Minister Greg Hunt think of the need to mandate face masks in public to slow the spread of the virus? Well, it doesn't really matter.

State Premiers have taken matters into their own hands, chosen radically different approaches, and unilaterally closed borders to other states in the manner of sovereign nation states. To rub salt in the wound, they even publicly attack each other's approaches, in a debate where the Prime Minister and the federal government are conspicuous by their absence and their powerlessness. Other than being in charge of administrative issues such as purchasing vaccines, the Prime Minster and Health Minister appear to have little more influence than lay citizens in affecting the most important public policy decisions of the day, in a once in a century crisis.

Of course, the PM still controls the nation's pursestrings, but has little choice other than to keep writing the cheques to finance the independent policies of each state's Premier, no matter how much he may disagree with them. Last year he expressed a strong preference for states to keep their borders open, and for Victoria to limit the duration of its lockdown, only to be completely ignored. The federal government joined a High Court challenge to the Western Australian government's extremely strict border closure, only to pull out at the last minute, presumably in deference to opinion polls finding the WA government enjoyed deep popular support for its border policies.

Scott Morrison's decision to change a word in the national anthem from "we are young and free" to "we are one and free" could hardly come at a worse time, reminding us that we have not been "one" for almost a year now, and that he seems powerless to do anything about it.

Then again, he's hardly in a strong position to push for open borders when he has shut the international border so tightly that tens of thousands of Australians have been locked out of their own country for almost a year. Meanwhile Australians are also locked in their own country for at least a year, unable to leave without getting an iron curtain exit visa style permit from the Australian Border Force.

Australia's apparent return to its roots as a penal colony is beyond parody, but it is a serious question to ask why one of the wealthiest countries in the world with the fourth largest land area on earth has been so ineffective in repatriating its own citizens during a pandemic. No other comparable country has treated its own citizen in this manner.

Perhaps the lyrics of the revised national anthem are also ripe for fresh interpretations, with "Australians all let us rejoice for we are one and free" really supposed to mean "for we are Covid free", as opposed to more conventional notions of freedom. 

The speed at which we've othered Australians living in different states, and the insouciance shown towards the tens of thousands of Australians still stuck overseas should shock us. It is said a person's true character comes out in a crisis. The same is likely to be true of national character. What does it say of our national character that this is the depths to which we have sunk when outside of Victoria, we have scarcely even been touched by Covid-19?

What happened to the Australian values of mateship, the healthy irreverence towards authority and the laid back larrikin spirit? When it came to a pandemic of a relatively mild disease that barely circulated outside our two major cities, we turned out to be paranoid parochial subjects looking to nanny states to lock us down, fine us for not wearing masks, and shut our borders to other states.

In hindsight, perhaps the signs were there before the pandemic. A strong paranoia of pathogens has always been a feature of our border control, be it the mandatory spraying of flights before they landed in Australia, the "don't be sorry, declare it" quarantine ads, or as the Scottish stand up comedian Danny Bhoy noted, the "fruit police" checking his car for illegal bananas at state border crossings and large billboards warning "fruitflies can kill" (large depictions of which he joked he didn't realise were not to scale).

Jokes aside, the nature of the Commonwealth of Australia through the pandemic is a serious matter that deserves more debate. I imagine I am not alone in having significantly underestimated the sovereignty and power of the states prior to the pandemic. 

The system of fiscal transfers and equalisation meant that in one integrated country, it shouldn't, and didn't really matter what state you lived in. If you were the victim of a flood, bushfire, cancer, unfair dismissal, crime, or any other of life's misfortunes, your experience and levels of government support didn't vary significantly depending on which state you were in.

Clearly this has no longer been the case in the pandemic. For many long weeks in September and October, while NSW remained more or less completely open, Victorians facing a similar number of daily new Covid cases to NSW remained in one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, almost in a state of house arrest. Western Australia, like South Australia and Queensland managed to remain mostly free of Covid-19 in the latter part of 2020, but remained locked out to the entire country, even to states with no community transmission, for months on end, while Queenslanders and South Australians were allowed to travel to states with no community transmission. Recently, Queenslanders were ordered into lockdown for 3 days and not allowed to leave their homes without a mask, over just one outbreak, while late last year the entire state of South Australia was locked down after one person lied about the time they had spent at a pizza shop.

It would appear that the extreme contrast in how states react to one outbreak of Covid-19 reflects the fact that these decisions are being made not as part of a deliberative policymaking process, but on snap decisions of those in power, under sweeping state of emergency laws giving them the power to override civil liberties.

It should disturb us, that in a pandemic of a disease in which 80% of cases are mild or asymptomatic, and the death rate is less than 1% overall, entire populations are at the mercy of their state Premier and/or their advisers. It appears to be blind luck that New South Wales happens to have Gladys Berejiklian at the helm, with her relatively measured and proportionate response to outbreaks which has kept most of the state humming along almost as per normal. Meanwhile thousands of Victorians who survived three months in 22 hour house arrest and who dared to venture out of their states over the summer holidays ended up being marooned outside their home state after being given 24 hours to get back in.

So far it seems the governments have largely been given a free pass by voters and the media, who appear to have largely taken the view that even 10 months on, the coronavirus is so threatening and dangerous that it is worth eliminating at any economic and social cost, and no response to restrict its spread is too extreme.

At some point though, surely there needs to be a debate on how Australian governments ought to respond to future emergencies like this. I hope I am not the only Australian who believes state borders should not be political footballs and the plaything of state premiers to open and close at their whims. Or that entering our own country is a fundamental right, and that it is one of the most basic responsibilities of the federal government to uphold and fulfil. 

There's a long list of things we have witnessed in this pandemic that we never though was possible in Australia, and we need to ensure never happen again in similar circumstances. This includes locking up vulnerable public housing residents in Melbourne and violating their human rights, arresting and handcuffing a pregnant woman in pyjamas in her home in front of her children for sharing a facebook post, a NSW woman losing her baby after being refused admission in a Queensland hospital, families from two states with zero community transmission being prevented from seeing each other for month on end. The list goes on.  

An easy response to all the above is "but it's an emergency", and early in the pandemic,  there was a lot of truth in that sentiment. A temporary suspension of our freedoms seemed sensible in the face of a highly contagious virus we knew very little about, that was wrecking havoc abroad. It has now been almost a year though, and freedoms and liberties don't mean much if they can be suspended indefinitely for this long. Are we really free if our most basic freedoms can be suspended with no warning until further notice  for years on end:

The pandemic has exposed the fragility of our civil liberties and indeed of our very federation. Despite the rhetoric, we have not been in this crisis together as one country. Australia as we knew it is crying out to be made whole again. Sometimes satire can truer than the truth, and the Meat and Livestock Australia's lamb ad campaign envisioning a Berlin style tearing down of walls between states in 2031 likely hit a winning note with many Australians. There is a chance the ending did too, in which a familiar looking bespectacled middle aged man steps off a Hawaiian Airlines jet in Sydney Airport saying "what have I missed?" 

Happy Australia Day.


Danny Bhoy crossing Australian state borders: https://youtu.be/BnBAXMiIiis?t=130 
MLA's excellent lamb ad in case you missed it:https://youtu.be/aCIMYjqWxwA 

WA government's website to apply for a permit to enter the state (as at 17 December 2020):

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Monetising childcare

The Economics of Childcare

Yet another budget sees another round of handouts to the childcare industry through payments to working mothers in the politically sensitive mortgage belt. Having failed to pass its contentious paid parental leave scheme, the government will instead hike childcare funding by 71% to $11bn in 2018-19. According to calculations by The Australian, families earning less than $65,000 will have 85% of their childcare costs subsidised per child up to $155 a day. Even the wealthiest families using childcare (defined as having an income above $185,000) will receive $10,000 per child, $2,500 more than they currently do. The new policy (which subsidises between 50 and 85% of costs) is so generous that some families will receive more in childcare funding from taxpayers than their family income!

It begs the question of why the government is trying to lure women into the workforce at any cost, even if it costs the taxpayer more in childcare subsidies than the economic value of their paid work. In a free market, paid childcare can be seen to be a rational decision only for women who add economic value in excess of that represented by child rearing. With this policy, the government is creating market distortions by pushing women into any work that earns a paycheque. It raises the question of what is the point in incentivising a woman to earn say $35,000 p.a., and paying $60,000 p.a of taxpayer money to childcare centres? The subsidy creates an artificial demand in the childcare sector, pulling resources away from more productive sectors of the economy, while making it difficult for women who would generate greater economic value to find childcare. The women being nudged into low paying jobs will also be competing with workers whose maximum economic potential is in such jobs (such as less educated men).

A fair argument can be made that the true economic potential of a worker is not realised at the age when women typically give birth to children. A 27 year-old mother of two may not be earning much more than the cost of her childcare, but she may one day progress to become a significantly bigger contributor to the economy. For example, it can be pointed out that former Westpac CEO Gail Kelly had only been working at a bank for six years when she had her first child and it wasn’t obvious she would one day be running Australia’s second largest company, adding far more economic value than as a homemaker.

The purpose of policies such as childcare subsidies and paid parental leave is ostensibly to boost economic growth through higher labour market participation, maximising labour productivity by enabling women’s economic contribution. But when it pushes all women into the workforce indiscriminately with no assessment of relative economic value-add, the overall economic benefits are questionable.

Monetising childcare with a government-backed industry

We appear to be moving towards the monetisation of childcare. What was once an instinctive parental duty and selfless act of unconditional love risks turning into a corporatised activity subsidised by dollops of taxpayer funding. While monetising childcare increases nominal GDP, additional wealth creation is limited to cases where the mothers are generating more than the economic value of raising their children.

Childcare is likely to become the only privately-owned industry (except perhaps the defence sector) to be majority-funded by the government, an outcome that media commentary appears to have missed. Like other private industries that are funded mostly by the government or implicitly protected by the government (such as banks), this move will lead to similar issues of moral hazard in childcare that ought to be scrutinised.

However, childcare has managed to carve a special place for itself and seems exempt from the suspicion and wariness with which big businesses and private enterprise are often viewed.

For example, while running schools and hospitals for profit is anathema for many on the political Left, raising and nourishing a child for profit is universally acceptable. One might have expected anti-capitalists to be more discomfited by an industry that sees an infant as a source of revenue and baby food and toys as expense items on the income statement. 

While there was a fair amount of outcry when the big banks were given temporary taxpayer assistance during the financial crisis, there was little controversy when multibillion-dollar childcare centre operator ABC Learning was given $56m in a partial government bailout in 2008 to keep it running while it was restructured.

The Feminist Tug of War

When examining childcare and women's participation in the workforce, a tug of war appears to emerges between these three 'feminist' aims:
  •  High quality childcare
  •  Affordable childcare
  • Equal representation of women in traditionally male-dominated jobs
Fundamentally, this is like trying to link three points of a triangle with a string that is only long enough to connect two. Any two of the three aims are achievable, with achievement in the third exerting an opposite effect on the other two.

Ensuring high quality of childcare is the aim of the considerable amount of regulation that some commentators say is creating a supply shortage in the industry, and needlessly driving up the cost of childcare. For example, they argue childcare workers are required to be so highly qualified that they are more like educators than carers.

However, even if these unnecessary restraints were removed, the carer:child ratio will remain a key indicator of quality. Children need individualised attention, not merely the provision of nourishment, education, entertainment and security. There is thus an upper limit of children per carer that can be given a quality of care high enough to provide them the attention and emotional security that a biological parent usuallty provided.

Childcare is and seems likely to remain an almost exclusively female-dominated profession for obvious safety reasons. This means as the demand for childcare services increase, more and more women are needed to work in the childcare sector if quality and accessibility are to be maintained. This reduces the number of women available in other sectors of the economy and limits the scope for equal female representation in non-traditional roles. In other words, a monetisation of childcare entails a proportion of women who remain engaged in traditional roles, but get paid to perform them.

Fewer women working in childcare but in other areas means childcare will either be more expensive and high quality or affordable and poorer quality. 

An estimate can be made of the percentage of the female workforce that will need to be in the workforce if all children were looked after by professional carers. If every woman has 2 children on average, with an age gap of three years between them, and she looks after them full time until the youngest turns 6 and part-time until the youngest turns 12, that represents a total of 12 years away from the work force, or 30% of a roughly 40-year career. If no women worked, that would mean roughly 30% of working age women would be engaged in full-time unpaid childcare, with the proportion remaining the same if everyone swapped their children and paid each other to raise them

If the average optimum ratio is four children to one carer for example, that would free up half the mothers, but 15% of the female workforce would need to remain in childcare. The exact proportion will of course vary depending on the carer ratio but a significant proportion of women will need to be working childcare for it to be high quality and affordable

With 15% of the female workforce tied up in childcare, and after allowing for other predominantly female professions like as nursing and primary school teaching, opportunities for equal representation of women in less traditional fields become limited.

Childcare policy should not ignore choice

From an economic perspective the current policy is taking the approach that if a woman wishes to work, her childcare needs should be supported at all costs. Although there will be women whose net economic contribution will not justify the cost of the subsidy, the policy implicitly assumes that overall it will lead to a more productive workforce and higher economic growth. It is presumed there will be more high-earning female lawyers, managers and CEOs justifying their childcare subsidies than women who stay on the minimum wage.

However, this exclusively economic focus ignores the emotional and philosophical aspects of child rearing. When women are making the intensely personal choice of whether to spend time with their children or re-enter the workforce, it is questionable whether it is appropriate for government to be dangling such a huge carrot to nudge them to boost nominal (and possibly real) GDP.

Together with the cuts in benefits to stay-at-home mothers, government policy now almost seems to be making the moral judgement that a woman’s contribution is more valued outside the home, regardless of the economics. Or it can be seen as affording women a right to outsource childcare as long as they can be otherwise occupied with work or study.

Feminism was supposed to empower women to be able to choose if and how to raise children. Instead government policy has evolved into throwing money at women if they choose to work, and giving them the cold shoulder if they choose to become full-time mothers. 

Has the pendulum swung too far the other way from the repressive 50s? Have we moved from judging women who chose to work as bad mothers, to judging women who choose to stay home as bad, unproductive citizens?