Has America lost its mind?

Image credit: alamy.com

While every nation on Earth has cultural quirks, Americans are in a league of their own when it comes to being different. Their unique traits, behaviours, and attitudes set them apart from other nationalities. What Americans think is normal – like carrying a handgun for personal protection – is considered to be absolutely crazy to much of the rest of the world.

On an average day in the US, more than 100 people are killed by gun violence. Despite this, the National Rifle Association claims that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and bizarrely argues that gun laws and gun deaths are unconnected. To any rational person, these pronouncements are as absurd as the assertion that gun ownership stops crime.

Hard numbers unambiguously prove that more firearms do not keep people safe. Indeed, the opposite is true. Numerous studies show that more guns are linked to a rise in murders, rapes, robberies, and mass shootings. Yet millions of Americans irrationally believe that these and other crimes happen because there aren’t enough guns in enough places.

Unsurprisingly, this belief is not supported by research-based evidence. A taskforce report by the (US) National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence found that firearms are the most deadly and versatile instrument of attack. The report notes that:

Firearms make some attacks possible that simply would not occur without firearms. They permit attacks at greater range and from positions of better concealment than other weapons. They also permit attacks by persons physically or psychologically unable to overpower their victim through violent physical contact.

Beyond gun laws, a large chunk of the world remains utterly perplexed at how 70 million Americans could have voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Many of the things he promised in order to get elected made no sense. His flimsy policies appealed to the heart, not the head. A disgruntled electorate voted on emotion, not logic. The working class were conned by Trump who tapped into the social undercurrents that exist in the “divided states” of America.

Looking back, it is unfathomable that his campaign did not self-destruct after his lewd and vulgar remarks about women were made public. Despite his sexist insults and other jaw-dropping statements, Trump prevailed. His slurs, innuendos, and hyperbole did not sink his presidential candidacy. The ill-disciplined reality TV star flouted virtually every convention to defeat Hillary Clinton in a polarising campaign.

Trump owes his victory to the uninformed. Indeed, he is on the record as proclaiming: “I love the poorly educated”. Political ignorance accounts for a large part of Trump’s success. His most ardent supporters – white voters without degrees – swallowed virtually any lie he told, no matter how outrageous. When voters know little, they choose the politician with the highest emotional appeal, and Trump appealed to the anger and discontent of middle-America, tapping into their fears about jobs, race, and immigration.

Trump will be remembered as the first president to be impeached twice. His four-year tenure in the White House left a destructive legacy including the appointment of three conservative judges to the Supreme Court. These three justices helped establish a 5-4 majority in the recent landmark decision to overturn the constitutional rights of a woman to an abortion. The reaction to the controversial ruling was swift with US President Joe Biden calling it a “tragic error by the Supreme Court”.

Leaders around the world strongly condemned the US abortion ruling. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it “a big step backwards”. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described it as “horrific”. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that the decision was “incredibly upsetting”. And the boss of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stated that he was “concerned and very disappointed”.

The abject dismay and alarm expressed by governments was echoed by the medical profession. In a statement signed by more than 100 global healthcare organisations, including the UK’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, medics labelled the US supreme court’s move as “a catastrophic blow” to millions. The statement warned: “It is a decision that will cost lives for years to come”.

The international condemnation reveals how out of step America is with the rest of the world. The global community overwhelmingly maintains that striking down Roe v. Wade is a huge blow to American women’s reproductive rights and freedoms. In contrast, American pro-lifers see restricting abortions as a victory, even though it will likely lead to more maternal deaths. Frankly, it’s hypocritical to call yourself pro-life when you support the right of individual states to ban or severely limit access to safe abortion care.

In America – the land of the free – you don’t have the right to make individual health choices, but you do have the right to be armed to the teeth. So, women can’t terminate a pregnancy, but children can continue to die needlessly from the scourge of gun crime. How utterly perplexing! Concern is now being expressed at what other liberties, such as contraception, will be wound back in the US.

A basic liberty that is not under attack in America is the right to believe whatever you want. Americans are arguably the world’s greatest conspiracy theorists. Again, it’s difficult to wrap your head around why millions of Americans believe utter nonsense concerning assassinations, extraterrestrials, the genesis of aids, the 9/11 attacks, the dangers of vaccines, and so much more.

In an opinion piece he penned for The Atlantic titled, How America Lost Its Mind, American author Kurt Andersen states that:

Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. Some of my best friends are very religious, and others believe in dubious conspiracy theories. What’s problematic is going overboard – letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts.

Andersen goes on to say:

Much more than the other billion or so people in the developed world, we Americans believe – really believe – in the supernatural and the miraculous, in Satan on Earth, in reports of recent trips to and from heaven, and in a story of life’s instantaneous creation several thousand years ago. … We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.

Why millions of Americans believe things that aren’t true was the subject of an article written by academic, R. Kelly Garrett, an associate professor at Ohio State University. Garrett writes that many Americans reject the assessment of fact checkers and incorrectly believe that:

… president Obama was born outside the US or that Russia successfully tampered with vote tallies in the 2016 presidential election. And certain conspiracy theories – like the belief that president Kennedy’s assassination was orchestrated by a powerful secret organization – are remarkably persistent.

Conspiracy theories used to be seen as bizarre expressions of harmless eccentrics, such as those who believe that the moon landings were a hoax. Nowadays, they are far more serious, such as the myth that the presidential election was stolen – fake news that triggered an invasion of the US Capitol Building.

Millions of Americans fail to look reality in the eye. Indeed, it is estimated that half of the US population embrace fringe ideas associated with conspiracy theories. Facts and rational arguments are typically unsuccessful at altering these beliefs. Of course, you don’t have to trust everything that the mainstream and social media tell you. Still, we must be capable of assessing evidence and coming to a logical conclusion. In the words of former US Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Improving service delivery in government


Imagine if your local area had only one supermarket, one jeweller, and one bank. Without competition, the supermarket would have no incentive to lower prices, the jeweller would have no reason to offer a broad range, and the bank would have no motivation to provide outstanding service.

Competition is about price, selection, and service. It benefits consumers by keeping prices low, delivering product variety, and raising service standards. Robust competition also compels businesses to fight for customers by meeting needs, solving problems, and adding value.

In a free market economy, it is the consumer who decides which products and services succeed and which ones fail. We are all free to choose where to shop and what to buy and – if we are not satisfied with a service provider – we can vote with our feet and take our business elsewhere.

Unfortunately, choice does not exist when it comes to government departments and agencies. Governments are monopoly providers of their services which means that they have no direct competitors. Nor do they have any need to worry about disruptive start-ups stealing their customers.

This is ironic as competition is acknowledged by governments the world over as the best available tool for promoting consumer well-being. Competition keeps businesses on their toes and pushes them to be the best, however, no such force is exerted on governments.

We live in a world where people expect fast and efficient service – it doesn’t matter whether it’s a shop, restaurant, or government agency. Yet agencies have fallen behind the customer experience curve and need to move from a government-centric to a citizen-centric service model.

Unsurprisingly, governments at all levels claim that they are customer centric, even though many citizens would argue otherwise. This is certainly the case when it comes to online services and the inability of many government agencies and departments to deliver a seamless digital customer experience.

Today, we can use online channels to order our groceries, pay our bills, and even consult our doctor. All of these interactions with the private sector are frictionless offerings and none require us to leave home. Businesses have worked hard to be in sync with customers’ digital expectations.

In contrast, the public (government) sector, lags behind leading companies in offering citizens what they want and need online. People are still required to deal with cumbersome forms and manual processes as government requirements are designed to fit agency silos and not citizen needs.

A personal example will help here. During the pandemic in early 2021, I uploaded some proof of identity documents (including a passport) to both a NSW Government agency and a Federal Government agency in support of my application to be appointed a volunteer ethics teacher at my local school.

To my delight, the Federal Government’s application process was able to be fully completed online. In contrast, the NSW Government’s process ended by requesting that I visit a Service NSW centre to submit for inspection the originals of the documents that I had just submitted online.

So, a few days later, I drove to my nearest Service NSW location and produced the relevant documents. It took merely seconds for the customer service officer (CSO) to verify each identity document. Yet, for me, the process – from leaving home, to signing in, to queueing, and then returning home again – took over an hour.

When I asked the CSO why the state government required me to present the original identity documents over-the-counter while the federal government has no such requirement, I was unhelpfully told “because it’s policy”. This lack of consistency between screening agencies is frustrating but not uncommon.

In Australia and around the world, each level of government (federal, state, and local) marches to the beat of its own drum resulting in a lack of integration and coordination between agencies. Consequently, the synchronised delivery of frontline services is obstructed.

My wife experienced this silo-mentality when she asked the same CSO (who I mentioned above) to arrange for a copy of our marriage certificate in support of her application for a NSW photo identification card. He responded by informing Beverley that she would need to apply to the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths, and Marriages for the certificate.

So, Beverley went home and applied online for the marriage certificate which was posted to her around four weeks later. I then drove my wife back to Service NSW in order for her to furnish them with the marriage certificate that she had just received in the post from the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths, and Marriages.

That Service NSW is not a one-stop access point for all state government services and transactions is another example of governments lagging behind private enterprise. Working across functional silos and agencies rather than within them means that citizens are not enjoying streamlined services.

Governments and their agencies need to urgently lift their game in mapping the complete end-to-end customer experience journey. When dealing with the public sector, such journeys can be long as they stretch across multiple agencies, channels, and touchpoints.

To simplify customer journeys, governments must harness data and technology to become more efficient and effective. Furthermore, governments need to develop a single view of the citizen-customer and put in place a safe and secure public sector data sharing ecosystem.

A further drawback with government monopolies concerns innovation. The free market is an innovation machine which has delivered untold benefits to humanity. These mind-blowing advances have revolutionised the way we live and work and provided us with access to goods from around the world.

Meanwhile, not much has changed in many parts of the public sector. In a world where same-day delivery of goods and same-day approval of loans is commonplace, it is unacceptable that you have to wait up to four weeks to obtain a copy of a simple marriage certificate.

While competition forces private enterprises to continually innovate to gain and maintain customers and achieve faster delivery times, a lack of competition in the provision of say, marriage certificates, provides no incentive for governments to innovate in order to achieve quicker turnaround times.

Governments everywhere worry about the misuse of monopoly powers and the gobbling up of competitors. That’s why regulators, in all markets, like to see competition as this gives consumers choice. Having one dominant player is frowned upon, yet governments occupy this privileged position.

According to one Australian academic, state-owned enterprises do not act in the interest of the general public. Rather, they respond to their own interests and the interests of the government that owns them. As adjuncts of the state, government agencies largely operate free from normal competitive pressures.

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I acknowledge that some government monopolies – such as critical services like public transport and public healthcare – need to exist. These services must be available to everyone and not subject to market forces or the ability to pay. Regardless, no government monopoly should provide substandard service.

The absence of vigorous rivalry and the existence of barriers to entry should not be used by governments and their agencies to provide outputs which are below those available in the private sector. Just because a citizen cannot switch to an alternative source of supply does not mean that a particular government service should not be subject to continuous improvement.

An online article published by consulting firm Deloitte – which highlighted the dissatisfaction of American citizens with the service provided by the US Federal Government – should resonate with Australian governments. To improve satisfaction, the article recommended that:

… what agencies need is a transformative breakthrough that delivers radical government customer service improvement. Agencies need to rethink their approach to customers, or even who their customers are. Agencies may need to reorganize to better deliver a leading customer experience and respond to customer needs and think beyond their walls to consider the range of stakeholders that can help reimagine the customer experience.

Around the world, there are stark differences between people’s service experiences as customers of private enterprises and their service experiences as customers of government agencies. It is incumbent on all governments to close this gap in service and to meet the rising expectations of citizens. Embedding a citizen-first mindset in the public sector would be a good first step.

Consumers win when businesses compete.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why politicians are not qualified to run a country

Source: AZ Quotes

In every sector of society, qualifications play a critical role in determining the minimum level of knowledge and skills required for a given profession or occupation. Qualifications define what a person needs to know – and be able to do – to carry out a certain activity, but no such entry requirements apply to the group of people who are elected to run a country.

Around the world, politicians need no formal training before entering parliament. Those running for public office are elected by citizens, many of whom rate charm and charisma over ability and competence. Most voters in modern democracies do not make informed decisions about the capability of candidates or the efficacy of their policies.

Plato, the father of Greek philosophy, was one of the earliest to see democracy as a problem. He, like later critics, argued that democracy meant rule by the ignorant, or worse, rule by the charlatans who hoodwink the people. It would be much safer, Plato thought, to entrust power to carefully educated wise guardians who would decide upon matters on behalf of citizens.

Fast forward to the present and John Hewson, the former Liberal opposition leader, believes that Australia’s contemporary parliamentarians aren’t qualified to run the country. Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, Dr Hewson lamented that politics is dominated by career politicians who concentrate on winning points rather than delivering good policy and good government. He states:

Unfortunately, the skill sets and experience required of a career politician essentially make them incompetent to govern effectively. Their career path is often from university, community or union politics, through local government/party engagement, perhaps serving as a ministerial staffer, to pre-selection, then election, and so on.

We would not let an unqualified teacher educate our children nor allow a physician without a medical degree to perform surgery on us. Yet, we place no job prerequisites on those seeking to become members of parliament (MPs). In Australia and elsewhere, it is not mandatory for MPs to take part in initial or ongoing education and training programs specific to their role.

While I’m not advocating minimum education standards for aspiring politicians, there is a case for introducing compulsory Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for all parliamentarians once elected to office. This happens in other professions (and many occupations) to ensure continued proficiency and capability in one’s chosen field.

As lawmakers, politicians – either directly through regulation or indirectly via industry bodies – compel professionals like doctors, lawyers, engineers, and accountants to undertake CPD as a condition of their ongoing professional registration. Politicians the world over, however, are not subject to defined education and training standards for accreditation thereby creating a double standard.

Like all CPD programs, the learning activities for politicians should include a combination of structured activities (such as training courses, online modules, and seminars) and unstructured activities (such as reading documents, articles, and publications). Any formal or informal learning activity which improves or broadens an MP’s knowledge or expertise can be included in the CPD toolbox.

MPs are involved in decisions that have far reaching consequences for the populace at large and deal with an almost unlimited range of subjects. As noted in one report, “those elected to public office are expected to possess indefinable qualities to accomplish an indescribable job”.

I am the first to acknowledge that developing CPD programs for politicians is a huge undertaking. Nonetheless, it should be done and the two subjects that I would place at the apex of CPD curricula are debunking economic fallacies and understanding game theory. Please let me explain each in turn.

One of the primary activities of modern governments is to determine economic policies. In every country, the government takes steps to help the economy achieve growth, full employment, and price stability. Given this, it’s vital that elected representatives be economically literate, even though many politicians display an astounding ignorance of economics.

Over recent years, for example, populist politicians have driven an anti-globalisation agenda by promoting protectionists and isolationists policies. Specifically, the peddlers of populism have challenged the undeniable economic benefits of free trade (which has lifted millions out of poverty) and immigration (which has increased the size of economies).

Economic ineptitude was also on display following the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Politicians in many nations (including the UK and Greece) adopted fiscal austerity measures which proved catastrophic. Pleasingly, politicians in Australia and America implemented fiscal stimulus policies which gave their economies a much needed boost.

One of the reasons that governments adopted fiscal austerity measures post-GFC was to keep a lid on government debt loads in the mistaken belief that government debt is bad. This old chestnut is arguably the single biggest economic myth of all and is called the household fallacy.

Politicians fuel this fallacy by constantly drawing false parallels between household budgets and government budgets. Our elected leaders love trotting out the familiar line that governments – like households – need to live within their means. Yet every time they espouse this untrue analogy, they engage in unnecessary fear-mongering about government debt.

Around the world, ill-informed politicians claim that governments should somehow have a balanced budget year-to-year. Politicians show empathy with the electorate by promising to cut government spending in line with belt tightening by households. Governments that run deficits are erroneously accused of being poor financial managers.

In Fifty Economic Fallacies Exposed, Geoffrey Wood – Professor Emeritus of Economics – examines a range of popular economic misconceptions and explains how these mistaken beliefs misinform economic discussion. It should be mandatory for all politicians to read Professor Wood’s book. My recent post, Why it’s important to understand economics, provides a precis of three of the most common economic myths that we encounter.

Let me now turn to the second subject that I would include in CPD curricula – understanding game theory. Game theory is a framework for examining competitive situations where “players” have conflicting interests. It models human actions on the presumption that everyone tries to maximise their potential gain against everyone around them.

At its core, game theory – which is a special branch of mathematics – is used to study decision-making in complex situations. It examines how our choices affect others and how the choices others make affect us (so-called “games”). The “games” involve two or more opposing parties pursuing actions in their own best interest resulting in an outcome for each that is worse than if they had cooperated.

Game theory is applied in a number of fields and a classic example can be found in the arms race between two superpowers. Both countries are clearly better off when they cooperate and avoid an arms race. Yet the dominant strategy is for each to arm itself heavily. If a new weapon is invented that is more destructive than any in existence, acquisition of this weapon is seen as enhancing the security of one’s country. But if both act accordingly, everyone’s security is jeopardised rather than improved.

Game theory was used most notably during the Cold War. Both the United States and the Soviet Union quickly saw its value for forming war strategies. A balance was struck in which neither nation could gain advantage through nuclear attack as the reprisals would be too devastating. This became known as the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

MAD is founded on the notion that a nuclear attack by one superpower would be met with an overwhelming nuclear counterattack such that both the attacker and the defender would be annihilated. Given this lose-lose outcome, it is said that only a madman would engage in such a self-defeating strategy.

By this logic, Vladimir Putin has been labelled a madman given his recent announcement that his nuclear forces are on “high-combat” alert. He is playing the madman card, threatening the use of nuclear weapons to get what he wants out of his war with Ukraine. With 6,000 plus nuclear warheads, Putin can end our world as we know it.

While many suspect that Putin is unhinged, I believe that he is a cunning expansionist with dreams/delusions of restoring Mother Russia to her former greatness. He is a megalomaniac who is obsessed with increasing his power and will do almost anything to get his way. The dilemma the West faces is how to deal with Russia without risking nuclear war. As the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, recently warned: “The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility”.

Putin’s actions in brandishing the nuclear option are reckless. If Putin and every other politician on the planet truly understood game theory, they would not threaten the use of nuclear warfare. Nuclear weapons are an intolerable threat to humanity. Instructing politicians in the nuances of game theory would teach them that a nuclear war cannot be won and therefore must never be fought.

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At the risk of sounding defeatist, I accept that studying game theory will not be made compulsory for world leaders let alone rank and file politicians. Equally, I’m sure that politicians will not be forced to study economic fallacies. This is disappointing as both of these educational initiatives would make the world a significantly better place.

One can only dream!


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why we should send politicians to space

Source: scientificliteracymatters.com

When astronauts return from space, many of them report that their outlook of life on Earth has been transformed forever. They experience a sort of spiritual awakening which leads them to ponder how we could all live better on our beautiful planet as one human fraternity.

A number of astronauts have suggested that world leaders should also orbit the Earth to feel the same overwhelming sense of oneness when taking in the whole planet in a single glimpse. This image produces a life-changing sense of awe for astronauts and should similarly cause politicians to see the world anew.

National borders are artificial divisions and therefore invisible when you are orbiting the Earth. Anyone gazing down at Earth from space sees a single entity, not 195 sovereign nations. This holistic view brings about a cognitive shift in awareness among astronauts – the so-called “Overview Effect”.

This psychological switch causes some astronauts to develop a global consciousness which alters their worldview. Seeing Earth from the vantage point of space is a profound experience that can inspire an overwhelming desire to protect our planet – from ourselves!

Tiny planet Earth is where we worship our gods, fight our wars, and destroy our environment. The fragility of our planet and the pettiness of territorial lines become blindingly clear when seen against the dark expanse of the universe.

Of course, very few of us will get to look back at Earth from a spaceship. Even so, a Dutch company is trying to replicate that experience for school children with an education program called SpaceBuzz. With the aid of some whiz-bang technology, the company wants to “send” 100 million kids a year to space using immersive 4D virtual reality.

Putting children in the footsteps of astronauts will hopefully enable them to feel the Overview Effect for themselves and see the bigger picture. SpaceBuzz is designed to give children a deeper sense of connection with the wonderous living system we call Earth and every living thing inhabiting it.

SpaceBuzz will help the next generation of adults become more Earth conscious by living sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyles. But how do we assist the current crop of adults to be kinder to the planet and each other? One way is to provide them with role models to emulate.

Unfortunately, those who should be examples to all of us – politicians – often fall short of the mark. Politicians the world over tend to focus on local issues to the detriment of global challenges. Global problems, though, can only be solved through shared, collective leadership.

The current day peddlers of populism appeal to the prejudices of voters by tapping into prevailing anti-immigration and anti-trade sentiments. Yet the populist framing of problems invariably leads to the wrong policy responses such as the desire to build walls and erect trade barriers.

That’s why all world leaders should experience a simulated SpaceBuzz virtual flight so that they – like astronauts – can look down at the Earth and its 7.8 billion human inhabitants and embrace a new reality. All humans need to see themselves as connected with one another and with the planet as a whole.

From space, nationalism, patriotism, and tribal behaviour have no meaning – you see just one planet and it’s the only home we have. On witnessing Earth from space, astronaut Edgar Mitchell proclaimed that it makes you:

… develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’

Former NASA astronaut, Ron Garan, poetically described how the spectacle of Earth suspended in space was an epiphany in slow motion.

From space, the planet is a constantly changing masterpiece and the sheer beauty is absolutely breathtaking. It looks like a shining jewel and you realise that it’s home to everyone who ever lived and everyone who ever will be. But another thing that hit me was a sobering contradiction between the beauty of our planet and the unfortunate realities of life on our planet. It filled me with a sense of injustice. It infuriated me.

On Earth, politicians are accused of not seeing the forest for the trees. From space, the reverse applies – they will see the forest but not the trees. As Einstein explained, the nature of reality depends on the position of the observer. Our frame of reference is flipped when viewing Earth from outside its atmosphere and this gives rise to an altered state of consciousness.

Hopefully, the sensations triggered by the sight of our planet from space would be sufficiently moving to cause world leaders to transcend borders in their decision making. Narrow-minded national government agendas must give way to collective action to tackle shared global challenges, such as the need to eradicate extreme poverty, improve health outcomes, create a sustainable planet, and foster world peace.

We have the capability to solve all the problems facing humanity including world peace. In space, American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts work side-by-side on the International Space Station (ISS), even though we cannot secure peace on Earth. This is ironic as the ISS emerged from the Cold War rivalry of the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the US.

On Earth, nations continue to butt heads, however, on the ISS, 15 countries work collaboratively in an orbiting laboratory for the good of all humankind. The ISS represents the largest peacetime cooperative effort humans have ever conceived and implemented. It is as much a political achievement as a technological one.

The ISS is a shining example of a common goal bringing a divided world together. It has become a beacon of peace for warring nations and proves that we can accomplish remarkable things together. The ISS has also demonstrated that the politics of nationalism must give way to a “one planet” ideology if we are to achieve greater social cohesion.

Regrettably, moving from 195 independent nation-states to one planetary civilisation is not on humanity’s radar, so it certainly won’t happen in my lifetime nor my children’s. But in the words of legendary astronomer and science writer, Carl Sagan: “You spend even a little time contemplating the Earth from orbit and the most deeply ingrained nationalisms begin to erode”. Space can heal what divides us.

Even though we need a cosmic perspective, most world leaders are either not ready or are incapable of making that paradigm shift in thinking. In fairness, viewing the world through a global lens has not pervaded the hearts and minds of most citizens either. So, for now, we will continue our journey through the universe aboard Spaceship Earth as a divided crew.

We are all astronauts – we just don’t know it.

Before you go…
I wrote this post shortly before Russia launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine and acknowledge that the war has strained international collaboration in space. The conflict makes it even more urgent for politicians to experience the Overview Effect and for our political leaders to embrace a whole-of-Earth perspective, particularly during times of geopolitical upheaval.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Two wishes for a peaceful world

Image credit: quotespedia.org

We’ve all heard the various jokes about a person who stumbles upon a magic lamp, rubs it, and out pops a genie. Thrilled to be freed after many years, the newly liberated genie grants the person three wishes. People commonly wish for things that satisfy their selfish desire for money, power, or fame. But a higher salary, a loftier title, or a posher postcode do not of themselves make us happier.

As a young boy, I often thought about what I would ask for if I was offered three wishes. Believe it or not, I always came to the same conclusion: I wanted just one wish – world peace. As an adult, I understand that achieving world peace actually requires two wishes. Please let me explain.

World peace (outer peace) is impossible without people being at peace with themselves (inner peace) – one follows the other. So, any attempt to achieve world peace must begin with the individual (such as Vladimir Putin!), as it is the conflict in the individual mind that manifests as war. This interdependency is beautifully encapsulated in the Peace Poem which many credit to the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tse:

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.

If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.

If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbours.

If there is to be peace between neighbours,
There must be peace in the home.

If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.

We all have a part to play in world peace. Through our words and deeds, each of us should demonstrate kindness and forgiveness. One way to facilitate such behaviour is for all of us to adopt the Golden Rule, the moral precept that asks us to treat others as we would like others to treat ourselves. Thus, my first wish would be for the universal adoption of the Golden Rule.

Building sustainable peace requires positive reciprocity: I show you kindness and you do the same for me in return, multiplied a billion times over throughout humanity. Changing the behaviour of individuals alone, however, does not guarantee world peace. We must also change how international relations are conducted. Thus, my second wish would be for the adoption of a renewed form of global governance.

In theory, these two wishes would see a world full of people with inner peace living under one integrated global governance structure with no wars between individual nations. The end result would be world peace – people and nations united and working in collaboration to build trust at all levels of society. Trust is the foundation of all human relations and it begins one person at a time.

The challenges humanity faces – like climate change, global pandemics, natural catastrophes, international crime, and rampant terrorism – are increasingly transnational in nature, which is why they cannot be addressed by any single government. No individual nation-state is big enough alone to fix shared global problems. As outlined in an essay by the Dalai Lama:

In ancient times problems were mostly family-size, and they were naturally tackled at the family level, but the situation has changed. Today we are so interdependent, so closely interconnected with each other, that without a sense of universal responsibility, a feeling of universal brotherhood and sisterhood, and an understanding and belief that we really are part of one big human family, we cannot hope to overcome the dangers to our very existence – let alone bring about peace and happiness.

While peace has been defined in various ways, understanding it simply as the avoidance of violence is narrow in conception as peace is more than the absence of war. Peace is also the presence of fairness and justice. Furthermore, it is an internal state (of mind or of nations) to achieving happiness and harmony.

The independent international peacebuilding organisation, International Alert, believes that “… peacebuilding is done collaboratively, at local, national, regional and international levels. Individuals, communities, civil society organisations, governments, regional bodies and the private sector all play a role in building peace”.

The Earth is one but the world is not as the current governance system – which divides the planet into 195 sovereign nations – creates toxic political divisions. We are all part of one global village and need an overarching global governance structure to sit above nation-states. (Even though it’s an interesting thought, I have to accept that even a genie saying “Abracadabra” will not make nations disappear!)

In the absence of a single authoritative institution or world government, global governance is designed to bring together diverse actors to coordinate collective action at the level of the planet. To quote the Global Challenges Foundation:

The goal of global governance, roughly defined, is to provide global public goods, particularly peace and security, justice and mediation systems for conflict, functioning markets and unified standards for trade and industry. … The leading institution in charge of global governance today is the United Nations. It was founded in 1945, in the wake of the Second World War, as a way to prevent future conflicts on that scale. The UN does not directly bring together the people of the world, but sovereign nation-states.

According to leading human rights advocate, Suzanne Nossel, the world still needs the UN, which is why she believes that building a new global governance framework from scratch is a fool’s errand. In an instructive article she penned for the US foreign policy magazine, Foreign Affairs, she imagined a system of global governance that would require all nations to follow rules requiring them to refrain from the use of force, foster peaceful conflict resolution, uphold the rule of law, and enshrine respect for human rights.

Ms Nossel believes that nations truly working in co-operation would be able to “… avert crises and foster cooperation on issues including climate change, pandemics, and migration. Great powers would wield influence but be held in check by one another and a rotating cast of middle powers from every region”.

She acknowledges that creating such a system afresh in the 2020s would be impossible as major countries would never agree on objectives or values, much less concede to being legally bound by them. Ms Nossel acknowledges that:

The United Nations remains the closest thing to a system of global governance that the world has ever known and may ever achieve. And yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic makes painfully clear, the system can be paralyzed, distracted, and dysfunctional just when it is needed most.

… A strengthened system of global governance, if it is to be, will involve overlapping forums, institutions, and coalitions that collectively shoulder the world’s challenges. The UN has a central role to play within such a system. Any effort to reinvent global governance should focus on reinvigorating the body invented to serve as its linchpin.

… Reinventing the UN will require member states to renew their original vows to the ideals of international cooperation. … Ultimately, reviving the UN will require subordinating narrow national interests to the task of protecting the world’s best hope for solving grave global threats.

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You don’t have to convince me that global problems need global responses. My sense, though, is that things will get worse before they get better as petty nationalism always seems to get in the way of global cooperation. Yet, in an era of climate change, pandemics, and Russian revanchism we need to reconsider what national security really means.

Sadly, worldwide peace and international solidarity will only happen when distant threats to humanity’s existence become an imminent peril to all of us. Until then, the sovereign nation-state will remain the main political actor calling the shots. Nonetheless, as I opined in a previous post, the power of the nation-state is slowly waning.

Meantime, let’s not forget John Lennon’s wish for world peace, as conveyed in the lyrics to his moving anthem, Imagine:

“I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will live as one.”


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why the world has been disjointed in managing COVID-19

Source: OECD

Around the world, the coronavirus has put multi-level governance systems under unprecedented pressure. It has exposed the immense challenge of developing a collective and coherent response to a public health crisis when power is dispersed. The virus is a shared external threat, yet – in many democracies – governments at national and subnational levels have failed to confront the virus as one team, united against a common and formidable enemy.

At the height of the pandemic in Australia and other jurisdictions, political posturing and jousting saw politicians at different territorial tiers work against each other resulting in fragmented and muddled policy responses. In some cases, critical relationships turned toxic as political leaders – in search of scapegoats for rising deaths and infections within their respective geographic patches – played the blame game, attacking opponents and causing an escalation of tensions.

In an attempt to shut out COVID, many national governments rushed to close their external borders to foreign nationals. In contrast, only a handful of countries, including Australia, sealed their internal borders by ring-fencing entire states. The extraordinary decision to impose state border restrictions barring entry to other Australians was made by state premiers against the wishes of the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.

When the pandemic took hold in February 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) advised against the closure of even international borders, warning that restrictions could “have negative social and economic effects on the affected countries”. The WHO also declared that “restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions”.

It’s a natural human reaction to pull up the drawbridge when under attack, and countless politicians did this in an effort to halt the spread of the virus. Still, many experts believe that border closures were of little benefit in containing the virus. “I think they’re mostly useless, to tell you the truth,” said Ira Longini, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida who has studied the effects of restrictions.

Controlling a pandemic requires effective and integrated leadership at all levels. Yet, in Australia, securing a nationally consistent approach to key issues including schooling, lockdowns, border closures, and vaccinations proved elusive. Federal and state governments expressed divergent viewpoints, leaving citizens confused. States set their own agendas and refused to let the federal government call the shots.

In a crisis, words matter and politicians across the globe dialled up the rhetoric on the need to protect national (country) and subnational (regional) borders. Australia’s political leaders did likewise with some state premiers resorting to a discourse combining fear and tribalism. Humans regress to tribalism when afraid – it’s the biological loophole that politicians of all political persuasions have long used to tap in to tribal instincts.

Political tribalism is about identities and Aussies not only see themselves as Australians but also as members of a state tribe, and this begets proud declarations such as “I’m a Victorian”. At its extreme, tribalism means that the tribe never concedes an inch to other tribes. It’s an “us versus them” mentality which saw some state premiers frame messages around the need to “protect Queenslanders” and “isolate Western Australians” from other Aussies.

When announcing his decision to segregate his state from the rest of Australia, the WA Premier, Mark McGowan, stated that: “In effect, we’ll be turning Western Australia into an island within an island – our own country”. This sort of parochial decision-making should not come as a surprise – all politicians do it. Pandering to the immediate demands and desires of voters is the classic way to get elected/re-elected.

Consequently, Australia’s states and territories displayed almost unprecedented independence as they responded to the needs of their populations/tribes. Throughout the pandemic, premiers were not afraid to go it alone if they felt that the PM’s national strategy was not in the best interests of their “tribal constituents”.

Tribalism is also defined as a “blind loyalty group” and the local-town pitch of some premiers made their citizens fearful and insular. Moreover, the rabble-rousing by premiers fuelled political rivalries between state-based tribes. To quote the opinion editor at The Guardian Australia:

It is astonishing to witness the “border wars” as people have become warriors for their state and developed particularly strong parasocial relationships with their premiers along the east coast of Australia. It has featured in Western Australia, Tasmania and South Australia too but is most venomous in NSW, Queensland and Victoria.

Embarrassingly, the childish bickering between the states was reported in no less than The New York Times under the banner headline: “Australia’s States Are Feuding Like Siblings. What Else to Do but Laugh?” The January 2021 article went on to say:

In Western Australia, which has a long history of flirting with secession, Premier Mark McGowan, its top official, had an approval rating of 89 percent a few months ago after going further than any other leader with restrictions and rhetoric suggesting that Australians from other states were diseased threats to stability. He is expected to be re-elected in a landslide in March.

That prediction proved to be correct – McGowan was electorally rewarded for his tough stance on border restrictions, achieving a crushing victory at the ballot box. His promise to continue providing a border security blanket to protect the WA tribe from COVID-19 was extremely popular at a state level but divisive at a federal level. McGowan’s decision to retreat behind borders is an example of a harmful “beggar-thy-neighbour” policy.

Beggar-thy-neighbour policies were also evident globally, with many world leaders adopting a “my-country-first” approach to the pandemic. As with subnational governments, this resulted in national governments also pandering to their electorates. This was most evident in the rush by first-world nations to buy-up the majority of the world’s supply of vaccines to the detriment of poorer nations.

As I explained in a previous post, the WHO labelled such blatantly inward-focussed behaviour as “vaccine nationalism”. In fairness to national leaders, their nationalistic stance was driven by their respective citizenry who expect their elected officials to look after them first and foremost. As every president and prime minister knows, their party’s fortunes depend upon giving the majority of people what they want.

It’s axiomatic that politics, like economics, is driven by self-interest – the selfish ambitions of politicians (personal advancement) and the self-centeredness of voters (what’s in it for me?). Given this dynamic, it’s clear that (a) at a national level, domestic political goals will invariably be placed above those beyond national borders and (b) at a subnational level, regional goals will invariably be placed ahead of national goals.

The only governance organisation that has had a global focus throughout the pandemic is the WHO. It warned national and subnational governments that a “whole-of-government, whole-of-society” approach was necessary to crush the virus, but its pleas fell on deaf ears. The harsh reality is national and subnational governments will always focus on their respective constituents first and echo back the concerns of their electorates.

I have long maintained that Australia is over-governed and that we should eliminate the states. I also hold the view that individual countries are ill-equipped to deal with global issues like climate change and pandemics and that we need to move to a new form of global governance. I am absolutely confident that neither of these changes will happen in my lifetime!

Meantime, I believe that the world would be a better place if we acted like global citizens. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy’s famous line:

Ask not what the world can do for you, but what you can do for the world.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Understanding the left-right political spectrum

Source: Slideshare.net

We all understand the difference between up and down. We also know the distinction between north and south. But when it comes to left and right in a political sense, many of us are less clear. What does it really mean to be left-wing? How does this vary from those who lean to the right?

The terms “left-wing” and “right-wing” define opposite ends of the political spectrum, yet there is no firm consensus about their meaning. Over time, these labels have become blurred. Tony Blair once argued that the contrast between the two had melted away into meaninglessness.

The genesis of the political categories “left” and “right” date back to eighteenth century France and the French Revolution. Members of the National Assembly were seated according to their political orientation. Supporters of the king sat to the right of the Assembly president with supporters of the revolution to his left.

In line with this historic division, contemporary left-wingers are said to be anti-royalists who favour interventionist and regulated market economic policies. Right-wingers, on the other hand, are said to be monarchists who favour laissez-faire, free market economic policies.

While those on the left support higher taxes on the rich and welfare for the poor, the right favours lower taxes on businesses to help them grow. The left believes in an equal society and big government whereas the right argues that social inequality is unavoidable and that governments should play a limited role in people’s lives.

The Australian Labor Party has traditionally been seen as left-wing (socialist) with historic ties to the union movement. The Liberal Party of Australia has customarily been seen as right-wing (capitalist) with a long-standing pro-business posture. Many see this partisan profiling as outdated in describing Australia’s modern political landscape.

A case in point is the issue of Australia becoming a republic. Based on traditional ideology, you would expect this cause to be championed by the “anti-royalist” Labor Party. Yet the push for a republic has been spearheaded by a member of the “monarchist” Liberal Party.

Past prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is a Liberal blue-blood. (NB: Left-wing parties are typically associated with red, the colour of revolution, while right-wing parties are often associated with conservative blue.) He is a former investment banker who – uncharacteristically for a conservative politician – is also a staunch supporter of the Australian Republican Movement. Turnbull co-founded the movement.

In trying to discard the monarchy (via a referendum in 1999), Turnbull was seen to have taken a left-wing stance which caused some right-wing hardliners to label him a turncoat. Still, he is not the only Australian politician to be off course in a strict ideological sense. Former Labor treasurer, Paul Keating, lurched to the right economically.

Keating’s laudable economic reforms included deregulating the financial system, floating the Australian dollar, reducing import tariffs and introducing compulsory superannuation – sound initiatives that a Labor treasurer was not expected to do. It’s said tongue-in-cheek that Keating was Australia’s best “Liberal” treasurer and the architect of neo-liberalism in Australia.

Many of Keating’s reforms were based on the 1981 Campbell Inquiry Report into Australia’s financial system. John Howard instigated the inquiry when he was Liberal treasurer under prime minister, Malcolm Fraser. But Howard disappointed his traditional business supporters by implementing only one of Campbell’s 260 recommendations.

Ironically, it was Keating who introduced many of Campbell’s recommendations. He implemented a globalisation agenda which made Australia internationally competitive and opened our economy to the rest of the world. Unsurprisingly, big business embraced Keating – even though the Labor Party and corporate Australia are supposed to be adversaries.

So, how left-wing was Keating as a left-wing politician? In reality, he moved the Labor Party to the right of centre. So, the message is clear: While some may argue that ideological creeds are reflected in the policies of each party, this is often not the case.

If the truth be told, political viewpoints along the left-right scale do not fit neatly into one ideological camp. Within each camp, there are factional groups who believe that some things outweigh others. So, an individual may identify with left-wing ideals on one issue but consider themselves right-wing for everything else.

Those whose political outlook sits somewhere in the middle of the left-right divide are classified as taking a “centrist” stance. And to complicate things further, those who hold extreme political views belong to either the far-left or the far-right.

People on these outermost poles of the political spectrum often see themselves as aggrieved individuals. They are radicals who are deeply estranged from mainstream political mores. Their degree of alienation from contemporary society can be seen in their extreme ideologies.

Both the far-left and the far-right have a victim-like mentality and employ militant strategies. Their political engagement relies upon force, violation of civil liberties and disdain for democratic ideals and practices. They normalise violence in their attacks on governments, globalisation and social elites.

The far-left includes Islamic terrorists while the far-right boasts white supremacists and neo-Nazis among its ranks. These extremist hate groups engage in violent acts and display many parallels. As they have overlapping tactics and stances, some academics contend that it is misleading to classify the far-left and far-right as opposite poles.

It is suggested that a more realistic classification is provided by the Horseshoe theory. This theory asserts that the political spectrum is not a straight line with opposing ends. Rather, it is a horseshoe with its farthest outliers bending in toward each other and sharing a number of similar beliefs.

To illustrate, supporters of the extreme right and extreme left are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories even when they are contradicted by mainstream science or factual evidence. These theories include the belief that coronavirus vaccines are harmful, climate change is a hoax and the US government planned the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

One area where the far-left and far-right markedly differ is in their interpretation of the past. As noted in the US online newsletter, The Perspective, these interpretations dictate their political stances and calls to action.

The far-right expresses nostalgia for the past and actively works to preserve their history, regardless of what that might mean in today’s context. … Conversely, the far-left … associates the past with its ills – slavery, sexism, and other injustices. History and its institutions are not to be preserved and cherished, but rather, an embarking point from which to begin reform.

History is in the eye of the beholder and so too is populism. There is no agreed definition of populism – it means different things to different people. In political science, populism is seen as an approach that frames politics as a battle between two opposing groups. In his book, Populism: A Very Short Introduction, Cas Mudde labels these antagonistic groups as the “pure people” (ordinary masses) and the “corrupt elite”.

Populism is not sustained by a single political ideology. Rather, it describes a style and approach to politics. Populism can be deployed in the service of almost any ideology – left or right, moderate or extreme. Populists can come from all parts of the political spectrum and they have popped up all over the world.

Think Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and, of course, Donald Trump in the US. All of these populist leaders climbed to prominence by dividing people into good or bad. Populism defines our current political age. In the words of one US journalist:

Once in power, populist leaders represent “a threat to liberal democracy” … (such as) Trump calling the press the “enemy of the people,” criticizing judges, resisting congressional oversight, claiming that elections are “rigged,” flouting laws, and claiming that a “deep state” of bureaucratic actors is out to get him to deny the will of the people he represents. It happens with other populist leaders all over the world.

■      ■      ■

It’s axiomatic that thinking in terms of a left-right spectrum is outdated. While these binary labels may be convenient shorthand descriptors, they are too generic. People hold a range of opinions on social and economic issues and these do not fit neatly in the traditional left-right continuum.

Also, citizens care about the matters that affect them and not the political ideology that supposedly underpins a given issue. Further, humans can hold seemingly contradictory beliefs. All of this makes the political spectrum largely meaningless, but we continue to use it due to laziness. As noted in the online magazine Quillette:

Putting people into one of two ideological boxes is far easier than understanding their unique point of view. Reducing politics to a simple contest between right and left is far easier than reasoning through hundreds of issues. Humans generally prefer simplicity to truth and would rather sign up for a “side” than do the hard work of thinking.

Whether you swing left, lean right or aim dead centre, it’s incumbent on all of us to stay politically informed.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why nationalism is a threat to globalisation

Credit: David Parkins

The postponed 2020 Olympic Games – which are now scheduled to kick off in Tokyo in July – will provide an international stage for countries to showcase their elite athletes. Spectators the world over will cheer for their nation’s sportsmen and women as they vie for Olympic gold. The fierce but friendly competition will fuel national pride and expose a positive side of nationalism – the celebration of the sporting success of those representing one’s homeland.

Beyond the Olympic arena, however, chest-thumping nationalistic patriotism has a dark side. It’s understandable that every country tries to instil a national consciousness among its own citizens. But when that patriotism morphs into a sense of superiority over other countries, it leads to a combative us-against-them mindset which is a poisonous ideology. In many parts of the world, patriotism has turned toxic.

Populist politicians have been selling nationalism as patriotism by promoting blind loyalty to one’s country to the detriment of global connectivity. Claiming to speak for “the people”, populists like Donald Trump have appealed to the anger and discontent of voters, tapping into their fears about jobs, race and immigration. In the West, many people feel left behind by technological change, growing inequality and the global economy.

Events over recent years show that there has been a nationalist backlash to globalisation. The UK’s decision to leave the European Union, Donald Trump’s win in the 2016 US presidential election and the growing momentum of right-wing parties in France, Austria and Germany all attest to this. In an increasing number of countries, the radical right – a group of extremist parties united by their hatred of immigrants – has surged in popularity.

These populist parties and their followers have been variously described as racist, xenophobic, anti-Islamic and anti-refugee. Parties of the far-right focus on tradition – real or imagined – and play on a nostalgia which yearns for simpler times. They want to turn back the clock to when national cultures were not influenced by immigration (and globalisation) and jobs were the preserve of native-born citizens.

This delusional hankering for the “good old days” was epitomised in Donald Trump’s right-wing rallying cry to “Make America Great Again”. Trump mistakenly believed that this greatness would be achieved by closing borders, curtailing trade and building a wall to keep out Mexicans. We should not forget that it was this kind of old-fashioned nationalism which helped fuel two world wars.

Following their defeat in World War I, the Germans felt humiliated and this enabled Hitler to exploit people’s feelings of resentment towards the ruling elite. Hitler also promised to make Germany great again. The parallels between how Trump and Hitler came to power are instructive. The rhetoric of both men was dangerously populists in nature. Not surprisingly, historians have been comparing Trumpism to fascism. One writer recently opined that:

It hardly takes a genius to see the similarities. Hitler promised to return Germany to her former glory by weeding out the traitorous politicians who had cost her the war. Trump promised to “Make America Great Again” by “draining the swamp”. Hitler blamed Germany’s problems on the Jews. Trump blamed Mexican “rapists and criminals”. Hitler’s supporters chanted slogans like “Im Felde Unbesiegt” (Undefeated on the Battlefield), Trump’s supporters had theirs too: “Build the wall”, “Lock Her Up”, and of course, his latest: “Stop the steal”.

As part of rebuilding the world after World War II, the Liberal International Order was created. Liberalism is an international (as distinct from national) worldview that opposes isolation and protectionism. The liberal vision looks for collective solutions to global problems by working co-operatively with the help of international institutions and alliances to make the world a better place. Nationalists, in contrast, want a more homogenous society and tighter controls by governments over territories and borders.

The mantra of nationalist politicians – “country first” – fuel calls to build fences and erect trade barriers. Yet since 1950, the burgeoning growth in international trade has helped make the world a more peaceful place. Free trade raises the cost of war by making nations more economically interdependent. The more people rely on trade with others, the greater the cost to all parties of a conflict.

One of the hallmarks of liberal internationalism is rule-based relations which are enshrined in institutions such as the United Nations. Under nationalism, however, we would see a more contested and fragmented system of economic blocs and regional rivalries. The desire to increase sovereign control invariably results in isolationist policies, particularly with regard to immigration.

In his final address to the UN General Assembly on 20 September, 2016 Barack Obama delivered a stinging rebuke to those who would build walls saying: “A nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself”. In the same speech, he defended liberal globalisation arguing that open markets, capitalism and democracy should remain the guiding forces of the international order.

… I believe that at this moment we all face a choice. We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration. Or we can retreat into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion. I want to suggest to you today that we must go forward, and not backward. I believe that as imperfect as they are, the principles of open markets and accountable governance, of democracy and human rights and international law that we have forged remain the firmest foundation for human progress in this century.

It is paradoxical that the growing calls for a less open world would actually hurt the poor most of all. Since the end of World War II, free trade has lifted millions out of extreme poverty. It is irrefutable that globalisation has been good for the global poor. This point was also made by President Obama.

The integration of our global economy has made life better for billions of men, women and children. Over the last 25 years, the number of people living in extreme poverty has been cut from nearly 40 per cent of humanity to under 10 per cent. That’s unprecedented. And it’s not an abstraction. It means children have enough to eat; mothers don’t die in childbirth.

President Obama went on to say that “our international order has been so successful that we take it as a given that great powers no longer fight world wars; that the end of the Cold War lifted the shadow of nuclear Armageddon; that the battlefields of Europe have been replaced by peaceful union”.

Populist politicians are undermining liberal internationalism and this poses a threat to peace and prosperity. Less international co-operation will lead to increased distrust between nation-states and may even give rise to conflict. Nativism and its beggar-thy-neighbour policies is a backward and dangerous step for the world. In the words of the old adage, it really is a case of “united we stand, divided we fall”.

The rise of the new radical right reflects a deep social and economic malaise affecting an increasing number of nations. The past decades have ushered in an unprecedented level of socio-economic change and voters are expressing their dissatisfaction at the ballot box. Only time will tell how long this anger and resentment lasts. What is clear is that the rhetoric of the far-right has struck a chord with a critical mass of voters.

The world’s political landscape has been transformed by a nationalist movement which has gone global.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why COVID vaccines are being distributed unevenly and unfairly

Credit: The People’s Vaccine Alliance

Imagine this for a second. You’re at the beach and you notice two swimmers in difficulty. Each has encountered a beach hazard caused by the powerful surf. A rogue wave breaking along the shoreline has knocked a man off his feet and he is trying to regain his balance. At the same time, a rip current has dragged a woman out to sea and she is fighting a losing battle against the fast-moving tide.

You face a dilemma: The swimmers are 100 metres apart and you can’t rescue both at once. You quickly assess who has the greater need. While the man is disoriented, he has not suffered serious injury to his back or neck – he is unsteady, but standing. The woman, however, is clearly in grave danger of drowning – she is unable to stay afloat due to exhaustion and is slipping under the water.

The woman is far more vulnerable to the ravages of the sea, so you swim out through the breaking waves and rescue her. Bystanders commend you on saving her from certain death. As the male swimmer was able to stumble out of the water on his own, no lives were lost. Your judgment to use “likelihood of death” as a triage criterion was spot on. The swimmer most exposed to the elements was correctly identified and a fatality was averted.

Now imagine a different life-and-death scenario. This time, you are the boss of the World Health Organisation (WHO). You cast your eyes over the latest statistics on the number of COVID-19 deaths around the world. It’s clear that Brazil and Australia are navigating the virus differently. Brazil is in treacherous waters and has been unable to quell the pandemic waves. In contrast, Australia finds itself in calmer seas with little headwinds.

You face a dilemma: You don’t have sufficient doses of COVID vaccines to inoculate every citizen of both nations. You carefully assess which population is worse-off. Brazil has been unable to stem the tide of deaths and thousands more are expected to perish as a result of the pandemic. Australia, on the other hand, has done an outstanding job in containing the virus and has recorded an extremely low mortality rate from COVID-19.

As a leading epidemiologist, you know that vaccines should go first to the places where there is the greatest suffering. The primary measure of suffering is the number of premature deaths that a vaccine can prevent. As Brazil has far more reported COVID cases and deaths than Australia – in both absolute and per capita terms – it’s a no-brainer that Brazil’s needs are the greatest. Still, your decision to prioritise Brazil over Australia creates a storm of controversy.

As WHO Director-General, you know that each million doses of the vaccine will likely save the lives of hundreds of Brazilians. You also know that the same million doses given to Australians is probably not going to save more than one or two people. However, vaccines are not being distributed based on need but ability to pay. Countries with advanced economies have bigger cheque books, which has enabled them to push in front of countries with developing economies.

The unfairness of this is laid bare when we circle back to the lifesaving example. Australia can be likened to the male swimmer whose situation was non-life threatening whereas Brazil is akin to the female swimmer who was in serious peril. While none of the bystanders on the beach challenged your decision to rescue the swimmer needing the most help, you are being severely criticised for choosing the nation that needs the most help.

The hypocrisy of this double standard is even more pronounced when you learn further facts about the two swimmers. The male is from Australia and the female is from Brazil. You knew this before you plunged into the surf as you spoke briefly to the distressed families of both swimmers. However, knowing the nationality of each swimmer did not cause you to favour the Australian over the Brazilian – and quite rightly so!

Race and ethnicity should not be factored into the equation when rescuing swimmers or determining vaccine allocation. All lives matter and no life can be neglected. Yet, when it comes to COVID, we are witnessing the injustice of some humans being treated as less equal than others. The sad reality is that nearly 70 poor countries will only be able to vaccinate one in ten people against COVID-19 this year. The UN has labelled this distribution outcome as “wildly uneven and unfair”.

According to a press release issued by Oxfam International, rich countries are failing the vaccine equity test:

… wealthier nations have bought up enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations nearly three times over by the end of 2021 if those currently in clinical trials are all approved for use. Canada tops the chart with enough vaccines to vaccinate each Canadian five times. Updated data shows that rich nations representing just 14 per cent of the world’s population have bought up 53 per cent of all the most promising vaccines so far.

Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy manager, adds: “No one should be blocked from getting a life-saving vaccine because of the country they live in or the amount of money in their pocket. But unless something changes dramatically, billions of people around the world will not receive a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 for years to come”.

The world has a moral obligation to help those in greatest need first. Given this, Australia, New Zealand and other nations which are not in immediate danger of “drowning” from COVID-19, should move towards the back of the vaccination queue. But this won’t happen as rich nations are focussed on national recovery, not global recovery as they are prioritising country over planet.

The WHO labels this behaviour as “vaccine nationalism” and blames it for the lack of solidarity against a common enemy. WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has warned that the lopsided distribution of vaccines “harms everyone and protects no one”. Further, he believes that inoculating certain populations to the detriment of others is “medically self-defeating”.

The rising fever of inequality is fuelled by a chronic failure of national leaders to display true global leadership. The inward focus of most countries places the pursuit of domestic political goals above those beyond their borders. In fairness to national leaders, their decision to take a beggar-thy-neighbour stance is driven by citizens who expect their elected officials to look after them first and foremost. Many citizens want first dibs on COVID vaccine jabs.

Yet, it’s in Australia’s self-interest (and other rich nations too) to help ensure that every other country’s population is vaccinated. Until the fear of COVID-19 dissipates, trade and travel won’t return to normal. And health-wise, nobody is safe until everybody is safe. The strategy of every nation just looking out for itself is a path that most ethicists think is wrong.

The frenzied grab for vaccines is driven by the same selfish impulses that drove the hoarding of toilet paper. Coronavirus drives panic buying due to the fear of missing out and leads to the irrational stockpiling of vaccines, toilet paper and other essential items. Of course, no one wins when everyone adopts an “every-man-for-himself” attitude.

If we truly believe that life is sacred and worthy of our deepest reverence, we (as individuals and nations) would let poorer nations and those worst affected by COVID go first. Certainly, I would not have objected if the Australian government had delayed vaccinations until more needy nations had received their jabs first.

My view, of course, puts me in the minority as many Australians, as well as the federal opposition and some sections of the media, are critical that our rollout has not moved faster. Even though it shouldn’t be this way, Scott Morrison knows that his party’s fortunes depend upon giving the majority of Australians what they want – a jab in the arm and quickly!

Shame on us for letting the world’s most vulnerable people “drown” in a sea of COVID.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

COVID vaccines offer drug makers chance to salvage reputation

Photo Illustration: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

The development of COVID-19 vaccines is a public relations coup for the pharmaceutical industry. The arrival of vaccines has boosted public approval for drug companies. Thanks to the blanket press coverage of the global race to develop vaccines, “big pharma” brands like Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca have become household names.

The long-beleaguered drug manufacturing sector has become the hero of the hour. COVID-19 has provided the sector with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset its abysmal reputation. Less than two years ago, there was no business sector in the US as disliked as the pharmaceutical industry, according to a 2019 Gallup Poll.

By providing the world with the ability to curb transmission of the virus, generations of ill will towards the industry seems to be melting away. Drug makers are currently basking in global plaudits – but will the adulation last? Will 2021 be a permanent reputational turning point or will past disreputable behaviour (such as price gouging and the US opioid crisis) be repeated?

One health expert has argued that we should not be under any illusion that profit, not altruism, motivated drug companies to develop COVID-19 vaccines. While no one knows precisely the extent to which these companies will profit from making vaccines, they are expected to collectively generate tens of billions of dollars in sales for the pharmaceutical industry.

Richer nations have gobbled up the majority of the global supply of vaccines, with poorer nations falling behind in the race for inoculations. This “me-first approach” is precisely the behaviour that the World Health Organisation feared and predicted. WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stated that “the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure”.

In January, Dr Ghebreyesus criticised inequalities in the global coronavirus vaccine rollout, arguing that it was “not right” that younger adults in wealthy countries were getting vaccinated before older people or healthcare workers in poorer countries. He also hit out at the profiteering of drug companies, accusing vaccine makers of targeting locations where “profits are highest”.

Other experts have also expressed concern about vaccine nationalism and support Dr Ghebreyesus’ call for countries and manufacturers to spread doses more fairly around the world. Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Centre in Geneva stated: “Richer countries will be able to vaccinate … their whole populations before vulnerable groups in many developing countries get covered”.

The WHO has urged countries and manufacturers to stop making bilateral deals. Such agreements have resulted in vaccine makers prioritising regulatory approvals in rich countries where the profits are the highest, rather than submitting their data to the WHO for approval. “No country is exceptional and should cut the queue and vaccinate all their population while some remain with no supply of the vaccine,” said Dr Ghebreyesus.

According to an opinion piece in the New York Times, drug companies will “make a killing” from the coronavirus. While other sectors of the business world have struggled to survive the mayhem from the pandemic, the pharmaceutical industry is set to profit handsomely. Sales of treatments and vaccines will pad bottom lines and this is expected to create a windfall for the industry.

But drug companies are not the only profiteers. A December 2020 article in the Los Angeles Times reported that executives at some pharmaceutical companies received huge paydays by selling shares around the time their companies announced positive news about coronavirus vaccines. This practice is common in the healthcare industry with executives using prearranged stock sale plans to unload shares on days when their companies release good news.

Pre-planned stock trades are not illegal and can be very lucrative. According to the Los Angeles Times article:

Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla shed 60% of his holdings in the company Nov. 9, the same day his firm announced the results of trials that showed its vaccine was highly effective in preventing the disease caused by the coronavirus. The news caused the company’s stock to jump 15%. Bourla is one of seven Pfizer executives who collectively have earned $14 million from stock sales this year …. That amount is dwarfed by sales made by executives at Moderna, a Cambridge, Mass.-based firm that has never brought a product to market but has produced a vaccine reported to be nearly as effective as Pfizer’s. Executives there collectively made $287 million from stock sales this year …. Moderna’s CEO, Stéphane Bancel, has accounted for $81 million of the sales ….

The public has largely bankrolled the hunt for COVID-19 vaccines. Yet, even though taxpayers have footed the bill for much of the research and development, we have no say in how vaccines are priced and distributed. This is at the sole discretion of pharmaceutical companies which will use government granted legal monopolies – in the form of patents – to charge whatever price they wish.

Allowing drug makers to get rich from a global health emergency does not sit well with the average citizen. As we Aussies like to say, this arrangement fails the pub test. Patents should not come before patients. Picking up on this theme, Owen Jones, a columnist for The Guardian (UK), published an opinion piece, The Covid vaccine will benefit humanity – we should all own the patent, wherein he stated:

Pfizer and its German biotech partner, BioNTech, stand to make an astonishing £9.8bn (in 2021) from a coronavirus vaccine. Suggestions that pharmaceutical companies should not profit from the world’s most severe crisis since the second world war were dismissed in July (2020) as “radical” by Pfizer’s CEO …. But Pfizer’s claim to “have never taken any money from the US government or from anyone” does not stand up to scrutiny. … Essentially, pharmaceutical companies are global monopolies, which are given the right to charge whatever the market is willing to tolerate for the new medicines they produce.

Many believe that the current drug development model is broken as it does not deliver affordable drugs to the masses. This is exactly what happened when a treatment for HIV infection was developed over two decades ago. The drug was expensive at a whopping US$15,000 – per person per year – making it completely unaffordable to people in Africa. While AIDS sufferers in the West were able to afford the breakthrough treatment, millions needlessly died in Africa from the AIDS epidemic. The drug company blocked access to a low-cost generic AIDS medication to protect its investment.

Another fundamental flaw of the medicine patent scheme is that it motivates innovation only if potential patent-holders believe that they can make a substantive return on their investment. From a shareholder perspective, this is fair and understandable, but not always in the best interests of society. An example is the 2018 decision by pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, to cease research on a treatment for dementia as it did not stack-up financially.

This dashed the hopes of millions suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and those at risk of developing one of these devastating diseases. The need to generate value for shareholders saw Pfizer re-allocate R&D funding to other areas. But this was cold comfort to patients and their families affected by neurological diseases.

Not surprisingly, there have been calls for future coronavirus vaccines to be treated as global public goods with equal access for all, without profit. We have a golden opportunity to reshape the biomedical research and development system in a way that prioritizes people over profits. The belief that monopolies and high prices are a “necessary evil” in financing the development of new medicines needs to be challenged.

The current medicine patent system is flawed and governments must do more of the heavy lifting regarding financing research into new drugs. This might be a bitter pill for drug companies to swallow, but a welcome tonic for the masses. With research costs paid upfront by governments, most drugs would be available for the same price as a bottle of generic aspirin.

I’ll leave the final word on this contentious topic to The Guardian’s Owen Jones: “Rather than being a PR triumph for big pharma, coronavirus should serve as a reminder of the disastrous consequences of leaving a life-saving industry in the hands of a profiteering monopoly.”

Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect a leopard to change its spots.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting