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Insights 41: 1 November 2019
Dr Patrick Carvalho discusses on Newsroom the impact of fresh cash injections by the US Federal Reserve.
Dr Bryce Wilkinson comments on the Zero Carbon Bill in NBR and if the Government has enforcement mechanisms in mind.
Report - In fairness to our schools: Better measures for better outcomes.

Lessons from Thuringia
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
Until last week, the East German state of Thuringia was internationally most famous as the home of Martin Luther, Thuringian roasted sausages and the Bauhaus Movement.

Now we can add last Sunday’s state election result to that list. Though expected, it was sensational.

The combined share of all established democratic parties dropped to just over 40% of the vote. They include the Christian Democrats (21.8%), the Social Democrats (8.2%), the Greens (5.2%) and the Liberals (5.0%).

The two big winners, meanwhile, were both extremist parties: The former communist ruling party of East Germany, which now calls itself The Left (31.0%); and the far-right Alternative for Germany (23.4%).

The democratic centre has been hollowed. The election was won by the extremes of the left and the right.

It is a result which could leave Thuringia ungovernable. Though the Social Democrats and the Greens governed with The Left for the past five years, they have now lost their parliamentary majority. No other party will work with The Left. Meanwhile, no party is prepared to cooperate with the far-right.

The practical consequences of the Thuringian election are limited to the state itself. The political repercussions, however, will be felt more widely. There are even some lessons for us in New Zealand.

Straight after German unification, Thuringia had a surprisingly conventional political landscape. Surprisingly because after the collapse of communism, democratic parties had to be established from scratch. The combined share of mainstream parties in the first state election in 1990 was 84% - more than twice their share now.

Over the past decades, Thuringia did well economically. Since the beginning of the century, unemployment fell from 15% to 5% today. The state is among the fastest-growing in Germany.

So why, then, this collapse of the political mainstream?

It is best explained by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s repositioning of her Christian Democrats. Under her leadership, the party shifted left. This robbed the Social Democrats of issues and left more conservative-leaning voters homeless.

When Merkel then opened Germany’s borders to Syrian refugees and other migrants in 2015, these abandoned voters found a home for their protest on the extremes. Each vote for them was a vote against Merkel’s mainstream.

Thuringia shows what happens when a globalist, cosmopolitan worldview is foisted on ordinary people without care for their daily concerns. The result is an ugly form of extremist politics we would not want to see repeated here.

To prevent the rise of polarisation, politicians must listen to people who think unlike themselves.

A Deep Origin of Illiteracy
Briar Lipson | Research Fellow |
Too many children pass NCEA without being functionally literate. Minister Hipkins committed, in his 2019 NCEA change package, to address this by raising the bar.

Officials are grappling with the technicalities, but the real challenge will be for schools. If they cannot raise literacy, vast swathes of students who previously achieved NCEA no longer will.

If you are someone who does not believe that most children can be functionally literate, this looming change is a cruelty, set to consign our less able learners to failure at NCEA.

On the other hand, if you are someone who believes that with the right teaching almost all children can become functionally literate, you will welcome the change because it sends a clear message that schools can and must do better; that illiteracy is not ok.

But what then is this ‘right teaching’? And how can all children succeed?

In his seminal book on American education The Knowledge Deficit, Professor E.D. Hirsch explained why “the reading problems of middle school do not lie in middle school at all, nor those of high school in high school”.

Kiwi secondary school principals often agree.

Rather, Hirsch showed that the reading problems of middle and high school lie in the early years of primary when cumulative, knowledge-oriented modes of schooling can accelerate literacy.

Because as well as word-reading (decoding), reading relies on comprehension, which relies on knowledge of words and the world. Take a newspaper headline as an example. It is only thanks to background conceptual knowledge that Arms for the Saudis does not conjure images of body parts crossing oceans in the same way as does Desperate Kiwis look overseas for organs.

The best way to develop knowledge is through a well-sequenced, knowledge-rich curriculum. For many children this process starts young when their parents introduce them to nature, noises and poems, atlases, art and ideas. And since knowledge builds on knowledge, the more they gain the easier they find it to gain yet more.

However, by devastating contrast, if they come from knowledge-poor childhoods, they will find it harder to acquire more. Without intervention, children who start school behind in knowledge invariably fall further behind.

Addressing the on-entry knowledge gap is educators’ greatest challenge. Yet, in New Zealand, knowledge-oriented teaching is disparaged, especially in the early years.
The Minister is right to raise the literacy bar for NCEA, but there remain no shortcuts to comprehension. Regardless of curricula fashions, our need for knowledge will not go away.

Public Health Priorities
Dr Eric Crampton | Chief Economist |
I often describe New Zealand as the Outside of the Asylum – the last sane place in a world going mad.

But just what should we make of New Zealand’s public health system?

Eloise Gibson this week reported hospital staff vaccination rates are either shockingly low, or unknown. The public health system neither knows nor cares that midwives and other health workers might infect children too young for vaccination.

You see, easily preventable highly contagious serious illnesses are simply boring and passé. If you vaccinate people, the problem is solved – and you have no further reason to bother people.

It’s the non-communicable diseases that public health really cares about. Those offer endless opportunities for hectoring people about their own behaviour. For cajoling. For berating. For nudging. And, finally, for shoving.

But only for shoving us, the hoi polloi.

Never for shoving the anointed class of medical professionals.

The government is set to ban popcorn from daycare centres because of choking risk. Seven choking cases since the start of 2016 apparently justifies a ban on small foods that the public health clerisy deems to have insufficient offsetting nutritional merit. Other edicts, in place or proposed by the public health crowd to protect us from our own consumption decisions, are not hard to find.

But the government will not require hospital workers to be vaccinated. Almost half of Waitemata DHB staff are not vaccinated against whooping cough, which can easily kill infants too young to be vaccinated – and no other DHB is even keeping track. Popcorn’s perils presumably pass pertussis’s.

Perhaps Medical Officers of Health are too busy with other priorities to worry about tallying hospital staff vaccination rates. They have important work to do preventing new bottle shops from opening and restricting the hours of existing ones.

The result is a system that leaps at the chance to protect patients from perilous sodas by banning their sale in every hospital, but powerless to protect them from the sneezes of unvaccinated staff.

Public health deems compulsion to be fine when telling all of us what to do, but not when it comes to hospital staff vaccination. Even getting doctors to wash their hands properly between patients seems too hard.

The incoherence of it all seems madness, if you think that health is the point of public health.

The true madness is deeper.

The true madness is that any of us put up with it.

On The Record
All Things Considered
  • Graph of the week: wealth inequality, by country, 2019. Lower Gini scores mean less inequality. New Zealand is in red.
  • What Teaching Ethics in Appalachia Taught Me About Bridging America’s Partisan Divide.
  • Strong public preference for cards and electronic payments quantified.
  • Vaping and lung disease in the US: PHE’s advice.
  • Free (American) knowledge-rich curriculum resources for schools.
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