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Insights 23: 1 July 2022
NZ Herald: Bryce Wilkinson on central banks' increasing desperation
NZ Herald: Oliver Hartwich on failing to learn the lessons of monetary history
The Dominion Post: Eric Crampton on Medsafe and legalising vaccines

The meaning of independence
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
A major part of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s itinerary while in Europe this week included speaking at the NATO leaders’ summit in Spain. And what a good, powerful speech it was.

An invitation to the Western defence alliance’s summit is unusual. It is even more unusual to invite four guests at the same time. Australia, Japan, and South Korea were also attending.

Australia, Japan, and South Korea have strong links to NATO, not least because of their closer relationship with the United States.

Meanwhile, since 1984, New Zealand has maintained an ‘independent foreign policy’ mantra. So is there a contradiction with the Prime Minister’s participation in Madrid?

Not necessarily, as former Prime Minister Helen Clark commented via Twitter. Clark pointed to the existing dialogue relationship New Zealand has had with NATO for two decades. During the Afghanistan war, she once attended a NATO meeting herself, she recalled.

That is all correct, and yet today’s circumstances are different.

Despite the threat of Islamic terrorism, the global environment was more benign in Clark’s days. That was the heyday of globalisation.

Geopolitics has changed since, and not for the better. Russia has attacked Ukraine. Globalisation is in retreat. China is becoming more authoritarian and assertive.

NATO’s response is two-fold. Its members are increasing their defence spending so NATO can increase its quickly deployable troops to 300,000. At the same time, NATO’s regional focus is broadening from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific.

This is where New Zealand comes into play. As NATO tries to expand its role in our region, it is only natural that New Zealand be consulted along with other democratic nations. As NATO puts a greater emphasis on its role as a union of liberal-democratic values and not just as a regional defence alliance, this makes sense as well.

Whether this is compatible with an independent foreign policy depends on what one means by that expression.

Independence does not mean never taking sides. That would be neutrality.

Independence does not entail never deploying one’s military, either. That would be pacifism.

Independence means to make one’s own choices based on one’s values.

Such value-driven choices can (and indeed should) lead towards taking sides when democracies and dictatorships collide.

Seen from this angle, there is no conflict between New Zealand’s independent foreign policy and seeking a closer alignment with like-minded democracies through NATO.

Jacinda Ardern was right to accept NATO’s invitation to Madrid. Helen Clark was equally right to defend her decision.

Yet, New Zealanders must realise that, in a less benign world, an independent foreign policy cannot mean neutrality. And the Prime Minister delivered that message loud and clear.

Don’t delay literacy for children struggling with oral language
Dr Michael Johnston | Senior Fellow |
In an article in the June 11-17 edition of the New Zealand Listener, speech-language therapist Karena Shannon argued that our education system over-values literacy and under-values oral language.

Shannon correctly noted that oral language is “innate” in human beings, whereas literacy is “constructed”. All human beings, barring certain developmental disorders or brain injuries, will successfully acquire oral language without being explicitly instructed, provided it is spoken around them when they are infants.  On the other hand, literacy is a technology. It is not a cultural universal and must be explicitly taught.

Shannon also correctly pointed out that oral language is the foundation on which literacy is built. For beginning readers to learn to map writing to meaning, the words they encounter in text must exist in their oral vocabularies.

It is true that too many children start school with an insufficient oral vocabulary and that this hampers them in learning to read. Where Shannon went wrong, however, was in her argument that schools ought to focus on oral language before commencing literacy instruction. The reason that this view is misguided goes back to her correct point that oral language is innate. Unlike literacy, oral vocabulary is acquired through environmental exposure, not through instruction.

Teachers can and should provide rich oral language environments for their students, especially for the sakes of those who have not acquired strong vocabularies earlier. Unlike literacy teaching though, doing this isn’t a matter of direct instruction. Innate language acquisition mechanisms leverage the familiar vocabulary in conversation to enable children to absorb new vocabulary. All of this happens naturally.

The need to do this should not, however, deter teachers from explicitly teaching the mappings between spelling and sound that underpin reading in alphabetic languages like English. There’s no need to wait until a child has a particular amount of oral vocabulary before commencing literacy instruction. Whatever vocabulary a child does have will be quite sufficient to attain fluency in decoding if a structured literacy approach, with phonics at its core, is taken.

Fluent reading also strengthens oral vocabulary. As world renowned literacy researcher David Share has argued, when a fluent reader encounters an unfamiliar word in text, it can be recoded using spelling to sound mappings, and its meaning inferred from its context. It can then be added to oral vocabulary.

Shannon described the emphasis on literacy in our education system as putting the cart before the horse. A better analogy would be two horses, oral language and literacy, both pulling the cart of communication.

A numeracy quiz for the Ministry of Health
Dr Eric Crampton | Chief Economist |
Suppose your middle-schooler came home with a math assignment.

She was told to measure everyone in the house and report on heights. But checking over the assignment, something seemed odd. Your 190cm partner wasn’t included.

“Oh, our teacher explained that most people are between 150 cm and 180cm. If we got a measurement outside that range, there was no guarantee that they were really that tall, so we should just ignore it.”

You’d worry about the state of numeracy among teachers, right?

Sure, the average person will be within that range. Some random person isn’t likely to be 190 cm tall. If the assignment had asked, “Is it likely that the next person you meet is 190 cm tall?”, the answer should be no – unless you happen to live with a very tall person.

But conditional on having been measured at 190cm, it’s more likely that you’re a tall person than that it’s just measurement error. If the ruler said three metres, you’d probably want to triple-check the figures. But 190cm isn’t that uncommon.

Why do I bring this up?

Back in May, I asked the Ministry of Health why they’ve been telling people to ignore positive RAT results after seven days of isolation. The Ministry replied this week. They told me that because seven days is beyond the average period of infectiousness, the current health guidelines do not require a negative test to leave isolation.

It wasn’t a cost-benefit assessment. It was a failure in basic numeracy similar to our imaginary teacher’s error – but far more consequential.

Work published in JAMA Internal Medicine in April suggested at least 60% of people with a positive RAT result six days in are still infectious.

The Ministry doesn’t seem to have checked any of that. They instead looked at the average period of infectiousness and decided positive results after that period could be ignored.

So people will be heading out, after isolation, on official advice, and sharing their Covid gift with others.

Yale Covid testing expert Dr Anne Wyllie had described the Ministry’s advice as ‘dangerous misinformation’.

I don’t know whether the Ministry’s answer reflects general incompetence, declining numeracy more broadly, or a dangerous mutant strain combining the two.

Let’s hope the revised NCEA numeracy guidelines filter their way up into the Ministry of Health before more dangerous variants arrive.

On The Record

Initiative Activities:   
  • Podcast: Dr Oliver Hartwich and the crook who invented the modern world
All Things Considered
  • Graph of the week: Interest rate hikes vs. inflation rate, by country
  • NEPA, America's RMA, is to blame for American infrastructure decline
  • Does productivity matter? Consider the 20th century
  • The government has delayed implementing the new literacy and numeracy standards for NCEA until 2024
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