Natural disasters?

Jackson, the small capital city of the US state of Mississippi, is at this writing (4 September) without safe drinking water, and has only intermittent supplies of piped water of any quality.  Unfortunately, much of the best media coverage of this humanitarian emergency, in outlets like the Washington Post and The New York Times, appears to be paywalled, although readers with a university affiliation should be able to access it through Nexis.  (BBC News, which finds investigative journalism easier outside the UK, is a notable exception.)  The proximate cause is flooding of the Pearl River, which has disabled the city’s water treatment plant.  However, the New York Times’ coverage sums up the deeper problem of politically driven infrastructure neglect, one all too familiar in US cities: ‘For decades, the city’s population has been shrinking, an exodus propelled in large part by the flight of white residents — along with their tax dollars — to surrounding affluent suburbs where, by and large, the water on Tuesday was flowing just fine.’

Jackson’s situation brings to mind the title of what I think is still the best book on the politics of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, although numerous later journal articles provide added perspective: There Is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster.  The same analytical point was made several years pre-Katrina by sociologist Eric Klinenberg, in a ‘social autopsy’ of the 1995 Chicago heat wave in which people in the city’s poorest and most African-American neighbourhoods, unable to afford air conditioning, barricaded themselves in their flats while an indifferent and under-resourced city government did not respond adequately.  Water quality and availability crises are in fact becoming all too routine in US cities, as pointed out in a superb 2019 doctoral thesis by anthropologist Nadia Gaber and a special issue of the journal Critical Sociology on the multi-year water crisis in deindustrialised Flint, Michigan.   

Although some such disasters may be triggered by extreme weather events, they are not in any meaningful sense natural.  Rather, they are traceable directly to the hegemony of neoliberal ideas and associated urban austerity – and, in the US case, to a history of systemic racism that goes back literally centuries.  Since such weather events are likely to occur with increasing frequency as the planet’s climate changes, it is worth reflecting carefully on what these observations mean for health inequalities.  For example, they not only add to the already formidable health case against austerity but also would appear to bolster the arguments for climate reparations, not only across national borders but also within them.  Observer columnist Kenan Malik notes a broader pattern of purposive reductions in the capacity of states to help those they rule, tracing this (correctly in my view) to the infamous 1975 Trilateral Commission report on The Crisis of Democracy. Here, again, the resulting humanitarian emergencies are not natural.  They are features, not bugs in the neoliberal vision of the world.  Facing a cost of living crisis and a probable prime minister who rails against “the lens of redistribution,” millions of people in the UK are going to experience the sharp, sometimes deadly edge of that vision during the coming winter.  

‘Tax is not a four-letter word’: Why this matters for health inequalities, and why health professionals and researchers must take it to heart

The title of this post is not at all original.  Rather, it is the title of a book co-edited with his son by the thoughtful former head of Canada’s public service, Alex Himelfarb (after his retirement).  In a newspaper column published at the time, Dr. Himelfarb described the book as an effort to correct the ‘dangerously distorted’ discourse surrounding tax policy, as a result of ‘the neo-liberal economic policy that began to dominate American and British politics in the early 1980s, and emerged more slowly and subtly in Canada at around the same time’.  Almost a decade on, the discourse remains distorted throughout much of the world, with increasingly serious consequences for inequality and quite probably for social stability. 

Exhibit A is the dire state of Canada’s and the United Kingdom’s tax-financed health systems.  (Although the National Health Service and Canada’s multiple provincial and territorial health systems are financed from general tax revenues and are mostly free at the point of use, they are otherwise quite different.)  That similarity is arguably why both countries are facing a crisis in access to care, worsened by the effects of Covid-19, that has demonstrably had fatal consequences.   Whilst users quite rightly and understandably want health systems to provide necessary care in a safe and timely fashion, resistance to the taxes necessary to finance not only the direct provision of care but also such strategically critical activities as training doctors and nurses has generated political paralysis. 

The explanation was succinctly stated around the same time the Himelfarbs’ book appeared by Robert Evans, the magnificently acerbic dean of Canadian health economists: ‘[A] well-functioning modern health system requires the transfer, through taxation, of a very significant amount of money from the healthy and wealthy to the care of the unhealthy and unwealthy’.  When we hear arguments that the NHS or Canada’s systems of health finance are ‘unsustainable’, this is code for saying that the richest members of those societies do not want to pay for the care of those presumptively undeserving others.  This problem is especially acute in the UK, where the rich have the option of buying private insurance or paying directly for care – something not available within Canadian borders outside the renegade province of Québec.  By 2017, HM Government was conceding the inadequacy of the NHS for treating the great and the good (see below).

Such problems are compounded by what is perhaps best described as a lack of policy literacy among the health care and public health community, who often remain unfamiliar with such basic concepts as progressive and regressive tax and spending patterns (and in public finance these terms have a technical, not a normative meaning).  Chapter 6 of David Byrne’s recent book Inequality in a Context of Climate Crisis after COVID provides a superb overview, and it – or something like it – ought to be a required part of all university public health and health policy curricula.

On, then, to Exhibit B: the catastrophic inadequacy of actual and proposed responses to the energy price crisis created by Putin’s weaponisation of Russian energy exports.  Like the equitable financing of a health system, responding to the crisis will require a substantial redistribution of resources from Mr. and Mrs. Range Rover and the corporate treasuries that have been swollen by windfall gains to the majority of UK households that will, based on estimates by the University of York’s authoritative Social Policy Research Unit, be pushed into fuel poverty by the start of the New Year.  At this writing, the silence of the public health community has been deafening.  Unfortunately, those who will be least hurt by energy price inflation, or who will actually benefit from it, can probably exercise an effective political veto over the degree of redistribution that will be necessary to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.  In this case, the problem is compounded by a tongue-tied political class unwilling to state the obvious:  liberal democratic Europe is at war with Russia, and wartime situations demand wartime sacrifices.  But that is a posting for another day.

Hating to have been right

In the slightly less frantic period of university activity that precedes my pending retirement and actually offers time to think, I am prompted to look back at some of the predictions I made about the pandemic and the UK’s social and economic future well over a year ago – notably, that post-pandemic economic contraction would mean that ‘the United Kingdom is over as a desirable place to live and work, for a very long time, except for those living in gated communities or behind castle walls’.  Although the contraction does not (yet) approximate the ‘post-Soviet style economic and health collapse’ that I anticipated in January 2021, it was reported on 22 August that the UK economy contracted by 11 percent in 2020 – the largest year-on-year decline in GDP since 1709.  Please note that this reflects only the first year of the pandemic, and neither the short-lived post-lockdown recovery nor the cataclysmic geopolitical events of 2022.  (Proponents of ‘degrowth’ might nevertheless reflect on how well 2020 turned out, and for whom.)

Ongoing uncertainties and supply chain disruptions associated with the pandemic have now been compounded by the inflationary effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; its weaponisation of natural gas trade and, at least temporarily, further disruption of agricultural exports; and a domestic political vacuum that sees the probable next prime minister characterised (accurately) as on ‘holiday from reality’ by a senior Cabinet colleague.  Average real (inflation adjusted) earnings in the second quarter of 2022 fell at a record rate, whilst one forecast was that under existing institutional arrangements, the ‘capped’ amount a British household will pay for energy could rise to more than £6,000 by April 2023, from less than a third of that in August 2022.   This will be a minor inconvenience for Mr. and Mrs. Range Rover, but on one estimate – based on a lower assumed energy price than what is in the latest forecasts at this writing – 45 million people will experience ‘fuel poverty’ on a standard definition.

These impacts are, of course, attributable not only to the pandemic but also to geopolitics, and it is plausible to argue that the impacts I’ve described would be much less severe had the Russian invasion not taken place.  But the world is as it is, not as we might wish it to be.  Further, I was wrong – I am thoroughly delighted to say – about some things, especially the prospects for what turned out to be a relatively successful UK vaccine rollout.  Nevertheless, according to The Economist’s (paywalled) tracking of excess deaths from all causes – the most meaningful measure of successful pandemic response – Britain’s figure of 253 excess deaths per 100,000 people between the start of the pandemic and 23 August is comparable to Chile, Guatemala and Lebanon; almost twice as high as Sweden; and roughly three times as high as Norway, Denmark and Canada.  So the glass is definitely only half full, and the British figure may well deteriorate further against the background of an already fragile and under-resourced health system; a social safety net stretched to the breaking point; and a political leadership seemingly bent on emulating the captain of the Titanic in its response to the economic emergency.  Those castle walls will look awfully attractive to those for whom they are available.

Globalisation and health: Looking backward, looking forward

This piece was originally written for Policies for Equitable Access to Health, an Italian-based site that now offers a valuable ‘weekly snapshot of public health challenges’.  It is reposted here with their kind permission.

Much of my academic work over the past 20-plus years has focussed on the processes of globalisation and what they mean for population health.  One of the early (2007) major products of that work, co-written with long-time colleague Ronald Labonté, came out of analysis done for the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of health.  It took the form of a three-part series in the journal Globalization and Health, discussing in turn historical context and methodological background; the role of the global marketplace; and prospects for promoting health equity in global governance.  (The later work on globalisation that informed the WHO Commission appeared in book form in 2009.)   In view of the cataclysmic world events of the last 30 months (at this writing) and my pending retirement from salaried academic life, I thought it useful to look back on some of our analysis to see what it got right, what it neglected, and how future research should learn from such reflections.

The work focussed, quite rightly in my view, on how the emergence of a global marketplace and the associated worldwide spread of neoliberal economic ideas and institutions transformed opportunities to lead a healthy life and the options for public policy to reduce health inequalities.  Indeed, we perhaps did not focus intensively enough on neoliberalisation and its transformative impact, about which I have written elsewhere.  The figure below shows (in blue) the seven interacting ‘clusters of pathways’ that we identified in Globalization and Health, and (in red) how I think this analysis needs to be modified and added to in light of recent events.  The rest of this post concentrates on three areas, obviously in insufficient detail.  

The first of these relates to the consequences of global environmental change, now observable in daily headlines about such climate-related phenomena as shrinking polar ice cover, heat waves, megadroughts and wildfires.  As conspicuous as these impacts are, the reflect only one dimension of what is now widely described as the Anthropocene Epoch – a new era of geologic time marked by the scale and extent of human-induced changes in the natural environment, exemplified by (for example) the prospect of the transformation of the Amazon rainforest into savannah as a result of continuing deforestation.  A key concept in the Anthropocene literature is the Great Acceleration, a multidimensional speeding up of economic activity and the associated biophysical transformations beginning, on many reckonings, around 1950 with the post-World War II period of economic growth.  Until recently, that growth was concentrated in the (mostly high-income) OECD group of countries.  Formidable questions of global justice are raised by the implausibility of sustainable growth within planetary boundaries if the rest of the world were to continue pursuing anything like the standard of living taken for granted within the OECD.  Anthropologist Jason Hickel has been one of the most vocal and articulate proponents of ‘degrowth’ in this context; whether intentional degrowth is feasible under any kind of democratic political arrangements is a question yet to be resolved.

The second area of neglect relates to the continued, indeed enhanced danger of transnationally dispersed pandemics.  With 20-20 hindsight, there was little reason for this.  Journalist Laurie Garrett had been warning of the prospect since 1994, and in 2019 – just a few months before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic – published a prescient article warning that: ‘The world knows an apocalyptic pandemic is coming … But nobody is interested in doing anything about it’.  This problem does not appear at first directly connected with the global marketplace, but in fact it is.  Public health infrastructure is one of the key prerequisites of societal survival that the so-called free market cannot and will not provide; it is one of the few truly public goods for health.  The neoliberal turn in public policy is thus implicated in the neglect of public health infrastructure to the extent that Matthew Sparke and Owain Williams recently (and correctly in my view) identified Covid-19 as a ‘neoliberal disease’.  Incredibly, if predictably given the current UK government’s tenuous hold on reality, it  has not learnt from the pandemic: in April 2022 the government announced staff reductions of 40 percent at the Health Security Agency, responsible for pandemic planning and response, at the finance ministry’s insistence.  In the same month, again predictably, a scientifically illiterate US Congress refused to continue Agency for International Development funding for vaccine delivery in low-income countries. 

Third and finally, researchers like myself took too seriously and literally the idea of a ‘Borderless World’ put forward by Japanese economist Kenichi Ohmae.  The book in question, originally published in 1990, remains an iconic paean to a world in which governments have become largely irrelevant; ‘if a corporation does not like its government, it can move its headquarters to other, more hospitable places’; and the future resembles nothing so much as a global duty-free shop.  Many elements of this vision, notably its focus on the footloose corporation and its tacit acceptance of rising inequality, remain accurate if dispiriting descriptions of the world economy.  At the same time, nationalism and geopolitics continue to render the world anything but borderless, and political institutions anything but irrelevant, in many respects.  In 2016, UK voters narrowly supported leaving the European Union and its single market, an act of economic self-harm that will have consequences for decades, most of them magnifying existing inequalities and their destructive effects on health.  And several European countries, Germany most particularly, appear to have believed that the world really was borderless for purposes of energy policy.  This catastrophic inattention to geopolitics led directly to today’s vulnerabilities associated with reliance on Russian natural gas supplies and may yet pave the way to deep recession, widespread social unrest, and domestic political pressure to accept Ukraine’s dismemberment.  Much of this could have been avoided through careful attention to a long list of books drawing attention to Russia’s internal political transformation, going back at least to the late Anna Politkovskaya’s 2004 Putin’s Russia. (She was murdered shortly after its publication.)

Much more can and should be said on all these matters, and others.  For example, global health researchers have not yet come to grips with the implications of a widespread retreat from democracy and drift into autocracy in which, according to the respected Varieties of Democracy Institute, ‘the last 30 years of democratic advances following the end of the Cold War have been eradicated’.   As historical sociologist Margaret Somers points out in the US context, this trend is not unrelated to the hegemony of neoliberalism, although the connections are likely to vary among country cases.   Faced with such complexity, many researchers will be tempted to retreat into the familiar territory of health systems design and what might be called global medicine.  This tendency should be resisted, not least because – as Martin McKee notes in an important recent article – ‘politics is at the heart of public health’.  This is even more true in the global frame of reference than at the national level about which he was writing.  

Plutocrats rule, OK? A Canadian lesson about the realpolitik of ‘building back better’

Although I have lived in the United Kingdom for eight years, I continue to follow Canadian politics.  As we move towards what we hope will be a post-pandemic world, there are also less personal reasons to consider the Canadian response.  Canada has the most progressive – or at any rate, least reactionary – national government among the G7 countries.  Although its Liberal Party lacks a Parliamentary majority, the slightly more left-leaning New Democrats have indicated that they will not trigger an election in the midst of a pandemic, thus giving the Liberals a temporary functional equivalent of a majority.  More importantly and improbably, in her previous life as an accomplished business journalist finance minister Chrystia Freeland (the counterpart to the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer) published an award-winning book called Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich that described in considerable detail the emergence of the new millennium’s hyper-inequality.  If we leave aside most of the country’s stumble-bum public health response to the  pandemic [i] –  and Canada is hardly alone in that regard – Canada’s first pandemic-era budget, released on 19 April with the uplifting title A Recovery Plan for Jobs, Growth, and Resilience, might therefore provide a useful indicator of just how far the Overton window of political feasibility has shifted in the direction of reducing that hyper-inequality.

Canadian finance minister Chrystia Freeeland

The answer is: not much.  The budget includes numerous, and laudable, incremental increases in federally provided social supports and reiterates, without specifics, an important long-standing commitment to pursue a national subsidised child-care programme of a kind that has long been in place in Québec province.  Like many other aspects of social policy, this is a political minefield in the decentralised Canadian federation because of reflexively and zealously guarded provincial jurisdiction over health care, employment law (most of Canada’s provinces have refused to implement even minimal requirements for statutory sick pay) and social programming.  Except when invoking emergency powers, which it has avoided, the federal government can do little more than write cheques with few strings attached to ensure accountability for their use.  Where the federal government has far more policy space to reduce inequality is in the area of tax policy, where the budget is a virtual vacuum.

The major tax policy change in the budget that is specifically targeted at reducing inequality is a symbolic surtax on luxury cars and boats.  This tax is estimated to bring in C$604 million in revenue (£350 million) over the next five years.  By contrast, the budget takes no steps to raise the marginal income tax rate (the tax on every unit of additional income) paid by top-income taxpayers.  It is also silent on the taxation of wealth, although research from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives shows that Canada’s billionaires increased their wealth by C$78 billion (about £45 billion) in the year since the start of the pandemic.  To put that into perspective, the amount is slightly more than the government of Ontario, Canada’s largest province, plans to spend on health care (C$69.8 billion) in 2021-22.  Likewise, the budget does nothing to address the long-standing preferential treatment of capital gains on asset sales, which are taxed at half the rate paid on wage and salary income – a tax preference that overwhelmingly benefits corporations and the richest individual taxpayers.  According to Canada’s admirable tax expenditure accounts, the finance ministry estimates revenue losses from this provision at C$19.7 billion (£11.4 billion) in 2021 alone.  The complete exemption from tax of capital gains on the sale of principal residences, which in much of Canada have skyrocketed in value over the past year, is estimated to cost the treasury C$7.7 billion (£4.5 billion) in 2020-21 – or twice that amount were the generic tax preference on capital gains to be contemporaneously eliminated.  All these figures are probably underestimates, given recent increases in share and property prices. 

There are now so many property-rich Canadians that trying to tax unearned gains on their principal residences would probably provoke a coup d’état, but that is a post for another day.

If measures like those I’ve mentioned were implemented, tax avoidance strategies would no doubt reduce the revenue gains somewhat, as economists are quick to point out.  But that isn’t the issue; the budgets of governments that choose not to strangle domestic growth and immiserate their populations will be in massive deficit for many years to come.  However, Canada’s current government has not made any of the obvious commitments to reducing inequality in the building back process.  Reducing inequality and its corrosive effects on health, which have been foregrounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, will never be achieved by incremental strategies of trying to level-up.  This is not to minimise the value of those strategies in mitigating the worst consequences of the pandemic … and low- or zero-cost childcare, if it ever happens, could be critical to reducing gender inequalities on multiple dimensions.  But mitigation is not structural change. 

A columnist in Canada’s heavily business-oriented Globe and Mail newspaper (paywalled) cited poll results showing that 79 percent of Canadians support a wealth tax.  That, too, isn’t the issue.  Some of the best comparative political science research, from multiple, mostly high-income democracies, finds ‘remarkably strong and consistent evidence of substantial disparities in responsiveness to the preferences of affluent and poor people. Insofar as policy-makers respond to public preferences, they seem to respond primarily or even entirely to the preferences of affluent people.  Indeed … the influence attributed to poor citizens is not just less than that attributed to affluent citizens, but consistently negative’ (emphasis in original).   

It’s really only the plutocrats whose preferences will count, without far more radical changes in political institutions and resources than seem likely in peacetime.  Plutocrats rule, OK?  Health inequalities researchers must resign ourselves to that, or be far more innovative than we have been so far in coming up with ways to do something about it.   

[i] Sometimes, the vacuity of that response can hardly be believed.  Here is a quotation from Canada’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer, a highly paid federal bureaucrat, as reported on 22 April in a news story on possible restrictions on travel from India, which curiously has since disappeared from most news organisations’ web sites: “‘Our minister of health, other cabinet ministers and the prime minister are very seized with it. They are having active conversations about the data and so on’, he told a news conference today.   ‘I think there will be a decision or something coming forward shortly’.”  In the ‘decision or something’, Canada then banned direct incoming flights from India for 30 days, but not arrivals transiting from India via a third country. The logic is curious, to say the least.

New Year, New Lockdown: ‘The Great Deception’

Predictably, the New Year started in the United Kingdom with new lockdowns.  Given the negligent and cavalier stance of the Conservative central government towards basic public health principles since the start of the pandemic, and the consequent peril to the National Health Service, this was inevitable, although one may argue with some of the specifics.  It is important to remember, though, that both the parlous state of the NHS and the neglect and defunding of public health infrastructure are consequences of a homicidal decade of Conservative austerity, correctly described in 2017 by the editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton, as ‘a political choice that deepens the already open and bloody wounds of the poor and precarious’.     

One of the knock-on effects is that we are now living in a police state – so far, a non-violent one, but violence is not a necessary element of the definition.  Hyperbole, you say?  Well, what else would you call a polity in which the decision about what constitutes a ‘reasonable excuse’ for leaving home is decided, in the first instance, by police, who will be defended by Cabinet ministers?   I wish politicians and self-styled progressive colleagues alike would stop dissembling on this point.  They might well defend the situation as necessary, but they should stop lying about its nature.  Presumably some of these fines and arrests will be successfully contested by those with the time and money to do so, should government eventually permit courts to resume routine operation, which is far from certain.  

Speaking of lies, porkies* of Trumpian proportions have been emanating from central government.  We are told that, if we obey the rules and all goes well with vaccination, restrictions might be eased in ‘tulip season’ (May, in these parts) or ‘spring’ (technically, before 21 June).  If any reader believes that, then I can offer a really good deal on some oceanfront property in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.  (Spoiler alert: there isn’t any.)  Given the government’s record of destroying any public health initiative it touches, the UK will be doing well to be out of the worst of lockdown by September.  In fact, more severe restrictions are threatened.  As John Harris observed in an important Guardian commentary: ‘The lack of alarm about these moves is remarkable’.

Disturbing manifestations of burnout can be anticipated by the end of a summer without holidays (I quote from the government guidance: ‘holidays in the UK and abroad are not allowed’).  Some of us would in theory have the attractive option of sitting on the local seafront and reading once the weather warms up … except that under current guidance this would not count as exercise, one of the ‘reasonable excuses’ to leave home, so would be a crime.  Such constraints weigh most heavily, of course, on those without gardens of their own or with caring responsibilities.  The incidence of deaths of despair is likely to soar, as is the number of employers using depression and anxiety as a pretext for forced redundancies.

All this means that the chances of a post-Soviet style economic and health collapse in the UK, lasting for a generation or longer, are considerably greater than they were when I first raised the possibility last summer.  It could be, of course, that vaccination will proceed more quickly and effectively than expected (pigs might fly, too) or that some other remarkable advance in prevention will be found.  Unfortunately, it is much more likely that the United Kingdom is over as a desirable place to live and work, for a very long time, except for those living in gated communities or behind castle walls. 

The ways in which the pandemic is magnifying inequality – on which I will expand in a subsequent posting, based on material from the postgraduate course in Advanced Social Determinants of Health that I lead – continue to be given limited attention.  Most of the ‘experts’ calling for even stricter lockdowns probably have gardens of their own, job security, and substantial savings, unlike many other Britons; they have generally been silent on inequality issues.  Still less often have they taken up Horton’s pre-pandemic injunction that: ‘The task of health professionals is to resist and to oppose the egregious economics of our times’.  One wishes that members of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies had to disclose their households’ incomes and net worth, along with their professorial titles and British Empire honours, as part of their declaration of interests.

Here is a thought experiment, keeping in mind two propositions.  First, people working in front-line occupations (think essential retail like supermarkets, delivery, driving those buses that continue to operate, Amazon warehouses, meat packing, care homes) cannot work from home, and especially if on zero-hours contracts or without union protection cannot afford to self-isolate after a positive test or if symptomatic.  (The jobs of many others, working in the sector broadly described as hospitality, have vanished under lockdown, possibly never to return.)  Second, as of 25 September almost nine out of ten deaths from Covid-19 involved people 65 or older (more recent figures are maddeningly hard to find on official web sites).  Most of these represented an actuarial boon for the UK treasury, no longer paying state pension, and many for defined-contribution pension plans.   

Now, if you wanted to design a pandemic response that pretended good intentions whilst concealing a subtextual agenda of culling the working class (potential claimants of state benefits, after all, and therefore intrinsically suspect for Conservatives) and the elderly, the current UK response is what it would look like.  The UK is hardly unique in this regard, but along with Canada and its charnel house care homes and even more calamitous vaccine rollout it is an especially egregious case. 

The title of this post refers to what I consider the greatest song by Irish troubadour Van Morrison, ‘The Great Deception’.  Part of the refrain goes like this:

‘I can’t stand it / Can’t stand it nohow / Livin’ in this / World of lies’.

Indeed.

* For those outside the UK: short for porky pies, rhyming slang for lies.

Whistling past the graveyard of dreams: Hard truths about the likely post-pandemic world

This post originally appeared on 2 November in the excellent global health blog Policies for Equitable Access to Health; it is reproduced here by permission, with minor edits. All views expressed here are exclusively those of the author.  Others quoted here do not necessarily agree with them.

Whistling past the graveyard is a long-ago expression that describes the behaviour of people who are afraid of ghosts, but like to pretend that they are not.  So, they whistle as a show of nonchalance while walking past graveyards late at night.  The expression well describes the current behaviour of academics and apparatchiks alike, in much of the world, as they respond to the coronavirus pandemic.  The malevolent spirits that they try to ignore are long-term economic and health implosion and possible state collapse.  No one really wants to admit how bad things could get, and how long the damage could persist. On the part of political classes and oligarchs, such behaviour is perhaps understandable; they want to risk neither riots nor collapsing financial markets.  On the part of academics who should stand up for serious scholarship, it is inexcusable.

In June 2020 – how long ago that now seems! – I argued in a webinar that the best available model for understanding the probable long-term consequences of the pandemic is the experience of post-Soviet Russia, where over a period of a few years the economy shrank by about 50 percent; social provision mechanisms and large portions of the health care system crumbled; and life expectancy  plunged by several years.  Subsequent economic recovery was accompanied by drastic increases in inequality and massive capital flight, so that half of all Russians’ financial wealth is now held offshore, and the emergence of a new stratum of politically connected billionaire oligarchs.  They now own, among much else, substantial chunks of London.  The leading authority on the post-Soviet mortality crisis and colleagues have pointed out that a quarter-century later, Russian life expectancy still did not reflect the country’s economic recovery.  In other words, it was several years lower than would be expected given its GDP per capita – years lower than in (for example) slightly poorer Brazil, Chile and China.  Back to this model later.

The UK has been an especially disturbing case thanks to the fecklessness, despotic inclinations and corruption of Prime Minister Johnson’s Conservative government.  These have been ably described by George Monbiot, whose commentaries are essential reading. The most disturbing aspect of events over the past few weeks, in Europe in the first instance but not only there, is the demonstration they have provided of just how widespread the evisceration of basic public health capabilities has become.   It helps to understand this process by way of a political science construct known as the Overton window – an idea emanating from a right-wing think tank that was concerned, in the first instance, with ways to soften public opposition to privatising education.  The window frames the universe of public policies that are considered at least plausible, rather than beyond the pale.  ‘Shifting the window’ means that, over time, policies that once were well outside the mainstream, on either end of the left-right political spectrum, come to be considered plausible and, eventually, just common sense.

President Trump’s destruction of a range of political norms is one illustration of shifting the window.  Over the longer term, decades of well-funded neoliberal efforts to shift the Overton window rightward, the trajectory of which is clear for those willing to do the necessary reading, have led to a situation in which maintaining basic public health infrastructure needed for pandemic preparedness came to seem like an extravagance, an unnecessary expenditure on a too-large state, despite authoritative warnings about the economic and public health importance of that infrastructure.  In much of the world, Covid-19 must therefore be understood as a neoliberal epidemic – a phrase my colleague Clare Bambra and I coined in 2015.  As another colleague, public health physician Allyson Pollock, has put it, austerity in the UK has led to a situation in which ‘[n]ational and local expertise has been lost and many of [her] colleagues in communicable disease control were made redundant.’  

The unwisdom of such abandonment of precaution was articulated in 2015, on a small scale, by 267 economists led by Lawrence Summers – Lawrence Summers, of all peoplewriting about the benefits of universal health coverage: ‘The debilitating effect of Ebola could have been mitigated by building up public health systems in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone at one-third of the cost of the Ebola response so far.’  If there really were such a thing as the international community, it might usefully reflect on how much it would have been worth investing in measures that could have mitigated a pandemic now anticipated to result in the loss of more than US $12 trillion in economic output in 2020 and 2021 alone, according to the International Monetary Fund.

According to projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at this writing (30 October, 2020), on current trends the virus will have killed approximately 2.5 million people as of 1 February 2021, with a wide variation in outcomes possible depending on what precautions are taken, and where.  This projection deals only with the short term, and cannot address the longer term health consequences of the pandemic, for at least two reasons.  

First, it does not include deaths attributable to reduced access to treatment or prevention for other conditions among people not infected by the virus.  In the UK alone, a former Conservative health secretary is warning of ‘tens of thousands of avoidable deaths within a year.’  Second, it does not and cannot anticipate health impacts of the economic depression and ratcheting-up of inequality that will follow the locking down of major segments of entire economies and societies.  Unfortunately, and despite everything we know about the social determinants of health and health inequalities, in much of the academic world arguing for consideration of these health impacts is immediately equated with callous indifference to human life.  This should not be the case.    

This is why I am more convinced than ever of the distinctive relevance of the Russian experience.  As the UK enters another nationwide lockdown, with an economic cataclysm that will be life-threatening for some certain to follow, all that will remain of some local and regional economies, and millions of individual futures, is wreckage.  Much the same can be said for many other jurisdictions.  It is possible, of course, that an effective vaccine will be developed and rolled out sooner rather than later, avoiding some of the more disastrous scenarios.  But there is no vaccine for the inequalities that were already devastating lives before the pandemic.  As just one illustration, in 2011 – at just the start of the UK’s decade of viciously disequalising Conservative austerity – the ‘Great British Class Survey’ found that one-third of British households, supported by low-wage or precarious employment, had an average of just under £1,000 in savings.   

Even in the best possible post-pandemic world, inequalities that have been further magnified will be remediable only through huge programmes of public investment and direct redistribution, realistically financed by way of long-term borrowing at current low interest rates and progressive income, wealth and land value taxes.  Such policies, for the moment, remain well outside the Overton window anywhere I know of, despite important advocacy by agencies like the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.   In a world of increasingly ungovernable private wealth and the opportunities for capital flight and tax avoidance offered by a borderless financial world, it is far from clear that most governments even have the political capacity to undertake them.  Many dreams of the young and the old alike will be consigned to the graveyard referred to in my title.  Truth-telling on this point is long overdue.

Thinking and reading about food: Tales from lockdown

Like many people, I’ve thought about food during lockdown a lot more than usual.  Unfortunately, also like many people, the effects on my waistline have not been pretty.  But I’ve also done some reading, notably of three documents that are critically important for all of us concerned with health and health inequalities.

The first of these actually came out in 2016.  It’s the report of a London-based Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID); co-chaired by a former president of Ghana and a former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government; and supported by what can fairly be called an all-start cast of expert group members, authors and reviewers.  It correctly identified the ‘nutrition crisis’ associated with the fact that ‘approximately three billion people from every one of the world’s 193 countries have low-quality diets,’ warning that ‘[t]he risk that poor diets pose to mortality and morbidity is now greater than the combined risks of unsafe sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use,’ those awful things health promoters always complain that other people are doing. The risk factors being compared are actually a bit of a dog’s dinner, as you can see from the illustration, but that doesn’t alter the basic point.

Like the other two documents, it adopts a whole-system perspective on food and nutrition, which is itself a welcome conceptual advance.  Also like the other two, it explicitly identifies as a major problem the (un)affordability of healthy diets for many of the world’s people.  It points to some worrying trends and prospects in the sales of ultra-processed foods, which are levelling off in the high-income world but climbing elsewhere, especially in upper-middle-income countries, and are projected to continue doing so. 

And it warns that: ‘The power and concentration of large agribusinesses, manufacturers and retailers, has grown.  This in turn means that power structures in food systems have changed, which not only influences what is produced, but political decision-making’.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s a bit vague on how to deal with the problem – we have to remind ourselves that Coca-Cola’s annual marketing spend is about twice WHO’s entire annual budget – but as the saying goes, admitting that you have a problem is a first step.

The other two documents actually appeared during lockdown.  The first of these is a National Food Strategy for England, written by restauranteur Henry Dimbleby with a somewhat smaller but still impressive supporting cast of food system protagonists and public servants.  It offers an in-depth description of how the pandemic affected the UK food system, which is valuable in and of itself, and offers a number of recommendations for food trade policy after the UK leaves the single market at the end of 2020.  Guardian food writer Jay Rayner was harshly critical of the report, calling it ‘thin gruel and easy to set to one side’ and saying that the policy recommendations ‘will do little for the millions who go hungry’. 

Admittedly, the report is far too sanguine about the value of Parliamentary scrutiny of trade agreements under today’s conditions of elective monarchy, and it doesn’t even mention investor-state dispute settlement provisions or power dynamics that will favour agribusinesses based in our larger, richer trading partners in future negotiations.  However, among other strong points the report provides a powerful demolition of arguments against restricting advertising of foods high in fat, sugar and salt, and a similarly effective challenge to the claim that eating healthily is just as affordable as the unhealthy alternative (pernicious folk wisdom that is unsupported by serious research).  Perhaps most importantly of all for population health researchers, a valuable warning against the evidence-based policy fetish is worth quoting at length, and framing.

Over the past 30 years, there has been much emphasis on the importance of “evidence-based policymaking”. This sounds eminently sensible; indeed, you might think it the minimum one should strive for. But it has given birth to a new science of “policy evaluation”, which may actually lead to cowardice in policy making.

You can’t always find evidence to support a single policy. An evaluation of one intervention in a huge and complex food system might conclude that the intervention has no effect, because the effect is too small to measure. But the effect is still there, and if you press on with all the little things together, you might end up with a big effect.

….

The other problem with evidence-based policymaking is that it creates a Catch-22. You can’t bring in a policy until you have the evidence to show it works; but you can’t get the evidence without first introducing the policy. In the absence of data, it’s all too easy to end up doing nothing rather than risk unintended consequences.

Dimbleby points to the widely cited Finnish heart disease reduction initiative in North Karelia, quoting its architect Pekka Puska, as an example of what can be done when the Catch-22 is avoided.

Another strong point of the report is its focus on the food security implications of a coming wave of unemployment, given the context in which, ‘[b]efore the pandemic, four in ten working-age people in the UK (almost 17 million people) had less than £100 in savings available to them’.  Rayner was correct to say that the report’s recommendations would do little to address this basic problem of inequality, with origins entirely outside the food system and worsened by a decade of unnecessary and macroeconomically counterproductive austerity.  Yet here, again, recognising that you have a problem is a first step.  

The third document, and in some ways the most surprising, is the 2020 annual report on food security and nutrition from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).  Previous annual reports have painted a cautiously optimistic if not Panglossian picture of progress in reducing hunger, even though the definition of malnourishment used – insufficient caloric intake over a period of at least a year – has been widely and rightly criticised as having little relevance to the real world.  This year’s report represents a remarkable turnaround, with FAO conceding that: ‘Two billion people, or 25.9 percent of the global population, experienced hunger or did not have regular access to nutritious and sufficient food in 2019’.   The continued prevalence of stunting alone is a powerful argument for more attention to diet in global health.

Further, it explicitly considered issues of the affordability of three reference diets (energy sufficient, nutrient-adequate, and healthy), concluding that: ‘Healthy diets are unaffordable to many people, especially the poor, in every region of the world.  The most conservative estimate shows they are unaffordable for more than 3 billion people in the world.  Healthy diets are estimated to be, on average, five times more expensive than diets that meet only dietary energy needs through a starchy staple. …. [A}round 57 percent or more of the population cannot afford a healthy diet throughout sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia’.  Perhaps most disturbingly, it concluded that even on its earlier, inadequate and ultra-restrictive definition of undernourishment, under any scenario the number of undernourished people will increase between now and 2030.

There is more, much more, to be said, and no summary can do justice to these data-rich sources.  In another conceptual step forward, each explicitly addresses climate change, with reference not only to impacts on food production but also to food systems’ (substantial) contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.  I’ll be using them all in postgraduate teaching this academic year, hoping they herald a longer-term shift in how food systems are addressed in global health research and policy.  And I am not inclined to hopefulness on such matters.

Epidemiology, history and heartbreak: Reflections from North Yorkshire

As any academic would, I took some work-related reading with me during a short holiday break in North Yorkshire.  Here are some reflections.

First up: Johan Mackenbach’s 2019 book Health Inequalities: Persistence and change in European welfare states.   This remarkable book displays not only the author’s formidable scholarship (there are 738 cited references) but also his laudable willingness to engage with multiple literatures, like those on theories of justice and the politics of responses to inequalities.

That said, there is much to disagree with here – for instance, Mackenbach’s privileging of epidemiology in assessing “what works” to reduce health inequalities, and the selection of relatively crude outcome measures as indicators of success or failure.  A more nuanced approach would better integrate findings from such disciplines as ethnography and programme evaluation, and – in particular – would unpack the fetishisation of “significance” as defined by a 95 percent level of confidence.

This is very different from what might be called colloquial, or more action-oriented, understandings of the term, and population health research and policy need urgently to rethink this definition.  To give a simple and provocative example, many of us individually would take, and are taking, protective measures against coronavirus infection on the basis of far lower than 95 percent probabilities that they would prevent infection.  Public health authorities should be guided by a similar insight.   The combination of privileging epidemiological findings and fetishisation of statistical significance can generate reluctance to infer probable causation that can be pernicious.  Those of us who cut our professional and activist teeth on environmental and occupational health issues learned this decades ago. “We don’t know what works” is a conclusion welcome to the rich and powerful.

Nevertheless, this book is a must-read and an essential resource for anyone seriously concerned with reducing health inequalities.

And then: an even more remarkable volume on Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of America’s Economic Development, edited by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman.  Historian Beckert’s previous book, Empire of Cotton, made a powerful case that the textile industry that developed in the early nineteenth century was the first truly globalised industrial production system, enabled by the combination of technological innovation in the UK and the possibilities for low-cost slave labour in the US South enabled by the transatlantic slave trade, with Liverpool as the epicentre first of the slave trade and then, after its abolition in the UK (1807), of the cotton trade.  The edited book is chilling in its documentation of such patterns as the routine use of torture – the lash and more devious instruments – as a way of increasing production, and the use by plantation managers of commercialised methods of scientific management decades before the routine was applied to manufacturing production by F.W. Taylor.

The volume is also a salutary reminder that history matters – a point neglected by Mackenbach, perhaps because of his European focus (there is no index entry for race).  Recent historical analysis indicates that the hard realities of African-American health deprivation in the US must be understood, and responded to, as a global health issue.  Analogously, outside the high-income world, global health research that neglects the destructive effects of decades of ‘structural adjustment’ conditionalities demanded by international financial institutions and driven by the priority of protecting creditor interests is intellectually irresponsible, even if still widespread.

Finally, heartbreak.  A 16 July Guardian article by LSHTM professor Val Curtis described a history of repeated delays in NHS diagnosis and treatment for her now probably terminal cancer.  Read it; any summary would do a disservice to its author, and her observation that she ‘still can’t get my head around the brutal fact that I’m dying’ at age 61.  She correctly notes that: ‘My story is only one of many thousands of people in England whose deaths can be linked to austerity.’  I have trouble containing my rage whilst reading this, and the scandal of almost four million people on NHS waiting lists for elective care has now hit The New York Times.  Like the fate of the Grenfell Tower casualties, Prof. Curtis’ situation demonstrates that policy choices made during the past decade of austerity, like the most recent knock-on effects on the coronavirus response, have been homicidal.  Let’s repeat that word, for emphasis: homicidal.

Whether the health research, policy and practice community are willing to use that word, and to call out those responsible, remains to be seen.

This post was updated on 20 July to add reference to the New York Times article.

Austerity, the homicidal present, and the probable Russian future

On 18 June, I presented a webinar with this deliberately provocative title as the inaugural event in Fuse’s Covid-19 seminar series.  I think the provocation is fully justified by the most recent summaries of the UK’s failed response to the pandemic, notably from The Economist, the Oxford Research Group and Reuters.  (A superb one from The New York Times unfortunately appears to be behind a paywall.) 

You can find an archived recording of the presentation here.  My particular focus, as in an earlier posting to this blog (in which I pointed out that the Adam Smith Institute and the leader of the Labour Party were agreed on the importance of a coherent post-lockdown economic strategy), was on what can be learned from the experience of Russia in the generation since the implosion of the Soviet Union about the possible health and health equity consequences of drastic economic collapse. 

Fuse have kindly collected the questions submitted by audience members, not all of which could be addressed in the available time, and I’ve provided brief answers in italics below, under several topic headings.

(This post was updated on 30 June to add a reference to the excellent Reuters report on the UK’s coronavirus response.)

Economic inequalities and uncertainties

Just an observation- what to do about inequality is known, what we lack is the political will to act.

On the other hand… I think we have a generation who will no longer stand for inequalities and injustice. In the words of the late Whitney- I believe the children are our future…

I am also concerned about this issue being compounded by the uncertainty of Brexit when the economy was already in jeopardy pre-Covid 19

A perfect storm – austerity, Covid and Brexit

Agreed that much of what to do about inequality is known … as a small example, researchers at the University of Warwick recently showed that just requiring everyone earning more than £100,000 a year to pay an alternative minimum income tax rate of 35 percent would raise around £11 billion per year, without changing the ‘headline’ tax rate.  Raising the rate on high-income earners would further increase fiscal capacity, as would such measures as a one-off wealth tax of the kind proposed by Thomas Piketty as a way of paying off Europe’s rising debts after the 2008 financial crisis … and, of course, curbing tax avoidance by transnational corporations.

Agreed as well about the added uncertainties associated with Brexit.  For example, what happens to the economy of the North-East if the Nissan plant in Sunderland cannot remain viable?  The one bright spot may be what could be done, but probably won’t be, in terms of national economic redevelopment once EU rules on state aid no longer apply.

What we need to do is convince those in power that the health of the poor actually has implications for their wealth and wellbeing.

Ah, but does it?  COVID-19 would appear to prove the point, but consider how much easier it has been for Mr. and Mrs. Range Rover with a house, a garden, high-speed broadband and professional occupations to work from home and reduce exposure risk … meanwhile, the poor and marginalised in service sector occupations that require in-person work and presonal contact are obviously unable to work from home, whilst in many cases more vulnerable to the various comorbidities that appear to increase the severity of infection.

A Basic Universal Income … a ‘healthy response’ to economic and social sustainability?   

Maybe, if it is not seen as a substitute for investment in in-kind social provision (e.g. social housing, public transport, public health programming).  If used as a substitute, a Basic Universal Income could function as a subsidy for private landlords and dodgy second-hand car dealers, with recipients acting as the intermediaries.  I believe a better response is a basic living income floor, delivered to those eligible by way of a refundable tax credit. 

Do we have economic evidence to argue the case for tackling inequality? For example if we introduced a Basic Universal Income does this have a cost benefit analysis that could convince the rich that it is a good idea?

Here, the answer is an emphatic yes – as the OECD, for example, pointed out in 2015 in a report called In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All.  Researchers at the International Monetary Fund have made a similar point about the need for inclusive growth.  The political problem, as economist Branko Milanovic has shown, is that ‘the rich’ may have much more to gain from promoting policies that redistribute income upward, of the kind we have seen in the UK post-2010, than from promoting economy-wide growth.  Building coalitions around the idea of inclusive growth will be absolutely essential if the pandemic is not to have the effect of ratcheting up inequality.

How many gold-plated Lear jets can one have?

Can’t speak to private aircraft, which is not a market in which I window-shop, but readers who love the sea and want to get really frustrated may want to check out the 200 largest yachts in the world.

Rebuilding economy and society: ‘Building back better’

The areas hardest hit economically seem to be in the North, Midlands, coastal areas etc.  Do you have any insights on the impact of governance structures on preparation for and response to the pandemic?  Do countries with more genuinely devolved powers respond better?

A very good question; I’m sure PhD dissertations will be written in the years to come on precisely that topic. 

I think we can only depend upon the local communities. Take Grenfell: Government stood back, community rushed in to support.

The third sector have traditionally always stepped in when the statutory sectors have cut back support/resources.  I’m interested to know what it is that enables the third sector to do this and what are the barriers that prevent the government.

I would agree that a communitarian approach is key. Hoping to appeal to the conscience of the rich seems wasted energy. For those of us in the academy could we try to make the case to our HE [higher education] institutions that working with charities, mutual aid groups and the third sector is part of our civic duty? There are groups, such as APLE and ATD Fourth World, pushing and campaigning hard against the worst effects of inequality.

What does the best response to avoid the potential Russian pitfalls more specifically look like at a local level?

Surely we created a North of Tyne Combined Authority and Northern Powerhouse to take control of our assets and our future. 

Again, all important points.  There are at least two different issues here: (a) local control over priorities for building back, which is essential, and (b) local resources for building back, which are hopelessly inadequate thanks in part to the fiscal evisceration of local government under post-2010 austerity. 

Local governments and entities like NTCA simply did not have the revenue streams or revenue-raising capabilities they needed even before the pandemic, as I pointed out in the presentation. 

I am convinced that the most likely approach to succeed at the national level is a national development bank, with a multi-billion pound initial capitalisation, empowered to lend on concessional (nowadays,  zero-interest) terms and offer direct grants to private businesses and, especially, local authorities for green rebuilding projects, under a streamlined planning process.  (Such rebuilding in war-ravaged Europe was, in fact, the original mission of the World Bank.)  Think what such an institution could achieve with the resources that would otherwise have been committed to HS2 and the road infrastructure necessitated by the third Heathrow runway …

At the international level, a remarkable pre-pandemic blueprint for a global New Deal was produced in 2017 by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.  Good ideas are not thin on the ground.

Age and ageing

How do we challenge the ‘othering’ of the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions? There seems to be a tacit agreement that this is an expendable group.

Do you think ageing populations and care homes being in the spotlight during the pandemic will change how our society sees ageing?

Yes please to an ageing and Covid webinar!

Why have we [collectively] allowed the crisis in the care homes to accumulate over the past few decades?

There’s a cultural ‘groupthink’ that only other people grow old and get ill – ageing is ‘nothing to do with us’. How can we influence people to make the connection to the fact that it’s their own future care that’s in jeopardy?

All excellent points, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the elderly have been regarded as expendable, whether infected in care homes (and this has been a scandal throughout most of the high-income world) or effectively, in some countries like the UK, placed under house arrest.  In Canada’s two largest provinces, Ontario and Québec, no one familiar with the long-term care sector’s decades of underfunding, patchwork public/private provision, casualisation of personal support workers and under-regulation was surprised when some facilities turned into charnel houses.  Will this change?  I am sceptical, although encouraged by the creative response of organisations like the International Longevity Centre here in the UK. 

Fighting back, building ahead

How can we ensure that the public health community don’t shy away from the inherently political nature of inequality and its impacts?

How can we come together as a PH community – and bring about change in a meaningful impactful way without falling into a purely political debate which is a distraction from the key debate?

Public health is everyone’s business it will take all sectors working together.

Good questions, although I can’t agree that ‘purely political’ debates are necessarily a distraction.  Choices about who gets how much of a society’s resources, and on what terms, are at the core of politics, and public health risks irrelevance by ignoring them. 

Are we hindered because the Public Health community does not have a collective voice? This completely reduces our influence in the system.

I think the fact that we separate health from public health is part of this problem.  All health is public health. It is a sleight of hand to suggest otherwise.

I’m not sure that the public health community lacks a collective voice.  It has, in the UK, both the Faculty of Public Health and the Royal Society for Public Health.  The problem seems to me rather that highly accomplished public health professionals have been deeply divided about such issues as the unequal distribution of health damage and long-term economic risk associated with the lockdown … which has meant that the political executive can cherry-pick the ‘science’ it wants.  COVID-19 is hardly unique in this respect!  But in the course of spending far too much time reading media coverage of the pandemic, I’ve been struck by the extent to which The Telegraph ‘got’ the issue of unequal damage from lockdown, and The Guardian didn’t. 

I have a question following on from above – what do you see as the key points and forms of resistance to this?  Especially given the positions of many governments, not least in the UK.

I’m very concerned that these stark inequalities are fuelling reactionary far right wing populism / nationalism / patriotism – and the current government are happy to let this narrative run. Any ideas of how this can be challenged?

I wish I had better answers; hopefully the important dialogue that Fuse has initiated will contribute to developing them, as will a revival of critical thinking in UK universities.  As a political scientist, I have to observe that one of the undesirable characteristics of Westminster-style parliamentary systems is that a government with a legislative majority is so impermeable that it functions as an elective monarchy, in this case with a term of office that runs until the end of 2024. 

What can universities contribute to the resistance of this future in terms of our teaching?

Education has been commodified and is not about transformation. We need to address who can access education and what is provided when they get there … thinking Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

These are of course critically important questions, about which (in particular) Stefan Collini and Lawrence Busch have written brilliantly.  More recently another Canadian (like myself), retired legal scholar Philip Slayton, had this to say:

‘A curious and well-informed mind is a free mind, and a person with a free mind is a free person; creating this free person is what education, particularly postsecondary education, is meant to do. Universities need to reject a corporate consumer-driven model; a student is not a “client.” Universities must eschew misguided vocationalism, emphasize the development of critical thinking – in particular, the ability to distinguish between a good argument and a bad argument – and recognize that society needs dreamers at least as much as technicians. They need a fee structure that makes postsecondary education available to all without career-distorting long-term debt. And they need to welcome the expression of all views, even extreme ones.’