Monday, February 5, 2018

ABC's Planet America program shows worrying bias.

When we complain of  biased reporting on population issues (such as Dick Smith has highlighted) at the Australian Broadcasting Commission,  we tend to forget the many ABC TV shows now aimed at the younger demographic (where the ABC had been haemorrhaging audience). 

The ABC has hired a lot of youngish talented comedians out of the vast pool of stand-up comedy talent among young Australians. It’s mostly smart-arse stuff, without much pretence to news value; but there are some shows like The Chaser and Planet America that hybridise comedic style with serious debate on current affairs.  These are in effect part of the ABC News stable, and their biases matter more. (Of course even the slighter shows are used to educate the young in which views they are supposed to admire and which to ridicule.)

The problem is that the ABC seems to have selected its comedians for having the right political and social views. One reason these comic shows seem a bit dull, especially to anyone over 30, is that there is little difference of opinion or political stance among these comedians. Think how much more interesting it would be if the comedians on these panels actually had different points of view, instead of merely having different comedic styles!

Yesterday (Friday 2 February 2018) on Planet America the presenter Chas Licciardello produced a rant in favour of high immigration, primarily in the USA, but by implication in Australia too.  He had clearly got hold of a stack of dubious statistics from high-immigration sources, including our old favourite myth, the “ageing population” scare. 

It is far from the first time Planet America has done tendentious stuff like this, but this time I have taken the trouble to transcribe it.

 I’ll leave it to the experts to pick apart Chas’s errors, but they clearly include some well-known tricks of our own Australian high-immigration spruikers. e.g.

  1.    Selective assumptions:  Chas assumes that we (i.e. the US and by implication Australia too)  are heading for a terrible lack of workers, although there are many indications (such as stagnant wages and constant scandals over employers cheating on conditions and on work-security, e.g. the 7-Eleven and petrol station scandals) that both countries have the opposite problem: an over-supply.
  2.       Selective alarmism and pro-natalist bias.    The rather high US birthrate of nearly 2 children per woman, which in fact ensures a surplus of births over deaths, at least until the population is considerably older, is represented as a disaster. Why?  Similarly, the staggering rise of the USA’s working population from 45 million in 1950 to around 150 million in 2015 rings no alarm bells, and rouses no environmental alarms; yet a possible decline of just 7 million by 2035 is represented as a disaster.  (In fact this may be too small a drop, if automation and robots mean that only  a much smaller workforce can be kept in work.)
  3.       Misunderstandings of the “dependency rate”. Traditionally this term meant the ratio between the number of people of “working age” (traditionally 15-65 years, but today that might have to be raised to at least 20-70 years) and the number that are either too old or too young to work.  The trick is to get the naive hearer to imagine that only old people are “dependants”, and that everyone over 65 is on the pension.  In fact the dependency rate was often worse in the past, when people had large families and the population was full of “unproductive” children.
  4.       Forgetting that to have a high percentage of the population  within “working age” is only good if there is work for them. If not, the extra “workers” just add to the number of persons on  social security. And a working age breadwinner without work often means a whole family on social security, whereas a retired person has very likely already paid for their retirement, and may be financially supporting younger dependants. (If the USA ever reaches the scenario that Chas advances of having only two persons in employment for every one person on social security, this will be because jobs have disappeared, not because persons aged 20 to 70 have disappeared.)
  5.       Caricature and moral grandstanding: e.g. assuming that people who dislike high immigration must “hate” immigrants.
  6.      Ill defined and contentious statistics:  How rigorously was “founder” or “patent” or “College degree” defined, for instance?   (For a counter-view of the claims Chas has recycled, see for instance )
  7.       Forgetting that the brain-drain of doctors and surgeons and of top graduates into rich countries, which certainly occurs, has cruel effects on poor countries. “All our doctors are in America now.”
  8.       GDP worship, and belief that growth can go on forever. e.g.  Chas saying: “ . . . to slow annual GDP growth by 1.2% this decade! That is a lot.”
  9.       Assuming that the hiring of immigrants means that their labour was essential. It may mean that they are being employed for less, or on worse conditions and benefits, and so are keeping native-born Americans out of work, and them and their families on social security.  (This was a major reason that millions voted for Bernie Sanders and even for the appalling Trump, rather than Hilary Clinton who was in denial about the issue—as are most ABC commentators. Three days later the ABC's Q&A program, on 5 Feb. 2018, managed to hold a long hand-wringing discussion of low wages, without mentioning immigration. One questioner mentioned population growth, but was ignored.)
  10.   Forgetting the huge infrastructure costs of adding to the population—at least $100,000 per person. This amount of extra infrastructure has to be in place before each new arrival arrives, else everyone starts to suffer from overloaded infrastructure.

No doubt demographers and economists will find further and probably larger holes in Chas’s rant. What a great target its complacent self-righteousness would make for an astute ABC comedian—if only the ABC employed comedians with diverse views!

Below is my transcription of it:

Planet America  program, “Episode 1” 2018
ABC TV channel 24     Screened on 2 and 3 February 2018
c. 38 minutes into program as stored online at

Chas Licciardello’s “Deep Dive into US Immigration”

This was a monologue, with pre-prepared slides, spoken by presenter Chas Licciardello in his trademark emphatic manner with dramatic gestures. The latter part is sub-titled by the program itself, with emphasised words in capitals. Earlier, my under-linings indicate heavy emphasis.

Chas Licciardello:   “We spoke earlier about Trump’s immigration framework, which tries to tilt the balance of legal immigration more towards those with particular skills rather than family connections or pure diversity.  But the truth is the immigration pool is skilling up anyway. Let’s go deep!
Logo appears:  THE DEEP DIVE  (sound effects)

Chas Licciardello:  “Immigrants are becoming more educated. 38% of native born Americans over the age of 25 have a college degree. But immigrants over the age of 25 who arrived in the last 5 years, 48% of them have a college degree. What about African immigrants? 41% of them have a college degree, even though they most of them arrived on diversity visas. Finally, what about Asian Immigrants? A whopping 75% of 25-34 year old Asian immigrants have college degrees.
Logo: Source: Census Bureau, Migration Policy Institute, Pew Research.
Logo: 25-34 y Asian Immigrants  75%

Chas (continuing emphatically): Immigrants are innovators. 35% of US innovators are immigrants, with European or Asian immigrants
Logo: Europeans/Asians = 5x native-born innovators

Chas (continuing):  . . . being 5 times more likely to have created innovations than a native-born American. Between 2000 and 2010, immigrants filed about 200 thousand American patents
Logo:   194,600 patents  (2000-10)

Chas: Immigrants were twice as likely to be entrepreneurs as native-born Americans.
Logo:  28% of entrepreneurs (= 2x native-borns)
Logo: Source: Information Technology and Information,  2015 Kauffman Index, National Foundation for American Policy. 

And immigrants founded over half of America’s 87 $billion start-up  companies.
Logo:  Skilled Immigrants:  founded 44 of 87 $billion start-ups

Chas:  In fact 50% of Silicon Valley workers aged 25-44 are immigrants.
Logo: 50% of Silicon Valley workers  (25-44)

Chas: And so are 28% of America’s doctors and surgeons. So they are bringing the skills already!
But I don’t want to debate who immigrants should be or where they should come from, because those are questions of opinion. I’d like to focus more on the numbers of immigrants, because that (dramatic hand gesture) is a question of economics. You see, America is AGING! 
(dramatic fast-paced music)
Logo:  Graph labelled Projected US population over 65: (Source: UN World Population Prospects 2008). 
[This graph shows the percentage over 65 rising from about 7% in 1950 to about 12% in 2010, kinking up to about 21%by 2040, and then largely flattening off at around 22%.]

Chas (dramatically): This is the percentage of the population that is over 65 today. [Graph shows about 14%]. And this is the percentage of the population that will be over 65 in 15 years time. [Graph shows about 20%.] And the aging of the workforce[sic] [dramatic gesture] is projected by Rand Corp  . . .
Logo: The effect of population aging on Economic Growth, the Labour Force, and Productivity
NBER   July 2016  “Our results imply annual GDP growth will slow by 1.2 percentage points this decade.”

Chas (continuing): to slow annual GDP growth by 1.2% this decade! That is a lot. Of course as the population ages, there’s going to be less workers, unless you have immigration. For instance,  current rates of immigration  . . .
Logo: US Working-Age Population (Pew Research Center)
Graph showing US working-age population moving steadily up from around 45 million in 1950 to c. 150 million in 2015.

Chas: ... the working-age population will grow 10 million by 2035, but without immigration it will shrink by 7 million. And by the way, the places that would die[sic] the fastest without immigration, are rural cities [dramatic finger-point at viewers]—Trump country! [double-eyelid wink]
But why does it matter if the working population shrinks? Well, according to the Labor Secretary in 1917  . . .
Logo: Medicare’s hospital trust fund will run out of money in 2029
The Washington Post, 13 July 2017 “Labor Secretary Alexander Accosta pointed out that in 1960 there were 5 workers for every Social Security recipient. By 2035 there will be only two workers for every beneficiary.”

[Chas fails to note that this dubious claim might clash with the graph he has just produced, showing that in fact the US working-age population exploded  from 45 million in 1950 to c. 150 million in 2015. - Note by Mark O'Connor]

 Chas re-reads the claim, varying the ending to:  . . . for every social security recipient, but by 2035 there will be only TWO workers for every beneficiary, so that each worker has to carry a bigger load. And Medicare is gonna be even more expensive, which is how you end up with headlines like this, about Medicare running out of money.
Logo: Dramatic red flashing arrow point to the Post headline: Medicare’s hospital trust fund will run out of money in 2029.

Chas: Well what about America just having more kids, then?   [dramatic eye-widening] 
Too late! America’s fertility rates haven’t been high for decades! And they are just getting worse[sic].
Logo: American Fertility Rate: Source National Center for Health Statistics: Graph showing births per woman falling from nearly 4 to around 2.

Chas: So, bottom-line: whether restrictionists like immigrants or not, America needs to take a heap of them.
Logo: [A visual clip showing an abusive British celebrity chef.]
Chas: Well, probably not THAT one.
[Program Wrap-up]

A reflection from Mark O’Connor:
My grandparents’ generation enjoyed vigorous debates between intellectual comedians like Bernard Shaw and G K Chesterton. These used their wit and their comic personas to battle for very different moral agendas and views of the universe. By contrast, the carefully-selected comics on the ABC’s panels are more like  rows of birds on a wire, all singing off much the same song-sheet—intellectually at least. To be fair to their views, they’re all for tolerance and reform of injustices, and kindness to animals, and so forth; but they show little ability to question received ideas. Humour at its best has a transgressive element; but as Sheila Newman remarks, much of what considered 'funny' on Oz ABC “is actually the showing up of political incorrectness, i.e. pointing out 'sinners'.”—a potentially repressive use of humour. 

Chas’s uncritical acceptance of rightwing economic ideology re the need for endless growth is also a caution. One would have thought that someone with his media experience would have twigged that when business spokespeople claim they must have lots of immigrant workers because there is a terrible shortage of labour (even though unemployment is high and wages are stagnant or falling) this may simply mean that they want to pay less than the market rate for labor.

Chas’s “rave” shows a willingness to believe such claims, even when commonsense should have raised red flags.  There is plenty of evidence available that could have warned Chas off his naive conclusions, including the ANU and Washington-based demographer Lincoln Day’s classic book The Future of Low-Birth Populations, which unpicks the aging population scare.

In February 2018 the Australian economist Leith van Olesen of Macrobusiness placed on line his recommendations to an Immigration Department enquiry. He wrote that “. . . empirical evidence shows no link between population growth and prosperity”, and that most of the supposed dangers of population aging are myths put about by “the ‘growth lobby’ of retailers, the banking sector, the property industry and erroneously named ‘think tanks’. 

"In Australia, the Productivity Commission has for more than a decade debunked the myth that immigration can overcome population ageing. For example, in its 2010 submission to the Minister for Population, the PC explicitly noted that “substantial increases in the level of net overseas migration would have only modest effects on population ageing and the impacts would be temporary, since immigrants themselves age”. Academic demographer, Peter McDonald, has also previously stated that it is “demographic nonsense to believe that immigration can help to keep our population young” .

US experience is similar. Thus “A recent study by economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) also found “that even when we control for initial GDP per capita, initial demographic composition and differential trends by region, there is no evidence of a negative relationship between aging and GDP per capita; on the contrary, the relationship is significantly positive in many specifications”. 

Philip Cafaro at Colorado State University commented: “One of the best arguments against the kind of rant you describe, is the fact that even large increases in immigration do not do much to decrease the problem of fewer workers per dependant, as study after study has shown. That’s because immigrant workers retire in their turn, and have to be supported. Doubling the US immigration rate, for example, would only slightly slow the “aging” of our society – as Steve Camarota showed in a study CIS (Center for Independent Studies) published about 10 years back.”


 The ease with which the big business, neo-liberal 'growthist' agenda manages to manipulate naive lefties to do their public relations work never ceases to amaze me. How nice it must be to sit back smoking cigars and sipping brandy while watching the Chas Licciardello's of this world dance to their tune on publicly funded media outlets. -  Martin Tye

Mark, you are so right. Practically every ABC program comes from people who take it as given that the future is based on BAU (business-as-usual) economically - or else - disaster. Nowhere is there a program or commentator who makes the alternative assumption that we may be heading for the cliff and what follows from that assumption in terms of whatever is being discussed.
 - John Coulter