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Mar 27, 2013

Here's the real story of Australian debt

The real story of government debt is much more complicated than News Ltd papers claim. And there's a deep irony in their campaign against it, wrote Bernard Keane and Glenn Dyer in March.

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Of all the campaigns against Labor in News Limited publications, its latest one on government debt is the most deeply hypocritical.

The “exclusive” today purported to reveal Prime Minister Julia Gillard would be leaving $14,238 in debt to every working Australian (journalists John Rolfe and Gemma Jones used the wrong workforce number and inflated the calculation, but never mind that). Like the Coalition’s version of recent economic history, the piece airbrushes the global financial crisis from its account of events.

That’s the financial crisis that Tony Abbott recently said had ended nearly four years ago, and that Bank of England governor Mervyn King said on Monday was “far from over”.

The hypocrisy lies in this: let’s assume the Rudd government had done what Christopher Pyne says the Coalition would have done and run surpluses during the financial crisis, thereby ripping tens of billions of dollars out of the economy while the financial crisis and ensuing recession was unfolding. In the absence of the Rudd government’s stimulus packages, and with another $25 billion+ pulled out of demand, Australia’s jobless rate would have soared, particularly in industries like construction, retail and manufacturing. The result would have been massive unemployment across areas like western Sydney — exactly the area whose interests The Daily Telegraph purports to represent. In effect, the Telegraph is telling its readers it would have preferred if many of them had lost their jobs just so we could stay debt free. Still, it’s easy for News Ltd journalists and editors working in Surry Hills and in the bubble of Canberra to cavalierly dismiss the importance of keeping a job for a tradie or shop assistant living in Blacktown.

The hypocrisy goes deeper. Without the Rudd government’s stimulus program, particularly its cash handouts, the advertising market would have crashed far more spectacularly than it did in 2009. And what are the main beneficiaries of the advertising market? Media companies like News Ltd. Careful what you wish for, chaps.

The Tele’s article invoked some heavyweights to back up its case, including Saul Eslake, who told Crikey he’d been taken a little out of context in the piece. According to Eslake, Rolfe had contacted him to ask if Australia faced a debt crisis. Eslake’s reply was that Australia didn’t, and he compared us with Canada, which will not return to surplus for some years and will likely have a debt approaching 30% of GDP, compared with 11.5% for Australia. Over time, Eslake suggested, Australia might develop a problem due to the actions of a number of governments, including the John Howard government. This prompted Rolfe to ask how soon it would become a crisis, which Eslake answered by noting a debt crisis can come on very quickly — “the lights don’t turn amber, they turn red”. This, said Eslake, was portrayed as him saying a debt crisis was around the corner and it was entirely the fault of this government.

“We have a fiscal problem,” Eslake said, “because what was a temporary surge in revenue before the financial crisis from corporate tax, the GST and capital gains tax was used to fund permanent increases in outlays in welfare programs, public sector payrolls (chiefly by state governments) and subsidies and transfer payments, as well as tax cuts. I was one of the few saying around 2005-06 that this surge wouldn’t last. Chris Richardson did too, there weren’t too many others.”

“As it turns out, the world of debt is a lot more complicated than journalists and editors might have us believe.”

There are other problems around debt, but they’re not the ones you expect. High-quality debt, like that offered by the Australian government, is in short supply. The Financial Times reported this morning there was a shortage of high-rated AAA debt in the world, as the number of top-rated economies had fallen since 2007. Why is that a problem? Big investors around the world (government agencies, central banks and transnational agencies) need AAA bonds, as do insurers. It’s a form of reassurance for them. That’s why more than 30 foreign central banks now have Australian dollar investments in their foreign reserves, and why giant insurers and investors, such as Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway insurance group, have been buying Australian government bonds and other assets. Australian bonds pay 3% or better, which is more than you can get in the US, Japan or the UK and Europe. The Financial Times reports:

“The expulsion of the US, the UK and France from the ‘nine-As’ club has led to the contraction in the stock of ­government bonds deemed the safest by Fitch, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, from almost $11tn at the start of 2007 to just $4 trillion now.”

Of course, during that time and apparently in defiance of the debt concerns of News Ltd, Australia joined the nine-As club courtesy of the government’s economic management and low debt levels. And if you read the first Stability Review of 2013, issued this morning by the Reserve Bank, you find not a word of concern about the level of government debt, especially federal debt in this country from the nation’s pre-eminent economic manager.

In fact, the Reserve Bank again points out that “given the low amount of government debt in Australia” regulators have been forced to devise a one-off system of ensuring Australian banks have enough liquidity in the event of a new financial crisis and the loss of access to offshore markets for our banks. The bank also finds the financial system remains solid, with bank debts under control, consumers continuing to save and pre-pay mortgages faster than they should and funding pressures on the banks getting easier.

Indeed, the continuing strength of the high dollar (up today around one US cent or more at $US1.048), which is harming the employment prospects of so many Telegraph readers in western Sydney, is testament to how relaxed financial markets are about the supposedly iniquitous levels of debt bequeathed by Gillard. Moreover, the debacle in Cyprus has ended, for the moment, and hopes the Reserve Bank had for the dollar to continue a recent softness and drift towards parity. Instead it is current around four month highs.

The danger, as the continuing depression in Europe illustrates, comes if politicians take seriously the sort of cant about debt pushed by News Ltd and start treating budget outcomes and debt reduction as ends in themselves, rather than tools of economic management. A fiscal policy that goes beyond addressing the structural problems of our tax and spending frameworks to a cut-debt-at-all-costs policy not merely has the potential to drive the economy into recession, but it would risk thereby increasing what little debt problem we have through reduced economic growth and tax revenues.

But Eslake doesn’t see much danger from austerity-driven politicians. Instead, he is concerned that an incoming Coalition government, should one eventuate, will repeat the mistakes of the Fraser years and fail to use its position to drive necessary fiscal discipline. “Like the Fraser government, an Abbott government may be divided between a leader who distrusts markets, has little interest in economics and is actually contemptuous of economists, a National Party that has reverted to its traditional agrarian socialism, and reformist liberals like Hockey, Robb, Turnbull and Sinodinos.”

As it turns out, the world of debt is a lot more complicated than journalists and editors might have us believe.

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106 thoughts on “Here’s the real story of Australian debt

  1. Daniel Maurice

    Yes, the debt story is complex, and quite a few of the complexities are ignored by Bernard and Glenn:

    1) The crisis that hit Ireland, UK etc during the GFC demonstrated how quickly private debt can become public debt when governments have to step in to protect the banking sector. Australian private debt dwarfs public debt and this debt transmission could easily happen here, faster than you think. No Australian government is going to let a major bank go under (not if it wanted to stay in power anyway). While in opposition Swan endlessly prattled on about the “private debt mountain”. He never mentions now.

    2) As important as the growth on debt is what the debt is incurred for. Borrowing to build value-creating infrastructure there be justified. Borrowing to fund current expenditure, especially vote-buying giveaways like the school kids bonus, is just plain dumb. And Swan / Gillard do this a lot. Their idea of “economic policy” is to spend more money.

    3) Sure our current public debt seems small by international comparisons and easily serviceable, but consider the SPEED with which this debt has grown and that the current government has proved to be utterly incapable of charting a credible path to bringing it under control. Swan will NEVER deliver a surplus, which is another way of saying our public debt would just grown, and grow, and grow…and with it the cost of servicing this debt.

    By the way the claim that “….in the absence of the Rudd government’s stimulus…Australia’s jobless rate would have soared” shows that Bernard and Glenn have just been sipping the Swan cool-aid. Chinese demand for our resources is what saved us during the GFC.

  2. Warren Joffe

    @ Recalcitrant.Rick closely followed I think by Harry1951 and Jimmy I think……

    Some elementary understanding of opportunity cost, the multiplier (as in supposedly Keynesian stimuli) the time value of money and economic history (pace your claim to know something of the New Deal) would help.

    Of course a fibre to the home network would be an asset when even half commpleted. But so what? Even supposing it remains state-of-the-art for a national broadband network you have to do the sums taking all the above elementary factors into account before you can justify praise.

    Your simple assumption that there is a big positive multiplier for such expenditure as the pink batts fiasco and often underused or low priority school halls is almost certainly wrong and anyway turns negative if account is taken of what the money could have been spent on instead and if the expenditure only went on for the first six months after which is was clear that we weren’t in the depths of a serious recession. Moreover,

    Roosevelt’s New Deal was so far from following the Keynesian prescription that Roosevelt actually sent the country back into depression in 1938 through premature return to surplus [exact figures would make the point even if my memory is slightly out). It was WW2 that finally fixed the US economy. And you have Reagan wrong too. His deficit financed defence expenditures (which arguably did much to bring an end to the Soviet Union because it couldn’t afford to keep up) were highly stimulatory in the early 80s and his lowering of taxes also helped the US economy boom.

    AS to “whipping round a few schools” and asking if they think the halls are a waste of money!!! Really. It isn’t the person who wins $1000 on the Melbourne Cup whom you should take as the expert on whether gambling is a social good to be encouraged by government…

  3. Hamis Hill

    So in fifty six posts only Daniel Maurice addresses the real story of private debt.
    While the tag team of Mudorc and his Man in parliament go on about Government debt, who is talking about private debt in Australia?
    What is the that interest bill, every year, for example?
    Readers clearly aren’t interested so Bernie and Glenn don’t bother writing the follow up article “Here’s the real story about PRIVATE Australian debt!”
    Is the figure of $1.25 Trillion in mortgage debt accurate?
    Haven’t overseas observers been warning for several years that Australian houses are “overvalued”.
    The article almost incidentally quotes reassuring noises on the sustainabillity of the national mortgage market, but won’t Hockey’s higher interest rates take the interest payment to a cool Cool $2,ooo,ooo,ooo every week, about a hundred dollars per week for every man woman and child?
    Hey, no problemo?
    Talk about unsustainable! and all gambled on continuing capital gains on “Non-wealth producing assetts”.
    Where’s the momey coming from Lieberals?
    Would it be a form of careless economic vandalism to confirm a conservative GFC style recession will come with the election of an Abbott government?
    About as careless as hoping that Abbott’s economic ministers will somehow avoid this problem by abandoning the fetish for surpluses which, fellahs, only amounts to confirmation from you that there actually is a real problem with unsustainable private debt in Australia after all.
    Far better to continue with a proven government, and give it a workable majority for the next three years than take an even larger gamble than the Australian Mortgage market by giving the laziest opposition int Federation history the reigns of power.
    Abbott will be gone and Turnbull can set about rebuilding a real Liberal party in Australia,.
    This Rudd, Abbott,tag -team, DLP desecration of Australian democracy will be over as well and the majority of Australians will be represented again.
    All good, really; you have to do the private debt article there, Bernie and Glenn; you have not actually irreversibly painted your selves into a corner with your attempts to refute the problem in your incomplete “real” Australian debt article.
    Your country needs you!

  4. Warren Joffe

    It wasn’t Daniel but I who pointed out that you didn’t know much about the Roosevelt New Deal or Keynes or stimuli (fiscal or monetary) or multipliers. There is a lot of literature on the 30s, including some which is pretty rabid about Roosevelt making things worse. Keynes was pretty disappointed in him and certainly didn’t regard him as having followed his advice (my main source is Skidelsky’s 3 volume biography of Keynes). Roosevelt basically fiddled and did instinctively political and populist things like propping up prices. It may be irrelevant to the present point but it is interesting that he loathed a lot of the rich, but then he probably, as a descendant of one of the old families who were there when New York was called New Amsterdam, took the patrician view that even Andrew Mellon was nouveau riche (Mellon, Hoover’s Treasury Secretary, btw, gave his country the great National Gallery in Washington DC and shrewdly didn’t insist on it bearing his name – cp. the Rockefeller Center or Frick Gallery – so it would receive benefactions from others).

    Australia and the UK recovered quicker than the US from the depths of the Depression without little input from Keynes, largely because they left the gold standard in good time. Keynes actually expressed approval of the measures taken in Australia which were not a form of early Keynesianism though we did of course have plenty of public employment schemes such as those the built the Yarra Boulevard and the Great Ocean Road in Victoria.

    Your reference to the present is just as careless about fact. “But given that the economy is motoring along reasonably well, and we are nearly back into surplus, I’d say Swan and the Reserve got it just about right!”

    “Nearly back into surplus”!!!! You have to be kidding. Despite all the fiddling with the books, transferring payments and receipts from one year to another, the budget is nowhere near surplus. Not that I think the Coalition will find it easy to get there, but then, contrary to all the bleating about them not announcing – for some reason expressed by some as not having – policies, the Coalition is obviously going to make as few promises as possible and give itself a free hand to do what is necessary without accusations that they have broken promises.

    The government could have done as much, after the first, more or less sensible, stimulus package, by simply doing the Keynesian flight of fancy thing for a short time of burying banknotes in a big hole and allowing people with capital or credit to employ others to dig them up. Unfortunately they put in train about two and a half years spending with no economic payoff when all that was needed was about six months. Hence a great deal of displacement of more productive expenditure.

  5. Hunt Ian

    Warren Joffe does know something about the Roosevelt and his panic about getting back into surplus in 1938. Wayne Swan is also too panicked.
    Yes, the multiplier for pink batts was probably not very great but the multiplier for the “building the education revolution” was probably quite significant.
    Having noted how Roosevelt’s early attempt to return to surplus sent the US back into recession nine years after the Great crash, Warren Joffe breathtakingly knows that about 6 months of stimulus spending in Australia would have been just right to keep Australia out of recession. How he knows this is a mystery.
    How Warren Joffe knows the opportunity cost of the NBN or thinks it essential to calculate it is also a mystery. Opportunity cost is fine to calculate if we assume that the future will be like the present. What the impact of the NBN will be on future Australian business is hard to know and cannot be extrapolated from what Korea, say, now gets from its fibre network.
    Economists too often assume that light can be cast on what happens in a not too competitive economy like Australia by gazing at what a model of a “perfectly competitive” economy can tell us.
    A lot of economic decision making is a shot in the dark and we might one day look back on NBN spending as just what was necessary to ensure that Australia survived the adjustment of the passing of the minerals export boom.
    As to paying of government debt, I am only in favour of not having endlessly increasing government debt, with reduction (but not necessarily to near zero) in times of boom, which Australia is hardly fully enjoying. I am very much in favour of having my children employed so that their taxes can pay off debt, or at least prevent endless increase of government debt. There is no a clear cut difference between expenditure on workings of government and expenditure on infrastructure, for which Australia should now be borrowing more with low interest rates but with an eye to how they might move in future years.
    My disagreement with Eslake is just over the assumption that an Abbott government will not impose unnecessary austerity, as the British government did to find to its surprise that the UK entered recession yet again, despite not being part of the Euro zone.

  6. Warren Joffe

    @ Hunt, Ian

    I acknowledge that you are in the same conversation with relevant knowledge and points. However, I wonder if you are happy with politicians making big spending decisions at any time, and, particularly, when it is not a case of someone having to make a decision, doing it like the NBN decision process which was totally farcical. Of course you are right that a cost-benefit analysis (allowing opportunity cost to be assessed as well as the inherent viability/profitability of the NBN)would have to make some very uncertain assumptions: there could be unpredictable (though imaginable and hoped for) upside as well as unexpected failure.

    It was one thing for Howard to come out early in one year with his great Murray-Darling plan without consulting even Cabinet. The NBN – involving 4 or 5 times the expenditure and on something on which few people have any relevant expertise – was cooked up by Conroy and Rudd after the embarrassment of finding that their promised $4 billion [about one tenth the NBN cost] broadband scheme had big problems. Nothing in Australian federal history can match the appalling Piggy Muldoon – an embarrassment to conservatives if he claimed to be one – but, on the whole, Labor governments are more likely to squander money as if the genius of John Maynard Keynes (with a little help from those Canadian funny money types of early last century) had made spending something which was nearly always to be given the green light. Under Hawke, like NZ Labor before him, that was not true, but the state governments and now Gillard-Swan seem to be picking up where Whitlam left off. (I was about to say Hawke and Keating but wonder now if the restraint under Hawke – not equalled under Keating as PM – had a lot to do with Senator Peter Walsh as Finance Minister).

    Many saw Charles Court as a great visionary builder and no doubt he was. But the damming of the Argyle River and attempts to create an agricultural province in the NW was, as I understand it, not economically sound. The Snowy River scheme may now be justified by the spin-off of giving a whole lot of “New Australians” a start in this country but its visionary aspect doesn’t seem to have been matched by good economics.

    So, I am sceptical, and trebly so about the NBN because of the defective processes.

  7. Warren Joffe

    Government Debt and Abbott recession

    Surely we want our politicians to have old-fashioned pro-saving instincts as well as their well known genuine desire to do good by spending money earned by others (and they wouldn’t actually mind doing good by being more efficient if only they knew how). Nonetheless I acknowledge that the typical Liberal MP back in 2008-2009 was a bit obsessed about deficits when clearly the Treasury got it right to go early, go hard, go households – with Coalition support. As it happens their somewhat primitive Friedmanesque (they may have thought Hayekian) antipathy to fiscal deficit would have been a good thing if the Coalition had been in government because the kind of stimulus used to follow the first $10 billion (and the shoring up of the banks) would have had to be sold much more rigorously: those mentioned but not spelled out “needed infrastructure expenditures” would have filled the bill in a way which building school halls over the following two and a half years did not.

    Of course a dollar is a dollar and in that sense the debt to finance current expenditures isn’t easily distinguished in every instance from that used to finance needed infrastructure of an economic character like railways and ports. But, in practice, one would hope that the infrastructure was financed by low cost long term borrowings and the current expenditure matched by short-term borrowings which would be paid off as soon as the cycle turned up.

  8. Matt

    @Recalcitrant Rick:

    Mining contributes, by value, for a minimum of 40% of all of Australia’s exports – that’s just in the top three exports, iron ore, coal and gold.

    Data here c/o DFAT: http://www.dfat.gov.au/publications/stats-pubs/cot-fy-2011-12.pdf

    (Be careful, it’s a big .pdf document)

    More specific to China, our exports to China account for 30% of all Australian exports, and the total dollar value of exports to China has DOUBLED over the last three years, even as other Western economies were contracting.

    (source: http://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/fs/chin.pdf)

    Now imagine an Australia where Chinese exports had not increased over that time period – an Australia short $40bn annually from lost exports. Sounds like a pretty grim place to me.

    I’ll happily concede that the Howard Government followed sound (i.e., Keynesian) macroeconomic policy in their time in office – building up surpluses and paying down debt during the upswing of the business cycle – but we’re not IN an upswing of a business cycle, and unless I miss my guess, we’re not going to BE in one for at least another three years.

    The whole “surplus now!” chant is both (a) very dangerous, and (b) getting rather old. There are times a sensible government runs surpluses – those times are not now, they are when private-sector demand is robust enough to fill the gap left by withdrawn public-sector demand.

    The fact that our cash rate is still below 4.5% – that the RBA thinks that private-sector demand is sluggish enough that it wants to tempt people into investing and borrowing – indicates to me that this is not yet the case.

  9. Warren Joffe

    @ klewso
    Current references to “austerity” which naturally tend to pose the question as to whether tough restraints on spending which will inevitably fall hardest on those with net debt or little income tend, by oversimplification, to divert attention from other questions and perceptions. If we are suffering from too much debt and/or willingness of people to spend money on what we or our country have to sell a natural response is “why not bankruptcy or at least a scheme of arrangement?” But that is, you may say, part of the package. The trouble is that it hasn’t been done as it would have been if the German, French and other banks which over-invested in Greek government bonds simply had to take their losses. So, the banks shareholders get wiped out? Tough. That’s functioning capitalism. So a lot of big lenders to the big banks have to take big haircuts too. Also tough. The banking system can be kept going as we have been seeing in the last five years when the UK actually has gone so far as keeping some banks going with the government as major shareholder.

    I have ideas about why the EU’s long drawn out agonising adjustments has been preferred to short sharp wiping out of a lot of debt as has often happened in individual countries in the past and I doubt whether the majority of Europeans will be better off as a result of the course taken but, still, “austerity” tends to mislead. Sure it means paying people less in pensions and wages and services but that is an approximation to what would have happened in an honest sovereign default and leaving of the Eurozone by Greece. The payments in the New Drachma would not have been indexed to remain as valuable as they had been in Euros so the devaluation by restored drachma would have had the same effect as the necessary “internal devaluation” within the EZ because that inevitably involves “austerity” with impacts mostly on the same people. A major problem for Greece was that its politicians had allowed far too big a proportion of the population to get ahead of Greece’s real economic strength in what they were getting in unearned wages (typically the railways) and in pensions.

  10. Hamis Hill

    Not detecting much predictive power in your latest post, Warren, especially as to the real story of private debt in Australia.
    Are you willing to go out on a limb with some erudite prophecy?
    We have plenty of relevant facts figures and opinions to consider, now for the inevitable conclusions?
    Otherwise what is the point of the interminable verbiage?; do, instead, test your intellectual assertions with something of the fruits of your labour and tell us what an Abbott administration portends.
    No-one, in this day and age surely, will accuse you of dabbling in the Dark Arts or heretically anticipating an act of god by predicting the nature of the coming government.
    Let it rip, Warren!
    We might expect a Labor administration to continue in the path that it has followed so far, but using the same concept, that the past is a guide to the future, what will that future be under Abbott rule?
    The MSM is incapable of prognostication on this subject, understandable considering that they perform like a collective of cretins, but there seems, in the sum of your previous posts to be a pretension of wisdom.
    If you are that tree that bears no fruit, can your empty offerings, even when consigned to the flames, illuminate the least thing of value?
    It must have been such, surely, during the building of the Tower of Babbel, just prior to its collapse.
    Should Australian banks be allowed to fail if the GFC visits during the Abbott “mal-adminstration?”, as the free market dictates?
    Will poor little, cultural cringeing Australia be on its own once more abandoned to its fate, in a surrounding sea of sharks, merely because, somehow, the developed world’s best government is just not good enough and the alternative floats, unexamined, in the impenetrable void, exciting not even a smidgin of genuine intellectual curiosity, in the ubiquity of “white noise”?
    A bunch of bloody, willy wombats indeed.

  11. Warren Joffe

    I wouldn’t want to go into competitive predictions with you Hamis Hill given that I have no particular reason to believe myself a better predictor than say Alan Greenspan and, as the housing bubble was just about to get right out of hand in the US, Bernanke. And I see no evidence that you are a contender.

    I think an Abbott government will not get the budget into surplus in its first term, or only just, in the third year. It will go into government having made as few promises as possible so it can make a virtue of being a trustworthy government which is just being prudent and attempting to remedy a very poor legacy. (The worst of the legacy, especially if the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate, will be Gillard legislation and contracts which will hang over the government for years. That may not be precisely how it is portrayed by the new government of course. Big frightening numbers may be what it prefers.).

    On the question of the banks being allowed to fail if there is another GFC (which I very much doubt there will be. I am certainly putting my money where my mouth is against it for the foreseeable future) I don’t think the question would arise but the obvious answer is no, if there is only a liquidity problem. And if there is a solvency problem it would still be better, given that we have just four big banks, that the failure be, not the bank as a business, but the value of shareholders’ equity in the sense that that the 90+ per cent shareholder would and should be the government until the bank can be refloated to private and institutional investors.

  12. Warren Joffe

    @ Tristan Jones

    I think you have probably got your modest predictions right. What you say about the GST gives me an idea. The Abbott government might enlist Nick Greiner, whose views are already known, to get the states to put pressure on the federal government to raise the GST, possibly just .75 per cent and possibly with virtuous earmarks (not necessarily all going to the states). Maybe “temporary” – say for three years.
    If it doesn’t reduce or go back on the reductions of Baby Bonus and Private Health insurance rebate I hope it does that for the right reason. While pensioners, including retired public servants and politicians, pay very little tax and many receive very valuable health benefits, the young successful professional and business people who are treated as rich by the Gillard government often have very tight budgets indeed from bearing and rearing and educating children, taking out private health insurance as well as paying for extras if their children have the usual range of ailments, paying off a mortgage etc. If one wants to punish them for holding views which are ideologically unsound to the point of paying school fees that actually reduce the cost of educating their children compared with their finding and sending their children to a suitable state school then one would squeeze them hard no doubt. But ensuring that all the financial squeezes on them are much greater than on prosperous grey nomads or a childless gay couple with Premium first night seats for the opera and ballet seems more than vindictive and absurd. It is surely against the national interest if successful and/or highly educated people who have put off having children to their late 20s or 30s are so squeezed that they have only one or two children instead of the three or four they would have like to have. Because, let’s face it, that is how they are likely to adapt. Do we want that? Any of us? (I know the mad Greens, like Paul Ehrlich of the way-out predictions of disaster, would advocate that even the brightest and best give away their breeding in favour of corals and lions and whales and rare plants…..).

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