To drink cows milk or not to drink cows milk – that is the question

 

Righty-ho so let’s break down this CNN article by Wayne Drash which claims “Drinking non-cow milk linked to shorter kids, study suggests”.  The plan here is to assess some research about a very specific effect of cows milk on the height of young children so I’m not going to go into a bunch of other stuff around cows milk – just addressing the points of this research.

Remember from this article I wrote on “How to tell if that new research study your friend posted on Facebook should be shared or deleted” these were the red flags we needed to look out for:

  1. A self reported behaviour survey – especially one where the participant is being asked to recall something they did a long time ago
  2. The lack of a control group, test/treatment group (and in some cases) a placebo group
  3. Non randomised
  4. Non Blinded or Non Double Blinded
  5. Small sample sizes
  6. Non peer reviewed – i.e published in a dodgy journal
  7. Statistical significance without IMPORTANCE

So let’s review.  Firstly, we have to look BEYOND the article to the research itself.  The only link the article had was to the American Journal of Nutrition – there was no original source link but I found the original research paper by searching “Jonathon Maguire non-cow milk” (the name of the researcher and a keyword on the research topic) on trusty ol’ Google.

This is the link to the abstract for the research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/early/2017/06/07/ajcn.117.156877.abstract

Sometimes you can take the full title of the abstract and do another Google search and find the full version posted somewhere (e.g. Association between noncow milk beverage consumption and childhood).  Very often I can find it on Researchgate which I have access to. Unfortunately I tried that in this case and it hasn’t been around long enough for any other sources to be hosting the full version.  If you’re a uni student, your uni email should give you access to a whole host of credible journals and so you’ll generally be able to access the full version.

Ok so for now we’ll have to work with what we’ve got – the research abstract.

  • Self reported behaviour survey: YES
    So we need to approach with caution.  The abstract says its a cross sectional study of kids enrolled in an existing research program called the “Applied Research Group For Kids”.  I looked that up and found this: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24982016.  Looks pretty solid and as a longitudinal study, they’re basically asking a bunch of questions on a regular basis so participants aren’t having to remember what they did ages ago.  The program is also listed on the US National Library of MedicineNational Institutes of Health so I feel pretty safe about this.
  • Lack of control, test and placebo group: N/A
    Not really relevant here as its a longitudinal study which is just collecting a bunch of different data over time.
  • Non randomised: N/A
    As above, not relevant per above
  • Non Blinded or Non Double Blinded: N/A
    Not relevant as participants were not assigned to control, treatment or placebo groups because they weren’t testing any particular treatment
  • Small Sample Sizes: NO
    The sample size is 5,034.  This sample size is ok but I would use caution in applying these results more broadly because these are 24-72 month old Canadian kids, the majority of them are of caucasian background. Now given that 75 percent of African Americans and American Indians and 90 percent of Asian Americans are lactose intolerant – lactose intolerance develops in Asian and African genetic heritage in much higher rates than caucasian – this study may not be applicable in those cases. As a bit of background to lactose tolerance/intolerance, basically when you’re a baby you have a bunch of enzymes called “Lactase” which essentially helps your body to break down the sugar molecules in milk called “Lactose” and some of us don’t keep producing those enzymes once we’re done with breastfeeding! (some more info on this here).
  • Non Peer Reviewed: NO
    Nope this was published in a good journal.  Here are the results for the journal’s credibility.
  • Statistical Significance Without Importance: YES
    This is really the biggest problem with this whole study.  This is the assumption that the researchers have made “Cow milk consumption in childhood has been associated with increased height, which is an important measure of children’s growth and development”.

    That is true, but it’s also a misleading statement because they are not defining how much height is good.  Saying that “height is an important measure of child development ipso facto a taller child is a healthier child” is a fallacy.  This is like saying “Vitamin A is good for me so more is better”.  Well, that’s not true.  Too much Vitamin A can cause dizziness, nausea, headaches, coma and oh yes…death.Now I’m sure these researchers have good intentions, but they seem to have ignored previous research as a baseline or benchmark for their assumptions.

    Sure, western society holds up males in particular as being “better” for being taller.  But does that mean they’re healthier? Nope. All evidence points to shorter being healthier. This is info from the main US govt health site on this topic https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1071721/.  This overview of research to date on the topic is well worth the 15 minute read if you’ve got the time. Seriously, don’t take my word for it.

    Furthermore height is the main mediator of higher risk of hip fractures later in life for men – and is determined by their earlier intake of milk.  Here is the original study abstract for the above statement here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/24247817/.

    The concern I have is how the researchers of the kids and nonmilk study choose to describe the background to their research:
    “Many parents are choosing noncow milk beverages such as soy and almond milk because of perceived health benefits. However, noncow milk contains less protein and fat than cow milk and may not have the same effect on height.”

    Is it true that soy and almond milk have perceived health benefits (that may, or may not be true depending on what research has shown vs what is widely believed). Yes that’s pretty true.

    And is it true that soy milk contains less protein than cows milk?  Let’s take a look…

  • 1 cup of Soy milk protein: 8 grams
  • 1 cup of Cow milk protein: 8 grams
  • 1 cup of Almond milk protein: 1 gram

    Gee…that doesn’t seem right…have they averaged out protein across Soy and Almond Milk perhaps to give “nonmilk” drinks an overall lower protein number? Because by my lay-person eye it looks to me as if they have the same amount of protein.  Of course milk may have other nutrient soy does not have and I’m not disputing that but why say something when it’s not true across the board?
    Surely you’d make sure you were looking specifically at who drank almond milk vs soy milk as a non milk alternative and understand the difference between both.
    Let’s ask a more important question.  Is it fat OR protein that contribute to height?
    Erm, neither exactly. Protein is part of it, but it’s actually calcium as well as the Insulin-like Human Growth Factor hormone that is present in cows milk at a much higher dose than that of human breast milk which is thought to contribute to height gain.

    And lets as a final and important question.  If western societies continue to promote health through consuming animal products through infancy through adolecence when more than than half of the world’s population is intolerant, what are we saying?  That only those who are lactose tolerant can be truly healthy? I’d love to see more studies that divide people into three groups:

  • Group 1: Conventional treatment (e.g. milk)
  • Group 2: Plant based supplement that meets all the same / similar nutritional properties that are thought to affect the variable (e.g. perhaps this is soy + other factors not present in soy as fortification)
  • Group 3: None or “on the market” options

Why are we only doing studies that suit a caucasian genetic makeup?

So what does all the above mean for this study ?
Well, the findings of association itself are not wrong.  But the assumption that is being created in the way the introduction is phrased are disturbingly misleading.  What should happen next?

As the abstract itself states at the end “Future research is needed to understand the causal relations between noncow milk consumption and height”.

This is absolutely true because milk consumption (or the specific properties within it) may not be the cause of different height growth.  Epigentic forces could be contributing to the outcome here.  i.e. mothers and fathers who drink noncow milk and plan to give noncow milk to their children could have a variety of other different diet habits that have a different impact at the point of conception and methylation.

Recent epigenetic research shows for instance that mothers who take less than around 300 grams of protein per day during the early stages of pregnancy alter the DNA methylation status at the site of the Vitamin E receptor gene and this contributes to the child’s percentage fat mass later in life.  I wonder, does it impact their height too?  Because if it does, this could be a critical factor in helping to explain this Canadian research as having an epigenetic cause.  It is possible that women who choose to drink noncow milk, may also have a lower protein intake in general which in turn contributes to these epigenetic changes upon conception!  PS that is just a completely untested hypothesis of mine…but it’s not entirely crazy I don’t think..

But furthermore, future studies should first seek to establish what is considered to be a bottom level AND top level healthy height in childhood through to adulthood.  And ensure that studies around the benefits for shorter adult height are fully considered in this assessment.

Only then is it really possible to start drawing insight around what types of foods/drinks to give children and give them the best chance of health throughout their lives.

—-

Lastly, while trying to find images for this post I came across the cutest awkward cow toy I have ever seen. 😀  I think I’m going to buy one!

Proof everyone is NOT doing their bit for the 2014 Budget

Tonight, the Australian Govt budget was released.  To see the number of organisations being interviewed afterward almost in tears was quite devastating to watch.  The CEO of St Vincent De Paul put it eloquently:

‘There’s nothing admirable about humiliating people who can’t find work, nothing good about building the economy on the backs of the poor, and nothing smart about making it unaffordable to see a doctor’.

Out of the 20 or so interviews I watched on ABC News 24 this evening, there was only ONE person who was positive outside of the lot, and that was the representative of a Corporate Australia group.  Unsurprising?  Now who knows, maybe that’s bias, but lets look at the facts.

I have heard a bunch of rhetoric around “everyone must do their bit” to fill this budget deficit, as an answer to the deep cuts. For the moment, lets set aside the stuff that Labour and Greens keep talking about in terms of whether we really do have a problem or not (or whether the problem is as big as Liberals say it is), just because we have a Triple A credit rating, better than the US (blah, blah blah).

What I want to know is, when a representative of Corporate Australia smugly says “we’ll cop it, we’ll do out bit for the good of the country” – is it a FAIR ‘bit’?  i.e. are corporates/companies copping a proportionately fair amount of either cuts to services or additional taxes?

I don’t have exact figures on this, it has got some assumptions and worked backwards from this pie chart which shows a breakdown of tax contributions by segment to the Australian Govt annual revenue.  It’s 12am and I should be sleeping before an 8am catch up in the city and not writing a blog but I need to get this out!

Tax-Mix

So based on this, lets assume Corporate Australia (or at least companies) make about $153 billion in revenue post-costs (as company tax rate is 30% and that’s 3 times 76.6 billion) and according to the budget, they’re going to cop a $500m reduction (+ some other minor millions for certain key industries such as the auto industry).  That’s a 0.3% contribution based on total company revenue.

Australian citizens on the other hand, they’ll pay a total of $138m for an average of 6.9 visits to the doctor annually, plus $400m from the “top earners” paying a short term 2% extra tax on any amount earned above $180k which is already taxed at 45 cents in the dollar – (in the mean time, companies pay 30 cents in the dollar despite earning billions).

Lastly add to that the losses, the cuts of $80 billion across Health and Education (forget the investment into Medical Research…$20 billion is nothing in the world of Pharma – if a cool $20 billion was all it took to cure cancer as Joe Hockey tried to sell, trust me, it would have been done).  So, we add the taxes and the losses together for the average Aussie citizen and we get a total of $80.5 billion.  That’s a 13%  “contribution” by Australian citizens who let’s say earn an aggregate of $600 billion in wages minus tax deductibles (again I’m guessing based on working backwards from the total tax bill).

Let me repeat and make clear: 13% effective contribution averaged across ALL Aussie citizens verses 0.3% effective earnings contribution from companies. So I think we can safely say, that corporate Australia is happy for a reason…because they have in fact, not come even CLOSE to putting in their fair share for these services cuts and new taxes.

In the mean time, companies like Apple are being investigated for massive tax evasion (they paid just $193m tax on $27 BILLION REVENUE – that’s right kids, close to 10 BILLION worth of the 80 billion budget cuts being made could have been covered by the tax bill of the company you bought your last iPhone or iMac from).

Then there is the LOST revenue of the carbon tax which was going to be over $4b a year – now resulting, instead, in cuts to health and education when that could have been borne by business.  Instead, Aussie’s were worried about it hitting their pockets through high electricity bills.  Well guess what, its hitting their pocket anyway…and its even worse than the electricity bill.

In the mean time, a single mum with 3 kids has just been told today she’s going to need to shell out an extra $7 every time she takes one of her kids to the doctor…and then more at the pharmacy…and then more when she fills up on petrol…

Now, I’m not a maths whiz by any means…nor am I anti-corporate or company.  I have 3 start ups and I run my own business!  But I am also a citizen of the world and it seems to be, something is seriously, seriously wrong here.

Let me put it this way:
– Apple pays their outstanding tax bill and keep that money comin’ in for another 2 years ($24b)
– Australian companies pay an extra 5% in tax for ONE YEAR – I’ll happily sign up for that to save my friends and family affected by this ($7.6b)
– Abbott govt DOESN’T scrap the carbon tax for 3 years ($12b)
– Abbott reneg’s on his ridiculous purchase of military fighter jets ($12b)
– Top earning Aussies contribute 2% of earnings for 3 years ($1.5b)

And that’s already $57 billion over a 3 year period.  Budget problem solved. Hehe.

Obviously I am oversimplifying it, I get that.  But, sometimes looking at things simply, can help gain perspective.  One of my startups had a business model with a very complex formula, and today the business valuer found an error because he checked the math doing some really simple backward calculations.

In my very humble opinion, we live in a highly symbiotic relationship – businesses, and individuals – particularly in the way our capitalist society with socialist elements has been set up here in Australia.  That means that any major structural changes…to either side, can be highly damaging.

You can’t just take from one segment, you must take in proportional amounts, and those proportionate amounts must take into consideration the fact that equal contributions may not be enough (i.e. company profits go back into the company but profits are not forced to be distributed into new labour hire so i.e. more money for companies doesn’t automatically equal more jobs. Often they go to shareholders in dividends, and people who can afford to purchase company shares, are not those living on the poverty line – which means companies could AFFORD to bear a greater financial burden, and yet instead they are currently being asked to be just a fraction of it).

To shift the cycle, the cuts MUST be done so carefully as to have a proportionate negative effect.  Are cuts necessary – may yes, maybe no – that’s actually beside the point.  The point is, for the cuts not to wreak havoc by potentially causing other issues (e.g. low education and health standards in research is always correlated to low GDP contribution and low employment rates…etc), the negative effect must be carried fairly by the variety of parties who currently make up the tax revenue for the Australian government.

Alright time for bed.  I just hope others can find the time and patience to do a bit of sense checking themselves, and come to an informed conclusion, rather than hearing and believing whatever is they hear on TV (regardless of which political party its coming from).

The Politics of Hormones

For the last two days every human being and animal I’ve crossed paths with has pissed me off.  And I can’t control it.  It was only when my partner gingerly pointed out one day that I seem to want to kill myself (or everyone else) on the same 3 days every month, that I realised that it was overwhelmingly brought on by my monthly hormone cycle.

Double-flowered carnationsThis morning I attempted to make myself feel better by having a healthy breakfast, buying some carnations and painting each fingernail a different colour of the rainbow.  It turns out chucking a hissy fit and have a rage-fueled cleaning spree did the trick instead.  As I was attempting to stuff these beautiful carnations into a ridiculously narrow vase, one of the flower heads popped off and I quickly realised this vase just wasn’t going to work and tension began to build.  I pulled the stems out and briefly glanced around the room only to be struck by the vision capabilities of a vampire, zeroing in on thousands of grotty specs of dust.  The kitchen was a pigsty.  The tension burst.  I screamed and threw the flowers stems across the room like a two year old.  Thankfully no one else was there to witness it.

And there you have it – human hormones in action.  Have too little of one and you become depressed, too much of another and you’re angry.  These regulatory substances that our own bodies produce, sometimes in cycles, sometimes in response to medications or environment, are created and then transported by our blood to stimulate specific cells or tissues into action.  Basically, they’re little chemical messengers that help to keep everything in balance.  Testosterone, Estrogen, Insulin, Oxytocin and even Dopamine as a peripheral hormone – over 50 of them in total.

But as anyone who has attempted to live a balanced life knows…balance is not exactly simple, it’s a constant juggling act.  So here’s my poor female  body, prepping itself to make babies every month while the rest of me has to catch up and balance all its internal chemicals just right to keep me sane.  I’m lucky it can at least do that.

Many of us would like to think we have absolute final control over our actions and disposition, but our predisposition toward certain behaviours or traits are governed by these chemical compounds which are originally a product of genetics or epigenetics, but then subject to change based on our own epigenome and our environment.  For instance, what we choose to eat or not to eat (given foods are also chemicals), will also effect the chemical composition of our guts and our bodies.  Here’s some examples of the power of hormones:

  • Pre-op Female Transexuals take more Estrogen to stimulate breast formation, heightening of voice and change of fat distribution across the body although this cannot change the effects of the androgens (testosterone and others) on the shape of the skeleton. Visa versa for Pre-op Male Transexuals.
  • Men who take more anabolic steroids like testosterone to make bones stronger and muscles bigger can have the side effect of high blood pressure, sharp aggressive moods, increase in body heat and reduced sperm count.Chemical structure of oxytocin.
  • Oxytocin has different effects in men verses women.  In men it improves the ability to identify competitive relationships whereas in women it facilitates the ability to identify kinship.  It is released by the body in high doses during pregnancy and around childbirth in order to ensure proper boding between the mother and the child and it is also released during sex, which is why women tend to interpret sex as having more meaning than males do, because while it can also be released in men – the presence of testosterone interferes with its release.
Cover of "Emotional Awareness: Overcoming...

Cover via Amazon

I have been reading Emotional Awareness which is a book that covers a 3 week conversation between the Dalai Lama and scientist Paul Eckman (who is behind vast tomes of research on human emotion and, in particular, how it is expressed in minute facial expressions.  His work formed the basis of the TV show “Lie to Me”). In the book they talk about the difference between moods and emotions – where a mood is generally not tied to a specific event or circumstance but has a continuous emotional effect, whereas an emotional episode is much more able to be linked to a trigger event.  In some ways, moods trigger emotional episodes that reflect the mood itself, while emotional episodes are often in response to some sort of external trigger.

When I look at this in the context of hormones, I can see how hormones would often be the precipitants of moods, which would then trigger a variety of emotional responses.  The stronger the hormone and stronger the mood, the stronger the emotional response, and of course like all learned human behaviour, these patterns would continue to strengthen over time if performed again and again and can be how people slip into ongoing depression or aggression.

All this also got me thinking about how religion deals with hormones and their effect on humans.  Two particular instances I can think of relate specifically to women:

  1. In Sharia (Islamic) law, two women must bear witness to a crime in order to be heard in court.  This is stated to be due to the emotional nature of women, although on further research I found the story was related directly to Mohammad wanting to save one of his wives from being stoned to death by being caught all one with another man by a woman.  It seemed he often made up rules to suit his worldly purposes.
  2. In Jewish law, a man cannot touch a woman who is in the bleeding section of her monthly cycle.

Interestingly, there seems to be no similar law governing the display of aggression in men which is similarly a hormone fueled disposition.  Perhaps from an evolutionary perspective this is because the male aggression hormone was highly useful during times of empire expansion and the need to protect land, while the female hormal response in its monthly cycle had no broader benefit (from the patriarchs perspective).

Because for the majority of history, both East and West have lived in patriarchal societies, the best way to look at hormones being a determinant of military and political outcomes is through a male sex hormone like Testosterone.  As an example, research in 1992 showed there was no difference in Testosterone levels between black and white boys during adolescence, but in adulthood, black male testosterone levels were much higher which then directly links to other statistics we see on the number of incarcerations of black verses white males.  Of course there are so many other factors involved including race related discrimination and levels of education…etc but hormones remain a factor.  For instance in contrast, there was significant racism in Western countries toward those of Chinese descent and yet their incarceration rate remains lower.  So if we widen out that thinking from groups to countries, we see the possibilities for testosterone levels in any particular age generation to change and potentially fuel the ability for one clan (or country) to change military outcomes, or to resort to military resolutions over negotiation.  Environmental factors also come into play with research showing in adult male rats that experience short term starvation can significantly reduce testosterone levels.

So here we have a mix of chemicals in our bodies which have the potential to guide us to achieve great good or great destruction and yet we have only scratched the surface in controlling their effects through various hormone replacement therapies that often have many unwanted side-effects of their own.

Fitbit: Wireless Personal Trainer

Fitbit: Wireless Personal Trainer (Photo credit: mrcd@sbcglobal.net)

Interestingly I recently did an interview with Jonathan Teo as part of a Fireside chat run by our meetup group Lean Startup Melbourne.  He led initial investor rounds into Twitter and Instagram and more recently Snapchat and is one of the key people in the tech industry who has been able to predict new technology trends.  One of the key trends being talked about in the tech industry at the moment is wearable tech (being able to monitor body functions insitu) – which is in part being quickly moved forward and expanded by breakthroughs in nanotechnology and size/power of computer chips.

At our last meetup, one of the speakers was from Lab on a Chip in Melbourne who talked about the real possibility in the near future of capabilities being produced that would enable the immediate mapping of genomes and epigenetic markers and then the smart releasing of medications or hormones through a patch (just like a smoking patch…but way smarter!).
Here’s hoping there’s a nanotech-hormone-patch for PMS before I smash a plate….or five.

Australian Minister Crisis: Our Leader Knowledge Deficit

English: en:Julie Bishop, Deputy Leader of the...

Julie Bishop, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I had a brief but interesting conversation with a work colleague which ended in this person angrily denouncing the background of former Finance Minister Penny Wong – explaining that she didn’t really have any finance experience at all, and also revealing they voted Liberals in the same sentence.  I took the mention of these two things together to suggest my colleague was making the assumption that the Liberal party had candidates that were more educated and better suited to their roles.  So I decided to do a bit of my own research and answer the question with some actual evidence.

I created a spreadsheet of each of the newly announced Ministers for the Abbott Government and compared them against the previous Labor Government minister that was in the role the longest (as there were quite a few changes at the end – but I’m going to ignore those for the purpose of this exercise.  Then I went about confirming the educational and industry experience background of each and every single member and based on that, judging whether their experience and education was relevant to their appointed portfolio.

Note that I have NOT counted experience managing a folio in government as “experience” in the industry.  I don’t think this information is available anywhere on the internet and it took me about 4 hours to do so hopefully its useful to people other than my curious-self!

Alright, drum roll for the results…

AUSTRALIAN LIBERAL PARTY MINISTERS
(Newly appointment Abbott Government Ministers)

Portfolio Liberal Minister Education Experience Relevant?
Prime Minister Tony Abbott Bachelor Economics, Law Journalist, Plant Manager, Political Advisor (10 yrs), Parliament (17 yrs) N/A
Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop Bachelor Law, Harvard Mgmt Program Lawyer (20yrs), Parliament (14yrs) No
Infrastructure & Regional Development Warren Truss Highschool Farmer, Chair on multiple regional agriculture boards (12yrs), Parliament (12yrs) Part
Employment Eric Abetz Bachelor Arts, Law Lawyer (28yrs), Parliament (6 yrs) No
Arts George Brandis QC  Bachelor Arts/Law, BA Civil Law Lawyer (20yrs), Parliament (7yrs) No
Social Services Kevin Andrews Bachelor Arts, Law, Masters Layer/Lawyer Education/assistance (11yrs), Parliament (22 yrs) No
Human Services Marise Payne Bachelor Arts, Law Political and public affairs advisor (10 yrs), Parliament (16 yrs) No
Small Business Bruce Billson Bachelor Business, DipEd Mgmt Public Service (3yrs), Parliament (17yrs) No
Environment Greg Hunt Bachelor Arts, Law, MA Public servent – advisor on foreign policy (10yrs), Parliament (12yrs) No
Immigration & Border Protection Scott Morrison  Bachelor Science Policy and research council (6 yrs) Senior roles in tourism (7 yrs), Parliament (6yrs) Part
Finance Matthias Corman Bachelor Law Health (4yrs), Public service (7yrs), Parliament (6 yrs) No
Health and Sport Peter Dutton Bachelor Business Police Officer (9yrs), Parliament (12yrs) No
Defence David Johnston Bachelor Jurisprudence Barrister & Solicitor (20 yrs), Parliament (17yrs) No
Agriculture Barnaby Joyce Bachelor Commerce Grew up on cattle farm, Army reserve  (5yrs), Accountant (5-10yrs), Parliament (5-10yrs) Part
Justice Michael Keenan Bachelor Arts, Philosophy Bar attnt/salesman (8 yrs), real estate  (4 yrs), Parliament (6 yrs) No
Education Christopher Pyne  Bachelor Law Public service (3yrs), Solicitor (3yrs), Parliament (20yrs) No
Industry Ian Macfarlane  Highschool Farmer, President on multiple regional agriculture boards (25yrs), Parliament (10 yrs) Yes
Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion  Rural leadership program graduate Fisherman, Business Owner, Mining co researcher & manager, company director, Seafood councils, Parliament (11 yrs) No
Veterans Affairs & ANZAC Michael Ronaldson  Bachelor Law Barrister & Solicitor (18 yrs), Parliament (21yrs) No
Trade and Investment Andrew Robb  Bachelor Economics and Agricultural Science Animal health officer (2 yrs), Agricultural economics (5 yrs), ED Farmers Assoc (7 yrs), Senior exec/SEO/Chair multiple pharma co’s, Praliament (9 yrs) Yes
Communications Malcolm Turnbull  Bachelor Arts, Law, Civil Law Journo (4 yrs), Barrister/Gen Counsel (7 yrs), Biz owner & grazier (10yrs), Chairman Ozemail (5 yrs), Parliament (12yrs) Yes
Housing & Homelessness N/A N/A N/A N/A
Financial Services & Superannuation N/A N/A N/A N/A
Treasurer Joe Hockey Bachelor Arts, Law Banking and finance lawyer/public policy (10 yrs), Parliament (14 yrs) Part


AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY MINISTERS
(Rudd Government Ministers / Gillard Government Ministers)
*Note, I have chosen the “main” minister – that is, the minister that spent the most time in the position while Labor was in government.

Portfolio Main Labor Minister Changes Education Experience Relevant?
Prime Minister Juilia Gillard 1 Bachelor Arts, Law Industrial Lawyer (12 yrs), Parliament (15 yrs) N/A
Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd 2 Bachelor Arts Diplomat (7yrs), CoS/Dir-Gen (7yrs), China consultant(3yrs), Parliament (15yrs) Yes
Infrastructure & Regional Development Anthony Albanese 0 Bachelor Economics Bank officer (1yr) and researcher (4 yrs), Party official (6yrs), Policy advisor (1yr), Parliament (17yrs) No
Employment Bill Shorten 3 Bachelor Arts/Law Superannuation director (9 yrs), Workers Union (6 yrs), Parliament (6yrs) Yes
Arts Simon Crean 2 Bachelor Law, BA Economics Labour Unions (20yrs), Parliament (23yrs) No
Social Services Jenny Macklin 0 Bachelor Comms Researcher (9 yrs), Health strategy (8yrs), Parliament (10yrs) Yes
Human Services Multiple: no one had this role for more than 12 months under the former Labor govt 5 Multiple Multiple No
Small Business Gary Gray 4 Bachelor Economics ALP Secretariat (14yrs), ED Med research (1yr), Snr Mining exec (6 yrs), parliament )6yrs) Part
Environment Tony Burke 2 Bachelor Arts, Law Shop assistant (9 yrs), Electorate office (2 yrs), Union (7 yrs) No
Immigration & Border Protection Chris Bowen 3 Bachelor Economics Researcher (1yr), Union (5 yrs), Public service (6 yrs), Parliament (9 yrs) No
Finance Penny Wong 2 Bachelor Arts/Law Law (6), Unions (4yrs), Parliament (11yrs) No
Health and Sport Tanya Plibersek 1 Bachelor Comms/Masters Politics & public Policy 20 years in public policy and parliament No
Defence Stephen Smith 2 Bachelor Law Barrister/Tutor (7yrs), party treasurer & advisor (10 yrs), Parliament (10yrs) No
Agriculture Joe Ludwig 2 Bachelor Arts, Law Industrial inspector (10 yrs), Training consultant (6yrs), Parliament (13yrs) Part
Justice Jason Clare 1 Bachelor Arts, Law Corp relations (4 yrs), Policy advisor (6 yrs), Parliament (10yrs) No
Education Peter Garrett 4 Bachelor Arts Musician and activist (28yrs), Parliament (11yrs) No
Industry Kim Carr 2 Bachelor Arts, MA, DipEd Teacher (11 yrs), Ministerial advisor and policy analyst, parliament (20 yrs) No
Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin 0 Bachelor Comms Researcher (9 yrs), Health strategy (8yrs), Parliament (10yrs) No
Veterans Affairs & ANZAC N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Trade and Investment Craig Emerson 3 Bachelor/MA/PhD Economics, PhD Philosophy UN Economic analyst, CEO SQ transit authority, Public service (10 yrs), Parliament (20 yrs) Part
Communications Stephen Conroy 1 Bachelor Economics Superannuation officer, research assistant, Parliament (14 yrs) No
Housing & Homelessness Brendan O’Connor 5 Bachelor Arts, Law Union official (11 yrs), Parliament (12 yrs) No
Financial Services & Superannuation Bill Shorten 3 Bachelor Arts/Law Superannuation director (9 yrs), Workers Union (6 yrs), Parliament (6yrs) Yes
Treasurer Wayne Swan 1 Bachelor Arts Lecturer (12 yrs), Analyist and advisor (4 yrs), Parliament (14 yrs) No

I also did a quick analysis of a number of other things I often hear people spouting like “There’s much more experience in Liberal” or “Labor are riddled with Unionists” or “Liberals have a shitload of Lawyers”…or something along those lines.  Now here’s the truth:

Item Liberal Labor
Number of Lawyers 13 (59%) 11 (47%)
Number of Unionists 0 (0%) 6 (26%)
Number of Biz/Comm/Economists 5 (21%) 6 (26%)
Number of Arts Degrees 8 (33%) 12 (52%)
Years experience in Parliament 272 years 265 years

SO WHAT HAVE I LEARNED…

  1. The level of appropriate skills matching between ministers and their portfolios is an absolute JOKE with BOTH parties, in the Liberal Party only Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Robb and Ian Macfarlane had the necessary industry background for their roles.  In Labor – only Bill Shorten, Jenny Macklin (not her role in Indigenous Affairs) and Kevin Rudd (as Foreign Minister) had the necessary backgrounds for their roles.  This is just not good enough.  There wouldn’t be a CEO in the world (unless he or she were a startup CEO), who would be hired by the board if they didn’t have extensive experience in their area.  Let’s take Telstra CEO David Thodey for example.  He worked in sales and the senior exec positions for IBM and then Telstra for close to 20 years…the guy knew his telecommunications before he stepped into a role with a company that hires 45,000 Australians and manages 25.5 billion in annual revenues.  Yet, just as an example Marise Payne who managers Human Services has no background in it, and yet she’s responsible for a portfolio containing Medicare AND Centrelink – equal to probably over 200 billion or more each year!  Whhhhatttt?  Let me make this clear to BOTH parties: 20 years experience as a Lawyer DOES NOT make you an experienced leader fit for a role managing a portfolio you know nothing about – no matter how you want to argue it!
  2. There is WAY too much change, surely making it nigh on impossible for anyone to get any real work done when ministerial management changes up to once every year.
  3. A bunch of Lawyers run our country…well 50% at least.  And its NOT just Liberals…its both parties.  Given the kind of mistrust most people have for the profession, its no wonder people are apathetic about politicians, and its no wonder they’re so good at spinning the truth – that’s what they’re all trained for.
  4. It’s true, Labor DO have more Unionists in their ranks (just over a quarter to be precise) – given Liberals have zero.  This claim is true.
  5. Labor actually has more finance knowledge and capability than the Liberals (based on education and experience alone – obviously I can’t judge talent), but it IS true that Wayne Swan as Treasurer, didn’t have broad experience in finance, although he was acting treasurer for many years.


Putting all of this another way just to show the absurdity…

  • We have Indigenous Affairs ministers who have never lived in Northern Territory where majority of the aboriginal population reside
  • We have Education Ministers who have never been teachers or principals or curriculum advisors
  • We have Health ministers who have never been doctors or nurses or health executives
  • We have Finance ministers and Treasurers who never did a degree in economics or finance
  • We have Ministers for Small Business who have never run their own business
  • We have Defense Ministers who have never fought in a war
  • We have social and human services ministers who have never worked in and with those disaffected communities
  • We have employment ministers who have never hired someone or been a HR manager
  • We have housing and homelessness ministers who have never worked in real estate or construction, or worked for any organisation that assists with homelessness

Ultimately, we have Ministers who seem so intellectually and emotionally removed (in terms of their non-parliament backgrounds) from the areas they look after, its beyond me how this country gets anything done at all.  How can they truly represent the country without having strong knowledge of the areas they look after?  It’s absolutely bizarre.  I guess we have to thank the public servants in making up for the shortcomings of their on-again/off-again bosses.

Thoughts people?  Is this a serious gap or a non-issue for you?

*If you want a copy of the excel spreadsheet, let me know and I can send you a copy.

13 real policy ideas to help navigate Australia through to budget surplus + happy people!

So I took some time to read through the CIS report which you can read here.  I’ve taken half a day to study and research them and decide for myself whether I agree.  So hopefully this can benefit others who can’t be bothered spending half a day but can take a few minutes to read instead.  I’ve included links to my research sources where possible.

Here’s some really interesting take outs:

  • Australia’s welfare system accounts for 65% of government spending and has doubled over the last 10 years from $150 billion to over $300 billion.  A third of that goes to welfare cash payments (like Newstart, Family Allowance…etc) – most of which are more strongly means tested than other OECD countries – but current spending trends are unsustainable and contribute to ongoing dependence.
  • Close to half of all Australia’s welfare payments (over $150m) are accounted for by what is referred to as “welfare churn”, where an Australian (those of incomes higher than $18.2k per annum) pays taxes, and then those taxes come back to them as benefits – generally in kind benefits like education or health.
  • Between the ages of 15 and 55, an Australian’s benefits vs taxes is fairly even (even though it may not be happening at exactly the same time – e.g. students receive education benefits, but then pay for the next generation to receive those benefits with their taxes).  But after 55, there is a huge gap as taxes decrease significantly while welfare benefits increase significantly until the time of death.  This makes the policies around  welfare benefits to the growing ageing population one of the most crucial issues in the Australian Government’s budget.  It’s a $50 billion+ a year issue.  In comparison, that’s double Australia’s defense budget.

    Weekly value of total benefits and taxes

    Weekly value of total benefits and taxes

  • The biological essence of this issue – particularly over the next 20 to 30 years, is that Australians aren’t having enough babies who can grow up to get their own jobs and pay enough taxes so that the previous generation’s age cohort will be properly supported.  The population grew, but now its not replacing itself.  In terms of the environmental impacts of an ever growing world population, this is perhaps a positive, but in terms of the real experience of people living their lives in Australia right now and over the next 30 years (for example, people like me who will be 60 in 30 years), this is a serious problem.

Recommended policy changes

WELFARE CASH PAYMENTS

While there are some really great ideas for more progressive reforms, there’s a big problem with implementing them.  When you change a system that affects generations of people, there is a long period of time in which SOMEONE has to suffer…which means that reforms of that size never make it through parliament, or if they do – they come out the other end so changed that they can never have the effect that was intended – and if changed back by a new power in government, can due irreparable damage to the lives of people in had intended to help.

So, with that in mind, smaller changes, while not completely solving the dependency factor, can slowly reduce it and incentivise people to change over a long period of time, until such a time as major reforms are possible.

  1. Align the age at which someone can access their superannuation funds (60) with the age at which a person can apply for the pension (65) so that people don’t use the intervening 5 years to reduce their means-tested assets to the point at which they can benefit from the pension despite not necessarily qualifying for it 5 years earlier.
  2. Include a persons principal home as part of the means testing process for pensions, which will incentivise people to use their superannuation drawings to purchase income generating assets, rather than avoid them in order to qualify for the pension.
  3. Also link the age of retirement and access to super and pension, to life expectancy.  This is something the UK is considering.  To put this into context, Superannuation was introduced to Australia at a time by the Labor government when life expectancy at birth was 77.38 years.  In 2012, life expectancy at birth was 81.85 years.  That’s a difference of 4.47 years.  Now, I imagine this age would need to change based on the birth year of the child – or perhaps birth cohort of 10 years.  For instance, if 50 years from now, humans were living 50 years longer, it would make absolutely no sense for them to retire and be supported by the state for 50 years.  So if the age isn’t increase in line with life expectancy, then its up to the tax payers to bear the burden of the difference of X years.
  4. A more politically difficult item to implement would also be the limit index pensions to the Consumer Price Index.  Currently it is linked to both CPI and also the Pensioner and Beneficiary Living Cost Index (PBLCI) – whichever is higher.  The inherent problem I think being called out here is that if government spending on welfare increases at a higher rate than the CPI, then welfare earners spend more, thereby increasing their own Index, and of course since it will be higher than CPI, it will be used to define the exact amount of benefits…basically becoming a self-fulfilling cycle of increases that are instigated by government spending in the first place.  I’m not ENTIRELY sure my line of reasoning here is correct, but that’s what I’ve deduced.
  5. Aged care supports to be means tested just like every other welfare payment is.  So basically providing system consistency to ensure money goes to those who actually need it.

FAMILY WELFARE CASH BENEFITS

  1. Reducing tax churn for middle income earners – by ensuring that again, the benefits are delivered to the lower income families who need it most, but also that some of the savings made are distributed back to the middle and higher income tax payers.   Family Tax Benefits payments have two parts and were originally set up to support families with a stay at home parent.  Part A provides $100 per child per week for family’s with incomes under $75k and Part B provides lesser payments ($70 for kids under 5 and $50 for kids 5-18) for people with family incomes below $150k – so, helpful for anyone with a family earning between 76k and 150k per annum.  Now I wanted to double check this against Australian Poverty lines.  These obviously differ depending on whether you own your house outright and therefore don’t have to pay rent and also on how many children you have.  But line was set this month at $34k a year (Pre tax) for the 33% of Aussie’s who own their own home and have one child, and the line goes up to $79k (Pre tax) for those with 4 kids who don’t own their own home (although average number of kids is 2).  So I think it’s safe to say that households with a family income of $150k – which is more than double the income of a family living on the Australian poverty line, are not the ideal beneficiaries of the welfare system – they are better of having tax credits.  So based on my own research I would also conclude with the research paper that Part B could be phased out over time.   But I would add that Part A should be linked to the Poverty line index, so that as living standards change and the price of living increases, welfare benefit categories are seasonally adjusted.  Because I am sure the government brought the system in based on original poverty line figures…which inevitably change over time.  Based on the calculation of pre tax income, Part A should be increased to include family incomes up to $79k per year (where means testing shows they don’t own their property and have 4 children).
  2. Tony Abbott, Leader of the Liberal National Party Australia

    Tony Abbott, Leader of the Liberal National Party Australia

    The Liberal National Party’s plans to provide mothers with 26 weeks of wage replacement up to a maximum of $150k without means testing or a sliding scale of benefits based on income which the rest of our taxation and many other means tested systems are based upon.  This presents a significant financial concern.  Of course there are ways for empowering people to take paid leave and enjoy the beautiful time that all humans should enjoy in being a parent to a new child – without creating systems that contribute to welfare churn.  For instance, using a tax effective savings vehicle – where Australian’s are all provided with a way to save for education, health and new life creation (having babies!) in a particular savings account and if they do so, are taxed at a much lower rate (perhaps the effective tax saving difference based on welfare with- i.e. 30-40% rate saving – with the extra 15-20% kept to fund those who need it most).  People can then access these funds when they have children – or perhaps if they never do, they could access those funds after menopause??  That’s an interesting thought!  Childcare payments could then be reduced as people self funded time off to spend with their new or recently grown family.  Either way, the current Labor party’s child care benefits scheme is a more financially prudent policy.

  3. The report also suggests that for the above two items (and other family and child related welfare payments) there is benefit in reform across all of them.  The number of children you have is a major indicator of potential new costs, so the suggestion of replacing all these benefits with a non-means tested Child Tax Credit could be an option.  The issue I see there is that it provides more money for those who earn more and therefore pay more tax, and zero money for those who earn under $18.2k.  So, there would need to be some more thought put into how this could be achieved – particularly covering any transition period.  Would the tax credit happen as a part of someone’s weekly/fortnightly wage?  What of people who are paid monthly? Perhaps the tax credit could increase or decrease on a sliding scale based on income and then switch from a credit to welfare payments on the lower end of the scale?  I guess you’d need to do more modelling to check.
  4. CentrelinkThe other major component of welfare payments is within unemployment.  Interestingly 60-70% of people who take up Newstart move back to paid work within 1 year.  One proposal suggests people could use Personal Future Fund accounts to self fund this period…but I think this is a bit of a stretch.  That would require someone to have up to $40k in savings at any time JUST IN CASE they were unemployed for up to a year.  I think that Australian’s would find that a big stretch to agree to.  The other suggestion which I think makes more sense and is something Aussie’s are already familiar with, is to provide those who are recently unemployed with a loan amount that is paid weekly – but which must be paid back as soon as they start working and earning over a certain amount that would allow them to service the debt.  It works just like the HELP fee system so as not to disadvantage those who are unable to get paid work.  I think the debt would probably need to be capped at 1 years of benefits (given that is 70% of the cases anyway), because psychologically, the more someone felt they “owed” to the government, the greater the disincentive to find work because after 5 years they’d owe over $70k to the government which is 1/5 of a house loan – most humans would feel overwhelmed at that obligation.

DISABILITY SUPPORT CASH BENEFITS

  1. The Disability Support Pension was an interesting one.  I found this one difficult because there is so much complexity around physical and mental disabilities.  On the one hand there is a social etiquette which dictates we should avoid expecting the same from a disabled person as that of a normally abled person, on the other, there is much that an individual human can gain from positive and meaningful contribution to the workforce.  Of course the degree to which this is experienced is dependent on the individual, the type of disability and the severity.  Now ABS data shows that disabilities that begin in adulthood are most likely to occur in the 45-64 age bracket (prior to workforce retirement) – and those in the 55-64 bracket are the least likely to return to work.  At the moment the payments for DPS (Disability Support Pension) are not aligned to the objectives of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (which provides support for increased workforce participation).  The two programs are at odds – one provides the support, but the other does not require people to look for work in order to obtain benefits, so there is little incentive for someone to go and look for work – even if there is now a program structure to support it!  So by aligning the two – i.e changing the pension to require those with partial working capacity to seek out work, the aims of the NDIS can be carried out and the government can also save money on pension payments as a side benefit.  I think this is a good idea in principle, but it is a tricky one to means test by “working capacity” and might have the effect of causing public outrage – particularly in instances where there are people that may be physically partially able, but combined factors of mental preparedness and also workplace preparedness creates a difficult environment.

EDUCATION SUPPORT BENEFITS

  1. Christine Milne, leader of the Australian Greens Party

    Christine Milne, leader of the Australian Greens Party

    On Primary education, Rudd government wants to spend more and Abbot wants to spend less or perhaps distribute the balance across primary/secondary and tertiary – both have an impact on the ability of future government expenditure and the ability to pull Australia out of deficit.  On the other hand, the Greens proposal to means test government funding to private schools just pisses off any parent who is currently sending their child to a private school and is unlikely to be a policy that Parliament would accept as a solution.  But that’s not to say the track isn’t right…it just needs to be presented as a change for all that provides new freedoms and opportunities…rather than a new disadvantage for some.  The idea proposed is that the amount of tax money used to pay a public funded school position is instead provided as a tax credit that can be used for education.  The credit could be capped based on the price of attending the closest local school.  Now this still effectively lowers potential benefits to parents with kids going to private institutions – but its much more difficult to compare since now the decisions are being made by the individual, not by the institution. The approach increases competition within schools and raises the bar for all, while still providing education within an essentially socialist framework.

  2. On tertiary education, the current FEE help system takes no account of the earning POTENTIAL of the degree being studied as a means of determining % of HELP assistance available.  For instance, the average earning potential of a teacher is $64k per year, the average earning potential of a lawyer is nearly double that at $123k.  Reforms suggest this earning potential could be used as a means of reducing or increasing government subsidies as needed.  My personal thoughts are that this is a good idea in theory but individual job types and associated incomes vary wildly within particular industries, there are hundreds of jobs, and in some sectors salaries stay relatively the same over time while others go up and down – meaning the system would at least need to be smart enough to cater for all of these intricacies.  Certainly not impossible in the IT age…but important to consider.  Also increased fees for higher earning potential jobs could effectively cut out students from lower income backgrounds.  So I think if the system were to work, it would also need to include family means testing as part of the equation of potential fee help.

HEALTH SUPPORT BENEFITS

  1. MedicareFirstly I think it should be noted there is probably not too many Australian’s out there who aren’t fans of the socialist style medical system we have here in Australia.  Americans would say we are very lucky.  However, if we accept that the point of such a system is to provide healthcare to those who can’t afford it (unlike US where without health insurance, you’re in a real bind), then just like everything else, a socialist system needs to be implemented in a balanced way.  And this means means testing it in the way that practically all other welfare benefits are implemented in Australia.Here’s the issue: because you don’t pay (or you receive a rebate) on visits to the doctor or purchases of prescription drugs, and the doctor and pharmacist don’t lose out either – the system encourages people to use it more, leading to more spending that may be unnecessary – particularly if the same result and levels of population health could actually be achieved for less.  In America, cost benefit analysis is used to make decisions on how to best decide which drugs or equipment to subsidise.  Many suggest that the better approach is another measure: Quality Adjusted Life Year – which is a measure that I think makes more sense for this area where the “cost” is money and the “benefit” is life verses death or disablement so its not as simple as money vs. less final life benefits!  On top of this, means testing as a method of ensuring health welfare benefits go to those who most need it vs. those who can afford health insurance and the price of a visit to the GP seems like a common sense approach.Ultimately, why should someone earning $75k or more get exact same government help on healthcare as someone earning $18k.   Logic would say…well they pay their taxes just like everyone else – so they should get the benefit right?  But if, similar to the other suggestions in the report around tax credits, a percentage of their taxes could be used to go directly to health insurance which was perhaps expanded to cover a % of GP visits depending on means tested income – this, with the savings gained from other welfare areas, could potentially cover costs without any major change for high income earners – making it a more palatable solution for the whole of the Australian public.  Regardless, I think this idea needs more work because our healthcare industry is highly complex and involves many more intricacies in comparison to other welfare areas.

Overall, I think the ideas presented a pretty good – the question is then about implementation.  Change of this type in too many areas at once is not only difficult to achieve, it scares the population into thinking the government is cutting stuff willy-nilly because most people don’t have half a day to spend going through and really thinking deeply about exactly what the proposed reforms mean like I just did today!  So focusing on just one or two areas that would have the biggest impact as part of an election campaign I think would be the maximum that the Australian public could psychologically handle.

On a final note, what I found so interesting about all of this, was that the Australian governments policy attitude toward Indigenous Australians, is actually reflective of its policy attitude to ALL Australians.  Its paternalistic in nature.  But paternalism disguised as public generosity won’t save future Australians from having to deal with the fall out of policy decisions that drive our budget into further deficit, particularly as Australia’s population ages.