Like heterodox economists, Semmelweis was ignored…


In 1844, Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis graduated as a doctor, and was appointed assistant at the obstetric clinic in Vienna.  At the time, the great scourge of new mothers was ‘childbed’ or puerperal fever.  It was thought that the deaths were unpreventable… the result variously of overcrowding, poor ventilation, the onset of lactation or a dreaded ‘miasma’.

However, Semmelweis oversaw two maternity wards and couldn’t help but notice that the puerperal death rate was two or three times in one, to what it was in the other. In fact, the pregnant women were only too aware because they would go to all sorts of lengths, pleading to be booked in on the lower mortality ward.

The two divisions were apparently identical except that the first, with the higher mortality, was used for teaching student doctors, whilst the second was staffed with just midwives.  Semmelweis noted that the student doctors were coming to the maternity ward directly from the dissecting room, having just completed autopsies on women who had died from puerperal fever…. he suspected that somehow (at that time no-one knew about bacteria or viruses) that the students might be carrying the infection to healthy mothers on the ward.

As an experiment, he ordered the staff to wash their hands in chlorinated lime water before each examination, and within the week, the mortality rate dropped from 18% to 1%.  Furthermore, no women died on his wards between March and August 1848.

So with such an immediate, dramatic drop in the death rate, why was there no corresponding immediate and widespread acceptance of the practice of hand-washing?

Why did the editor of the Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift write that it was time to stop the nonsense about the chlorine hand wash?  Why did pregnant women have to wait over 25y for the importance of hygiene to be accepted; with Joseph Lister being credited as ‘the father of modern antisepsis’ instead of Semmelweis?

The reasons are still relevant not only in medicine but also in politics and economics …

Despite various publications of results where hand-washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community… Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory and Joseph Lister, acting on the French microbiologist‘s research, practiced and operated, using hygienic methods, with great success.

In other words, Semmelweis’s findings required a ‘paradigm shift’ but the old-guard ‘power elite’ were ‘invested’ in maintaining the status quo in spite of all the statistical evidence of the efficacy of hand-washing.  The weight of authority stood against Semmelweis’s prophylactic practice.

Exactly the same is true of the ‘austerity’ which is being inflicted on the UK and across the Eurozone. The tenets of neo-classical economics are daily shown to be completely wrong, contradictory and ill-conceived.  Furthermore, the policies (just like puerperal fever) are inflicting enormous damage on the most vulnerable in our populations.  Nevertheless, our politicians and our media go on spouting the same mythologies and neglecting to see the obvious.

… the Tory/LD coalition government is borrowing £245bn more than expected in 2010 and the economy has grown by just 1.1 per cent, 4.9 per cent less than expected …

Sticking with TINA (monetarism) is clearly a madness akin to the rejecting of hand-washing on the labour wards of the 1850s.

There is an alternative!

However, just as the medical professors had not wanted to relinquish their status or their paradigm of miasmas, the 0.1% have too much to gain from pursuing the current paradigm.  In this, they have been ably aided and abetted by the embedded assumptions of the so-called ‘free press’ and MSM which are owned and dominated by the ‘oligarchs’.

Mainstream economist Paul Krugman writes in the NY times:

… the average American is somewhat worried about budget deficits, which is no surprise given the constant barrage of deficit scare stories in the news media, but the wealthy, by a large majority, regard deficits as the most important problem we face. And how should the budget deficit be brought down? The wealthy favor cutting federal spending on health care and Social Security — that is, “entitlements” — while the public at large actually wants to see spending on those programs rise.

You get the idea: The austerity agenda looks a lot like a simple expression of upper-class preferences, wrapped in a facade of academic rigor. What the top 1 percent wants becomes what economic science says we must do.


 The ‘Deficit’ is the new ‘miasma’ analogous to the flawed theories of puerperal fever causation.

But the deficit is just a reflection of the state of the economy.  In a sovereign country like the UK with its own currency, it is not a cause of anything.  If there is no problem of excess demand, there is no ‘deficit problem’ regardless of the magnitudes, short term or long term.  The methodology of its calculation is wide open to dispute and in any event, one agent’s deficit is another’s surplus.   As Professor Bill Mitchell writes

Structural deficits – the great con job!


Similarly, with the so-called ‘debt’ problem …

but my intention is not to discuss economics but to show that disastrously ‘wrong thinking’ and manipulation can persist to our detriment and against all the evidence for extended periods of time… particularly when there is wealth and power to be gained.

As Paul Krugman concludes:

.. the years since we turned to austerity have been dismal for workers but not at all bad for the wealthy, who have benefited from surging profits and stock prices even as long-term unemployment festers. The 1 percent may not actually want a weak economy, but they’re doing well enough to indulge their prejudices.

And this makes one wonder how much difference the intellectual collapse of the austerian position will actually make. To the extent that we have policy of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent, won’t we just see new justifications for the same old policies?

Payam Sharifi quotes Mark Thoma, an economist who runs a popular economics blog :

“too many minds in the profession cannot be changed even when the empirical evidence is relatively clear…the politicization of the profession…plays a large role”.  Could it be that this reflects a crisis in economics, which is a crisis in its method of analysis and even the subject matter itself? 

That seems like good thinking .. there needs to be an Economic Reformation:

Economics in crisis – it needs a ‘Reformation’


As Antonio Gramsci wrote from his Italian prison cell, sometime in the 1930s:

‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

I think it is more than time for our politicians to ‘wash their hands’ of the ‘miasma of deficit reduction’ and act as ‘midwife’ for an economics which serves the 99.9% and the natural world.

For more information about heterodox economists and MMT (Modern monetary theory – macroeconomic reality):

Bill Mitchell – billy blog

New Economic Perspectives

Steve Keen’s Debtwatch

and many other sites

Related post:

Cameron and Osborne dwell on Bullshit Mountain, UK

No World Cup without Workers’ rights – Quatar 2022


Today is International Commemoration Day for Dead and Injured Workers

In 2010, FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar – a country with few protections for migrant workers who face injury and death every day.

FIFA and Qatar have both pledged reform, but their record is full of broken promises.

Save lives, restore the game’s integrity and the trust of fans: tell FIFA to choose a World Cup venue where workers’ rights are respected.

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Qatar has registered a record number of injuries from falls by construction site workers despite pressure on the Gulf nation to improve safety as it pushes ahead with a 150 US billion dollar construction programme ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

“They are reckoning that more than 1,000 workers were injured in falls last year; that’s very serious,” says Fiona Murie, Occupational Safety and Health Director of the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI).

“The problem in Qatar is that the workers don’t have rights to be involved in any prevention measures, they don’t have training, they don’t have the equipment,” she said from the global union federation headquarters in Switzerland.

Official data on injuries suffered by the migrant labourers toiling on Qatar’s construction sites is hard to find, but a doctor in the trauma centre of one of the country’s leading hospitals has said the number of workers treated for falls is up over 1,000 a year compared to an average of 600 in 2008.

“Companies should take more interest in the safety of their workers,” Dr Ahmad Zarour, Director of Trauma Critical Care at the Hamad General Hospital, told the Qatari newspaper The Peninsula recently.

“The authorities must be strict on rules and regulations to force these companies to take all safety measures and make it obligatory at all construction sites.”

Dr Zarour told the paper that ten per cent of those injured in falls are facing permanent disability.

When contacted by Equal Times, Dr Zarour declined to comment further without consultation with the hospital authorities.

Mounting concern

As Qatar steps up its massive pre-World Cup construction program, there is mounting concern about the safety of the mainly Asian migrant workers who make up the vast bulk of the workforce on the country’s building sites.

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), has called Qatar a “21st-century slave state” and warned that without improvements “more labourers will die during construction than the footballers who will step on the pitch.”

The trade union movement has been playing a leading role in raising awareness of the plight of migrants in Qatar, lobbying Qatari authorities, football’s governing body FIFA and companies seeking contracts to build World Cup infrastructure.

Migrant workers make up 99 per cent of the private sector workforce in Qatar.

Often they are underpaid and poorly housed, obliged to work long hours in blistering heat, and denied basic rights to change jobs or protest their conditions. Many have their passports confiscated or are tricked into abusive contracts from which they cannot escape. Trade unions are not allowed.

Hundreds of thousands of extra workers are expected to pour into the country to build the stadia, roads, hotels and other infrastructure planned for the 2022 World Cup, increasing concerns about construction site safety.

The increased international spotlight on Qatar in the run to the World Cup has given the labour movement leverage to press for improvements.

Murie said BWI and the ITUC have been seeking to secure a broad charter on workers’ rights in Qatar that would include health and safety standards.

They are working with international development banks and private construction companies to ensure that labourers’ rights are written into contracts for building projects.

“The big international contractors that will be working there and are already working there have got a very serious reputational risk that they are aware of, and they don’t want to be in a situation where there are going to be people killed,” she said.


Qatar’s rate of five fatal work injuries per 100,000 employees is eight times higher than the level in the United Kingdom, and well above the US rate of 3.5 per 100,000 according the website Qatar Under Construction which monitors safety issue in the construction industry.

In the past three years, at least 44 Indian workers have died from falls and other construction accidents, according to local media reports quoted by the site.

In 2010, work accidents killed 19 Nepali workers according embassy data cited in a Human Rights Watch report last year. Dozens more died from heart attacks blamed on working conditions.

Workers complain that building sites lack proper safety equipment, that there is insufficient safety training or that instructions and warnings are often available only in English or Arabic which many migrants do not understand.

Facing growing international scrutiny, the Qatari authorities have promised tighter safety rules and are discussing a special code to guarantee conditions for workers employed on World Cup projects.

But campaigners are concerned that without proper monitoring and enforcement such codes would be toothless.

“Qatar’s rulers asserted in 2010 that the country’s successful bid for the World Cup could inspire positive change and leave a huge legacy for the region, but the past two years have seen an absence of reform,” Jan Egeland, Europe Director at Human Rights Watch told a news conference in Doha this month.

“If this persists, the tournament threatens to turn Qatar into a crucible of exploitation and misery for the workers who will build it.”

This news was first published by Equal Times on 27 February 2013

Bhupendra is a father who lives and works in Qatar. A few months ago, a tragic work injury changed his life forever.

Sadly Bhupendra’s story is all too common for more than one million migrant World Cup workers.

We can’t stand by while greed continues to take more limbs and lives. It’s time to demand an end to Qatar’s dangerous and deadly work conditions.

Bhupendra has been brave enough to speak out and fight, but he can’t do it alone. What better way to honor the memories of those we’ve lost, than by standing up and joining him in the fight?

Just visit to get started:

‘Manufacturing Consent’

Currently, there are at least two shocking news stories which have been little represented on the BBC or in the national MSM.  One is the decision of two health trusts in Northern Ireland to entirely stop providing statutory residential care for the elderly.  The other is the House of Lords vote which failed to kill off the controversial section 75 of NHS competition regulations.

Martin Rowson depicts the reporting failure in his cartoon, described by cif commentator lightacandle:

BBC News Invisibility Cloak – on the Lords sell off of the NHS – yes they ignored that one completely – as usual. The Lords now being a vulture friend of fat cat, seeing as one in four have interests in private health too. And what fools are we to allow it to go on…

It also happens to be the 25th anniversary of the publication of ‘Manufacturing Consent’ which examined the role of the mainstream media: 

The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.

The video clip below is an interview with Edward S. Herman (who co-authored the book with Noam Chomsky) which commemorates the anniversary.  Speaking a few days ago, Edward Herman says to The Real News:

“All the problems of the propaganda media model we talked about in the book have grown worse”.

In 1992, Edward Herman wrote in ‘Beyond Hypocrisy’:

Dissenters are excluded in the normal sourcing and processing of news, so that freedom of speech is perfectly compatible with systematic barriers to views that jar and threaten. Reporters are forced to work within the limits imposed by the market system in order to survive and prosper in the media organizations….

Despite these structural facts, it is frequently asserted and has become a conservative cliché that the mass media, especially network TV and the leading establishment dailies, are both “liberal” and “adversarial” to established authority.

That certainly echoes the Tory view of the BBC.  Furthermore, Herman proposed two laws; a ‘power law of access’ and an ‘inverse power law of truthfulness’ which are interrelated.

 The structure of power that shapes media choices and determines who gains access also affects truthfulness in the mass media.

Those who have assured access can lie; the more powerful they are, the more easily they can lie and the less likely it is that their lies will be corrected.

The higher the rank the more “credible” the statement; the more credible the speaker, the greater the freedom to lie.


Those who try to disprove the lies of the powerful have their limited access further reduced because their discordant messages would offend the powerful.  In any event, the messages of the weak and powerless can be largely ignored without cost to the mass media (whose biases would incline them toward avoidance anyway).

In his interview with The Real News, Edward Herman reiterates his view that ‘The media are simply part of the political force… lies are not contested.. the MSM does not allow alternative viewpoints .. We need a democratic order where the public’s interest feeds into the media.’  He considers that new media like The Real News show potential, but still believes that funding is needed for more investigative journalism.

Who on the left would disagree?

“Manufacturing Consent” 25 Years Later


Published on Apr 19, 2013