Is there an alternative to muppetville?

Is there an alternative to muppetville?

Tomorrow I will tootle off to my local primary school to vote in the NSW state election. It is a legal obligation I have as an Australian citizen and I am grateful for it.

At a deep level, I know that to vote is a privilege that I must take seriously.

I find it easy to honour this feeling thanks to growing up through the Thatcher years in the UK and then witnessing at close hand South Africa change from apartheid to a majority democracy with a global legend as its first president. Whilst politics is always messy, there is a much bigger reality with democracy, the recognition of individuals and that they have a right to speak.

Voting is a public display of that right.

This time, more than all the others, I have no idea which of the muppets should get my vote. None of them gives me any confidence that they can speak for me, even for part of me. They are all incompetent, out of touch, and passionate about the wrong things. The better ones try hard and may even have their hearts in the right place but enthusiasm alone is not enough to earn anyone’s vote.

The benefit from my public display of democratic right should go towards outcomes, real benefits to society. That is I’d like to vote for policies.

I recognise that policies are attached to politics and therefore candidates. And I know that this means I can’t cherry pick my policies, they’re a job lot, but I would like to know what they are, even in general terms.

I consider myself reasonably well read and someone who pays attention. I know the names of the local candidates, at least for the major parties and the leaders of those parties at state and federal level, but I do not know the policy positions of the parties or their candidates. This is not good.

What do I know?

Well, I know that the posturing and attempts to manipulate me are rampant.

Witness the idiocy of the Federal prime minister unable to say the word ‘coal’ in public when a year ago as treasurer he held up a fist-sized piece of coal in the parliament to wave aggressively at the opposition. See a witty summary of this coal lunacy by Katherine Murphy.

I also know that outside the Canberra comic book the manipulation in other parts of the world is creating chaos (Brexit), erosion of the rule of law (Trump and the US attorney), extremism (Brazil, Trump again), poverty (North Korea, far too many countries in Africa), overconsumption (everywhere) and, well, the list could go on and on. There is no doubt we ‘live in changing times’ to quote the old Chinese curse.

Is there an alternative to muppetville?

Knowing you are cursed is one thing. What you choose to do about it is another.

The other day I sat with a colleague in a delightful coffee shop on the second floor of the Queen Victoria Building in downtown Sydney. More privilege that we acknowledged as we drifted onto the topic of the vacuum in global politics.

It was easy to agree that we are in changing times and that what we see now in Trump, Brexit and aimless Australian politics are symptoms of the vacuum. We also easily agreed that nature hates a vacuum and will rush to fill it.

What we couldn’t figure out was what nature would come up with: more extremes, a progressive middle, something different altogether.

Our conclusion, that there will be a holding pattern while the stupid white men die off and then the youngsters come up with something wonderful, felt shallow and, frankly, a cop-out. Why abdicate in favour of the next generation when we are the ones with the batten?

I think because we are actually at a loss.

My generation and the couple that came after mine does not have an alternative.

We cannot give up capitalism because we actually like what it gives us (we like wealth and privilege a lot) and, more or less, capitalism is steadily doing it for more and more people. We actually don’t have a realistic alternative to mobilising capital and labour for profit.

We cannot ditch democracy for similar reasons. We like it, for the most part, and we know that the alternatives are risky and erode our liberty.

We certainly cannot lose the right to speak through our vote. That would be going back to the dark ages, literally.

Instead, we can just hobble along because it’s what we’ve always done and, hey, it has worked so far. Who’s to say it can’t keep on working.

So the answer is no, we don’t have an alternative.

This both scares me and ensures that nobody will like this post.

Happy thinking.

Fighting for me

Fighting for me

If I get into a fight in a pub at best I’ll be thrown out, maybe banned or if the police arrive, arrested and given a legal clip around the ear.

If I fight a family member and someone finds out the law should prosecute me for that too, although not enough of such actions are punished.

Suppose I am a wimp and decide I need someone else to fight for me. I can hire a more robust type and for a fee they would achieve the biffings I need done.

It could be a bigger fight that requires the services where the taxpayer pays the fee for so-called legitimate fights knowns as wars, and that is fine. War is the worst kind of fight hurting everyone involved for a long time. People die and those that survive are scarred forever.

None of these typical uses of the term fight are pretty. Indeed most fights are not either worth it or the best way to resolve matters.

So why does my local politician have a campaign slogan ‘fighting for you’?

Well obviously she wants to be on my side. Perhaps be the hired biff to do my dirty work for me so I can be at arm’s length from the law.

Maybe she sees me as a wimp.

Obviously she wants me to think that there is something worth fighting for, that the services and legal systems that parliaments legislate are actually a fight for one against another. If you fail to fight you fail to get your share.

I don’t want that at all.

Biffing the other guy because he wants a different policy to me is not what I want.

I’d like robust and intelligent discussion that uses of all available evidence and then a set of solutions chosen to maximise the collective best interest for today, tomorrow and generations to come. I’d like this to be a constructive process, one that builds relationships and supports as much diversity of views and ideals as is possible with the common ground of health, wealth and happiness supported for everyone.

Surprising as this may sound, I don’t think that wanting this outcome makes me a wimp.

Pragmatic resolutions require considerable courage and fortitude, not to mention patience and tenacity.

Fighting is the last resort not the first and certainly not a slogan I can vote for.

Good evidence

Good evidence

It’s fake news.

That is all I need to say to put doubt into your mind about anything in the media. Fake news is rhetoric that is nothing to do with the actual news item, who knows if the President did or did not spend private time with scantily clad Russian ladies, the point is for you to doubt the source. Just by calling anything fake the seeds of doubt are sown. Whatever evidence there is now has a much more difficult task.

The FIFA world cup in Russia was great entertainment for the soccer tragic. No doubt the aforementioned ladies also enjoyed it. The use of VAR technology to replay the action and review the minutiae of key decisions by the referee changed results but not the players behaviours towards the ref. They still jumped all over his decisions, and his person too. Players protestations to reverse a decision are even more vehement in the VAR age than they were before. They would claim it was fake even as the visual evidence played to a global audience.

Why do players protest so aggressively?

No referee has changed his mind because he was shirt fronted by an expensive haircut. In oblong ball codes such behaviour ends up in the sin bin.

The soccer boys do it to get into the referees head. Maybe he’ll be less inclined to decide against them next time. And it works more than we realise. Even in the world cup with VAR looking over the referees shoulder there have been post protestation biases.

Fake news and haranguing the referee are just two of the tactics in the seeding of doubt game. It began with the mad men of advertising and is now everywhere.

There is a larger game at play here too. Consider this quote about the use of evidence.

In any decision–making setting there will be people with greater power than others to assert what counts as good evidence, but this does not mean that the less powerful will agree.

Alliance for Useful Evidence

The President of the United States has more decision making power than most. He can start a war, release a nuke, pardon a criminal and gain any number of retweets. But it does not mean we will all agree with his decisions even if he presents credible evidence for his choice. In other words he could demonstrate the real and immediate threat of global annihilation from WOMDs and not everyone would agree with a pre-emptive strike.

I can still run in my head the footage of missiles landing on Baghdad to start the first Iraq war. It was wrong.

So if the less powerful will not agree despite the evidence, a smart play is to discredit all evidence. Then agreement defaults to feeling and all you need then is enough people to feel like you do about your decision. Tariffs for example.

Again evidence, that is facts that generate real inference, struggles even for a voice. This applies no matter how good the evidence is.

There is no simple answer to the question of what counts as good evidence. It depends on what we want to know, for what purposes, and in what contexts we envisage that evidence being used. Research data only really become information when they have the power to change views, and they only really become evidence when they attract advocates for the messages they contain. Thus endorsements of data as ‘evidence’ reflect judgements that are socially and politically situated.

Alliance for Useful Evidence

Shouting ‘fake news’ has the effect of weakening evidence however good the evidence is, just as the protestations and rolling around in fake agony of the $10,000 a week boys gets into the referees head to weaken the evidence he see with his own eyes.

What to do?

The instinct is to rail against the ‘fake news’ tirade and seek ways to show that evidence matters, do the fact checking, use only credible sources and spend enough money to keep honest reporting somewhere near the front page.

This should be done but it is not enough on its own. Demonstrating fact from fake is unlikely to change hearts.

Tackling the psychology is the go, only that is a much longer play.

Submarines and taxes

Submarines and taxes

It’s election time in Australia. Soon the country must decide which colour muppets they would like to enter the Canberra bubble and argue amongst themselves over inanities that only they care about.

It is a depressing prospect.

Equally disturbing is our pain over the weeks leading up to the election. There will be TV ads, online adds, robo calls, more twittering than in Grandmas aviary and excruciating nodding by the professional head-nodders in the photo op entourage. It will strain the most stoic soul. The only interesting part will be my ad hoc study of the correlation between nodding styles and electoral swings.

In the ‘vote for me’ speeches from the prospective muppets there will be any number of announcements from the pork barrel. “See how much taxpayers money we are spending on you” they will say using different words. Wait, that is the money the law says we have to give you before anyone gets a paycheck. Yep, that money.

It is worth remembering that this allocation of taxes to support a healthy society is a key function of government, perhaps the key function. Lawmaking matters of course but the funding allocations affect everyone, every day. So knowing what the policies are and how much they will cost is important to know before making a voting choice.

Only there are numbers you are never told.

For example, the tax revenue. That is the annual amount they get to allocate. Perhaps it would be good to know the extent of the fiscal reserves or the amount of dosh actually in the pork barrel (as opposed to what might go into it).

Tax revenue is published of course. So we can go online and find that it was $489 billion in the 2016-17 financial year.

What proportion of this vast amount is already accounted for to support services, debt and any new commitments from the barrel is harder to glean. It’s available though should you have the patience to sift through budget papers.

The point is that these companion numbers do not make it to the hustings.

Yet we need them to make sense of any claims.

When a Minister announces that the government has committed A$50 billion to the purchase of French nuclear submarines, it is very hard to understand this number. It is vast of course, way more than the average lotto payout and several orders of magnitude larger than the numbers on our tax returns. So it is hard to find companions for sums this large without blowing the mind.

How about A$2,000 for every man woman and child in the country?

That’s A$5,200 for a typical household.

Imagine the politician on the hustings coming up with “Hi folks, this year we want each household to give five grand to the French. Don’t worry it comes out of your taxes and in return we get some submarines to protect us from the many hostile forces in our region”. The expression on the nodding heads would be priceless as they witness the political suicide before them.

But it shouldn’t be like this.

Defence is an important issue. People have a right to feel safe and be safe as far as the current military deterrents and diplomatic landscape allows. That $50 billion could a bargain.

It is possible to break the rhetoric and make sense of it all when the heads nod at the next monetary announcement.

Just remember that the governments spend roughly $20,000 per person per year if the tax revenue is shared equally and most of that goes on health, education, an array of social services, and infrastructure.

This will help put into context the offer of a grant to upgrade the local library and the bigger spending on military hardware.