Death and taxes

Death and taxes

Death and taxes are certainties. After more than 30 years of professional life, I have learned that there are a few more items on the definites list.

I know now that, in fact, the world is full of certainties beyond death and taxes. Our lives are fundamentally predictable. Business is business, people are people, trains are often crowded, and coffee is a requirement. Accident and novelty notwithstanding, I can be pretty sure what tomorrow will bring.

This is not to say that I readily accept this reality. I am much more inclined to fear the future as something entirely unpredictable and out of control. It seems that my biology requires risk, perhaps to keep me on my toes and on the lookout for lions and the snake in the grass.

My good fortune is that my chosen profession is founded on evidence, the raw material to understand, mitigate and avoid risk. I am trained to find as much certainty as is humanly possible and then to apply that certainty to first reduce risk and ultimately help alleviate fear.

A noble profession you would think.

At some level, I like to think so. Gathering evidence to inform decision making seems like a calming exercise that should benefit the many. Thinking, researching and evaluating my way through environmental problems should be a good thing to do in a world where resources are finite and demand voracious.

Science, the gathering and evaluation of evidence, surely is our best source of certainty. It bounds events through understanding and generates evidence that makes life predictable.

Imagine my shock when in an article from the Alliance for Useful Evidence I came across this quote from a senior UK policymaker…

One insider’s view of policymakers’ hierarchy of evidence
1. Expert evidence (including consultants and think tanks).
2. Opinion–based evidence (including lobbyists/pressure groups).
3. Ideological evidence (party think tanks, manifestos).
4. Media evidence.
5. Internet evidence.
6. Lay evidence (constituents’ or citizens’ experiences).
7. Street evidence (urban myths, conventional wisdom).
8. Cabbies’ evidence.
9. Research evidence.
Source: Phil Davies, former Deputy Chief Social Researcher, 2007.

Classic British cynicism this list may be. A caricature of reality it may be. Satire it must be. And it is probably all of the above. Only it is also alarmingly close to the truth.

For a decade or more I have worked with policymakers a lot and I would say that the list and the ranking of sources are accurate. It may not be what policymakers say they want. Many are keen to involve themselves in evidence-based policy but very few of them know where to get the evidence or how to evaluate it. They are easily swayed by ‘evidence’ sourced from within their everydayness, and that often includes the Uber driver.

They are not familiar with the peer-reviewed literature. They are not avid readers of systematic reviews and none of them knows how to estimate a likelihood.

The reality is that most of them do not have the tools to separate opinion from evidence.

It is a huge problem for me and, I suspect, for you too.

The policies that become the laws that determine what we can and cannot do, what society allows and tolerates and the big decisions on how we use or abuse the natural resources that we rely on for our wellbeing should be firmly grounded in evidence, not opinion.

The problem with Mr Davies’ list is that eight of the nine sources are contaminated by opinion. The ‘evidence’ may or may not be based on fact and could cease to be evidence altogether when all it is based on is the worldview of Joe citizen.

Opinion, a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge

Arguably far too many of our laws are judgement calls that have little or no evidence to back them up. A law to protect the koala because it is going extinct when there is no evidence for this peril.

Here is another certainty to add to taxes, crowded trains and coffee. Policymakers will not use real evidence.

Why?

Because they are not trained in how to tell the difference between what they are exposed to and the truth. In their minds, the two are muddled and confused to the point of being indistinguishable.

Aid

Aid

In 1970, The 0.7% ODA/GNI target was first agreed and has been repeatedly re-endorsed at the highest level at international aid and development conference

What on earth does this mean?

Well ODA is overseas development aid, the amount of money governments spend to support people in other countries through official agencies. Here is the agreed definition of ODA

  1. provided by official agencies, including state and local governments, or by their executive agencies; and
  2. each transaction of which a) is administered with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries as its main objective; and b) is concessional in character and conveys a grant element of at least 25 per cent (calculated at a rate of discount of 10 per cent).”

GNI is the acronym for gross national income, the total domestic and foreign output claimed by residents of a country. It’s a combination of gross domestic product discounted for overseas earnings and repatriations.

Australia has a GNI just shy of $47,000 per capita and with a population of 24.13 million, that’s a little over $1 trillion ($1,134 billion) per annum.

A tidy sum.

The ratio of ODA to GNI is an indicator of how much money is spent on overseas aid as a proportion of income available. Proportionality is important here because it encodes the notion that it’s not the absolute dollar amount that matters but the proportion of the dollars available that becomes a test of innate fairness.

And for a long time the global community has settled on 70c in every $100 as a reasonable target spend.

This graphic from An Australian Institute report Charity still ends at home found that in 1974 Australia allocated 0.45% of GNI to foreign aid, sliding to just 0.23% today, and projected to fall even further to 0.20% by 2021

0.23% of Australia’s GNI is about $5 billion per annum or 10% of the recently announced budget for new submarines

Official development assistance (ODA) and a proportion of gross national income (GNI)

The rich get richer, maybe

Australia’s GNI has doubled in the past 20 years. We are getting richer by the day despite what the media and various advocacy groups would tell us. Of course, those dollars don’t buy what they used to is very true. The cost of living goes up alongside income and not always proportionately. It depends very much on your situation. Home owning baby boomers who have paid off their mortgages are not seeing these numbers the same way as a hipster barista pouring double shot macchiatos at 7am on a chilly July morning.

However, the fact that the ratio has, on average, gone down and markedly in recent times, to around half the long term OECD average effort, and less than a third of the agreed 0.7% target ratio, is instructive.

It means that we have budgeted more for the absolute dollar spend than the proportion. If we allocated the OECD average there is close to $5 billion more in hard cash. A sum that buys tangible amounts of medicines, water purifiers, schools and the like. More than enough to make a real difference.

This is a choice. It is a hard one certainly for there are any number of local uses for that $5 billion in social welfare alone. We could easily justify that this money has gone to the local disadvantaged and underprivileged individuals all across Australia funding drug clinics, special education programs, social justice and support for mental health or any number of worthy causes that need help to help others.

If we are encouraged to buy local, why not spend local too?

Because there is a bigger picture to see here. Throughout human history, people have stuck to their tribe and found adversaries in others. Skirmishes between nomadic groups became conquering armies and global wars for resources and dominance of my tribe over yours. Society is always on the brink of this kind of conflict.

One of the very few ways we have to dampen this tendency is to be kind to those who are different to us. It is not innate. And so it is never an easy thing to do but supporting others, even if it can easily be corrupted into a play for influence, actually helps the global glue. An interdependency that reduces the risk of conflict. We see it in commerce and we should also seek it through aid.

That we are looking inward is a disturbing trend. It may seem logical as times get harder but it will not work. Spending less on others weakens us and them. It makes us more vulnerable and we know what happens then.

Poor choice

Poor choice

Suppose you are marooned on a desert island.

Luck would have it that, on the island, there is a stream with fresh water, a seemingly endless supply of fruits on the trees close to the beach and, bizarrely given you don’t smoke, you remembered to pack a cigarette lighter.

Other than the ability to make fire, you have very little else. Not even a sunhat.

Chances are you could survive for many days, weeks even. Malaria or other insect vectored lurgy notwithstanding, you could even survive to Crusoe-esque timeframes.

There will be any number of specific challenges to overcome beyond the boredom and the need to find food and water. Avoiding cuts and sprains, not getting bitten by a shark or a spider, avoiding any unknown foods and being sure to cook the shellfish as well as you can. Most of these are, to some degree, under your immediate control. They are avoidable through choice.

Your island is iconic.

A tiny, low lying place with no real high ground to speak of and as you explore you notice evidence of past storms. There are more fallen trees than seems plausible. The biggest trees aren’t really that tall. There is debris from the beach everywhere, even when you think you are as far away from it as you can be. The reality is clear. Come the next storm there might be very few places to hide. Should there be a hurricane, survival would be slim.

So whilst there is no immediate danger, you certainly are in a pickle.

Against all the odds the government hears of your predicament. Phew, rescue is on the way. Perhaps there might even be an airdrop of provisions and a temporary hurricane shelter before the relief vessel arrives.

Turns out that the government appraised the policy position on your predicament and rather than deal with your immediate challenges and imminent risk, they are sending you a lifetime supply of sunblock.

From a policy perspective this makes perfectly good sense. Todays danger is the taxpayers responsibility and if there is unavoidable danger then it is the fault of previous governments for failing to plan ahead.

Providing sunblock is exactly the kind of future thinking that is needed. It means that while you are out there so exposed on the island you are far less likely to develop a melanoma and will stay out of the healthcare system. Not to mention the benefits of government contracts to the local sunblock manufacturer and supplier.

The problem of increasingly more severe and frequent storms or, heaven forbid, a rise in sea level or hotter sea temperatures killing the coral that fringe your island with an underwater wall of protection from the ocean swell, or any other proximate causes of your likely demise, are not issues for the local jurisdiction. They are for everyone else to resolve.

The obvious issue to fix is skin care.

Early the next morning on the faint sound of an engine you jump up from under the simple palm frond tent you cobbled together and, gorilla like, replace every other night. Scanning the horizon the sun reflects off something into your eye.

It must be an aircraft.

It must be.

Sure enough, a few minutes later a transport plane flies directly over your tiny island disgorging a package that floats down gently on a bright yellow parachute to land in the sea, halfway between you and the coral reef.

Fortunately the package floats but it drifts away from the shore far further out that you have dared to go until now. Not expecting anything more than the obvious food and shelter provisions you decide to take the risk, wading and then swimming toward the welcome gift that fell from the sky.

It takes far longer than you would like but weary, you make it to the yellow package. On the side it says “Banana Boat” which strikes you as odd but it’s a float that stays on the surface even when you hang on so you really do not care. Kicking toward the shore is way to hard with the parachute still attached and precious energy reserves are used in trying to free the tangled ropes. Your mind registers that your arms and legs are aching.

All of a sudden you are in the most real and present danger you have been in since you arrived on the island.

Panic begins. It takes courage that you have never used before to stay calm enough to hang onto the banana boat and kick. You keep kicking, frantic at first and then more measured as the panic subsides a little once your brain registers the palm trees inching closer.

In the end your legs are moving on a reflex until one kick hits sand.

The scariest event of your entire life is over. You are belly first on the shore with the boat beside you.

A plastic catch flips easily at the end of your finger and the lid opens with a slight click. Inside there are several boxes with the same logo as the side of the boat. Inside the boxes are tubes of sunscreen. At least one hundred of them all up. And nothing else.

Bewildered but still comforted that an aircraft flew by knowing you were there, you return to the shade of the palm tree and your makeshift shelter. You wait more alert than before for at any moment real help will arrive.

A week later the storm you knew would come is there on the horizon. A wall of black in the middle of the day. Already the waves on the coral sand are rising higher up the beach. You retreat to the leeward of the biggest tree on the island and crouch down into its bowl and start to pray.

It is the only thing left to you.

The storm hits with such ferocity it uproots your shelter tree. You escape the falling fronts and other flailing debris but the waves are crashing over where you used to spend the night. The sea continues to rise on the storm surge and washes the banana boat out to sea. Despite any number of drenchings from what felt like walls of water you survive the tempest by clinging onto ancient coral that the water revealed under the sand.

The next day you limp around your island home. There are deep gashes in your hands and you have blurred vision out of your right eye. The spring is covered in sand and it takes an hour of digging to find it again. The water is salty.

In less than a week you die of dehydration. It was a painful, soulless end.


If you think this story is absurd, then of course you are right. It is ridiculous.

Only this announcement from the Australian government Minister for Environment on how to “save” the Great Barrier Reef is just as absurd.

The real problem is not about nutrient runoff or starfish, even though these are known risks, the problem is that the water is too warm, too often. And that cannot be easily fixed, if at all, without some serious forward thinking and a commitment to the reality of climate change.

On your island sunblock is not even useful, what you needed was a vessel to take you back to the real world.

Macron

Macron

The French president was in Sydney recently, fresh from his triumph in Washington DC. He was in town for talks and, by all accounts, his signature. Any number of bilateral agreements were made legal.

Just to remind you, this is the French president, the figurehead of the country that the English fought wars with for centuries. Only in modern times have they become best buddies, at least officially.

Only “this is Australia, not England”, you say.

True. But an Australia still run by the remnants of the British, the white heritage dudes who, whilst nodding to the multicultural attributes of the people, keep reminding everyone of the empire and those who died to defend it. The very same empire that colonised and suppressed so many peoples for so long.

And what was the President to say, in French of course, to his Australian host Prime Minister Turnbull. My translation from his speech outside Kirribilli House on a gloriously sunny autumn day with the harbour shimmering in the background was something like…

“We love you bro, and your missus.

We are well chuffed to sign just about anything you like if it makes you feel good.

After all we are miles away up there in the real world and you are far away down here and for some reason you were gullible enough to buy a bunch of our submarines at great expense.

Thanks mate, good on ya.”

Now I am sure that underneath my cynicism there are more conventional messages.

For example, it is always good to be friendly towards foreign powers whether they speak French or not. Bullying or annoying them is obviously detrimental to any current or future bonhomie.

Chatting pleasantly to the French president helps realise the opportunity for really good deals with a European Union just as they are about to look closely at trade agreements once the British exit. Pleasantries might even secure the odd bilateral with France.

The French are good at high tech industry and Australia has thought it might like to try that too, so cozying up to a player in that game has any number of benefits. Defense materiel, si vous plait.

The more mates you have, the easier it is to keep the bad guys at bay and off your internet allowing you to be the main social media influence. Although one has to think that cyber crime and indeed, cyber warfare, are the arenas of the future.

All up, keep the boys club alive and all will be well.

It will not. We need better than this. We need discussion and agreements about refugees, food security, universal income, changing the workforce, technology to keep people alive rather than kill them, and a host of solutions to keeping multitudes of affluent people happy and off the streets.

A couple of would be chums buying and selling arms is not the answer.

Future self

Future self

“Most of us can remember who we were 10 years ago, but we find it hard to imagine who we’re going to be, and then we mistakenly think that because it’s hard to imagine, it’s not likely to happen” Dan Gilbert

I find it hard to remember what I was doing 10 years ago.

After a while I can recall what my job was back then, what my family was up to and maybe the colour of the ever changing feature wall in the living room. Most specific activities are a blur unless I really concentrate on place and where I was within it. Even then the memories are patchy.

As Dan Gilbert suggests, that’s the easy part. We are much better at remembering the past than we are predicting the future.

Memory has obvious evolutionary advantages for long-lived organisms who need to know where the food and shelter can be found when the weather turns bad.

Predicting is much harder. Perhaps because we remember actual things that, at least for us, really happened. Predictions are a guess. A possibility with a likelihood. In other words, events are just as likely not to happen as they are to come to pass. There is a psychological cost to making a prediction that is never paid with a memory. Any prediction we make comes with risk to our self esteem. The further forward in time we project our guesses the more likely they are to be wrong so our ego shuts them down as a form of protection.

Well, that is one rational explanation anyway.

No doubt if I spend a few days trawling Google Scholar I could find out if anyone has positied it formally and maybe even tried to test it.

But let’s consider the consequences of humans not generally being any good at predicting our future selves.

We are easily stuck in the past often viewing it with tinted spectacles.

Our frame of reference is what has gone before, what we know, rather than what could be. Our anxiety over autonomous vehicles is a case in point.

We get very good at incredulity. So much so that we even refuse to believe what is front of our noses because unless we have seen it before it cannot be real. We’ll let the perversity of that logic slide.

It takes a lot to convince us of anything we have not already seen, heard or felt, unless its been on our Facebook feed.

We lose the ability to be rational in the face of evidence.

And we could go on.

Altogether this inability to predict the future leaves us with one binding feeling…

We hate change.

We just want everything to stay the same. It’s what we know, what we remember and what makes life predictable, reliable, certain and, please god, comfortable.

Only as Dan Gilbert points out, there is a problem. It’s called time.

“The bottom line is, time is a powerful force. It transforms our preferences. It reshapes our values. It alters our personalities. We seem to appreciate this fact, but only in retrospect.”

Many a post on this blog has ranted on about the consequences of time, what’s coming over the horizon and how poorly we are prepared for it.

If this difficulty in imagining our future self is pervasive, it offers a proximate explanation for many of these rants. We simply just don’t know how to see the future so we stay stuck in the past overestimating the wonders of the present and scared to death of change.

Heaven help us.

Difficult thought

Difficult thought

When I first read this article on the White House bible study group that is apparently attended on a regular basis by many members of the US cabinet and presided over by an unelected pastor, I thought…

OMG.

Ironic I know.

Incredulity welled up, slowly at first and then escalated toward anger.

Here we had decision makers responsible for the immediate well being of 325 million Americans, not to mention a whole heap of global economic and diplomatic flow on, who bashed the bible in that truly fundamentalist way. On company time, they were learning the gospels as interpreted by an individual whose political and moral agendas are unknown.

This cannot be right.

It cannot be objective or balanced.

And it cannot be in the best interests of a nation made up of people with a myriad of beliefs and values when leaders focus on the interests of just one particular and often narrow view of the world.

Then I checked myself.

Religion is a reality.

Belief in one god or another is an ever present in many people’s lives and has influenced leaders, governments and policy ever since leadership was invented. People in power invariably have religious beliefs and simply because they are in power, inevitably foist those beliefs on their subjects.

So be it, my calming self thought.

It is what it is.

Whoever is in power, be they elected or simply the pastor brought into the inner fold, will have beliefs. It is impossible to find a true neutral. Even the atheist believes in her disbelief. In all cases of leadership the people who lead will bring beliefs and a value set to the process of leading. Values will influence their decisions and how they make them.

Now if those values may seem to me odd, extreme even, my option is not to vote for them. Perhaps even persuade others to do likewise.

If I don’t have a vote or the system is not exactly democratic my options are less comfortable but I could still make my disagreement known, even if only to myself.

My problem with the White House bible group is who runs it and how they got there.

The process of influence through the tradesman’s entrance is a dangerous precedent. It allows beliefs and ideas that really haven’t been through the public mill to ingratiate the source while many other equally valid beliefs and ideas try to muscle their way through the Fourth Estate.

Again this is nothing new. This process of influence is as old as politics itself but we should be more concerned when it is a brazen as this for it suggests that very few people even see it as free influence.

Add to this the ’fake news’ corruption of the media and getting through the back door becomes even more of a bonus.

So here is the thought.

When you next hear a politician speaking about policy, a rarity I know, think about where the policy came from, who influenced its formulation and what values are affected by it.

This can be quite a salutary exercise for the benefits of preaching to the inner circle stretch way beyond theology.