Post revisited – The hip pocket

Post revisited – The hip pocket

At election time jobs, health, education, and security are always at the top of the issues list. They shuffle and compete for airtime but rarely does any other matter oust these four horsemen. In western democracies, where well-being through the delivery of these basics needs correlates with what’s in your hip pocket, the only other major issue is the economy.

None of this is a surprise.

This post from 2010 tried to be optimistic about how the youth might bust the logical assumption that people are programmed only to take care of their well-being and that of their loved ones to, maybe, embrace issues beyond self…


The hip pocket

A young colleague recently claimed that her generation has great concern about environmental ills. She thought that her y-generation all have deep feelings about the woes of our world. They want something done about it, especially climate change. She claimed that late alphabeters are angry at any government that promises action on climate change but then renege as the Australian government has just done.

“Are you sure,” I said, ‘won’t they vote with their hip pockets?”

“No they have all they need,” she said, “I mean we all have food and shelter and with those needs met we want to do the right thing.”

I believed her, at least the intent part. And I am sure it is how she feels herself having moved her own career path away from high finance into an environmental company. Unfortunately I don’t think that we have the freedom from basic needs that our apparent wealth implies.

It may be that most westerners are well fed, sleep in a bed, have a wardrobe, watch TV and take the occasional holiday. And it seems that all primary needs are covered (yes, it is true the TV is now a basic need according to the UK social services) and, therefore, higher values should mature. We should think about values beyond the basic, including care for the environment.

But this wealth, that supplies all the basics and more, has not given us emotional freedom. We are not free to think of higher things because we are still struggling to keep our wealth coming. We are locked into long hours of work to pay for large mortgages, excess food and more clothes than we could ever wear. And as we are at work we have to pay for someone else to look after the kids, and someone to do the washing, to mow the lawn and so it goes. In the end we have to keep the kids at home until they are middle aged to help us pay for it all.

And what if we just stopped? If we gave it all up in order to be enlightened, then the monetary flows so essential for our economies would stop as well. Our material world would collapse in a heap. And, well, it just can’t happen. Back to work we go, stressed to the max, a hand checking on the hip pocket.

Let us hope that I am just a cynic, a product of a different generation, and that the youngsters really do have a sense of higher value – although anyone who has seen a Lady Gaga music video may have to search hard for higher value. Let us hope and believe that these youngsters will vote on their beliefs and give with their voice to help change the way we think. Let us hope that they won’t vote with their hip pockets.


Gen-Y has had a while to vote with their heads, hearts, and feet. Arguably they have not. Although they have tried and are probably more aware than they would admit, the evidence and the anecdote suggests that the tug of the hip is stronger than ever. The cost of living is brutal, the cost of having fun likewise. Don’t even ask about servicing a mortgage.

Arguably they have not. Although they have tried and are probably more aware than they would admit, the evidence and the anecdote suggests that the tug of the hip is stronger than ever. The cost of living is brutal, the cost of having fun likewise. Don’t even ask about servicing a mortgage.

Great-grandparents of these Gen-Ys had a very different hip pocket story. They did it tough too. Recession, depression, low wages, hard and long yards. Their pockets rarely had anything in them as most of the money went from hand to mouth. Yet they toiled and they built. They improved things.

No doubt the current and future generations will do the same. They will, like their wily old ancestors, build something.

Unfortunately, their motivation will again be the tug from the hip pocket.

Post revisited – Serious change should be controversial

Post revisited – Serious change should be controversial

This little missive from October 2011 laments the loss of meaningful argument over important issues…


Serious change should be controversial

Back in 1979 when I still needed a hairbrush, I wandered the campus of the University of East Anglia as a sporty nerd. I was the type of student who spent far too long in the library but covered up this flaw with an addiction to team sports and the associated drinking games.

At the time I barely noticed that some of my peers were far trendier. They took to barricading themselves in the University registry – the main administration building that housed the office of the Vice–Chancellor and senior management staff – for days at a time. They would drape sheets out of the windows with slogans denouncing whatever oppression they were feeling. Each time the occupation was for a political, and no doubt, worthy cause that usually involved solidarity (a big word back then).

The longest occupation lasted a week. It was in solidarity with mine workers who were on the receiving end of a crusade by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to break the power of trade unions. Both Thatcher and those trendy students were railing for or against a serious change.

Thatcher won of course and sent the country into a market-driven phase that arguably brought some prosperity but also eroded much of the traditional political divide and eventually gave the UK ‘New Labour’.

Even nerds got caught up in some of the radicalism of the day, albeit safely. Many of us boycotted Barclays bank because they happened to have a subsidiary of the same name in South Africa. We didn’t realize that undermining banks was probably not all that helpful to the struggle against apartheid but it was a statement we could make on the way to the library. I had my account with the Midland.

Spectacles may be rose-tinted when remembering such heady days, but it does seem that naive as we undoubtedly were, the issues of the time stoked ire and action. Politics was controversial as societies across the world brought about change.

Serious change should be controversial.

It was a big deal to break down union power that itself had come about in a struggle to correct past wrongs in exploiting the workforce; the same kind of wrongs that were fought against in the apartheid struggle.

Today there are still hard and controversial choices to be made, especially about the environment, climate, and resource use, but we seem to have lost the ire and action that sets up an issue as controversial.

At best we get posturing and egoist rhetoric with an occasional ‘straw man’ to give the appearance of real debate. In short, we have an argument for the sake of it. Nobody seems to occupy the registry anymore.

As the Harvard philosopher Michael J Sandel puts it:

“When everyone – Democrats, Republicans, corporations, and consumers – claim to embrace your cause, you should suspect that you have not really defined the problem, or framed it as a real political question.”

We seem to get this all the time in the age of the soundbite. No one seems to define the problem.

Rosy or not we need some true controversy back. Real dissent forces us to argue our position from first principles. We must not just react against the alternative view but think it through and become convincing, drawing on as much logic as we can muster.

Do this often enough and we shake hands with our core truths and get to know the problem.

The result will be some argument, perhaps even a demonstration or two, but also some political innovation. There will be thoughts that are outside the narrow middle ground into which the bulk of the west has converged.

A little controversy might help us to find real solutions to the challenge of keeping 7 billion people happy without destroying nature or each other.


Nothing has changed since this post appeared — apart from the fact that we are now more numerous by about 500 million, that’s the population of the US plus Indonesia who are 3rd and 4th on the list of most populous countries. Political debate is still vacuous and the problem remains woefully undefined. Radicalism has been purloined by a handful of evil people.

Here is a thought as to why.

What if you can’t touch the problem? You know what it is — the unwanted side effects of market-driven economics that, by and large, gives you what you do want — but any attempt to define or even mention the truths of wealth concentration, resource use inefficiencies, debt burdens, bailouts, and plain old corruption; let alone frame their politics. These things risk upset that you cannot control. The economic system is untouchable. Breathe on it and it might fall over or cause chaos.

Instead, modern politicians argue amongst themselves about themselves.

In the absence of anything more meaningful, ordinary people become trolls or commit road rage with little idea of where their frustrations originate.

So we don’t need old-school radicals to occupy University registry buildings and we certainly don’t need religious radicals blowing them up, what we need is to ask and debate some of these type of questions…

  • What would happen if markets were regulated to make them more efficient?
  • Can you regulate without destroying the essence of opportunity?
  • What if there was a cap on profit margins?
  • Would the world end if taxes increased or levies were raised to pay for public services?
  • Is the market really that fragile? And if it is, what the hell do we do to buck it up?
  • Can our unprecedented ability to capture and access information help?

So you see the political frame can be constructed. If a grumpy old blogger can come up with a start, surely the massive bandwidth of human intellect can go on with it.

Innocence of youth

Innocence of youth

YouTube has thousands of videos of kids being cute. Not quite as many as there are of cute cats but a lot.

Many of the kids videos are so endearing because the little darlings are cooperating, making reasoned arguments, listening to each other and showing compassion. They are being their unsullied selves even with chocolate ice cream all over their face.

This purity not only generates clicks, it shows us truths. Gentle yet powerful reminders of the way things should be done if we want a safer, more humane world.

Elizabeth Broers, a head teacher at a primary school in the UK, knows this better than most and wrote about how her 11 year olds could give wise counsel to politicians. The most provocative being ‘be honest’.

Youngsters can smell a fraud from 50 yards and then call it out, often with some cruelty — yes, they have that too. And this is clearly the trait most lacking in our pollies.

And this is clearly the trait most lacking in our pollies.

It is trite to suggest that we elect a few adolescents to parliament because they would drown in a tsunami of cynical narcissism that would knock them flat as soon as they walk through the door. No, we need to let them spend their youth learning how to mask the smell of the dishonest otherwise they will have a difficult life. We can’t send them to the parliamentary penitentiary, that would be too cruel.

So what about if we get our politicians to grow down.

Send them to spend a few working days a year in a primary school. Not for the photo op but for the experience, in the playground at little lunch, in the classroom, and even in the 4×4 on the way home.

Let them see what a kid sees for a few days a year, as though they were a kid.

If it made them even a smidgen more empathic it would be a start.

Political argument

Political argument

It’s a Saturday lunchtime and I am at home minding my own business when a 60 something couple wearing matching purple polo shirts saunter up to my front door. One of them knocks.

“Hello, we are from the Coalition for Marriage”, the man said as he thrust a pamphlet towards me as though it were a weapon.

“G’day,” I said, “what can I do for you?”

“We are worried about civil liberties,” he said.

“Really,” I said, “And why would that be?”

“This legislation will open the door to a vast erosion of civil liberties, just like it has in 24 other countries. It’s all in the brochure.”

“Really,” I said again.

Now I should point out that Australia is in the throes of a postal vote on the question: Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?

Yes, I know we are way behind the times. It is possible that down under is still in the era of big hair and shoulder pads or, at best, still partying in the millennium. Our political dithering has become laughable with same-sex marriage just one of any number of issues where neither major party are able to find a consistent policy. The go-to solution being to punt decisions down the road for another day or at least until all the excuses for dithering are exhausted.

Still unable to find their consciences on equality, some bright spark in Canberra thought a ripper solution would be to have a postal vote on the issue, a plebiscite costing $122 million. The dictionary says that a plebiscite is the direct vote of all the members of an electorate on an important public question such as a change in the constitution. Few will doubt that same-sex marriage is an important issue but all it requires is some common sense, it is not a constitutional crisis.

It is obvious to anyone with an ounce of sense in their noggin why we are having a voluntary postal vote in a country where voting in elections is compulsory and most under 25 would not even know where to post a letter on a topic that should be dealt with in the parliament like all the other issues of the day. It’s the only way the minority ‘no’ has any chance of winning.

But I digress.

Gathering my senses I stepped out onto my front porch and looking the gent in the eye I said, “Can you explain how this matter alters my civil liberties? If two folk want to get married, what could that possibly do to affect me or you?”

“It has happened in 24 countries?”

“What has happened?”

“It’s in the brochure.”

“Forget the brochure”, I said, “Can you explain to me how, if a gay couple across the street gets married, that has any effect at all on you or on me?”

“This will mean, well not this but later legislation will erode our civil liberties.”

“How so?”

“It’s happened in 24 countries, it is in the brochure.”

“Forget the brochure. You are here at my home, you tell me what your argument is?”

“There will be later legislation that erodes our liberty.”

“Again, how does a couple across the street getting married affect your liberty or mine?”

“It will be later laws..” my visitor’s voice tailed off because even if he had read his brochure he could not articulate an argument for his position. His wife, at least I assume it was his wife, just smiled and nodded.

“Hold on,” I said, “the sum of your concerns is that maybe some future legislation may come in to erode civil liberties so you want me to vote no on this current issue?”

“Yes,” he said.

“And that’s all you have?”

“Yes.”

“Well, thanks for dropping by”, I said, “both my wife and I voted yes.”

“That’s great,” the wife said, “so glad that you voted.”

The couple left and I reflected on this unusual interaction rather more than I thought I would. Not on the topic of marriage equality for all discrimination should be weeded out from our social systems, bit by bit if necessary. Arcane rules that prevent another person the same liberties to love and marry that I enjoy should be removed and pass into history. Yes is the only morally just answer to the plebiscite question.

What got me was the debate or lack of it.

Here was a topic that two ordinary folk felt strongly enough about to give up their Saturday morning and go door knocking. Yet when pressed for some logic or rationale for their viewpoint they had none. Well, they thought that they did, but imagining some future disaster fails any pub test that I know about.

It also showed that these folk knew little about the political process. The deals in the corridor, the politics over policy, the influencing over persuasion, the burying of the real issues, and the downright bastardry of it all. This seemed lost on them. They came across as naive and I believed that they were.

Foot soldiers are not generals. They supply the delivery grunt at the bidding of the strategists and given this role, I should give them some slack. Perhaps I was expecting too much.

It’s just that we debate so little that when such an opportunity presents itself there is a degree of excitement at the chance. Perhaps I was too excited. Perhaps I let my love of a good argument get the better of me.

Whatever the emotions in the encounter the real reflection was the lack of political argument. There is plenty of polarised opinion but very little to explain why. We are struggling to articulate a position on issues of all kinds. Not able to understand where they come from or any logic that might underpin them, our opinions just appear like blind faith.

So I am very grateful to the Coalition for Marriage. They taught me an important lesson. If you have a strong opinion, make sure you know where it came from and why you have it.

You might need to justify it someday.

All lives are equal

All lives are equal

All lives are equal

A few years ago Bill Gates persuaded Warren Buffet to contribute to the Gates Foundation and so create the biggest single pile of philanthropic cash in history. This was quite something. Currently, an asset base of over $37 billion is available generating cash to spend on things that Bill, and presumably Melinda and Warren, think are important for the public good.

This is spending greater than the annual GDP of over 100 countries on the UN list. No small matter. And it is a spend that would otherwise not happen because governments or other donors claim they don’t have the cash.

So what did Bill choose? What activities were seen as the highest priority among the many thousands of options?

Even a cursory scan of projects the Gates Foundation supports tells the story. Bill, Melinda and Warren spent money on people. Mostly on activities that improved the lives of poorer people by making them healthier, giving them opportunity and education. All are noble things.

And as a friend of mine once reminded me when I was lamenting the crazy rate of human population growth, you cannot blame the kids for being born. You have to help them.

And so there is a moral imperative to do something for the 4 billion or so people who live on $2 a day or less, have little or no health care, struggle to feed, clothe and educate their children, often with very little hope for anything better.

The philanthropic spend has to be on people.

Governments blinded by GDP growth should take note.

But this is not the point of this post.

Humans have taken over the world. And in it, they have created a highly inequitable and competitive system that by definition generates haves and have-nots. In this place a philanthropic focus on people is understandable. There is always suffering and a powerful need to relieve it.

There is enough suffering to soak up the Gates billions a thousand times over. It is an unpleasant but inevitable consequence of the human condition, a symptom of a much deeper problem.

We are more making creatures.

Our biology drives us harder than we think. Those of us born as ‘haves’ do not notice this very often because with wealth, more making is curtailed somewhat. A couple of kids is usually enough when income is more than $100 a day.

Instead, we channel more making into having more. We gather goods, comforts and money with extraordinary voracity even as we claim moderation and make a charitable donation.

I wrestle with my own complicity in this every day because it is a hard one to shift when there are so many opportunities for things to get better… for me. In a blink and a modest interest-free monthly payment a perfectly functional television and TiVo becomes a 55-inch smart screen and Netflix.

And unbeknownst to us, the more making instinct is soothed. Somehow I feel a little better. Certainly, I feel better enough not to worry about the billions of people the Gates Foundation wants to help because ‘all lives are equal’.

Except it is hard to see equality. Turns out that I will use far more resources than most by good fortune at birth. Most others will use a lot less, again by birth as much as anything. And yet all the people in the world would use more than they do given half a chance.

So despite obvious inequalities of wealth and opportunity, all lives share equal intent. We all want to be more.

What happens if democracy dies

What happens if democracy dies

Suppose the system used in 123 countries that billions of people have come to understand and take for granted fails, initially by electing muppets into office, and then collapsing altogether under the weight of distrust and disillusion.

Many scholars and the very clever writers on the excellent 5th season of Orange is the New Black, have pondered this situation. What happens could be a toss up between a joyous reinvention of commerce and exchange, with unwritten rules of human decency holding everything together, or more brutal exchange systems where the stronger grab from the weaker in a nasty cascade.

Academics play it out more sedately as game theory involving hawks and doves and conclude, mostly, that some sort of balance will emerge, an equilibrium of sorts, but a fragile one that easily gets out of whack. Drama writers just make the goings on in the fictional Litchfield prison ever more bizarre and ever more believable.

Whatever the conjecture, all agree that should democracy fail it will be replaced by something. And there are those who are scared of what comes next and others more confident. But here is a thought. What if democracy has already failed? And failed miserably.

What if it’s not democracy — the process that gives the majority what they want from an array of limited options — that holds everything together but something else.

Perhaps it is the process of exchange where human behaviour is moderated by mutual benefits, initially between individuals and then scaled up. And so long as exchange for mutual benefit is possible, all is well.

This idea also explains brutal exchange. Taking what I need by force is always an easy option in an exchange system but without mutual benefit it cannot persist forever. Human history is all about how brutal exchange eventually breaks down exponentially; think slave trade, apartheid, black integration. The excesses fall away readily whilst the residual lingers for a long time.

What we see as elections to public office makes very little difference to fundamental exchange. The passing of laws and regulation may restrict some transactions and even try to prevent others but not much can stop a deal when there are people willing to take it.

It turns out that a huge amount of what politicians actually do is ensure that exchange is easy, especially with other jurisdictions, and they try their utmost to do nothing to disturb the fragile economy.

So, in fact, if democracy dies, maybe not much happens at all but brutal exchange.

Five percent

Five percent

What is 5%?

Well apart from being a proportion, here are a few things.

  • 5% is one in twenty
  • 5% is an arbitrary threshold value considered significant in statistical analyses
  • 5% is half the current rate of GST in Australia
  • 5% is a pay rise almost worth having
  • 5% is less than the percentage increase in US military spend under the Trump administration

5% is quite the conundrum. It is not very big and yet it can be big enough to be noticed. You would not want food prices to increase by 5% but they have, roughly every two years or so in most mature economies.

You’d like a 5% pay rise over no pay rise at all but in the US rust belt, many workers have waited over a decade to get it, only for it not to really matter that much.

It seems that 5% is an awkward, niggly kind of proportion. Always a bit on the cusp of significance — one in twenty is surely just chance. Give me one in a hundred and I’m listening.

The other day a friend of mine, also a fellow science nerd, told me that 5% of the hip pocket dollar is spent on the environment.

One in twenty of the dollars in the average wallet ends up as an environmental expenditure.

Now this bald statement that could take a bit of unpacking. What’s in the hip pocket? What is the environment in this context? Would the 5% spend include food or the council waste levy or just donations to the WWF?

In most of the developed world food counts for around 8% of household spend. There is an environmental levy in my own local council but I pay that in my rates, part of my tax spend. And my hip pocket has a whole heap of unavoidable bills from utilities to the mortgage.

We could be here all day figuring it out, so let’s just say that, on average, people spend 5% of their after-tax dollar on something environmental.

That’s $5 for every $100 that arrives in their bank account, at their discretion.

So is this enough? Is it significant?

People die if they don’t eat and have access to clean water. They need somewhere safe to stay and the opportunity to build a meaningful life with some fun in it. These primary needs would use up most of the $100, most of the time.

Add in the inevitable unexpected cost when the boiler bursts, the roof leaks or a family member needs hospital care and there may rarely be 5% left over.

$5 is significant if the cost of living has already allocated the contents of your hip pocket to the necessities of life.

This is where the thought usually stops.

The cost of living is unavoidable. If it eats up all you can earn, then the environment is not even a thought.

Only think a little longer. The environment is where the food, clean water, timber for the house, sand for the mortar, clean air, space for fun, among many other key necessities comes from.

Ignore the environment and it is used up, polluted and dysfunctional for these key goods and services.

Fail to pay anything for these things and they stop.

We should be very scared that we spend only 5% for there is no point in investing in ourselves if the foundation for many of the vital things we need is eroding away beneath us.