Historians are worried about democracy

Historians are worried about democracy

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

It is easy to forget that democracy is not a common way of doing things. 

At the end of 2020 when US citizens queued up at polling booths in record numbers, I was reminded that the right to vote is very recent in historical times. Women in the US, for example, had no such rights until the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919. 

The US had seen 29 of its 45 Presidents before this vital change.

Historically, most societies were run by authoritarian regimes of one sort or another that limited personal freedoms. Democracy, that so many of us take for granted, is actually a mid to late 20th-century phenomenon and by no means universal. 

Here is one metric of democracy over time, the Polity scale ranging from -10 (hereditary monarchy) to +10 (consolidated democracy).

number of democratic counties over time

By Ultramarine at en.wikipedia – Own workTransferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain,

In short, democracy has risen exponentially since the 1800s.

Remarkable as this trend is, many historians know how fragile democracy might be in a modern world.

Democracy is fragile

The dangers to democracy have been around for some time, think how close Donald Trump came to shattering it in the US, and the warning signs, the historians argue, are 

  • the spread of misinformation 
  • inequality 
  • the politics of internal enemies and 
  • politically motivated violence. 

Misinformation

The spread of misinformation is just about everywhere. 

Anybody with a smartphone can record a video on any topic, put it up on Tick-Toc and before you know it, can be peddling all sorts of information that they claim is the truth about anything. All with little or no justification. 

Traditional media, driven by the requirement for clicks, do a similar thing. Jumping on whatever they believe will keep their audience interested and not very much to do with whether or not the information is correct or truthful.

We now know that misinformation is a powerful political weapon and despite the impeachment of a president is hard to diffuse.

Instant access and weak filtering by consumers mean that truth from fiction will be forever contentious. 

We are stuck with it. 

Inequality

Inequality has always been a challenge for society. 

Those in power need to keep those not in power happy for as long as possible and yet at the same time not allow them to become too wealthy such that they might gain power themselves. 

Think subjugation of women over the centuries or the hereditary titles of the aristocracy. 

Can’t have any Tom or Dick getting their grubby mitts on the estate.

At the same time, power and capital will get things done. Most of the global development that delivers wealth and wellbeing to so many people came about because money was concentrated in risk takers.

It is a delicate balance. 

In the old days, the sword was the tool of suppression and to wield it required some noble heritage, a few loyal knights, and gold coins to buy your way into power. Now the same thing happens for those with bitcoin.

However, once sufficiently downtrodden, the masses have little left to lose. Emboldened they rise up and take away your power. 

Currently, the world is in a situation where a handful of people own vast amounts of wealth. And the majority own next to nothing in comparison. This whole idea of inequity is not just within jurisdictions, but also across the world. 

It is incredulous that Forbes lists the richest 400 Americans as owning more than $3.2 trillion in assets and then sobering to know that four billion people live on less than six dollars a day.

That is a wickedly large majority, severely downtrodden.

If this is what democracy delivers it is setting itself up to collapse.

Internal enemies

The machinations of internal enemies are the basics of modern politics. Long gone are adult conversations about policy or what is in the best interests of the electorate. 

In Australia, for example, voters have experienced the removal of multiple sitting prime ministers by their parliamentary colleagues, their own party members, who’ve decided for one reason or another that they’ve had enough and push a spill in the leadership. 

It is one thing to have an eye on the electorate that must decide on your future every four years. It is quite another to watch you back for daggers from your colleagues every four minutes. 

Debate and deliberation followed by legitimate choice in the polling booth seems like ancient history.

Violence

Politically motivated violence is clearly the most insidious of the dangers. 

America stared at violence as it stormed its castle of democracy. Now they must worry about their hugely divided country when every man and his dog has access to firearms. 

Then there is the prominence of extremist groups both on the left and the right who gain more noise than they deserve. Through the various media channels and instant access to video footage of whatever event they care to perpetrate. 

A lot hangs in the balance.

The good news

Precarious as democracy may be, the growth in the number of democracies since WW2 is still exponential. People seem to like it.

Things that are liked are hard to give up and are not easily taken. Expect resistance to anyone that tries.

I know that is what they said in Germany and Italy back then and it failed. But this time around we will be better, more vigilant and prepared.

I hope.


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Environmental science degrees in Australia just took a massive hit

Environmental science degrees in Australia just took a massive hit

In the 2020 Federal budget the Australian government, in its wisdom, decided that they would shift funding allocated to particular subjects within the university sector. The media have focused on reductions in the amount of money spent on arts degrees and the promotion of STEM subjects, technical and hard science degrees. 

Only one of the big losers in that story was environmental science. 

The student contribution to environmental studies was cut from $9,698 to $7,700 a year – meaning students will pay less for their degrees. A positive of course.

However, the commonwealth contribution paid to the universities to run these degrees was cut from $24,446 to $16,500 per student per year – meaning that the government will fund each degree less. Unless the university can be remarkably creative, less money received per student means a poorer quality of education.

This is very short-sighted, obviously. 

At a time when the youth are turning their minds towards their futures and what kind of environment they’re going to live in; not to mention their children and grandchildren. They are concerned. They think that the current and previous generations have given them a hospital pass. And they’re about to crash into the opponent with very little protection. 

Many of them are keen to find out more, to engage with environmental problems, and to search for solutions. Apply their sharp and agile minds to make the world safer and more sustainable.

The environmental sciences, one would have thought, are in the best interests of everyone. 

No matter what your value set, not understanding how the environment works is just a massive miss to any economy, society and individual well-being. 

Think about it for a moment.

All modern economic systems are founded on feeding the people. There are only two ways to feed the people: grow enough food or buy food from another grower. Either way, you need a strong system of economic organisation in order to be able to achieve the outcome by either method. 

Failure to feed your population and strife is never far away. 

And here is the thing… whether we like it or not,

The environment is where we grow our food 

Until we have created greenhouses on the moon or vertical gardens on every building in every city, the majority of our food supply will come from the land. It will be grown in soil. That’s going to be the case for at least the next hundred years and beyond. 

Not recognizing this fact just because we seem to have enough food right now, is morally abhorrent. That senior leaders and advisers are not even contemplating future food security is criminal. 

Remember that on any day of the week at least 700 million people are hungry and not all of them live in obscure countries that few know exist.

We have a small window for finding options to grow and distribute food for everyone. A short time to throw alternatives around and have their value debated before landing on the values that take precedent in which locations. 

Soon this window for rational discussions will have passed and will be in crisis mode. 

And a crisis is what it will come to for hungry people are desperate. 

In spending less on environmental science education governments are undermining the capability to even act in crisis mode by making it harder for a youngster to be educated in this area of interest. It is tragic. A small budget item decision that really points to the stupidity of the people in power. 

Not just the government

It may be that the environmental scientists themselves must take some of the responsibility. 

In my hirsute youth way back in the late 1970’s, I completed a degree in environmental science at the University of East Anglia in the UK. It was a new degree at the time and UEA promoted itself as a place of open-ended learning and student-centred inquiry.

A fascinating subject combined with a novel pedagogy fitted my personality to perfection. 

I absolutely loved it.

I spent hours in the library on my open-ended inquiry. And was both fascinated and empowered by the student-centeredness of the whole approach. In one of the courses, I even marked my own assignment, only to be told by the lecturer that I might have undersold myself. 

That this type of degree was available at the time was magical to me. 

The ability to mix and match a whole range of different subject matter, that would otherwise have not gone together or insufficient on their own to merit undergraduate study, was perfect.  Ecology, sedimentology, geochemistry, meteorology, sustainable development… and that was just the first year. 

Later it was Environments in time, more Ecology, Ecosystem Management, Land Resource Development, and Toxic Substances in the Environment. In total a thorough grounding in the bio-physicality of the world with and without humanity.

This STEM version of environmental science was not taken up in every program. 

In many universities, these topics never really came together and environmental science was hijacked by the human end of it. The value-laden decision making by individuals and the consequences of people being involved in the environment more so than the objectivity of the information that you can get about how the environment works. 

In other words, the sociology of the subject risked diluting the objectivity. 

These programs are less able to be precise about the science of the environment being absorbed in the social aspects of it. 

Consequently, environmental scientists are not winning Nobel Prizes. They’re not at the forefront of the men in white coats that governments are now trotting out to explain the COVID crisis. 

The discipline of environmental science does not have the standing needed to attract resources to empower the next generation. I think we have to take some responsibility for that, for not actually putting ourselves forward well enough. 

But if I was a climate actions youngster skipping school in order to protest about my future, then I would be looking closely at that cheaper degree and hoping that the quality of the program was up to scratch. 

Then I would enrol in environmental science.

Society will need what I learn.

One rule for you and one for the politician

One rule for you and one for the politician

There is a debate going on in Australia at the moment about superannuation. In particular, the percentage of superannuation payments that companies must make for each employee. 

Currently, the law says that 9.5% of the base salary is the minimum requirement. 

Some companies go with more than that in order to provide attractive remuneration for staff. For example, the university sector has very generous superannuation levels well into double figures. But overall, weak investment returns and stock market volatility will leave many workers with modest super at retirement.

In response to this future problem, the Federal government promised to raise the minimum rate of employer superannuation contribution to 12%. 

This has benefits to workers but also to the economy as a whole when those workers become retirees and have more money to spend. 

Only the Australian PM Scott Morrison is considering delaying the legislated increase from 9.5 per cent to 12 per cent…  to protect jobs.

It is a boon for politicians to stand up and say “isn’t it wonderful that we are trying to improve the superannuation rate”. Even if they then say that they will delay it to protect jobs in tough times.

When the PM or any of his ministers stands up to speak though, he probably doesn’t tell everybody that his superannuation as a member of Parliament is already 15%. 

Imagine standing up and saying well, ladies and gentlemen, I get 15 per cent you get nine and a bit, but we’re going to raise yours a little bit or maybe not now that COVID-19 has stuffed everything up.

That is really not going to go down too well – one rule for you and one rule for me. 

Trump lost but Trumpism didn’t

Trump lost but Trumpism didn’t

Photo by Laura Seaman on Unsplash

We’ve seen that Donald Trump was a bumbling politician, had no idea what he was doing, and had no idea of how to win an election. He fluked the first one on the back of heavy popularism and failed miserably to repeat the exercise.

It’s easy to convince ourselves that the US election result in 2020 was a great win for common sense. For the sensible majority to pat themselves on the back for coming back from the brink of disaster.

Except that, number one, Trump was elected the first time around.

Number two, he still won more votes in the election the second time around than any other President has won bar Biden. Seventy million people plus thought he was still a good idea. Even after four years of total nonsense and chaos.

And it would be very wrong indeed for Democrats to simply assume that it’s all back to business as usual. Bask in the joys of a net majority in the population and win on the back of that whilst hoping that the status quo will return.

Heads up, there is no question that popularism will come back.

The right will continue to develop more competent candidates for future presidential elections. It has happened already in other countries around the world: India, Brazil. Russia, Turkey already have competent politicians who fit what you might loosely call Trumpism. A would-be strong populist stance, only they are much better at it than the Donald.

This problem is that division is not going away just because Trump was removed — well, at the time of writing he still hasn’t actually gone, but we’ll assume that justice will be done and eventually the oval office will be vacated. The reason Trumpism won’t go away is because of what it represents. It’s actually all about resources and access to the wealth that those resources create. For with wealth comes power.

The human instinct is to grab and obtain power, maintain it, and grow it. A reflex that has given us success as a species and will never go away.

Breaking down this approach that is so innate in our biology, if we hadn’t grabbed resources and concentrated them in organised units, then we would not be here having this conversation using this technology. To simply remove that approach is not only difficult biologically, but it’s also near impossible psychologically. Hence the failure of communism, evening things out is simply not how humanity works.

Humans are designed to be competitive and to want winners and losers in the system. Politics is about giving a safe place for those winning and losing wars to be fought and for outcomes to be given at least a little empathy and equity. The reality is that in recent times the wars are being won by the right, by people with a lack of empathy and a very strong sense of that wealth creation gene that leads to power — those of us alive in the UK during the decade of Margaret Thatcher experienced something similar.

So don’t be surprised at all if much more competent Trumps appear. They won’t be orange, they won’t tweet all day, and they won’t play golf when it’s time to make a decision.

They will be as hard and as politically savvy as anything we’ve ever seen. And they will push their agendas as forcefully as any other political party that you could imagine. The only way to win against such candidates is to galvanise the majority who we hope, and I say hope because I’m not convinced of this, are fair-minded and empathic to others. Then for everyone to become aware that wealth is not the be-all and end-all and that there is a moral responsibility to look after the less fortunate.

Ironically, most modern societies actually do this rather well.

In many countries, there is a solid and functioning education system, law enforcement, healthcare of sorts, and realistic infrastructure. Many of these services are provided by the taxpayer so they are paid for before households have discretionary funds. These systems provide opportunity and support people.

Obviously, it is not perfect. There are many who are not supported well enough and do not have sufficient opportunity. The thinking is that these were the Trump base, the disadvantaged and the stagnant, those who lost faith that there was an opportunity.

Maybe so but there are 70+ million of them in the US alone. It’s hard to believe that they nearly made a majority, that is ‘most people’.

It means that the things said and done by governments, even the centrist ones, have failed to maintain the well-being of everyone whilst still allowing the system to continue to progress in technology and wealth. What was working ‘rather well’ isn’t anymore.

Centrists beware. Trump was a was not an aberration. He was lucky and he took advantage of an opportunity. But there will be people who will follow him that have a better grasp of the politics and better grasp of the policy in order to push that right-wing agenda of more rewards for the winners and more pain for the losers.

They are unlikely to appease those who lack opportunity but that does not seem to matter. In the time it takes for their popularity to wain a great deal will change.

Are we ready enough to cope?


Thanks for reading these posts, it really helps to know that they might tweak some healthy thinking

Green up the lawn

Green up the lawn

Last spring we decided to landscape our front garden. We had a contractor level off the slopes and spread a new layer of topsoil before endless rolls of turf went down on the newly flattened area. And then, of course, we endured a dreadful summer of heat, wildfires, and drought requiring water restrictions that eventually meant we couldn’t water the lawn at all. So after a solid start, we lost the turf and now we have a front yard made up of weeds.

Needless to say, you should question why we wanted a lawn in the first place. Sir Walter is not native or even likely to persist for more than five minutes unaided in our bushy corner of suburbia, but peer-pressure is a powerful force, as is the resale value of the property.

Clearly we have to do something. Living where we do one simply can’t have weeds in the front garden for goodness sake. It has to be a pristine patch of green of a single species mown regularly to add to the sound of the suburbs.

A request was made to the treasury for funds to fix the problem.

A couple of hundred dollars worth of fertilizer, machinery-hire to aerate the soil, and some seed with a top dressing and perhaps the turf can come back from the dead.

It doesn’t work. The money is spent and still the weeds come through.

More money was spent on weed killer and yet more seed and top dressing. Still it doesn’t work.

Back to the treasury for more funds to do the job a third time. This time it will work.

Only the lawn still isn’t in any sort of shape and it feels like the more money you spend on it the worse it gets.

No matter, we’ll try again.

A plastic lawn is out of the question as is a return to clumps of coarse natives with a hint of bare patch.

Going green

The lawn debacle is a wonderful analogy for the work of green movements around the world. They’ve chastised the people and the governments for failure to save iconic species and to halt overall biodiversity loss, and yet each time they claim and whinge about it, going back to the treasury for more funds to do more of the same, because the problem continues to get worse.

How is that sensible policy on such a critical issue?

Surely we can resource the protection of nature. After all, it provides critical processes that determine human existence, yet we cannot find funds to protect the environment from our worst excesses. And how is it that people who have a political agenda to support that exact outcome have failed so miserably to achieve anything?

All around the world green parties have near-zero political capital, typically just a handful of seats here and there. In one or two jurisdictions they may, if they’re lucky, hold the balance of power on crossbenches, but the fundamental policy frame has not caught on with the public. Green parties have not been able to gather themselves to hit the mainstream and actually get themselves elected into positions of power.

This is a really big problem.

Damage to the structure of nature’s natural processes is reaching a critical level. Even Sir David Attenborough has decided to come off the fence and tell it like it is, the loss he has seen with his own eyes. He knows that bending nature to our will to the point where key processes fail is suicide. Don’t forget it is the primary production of plants and the secondary production of animals that feeds us all. Until everyone understands that, messing with the fundamentals is a dumb play for us and especially our grandchildren. Until we can get that into mainstream thinking, all of us are teetering on the edge of a very steep cliff with jagged rocks at the bottom.

Only the green doom and gloom story can’t be the message because whilst doom and gloom may sell newspapers, it doesn’t buy votes.

Newspapers create ‘if it bleeds it leads’ so that politicians can stand up and say “we’ll protect you from all that gore, just see our policy on fencing off the edge of cliffs”. It is what gets them elected. Join in the media with their blood soaked headlines and there is no way the public will elect you. The voters think you are blaming them, which, of course, the greens are and they may be right, but they can’t say it to our faces.

What we have is zero progressive policy on the environment.

But what about the green alternatives and green growth and new green deal. Some mainstream politicians, especially in the US, continue to double down on their base in the cities with these ideas.

Perhaps they are hoping that the COVID story will help. It should focus people’s attention on the need for change. Maybe a new way for how society will evolve over the next 50 years in order for things to settle. To give people some hope again. Give them an alternative to the nonsense that we are witnessing with horror in the US and in Europe, particularly in the UK, right now.

That the mainstream are trying to pick this up is an indictment of the environmental movements.

I don’t normally do this, but I lay the blame firmly on all the various political parties around the world with a green coloured logo. For decades they have not done what they needed to do, which was to make themselves politically credible through policies that people could actually hang a hat on.

Instead, they offer all or nothing decisions we’ve talked about before such as the one that brought down the first carbon trading legislation in Australia with greens demanding more and blocking the passage of the bill.

Can you be too green?

Green has moved on – it’s no longer about the environment

What we see is the ‘same old same old’, still trying to protect koalas, still trying to say that everything’s falling in and the sky will heat everything up to the point of disaster and we must do something right now.

Only there is no suggestion of what exactly to do without causing mass panic. What is it that the general public, not your supporters, but the general public must do to actually change their ways and deliver and get behind.

It is easy to criticise. Much harder to actually come up with answers and solutions. The next phase is to begin to tell people about what to do.

Over at sustainably FED there are a lot of examples of what you can do. A lot of practical tweaks, some learnings and a few political and practical ideas.

I encourage you to join in over at sustainably FED and put your own ideas forward as to how this could change, suggest some solutions would actually work.

And if you have an idea about how to fix a front lawn that simply doesn’t seem to want to catch, when wanting it in the first place is a brown as it gets, I’d really appreciate it.


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Bald faced lies

Bald faced lies

Donald Trump showed that the media is helpless against a bald-faced lie proudly stated, and the Liberal party under Scott Morrison has applied the lesson so well you would almost suggest that lying was an innate ability of those within the party.

Greg Jericho

This from the Guardian columnist is an opinion, it is what he is paid to generate. Only many would agree that it is true. Politicians everywhere are tapping into an innate ability to tell porkies. The POTUS just made it past 20,000 for his first term.

‘Proud lying’ is a profound oxymoron that cannot be a good thing especially because the people are as helpless against it as the media.

There is something going on in this post-truth world where we are more likely to give in to our emotions than to question what triggered them.

The definition of post-truth is as relating to a situation in which people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefs, rather than one based on facts.

What on earth went wrong.

When did the school kid, who was told facts and learnt from the books that were written in good faith on what was known at the time and wrote down the facts in exams, not need to know those facts anymore? When did it become acceptable to not only lie but to believe a lie?

This is a subtle point.

It is one thing to lie. That takes a certain moral code or lack of one and to lie well, with conviction and believability, that takes a certain lack of empathy because those lies are going to hurt people. But we know these people exist, we call them psychopaths.

It takes something else to believe the lies. What makes people ignore the truth, deny the facts and accept the bald-faced lies? One reason could be that their insecurity is so deep that they are unable to cope with uncomfortable truths. Another could be the need to feel great and when the liar is geeing everything up and giving you a great feeling, why not run with that.

Then there is cognitive dissonance — the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change — where internal conflict produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviours to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.

I will believe the lie because it makes me feel better.

This believing in the lie is as big a problem as the lies, if not the problem.

A liar only gets what they need if there is a believer at the end of it. So the populist leaders who are lying through their teeth all the time are still doing it because there are people who respond to those lies.

The solution to this problem is not to berate the media for following the public and giving them what they seem to want. Remember the media is in it for the profit. Clicks and eyeballs make a profit, so the media simply does what it takes to get them.

Also worth remembering is why clicks and eyeballs make a profit. It leads people to goods and services that other people want them to buy. That is still the commercial model where marketing makes sales.

People like to berate that too but that is the commercial model and has been since forever.

No, the solution to all the lies is to get off the couch and go click somewhere else.

Become a sceptic.

Don’t believe them.

Don’t give them your eyeballs and your clicks.


Please pass this on to your social networks. The world could do with a few more healthy sceptics.

Here is something that you don’t hear every day

Here is something that you don’t hear every day

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Here is something that you don’t hear every day.

The Washington Post fact check column has been following the false or misleading claims Donald Trump has made while in office.

Recall that he has been in the Oval Office since 20th January 2017 which to the 7th July 2020 is 1,264 days or roughly 30,336 hours.

Now in those three and a half years, how many porkies would you say was reasonable. One a week, one a day?

This is the POTUS we are talking about.

The incumbent in one of the highest-profile leadership positions in the world where integrity and a certain amount of honesty would be desirable. This is the white house where some credibility, some respect for the office, some leadership are part of the job description. Most Americans might expect at least that from their president, some level of decorum.

Leave aside for the moment that the incumbent in the oval office also has the code to the red button that can unleash mayhem on the planet that would last for centuries.

So how many little white ones did the Washington Post journalists count?

20,000

Twenty thousand. That is a 2 followed by four zeros, a little shy of 16 a day, one every 90 minutes.

Now we have all been ‘economical with the truth’, told the odd white one, even a few of the grey variety perhaps. Justified often because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Indeed the Ricky Gervais movie The Invention of Lying was startling because it showed how often we tell a fib or two. It is part of human nature.

But 16 a day, each and every day for the whole time you are in office.

What does it take to tell that many lies? That many false or misleading claims?

Here is what Psyche Central says about liars, about being deliberately untruthful

Compulsive liars have very little control over their lying. They may be saying the same lies as the pathological liar, but their intent is different. Usually compulsive liars lie out of habit. They have no goal in lying, but they cannot stop. Compulsive lying may be relatively harmless, but is still alarming to those who witness this behavior. They lie with such consistency that they are usually discovered by others in their social circle.

Alright so Donald Trump might have a habit of lying, a pattern so ingrained he cannot stop doing it. Why would he if it got him into office? He was outed as a liar but it has not affected him at all. Indeed the Washington Post journalists report that the frequency of lying has increased in recent months up to 80 per day currently three months out from an election.

What about the pathological liar? Psyche central again…

The difference between pathological and compulsive liars is thin, but distinct. The intention of pathological liars differs from compulsive liars when their sense of empathy is questioned. Pathological liars demonstrate little care for others and tend to be manipulative in other aspects of their life. They lie with such conviction that at times, pathological liars can actually believe the lies they tell. Pathological lying is frequently found in personality disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder.

More sinister certainly. Manipulative and with little care for others. They believe the lies they tell. And if the lie is believed by the teller then it ceases to be a lie; a convoluted logic that is only smoothed out if the recipients are diligent and sceptical.

As we get closer to the election Trump is cranking it up. Not only is the frequency going up but so is the intensity.

Whilst he used to say it was the best economy in US history, lately that little porky has grown into s stall sow who has achieved ‘the best economy in the history of the world’.

If this is the way to get re-elected then heaven help us all.

Political power is not what it’s cracked up to be

Political power is not what it’s cracked up to be

Photo by John Adams on Unsplash

Our prime ministers and premiers wield far less power than most people believe… Instead, power is distributed across multiple actors – business leaders, media, unions, peak bodies and political factions in addition to the individual political leaders. Most leaders today operate a never-ending mental calculus of how they accommodate the competing demands of these groups in a way that will extend their period of office. Simple as that.

David Hetherington, Senior Fellow at Per Capita

Succinctly put Mr Hetherington. Our political captains are not the only hands on the tiller. Indeed they are arguably not able to move the tiller at all.

At least that is what we thought until they told us to go home and shut the door, which almost all of us did without blinking.

So, yes they are powerless in the face of competing demands when their primary objective is to stay in office. And they really like it in office, it feeds their egos that have voracious appetites. But no, they are not without power. They told us to jump and we said, “how high?”.

This was a fascinating response.

Clearly we were spooked by a nasty virus that at best would make us sick or could signal the end, if not for us, then grandpa. It made sense to stay home and bake.

Only something similar happened in the early 1930’s in Germany.

People were spooked by a massive and disastrous global recession that for the Germans meant that foreign investors, who had come in to help rebuild an economy battered by WWI and the reparations that followed, left in a hurry, taking their money with them, the Americans who are always sniffing an opportunity in particular.

Along came a political opportunist and mesmerising public speaker who exhorted the German people to jump and they did. History tells us what happened next.

Before this connection turns you off as completely nonsensical. Pause for a moment.

The people who jumped back in the 1930s were highly educated, well to do citizens, familiar with success and a high standard of living that they enjoyed in the boom period of the 1920s.

Sound familiar?

They believed they were living in a democracy and that their leaders had their best interests and the country at heart. They also knew that somebody needed to take tough decisions to deal with what was spooking them; the prospect of economic ruin.

Familiar too?

The point is that modern politics may well be at the mercy of multiple actors, especially those with money, but it is not entirely toothless. Leaders can turn on a dime and make remarkable things happen. Not all of them nice or in our best long term interests.

Even if our politicians were genius-level decision-makers, the global disturbance from this pandemic will deliver recessions and depressions with horrible suffering for those already struggling. They will be joined by way too many folks who have not known unemployment, perhaps experiencing it for the first time in their adult lives.

I was one of the one-in-ten for a brief while back in the UK in the early 1980’s — a number on a list, as UB40 famously crooned.

My buddy and I applied for over 100 jobs each in a little competition to see who could land one first. We both failed and ended up in further education seeking higher degrees to help us along, he in atmospheric physics, me in ecology. So smart enough but not employable enough. It seems a long time ago now but it was a real struggle at the time. One in ten was felt by everyone.

When unemployment reaches 14% we are at one in 7.

When it reaches 20% we are at one in 5

These are the numbers of serious discontent.

If at least one dude in the round at the pub is unemployed, there is unrest among all the pub-goers. At any moment any one of them will join the queue for the dole check.

This, of course, is what is driving the political decisions to lift restrictions. Unrest is never pleasant. But to lift them only to go back to the ‘simple as that’ would be a massive opportunity missed.

Alright, enough doom and gloom.

Here is a slightly brighter note.

A new normal

This would be very nice.

How about the renewal of safety nets some redistribution of wealth to pay for it and much greater attention to issues that affect all of us.

Only we can’t expect that to come from the politicians who are telling us every day about stage 2 or stage 3 restrictions and when they might be lifted to get everyone back to normal. The one that we just left behind, potentially forever.

The politicians need normal to be what it was otherwise their juggle among the vested interests will be too hard and the balls will fall.

Unless they have got it all wrong.

There is an idea going around that Modern Monetary Theory might offer an alternative, a radical economic theory that budget deficits are are good, not bad and that government debt is necessary as the source of healthy economic growth. The idea is that investments that enhance productivity such as better health, greater knowledge and skills, improved transport are worth funding, even if it results in a budget deficit.

The theory is that spending is necessary to put money into the economy before governments can tax or borrow. Government spending actually precedes taxation. Then taxation is used to keep everyone in employment.

In Covid times this sounds like a plan.

And it presents a way to avoid a rapid return to political influence from business and the peak bodies that they pay to cheer for them with unstinting help from their media lackeys.

Wouldn’t that be nice?


If you enjoyed this post or even if it made you cringe, post about it. I don’t mind.

Bravery or courage

Bravery or courage

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

I have this hunch that people in modern society can be very brave. They would jump in front of a bus to save a child or beat off a shark from attacking their mate on his surfboard or chase down a thief to retrieve an old lady’s handbag or any number of dangerous gestures.

Only I think they lack courage.

Brave but not courageous. Let me explain.

Way back on 14 August 1861 one hundred years almost to the day before I was born, the New York Times published an article entitled Courage and Cowardice in which the reporter wrote

A man may be brave, absolutely fearless, and yet lack courage; not moral courage, but physical courage of the higher kind. Indeed, the man who does not know the sensation of fear (and there are men so constituted) can never be truly courageous

The idea here is that bravery is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous without any fear, most often because the fear is unknown or not felt.

This can be instinctual such as hitting a shark on the nose or somewhat calculated when running after the thief. Either way, it is an ego-driven response, more instinct than rational.

Courage is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous despite any fear.

This means there is usually time to think through the consequences and to know that they are likely to be painful or contain a risk that should be avoided if possible.

This distinction suggests that the brave soul is somewhat blase, maybe not sure what is coming and yet will jump over the rim of the trench into the enemy fire. The courageous soul is fully aware of the impending doom and is scared shitless but goes over the lip anyway.

Now suppose that the prevalence of bravery is greater than courage.

More people are throwing themselves fearlessly into the fire than those who hesitate before they do.

What does this look like for a society?

The brave souls

The brave souls do not understand why the courageous might hesitate. They do not see why they should be fearful. All they need is some bravery for goodness sake.

Anyway, what is there to worry about? There is nothing to fear. The fearful are weak, namby-pamby types who pretend there is something to be frightened about just so they can claim they are courageous. God help us. That will never get anything done. If we were fearful we’d never have left the forest for the savanna or Africa for the riches of the world.

And anyway, when the heat is on, courage fails so many. I mean they just land in a heap of quivering blubber on the floor or try to hide on the inside of a huge tub of icecream too frightened to move.

No, we need brave souls, the fearless warriors, the ones who give victory and can come back to sing of their heroic acts.

The courageous souls

Well, bravery is certainly useful. But courage is the purer attribute. It takes more self-control, more to overcome, and, well, more courage to be courageous than brave.

What is coming is known or the possible consequences are, especially the likelihood of pain and suffering and the feelings of that pain. This is not an easy thing to overcome. It takes great personal fortitude to do it.

The courageous souls have looked fear in the eye and done it anyway. The brave cannot claim such a conquering of fear. They have not even seen it. They still have to face fear, still have to deal with that horror confrontation and so, despite their actions, they are actually fearful creatures. They are often consumed by fear with reckless acts as their only salve.

A society dominated by the brave may win wars but is unlikely to gain much empathy or decide a social safety net is a good idea or even introduce a universal income.

A society dominated by the courageous could still win the wars after exhausting all the possible alternative solutions to avoid conflict and much more likely to introduce social policies.

More importantly than this, the courageous know themselves. They have looked at the fear and freaked out. They have panicked and been shaken to their boots. Then they went over the lip into the enemy fire.

There really is something noble in that.

Brave but not courageous

Returning to the origins premise that modern society has plenty of bravery but not much courage is backed up by any number of current laments, many on this blog.

We have populist leaders who commend bravery to their followers in the form of hatreds and tweets that say ‘yes, it’s fine to point that semi-automatic rifle at a protester’.

They don’t ask for too much courage though. To take some pain for the greater good.

We have traditional media that sensationalise everything, the bravery response and make cuts to journalism that analyses and asks pointy questions about the future.

We have social media that is designed for the brave — remember we said they were actually fearful souls — to slander, troll and generally act the macho with no consequence whatsoever.

And, and, and….

So here we go. Let’s get a dose of courage added to the COVID-19 vaccine injections. Have a herd immunity to bravery and get us some of that 1860’s ‘physical courage of the higher kind’.

Rorting the system

Rorting the system

Ever wondered if the POTUS and his family were rorting the system?

Do you think he might be? Yep, I think we all have our suspicions. I’m not talking about the ability to leverage notoriety to go on lecture tours or sell autobiographies. We allow that sort of thing as a small ‘thank you for your service’ along with the secrete service costs of keeping him and his family safe

A small aside here is that former Australian prime minister John Howard is often seen strolling around the CBD of Sydney en route to his office in the MLC building. No police, no bodyguard, just his unmistakable self. I have seen him half a dozen times.

Anyway back to the current POTUS.

Maybe he is just getting ready to use his notoriety to go a step or two further than a book tour to plunder the relationships his position affords for a slice of oil pipelines, hotels, golf resorts, towers and whatever else might make a bob or two, in parts of the world where such things are still twee.

Yes, I think so too.

Not a good look at best and worse, an abuse of his position. That is before we get into the back end deals that might be going down as we speak.

Obviously he doesn’t care a jot about our puny thoughts. Our indignation at his abuse of power. Here is some evidence of just how little he cares.

The number of family trips taken during his tenure is through the roof compared to his predecessor, like an order of magnitude larger.

Admittedly he has a huge extended family in the white house, all jumping around in unelected positions, but really, an order of magnitude more trips with the secret service in attendance.

It even makes the tweets look silly.