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.

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.

Leadership for the environment

Leadership for the environment

Be curious and humble

Be courageous and confident

Kat Cole, the 30 something president of a $1 billion brand believes that great leadership requires just these four key qualities.

Makes good sense.

Curiosity is essential for anyone leading the way along new paths into unknown territory. It implies a willingness to learn and anything genuinely new always supplies a steep learning curve.

Humility is self-restraint, self-understanding, awareness, and a good sense of perspective meaning that it is not about me. This is a true leadership quality.

Courage seems obvious. Someone must be the first to step out into the unknown to take on the curve.

Confidence is contagious. It energises those who have it and everyone they meet. It is a powerful attractive force that gathers and holds people together to deliver more than the sum of the parts.

There are few leaders who do not have these qualities. Absence or even a shortage in any one of them and a would-be leader couldn’t move forward and bring others along.

What do these qualities mean when it comes to environmental leadership?

Anyone with a smidgen of interest in the natural world usually has some curiosity. Variety, the unusual, and the strange are present in everything from trees to termites, and not even Sir David has seen it all.

Stand close enough to a wild elephant to hear her stomach rumble and humility will cascade over you to wash away your awe. Put a spoonful of soil under a microscope and the life teeming across your vision should make all your first world problems melt away. Once seen for what it truly is, nature can humble the mightiest ego.

They don’t call them environmental warriors for nothing. There is a fight on that demands courage enough to stand against convention and take on the reality that modern living exploits nature. It is hard for even the simplest sustainable action to be easier or cheaper than business as usual.

So far, so good as we can expect that most environmentalists are curious, humble and courageous.

Confidence is a feeling of self-assurance usually arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities — the expression of self-belief.

Now here I would argue that environmental leaders have a problem. Many are strong, articulate and outgoing individuals for sure. And they are often passionate, sometimes fearless, advocates.

But these traits are not confidence.

Confidence can be very hard for environmentalists because at some level they all participate in the actions that exploit resources. They drive cars, fly in aeroplanes, consume the products of commercial agriculture and feed their dogs. They live a life that they know contributes to most environmental problems.

Only true narcissists can overcome such incongruity to be truly confident. Normal folk cannot overcome the flaw and appear fake or overly aggressive.

Madness

Madness

Here is what Professor Brian Cox, a particle physicist at the University of Manchester and popular interpreter of science, has to say about those who ridicule or ignore scientific consensus.

Imagine that we’re flying on a plane, and imagine that the passengers decide that they think they can fly the plane better than the captain. So they say ‘come on, we’ve had a vote and we all think that it’s our right as a citizen to land this plane rather than you. It doesn’t matter that you’ve studied it for 20 years

Do you want to be on that plane? I certainly don’t.

Any regular reader will know that I am rarely effusive on the qualities of scientists. I have doubts over the quality of research and the peer-review process that is supposed to maintain it. I question the training of future researchers and lament a seemingly pervasive misunderstanding of inference. The bunkers that scientists hide in restrict their worldview and too often the tug of opinion overrides objectivity.

But these are nuanced gripes of the middle aged.

I have never doubted the core of what science is and does. Any foibles are just that. Even modestly applied, the scientific method builds knowledge and understanding of everything from rockets to growing rocket. Without it we would still be hunting and gathering.

The captain of the plane may not be the greatest pilot on earth but I ‘d rather he have the controls than the elected nominee from random passengers.

Anyone who agrees should have a polite conversation with those who are comfortable that the $5 billion a year US Environmental Protection Agency has a budget cut of 30% whilst the US defence budget goes up by $50 billion, a 10% increase.

Madness.

Welcome to Muppetville

Welcome to Muppetville

In the Urban Dictionary the top definition for muppet is “a person who is ignorant and generally has no idea about anything”

Muppetville is the place where these people live… in complete bliss.

Imagine for a moment how delightful it must be to reside in Muppetville. You are totally unaware of your ignorance and dearth of ideas. All the people around you are just like you. They are clueless too.

Good coffee is available everywhere and there is never a day you need to pack your own lunch, or dinner for that matter. Rarely are there times when you must be quiet. A comrade or colleague is always nearby and eager for an exchange of glibness. Days are so full that there is not a moment to think. And all the time other Muppets are crazy busy rushing around to normalize your own mania.

There is no risk of some smartarse blasting your argument to the moon with a gentle quip. Ideas people rarely visit. The protection of so many fellow Muppets means there is no reason to doubt anything. And no fear either because as a clueless person you have no awareness of anything beyond the end of your nose.

Most remarkably, and for reasons not fully understood, the real world wants to know what’s going on in Muppetville. Every day, TV cameras and genetically blessed youngsters report on every move, random word string, and hi-vis vests of residents.

And there are many things to see. The revolving doors are always interesting. The gravity defying backflips are cockroach common, but thanks to the accompanying conviction failures, they rarely disappoint. And there are tears, always tears, despite the bliss.

Sometimes a Muppet will put on an extraordinary media performance that stands out from the usual incoherence. Here is a link to a fine example. These episodes are a glimpse inside the minds of people who live without ideas and knowledge.

When Muppets venture out of the ville, never alone and always protected by a coterie of blessed youngsters, they maintain a brave face. This shows tremendous courage. Not everyone can so easily leave the comfort of home to face bewilderment. Perhaps they do this to prepare for eviction that is surprisingly common.

There are many would be residents of Muppetville. Plenty of people want to live there. But it takes ruthlessness, some patience, and demonstrable incompetence to get in. Not everyone is up for that.

In fact, Muppetville has, over the years, drifted away into a kind of never-never land. Its residents and newcomers float with it unable to alter the current. Fewer and fewer people want to go there now. If this were evolution perhaps a new race would emerge from this drift, rife with inbreeding depression.

This could be the source of our fascination. Curiosity over where the current will take this lot next. Perhaps, but more likely, we are equally dumb.

After all, we let them run the country.