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.

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.

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.

High-speed commuting

High-speed commuting

Here is an interesting idea that uses a solution to one problem to solve another.

House prices in the major cities of Australia are pretty much out of reach for working families not already in the market. Just to keep the roof over the kid’s bedroom is costing well over 50% of the family income for renters or buyers.

The latest solution to housing affordability is a high-speed rail link between Sydney and Melbourne financed predominantly from private capital.

Come again.

Well, the idea is that very fast transport links, such as covering the 878 km between Melbourne and Sydney in an hour of travel, would allow people to work in the city and live in the countryside where, of course, housing is much cheaper.

And should they cough up the infrastructure funds, the private sector can cash in on the growth in land values all along the route to easily cover the return on investment.

Now I should point out that the current commute from Penrith, an outer west suburb of Sydney, to the Sydney CBD, a distance of 55 km, takes at least 50 minutes on the fast train. The notion of getting to Melbourne by rail in just a few more minutes is fanciful.

You don’t want to know how long it takes to get to Canberra by rail, a destination not even half way to Melbourne. Let’s just say you’ll need to take a book.

But there are fast trains in the world and they move people around very efficiently indeed, famously so in Japan and continental Europe. And the new technologies for rapid transport systems make the working options look like a horse and cart.

Infrastructure at this scale does cost a lot of money. But there is also a lot of capital about looking for a return. So you can see why the idea emerges.

Except that it is crazily dumb.

The reason housing is so expensive is the concentration of wealth. The high paying jobs are in town and so people want to be in town. They pay rent (or a mortgage) for being close to work and this retains wealth in the city that stays in the hands of a relative few. Don’t forget the bank owns your house until the mortgage is paid off.

What would be better is if the jobs were more evenly distributed, then the people would happily move to the jobs. Demand in cities would slow and so would prices.

So instead of commuter trains, what about a high-speed rural train network designed to move produce rather than people. Give the aquaponics entrepreneur in Albury the ability to sell produce to the Sydney market where there are plenty of people still occupying the existing housing stock.

This would also get around the problem of an agricultural production system currently capital saturated. Farm business debt-equity ratios and production growth potential are maxed out under current practices. New production is needed to attract capital.

So rather than move the people to the capital why not move the capital to the people.

And this might even release some housing affordability pressure because capital has somewhere other than real estate to make a return.

Do you know what you want?

Do you know what you want?

A long time ago I was at a seminar by an upbeat American whose particular brand of snake oil was about how to get what you wanted in life. His specific pitch was creative visualisation.

Waved along by an expensive Italian suit he had people tell him exactly what they wanted in life. It was not enough to want a house with a picket fence. The deal, he said, is to know exactly where the house is, which suburb, street, and all the details right down to the shade of white paint and the distance between the rails on the fence out front.

Most of the people he asked to describe such detail did not have a clue. They had only a vague notion of what they wanted out of life.

Of course this worked like a charm for the charmer. “It’s all about visualisation you see.” He said, once again waving his arms. “If you can’t describe exactly the items you want you will never be able to get them.”

No surprise this has become a popular concept and not just because we are besotted with goods and chattels. Knowing what we want does motivate and guide our actions. Back in the day it got us out from the relative safety of the thicket onto the open plains where there was more risk but also success to be had, perhaps even a tasty warthog.

Today’s versions of warthog might be a new flat screen or the European coupe with the cute front grill and alloys, but the visualisation of things remains a strong motivator.

What do we want politically?

Wanting for things is easy but there is no reason it should not stretch to wanting a certain type of society with specific combinations of rights, freedoms, economic leanings and relationship to the past.

My hunch is that we don’t think of politics this way and have just as much trouble visualising what we want for society as imagining the most desirable garden border.

Clearly it is hard to see the radical-left or far right or Third Way as a tactile thing and so it is easy not to visualise our political stance at all. We don’t discover the detail of what our innate political leaning looks like in the smartphone world.

This is not about how you vote — the choice you must make among your countries versions of major party left or right or centre or even wether to pitch up to the voting booth. This is about what your leanings actually look like. How far apart are the rails on your radical-centre fence?

First you need to know how to place your innate political leanings. Where on the confusing spectrum of ideologies will you feel most comfortable?

Grab your smartphone and ask Google or Siri to search ‘political ideologies’ and click on the Wikipedia entry to see a very long list of the options. More simply you can follow these links to the main flavours

Left wing politics

Centrist politics

Right wing politics

Remember this is not about whether Wikipedia gets the ideological description correct, leave that never-ending argument to the political philosophers. Just pick the description that resonates.

In a jiffy you will have a description of the philosophies that align with feelings that always made you a staunch republican or so excited by Bernie Saunders vision of progression.

You will get to know what you feel about the tricky balance between personal and social responsibility — how much the government should interfere.

You’ll find yourself thinking about just how much capital should be allowed to flow and businesses encouraged with or without a social safety net. And, as former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd was want to say, just how much of ‘a fair shake of the sauce bottle’ people should get.

You might even make sense of the Brexit decision and the new US president-elect although these events might be a stretch.

What you will find is that visualisation is hard.

Even if you land firmly in an established ideology that describes a political system with strong personal responsibility and a social safety net built on a free market economy [left-centre in case you were wondering]. What does that look like for policy on terror, boat people, exploitation of coal seam gas, or tax bracket creep?

So just like most of the people who had no idea that there were even shades of white in a picket fence, political visualisation is not for the lazy minded. It takes effort.

Only it is time to start making those mental images.

What do you want citizenship laws to look like? Should farmland be dotted with gas wells or modest pay rises tipping you across into the next tax bracket?

It is a very good time to do this because the shake up is upon us. The sauce bottles are out.

Just ask Donald.

Grexit

boat-ThailandBucket in hand you turf water over the side of your tiny sailboat as it bucks into the squall. It is a desperate act. The next wave will undo all your efforts. A few more big ones and the boat will sink.

What to do?

You could stop the eager bucket work and resign yourself to a dangerous swim in the open water. There is no doubt that if you stop the remedial measures the boat will sink.

You could keep bailing out and pray that the squall will end. At least then your continued bailing would steady the boat, maybe even raise it a little in the water above some of the less terrifying waves.

A glance at the sky leaves you forlorn. There is not even a hint of blue sky.

You look behind you and there is a huge tanker casting a vast and shadow over you. Its prow cuts through the angry water ignorant of the buffeting the waves are giving your tiny vessel.

A man in yellow waterproofs hails you from the bow of the tanker.

“Do you need help?” he asks through a loud hailer.

You raise your arms in a shrug.

“We can throw you a line. Tow you back to port” the man says holding up a ball of string. “Unfortunately we have to charge you for our trouble” he adds.

You beckon for the string not really sure what the last bit was about.

“Don’t forget to keep bailing” the man says as he tosses the string over the side. “Your boat looks like it is about to sink”.

Illogically the string feels like a lifeline. It is surely not strong enough pull the sailboat back to port but there it is. You are attached to something big and strong.

Another wave dumps a load of icy cold water into the boat. Time to bail some more.

Your hands are stinging from broken blisters and there is no respite. Every time you rest the water level rises. The bucket and your effort is not enough.

You stare at the string. It is not even taught.

You look up at the man in the tanker. He smiles back at you.

Then it hits you.

Why in the name of the Gods did you set out into a heavy squall in a small boat?

Monkeys like peanuts

Full disclosure throws up some very interesting comparisons.

For example we know that in Australia the prime minister is awarded an annual salary of $507,338

Not a bad earn. There will be allowances and the like and not too many groceries to buy thanks to endless corporate dinners and executive lunches. Certainly beats the socks off the salary of the average Australian that is $72,800 currently the 5th highest in the world.

Immediate reaction #1 — You have to be kidding, that’s far too much to pay a politician

 

Now we take a gander at the salaries of company CEOs. This is possible thanks to the requirement of boards to state executive remuneration in the company annual report. And there are websites that collate these numbers into accessible lists.

Turns out that the average [as in mean] salary of a top 50 business CEOs is $7,485,000 per annum. Just 15 times more than the PM.

In 2014 the pauper on the CEOs list, languishing down in 300th place on the earnings ladder, made $869,000

Immediate reaction #2 — You have to be kidding, that’s far too much to pay anyone

 

In what universe are the top ranking CEOs making decisions an order of magnitude more important that those of the prime minister. He was elected to look after our interests?

Turns out if you add up the salaries of PM and his cabinet ministers it comes to roughly $8.7 million — 13 CEOs earned more than this on their own.

It doesn’t make any sense. But if you, reluctantly I hope, accept that this is the world we live in where an individual is considered important enough to earn seven figures to run a company, then you get…

Immediate reaction #3 — You have to be kidding, pay peanuts get monkeys