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

 

Et tu Brute

Caesar‘You, too, Brutus’, said Caesar forlorn with sadness and perhaps a hint of incredulity across his brow at the moment of his agonised death. At least that is what Shakespeare decided were the last words of the most famous victim of murder for political gain.

I have just watched all three episodes of The Killing Season on iView — all 234 minutes in one sitting. It was an excellent piece of historical journalism by the ABCs Sara Ferguson that through interviews with key players lays bare the extraordinary events in Australian Federal politics from 2007 to 2012. There were four prime ministers, two elections and an open disregard for the best interests of the country. Easily the modern equivalent of murder for political gain.

Specifically it’s how a political party can trash itself from within. More worryingly it shows a triumph of ego over integrity that destroyed the public’s faith in political process.

Watch it. Pay special attention to body language and facial expressions. Some feelings are hard to hide even for the professional spin artists.

But this post is not about that sorry saga at all. It is about an opinion piece by Eleanor Gordon-Smith, a writer and radio producer who teaches philosophy and ethics at the University of Sydney.

Gordon-Smith claims that the violent words ‘assassin’, ‘midnight door knock’, ‘execution’ and the like have no place in rational journalism. Nice try but a hollow attempt to dilute the message.

I am sorry. No one can airbrush this blemish. The Australian Labour Party destroyed its integrity and that of the political process in not one, but two ‘coup de grace’. Luckily no daggers were required to achieve the ends — a leader replaced by another that the people did not vote for — but the result was the same.

That labour supporters resort to such pathetic excuses is actually more worrying still. It suggests that despite being shown the truth they still fail to accept that their internal systems were flawed. Systems so dysfunctional that individuals without a mandate and not much more than inflated egos could bring down prime ministers. The labour party should say sorry to us for such irresponsible behaviour.

Instead of clutching at a semantic straw they should fess up, preferably with a resounding commitment not to do it again. And, should the party govern again, it will promise to put the best interest of the country before any petty internal squabbling.

While all this was going on the political right weighed in with dirty politics of their own. They trash talked and played every card they had, including aligning with the kinds of extreme views that they now claim to despise. They too came out of this period smelling bad — like opportunists without a moral compass.

Caesar did not expect that his friend Brutus would desert him, but he did.

In modern times the political dagger is no less lethal because it destroys far more than political careers. It bleeds away our faith in democracy.