Democracy on life support

Quartz today had this tidbit about the declining interest in democracy.

It’s a sobering read, especially with the rise of strongman politics.

Analysis is a bit fraught with danger but surely a couple of likely explanations are possible.

Top of the pops surely has to be the failure of democratic governments to actually delivery what most people want. This takes a few forms but primarily the electorate is surely not so blind that they fail to see governments of all persuasion falling captive to minority vested interests. To put it bluntly when democratic governments fail to take on the big end of town or even worse simply get into bed with them, then voting for a party that promises to change that situation becomes an exercise in self deception. It is worth noting here that Trump is busy picking a bunch of cronies who will simply continue the same practices that Trump promised to change, people like billionaire bankers and former execs from Goldman Sachs.

The second but perhaps more insidious explanation is that given the lack of credibility re enacting measures that are beneficial to people as a whole, it becomes harder to sell the virtues of democracy and self realisation for the general population. Imagine this classroom discussion, teacher “democracy is where laws are made to advance the welfare of the majority of people” and student “so why are the rich getting richer and life is getting harder for the rest?”

In other words democracy has rather spectacularly failed to deliver in recent times.

Finally, the alternatives don’t seem too bad and our collective memory is failing to remember the historical struggle to overturn tyranny and oppression. The freedom to publicly express a healthy doubt about the government of the day and even a limited ability to hold power to some sort of account through a free press are not to be taken for granted. They are fundamental to keeping would be tyrants at bay. The world will be a much more hostile place if those things are lost.


What Paradox?

Recently the New Yorker has caught my attention with a series of short and concise essays broadly around the Donald’s ascent. In that vein, the recent article about Silicon Valley and “fake news” struck me as insightful but I couldn’t help but wondering if the author was deliberately obtuse or if in fact I do live in an different dimension.

This paragraph

Whether self-driving cars and trucks, drones, privatization of civic services like transportation, or dynamic pricing, all these developments embrace automation and efficiency, and abhor friction and waste. As Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management told MIT Technology Review, “Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up.”

There is a punch line but as I’ve argued here before these indicators of success, productivity, innovation and efficiency depend on your perspective. If you are a capitalist business such things are beneficial to your bottom line, if on the other hand you owe your existence as a wage slave to the things arising from the consequence of inefficiencies or the lack of innovation then such measures become a threat.

The perfect example offered by Om Malik is the long haul truck driver, and a recent test to replace the driver with an automated process. Great for Uber (who bought the company doing the development) but not so good for the long haul truck drivers.

But returning to the “paradox”. Erik Brynjolfsson concluded the paragraph above with these words

It is, he said, “the great paradox of our era.”

I would argue that it is only a paradox if you assume that the interests pushing innovative disruption, ie the technocratic elite actually have a genuine interest in the welfare of the people affected by its change. Further, you could even argue that concerns about social impacts may well be seen as a unnecessary distraction to those who want to rule the new world. In other words, the disciples of disruptive technology regard the social aspect of their work as something disconnected from the actual technology, a thing apart.

You can see evidence of this in all sorts of places but primarily you see it in the utterances of (well paid) experts who champion technological innovation and production efficiency. Their view is that these things are naturally good because they are good for business and since what is good for business is good for the economy, so they should be also economically good. Since by extension a good economy is apparently good for everyone then the circle is complete, everyone benefits. Troublesome exceptions such as a large pool of potentially unemployed drivers will sort themselves out (magically).

The problem here is one of perspective. It is assumed that because technology is useful that it somehow trumps the social and personal. Unfortunately the obvious truth is “technology-powered capitalism…tends to reward fewer and fewer members of society”. Equally obviously, King Trump isn’t going to do bugger all about it. In fact if you want a conspiratorial analysis you might suspect that the powers to be understand that a, technology is going to fuck the existing socio-economic order leading to b. widespread social unrest which c. will undoubtedly lead to violent internal dissent which is why d. we are waging a so-called war on terror while the state steadily increases the surveillance and policing of its own.

Or maybe I read too much science fiction.


Protecting the status quo

I can’t help feeling the term “post-factual world” calls out for examination. While it does describe the new age of transitory facts or even “fake news” the problems seem massively far reaching. For instance, if the continue attacks on institutionalized medium succeed in destroying even the limited capacity of media to hold power to account, what then? Does anyone really believe this is in the best interests of the general population especially given has vocal the west has been historically in calling out autocratic and dictatorial regimes for their lack of press freedoms.

Logically, the demise of authoritative voices with regard to truth and facts simply permits the rise of voices that basically lie. Where that leads us is anybody’s guess but my hunch is nowhere good. However it is also obvious that no matter how much some people might wish for certain problems to disappear, saying it isn’t so often has no affect on facts of life. Take the future of work as a illustration.

By now we have all heard the message, the angry white people want the golden days driven by high wage manufacturing jobs to return. Apple got the message and announced it might bring some iPhone manufacturing back to the US. Bill Shorten got the message and launch a foray into temporary work visas and of course Trump has managed to blame everyone for the pitiful state of employment in the US rust belt, without even looking like the great deceiver.

This is all rather ironic since the dawn of neo-liberalism we have seem governments vacate the area of employment, other than to pay themselves handsomely. Instead the “market” has been considered the device best suited to offer people enough employment to get through life. And by now everyone knows that one’s suitability for employment is a function of how far you can mold your humanity into fitting the subservient nature of most work relationships or if you want a simple term, how good a worker you are.

The inconvenient facts about how the system seems to favour men over women, and white people over others are the subject of much argument, but imagine how much better things like jobs will be in the post-factual world. Media inspired arguments will disappear and everyone will be happy. Especially when governments clear all the red and green tape currently holding the business world in check and preventing them from employing everyone.

Now this could happen. It did once, when the US lifted itself out of the Great Depression. They could possibly do it again but there’s is a problem here. No one knows where we end up after the infrastructure boom is over since the last one rather rudely terminated in a bit of a war. My point here is twofold. The economic data that says an infrastructure boom will fix long term employment issues is clouded by the socio-political implications that accompany such a gung-ho economic approach. Before the facts are obliterated in a post-factual world, we need to remember where isolationism and nationalism took the world 70 odd years ago. The second point is that a massive rebuilding project after the war, coupled with some decline in the number of people looking for work due to them being dead and all that and wholesale open slather to consumption led us to the golden post war years, economically. But the economic picture has some political aspects.

Things like the EU and UN and international co-operation were things that were born out of a desire to avoid things like war. The politics of those times reflected people’s concern that we should avoid wars and instead work to make the world a better place. Meanwhile the economics meant people could focus on their jobs. The two fronts if you like tended to co-exist and probably culminated in the social democratic state of the 70’s and early 80’s.

The other elephant in the room is the general anxiety about the technological threat to future work. Most people I speak to about this (which is a very tiny subset of the general population) usually express some concern about whether they will have a job at all in ten or twenty years time. This is not solved by blaming foreigners for stealing your jobs, or blaming major companies for off-shoring their employment base even though anecdotally both claims may be true. Economists tend to dismiss techno fear when it comes to employment by saying it hasn’t happened before but we have never before seen the extent of disruption posed by smart machines and robots. The technotopia where no-one has to work has a serious reality problem where people need to work to live.

I’m optimistic about how we could deal with the second problem but the rise of reactionary isolationism isn’t likely to encourage a mindset where the world’s problems can be positively addressed. The facts are politics like those currently occupying centre stage have are dark side which takes us to dark places.

If only there was a light on the hill.


The Elites #donaldspeak

Trump has arrived in no small part because ordinary people are apparently fed up with the elites running the show. But before we buy into this narrative, I want to know who are these elites that everyone suddenly seems to despise?

Let’s start with Wikipedia which says elite is “a term that originates from Latin eligere (“to choose, elect”). In political and sociological theory for a small group of powerful people that controls a disproportionate amount of wealth, privilege or political power in a society.” We could say that Trump himself is something of an elite given his financial status and his inherited privilege but apparently his supporters don’t mind. Frankly that seems like a bit of a cognitive disconnect for me but clearly millions of Americans weren’t troubled. They were more concerned about Clinton’s elitism..

I recently experienced some first hand Trump mania here in Oz. In a small country town one old bloke who was a bit down on his luck was over the moon about the election of Trump. For him it was the start of a revolution in politics where ordinary people (like himself) would be listened to because Trump wasn’t just a politician, he was a businessman (presumably in the business of looking after ordinary people by closing his factories and importing his products). Again the disconnect seemed palpable but the passion was intense which worries me but on a very different level.

Two days later I again experienced the sort of atmosphere where Trump-ism is considered at least acceptable. It was a country race meeting where comfortably genteel peoples gather to drink champagne and watch horse racing. Maybe I imagined it but Trump’s victory seemed to hang in the air as some kind of sign, the forgotten bush folk have a new saviour who isn’t going to let those hipster elites tell them what to do. The crowd seemed older and predominantly anglo which inclined me to think they had a number of issues but when the topic of Trump came up with some younger people they were quick to point to all of Clinton’s failings (being a stooge for the elites seemed to be the common theme) while almost breathlessly romancing Trump’s capacity to change the game.

Given the rather conventional definition of “elite” and the perception that Donald is somehow anti-elite it seems to me that what these two instances highlight is this. The term “the elites” everyone is bandying around in the year of Trump is really a derogative shorthand for the urban intelligentsia who spend their time sipping latte’s while facebooking and laughing at the ignorant country folk. The fact that we seem to have bred certain politicians who are clearly at home with this mob means they must be part of the elite conspiracy too.

The other thing Dr Google offered me was plenty of web sites that discuss the conspiracies of elites running the world. I’ve no doubt plenty of people believe in the existence of a small bunch of elite puppet masters who pull the political strings all over the world but how does Trump help with that? Is he going to suddenly tax the shit out of wealth and close down the arms industries? Maybe he will nationalise the banks as part of making America great. No, he’s going to build some bridges and few fences. That will fix those pesky elites.

How is it that Trump is not seen as part of the “elite” problem when he has been a beneficiary of the system for all his life? Inherited wealth, check. Accrued power and privilege from wealth, check. Tax avoidance, check. Male privileges, check. And the list goes on.

Yet this seems to be a fact free world, post President Trump where words are just a smokescreen for feeling real. The imaginary world of climate change and its hipster disciples have run head on into the reactionary dispossessed who simply want their old jobs back. If Trump says he will fix it that’s good enough for them despite the obvious problem with taking the spoken word literally.

Our world is increasingly complex and there are obvious limits on how much complexity humans can cope with. The elites in Donaldspeak are a very big simplification which seems to avoid uncomfortable facts because they would challenge too many sacred cultural cows. And it seems completely appropriate to conclude by observing that Adolf Hitler made Germany great too, for a while. And he had his own elite problem.


President Trump

O.M.G. The hidden support base of uneducated white americans flocked to their man. The NYT has this exit poll graphic which shows Trump gaining 14% in those who identify as white with no college education (what we tend to call white working class).

And who would have thought the large number of people left behind as the 21st century juggernaut that is the free ranging corporate beast consuming technological enhanced workplace rationalisations while dining on generous tax loopholes mixed with global labor glut, who would have thought they would vote for change?

Well to be be frank Bernie Sanders did. I read a tweet that said something about it wasn’t gender that decided the outcome, rather it was simply that Clinton wasn’t a good enough candidate and I have to totally agree. Of all the soul searching that is now going on in the heart of the democratic party in the US, surely the biggest question is why not Bernie Sanders?

It was a serious misjudgement. Bernie spoke to primary concern most voters have, their personal livelihoods. Clinton on the other hand seemed to think the world had moved on which really just left the door open for Trump to exploit the discontented.

The arguments and recriminations will be long. But the figures suggest the Democratic vote basically collapsed in some key states which in turn highlights the weakness of the Clinton campaign. It simply wasn’t enough to paint your opponent as ignorant xenophobic sexist pig. You still need to give people a reason to vote for you. At the end of the day, Clinton failed to get the sort of popular votes that elected Obama and the electorate was in a mood for change.

But if you thought the Bush years were bad, hold on to your seats because you aint seen nothing yet.

Footnote. Just read this article by Michael Brull over at New Matilda which expands greatly on my point about Bernie Sanders


Vote early, vote often #actvotes

There I said it. Vote early, vote often. Make Canberra great again. Exercise your democratic right. Keep the bastards honest.

Slogans. Politicians are pretty good with slogans. We could have a slogan led recovery if only saying something made it happen. A bit like believing in magic, you know the bit about being able to mumble some arcane phrase or recite some incoherent collection of bizarre utterances or simply making a wish. I wish the world was a better place.

Of course slogans are important. The give you something to cling to in your hour of desperate need. Hillary really is a crook, or turn back the boats, or it’s time. It’s time? Well that’s different mainly because it looks like a slogan, sounds a bit like one too but unlike the so many Trumpisms it actually invites you to think a little. It’s time doesn’t simply offer you confirmation bias, rather you are led a little to think about the world we share. Is it time for a change?

But on the day of a local election I am really despairing of democracy in general. Not the principle, which I think might still be the best thing going but rather the way the ideal has been subverted by money and power. You could say we have the best damn democracies money can buy, and that friends would be pretty close to how I feel.

Our political system has become self serving, probably all political systems ultimately do. Some call it corruption which is fair enough after all the modern democracy is supposed to be a tool for improving the lives of all constituents, not just the privileged few who can buy the political favours they deserve. So our politicians have become the servants of the ruling elite currying favour with this mob or that one and lining their own pockets while they do. I mean look at the perks and payola they collect as politicians, all the while talking about the need for austerity and balancing budgets.

The losers are us. We lose the best tool we have to build a progressive, inclusive egalitarian world which to be Machiavellian, is probably the end game. For when democracies start collapsing totalitarianism will step up to the plate. In many places it is already half way there.

The core of the problem remains economic equality. Pretty much every other problem we have, including religion, would cease to be a burning crusade in peoples’ lives if we didn’t have such a huge divide between the rich and the rest. All the logical analysis that says that rich just get lucky or work hard or are smarter or something is demonstrably at odds with the unmistakable human sense that the “system” is rigged. This in turn invites more selfish behaviour which leads to less desirable politics which leads to broken democracies which leads to authoritarian regimes.

The Donald defines the extent of how broken things are getting but he’s no Robinson Cruscoe. He just happens to be the most obvious example. I wish it were not so.



Ryan Avent appears to share my concerns about robots and work. Writing in the Guardian he warns “a world without work is coming – it could be utopia or it could be hell.”

It is rather telling that he lists some of the obvious problems with the upcoming robot nirvana, the biggest and most obvious being the simple fact that working for money is how most people pay the bills for the things that make life live-able. The other key point is that technology isn’t actually benefiting workers in terms of their share in the GDP. My personal experience is heavily weighted with evolving technology in the workplace and it seems relatively trivial to note that businesses employ technology to improve profit margins and not to pay staff more (which of course means less profits). Our faith in the economic mantra that technology ultimately means more work and more wages is definitely heading for a collision with a world where the first object of business is to make money.

Avent concludes “two centuries from now, I am confident, we will have worked everything out splendidly. Assuming, that is, that those of us alive now can manage the first painful steps without wrecking the world in the process” but if history is any guide, only a very optimistic person would believe those painful first steps aren’t going to involve some very extreme risks.


Something stinks

The fact mainstream media are getting keen on political donations in the wake of the naughty Sam affair illustrates the extent to which the whole thing stinks, at least as far as the public are concerned.

The weasel words bandied around distinctions between this form of payment and that form of donation does nothing to change the fact that the mainstream political parties have certain smell about them, it’s the smell of corruption.

Whether it’s “complimentary” tickets to a football match or a free nights accommodation or simply just a bag of loot to help with the campaign the game is the same. At the end of the day there’s quid pro quo, something for something. After all, why would anyone give a pollie anything if they didn’t see something in it for themselves?

However it is also hard to see where this current storm in the teacup is likely to go much further. I mean it’s not like it hasn’t happened before or isn’t happening still. Further, it is unlikely that anyone who has a vested interest in maintaining the existing regime (which is most of them) will actually do anything substantial.

So the next time a politician laments about the failure of democracy or the crumbling faith in the political process, just remember that naughty little senator from NSW or if you want to be even handed, the self righteous wanker from Adelaide who insists black is in fact white.


Robin Hood Tax

I reckon this is such a no-brainer which is why of course it will never happen. Basically a variation on the Tobin tax idea but specifically aimed to be revenue positive for governments, the term was apparently coined by a Italian finance minister who said “it was aimed at the wealthy with revenue to be used for the benefit of poorer citizens”.

Interestingly, in Europe the map of supporting/not-supporting countries shows the UK to in the opposing camp. Perhaps it’s because it was an European who suggested it or perhaps the UK is committed to the concept of taxation of the people for the benefit of the rich. My guess is a bit of both.

But it is a very interesting question, should taxation be used as a specific mechanism to redistribute wealth to the less well off? Given the extraordinary levels of wealth inequality we are currently witnessing perhaps something like the Robin Hood Tax is what we need. I’m sure if it was put a popular vote it would be law tomorrow. Instead of talking about reducing the tax burden on business and the rich, supposedly to incentivise economy activity, lets talk about using taxation to achieve a social outcome. Oooh that sounds like socialism…

The battle lines are pretty obvious eh?

Also obvious is the utterly self serving nature of neoliberalism. All the bullshit about how less taxes and regulations would free economies would lead us to nirvana are palpably just a smokescreen to enable the .1% to garner as much wealth as they can get their greedy hands on. All the state owned assets now in private hands are busy making their owners very rich while simultaneously depriving governments of market based mechanisms that protect the interests of the common people. Instead governments have been reduced to regulatory controls which have systematically been made increasingly worthless by successive attacks on government red tape.

The problems posed by government debt (real or imagined) can be offset if governments can plug the holes in the leaking taxation system but at the heart of the matter is an argument about the purpose of taxation. If you think taxes are just to pay for essential government services, and usually this is taken to mean thinks like defense and police, then you probably end up in the camp of wanting to tax the poor just like governments or feudal monarchies have always done. On the other hand if you see the role of government as a mechanism that enables the advancement of society for the benefit of all then a form of progressive wealth distribution is part of the mix.

The alternatives are pretty stark.


How did we get to this?

As the Facebook generation enters adulthood I do wonder if the thinly disguised reference to a sinister side of “the platform” in the latest Jason Bourne movie has any substance. For those of you who aren’t a JB fan, one of the plot lines in the latest movie reveals the agency has a “special” relationship with the architect of a rapidly growing social media platform.

Let’s face it, if you wanted to install a surveillance state, Facebook is gold. Team it with a mobile phone and there’s a basic profile without having to lift a finger from the keyboard.

Nor do I think this is particularly paranoid. It just is the way it is. A surveillance state by stealth and what could be stealthier than something we have willingly signed up for?

But getting back to the JB plot line. While I think it isn’t outlandish to claim that government agencies might have special relationships with IT companies (since in fact they do, despite the widely reported Apple iPhone case) I am more interested in the real politics. To be Machiavellian, who benefits from the rise and rise of Facebook?

Obviously Zuckerberg gets rich. One day he will catch up with his sponsor Gates. But if you look at the impacts of a rising Facebook on the old world social fabric it seems to me that something else is going on.

The claim of Facebook is that everything is social and by definition, connected. Facebook rather innocuously claims to just be what people want, despite the obvious fact that Facebook is very tightly controlled and managed. Without intervention, Facebook would be a mess, much like the world is in real life. So in a sense Facebook is a sanitized version of life with some room for a bit of nastiness.

Is it a platform for social change? Remember the chest beating about the role of social media in the Arab Spring? And where exactly did that end up? Syria? Iraq?

It has been remarked by others that Facebook tends to be a sort of echo chamber where we tend to gravitate towards comfort zones, friends we agree with, pictures we like, groups we think are worthy, pages that appeal to us. Facebook makes it extremely easy to avoid anything we don’t like or agree with. In fact we are so bombarded with stuff we like or should know about that we simply don’t have time or the energy to look at anything else. And this is happening to billion plus facebook users every day.

Sociology isn’t my area of expertise but I suspect what is going on here amounts to something that is actually the antithesis of social connections. By immersing ourselves in our echo chamber of choice we actually disconnect from the rest of society. The divide between us and them appears to disappear but only because we never have to deal with them on Facebook, until they burst into our lives armed with guns and start shooting.

A lot of screentime has been consumed recently devoted to the apparent demise of democracy, specifically the two party state variety and how fractured traditional political models have become. Is this a consequence of the Facebook effect? Impossible to answer definitively but there is something in the rise of authoritarian nationalism which is enabled by a media platform which facilitates close minded bigotry which in turn preys on the breakup of seemingly weaker tolerant liberal society.

And to which we add the spying capacity of Facebook and mobile phones. Scary huh? Particularly when you consider the role of the secret police in authoritarian regimes.

Of course the truth is usually seen as the best weapon in defense of liberty and justice but what happens when truth assumes a totally relativistic position. Well you get Trump, that what’s happens.

The advocates of change and disruption are quite strident in how we have to embrace the new. The problem is the new has some worrying old coming along for the ride and it is quite possible all this technotopia will simply usher in an age we might live to regret. If we survive.