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Old men confront the 21st century

It was a telling incident that demonstrates the disconnect of the old guard in the Liberal Party machine but it is hard to decide which one was more revealing. Was it the inept and incompetent Brandis on Sky who bumbled incoherently about how the government will increase its spying on the public or was it the other hard right culture warrior Abetz who when interviewed by a young woman on daytime TV casually asserted scientific evidence existed that linked abortion to breast cancer.

For mine Abetz wins by a short head but mainly because I can think of nothing more stupid than a ageing old fart like Abetz trolling out a right wing article of faith live on commercial TV in an interview with someone likely to experience either of the two linked conditions, ie abortion and or breast cancer. He’s a stupid old fart talking through his arse and the fact he was so stupid as to do it when and where he did illustrates the extent to which his generation of thinkers is not connected to the modern world of evidence based decision making.

And to think this mob junked the Science department.

Team Abbott rattled by loose cannon salvoes.

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Drowning not waving in the information age

So the wild west was won by the forces of law and order, lo and behold the US became, well the US. It saw how good was idea of private enterprise when backed up by muscle prepared to do violence and decided to dress it up as democracy for the rest of the world. They even erected a statue supposedly symbolising the eternal nature of individual liberty. Then they gave us Facebook.

Well to be fair they also gave us Microsoft, Apple and Google, as well as Oracle and IBM. Bastions of entrepeneurial success and validation of the system of private enterprise. Yay team! So confident was the US in its model they even believed that modernising China and sending all their hitech comapnies over there to make even more money would only ever be a good thing. The rest of the world couldn’t wait to join the party.

But somewhere along the way, the government of the people by the people and for the people got lost. Maybe it was never there, those were just some nice sounding words a politician used to “connect” with the people. But at least there did exist the idea that in a democracy people had some agency in deciding what affected them, even if it was reduceable to a simple choice between tweedledee and tweedledum.

Lately there has been a bit or talk about so-called antipolitics, a apparently widespread phenomenon whereby voters in modern democracies are apparently not interested in voting for either tweedledee or tweedledum, opting instead to vote for the jokers in the pack or not voting at all. Democracy is apparently in crisis with our political institutions seemingly irrelevant to the rest of our lives.

Still life goes on. People eat and sleep while the wheels of industry keep on trucking. Last time I looked belief in the institution of money was pretty strong. It seems to have no problem in convincing people of its relevance to the rest of our lives.

And then there are the new masters. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple. These companies are effectively above the laws created by the rest of us, their wealth largely untaxed and their capacity to do things that affect us grows every time someone likes something or asks a question or connects to a friend. Not only do we have no power in this relationship, the state which one could argue is supposed to protect our interests is instead only interested in exploiting the modern panopticon in the interests of law and order. The regressive nature of such actions should be obvious to any child over the age of 5.

We need to be utterly clear about this. Google is not our friend, it does evil. Facebook likewise. They have graduated from the hardware/software moguls like Microsoft and Apple that merely tried to lock us into using certain things. Now not only do we have to battle what we use or how we use the tools of the so-called information age, we also have to do battle with those who seek to control how we think and about what we think.

And just in case this is seen as some kind of extremist libertarian ratbaggery, consider the views of Jay Rosen or look at what happens when Greenpeace crosses the mighty Shell. The internet age heralds no new dawn for freedom.

Worse still, the demise of the idea of democracy in the mind of people reinforces a prevailing sense of powerlessness. There is some connection between the rise of companies who are effectively beyoond our control and the demise of democratic government although its exact nature is obscure. My suggestion is to follow the money. Look at who wins even if the method is odscure.

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Work in 2025

Ross Dawson, doing his best to look relaxed and at ease with himself in the Age’s supplied photo has this rather alarming conclusion

a rapid increase in self-employment as larger organisations cut the number of permanent employees and hire expertise from anywhere in the world only when they need it.

I have some experience with self-employment. It’s very much a two edged sword kinda thing. Yes on the one hand you do get substantially more time to do other things with your life but, and this is very much a big but, your relationship with your employers is far more subservient than is the norm in structured workplaces. Further, your financial security is far less certain with periods of gainful employment greatly outnumbered by long stretches of scraping by.

We used to have a term for this back in the days of our agricultural dominated economy, we called it seasonal work. You would work like buggery for a short period of time usually somewhere where you didn’t usually live, make a pile of money and then spend the rest of the year living of it and whatever else came your way. But in those days the cost of living was pretty cheap, in a sense money went further or could be stretched more. These days just having a roof over your head is almost more than you get on unemployment benefit and that means you eat shoe leather the rest of the time.

There is something very disconcerting about Ross Dawson’s prediction and that is the degree to which he paints this as some kind of technological utopia. Along with any claim that productivity is good for the economy in general is an unspoken truth. Improvements in productivity is a measure of how much of value is produced by a company or business or organisation or individual over time. In widget speak if I make 5 widgets a day and I buy a widget maker which allows me to make 50 widgets a day my productivity has improved. Leaving aside the accounting of cost, presumably the purchase of a widget maker is returned in terms of extra productivity since the only ongoing costs are my wage and whatever maintenance costs are associated with the widget maker. Me and my widget maker…

This is a rather crucial point. The widget maker is not another person, so someone else looking for a job has to go and find somewhere else to make gidgets because we, my widget maker and me have suddenly got the widget market to ourselves. Go innovate yourself a new job in Smokin Joe speak. Now this is all very well and fine since the last 70 odd years we have seen a pattern where investments in widget makers has not actually produced a seismic shift in employment but more recently what we have seen is a dramatic shift in the distribution of wealth with the elites suddenly tucking it away at a rather obscene rate. The assumption of economists is that technology that improves productivity is generally good for employment is based purely on the belief that what we have seen in recent times will always continue but there is nothing guaranteed in that relationship.

The case for businesses employing people is basically a matter of making money. Something of value needs to be done, widget making for example, and this doesn’t happen unless someone does it. But in the brave new world of Ross Dawson, widget will be made by pressing a button, or clicking an icon or just simply be created on demand untouched by human hands. Where will jobs be if companies can make money without workers?

The big problem is this. Ross Dawson and his kind of technological mind set assume that the capitalist system is fundamentally human and that its human value will prevail in terms of social good yet there seems to be abundant evidence to suggest that social good is the last thing to be considered in terms of private wealth creation. In fact the social world is viewed as unclaimed territory by those seeking to expand their business horizons.

That is where we are heading. You want a human for something, then you pay. You can make do with a machine, then here’s your choices but you also pay. Most of us will be reduced to begging to be used so we can do something of value to the rest of the world. Playing with yourself might seem like fun for a while but when the novelty wears off the reality is most of us need to make money to survive.

But I daresay Ross will fine.

Read more:

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Rolf and Sarkozy

One of these men was found guilty of indecent assault, the other seems to have a case to answer for influence peddling. While there is no charges against Sarkozy yet there is a common element here, men who rise to positions of power or influence appear to consider themselves above the laws and moral codes that govern the rest of us.

Are the elites corrupted by their positions? An optimist might observe we can at least question the rich and famous, take them to court and obtain judgement but it seems to be too little too late. Maybe we need to avoid creating monsters in the first instance. On the available evidence it seems human frailty is incompatible with the degree of responsibility we place on public figures.

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Economists warn us house prices are unsustainable

The IMF says “Home prices outpacing earnings” and governments need to move from a policy of ”benign neglect” regarding house prices to avoid housing price bubbles. But on the same day Fairfax also revealed that the ACT government has sold five blocks of land close to the city for $64 million, far exceeding the $40 million estimate. What’s more the ACT government has sold over “$200 million worth of land in just over a week”. And let’s not forget rates…

So the IMF’s concern about benign neglect is misplaced. It suggests that governments are not overly concerned about rising house prices or the effect they have on the rest of us however as the ACT government example shows is that in some quarters of government rising house prices generates windfall revenue bonuses and at a time when government revenue is under pressure. This has the nett effect of compromising government policy in an area where it has a vested interest. If the value of land sales was offset with a similar investment in low income or community housing projects there might be less to be worried about but as things stand, the supply of government sponsored cheap housing is cached in terms of perceived need and concerns over maintaining a robust housing market.

It seems obvious that the ACT government is totally captive to the interests of property owner whether it is in the form of income dependence on rates based on land values, or stamp duty from sales, or as shown about gross values in land sales.

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Some brief thoughts which I will expand if I can be arsed.

Let’s consider three threads, political,economic and environment. The short version is to say we could collapse in a heap if the big problems all converge, which is quite a likely scenario imho (and others).

In the political domain the western democratic tradition seems to be a bit on the nose lately and autocratic styles seemed to be on the rise in the former communist countries. Potentially this could be a serious problem, particularly if the biggest democracies continue to allow the ideals of democracy to be subverted and corrupted by the elites.

The second domain of economics is also beset by a few problems but the standout is the so-called weakness of economic recovery after the GFC. There another way of looking at this which is to say that market based capitalist economic system which is supposed to be one of the strengths of western democracy seems to have an ongoing case of flu. Sure the rich are still getting rich but for the rest of us it seems life just gets harder.

The third domain is the state of the planet. Pretty simply, the weather is changing, we humans seem to be arming up the planet at an alarming rate and we continue to treat the environment as something to exploited at every turn, be it mining, dumping or just plain vandalising the place. I’m calling this the alienation of humanity from the natural world.

In each of these domains you could argue the problems we confront are all solvable. If we put enough thought and effort in.

The danger, real and present, is that the determination to do anything about these problems isn’t there. They are tomorrow’s problems. Let’s get through today first.

This seems to be optimistic. A faith that somehow all the trending problem areas will somehow resolve themselves if we ignore them and pretend that human activity somehow exempts us from the real world.

But the economic system is looking sicker. The 1% problem is deservedly getting a bit of a run in media circles but the malaise affecting the west is showing up in all the wrong places. Weak consumer demand is bad news for economies premised on consumption but let’s face it there is only so much stuff people can buy. However while the optimists can claim with some justification that the model isn’t broken yet, we are left with a classic philosophical problem of predicting the future based on past events. Economic growth forever? If ever there was an example of humanity’s alienation from the natural world, the economic system would surely be prime example.

The idea of unlimited economic growth doesn’t seem to relate to a finite natural world, yet much of our economic activity is grounded in goods and services that depend on a seemingly unlimited resource base that exists merely for our benefit. As a species we have clearly moved on from the hunter gatherer stage but resource exhaustion is still a problem and the scale of it is truly scarey, just imagine if we did run out of oil for example. Yet again the conventional answer is to point to how human inventiveness has provided for us in the past so it can reasonably be expected to continue to do so. There are also arguments that suggest that our technological progress actually exacerbates our resource extraction problem.

It might be trite to say this but the only thing that seems to be really unlimited is our human capacity to believe things will get better or sort themselves out. But if you look at a couple of trends like increasing financial inequality, decreasing arable land, fresh water supplies, declining fish resources, increasing world wide global temperatures and increasing worldwide population then our optimism has to work a lot harder so as to convince us that everything will be ok. Perhaps that is why we are bombarded with the vitally important news of what is happening NOW.

However it seems that not everyone is convinced, and this seems to be a part of our contemporary political malaise. In other words, the media wants us to believe that everything is ticketty boo, albeit with a few problems here and there but basically 2100 will roll up just fine. But just in case you don’t believe it, perhaps you should be worried about the bad things like Russia or China or North Koreas or terrorism or something. This might be the information that saturates our intelligence but I suspect that not everyone continues to “believe”. The logical questions remain logical questions, like how do we keep on doing what we are doing given our resource consumption? Will we ever get to the garden of Eden or is that only ever the domain of the 1%?

What Brandt and others have suggested is that political system is not the friend to the common folk we have been led to believe. On one level this seems like an easy criticism but it carries with it a darker problem. If politics as usual isn’t going to help us deal with the trending problem areas I referred to above, our only choice seems to be to fall back on a form of delusional optimism. But as intelligent people we must eventually question this delusion sooner or later and while young people with less invested in the status quo are quite aware of what is at stake, we all will probably end up questioning our future prospects. And the answers we come up with don’t seem to be the same as the ones politicians give us.

What seems to be missing is truth. Not your post-modern relative truth but some life and death sort of truths. Truth about the state of the world, the garbage floating in the oceans, the risks entailed in rising global temperatures, the depletion of key resources and truth most especially about how the rich rule. Until we have the truth we are probably condemned to continue our delusional optimistic thinking. Like sheep.

Without truth then the status quo are counting on luck to avoid the next crisis. Imagine a scenario where climate change increasingly throws up local disasters of the Hurricane Katrina magnitude while simultaneously producing droughts in numerous food bowls around the globe. Then mix that with increasing poverty in the developed world as the economic system continues to tax the poor for the benefit of the 1% and in this difficult social and political environment, pose some existential or military problem. This seems to be a recipe for war.

Optimism that large scale warfare will never happen again is hardly a defence. Someone once said eternal vigilance was needed but with vigilance we need to know the truth. Otherwise the sandy beach of optimism is indistinguishable from the patch of quicksand.

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Billy the Grub gets angry with #Budget2014

I dunno. Some commentators liked it but seriously you had to listen for the half hour if you wanted a bit of fire in the belly.

For starters, his delivery for the first 20 minutes or so was just tedious. Maybe he’s naturally not much of an orator but does he have to sound like a monosyllabic robot? Okay I’m being unkind perhaps but given the material he had to work with, well frankly he just didn’t fire up until quite late.

The problem for me is this. Bill doesn’t seem to know where to pitch his message. Labor leaders don’t normally have a problem here and given the targets in the Hockey/Abbott hatchet job you would expect Bill to have a field day.

It was a confused message in other ways. If you were hoping for an argument or statement about principles, one that you could set against the blatantly neocon agenda underwriting smokin Joes budget, then you had to wait while Billy the Grub gets stuck into Joe over his $80 billion health and medical cuts to the states.

But even here it’s hardly a rousing rebuttal. Sure he’s on solid ground by rejecting the tertiary funding cuts but Labor’s record of late has been a bit ordinary on this front. A much braver response here would be to not only reject the cuts but call for more money.

The only time I actually got interested is when Bill started to defend the working class, the people who started work when they were young and earned a living with the clever hands and strong backs. This is probably Billy the Grub’s strong suit and his delivery really picked up steam here. It almost sounded like he was talking from heart and not from a script.

He finished strongly but I was left wondering what he might have done better. Maybe if the cheer squad had started earlier…but really I think the speech is some post-modernists concoction laid over an argy bargy town hall address. The visit to a family in Queanbeyan is probably to show he’s in touch with the common folk, but the language he uses and the way he stumbles over his lines at times undermines his message. It feels forced and especially so when he goes into the details about how hard it is to balance a family budget.

On the other hand when he talks about fairness he’s mush more confident and the language/delivery is quite straightforward. His attack on the Libs is textbook stuff but also entirely appropriate, like the contrast between your medicare card and your credit card which gets a tick for clever. I get the impression this is the stuff he knows like the back of his hand but the problem for the ALP until now has been how undefined the underclass have become. The mad monk and smokin joe have really helped them out here, they clearly have no problems identifying who needs to suffer more.

All up I think Billy the Grub did OK for himself and the ALP. But I still think he’s a boring union official who doesnt really have the common touch and isn’t really that good as a public speaker. He’s a bit cold and while he might be clever and ambitious I can’t help but wonder what the ALP was thinking when they installed him as leader.

And just for the record

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Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey conceive a love child

I shouldn’t do this, nitty gritty politicky pedant stook. But I’m overjoyed for the baby budget born to our beloved Tone and the big blubbering likeable Smokey Joe. You see it’s a real budget, not one of your pinko lefty swansongs. It cuts where it should and rewards the heavy lifters where it can.

My aunt Gina reckons it’s bonza beaut, she gets to keep her little diesel rebate racket running and saves on her accounting bills, the one’s she got trying to avoid paying any resource rent tax. If she’s really lucky the gubberment might even chip in some pennies to help her reduce her carbon footprint, but I’m not sure about that cause Aunt Gina like to drive them big tractor thingies.

My daughter says I should be worried. She says the country is still in debt and look what happened to Greece. But she’s prone to exaggerate a bit. I said it’s OK because Joe and our Tone wont let that happen, no sirree. They promised.

Anyway I’m really happy because she, my daughter, will be able to count on the school chaplain if times get tought for her. He a good bloke the chaplain and I for one think the stories about him and the boys choir are complete scuttlebut. Rumours propogated by Evil minds who God will punish and probably dole bludging single mothers who spend all their welfare money on the pokies. Joe is perfectly right to let that lot know their days of freeloading are coming to an end. I just think he should have done more.

But it’s a new baby! Isn’t it grand? I’m sure when it grows up our future will be so bright and it will all be because we finally got a leader who is prepared to do the hard yards. After the years of teenagers running around making crazy, spending up on parties and booze we finally have the adults back in charge.

I’m going to do a few push-ups before I collect the missus from the shops, she’s probably spent all her housekeeping and I keep telling her thrift is the key! We’re all in this together.

And just think, We Could Have A Cure For Cancer! Isn’t Australia Great!

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#Budget2014 ideology

There are plenty of transparently neo-conservative influences in this little gem from smokin Joe Hockey but consider these two excerpts from the budget papers

Exhibit A

And paid for by budget repair measures like these…

Exhibit B

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