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.


Jacques on Trump and other pleasantries

It’s fashionable to announce the collapse of western democracy or at least its imminent demise. I guess the current turmoil does illustrate some of the failings of democratic government, in particular how it has become just another tool the powerful can use to protect their own interests but the confidence underlying some authors who think we can somehow avert a descent into another ugly period of human history seems problematic and neglects some basic ideas about power.

The first problem is the notion that somehow democracy was won by the masses some time in the distant past. Often this comes with utterances about the French revolution or the US version or perhaps even some developments in the UK. My problem with this is the narrative doesn’t really hold up. I’m not disputing there were violent upheavals that accompanied certain changes in government in some places, and in fact that is quite an illuminating fact in itself. No, what I dispute is the idea that democracy somehow ushered in a permanent change in power sharing within society, away from inherited wealth and towards a more egalitarian world for example. Certainly and until recently there have been some progress (say in terms of decades or centuries) in the degree and extent of poverty in the west but the current trajectory of wealth distribution is really turning back the clock at a very alarming rate. What seems to be emerging is the extent to which the fledgling democratic ideals were subverted over time by the rich and powerful. The masses may have won temporary battles in the past but their victories were tainted by conditions that permitted the rich and powerful to retreat and bide their time.

A case in point. The rise of communism in Russia was accompanied by an extremely bloody purge of the nobility. It gave birth to an aggressive socialism which had many deficiencies but perhaps the worst problem was how it entrenched even more deeply the power of violence to protect vested interests. Perhaps this validates the ideas of Derrida who once argued that any violent overthrowing of authority (or government) inexorably leads to a re-establishment of power and authority sustained by the capacity to do violence.

Not that Russia is alone. Western governments retain above all else the capacity to engage in violence both towards others and within its own sovereign borders. In other words they keep standing armies to defend the state from external threats and operate a police force to maintain law and order.

The other thread to this yarn is about the threat posed by technology.

I have frequently asserted that technology (or the application of known science) is in a sense socially neutral or even beneficial. Things like elimination of certain diseases or the distribution of electricity. However I think there is also an argument that can be made about how the wonders of technology are subverted by the capitalist model and tend to favour those who are already well off. Sure there are plenty of exceptions but overall the people who can most enjoy and benefit from new tech are the very same people who have always enjoyed the best of the best.

This too is becoming a pressing issue. The collapse in structural employment driven largely by the automation of routine production and the dominant profit motive will only become more extreme as robotics further invades to workplace. The economic optimism of jobs being magically created seems hard to sustain when you look at some of the numbers, such as 3.5 million truck drivers in the US threatened by self driving trucks or the millions of taxi drivers threatened by self driving ubers.

Some people take refuge in the idea of economic growth. Somehow this panacea seems to be the goto answer for every pessimistic critique of the status quo but when the proceeds of economic growth are increasingly winding up in the hands of fewer and fewer, the obvious rebuttal is the treadmill seems to heading in the wrong direction.

The economic problems posed by increasing inequity are compounded by the social problems posed by large scale unemployment. For most people, working is the only way to satisfy their material needs. Work is the way most people get access to the monetary system that controls the necessities of life but it also has a critical role to play in maintaining social order. Culturally the west has invested heavily in the politics of personal identity premised on productive worth. Furthermore there seems to be plenty of evidence supporting the idea that large scale unemployment leads to large scale social unrest. I think it is fair to say social stability is largely underwritten by a social economic contract, however it is not a contract between equals.

The current “crisis” in democracy is far more than just another problem with the various political system and probably represents just the tip of the iceberg. In short the economic growth scenario is floundering largely because it seems to have run its course. Without an overwhelming economic narrative, we are left looking for alternatives but it is grimly ironic that the very success of the west in dominating any viable alternative leaves us with almost no where else to go.

And that anyone can possibly imagine Trump is the answer is really all you need to know about how fucked we are.


The Trump Irony

Reading a couple of stories on Quartz about jobs and Trump on the day Oz votes seems mildly indulgent but political junkies have to get their fix somewhere.

The first one about post recession jobs in the US underlines the the new class boundaries emerging in the neoliberal world order. Essentially, all the new jobs in the US have gone to people with more than a basic education. So-called blue collar jobs have apparently disappeared.

Another piece of anecdotal evidence. apparently those who voted for Brexit were from regions most affected by structural unemployment, and to boot were predominantly older and less educated. Trump’s key demographics.

Trump is very keen to exploit the new class divide, those with jobs and those without. But a deeper irony exists beyond the public political arena. Lisandro Claudio highlights the role of intellectual discourse in the rise of Trump and political nihilism. Specifically, Claudio claims the intellectual elites are indirectly to blame because they have failed to offer a viable alternative to the dominant capitalist paradigm. In turn this has allowed people like Trump to exploit the rising tide of disaffection and anger. The anger is directed towards the so-called elites, the ones who have landed all the post recession jobs. The very people who seemingly have taken to heart the modern motto of personal responsibility.

In case you have missed it, one of the cornerstones of the capitalist model is the idea that it is up to the individual to make the most of their opportunities, the system rewards hard work and values competition in markets, especially the employment market. Yet according to the new politics of Trump and co the failure of the rising tide in capitalist model to lift all boats is because of others, be they elite or foreigners. The new politics avoids the inconvenient idea that the system is not in fact some natural consequence of immutable given laws which effect all equally by giving its supporters someone else to blame. In other words, it’s not your fault you have been made redundant, it’s the fault of others. The fact the system has rewarded them and not you is because they have conspired against you, but wait, the system can be great again. Once we get rid of the those pesky elites and meddling foreigners. All those jobs will suddenly go to the people who deserve them.

If it was a play you might be tempted to savour the irony. Unfortunately, like the politicians who grandly championed the Brexit campaign are discovering, simple minded appeals to populism open the door to some ugly consequences. It’s a pity the lessons of history are easily forgotten.


Only The Libs have a plan?

The Australian Financial Review claims “Malcolm Turnbull is the only leader with a genuine growth agenda” in their editorial. Why? Because of the magic pudding of corporate tax cuts.

Who are they kidding? On what planet does corporate tax cuts automatically ensure economic growth? Where is the evidence?

Corporate tax cuts do however ensure that corporations pay less taxes. Corporations like Crown Casinos and News Corp. Not to mention other perennial favourites like Leightons, BHP, Hancock Prospecting etc etc. Hmm corporate tax cuts must be good for us if it rewards those companies. But the evidence? I can find evidence that high corporate taxation doesn’t necessarily deter economic growth but really the simple bold assertion that giving the big end of town a cut rate on their taxes is suddenly going to fuel prodigious economic growth is at best unsupported by any actual evidence.

And the AFR criticism of Billy Shorten, he has engaged in class warfare. Digging into old school politics of envy. Tax the rich, help the poor, that sort of thing. Shame on you Bill.

So the problem isn’t really a matter of one side of politics has an economic plan and the other doesn’t. That’s bullshit. They both have a plan, but one side would rather work towards improving economic equality because that produces better social outcomes whereas the other side wishes to produce greater economic inequality because inequality is the primary device that drives the capitalist model, a model which has recently resulted in even more spectacular results for the rich.

But I guess at $4 per edition not too many unemployed are reading the AFR these days.


How has it come to this?

It’s a fair question and one a few workers might be asking themselves as news regarding the latest casualties in the Shoppies pay deal comes to light. Specifically, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), has traded off “penalty rates and casual loadings of vulnerable, low paid workers in exchange, in many cases, for barely a handful of coins in extra hourly pay”.

Well why bother joining a union? So you can give them money so they can sell you out to the employers? If unionism was teetering on the edge of an abyss, one union just decided to wander a bit closer to the edge.

But hyperbole aside, the question remains how on earth did this decision by the union get up? It smacks of corruption at some level and gross dishonesty on many others. But mostly it’s more fuel for despair. Where is the outrage? Why is Bill Shorten quietly ignoring this, praying the matter will go away? Every Labor candidate should be held to account, the party supposedly representing organised labour, is politely ignoring the implications of a union deal that screws the most vulnerable workers.

Of course it won’t get much traction as “an issue”. The focus is on “black holes” and “boat people”. What a crock.


The Great Disconnect

“Canberra’s price growth remains strong” boasted the Fairfax media. Over the last year price growth remains strong “rising 5.1 percent”. Add to this a rate cut in the Reserve Bank rate which “will certainly help to retain buyer sentiment (and) should help to keep the local market conditions buoyant”.

Oh buoyant. Not like wages growth. Unlike the self interested Nicola Powell, the Reserve Bank isn’t boasting a strong growth in price growth when it comes to wage growth. In fact “wage growth has declined markedly in Australia over the past few years”.

The reasons according to the Reserve Bank paper are continuing improvements in labour productivity, spare capacity in the labour market, declining inflation and the demands of international competition. In other words, technology is enabling workplace efficiencies, structural unemployment continues to act as a brake on the expectations of the labour market, house prices are not reflected in inflation figures and anyway we still need to compete with child labour overseas.

If these trends continue, wages growth will really become wages decline in the headline sense. In another sense, it already has. Wages are falling behind the growth in house prices, which definitely spells trouble for the idea of owning your own home. Almost anyone can see continued price growth of 5% per annum is greater than a wages growth of 2% and given the ratio of house prices to annual wages, the gap becomes far more pronounced over time.

But for the ones owning a house or with a real estate portfolio nicely negative geared to minimise their tax liability, booming real estate prices are fantastic news. I bet they get cake.