Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Turnbull's onion-flavoured bowls of shit

Newly sworn in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull now faces an even bigger bowl of shit for him to eat than that given to Tony Abbott. His reaction so far does not give one confidence that he has the wherewithal to grab the spoon firmly and tuck in, as a strong leader must.

His first mistake was to agree to the demands of the Liberal right to maintain most of the Abbott policy agenda. This is what brought down Abbott, in that he made a bargain with the electorate in the last days before the last election to carry Julia Gillard's policies through, with the exception of the carbon tax (and yes, that includes Gillard's asylum seeker policy). Arguably, this is also what brought down Gillard in that she carried on the Kevin Rudd agenda. Rudd, for all his faults with implementation and governance, is the only politician in the post-Howard era to develop an original policy platform, and one which was so wildly popular that all other politicians of both sides have had no choice but to complete their introduction (albeit the Coalition deliberately sabotaged the NBN and NDIS).

Turnbull now has to trudge on defending the legacy of a deeply unpopular ex-PM and his deeply unpopular policy slate, with everyone knowing he strongly disagrees with much of it. There has been some talk about Turnbull as a different kind of a politician, but this will prove that he's just as capable of anyone else of lying and being unfaithful to his own views to serve the interests of factional power.

His other glaring mistake so far has been giving in to demands from the Nationals, principally to cede Barnaby Joyce the water portfolio, but also to lock in Abbott timeframes for the same sex marriage plebiscite (post-election) and tackling climate change (never). This is not a good start to his negotiations with the Senate, as Joyce will be a constant irritation to the Greens. If he can't even avoid selling his arse to Warren Truss, how can he expect to gain respect from the cross-benches?

Turnbull's major problem leading up to the next scheduled election in late 2016 is the state of the economy, which is teetering on recession at a most recent quarterly rate of 0.2% growth. I am sure that those 54 Liberal members did not think they were voting for an early election when they cast their ballots the other day. Nevertheless, an early election to capitalise on his honeymoon and avoid the seemingly inevitable economic slide over the next year might also give Turnbull a fresh mandate to stand up to the LNP factions. The longer he waits, the more shit he has to eat.

UPDATE: Lenore Taylor pours cold water on aspects of the Nationals bowl of shit. Which means it's diluted, I suppose, but still tastes nasty. The lock-in of the SSM and AGW policies is of most importance electorally.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The ultimate demise of Tony Abbott

After getting knocked off 54-44 by Malcolm Turnbull in a spill this evening, Tony Abbott ends his career as the shortest serving Prime Minister since Harold Holt. Andrew Elder leads the celebration.

As a Prime Minister, he was a victim of the malaise affecting both parties: that neither right nor left can claim any connection with their respective bases any more. Labor can't claim it's the voice of workers since the Hawke/Keating era of neoliberalism which put a lock on real wage increases; the Liberals can't claim they're the voice of business because their anti-Keynesian stewardship implements anti-economic policies which are ultimately poor results for demand which underpins growth for business.

Coming mere days after the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of Labour in Britain, it is tempting to draw the conclusion when considering the concurrent rise of Syriza and Podemos - not to mention Bernie Sanders who is tipping Hillary Clinton to the left in the US Democratic primaries - that there is a resurgence of populist anti-inequality thinking among centre-left elites. This would most likely be too pollyannaish, as there's still a lot of power residing in the Blairite, Ruddeqsue, Clintonian centrist elites.

There is an argument that America was the first Western electorate to show the polarisation of the electorate with the centre unoccupied by anyone electable, which Europe has followed and the UK is only the last example. There are very few Blue Dog Democrats left, or centrist Republicans. Similarly, Blairites hold very little power in the current Labour Party.

From an domestic Australian perspective, nevertheless, I still have the capability to be cynical about this "victory" on behalf of the left. I still think the most likely scenario in the medium term is that Turnbull loses the next election, hopefully to Albanese or Plibersek. I shudder to think that NSW Right machine man Shorten will lead the ALP to the next meaningful clash. As an example, consider my old mate Paul J who has finally left the ALP after many years of service as a branch member, due ostensibly to asylum seeker policy but more broadly due to machine-based lack of democratic accountability.

Both sides of politics in Western countries should be facing their ultimate mortality because they have lost touch with their bases. When one or the other side is forced through electoral reality to face that weakness, democracy is the winner. I hope Labor is similarly shocked out of its ennui before the next election.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The coming Australian recession...?

I buried my prediction of the first Australian recession in decades in a post back in May, because I wasn't quite sure it would come to pass. Today, in the light of the most recent quarter having growth of a measly 0.2%, Fairfax runs an Ian Porter piece laying out the reasons for believing that the recession will come in the next year or two, which boils down to the delayed effect of the Abbott decision to cut off assistance for the car industry and its subsequent withdrawal from the Australian economy.

The timing is interesting electorally, because the process of up to 200,000 automotive workers losing their jobs is due to be completed in 2016/17, with a full Abbott term due to finish in November 2016. We are already in some hinky territory with the Chinese slowdown, albeit currency devaluation has solved a lot of problems for our exporters and there's probably more room to drop below the current ~70c.

The last budget was a cash splash so large that it caused many pundits to think it was priming the Keynesian pumps for an early election, yet the economy is barely escaping contraction as it is. Far from a budget emergency, now we have a growth emergency, which will be followed by an employment emergency. Hockey hasn't really got any more gears to shift up fiscally, so when the automotive fecal matter hits the Centrelink air circulation equipment, the job of stimulating the economy is going to fall to the RBA, which has only 200 base points to play with and would only be forced to burn them under great duress given the housing market is already hubba-bubba-double-trouble. Then we hit the zero lower bound, and we're cactus in a Mad Max Fury Road scenario.

This is playing out a bit like George W. Bush's last days, where all of his dud decisions culminated in a massive economic and political collapse. Just as Dubbya is now seen as a contender for the worst US President in history, Tony Abbott is shaping up to be the worst Australian Prime Minister in history if these doomsday detentes come to pass. All we could do was sit back and enjoy the hot licks from the Doof Warrior.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Reform, and other lies told by rent seekers

An excellent if highly cynical piece on yesterday's Reform Summit by Liam Hogan in the Guardian:
The one thing I would not have expected out of our democratic, parliamentary, capitalist system in 2015 is how much a lot of its managerial politics would resemble 1970s Soviet “actually existing” socialism.
As a hearkening back to the glory days of the Hawke summits which led to the Accord, it was history repeated as farce: special interest groups and other rent seekers reciting their laundry lists of demands, talking past each other and agreeing only to a meaningless and non-binding communique which was rightly pilloried by Catallaxy Files as being largely pre-arranged. Hogan's cynicism doesn't go far enough.

The appearance of many of the usual suspects from the stable of right-wingers employed by The Australian at an event organised by Labor's Craig Emerson was not all that surprising in view of Nick Cater's summary of the day's festivities, which consisted of listing all the wonderful ways that the Summit would enable Labor to give in to the Right's policy agenda of lowering Australian worker living standards to match those of Asia in the name of "productivity", "flexibility" and "competitiveness" - i.e. to line the pockets of the capitalists in ye olde Reaganite fashion.

If there is to be an actual bipartisan reform platform in this country, it has to be built with a view to the effects of the 1980s reform and how its effects have played out in the intervening decades. Primary among these is how workers were stiffed by the decision of Labor to put a dampener on real wages, because workers have not enjoyed the benefits of their own productivity gains since the 1980s. Meanwhile, capital productivity has lagged considerably even as executive pay has skyrocketed and share dividends have fattened. Multifactor productivity has been dropping over the past decade, by almost a full percentage point, despite labour productivity rising by 1.5% p.a., because capital investment has proved to be wasteful, particularly in mining.

Hogan makes some compelling arguments for the Soviet metaphor, but I also detected some Chinese influence in what is these days an outpost of the Chinese mixed economy. Kevin Rudd may not have been present to speak Mandarin to the assembled mandarins, but there were parallels to the five-year plans by faceless man in the central committees of those other modern faces of the jerry-rigged communist/capitalist hybrid experiment. There was no Xi, or Che for that matter, but one hopes the feng shui of the room was tickety-boo.

Now that the AUD is back within more regular historic parameters, the bleating about international competitiveness should stop. We should not lower our wages and workplace standards to match those of Asian countries, as that is short-term thinking. The next major growth source for Australia is the burgeoning Chinese middle class - and that of India to a lesser extent - and if we are to ride that wave for another boost to prevent recession post the mining boom, we have to work towards an economy which can sell to it.

"Reform" in this country is too often conceived as a zero-sum game where workers and employers fight over the scraps of the world economy in a race to the bottom to serve the lowest common denominator. That is not Australia's natural role in the Asian century. We can't be the Singapore or Hong Kong of the region because those trade hub positions are already filled, and we can't be Taiwan or Bangladesh either with their focus on manufacturing. We can supply the Chinese bourgeoisie with small amounts of high-quality shipped goods and large amounts of low-cost digitally-delivered services. Whatever policies are attuned towards building that scenario are the ones that will underpin our future growth. I doubt anything will come out of the Reform Summit that would come anywhere near towards that.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A deleted comment from Club Troppo

I don't want to make a habit of antagonising the Troppodillians, but the following comment was just deleted from a Club Troppo post by statistics academic Chris Lloyd on gay marriage (quoted text from one of Lloyd's comments in italics).
On the contrary, showing an argument may be flawed by showing it leads to untenable positions is quite mainstream.
You did not show this at all, Chris. No one has showed how gay marriage leads inevitably to polygamy or bestiality. There is no logical argument that can show this. It is like saying allowing marriage between two people will lead inevitably to polygamy because once you allow two people to become one, there's nothing preventing three people becoming one. It's just silliness, literally 1 + 1 = 3.
Anyway, I am open to arguments that marriage contracts are more substantial than I realised, and some commenters have claimed that it is (though I have not had time to check the claims). 
"Time to check the claims"? Do you not realise what marriage means beyond the bare contract? Have you been living in a hole? Well, I guess MBS is a bit of a hole. I hope you are not one of those ivory tower intellectuals like Peter Singer who could argue themselves into foolish positions because they don't keep touch with the real world.
If de facto’s are at a disadvantage then there is another discussion to have about whether this is acceptable. 
Not really, Chris. It is discrimination, plain and simple. You're trying to bargain to preserve your privilege. It is unbecoming of an educated man such as yourself to cling to such antiquated thinking.
Finally Paul, I do not accept that my tone is any more arrogant or condescending than yours. And linking it to gender is not OK so I will ask you to not use the word mansplaining again.
Playing the victim is also beneath you, Chris. If you jump into such a fraught issue with weak arguments like these, expect to get pushback.
Not exactly sure what the problem with that comment was; most likely the admittedly gratuitous crack at Lloyd's employer. His post is another in an increasingly frequent series of High Broderist scolding from the right on that blog, which continues to cause me dismay.

Identity politics and Adam Goodes

The Piping Shrike, who posts about as infrequently as I do these days (must be a father also), has pronounced on the Adam Goodes situation. It's a long, meandering essay, as all of his are, with a number of juicy nuggets of wisdom, but is typically hard to sum up. I would take issue with a couple of his points, nonetheless.

Primary among these is the repeated phrase of "the anti-racism campaign against the public", his criticism of which forms the main part of his screed. I suspect the Shrike does not live among or talk to a lot of football-immersed people, thus he would not understand how much racism there was around this issue among the public, and how lonely it was fighting the good fight against people convinced that their racist attitudes weren't racist. The Shrike calls the loose collection of individuals battling white privilege in bars, backyards, dining rooms and social media across the nation a "campaign", as if it was conducted against a united public solely by an elite. No, there are people out here in the public who argued at the grass roots along with the anti-racists in the media.

Anti-racism campaigns are not meaningless, as the Shrike asserts. You only have to look at the wins that anti-racism campaigners are having in the US over removing state support for the Confederate flag and are now starting to have over state-authorised statues of Confederate heroes. In itself, those things won't change living standards for African-Americans but it is an early and vital manifestation of anti-racist strength that will eventually get other things achieved, most notably through the #BlackLivesMatter movement which will shift the Democratic policy platform and thus affect policy of the forthcoming Clinton administration. Symbols matter, culture matters, otherwise we wouldn't be having culture wars over it.

The Shrike asks why the inevitably non-zero cadre of racist Swan fans didn't boo Goodes. In this, he shows he doesn't understand sporting tribalism. If you're among a bunch of supporters of your own team and you start booing one of your own because he's black, you will swiftly discover the rest of the supporter base will turn on you and eject you from the tribe. Fans who go to the game are primarily there as part of their sporting team tribe, not their racial tribe, and the former trumps the latter when there is a clash at a home game filled with team members. Racist Swan fans simply shut up while opposition fans booed Goodes, in solidarity with their dominant tribe.

Much is made by the Shrike of the lack of convictions under anti-racism legislation, but again, that ignores the very real effects that such legislation has in discouraging anyone from engaging in conduct that would come close to meriting a conviction. The threat of incarceration can change attitudes almost as much as incarceration itself. Of course, this effect is hard to quantify, but I don't think anyone who denies it exists has much of a leg to stand on.

Finally, the Shrike asks why the media has moved on, asking if the crowd has stopped booing, why there hasn't been an outpouring of joy at Australia suddenly finding a solution to a seemingly intractable problem. The crowd has stopped booing, but unfortunately there were no miracles to be verified by the Vatican. AFL industry elites effectively made a bargain with the public: let's agree not to keep calling you racists if you agree to stop booing. It was a ceasefire, not a victory. Goodes' withdrawal for a week took the heat out of it, with the home Sydney crowd's voluble support for him in absentia that weekend further turning the tide.

Overall, I was disappointed with the tone of the Shrike's piece, but then that's nothing new on this issue because it seems to cut across political boundaries and many of those on the left or centre have been on what I consider the wrong side of this one. It's the sort of identity politics that we could do without in this country. I'd like it if we didn't turn into America, thanks.

Friday, July 31, 2015

#Gamergate, #cuckservative and racism against Adam Goodes

There is a line that can be drawn, a lineage that can be traced, between a number of recent primal screams emanating originally from shadowy ranks of white male recidivism.
  • The #gamergate movement, which is a reaction by openly misogynist males against what they see as attacks against the identity of white male gamers, started by a cadre of hardcore drongos on sites like Reddit, gaining momentum as it gathers up tenuously related non-sexist criticisms of game industry and media elites, gradually building into a mob where the majority are not sexist, but the masses give credence to the movement started by a vocal and unrepresentative minority.
  • The #cuckservative movement, which is a reaction by openly white supremacist males against what they see as attacks against the identity of white male American conservatives, started by a cadre of hardcore drongos on sites like 8chan, gaining momentum as it gathers up tenuously related non-racist criticisms of conservative political and media elites, gradually building into a mob where the majority are not racist, but the masses give credence to the movement started by a vocal and unrepresentative minority.
  • The mass booing of Adam Goodes, which is a reaction by openly racist males against what they see as attacks against the identity of white male Australians, started by a cadre of hardcore drongos at AFL games, gaining momentum as it gathers up tenuously related non-racist criticisms of sporting and media elites, gradually building into a mob where the majority are not racist, but the masses give credence to the movement started by a vocal and unrepresentative minority.
In all three cases, there is a core of horrible people who perform anti-social acts with stated justifications that any reasonable person would find abhorrent, but the majority of participants in this anti-social behaviour use the argument that they don't share the horrible beliefs of the fringe members of the group, thus they shouldn't be tarred with the same brush.

In any large political grouping, there are going to be fringe elements inside the "big tent". Nationalist skinheads vote Liberal, feral communists vote Labor, and these actions are perfectly acceptable and do not invalidate the party's platform as long as the minority doesn't dictate policy. In the case of these extra-institutional movements, however, the actions that the majority take are the same as the hardcore. How are we to tell the difference between those with criminally anti-social motivations and those who have "normal" reasons for acting like morons?

Unfortunately, this dilemma doesn't seem to worry many of those in the majority who are acting as useful idiots providing cover for the extremists. I have been involved in some very heated discussions trying to argue such people around in the case of the Goodes crisis, and I am sure the same kinds of conversations have been happening all over, both on and off the Internet, in the past week. It's a smorgasbord of bad arguments defending the indefensible, as Russell Jackson only skimmed the surface of the other day.

One of the many ways we are lucky to have been born in the Lucky Country is that despite all the talk of multiculturalism, we are largely still a very monoculturally Anglo-Celtic society, and aren't forced very often to confront our own prejudices like this. You only have to look at America where hatred towards Hispanic immigrants and black urban youth is dominating mainstream political discussion, or in England where UKIP only grows in popularity, or Europe where a member country like Hungary can fall under the grip of an openly fascist regime and barely an eyelid is blinked. In comparison, we lost our minds for weeks on end when a man asked a question on a TV program. Our privilege as Australians, let alone white Australians, is almost too massive to comprehend.

The glue binding all these movements together is identity politics. The extremists are white, male and western, and the people they are trying to recruit to their thinly veiled anti-social reactionary causes share much of their identity - this demographic has been labelled in various countries as "frat", "bro", "lad", "chav" and "bogan". While the majority may not profess to share the extremists' politics, the functional differences between them and the fringe are blurred if they take part of the same activities.

In this context, it is supremely difficult to educate a certain type of young white man about the nature of his privilege, because so much of his self image is bound up in believing he is right about everything, even those things he actually knows very little about. Hopefully it's not going to take a tragedy for these otherwise intelligent, empathetic and compassionate citizens to see the light.