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.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The zero lower bound government

Another budget has been and gone. Instead of the steaming turd that was the last budget, which was largely blocked by the Senate, this time we have zero. The Abbott government has spent the intervening period announcing bad policies, extracting the maximum amount of negative reaction as the public gradually and painfully rejects them, and then quietly dropping them. What they are proceeding with are much the same settings as were left by Swan, but adding a bunch of conservative nudge items which blow the deficit out. Hockey is deliberately doing nothing in the hope that revenues will rebound naturally from historic lows under Swan.

For me, the most astounding stat from this year's budget is that despite a projected deficit of over $35B, it will actually create an annual lag on the economy of as much as 0.5% of GDP (read it somewhere yesterday, now can't find the link, grr), and will do nothing to help slowly creeping unemployment. From a Keynesian macro perspective, it is the worst outcome possible. Most worryingly, it is based on assumptions that are rosy at best.

I have been feeling for a while that it is only a matter of time before Australia joins the rest of the Western world in hitting the zero lower bound of interest rates. All it is going to take with the current budget settings is one big assumption to be wrong - China hiccuping, the iron price plummeting below $35 as Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton squeeze out competitors, opportunistic currency markets persisting in inflating the $A - for the RBA to be faced with the prospect, given that fiscal policy is so pissweak, of having to further cut rates down close to zero where it is in America, Japan and Europe. And once you reach the zero lower bound and bring on all of the weirdness that happens in an economy as a consequence, it's very hard to raise them again, as Japan showed us from the 1990s on.

Australia under zeroed interest rates would be a scary place, given how our economy is structured so strongly around housing as a speculatory tax haven. If, as some pundits are saying, this budget is a precursor to an early election, that may be the last chance to avoid the unhappy fate of the ZLB. The Liberals don't have any ideas.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Barmy Harmy and the long walk

Katherine Murphy runs with a nice little analogy:
We can see right now that the Abbott government is doing that long walk that fast bowlers do before rounding on their heel and coming back full tilt at the crease.
Only problem is, this was Tony Abbott's first ball:

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Club Troppo, Parishioners and High Broderism

When I first started taking interest in Australian poliblogs a few years ago, my first thought was that the Club Troppo web site sounded interesting, based as it was on the self-professed "political centrism" of Ken Parish and Nicholas Gruen. Back then, you had Larvatus Prodeo on the left (now deceased) and Catallaxy Files on the right, and Troppo nominally in the centre as the major group blogs in the Australian political scene. To me, group blogs are the most interesting variation of the form as they encourage dissemination of a range of ideas and viewpoints, producing a variegated editorial line instead of a blaring one-note foghorn. I wish I was part of one of these collectives, and indeed I did contribute a piece on the NBN to Club Troppo in my early time as a poliblog watcher.

As you may glean if you read the comments to that piece, my encounter with the resident Troppodillians was less than successful. Nicholas ended up calling me a mercantilist, which in the modern context is an implacable insult by a liberal Western wonk - never mind that Chinese mercantilism has been kicking the West's butt in the 21st century (that's for another post).

Anyway, one of the Troppo's latest is by Parish, and he engages in some classic "both sides do it" high Broderism to attempt to lay blame for mindless federal obstructionism at the feet of Labor:
... the cycle of retaliatory fiscal mischief goes back decades. I would date the phenomenon back at least to Paul Keating’s cynical and unprincipled demolition of John Hewson’s Fightback policy in the lead-up to the 1993 election, a tactic that Keating pursued relentlessly notwithstanding that he himself had advocated a GST only a few years previously and that John Howard by contrast had had the guts and integrity (not words that most on the Left would associate with him) to support most of the Hawke/Keating government’s necessary deregulatory, market-based reforms over the previous decade.  The gloves were off on fiscal policy from that moment on.
There were many valid and principled reasons for a centre-left leader to oppose Fightback!: slashing of welfare, abandonment of awards, cutting Medicare to ribbons, tax cuts for the rich and widespread privatisations. Yes, the GST was the issue on which the election was won and lost, but it would be disingenuous to concentrate solely on the media frenzy over it and ignore all the other Reaganomics elements which should be anathema to a centrist wonk, as Ken is. Wonks look at the whole policy picture, not just the media sideshow. Fightback! would have kickstarted the pure Reagan/Thatcher model of gutting the social safety net and widening the inequality gap between rich and poor, which Hawke and Keating had implemented while preserving many elements of the Australian social contract that were hardfought over many decades by unions and the rest of the left.

The rest of the article attacks Labor for insufficient adherence to its own ideals, especially around privatisation in the context of Paul Keating's defence of privatisation in the lead up to the NSW election, and then puts the hard word on Labor to establish a Troppodillian idée fixe, the Independent Fiscal Authority. Little to no mention is made of the Liberals in all of this. There is no responsibility for reform laid at the feet of Tony Abbott or any other Coalition leader. The implicit assumption is that the right's position is not even worth discussing.

High Broderism is a term related to Washington Post columnist David Broder, who is the premier exponent of the Beltway village theorem of a controlling group in the centre defining what is and is not acceptable policy according to the conventional wisdom set by an elite of influencers and policy professionals, with anything outside this window labelled as "extremism" and denounced across the press and "respectable" broadcast media. In America, this elite is an unelected and unaccountable set of media commentators and political operatives effectively working as a team, with tenured columnists at the WaPo, NYT and WSJ spruiking for those insiders whose policies they agree with and shunning those with other ideas, with little reference to their popularity with the actual public.

In Australia, we don't really have a "Beltway" as such. Power is more concentrated around Collins St and Sussex St, and Capital Circle just doesn't have a ring to it. Nevertheless, we do have an unelected "controlling group in the centre" in this country which traditionally has sat above political cycles, but it's not made up of pundits and apparatchiks: it's the public service. As befits a country more built along Westminster lines, public servants are the rocks around which the political tides rise and fall, guiding the country with Appleby-esque aplomb past this or that faddish though bubble. As academic advisers to and occasional employees of various governments over the years, Gruen and Parish are part of the wider cadre of public sector policy wonks, which gives their position in the Australian poliblogosphere some quantum of extra weight.

There is a good reason why the likes of Parish address their criticisms solely to Labor: it would be useless to ask the right to pay him any attention, because the local yokels are following the trend in the rest of the West of abandoning all pretence of scientific method in favour of hokum, humbug and junk economic theory. More to the point, Parish and his wonkmates are not only not going to get a gig advising any Coalition mob, the Liberal razor gang has been conducting a quiet pogrom to purge the public service of those not deemed sufficiently discipular to wingnut orthodoxy, from the head of the Treasury on down. His natural role, and that of the reality-based community within the public service - the Parishioners? - is to advise Labor because advising the Liberals on policies backed by traditional Keynesian theory is a fool's errand. This leads to a tendency for he and his posse to lecture Labor and let the Coalition off the hook.

That is not to say Parish et al do not criticise the Liberals. High Broderism denotes opprobrium directed at all sides. The responsibility for fixing the mess thus described, however, is left to the Left to get right to the right-thinking job of giving in to the Right.