It’s on again on 6th Sept: making the world a tad better with our guest Christos Tsiolkas

If only I’d been alive to get to one of these events.

Nelson Mandela

Last year’s second dinner was perhaps only matched by Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.

Nicholas Gruen

Nicholas Gruen is a total lightweight. Totally fake economist. Small hands. Todd Sampson the only thing to come out of his TV show. Sad!

Donald Trump

As you may recall, last year I had so much fun at my birthday, I decided to make it an annual event. To disguise the naked egotism of it we (which is to say “I”) decided to raise money for a Good Cause. For me that’s refugees. We ran a kind of trial just two months after my birthday last year and it was a blast.

Now, many months after not getting my act together for my birthday, we’re going again. So you’re invited to a fantastic party in Melbourne with a whole lot of fantastically interesting people I know. (Seriously, there’ll be some fascinating people there I promise!)

It will mostly be dinner and meeting and talking to friends and interesting people you’ve not met before, but Christos Tsiolkas is coming and has agreed to speak to us. We’re inviting you to pay your way with $49.99 as was the case last year) I contemplated raising the price to $50 but then the credit card margin (which you get to pay) also went up by a cent. And effective marginal tax rates of 100% are not something that is tolerated in my profession! So Book Now on this link.

I’m also hoping you can donate and will match every dollar of yours over $100 up to a total liability of $5,000 for me. (Last year Ross Gittins decided to play hard-ball and try to bankrupt me with a thousand dollar donation which took $900 out of my pocket right there! Bring it on I say! We can always auction off the Troppo garage of imaginary cars, – starting, obviously enough, with Rooter.)

And there’s a special deal for those from out of town. They can make a donation as Ross did from interstate or overseas. Just email me on ngruen at gmail and I’ll send you details. And please pass this around.

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Could CPR resuscitate our political system (Corporate Political Responsibility that is)?

Image result for corporate political responsibilityOne of my twenty something friends once told me of a meeting to discuss corporate social responsibility in their Big Law Firm. Along came the heavies of the firm, together with their Champions of Change. These champions of change are men who look out for women – largely by making sure you don’t have to listen to women when you can listen to a Champion of Change. #WTNTL?

In any event, the team leader or perhaps a Champion asked people what they thought corporate social responsibility was all about. This person piped up and said that it might mean that the law firm wouldn’t do legal work for firms that whose business model actively harmed the world. Most obviously tobacco companies but also, it was suggested Adani and other coal miners.

It emerged that this was the wrong answer. It turns out that corporate social responsibility amounts to doing Nice Things while one works. Whistling While You Work doesn’t quite cut the mustard, but doing Something Nice does. You might spend a night out with the homeless, do pro-bono work for a Good Cause or do a lot more recycling (even if – perhaps specially if – it harms the environment like paper recycling does).

Anyway, its intriguing the way in which CSR is often corralled into relatively peripheral channels. In this regard shared value, is a similar more positive approach to a similar theme. But if corporations do want to show some ethical backbone, one thing we might surely expect them to do is to desist from lobbying governments with demands in their own interests that fairly clearly violate the public interest.

Indeed, the great flaw in so much of this ‘ethical’ this and that is the public good problem. A firm can be ‘ethical’ in choosing to make goods that can be made with lower levels of pollutions effectively outsourcing the pollution to other firms – or countries – offsetting or even in some circumstances outweighing the good they do (as could easily happen with offshore production of aluminium using dirtier coal or manufactures with worse labour practices).

At least corporate political responsibility would not suffer from this public good problem. Unless and until the Western economies transition into the kinds of gangsterism we see in Russia and in the mind of Donald Trump, if one firm desisted in lobbying for its own benefit at the expense of the public interest, other firms in the same industry might lobby for their interest, but if they were successful in influencing policy they’d also benefit the Good Firm that was desisting from such practices.

Do I expect any of this to happen? Not soon. But then Ben Neville drew my attention to this article, calling for environmental CPR. It’s a pity it’s limited it to environmentalist objectives, especially since CSR often extends well beyond environmental responsibility and the article wasn’t even shoehorned into an environmental journal. It wasn’t even delivered at a conference at which the theme was Pirates of the Caribbean The Environment.

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Authoritarianism: GUEST POST by John Burnheim

Image result for authoritarianismArguing with an American ex-Australian now resident in Canada, I contested his view that, of the three countries, America is the least and Australia the most, authoritarian. In part it was a verbal difference. I was taking “authoritarian” in the established pejorative meaning: Valuing authority for its own sake often used to describe totalitarian regimes or certain personalities or cultures.

I was pretty sure that he was following an American usage that is descriptive of the degree of governmental activity in regulating daily life. But the pejorative content of authoritarian is not so easily shrugged off, especially in America where there is a widespread belief that government is at best a necessary evil. What follows is my attempt to sort out some of the issues. In any event below is the text of an email I wrote him:

I did find the distinction you mention between structure and culture very useful. I think of a social structure as a bus that is supposed to run its route by a timetable. Anybody can use it, if they accept it’s operating conditions. On the whole it is in the interests of the citizens if the bus does what it is supposed to do.

Even though it must involve quite a lot of use of authority, it is not authoritarian until running the system becomes an in in itself, imposed whether people like it or no by an authority that claims to act in a superior interest. In any majoritarian democracy, it is inevitable that some people feel that some authoritative decisions are authoritarian, but that may be a matter of a tolerable defect in a wider context.

Culture is the behaviour of the bus driver and the passengers, regulated either by explicitly accepted rules or by reasonable expectations. There are always reasons for most rules that are generally accepted as beneficial. Often the reason is simply that people don’t like to have to change their habits. Even those who would prefer a different rule at least know where they stand. That is social authority. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Philosophy, Political theory, Politics - international | 16 Comments

The first page test: Hannah Arendt edition

There’s an amazing amount of dreck about – masquerading as the latest thinking. It’s not that there isn’t a lot to think about, so it’s easy to think you should read this or that. How to choose? One of my filters is the first page test, or even the first paragraph test. Does the first paragraph have arresting ideas in it. Ideally does it intimate a whole bunch of ideas in ways that make you think the author might have been pondering them for some time, bringing them into some compelling relation to each other.

Because there are books that start well and you then end up wading through dreck, you can also apply the random paragraph or page test. This also helps because you can get an idea in the bookstore and read the first chapter on your ebook sample.

Why am I telling you this. Because over the fold I have the first page of an essay by Hannah Arendt called “The Crisis in Education”. Imagine if every first page had what it has? Note, during the afternoon, I ran into another cracker of an opening, and so you’ll find it below Arndt for your delectation.

(Disclaimer and declaration of conformity with Troppo’s ethics policy: I’ve rushed into print. I’ve not got beyond the paragraphs quoted below. Perhaps she goes on to develop the thesis that our education system is in crisis because of alien abduction. Perhaps she thinks it will all be fixed by a giant monocle mounted on a pedestal. If that is the case then my ‘front page test’ is thus refuted. But if that doesn’t happen, it’s pretty much plain sailing as far as I can see.)

Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Philosophy, Political theory | 9 Comments

The people’s voice: as rage and as healing

There’s a spectre haunting Europe … and the rest of the Western world. We have elaborate ‘diversity’ programs in good upper-middle-class places to prevent discrimination against all manner of minorities (and majorities like women). It’s a fine thing. But there’s a diversity challenge a little closer to home which is tearing the world apart. There’s a war on the less well educated.

They’re falling out of the economy in droves, being driven into marginal employment or out of the labour force. This is a vexing problem to solve economically if the electorate values rising incomes which it does. Because, as a rule, the less well educated are less productive.

Still, the less well educated are marginalised from polite society. Polite society even runs special newspapers for them. They’re called tabloids and they’re full of resentment and hate. And yes, a big reason they are the way they are is that the less well educated buy them. They’re also marginalised, except in stereotyped form from TV.

Then there are our institutions of governance. While less than 50 per cent of our population are university educated, over 90 per cent of our parliamentarians are. Something very similar would be going on down the chain of public and private governance down to local councils and private firms.

And I’m pretty confident that a lot of this is internalised even by those not well educated. The last working-class Prime Minister we’ve had in Australia was Ben Chifley who was turfed out of office by a silver-tongued barrister in 1949. Barrie Unsworth in NSW going down badly in his first election as NSW Premier despite seeming – at least to me to be doing quite a good job. But he sounded working class – because he was. I wonder if that was it?

The world is made by and for the upper middle class, those who’ve been to the right schools and gone to unis (preferably the right unis), to get on. The ancient Greeks had a political/legal principle of relevance here which is entirely absent from our political language. In addition to ‘παρρησία’ or ‘parrhesia‘ which is often translated as ‘freedom of speech’ but which also carries a connotation of the duty to speak the truth boldly for the community’s wellbeing even at your own cost (as Socrates did), they also had the concept of ‘ισηγορια’ or ‘isegoria‘ meaning equality of speech.1

In Australia Pauline Hanson’s One Nation represents the political system’s concession to isegoria – toxified as a protest party within a hostile political culture. My own support for a greater role for selection by lot in our democracy is to build more isegoria into our political system in a way that, I think there’s good evidence, can help us get to a much better politics and policy.

In any event, the big, most toxified political events illustrating these problems are, of course, Brexit and Trump – concrete political acts of transformative significance standing before illustrating the power of isegoria as rage. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Philosophy, Political theory, Sortition and citizens’ juries | 23 Comments

Me on Krugman: the podcast

Leon Gettler interviewed me recently on my exchange with Krugman. As you can imagine, it’s a difficult thing to explain in an interview, but I took that as a challenge – if you like to my interview ‘technique’. Just as I love doing it with columns, working over what I’m saying to try to come up with the clearest and best combination of explanation and engagement, so I love being ‘in the zone’ in an interview or on a panel. Of concentrating as hard as possible and getting into a ‘flow’ state where I’m trying to do all this in real time. If I’ve thought about an issue sufficiently, and have come to know what I think, and if I then concentrate hard and give it the right amount of energy, it often works well.

Anyway, here’s the result in this case.

Posted in Economics and public policy, History, Media | 5 Comments

Dunera Lives

Dunera Lives : A Visual History - Ken Inglis

I’m not quite sure how Monash University Press has done this, but this is a high production but relatively low volume book, so I was expecting its price to be around the $60 mark. It is $39.95 in shops, but can be purchased for $30.95 from Booktopia. This compares more than favourably to the extraordinary $150 odd price that Palgrave charged for the previous book I launched – Max Corden’s memoirs. 

I have reached a new stage in my life. It is the book-launching stage, first identified in Egyptian writings where it was called the “scroll rolling” stage of life, though we only know this second hand from Phoenician sources. At least judging from my experience, it comes upon one quite suddenly. I hadn’t launched any books until this May and now I’ve launched two. Naturally, at my stage of life, I would be a fool not to make myself available for your next book launch.

In any event I was asked to launch a marvellous book Dunera Lives – which I recommend to you not least because it’s text is deliciously short and well written with a whole slew of lavish illustration showing you just how much class was incarcerated on that boat and in the camps when it arrived in Australia.

Checking sources as I wrote my speech I came upon a review of the first popular book on the Dunera sticky taped into the cover of Cyril Pearl’s The Dunera Scandal by my father. He ended it with the story of one of the Dunera refugees being shown a galah in a tree beyond the barbed wire by a soldier. “Have you ever seen one of those before?”. The soldier asked. “Yes” came the reply, but on that occasion it was in the cage.” The book is full of this kind of liveliness and cheek.

In any event, the book was being worked on as historian Ken Inglis’s final project. He died before it could be completed but it was then taken to completion by his friend, American academic historian Jay Winter, historian at Monash University Seamus Spark and Carol Bunyan who was born in Hay and has taken a huge interest in the Dunera story and in documenting it. Though many of the speeches were apologetic that it couldn’t be as good as Ken would have made it, it’s different to what Ken would have delivered, but not worse. In particular Seamus’s researches turned up a treasure trove of artefacts that are beautifully reproduced.

There was a lot of class when they arrived. But they added to that class. Here’s the Red Cross report on the Hay Camps 7 and 8 which took the Dunera Boys.

I spoke after Rai Gaita, Jay Winter and Seamus. There were actually two launches. One on  Sunday 8th July at the Melbourne Jewish Museum (this was after a launch at the National Library in Canberra) and one at Readings Hawthorn the next day.

In any event, my speech is below. As you’ll note, I end it, as I ended my speech launching Max Corden’s memoirs with a quote about Captain Broughton which I think of as a kind of incantation to empathy. I’d love to get a fund going to endow an annual Broughton Prize for a conspicuous act of empathy. Anyone fancy helping?

Remarks on launching Dunera Lives

As I discovered when I spoke yesterday, though none of the speakers planned it this way, the speeches you’ve just heard take me to the point I want to make. Note that none of the authors of the book were relatives of the Dunera Boys. And the one with the most distant physical connection – living on another continent – is the only one who’s Jewish.

Jay spoke of the story as the triumph of Jewish customs and ways of life encountering and being re-lived in a new land, I wanted to celebrate the way in which the host culture – Australian non-Jewish culture and the Australian people rose to the occasion.

Many of you will have seen the Hollywood movie “Pretty Woman” which ends in a famous scene which re-enacts the archetypal folk tale of Rapunzel. After performing the requisite heroics, Richard Gere as the hero asks Julia Roberts, now secure in his arms as the heroine “So what happened when he climbed up the tower and rescued her?”. She answers “She rescues him right back”. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, History | 2 Comments