What if Oz is partially occupied already?

A few months ago there was a blog debate about the tensions between a movement left and a wonkish left in pursuing political change, summarised neatly here by Matt Cowgill. A domestic sequel has arisen in Australia. In the United States the wonkish left, from Riksbank laureates like Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz down, have embraced the Occupy Wall Street protests (#ows). By contrast in Australia wonkish [fn1] progressives such as Greg Jericho and Possum (Scott Steel) have been far from complimentary about #Occupyoz, a protest movement that claims affinity with #ows and other movements in the North Atlantic, much to the chagrin of movement leftists such Dr Tad or Mark Bahnisch.


I’m very much inclined to agree with the Aussie wonks here rather than the movement types.  I have a great sympathy for large parts of #ows, and I think it is likely a force for good in the world. I’m afraid those parts I have sympathy for don’t seem to be present in #OccupyOz. It’s not just because things are better here (or not as bad) but the underlying reasons why things are better.  When trying to understand why I think we can find answers as to why the large and broad protests in Wall Street and Europe have only attracted a sectional imitation in Australia – much better answers than can be found by pathologising and patronising  Australians the way Bahnisch is wont to do [EDIT – Mark disputes this characterisation, see comments].

The North Atlantic economies are being beaten down by a strange unorthodox economic paradigm of austerity, one unsupported by any empirics or logic or other wonkery. The paradigm is strongly rooted in the institutions of power. These institutions have powerful gatekeepers – such as the Ivy League or the Public School-Oxbridge nexus that effectively return the same classes and root out concern for the general public. A wonk in the North Atlantic is unheard in these institutions and has to take to the streets just to be heard.

No such silly paradigm took root here. This of course means many more young people are in work and without the immediate call (or forced free time) to occupy a financial centre.  But there’s reasons that it didn’t take root. Australian institutions are not bastions of equal opportunity and openess, but they are certainly much more permeable. If you want to change things, you will find it easier to go to university to learn what might be done, to get work in the public service or the ACTU. I learned that politicians are happy to at least listen provided you seem sincere rather than self righteous. Thus the Australian versions of #ows protesters like this or this might be applying to work with ASIC, the local version of this to the Treasury, or this to the RBA. Someone who cares as much about inequality as this person in Australia could spend a great time researching the topic, and then become the Member for Canberra.

In short, Wall Street is occupied by a lot of people desperately trying to do something. The equivalents in Australia are lucky enough to be able to actually go and do something. Australia is not perfect, but we’re not powerless. It is possible to take action, and people are.

So given that  the involuntarily unemployed are not present, and those who are inclined to act instead of speak are off acting, it’s not a surprise that all that’s left are recreational protesters, anti fluoride cranks, the self righteous and intellectually lazy. I’m sure they’re in #ows as well, but in #occupyoz it’s as if they’re all who is in.

Something that I think Jericho and Possum (and I) find particularly galling is intellectual laziness, whether from #occupyoz or from right wing equivalents. It’s not that the wonks are insiders who resent outsiders – those two owe what influence they have entirely to the openness of blogs – it’s that being informed isn’t really that hard. Decades ago progressives established institutions like the Sydney Mechanical School of Arts to allow outsiders to educate themselves. These days anyone with an Internet connection can easily inform themselves and begin to form concrete proposals. Wonkery is far less exclusive than it has every been. The only things to exclude someone is laziness or pretentions, and my impression is that the domestic imitation of #ows is richly invested with both.


[fn1] I am aware that “wonkish” is nearly a synonym for “economics graduate” here.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
This entry was posted in Economics and public policy, Political theory, Politics - international. Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to What if Oz is partially occupied already?

  1. Mel says:

    “much better answers than can be found by pathologising and patronising Australians the way Bahnisch is wont to do.”

    Also note how our good Doctor Bahnisch indulges in his usual penchant for obscure name dropping and tortured sentences that are suggestive of Homer Paxton after a delinquent night with a bottle of Absinthe. I mean, just what the fuck is a “Spinozist”? 30 minutes googling and consulting my philosphy books and I was none the wiser. And what the hell does this sentence mean? :

    “the specificity of Australia as a social formation, one which in many, many ways, as has been argued, represents the export of particular class fractions on 19th century Europe, making it very distinct from its antecedents and “always already modern”

    In many ways, the self-conscious and pretentious professional leftists that dominate the academy in Oz are a perfect match for the “anti-fluoride”, “I luv Che”, “capitalism suks” jokers who dominate the #occupyoz crowd.

    The Left can only cut through and change things with good ideas that are championed by genuine and articulate people. Unintelligible academics with dubious motives and clueless crowds are merely an embarrassment and as such they effectively give a free kick to those who benefit from business as usual.

    But of course this is just my opinion and I may well be missing something.

  2. Paul Montgomery says:

    I think Richard is being rather Pollyannaish about the ability of non-wonks to influence wonks (and I am glad someone set out in plain English what a wonk really is). Did the 20/20 summit achieve anything? What about the tax summit, did anything from non-wonks get up (pun intended)?

    Bahnisch makes a good point about how Australian wonks are rather too smug about how pulling levers saved Australia from recessions and crises. They are like ship’s captains who take credit for the rising tide as it lifts them off a reef by pointing to their expert rudder skills.

    If we hadn’t had China to save us from the vicissitudes of 21st century globalism, we’d have 10%+ unemployment and a housing bust, same as much of the rest of the OECD. Local wonks shouldn’t be puffing up their chests about anything, least of all saving us from austerity, because you can rest assured if there had been a recession here we would have gone all the way with the RBA on that score.

    Under harsher circumstances, we could test Richard’s theory about possible influence by non-wonks on wonkish policy. Absent that pressure, I don’t think any claims about openness of wonks to occupantists are provable.

  3. conrad says:

    I have a few relatively independent points:

    1) I tend to agree with you, however, my bet is that if petrol goes up to $2.50 a litre, which to me seems inevitable if it is already half that when the rest of the world is falling apart and our dollar is really high, then there will be large amounts of resentment all over the place (until people learn to ride scooters again I guess).

    2) Being lucky enough to have finished my degree 1992 when youth employment was really high, I don’t think it’s just unemployment that is the problem — it’s the perception of the future. In 1992, I don’t think there was a great perception that it was all downhill or flat for who knows how long to come, but if I lived in the US, perhaps I’d believe this.

    3) It’s a great observation that part of the problem is that the US has all these odd economic policies now (not that I can evaluate them), but I think the problem is broader. No-one can articulate a different strategy for them, so they are essentially stuck with the same-old-same-old no matter what, but if the same-old-same-old doesn’t work, then of course people can’t see what the future is. It was funny seeing comments from some of the Wall street guys saying they were one of the few decent industries left in the US, and therefore people should love them etc. . However, this sort of highlights the problem — if all you have left is a banking system and you have a population of 300 million, then there something seriously wrong. Of course people are cheesed off.

    4) The reason some parts of Europe arn’t as bad is because their social security systems are far more generous and far less vindicitive. All those hate-the-unemployed rules that some countries have could really aggravate people who stereotype themselves as hard working good citizens but then end up unemployed. Imagine if you were a middle-class person that lost all their money on housing which you bought to live in and then had to live off food stamps. Of course you’d be annoyed.

  4. Peter Whiteford says:

    Just to add to a couple of the points made by Conrad.

    One of the most striking things about wage trends in the USA is that since the mid to late 1970s wages for men in the bottom half of the earnings distribution have fallen in real terms. (This also happened in Australia in the 1980s, but the situation was different because we had a real wage explosion just before the stagnation.) No European country has seen the same trend as the USA and since the mid 1990s neither has Australia.

    If real wages fall in real terms for men in the bottom half of the distribution, what follows? In the USA families became two-earner families earlier than in Australia, they worked longer hours and multiple jobs, and eventually borrowed on their houses. Also if real wages fall for unskilled and lower skilled men, you can’t run much of a welfare state, both because the work disincentives turn nasty if you index benefits when real wages fall, and also because the low paid come to resent welfare recipients.

    So arguably you end up with “ending welfare as we know it.” And then when the great recession comes along, you have very weak welfare support for those who become unemployed – except by extending duration of unemployment insurance. In passing in the USA they shifted their support for the low paid into the tax system through the Earned Income Tax Credit and refundable child tax credits, so you end up with a very progressive income tax structure, but eventually higher income groups say that lower income groups aren’t paying their fair share (although they pay other taxes of course).

    On the whole, I think that the USA has to reinvent their social model, because the way they have done things for the past 30 years is no longer working.

  5. John Passant says:

    Richard says: ‘all that’s left are recreational protesters, anti fluoride cranks, the self righteous and intellectually lazy. I’m sure they’re in #ows as well, but in #occupyoz it’s as if they’re all who is in.’ Simply not true. But I guess one of the things about the one percent and their popinjays is that they fail to recognise a new political reality when it arises (as in the US or Europe) or the possibility of a new reality in Australia.

    The idea that there are no grounds for concern because we aren’t as bad as the US ignores some realities of current inequality, some of which I mention in my article ‘Some facts to support Occupy Australia’. http://enpassant.com.au/?p=11270

    Further the fight against inequality today (or at least putting the issue on the political agenda as the Occupy movement does) helps in the fight now against the systemic tendency to increasing inequality, ie against future inequality.

    It is true the economic situation in Australia is better than the US and Europe, for example with relatively low unemployment, and that may be one materialist explanation as to why the Occupy movement in Australia has only been able to mobilise thousands rather than tens and tens, if not hundreds of thousands, in Europe and the US and has not gripped the imagination of many more yet.

    The point about capitalism is it a system of inequality and crisis and the issues the Occupy movement raises are not going to disappear.

  6. Dan says:

    [email protected]: “Spinozist” in this context is, as I am reading it, a reference to Spinoza’s argument stemming from his pantheist/animist conception of the universe that, since everything that is, is God, everything that is, is good.

    If Mark wanted to refer to the best of all possible worlds idea, he actually has the wrong classical modern philosopher and should have actually said “Leibnizian”.

  7. billie says:

    Bill Mitchell @ billyblog 21/10/11 reckons that teenage under-employment is 38% so we are not much better off than Europe but we still blame the individual for his/her inability to get a job with enough hours to participate in the Australian dream.

    Although private sector workers had their wages cut in the 1990s along with demands to increase hours of work to 70 hours a week, the public service numbers were cut.

    The public service has not cut wages, the wages haven’t risen fast enough to keep pace with inflation and the public sector workers have had their position eroded by productivity culls to outsource and offshore their functions

  8. Jamie says:

    I can only really give my point of view on things. I am not a significant activist of any kind, or someone who reads every post on every pollitical problem on every website ever. I’m not saying there is a problem with people who do (I have admiration for their dedication and ability to shield themselves from the pure insanity of some people and groups) just that I am not one of them.

    I do have strong opinions on things. I am also a dual citizen of Australia and America, and I grew up in America.

    I think sometimes Australians do forget, or take for granted, just how much of an impact they CAN have on the political system. As much as I have seen people complain that the government is a duality between two major groups (Labor, Liberal), the fact is that compared to the US, Australia has massive strength in the polls. The ascendancy of third parties like the Greens is a good example of this

    Australia has a basic difference in their voting system that gives them recourses that are flat-out not available to Americans, in preferential voting. Australians have an amazing, amazing ability in that and need to appreciate it more! Here, we can say ‘I want to vote for X. If they lose, I want to vote for Y. When all else fails, I want to vote against Z’.

    America does not have this in their system. In America, voting for a third party is, essentially, moving your vote out of the system. It is statistically no better than not voting at all. The absolute best of the non-duality parties are lucky to get 3-4% of the vote. Once in a blue moon, a non-duality candidate might make it to a position like governor or congressperson or whatnot, but it isn’t a position that forms any basis for power growth for their party, really.

    And I think that is why #occupyoz isn’t catching on like #ows is. The core frustration the #ows people have is that they really have no representation, noone who represents them in government. The differences between the Democrats and the Republicans are quite large in some ways, almost nonexistent in others. But the reality there is right now, there is an extreme right party, and a slightly right of center party. Liberals, socialists (Not the pejorative kind :P ), other people who are either centrist or left of center have almost noone willing to stand up and support them, and most of the time the people who claim in elections they will, promptly forget them once they are elected.

    And they are also stuck with the problem that, sure, every last person at #ows could switch their voting to, call it hypothetically the Occupation Party, and probably make a huge splash on the election. Might even claim as much as 5-10% of the vote. That sounds like a huge thing, right?

    Well, no. Because that 10% comes from the Democrats. And just like that, the Republicans win it all. And as ineffective and pathetic as many of us feel the Dems have become (I am a registered Democrat, have been all my life, my family has been extremely active in local and state politics in Pennsylvania, especially for women.) the thought of letting the Republicans run the table is nothing but terrifying.

    Most of us in America right now, as much as Obama and some people would love nothing more than to say otherwise, did not vote FOR Democrats. They voted AGAINST Republicans. Neither party represents us any more, but one actively hates us.

    And that is where #ows is so significant, while #occupyoz is not really catching on. Australians can have representation, they can make leadership changes. I can go out and vote Green and preference Labor before Liberal, and so the Greens are viable. Same for other groups. You can explore, experiment, and make strong statements even on how you feel the major duality is doing just by how you rank them.

    I vote in both countries, and let me tell you it was an indescribable feeling to realise that here, my vote actually is relatively significant and I have actual choices. I do not in the US. I follow politics there closely, but the reality is that I don’t have to. My role is written in stone anyway. In the end, I have no choice but to vote Democrat because the alternative is Crazytown. It has been all my life, and will be all the rest of it.

    If I were in the US, I would be at #ows, or the local/regional equivalent. Because at this point, the occupy movement over there is the most significant political statement for the center and left that has been made in decades. I don’t think that it will, in the end, accomplish much. The unspoken reality is that the best counter to #ows is to simply ignore them. The strong arm tactics and such aren’t needed. Once it inevitably peters out, because people simply can’t maintain that kind of presence for the time it would take to make Real Change, things will default back to the status quo.

    My problem, then, with #occupyoz is that while I think the people involved generally mean well, they also distract from the one that matters. Australia is NOT a part of the Occupy movement. It can’t be, because what the #ows people need, Australians have. There are things in #occupyoz that do need to be brought out, scruitinized, talked about, even protested against, but now is not the time and that is not the method. If you truly want to support the #ows people, go set up outside your local US embassy with signs of direct support.

    In times past, it was common that when one union went on strike or had a major work effort, other unions would do the same in solidarity, even if they didn’t face those problems. They would send their people to where the core union was making their stand, and stand with them. That is what #ows needs. It needs people who care, like us, to be camping out where the Americans can see us with big signs saying ‘We support the American 99%’ or whatever. The only way #ows can succeed is with major support, internally and externally. The more people like us who stand up WITH them, rather than for ourselves with their message, the more the media can’t ignore it, that media not run by American companies will keep it known and seen and unignored.

    OK, this was rantier than I expected, but tl;dr, #occupyoz doesn’t work because the issue #ows people have ultimately is not one we have, and #occupyoz is riding their message for their own goals and distracting from messages that are truly, deeply needed where they are being made. #Occupyoz probably thinks they are helping #ows, but they are not.

  9. Mel says:

    The ever so pompous buffoon Doctor Bahnisch has now oblitereated all references to “Spinozist” in his post and replaced it with a reference to Leibniz. In contravention of netiquette, he has made the change without an acknowledgement that the change has been made.

    Seriously, I think it’s time for moderates both left and right to start #OccupyAcademia and toss these pretenders out on their ears.

  10. I see Mel is still upholding the standards of civil discourse for which Troppo is noted.


    pathologising and patronising Australians the way Bahnisch is wont to do.

    There is no warrant for that statement in the text of what I wrote. If you’re going to persist in making a claim like that, I think you’re obliged to explain the basis on which you make it.

  11. Ken Parish says:

    Sorry Mark, I’ve just seen this exchange. I’ll delete any further ad hom snipes, from Mel or anyone else.

  12. Sally says:

    If you think the Australian protests are merely an “imitation” of the original OWS protests, then you fail to understand what the protests are about and why they are seen by participants and supporters, in the US, Canada, Europe, Singapore, South Korea or Australia as a reaction to universally similar effects on people of the globalisation of finance, capital and markets. Major points of fact to miss.

    Relatedly, failing to understand that the emergence of these specific US protests was likely the necessary precondition for their extension elsewhere, as well as an inevitability, shows a level of ignorance of the history of similar phenomena in the past, including the international character of the anti-slavery, civil rights, anti-slavery, pro-labour, trade union, environmental, anti-war, anti-colonial, anti-nuclear and many other movements of the last century in particular.

  13. Sally says:

    TIME list of the Top 10 American Protest Movements.

    8-10 of these manifested themselves in a very significant way in Australia (Boston Tea Party and the recent Tea Party the two exclusions).


  14. Yobbo says:

    You’re right Sally. I fail to understand what the protests are really about, about from occupying the time of some bored university students.

  15. Fyodor says:

    Relatedly, failing to understand that the emergence of these specific US protests was likely the necessary precondition for their extension elsewhere, as well as an inevitability, shows a level of ignorance of the history of similar phenomena in the past, including the international character of the anti-slavery, civil rights, anti-slavery, pro-labour, trade union, environmental, anti-war, anti-colonial, anti-nuclear and many other movements of the last century in particular.

    You left out flashmobs, J-Ro – a far more productive way for the inchoately under-employed to waste their time. I’ve yet to see one of the #Occupaloser crowds come up with anything as useful.

  16. Sally says:

    I don’t know that the differentiation in this context between Spinoza and Leibniz is all that significant. I wish Mark B or Tad T would please explain.

    Didn’t Spinoza argue that sovereign power was the lesser of other evils and that it was all that was between we the people and the abyss and that democracy could be relied on to deliver what was in the interests of the majority who would otherwise protest and overturn what was not in their interest?

    This was revolutionary thought at the time of the Enlightenment but we moved a lot further up the tree of knowledge since then about such things as the nature of the state, representative democracy, the dynamics of power, economics, human psychology and much else.

  17. Dan says:

    Sally: Spinoza was pre-Enlightenment, although you may have been referring to the *impact* his ideas had on the Enlightenment rather than how his ideas were received…?

    Mark B: you’re welcome ;)

  18. Sally says:

    [email protected]

    No, Spinoza was the first major modern European thinker to embrace democratic republicanism as being as he and others saw it the highest and most rational form of political organisation in which all men (sic) were equal.

  19. Dan says:

    Sally: I was merely referring to time period – you could *maybe* argue that Spinoza was an example of a very early Enlightenment philosopher.

  20. Sally says:

    Dan, some argue that it was Spinoza who sparked the overall and general change in thought in what we call the Enlightenment in areas previously treated as separate but where Spinoza’s thought wove a web which incorporated philosophy, Biblical criticism, science, theology and politics.

  21. Mel says:

    I note Paul Krugman touches on one of my earlier points in a post from yesterday.

    Every once in a while I get correspondence from someone chiding me for the way I write — in particular the informality. I received one the other day complaining about sentences that begin with “but” or “and”. There is, however, a reason I write this way.

    You see, the things I write about are very important; they affect lives and the destiny of nations. But despite that, economics can all too easily become dry and boring; it’s just the nature of the subject. And I have to find, every time I write, a way to get past that problem.


    My bible in all this is George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. I recommend, in particular, reading his translation of good English, from the King James Bible, into bad modern English. The original:

    I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

    The translation:

    Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

    Ironically, thinkers on the Right are much more inclined to write in a language accessible to the common man than thinkers on the left, even though the former are supposed to represent the interests of the privileged elite while the former are supposed to represent the interests of the commoner.

    As Skeptic Lawyer (IIRC) has observed, the slide into meaningless gibberish and cleverishness in the academy followed the collapse of Communism, the Great White Hope of the social science departments until a generation ago.

    Meanwhile, back in the real world, we must rely on those bloody wonks and their models and statistics to sought out the latest economic crisis. Will it be the New Keynesians coming from the left or the Modern Monetary Theorists from the right, a mix of both or will some other wonkish colt pip them at the post? I have no idea, but I’m very certain that at this particular juncture in history what we need is an economic wonker rather than a social science wanker.

  22. Mel says:

    Oh crud. That should read:

    Ironically, thinkers on the Right are much more inclined to write in a language accessible to the common man than thinkers on the Left, even though the former are supposed to represent the interests of the privileged elite while the latter are supposed to represent the interests of the commoner.

  23. Dan says:

    You see MMT as a *right wing* project!? While they often seem to try not to take a political position at all (“We’re just describing the economy…”), I can’t help but get the sense that they are almost always making an implicit argument in favour of expansionary fiscal policy.

    …or did you mean the New Monetarists?

    …or have I misread MMT terribly?

    (Apparently I am fated to nitpick, at least for today…)

  24. Dan says:

    Sally: that’s good! I got the sense from my Classical Modern Philosophers class that he’d been kind of marginalised, but then again the course was on the philosophy itself rather than the social history around the philosophers.

  25. Richard Tsukamasa Green says:

    Mark – “Pathologising” was used to describe an approach in which one tries to understand a difference of opinion by looking to features that might affect the thinking of those holding the contrary view othre than reason. It’s not a stupid approach – I’ve used it in regard to DSGE macroeconomists and it’s really the only available approach with climate denialists. In this case seeing the failure of wonks (or as I read it the broader part of the left) to a historical sense antipodean exceptionalism. My main objection is that in this case it fails to shed light on the lack on enthusiasm. If there is to be a popular movement that does resonate, answers need to be sought elsewhere.

    Ken – If you’re still keeping score I think there needs to be a third category, “Movement left dissapointed by occupyoz”. Such as here, or here or here

  26. Patrick says:

    Ken, in fairness, Mel’s comments looked like justified ad hom to me. Unless [email protected] is completely incorrect (I never have time to read Bahnisch so can’t tell for myself).

  27. Sally says:

    Dan: there’s been a multidisciplinary explosion of renewed interest in Spinoza in the last decade (even in neuroscience).

    This is the most referenced of the recent crop of publications.

    Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 Oxford University Press, 2001 (actually I see now this is vol 1 of a trilogy on the origins and spread of the Enlightenment and the preeminent role of Spinoza, according to the author).

  28. FDB says:

    Ironically, thinkers on the Right are much more inclined to write in a language accessible to the common man than thinkers on the Left, even though the former are supposed to represent the interests of the privileged elite while the latter are supposed to represent the interests of the commoner.

    Perhaps they have an easier job of it, with the quality and depth of their message.

  29. Sally says:

    The best Oz political writers, online at least, are Guy Rundle and Bob Ellis – lefties of sorts. Clear, cogent, deep, challenging, erudite.

    Other than that, Nicholas Gruen is sometimes very good indeed (his Manning Clark tribute, e.g.) as is Ken Parish.

    On the right? Well the competition falls away dramatically which is a major problem for them. Sinclair Davidson? Ah, no: slick, lazy, unconvincing, crude and shallow. Even catty. Judith Sloan’s pieces double ditto.

    And anyhow it *is* impossible to divorce content from form.

    In summary, there are no good political writers of the right (bloggers that is, as opposed to commenters).

  30. Mel says:


    “Perhaps they have an easier job of it, with the quality and depth of their message.”

    Oh please. Right wing writers like Skeptic Lawyer and Jason Soon (RIP) convey complex and nuanced ideas with great clarity. A lack of clarity is used by pretentious elements on the left to (a) baffle brains with bullshit (2) impress one’s similarly superficial and status obsessed peers and (3) to give the appearance of genius.

    Again, see Krugman’s comments and the Orwell essay he cites. Wankers should no longer be tolerated. #OccupyAcademia Now!

  31. Yobbo says:

    In summary, there are no good political writers of the right

    Coming from someone who has read a total of one right-wing blog in her entire life.

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